Friday, August 31, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

Here we examine video games and the people who play them, not just for fun, but for recognition, glory, and world records; this is the subject of an outstanding documentary, with perhaps the best title of any film released this year (and the rest of the film ain’t too shabby either).

Director Seth Gordon paints us a surprisingly complex tale of two very different men. Billy Mitchell is the king of his universe, the world record holder for Donkey Kong, who once played the first perfect game ever recorded on Pac Man, owns his own company, and is a longtime friend and contributor to Walter Day, the founder of Twin Galaxies (an organization which tracks video game records).

Mitchell was once named “the greatest video-game player of all time” and “Gamer of the Century.” Confident and arrogant to a fault he is the undisputed master of his domain.

Steve Wiebe, a husband and father finding himself unexpectedly unemployed more than 20 years after Mitchell broke the record, decides to do what no one has done before - beat Billy Mitchell and set a new world record on Donkey Kong. Spending hours in his garage every night playing the game over and over Wiebe would do what many considered impossible and begin a controversy which would take years to settle.

Two men, who except for their shared drive to succeed and be recognized, couldn’t be more different. It’s a tale of struggle, of winning and losing, and the life lessons which go along as the pair square off to set the high score for the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records.

This film is simply a joy to watch. The tale of one unassuming man’s quest at greatness is a universal story that all can relate to. Wiebe’s attempts to earn a place with the video gaming greats is difficult and sometimes heart-breaking. Including interviews from both men and their friends and families, including Walter Day and Steve Sanders, the film becomes less about a video game and more about one man’s struggle to stand-up for himself, against all odds, and do something no one believed could be done.

Set to the music of the 1980’s (including “You’re the Best” and “Eye of the Tiger”) the film is a toe-tappin’ good time. You may not believe one of the best films of the year could be about a 20 year-old video game record, but it is. Here’s a film that the whole family not only could see but should see. King of Kong: A Fistfull of Quarters is a winner, on anyone’s scorecard.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The 11th Hour

Well, it’s not An Inconvenient Truth (read the review), let’s get that out of the way first. This new documentary on the increasing problems with the environment doesn’t have the jau de vive, the heart, or the spirit of Al Gore’s documentary from last year. Though it may not live up to the Gore standard there is plenty to watch (especially in the film’s second half) and more than a little to discuss.

The documentary focuses our attention on the changing climate of the Earth due to a variety of factors including global warming, pollution, over population, and man’s destructive effect on the environment. Leonardo DiCaprio narrates the film which is filled with interviews from scientists from many fields and countries including Stephen Hawking.

The documentary breaks down into two parts. The first showcases the increasing dangers and causes and foretells of a dangerous and disastrous future if real change isn’t embraced soon. This part of the film comes dangerously close to the scare tactics many wanted to, falsely, lay at the feet of An Inconvenient Truth. This first section of the film comes off as part lecture and part blame instead of the imploring and instruction Al Gore utilized to much better effect.

The second half of the documentary, which works much better in my opinion, focuses on the changes that need to be made and the opportunities available for the future. The film’s tone shifts dramatically as it becomes hopeful in presenting a possible wondrous future within the grasp of current technology. Here the film becomes the call to arms and challenge for change that will be needed if we are to continue the farcical history of the human race.

The film jumps from a variety of topics including global warming, pollution, the Industrial Revolution vs. the natural world, and the rise of dangerous climatic changes such as the disappearing arctic and top soil, and the rise of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. If the film has one message it’s that we are harming our world, and ourselves, in a variety of ways and it will take a new revolution of clean energy based on a recycling model rather than the current wasteful one we have now.

The film’s parts don’t work equally as well, but it is saved by the later half of the film which presents a vision of a better world and a challenge to Americans to change how we treat our world and how we live on this planet. As the film points out, quite vividly, the time for such change is now as the effects we are causing our environment is reaching a tipping point from which only one thing is certain - the outcome will change the world in which we live in drastic, and perhaps permanent, ways. This 11th hour is approaching and the responsibility for change rests with us, while there is still time.

Balls of Fury

“Ping-pong isn’t played for trophies; it’s played in dark alleys for hard cash and ugly women.”

