Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Muppets

The Muppets is exactly what I hoped it would be: the best Muppet movie since The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). It’s a gift to decades’ worth of fans who love these characters. A true return to form, The Muppets taps into those unique brands of humor and magic that made The Muppet Show (1976-1981) so popular. I only ever saw the show in syndication, but once I discovered it, I couldn’t stop watching. While anyone can enjoy this movie, it was made by fans with fans in mind. It’s important to note before continuing that I don’t know how to write this review objectively, because you see, The Muppets was made for me, and if you love these characters, it was made for you, too.

Gary (Jason Segel) and his brother Walter (played by a Muppet) are lifelong fans of The Muppet Show. When Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) plan a trip to Los Angeles, Walter comes along to fulfill his dream of visiting the Muppet Studios. Upon arrival, the trio is shocked to find the Muppet Theater in disrepair. Oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to destroy the Muppet Theater and drill for oil. Gary, Mary and Walter set out to round up the Muppets (many of whom, we learn, haven’t spoken to each other in years) to put on a Muppet Show fundraiser, though they struggle with the fact that no one seems to care about the Muppets anymore.

The Muppets maintains the charming, quirky humor that was a constant trademark of Jim Henson’s work. Characters frequently acknowledge the fact that they’re in a movie, and the overall tone moves back and forth between heartwarming and silly. The Muppets has several musical numbers (when the young man behind me groaned around the start of the third song, I chuckled, wondering if this was his first Muppet movie), and the songs here are even stronger than in some other Muppet pictures. One number in particular stands out as an instant classic, in which Gary and Walter each privately battle with the same identity crisis of “Am I a man or a Muppet?”

Muppet veterans Brian Henson and Frank Oz weren’t involved in this production, so a few character voices sound slightly different, but the overall tradition of excellence continues. Muppets and humans blend seamlessly into the same scenes, though a phenomenal amount of work goes into making that look easy. The best thing that can be said for the puppetry is that it goes unnoticed; all we see are characters on screen. Muppet performers have pulled this off for years, though it continues to impress.

The human actors are stellar. Jason Segel (who co-wrote the movie) plays Gary with sincerity, and he sings and dances with apparent ease. Amy Adams has excelled at musical comedy before, and she nails it again this time. Chris Cooper plays the villain totally straight, which was the right choice. The best actors in Muppet movies are the ones who play the material with as much seriousness as possible, as the Muppets themselves provide the laughs. Why does Cooper’s Tex Richman hate the Muppets? The Muppets exist to make people laugh (laughter is identified as “the third best gift of all time,” after children and ice cream), and Richman is physically incapable of laughter. Also in keeping with Muppet tradition is the long list of memorable celebrity cameos.

Newcomers to the Muppets will enjoy this movie, but for fans, there’s an enormous nostalgia factor at work. Watching the opening number of The Muppet Show (“It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights”), exploring the Muppet Theater, and even just seeing the characters on screen again was heartwarming. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzy - I’m glad to have them all back. Gary, Mary and Walter are all Muppet fans, which helps us connect with them immediately, and making Walter a Muppet was an inspired choice. There’s plenty for kids to enjoy in the way of energy and spectacle, but as usual, adults will get the most out of the story and the jokes. There’s plenty in this picture for everyone, which makes The Muppets a family film in the best sense. I think Jim would be proud.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG for some mild rude humor.

The only mild rude humor I can recall comes when Fozzie Bear straps whoopee cushions to his feet and dubs them “fart shoes.” There are also a few moments of cartoony violence (puppets getting electrocuted, getting into fights, etc.), but on the whole, there’s very little in the way of potentially offensive material. I honestly can’t imagine why any child wouldn’t enjoy this movie.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Summer Movie Recap 2011

You may have noticed that I haven’t updated this site in three months. Ever since I began regularly reviewing movies almost 10 years ago, I have never fallen as far behind on my duties as I have this summer. My excuses are all valid: full-time job, the demands of the P90X workout, editing my novel, etc., but I admit that they’re still excuses. At the end of the day, I have the same amount of time at my disposal that Thomas Jefferson had.

