Friday, August 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes ****

Some of you know, that if there's one thing I'm more obsessively into than movies, it's monkeys/apes. It started with a childhood collection of suffed monkeys that has never gone away. So, on that level I was predisosped to like this movie. Plus, I'm a fan of the campy 1968 original. On the other hand, despite the amazing ape make-up and effects, I really didn't like Tim Burton's 2001 remake. And the odds seemed really high that this was just a B sci-fi movie dumped at the end of the summer. I wanted to like it, but my expectation was that at best I would get a guilty pleasue.

Therefore, it was a shock to find that Rise of the Planet of the Apes ranks among the very best films of summer 2011. And that's not just me talking. The vast majority of critics walking out of that screening came out saying "I'm going to take crap for this, but I loved it." Then, when the reviews started pouring out nationally, we discovered this was the prevailing attitude. We don't have to be embarrased: Rise of the Planet Apes really is a great summer movie. In fact, it's smarter, and more emotionally involving than anything else I've seen this summer, with the possible exceptions of Super 8 and Harry Potter.

The story begins with a young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), doing research on chimpanzees, with a drug to replace brian cells, hoping he can cure Alzheimer's disease. When something goes wrong and the original 12 specimens are put down, Will discovers a baby chimp left behind by Bright-Eyes, the most advanced specimen. Knowing the baby would also be put down, he takes it home, to temporarily care for it until he can find a safe haven. But the chimp bonds with Will and his father (John Lithgow), who, it turns out, suffer's from advanced Alzheimer's, giving a personal motivation to Will's work. What's more, Ceaser (this is what they name the chimp) shows remarkable signs of intelligence, giving hope to further study, and potentially curing Will's father.

Yes, of course it eventually leads to action, but it's surprising how character driven this film is, especially considering that the lead character is Caeser, played by the great Andy Serkis (who previously wowd as Golllum and King Kong) in performance capture animation. Caeser is one of the most compelling characters we've seen all year, and Serkis brings us into every emotion and though. It's an astounding combination of acting and effects, both of which should be considered for Academy Awards (I suspect the effects are almost a soe-in, but I question whether the Academy will deign to honor a mocap performance, as they already should have done for Serkis with Gollum and Kong) making for an exceptional movie experience. Franco is also quite good, and Lithgow shocks by choosing a Planet of the Apes movie as one of the time he DOESN'T overact, making for a touching performance. The one thing that feels like a misstep is the casting of Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton as  an abusive animal handler in a chimp sanctuary. 8 films as Malfoy, and he follows it up playing another unlikable jerk? I felt awful for him, even though he was playing it well (complete with nearly flawless American accent). But, then, Felton is called on to deliver a line that could utterly ruin the film if delivered poorly, and he nails it, helping make the sequence a highlight of the film, and one of the most memorable of the entire year.

When the action suspense scenes kick in, they're first-rate. Think of a combination of Jurassic Park and Braveheart with apes. The climactic final battle (I'm not spoiling, even the poster gives away that much) rivals the climax of Avatar for spectacular thrills. But the film never loses sight of its humanity . . . er, apesosity. Rather than descending into just an apes vs. humans horror thriller, it becomes a fight for freedom and survivial that engages our emotions and allows to relate to and connect emotionally with the apes, without making us forget that we kind of like some humans, too.

Rupert Wyatt demonstrates that he is a huge talent to watch for. He and his screenwriters very wisely choose to aoid the self-parody that made Burton's film such a groaner, instead creating a gripping drama and thriller. While the pseudo-science of the film isn't exactly true to real-life science, it does what a movie like this has to do, making the science feel real in a way that enables the more discerning viewer to say "I buy that." It's certainly more believable than the explanation given in  Escape of the Planet of the Apes, wherein we're asked to accept that a plague wiped out all of the dogs and cats and humans chose apes as pets (as a columnist for put it "People had pet gorillas farting around in their apartments?"), and then the apes saw their evolution accelrate through their proximity to humans.

I still feel kind of weird actually saying it, but, darn it, I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it wasn't just the monkey enthusiast in me, it was my analytical film critic side. This is one of the great creature features, and it's full of heart, as well.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens ***

There were, inherently, two possible way to go with a movie called Cowboys and Aliens: The first, and most obvious, is a very spoofy, F/X comedy direction, something akin to Men In Black. The second, which director Jon Favreau and producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard have chosen, is to play it straight, to do a traditional western wherein suddenly aliens invade. It certainly offers the first alien invasion movie to come along in quite some time that feels like it has something new to offer.