Years ago Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) blew his chance at the 1988 Olympic Games. Not a washed-up has-been and punchline Fogler is offered a chance by FBI Agent Ernie Rodriquez (George Lopez) to return to glory and avenge the death of his father (Robert Patrick) by entering a secret underground tournament held by the man responsible, the crime lord Feng (Christoper Walken).

The film is filled with predictable dumb and gross-out humor and cheesy cliched training scenes involving a blind ping-pong master (James Hong) and his sexy niece (Maggie Q). And you know it’s not a comedy without a suppository joke and male sex slaves! *Sigh*

The acting is okay, at times, and Fogler comes off as a poor man’s Jack Black. Walken is back to his silly over-the-top performance he gives in films like these, and Maggie Q looks good in short-shorts and Aisha Tyler spends the movie in a leather dominatrix outfit. Yes, pre-teen males are obviously the target audience here.

One final note, the film is, in some ways, a love story to the English rock band Def Leppard who reached the heights of their popularity in the 1980’s. Fans of the band may find some nice moments throughout the film including t-shirts, music, and the cast going all karaoke during the closing credits to “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

Balls of Fury doesn’t really disappoint; it doesn’t really do much of anything. Other than reminding me that Jason Scott Lee is still alive I can’t come up with a single reason why this film is, in any way, notable. Unless you’re a huge ping-pong fanatic or still hopelessly in love with Def Leppard than you can wait a couple years for this to show up free on cable.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Resurrecting the Champ

I remember watching the trailer for this film and wondering why it wasn’t made for the ABC Family channel. Truth is I’m not much of a Josh Hartnett fan, other than his small roles in films like The Virgin Suicides and Sin City. This film, as cheesy as it is at times, comes off with some heart, and Hartnett deserves most of the credit.

Erik Kernan (Hartnett) is a sports writer, who, as his boss (Alan Alda) describes, has a talent for typing with very little writing. Looking for a shot on the newspaper’s magazine, and a cushier gig, Erik proposes the story of a former boxing champion Bob Satterfield (Samuel L. Jackson) now living on the streets.

Although much of screen time of the film is taken up with Satterfield and his story and Kernan’s attempts to tell it to the world, that’s not what the film is really about. More than anything else this is a film about fathers and sons. Kernan deals with being separated from his wife (Kathryn Morris) and six-year-old son (Dakota Goyo), and at the same time tries to come to terms with the legacy of his father, a legendary radio announcer.

The film comes dangerously close to soap opera on a couple of occasions but somehow always has just enough smarts to turn away. There’s a twist to the film, which if you read too much about the plot will be spoiled, but imagine my surprise when I discovered it wasn’t given away in the trailer!

Performance wise the cast is solid and Harnett proves capable of carrying a film. Jackson provides the expected weird-guy supporting role, and except for a make-up issue or two in a couple scenes, does what is required of him. And I would be remiss if I didn’t offer praise to young Dakota Goyo who never gets too cute for the story or hams it up to the camera.

My favorite scene of the film takes place between Hartnett and Teri Hatcher who has a small role as a marketing exec for Showtime. It boils done much of what is wrong with news and entertainment today in under five-minutes; it’s almost worth the price of admission all by itself.

People looking for an uplifting tale about a down and out boxer’s return to glory may be surprised by the film they actually get here. Aside from an unnecessary tacked on epilogue, the film deals with complex issues and relationships and isn’t afraid to be depressing when it needs to.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

September Dawn

What a horrible film. The “true untold story” of the Mountain Meadows massacre is a blueprint for all future filmmakers on how not to make a film. Filled with a heavy handed message, simplistic characters, insipid dialogue, religious intolerance, and a laughable love story, the script for this would have been better used as toilet paper. From beginning to end September Dawn is a mess.

A wagon train of settlers are traveling west. The good Christians making up the wagon train pass through the Utah Territory and come face to face with the vicious evil Mormons led by a diabolical Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight) and lorded over by the emperor of evil Brigham Young (Terrence Stamp). You remember the movies Hollywood used to make about evil bloodthirsty Indian savages? Well Christopher Cain brings the style back using Mormons instead.

If you were able to read that paragraph and 1. keep a straight face and 2. not be revolted, then here’s a bloodthirsty bit of religious intolerance that’s just up your alley. Against the backdrop of the bloodthirsty Mormons and the pure as snow Christians, director and co-writer Christopher Cain gives us a love story between the fair Emily (Tamara Hope) and Jacob’s son Jonathan (Trent Ford) who provides the only “good” character on the Mormon side (as he isn’t a coward, or bloodthirsty, or a brainless follower, and he doesn’t believe in polygamy - damn, could they make him any more “Christian?”).

