Sunday, March 10, 2013

Identity Thief

The concept of this film holds some promise. After having his identity stolen, Sandy Patterson's (Jason Bateman) life is falling apart as he is being held responsible for the crimes committed and debts inured by a career criminal that specializes in credit card fraud. The traditional methods of fixing his credit after ID theft takes years and the authorities won't do anything to help him unless the perp is caught red handed, so Sandy takes a cross country trip on his own to apprehend the fake Sandy. Because Sandy is a unisex name, the thief that stole his identity is a woman (Melissa McCarthy). When they're forced to drive from Florida back to the real Sandy's home in Denver, hilarity supposedly ensues. Unfortunately, the great potential of this film is never realized. Identity Thief is a flawed movie from opening to closing credits. The story itself is straight forward: good guy hunts down bad guy, good guy captures bad guy, good guy drags bad guy back for justice, and in the process bad guy makes many attempts to escape. The screenwriters must have assumed that this story line was too simple so they introduced multiple subplots. These minor plots distracted from the over all story - especially Sandy's desire to enact revenge on his sleazy boss (Jon Favreau) - a concept that worked much better in 1997's Nothing to Lose. Since the victim taking a road trip with the perpetrator concept was too ordinary, their trip is complicated by not just one, but three additional characters hunting down the criminal Sandy, and a police force that interrupts the revenge plan sub-plot. First is a pair of gang hitmen (Genesis Rodriguez & T.I.) sent to kill Sandy for selling bad credit cards to their boss. The other is a bounty hunter known only as Skiptracer (Robert Patrick). These pursuits result in gun play, several punches to the throat, multiple car crashes, and a snakebite. And that punch to the throat is overplayed. First time it was funny, the second time not so much, and every punch after that was just annoying. The biggest error in this movie is the complete unlikability of either of the main characters. Bateman as Sandy is pathetic. He is a pushover who inspires zero empathy. At the beginning of movie, he willingly hands over his social security number, birth date, and enough other pieces of information that even the least ham-fisted criminal could steal his identity. Throughout most of the movie I couldn't help but think, 'he deserves this.' McCarthy as Sandy is a vile and repulsive character. She's an obnoxious and vulgar alcoholic who seems to be doing everything in her power to make people despise her. Like her male counterpart, with people chasing her down to either kill her or throw her in jail, I kept thinking, 'she deserves this.' By the time either character shows any redeemable qualities, it's all ready too late - I can't stand either of them. The only reason I want the real Sandy to succeed is for the sake of his wife (Peet) and friend (Cho). As much as the hitmen/bounty hunter threads distract from the main story, I actually enjoyed the scenes with them more than the ones without them. Even as side characters, they were more compelling than Bateman or McCarthy. Their interactions were funnier than most of the rest of the film - especially the scene where Patrick shoves T.I. into a car trunk and when that trunk is later opened by police. I find it sad that these small roles were more convincing and enjoyable than the movie's protagonists. I wouldn't say Identity Thief is a horrible movie, but in no way is it a good movie either. This is one that is best to wait until it is available on Redbox or wait until it's broadcast on a premium cable channel.

Saturday, June 09, 2012


The hype surrounding Prometheus has long been that it is a prequel to the Alien franchise. Director/Producer Ridley Scott admitted that the movie would be set in the same universe as the Alien series, but Prometheus would have it's own themes and mythology.

At first, Prometheus seems to stay true to the idea that Alien and Prometheus truly are separate entities. The opening sequence is wholly terrestrial with stunningly beautiful scenery. It shows a UFO that is more in line with pop-sych sightings than anything from the original Alien trilogy, and it introduces the first alien creature - one that does not resemble the creepy xenomorph we were introduced to in 1979's Alien.

The first few minutes of film prescribes to the extraterrestrial seeding origin of life theory - drawing heavy inspiration from the ancient astronauts pseudoscience. Scientists Elizabeth (Rapace) and Charlie (Marshall-Green) discover evidence in an ancient Scottish cave that points to a species of aliens that came to our planet and visited every pre-civilized culture on Earth. They interpret this evidence as a road map and embark on a quest to meet their makers.

Enter the Weyland Corporation. These two scientists convince the insanely wealthy Peter Weyland (Pearce), founder and CEO of Weyland Corporation, to fund an expedition to a distant Earth-like planet to seek our creators, beings they call Engineers.

From the first moment you see the craft Prometheus floating through space, the look and feel of the movie begins to seem reminiscent of earlier films in the franchise. The exploration of the domed structures is similar to the reconnaissance in the underground Antarctic pyramid from Alien vs. Predator. The phallic symbolism is as apparent in Prometheus as it was in the first Alien movie. The Engineer ship is the same as the aliens ship. The snakes in the oily goo look like the chest bursters. There are face huggers and ugly baddies. And an android with ulterior motives.

In fact, motives play a huge role in Prometheus. Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (screenwriters) and Ridley Scott gave each of the characters a reason to be on that voyage. Everyone serves a purpose even if that purpose is to be the first to die.

I don't want to spoil too much of the plot or ruin any of the surprises because there are a few decent plot twists that breathe new life into the Alien franchise that was missing in the utterly bizarre Alien Resurection and the hokey pair of AvP films. While Scott would have you believe this movie was intended to be a prequel in only the vaguest sense of the word, the final scene makes it abundantly clear; we are watching something that belongs in the Alien mythos.

Prometheus is a must see for SciFi fans and those that enjoy scary movies. Some of the biggest moments of terror were rehashed from earlier Alien movies so those moments that were intended to be the most frightening have lost a bit of its bite. But there are some genuine shocks and scenes that are still tense and horrifying.

While the movie has superb cinematic sequences and a captivating story, it won't find broad appeal beyond genre fans. It's not the kind of movie that my wife would enjoy and it is definitely not for the squeamish.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Remember watching the first Ghost Rider movie and thinking, 'This might be the worst comic book adaptation in move history"? The Spirit of Vengeance will change your previous opinion.

Nicolas Cage sets new lows as he resumes his role of Johnny Blaze (AKA The Ghost Rider). And his phoned-in performance is what we've come to know and expect out of Cage: stiff and bordering on insanity.

This new film retains it's namesake character but changes everything else. New setting (now in Eastern Europe as Blaze is trying to run away from his demons). New damsel in distress. New villains (even cheezier than those in the first film). They even re-wrote history inserting a new character (Roarke - played by Ciarán Hinds) as the devil who made a deal with Blaze and transformed him into The Ghost Rider. In the first movie that role was fulfilled by Peter Fonda as the character Mephistopheles.

The sad part of of Spirit of Vengeance is that the rest of the cast is far more entertaining than the central character. Riordan as the son of the devil and Placido as his mother trying to save him from evil both turn in more compelling performances than Cage. Elba's character Moreau (a drunken warrior monk) is infinitely more interesting than The Ghost Rider. In fact, the first few minutes of the film featuring Moreau and the boy/mother escaping a handful of assassins after an attack at a monastery hold promise that this might actually be an enjoyable movie.

But our hopes of a good film are trampled as soon as The Ghost Rider's animated introduction is splashed across the screen. What we're left with is overblown special effects, CGI that dances between spectacular and shoddy, a frantic story line, and Cage's throwaway one liners. Toss in Cage's typical performance alternating from manic to stoic, and we're left with an abysmal movie that makes it's predecessor look like an Oscar worthy work of genius. Not an easy task considering the first Ghost Rider movie was an utter pile of trash.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Vow

If you've seen the preview, you know the story. And not just part of it - but almost the entirety. A young couple suffer a severe tragedy in which the wife loses the previous five years of her memory. That memory loss includes any recollection of the courtship with and marriage to her husband. The husband spends the rest of the movie trying to woo her and remind her of their relationship. It's basically the same plot as Chuck's series finale - without the geeky humor and spy vs spy action.

But what's different from that Nerd Herding TV show is that The Vow is loosely based on a try story.

The rest of this review is laden with plot spoilers - which I don't feel bad about as the preview itself is a two minute plot spoiler.

Rachel McAdams plays Paige, the free spirited Artist inflicted with amnesia. Not only has she forgotten everything about her husband and the love they shared, but she doesn't remember anything about her current work and her time in art school. When she emerges from a coma, the last thing she remembers is being a law student engaged to another man.

Her parents (Jessica Lange & Sam Neill) are manipulative and selfish. Her real husband, Leo (Channing Tatum) is heartbroken. And half of the movie is a war between the factions of husband and parents - neither like the other and both think they have Paige's best interests in mind.

The other half of the movie is spent watching Leo's displays of devotion - all of which are fruitless.