        Daniel Craig stars as a mysterious man with no name and no memory, who wakes up with strange device strapped to his wrist. He rides to a town called Absolution where everyone, even the Sheriff (Keith Carradine) seems to fear the imposing Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), a civil war veteran who now runs the local cattle busines, and, by extension, the town. Craig is soon didentified as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal, and jailed after an altercation with Dolarhyde's sniveling brat of a son (Paul Dano). Meanwhile, a mysterious local woman named Ella (Olivia Wilde) shows an inordinate interest in Lonergan.

      Then, of course, the aliens show up, kidnapping half of the town, including Percy, the Sherrif, and the wife of the local Doc (Sam Rockwell), forcing Lonergan and Dolarhyde to team up track them down, turning the movie into a hybrid of Predator and The Searchers. The first act of the film left me wondeing if perhaps the filmmakers had chosen to play it TOO straight: the almost complete lack of humor does darken things considerably, and it's easy to recognize Lost writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof in a story that seems to actually want to confuse you. But when the film takes off, it really takes off, thanks to Favreau's wise decision to direct the film in the style of an old fashioned western (saving any modern camera tricks for the aliens, which accentuates the difference between the two worlds), and, of course, to Craig and Ford.

        The teaming of James Bond and Indiana Jones is an event in and of itself, and both contribute greatly to the proceedings here. Craig has mysetrious, brood toughness that recalls Clint Eastwood, while his American accent makes him sound like Steve McQueen. Since Craig already looks like Steve McQueen I found myself fairly disoriented at times, thinking the deceased star had somehow wandered back onto the big screen. Craig easily shows that he can carry a blockbuster outside of the James Bond franchise, and that he is the successor to Harrison Ford as Hollywood's top action star. Ford himself gives one of the more interesting performances we've seen from him in a while, giving it his all in a role that isn't quite what it first appears to be. Two of Hollywood's greatest tough guys leave you feeling like the vicious, brutal aliens don't stand a chance. The supporting cast is generally strong, particularly the always dependable Sam Rockwell (nicely playing a character without any weaselly qualities, for a change). Adam Beach also stands out as an Indian ranch hand in Dolarhyde's employ, as does Clancy Brown as the local preacher. And Hollywood's Babe-of-the-Moment, Olivia Wilde, makes a more interesting prescence here than she did in Tron: Legacy, showing there's hope she might turn out to be more than a pretty face/body. At very least, she's light years ahead of Megan Fox as an actress.

      Cowboys and Aliens may be too dark and serious for some, and it once again proves the fact that a PG-13 rated movie can get away with almost any ammount of violence as long as what they're killing doesn't look human (think Lord of the Rings). But, for those who enjoy westerns or pulp sci-fi, there's a lot to enjoy here, especially with Craig and Ford on board. I found it to be one of the most enjoyable rides of the summer.

The Smurfs ** 1/2

Like everything movie based on a 1980s glorified toy commercial, The Smurfs has had an immediate, pre-release "They're ruining my childhood!" backlash. People have been gearing themselves up for The Smurfs being the absolute nadir of cinema. Yes, there are truly terrible moments in this film. But nothing worse than Transformer: Dark of the Moon. In fact, I only felt one moment got as bad, and it's, mercifully, shorter than Michael Bay's drawn out attempts at comedy, which are far more painful than abdominal surgery. And, unlike that one, this film does have moments of considerable charm. If you're going to a 1980s childhood movie this summer, I'd recommend Smurfs over Transformers to literally anyone, without a moment of hesitation.

       The story features the title creatures being pursued by the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) through a magic portal and ending up in our world. Certainly an overused premise, but at least in this case it's in keeping with the fanstasy nature of the story, instead of being a "stepping out of the cartoon into real life" contrivance. In modern day New York, the Smurfs meet a young couple, played by Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays.

        The Smurfs themselves are the most successful aspect of the film. The animators and writers have captured the addmittedly one-dimensional characters rather well, and the voice actors are, generally, very good. Jonathan Winters actually adds a touch of depth to Papa Smurf, and Anoton Yelchin is thoroughly lovable as Clumsy. Much more surprising is that Katy Perry actuall does quite well as Smurfette (though her "I kissed a smurf and I liked it" joke is a bad choice and a complete misfire. One of the worst aspects of films like this one is the tendency to over rely on pop culture references that don't even relate to the material). George Lopez as Grouch is the most questionable choice, both in being a little overly recognizable, and in being a mediocre comic and non-actor. But after some time to settle in, he works well enough.  Of course the tendency to use the word "smurf" in every possible context is overmilked as a joke, but that's a pitfall that would be wfully difficult to avoid. Overall, I felt the smurfs themselves were likable characters that appealed to those who loved them as kids (me), or kids just being introduced to them (my nephew and neice).

