Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Cap’n names his Top Ten Movies of 2009

2009 was a bit of a down year at the movies, but there was plenty to see if you knew where to look. When thinking back over the course of a year you always search for patterns. This was a year for films about soldiers (four made my list), high quality animation (the top two found their way here, but there were other contenders), and the strongest year for science fiction in recent memory (including three who earned spots). Throw into that mix my favorite drama of the year, and a spot-on teenage coming of age comedy, and maybe 2009 wasn't such a bad year after all.

I tried my best to see everything but a few slipped by me including Broken Embraces, Red Cliff, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and A Single Man. And I'll take a moment to give a shout out to a pair of films just missing the cut in Sin Nombre the Coen Bros. A Serious Man.

But enough about what didn't earn a spot. Let's get on to the list...

"We are doing the work of pathetic, lazy, morons"

Teen comedies are a dime-a-dozen these days. So for me to include a film like Adventureland in the best of the year category it must be something special. And it is. Director Greg Mottola has given us an instant classic in the genre. This belongs on your DVD shelf next to Say Anything..., at least that's where it is on mine. Mottola's semi-autobiographical coming of age tale gives us more than we expect. Yes, it wants to make you laugh, but it also sets out to be a lasting film with an easily relatable personal story of young love and that crappy summer job everyone remembers so well. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Last Outpost of Humanity

In the future all of the Earth's energy needs will be met by a single man working on the Moon. Sam Rockwell stars as a man nearing the end of his three-year assignment with no direct contact with Earth and only a robot as a friend. A shocking discovery leads him to doubt his own sanity and question everything he knows and believes about himself and the nature of human existence as he knows it. With a budget of only $5,000,000 director Duncan Jones gives us a tight psychological drama about what it means to be human. Available on DVD and Blu-ray January 12th.

Part Mockumentary, Part Social Commentary, Part Action Flick

Speaking of strong sci-fi films made on a modest budget. With $30,000,000 director Neill Blomkamp takes a hard look at segregation, under-the-radar government experiments, class structure, and xenophobia through the lens of one man's (Sharlto Copley) journey and slow transformation from bureaucrat, to fugitive, to alien life-form. This is District 9. Somehow this thinly-veiled allegory to Cape Town's District Six never comes off as preachy or pompous. Blomkamp earns major points here by combining weighty ideas with some seriously cool effects, and all without a name star to help sell the film. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

James Cameron is Back

If Moon represents one side the the sci-fi genre (the quiet, science-heavy introspection), James Cameron's Avatar is the other. Costing upwards of $300, 000,000 (reports differ), the film is less about story than providing a lasting memorable experience unlike anything you have ever seen. This tale of humans attempting to survive on a hostile alien world, and one soldier's (Sam Worthington) attempts to learn from the native population, is big budget sci-fi spectacle at its best. Part Dances With Wolves and part Star Wars, Avatar succeeds in structuring intriguing characters, lush visuals, amazing 3-D, and an amazing fleshed-out new world, around a rather pedestrian story. It's quite possible in five years that this is the film everyone remembers from 2009. Currently in theaters and IMAX.

"You know, you really are fantastic"

I'm not Wes Anderson's biggest fan. Other than Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited I tend to come away from his work conflicted, saddened, and ultimately disappointed. With Fantastic Mr Fox Anderson uses his unique style and quirky sense of humor to its fullest. This beautifully rendered stop motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's book is as good as anything the director has ever done. Every choice is right here, and in a normal year for animation this would be handsdown the best in of the genre, but we still have a Pixar film to discuss. Currently in theaters.

Ben Foster Grows Up

It's hard for me not to think of Ben Foster as the lead character in the teen comedy Get Over It, but the The Messenger makes it easier. Foster stars as a decorated soldier coming off an eye injury who is given a new assignment (working as a Casualty Notification Officer) and a new commander (Woody Harrelson), neither of which he's all that sure of. Foster carries the film with a depth I never knew he was capable of, and Samantha Morton chimes in with a memorable supporting performance as a widow of a fallen soldier. Currently playing in select cities.

"My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you"

You and me both Dug. Up has it all. The humor, craftsmanship, and Pixar's usual fine touches earn it a spot on the list, but it's those early heart-wrenching scenes involving Carl (Ed Asner) and Ellie's life together that push it into the top five. And here's another film where animals (dogs) are more than just anamorphized human characters... *SQUIRREL!*... Where was I? Oh yeah, they think and act like dogs! This isn't just a great animated film. Up is a great film. Period. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

"War is a drug"

Director Kathryn Bigelow throws us into the action following members of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal in Iraq. Although I think the second-half of The Hurt Locker is a little too preoccupied with Sgt. James' (Jeremy Renner) concern over a missing young boy, Bigelow delivers a great war film without much of the usual trappings and cliche of films of this type. Renner's performance is first rate as the team leader, who seems just as likely to get everyone killed as save the day, in a film filled with strong performances. Available on DVD and Blu-ray January 12th.

Simply Glorious

I have never owned a Quentin Tarantino film, until now. I've always respected the man as a filmmaker (and never needed to buy Pulp Fiction, as it's seemingly always on television), but this was the first film of his I felt I needed to won. Inglourious Basterds takes on history itself with this tale of a Jewish band of Nazi killers (led by Brad Pitt), a Nazi officer known as "The Jew Hunter" (Christoph Waltz in a performance which should snag him an Oscar), and the women (Mélanie Laurent, Diane Kruger) who have their own roles to play in ending the war. Given it's offbeat nature (I still argue the film is a comedy with some great dramatic moments) it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I thought it was bloody brilliant. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Best Film of 2009

The easiest choice on the list was naming #1. This isn't the first time Jason Reitman has earned a spot on my best of the year list, but Up in the Air does mark the first time the director has snagged the top spot. Sometimes the right movie hits at exactly the right time. This is that film. This tale of a hatchet man for hire (George Clooney in one of the year's best performances) trying to protect his own job (and lifestyle) from the new ideas of young Cornell graduate (Anna Kendrick), deal with his sister's (Melanie Lynskey) impending wedding, and examine his feelings for his new lady love (Vera Farmiga), is clever, witty, sly, and awfully charming (just like the film's star). Up in the Air is a great film getting the most out of the talents of a young director and a movie star at the top of his game. Reitman also carefully blends in scenes with both actors and real people dealing loosing their jobs, a love of travel, and a philosophy of an untethered life. The result is magic. A film about firing people has never been this funny, and rarely this moving. Currently in theaters.

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's Complicated

Not everything released around Christmas is Oscar-worthy. Now, It's Complicated certainly has some talent. Meryl Streep collects awards like I do comics, and Alec Baldwin (as I have often said before) just reading a phone book can be funnier than almost everyone else on the planet.

This new rom-com from writer/director Nancy Meyers (The Holiday - which I liked, What Women Want - which I didn't) is exactly what you'd expect going in. Thankfully there's enough humor that guys won't have to struggle too much when they're dragged by their better halves to see this over the holiday weekend.

Love the second time around is a complicated business, or so the film tells us. Divorced for ten years, emotions resurface for Jane (Meryl Streep) and Jake (Alec Baldwin) while attending their son's (Hunter Parrish) college graduation.

Also thrown into the mix are the couple's son-in-law (John Krasinski) who catches the pair on a rendezvous, Lake Bell as Jake's demanding new trophy wife, Steve Martin as a possible new romantic interest for Jane, and a group of Jane's friends (Rita Wilson, Mary Kay Place, Alexandra Wentworth) to cheer on her new affair.

The cast is solid but doesn't breakout from the thinly-written characters on the page. Streep carries the film through a mix of enjoyment and guilt over her new affair. Baldwin does the charming slimy routine he's had down for years. Martin is so constrained and understated through most of the film that you wonder why someone of his comedic talent was even chosen for the role. Krasinski plays shocked fairly well, and Parrish, Caitlin Fitzgerald, and Zoe Kazan all have a couple of nice moments and the pair's children.