Your opinion of this movie will vary depending on your outlook on life. Bekah found the film to be hopelessly romantic and inspiring, but that could be because most women want someone to love them as deeply as Leo loved Paige. That's why stories like Twilight are successful. I thought The Vow was wholly depressing. That could be because his repeated failed attempts remind guys of how they've previously failed in our own love stories. In The Vow, Leo kept doing all the right things and none of it worked.

By the end of the movie Paige and Leo may be heading to a restaurant for a meal together, but they're divorced. Leo is still hurt from his loss and unrequited love, and Paige is trying out art school again while trying to rediscover herself. The happy ending is only provided in the afterword. I'm not bummed that Paige never regained her memory. That would be taking too much creative license over the true events. But I am disappointed that the romance was not reignited during the film.

I'm not saying this is a bad movie. It was just OK. McAdams and Tatum are both decent in their romantic roles (although I don't buy Tatum as a hipster professional musician and recording studio engineer). Sam Neill is at his best when he plays characters that we're not supposed to trust. And I appreciated some of the more intelligent music references like the story of Thom Yorke turned into a motivational speech - which in my opinion was the best scene in the movie. Second best part? Hearing Pictures of You by The Cure during the closing credits.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

There was an extended preview for Extremely Loud before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and through the whole 3 minute clip I kept thinking, "This kid is on the Autism Spectrum." I got my phone out and quickly texted my wife: "We must see this movie." (don't worry, the movie hadn't started yet so I wasn't one of those movie goers)

Extremely Loud follows Oskar (Thomas Horn), a precocious ten year old New Yorker, as he tries to make sense of losing his father in the World Trade Center attacks - an event which Oskar repeatedly refers to as "the worst day."

Oskar is abnormally intelligent; possesses a legion of phobias; has an obsession with facts, numbers, and maps; has a foul mouth; speaks his mind without weighing the possible impact of his words; employs self stimulating routines; and has several other peculiar habits.

In his grieving, Oskar finds a key and thinks it's a clue to a quest that his father left for him to explorer and dicsover New York's lost sixth borough. His self imposed search to find the lock that the key unlocks is an attempt to find order in the disorder of life and make sense of an inexplicable tragedy. In it he touches the lives of many people - most of them strangers.

We also see the struggles of parenting a unique child. We see Oskar's dad (Tom Hanks) step into his child's world. We see Oskar's mom (Sandra Bullock) care for her son while coping with her own loss. You see the heartbreak and the joy of raising a kid that is just a step out of sync with society.

As the movie started, I couldn't help but laugh (perhaps inappropriately) at Oskar's eccentricities. It's a somber film and you should feel sorry for this kid that learned of his father's death through a series of six answering machine messages and TV news reports. But I couldn't help but chuckle as he counts the number of lies he tells, or sorts through the essentials he needs to pack to take on his search, or compulsively shakes a tambourine to find courage to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I laughed because it was like watching my son on that big screen. It was a glimpse into my son's inner psyche.

At last the moment of justification came. Oskar is interviewing (interrogating) strangers to find who knew his dad and recognizes the key. He explains to the first stranger, "People tell me I'm very odd all the time. I got tested once to see if I had Asperger's disease. Dad said it's for people who are smarter than everybody else but can't run straight. The tests weren't definitive."

But Bekah and I both recognized the signs of ASD. Oskar is just quirky enough to be described as an aspie child with or with out an official diagnosis explained in the script. And the oddities of being a kid with Aspergers was expertly portrayed by Horn.

But of course the movie isn't all about Oskar's disorder. But it does help explain why and how Oskar executes his search for the missing lock. It is this understanding that may be lost on many movie goers. It is a frame of reference that helps audiences understand that Oskar is not a normal child.

If you want to see what life is like for parents like Bekah and me or thousands of other parents whose kids are on the Autism spectrum, go see Extremely Loud. If you are the parent of a kid on the spectrum, this is a must see film. And if you're just looking for a good film, this movie packs a well composed script, a gut wrenching story, and believable portrayal of dealing with loss.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

If you are planning on seeing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, prepare yourself for two things.

First, it is a deeply disturbing movie. As one of the protagonists mentions early in the film, the characters involved are "thieves, misers, bullies - the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet." Both Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) the discredited journalist and Salander (Rooney Mara) the hacker hired to help catch a killer of women are faced with violence and pain. They suffer torture, mental abuse, and sexual assault. Their investigation uncovers a series of ritualistic levitical murders. From the disorienting opening sequence (typical of director Fincher's work) set to Trent Reznor's version on Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, through the use of Enya's Orinoco Flow during a pivotal scene, much of this movie seems to wallow in the depravities of man.

The second thing you should be prepared to endure is shameless product placement. There's no attempt to disguise or subliminally allude to corporate sponsorship. Brand recognition is not subtly flashed across the screen or quietly hinted at - it is brazenly displayed leaving no doubt who helped fund the film. In the first fifteen minutes alone, I noticed blatant plugs for Marlboro, Apple, Coke, and Google. As the movie continued, companies like McDonalds and Nokia found some convenient advertising.

While this is not a movie for those with a week stomach, it is well done. David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac) knows what he's doing. He is skilled at coaxing stellar performances out of actors in films typically burdened by dark subject matter.

The Swedish setting is beautiful at times yet maintains a haunting quality. Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross (the same duo that scored Fincher's last movie - The Social Network) composed a stunning soundtrack that fits the mood and sets the pace throughout The Dragon Tattoo.

If I offer any recommendations it's tepid at best. My biggest reservations with Dragon Tattoo - aside from the film's graphic nature - are parts that did not make the leap from book to movie. While Mara does a fantastic job portraying the broken and emotionally fragile character of Salander, we fail to see why she's so messed up - quirks that are aptly explained in the book. I will also warn that parts of the movie were extremely difficult to watch - especially the scene where Salander carries out revenge on her sadistic state-appointed caretaker.

Over all, I was impressed with what Fincher accomplished, however The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a film I'd ever want to see again.

Monday, December 19, 2011


A common symptom of Aspergers Syndrome is an intense and keen preoccupation with specific subjects that go beyond a hobby - what parents of kids on the autism spectrum call a "special interest." They come and go in phases. My son is transitioning from a passion for animals to an interest in science (convenient that those two subjects are mutually compatible). He has also developed an obsession with maps.

So when I first saw the preview for Martin Scorsese's Hugo - I knew it would be the perfect movie for my Aspie son. An adventure of a boy with a narrow interest in fixing things, a robot that is the focus of all his energy, and the inner workings of a Parisian train station; it fit right in with my son's new fascination with all things scientific. The foreign setting would lend itself to map exploring when we were home again and in front of a computer.

What appeared on the surface to be a visually stunning and potentially emotionally manipulative tale turned out to contain a delightful story.

The movie opens with Hugo - an orphan that lives behind the walls of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris. Hugo steals food to survive, keeps all of the clocks in the station operational, and watches the lives of normal people from behind the clock faces - all while avoiding the grasp of the station master (Sacha Baron Cohen) a stern guard who likes to capture stray children and send them to the orphanage.

He also steals springs and gears and other mechanical trinkets from a grouchy toy-maker (Ben Kingsley) to repair a robot salvaged by Hugo's father (Jude Law). The boy is skilled at fixing things - be it his robot, clocks, toys, or the lives of people who have lost their place in the world.

Along with the toy-maker's goddaughter, Hugo works to interpret a message drawn by the robot - a path that takes him through the history of film to a forgotten legend.

There is an air of magic that surrounds the story - yet it is wholly grounded in mechanized realism with a hint of steampunk romance. Through Hugo's eyes, we see the world full of wonder yet tainted with heartbreak. It presents us a message of purpose - that everyone is here for a reason, that every person is like a part in a machine where there are no extra parts.

My son was captivated by the film, often leaning over and whispering "This is a good movie." I expected him to enjoy the movie - but he learned more than I anticipated. At a point where the early days of cinema was portrayed showing the hand cranked projectors used in the first movies, Christian took his eyes off the screen for the first time and turned to look to the back of the theater - inspecting the projection booth that I'm sure he never before knew existed. I could see the awe in his face coupled with the sudden realization of how movie magic worked.

Like most of Martin Scorsese's work, Hugo is a bit long. It clocks in with a running time just over two hours and bits of the movie seemed lumbering or overly drawn out. At times, it also felt as if I was watching the longest National Film Preservation Foundation PSA ever created. It should be noted that Martin Scorsese founded The Film Foundation in 1990 and is on the board of directors.

But the picture is dazzling. The message of fixing things that are broken and of purposeful reason for existence lends the movie some teachable moments for kids. It is worth watching and (in hindsight) I wished I had shelled out the few extra bucks to see it in 3D.

