Archive for June, 2008

Review: ‘Wall-E’

June 30, 2008

Pixar doesn’t make bad films. They don’t know how. I personally didn’t care for Cars (I have zero interest in automobiles, talking or otherwise) or Rataouille (I can’t handle rats), but that doesn’t mean they’re not good. The animation is always top notch, and the writing–particularly the character development–is always good, if not great (or, in the case of The Incredibles, exceptional).

Wall-E, Pixar’s ninth theatrical release, did for me what so few movies are capable of: I was completely engulfed in the world of the film. I was completely entertained, and for two hours my film critic brain turned off.

I achieved movie zen.

Wall-E PosterWhat’s it about? In the 28th Century, Earth is an abandoned wasteland that cannot support human life. Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth class) is the last working robot, still doing what he was programmed to do 700 years ago: clean up earth. (He’s nowhere near finished.)

Over the centuries, Wall-E has developed a personality. He’s obsessed with the 1969 musical Hello, Dolly! and spends his days sifting through the garbage for things he may have use of.

But mostly, Wall-E is lonely. Everything changes, however, when a ship sent from Space lands on Earth, and another robot appears.

What’s good about it? Everything. The animation is breathtaking, and for the majority of the film, there’s little if no dialogue. But the film is far from boring. Wall-E is such a compelling character filled with heart I couldn’t help but root for him. It also says a lot for a movie when I don’t want it to end. Wall-E raises the bar for computer animated movies, and makes Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda (a film I liked) pale in comparison.

What’s bad about it? If you hate having a good time at the movies, skip this.

Perfect for: Everyone. Really.

5 movies I recently watched but don’t want to write full-blown reviews

June 26, 2008

TWISTER

Twister is the perfect example of a film that isn’t necessarily great but is highly watchable.  Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton star as married tornado chasers who chase tornadoes.  It’s big and corny–and at some points unintentionally laughable–but that’s the film’s charm.  

DOUBLE HAPPINESS

Sandra Oh (from Grey’s Anatomy) stars in this mid-90’s drama about Jade, a young woman who wants the American Candian dream of being an actress.  Her conservative parents would rather she give up her silly dream and marry a nice Chinese boy, but Jade has a thing for a white guy.  A bad indie-rock score by some band called Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet really distracts, but it was the 90’s and a lot of bad things happened to good people (case in point: everything Sandra Oh wears in the movie).

BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM

Parminder Nagra (from ER) stars in this early 00’s comedy about Jess, a young woman who wants the American  European dream of being a soccer player.  Her conservative parents would rather she give up her silly dream and marry a nice East Indian boy, but Jess has a thing for a white guy.  A highly accessible movie, some genuine laughs, and endearing characters.

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

The precursor to the music video (and the music montage), A Hard Day’s Night is, in essence, Beatles’ songs tied together with a super flimsy plot.  But who’d watch this for the story?  Great music.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR

Robert Redford stars as a researcher for the CIA who steps out for lunch and finds all his co-workers dead.  Director Sydney Pollack (who recently passed away) keeps the film moving along and is great at building suspense.  Kind of a 70’s version of the Bourne movies (but the Bourne films are way better).

Netflix this: ‘Two for the Road’

June 24, 2008

Love, hate, commitment, betrayal (and France!) get plenty of exposure in Two for the Road, a comedy-drama from Stanley Donen (the director of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Charade). I debated for a while whether or not to give the film my ‘Netflix this’ stamp of approval; it’s not a feel-good film about the ups and downs of marriage. Rather, it’s a melancholy dissection of the relationship between two flawed people who love and hate with equal fervor. It’s a gorgeous film with beautiful people who aren’t as perfect as they appear.

two for the roadWhat’s it about? Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) and Mark (Albert Finney) have been married for about ten years. The film is told in a non-linear style, showing five different periods in Joanna and Mark’s relationship, all taking place on trips throughout France: hitchhiking together and falling in love; as young newlyweds roughing it on the one of those worst trips ever that turn into cherished memories; a road trip with Mark’s former flame and her husband and daughter; a rocky period when their marriage is threatened by infidelity by both parties; and on the way to another social event where they must keep up appearances even though divorce seems eminent.