Some of the humor works well, but at other times Meyers falls back on some much overused clichés such as characters making bad choices in the wrong place at exactly the right time. There's even on scene where Martin and Streep showing up to a family party high on pot. You can guess what happens next.

And, if I have any real complaint about the film it's just that - you know what will happen next. As complicated as the film wants to be, there's no suspense about where events are heading or how it will end.

It's Complicated isn't a bad film. It's just predictable. Too predictable. And although the stars shine for moments, they are too often they are buried by the burden of the script they've been forced to bear.

There are certainly stronger films to see, but if you go you can expect to have a few laughs before you leave the theater and never think back on the film again. I guess it's not that complicated after all.

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria is a solid effort from screenwriter Julian Fellows (Gosford Park, Vanity Fair).

Emily Blunt proves capable of capturing a young woman on the verge of controlling an empire and struggling with advisors, her mother's power-hungry lover (Mark Stong), and her own ideas for her country's future.

And yet, something is missing.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed The Young Victoria. The sets, cinematography, acting, and costumes all demonstrate talent and a keen eye for the period. Maybe I've just seen too many of these paint-by-number historical dramas, or perhaps this film does too little to distinguish itself from all the others.

The film is an attempt to show Victoria (Blunt) blossoming into womanhood, her rise to power, her early years as Queen, and her romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). And it does exactly that, and nothing more.

One of the film's biggest flaws is it's choice of time period. Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain for almost 40 years, but that Victoria isn't the one captured on screen. This Victoria doesn't know who she is yet, and neither does the film. As a result, the film struggles, especially in the first act, as it tries to find a voice for its main character.

Instead of focusing on the breadth of Victoria's reign, director Jean-Marc Vallée is content to only give us a look at her personal life of the young Queen. In essence, it's a blander version of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette without the style, elegance, and daring filmmaking.

It's quite possible I'm being too hard on The Young Victoria, and by my comments you might be thinking of avoiding the film.

I wouldn't go that far. For those who enjoy historical films like these, you are going to get your money's worth. And had the film not been released during award season (and didn't reek a little of Oscar bait), I might have found it a little more to my liking.

Besides Blunt, there are several strong performances including Friend, Strong, Paul Bettany, and Jim Broadbent. Blunt carries the story, but each actor adds something memorable to the film. These performances coupled with the design of the film makes it an easy recommendation.

The Young Victoria is not a great film, but it is quite good. I'd compare it to something like 2008's The Duchess. It's definitely worth a look, but it's not in the class with the best films of this year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Up in the Air

Every couple of years it seems director Jason Reitman is putting out a movie that ends up on my best of the year list. Oh wait, that's exactly what he's been doing.

Starting in 2005 with Thank You for Smoking followed by 2007's Juno, Reitman has quickly made a name for himself creating smart, funny, off-beat, award-winning films with heart, wit, and a little bit of sass.

Another two years have gone by, and Reitman returns once again with tale of a salesman. In Thank You for Smoking Aaron Eckhart made smoking not only palatable, but patriotic.

Here Reitman casts George Clooney as a termination specialist, a man who is selling unemployment - with a smile. And as he did with Eckhart, Reitman allows the man's natural charm and the wit of the script to soften the hard edges of what it is he's selling. If you've never believed a movie about firing people could be this entertaining, you're about to be proven very wrong.

"I work for another company that lends me out to pussies like Steve's boss who don't have the balls to sack their own employees."

In Up in the Air our hero is Ryan Bingham (Clooney) a man who makes his living firing people he's never met and selling them on the idea that the promise of tomorrow might be just enough to make it through the misery of today.

Ryan spends most of his life in airport bars, hotels, and flying from one city to the next. He has a bare apartment he never sees, few real friends, barely speaks to his family, and a constant urning to remain on the go.

This isn't just his preferred lifestyle, it's his philosophy. In his spare time the man gives seminars on living a life of solitude, on removing the burdens of objects and relationships which weight you down, and living a life untethered and uncluttered.

"I tell people how to avoid commitment."
"What kind of fucked up message is that?"

As philosophies go I've heard worse, and one of the strengths of Up in the Air is the film allows others to judge Ryan's life, but never feels the need to do so itself. It may be a fucked-up worldview, but it has its own logic and certainly works well fro him. That solitude provides Ryan the necessary room, both physically and emotionally, to spend an average of 275 days a year firing complete strangers, as well as living most of his life among them.

To save money Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) grabs onto the ideas of young Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who is instituting a plan of grounding the company's army of axe-men, incluing Ryan, in favor of a cost-cutting measure of terminating people remotely. This, as you may guess, doesn't sit too well with our hero.

A challenge, of sorts, leads the unilikely pair on a road trip as Ryan tries to teach Natalie the ropes of the business and argue for a more personal appproach instead of the more impersonal choice of firing someone over the Internet. Along the way Ryan meets woman much like himself (Vera Farmiga), but with a vagina, equally obsessed with status, travel, and the lure of life on the road.

"We're two people who get turned on by elite status. I think cheap is our starting point."

Their meeting in the hotel bar, where they discuss everything from rental cars to the mile-high club, could hardly be cuter. And the "morning after" which takes place well-before dawn as the pair traverse the myriad nature of their schedules looking for another rendezvous should bring a smile to your face.

At this point you may think the film is moving into romantic comedy territory, thankfully it's not. Although his new relationships with Alex (Farmiga) and Natalie begin to soften his shell, the film never devolves into a sappy simple life-chaging experience trap it could all too easily have fallen into.

After all, Ryan and Natalie have a job to do. In some of the hardest scenes to watch Reitman inter-cuts actors (J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis) with real people giving honest reactions to learning they no longer have jobs. Each one of these individuals volunteered to recreate one of the hardest moments of their lives for the film, and, with a deft touch, Reitman expertly captures and weaves the raw emotion of each scenes into the film.

There's one other storyline which I haven't mentioned which involve Ryan's estranged sister (Melanie Lynskey) and her wedding to a man he's never met (Danny McBride). Ryan can hardly believe he's being tasked to take pictures of a cardboard cut-out of the couple, in a variety of odd locations, much less take the time to make the trip back to northern Wisconsin for the wedding.

It's where these threads come together - Ryan being pulled of the road, Natalie's influence and prodding to become more connected to those around him, the burgeoning relationship with Alex, rethinking his philosophy of the "Empty Backpack," and the need to reconnect with his family - that the film comes dangerously close to schmaltzy. However, it's also in these moments where Ryan finds a new kind of peace in the company with others as opposed to the pleasures of solitude.

Reitman, who began working on the screenplay in 2002, makes some smart choices throughout, both great and small. At times the film delivers exactly what we expect, only to swiftly make a 180 degrees and defy the basic Hollywood convention and expectations.

"I'm like my mother, I sterotype. It's faster."

Even as our hero begins to internally think over his life, the film never takes away his edge or try to instantly transform him into someone new. Though smooth in a crisis, he can often go short, especially with the protege he's been saddled with. The film is never afraid to let Ryan be a jerk, self-involved, and spending most of his time thinking primarily about himself.

Although there is a love story between Alex and Ryan, the real love story is the love and joy of travel. The order to Ryan's universe is expertly shown in quick cuts of suitcases being closed and loaded, cards swiped, hassle-free service, tickets scanned and cars provided. Ryan's dreams aren't marriage and children. His dreams are to keep flying, to accumulate enough frequent flyer miles to put himself into an elite class.

And with each new stop Ryan and Natalie fly Reitman provides an overhead shot of the city. It may seem like a small thing, but this gives each location, no matter how long or short they stay, a personality of its own.