There were plenty of big summer releases that I missed seeing altogether: Thor, Captain America, and Transformers 3 to name a few. I managed to publish a few reviews over the summer, but those were the minority. I’m not going to play catch-up and write full reviews on all of the films I saw, so here’s my compromise: a paragraph-per-film summer recap. Here are a few thoughts on the films I saw this summer (listed in alphabetical order):


Bridesmaids is a solid raunch-comedy. Co-written by the film’s star, Kristin Wiig, this movie was billed as the female equivalent of The Hangover, and that’s a fair assessment. It certainly showed that women can keep up with men as far as shameful behavior goes, and a few truly hilarious bits lifted this comedy above much of the competition. There are still some all-too-familiar gags I could have done without (including some token bodily function jokes, which I’ve never thought were funny), but overall, Bridesmaids strikes a winning balance of heart and low-brow humor.

Cars 2

I wrote in my 2004 review of The Incredibles: “Some day, Pixar’s going to make a movie that’s simply ‘good,’ and it’s going to be a huge disappointment.” Fast forward seven years, and here we are. Cars 2 isn’t a horrible movie in its own right, but it falls far short of Pixar’s own standards. Cars and Cars 2 are Pixar’s weakest pictures in my opinion; the story and characters of Cars just never quite worked for me, and Cars 2 lacks even the heart and freshness of its predecessor. The result is a forgettable and unnecessary sequel, though judging by early previews, Pixar seems to be back on the right track with Brave, its newest film slated for a 2012 release (incidentally, Brave will also be Pixar’s first fairy tale).

Cowboys and Aliens

Cowboys and Aliens delivers exactly what it promises, though I hoped for a little more. Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford star in this wild west picture with a twist: an invasion from outer space. The goofy premise clashes with the film’s dark tone at times. Cowboys and Aliens takes itself a bit too seriously, which keeps it from being as fun as it could have been. I know the filmmakers were bound by a graphic novel as source material, but as far as tone, a different mix of suspense, adventure and humor would have made for a more enjoyable picture (I’m thinking of movies like the original Pirates of the Caribbean). Still, Cowboys and Aliens has some strong moments, and Craig and Ford make such good cowboys that I found myself wishing I was watching a traditional western.

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Crazy, Stupid, Love was the biggest surprise of the summer for me. The trailers didn’t inspire too much confidence, but I fell for the film’s writing and quirky charm right off. Finally, here’s a romantic comedy with brains behind it. The actors are solid all around (including the child actors, who play the maturity fluctuations of their ages very well), but the clever writing stands out the most. Romantic comedies so frequently fall back on stock characters, familiar stories, and predictable plots, but Crazy, Stupid, Love brings freshness even to its cheesiest and most formulaic moments. The screenplay deftly navigates the dangerous romantic comedy waters by respecting its characters and its audience. Steve Carrell and Emma Stone give particularly enjoyable performances. If you passed on Crazy, Stupid, Love (as I almost did), do yourself a favor and catch it on video.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

As a big fan of the Harry Potter novels and films, I was very pleased with how the franchise bowed out. The acting and action are top-notch, and the fast pace balances HP 7: Part 1 perfectly. Looking back, the series and its stars matured gracefully over a ten year period, and the child actors gave their all at the end. Alan Rickman stands out yet again as Severus Snape, arguably stealing the show in his crucial backstory sequence. I have a few qualms with the film’s ending, especially with some of the changes made to the final battle that robbed the showdown of its full potential, but the final epilogue is charming and truly magical for fans. As far as book-to-screen adaptations go, Harry Potter resides in the upper tier.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides, or Pirates 4 as I call it, is merely the latest example of an old Hollywood problem academics refer to as “not knowing when to stop” (most films with the number “4” attached to their titles apply here). The characters and charm of old have all grown stale, and the plot (or lack thereof) failed to draw me in. I hoped that this picture might redeem the disappointments of Pirates 3, but it ultimately reinforced what I already believed: the Pirate writers never fully understood what they had. They penned an average first film which the actors then elevated to a higher plane; the writers then wrote a good sequel which was really just a setup for a grand finale, and then those same writers blew it with a dark mess of a third film that dragged the fun down to the depths faster than you could say “Davy Jones’ Locker.” Pirates 4 brings nothing much new to the table, and the obvious setup for Pirates 5 elicited naught but groans from me. If you’re feeling up for a pirate adventure, do what I did when I returned home from the theater: just re-watch the first two and then pretend that 3 and 4 never happened.

