Saturday, December 19, 2009


James Cameron’s Avatar is a true cinematic event. Over the last twelve months, it has received the same levels of hype and suspicion as Mr. Cameron’s last film, a little movie called Titanic. Estimates put the cost of Avatar near $300 million, and were I a Hollywood studio executive, I’m not sure I would have financed Avatar. It’s a tough sell: a near three-hour sci-fi epic about blue-skinned, ten-foot aliens (I guess after you’ve made one of the biggest movies of all time, you can do whatever you want). I’m thrilled to announce that yet again, James Cameron has dreamt big, gambled, and delivered. Avatar is one helluva movie.

In the year 2154, humans have established bases on the alien world of Pandora. A human corporation digs up precious stones, and the military protects the advancing bulldozers against the Na’vi, the blue-skinned, indigenous aliens. Wheelchair-bound ex-Marine Jake Sulley (Sam Worthington) uses a genetically-engineered Na’vi body, called an Avatar, to explore Pandora. Sulley controls the Avatar body with his mind, and his mission is to gather reconnaissance on the Na’vi. The humans try to force the Na’vi off their land, but by the time the battle comes, Sulley finds Pandora and its people worth protecting.

I understand why Avatar hasn’t come across very well in its advertising; it’s a spectacle that builds slowly over time and that must, must be seen in 3-D. I haven’t been the biggest supporter of 3-D technology, but Avatar should not be experienced any other way. I won’t want to own the film until 3-D technology comes to home theaters in a satisfactory manner. Avatar has also been released in a traditional 2-D format, because more showings on more screens mean more money, but seeing Avatar out of 3-D would be like watching Titanic on an iPod; you’ll see something, but it won’t be the experience that James Cameron intended. Up until now, Robert Zemekis’s The Polar Express had boasted the most impressive 3-D experience, but Avatar takes it to a whole new level. Film history will remember Avatar as the film that blew the 3-D doors wide open, just as Jurassic Park is remembered as the film that really launched computer-generated imagery.

Avatar has more in common with Titanic than you might think. Both films run near three hours, both are sprawling, expensive epics, and both films devote their last third to action. I wondered if Avatar would be too long, but Cameron uses his time wisely. The huge action sequences work at the end only because of everything that comes before. We become fully immersed in the world of Pandora, and we care about the characters. If we didn’t, the action scenes would be as empty as Transformers 2, one of the biggest borefests of 2009. I think it’s important that Transformers 2 and 2012, both of which represent an outdated model, came out this same year. Avatar proves that effects-laden action still has value, but only when it serves the story and the characters.

Pandora swallows us whole almost immediately. The world is remarkably well-realized, so that even though we know intellectually that everything onscreen is CG, we don’t think about it. We’re on Pandora. The jungle shimmers and glows with vibrant colors, and the 3-D effects only enhance the immersion. When objects reach out toward us, it’s not a gratuitous effect; it helps put us in the alien world. The Na’vi have human performances at their centers, and they shine through. All of this takes some time, but it’s crucial to the film’s success. If we didn’t care, it would fall apart.

There are strong echoes of Native American culture, as well as of U.S. involvement in the Middle East (the phrase “Shock and Awe” even turns up). Mostly, Avatar is a modern retelling of the familiar story of Western civilization. Humans venture out and conquer less technologically-advanced people. We find an alien world, briefly appreciate it, then swiftly exploit it. That much at least seems realistic. Avatar is a film about foreign diplomacy, a bad economy, the vital importance of nature, and the over-consumption of precious resources. In short, it’s both timely and timeless. The science fiction setting is used to communicate classic themes, which will help bridge the gap for people who typically aren’t comfortable with sci-fi.

Avatar was advertised under the tagline, “Movies will never be the same again.” I admire Cameron’s technical breakthroughs, but I still maintain that no amount of spectacle will make a bad movie worthwhile. Avatar doesn’t deserve praise for its effects as much as for how it uses them to tell a great story. Avatar will be a smash, but it doesn’t have the same level of universal appeal as Titanic. The characters here aren’t as strong, nor are the performances. That movie truly had something for everyone in every culture, and I don’t expect Avatar to garner the high number of repeat viewings necessary to match Titanic’s ticket sales. The only reason I consider the possibility is because of the shared director. James Cameron waited twelve years before following up the biggest box office success of all time. The man knows how to generate hype, but more importantly, he knows how to deliver on it.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language, and some smoking.

Despite its blue characters, Avatar isn’t kid-friendly. The experience is just too intense for preteens, though teenagers will love it and are old enough to understand the themes. The language never gets too strong but is pervasive, and while the violence isn’t bloody, it’s still upsetting, because we care about the characters. The sensuality is nothing to worry about.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

For those viewers who regularly traverse the desert of family entertainment, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog feels like a cool drink of water. Ten years have passed since Tarzan, Disney’s last great hand-drawn musical (I’m pretending that 2004’s Home on the Range didn’t happen), and it warms my heart to see traditional animation back on the big screen. The Princess and the Frog isn’t loud, isn’t 3-D, and doesn’t resort to bodily humor. It isn’t perfect, either, but it gets the big stuff right and works as a fun reintroduction to the sort of classic entertainment that Walt Disney Studios has always done best.

The film opens with a new Disney logo, featuring a short clip of Mickey Mouse from Steamboat Willie (1928); this logo will apparently denote all of Disney’s hand-drawn features from now on. The film follows Tiana, a beautiful, spunky, African-American woman living in New Orleans in the 1920’s. She dreams of opening her own restaurant, but even after years of saving, Tiana still needs a bit more money. Enter Prince Naveen, a free-spirited royal who claims to be wealthy but is actually hard up for cash. Naveen falls under the dark magic of Dr. Facilier, an evil witch doctor who turns Naveen into a frog. As a frog, Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him, but far from breaking the spell, Tiana’s kiss turns her into a frog as well. The two then set off into the bayou to find the solution to their amphibious dilemma.

Pixar has done a remarkable job of keeping the Disney magic alive over the last few years, but The Princess and the Frog reminded me of why hand-drawn animation is so valuable. Traditional animation brings a type of humor that doesn’t exist in any other format; nearly every frame has some zany slapstick element. Characters fall down, bounce around, soar across the screen after taking punches, and it’s charming. There’s a special tone and pace that no other format can replicate.

Tiana makes a wonderful Disney Princess. The film never goes all the way in exploring the real difficulties of being an African-American woman in the 20’s, but if it did, it wouldn’t be a family film, now would it? Tiana is a respectable, independent woman who believes in wishful dreaming but believes even more in hard work. She’s a Disney Princess for our times, and the film’s Great Depression setting will fit modern audiences like a glove. The side characters remain humorous and lovable, fulfilling yet another Disney requirement.

Randy Newman’s musical numbers work well enough, but they aren’t particularly memorable. Had I been given the task of reviving Disney’s animated musical tradition, I would have handed the project to Alan Menken, the master composer behind such classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Menken will provide music for next year’s Rapunzel, which will apparently be a musical marriage of CGI and traditional techniques, but I would have loved for his music to have been at the heart of all of this. Still, Randy Newman’s songs get the job done and carry a jazzy flair that not only marks new territory for Disney but perfectly fits the New Orleans setting.

The movie stays light-hearted and humorous with only a few exceptions. Disney boasts a long line of great villains, and while Dr. Facilier isn’t great by any means, he is sufficiently creepy. Disney has frightened children since Snow White (“Bring me her heart”), and Dr. Facilier’s voodoo antics may scare some younger viewers. Also, the death of one beloved character feels wildly out of place, because the tone of the picture doesn’t pave the way for it. Still, these scenes are brief exceptions to the rule.