I recommend you see it. And if the opinion of a seven year old is worth anything - Christian gave it praising remarks. Go, and take your kids with you.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


What better way is there to wrap up the summer movie season than a film about a contagious disease that decimates our home planet's population? Am I right?

Maybe not, but Contagion fills that role and does it with near expert precision. Aside from a couple of flaws, this film has a lot working in its favor: an all-star ensemble cast, dynamic filming locales, a fantastic script, with a relevant and plausible story.

Let's start with that cast.

There are four divergent yet overlapping stories fleshing out Contagion's plot. First is Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and stepson die from a mysterious illness. He's been exposed to the pathogen, and must cope with his loss while trying to protect his daughter and prevent her from becoming sick. Next are two CDC doctors (Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet) researching the effects and spread of the virus. Jude Law plays a smarmy blogger/journalist/conspiracy theorist capitalizing on the medical crisis, advertising a cure that doesn't work. And the final story arc involves a World Health Organization doctor (Marion Cotillard) sent to Hong Kong to investigate the source of the virus.

Before we continue, let's make one thing clear. This is not a raging virus movie like Outbreak (1995). That movie was nothing more than a monster movie where the heroes spend all their time figuring out how to win. Where Outbreak was steeped in action, Contagion has more of an intellectual bent grounded more in reality. Rather than following an A + B = C formula (where A is the virus, B is the doctors, and C is a cure), Contagion follows the tragedy and human reaction to a massive epidemic. The media and medical personnel attempt to downplay the scope to prevent a swine flu kind of public panic. The interactions between those in-the-know and the lives of those around them. The tender moments between a protective father and his daughter. The Chinese government trying to hide their possible involvement in causing the outbreak. Political hostages. Government assumptions. Military reaction. Widespread fear. Riots. Looting. Truth vs disinformation.

This isn't an easy movie to watch as the subject matter is heavy and the imagery is gritty and occasionally unsettling. The film makers appear to be aware of this potential buzz kill and break up the dismal prospects of their characters with a few moments of levity (snow angels) and quick one-liners. Some of those one-liners work ("Blogging is not writing. It's just graffiti with punctuation.") and some don't ("Someone doesn't have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing that.")

By no means is this a perfect movie. It is slow paced making it feel longer than its actual running time. And while the film makers made every attempt to keep the story as scientifically accurate as possible, they cast Demetri Martin as one of the scientists engineering the cure. I kept waiting for him to crack a dead-panned non sequitur joke - which was a bit of a distraction from the actual story.

My biggest complaint is that Contagion comes across as a long "you should always wash your hands" PSA. But that one squabble aside, Contagion is an great movie. Bekah enjoyed Contagion and recommends it - which says a lot because she doesn't often recommend movies. My father-in-law said it was a bit "sterile" but overall an excellent film. He also lauded the ending as being a fantastic piece of story-telling (though I will not spoil the ending here).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I never quite understood the original Planet of the Apes movies. Perhaps I was too young when I first watched them, so the cautionary tales against nuclear war my have been lost on me. Or perhaps the morality tales confronting the social issues of the 70s were too complex for the younger version of Nic. Either way, I never considered myself a fan of the movies.

However, the concept intrigued me. It compelled me to re-watch the original series. It made me excited at the idea of Tim Burton working his magic with the mythology surrounding the Apes, but was disappointed by how Burton mangled the ending of 2001's iteration.

With that in mind, I approached this new reboot with cautious optimism.

My fears were unwarranted. The new Apes delivers a satisfying story that pays homage to the original movies, yet stands as it's own entity.

This isn't a sequel and not exactly a prequel. Where Charlton Heston's 1968 Apes played into that generation's fear of a nuclear holocaust, the new Apes capitalizes on bio-engineering and genetic mutation.

The film's protagonist, Will Rodman (Franco) is a genetic neuroscientist researching a cure for Alzheimer's disease with personal interest in hopes to save his father (Lithgow) who is battling Alzheimer's.

After a workplace accident, Will reluctantly becomes the guardian of a baby chimp - the offspring of a genetically altered test subject.

If you've seen the previews - or possess any understanding of the themes of the Apes movies, you know that this baby grows up to be an intelligent chimpanzee.

There is much in this movie to praise. The motion capture work with Andy Serkis (the man who brought LOTR's Gollum to life) is extraordinary. Lithgow's performance is convincing and tragic. The screenwriters created apt reason to feel empathy for the apes and provided enough foreshadowing to understand their motivation. And while Franco's role as a groundbreaking scientist is dubious, the relationship between him and Caesar the chimp makes the movie worthwhile.

Pay attention to the names given to the apes - many of them honor characters, cast members, or crew of the original series. For example, Caesar was the baby chimp born at the end of Escape and the main ape in Conquest.

Icarus - the spaceship that delivered Charlton Heston to the original planet - makes a cameo through broadcast and print news (hinting at a possible sequel). And the Statue of Liberty makes a creative appearance.

Fans of the original movies will find other familiar bits. A few lines of dialog were borrowed from the originals including the notorious "damn dirty apes" quip.

While entertaining and wholly satisfactory, Rise is not a perfect movie. Aside from casting Franco as a scientist, I have a few other complaints about the film. There were a couple prominent clips from the preview that did not make the final cut - a major pet peeve of mine. And some of the action sequences were blurry and/or dizzying.

Minor squabbles aside, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a fantastic way to end the weekend. I give it nine angry monkeys out of ten.

(and yes, I know, they're apes, not monkeys)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Piranha 3D

I always wondered if I could write a movie review with five words or less. Piranha 3D seems like a perfect opportunity to try.

Gratuitous. Predictable. Don't bother.

Huh... looks like less than five words.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Expendables

You are a fool if you watch The Expendables expecting to see award winning acting, a flawless script, highbrow entertainment, or a realistic portrayal of the mercenary lifestyle. The performances are typecasted, the action is over-exaggerated, and the movie is inherently flawed.

And it is great summer fun.

If you’re looking for big explosions, over-the-top gun play, car chases, and brutal brawling, you won’t find it in Eat Pray Love. The Expendables is perfectly geared toward the mindless escapism of summer blockbusters. It is a quick paced tour de force of action and nostalgia. The collection of former action headliners with modern action stars is the casting dream of genre fans. From the first peek at teasers and trailers, intelligent people everywhere knew that The Expendables was going to be a campy movie. Yet is the kind of film that forced itself into many must see lists despite its predictable banality.

The movie centers on Barney Ross (played by Stallone - who also wrote and directed), the leader of the titular mercenary crew. He and his gang of brutes are hired by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis in a short cameo) to assassinate the dictator of a fictional island nation in South America. After a trip to the island turns dangerous, Ross declines the job. Thankfully, Ross has a heart to heart man-talk with a former Expendable, Tool (Mickey Rourke – who gives the film the closest resemblance of genuine acting) sowing some seeds of discontent in Ross’s brawny mercenary heart. He’s convinced to return to the island alone to save the girl. After being betrayed by another former team member, Gunner (Dolph Lundgren – who still can’t act) Ross boards his plane to find the rest of the team waiting.

The remaining scenes devolve into a predictable string of gunfire, fists, and massive explosions. I hate to spoil the plot, but everybody dies except the heroes. If that is a surprise to you, you’ve been living in a cave for the last 30 years.

Stallone’s script is filled with foreshadowing, but not the clever hints that something might happen. It’s the blatant we’re eliminating any possibility of a plot twist kind of foreshadow. The final product that we see on screen has been parsed with several cuts and last minute revisions. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help but notice that something was missing. Entire scenes were noticeably deleted or never shot (most obvious is the absent passage from switching the team’s plane into auto-pilot to their arrival outside the dictator’s palace). And the acting is atrocious - but with a former NFL player, former MMA fighter, former pro-wrestler, and the aforementioned Lundgren…. Shoddy acting is to be expected.

The movie wasn’t all bad. There were several fantastic one-liners (especially a cheap-shot at the governator after Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character exits the church meeting with Stallone and Willis). Jason Statham and Jet Li both submit captivating performances. Li’s talk about being short is one of the funniest bits of dialog in the film. The fight sequences are choreographed with expert skill. And the action is paced quick enough to keep you entertained.

My father-in-law gave it a 2 and a half rating. I give it three out of five. And while I did enjoy the movie, I can’t help but think of the many ways that it could have been better.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


We've seen the commercials with cityscape curling up into itself for months - hinting that Christopher Nolan is preparing a mind bending adventure for movie audiences. Until recent weeks the previews were vague, only teasing us that Nolan had a few tricks up is sleeve. The secretive strategy was worth the effort as Inception is the kind of movie that dares it's audience to lose themselves in a world of imagination.