Super 8

My favorite film of the summer, Super 8 charmed me from start to finish. The spiritual successor to movies like Hook, The Goonies, and Stand By Me (with splashes of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind tossed into the mix), J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 follows a group of kids in small town America who are trying to film their own horror movie. During a late-night shoot, the amateur filmmakers witness a horrible train crash, and then the kids fear for their safety as they realize their camera picked up something supernatural on film: something they were never meant to see. The kids are played by mostly unknown actors, and all give solid, believable performances. Super 8 has the perfect balance of comedy and suspense, and echoes of early Spielberg come through loud and clear. To me, summer movies are ultimately about fun, and Super 8 provided the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a long time.

Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh is one of my favorite films of the year. Meant as a direct sequel to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), this movie recaptures the magic of old, not only in its simple animation, but most importantly in its humor and charm. The stories were lifted from A.A. Milne’s literature, and the quirky jokes and classic characters are better than in any other Pooh film (or TV show) since the 1977 original. Voice acting hits very close to the original mark, and John Cleese was a great choice to replace Sebastian Cabot as narrator. Just as with the original Pooh books and films, children will enjoy Winnie the Pooh, but parents will enjoy it on an entirely different level.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class is the best in the series since X-Men 2, and despite its flaws, it offers more than enough to wash the taste of the last two movies (X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) out of our mouths, proving that this franchise has more to offer. This origin story goes back to when Charles Xavier (who later becomes Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (who later becomes Magneto) first met and formed a lifelong friendship/rivalry. We learned in the first film that Erik was a Holocaust survivor, but that piece of his tortured past plays a more central role this time around. First Class features strong action and handles Xavier and Lehnsherr’s relationship with care, but a few sloppy plot pieces and underdeveloped characters keep this movie just shy of ranking with the greatest superhero fare.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Click here to read my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.

An unprecedented film saga comes to a solid close with Part 2 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The decision to split the final installment into two films ultimately paid off (apart from the literal payoff, which was inevitable), as it gave room for the story to breathe in the midst of intense action. I complained after seeing the first installment that it felt like only half of a movie, providing no real closure. Similarly, Part 2 has no setup, but when viewed together, the two parts make for a splendid, emotionally balanced finale. As a fan of the final book, I have a few minor qualms, but overall, the Harry Potter film franchise goes out on one of its highest notes.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) continues the search for Horcruxes (objects containing pieces of Lord Voldemort’s soul), along with his best friends, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson). The search takes him back to Hogwarts School, where Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) serves as Headmaster, and Death Eaters freely roam the grounds. With the help of his friends and professors, Harry makes a last stand against Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and his followers. That’s a barebones summary, and it’s worth mentioning that if you’re not caught up at this point, prepare to be lost. Actually, if you’re not caught up at this point, why even consider starting with Part 2 of Harry Potter 7?

It feels good to return to Hogwarts, as its familiar locations have featured in every chapter except for Deathly Hallows: Part 1. The visuals of the school falling under attack are huge in scope and very rewarding. This is the end, and director David Yates and his filmmaking team hold nothing back. The principal cast members likewise give their all, with many saving their best performances for last. As I have said before, immaculate casting has been the driving force behind the success of the Harry Potter films. Screenwriter Steve Kloves has done well in adapting them, and multiple directors have added their own unique visions, but all would have been for naught if the wrong actors had been cast.