I went to a late-night showing which meant there weren’t many people in attendance (too late for the kiddos, and all), but the few of us who were there applauded at the film’s end. With The Princess and the Frog, Disney returns to its roots in admirable fashion, proving that the inkwells of old have not run dry. Through good characters, a fun story, lovable sidekicks, and an energetic, inventive presentation, Disney’s filmmakers blew the dust off of Walt’s old recipe, and the finished product tastes as sweet as ever.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated G

I think kids will love The Princess and the Frog. The characters are captivating, and the fast-paced adventure will hold everyone’s attention. Dr. Facilier does conjure evil spirits to do his bidding, which are essentially creepy-looking shadows. Kids may be frightened at times, but the film’s other virtues far outweigh the scares.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

It’s a real shame that there’s no Academy Award for “Best Title,” because I don’t think The Men Who Stare at Goats would have much competition. This dark comedy is every bit as quirky as its title suggests. It’s quite humorous but ultimately more smile-inducing than laugh-inducing. Goats boasts a star-studded cast, but maintains the tone of a quiet, low-budget picture, destined to fly under the radar. Whether or not you should see it depends largely on the degree to which you’re amused by the premise.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is supposedly based on a true story, opening with a title that reads, “More of this is true than you would believe.” Having seen the film, I’ll buy that. Goats follows Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a journalist who heads to the Middle East after his wife suddenly leaves him. Though he initially plans to cover the War on Terror, Bob finds himself caught up in a much stranger story after meeting Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney). Cassidy claims to be a member of the U.S. Army’s First Earth Battalion, a secret group of soldiers that employ the use of psychic powers. They refer to themselves as Jedi Warriors. The Jedi pride themselves on never using their powers for attack, but some of them soon turn to the Dark Side, killing goats by simply staring at them. Along the way, Bob meets other Jedi, including the devious Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) and the movement’s hippie founder, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges).

Most of the humor comes from the sheer ridiculousness of it all. The Jedi training exercises include dancing, yoga, and cloud-bursting (using concentration to break up clouds). As Django, Bridges essentially plays The Dude from The Big Lebowski, telling a room full of Army commanders, “We must become the first superpower to develop superpowers.” Questions often arise as to what exactly the Super Soldiers are capable of, leading to mumbled pseudo explanations. A classic moment comes when Ewan McGregor asks, “What’s a Jedi Warrior?” Most people in the theater got the joke. He then asks Lyn Cassidy if he can really become invisible. “Well, yeah” Cassidy says, “that was the goal, but after a while we adapted it to just finding a way of not being seen.”

While humorous, the movie never meets its full potential. It’s too goofy to be serious, but often times too sad to be funny. As Bob and Lyn roam the desert getting lost, the movie loses its way a bit. There isn’t much in the way of plot, which would be OK, except that the slow pace of the film leaves glaring holes where the plot should go. There are some hilarious moments; I quoted lines for days after seeing the film, but the laughs don’t come often enough. The dead space between laughs remains generally amusing, but it should be hysterical. More humor would have fixed most of Goats’ problems.

The cast performs well, with George Clooney being especially hilarious. Ewan McGregor plays his part adequately, but he should have been given much more material to work with. Bob is far too underwritten to be the story’s main character, and his general lack of material adds to the feeling that The Men Who Stare at Goats can’t make up its mind. It’s a funny movie, but with such an interesting premise and a tremendous cast, it could have been one of the best films of the year.

I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. Two-thirds of the way through, I wondered how there could possibly be a satisfying conclusion to the story, but a strangely inspirational ending arrived at just the right time. It’s quirky, bizarre, and if I described it here, it probably wouldn’t make much sense. But it works. In the end, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a mixed bag; if you enjoy offbeat dark comedies, you’ll likely find enough to appreciate here, as I did. However, you’ll probably also wish there had been more to appreciate. George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, and Ewan McGregor as would-be Jedi Warriors ... that movie should be more than just generally amusing.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, some drug content, and brief nudity.

The Men Who Stare at Goats contains a steady stream of strong language, and the slow pace and quirky humor would likely bore most kids. I wouldn’t make this one a full family affair.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Classic Series: Alien

Amid the deplorable, third-rate horror films that come out on a regular basis, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) seems as fresh and foreign as its title character. Here is a truly frightening film that’s not afraid to take its time. Not only does a good chunk of time pass before any character dies, but several minutes go by before anyone even speaks. The tension and atmosphere build slowly, resulting in a mature masterpiece that more filmmakers should take pointers from.

Set in the future, Alien opens with the mining ship Nostromo returning from a successful mission. Halfway back to Earth, the ship’s computer awakens the small crew (five men, two women) from hypersleep after receiving a broadcast of unknown origin. The crew traces the signal to a wrecked ship on a small planet and sets down to investigate. A small alien creature attacks one of the crew members, bonding itself to his face, and the other crew members lead the victim back to Nostromo. The “facehugger” alien unexpectedly detaches and dies; its victim seems to be fine, but after a much more vicious alien bursts from inside the victim’s chest, the other crew members realize that none of them will be safe while the alien lives.

As far as science fiction films go, Alien has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey than with typical sci-fi fare. Long scenes go by with very little dialogue, and overall atmosphere matters more than plot. The opening shots show us the vast emptiness of space and the long, abandoned corridors of Nostromo. Before the human crew awakens, we see what they don’t; a haunting vision of space as a silent, desolate wilderness. I recently saw a gorgeous print of Alien at a local theater, and as the camera moved about the deserted Nostromo early on, audience members seemed very nervous. We’ve been trained by traditional horror films to distrust silences and expect creatures to jump out and scare us, but the initial terror of Alien is more mature in nature: there isn’t anything there at all. The crew awakens to an empty, quiet world in which they are completely alone.

When the crew does appear, they look and sound like normal people. Most horror films are populated with good-looking teenagers who mistakingly wander into some creepy place to have sex. The people of Alien are adults, and they look more like construction workers than movie heroes. Yet again, Alien stands above other films by presenting a simple, believable cast. The characters look about the way you would expect for people on a mining ship to look; they’re typical, garden-variety folks. The cast features great talent; Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, and Ian Holm have all become accomplished veterans in the years since Alien, but the other three performers are just as strong. We believe that these are real people caught up in a nightmarish situation.

The alien itself is one of cinema’s great, iconic monsters. The image of the alien is now fairly well-known: the elongated head, the wet, glistening skin, the mouth within the mouth. It’s worth remembering, though, that audiences first went to the theater with no knowledge of the alien’s appearance, and the film used that in its favor. At every turn, we’re given something new to be afraid of. Our first glimpse of alien life is the large egg. The egg produces the facehugger. The facehugger lays an egg in a man’s stomach, and that egg hatches a small, frightening creature with very sharp teeth. The next time we see the alien, it has grown rapidly to the size of an adult man. We never get a really good look at the alien, and the glimpses we do get are creepy as hell. Ridley Scott remembered the oldest and most often-forgot trick in the book: the power of the unseen. I don’t know if Alfred Hitchcock saw Alien before he died in 1980, but I think he would have enjoyed it.

Science Fiction and Horror are two of the least respected genres of cinema, and with good reason; more B-movies have come from those two corners of the film industry than any others, but when a film from one or both of these genres gets everything right, it can be spellbinding and powerful. The sequels became increasingly action-oriented, and therefore less interesting, but the original Alien remains a champion of both Sci-Fi and Horror. Thirty years after its initial release, Alien still wields the power to transfix and frighten. It’s every bit as creepy, chilling, and exceptional as it ever was.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a very strange movie, and whether or not you enjoy it, you won’t be able to deny that fact. I had no hopes for the project when I first heard it announced (a live-action movie based on a beloved picture book is a tough sell), but then came the masterfully edited trailer that set the Internet aflame with high hopes. The film feels kind of like an extended version of that trailer, and all things considered, it’s pretty good. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I do admire Jonze’s vision, and I think it’s a far better picture than most other filmmakers would have made.

The film loosely follows the children’s book of the same name by Maurice Sendak; if you haven’t read it, do so before seeing the film. It will take you all of two minutes. A young boy named Max (played by Max Records) runs around the house causing a ruckus. After disrespecting his mother and yelling, “I’ll eat you up!”, Max runs out of the house, climbs into a small boat, and sails to a land where tall, furry creatures live together in the woods (as an interesting side-note, I don’t think the term “wild things” is ever used in the film). At first, the creatures try to eat Max, but he convinces them to make him their king, promising to fix all of their problems. Max soon learns that even in a fantasy world, you can’t always have everything that you want, nor can you always give it to others.

The most notable triumph of Where the Wild Things Are is its visual aesthetic. It would have been so easy and tempting to throw gobs of computer-generated effects at this movie, but Spike Jonze took the exact opposite approach. The land of the Wild Things looks completely normal, because it was shot in normal locations. Sure, it has a wide variety of terrain; woods, deserts, beaches, etc., but none of the elements look otherworldly. Then, there are the Wild Things themselves. Some of their facial expressions seem to be digitally enhanced, but that’s it; for the most part, they’re brought to life by actors in costumes.