          The humans are more mixed. Azaria ranges from hilarious to awful, sometimes even in the same scenes. The awful is more related to his jokes than his performance, but his perfomance plays as if it's largely improvised, so he recieves both credit and blame there. He look and sounds just liek the character, and his comic delivery is great as always. But he's doing far too many bathroom jokes (why do people have such a hard time grasping that, yes, kids laugh at bathroom jokes, but the vast majority of parents are trying to hasten them out of that stage, and therefore such jokes are spectacularly out of place in a children's film?). Harris and Mays are saddled with a plot that seems singularly ill-advised. What kid cares about whether Harris lands the big ad account at work? However, the more they are called upon to interact with the sSmurfs, the more likab;e they bcome. Thankful, Harris is playing the sort of nice guy role at which he excels (as supposed to on his sitcom How I Met Your Mother, where I find him utterly forced and completely unconvincing as a smarmy jerk character). Anyone who has seen Mays before knows she's as cutesy as Smurf herself, and therefore she seems utterly at home taking care of Clumsy and bonding with Smurfette.

         So, for all its faults, I enjoyed The Smurfs on its own level, It's not one of the best films of the summer, by any means, but it's not the worst movie of the summer, either. It's a cute, lightweight movie that gets some things wrong, and some right. As one who used to get up at 7:30am on Saturdays to watch the cartoon, I had fun revisiting the characters, and my neice and nephew instantly loved them. It's not a Pixar movie, but it's a lot more enjoyable than the Transformers sequels.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger ***

Captain America is the first one of Marvel's Avengers intros to come along after I fully embraced the concept of the upcoming film. It may be recalled that with Thor, I found myself quite pleasantly surprised that I felt Marvel had finally succeeded at mixing Avengers setup with making a film that felt whole in its own right. The failure of Captain America is that it really stumbles on that level, sacrificing a satsifying ending or sense of completeness to segue into an setup for the team-up movie. Fortunately, the success of Captain America is almost everything else.

     Chris Evans makes a departure from his normal cocky persona to play Steve Rogers, a scrawny, sickly, 90 pount man who desperately wants to enlist to fight the Nazis in WWII, but is rejected at every turn. Steve is no macho blowhard: when asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he says "I don't want to kill anybody. I don't like bullies." Steve continually proves himself to be brave, steadfast, and all around good guy. This attracts the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist working on a government program to create an experimentaly supersoldier. Steve is chosen because he's a little guy, and because of his sense of decency. It's believed he won't take his powers for granted and be corrupted by them. Erskine hopes Steve will remain what he is: "Not a super-soldier. A good man."

    Of course, the serum turns Steve into Captain America. There's a delightful irony to the satire on propaganda as Captain America becomes a figurehead to sell war bonds, appearing in musical numbers and promotional films. This element really helps to balance out how hollow this sort of jingoistic flag-waving propaganda can feel today with the fact that this is, in its heart, an old-fashioned celebration of patriotism and "the American spirit". I suspect that will make it mostly acceptable to most audiences, whether they love or hate God Bless The USA.

     Eventually of course, Captain America becomes a top American agent, and this leads to series of action/adventure sequences that are as much fun as any we've seen this summer. Director Joe Johnston is very much recalling his work on The Rocketeer, with the old fashioned Americana feel mixed with a very Spielbergian flair (Johnston is Lucas/Spielberg protege who did most of the storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark). Johnston really excels at that sort of film, and I think he's at his best through most of this film. Captain America is exciting, funny, and visually terrific, and Johnston deserved most of the credit. This character needed an unapologetically old fashioned director who wasn't afraid to be a little square. But Johnston is sincerely square, so the film is never left with that forced, faking it feeling Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor had.

     I've typically enjoyed Evans in his previous films, but questioned whether he could play anything but the lovably arrogant bad boy. Thankfully, he pulls off the humble neice-guy surprisingly well.  While I was at times a little put off by how much weakling Steve is made the butt of jokes (no doubt being a sckly "little guy" made me more sensitive to this than most audiences), he's an admirable character who is a hero because of the good person he is inside. The serum merely allows him to get past his physical limitations The supporting cast is mostly strong, including  Tucci, Hailey Atwell as the obligatory love interest, and Tommy Lee Jones as the tough-as-nails Colonel running the outfit (Jones seemed a little bored to me at first, but his natural prescence and charisma really kick in the second act, the strongest portion of the film). Hugo Weaving is a memorable villain: to me, he's an actor who regularly finds just the right balance to entertainingly chew the scenery without slipping into complete hammy overacting. Dominic Cooper is also a highlight as Howard Stark, a brilliant inventor who, fans will recognize, is the father of Iron Man. Cooper is utterly believable as being the progenitor of Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark, and the character feels like he belongs in the film regardless of the Avengers connection.

