Monday, December 20, 2010

TRON: Legacy

TRON: Legacy is a sequel to the 28-year-old cult classic, TRON (1982), and it’s bound to become a cult classic in its own right. It’s a visually sophisticated action picture, but while anyone can enjoy the visuals, the plot isn’t very accessible to average viewers. My wife and I re-watched the original TRON an hour before going to see TRON: Legacy, and because of that, I have a feeling that we may have been the only people in the room who understood what the heck was going on. Still, I like the original TRON, and I like this sequel just as much. It’s a fun ride.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was the head of ENCOM, a major corporation, before mysteriously disappearing in 1989. His son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), has long wondered what happened to his father. Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), Kevin Flynn’s oldest friend and business partner, encourages Sam to go to his father’s abandoned arcade after Alan receives a page from Flynn’s office. “Alan,” Sam says, “you’re acting like I’m gonna find him sitting there, working.” Sam arrives at his father’s office, and after messing around on his dad’s old computer, Sam gets shot by an energy beam and finds himself inside The Grid, a digital world existing inside a computer system.

In the original TRON, the computerized world within the mainframe was marked by a cutting-edge combination of live action footage, backlit animation, and computer animation. Vast darkness was speckled with bright colors and rudimentary computer graphics; audiences had never seen anything like it. TRON: Legacy may not be as radically new, but its sophisticated design retains the spirit of its predecessor. The Grid is still marked by mostly empty space, and neon lights still shine out of the vast darkness. The light cycles were among the most iconic elements from the original film, and they make a glorious return in TRON: Legacy. These bikes leave trails of solid light behind them and are used in gladiatorial games where players attempt to box each other in using walls of light. The new light cycles look just right; you can see how the original light cycles, left to their own devices in a mainframe for 20 years, would evolve into these newer models.

TRON had a somewhat convoluted plot back in 1982. TRON: Legacy does too, only it’s even more complex, because it assumes you understand the first movie. If you haven’t seen TRON recently, you’ll be in the dark on a few things, including who exactly the character of Tron is. I was surprised by how small a role the character of Tron played this time around (he should have been given far more significance towards the movie’s end), and I was equally surprised by how much was left unexplained for viewers who missed the first film (or were born after its release, for that matter). However, it’s true of both films that the visual experience matters more than the story, and the visuals of TRON: Legacy do not disappoint.

The most controversial visual effect is in the character of CLU, Kevin Flynn’s virtual alter ego. In the original TRON, Jeff Bridges played both Flynn and CLU, as they looked identical. In TRON: Legacy, Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn, but being a computer program, CLU hasn’t aged at all. To achieve this, the visual effects team uses CGI to give CLU Jeff Bridges’ younger face from the first movie. All in all, this is a very impressive effect. There are times when he looks absolutely real, and he doesn’t have the infamous “dead eyes” that often plagues CGI depictions of humans. The problem still lies in the mouth. Whenever CLU speaks, you can sense that he’s just not quite real, and it’s a bit off-putting. Still, I can safely say that the effect works overall, and this marks the most impressive of similar attempts to date.

The acting is suitable for the material. Returning actors do well, and Garrett Hedlund performs admirably as Sam. Olivia Wilde plays Quorra, a computer program, and she brings appropriate “PG level” sex appeal with her black bob haircut and tight leather suit. There’s a fun, familiar sci-fi sexiness to almost all of the costumes, really, and most characters (though especially Quorra) would look right at home in the world of The Matrix. The costumes definitely mark a vast improvement over the clunkier suits from the classic TRON.

I would have tweaked the ending, and I’ll say it again: the character of Tron should have played a much bigger part. The movie is called TRON: Legacy, dang it! Still, I had fun, and I think you will, too. It was good to be back on The Grid, and if another sequel rolls around (preferably before 2038), you can count me in.

Note: I saw TRON: Legacy in 3-D, and the effect is very tasteful. Only the portions of the film that transpire inside the computer are 3-D; the rest unfold in a traditional 2-D format. The action sequences look great in 3-D, though when I pulled my 3-D glasses down a few times, I noticed the stark difference in color; 3-D glasses significantly dim bright colors every time (Avatar is the only 3-D movie I’ve ever seen that somehow avoided this). So, if you see it in 3-D, you’ll enjoy the effect, and if you see it in 2-D, you’ll save a few bucks and get the brighter colors; it’s a tradeoff.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language.

The violence isn’t at all graphic; most characters are computer programs, and they simply burst into pixels and disappear when “killed.” Anytime there’s an injury, you see pixels instead of blood or gore. While there are plenty of women wearing skin-tight leather suits, there’s no more sexuality than that. The action gets intense at times, but I think most kids will find it very entertaining. They probably won’t understand the ins and outs of the story, but again, that’s not too important with this movie.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I am a longtime admirer of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and I loved the first two Narnia movies. That being said, I have mixed feelings about this latest film installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Dawn Treader is the least of the movie trilogy, but it’s based on one of the most exciting novels in the series. As far as family-friendly fantasy movies go, Dawn Treader is good, but given the source material, it should have been great.

The novel doesn’t have much of an overarching plot holding it together; it’s more like Homer’s The Odyssey, moving from one action-packed episode to the next. The movie tweaks this structure somewhat with mixed results. Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) and her brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are stuck spending the summer with their insufferable cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter). One day, a painting of a ship begins pouring water into their bedroom, and the three soon find themselves in a Narnian ocean, being pulled aboard the Dawn Treader by King Caspian (Ben Barnes; you may recall that his character was a prince just one movie ago). Caspian and his crew (which includes the crowd-favorite mouse, Reepicheep, now voiced by Simon Pegg) have set out to discover what happened to the seven lost Lords of Narnia.

That overall description matches the book, but in an effort to make the plot seem more cohesive, the movie throws in a bunch of other stuff. For instance, there’s a strange, green mist threatening to destroy all of Narnia (“some say it’s pure evil”), and the only way to defeat the mist is to lay seven particular magic swords at Aslan’s Table. This isn’t great, as it doesn’t make much sense. In the novel, nearly every adventurous episode has some deep philosophy or theology underneath it, but the film trades a lot of that in for some far more generic “good vs. evil” mumbo jumbo. The movie retains some of the book’s meaning, but far too often the lackluster script just skims the surface.

Acting is fair all around, and returning cast members do well, just as in the previous installments. Will Poulter brings great comedic energy to the character of Eustace and makes for a welcome addition. He’s a solid performer, and there’s a small setup at the end of this movie for The Silver Chair, in which Eustace would be the main character. The films have followed the original publishing order of the books thus far, so I assume that the filmmakers have decided to skip over the daunting task of adapting A Horse and His Boy, which is understandable. If The Silver Chair does get made, Will Poulter has proven that he can carry it.

The visual effects are suitable, though not particularly unique or inspiring, with the exception of the scene in which the children enter Narnia through the painting. Through an impressive, well-executed effect, water fills the bedroom and the children soon find themselves in the ocean. But in most cases, the world of Narnia just doesn’t seem as real this time around as in the previous movies. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and then especially in Prince Caspian, the world of Narnia felt lived in. This wasn’t just because of the effects, but because of the sets, the costumes, the lighting, and the pacing. In Dawn Treader the aesthetics should have been imbued with more realism, and the pacing should have been stretched. It’s the shortest of the Narnia movies by thirty minutes, and it could have really used that additional time to deepen the setting, character development, and themes.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader ends extremely well, capturing the spirit of the novel in its final minutes. Overall, it’s a fair adventure movie. I did the always dangerous thing of rereading the novel before seeing the movie, so I was all too aware of the film’s unmet potential. It’s the weakest of the movies, but it could have been the strongest. I said in my Prince Caspian review that Dawn Treader should be the last of the Narnia movies, and I still feel that way. From here on out, the stories get stranger and more abstract, and I’m not sure they would translate well to the screen. The Magician’s Nephew could work as a prequel to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I still maintain that the final Narnia story, The Last Battle, is completely unfilmable. Especially because none of the other Narnia stories include the Pevensie children, I think they should call it a trilogy and just walk away.