In this age of digitally-rendered hysteria, the Wild Things look almost magical. During the ten minutes or so where Max first encounters the Wild Things and sneaks into their camp late at night, I was completely entranced, and I imagine that little kids will be, too. The creatures look absolutely real, and that’s not to say that they look like anything you would encounter in our real world. When I was a young boy, running around in the woods using my imagination, I never imagined anything that looked like most CG movie creatures. I always imagined tangible, living beings that I could grab hold of and wrap my arms around. The look and feel of this movie took me back to those childhood days, and that is a real feat.

The movie takes itself very seriously. All of the characters’ problems, no matter how silly, are handled as though they’re very significant. The Wild Things speak with normal human voices, instead of gravelly, monster ones, and the main Wild Thing who befriends Max is a male named Carol (James Gandolfini). Carol can be a good friend, but when he loses his temper, you don’t want to be around; actually, for James Gandolfini, playing Carol probably wasn’t too far a cry from playing Tony Soprano. There were several times where I thought the film took itself too seriously. I know it wanted to use its fantasy story to address real-world problems, but it would have benefitted from fewer somber moments and more old-fashioned fun.

The main struggle in adapting such a short book to film is deciding how to fill up the rest of the time. The original Wild Things book contains a sparse ten sentences. While the movie does a good job filling time with light plot elements and long, virtually silent shots, the story and the characters just aren’t all that compelling, making Wild Things more of an experience than a rewarding journey. Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adpatation) has a real flair for quirky, art-house type cinema, and I think he was the right choice for this project. He obviously has tremendous respect for the original material, and grounding the movie in realism was a great choice.

I saw Where the Wild Things Are on its opening weekend, and most of the people in the theater were adults; I’m not surprised. People have long spoken fondly of the book, associating it with the best parts of childhood. I think children will be captivated by the film early on, but their attention may wane as the film unfolds. Where the Wild Things Are carries a fairly dark tone, some uneven pacing, and a thin story, but it’s a triumph of atmosphere and style. In its best moments, Where the Wild Things Are reminds us of the magical ups and downs of youth, and that’s more than I had anticipated.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some adventure action, and brief language.

Where the Wild Things Are follows in the tradition of most great children’s movies, in that it’s a bit creepy. Children may be frightened at times, but I think most will be fine. There’s not much to worry about in the way of objectionable content, but some kids may lose interest in the film’s latter-half as the tone and themes are geared more towards adults.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Classic Series: Toy Story

In its own way, Toy Story is as important to film history as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Before Walt Disney released Snow White in 1937, industry insiders referred to the project as “Disney’s Folly,” refusing to believe that a cartoon could hold anyone’s attention for the length of a feature film. In 1995, Pixar Animation faced similar accusations. Computer animation was new and interesting, but could it really be successfully harnessed for a feature? Pixar answered all skeptics with one of the greatest, most endearing animated films ever made.

Toy Story confirms what every child already knows to be true, which is that when no one is around, toys come to life and move about the house. In this case, the toys all belong to a boy named Andy, and Andy’s favorite toy is Woody (Tom Hanks), an old-fashioned cowboy doll, complete with pull-string. The toys get nervous during Andy’s birthday party, afraid of being replaced by cooler, more modern toys. Woody does his best to keep everyone calm, only to become jealous himself of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), a new toy who believes himself to be an actual Space Ranger.

The storytellers at Pixar chose the perfect subject matter for their first feature film. Computer animation has a certain unnatural look to it, and whenever computer-animated humans are intended to look real, they often come off as creepy. So, the fact that most of the characters in Toy Story are made of plastic works in the film’s favor. Computer animation has come so far since 1995, yet Toy Story’s visuals continue to impress; tiny details on the toys like plastic ridges and trademark symbols are especially remarkable.

Animation can take us places that live action can’t, and because of that, I’m usually disappointed whenever animation remains grounded and traditional. Toy Story wastes no time in seizing its full potential. During the opening credits, we get great shots from Woody’s point of view as Andy plays with him all over the house, and once the birthday party is underway, Woody sends a squadron of plastic army men on a breathtaking reconnaissance mission. It’s funny to see green-plastic paratroopers leaping from the banister, but it’s actually exciting, too. This brilliant action sequence comes early in the film, assuring us that we’re in for a special experience.

Even more impressive than the animation is the story itself. Because of its original premise and strong character development, Toy Story would still have worked as a hand-drawn film or even as a comic book. Walking out of the theater, my father and I didn’t jump into a discussion about the visuals. We knew we had witnessed the future of animation, but we couldn’t stop talking about the characters. Woody and Buzz Lightyear quickly earned familiarity across pop culture, along with Buzz’s catchphrase: “To Infinity and Beyond!” People connected with Toy Story, and they still do; it reminds us of our childhood. It’s hilarious, and it’s surprisingly heartfelt. Every time I see it, I get completely caught up in the situations, and I find myself actually caring about these toys.

Very few movies ace one of the industry’s toughest tests: appealing across both age and cultural gaps. Pixar repeats this miracle time after time and makes it look easy, but if it really were easy, other studios would do it. In the years following Toy Story, other filmmakers thought computer animation was a magic formula, as though any kids’ film could be computer animated and become successful. The more mediocre films that came out, the better Pixar looked.

Beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney experienced an animation renaissance, but around the mid-to-late-nineties, the quality of Disney’s hand-drawn films began to slip. As Disney’s traditionally-animated movies declined in quality, Pixar partnered with Disney and kept the magic alive. From Toy Story onward, Pixar held the torch of top-notch family entertainment higher than ever, churning out one masterpiece after another. In the early days, Walt Disney believed so firmly in the power of animation that he actually went into debt to complete Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and that level of passion and commitment is apparent in Pixar’s work.

Later this year, Disney will release The Princess and the Frog, its first hand-drawn feature in over five years. I have high hopes for the film, because I believe in the power of hand-drawn animation. However, no matter what cinematic techniques are used, story matters most; Snow White taught us that in 1937, and Toy Story will always be remembered as the film that set that precedent again for a new generation. Many computer animated films have been made and will be made in the future, but I’m so very glad that Toy Story was first.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Informant!

The Informant! is a strange portrayal of a strange man, and it works. It succeeds as many things: an undercover cop story, an awkward, quirky comedy, and an inside look at the life of a criminal. Based mostly on a true story (the film’s opening “true story” disclaimer had the audience chuckling before the credits even rolled), the events portrayed in The Informant! made national news between 1995 and 2006. However, if you go into this movie, as I did, with no knowledge of the story or its outcome, the plot is delightfully difficult to predict. It won’t pick you up or put you down in any big way; it's just a quiet, peculiar, very good movie.

Matt Damon plays Marc Whitacre, a high-ranking executive at ADM, a grain and oil-processing conglomerate. His thoughts guide us along, which are mostly funny, random tidbits that have nothing to do with the action at hand. Under pressure from his wife, Whitacre goes to the FBI and gives information on a global price-fixing scam, becoming the highest-ranking executive to ever be a whistleblower. Now working undercover for the FBI, the odd, scatterbrained Whitacre goes back to work, in over his head and trying desperately to keep his secrets straight.

Damon disappears into the role of Mark Whitacre; halfway through the film, I tried to imagine Damon as Jason Bourne, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around those two being the same actor. Whitacre is nervous and awkward: the last person you’d want going into a meeting with a recording device in his briefcase. There’s a good deal of humor surrounding Whitacre, but it’s very muted and realistic. If you knew this guy in real life, you wouldn’t bust out laughing at every turn; you’d probably just chuckle on the inside. That’s how the humor in the movie is, and it helps place you in the story.

What makes The Informant! so fascinating is the uncertain identity of the title character. The degree to which Whitacre himself is responsible for the criminal activity he’s reporting is constantly in question, thanks to a fantastic script. As one character says late in the film, “It’s very difficult to tell when Mr. Whitacre is telling the truth.” Another character accuses him of being bi-polar, and in light of his random narrations throughout the picture, it seems very possible. The script puts us on unlikely sides of situations, so that as the story unfolds, we’re as suspicious of being lied to as everyone else. The Informant! reveals information gradually, keeping Mark Whitacre a mystery, right to the end.