     It' a shame the the ending is so ham-fisted. Captain America will be a welcome addition to The Avengers, and overall this only makes me more enthusiastic for that film. And I must admit that the ending is not unfaithful to the source material. It's not so much the concept as the execution. It feels so out of step with the rest of Johnston's film that I lamost wonder if he even directed the sequence (the stinger at the end of Thor was directed by Joss Whedon, not Kenneth Branagh).  It just feels rushed and tacked on, and lacking in the sense of culmination that a piece of such old fashioned storytelling needs and deserves.

      However, there's so much here that works, that I forgive the misstep of the ending. Captain America:The First Avenger is great summer fun, and engaged me enough to make me eager to see it a second time. As long as audiences can accept that they don't get a genuine wrap-up, most will find this to be a satisfying blockbuster experience.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Lesser Known Films From Celebrated Directors, Part 2

I realized I had written a "Part 1" of this in May, and never gotten around to the follow-up. So, to continue:

This film from Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) one is not exactly obscure. It was fairly popular during its original 1908s release. But it seems to be largely forgotten now, and I only recently saw it, and found it to be so charming that's hard to get it out of my mind. Kathleen Turner plays a woman who is seperating from her husband, and ends up traveling back in time to her 1950s teenage years, wondering if she can do things differently this time. On the surface, it may seem similar to Back To The Future, and I would expect anything to suffer by compariosn to that classic, but Peggy Sue is really a completely unique film in its own right. Sweet, funny, heartbreaking, and with a sense of truth and resonance about the ups and downs of life, love and growing up. The supporting cast is excellent, including not yet famous versions of Jim Carrey and Helen Hunt, and Peggy Sue's husband is a kockout performance from Coppola's nephew Nicholas (who chose to go by the stage name "Cage" so it wouldn't look like he only got roles because of who his uncle was). But it's Turner's film all the way, and she more than earned the Oscar nomination she recieved. It's an appaling cliche to say this, but I laughed and cried at Peggy Sue Got Married.

Director Ron Howard's western is dark, violent and disturbing, to an extent that will be so offputting to many that this film won't be for them. But his skills as a storyteller and a visual artist have rarely been better. Cate Blanchett plays an widowed frontier doctor who must rescue her kidnapped daughter from an Indian witch doctor/priest. Tommy Lee Jones plays her father, who left Blanchett and her mother years before to "go native" with the Indians. Both actors are at the absolute top of their respective games, giving what should have been Oscar-nominated performances, and that's really what makes the film.

Once you get past the weird factor of one of Hollywood's all time most iconic actor/directors (Clint Eastwood) blatantly impersonating another (John Huston), this thinly veiled portrait of Huston using the making of The African Queen becomes one of the most entertaining movies about movies ever made. Eastwood's monologue to a racist actress still stands as one of my favorite moments in his career.

Woody Allen's silly comedy about a film director who develops a case of hysterical blindness isn't exactly his masterpiece, but it's quite funny and enjoyable, with a very amusing resolution.

Potter Points

In my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, I said I would come back after the film opened and discuss how differences from the book were handled. Since the film is off and running to a spectular start, it seems okay to discuss "spoilers". Those who haven't seen the film yet, stop here. Then go see the film.

The only change with which I had much difficulty was utterly dropping the Dumbledore/Grindelwald backstory. My biggest complaint is that this was set up with some effort in Part I, then completely ignored in Part II. Was this about keeping things moving? Or avoiding the "Dumbledore was gay" controversy? Departing from the principle narrative for two flashback/explanation sequences would have been problematic for the film, and Snape's was more important. But leaving such a large plot thread dangling isn't very good storytelling.

I missed the ouse-elf revolt, but it clearly wan't going to happen in this movie, what with the way S.P.E.W. had been utterly left out of earlier films. I found the action sequence in the Chamber of Secrets to be thrilling, and, after dealing with Ron being a prat through so much of the previous film )I know, it was the influence of the ring . . . Um, Horcrux), I liked seeing him act decisively and with confidence in snogging Hermione. All things considered, I'm good with this one.