"We are here to make limbo tolerable. To ferry wounded souls across the river of dread to where hope is dimly visable. Then stop the boat,shove them in the water, and make them swim."

In a year in which Clooney has played a fox, he's even more sly here. Although rough around the edges, sarcastic, self-involved, and saddled with the job of firing thousands of people a year, Ryan is still a likable character who cares more than he ever lets on. But the film isn't afraid to let Ryan be harsh and brutally honest with Natalie, at time bordering on cruel. It's a testament to both Clooney's charisma and Reitman understanding how far he can allow the character to go in each scene.

His two supporting ladies are also worthy of recognition. Kendrick is great as the young professional who finds herself quickly over her head and Farmiga provides a nice contrasting older woman's perspective to Natalie's idealism. There's a scene where the three discuss relationships and the compromises with age that is both depressing and illuminating for Natalie. Although not necessary to the film's plot, its one of those moments that allows you see into each character and make a few educated guesses as how you see things turning out.

I love everything about this film from the open credits looking down on the world from Ryan's vantage point set to "This Land is Your Land" to the closing credits which inlcude a song sent to the director by unemployed man looking for a break. And the more I watch it (I've now seen it three times) the more I like it.

"Everybody needs a co-pilot."

This isn't a film which will wow you with special effects, or make some surprising leap in cinematic history. It doesn't redefine the genre or set out to shock or awe. As memorable as some films which do those things are, they are usually quite hollow, and over time fade compared the luster of a film that not only is well-made but also connects with the audience on an emotional level. As High Fidelty's Rob Gordon would say: "It wasn't spectacular either. It was just good. But really good." To put it another way, if this film were a girl it might not be a supermodel, but it would be the girl you'd marry.

Up in the Air is not a happy movie. Although quite entertaining it isn't afraid to take on hard subjects, and is filled with as much humor as it is raw emotion and pain. Happy moments don't always last, but neither do the saddest and most lonely. If the film has a message perhaps its not to become lost in the moment but continue to move forward, strive, and live.

I've seen the film three time so far, and I'll tell you I plan to watch dozens more over the years. If you want to take odds on the film ranking rather high on my best of the year list I'd say it would be a safe bet. It's one of those films that just works, in every way possible. It's just good. But really, really good.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Invictus is a project Morgan Freeman has been trying to get off the ground for more than a decade. Although I think it's a quality film, and the story is definitely worth telling, I can certainly see why it took this long for the film to get made. It feels at least one more rewrite away (the script was adapted from John Carlin's book by Anthony Peckham) from cashing in on its full potential.

Invictus centers around an event, the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The focus is split between that of the newly elected President Nelson Mandela (Freeman) and the captain (Matt Damon) of the South African Rugby team, the Springbok.

The film certainly captures the importance of the event and what it meant to a new South Africa coming out of the days of apartheid. It also succeeds in demonstrating the change in attitude of the South African people to the team, and effectively spotlights how sports can truly unify people in a very unique way.

All that said, I would have preferred if director Clint Eastwood had concentrated on the either of the two men, Mandela and Francois Pienaar, or the relationship between them, rather than the event itself. There is much about Mandela's plans and his obsession with this match, or Pienaar and his team's struggle to achieve their goal, that could have been used to craft the heart of a more character-driven tale.

Instead the film tries to give us small pieces of each men without truly painting a picture of either. We don't really get to know Mandela or Pienaar, and in the short time they appear on screen together we get only a cursory glance at their relationship. There's more than enough here for several movies, but what Eastwood chooses is to hit the big scenes which sadly leave us a scarcity of the smaller (and much more personal) moments which would have been the backbone of a stronger film.

It's obvious Pienaar respects Mandela. In one of the most memorable scenes the Rugby team takes a trip to the jail which housed the President. Damon's character remarks, "I was thinking how a man could spend thirty years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him." It's a strong moment, but not one that is built upon. Pienaar never thinks or acts on this ephiphany, his life isn't changed in any way, nor does the event shed any more light on the film's depiction of Mandela or the motivations behind his actions.

And as quickly as a moment like this appears it is swept aside to return to the sports story it so desperately wants to tell. Those who enjoy, or know more about, Rugby than I, might enjoy the movie more. Almost all of the final half-hour of 135-minute running time is devoted to the World Cup Final.

As a sports movie the film also struggles. Even with so much of the film devoted to the actual match, for someone who doesn't follow the sport, the action on screen was hard to follow. I saw the events on the field cut together and changes on the scoreboard, but there was no reference provided of how the game was played or how these small moments fit together.

So what should have been dramatic, dragged, and what should have been a fascinating piece of history, wasn't given its due. The players run, hit, huddle, and kick. The score changes (or doesn't). Repeat. I certainly don't fault Eastwood for choosing not to talk down to the audience or hand-hold them through these events, but surely a middle ground might have been reached.

With all these quibbles you might get the feeling I disliked the film. That's far from the truth. My concern isn't that the film is bad, but that it wastes the opportunity to be so much more than just a sports movie that takes place with the backdrop of South African politics.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon are, well, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Both give strong performances worthy of recognition, though both have been better in other films.

And Eastwood does supply some tense moments throughout the film. Though it further split the films focus, taken alone, I especially enjoyed those scenes dealing with the protection of the new President by his staff of guards learning to work together.

Invictus is a quality film. It's not really a must-see, nor do I feel it lives up to its potential. If you like underdog sports stories with strong dramatic overtones (Cinderella Man, We Are Marshall, Rudy) you might give it a try, but if you are mainly interested in who these people were, how they accomplished what they did, and how those accomplishments changed the face of their country, then you might want to pick up a book instead.

The Princess and the Frog

It's been awhile. For more than a decade Disney has been, well, very un-Disney. In many ways, with the latest animated feature, the company returns to the roots. We've got a classic tale, a princess (of sorts), talking animals, big musical numbers, true love triumphant, a wicked villain, and a curse.

The Princess and the Frog, Disney's 49th animated feature film, might not be in the same class as Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, but for the first time in a long time the studio has released a movie that feels like a Disney film (and not an animated feature that any studio could have produced).

That's not to say the movie doesn't have its warts. The Princess and the Frog is at least 15 minutes too long, the story meanders a bit in places, and the animation isn't as crisp as I'd like. That said, over the course of the film you can feel (at least in places) the old-time magic being re-awoken. In many ways through the process of making this film it feels as if the studio is slowly rediscovering itself.

Our heroine is young Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a Louisiana waitress with dreams of owning her own restaurant. She is caught off-guard by the spoiled gallivanting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) who has gotten himself turned into a frog by the evil voodoo magician Docter Facilier (Keith David).

Though hesitant, Tiana agrees to kiss the talking frog who promises to reward her with after he is returned to human form. Unfortunately her attempt to turn him human only curses her webbed toes of her own.

In true Disney fashion, the film gives us memorable supporting characters including a Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings) in love with the Evening Star, a trumpeting alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) with a passion for jazz, and a wise old woman (Jenifer Lewis) with words of wisdom and some magic of her own.

And I'm happy to report that Disney finally, FINALLY, has returned to the musical. Although there's no big number that will knock your socks off there are several strong numbers including "Almost There" and "Dig a Little Deeper."

And it seems kids like it too. At the screening I attended the misadventures of two young frogs and their companions as they search for a cure and learn about each other seemed to keep most of the children entertained.

I don't see The Princess and the Frog earning a spot with Disney's classics but it certainly can find a place with later films from the last twenty-years such as Oliver & Company, Pochantas, Tarzan, or Hercules. And for those, like me, who have been waiting for Disney to rediscover the twinkle in their eye and the song in their heart, it's a good first step.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The "best" bad movie of 2009

Over the next few weeks we'll take a look at the best and worst of 2009. To start things off we begin with the "best" bad movie of the year.