This bloated enterprise feels like a Made-For-TV movie, which is where it belongs. Aside from the anvil-like heavy handedness of the story we are stuck with a teenage rip-off Romeo and Juliet love story which if filled with some of the worst dialogue ever uttered on film.

There are films that get funny when they are so awful, and then there are films that are simply dreadful. September Dawn is the later. It’s just astonishingly bad that I’d almost recommend people see it to believe it, but not even I’m that cruel. September Dawn is one of the worst films of the year. If you’re wondering how the film earned half a razor, well, the scenery is nice.

The Ten

“I’ve got the Ten Commandments over there and I’m going to give you ten stories. Each one of them correlates to one of the Commandments. So let’s get right into it. Sorry I was late.”

Paul Rudd works as our narrator and guide on this series of interlocking stories (some characters reappear in multiple vignettes), while not dealing with his own problems with his wife (Famke Janssen) and his mistress (Jessica Alba) all of which will be resolved in the adultery vignette [VI.]. Rudd, in front of a pair of huge stone tablets presents each story to the audience. Here they are (I’ve numbered which commandment goes with each story).

[I.] After being paralyzed Adam Broady is worshiped as a hero and deasl with how his new fame changes the relationship with his girlfriend (Winona Ryder). [II.] Gretchen Mol plays a mousy librarian who travels to Mexico and has a sexual awakening with the help of Jesus Christ (Justin Theroux). [III.] A.D. Miles skips church to hang out at home naked with all his friends. [IV.] Kerri Kenney hires an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator (Oliver Platt) as a father figure for her children. [V.] A doctor (Ken Marino) kills a patient as a “goof.” [VII.] Wynona Ryder lusts after a ventriloquist’s puppet and steals it for sexual pleasure. [VIII.] A cartoon Rhino learns the consequences of lying and gossip. [IX.] A prisoner (Rob Corddry) covets the “wife” (Marino) of another inmate. [X.] Liev Schreiber covets his neighbor’s (Joe Lo Truglio) CAT Scan machine.

Not all of the stories work equally well, but each presents an absurd yet thoughtful point on each of the Ten Commandments. In terms of message Liev Shrieber’s vignette on not coveting your neighbors goods, Platt providing a father figure as Ah-nold, and Miles vignette on the Sabbath day all ring true. In terms of humor the Rhino, the prison wife story, and Ryder’s puppet horniness are pretty good. Rudd does a fine job of meshing the stories together and brings them to an off-the-wall musical ending.

The level of absurdity the film is willing to reach for, yet still stay on message, is quite refreshing. This film certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s got an off-beat nature and skewed look on life and religion, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, that many will be able to enjoy, even if they don’t quite get the entire joke.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Death at a Funeral

Into everyone’s life, and death, it seems a little chaos must fall. Death at a Funeral brings out all kinds of zaniness as friends and family gather to bury one of their own and end up nearly killing each other as things get further and further out of control. Director Frank Oz gives us one of the year’s best films and the best comedy of 2007 so far.

A death in the family brings together a group of mourners each struggling with their own lives and creates the catalyst for the hilarious and the absurd as nothing goes as planned.

The dutiful son Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) tries to comfort his mother (Jane Asher), who is driving his wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) crazy with her constant snips, and prepare to give the eulogy everyone expects his brother Robert (Rupert Graves), the famous author from New York, to give.

Also in attendance is the brother of the dead man (Peter Egan) and his two children Martha (Daisy Donovan) and Troy (Kris Marshall). Martha has brought along her boyfriend Simon (Alan Tudyk) who has taken what he believes to be some of Troy’s Valium to calm his nerves against seeing Martha’s disapproving father. Trouble is instead of Valium, Simon has taken an incredibly powerful hallucinagenic drug.

Also arriving are friends of the family Howard (Andy Nyman) and Justin (Ewen Bremner) who bring along the handicapped and loudmouthed Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan). Howard is troubled by a patch of skin on his wrist, while Justin’s sole purpose for attending is to hit on Martha whom he once had a drunken one-night stand with years before.