The way the story is told is remarkably fresh for being a film that’s over 40 years old. While Two for the Road jumps back and forth between the time periods, the effect is seamless. I don’t believe what we see are flashbacks per se, but rather the deliberate revelation of Mark and Joanna’s marriage one memory at a time.

What’s good about it? Hepburn and Finney are really good–they don’t pull any punches with their characters. Sometimes you love them, sometimes you only want to love them, and sometimes you despise what they do. While we see the sometimes cruel things they do to each other, we also see why they fell in love in the first place. We see those memories that keep them together even though it would be easier for both of them to go their separate ways.

What’s bad about it? This ‘aint a movie about the sanctity of marriage. Both husband and wife stray from their commitments, and their reconciliations feels more forget than forgive.

Perfect for: fans of The Apartment, Audrey Heburn, 60’s movies.

Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda’ – Finally, the dream works

June 23, 2008

Finally, DreamWorks gets it right.

While its animated films make heaps of money, DreamWorks has always lagged behind Pixar in story and visuals, often resorting to stunt voice casting to compensate for the fact that their films aren’t that good.  Often they are loaded with pop culture references and tounge-in-cheek humor that definitely reflect the zeitgeist of the new millennium, but will probably feel outdated twenty years from now.

Kung Fu Panda, however, might be the first DreamWorks animated film that will stand the test of time. 

Kung Fu Panda

What’s it about?  Po (voiced by an unusually restrained Jack Black) is a Panda desperate to learn Kung Fu.  But he’s stuck helping his dad run his noodle restaurant.  Unexpectedly chosen to become the Dragon Warrior, Po must learn Kung Fu from Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and save the Valley of Peace from Shifu’s former apprentice, the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane).  

What’s good about it?  Plenty.  The animation is rich and colorful.  The film is one of those “believe-in-yourself” yarns that has been done so many times, but it’s told well and with much heart.  And it’s free of pop culture references.

What’s bad about it?  DreamWorks is notorious for stunt casting, and in the case of the Furious Five (Po’s idols and Shifu’s students), the voice work from Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Seth Rogan feels a little flat.  That’s not entirely their fault; besides fighting, the five really don’t have that much to do.

Perfect for: kids, animation fans, those waiting for Wall-E to come out.

 

Review: ‘Get Smart’ – Making me laugh? Mission: impossible

June 23, 2008

2008 will go down as the year that trailers ruined movies for me. First, it was Baby Mama. I am a HUGE Tina Fey fan, and was super excited to see this one. Perhaps I had just seen too many clips online or on TV or something, but when I saw the movie in the theater, I sat there disappointed because all the parts that made me laugh on the trailer/TV spots were the only funny parts I found in the film.

Fast forward to Indiana Jones and the Mystery of How This Made $700 Million Worldwide: I didn’t want to see anything beforehand–if I REALLY want to see a movie, I do my best to avoid the ubiquitous hype machine that relentlessly promotes it–but I was skeptical; after all, Dr. Jones hadn’t made an appearance in 1989. I saw the trailer and thought, if this is what they used for the trailer, then what they don’t show will blow my mind! But once again I was let down. Big time. (Aliens? Really?)

The Get Smart trailers seemed alright–I wasn’t dying to see this film like I was Baby Mama or Old Man Jones Steals an Alien Skull, but the stuff I had seen looked funny enough. I’d give this film a shot.

Bad move; in a packed auditorium I sat there and didn’t laugh. I wasn’t laughing because once again I had already seen the best parts of the film. Sure, I think I let out a chortle and possibly two guffaws, but there was nothing in Get Smart that even came close to genuine laughter.

And because I wasn’t laughing, I got restless and fidgety.