In addition to Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, all of whom deliver nuanced, mature performances, Alan Rickman stands out yet again as Severus Snape. Ten years ago on opening night of the first Harry Potter film, I gasped as soon as Rickman burst into view, because I knew at once what a perfect choice he was. Snape’s backstory was one of my favorite parts of the final Harry Potter novel, and the film handles it superbly, with Rickman spanning a wide emotional range during his relatively brief time onscreen. In the few days since seeing the film, Snape’s scenes stand out in my mind above everything else.

Everything in HP 7: Part 2 works, but as a fan of the book, I simply must take issue with a few alterations made toward the story’s end. I’ll not go into detail, as I wish to keep this spoiler-free, but the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort is about ten times more epic on paper than on screen. Why is that? All the film had to do to knock the finale out of the park was follow the scenes laid out in Rowling’s novel. On the whole, Deathly Hallows stayed very true to its book, so I have no clue why Kloves adapted the ending the way he did. The film ultimately cheats itself out of what should have been an unforgettable, highly emotional showdown. Instead, the battle goes out with more of a whimper than a bang.

The magic returns with the epilogue, though, which stays very true to the book’s last pages and delivers charm and emotion in spades. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a finely-crafted powerhouse and arguably the series’ best film, though I still cast my vote for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Granted, I’m a sucker for origin stories, but that first movie is still the most magical to me, and I think it comes the closest to recreating the feel of its book. I’m reminded when I watch it of how much the filmmakers got right the first time around. The casting, the script, the visuals, and John Williams’ majestic score set the tone for everything that came after.

Looking back on the Harry Potter film series, there’s really nothing to compare it to. A seven-film (technically eight) retelling of a beloved book series; when else has any team of actors and filmmakers stuck with a decade’s worth of movies? It’s a monumental achievement made truly special by the series’ sheer quality on all fronts. The success of the Harry Potter books marks an unsurpassed literary phenomenon, and it’s worth remembering that the film versions played their part in the books’ success. They did what all great book-to-screen adaptations do: point people back toward the remarkable literature that started it all.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images

HP 7: Part 2 features mostly the kind of action we’ve seen before in the Potter films: intense but not graphic. There is one scene where a snake repeatedly bites someone, and though the attack happens offscreen, it’s still intense. The overall level of “intense action violence and frightening images” is in line with Harry Potters 2-7.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

As quoted in my 2007 review of Pirates 3: “I almost hope that we don’t see another Pirates flick. These delightful characters have given us enough.” Yes, and now they’ve given us too much. I had held on to some small hope that one more film might correct the mistakes of Pirates 3, but whatever curse befell that picture can apparently not be undone. Pirates 2 ended with the perfect setup for a brilliant finale, and the writers blew it (I’m trying to let it go... really). Pirates 4: On Stranger Tides is more fun than its predecessor, but so what? It doesn’t offer quite enough of anything to justify itself, and it still falls about 20,000 leagues shy of recapturing the infectious fun of the original.

Johnny Depp returns as fan-favorite Captain Jack Sparrow, who is on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth. Also on the trail is Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in the Royal Navy. Angelica (Penélope Cruz), one of Sparrow’s old lovers, joins Sparrow in the search. Along the way, our heroes swashbuckle their way through battles of all sorts, zombies, mermaids, and several encounters with Blackbeard (Ian McShane): “the pirate all pirates fear.”

On Stranger Tides has a few things going for it. For starters, Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush are consistently lovable, even though Rush’s Barbossa is a bit too respectable this time. Seeing him in a military uniform with soldiers under his command never felt right. Penélope Cruz and Johnny Depp have great chemistry, more than Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom ever had, though we don’t know much of anything about Angelica and Sparrow’s past. The film’s visuals impress, especially the mermaids. While the mermaids look more like supermodels from the waist up than actual sea creatures, their introductory scene strikes the right balance of sex appeal and creepiness. One mermaid named Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) falls for a young missionary, Philip Swift (Sam Claflin). I think the writers were trying to fill the void left by Will and Elizabeth (Bloom and Knightly), though the romance between the mermaid and the missionary has even less appeal.