There are bad movies, there are awfully bad movies, and then there are movies so ridiculously bad they force you to bellow with laughter and titter with glee as they instantly earn guilty pleasure status.

Street Figther: The Legend of Chun-Li isn't a good movie, let's get that straight. It is however a enjoyable trainwreck and one of the most unintentionally funny films I've ever seen.

Based on the Street Fighter video game character Chun-Li, the film tells the story of a young girl who grew up to be world renown concert pianist. The sudden arrival of mysterious scroll coinciding with the death of her mother leads her to Bangkok. There she will learn the art of Wushu to kick ass and save her father from Bison (Neal McDonough) and the terrorist organization called Shadaloo who controls him through threats of harm against his family. (You follow all that?) Not exactly Shakespeare, but as action scripts go I've seen worse.

All movies rely on the audience's level of disbelief, often asking the audience to accept some downright dumb ideas. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li asks more than most.

We are expected to believe a young Asian orphan grows up into a beautiful Canadian actress. This is only slightly harder to swallow than the idea that a few martial arts lessons during her childhood and a few weeks living on the streets and training with a mysterious master (Robin Shou) can prepare her to take down one of the world's deadliest fighters, and all his minions.

Throw in plenty of martial arts sequences which all find ways to sneak in moves from the Street Fighter games, Chris Klein doing an impression of the worst of Nicholas Cage (complete with weird hair), the mysterious spider tattoos, and Bison's secret pact with the devil to divest himself of the goodness within him, and you've got the makings for a truly awful film.

There are also convoluted issues involving Bison's land scheme, the odd couple buddy cop relationship between the American cowboy (Klein) and the local cop (Moon Bloodgood), and plenty of horrific dialogue that will make you laugh and wince simultaneously.

What makes The Legend of Chun-Li work despite itself is the level of earnestness in the proceedings. Everyone involved here is playing it straight, believing (despite the script and dialogue) that they are making a kick ass action flick with strong dramatic moments. Had someone attempted to purposely create the level of camp the film delivers without trying the results would be disastrous.

The action scenes are mostly well done (nothing special I grant you, but for those who enjoy a "good" Seagal or Van Damme flick, you should feel right at home). Yes, they include several forced video game moves which don't work well (or, sometimes, at all), but the wire work is competently done and you can tell the actors and stuntmen trained hard to get the fight scenes to work visually.

Kreuk, though miscast, does a fair job with the absurdity of a out-of-work concert pianist turned kung fu warrior out for vengeance. It's obvious she put in the time to meet the physical demands of the role. If anything, the script fails her, not the other way around.

Klein is impossible to take seriously and with every glance or word gives you a new reason to burst into laughter. Bloodgood is well-cast as tough but hot eye candy (and that's about the limit of what her role calls for). McDonough is constantly chewing up large chunks of scenery as the big bad, and Taboo and Michael Clark Duncan make passable flunkies.

For those wishing to check it out the film is available on both DVD and Blu-ray. Both include extras such as both the theatrical and un-rated version of the movie, commentary by McDonough, Klein, and producers Patrick Aiello and Ashok Amritraj, trailers, storyboards, stills, and deleted scenes. Also included are featurettes on the character of Chun-Li, the intensive workouts and martial arts training the actors went through for the film, bringing the video game to life, and the casting of Kreuk.

For those who have a taste for bad movies which are under the delusion they are something more I would heartily recommend Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Is in a bad film? Hell yeah, but it's the "best" bad film I saw this year.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

I'm far from director Wes Anderson's biggest fan. Although I enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums (and to a lesser extent The Darjeeling Limited), in my opinion, most of his work seems to value style over, and sometimes at the cost of, substance.

Anderson's latest Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl's book about a fox fighting his own nature to steal from the wealthy farmers Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon), and provide his family with what he feels they deserve.

And, I must admit, it's really, really good. In many ways the film is a perfect fit for Anderson and merge of its offbeat humor with his own. The stop-animation allows the director to play to his strenghts and design a a complete world. And as a book the story is naturally divided into the kinds of chapters Anderson enjoys breaking his film into (here he even provides titles for each).

And, perhaps most importantly, Dahl's humor and voice mesh very well with that of the director. Animated or not, this really is a Wes Anderson film, from beginning to end.

After surviving a trap twelve Fox years earlier Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has abandoned his life of crime, settled down with his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) and their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), and now spends his time writing a column for the local paper. The arrival of his nephew (Eric Chase Anderson), the move to a more luxurious home, and the yearnings for old times tempt the fox to doing what he does best.

Aside from a few small scenes in which characters move with all the grace of South Park regulars the stop animation fits perfectly with Anderson's eye for style. The more elaborate the action a scene calls for the more impressive it's rendered. Much like 9 from earlier this year (though Fox is the superior film) everything on screen looks tangible, as if you could reach in and grab it. The figures might be a little creepy (and more than a little reminiscent of the Taxidermist shop), but they certainly look solid and real (and in some cases far more real than some characters from Anderson's previous films).

I can't say enough about Clooney who, given his recent choices, is at the top of my list to see in anything. He's perfect as the sly yet egotistical Fox (a role not far removed from his character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). And Anderson surrounds him with talented actors like Streep, Schwartzman, Gambon, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Owen Wilson.

I also was impressed with the film having a little fun with the idea of animal characters being, well, animals. Rather than just create a character who happens to be a fox, rat, or badger, each one here has definite characteristics, especially the Fox family. Although there's plenty hear for children I enjoyed these moments where the film spent a little time with bigger ideas about who a person is, the choices the make, and just how far someone can go to fight their own nature.

Funny, with a good moral but not preachy, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a film for everyone. It's got adventure, furry animals, dramatic elements, impressive stop-animation, and more than a little humor as well. Go see it, I think you'll be glad you did.

The Road

Like most post-apocalyptic tales, The Road isn't exactly sunny. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, the story follows a father (Viggo Mortensen) and a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they journey across a decimated world in search of food, shelter, and safety from bands of roving cannibals.

Okay, so it's not a date movie.

This is really a two-character story. Other than the cannibals and occasional straggler the pair encounter, the only other person given screentime is Charlize Theron as Mortensen's wife (though she is only shown in flashbacks).

This means the weight of the film falls on Mortensen and young Smit-McPhee. Thankfully they're up to the task. Mortensen is as good as always, and Smit-McPhee holds his own against the Oscar-nominated actor.

Although I prefer his last film (The Proposition), director John Hillcoat makes some hard choices here, most of which pay off. The how and why of the apocalypse is never explained. What happened isn't important. The film isn't about people surviving a disaster but about trying to continue to live afterwards.

There are harsh truths inherent in the film about how far a man will go to protect himself and his son, and how fragile civilization is and how quickly it could fall into anarchy. I did expect to see more people, or at least more bodies, instead of the overwhelming emptiness which pervades the film. Oh, and there are cannibals. Lots of cannibals. In balance these darker themes, the film also includes some preachy quasi-religious and philosophical narration about life (which only really work about half the time).

I was also a bit disappointed in the ending, which I understand is true to the novel but I felt was the safest (and least interesting) choice made during the film's two-hour running time. Given the circumstances, the characters encounter there are only three possible outcomes. 1) Realistic: things end badly, 2) Happy: Things are gong to be okay, or 3) Hedging Your Bets (Melancholy but Hopeful): Things are bad but might be getting better.

Through two-hours of stumbling through a broken world filled with cannibals, dust, and little else, in which the audience has invested in these characters, I think it's a cop-out not to see it through. The film earns the harsh realistic ending that's all too easy to see coming. Sadly, it's not what we're given. Good films often give the audience an out, a reasonably happy ending (whether its earned or not) which wraps up everything in a nice package with a bow on top. Great films aren't afraid to leave the audience sad, angry, upset, or questioning. This is the former.