GetSmartPosterWhat’s it about? Based on the 1960’s sitcom of the same name, Get Smart is the story of Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 (Steve Carell), a pencil pusher for the secret government agency CONTROL who, after its headquarters are invaded by the secret communist organization KAOS, is promoted to full-blown spy and is partnered with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway). Crazy mix-em-ups ensue.

What’s good about it? Because he plays a socially retarded moron on The Office (another post, another time), I feared that Steve Carell would channel Inspector Clouseau instead of making the character of Maxwell Smart his own. I am happy to report that while Smart gets himself into zany predicaments, he also has a few tricks up his sleeve. Good job, Carell.

What’s bad about it? If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen the film. And making Carell and Hathaway as love interests is kinda’ wrong–there’s a 20-year age difference (even though the plot finds a way around that predicament).

Perfect for: Steve Carell fans, Anne Hathaway fans, those who wish James Bond movies had more whimsy, and people who have no idea this movie exists.

Review: ‘The Happening’

June 18, 2008

Alright, I get it. We’re killing the planet. I’ve replaced my old-school light bulbs with the eco-friendly ones, I carpool whenever I can, I (re)use my reusable water bottle and I started using paper bags instead of plastic at the grocery store (at least paper, while killing trees, is biodegradable). If The Day After Tomorrow taught me anything, it was that I’m not doing enough to save the earth. (The second thing TDAT taught me: beware the digital wolves!)

So now M. Night Shyamalan, the guy who made me feel good because I don’t see dead people or live in a pseudo-Amish village, makes me feel like garbage for seeing his latest effort, The Happening. No, I didn’t hate it (my friends who have already seen it were nonplussed, to say the least), but I feel guilty for not watering my tomato plant on a regular basis. Or talking to it. Or bowing down and worshiping it.

Just to let you know, I’m going to include some spoilers in my review. So if you’re dying to see The Happening, you a) should have seen it by now, and b) wouldn’t have read this far to begin with.

What’s it about? Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Alma (Zooey Deschanel, giving out a Teri Garr-ish vibe) are a Philadelphia couple taking a train with Elliot’s friend/co-worker Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) for a weekend in the country. Without warning, people across the Northeast are killing themselves for no apparent reason. (Initially, we don’t know the why but we definitely know the how; this is Shyamalan’s first R-rated film, with some rather unpleasant violence/gore.)

The train stops in rural Pennsylvania, and the passengers must fend for themselves in what seems to be some sort of eco-terrorism. Elliot’s a science teacher (of course!) and eventually deduces that it’s the plant life–trees, bushes, grass–that are releasing toxins into the air which cause people to end their lives as quickly as possible. But the toxin only affects large groups of people; Elliot, Alma and Jess are spared while others die because there are too many people in their group. There’s more to the plot, but I’ve already said too much.

What’s good about it? There are some effectively creepy moments (Shyamalan’s best scares are the ones we don’t see), and Deschanel in particular is the one bright spot in an otherwise dull cast (no one’s glaringly awful, but no one but Deschanel stands out, either). The pacing is pretty tight–90 minutes and it’s over.

What’s bad about it? Besides guilting me even further because I don’t have a hybrid vehicle? The gore. It feels so gimmicky. Shyamalan’s really great at building suspense by showing restraint. Here, however, he reveals too much and something is lost in the process.

Perfect for: Horror/Shyamalan fans, people who think The Day After Tomorrow is the best movie ever.

Netflix this: ‘Under the Same Moon’

June 17, 2008

Under the Same Moon is one of those children-in-peril movies where you know that it’s pretty near impossible for the kid to make it through the dangerous journey in one piece, and for that reason alone you could “yeah, right!” the entire film and roll your eyes in disbelief that the kid doesn’t die. (If you think that’s a spoiler, think about it for a sec. People don’t tell stories about kids traveling by themselves only to have them die at the end. Unless they’re fairy tales being told to wicked children.)

But I’ll be darned if Under the Same Moon didn’t win me over.