Blackbeard is supposedly the pirate all pirates fear, though he isn’t half as frightening as Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) from Pirates 2 and 3. Added to that, he doesn’t really have a black beard. What’s that about? He has some supernatural abilities, but they aren’t ever accounted for. The film’s color palette is dark, with most scenes unfolding at night or in murky conditions under an overcast sky. It baffles me that with so many bright, vivid colors in the Caribbean, this film unfolds largely in various shades of black and gray.

Then, there’s the Fountain of Youth. The entrance to the Fountain is pretty cool, but the Fountain itself looks less like an ancient source of mystical power and more like a movie set. Also, the Fountain comes with some ridiculous fine print. Making it to the Fountain isn’t enough; you have to bring two specific chalices and a mermaid’s tear. The lifting of the Aztec Curse in the first Pirates film made sense within the confines of the story, but this Fountain of Youth business is just one plot contrivance too many. I reject the notion that you could struggle your whole life looking for the Fountain of Youth only to learn upon arrival that you should have brought Ponce de León’s old chalices and a mermaid’s tear.

My wife and I re-watched the original Pirates when we got home from seeing On Stranger Tides. I wanted to know if I had romanticized the original too much. Was it really as good as I remembered it being? The original film isn’t perfect (it’s a bit too long and convoluted, I’d say), but it has a unique blend of adventure and quirky humor. Depp’s Sparrow was a character of his own invention in the first film, as the screenwriters had a traditional pirate in mind when they wrote the part, and the writers have never quite figured out how to properly write the character. This fourth installment ends with an obvious setup for Pirates 5, but I’m officially pirated out. The adventure, the fun, the wit, and the cleverness have mostly dried up. It’s always fun spending two more hours with Captain Jack, but you’d be better off re-visiting The Curse of the Black Pearl than setting sail for Stranger Tides.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action/adventure violence, some frightening images, sensuality and innuendo.

This isn’t as dark as Pirates 2 or 3, though it’s scarier than the original. The action isn’t too violent or sinister, though it might frighten young children. The sensuality and innuendo aren’t much to worry about.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sucker Punch

Note: Sucker Punch was released on March 25, 2011, though I didn’t see it until May.

One of the companies that produced Sucker Punch is named “Cruel and Unusual Productions.” Those words sum up at least half of Sucker Punch, the most fetishized action picture to come along in a while, perhaps since 300. Zack Snyder directed both movies, but while 300 was based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, Sucker Punch is an original script by Snyder. Therein lies the problem. Some scenes are exciting and visually daring, but others are depressing and downright dreary. It’s a weird mix of visual and emotional elements that just don’t come together to make a good movie. You can sense the potential for an original, entertaining summer picture, but the finished product is an uneven mess.

Emily Browning plays Baby Doll, a young woman abused and then committed to an asylum by her stepfather who hopes to cheat her out of the inheritance from her mother’s death. Once Baby Doll arrives at the asylum, she partners with other young women in a plot to break free (judging by the other inmates, Baby Doll has apparently been sent to the asylum for hot girls). Along the way, she closes her eyes and envisions herself as a superhero, fighting her way through fantastic battles. The film cuts back and forth between her action-packed fantasies and the harsh reality of her wrongful imprisonment.

It’s clear that the action scenes represent the movie Zach Snyder wanted to make. Beautiful young women in schoolgirl outfits swinging samurai swords at robots and dragons; it’s a teenage guy’s dream, and while the teenage guy within me wanted to love Sucker Punch, the film’s other scenes made it impossible. The contrast between the asylum and the fantasy is much too stark, which was an intentional choice but one that didn’t pay off. The overall tone falls somewhere between Shutter Island and the least pleasant bits of The Shawshank Redemption. The fantasy sequences are beautiful and exciting, but nothing sucks the fun out of a movie quite like the heroines living in constant danger of being raped and/or murdered.