Inception now joins the ranks of Fight Club, the first Matrix, and Nolan's own Memento as films to toy with your psyche. The brain boggling story telling is done with surgical precision. While there are flaws in the story those errors are inconsequential as Inception is easily one of the best movies I've seen in years and the kind of movie that reminds us of the magical allure that the theater experience once held.

The story opens up the opportunity to experience shared dreams, and for thieves to enact elaborate heists to steal information from the minds of other people inside the dreamscape. If this was the only psychological aspect of the movie, we'd be left with an unoriginal and wholly disappointing two and a half hours of film. Instead, Nolan weaves in the notion that shared dreams are commonplace and widely accepted as normal by the characters involved. He even gives the act of stealing intellectual property through dreams a name: extraction. The plot device that drives the real story (and lends the movie its name) is the possibility that ideas can be planted into the deepest recesses of a person's subconscious where the subject views the planted idea as one of their own design - an feat called inception.

The protagonist, Dominic Cobb (DiCaprio), is the brains behind the operation. Along for the ride is his sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose primary job is to research Cobb's targets. The pair needs a new architect - a person who designs and builds the world experienced by dreamers. Dominic once was able to be an architect but now refuses to build dream worlds for reasons explained in the film. They hire and train a new architect (Ellen Page of Juno fame) to help work one final job given to them by a former target (Ken Watanabe).

The mission is plagued with complications of unexpected subconscious projections (including Cobb's dead wife), layers of unreal realms, and warped physics that defy every ounce of gravity we've come to enjoy in the real world.

The character work is portrayed with brilliance, the scenery is beautifully rendered, Nolan provides expert direction that exceeds either of his two Batman projects, and the action is both captivating and bewildering. The fight sequence with manipulated gravitational pulls is one of the greatest action scenes in the past 10 years of cinema.

Inception is two and a half hours of suspense. It is filled with mind blowing surrealism and jaw dropping special effects. This movie about dreams invites us to dream with with the characters on screen. Once the final credits begin to roll your mind will continue to ponder not only the psychological elements of the story, but also the unknown fate hinted in the final frame of film.

This is the single most satisfying film of the year. If Inception does not garner at least one Oscar, I will be surprised. This is the kind of movie more film makers should strive to create.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Toy Story 3

Go see this movie. Why?

1. Classic story telling. It’s an escape movie at heart and pays homage to the standard bearers of escape films like Escape from Alcatraz and The Great Escape.
2. Satisfying and touching without being emotionally manipulative. The story is filled with humor and suspense; I can’t recall an animated movie that’s kept me so enthralled with the fate of its characters.
3. The return of the original cast – no knock offs. With the exception of Slinky (originally voiced by Jim Varney, who passed away shortly after the release of Toy Story 2) and the kids that voiced Andy and his sister in the first to movies, the original and recognizable voices are back. The writers and the director were all involved with the first Toy Story and bring their passion to finish the story in a way that is both final and true to its origin.
4. The quality of the animation. Pixar proves why it’s the leader in digital animation, and the combination of Disney and Pixar is movie magic.
5. Buzz en Español. You’ll have to watch to see what I’m talking about (I don’t want to ruin the plot). While we’re on the topic of Buzz Lightyear, Buzz is Tim Allen at his best.
6. The tortilla. And the pickle. And Mr. Potato head. Again, I won’t spoil the plot, but the use of the tortilla in the escape from the daycare is one of the funniest moments in the movie – and possibly the most hilarious of all three Toy Story films.
7. The new characters. They’re not just there as filler and their characters are fully developed with unique personalities that add to the value of the story. Ken is shallow, Big Baby is creepy, and Lotso is manipulative and maniacal.
8. Sunnyside Daycare. This is a fantastic new setting for the toys and serves as an ideal prison. The interactions between the kids and the toys at the daycare are priceless and more true to life than the way the toys were handled in the previous films.
9. It keeps kids engaged. More than that, it involves the kids (I’m speaking on behalf of young children as my oldest is 5). Most movies serve as a mindless stream of motion and sound to distract the youngest demographic, but Toy Story 3 brings those with single digit ages into its universe. As Andy waved his last goodbye, my daughter waved back. When Ken’s astronaut outfit was employed in the escape, she asked why Ken was wearing Barbie’s shoes (rather loudly, in the theater, during a quiet moment in the movie).
10. Valuable themes. The movie focuses on loyalty but also touches on the themes of unity and teamwork, faithfulness, determination, kindness, fair treatment of others, and generosity.

If you take young kids to see this movie, be forewarned, the climax of the escape is intense. The final moments at the dump can be frightening. My son (age 5) was not disturbed. My daughter (3 ½) managed to remain in her chair up until that scene – thanks to the distraction of popcorn – but the scary dump led her into my lap to seek comfort and safety.

We went to see the 2D version, so I do not have any testimony to the value of 3D. However, I did not see any place where the extra dimension would add any value to the film other than to increase Disney/Pixar profits. 2D is satisfying enough to make it difficult to justify the more expensive price of 3D.

So go. Trust me, you’ll enjoy yourself.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

What happens when an inept, yet well intentioned, scientist invents a machine that will turn water into food? Odd weather. Wait... it’s a bit more than odd. A spaghetti tornado, a mansion hand carved from jello, streets covered with ice cream. And sentient food. Not just food that is capable of thought, but edible products with malicious self-persevering instincts.

Cloudy presents us with a solid (yet unconventional) premise. A neglected nerd has spent his childhood dreaming of making inventions that would solve the world’s problems. He wants to be a scientist and avoid following in the footsteps of his sardine selling father. But his hometown is in an economic downturn because the rest of the world has discovered that it’s only export (sardines) taste “super gross.” Now that sardines are not being purchased by the rest of planet earth, Swallow Falls has a sardine surplus. Flint Lockwood (dorky scientist) builds a machine that transforms the molecular structure of H2O into delicious meals in hopes that he can provide his neighbors something to eat other than sardines. The experiment is interrupted by an anal retentive cop, and the machine shoots off into the stratosphere.

Then it starts raining food.

With the prodding of the town’s mayor and the companionship of a meteorologist (and reformed nerd), Flint provides a bountiful buffet. But, as foreshadowed early in the film, Flint’s invention creates more chaos than intended and the gourmet precipitation escalates into a globe-encompassing perfect storm.

What impressed me:
The casting. Napolian Dynamite as the bumbling scientist, Anna Faris as his romantic interest, and Mr T as the acrobatic cop were perfect choices.
The voice work. The voices might have been stereotyped, but it worked.
The food. The attention in the animation was devoted to the food - brilliantly colored, and dazzling in both absurdity and surrealism.
The story. This is one that is as important for parents as it is for kids. Thematically, it urges parents to encourage our kids’ eccentricities and to lovingly support all of the weird things they do.

The stuff that was a bit disappointing:
Mean spirited humor. The movie was largely devoid of crude humor. No fart jokes or double entendres. However the script writers replaced the crass with the cruel. Insults and teasing were in plentiful supply.
Character animation. The artistic quality of the human characters lacked the devotion given to the inanimate objects. The animation of the living was angular and disproportionate. They were more caricatures than characters.
Baby Brent (Andy Samberg). Again, the casting choice here was excellent, but the grown (overweight) man in diapers was a bit disturbing.

Overall, it’s a delightful movie for both kids and parents. Enjoyable, but not stellar.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Date Night

Meet Phil and Claire. Boring people with busy lives and eccentric offspring. They’re looking for a way to spice up they’re marriage. So they do what any other couple would do: seek therapy.

However, Phil (Steve Carell) and Claire (Tina Fey) have a different idea of what constitutes therapy: running from dirty cops and hitmen while bringing down a mob boss and a crooked politician. Who needs counseling when your life is in peril?

This movie would fail if it's only redeeming qualities were the wild stunts. The couple’s excape from central Park is peppered with humor, but it’s not believable. The chase sequence featuring Carrell crawling between the drivers seats of two cars welded together is beautifully shot - filled with suspense and witty dialog, but the whole thing reeks of improbability. The awkward dancing in the gentleman’s club leading to the ultimate end of the Foster’s adventure will make you laugh (or blush) yet it is so far beyond unlikely to be plausible in anyone’s imagination.

Yet this mash up of a romantic comedy and action thriller succeeds. I was amused and entertained. Date Night is a great movie for a date night.