Added to this chaos is a small stranger (Peter Dinklage) with pictures to show and stories to tell about Daniel’s father, as well as some demands of his own.

All of these characters and events converge at the funeral which leads to disorder, disarray, and disaster, some of it moving and all of it quite funny. At a running time of 90 minutes the film fills every frame with great humor and superb performances. This is the funniest film of 2007. There’s no wasted moments or slow points as director Frank Oz juggles all the stories that make up this farce like a master.

Death is easy, comedy is hard. Well, Oz and company make both look darn easy and unbelievably funny in this bright and witty comedy which made me laugh like no other film this year. I know most people will flock to see Superbad also out today, but although it provides some laughs and heart, it lacks the wit of this gem which is one of the year’s best films.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Arctic Tale

The lives of a young polar bear and walrus are the focus of the new documentary Arctic Tale which follows them from birth through adolescence to maturity in one of the most inhospitable climates on the globe.

The documentary, as narrated by Queen Latifah, follows a handful of arctic creatures. The main focus of the film is the separate stories of two animals: a polar bear named Nanu and a walrus named Seela. The documentary begins with their births and development and follows each of them through the first eight years of their lives as they grow, mature, and have children of their own. Somebody cue up “Circle of Life” from The Lion King.

As a documentary for young viewers it does a good job of setting up the life cycles of its main characters and explaining how the changing climate in the arctic is effecting everything. Though adults won’t really find any new information, the film does work as a good primer for kids. It is well shot and compiled, including many scenes which you wonder how close the camera men got to their subjects, and for adults wanting something educational to watch and discuss with their youngsters this will suffice.

What doesn’t work? The documentary is geared to young children and although Latifah never comes off as condescending, at times it does seem to talk down to kids. It is also filled with some juvenile fart humor that anyone over the age of ten will grow tired of quickly enough. And finally, the film is filled with musical cues that are a little too cute for me. An example, when discussing the family of walruses, “We Are Family” begins to play.

It’s not a great documentary and probably is more at home in an elementary science classroom than a megaplex, but it has its moments and provides some basic information on the arctic to young viewers. For more on the film check out the official site.

Friday, August 10, 2007


“There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire…The tale started, as many tales have started, in Wall.”

Tristan (Charlie Cox) is your average leading character, a dreamer, a bit of a bumbler, from modest backgrounds, and in love with a girl (Sienna Miller) who doesn’t take him seriously.

To prove his love Tristan vows to go over the wall and bring back a falling star. Though Tristan makes it over the wall his quest leads him where he least suspects for on the other side of the wall exists a magical realm which includes witches (Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Alexander, Joanna Scanlan, Melanie Hill), princes (Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, Rupert Everett) with agendas of their own, and pirates (Robert De Niro, Dexter Fletcher).

Tristan’s goal is further impeded when the star itself turns out to be a sentient creature named Yvaine (Claire Danes) whose life is now in danger from those who wish to kill her and take her power. Tristan’s journey home with Yvaine will teach him much about himself and the world, help him discover where his heart truly lies, and give him clues to his past and his destiny.

As with any fantasy film the trick is to let the audience buy into the story and believe; Stardust is only partly successful. Although the performances are mostly good, the film takes some alarming bad wrong turns (including casting Robert De Niro as a crossdressing sissy pirate!). Although the film has the epic feel of a large scale fantasy, the constant missteps and blunders keep the audience at arms length and too far away to feel the joy and awe a story like this should inspire.

Stardust isn’t really a bad film, though it is filled with many bad moments, and I give it some credit for taking chances. Of course many of these chances don’t pay off which leads only to bigger blunders. Although I can’t really recommend the film, fans of fantasy will have something to talk about, if not completely enjoy. Still, for those who have already seen the latest Harry Potter film three or four times this might make for an amusing couple of hours - if you check your expectations at the door.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Becoming Jane

“My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.”

Jane (Anne Hathaway) is a beautiful country girl who enjoys sharing her works with her neighbors. Into her life arrives young Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) an Irish scoundrel from the city sent out into the wilderness by his uncle (Ian Richardson) for his inappropriate behavior. Tom scoffs Anne’s writings and her surroundings, infuriating the young woman.

Fans of Hollywood romances can guess what happens next. A friendship between the pair begins as Tom introduces Jane to new ideas and Jane shows Tom that the city doesn’t hold all of the world’s wonders.