In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin tells the Pevensies, “You may find Narnia a more savage place than you remember.” If you enjoyed the first two, you should certainly see this one, but don’t be surprised if you find Narnia a more shallow place than you remember.

Note: I saved a few bucks and saw this film in 2-D, and I was glad for it. 3-D glasses always darken the color palette, and from what I’ve heard, the 3-D effects in Dawn Treader don’t add a whole lot.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action.

There’s a lengthy sea serpent attack towards the end that could frighten young children, but overall, the tone is pretty adventurous and light. I reckon most kids would enjoy this movie, and while they can understand it without having seen the first two, I recommend showing your kids the first two if they haven’t seen them yet. Those are better movies anyway.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Classic Ruling Has Been Reversed: Kris Kringle Is Not Santa Claus!

There are several movies that our family watches every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Christmas is my favorite time of year, and annual Christmas movies are a big part of the celebration. One of our annual Christmas movies is Miracle on 34th Street (1947), though it’s hardly one of my favorites. I think John Payne and Maureen O’Hara are great, and young Natalie Wood is cute as a button, yet with each passing year, I find myself loving It’s A Wonderful Life a little more and loving Miracle a little less.

However, on to the main point. Something interesting came up during this year’s viewing of Miracle that warrants sharing. I realized something within the first five minutes that I had somehow never even considered before; the character of Kris Kringle is not Santa Claus. The movie never states exactly who Kris is, and after some analysis, I’m pretty sure he’s just a crazy old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus. I had always taken Kringle’s identity for granted, but the evidence against his being the real Santa Claus is overwhelming. Yes, I know that more than one character in the movie utters the line, “Faith is believing in things even when common sense tells you not to” (which I personally think is a dreadful definition), but I couldn’t help but find my faith shaken this year.

For starters, I don’t like the idea that Santa Claus is out of touch with reality. This Kris Kringle character openly refers to himself as Santa Claus, unaware of how strange that must seem to everyone around him. He doesn’t grasp that most grown adults don’t believe in a literal Santa Claus. He has no understanding of how his own myth factors into American culture. I know it’s only a matter of opinion, but I like to think that Santa Claus is a bit more competent than that.

Now for the bigger problems: what is Santa Claus doing roaming the streets of New York City one month before Christmas day? Shouldn’t he be in full preparation for the impending holiday? Added to that, why the heck would he accept a job offer from Macy’s department store? I find it highly unlikely that Santa would work a job in New York throughout the Christmas season. On his Macy’s employment card, Kris lists his address as “Brooks’ Memorial Home for the Aged” in Great Neck, Long Island. It sounds to me like good ol’ Kris wandered out the front door of his old folks’ home and stumbled into the Macy’s Parade.

Then there’s the scene where he strikes Mr. Sawyer on the forehead. Was that really necessary? The ethics of the act can be debated, but the idea of Santa Claus resorting to violence just doesn’t jive with other descriptions of jolly old St. Nick. Then, there’s his bit of vice presidential misinformation. In an effort to prove his intelligence, he asks Doris Walker, “Who was the Vice President under John Quincy Adams? Daniel D. Tompkins, and I’ll bet your Mr. Sawyer doesn’t know that!” I’ll bet so, too. In fact, I’ll bet that no one knows that, because it’s wrong. Sorry, “Santa”: the Vice President under John Quincy Adams was John C. Calhoun. In an effort to sound intelligent, Kris Kringle only demonstrates his confusion once again.

But wait a minute, you say: didn’t the United States government declare Kris to be Santa Claus? Kind of, though that’s really just a romantic way of saying that the mailmen dumped all the mail from the dead letter office onto this crazy guy just to free up some space around the office. Nothing is proven either way, and as for his magical act at the film’s end, all he really did was find a colonial house on sale and give Fred and Doris the address. His last act of insanity? He accidentally left his cane in the house. Way to go, Kris. I think it’s time to head back to Brooks’ Memorial (though it may be a difficult journey without your cane).

Yes, I’m being unnecessarily harsh, but I simply can’t allow this impostor to carry on any longer. Kris Kringle is a nice, charming old man who brings joy to many people’s lives, but he’s no more than that. As of this moment, I declare the New York State Court ruling of 1947 overturned; Kris Kringle is not Santa Claus!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

As far as book-to-movie adaptations go, the Harry Potter films have been unusually strong. It’s hard to retell an already beloved story, not to mention maintain a cast composed largely of child actors across a nine-year stretch. The latter books are long, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the only Potter film to be split into two installments. I wasn’t sure about that choice initially, but I’m thrilled with it now, as the series is clearly getting the epic finish that it deserves. We’re halfway through the finale, and as a fan of both the books and the movies, I’m impressed.

The film starts off solemnly with Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) sitting at Lord Voldemort’s (Ralph Finnes) table. It’s a haunting, unforgettable opening scene in the novel, and it’s no less creepy on screen. The primary trio of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) sets off to find and destroy the Horcruxes: physical objects containing pieces of Voldemort’s soul. All must be destroyed before Voldemort can be killed, but Harry doesn’t know where any of them are or even what all of them are. Meanwhile, Voldemort’s power within the wizarding world and the muggle world grows, and it’s only a matter of time before he fulfills his goal of finding and killing Harry Potter.

Several elements make this the darkest of the seven Harry Potter films, not the least of which is the color palette. The vibrant colors of the first film are now replaced by varying shades of blue and gray. This makes sense; when Harry saw nothing but magic and wonder in the wizarding world, the visuals reflected that. Also contributing to the heavy tone is the lacking comfort of Hogwarts School. In previous chapters, the familiar school setting helped us feel at home, no matter how perilous the situation, but not this time. Our three teenage heroes are on their own, and despite some gorgeous scenery, it’s a dangerous world out there. As in the book, beloved characters die right and left. The magic exists without polish or cuteness, and the spell-casting battles are fast and frantic. Director David Yates (who also directed Potter 5 and 6) and writer Steve Kloves (who wrote all Potter screenplays except the fifth) have done a masterful job of raising the stakes to the appropriate levels. It’s all or nothing for characters on both sides.

Among the unsung heroes of the Potter franchise, none deserve more praise than the casting directors. The acting has consistently been stellar, and in Deathly Hallows, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson give their best performances yet. It was impossible to know back in 2001 whether or not the child actors would grow into their roles as well as fans hoped, but the series’ three principal cast members are in their twenties now, and they can act. The casting directors for the first Harry Potter film laid the foundation for the next six films, because the entire franchise would have been doomed from the start if the wrong kids had been picked for those roles.

As intense as certain sequences get, viewers may be surprised by the overall amount of quiet and downtime. As a direct result of the decision to devote nearly five hours (between the two parts) to this adaptation, more time was allotted to character work. The downtime is also the quiet before the storm; as readers of the novel are aware, Part 2 will likely feature action from start to finish. Character development was always one of J.K. Rowling’s strengths as an author, and this movie allows its actors to give depth to the characters. There is one scene in particular where Harry comforts Hermione as a friend; it’s not in the book, but it’s true to the characters.

If you haven’t read the novel, you’ll mostly be OK as far as understanding goes. You might not remember all the old characters who turn up, and some references will probably be lost on you. The Potter movies have done a good job of communicating important information, though a few pieces got lost in the transfer. In Deathly Hallows, for example, Harry occasionally looks into a shard of a mirror, but previous films neglected to show him getting that mirror from his godfather, Sirius Black. Deathly Hallows also mentions the friendship between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindlewald, but the full significance of that plot piece will be lost on non-readers. The most important elements are in place, though. “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” a fairy tale which explains what the Deathly Hallows are, could have easily been botched or not explained well enough, but the tale is masterfully told through an animated sequence.

When the ending credits appeared, the opening-night audience groaned, because Part 1 doesn’t stand on its own. This is clearly only half of a movie, and when the screen cuts to black, it feels like someone has walked into the room and turned the movie off. I prefer the break to cramming it all into one film, but it’s a silly money-making scheme to put eight months between the two installments (this allows for more ticket sales, DVD sales, etc.). Eight months is just long enough for casual viewers to forget what happened in Part 1. Still, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a serious adaptation that fans can be proud of, and given the quality of Part 1, I have no doubt that Part 2 will be just as good, if not better. We’ll find out next July.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality.