What makes this movie work is the relationship between Phil and Claire. They’re normal people with an imperfect marriage and spastic children. They could be any of us. Their predictable dinner dates are much like the date nights of most married Americans. Their conversations (while being slightly funnier than the typical human) are natural and wholly believable as conversations that transpire between two married individuals. They react to stress like anyone else. And the many dangers they endure throughout the movie are not remedies, they’re reminders. This isn’t a movie about how Phil and Claire fix their marriage, it’s about how much Phil and Claire love each other. Whatever (hypothetically) happens after the final scene, they will still be boring people with busy lives and eccentric offspring. Yet they are busy and boring people in love.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

Welcome to Quentin Tarantino's version of World War II. It's not real history. He takes a few creative strides that come closer to wishful thinking than reality.

But there is much to learn from this alternate take on the great war. Here's my list.

1. The Nazi occupation of France was set to a soundtrack akin to spaghetti westerns and 70's era kung fu. With a touch of Jazz and David Bowie.
2. Some of the Nazis were murderous and vile. Others were effeminate bi-polar creeps.
3. Hitler had a temper problem.
4. Don't trust Nazi films starlets. They're not too bright.
5. Nazi war heroes are hopeless romantics. If their charm doesn't woo you, they'll just shoot you.
6. Seeing people drink beer from a glass boot never gets old.
7. If you must have a nick-name, you better have a cool one.
8. Nitrate film is highly flammable. And deadly.
9. Pissed of Jewish mercenaries cuss. A lot.
10. I laugh during awkward moments of cinematic brutality.

That last one has nothing to do with the movie, but it is true. And Inglourious Basterds has no shortage of uncomfortable sequences of violence. The movie opens with exterminations, and ends with execution. Between those bookends, Tarantino's cup of death and disfigurment runneth over. Brad Pitt, Eli Roth and their gang of "Basterds" (Jewish American soldiers hellbent on a mission to kill as many Nazis as possible) indulge themselves in a cavalcade of scalping, carving, fists, bombs, and bullets.

Through it all, we cheer on the righteous vengeance of the basterds and a Jewish girl with a grudge (Mélanie Laurent) who owns the movie theater that houses a Nazi movie premier and the final scenes of carnage. Tarantino creates no sympathy for the Nazis and treats them with contempt. He then gives us an ending to the war that never happened.

It is a better movie than I expected. Far less disturbing than I've come to expect out of Tarantino - who gives as a well written script, excellent production, and a superb cast.

Inglourious Basterds has earned its spot in my top five movies of 2009. My mother-in-law rooted for the Basterds (she generally abhors movies with gratuitous language and bloodshed), and Bekah enjoyed it. That being said, it is not a movie for little kids. Christian was upstairs watching Horton for the 87th time while we watched Basterds. Unless you want your kids to endure years of therapy when they grow up - keep the little ones away.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


In the realm of monster/horror movies, the zombie sub-genre is an easy favorite of mine. There's a primal terror in the walking dead - whether as a result of viral infection or Cajun mysticism. We fear the loss of autonomy, we fear being hunted, we fear the unknown lurking around every corner, we fear the unrealistic possibility that a zombie apocalypse might happen in real life.

I love when movies instill that sense of dread. I'm amazed when the same movie that terrifies me also makes me laugh like a ticklish clown that's high on nitrous oxide.

Enter Zombieland.

Zombieland is not the fist movie to combine horror and comedy. It's not even the first to pair slapstick with the undead. Yet it does it so well. It deviates from the pure absurdity of 2004's Shaun of the Dead without devaluing it's predecessor. Zombieland is to Shaun of the Dead what National Lampoon is to Monty Python. Both films are excellent in their common purpose via differing brands of twisted comedic styles. As closing credits began to roll over Zombieland's amusement park, my father-in-law chuckled "that's the funniest zombie movie I've ever seen."

He's correct.

But it's not just a movie about Zombies. And it is more than a funny movie about zombies. It's also a movie about rules. Thanks to my over-developed sense of justice, this is where I think the movie succeeds.

Told from the point of view of a hapless loser/video game geek (Jesse Eisenberg), the nerd survives by compiling an ever-growing list of rules. Simple rules: cardio, wear seatbelts, and beware of bathrooms. These rules are not just demonstrated, but repeated and highlighted through on-screen lettering that is as much scenery as they are props.

Beyond that, Woody Harrelson plays his maniacal self and shows us why his best perfomances happen when his character is slightly unhinged. The movie pulls some hefty punches. From the the opening sequence with a soon-to-be Kibbles & Bits fat kid running accross a football field to the prankings of the con-artist sisters (Abigail Breslin and Emma Stone). From the Dualing Banjo bait/takedown to the quest for a Twinkie. From Bill Murray's genius (albiet predictable) cameo to the climatic roller coaster ride and zombie-clown. Zombieliand is a movie that knows it's identity and flaunts it with admirable bravado.

Granted it comes with the price of prerequsit zombie gore, 30 some odd f-bombs, and the coarse teasing of modern comedy. It's a laugh 'til your bowels hurt kind of movie, a must for fans horror but not recomended for the squeamish.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Horton Hears a Who!

Approached with some trepidation (Jim Carrey does not have a stellar track record with Dr. Seuss adaptions - not even a decent reputation) Horton delivers what the makers of Grinch and the sad Mike Meyers venture Cat in the Hat could not accomplish: a pleasant family comedy.

The story should be familiar to fans of the Dr. Seuss tale. Horton, an elephant (voiced by Carrey) that hears a cry of help from a tiny speck of dust, finds himself the protector of a microscopic planet that is home to the Whos. He befriends the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) while creating foes of a grouchy kangaroo (Carol Burnett), bad Vlad (there is also a good Vlad that makes cookies), and a horde of malicious monkeys. Horton and the mayor are in the same boat. None of the other jungle animals believes Horton's speck is inhabited by tiny people - except a few kids who pretend to carry their own world on a flower (including one odd character who's world has a population of horses that "all eat rainbows, and poop butterflies"). No one in Whoville believes the mayor's warning that they are a speck of dust floating through space and that their world is in peril if a giant elephant can't guide them to safety.

The animation is not the best, but it maintains Seuss's imaginative style. There are several creative liberties within the film, but it stays true to the spirit of the book by using several of the most well known phrases through both dialog and narration (including the timeless "a person is a person, no matter how small"). And that one line is a great lesson for kids my son's age as well as kids my age. Sometimes it's nice to see Hollywood portray worthwhile values. Horton Hears a Who also encourages creative expression - my kids's specialty.

On the downside, there are several insults thrown around like monkeys flinging poop. (thankfully, the monkeys in the movie use bananas as ammunition rather than feces). While it's a worthy effort to teach younger kids that it's not nice to call people names, they used the insult "boob" far too often (boob meaning moron, not the body part).

Bekah and I enjoyed the film and both of us laughed at several points throughout (the mock-anime sequence mid-film makes the movie worth repeated viewings). The kids loved the movie; they watched it over a dozen times in the week following the first screening. And since the DVD had to be returned to Netflix, we went and bought our own copy for the kids's Easter basket.

Horton Hears a Who will be joining the ranks of our family favorites.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Forbidden Kingdom

I like martial arts movies. Wait, scratch that... I like good martial arts movies. Granted, the word "good" is highly subjective and what one individual describes as good, another might see a steaming pile of cow turds.

In the case of The Forbidden Kingdom, I'm leaning more toward the steaming pile of poo. But at least it's shiny. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are both masters at what they do, and in Forbidden Kingdom it looks like they are having the fun they've spent their careers trying to achieve. Chan re-assumes his Drunken Master style, and Li carries a devious silence like one who possesses a secret knowledge. The fighting choreography is on par with what their respective fans have come to expect. The scenes where the two icons of Americanized Kung Fu argue over how to teach their arts to a hapless teen are priceless. However, the movie itself is as forgettable as... well... I don't remember.

The story follows a clumsy American teenager - fanatically obsessed with kung fu movies - who discovers an inner power and learns to kick butt with some epic fighting skills. It's like the Karate Kid without Mr. Miyagi. (Ironically, Chan is taking the roll of Mr. Miyagi in the upcoming Karate Kid remake.)

The teen (played by Michael Angarano) is mystically transported to an ancient and scenic world filled with magic and pseudo-Chinese mythology. He is the assumed fulfilment of a prophesy set to restore the Monkey King. Yet all he wants to do is go home (even though he is a picked on loser there... but he's got a crush on some girl so it balances out).

The finished film is a convoluted plot with some fantastic fight scenes, utter predictability, and a thick layer of cheese. It's good enough to watch once. But only once. After that it's a slightly stale pile of shiny cow dung.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Soloist

First, start with an excellent premise from a talented writer. LA journalist Nathaniel Ayers befriends a talented homeless musician who happens to be a schizophrenic Julliard dropout.

Then take two of the most brilliant actors in modern cinema and plug them into the biographical roles. Jamie Foxx as Steve Lopez - the homeless musical savant, and Robert Downey Jr as the writer Ayers.