The Informant! reminded me of Shattered Glass (2003), a largely-overlooked, but very strong, true story about a dishonest journalist. The biggest difference between the two is the ever-present humor. Even in its heaviest moments, The Informant! stays light, thanks to fun music and amusing anecdotes sprinkled throughout. As a director, Steven Soderbergh’s filmography grows more eclectic with each passing year; your odds are good of finding at least one Soderbergh title in every section of your local video store. I usually have strong feelings about his movies, one way or the other, and I’m glad to say that The Informant! is most definitely a winner: a quirky, unique character study, impressive on all fronts.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language.

The language in The Informant! isn’t overly heavy or pervasive, but the standard four-letter words do make enough appearances to warrant an R rating. The plot itself would likely confuse/bore younger viewers. Watch the trailer to get a good feel for the humor and pacing.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Sugar Rush Effect

I remember going to see The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, on opening day in 1997. I was only a lad, but I already knew quite a bit about movies. I had seen my fair share of classics, and I had some legitimate criteria with which to separate the wheat from the chaff. I had read Michael Crichton’s novel, The Lost World, and after four years of obsessing over Jurassic Park, I was fully prepared to love the film sequel.

When the lights came up and the credits rolled, I was thrilled. Sure, it was a heck of a lot different than the novel, but it was still absolutely awesome ... or so I thought. Telling people about it the next day, my level of enthusiasm had dwindled a bit. The day after that, I was even less sure, and by the time I saw it again four or five days after the initial viewing, I realized that The Lost World wasn’t as good as I first thought. In fact, it wasn’t good at all. It didn’t follow the plot of the book, the pacing was off, the characters weren’t lovable, and the sense of wonder from Jurassic Park was gone. How the heck had I been fooled the first time?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve encountered many situations akin to this one. I’ve been aware of the phenomenon for quite some time, but I haven’t put a name to it until now. Like an actual sugar rush, the cinematic Sugar Rush Effect can sweep in unexpectedly, give you a buzz, and then leave you feeling empty and exhausted shortly thereafter. You could fill a video store with these movies, most of them action pictures that bombard you with explosions, thrills, and special effects. Amidst the assault on your senses, you may be fooled into thinking you’re having fun.

As a film critic and appreciator, understanding this phenomenon has been important. I often let a few days pass between seeing a movie and writing its review. I’ve made the mistake in the past of coming home from the theater and writing a review immediately, only to realize later that I had been too kind to the movie. The critique remains forever frozen in time: a picture of me still high on the buzz of a busy movie. My review of Spider-Man 3 is a prime example. If I had waited a few days, that review would have been a lot harsher, and consequently, would have been more accurate.

But then again, what if it’s not the Sugar Rush Effect and you really are being entertained? Time is the best test, but sometimes, you just know right off. Audiences were amazed upon seeing Jurassic Park in 1993. It didn’t just change the film industry by blowing the computer-generated doors wide open; it was also one hell of a fun movie. People went back for multiple viewings, and by the end of its run, it was the highest-grossing movie of all time. My parents let me go see it during its last days in the theaters, and I’m so thrilled to have experienced it on the big screen. I was only nine years old, but I knew I wasn’t just seeing some fluff piece that happened to have great effects. I was witnessing one of the greatest blockbusters of all time.

Sixteen years after that first viewing, Jurassic Park is still magical to me, whereas four days after The Lost World, I was left with nothing. Jurassic Park’s amazing CG effects wowed audiences in 1993, but it was the screenplay, actors, and direction that really made the film great. The Lost World introduced me to the Sugar Rush Effect. It provided a brief thrill, but once the script diverted from the story in the novel, the substance got sucked out and the movie never recovered. What’s most interesting, though, is that I needed a few days before I could see the movie for what it really was.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy demonstrated the difference for me between solid adventure films and Sugar Rush experiences. I loved the original film at once; I didn’t need a few days to understand and appreciate how fresh and fun it was. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) was a blast, full of memorable characters and swashbuckling fun. When I saw the sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), I wasn’t nearly as sure. I needed time to process. After waiting a few days, I realized that I really did enjoy it. It proved to be a Sugar Rush movie for many, but I appreciated the plot twists and unexpected character development. When the test period ended, my thumb was still up.

The Sugar Rush Effect finally came into play for me with Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). Here it was: the wham-bam, in-your-face adventure that didn’t have nearly enough genuine fun supporting it. Every time I watch the first film, I just have fun; I smile and laugh. With Pirates 3, I wrote my review too soon, and a few days later, I regretted that decision. I should have called the shots a little tougher.

Not everyone falls prey to these Sugar Rushes. Some people immediately understand the full value of what they’re seeing, though I often need a little time to process. Also, it’s important to remember that not everyone will agree on which movies are substantial and which are fluff. Many of my friends have cited The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) as Sugar Rush experiences, whereas I still enjoy those films and will defend them (within reason). I’m slowly learning to integrate this need for reflection into my analyses, and it has already made a difference. I had mixed feelings shortly after seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Three days later, when I wrote my review, my mind had been completely made up.

Because of my awareness of the Sugar Rush Effect, I’m no longer afraid to take my time, and I’m no longer afraid to change my mind. The next time you see a big, special effects-packed spectacle of a movie, try sitting on your opinions for a day or two and see how they change and develop. Your opinions may not change, they may improve, or you may just find yourself snapping out of a sugar-induced trance.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

District 9

In the opening moments of District 9, an enormous alien spacecraft hovers above a populated city. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve seen this movie before. For the first sixty seconds, I thought the same thing. I applaud writer/director Neill Blomkamp for taking a tired premise and delivering something new. The aliens aren’t out to get us like in War of the Worlds or Independence Day, nor have they come to help us like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Contact. They’re just stuck on Earth, and they don’t like it any more than we do.

Twenty years ago, a giant alien mothership ran out of fuel and has hovered over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa ever since. Humans quickly removed the aliens from their ship and forced them to live in the slums of District 9, a run-down camp of government-subsidized housing. Nicknamed “Prawns” because of their appearance, the aliens are essentially prisoners in a world that doesn’t want them. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) heads up the effort to evict the aliens from their homes and move them to District 10, but after an accident occurs with unexpected side effects, Van De Merwe suddenly becomes the aliens’ strongest ally.

District 9 feels fresh on so many levels. It uses a documentary-style approach and was shot almost exclusively with hand-held cameras. The cast doesn’t have any big names, which adds believability to the documentary style, but all the actors are fantastic. Sharlto Copley gives a strong character arc to Wikus Van De Merwe; he starts off being ignorantly optimistic about alien/human relations, then becomes concerned only with self-preservation, and finally comes to treat the aliens as equals. It’s a good character journey, and the motivations behind it are fascinating; I applaud the marketing department for not giving any of the secrets away in the trailers.

Most alien films slowly reveal the aliens themselves, building suspense around what they look like (Signs, Alien, etc.). In District 9 you see dozens of aliens up close in the first five minutes. After all, they’ve been on Earth for twenty years already, so the secret is out. The Prawns look like the eight-foot offspring of grasshoppers and sea creatures. Emotionally, however, they’re a lot like we are. Some of them are kind to humans and others aren’t. It seems simple, but it’s amazing just how many alien films treat extra-terrestrials as though they all have the exact same agenda, if not the exact same brain. Of course they would be individuals with unique motives. District 9 respects its characters, human and alien alike.

The film deserves the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its seamless integration of grainy footage and cutting-edge imagery. Every time the camera shakes or the image blurs, the CG effects adapt accordingly, giving the impression that they were actually captured by some documentarian with a camcorder. The Prawns are realized through a combination of puppetry and CG, and they look fantastic on the big screen. It’s a wonderfully believable and immersive experience.

It’s worth pointing out that District 9, while a first-rate film, isn’t a particularly enjoyable experience depending on your tolerance for violence. There’s a good deal of bloody mayhem, as the alien weapons cause humans to explode from within (think of dynamite in a watermelon). There’s also a character who undergoes a rather gross physical transformation, including teeth and finger nails that fall off. It could definitely be nightmare material for young viewers, and may gross you out regardless of your age. The film does usually give fair warning before showing something icky, providing ample ‘look away’ time.