The violence is fast paced and loud, and there’s a scene where Ron bloodies his arm. There’s also a creepy bit involving an old woman and a snake that would almost certainly scare younger kids (heck, it scared me). The brief sensuality comes when Ron is tormented by a vision of Harry and Hermione kissing, and the two are even (unnecessarily) naked at one point during the kiss, though no parts are visible. If you’re looking for a comparison concerning the levels of violent and frightening content, I’d say the graveyard scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is on par with the intensity of this film.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Post-Cinematic Experience

Hollywood has always been on the lookout for the next big thing. Talkies, Technicolor, widescreen format; the film industry has evolved admirably, but like all evolving things, it has suffered some stumbles along the way (does anyone from the 60’s remember Smell-O-Vision?). High-definition digital projection and 3-D are the latest crazes, with Hollywood thrusting nearly every film into viewers’ faces whether the film warrants 3-D effects or not. Hollywood strives to be at the center of cultural entertainment, but interestingly, we are currently in the middle of an entertainment revolution that Hollywood has little to do with.

The Post-Cinematic Experience has arrived, and as its name suggests, it isn’t happening in movie theaters. The groundbreaking entertainment sensation that studio execs have only dreamed of is being played out, both literally and figuratively, on video game consoles.

It took roughly 30 years for video games to evolve to this level, but the distance covered in that brief time span is mind-boggling. A medium that started humbly with addictive games like Pong and Pacman has since brought powerful and beautiful storytelling, grand in themes and scope. For those of you who are unaware of the sophistication of modern video games, take three minutes to watch this in-game cutscene from a 2010 release, Final Fantasy XIII. This clip lasts three minutes, though the game contains 10 hours of such cutscenes spread throughout the experience. Increase the visual quality as high as your computer can handle (up to 720p), put it in full screen, and crank up the sound. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

It’s even more impressive in full 1080p HD and 7.1 DTS surround. Those who lost track after Tetris are understandably amazed, but avid gamers might wonder why I didn’t choose other scenes from other games, such as Metal Gear Solid 4 or Uncharted 2. You see, the visual grandeur and emotional storytelling glimpsed above aren’t anomalies; they are more and more becoming the norm for the industry. Five movies’-worth of gorgeous footage combined with 25-movies’-worth of interactive time where you control the characters and participate in the action yourself; if that’s not a Post-Cinematic Experience, I don’t know what is.

A bit of history ... The first time I remember feeling that a video game had transcended its origins and become art was in 1993 when I first played MYST. The beauty of the game’s visual and sound design was unprecedented, as was its simplicity. There was no health gauge, no fighting, no way to die at all, actually. Your only tasks were to explore the world on your own time and use your mind to solve the mysteries around you. Word of mouth on the game was so strong that MYST even helped sell CD-ROM drives, as many computers didn’t have them at the time of MYST’s release. People of all ages were entranced by the experience.

MYST came along at an awkward time for gaming - something akin to puberty. Computers were capable of rendering beautiful 3D environments, but consoles were stuck offering side-scrolling platformers with 16-bit graphics. The late-90’s saw consoles begin to catch up, and in 1997, Final Fantasy VII (a release for both the PC and the Sony Playstation) gave what many still consider to be one of the most shocking plot-twists ever in a game (consider this your spoiler warning, as much as a 13-year-old classic video game can be spoiled). Aeris Gainsborough, female friend and potential love interest for the main protagonist, Cloud, kneels to pray. During her prayer, the game’s arch-villain, Sephiroth (still one of gaming’s most infamous villains), descends from above and impales her with his sword.

This was the moment that shocked an entire generation (of nerds, anyway). How could a woman so innocent, so beautiful, and so integral to the story get run through with a blade right before our eyes? In many ways, it was the moment that made so many others possible. As Cloud held Aeris’ lifeless body in his arms, and Sephiroth said, “Aeris will no longer talk, laugh, no longer cry ...” themes of love and loss had officially arrived in the video game world. Two years later, Final Fantasy VIII made serious advances in graphics and placed romance at its story-driven center.

“Cinematic” has long been considered the highest possible praise for a game, but while we were waiting for video games to achieve movie quality, something better happened: video games became an artistic medium all on their own. The game perhaps most deserving of the word “cinematic” is the 2010 PS3 release Heavy Rain, but even that experimental title depends heavily on its interactive element, something that movies can’t provide. There has always been crossover between the two industries (movies based on games and games based on movies), but rarely have such efforts proven fruitful. Studio execs are currently planning big-screen adaptations of Uncharted and Mass Effect, but no matter how well done the film versions are, they won’t equal the games. As soon as you take away the controller and put the story on film, the intimacy of interaction disappears, and the essence of the experience changes.

It’s important to remember that video games are still pretty young. Think of where movies were in the late 1930’s and early 40’s; true greatness had definitely arrived, but many vital storytelling strides were still on the horizon. Computer animation has come a long way in a short time, but it still lacks the full communicative spectrum of good old-fashioned acting. Some games have bypassed this issue by successfully integrating live-action footage in place of animated cutscenes (Enter the Matrix did this extremely well), but most games aim to push the animation envelope further.

Story-driven video games usually center on big emotions and sweeping melodrama. The Final Fantasy franchise has long been known for its over-the-top emotions, and that makes sense; video game animation doesn’t do subtlety very well. Pixar has proven that computer animation can powerfully convey subtlety and deep emotion, and while video games haven’t reached that level yet, they’re close. Once improvements in technology and development allow video games to catch up, the industry will demonstrate artistic depth that no one ever expected to see on a computer or console. I look forward to the time when award-winning writers will regularly pen video game scripts.

As of 2010, the average gamer is 34 years old, 40% of all gamers are women, and there are far more female gamers over the age of 18 (33%) than there are male gamers under the age of 18 (20%) (click here to read more statistics). The video game industry is constantly growing, offering a greater variety of experiences and bringing more people into the fold. When I refer to gaming as The Post-Cinematic Experience, I don’t mean to imply that movies are going anywhere; they’re not. Movies have always been my first love, and they always will be. I do mean to imply that gaming isn’t going anywhere, either, and that many people currently misunderstand what gaming is. Video games aren’t time-wasters for tech nerds; I’ll definitively state my opinion in the ongoing artistic debate and say that video games have become an art form. More than that, they have taken entertainment in bold new directions. Stunning visuals and beautiful symphonic scores now lay alongside viewer interaction and global community (thank you, Internet). Gaming never really became cinematic, and it’s not headed that way; it’s rapidly becoming something far more interesting.

For the best films of the year, you’ll need to pick up tickets at the box office, but for the most entertaining experiences of the year, you may just need to pick up a controller.

Monday, October 18, 2010


My father loved horse racing.  He had no specific reason to, as he didn’t grow up riding, nor was he raised by horse owners, but something about the sport connected with him.  “The horses know what’s going on,” he told me.  “They understand how racing works.”  We watched the Triple Crown races every year as a family, and every year we heard the story of Secretariat.  “A lot of people didn’t think he would have the endurance to run the Belmont,” my father said.  “When he crossed the finish line, there wasn’t another horse on the TV screen.  No other horse has ever run 1.5 miles on any dirt track as fast as Secretariat.”  That statement holds true to this day.

The story captivated me as a child, and it still does.  Secretariat carries the spirit of the story very well, though the film focuses more on the horse’s owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, than on the horse himself.  It’s the story of how a woman of steel was stubborn and persistent enough to allow her horse to reach his potential.  When Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) takes over her parents’ farm, disagreements arise over how best to manage it.  She takes financial risks that she really can’t afford in order to get the farm in decent shape.  After suspecting her horse trainer of being dishonest, she fires him on the spot and hires Lucian Laurin (John Malkovich) to replace him.  The film follows their journey to the 1973 Triple Crown, where Secretariat wins the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and the Belmont, becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
There aren’t many surprises here, as it’s one of the most well-known of all sports stories.  What the film brings is an inside look at the people surrounding Secretariat: the team that believed in him when no one else did.  I don’t know how much was changed from the true story, but my guess would be not much.  Even in the midst of traditional feel-good elements, Secretariat seems authentic.  The movie clearly knows a lot about horse racing, and Mike Rich’s screenplay strikes me as smart and well-researched.