The Road is a fair bit better than other recent post-apocalyptic films such as I Am Legend or Blindness. Even though I find in wanting, it's still an easy recommendation to make. If you enjoy stark drama, and the cannibals don't scare you off, you should give it a try.

Ninja Assassin

At a time when Hollywood seems dead set on giving movies bloodless one and two-word titles that don't give you a clue as to what the movie is about, along comes a film called Ninja Assassin. It's about ninjas who kill people. Finally, a little truth in advertising.

For more than 1,000 years, nine ninja clans have been stealing orphan children under the age of 10 and training them in the art of assassination. For centuries, these clans have sold their services to wealthy individuals, companies, and governments for the cost of 100 lbs. of gold.

When a Europol researcher (Naomie Harris) uncovers their secret, she puts herself and her supervisor (Ben Miles) in danger. This also causes an outcast of the Ozunu Clan named Raizo (Rain) to come to her aid. With her help, Raizo plans to take down the clans and settle a personal grudge with his former master (Sho Kosugi).

Over the course of the film, we learn more about Raizo's past, his training, his reason for leaving the clan, and the driving force behind his battle to destroy them.

The film opens with a bloody but humorous moment which reminded me of Steve Buscemi's opening in Desperado. What follows is one bloody film with a body count that would make most 80s action flicks squeamish. And I will give director James McTeigue and his team (including producers Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers) credit for coming up with several inventive deaths and action-packed fight scenes. However, he also has to take the blame for the film's missteps.

The biggest problem is an unwillingness to allow the story to play out. The ninjas are cool, Rain proves a capable action star, and the fight sequences work well. Over the course of the film however, McTeigue tries to outdo himself again and again.

By the time we get to the end, we're left with two long action sequences--one in a warehouse and the other in the ninja's lair--both of which drive the body count to hysterical limits, with more explosions, quick edits, CGI effects, and gunplay then you ever want to see in a film about ninjas. It stops being a movie and becomes a video game. When our hero kills a small group of ninjas, its pretty cool. When he kills an army of ninjas, its overkill (in more ways than one).

Ninjas are cool, and although the film is pretty cheesy, I was enjoying myself for the first hour or so. However, I grew tired as the film tried to force the action to be bigger and louder than it needed to be.. It's like a girl you're dating: You like her, but you know the relationship isn't going anywhere. She realizes this too, and instead of pulling back and just enjoying the time you have together, she tries harder and harder to make you love her. This, of course, results in you fleeing the scene, despite the fun you've had together.

Given its problems, I can't recommend you spending any amount of money on the film, but if you find it on cable in a couple of years and have a couple hours to kill and a good supply of alcohol handy, you might give it a look.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Planet 51

Planet 51 isn't going to wow you, but as a first animated feature from Ilion Animated Studios it's better than I expected.

The story is pretty simple: a peaceful world is invaded by an alien explorer, and with the help of a goodhearted youngster and his friends he eludes the government and attempts to get back home.

Okay, not that original I grant you. Even though the story does a nice job of tilting the perspective by having a Earthman be the invader on an alien world, the weakest piece of Planet 51 is its plot.

By allowing the film to take place on an alien world, however, the film finds its strength in designing a world that, though goofy, is certainly interesting to explore. This world seems to be centered around a circular design you see in everything from windows to the design of automobiles. Merged with this aesthetic is a 1950s Americana style in terms of look, film, and sound.

It's not only the buildings and cars, which resemble rounded and more molded versions of rides you'd find in American Graffiti, but the people themselves who are imbued with a certain honesty and gullibility found in the B-movies of the period. Although slightly forced at times, it does imbue the film with some innocence and simplicity. The look of the aliens themselves I could take or leave, but the world that they inhabit is one I enjoyed spending some time in.

Our hero is the young junior astronomer Lem (Justin Long) who is just unlucky to have Captain Chuck Baker (Dwayne "Stop Calling Me The Rock" Johnson) land on his doorstep. Along for the ride are the girl next door (Jessica Biel), Lem's goofy friend Skiff (Seann William Scott), and the astronaut's robotic doglike sidekick Rover (who may not be as lovable as Wall-E, but definitely has some charm).

The two main obstacles to getting Chuck home are an army led by General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and his pet mad scientist Professor Kipple (John Cleese), who are positive the alien has some kind of mind-control powers and has come to take over their world.

The film doesn't do itself any favors by including rote "kiddie scenes" (cheap jokes usually involving some form of bathroom humor). Here we get an alien dog who urinates acid and chases the mailman (even Rover looses control of his bladder at one point). This is a film that will make you roll your eyes from time to time, but I was never turned off by the film's more juvenile failings. As it makes these mistakes, the film also takes numerous opportunities to pay homage to several sci-fi films of the past, most notably E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Planet 51 isn't a great film and if you are going to try to hold it up to the likes of Pixar or the glory days of Disney you're going to be sorely disappointed. However, if you enjoyed Monsters vs. Aliens and the Madagascar films then a trip to Planet 51 might suit you just fine.

An Education

An Education is based on the autobiographical memoir of Lynn Barber. Set in 1950, the story centers around 16 year-old Jenny Miller (Carey Mulligan) and her relationship with a charismatic older David Goldman gentleman caller (Peter Sarsgaard) who turns her world upside down.

What follows is a May/December romance that everyone sees happening, including Jenny, her teachers, and her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour), but no one can prevent.

Mulligan provides the heart of the film, and will no doubt recieve a fair amount of praise for her performance. Although I'd seen her in small roles as one of the Bennet sisters in Pride & Prejudice and one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, I didn't know she could carry the bulk of a quiet dramatic film on her own.

As good as she is, it's Sarsgaard's performance that I was most impressed with. There's little to like about David, especially as the film slowly reveals more damaged layers of his character.

And though we desperately want Jenny to turn away from him, we never come to hate his character, nor do the other characters in the film, which given the circumstances is quite remarkable and a testament to Sarsgard himself. The amount of charm and emotion he puts into this cradle-robbing cad makes all the difference. Director Lone Scherfig makes sure we see both the charming visage Jenny falls for, and her parents adore, as well as deeply flawed human being underneath.

And the supporting cast is strong as well. Both Molina and Rosamund Pike provide deliciously funny moments by doing nothing more than stating obvious points from their characters' point of view. And I wanted more of Olivia Williams as Jenny's teacher, and the one person who never gives up on her.

Adapted by Nick Hornsby the film definitely has the feel of a memior, and, to be honest, is stuck with its limitations as well. We certainly see the world through the eyes of Jenny and live through her joys and mistakes. At the same time the film ends rather abrubtly, which I can only assume was a choice by Hornsby to follow the the lead of the memoir rather than contrive a more cinematic final act.

An Education is a nice quiet film you'll no doubt have to search for. It's not without its flaws (which include a rushed ending and puzzling final narration), but with an entire film filled with strong performances and an engaging story about a girl who is forced to make hard decisions far beyond her years, it's one film you shouldn't miss.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I didn't expect much from director Roland Emmerich's latest disaster flick other than a little dumb fun. "2012" couldn't even deliver that.

What follows is a short, and hopefully concise, review for a long, and depressingly boring, film (158-minute running time) that is about as almost as much fun as spending three hours alone in a doctor's waiting room.

Maybe it was asking too much of Emmerich to give us another big disaster flick and distinguish it at all from any of his previous ones (after all, it's not like "10,000 B.C." did anyone any favors). The man who gave us "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," and that woeful "Godzilla" remake, it seems, has nothing new to share. Instead he brings back the same tired storylines, with new actors and larger special effects, in hopes that this alone will be enough to satisfy. It's not.