I have to admit, Fred Weasley's death didn't have quite the same impact in the film that it did in the book, mostly because it took place offscreen. However, the scene with Fred and George atop the Hogwarts castle, simple as it was, moved me quite a bit, and was, for me, a more satisfying farewell to the Weasley twins (probably my favorite characters) than the book gave us. Not seeing Percy's return to full Weasleyhood portrayed in its full glory was sad, but again, that was an opportunity they gave up three or four movies ago, and fat has to be trimmed in a movie. My feelings are certainly mixed on this one, but I accept the way it turned out without much consternation.

Overall, what matters most to me is that the filmmakers so utterly captured the spirit of the book, and made an excellent film. I admit I wish that Peter Jackson style extended editions of the films were on their way, restoring most of the missing elements from the books. But, even those extended editions of LOTR changed and cut quite a bit from the books (as much as I revere that series as one of the greatest in film history, I think there were more cuts and changes there that disappointed me than in the Potter films), and that's just unavoidable. I'm quite happy that, to get the full experience, one still needs to read the books.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Year So Far

2011 has been something of a mixed bag so far. We've seen some truly awful films. I've only walked out on about 5 films in my life, and 2 of them (Battle: Los Angeles and Transformers: Dark of the Moon) were this year. We've seen a lot of mediocre films (Limitless, I Am Number Four, etc).  But, we've seen some very good ones as well. Here are my choices for the best films of the year up to this point, in alphabetical order:

Born To Be Wild
This Imax 3D story of orphan elephants and orangutans is a sheer delight. The only Imax documentary I've ever seen that's that's good enough to be worth owning on DVD and watching even on a small screen.

The Conspirator
Director Robert Redford bounces back from the disappointment of his Lions For Lambs with a much more subtle and dramatically satisfying political piece, in the historical context of the trial of Lincoln's alleged assassins. James McAvoy and Robin Wright are exceptional. Though the film was dismissed by many critics as slow and stagy, and ignored entirely by audiences, I found it to be great drama and superb filmmaking.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II
A thrilling, emotional climax to the epic series. Full of action, humor, drama and excellent perfomances, this is one of the best films of the series, and one of the best fantasy films ever made.

Kung Fu Panda 2
Dazzling action scenes, hilarious comedy, top-notch animation and some surprisingly touching moments make this a winner.

Super 8
J.J. Abrams' tribute to Steven Spielberg's late 70s and early 80s classics captures the joy, excitement and thrills of those films, reminding me why I loved movies in the first place.

Kenneth Branagh actually manages to make a superhero film that feels unique and fresh.

Source Code
Duncan Jones sci-fi thriller is smart, original, and thoroughly entertaining. This one hits DVD next week and is very much worth a look.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II **** Out of Four

As a finale to the movie series, the last Harry Potter is flat out perfect. After the brilliantly melancholy character piece that was The Deathly Hallows Part I, this film shifts gears into a thrilling climax that rivals The Return of the King. The battle scenes and action set pieces are as thrilling as a movie gets, and the final thrid includes so much humanity, so so much emotion, that I'm still tearing up just writing about it. How invested are we in the characters? I clapped and cheered when two of them kissed. Those who know me well no that's not something I do for movie characters . . . or anyone else.

No, comes the eternal Potter question: how well does it capture the book? That's the part that takes some time to digest. Die-hard fans are likely to have some mixed feelings about moments that are cut, changed, or given a shift in emphasis, much as they have throughout the series. As much as I love the Potter books (and I consider them geuine literary classics), I recognize that a book is a book and a movie is a movie. Perhaps the most fundamental rule of fillmaking is that you must be willing to sacrifice some of your favorite parts to preserve the emotional, cinematic flow of the film. That's why I still have issues with the extended cut of LOTR: The Two Towers: The new material at the end is great, but it offsets the glorious pace of that film's crescendo. A movie can take the time for a edtour the way a book can. So, some things may not be the way we want them. To repeat a reference I often use, the late, great filmmaker Anthony Minghella, who specialized in literary adaptations, once said "I can't capture the book you read. Only the one I read.". I suggest fans take a day or two to digest the differences, then see the film again.

And what a film it is. Director David Yates has established himself as one of the most talented directors of blockbusters, and, to me, his feature is one of the most exciting prospects in film. I can see him joining Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan as one of the greatest of the new wave of filmmakers. The superb cast continues their growth from the last two films. Among the most memorable are Ralph Fiennes, whose Voldemort may rank in my mind as the greatest fantasy villain in movie history, and, especially, Alan Rickman, who deserves to finally recieve an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Severus Snape. Riskman is so good here that Snape definiteively replaces Die Hard's Hans Gruber as his greatest place in movie history (and that is no simple feat).