Sure, there are some formulaic bits that crop up in almost all of these inspirational sports pictures, but a few notable elements elevate Secretariat above most others in its genre.  The performances are solid all around, most notably Diane Lane as the uncompromising woman whose certainty of Secretariat’s success falls somewhere on the scale between admirable and reckless.  She conveys a lot with her face (as all good actors do), adding layers to the character that weren’t written into the screenplay.  The other memorable performance comes from John Malkovich as the kind and eccentric trainer.  Malkovich brings humor and magic to the character, taking good moments and turning them great.

The cinematography stands out, especially in the racing sequences.  Horse racing isn’t an easy sport to film, but Secretariat has cameras flying down the track in the midst of the horses, between the horses, and even from the jockey’s perspective.  The racing footage is compelling, and that’s important in a film like this.  Considering that Secretariat’s Triple Crown victories are among the most viewed and well-known of all horse races (all three of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races are on YouTube multiple times), the faithful recreation of those races is especially impressive.

The screenplay occasionally dips into familiar feel-good waters, but the film’s centerpiece never fails, which is Penny’s fierce devotion to her horse.  Secretariat doesn’t shy away from the fact that Penny poured her energy into Secretariat’s success even to the neglect of her own family.  Her husband says at one point, “When your horse people call the house, they don’t ask for Mrs. Tweedy, they ask for Ms. Chenery (her maiden name).  Is that who you’ve become?”  Her children are consistently proud of her, though she does become more of a stranger to them as the narrative progresses.  Penny doesn’t abandon her family, but even against her own wishes, she sometimes places them second to Secretariat.

It’s hard not to be inspired by this story.  As Secretariat wins the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, one of the characters mutters, “That’s impossible,” which pretty much sums it up.  Secretariat was an unbelievably gifted athlete, shattering records right and left and setting new records which have yet to be surpassed.  At every great race and during every great moment, one woman looked on from the stands who had the heart of a champion just as much as her horse.  When Secretariat died at the age of 19, his autopsy revealed that his heart was two and a half times larger than normal.  The same may well be true of Penny Chenery Tweedy.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief mild language.

The “brief mild language” is barely there, but Secretariat is still aimed at adults.  Animal-loving kiddos will probably enjoy it, but some children might be bored by the dialogue and drama.  As far as content goes, I wouldn’t object to children seeing it, but the film may be slower and more dialogue-driven than some kids are used to.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg belongs on a short list of individuals who have undeniably changed the world.  He is exactly one month older than I am.  While I was starting my freshman year of college in the Fall of 2003, settling in, making friends, etc., Mark was writing the code for what would become the most popular social network in the world: Facebook.  We were both 19 at the time.  Mark Zuckerberg is now the youngest billionaire in the world, holding a 24% share of Facebook worth over $4 billion.

One of the best films of the year, The Social Network masterfully shows the drama and tension that surrounded and followed Facebook’s moment of creation, and it paints a deep, human portrait of a socially-awkward young man whose genius rapidly got him in way over his head.  Some understandably feel that it is too soon for a movie about the creation of Facebook, but I don’t think so.  The world we currently live in is ready for this story, and similar movies have worked before; more time has passed between the founding of Facebook and the release of The Social Network than had passed between Watergate and the release of All the President’s Men in 1976.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark Zuckerberg as an equally arrogant and insecure person.  Obsessed with joining one of Harvard’s most elite social clubs, he wants to invent something substantial that will gain the attention of the clubs, because “they’re exclusive and fun, and they lead to a better life.”  Nearly unable to maintain normal relationships, Mark launches Facebook with one of his few good friends, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), in the hopes of making a name for himself.  Once Facebook takes off and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), founder of Napster, gets involved, the multi-billion-dollar whirlwind that follows strains Mark and Eduardo’s relationship to the breaking point.  The narrative cuts between flashbacks of Mark and Eduardo struggling to handle the explosive growth of Facebook and scenes of the two of them in a small conference room with their lawyers.  Mark says, “Eduardo was my best friend,” to which a lawyer responds, “Your best friend is suing you for 600 million dollars.”
Written by Aaron Sorkin (TV’s The West Wing), The Social Network joins other great dialogue-driven thrillers, such as 12 Angry Men, All the President’s Men, and Frost/Nixon.  I don’t think The Social Network is as strong as those titles, but it belongs to the same genre of films where the thrills aren’t derived from action but come up out of the dialogue, the performances, the music, and the pacing.  Sorkin’s screenplay contains plenty of computer-speak, but you don’t have to be tech savvy to understand the story and the drama.  Director David Fincher (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club) casts visual style and flare onto every scene, but he does so in subtle, non-distracting ways, such as through lighting and purposeful framing.  The music constantly ratchets the tension, building suspense during what might otherwise be occasional lulls in the drama.  There’s also a masterful visual effect in the characters of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin brothers who sue Mark Zuckerberg for having stolen the idea for Facebook; I didn’t realize until the end credits that the brothers were portrayed by one actor, Armie Hammer.
Performances stand out across the board.  Jesse Eisenberg makes Mark strange, likable, mean-spirited, and brilliant.  It’s a remarkable mix and a fine performance.  Andrew Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin as an understandably hurt individual who had the misfortune of being the only nice guy in a sea of selfish colleagues.  The other deeply kind person in the story is Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who appears in just a few brief but memorable scenes as the woman who sees straight through Mark Zuckerberg and doesn’t like what she sees.  “You’ll probably be a very successful computer person,” she tells Mark early on, looking at him tenderly, “and you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a tech geek.  I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won’t be true.  It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”  After Mark blogs some very cruel comments about her, he tries to reconcile without even really apologizing, but Erica won’t have it.  “The Internet isn’t written in pencil, Mark; it’s written in ink.”
Despite her accurate condemnations, The Social Network’s portrait of Mark Zuckerberg is rounded.  He isn’t a bad guy, but you wouldn’t want to spend too much time with him either.  He was a brilliant college student who had an idea that he suspected could one day be worth millions of dollars; he never imagined that it might be worth billions.  He imagined that students would use it to connect with their friends, but he didn’t foresee students’ parents using it to connect with their friends.  The grand irony comes at the end of the film, billions of dollars later, when it isn’t any easier for Mark Zuckerberg to connect with others.  Once Mark hits the “Invite” button, he waits for that person to accept his friend request, just like the rest of us.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, alcohol and drug use, and language.

The Social Network contains implied sex but no nudity.  Young women are seen dancing in their underwear, and the film has some strong language and drug use.  I wouldn’t recommend it for preteens, as the content and story are aimed at adults.  Teenagers will probably connect with the plot set in the world of social networking, but The Social Network is a drama built around success and betrayal.  The trailer gives a strong sense of the overall experience.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a movie in the theater twice on its opening weekend.  I hadn’t planned on seeing Inception again so shortly after my initial viewing, but the film demanded it.  I didn’t go back in an angry effort to grasp specific plot points, though I did have a few lingering questions.  I returned to the cinema to have a second experience - to feel the excitement and depth of Christopher Nolan’s vision wash over me once more.  The complexity of the story will frustrate some, but for those who value mind-stretching entertainment, Inception is nothing short of miraculous.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a skilled thief who specializes in Extraction: the stealing of information from someone’s mind.  Once the subject is asleep, Cobb uses a machine to enter the subject’s subconscious and extract the sensitive information.  Because of his criminal record, Cobb can’t return to the United States to be with his children, but a mysterious businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) offers Cobb a chance for redemption.  Saito has the power to wash Cobb’s slate clean, but only if Cobb can pull off the impossible: Inception, which involves the planting of information.  Instead of stealing an idea from the subject’s mind, Cobb has to plant one so that when the subject awakes, he will believe the idea to genuinely be his.