We're given: The workaholic dad (John Cusack) who we know will take this opportunity to make things up to his estranged wife (Amanda Peet) and cute kids (Liam James, Morgan Lily). The noble scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is constantly surprised and thwarted by the government bureaucrat (Oliver Platt) in his attempt to do the right thing. And don't forget the strong woman with a heart of gold (Thandie Newton) who will no doubt fall for him.

Sadly the special effects, though impressive in the scale and level of destruction, can't save this sinking ship either. The film delivers none of the fun that "disaster porn" should provide. The morose cloud which hangs over the picture takes away any and all enjoyment to be had from the wanton destruction of the planet.

And do we really need to see the White House destroyed again? Even if Emmerich's new method of throwing an aircraft carrier at it is different, the result is the same. Been there, done that.

For all its boasts, "2012" is mostly a tease. We are forced to wait 40 minutes before the real destruction gets started. Then the script does its best to keep interrupting these moments of chaos with canned emotional scenes between the characters (who have just narrowly escaped disaster, again).

The only one here having any fun at all is Woody Harrelson as a crazy conspiracy nut who smartly (given the script) commits suicide at the first possible moment to get out of this dreadful bore of a film. He's the lucky one.

Emmerich wastes talented actors I normally like, even those I like in bad movies (I'd much rather sit through a double-header of "A Lot Like Love" and "America's Sweethearts" than sit through "2012" again), but this lifeless bore delivers nothing. The film lacks the thrill of "Armageddon," the campy fun of "The Core," the patriotic jauntiness of "Independence Day," or even the cheesy B-movie charm of "The Day After Tomorrow."

I didn't actively hate "2012". It didn't make me angry or want to throw something at the screen. All it really made me do was want to take a nap. I wasn't rooting for the nature to kill off these characters, but I didn't exactly care what happened to them either. The latest disaster movie is just that, a disaster (and a pretty boring one at that).

Friday, November 6, 2009

Men Who Stare at Goats

Men Who Stare at Goats begins by stating that more of what you are about to see is true than you would believe.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Ronson the film takes us into the world of government funded programs to create psychic spies, or as George Clooney's character likes to call them - Jedi Warriors.

The film is presented from the perspective of reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who stumbles upon the unlikely story while trying to prove something to himself (and his ex-wife after she leaves him for his boss) by jumping hastily into a dangerous story without thinking.

If you enjoy quirky comedies then this one's for you. Although the film runs out of gas before it runs out of film there are plenty of chuckles plus a few big laughs. McGregor is well-cast as the skeptic who uncovers a story too ridiculous to believe. Would the government actually fund secret programs to create soldiers who could walk through walls, burst clouds with their mind, use telepathy, and gaze into the future? The answer provides many of the film's best moments. And I've got to give credit to director Grant Heslov for the inspired casting of Obi-Wan Kenobi who looks confused every time the phrase Jedi is used.

But as good as McGregor is, the real stars here are the Jedi Warriors themselves. Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, and Stephen Lang all provide the right mix of insanity, paranoia, and an unwavering belief that all these things are real, and possible. Stephen Root has a small early cameo early in the film to set the tone and the other members of the New Age Army run with it.

The title of the film (and of the book) comes from one of the experiments done by the Jedi Warriors where the soldiers are trained to kill goats by staring at them. The "success" of Clooney's character achieving this unlikely act, in one of the film's many flashbacks, moves the movie into its darker scenes. The film gets a little too bogged down here before trying return to the more quirky crazy which makes up the rest of the film.

There's a flashback early on where the program is started, like so many were during the Cold War, in an attempt not to let Soviets get the upper-hand. This moment reminded me of the end of Dr. Strangelove where the characters discuss not allowing the Commies a mineshaft gap. We simply can't let them beat us, no matter the cost (or the ridiculous kinds of situations such thinking leads to). Like so much of the rest of the film, this moment is funny because it is true.

There's nothing about the movie that demands a theater visit, but it is worth seeing. If you're willing to wait, it would make a nice DVD double feature with something like Charlie Wilson's War.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Serious Man

From the minds of the Coen brothers comes this tale of a rather pathetic Jewish professor of physics in late 60s Minnesota. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having all kinds of problems, from the serious to the mundane.

Larry is indeed A Serious Man, and one whose existence isn’t likely to be improved over the course of the film. Though you have a feeling if he could see the dark humor of his own situation, he might laugh himself to death.

His wife (Sari Lennick) has decided to leave him for a widower (Fred Melamed), his unemployed brother (Richard Kind) is living on his couch, his daughter (Jessica McManus) is stealing from him, a student unsatisfied with his grade (David Kang) is bribing and threatening him, a neighbor wants to build a shed on his property, the person deciding on his tenure at the college is receiving unflattering letters about the professor, and he’s being hounded by a telephone calls from a man demanding money for records Larry neither asked for nor received.

During these various crises, our protagonist attempts to find comfort from a lawyer (Alan Arkin) and a serious of rabbis (Simon Helberg, Alan Mandell, George Wyner), none of whom provide him with the solace he seeks. The outcome of each meeting only seems to add to the pressure and confusion Larry is faced with.

Like many characters from the films of the Coens, Larry Gopnik is a man in a world he can’t control. This provides for several humorous moments over the course of the film. Those expecting a screwball Coen comedy like The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? may be slightly disappointed. What they will get is a bleak character study that may not overwhelm you, but will keep your attention.

Unlike many of the Coens’ other leading men, Larry isn’t in his situation for the questionable decisions he’s made but instead for his own inaction and unwillingness to confront the situations which are troubling him. For a main character, he’s about as pathetic as you can get.

The things which happen to him over the course of the film are both funny and sad, but it’s hard to feel for the character when he’s so unwilling to stand up for himself. The message, it seems, is that this character, and perhaps many of us who fail to act, are doomed. Isn’t that a cheery thought?

I was also somewhat confused by the lengthy opening scene involving a Hasidic Jewish couple (Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman) who welcome in a stranger (Fyvush Finkel) who may or may not be a a wandering demon spirit. Although the little parable itself is well done, it adds little overall to the film except perhaps give the audience a peek at the hopelessness yet to come.

A Serious Man isn’t a great film, but it is a well-made and an intriguing intellectual exercise. It’s the character study of a man whose life is spinning out of control. It may not be funny enough or dark enough to be the Coen brothers classic, but it’s a solid entry into the catalog and one their fans shouldn’t miss out on.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Vampire’s Assistant

I’m pretty sure Ed Wood would have loved Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant. Messy, flawed, riddled with odd choices and questionable casting, and stuck with a plot that make less sense as it progresses, The Vampire’s Assistant is in every way a B-movie. And, I’ll admit, I kinda liked it.

Based on a series of novels by Darren Shan, the film’s main plot revolves around a rather bland high school student, Darren (Chris Massoglia), and his more rambunctious best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson), whose main purpose it seems is to get Darren into as much trouble as possible.

A night out takes the pair to a freak show where events unfold that lead Darren into an agreement with vampire Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly) in order to save his friend. Leaving behind his life, Darren becomes part vampire, and begins his new life in the Cirque du Freak as Crepsley’s assistant.

There’s quite a bit else that occurs in the movie concerning Darren, Steve, the mysterious Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), the war between vampires (those who feed on but don’t kill humans) and the vampanese (those who, well, leave bloody messes in their wake). Not all of it makes sense, in fact much of it seems little more than convoluted nonsense to keep the story moving to its final big showdown.

When the film attempts to try and make sense of its plot, it fails spectacularly. However, when the film lets Darren’s story unfold as he discovers the new world around him … well, it doesn’t quite succeed, but it puts on a good show.

I also found the script’s rather flippant take on vampire lore amusing. “Can I turn into a bat?” Darren asks, “No, that’s bullshit.” his new mentor replies. Realizing that the material they’re working with isn’t exactly Shakespeare, no one takes things too seriously. The result is an amusing little train wreck that doesn’t leave too much carnage in its wake.