The Potter franchise has been such a part of life for many of us, that it's end would bring tears even without the more tragic aspects of the story. As it is, this is a supremely emotional experience, highlighted, for me, by the triumphant and judicious use of John Williams original themes. The Potter cast and crew have created a film series for the ages, one which has no direct equivalent in cinema history, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Tom Felton and others have grown from cute child actors to mature adult thespians beofre our eyes. The knowledge that no more films are coming makes me tear up again. Harry Potter is more than a kids fatasy, or a dark thriller. It is a modern classic of Joseph Campellesque mythology that will leave it's mark on popular culture for (at least) decades to come. Years ago, before I had read the books, my dear friend tamsin Barlow told me that Harry Potter would make my life better, She was right.

Savor the last cinematic journey to Hogwarts. Magical journeys like this come along all too rarely. J.K. Rowling and those who have adapted her books to film have given us treaured memories that will last a lifetime, and ended the series with an unmitigated triumph.

NOTE: After the film has been open a few days, I will write a post analyzing the differences between book and film. But I'm not going to spoil anything now.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Larry Crowne *** Out of Four

Tom Hanks hasn't directed a film since 1996, when he gave us the slight but charming That Thing Thing You Do, and it's nice to see him make another attempt behind the camera (it's worth noting that during that time he has directed episodes of some of the mini-seres he has produced, such as From the Earth To The Moon and Band of Brothers).  Hanks the writer/director is far removed from most of the other stars these days who move into the the directors chair: he doesn't make monumental epics like Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson. He doesn't make soul-searching dramas like George Clonney or Ben Affleck. He makes pseudo-romantic comedies that are best described as "cute". But that's not a bad thing. A lot of people out there are trying to make cute romantic comedies, but most of them are too crass, tooo cynical, too manufactured to actually be "cute". The films Hanks directs actually are.

Larry Crowne (Hanks) spent 20 years in the Navy right out of high school, and never went to college. He didn't need to. He had a perfectly good job working for a retail store called U-Mart, where he'd been employee of the month 8 times. But, as the film begins, he's called by the boss and told that U-Mart policy says no employee can be held back for advancement, but that he's reached the pinnacle of where he can go without a college education. So, in the kind of solution that's made America's economoy what it is today, he's fired. After unsuccessfully looking for a new job, Larry ends up enrolling in East Valley Community College, where he meets three people who change his life: free-spirited young Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who changes his name to "Lance Corona", and makes him part of her scooter gang;  Dr. Matsutani (George Takei), an pompous economics professor, and Merecedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), teacher of a speech class.

Of course there's a romantic plot with Larry and Mercedes. That much is implied by the fact that you have Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in the same film. And the chemistry between them is really what makes the movie. I found myself feeling rather old as I kept thinking "Yeah, Tom and Julia, show the kids today what real movies stars are." Larry Crowne effectively demonstrates that one of the biggest reasons most of the romantic comedies today are so forgettable (or often worse) is that the Katherine Heiglels, Ashton Kutchers, Amanda Seyfrieds, Gerard Butlers, Catherine Bells, etc who star in them have nothing approaching the magnetism of actors like Hanks and Roberts. I found myself reminded that, even if it's contrived, lightweight or silly, a romantic comedy can be quite an enjoyable experience if the right charm is there. And charm is really what Larry Crowne has going for it. It has some laughs, but it's not a gut-buster. And not all comedies have to be. In fact, in many cases I'd much rather be engaged by the characters in a comedy and come out of it feeling good than get an overdose of belly laughs.

The most hit and miss aspect of the film is Talia and her gang. At one point, observing what she thinks is a romantic attraction between Larry and Talia, Mercedes quips "What is it with men and annoying free spirits?" Setting aide the irony of Julia Roberts, official miss fre spirit of the 1990s, saying this, I saw her point: Talia is alternately likable in her quirkiness, and infuriating in her pretentious naivete. At least the script seems somewhat aware of this. Another character I left with mixed feelings about was Bryan Cranston as Mercedes loutish husband. Cranston is a superb actor, and he's very good here, but I felt he deserved a character who was a little more than the one dimensional jerk he was playing. It's most likely in some part the Tom Hanks fan in me wanting to deflect blame from him, but I have a hard time not seeing the hand of co-screenwriter Nia Vardalos in some of these less fully realized characters. Don't get me wrong: I very much enjoyed Vardalos' signature film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (a prime example of the "sometimes charming can be more satisfying than laugh out loud funny" theory). But her subqequent work has been very much downhill, and even in Greek Wedding I felt some of the characters had a one-dimesional streak, and that this was most true of the male characters. I suppose there are so many male screenwriters out there who can't write decent parts for women that it's okay to have a female screenwriter who doesn't know how to write believable men. Larry himself could be considered to be an exception to this, but while againt this could the Hanks fan in me talking, I feel the character so much screams "Tom Hanks" that I give him most of the credit. Where I suspect Vardalos does deserve some credit is for Robert's Mercedes.