Many will criticize Sucker Punch for having too much over-the-top, clichéd action, but that’s not the real problem. It seems that Snyder felt the need to make sense of the action scenes he envisioned, so he built a story to explain how/why Baby Doll has these great fantasies. The problem is that there’s way too much explanation, and worse still, it’s all depressing as hell. After every action sequence, just as things are heating up, the narrative reminds you of Baby Doll’s miserable situation. What lies at the intersection of goofy, exaggerated action and heavy prison material? A frustrating, upsetting movie, that’s what.

Investing fully in the fantasy would have resulted in a better picture. Sucker Punch could have been set in an alternate universe in which five beautiful, scantily-clad young women are on an epic quest to fight the forces of evil. Would any member of the target demographic have cared? As is, Sucker Punch loses its way in the abusive darkness. The fantasy action is robbed of its full potential, because even within the confines of the story, we know it’s all in Baby Doll’s head. When we’re not in her head, we’re wishing we were, as grim reality continually trumps the action and deflates the fun in record time.

Much of Sucker Punch is computer generated, but while that distinct visual style worked well in 300 and was perfect for Sin City, it rubs strangely against the asylum scenes here. There’s a certain beauty when everything looks (and is) painted by a visual effects team, but the unpleasantness of the “reality” portions doesn’t warrant such a polished aesthetic. The action scenes are well conceived, but they need more cohesion and plot connecting them. The asylum stuff should have been scrapped in favor of something more pleasant. In short, Sucker Punch should be ten times more fun than it is. It left me feeling like I had been sucker punched myself, which was no doubt intentional, but I still didn’t appreciate it.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language.

Sucker Punch straddles the PG-13/R line, as there’s nothing terribly graphic in the way of sexuality or violence, but the overall tone is dark and harsh. The women are always on edge about potentially being sexually abused or even killed, and the story is quite grim. Language is medium-level but pervasive. The action is highly stylized, and the women remain scantily clad throughout.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Kids Are All Right

Note: The Kids Are All Right was released in July 2010, but I didn’t see it until February 2011.

The Kids Are All Right is a solid entry in one of my least favorite genres of cinema: the dysfunctional family dramedy. As soon as I say that, I must admit that one my favorite movies, American Beauty, is a pillar of that genre. Since 1999, I’ve seen many dark comedies about crumbling families; some have been better than others, but none have matched American Beauty. The Kids Are All Right is notable for its strong performances and for its effective portrayal of a same-sex marriage, but it isn’t particularly thought-provoking or profound.

The kids of the title are teenagers Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). We later learn that Joni was named after Joni Mitchell, but if the writers were going to account for where only one of the kids’ names came from, was Joni really the one that demanded explanation? Joni and Laser have two moms, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore). When the teens become curious about their sperm-donating birth father, they arrange for a meeting. He’s Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a middle-aged bachelor who, upon being contacted, wishes to be involved in their lives. As Paul gradually enters the family dynamic, everything soon turns complicated.

The strength of the screenplay is in Nic and Jules’ relationship. The Kids Are All Right heavily features a gay marriage, but the movie isn’t really about gay issues. Nic and Jules’ marriage features the same kinds of moments and dialogue you would find in a heterosexual marriage. Unlike some movies where gay characters are portrayed as being unnaturally stable, Nic and Jules aren’t any wiser for being gay, nor is their relationship somehow superior to the straight relationships around them. The family is largely dysfunctional, to be sure, but the homosexual component isn’t part of the dysfunction. The marriage onscreen is an authentic relationship between two parents, including all of the drama that comes with raising teenagers.

Performances are strong throughout. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore make their marriage feel comfortable and lived in. Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson underplay their teenage roles well; teens often clam-up around new people, and Joni and Laser feel like real teens to me (even if Laser isn’t a real name; seriously, I’m having a hard time letting that one go). Mark Ruffalo plays Paul to perfection. He’s a nice guy who wants to make something of his life, but he lacks the values and conviction to make that happen. He’s a bachelor adrift, tossed from one moment to the next without much purpose or self control.