The last half hour has some video game-ish, shoot-em-up violence that feels a little out of place, but all in all, District 9 marches into new territory and tames it brilliantly. Sci-fi fans will appreciate this creative film, and as good word of mouth spreads, I predict more and more casual viewers will fall for it as well. Neill Blomkomp leaves the door wide open for a sequel or even two sequels, but still provides enough closure for the film to stand alone. Personally, I hope to see some more. If Blomkomp can maintain the same level of quality storytelling, bring on District 10.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.

The violence in District 9 would give a lot of sleepless nights to a lot of children (see the review’s next to last paragraph for specifics), and even some teens would be bothered by it. Strong language pops up throughout.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino brings his elegant street dialogue to World War II, and it works splendidly. Leave it to the writer/director of Pulp Fiction to put his own unique spins on a genre that’s been done to death. Of all the great WWII movies, you’ve probably never seen one so dialogue-centric. The trademark style that placed Quentin Tarantino at the forefront of American filmmaking is back, and it’s still as witty, shocking, funny, violent, and just plain cool as it ever was.

Set in Nazi-occupied France, Inglourious Basterds follows a small team of Jewish-American soldiers, nicknamed, you guessed it, the Basterds. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), their mission is to strike fear into the Germans by “doin’ one thing and one thing only: killin’ Nazis.” Lt. Raine tells his soldiers early on, “Each man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps.” Unfortunately for our eyes, he’s not being figurative. A subplot involves Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a beautiful young woman who wants revenge on the Nazis for her parents’ deaths. She plans, along with the Basterds, to sabotage a Nazi movie premiere where several high-ranking officers will be in attendance, including the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler.

Like all of Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds is a movie in love with movies, alluding not only to numerous other films, but even building on Tarantino’s previous works. The film utilizes on-screen chapter breaks with titles, the way Kill Bill did, and the film opens with, “Chapter One: Once Upon a Time ... in Nazi-occupied France ...” Chapter One of Inglourious Basterds should be shown to film school students as a lesson in suspense. The dialogue and performances are simply unforgettable, and the overall quality of the opening sequence proves that Quentin Tarantino is still at the top of his game.

The use of the opening phrase, “Once Upon a Time” is very appropriate, because in many ways, Inglourious Basterds is a fairy tale. Not only does it utilize heavily stylized dialogue and artistic visuals that give it a surreal quality, but without disclosing specifics, it deals in alternative history. Many historical figures appear, from Winston Churchill to Joseph Goebbels, but make no mistake that this is WWII as it could have been, not as it was. Along with this storytelling choice comes a new level of suspense; you’re never sure where certain scenes are going.

Violence doesn’t appear as frequently here as in Kill Bill, but when it does appear, it’s every bit as graphic. Inglourious Basterds shows some brutal, cold-blooded stuff: scalping, shooting, burning, beating, carving ... it’s not for the queasy, and you may need to/want to look away at certain moments. The audience I was in made plenty of noises that showed they were sufficiently grossed out, but in a fun, over-the-top action movie kind of way.

As is always the case with Tarantino’s films, the performances are top notch. Brad Pitt delivers all of his lines with a thick Southern accent, and his homespun country phrasing provides most of the laughs. I suspect that the intentional misspelling of both words in the title of the film alludes to his Southern drawl pronunciation. Mélanie Laurent is very memorable as the cold, gorgeous Shosanna, but the show-stopping performance comes from Christoph Waltz as the chief villain, Col. Hanz Landa. He brings a chilling friendliness to this vicious Nazi officer so that you’re never sure which of his “cordial” conversations will end in bloodshed. It’s still fairly early in the year, but when the Oscars roll around, a Best Supporting Actor nomination may be in order.

Inglourious Basterds isn’t as much of a masterpiece as Kill Bill (and I don’t expect him to ever make a better film than Pulp Fiction), but it does make for a worthy installment in Quentin Tarantino’s library. His films remain stylistically linked, but have grown quite diverse in subject matter. I greatly admire his post-Pulp Fiction achievements; he has followed-up one of the most important movies ever made, not by trying to duplicate his success, but the same way he made such a great film to begin with - by being his original self. Inglourious Basterds is a fun, violent, one-of-a-kind World War II romp.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence, language, and brief sexuality.

The violence is very bloody, very brutal, and sure to bother just about everyone on some level. The language and brief sexuality aren’t really of consequence when compared to the gore. Don’t even think about taking your kids, and use discretion with teens. The violence in Pulp Fiction is often implied, but Inglourious Basterds is more like Kill Bill in that it’s completely shown to you, scalping and all.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Classic Series: L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential is a near-perfect masterpiece that has only improved since its 1997 release. It deserves to be named alongside Chinatown (1974) as one of the definitive explorations of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but I actually prefer L.A. Confidential to Chinatown. While Chinatown ends with a wildly cynical and hopeless statement about human nature, L.A. Confidential travels through the darkness and into the light. It takes all the trademarks of the film noir genre and spins them into elegance, somehow making them seem fresh again. Detectives, booze, broads, murder, intrigue; it’s all here, and it’s never been better.

The film opens with Danny DeVito’s character praising Los Angeles as the perfect city: a magical 1950’s ideal, without any problems. After a minute or so, he reverses direction, saying, “At least that’s what they tell ya, ‘cause they’re selling an image.” The three main characters are cops working for the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1950’s, and they’re all in it for different reasons. Edmund Exley (Guy Pierce) is a cold, clean-cut guy who adheres to the rules, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) loves the spotlight, and Bud White (Russell Crowe) administers justice in his own way. After a brutal shooting takes place at the Nite Owl coffee shop, dubbed “The Nite Owl Massacre,” the three cops find themselves unraveling a mystery with shocking implications.

The cast actually looks stronger now than it did at the time. In a cast of veteran actors, the two fresh faces were Guy Pierce and Russell Crowe. Guy Pierce later starred in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), and Russell Crowe went on to win an Oscar for Gladiator (2000). The cast also includes James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Danny DeVito, Kevin Spacey, and Kim Bassinger, who actually won her Oscar for her performance in L.A. Confidential. There were actually concerns at the time that the principal cast didn’t have enough big names, which now sounds like a joke. Casts sometimes suffocate under the weight of too many powerful cooks in the kitchen, but thanks to a great script, this kitchen was big enough for all of them.

L.A. Confidential’s Academy Award-winning screenplay is extraordinary. Adapted from an epic crime novel of the same name by James Ellroy, the script packs so many plot elements that it could have easily left its audience behind. Compared to the book, however, the film looks simple. In adapting the screenplay, Director Curtis Hanson had to boil the book down to its basic elements, cut some of those out, condense the characters, eliminate entire plot threads, and somehow have it all make sense. Most astounding of all, the labyrinthine plot unfolds logically while taking a backseat to character development. Few noir films care so much about their characters. I’ve probably seen this film a dozen times or so, and I still can’t fully grasp the brilliant tightness of the writing. To cut one line from the script would weaken it.

The 1950’s period is captured quietly through costumes and sets that are always present, but don’t stand out. Look around at any given moment during the picture and you’ll notice the splendid art direction, but the characters always hold the foreground. Rather than striving for nostalgic visuals, L.A. Confidential was shot using completely modern techniques, and while it was captured on color stock, the film uses shadows to achieve a classic film noir feel. The graphic violence far surpasses actual films from the Noir Era (1940’s-1950’s), feeling more like the pulp magazines from the period. In fact, such magazines even play an important role in the story, which explores how tabloids and the paparazzi were born. The soundtrack consists of original music by Jerry Goldsmith and plenty of tunes from the past, most memorably “Accentuate the Positive” during the opening credits.

The “cops and corruption” genre had been done to death by 1997, but L.A. Confidential breathed new life into the material. During an especially poignant scene two-thirds into the movie, Ed Exley tells Jack Vincennes about why he became a cop in the first place. “It was supposed to be about justice ... somewhere along the way, I lost sight of that.” It’s not only a scene that turns the plot in a significant direction, but it captivates me every time I see it. Many film noirs carry a sense of unstoppable fate, like Chinatown, but the characters in L.A. Confidential are offered chances for redemption. Some are saved, most aren’t, but all play their parts in one of the most entertaining films of recent years.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Proposal

The Proposal, I’m told, is a romantic comedy. The comedy stems largely from far-fetched situations and cheap gimmicks, and though I did sit through the entire credits, I failed to locate the romance. The film boasts an excellent cast and shows promise at various points, even improving as it unfolds, just never improving enough. During the last act, when I should have really cared about the central love story, I checked my watch more than once.