Inception has many elements of the heist/caper genre but puts new twists on all of them.  Even the film’s broadest plot summary contains a new idea: a team of thieves devises an elaborate plot to break into a safe and put something in it.  The basics of the plot aren’t too complex, but the details have phenomenal depth.  What makes Inception such a brilliant script is the way Nolan guides you through the labyrinth.  After seeing the film, you couldn’t explain the full plot to someone in a way that would make sense, but it does make sense to you while you’re watching it.

The longer you ponder the specifics afterwards, the more questions you’ll have, but again, Nolan strikes a remarkable balance by weaving a story that is deep and intriguing but not abstract or frustrating.  This film won’t agitate audiences in the same way as David Lynch’s movies (I personally love Lynch’s movies, but I sympathize with those who don’t); with Inception, you can sense that the answers really are there if you take the time to look for them.  I think most viewers will want to unravel the mystery, as it’s such a fascinating story.  I couldn’t think or talk about much else for days after seeing it, which means that Christopher Nolan successfully planted a few ideas in my head.

As far as action sequences go, Inception features some show-stoppers.  Inside of a dream, almost anything goes, and most of the dream sequences left me breathlessly wondering how they were even filmed.  The grandest of all comes when the dreamers’ physical bodies are asleep in the back of a moving van, but in the dream, they’re in a hotel.  When the van breaks through a guardrail and rolls down a hill, the gravity in the hotel shifts as if the entire building were rolling.  Two men battle their way around the walls, floor, and ceiling of a hotel hallway as their unconscious bodies lie in the rolling van. Scene after scene, Inception soars on the wings of the new, providing that special thrill that only comes with something you’ve never seen before.

DiCaprio turns in a solid performance, proving himself yet again to be one of the finest actors of his generation. While the entire ensemble delivers, the most notable performances come from Tom Hardy as Eames, the Forger who can alter his appearance within dreams, Ellen Page (Juno) as Ariadne, the Architect who designs the physical layouts of the dreams, and Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose) as Mal, the memory of Cobb’s wife who haunts him at every turn. Not a single performance comes up short, which reflects not only on the talent of the cast but on the quality of Nolan’s writing and direction; he brings out the best in his actors.

Inception’s final moments will live on forever in the annals of classic endings, inspiring eternal discussion and debate. I’ll dare not describe the ending here, but even if I did, it wouldn’t make any sense out of context. It’s the perfect light at the end of a 148-minute maze, and it leaves just enough open to interpretation. When the credits rolled the second time, I had a different take on the story than when I first saw it. My opinion of the ending shifts depending on what mood I’m in, but having thought through all the complex details more than once, I can’t find a problem with either interpretation of the ending. That’s part of what makes this vast structure so remarkable; I’ve thought about it for days, and I can’t find a single flaw in it.

Inception is Nolan’s first film since The Dark Knight, one of the most successful films of all time, and I admire how he chose to follow up his greatest box office success with such a rich, challenging project. Inception has a lot in common with Nolan’s original masterpiece, Memento (2000). Both films use unconventional storytelling (half of Memento unfolds in reverse order) to address the battle between reality and self-deception. How do we know what we know, and what do we ultimately value the most: truth or our own happiness? Not since The Matrix (1999) has a film so masterfully blended action and philosophy, but while the two films may share some common themes, Inception is very much its own experience. Many are calling Inception Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, though multiple films could be nominated in that category. For years, I referred to Christopher Nolan as “the guy who made Memento.” Most moviegoers know him as “the guy who made Batman Begins and The Dark Knight,” but after this, many will know him as “the guy who made Inception.” Honestly, the name of Christopher Nolan deserves to be a household name, because he’s made some of the greatest films of the last decade. He first amazed me ten years ago with Memento, one of the most perfect thrillers I’ve ever seen; Inception is another.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout.

Inception doesn’t get too graphic in its action or violence, but it does deal with very mature themes, including suicide. The biggest issue for younger viewers would be pure confusion; most kids would have no idea what was going on. Heck, many parents won’t know what’s going on. Given the darkness and complexity of the story, I definitely wouldn’t recommend Inception for preteens, and teenagers should be prepared to put their thinking caps on and pay attention.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Toy Story 3

I wrote a piece last year calling Toy Story (1995) as important to film history as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938). Traditional animation and computer animation were both introduced into theaters by Disney (though the in-house team at Pixar Animation, with whom Disney wisely partnered, was mostly responsible for Toy Story’s success), and neither medium could have asked for a better debut. Pixar has released ten great films (most of which I can comfortably label “masterpieces”) over the last fifteen years, and they now return to their roots for their eleventh feature: Toy Story 3. Toy Story 2 was noticeably more sentimental than its predecessor, and Toy Story 3 marks a much higher level of heartfelt tear-jerkery. Pixar has delivered the goods yet again and given their most beloved characters a truly grand send off.

As seventeen-year-old Andy prepares to leave for college, his toys worry about what the future holds for them. Woody (Tom Hanks) tries his best to convince the gang that they should retire to the attic in case Andy ever has kids of his own, though Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) sides with the majority’s idea of going to a daycare and being there for other children. The toys soon find Sunnyside Daycare less appealing than they had hoped, though they know deep down that they no longer have a place with Andy, either. Their journey confronts each of them with various questions of purpose, self-worth, how to let go, and the value of sticking together.

Toy Story 3 has a good deal of humor, but the overarching themes carry much more weight than the first two pictures. Toy Story 2 has the best balance of humor and sentiment, and to me is the best of the trilogy, but I don’t fault Pixar for tipping the scales on this last chapter. Goodbyes deserve to be rich and heartfelt, and Pixar summons phenomenal depth and emotion in this story about plastic characters. There’s one scene in particular that I’ll not dare describe except to say that it’s largely devoid of dialogue, meaning the animators provided the acting. As the toys looked into each others’ eyes and took each others’ hands, I could scarcely believe the power and poignancy of it.

On the humorous side, Pixar rolls out some gems, most notably the addition of Barbie’s famous beau, Ken (Michael Keaton). Ken’s personality absolutely nails the strangeness of representing the masculine ideal while ultimately being a girls’ toy. Other great laughs come when Mr. Potato Head inserts his parts and appendages into something other than his potato body and when Buzz Lightyear gets reset and wakes up speaking Spanish.

The quality of animation has improved with each Toy Story picture, but not too much. Because humans usually came off looking creepy in the early days of computer animation (they often still do), plastic toys were the perfect subject matter for Pixar’s first film. Even though the medium has greatly advanced since 1995, the toy characters still look the same, and that’s important. All the way around, there’s a remarkable cohesion throughout this trilogy, largely impressive because the first film wasn’t made with sequels in mind. Unplanned Hollywood sequels usually fail to recapture the hard-to-identify ingredient that made the first film popular. Toy Story 2 was originally slated for a straight-to-video release, but the storytellers at Pixar realized the unusually high quality of what they had. Toy Story 2 ended well enough that a third wasn’t completely necessary; Toy Story 3 could have easily been just an excuse to revisit familiar territory, but Pixar put the story and characters first. Instead of asking how they could stretch Toy Story’s success across two more films, Pixar asked if they had stories to justify those films. If only every studio were as responsible.

Coming on the heels of such heavy pictures as WALL•E and Up, I thought Toy Story 3 would mark a return to the light-hearted humor of old; boy, was I wrong. The subject matter of the series has grown up along with its viewership. The kids who saw the original in 1995 aren’t kids anymore, and though Toy Story fans of all ages will enjoy Toy Story 3, I feel like this film was made especially for those young adults who remember being awed by the original. I hope Toy Story 3 is the end of the road for these characters, because the journey ends exactly as it should (though I admit that I felt the same way about Toy Story 2). It’s a story about growing up, letting go, and the enduring power of friendship. Most everyone will love it, but while kids will mostly connect with the adventure and humor, parents would do well to take some tissues.


I saw Toy Story 3 in 3D and found that the 3D effect added little to the experience. I thought 3D was used very well in Up (and even in last year’s 3D re-release of Toy Story and Toy Story 2), but you might as well save the extra bucks this time around and see Toy Story 3 in a traditional format.