The Kids Are All Right effectively mixes its drama and its humor, though the overall experience is more depressing than funny. It’s never as poignant as American Beauty or as humorous as Little Miss Sunshine. Despite some strong moments and clever exchanges, The Kids Are All Right still comes up short on purpose. It makes for a very believable slice of life/character study, but the characters don’t make much of a journey towards improvement. It’s not required that good movies include such arcs, but with such strong characterization and acting, I hoped for more character development.

The main message here is that having a successful marriage is tough. We already knew this. The secondary message is that homosexual relationships are a lot like heterosexual ones. As gay marriage becomes more and more culturally accepted, so will gay divorce, because there isn’t anything magical about a same-sex union. A lifelong marriage is a hard row to hoe any way you look at it, but as difficult as it is, it’s ultimately rewarding. As the credits rolled, I pondered the title sentiment; are the kids all right? I guess, but they’ve been through some serious stuff. The Kids Are All Right is a good dark comedy, but it would have benefitted from a little more comedy and a little less dark.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, and some teen drug and alcohol use.

The Kids Are All Right is an adult dark comedy. There are a few straightforward sex scenes with nudity, characters regularly use strong language, and the overall themes are heavy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The King's Speech

Many of us take the ability to speak clearly and properly for granted. In order to be an effective political leader, one must be a strong speaker. In a monarchy where positions of power are inherited, there’s the potential for an unwelcome character trait, such as shyness compounded by a speech impediment, to throw everything off. The King’s Speech tells the poignant and heartwarming true story of King George VI, the King of England during World War II. He struggled to speak through a debilitating stammer, but as he found his voice, he gave hope to an empire in one of its darkest hours. The King’s Speech is as quiet and strong as the Royal Family itself, and it is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.

The film’s opening is as awkward and heartbreaking as any I can remember. The Duke of York (Colin Firth) stands before a crowded exhibition at Wembley Stadium, 1925. He steps to the microphone and freezes up, failing to deliver his words properly. His stammered speech echoes endlessly through the stadium. His wife (Helena Bonham Carter) accompanies him as he visits many speech therapists, none of whom prove effective. As a last resort, she seeks the help of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist with unorthodox methods. Lionel works with the Duke, who he calls “Bertie,” for over a decade. When the Duke’s brother abdicates the throne, the Duke of York inherits the crown, a looming war, and an empire in need of a reassuring voice.

Colin Firth has been a splendid, much-loved actor for many years, but the time has certainly come for award recognition. His performance as George VI is understated and completely believable. His stammer isn’t overdone but is a fluid part of a rounded performance. I genuinely felt sorry for him every time he was forced to speak publicly. As strong as Firth is, Geoffrey Rush nearly steals the show as the therapist who is unwilling to make exceptions for his royal patient. Again, the performance is powerful but restrained and believable throughout. I forgot I was watching actors. The supporting cast, screenplay, director, and picture could all win Oscars as far as I’m concerned, but Colin Firth’s performance must be recognized.

Many movies based on inspiring true stories try to be inspiring much too soon. Strong music and telling shots early on can tip a film’s hand and make it all a bit too cheesy. The King’s Speech doesn’t utilize the common cinema “tells” for when an inspiring true story is in the works. Even at its most triumphant moments, the film maintains a quiet dignity, moving at a tone and pace appropriate for Britain’s reserved Royal Family. The film covers 14 years in two hours, but the script mixes tension, joy, sadness, and humor in just the right amounts so that the overall experience evokes real life. The dialogue is superbly crafted and consistently charming.

The King of England is by nature a very public figure, but while The King’s Speech revolves around public figures and public events, the triumphant story is deeply personal. One-on-one relationships are the main focus here: George and his wife, George and his brother, George and his father, and most of all, George and his therapist. The scene that still resonates in my mind days after seeing the movie involves an argument between Lionel and “Bertie” on the eve of the coronation. As the argument heats up in Westminster Abbey, the King finds all of the confidence he needs. It’s an honest, unexpected exchange that makes for one of the year’s most memorable moments.