What’s it about? Carlitos (Adrian Alonso, Antonio Banderas’ kid from The Legend of Zorro) lives with this Grandmother in Mexico while his mother (Kate del Castillo) is an illegal alien working in Los Angeles. She’s been in LA for four years. Every Sunday when she calls home her guilt for leaving her son consumes her, and she’s having second thoughts about being so far away from him.

Grandma dies on a Monday and Carlitos, fearful of living with some shady relatives, decides to cross the border and make it to Los Angeles before his mother calls again next Sunday. What follows are incredibly difficult (and dangerous) challenges that put his determination to the test.

Under the Same Moon DVDTwo twentysomethings (America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia), trying to earn money for college, agree to hide Carlitos in a tiny compartment in their hunk-o-junk minivan. They clear the border check (just barely), only to have their vehicle impounded for unpaid speeding/parking tickets (with Carlitos still inside). More stuff like that happens to our little hero, but don’t worry—he doesn’t die. (See first paragraph for further clarification.)

What’s good about it? Adrian Alonso and Kate de Castillo’s performances are outstanding. It was also good for me to gain a better understanding of what illegals go through to get to the US and to stay there. It’s a hard life.

What’s bad about it? As I mentioned before, the “yeah, right!” factor his high. Just ignore it and enjoy the movie. Oh, about 75% of the film is subtitled. If you’re one of those who can’t stand reading your movie, you might want to pass.

Perfect for: people who like Bella, foreign films, or kid-in-peril movies.

Review: ‘Incredible Hulk’ – Smash first, ask questions later

June 14, 2008

So I posted earlier this month that The Incredible Hulk could potentially suck. It had every reason to: crappy first movie, trailer that says too much, nobody really caring if there ever was another Hulk movie. I am pleased to report that the new film is not bad.

While not as fun as Iron Man, this new Hulk film is exponentially better than the first one. The plot is simplified, there’s less brooding angst, and things move along at a swift pace. The action sequences are fun and, unlike Ang Lee’s 2003 film, you actually care what happens to Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Who would have thought that dumbing down a franchise would actually make it better?

What’s it about? While it’s still not clear to me whether this film is a sequel or a remake, this time around Banner (Ed Norton) is laying low in Brazil, working as a janitor at a soda factory and trying to keep his anger under control. (For those of you unfamiliar with how the Hulk becomes the Hulk: if Banner’s heart rate increases to 200 beats per minute, he turns into the big green guy. How it happened? It doesn’t really matter.) He’s hiding from General Ross (William Hurt), who wants to bring Banner back to the US so he can do spooky military experiments on him. Banner’s cover is blown, he gets angry, turns into the Hulk, and the next thing he knows he’s panhandling in Mexico.

Returning to the US, Banner looks up his old flame (and the General’s daughter) Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, who’s just as believable playing a doctor as Denise Richards is playing a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough), who, while dating someone new, still hasn’t lost that lovin’ feeling for him. They finally meet, she helps him out, General Ross sends his soldiers headed by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a jerkface who wants to be like the Hulk. Long story short, he does: as the Abomination, he terrorizes New York City and Banner, who never wants to be the Hulk, accepts his crazy powers and fights the Abomination in an impressive CG showdown.

What’s good about it? Less talk, more action. It’s definitely not boring. And while I’m not a fan of Ed Norton, he kept his performance low-key, as if realizing that those seeing a Hulk movie are not necessarily seeing it because he plays the non-CG “before” guy.

What’s bad about it? Like I mentioned earlier, it’s not as fun as Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr.’s cameo as Tony Stark (his character in Iron Man) is way overhyped. It’s maybe a minute-and-a-half long.

Perfect for: Iron Man fans (who already know that Marvel is laying the groundwork for an Avengers movie in 2011), super hero enthusiasts who can’t wait for Hancock (July 2) or The Dark Knight (July 18).

7 movies coming to a theater near you. But not too near.

June 11, 2008

Part of why I started this blog was to let my readers find out about movies they probably wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. (If you want information about movies you’ve already heard of, go somewhere else.)