One of the most pleasant surprises, for me, was how much I enjoyed Takei's performance. I'm a huge Star Trek fan, but any film work Takei has done since his last appearance as Mr. Sulu has been nothing more than annoying self-parody, and his off-screen devotion to Shatner bashing has become rather tiresome. But here, Takei really shines. He's playing an extrememly pompous character, and he's certainly using the trademark George Takei voice to full comic advantage, but I laughed, and never felt like he was just playing himself or Sulu. He's the quintessential pompous college professor: a man who finds himself brilliant and fascinating, and, even when taking Larry under his wing and implying that he sees greatness in him, he considers the highest compliment to be "You have grasped my concepts like few others."

Larry Crowne isn't going to be remembered alongside the likes of Forrest Gump or Saving Private Ryan as one of the great films Hanks leaves as his cinematic legacy. He's not going to pick up a directing Oscar to go with his acting statues if this is the kind of film he keeps directing.  But he doesn't have to. That Thing You Do has remained a favorite of many people for it's pleanatly goofy charm, and Larry Crowne works on the same leve.  It does exactly what it's meant to: it provides a cute, charming, funny, pleasant little antidote to the overproduced masses of explosions which dominate the summer. Spending some time with Larry makes a pleasant evening that I'd gladly repeat.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Green Lantern ** out of Four

While I can't say I'm a huge reader of comic books (despite considering myself a superhero geek), Green Lantern is one I've read, and very much enjoyed. Plus, he's the last of the Super Friends to get a live-action incarnation. And director Martin Campbell is, to me, one of Hollywood's more underrated talents, having given us the delightful Mask of Zorro, and by far the two best James Bond films of the past 30 years, GoldenEye and Casino Royale. So I was excited for the Green Lantern movie, despite the somewhat bad buzz.

But sometimes buzz is bad for a reason.

Green Lantern isn't awful, but it doesn't work, either as an adaptation of the source material, or as a stand-alone movie. It's so choppy as to be hard to follow, the characterizations are both shallow and over the top, the script is lacking in wit and intelligence, and there is no emotion to be found, despite a theme of will over fear that could easily resonate. Ryan Reynolds stars as Hal Jordan, a hotshot pilot who meets a dying alien named Abin Sur, who tells him that his 'power ring" has chosen him to join the Green Lantern corps, a group of intergalactic peace keepers. To do this, Jordan most overcome his long list of cliched character traits (he's selfish, doesn't commit to thing, is afraid of comparisons to the heroic father he barely knew, yadda yadda yadda) and earn the mantle of Green Lantern.

I've been amibivalent about Reynolds in the past, feeling he had a good sense of comic timing, but not convinced he was a strong actor who could carry a film. I still am not won over to the idea that he's a great actor by any means, but the failings of the film are not his fault. He gives it his all, and aquits himself nicely. Blake Lively, as love interest Carol Ferris, also does the best she can with the the material. The actor who is embarrased here is Peter Saarsgard, whose villain character is appalingly over the top even for a comic book film. Every time he's onscreen, the movie is almost unwatchable.

The action scenes are relatively fun, and the effects are probably pretty good if you seem them in a 2-D presentation. Director Campbell's penchant for making his bluescreen shots REALLY look like bluescreen shots hinders the work here, and it's as bad a post-production 3D conversion as I've seen. Strangely, the effects shots seem kind of flat, whereas the live-action dialogue sequences have that annoying "Viewmaster" effect, where the people stick out from the background but still have the depth of cardboard cutouts.

Still, all of these things could be forgiven if I were engaged in the material. If I were excited to fly with Green Lantern, if I felt stirrings of childlike excitement when he came to save the day. Because I love superheroes, there's a tiny element of that excitement, but only because of my pre-existing attachment to the character. it's hard for me to imagine the completely uninitiated falling in love with this the way the did with X-Men or Iron Man. This feels more like Daredevil. It wreaks of studio mandated cuts (I suspect editor Stuart Baird had more say over the final cut than director Campbell), and I found myself wondering whether an expanded directors cut might make more sense. it's not a good sign if you're familiar with the source material and still have no idea what's going on half the time.