Finally, use cinematography to contrast the harsh streets of Los Angeles with delicate concert halls; and balance the chaotic sounds of an urban jungle with the soothing sounds of classical music. This audible/visual disparity serves as a creative attempt to make the audience feel like they are battling the symptoms of schizophrenia.

10 points for effort. 2 points for execution. This movie looked promising and I was eager to see it. Downey and Foxx both contributed high caliber performances. The story was poignant and stunning. Yet, I was completely underwhelmed.

The Soloist suffered from slow pacing (exacerbated by the long stretches of kaleidoscopic visuals set to the lulling score of cello and violin) and uneven directing. It was a dismal disappointment, but it shouldn't have been. It tried too hard to be A Beautiful Mind, when straight-forward story telling would have spawned a better film. The movie focused too much on the music rather than the music makers.

Please don't misinterpret that last sentence. Classical music is not the reason The Soloist is a dreary and plodding movie. Several other movies have used classical music with more compelling results. Mental illness is not the problem, nor is the realistic portrayal of homelessness.

The problem with The Soloist is that it is trying to do too much. It tried to mimic the devices of other mental illness based movies. It tried to unpack the problems healthy and grounded individuals have relating to the mentally ill. It tried to highlight the trials of the homeless. It tried to show how an act of selflessness can change the course of a person's life. In attempting so much, it falters on every purpose.

I give it two half stars out of a possible five half stars.

(Disclosure: I was tired when I watched The Soloist. Some of my complaints about pacing could be a result of my sleepiness.)

Friday, February 05, 2010

Breakfast at Tiffany's

My wife knows that I have a general distaste for movies that are older than me. There are exceptions to that rule, but if the movie was made prior to the late seventies it is a safe bet that I do not have a high opinion of the film. So imagine my wife’s surprise when she found me kicked backed and relaxed watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

“Since when did you watch these kinds of movies?” She asked.

“I love this movie!” Like I said, there are exceptions to the rule.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those movies that breaks my rules. And it’s not much different than most romantic comedies. It follows the formula: 1. Boy meets girl 2. They develop feelings for each other 3. One of them screws it up 4. They fix it and kiss at the end. So what sets Breakfast at Tiffany’s stand apart from other romantic comedies?

It’s the characters. I have a hard time relating to the characters in typical romantic comedies. The male lead is usually the ideal image of every girl’s dream boy. The romantically involved couple lead idyllic lives that can only be made more perfect by being together. Blech.

But I can relate to the characters in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Paul Varjak is a struggling writer who has lost his inspiration. Holly Golightly is a girl who doesn’t know who she is - yet desperately wants to be someone other than herself. I get that. As a writer I understand the difficulties in finding motivation to write. I’ve been in seasons where I didn’t want to be me.

From that perspective you could assume that this is a sad movie. That’s my mother-in-law’s take; she thinks Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a depressing movie.

Yet it is punctuated by absurdity. Hepburn’s character is as neurotic as she is beautiful. She surrounds herself with friends that are too pompous to be true friends. The foreign neighbor is hilarious and unapologetic in its non-politically correct stereotype. And there’s a cat with no name. (It’s not that the cat’s name is never spoken – but the characters insist it’s a no-name cat.)

And spread thorough out, there are parts that make you burst in laughter. Holly crawling through Varjak’s window while he’s sleeping, re-introducing herself, and helping herself to a glass of wine (subsequently pouring that wine into Varjak’s houseplants). Holly yelling “TIMBER” at the party. And my favorite – when Varjak tells Holly "You know what's wrong with you?" I have always wanted to say that to a girl and get away with it.

But the film succeeds. It accomplishes a feeling that modern romantic comedies try to capture. It tells the story of two imperfect people finding a perfect match. We need stories like that.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Book of Eli

"What movie are we going to go see?" Bekah asked.
"Book of Eli."
"Who's in it?"
"Denzel Washington."
"You know I love me some Denzel. What is it about?"
"30 years after a cataclysmic war..."
"Is it another post-apocalyptic movie?"
I nodded my head, "Yes."
"What is it with you and post-apocalyptic movies?!"

This is how our conversation started as my wife and I left the house on Saturday afternoon. Yes, it is a post-apocalyptic movie, but it’s got Denzel and Bekah is a fan of Denzel.

Now to finish the thought: 30 years after a cataclysmic war, we meet Eli (Denzel Washington). He’s been walking for 30 years because God told him to take the only remaining Bible west to someplace where it would be safe. Religion was blamed for the war and all known religious texts were destroyed. (However, both Mussolini’s biography and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code survived.)

All is going well. Eli has cat for dinner (which he shares with a mouse), acquires a new pair of boots from a corpse, and falls asleep while listening to Al Green. All Eli has to do is stay on the path. But his MP3 player’s battery dies and needs recharged. He passes through a town that has the ability to recharge electronics and access to clean drinking water (aka – the good stuff). It is at this point that Eli’s path is broken.

The town is ruled by the intelligent yet diabolical Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who is hungry for power. He is an avid reader, and is searching for a Bible. When he finds out Eli has one, Carnegie pursues Eli to forcibly take it. To complicate matters, rebellious girl Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of Carnegie’s blind servant wants to go with Eli to where ever he is going. Eli is reluctant (for her own protection) but agrees to her company.

The movie is a sci-fi homage to the western genre (including a mid-town standoff and ensuing shootout). It is also a morality tale filled with religious allegory. God’s word is presented from two diametrically opposite view points: Eli believes the Bible has the power to save humanity, and Carnegie sees it as a weapon. Eli’s violent methods of self defense (and the lengths he takes to protect the Bible) are a stark contrast to his beliefs. In a short explanation for his actions, Eli admits that after reading the Bible every day for 30 years, he’s missed the message it teaches.

Graciously, the film makers do not use the religious tone to harangue non-believers into becoming God-fearing believers. While the message of the movie is about the power of faith, the only condemnation portrayed is a discourse on modern consumerism. Solara asks what life was like before the war; Eli explains we had more than we needed and we threw away stuff that people now kill for.

Coloring is as much a part of the cast as Denzel or Oldman. The Hughes Brothers drained the film of color leaving mostly sepia tints of brown, gray, and green. It is an interesting lesson in using color to tell a story, but in the long run is a burdensome. The desert landscapes and burnt skies set the mood for the movie but it adds a sense of somnolence to an all ready despondent plot. The Hughes Brothers play this aspect of film making to a maddening degree – exploiting it with wide panoramic shots of clouds, distant injections of barren wastelands, excessive close ups, and silhouetted action sequences.

While the coloring is overbearing, it also highlights moments of poignant grief – most memorably (without spoiling the plot) is Eli reading from Second Timothy chapter four in the final scene.

There are bits of biting humor. Eli smelling roadside bandits. Eli sending Solara to retrieve his sunglasses. The crazy old couple serving tea. And in one of my favorite scenes, Solara asks Eli to read the Bible to her (she – like most people under the age of 30 can’t read because they were born after the war). Eli quotes Psalm 23 which Solara states is beautiful. She asks Eli if he wrote it; he answers “yes” before admitting he’s joking.

However, neither heartbreak nor humor is the vehicle that carries this mission of faith. This is more Bekah’s warning than mine: it is a little violent. And by a little, I mean it is violent on an epically gratuitous scale. Limbs are severed, heads are decapitated, the air is filled with gunfire and explosions, and there are several references to cannibalism. Eli handles his weaponry (machete, bow & arrow, pistol and sawed-off shotgun) with surgical accuracy. Carnegie uses a brutally destructive arsenal to hunt down Eli (rocket launchers and gatling guns). And it is all done with the stylistic finesse of the gospel according to Kill Bill.

Be prepared. The pacing is slow. In the first ten minutes of film, the only dialog is Eli talking to a mouse. The tenor of the movie is also unsettling (likely done intentionally). Watching Eli sharpen his machete while listening to How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is a little disconcerting.

The acting is as good as it the post-apocalyptic genre gets. Gary Oldman is convincing in his maniacal thirst for power. Denzel Washington’s devotion (and ultimately compassion) proves his worth in Hollywood. Even Mila Kunis (despite looking like she’s dressed in the best Banana Republic the apocalypse has to offer) perfectly portrays the dichotomy of naïveté and emotional strength. There are also a couple of great cameos from Tom Waits (musician) and Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange).

Bekah recommends it as a movie worth watching but not one she’d want to see more than once. I want to see it again – if only to see if Denzel’s character stays true to the story’s final twist. The Book of Eli is also a great way to launch conversations about matters of faith. This movie sparked more discussion between Bekah and me than any other movie since... well... that I can remember.