Sandra Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a cruel tyrant of the publishing world. Her assistant, Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds), endures his job only in the hopes of an eventual promotion. When Margaret faces deportation to Canada because of an expired visa, she forces Andrew into a phony engagement. They plan to divorce after the wedding, but must first survive a weekend in Alaska with Andrew’s family. As Margaret and Andrew come to know each other better, their counterfeit emotions quickly turn genuine.

Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds play their characters with gusto, but as the two fell in love, I never believed it. What’s worse, I didn’t want to believe it. Ryan Reynolds lends his likability to Andrew, but Sandra Bullock’s Margaret is a mean, unpleasant person. Deep down, I hoped that the two would become friends, but that Andrew would end up with someone else. When the audience roots against the plot of a romantic comedy, something’s amiss. Even my wife, who is far more forgiving of chick-flicks, didn’t fall for this one.

I will remark once more on the stellar cast. The names include Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, and even Oscar Nuñez (Oscar from The Office). Strong performances carry the film to a certain point, but too many ridiculous situations drag it down. An eagle flies out of the sky and steals Margaret’s cell phone. Margaret and Andrew literally run into each other whilst naked. Romantic comedies don’t have to be completely logical, but the best ones don’t resort to cheap gags. When unbelievable, unnecessary physical comedy takes over, it’s often a sign of weak writing.

There’s a moment when Sandra Bullock speaks at a wedding that immediately reminded me of While You Were Sleeping (1995). The two romantic comedies share more than just a lead actress: misunderstandings, family troubles, and even a spunky grandmother turn up in both. However, While You Were Sleeping stands a world apart from The Proposal, featuring a great script made greater by its performances, its pacing, and even its soundtrack. If you’re in the mood for a charming romantic comedy, save your money and watch While You Were Sleeping. As for The Proposal, go ahead and call the wedding off.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, nudity, and language.

Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock both appear naked, though all of their “bits” remain strategically covered. There aren’t any sex scenes, though there’s plenty of sexual humor. The language is on par with most PG-13 films nowadays; consistent, but never very strong.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was the first film to honestly capture the horrific violence of war, and now we have a film that conveys the suspense and paranoia. The Hurt Locker is a quieter, more contained masterpiece: a film that makes us feel the constant tension of battle. When the gunfire ceases, the suspense doesn’t. The soldiers in this film are the walking dead, convinced that they could fall at any minute. As one character says early on, “The bottom line is, if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.”

Set in Baghdad, 2004, The Hurt Locker follows three American soldiers in a bomb-diffusing EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team. The team leader, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), is a brilliant but reckless wire-cutter who seems truly prepared to die every time he starts a mission. His two teammates, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) provide cover fire while James disables explosives. The film explores the mental breakdown experienced by these men, as well as the addictive nature of the constant buzz of warfare.

The Hurt Locker plays by very different rules than other war movies, which is appropriate, because the War on Terrorism is different from other wars. Most war movies show soldiers from opposing sides locked in battle, but the horror and suspense in this war comes instead from not knowing who the enemy is. While Sgt. James carefully cuts wires, always a moment away from death, other soldiers keep their eyes on the crowd. Civilians line the streets and are visible behind every window. Most have cell phones, some have camcorders, and constant paranoia is the only option in light of the frightening, inescapable truth: amidst the crowd of innocent onlookers, one person may have a finger on the detonator.

Of the three main characters, Sgt. James functions best under the extreme stress, because he seems to have the least to lose. Sure, he has a wife and son back home, but in his own mind, he’s already let them go. While Sanborn and Eldridge worry about death, James goes looking for it. As the film gradually shows, he’s addicted to war. Even after James saves a soldier’s life, the soldier correctly states that he wouldn’t have needed saving if James hadn’t been so reckless to begin with. “I got shot because you had to have your adrenaline fix.” James doesn’t acknowledge this comment, but he doesn’t have to.

The filmmaking is superb all the way around. The Hurt Locker isn’t a documentary, but it feels like one. The performances are completely genuine, and the camerawork is intentionally gritty, consisting primarily of handheld shots. The soundtrack booms at times and softens at others, all for the purpose of building tension and believability. Director Kathryn Bigelow ratchets the suspense at all times, so that even during moments of safety, we’re never really at ease. In this action film, the audience doesn’t want to see much action. We hope the bombs don’t go off. It’s a side of war that cinema has never seen, and I hope this film receives recognition at the 2009 Academy Awards.

The Hurt Locker is one of the best films about the War on Terrorism, which feels strange to say, because war films usually have some distance on the events they depict and therefore bring some perspective. The Hurt Locker takes place in 2004, putting just five years between the setting and the release. The recent profusion of films set during a still-ongoing war mark a new phenomenon, but I won’t complain if we see more films as enlightening and well-made as this one. War films are an exhausted genre, but The Hurt Locker is one of the year’s best films, providing a new, suspenseful, insightful, and altogether memorable experience.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language.

The Hurt Locker should be off-limits for preteens, but some teenagers could handle it, and it will definitely be less intense on video than in the theater. The violence isn’t graphic or overly bloody, but it is suspenseful and very realistic. There’s also a steady stream of strong language.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Watchmen - Director's Cut

Watchmen is widely considered the greatest graphic novel (novel-length comic book) ever written, and is the only graphic novel to make Time Magazine’s list of “the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.” Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator) created a work so rich, so complex, that no film could ever be its equal. Director Zack Snyder (300) obviously loves the book, and though he handled the material with great respect and care, the finished product emerges uneven. It’s visually arresting and carries glimpses of greatness, but doesn’t fully satisfy. Watchmen - Director’s Cut clocks in at 186 minutes, and yet that’s still not enough time to properly communicate the themes, the characters, and the setting.

The story unfolds in an alternate reality in New York City, 1985. America was victorious in Vietnam, Richard Nixon is still President, and tensions with the Soviet Union are at an all-time high. Most of the main characters are regular people who years ago donned costumes and teamed up to fight crime, but were forced to retire after Nixon approved legislation banning all “Costumed Crimefighters.” Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who used to be a crimefighter named The Comedian, gets thrown from a building in the film’s opening scene. In the wake of The Comedian’s murder, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the only Costumed Crimefighter who never retired, investigates a possible conspiracy. All of the Costumed Crimefighters examine their own lives, trying to reconcile their good intentions with the bleak reality of a dying World that doesn’t want their help.

That bare-bones summary doesn’t even touch the surface, much less scratch it. The characters of Watchmen have deep psychological profiles, the setting has deep history, and the overall story has very deep themes. Only a televised miniseries, created perhaps for HBO or Showtime, could have properly handled this story. The book has twelve chapters, so a six-hour miniseries could have given 30 minutes to each chapter, and even then, material probably would have been cut. Imagine how much would have been lost if Roots or The Lord of the Rings had been crammed into three hours. This forest has so many significant trees that you just can’t show them all in three hours, and because of that, the forest as a whole doesn’t make enough sense.

In reality, Watergate and Vietnam were the primary causes of American disillusionment, but Watchmen examines a world in which those events unfolded differently, causing a quieter, slower, and much more heartbreaking decay. The movie portrays this world effectively in some scenes, especially when The Comedian and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) attempt to control an angry mob. Their effort to assist people quickly goes awry, and The Comedian begins shooting innocent civilians. “What happened to us?”, Nite Owl asks. “What happened to the American Dream?” The Comedian turns around from the fleeing crowd, gun in hand. “What happened to the American Dream? It came true. You’re looking at it.”

Most of the characters are played well, especially The Comedian and Rorschach. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a great job carrying The Comedian’s attitude that all of life is a “big joke.” He’s a brutal, sadistic jerk who laughs at the horrors around him because that’s the only way he can cope. Rorschach believes in traditional morality: good vs. evil, though he uses violence to persecute evildoers. Jackie Earle Haley becomes this character, speaking in a raspy voice from behind a mask featuring a constantly changing Rorschach blot. Only one character, Ozymandias, is represented poorly. He’s supposed to be strong and dashing: the ideal man, and certainly the closest to the traditional masculine superhero. In the film, he’s much too creepy.