That’s not to say I don’t/won’t see the big blockbusters, and that’s not to say I won’t review them here. But it’s always the little films that need good word of mouth that tend to restore my faith in movies. This summer, there are a lot movies that may never make it to your suburban multiplex (and, sadly, with gas prices what they are, a trip to the art house may not be feasible). But keep your eyes open. Sometimes these types of films play in a theater near you, usually for a week because they aren’t well advertised. (In my neck of the woods, a second-run “dollar” house picks up a lot of the films that never make it to the first run theaters. It’s nice to see a movie that wouldn’t normally come to my town, although the $1.50 admission–75 cents on Tuesdays–is an indicator of the quality of the movie-going experience at that theater.)

So here, in no particular order, are seven smaller films that may or may not make it to you this summer:

1. Young @ Heart

A documentary about old people singing. The initial premise sounds boring, yes, but they sing Coldplay!

2. Bigger, Faster, Stronger

Take a look at that dude’s arms. They literally look like Popeye’s! This looks crazy good.

3. Mongol

Foreign language film about Genghis Khan. Apparently it’s the first in a proposed trilogy!

4. The Visitor

A drama about a widowed college professor who finds out illegal aliens are living in his New York apartment. But instead of reporting them to the police, he lets them stay.

5. When Did You Last See Your Father?

Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent in a drama about the dynamics of the father-son relationship.

6. My Blueberry Nights

Norah Jones’s acting debut that also stars Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and Jude Law. Reviews have been kind of tepid for this one, but I’d still like to see it.

7. American Teen

A documentary that’s being hailed as a real-life Breakfast Club. It might be painful to relive those awkward high school years, but it can’t be any worse than my awkward college years or awkward young adult years.

So there you have it–seven movies I probably won’t see in the theater (but not by choice). Expect upcoming “Netflix This” reviews to come from this list.

Netflix this: ‘The Court Jester’

June 9, 2008

The Court Jester is a lightweight comedy-musical-adventure that, if made today, would have to be animated. It’s far too upbeat, silly and colorful to be taken as a live action film seriously. Nevertheless, Danny Kaye’s comedic brilliance is reason alone to check out this film.

What’s it about? The premise is unique in the fact that Kaye is technically not the hero of the film. The Black Fox–a Robin Hood-esque swashbuckler–has sworn to protect the sole heir to the royal throne, a baby whose entire family has been executed in a coup orchestrated by the evil Roderick (Cecil Parker). Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a wannabe sidekick to the Black Fox who finally gets a chance to prove his worth by smuggling the baby back to the castle.

Court Jester

Hubert poses as Giacomo, the most renowned court jester throughout Europe. Helping Hubert is the beautiful Jean (Glynis Johns, the mom from Mary Poppins), the Black Fox’s right hand–er, woman. Through a series of crazy mix-em-ups, Hubert is mistaken for an assassin and hypnotized into loving Roderick’s daughter, Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury, who to me has always looked old, even when she was young). Eventually he is knighted (in one of the film’s funniest sequences) and must face off against the gruff Sir Griswold (Robert Middleton) for Gwendolyn’s hand in marriage.

Basil Rathbone plays Sir Ravenhurst, the true villain of the picture, who at first believes Hubert/Giacomo is a skilled assassin, but then thinks that he’s the Black Fox. Sword fighting ensues.

You don’t see too many medieval screwball comedies, and the premise seems fresh (even if the execution feels horribly outdated). Brightly colored costumes designed by Edith Head make The Court Jester feel like Playmobil toys have come to life. (Some of the costumes are so bright and feathery, they look like they could have come out of a Vegas show.)

What’s good about it: Danny Kaye is an expert comedian, and to see him own every scene he’s in is a treat. It’s as if he knows the material is a little hokey, but has fun anyway, and says that it’s okay for you to watch this movie. His duel in a magnetized suit of armor is so clever. There’s a lot of action but not a lot of violence.

What’s bad about it: Some of the plot is contrived, and if you can’t suspend your disbelief, you’re going to have a hard time sitting through this.

Perfect for: Families, fans of slapstick/physical comedy.