Our dialog continued from the theater to the car (and for most of the drive home from Spokane Valley).

“Would you do that? Would you walk for 30 years?” Bekah asked.
“I don’t know.”
“It was a little too violent... and too much swearing.” Yet she likes the Die Hard movies which expels more bullets than a trigger happy NRA member at a shooting range and drops more f-bombs than a drunken sailor.
“Well,” I rebutted, “most of the violence was in self defense, and the vulgarity was from the bad guys.”
“True. And Eli’s motivation made sense. But still... did they have to show the guys head getting chopped off? And with a machete? It’s just so much more personal.”

PS: for the record, I’ve satisfied my post-apocalyptic fix for a while.

Monday, January 11, 2010


What if?

That is the question superior survival movies ask. Not the “what’s going to happen,” “how did it happen,” or “how are they going to fix it.” Those are awful questions.

Enter Carriers. The world has been ravaged by a highly contagious and horrific disease. Most of the population is dead or dying. What if it was you? What would you do? How would you survive? Carriers only asks questions – it proposes no answers. Instead of answers, it gives you something to ponder.

Two brothers (Chris Pine and Lou Taylor Pucci) are driving cross country to return to the beach house they vacationed at as kids. Along for the ride are Pine’s girlfriend (Piper Perabo) and an upper class stranger (Emily VanCamp). They have rules to follow to prevent getting sick: avoid the infected, sanitize everything, etc. They also carry a healthy supply of bleach, duct tape, and bottled water.

Their strategy is flawed as the meet a father who is willing to do anything to save his daughter (Christopher Meloni), a sick doctor who has given up on finding a cure, a team of professionals with a surefire way to thwart infection, and a pair of armed old ladies.

The cause of the disease is never explained (nor is the cause needed), the fate of humanity and the surviving characters is never resolved, and there is no gratifying conclusion, just a somber journey through despair, isolation, and loneliness.

Graciously the melancholic temperament of the film is broken by bits of absurdity (Pine’s character driving a golf cart across abandoned fairways and sand traps with reckless abandon, and the hyper quarreling between the two brothers). Yet despite the humorous interruptions, you still can’t escape the morally challenging queries.

Would you kill to survive? Lie? Steal?
Would you drink yourself into oblivion?
Would you give up hope? Or would you persevere against insurmountable odds?
Would you be willing to abandon someone you love if you knew there was nothing you could do to save them? Would you force someone you love to make that decision?
What would you feel? Bitterness? Despondency?
Would you break the rules – even if you were the one who created the policy?

Again, the movie does not answer any of these questions. The actions and motives of the characters are never justified or rationalized. You will not walk away from watching this movie with a peaceful easy feeling. While a viral pandemic is the backbone of the plot, the real story is about making tough judgments in the face of ghastly circumstances.

My take: The characters are oversimplified archetypes – the jerk (Pine), the bullied genius ( Pucci), the rebellious girl (Perabo), the spoiled rich girl (VanCamp), and the noble father (Meloni). Despite the stereotypes, the acting is superb. The story is depressing, tainted with disturbing imagery, yet it is engaging and thought provoking.

Bekah’s take: What a depressing movie. It did spark some debate. Would I leave her on the side of the road if I found out she was sick and incurable? She swears she’d volunteer to stay behind and give us a better chance at survival. She wouldn’t recommend the movie.

Final word: A hat tip from me but a frown of scorn from Bekah. My recommendation – if you’re going to watch it be prepared, the movie will give you no reason to celebrate humanity and you might want to consume an entire gallon of ice cream (or some other comfort food) afterwords.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Last Samurai

Pop culture quiz.
Q: After a white American soldier lives with an indigenous population, he begins to understand their ways. He develops sympathies for the culture and falls in love with one of the women there. At the end of the movie, the soldier fights with the natives instead of against them.

This is the plot for what movie?
a) Kevin Kostner's 1990 movie Dancing with Wolves
b) Tom Cruise's 2003 movie The Last Samurai
c) James Cameron's blockbuster from this past holiday season - Avatar
d) All of the above

When it comes to the fundamental plot, The Last Samurai proposes nothing new. It wasn't the first time we saw this story, and Avatar will not be the last.

Each of the three movies are cinematically excellent in their own right. Of the three, The Last Samurai is my favorite. Taking place about the same time frame as Dances with Wolves (1870's), Samurai has a different tone to it. While both stories are completely fictional, Samurai has more of a truthiness feel to it with a greater degree of historical accuracy. The Japanese countryside plays a scenic backdrop far more beautiful than the American plains. And as batty as Cruise is in real life, he is a better actor than Costner.

Cruise plays an American soldier - Captain Nathan Algren - once apart of Custer's 7th cavalry. He's an alcoholic (fairly true to the character of many of Custer's men) with many personal demons. He is hired to train the new Japanese army, many of whom have never held a gun. When the military is prematurely sent to battle, Algren is captured and held prisoner at the Samurai's remote village. It is here that Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) begins to hold conversations with Algren... to practice his English. If you've seen Dances with Wolves (or Avatar for that matter) the rest of the story is predictable. Algren learns ancient Japanese culture and how to fight like a samurai. He earns the respect of his captors and fights side by side with those he once considered an enemy.

The story itself is not based on one singular event in history, but rather an amalgamation of several events - covering a broad scope of both American history (Washita River massacre, Winchester gun shows) and Japanese (Boshin War, the Satsuma Rebellion, real life samurai Saigō Takamori). Through this story we're given lessons in perseverance (there is a fabulous scene when Ujio repeatedly beats Algren with sticks in a mock sword fight and Algren keeps getting off the ground to try again), redemption, honor, personal revenge, the importance of culture, and (of all things) Japanese poetry. The movie doesn't have a happy ending and that is likely the most important lesson of all: in war, there are no happy endings.

My take: gorgeous scenery, masterful recreation of late 19th century Tokyo, thorough attention to detail in costume and prop design, the social commentary is neither preachy nor overbearing, and the familiar storyline is told with the passion of an expert raconteur. Yet it is a sad story with slow pacing, heart-rending flashbacks, and gratuitous blood splatter (a couple people lose heads, others lose limbs, and one soldier - I believe - loses his gluteus maximus).

Bekah's take: Good. A little violent, but good. She didn't remember watching The Last Samurai when we first saw it in the theater, so (for her) this was like seeing it brand new. While true to history, the flashback scenes of the Washita River massacre were distressing. She's always found sorrow in the depiction of violence toward children but more so now than she used to. I'm not sure if the scenes from The Last Samurai were more poignant because we have kids of our own or because our daughter is Native American. During the movie's final battle she remarked at how it was such a sad story.

Overall: As Simon Graham, the British photographer and historian who served as Algren's translator said, jolly good. Only not so jolly, but very good indeed.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Surf's Up

Who doesn’t like penguins?

And that is the question movie execs everywhere were asking a few years ago. After Madagascar (May 2005), March of the Penguins (July 2005), Happy Feet (November 2006), and farce of the Penguins (February 2007), the answer was… we used to.

So did we really need another penguin movie? That is a question probably not asked at Sony Animation Studios during the creation of Surf’s Up. (Considering it was in Production roughly the same time as Happy Feet, I don’t blame them)

So let’s break the movie apart like a surfboard crashing on the rocks of the boneyard.

The Good:
• The documentary style “camerawork.” Granted, it’s not the smoothest animation (yet the water looks almost real in several shots) but it is an improvement over Sony’s first cartoon Open Season. And the documentary feel reminded me of some great surfing documentaries (Endless Summer, Step Into Liquid). And it distracted from the feel of being in a kids movie feel that you can sometimes get when watching animated films.
• Casting. The Dude as Z and Napoleon Dynamite as the half-baked chicken – genius.
• The story is actually funny. After the beautiful downer March of the Penguins and the copulation driven storyline of Happy Feet it is nice to see wit and sarcasm coming from the beaks of penguins.
• Snide jabs at Happy Feet. What fun is it if you can’t throw elbows at the competition?
• The music. The people in charge of the soundtrack made some smart choices. The songs were well placed, lyrically and stylistically fitting in with the on-screen action - like The Dirty Heads’ Stand Tall and Sugar Ray’s Into Yesterday. I caught Bekah singing along to Incubus’ Drive, but I caught my self singing along with You Get What You Give (the greatest one-hit wonder ever). So I can’t hold it against her.

The Bad:
• Poop jokes. There are a lot of them. (Seriously? I didn’t even know that glow worms pooped)
• A creepy scene with trophies. The bad guy (Tank) is a jerk and we all know it from the minute he’s introduced. But when he takes you behind the curtain to introduce his trophies, we discover his real-life counterpart would be on the sex offender registry. Bad guys in family flicks should be mean – not dirty.
• Pee. As in urine is a proven cure for stepping on a poisonous fire urchin. Funny and disturbing all at the same time.