It’s important to note that, apart from one big exception, none of the characters have special powers. They’re just regular people who decided to make a difference. The movie has a beautiful, stylized polish, similar to what Snyder used in 300, and while it’s a joy to behold, realism would have been more appropriate. After all, this isn’t a traditional superhero story. The characters are multi-dimensional and real, and I wish the gloss had been traded in favor of grit. Even the violence, while extremely graphic, is too pretty and cartoonish. Most shots in the movie are lifted straight from the graphic novel, frame for frame, but the overall tone of realism got sacrificed in favor of eye candy. As soon as realism slips, the story’s power to affect us emotionally slips along with it.

The only character with superpowers is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a man who became God-like after suffering an accident during a physics experiment. He has virtually every power imaginable; he can be anywhere at any time and can do anything. His skin glows blue, he speaks in a calm voice, and he is most definitely not human. He has so many powers that he doesn’t feel obligated to help humans in the least. He doesn’t understand them anymore, and he sees the Universe as being much larger and more significant than the survival of humanity. The one character who could save the World doesn’t care to, and the characters who want to help have slowly become the very evil that they set out to eliminate.

The universe of Watchmen is vast and complex, and I applaud Zack Snyder for performing admirably under the circumstances. The task was impossible from the start, but he did well, making a film that works best as a supplement to the graphic novel. The Director’s Cut adds an important story element concerning Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the original Nite Owl from the 1940’s, but it’s just one of many missing pieces. As a stand-alone experience, the film works, but it doesn’t carry the narrative power of the graphic novel. If the film piques your interest, do yourself a favor and read Watchmen. One is a solid effort, but the other is a masterpiece.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, and language.

NOTHING ABOUT THIS MOVIE IS APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS - PERIOD. I don’t care that it has superheroes, and I don’t care if “Billy’s Mom let him see it,” or whatever. The content is very disturbing, and the themes are too deep for kids to grasp. An R rating means 17 and older, and this movie is rated R with good reason.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Classic Series: The Wild Bunch

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, Westerns were a dying breed, soon to be a fondly-remembered chapter of film history. Clint Eastwood helped reinvent the genre with the gritty Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s, but the classic Old West of Cowboys and Indians, the West that belonged to John Wayne, had all but disappeared. Director Sam Peckinpah and his team were ending an era, and most remarkable of all, they knew it. The Wild Bunch takes place in 1913, when only a few remnants remained of the wild American West. Like many films that endure, The Wild Bunch arrived at the perfect moment in history. One of the original taglines for the film read, “The land had changed. They hadn’t. The earth had cooled. They couldn’t.”

Like The Godfather, you’d be hard pressed to name the “good guys” in this picture, though at least in The Godfather, some characters are more likable than others. In The Wild Bunch, they’re all jerks. The film opens with a group of aging outlaws preparing to rob a bank. Pike (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) head-up the operation, while Deke (Robert Ryan) and his crew hope to stop the thieves once and for all. The thieves narrowly get away, setting off a cat-and-mouse game that continues throughout the picture. The men live by their own rules, and they all refuse to admit that the world has moved on without them.

If you had to name the “good guys,” you’d probably point to Deke’s crew, simply because they’re working in conjunction with the police, though it’s plain to see that they’re only in it for the money. You get the feeling that if the payoff were better on the other side, they’d trade loyalties without thinking twice. The men show no regard for traditional morality, though they do live by ethical codes of their own invention. Pike shouts at one of his men early in the film, “We’re gonna stick together ... When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal!” Most of the dialogue comes in similarly crazed, melodramatic spurts. When Pike later defends Deke’s actions, saying, “He gave his word,” Dutch screams, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”

The Wild Bunch holds a very low view of women, all the more surprising because the feminist movement was thriving by 1969. Instead of the usual backseat role that Westerns place women in, this movie throws them out of the side door and into the street. Male characters in older Westerns certainly didn’t view women as equals, but at least they respected them. The men in The Wild Bunch use women for their own purposes before disposing of them, often through violence. Whenever women get riddled with bullets, either accidentally or intentionally, the men show neither remorse, nor emotion of any kind. For them, it’s all just part of the lifestyle.

The suspense builds over unusually long periods prior to the action scenes, and when the action does come, it’s bloody and relentless. Like Bonnie and Clyde two years before (1967), The Wild Bunch marked a new level of on-screen violence. It’s not overly gory, but it is realistic. When bullets hit, blood spews, bringing an unpleasant honesty that Westerns just hadn’t seen before. Scenes are edited together with many cuts, often showing the same piece of action across multiple shots and angles. A bullet will strike someone, and the camera will cut to another scene. Then the victim will begin to fall, and the camera will cut away again. Then the victim will hit the sand, and the camera will cut once more. The shoot-outs are fast-paced, confusing, and altogether gritty.

So, when the dust settles, does the film endorse violence, or make some kind of statement against it? I’m not sure, though I’m leaning towards neither. I don’t think The Wild Bunch makes any statement, so much as it tells a story. It’s a tale of free-spirited, untamed men fading away in an increasingly domesticated world. It depicted a strange corner of history, and it carved out its own piece of film history along the way. John Wayne famously accused the film of destroying “the myth of the Old West,” but if the film has any moral, it’s that you can’t stop progress. The Wild Bunch moved cinema along, and it did so at the right time. Edmond O’Brien utters the film’s last line: “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” It didn’t just mark the end of The Wild Bunch - it was the end of an era.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The sixth film in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince takes on a foe even more intimidating than He Who Must Not Be Named: high expectations. Not only do the books boast a remarkably spirited fan base, but books six and seven are among the most beloved. Added to this, the movies have been pretty impressive up to this point, so fans everywhere look to the sixth film with the highest of hopes. As a fan myself, I’m thrilled to be a bearer of good news: while not the best in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince casts a superb spell, indeed.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to Hogwarts School for his sixth year, and romance is in the air. Despite raging hormones, Harry can’t shake his eerie premonition that Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has joined Lord Voldemort’s followers and been given a secret mission. As Harry tries to unravel the mystery of Draco’s errand, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) teaches Harry more about the Dark Lord’s troubled past. The key to defeating Voldemort lies in a memory which Harry must extract from Professor Horus Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a new teacher at Hogwarts. Meanwhile, Harry excels in Potions class thanks to his most helpful used textbook, which once belonged to a mysterious student known only as the Half-Blood Prince.

Performances all around are stellar in this film, and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (Ron and Hermione) give their finest performances to date. In the past, Harry Potter actors have sometimes gone overboard with certain character traits, but not here. Almost every exchange rings true, and the film spends more time on genuine emotion than it does on fantasy. Jim Broadbent brings the perfect, complex balance to Professor Slughorn, though perhaps the most pleasant acting surprise of all is how Tom Felton rises to the challenge as Draco Malfoy. His performances have been fairly monotone ever since the first film, but this time around, he fills Malfoy with conflict and vulnerability. For this story to work, Malfoy needed to be a deeper character, and Felton delivered.

This is also one of the funniest films of the franchise, with romantic angst providing quite a few laughs. Author J.K. Rowling aged her characters masterfully, and screenplay writer Steve Kloves successfully translates the hormonal confusion to the screen. In addition to typical teenage issues, these young wizards have to cope with girls slipping them love potions, and one of the funniest bits comes when Ron unknowingly drinks such a potion. “It’s no joke,” Ron tells Harry. “I’m in love with her!” “Fine,” Harry says, “you’re in love with her; have you ever actually met her?” “No,” says Ron. “Could you introduce me?”

The film depends heavily upon its last act, which unfortunately falls short of its full potential. It’s rare for film adaptations to cut action scenes that exist in the books, and I’m not sure why they chose to omit so much of the battle that takes place at the end of Half-Blood Prince. The action as it unfolds in the text would have heightened the drama and raised the stakes. Even the Half-Blood Prince himself, the film’s title character, should have been given more significance and explanation in the closing act. As is, the ending still packs a punch, but nowhere near the powerhouse that it should have been. Those who haven’t read the book may love it, but I think most fans will scratch their heads a bit, wondering why the finale was underplayed.