Although the main role of Darren is hopelessly miscast (and the best friend isn’t that much better) there are some nice supporting performances. Reilly is fun to watch as something far removed from your average movie vampire, and Salma Hayek works quite well as his bearded lady girlfriend (even if the part did remind me a little too much of HBO’s Carnivale).

Patrick Fugit is near unrecognizable as Snake Boy, and, although her character isn’t handled as well as I’d like, Jessica Carlson adds a little spark to the second half of the film.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is deeply flawed. The film is a mess and certainly not for everyone. And even if it doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, it didn’t bore me (an offense I’d be much less willing to forgive). The right audience–and you know who you are–should be able to find a hour or two of enjoyment out of this strange little movie. Just keep your expectations low and think of Ed Wood before the titles start to roll.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

There will no doubt be critics and film professors who dismiss Where the Wild Things Are for it's lack of story and structure. There will also be those who find immediate emotional attachment to this primal story of a child struggling with a world he can't control.

Although I do have some qualms about the film mainly dealing with its length (and I thought it could use a bit more polish plot-wise), and didn't have the emotional attachment to the story I expected, I will freely admit the film is worth a long look.

Aside from the bookends of his normal life, the entire movie takes place in a world Max (Max Records) discovers while trying to escape problems at home he can neither deal with nor articulate. In running away Max discovers a refuge on island of monsters (voiced by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Lauren Ambrose).

Over the course of the film we see each of the characters represent different aspects of Max. Some are obvious like Carol's (Gandolfini) anger and appetite for destruction, and others are more subtle such as Judith's (Ambrose) untrusting nature or the tendency of Douglas (Cooper) to be ignored.

I am a little ambivalent in how the story based loosely on Maurice Sendak's book is presented. Early in the film Max creates a story for his mother (Catherine Keener). In many ways the entire film mirrors this typical child's story. It rambles, turns abruptly, misses some points while over-analyzes others, and meanders it's way towards a conclusion.

There are two possible ways to look at such a film. The first would compare it to traditional storytelling and find it wanting. The second would see how well the film captures the mind and dreams of a child and presents his perspective to the audience. And I'm not sure points can't be made for, and against, both arguments.

In many ways the film is visceral, with rough edges lacking the clarity of a more polished script. However, it's in these rough edges though the film finds its voice and delivers a film not only for kids, but to speak to them as well.

And I must admit I love the look of the film. Director Spike Jonze delivers a visual masterpiece giving us the dream world of a 12 year-old boy. The monsters themselves are fully-realized, and memorable, characters. I also was taken by the look of the world, especially the fort which the monsters build for Max which I could easily believe was plucked from a child's imagination.

I wasn't blown away by the film, nor did I feel strong emotional connection with either Max or the monsters, but I was drawn-in on an intellectual level. As I thought of the film's I would compare Where the Wild Things Are to I came up with E.T. and The Dark Crystal. Though this film isn't in their class it does present a remarkable world and adventure that can capture the imagination of a child.

It's not a traditional film, and some might get bored at times (I did on a couple of occasions), but it does have something unique to offer. It may not be the instant classic I had hoped it to be, but Where the Wild Things Are does deliver a vision and perspective of childhood that is often missing in films about, and aimed towards, children.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Although our pal Mr. Sparkle was less than impressed I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed myself while watching Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying.

The premise is simple: In a world where everyone tells the truth one man (Gervais) discovers the ability to lie. Some of the turns the script takes are expected, Mark Bellison (Gervais) uses his new ability for personal and professional gain, and some are less so such as using little white lies to improve the lives of those around him by giving them hope about life, and what comes after. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The film's major achievement is creating a world of truth which is constantly giving us funny moments. Aside from the most inappropriate name for a retirement community ever, the film also includes the funniest (and most truthful) Pepsi advertisement I've ever seen. Although the story itself is fine, it's in these small touches the film ultimately won me over.

The film isn't perfect. The people of this world are truthful, but at times they are also more forthcoming with much more information than is required, truthful or not. Yes they should be truthful, but should they be compelled to share every harsh truth that comes to mind?

Tina Fey tells Mark what she's always thought of him now that he's losing his job, Jonah Hill is a pathetically truthful suicidal neighbor, and Rob Lowe once again oozes brutally honest smarmy. Funny? Sometimes, but though these moments provide laughs they are also responsible for a good share of the film's groan worthy moments.

The ability to lie can be a wonderful, yet terrible thing. Mark's new ability, and the fame he is able to orchestrate (from it by "finding" a secret historical document about aliens and space ninjas landing on the planet in the 14th Century) give him a chance at winning the girl of his dreams (Jennifer Garner), but also comes with unexpected consequences.

And it's these unexpected consequences that lead to the film's second act which I wouldn't dare spoil here. All I'll say is a noble attempt to comfort his mother on her deathbed leads to Mark Bellison becoming the most famous man on the planet (and provides several big laughs).

With all the films opening today it might be hard for moviegoers to choose which one to see. Let me say The Invention of Lying made me laugh the most, and although I'd recommend you see all four films hitting theaters today, this would be my first choice. Trust me. I won't lie to you.

Whip It

Drew Barrymore might have found a new career as a director of offbeat films. (Better that than starring in more forgettable romcoms or Charlie's Angels 3).

Although Whip It is rough, which you would expect from a first-time director, Barrymore provides an engaging and unexpectedly good sports movie.

Ellen Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a 17 year-old small town girl who becomes instantly fascinated by the world of roller derby. Stuck in the beauty contest world of her controlling mother, Bliss finds solace, and the opportunity to find herself, in something new.

Lying about her age, Bliss is selected to be part of the team of misfits known as the Hurl Scouts who are just as happy to come in second place, perhaps even more so, than actually win a contest.

Barrymore and Kristen Wiig star as two of the Rollers. Although Barrymore gives herself the comedy relief part, Maggie (Wiig) proves to have unexpected depth. A loving yet honest conversation between Bliss and Maggie provides one of the film's best moments. The rest of the team includes Eve, Zoe Bell, and Ari Graynor, and is led by the dry wit of Andrew Wilson.

Aside from the Rollers themselves the film is also peppered with strong supporting performances by Jimmy Fallon as the roller derby announcer Hot Tub Johnny, Alia Shawkat as Bliss' best friend Pash, Daniel Stern as Bliss' father, and Juliette Lewis as the leader of the dreaded Holler Rollers, Iron Maven.

Whip It delivers that quirky indie feel, but doesn't settle on it alone. Nor does it rely on the simple sports cliches (though many are present). And although the film does include a love interest (Landon Pigg) for Bliss I wouldn't classify it as a romantic comedy either.

At it's heart Whip It is a tale about a girl's relationship to her mother and a coming of age story about someone finding something that they not only enjoy but find they are talented at doing. At times the film does telegraph some scenes and minor plot points, but still takes care in delivering a strong story. Its successes fall outnumber its failings.

In a week that includes Michael Moore's new documentary, a big zombie flick, and a more mainstream comedy, it's quite possible Whip It could get lost in the shuffle. And that would be a shame. You may have to search this one out as it is not getting as wide a release as its main competition, but it's definitely worth it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

In the past, Michael Moore has taken on George Bush, the gun lobby, and health care. In his latest film Capitalism: A Love Story, he finds a new target in the economic system of capitalism. Greed, it turns out, isn't really good afterall.

As in his previous movies, Moore combines interviews of real Americans, news footage, the town of Flint, funny clips, his own personal narrative, and his trademark stunts, to try and prove his point. Although Capitalism is a highly entertaining movie, in terms of constructing and presenting an argument it's Moore's weakest entry to date.