The Moral:
• You can’t give up because there is someone who is better and/or cooler than you
• Winning isn’t everything.
• Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do.
• Do the right thing.

Bekah’s thoughts:
It was a little rude for a kids movie. The adult humor was funny but a bit heavy. Thankfully, the grown up stuff was lost on the mind of our five year old. Great lessons for kids to learn and most of the jokes for adults are above most kid’s comprehension level.

Christian’s thoughts:
His favorite part: “When the penguin fell down. It was funny.” He also liked the rockhopper penguin (Cody Maverick).


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to set up a bank of TVs and simultaneously play a bunch of disaster flicks on them? The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Armageddon, The Poseidon Adventure, Dante's Peak, and Hard Rain on a stack of six big screen TV's... I'm sure you haven't, but just in case you have wondered - Roland Emmerich was thinking of you.

Emmerich threw down the gauntlet when he blew up the White House in Independence Day. He is the man who set the standard for the modern era of the disaster genre. Yet, he's never quite lived up to the expectations he created. His movies have been more hype than substance (the quirky Godzilla and the plodding Day After Tomorrow are a couple of examples). Now with 2012 he aims to out do himself (and every other apocalyptic movie ever made) in both it's epic scale and epic duration.

Yes I said duration. It is a long movie. I'd recommend using the facilities immediately before the opening credits. Despite the long running time (158 minutes) Emmerich fills that time wisely. It's not the "when will this movie ever end" kind of Transformers 2 long... just the "my bladder is going to burst at any moment" kind. If it wasn't for the one liter of Mt Dew I chugged prior to the movie's beginning, I would have barely noticed the length.

The scenes of destruction (of which there were many) were evenly spaced - unlike some other movies that pack it all in to the fist 20 minutes of film (I'm talking about you The Core). While the dialog is not Oscar worthy, it's not a distraction. The conversations were practical (all though mildly predictable), punctuated with intentional humor, and a self-parodying outlook on the concept of cataclysmic events.

There are a couple of cheese ball moments (The Governator Schwarzenegger's cameo and an obnoxious fissure that splits a couple after the man mentions feeling like there is something separating them) but those clips are few and do not take away from the grandeur of the total and inescapable destruction that Emmerich celebrates for nearly an two hours and forty minutes.

As California sinks into the Pacific, a cruise ship and aircraft carrier are upended in tidal waves, buildings collapse, Yellowstone explodes, and Woody Harrelson goes crazy, you can't help but think how awesome it all looks. And while we know the story is completely implausible, we enjoy it. We know a puddle-jumper plane can't outrun (outfly?) a pyroclastic flow, but we sit on the edge of our seats to see it happen. We know that the earth will not open up to swallow the Vatican, but it makes compelling cinematography. And amidst the chaos is a plot. A decent one. And while some disaster movies center on one story, 2012 takes on a few. The strength of family, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Political and humanitarian ethics. Sacrifice and hope.

And with all that is splayed on the big screen during 2012, one of my favorite moments came after the movie was over (and I'm not talking about Adam Lambert's caterwauling during the closing credits). On my way out of the theater, I overheard two teen-aged girls talking.

"What sucks is like this is totally going to like happen like three days before Christmas," one of them said. (I wish I was joking.)

First of all... it's not. 2012 is a work of fiction - not a documentary. I won't get into the details, but the world will not end on 12/21/12. Astrophysicists, anthropologists, geologists, and many other scientific peoples have easily discounted the proposed meaning of Mayan prophesies. It is well documented. Google it. So I got a good laugh at the girls' academic naiveté, but I am also a bit puzzled by their arithmetic. The end of the Mayan long count calendar is December 12th of 2012. Last time I checked, Christmas falls on the 25th of December... every year. So, if I do my math correctly, 25 minus 21 is 4... not three. And the movie wasn't vague about the date. But I digress. The movie is well worth the price. Emmerich not only lives up to the expectations, but surpasses it. The sad misguided conversation of two girls who are prone to believe anything is just icing on the cake.

(And (Warning: plot spoiler) good news for dog lovers, a few corgis survive along with a king charles cavalier. Good news for alien lovers, so does District 9)

Law Abiding Citizen

Step 1: You watch as home invaders rape and kill your wife and daughter. Step 2: The guy who killed your family goes free due to a flaw in the justice system. Step 3: You seek revenge. On everyone.

Sounds like a run-of-the-mill "vengeance is mine" movie plot. After seeing the 20% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, that is what I was expecting. I was anticipating a plot I’ve seen a million times: the everyman seeks vigilante justice when the legal system fails. Even the plot summary on IMDB states "An everyday guy decides to take justice into his own hands."

I was pleasantly surprised by the film, despite the grammatical error in the title. (It should be Law hyphen Abiding, not Law space Abiding. Sheesh.) Citizen starts off with a bang, like a baseball bat to the face. Actually it was literally a baseball bat to the face, but all things considered, I like the simile. The story begins through the eyes of the protagonist Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler of 300) as he watches his wife die and daughter taken away. When the worst of the two criminals flops on the not-as-bad guy, we follow the case into court to watch the plea bargain play out, only to see Shelton in the background watching the evil dude shake hands with the prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx from Ray, Collateral, The Soloist, etc). 10 years later, one of the two home invaders is at the end of his death-row sentence. The execution doesn’t go according to plan, and the murders (paybacks) begin. Shelton is arrested, thrown in jail, and continues to kill people from behind bars. Each escalating killing portrays a staggering work of genius and Rice (with police in tow) race to end the massacre and keep Shelton in prison.

Yet, to describe Law Abiding Citizen as the typical revenge flick overlooks some key elements.

1. The movie’s hero (anti-hero?) is not a normal guy. He’s a tinkerer (as one character in the movie states). With a little foreshadowing, the opening sequence shows him to be adept with electronics and robotics. As the story unfolds, we discover the guy is extraordinary, intelligent, and diabolical. While there is an element of righteous anger that motivates his revenge, there is also a mastermind design behind the brutality that could not be carried out by an "everyday guy."

2. Most revenge plots have one bad guy: the person who escaped justice. Once that person has been killed, the hero can carry on with their life in peace. Not this movie. The brutal killings of the two home invaders (the first one startling, the the second graphic – both disturbing) are just the start for this Citizen. The bad guys in this movie are not the people who first committed the crime, but the entire justice system. The courts are corrupt and Shelton wants to "bring the whole system down." So the scope of retribution span beyond the two thugs. It includes their defense attorney, the judge that threw out key evidence, the prosecutor that made a deal with the guilty defendant, the district attorney, the DA office’s staff, and the mayor. Whew. Talk about a hit list.

3. You’re never sure who to root for. At first we like Clyde Shelton. There is an understandable empathy toward his actions. We cheer him on as he tells off the judge during his bail hearing (people in my theater were clapping). We nervously laugh at his steak dinner and later at an exploding cell phone. But at some point, we no longer see Shelton as a grieving father, but a maniacal lunatic. Nick Rice is a workaholic who seems willing to sacrifice his family’s happiness for his own political ambitions. Throughout the movie he stands by his choices maintaining an "I did the right thing" defense when we all know he made the wrong decision. We want him to man up. Eventually we begin to see him as the hero. (I consider this to be great story telling as characters that are too perfect or too flawed are not believable.)

4. It bucks the traditional ending. The moment we expect (Shelton gets the same deal that Rice struck with the bad man at the beginning of the movie) never happens. We want Shelton to earn his freedom for a while, but then we begin to think he belongs in jail.

5. This is not a feel good movie. The first death looks like a clip from a horror movie. The second fatality is a sociopath’s dream. (We’re spared the viewing of the dissection, but we see the results and the gory details are described within the prison interview room.) The third killing is clinical. The fourth is excessively bloody and the next catches you off guard. The final body count is in double digits. The language is vulgar. The cinematography is sharp and gritty. The pace is unsettling and quick. This is not the type of movie you walk away from thinking "I’d do the same thing if a couple of drug addicts killed my family and got away with it."

My only complaint about the movie is the amount of detective work that Nick Rice accomplished. I understand there is a bit of research that prosecutors have to do to build their case, but Citizen had Rice riding along with the police to every crime scene, and to make every arrest. Well, that complaint and the bad grammar in the title.

Overall, Law Abiding Citizen is not one of the best movies ever made. But it is entertaining. And that’s what movies should be about. I give it 6 exploding cell phones out of 10.

It is rated R for good reason.