While the ending falls short, it certainly does not fall flat. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a movie that fans can be proud of, boasting a strong visual style outmatched only by its character development. The friendship between Harry and Dumbledore is genuinely touching, right from the film’s unexpected, yet pitch-perfect opening shot. I feel confident that director David Yates will wrap up the franchise well, and with the final film being split and released as two movies, I trust that the book will be adequately represented. For now, head on over to Hogwarts to behold that rarest of magical creatures: a big summer movie that actually delivers.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.

This film has some scares, but nothing nightmarish. Whereas the last film was given a PG-13 (understandably), PG is the right rating here. I think kids will enjoy it, and the other elements listed above (violence, language, mild sensuality) are pretty tame.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

The title for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has multiple meanings, though it mainly refers to the franchise, which has fallen into despair and is now seeking revenge against us, the innocent moviegoers. Michael Bay has upped the ante in every department, especially those departments that didn’t need any ‘upping,’ resulting in a loud, unintelligent explosion-fest that fails to recreate the magic of the first Transformers. Many will say that you can’t bring high expectations to a movie like this, but if you come to a bad movie with low expectations, and your low expectations are met, what kind of praise is that? I was at least hoping for the same level of quality as the original, but Michael Bay tried to fix what wasn’t broken, giving rise to a computer-generated bore.

The film opens with the Autobots (the good Transformers) fighting alongside the US Military to hunt down the Decepticons (the bad Transformers). Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) heads off to his Freshman year at Princeton, beginning a long-distance relationship with his scantily-clad girlfriend, Mikaela (Megan Fox). As Sam begins to have strange visions of alien symbols, the Decepticons plan to kill him and use his brain for their sinister purposes. Sam must team up with the Autobots to defeat The Fallen, an ancient Decepticon who hopes to exterminate humanity by destroying the Sun.

If that plot sounds both convoluted and stupid, then my summary was a success. Honestly, in a movie about alien robots, who cares about all that junk? The first Transformers worked because it had the right blend of character development, action, and humor. A charming performance by Shia LaBeouf sealed the deal, creating a surprise blockbuster that appealed to viewers across different age groups. On the other end of the spectrum, Transformers 2 has the worst kind of mix: one that won’t appeal to any age group. In trying to please everyone, it pleases no one. This movie has absolutely no idea who its target audience is.

When it comes to a Summer movie about robot cars from outer space, it doesn’t take a Hollywood executive to know that the target audience consists of young teenage boys. Why, then, is this movie bursting with inappropriate content? The language and sexual humor are so over-the-top that parents won’t be pleased, and the kids sitting next to their parents will probably just feel awkward. The charming humor of the first film is long gone, replaced by gags that fall somewhere between third-rate and downright bizarre. Metallic robot testicles, racial stereotypes, and a robot that humps the heroine’s leg all turn up at various points. That last one struck me as an especially cheap laugh. Do machines actually procreate as we do? The only thing missing is a Transformer fart joke.

When Sam arrives at Princeton, the movie resorts to every college cliché ever filmed: the weird roommate, the bad first day of class, legions of girls that look airbrushed, ridiculous parties ... I half-expected a CG John Belushi to run past in a toga. Apparently, Princeton traded its Ivy League status and became a talent pool for “Girls Gone Wild.” Sam’s mom even gets high on Pot brownies and runs around the campus like she’s on LSD. I don’t know what happened to the writers between films, but there’s no excuse for the dense plot, dimwitted jokes, and treatment of sexuality like it’s something funny and shameful. If the first Transformers reminded me of the carefree fun and playfulness of youth, the sequel reminded me more of the guys’ locker room.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen runs for roughly the same length as its predecessor, though it feels twice as long. In its final act, the film descends into an endless barrage of robotic mayhem, explosions, and slow motion shots of Megan Fox’s boobs bouncing up and down. There’s no sense of wonder because we don’t care about the characters, the story, or the machines. The transformations themselves aren’t even as innovative this time around. There’s nothing here to rival the moment in the first film when Starscream flies in as an airplane, transforms in midair, and begins ripping fighter jets out of the sky.

The short list of pros includes impressive effects, the return of Agent Simmons (John Turturro), and the innovation of Decepticons defecting and joining the Autobots. The list of cons might overload my poor laptop’s processor, so I’ll close by saying that the inevitable third film had better pull itself together. Michael Bay & Co. obviously stumbled into success with the first, and now it’s time to look back at that movie and take a few pointers. The first Transformers, while entertaining, still had major flaws. It shouldn’t have been hard to match, or even surpass, but sitting in the theater during Revenge of the Fallen, I began reminiscing about the first like it was an old classic.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, language, some crude and sexual material, and brief drug material.

The language and sexuality go way beyond the original Transformers. This film is rated PG-13, though I’d say 14-15 is more like it. Regardless of age, no one will enjoy this film more than the first, so unless your kids are absolutely dying to see it, I’d stay home, save your money, and watch the original Transformers again.

Friday, June 5, 2009


Pixar and I have a game that we like to play. Whenever I see a trailer for a new Pixar movie, I assume that it can’t possibly be as good as Pixar’s previous movies. The folks at Pixar assure me that it is, and after I’ve seen the movie, one of us is declared the winner. I have yet to win this game. Up marks Pixar’s tenth feature film, tenth work of art, tenth masterpiece. I thought that nothing could effectively follow WALL•E, the best film of 2008, but let me remind you again that the score currently stands: Pixar - 10, Dee - 0.

Up features a wonderful protagonist: Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), age 78. A widower soon to be evicted off his property, Carl decides it’s time to embark on the adventure that he always wanted to take with his wife. By tying thousands of balloons to his house, Carl lifts off and sets a course for South America. Once airborne, he discovers that Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer Scout, has inadvertently stowed away on board. When the two of them reach the jungles of South America, they encounter many perils, not the least of which is learning to get along.

Pixar has made me laugh and cry during the same film on multiple occasions, but now they’ve made me do it in the first 15 minutes. Up boasts a brilliant prologue, one that reminds us that grumpy old people don’t appear out of thin air. In today’s youth-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget that all old people were once young. Carl Fredricksen grew grumpy over time, and for specific reasons. The early montage reflecting on his marriage has no dialogue, but conveys the kind of genuine emotion that storytellers dream about. Carl is a rich, fully-developed character, and pairing him with a young child was a masterstroke.

When Up isn’t moving you to tears, it’s making you laugh, and not just half-heartedly, with under-your-breath chuckles. The scenes between Carl and Russell had me hooting and cackling, which might have been embarrassing had I been the only one in the theater making such a racket. A grumpy old man and a joyful, optimistic child - as a comedic filmmaker, you would have to work pretty hard to lose with that setup. The rest of the comedy comes through some wonderfully innovative fantasy, which complements the realism unexpectedly well. The human characters are grounded and relatable, but then you’ve also got mythic birds, talking dogs, and a flying house.

As always with Pixar, the magnificent animation captivates, but it takes a backseat to the story. Story has come first at Pixar since day one, and it’s remarkable that Pixar’s beautifully rendered movies aren’t known for their animation. Everyone loves them for their stories and their characters. In addition to being Pixar’s tenth film, Up also marks the studio’s first 3D feature. 3D effects are so rich and impressive nowadays, and they work especially well with computer-generated images. The film would still play very well in a traditional format, but if you have a chance to see it in 3D, it’s worth the few extra dollars.

In an unexpected way, Up reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Carl Fredricksen learns late in the game that he’s been missing the joy in life’s little moments. He always dreamed of adventure, but failed see the adventure in the world immediately around him. His journey made for one of the funniest, most touching, and most rewarding filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a long time. Before the film began, the audience cheered during the teaser trailer for next year’s Toy Story 3. Pixar is returning to the familiar territory that began it all, which I know they wouldn’t do unless they had a great story. I’ve already decided not to play my silly Pixar game on that one, or any others, for that matter. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the magic.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some peril and action.

Up has some intense action (especially intense in 3D), but nothing to worry about. You’ll probably be far more emotionally exhausted than your children, because your children won’t fully appreciate Carl’s backstory. Kids will eat up the humor, the visuals, and even the grumpy old protagonist. Definitely treat your kids to this picture, but know that you’ll also be treating yourself.