Also, Pixar continues its charming tradition of showing an animated short film before the movie, and this year’s Pixar short is one of the best they’ve ever done. It’s called Day & Night, and it wouldn’t even make sense if I tried to describe it here. Just trust me; it’s an incredibly innovative, heartwarming short, and it reaffirms Pixar’s greatness before Toy Story 3 even starts.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated G

There’s some suspense and peril here but nothing to worry about. Kids will totally eat this up, and so will you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Iron Man 2

Iron Man caught me (and pretty much everyone else) off guard in 2008 with its character-driven story and with the depth of its themes. I’ll get the initial disappointment out of the way in reporting that Iron Man 2 isn’t as strong as its predecessor, though I’m glad to say that it does retain just enough of what made Iron Man special. Through charming performances and quality action, this sequel makes for a fun, albeit flawed, Summer movie.

The whole world knows that billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man, and that hasn’t improved his ego any. Stark struggles to keep his hectic life balanced while fending off the US Government’s efforts to confiscate his Iron Man technology. “I did you a big favor,” says Stark. “I’ve successfully privatized world peace.” He also quietly seeks a solution to his newfound health problems, as the paladium-powered arc reactor in his chest is slowly killing him. On the other side of the world, Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) plots revenge against Stark for what Stark Industries did to his family years ago.

Iron Man 2 doesn’t have the focus or purpose of the original, and there’s nothing here to match Tony Stark’s character-arc in the first film. Still, Robert Downey Jr. has fun playing this role, and all returning actors match the quality of their previous performances (Don Cheadle does a fine job filling in for Terrance Howard in the role of James Rhodes). Quality performances help keep Iron Man 2 from crashing, but the story feels much more scattered and spread out. Whereas Iron Man followed one man’s journey of personal growth, Iron Man 2 hops rapidly from one story thread to the next.

Iron Man 2 is more action-heavy than the original, but the action is top-notch. I felt that Iron Man lost its way a bit during its final action sequence, but the blow-em-up last act of Iron Man 2 injects some much needed payoff at just the right time. Iron Man 2 grounds its action the same way that Iron Man did: through shots of the actors faces inside their helmets, thus allowing the performances of Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle to shine through the computer-generated mayhem. Scarlett Johannson’s character doesn’t amount to much more than eye candy for most of the picture, but even she gets her satisfactory share of the action-packed finale.

Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko isn’t particularly interesting, and the other main villain, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), alternates between being amusing and annoying. The villains at least represent intriguing story concepts, though the concepts were never fully developed. While Tony Stark claims to have saved the world, Vanko still suffers because of Stark Industries’ previous mistakes. Stark’s change of heart doesn’t magically undo all the sins of his past. Justin Hammer is one of Stark’s competitors in the world of weapons manufacturing, and he does whatever he can to pirate Stark’s technology and one-up him in the court of public opinion. These pieces are the blueprints for a strong sequel, though the finished product leaves a fair amount of storytelling potential untapped.

Iron Man 2 lacks the character development of Iron Man, and as far as villains go, Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko doesn’t come close to matching Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane. Still, Tony Stark’s mix of social justice and unhinged narcissism remains unique, and the movie has just enough quality in its action and performances to offset its sometimes awkward mix of humor and melodrama. The screenplay for the original Iron Man was penned by the Oscar-nominated writers of Children of Men (2006), whereas Iron Man 2 was written by the fellow who gave us Tropic Thunder (2008). Perhaps the original writing team can return for Iron Man 3; this second installment isn’t bad, but it could take a few pointers from its high-flying predecessor.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

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

It’s not bloody, but the action does get intense; lots of bullets and explosions. Scarlett Johannson has an extended martial arts bit, but again, it’s not graphic. The language remains on the mild end. The action isn’t anywhere near as real or effective as in the original Iron Man, so if your kids have seen the first, they’ll be fine for this one.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reviews Published in the Nashville Scene!

First of all, I apologize for not posting this sooner. I've been without Internet for a while, and I'm just now catching up on my online correspondence.

I'm thrilled to announce that I recently had two short pieces published in the 2010 Nashville Film Festival Issue of the Nashville Scene! I reviewed two of the movies at this year's Nashville Film Festival: Snow and Ashes and Waiting for Forever. Both movies were interesting, and it was a real thrill to get to prescreen those movies and get some writing published for the Scene. The Festival Issue came out looking great, and I was beyond honored to be a part of it.

You can read the pieces online via the link below; just scroll down and read the capsules for Snow and Ashes and Waiting for Forever.

Dee's Nashville Scene Reviews

This marks the first (but hopefully not last) time that I've had movie reviews published since graduating from college. I'm absolutely thrilled!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shutter Island

Martin Scorsese has made so many masterpieces that his name now carries overwhelming expectations. Shutter Island isn’t just a picture; it’s a Martin Scorsese picture. Fans of Scorsese’s gritty art house films may not warm to his having “stooped” so low as to do a common thriller, but c’mon; having already given the world Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, the man can do whatever he wants. Shutter Island isn’t a masterpiece, nor is it even great, but is what it set out to be: a richly atmospheric, entertaining thriller.

Leonardo DiCaprio (who has replaced Bobby De Niro as Scorsese’s “put him in every film” actor) plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal called to investigate a situation at the Ashecliffe Mental Hospital on Shutter Island. One of the hospital’s most dangerous patients, Rachel Solando, has mysteriously gone missing from her ultra-secure cell. Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head of the hospital, says, “It’s as though she evaporated straight through the walls.” Teddy struggles to piece together the mystery, all the while fearing that the hospital may be keeping some very dark, inhumane secrets.

I commend the marketing department for Shutter Island; I had seen all the trailers going in, but the story wasn’t at all what I expected. The plot kept me guessing, so much so that even after the ultimate revelation towards the film’s end, I suspected that there might still be one last twist. Shutter Island depends on its surprises, and once all of the pieces are finally in place, the result is satisfactory. The Sixth Sense stands as the grand example of an already great film made greater by its final twist, but Shutter Island relies more heavily on its secrets. I enjoyed the majority of the experience, but throughout I was banking on the film’s last act and would have been sorely disappointed if it hadn’t delivered.

The eerie suspense-genre setting is almost too thick. Overbearing music, foggy coastlines, driving rain, creepy mental patients ... it all works, but Scorsese turns up the dial a bit too high at times. As it turns out, the overstated sense of dread has a purpose as the film’s final act makes the dense atmosphere more fitting and relevant, but the heavy-handed descent into creepiness is off-putting at first.

Despite a few moments of graphic violence, Shutter Island is far more of a thriller than a horror movie. It’s not out to scare you so much as intrigue you - to put you in Teddy’s shoes and make you wonder just what the heck is going on. I haven’t read Dennis Lehane’s original novel, though I would guess that the tone and pacing are more even than in the film. Having seen the film version and thought on it for while, I think Shutter Island would be a more rewarding experience the second time around. I suspect it would feel much more cohesive with all the pieces in place from the start.

Shutter Island won’t be remembered as one of Scorsese’s best, but that’s OK. It’s a thought-provoking thriller with strong atmosphere, rewarding plot twists, and good performances. Martin Scorsese has directed a solid string of masterpieces over the last ten years, so good for him for taking a break and delivering some good old-fashioned, spooky fun. If you’re still upset that he strayed from his normal territory, take another look at his filmography; you’ll find that he’s earned it.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent content, language, and some nudity.

Children would be frightened and with good reason; Shutter Island contains plenty of creepy stuff. For teenagers, it depends. I reiterate that Shutter Island isn’t a horror film, though there are a few moments of graphic, bloody violence, so I would recommend caution to all those bothered by scary/violent imagery.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Valentine's Day

Romantic comedies depend heavily on the likability of their characters, which puts Valentine’s Day at an instant disadvantage. Valentine’s Day is the latest in a long line of movies with multiple, slowly-converging plot threads, but the more characters there are, the harder it becomes for the audience to invest emotionally. This challenging structure has worked well for some dramas, but as far as romantic comedies go, Love Actually is the shining exception to the rule. Valentine’s Day feels like a hastily-written love letter to Rom-Com clichés.