The basic premise of the film is capitalism is a flawed and inherently destructive system. To help prove his point, Moore showcases the inequality between corporate America and the middle class (which has been taken advantage of by a growing culture of greed). The advantages and opportunities that capitalism fosters such as entrepreneurship, invention, and the ability to rise far above the economic station of your birth, are simply glossed over (or reduced to broad generalization).

The film includes several strong moments including FDR's proposal for a second Bill of Rights which would have assured all Americans the right to health care, a good job, and affordable housing. From Moore’s perspective, America was instrumental in getting other countries these things, but decided for itself, that a large pile of money was more desirable.

The film also has fun with Reagan's presidency (which provides the funniest moment of the film) and the rise of corruption of the 1980s, which we are still paying for today. The film showcases how corporations use every loophole available to squeeze money from their workers, even after their deaths. The "Dead Peasant" portion of the film will no doubt shock and sicken many who were unaware of the business practice of companies buying life insurance for their employees without their knowledge with the company being the sole beneficiary. Why would they do something like this? Death is profitable.

As the film winds to its end, it becomes a cry for action—any action. As Moore states, the only way greed (which he infers is inherent in a capitalist system) can be held in check is for the people to recognize what is happening and demand a change. To help illustrate this point, Capitalism includes a bread company co-op, striking workers in Pittsburgh, and the grassroots movement which led to the unexpected election of a black President on a campaign of change.

Much like Bill Maher's Relilgulous (which I also had mixed feelings towards), the film takes on a large concept and posits that isn’t simply broken, but evil. Both films point out numerous flaws, but don’t quite succeed in proving that the instrument of their distaste needs to be wiped from the face of the earth.

As he is wont to do, Moore also ignores the positive aspects of the systems he is attacking or offer constructive alternatives to the status quo. As a film, however, Capitalism is definitely worth seeing, and is quite entertaining. As a political statement trying to decry an entire way of life, it falls a little short.

Our pal Eric at Scene-Stealers enjoyed the film a little more than I did. For a slightly different perspective check out his review here.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Fame is fleeting and, by itself, unsatisfying. So what are we to conclude about a group of kids chasing a dream, not of being a great singer, dancer, or musician, but only trying to grab the spotlight for themselves?

"Fame," the remake of the 1980 film, gives us a variety of characters from the meek Penny (Kay Panabaker) to the angry Malik (Collins Pennie), but in none of them do we find anyone to root for.

Sometimes it was all I could do try and remember what particular talent got each kid into the school; there are simply too many characters. More than once I actually forgot someone was even in the film as they disappeared for long stretches.

The film condenses the journey of a class of students from the New York City High School of Performing Arts from auditions through graduation. That's more than four years boiled down into less than two hours. The film bites off more than it can chew.

Our story begins with an insipid American Idol-style audition sequence which is included solely to grab some cheap laughs from the audience. How are we to judge the talent or root for those who made the cut if those who missed it were nothing more than clowns?

Also included in the film are a karaoke night out, the sterotypical unreasonable parents (for no reason other than the script needs them to be), and some rather odd chronological problems which leave too many issues to be quickly and neatly wrapped up late in the students' fourth year.

There's plenty to nitpick about the story, acting, and questionable updating of the original story and music (which includes more hip hop and rap), all of which is inconsistent.

If the film has one major flaw, however, it is almost instantly forgettable. None of the actors are bad, at least I believe that to be the case, but the shallow characters they are stuck with makes it hard to tell.

That's not to say Fame is a bad film. There's some talent here, especially Naturi Naughton who shines despite being saddled with the most cliched subplot. One-time TV couple Kelsey Grammar and Bebe Neuwirth, along with Charles S. Dutton, each have nice moments as teachers of PA. Add to that a few passable musical numbers and some impressive dancing and the film may not succeed, but, for most of the running time, there's just enough there's enough to keep your interest.

The trademark song of the original film doesn't show up until the closing credits, re-edited into a hip hop travesty. The entire film has been updated, but like this one number, not improved. Even if Fame had been an original film, and not an unnecessary remake, it still sports a few too many blemishes to garner much praise.

Although I can't recommend the film I do think there is a target audience that should enjoy themselves, if only until the closing credits. The pre-teen girls in the audience of the screening I attended had fun, and as PG family fare you could do worse. Go see it if you like, but if I could offer you a piece of advice: Forget Fame. I plan to the moment I finish this review.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Here's what I learned from Jennifer's Body.

1) Academy Award nominated screenwriters are just as good at writing mediocre horror flicks as everyone else.

2) People should really stop giving Æon Flux director Karyn Kusama work.

3) Asked to do some real acting, and without Michael Bay's lascivious ogling lens, Megan Fox (who isn't allowed to straddle motorcycles in cut-offs here) isn't nearly the same sexy siren her fans drooled over in the Transformers franchise.

The film isn't awful, but it wastes what little it brings to the table by serving up a lukewarm TV dinner that fails to satisfy. Jennifer's Body makes several errors on it's way to Best Buy's DVD bargain bin, some of which I've summarized below.

You'd think casting Megan Fox as the high school bitchy best friend man-eating (literally!) cheerleader would be a plus. Although this role is all Fox could hope for, her flaws really start to show. She's simply not much of an actress when her daily call-sheet calls for anything more than to look hot. And although Amanda Seyfried fares better on camera, she's horribly miscast as the dorky and homely best friend. In her narration, Seyfried states the two are so different that no one can understand their friendship. Really? And pulling her hair back and giving her glasses may work in teen rom-coms, but here it's just one of many stupid, stupid decisions.

Un-titilating Titillation
Early web gossip for the film has been fascinated with two things: Megan Fox's skinny-dipping scene and Fox and Seyfried's lesbian scene. If this is all you care about, let me save you $10. There's no nudity in the first, and the second might titillate a 12-year-old but it goes nowhere fast, and, even worse, makes no sense when it occurs in the film. Why would Needy (horrible name for Seyfried's character by the way) make out with Jessica after she knows her friend has turned into a monster?

To hold horror films up to logic is bound to bring disappointment, but even for such a film, Jennifer's Body has plenty of issues. Unwilling to follow any rules, or go the Scream route and satrize the absurdity of horror flicks, Jennifer's Body falls, and so fails, somewhere in the middle. Characters commit actions which only occur because the plot calls for them (such as a contrived break-up whose sole purpose is to separate a couple for slaughter).

Then there's the troubling inconsistencies inherent in Jennifer's transformation (which isn't delved into until the second-half of the movie and so I won't ruin here). Throw in the varying level of intelligence (and even speech patterns) of every single character onscreen, and you've got more than the average amount of groan-worthy moments. You know you're in trouble when the script calls for numerous, supposedly smart characters, to believe that Jennifer (Fox) is a virgin - a misunderstanding which is central to the entire plot of the film.

The Victim
In horror movies there are three archetypal characters: killer/monster, victim, and hero. Now the victim can also be the hero, but in Diablo Cody's script the victim is the monster. But instead of a sympathetic monster like Frankenstein we're given a self-absorbed slut of a killer. See the disconnect? Are we supposed to root for Jennifer, feel sorry for her, or hope for her death? The film asks the audience to do all of these at different moments. It doesn't help that the script consistently yo-yos the character between simply dumb-bitchy victim and Species-like man-eater.

The film is wildly erratic in how it presents its story. At times it's a gorefest. At times it's smart, bordering on satirical. And at times it's nothing more than your typical, dumb monster movie. Sadly, these jagged pieces never fit together. The entire film feels like it's continually in search of its identity.

There are plenty of horror flicks worse than Jennifer's Body, but the film disappoints with how quickly, and easily, it wastes what little it has going for it to begin with. Luckily, the slasher genre allows the film to be dismissed and forgotten quite easily, and Cody and the rest can quickly move on to other projects.