Watching footage of Adolf Hitler, the king’s young daughter asks, “What’s he saying, Daddy?” “I don’t know,” he tells her, “but he seems to be saying it rather well.” George VI understood that the true power of the King of England was the ability to inspire his people, and the story of how he learned to do so is one of the year’s great moviegoing surprises. Word of mouth is spreading like wildfire on this picture; my wife and I were turned away from a sold-out showing and had to return the next day. At the film’s end, the audience cheered and rightfully so. The King’s Speech is an inspiring story, a great drama, and one of the finest films of 2010.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: R for some language.

I think the MPAA got this one wrong. Yes, I know the rule about how many “F words” constitute an R rating, but the language here is concentrated in two or three scenes, and it’s used exclusively for comedic purposes. The King spouts profanity in an effort to enunciate properly and calm his nerves with hilarious results. There’s nothing sinister or mean spirited about this picture. If it were up to me, I’d switch this movie’s R rating and True Grit’s PG-13 in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Grit

The Coen Brothers’ True Grit isn’t a remake of the John Wayne classic (1969) but rather a second film adaptation of the 1968 novel. I haven’t read the novel, though I’m told that this latest version adheres more closely to it. Regardless, I can tell you that True Grit is aptly named. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) has true grit, the dialogue has grit, the violence has grit, and lead character Mattie Ross (played by 13 year-old Hailee Steinfeld) has more grit than any of ‘em.

Mattie Ross seeks justice against Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. She hires U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn after hearing of his ruthlessness. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) tags along as he has already been tracking Chaney for other crimes. The unlikely trio heads into uncharted Indian Country (modern-day Oklahoma) in pursuit of Chaney, and the mission quickly turns dangerous with rugged terrain, harsh weather, and a plethora of gunfights.

When John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn in 1969, he had his entire career and image behind him. We believed he was a weathered, tough cowboy because he was John Wayne, and we had seen his previous work. Jeff Bridges isn’t usually associated with tough-guy roles, but he sells his role in True Grit with gusto. He walks and talks like a drunk, mumbling his lines and pulling his gun out over minor disputes. He makes Rooster Cogburn his own, which is about all you can do when someone like John Wayne has played (and won an Oscar for) the same role previously. All other performances are strong, especially Hailee Steinfeld as the lead. A lesser actress would have overplayed the part into caricature, but Steinfeld is believably spirited and tough, and she holds her own in the company of established talents.

The dialogue is purposeful and engaging, as is all Coen Brothers dialogue. The first half hour is composed almost entirely of character work, but once the characters hit the trail, the true grit begins. Every so often, a quick burst of intense violence will make you wish you had looked away. There isn’t a whole lot of violence in the movie, but what little there is doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Usually, the movie gives you a two-to-three second warning before gunshot wounds, stabbings, and other such unpleasantries appear.

There’s more in the acting and the setting than there is in the plot. This version has a more compelling story than the 1969 original because it shifts the focus to Mattie Ross (who narrates the tale), but the overall story is still lacking something. Again, I haven’t read the novel, but neither film version fully pulled me into the narrative. The performances all but make up for it, and the scenery is understated but beautiful. The score, equal parts lovely and sad, is based largely on classic hymns, most notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.”

At its core, True Grit is a simple western, and it’s done very well. The Coens have made a traditional, rough-around-the-edges cowboy picture, and it would appeal to just about anyone who enjoys the western genre. It isn’t nearly as eccentric as most Coen movies, but the often humorous dialogue and memorable side characters carry the mark of Joel and Ethan’s writing and directing. I admire the Coens for their obvious devotion to the source material and to the genre, as well as for knowing better than to try and fix what’s not broken. True Grit doesn’t bring a whole lot of innovation to the table, but that’s a good thing.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.

To be honest, I was floored to learn (after seeing the movie) that True Grit is rated PG-13. Read the MPAA’s content warning; does that sound like a PG-13 movie to you? It’s very intense, including gunshot wounds to the head, knifes to the chest, and most memorably, severed fingers. No, I’m not talking about implied violence; I mean you actually see a knife blade sever a man’s fingers. As far as taking your kids goes, I would treat this more like an R-rated movie. It’s pretty rough at times.