Set on a sunny, smog-free Valentine’s Day in the city of Los Angeles, the film follows many different characters from sun-up to sun-down, showing how their various love lives unfold. The most engaging story follows Julia (the consistently wonderful Jennifer Garner), her lover, Dr. Harrison (Patrick Dempsey) and her best friend, Reed (Ashton Kutcher). Reed discovers that Harrison is married, thereby making Julia “the other woman.” Reed tries his best to convince Julia that Harrison is up to no good and even tries to win her hand in the process.

There are star-studded casts, and then there’s the cast of Valentine’s Day. The film boasts as many recognizable faces as Love Actually, if not more, but the high level of talent fails to improve the lackluster dialogue (you know it’s a crowded cast when Julia Roberts has a small role). If anything, the movie suffocates under its own star power, cramming celebrities in where they don’t belong. The role of a young cheerleader played by Taylor Swift would have been better left to an unknown actress who could have convincingly played the part. Swift has found tremendous success in her singing career, but let’s just say that acting isn’t her surprise talent.

Because of the widespread plot, Valentine’s Day feels wildly uneven. A couple of story threads are interesting, some are neither here nor there, and the rest are just plain weak. All are familiar. Nothing stands out as memorable and original, which yet again makes Love Actually look like a masterpiece in comparison. Instead of falling in love multiple times, I felt like I was re-watching multiple romantic comedies I had forgotten about years ago.

Garry Marshall, a master of comedy since The Dick Van Dyke Show, directed Valentine’s Day. As Penny Marshall’s brother, Garry carries great comedy in his family genes, but his pacing and tone fall flat this time around. Moments obviously intended to elicit laughs failed to make me even chuckle half-heartedly. For instance, Anne Hathaway plays a businesswoman who moonlights as a phone sex operator. While out and about in public situations, her phone will ring, and she’ll have to pick up and engage in embarrassing conversation. The concept sounds promising, but the execution fails to amuse.

Unfortunately, the biggest missing piece here is the most important one: the feeling of being in love. I never once swooned or sighed, and I’ve got some very tug-on-able heartstrings. Valentine’s Day doesn’t capture the unbearable bliss of being head over heels in love. It shows various types of romance but doesn’t make us experience them. The story spans so many situations and age groups that it had the potential to communicate the sexual excitement of young love, the agony of failed love, or the comfort of lasting love. Instead, I mostly saw a bunch of stars pretending to be in love.

I know I’ve cited Love Actually many times here, but when an amateur performs a well-known piece at a concert, you can’t help but think of the definitive version. Garry Marshall is no amateur, but Valentine’s Day feels like an amateur effort. Romantic Comedies have to get two things right to work (the two qualities for which the genre is named), and Valentine’s Day comes up short on both.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual material and brief partial nudity.

Kids should be at least thirteen, as there is some sexual dialogue and a few sensual scenes. The brief nudity comes when a guy strategically covers himself with a guitar, and his would-be seduction goes terribly wrong. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly sexy or funny.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finally, the Oscar goes to a woman

The 82nd Academy Awards (dubbed by the co-hosts as “the biggest night in Hollywood since last night”) have come and gone. It was a solid show, if not occasionally uneven, and though the evening was largely devoid of surprises, it did deliver some memorable moments.

My favorite film of the year, The Hurt Locker, took home the Best Picture and Best Director awards, marking the first time that a woman has won an Oscar for film direction. James Cameron’s Avatar is a rollicking spectacle that rightly claimed the technical awards, but Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker really was the year’s best film: an intelligent drama that perfectly captured the tension of the current conflict in Iraq.

The Oscar telecast began with a musical number by Neil Patrick Harris, and I imagine that I wasn’t the only viewer wondering why he wasn’t hosting. Harris has seen a huge career boost over the last five years, and I’ll be surprised if the Academy doesn’t tap him to host in the near future.

The two seasoned comedians who did host, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, provided some laughs but weren’t as humorous as I had hoped. More than play off of each other, the two just alternated one-liners. They didn’t feel much like a comedic team, and I had anticipated a stronger charisma. Again, they had plenty of funny jokes, but switching to the two-host format should have brought something new to the table. I didn’t see anything from the two hosts that couldn’t have come from one host.

Though the acting awards all went as expected, the acceptance speeches were outstanding. I can’t remember a previous set of winners that gave more appreciative, sincere remarks, but then again, these were special circumstances. None of the four winners had won Oscars previously, and three of the four had never been nominated. The two supporting-performance winners, Mo’Nique and Christoph Waltz, carried their films in unusual ways. Discussions of both Precious and Inglourious Basterds will often turn to the strength of those supporting performances.

I was thrilled to see the continuation of the tradition begun last year in which each lead-acting nominee receives a personalized tribute from a colleague onstage. Each speech was heartfelt, and the tributes really do make it more of an honor to just be nominated. Sandra Bullock gave perhaps the strongest speech of the night, and everyone seemed pleased that Jeff Bridges’ fifth nomination finally did the trick.

My personal favorite moment was the special tribute to John Hughes. About Hughes, Roger Ebert recently wrote, “His films seemed good at the time, and in these dreary days, they seem miraculous.” That is so true. Few comedies get funnier and more magical over time, especially comedies built around teen angst, but Hughes’ charming coming-of-age pieces have only improved. At the end of a film montage, several iconic actors from Hughes’ movies stepped onstage and paid personal tributes.

During the “In Memoriam” recap reel of last year’s deaths, Farrah Fawcett’s name was conspicuously absent. It was apparently nothing more than an honest-to-goodness oversight, but especially in light of how her death was overshadowed by Michael Jackson’s back in June, her omission here was unfortunate.

All in all, it was a good awards show with worthy recipients. The evening’s lasting legacy will almost certainly be that a woman finally won for Best Director. Barbara Streisand, who I still say should have been nominated as Best Director for Yentl in 1983, tore open the envelope and said, “Well, the time has come.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That Evening Sun

That Evening Sun is a true diamond in the rough: a masterfully-woven tale of the American South. The characters in That Evening Sun are as believable as any I’ve seen, and at the heart of it all stands an Oscar-worthy performance from veteran Hal Holbrook. This film seems destined to fly under the radar, but positive word of mouth should help extends its reach. I doubt that anyone who sees it will quickly forget this riveting story of anger, ownership, and the agony of aging.

Hal Holbrook gives the performance of his film career as Abner Meecham, a retired farmer who spends his days in a retirement home. Determined to regain his old life, Meecham escapes the nursing facility and returns to his farm, only to find that his son has leased the property to the Choat family. Meecham takes up residence in the guest house, demanding that Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon) take his wife and daughter and get off his land. The two men lock horns over who has the right to the property; Choat fights to provide for his family, and Meecham fights to hold on to the life he feels slipping away.

Like most great stories about the South, That Evening Sun centers around land (throughout the film, I heard Thomas Mitchell’s voice from Gone With the Wind: “Land’s the only thing that matters; it’s the only thing that lasts.”). Land ownership has always been the American Dream, and That Evening Sun wonderfully depicts that strange period of time when land passes between owners. The farm is a crucial piece of the identity of both men; one man sees the farm as his future, while the other sees it as a link to the past. The legal right lies with Lonzo Choat, but neither Meecham nor Choat have too much respect for the rules.

Hal Holbrook immediately sells the story as the grumpy old man refusing to go quietly. His performance doesn’t stand out in a big, attention-grabbing way; it just feels authentic, and that goes for the rest of the cast as well. Instead of focusing on the performances, I was completely absorbed by the story and setting. Ray McKinnon had a bit role as a football coach in The Blind Side, but I had no idea how capable he was before this. He gives Lonzo Choat so many dimensions: he’s fierce, pathetic, desperate, and dangerous.