Although the story is rather straight-forward it is well-handled and enjoyable. Hathaway proves more than up to the task in making the role her own and carrying the film, though I do wonder at why an English actor (like say Kiera Knightly) wasn’t chosen for the role. McAvoy provides some good humor to the role and there is nice, if constrained, chemistry between the pair. Add to all this a supporting cast which includes Maggie Smith, James Cromwell, and Julie Waters and you’ve got a good film.

The story for the film is based on the book Becoming Jane Austen by John Spence which takes historical record and speculates on the early romance of Austen and Lefroy (it is not the first to do so). Some have found fault with what they call the film’s artistic liberties, but as a film it works quite well.

One final note. As I have written before I am not a fan of movie epilogues, especially those which jump forward in time to glimpse the results of a character’s decisions. Becoming Jane ends with just such a scene that seems a bit out of place, and although it ties up some loose ends it also dulls some of the movie magic it had built up over the course of the film. Others might disagree, but I feel far too many films rely on them and should do away with these endings.

Like Miss Potter earlier this year (read that review), Becoming Jane gives us a glimpse into the life of a young author before she had found her voice. I slightly preferred Miss Potter to this film, and if it doesn’t come close to the level of Shakespeare in Love (read that review), the film does a good job in presenting one view of the author’s past. Even though the film didn’t wow me, and I’d have rather watched Pride & Prejudice (read that review) than this bipoic, it does provides some straightforward storytelling and good performances that should please most audiences.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

“I remember…I remember everything.”

When I heard the words above in the trailer chills went up my spine. I enjoyed The Bourne Identity but I was blown away by the second installment The Bourne Supremacy. So here was the sequel I was waiting for all summer. The result was a good, though slightly disappointing, film that is still better than most of the sequels this year.

We begin, seconds after Jason Bourne’s (Matt Damon) survival in the tunnel, with his escape from Russian police. The final scene from The Bourne Supremacy, the phone conversation between Bourne and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) is later expertly woven into the main plot of this film. From there we move to the shadowy government forces still attempting to track Bourne down and hide the dirty secrets which are locked in his brain. Both Allen and Julia Stiles return, and although Stiles is given a larger (and somewhat continuity-questionable) role, Allen is demoted into the lone good guy in a room full of snakes who will do whatever it takes to keep their dirty little secrets hidden.

The evil government operatives this time include David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney as well as more Bourne-like assassins played by Edgar Ramirez and Joey Ansah. I’d mention the other good guys, but there aren’t any. It’s Jason Bourne versus the world once again.

The film works on many levels. The frantic pace of the first two films is pushed up another notch creating constant tension and action. This movie runs at 100 mph the entire time without ever stopping to breathe. Greengrass brings the handheld camera and fast action, which does give some bad shaky-cam moments, but also puts the viewer right in the middle of the action. This technique works here because it adds the the pace of the film rather than detract from it (as was the case in Once).

The acting, locations, and stunt sequences are all first rate. However in an attempt to out-perform themselves a couple of the stunts in the film border on the Michael Bay-esque level of disbelief. Still, it’s another Bourne film with another kick ass car chase, so you will get your money’s worth in action, don’t worry.

In choosing the create the franchise in present day the producers and writers were able to use current technology which adds much to each story. However that initial choice is a double-edged sword. In removing the character of Jason Bourne from his origins the writers had to dump his entire background storyline. This wasn’t much a problem in the first two films, but here as Bourne puts the pieces of his past together it becomes a real issue.

Without Bourne’s time in Southeast Asia, without the lose of his family, and without the reasons for David Webb’s involvement in the program we are left with a gaping hole which screenwriters Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi are not able to adequate close. The odd suggestions of Bourne’s past with Nicky (Stiles) and the flashbacks of Bourne’s, rather tame, torturous indoctornization hardly craft the same impact and resonance as Robert Ludlum’s original.

Although the reveal of Jason Bourne’s past is disappointing the film still carries a boatload of action and intrigue ratcheted up to the nth degree. As a fan of the series it’s not really the film I was hoping for, but there’s enough here to enjoy as its good points far outweigh its faults, though I wonder now if they shouldn’t have tried to stick closer to Ludlum’s original tale or stayed away from Bourne’s past altogether.