Before any image appears onscreen, the chirping of cicadas fills the theater, and the atmosphere only thickens from there. That Evening Sun completely transported me to rural Tennessee. There are plenty of “throwaway” shots of the breeze blowing through the tall grass, of wasps dancing, of windmills turning, but these little details go a long way. The hot, humid days contribute to the drama, bringing everyone’s hopes and fears to a boil.

That Evening Sun marks an impressive debut for writer/director Scott Teems. He adapted the screenplay from a short story, and he populated his script with rounded, multi-dimensional characters. This story doesn’t have good guys or bad guys; every character has varying degrees of both qualities. You may decide that some characters are more respectable than others, but those decisions will be your own. That Evening Sun addresses change, loss, legacy and aging and does so with subtlety and grace. When the evening sun goes down and the credits roll, the story has ended perfectly and gone everywhere that it needed to go. Lovers of quiet, character-driven drama would do well to follow That Evening Sun into the backwoods of the South.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for brief strong language, some violence, sexual content and thematic elements.

That Evening Sun would likely bore most kids, and the language (including an F-word or two) and anger between the two men would be a bit much. I think most teenagers could handle it. The sexual content and violence aren’t graphic by any stretch, and the film could open interesting discussions about aging. The trailer gives a good indication of the pervasive levels of drama and tension.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Up In the Air

Few aspects of life were more directly affected by the attacks of September 11, 2001, than air travel. Additional security measures made airport navigation more difficult. Friends and relatives could no longer greet arriving passengers as they stepped off the plane and walked through the gate. On the whole, everything became less personal, but for impersonal people, all of those “restrictions” became perks. Up In the Air tells the bittersweet story of a man who has no meaningful human connections. In a time of economic hardship when most people suffer, he thrives like never before.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) lives for air travel. “Last year,” he says, “I spent three hundred and twenty-two days on the road, which means that I had to spend forty-three miserable days at home.” He works for a company that helps businesses outsource the firing of their employees. If a manager doesn’t have the guts/decency to dismiss an employee in person, Ryan Bingham shows up as a corporate executive and takes all the heat. When Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a bright, young co-worker suggests cutting travel costs company-wide by firing people via online video, Ryan fears that his entire way of life faces extinction.

Ryan understands the importance of firing someone face-to-face, and he really does care about others, but he doesn’t understand the importance of personal relationships. When his sister accuses him of being totally isolated in his airport life, he says, “Isolated? I’m surrounded.” But she’s right. If the Internet were to make Ryan irrelevant, he would have no excuse for his lonely, unsentimental lifestyle.

George Clooney brings Ryan Bingham to life, giving complexity to a character that lesser actors would have simplified. Ryan exudes confidence, much of which is authentic, but he has another side, too. Some part of him does wish for real relationships, and he’s lonelier than he even knows. In a movie that dips frequently into satire, Clooney keeps the experience grounded by making Ryan Bingham as layered and believable as possible. He’s kind of a jerk, but we like him. The entire cast turns in fine performances, but Clooney anchors the ship.

Writer/Director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking and Juno) adapted the screenplay from a pre-9/11 novel, but the film completely captures our current recession-era culture. If the script does follow the book closely, I would be amazed, because Up In the Air is truly a film for our time. It’s often amusing, featuring some laugh-out-loud moments, but sadness is never too far away. Recessions are hard on almost everyone, and relationships provide the primary comfort amidst hard times ... for most people, at least. The scenes of employees being fired ring terribly true, but even more painful are the employees’ statements along the lines of, “At least I have my family.” Ryan Bingham doesn’t. For all his success, he doesn’t have anyone to share it with.

I expected for Ryan to learn some important lessons, but I was surprised by the harsh reality that accompanied those lessons: long-broken relationships don’t heal overnight. This isn’t “A Christmas Carol” where the spirits do it all in one night (or by the end of the 109-minute running time). Up In the Air boasts superb acting, a tight script, and some very relevant morals, but the experience can only be described as bittersweet. On multiple occasions, the movie heads straight for some comfortable film clichés only to yank the rug out from under us. Contrary to ingrained belief, movies aren’t required to give their characters all that we would wish for them, and Up In the Air doesn’t shy away from sadness. It belongs in the category of “Dramedy,” and while it leans more towards comedy, it doesn’t deliver all of the feel-good goods that many comedy-lovers would hope for. It’s a timely cautionary satire about struggle, success, and loneliness, and as Jason Reitman’s third feature, it marks the third time that he’s made one of the year’s best films. Not a bad track record.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Up In the Air has a steady flow of language, as well as some brief, rear female nudity. More than any objectionable content, though, the film is for adults because of its themes. The character arcs, the struggles, and the primary forces that move the plot would all be lost on children. It’s a movie about grown-ups and for grown-ups.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Road

Post-apocalyptic movies are a bleak bunch, but The Road is depressing even by the genre’s standards. I’ll go ahead and preface this review with the confession that I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-Prize winner of the same name. Having read some of his other works, I knew that The Road was apt to be heavy, perhaps even hopeless. I was right. The setting is remarkably well-realized and the performances soar, but I’ll wager that some of the same viewers who loved the film version of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (myself included) will find The Road less enjoyable. It’s a well-built, dark, dangerous road.

At some point in the near future, the world is a wasteland. An unexplained cataclysm has destroyed almost all life, including plants and animals, and only a few unfortunate humans have survived. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are among the survivors, and they spend their time walking south trying to reach the coast. They’re not even sure what they hope to find there. Along the way, they try to stay warm, scour for food, and avoid the gangs of rapists and cannibals that threaten all who traverse the road.

The Road is very minimalist in its approach. There’s little dialogue, we don’t know what happened to the world, and we don’t even know the characters’ names. That’s the way McCarthy writes, and it translates to the screen effectively, just as it did in No Country. The big difference for me comes in The Road’s pervasive feeling of hopelessness and despair. Whatever happened to the world to destroy all life, there’s no coming back from it. The soil can’t support crops anymore, so the characters know that sooner or later, supplies will run out. The few humans who survived the apocalypse by mistake will starve. As Viggo Mortensen’s character says in one scene, “There is no other tale to tell.”

Viggo Mortensen gives what may be the most compelling performance of his career as a father caught in an impossible situation. Having lost his wife (Charlize Theron), his only reason to go on is his son. He instills in his son the desire to stay alive but also teaches him how to quickly commit suicide if the cannibals should capture him. Kodi Smit-McPhee seems completely genuine as a child who has grown up far too quickly but still has some of the innocence and curiosity of youth. His conversations with his father show the confusion and moral dilemmas always on his mind, as he asks questions like, “We’re still the good guys, right? ... We would never eat anyone, right?” The Road holds some haunting, unforgettable moments.

There aren’t many actors in the film, as there aren’t many people left alive on the planet, but all performances are strong. One cameo stands out in particular from a near-unrecognizable Robert Duvall playing an old man who crosses paths with the father and son on the road. The Road offers snippets of hope here and there, but in the end, it’s mostly hopeless. I’ve heard people say that the book shows humanity at its best and worst, and again, I can’t speak for the book, but the film spends most of its time showing humanity at its worst. The overall tone of hopelessness swallows up any small measure of optimism offered once every thirty minutes.

The ruined world looks frighteningly real, with abandoned cars and empty houses scattered about. Many trees still stand but are dead. “Eventually,” says the father, “all the trees of the world will fall.” When I reached the end credits, I admired the film’s technical achievements, as well as its unwavering commitment to the darkness of the parable. I think The Road leads where many viewers simply can’t follow, because most of us like to think that the future holds some measure of hope (beyond eventual starvation). Still, through solid execution and strong performances, The Road does everything that it set out to do. I admire the artists, but I expect the art itself to be widely rejected. The world needs something to believe in right now, and The Road leads unapologetically to a dark dead end.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.

The Road would probably give nightmares to the bravest of children, and that goes for children of all ages. Nothing jumps out and scares you, but for two hours, a feeling of hopelessness consumes you. One scene in particular involving a basement full of cannibal victims would keep kids awake for a week. Don’t take anyone who can’t buy their own ticket, and even then, be cautious. There’s nothing about this story that can be written off in the “Don’t worry, it’s not real” category. The Road will stick with everyone who sees it.