All this said, I don't mean to imply that Green Lantern is a Michael Bay-style travesty. It's an acceptable diversion, the kind that's worth the price of admission at a dollar theater. While I have no particular intention to see it again in it's theatrical release, this isn't a Transformer 2 where I'd go to great lengths to avoid that. It's not a terrible film, just a very weak one. If you love superheroes, or see a lot of movies, it's probably worth a look. But if you're the type who is likely to only see two or three (or fewer) movies this summer, I would strongly recommend prioritizing films like Super 8 and X-Men: First Class, or even the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean far ahead of this one. It's the most forgettable superhero movie I've seen in a while. And, above all else, I judge this as a movie buff, not as a fan of Green Lantern. It's not that it strays so far far from the source material to offend the purist in me. It's that it fails badly enough as entertainment to disappoint the moviegoer in me.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Super 8 **** out of Four

In 1979,  in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, a preteen boy named Joe Lamb is trying to cope with the recent death of his mother, who was killed in a factory accident. Much to the frustration of his father, the town’s deputy sheriff, Joe copes by immersing himself in a project lead by his best friend, Charles. That project is a horror film, shot on a SUPER 8 camera, and Charles has enlisted the help of not only Joe, but the rest of his misfit friends, and has surprised everyone by talking Alice Dainard, the prettiest girl in school, into playing the hero’s wife.  On the night of the first big shoot, the would be filmmaker witness a train crash. Pretty soon, the town of Lillian is swarmed by military men, who won’t tell anybody what is going on.
Abrams and Spielberg may be the only two people in Hollywood who still know how to keep a secret, so I won’t spoil that by going into the plot too much further. But I will say that Super 8 lives up to every bit of hype and expectation surrounding it. This is a beautifully crafted, emotional, funny, scary, thrilling movie that enthralls an audience the ways Spielberg’s 80s classics did. And this is coming from someone who has been accused of “worshipping” Spielberg. Abrams has recreated the look and feel of vintage Spielberg expertly, down to the last detail. For a Spielberg fan, it’s an absolute joy to behold.

But Abrams somehow manages to do this without completely sacrificing his own unique voice as a filmmaker. It’s got the twists and turns of Lost, the personality of his Star Trek, and, like most Abrams projects, a leading lady who propels the whole thing. In this case, it’s young Elle Fanning, who, as Alice, projects such a genuine combination of childlike innocence and ahead of her years maturity, that you can’t take her eyes off of her whenever she’s on screen.  The entire cast is terrific, especially Joel Courtney as Joe, and Riley Griffiths as Charles, but Fanning steals the movie. We become completely involved with these characters in a way we rarely do with adult Hollywood heroes. I found myself caring every bit as much about the budding romance between Alice and Joe as I did the more spectacular events of the film.

And it is spectacular. Abrams and Spielberg give us action/suspense scenes that evoke Spielberg’s classics Jaws, Jurassic Park, and E.T. They also come as close to the emotion of E.T. as any film of this type has done since then. Super 8 is the kind of film for which the cliché “You’’ll laugh, you’ll cry” was invented. If you’re a child of the 80s and complain that they don’t make movies the way they did when you were a kid, well, Abrams and Spielberg have done exactly that.And Michael Giacchino further establishes himself as one of the best film composers to come along in years. His score soars with emotions and build suspense in the vein of (of course) John Williams.

I also have to take a moment, as former amateur child filmmaker, to talk about how well rendered that aspect of the story is. It certainly added an extra level of enjoyment for me that I vividly remember the days of trying to make my own blockbusters with nothing but a camera, a few friends, and wildly overactive imagination.

It's worth mentioning, by way of warning (especially to parents) that Super 8 is rated PG-13 for a reason, namely the intensity, and for an E.T./Goonies like tendency to have the kids swear. Most audiences will get past this, but certainly some will not, and I'm absolving myself of any complaints. 

Movies like this are the reason I love movies. In an age when trailers give away everything, Super 8 unfolds before us, capturing us in its spell, and never letting go.  It’s an unforgettable movie experience. A film to be treasured,

P.S. Industry insiders are saying that Super 8 is "tracking soft", meaning marketing analysis shows it will open fairly small. I hope they're wrong about this, and also that word of mouth helps it hold on. But if you're one of those people who complains that trailers and ad campaigns show too much and give away the whole movie, you can don something about it: See Super 8 weekend. It's very rare for a Hollywood movie to leave so much to this imagination in it's advertising, and if Super 8 fails, that will be the end of that for the forseable future.  

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class ***1/2 out of Four

The first two X-Men films were about as good as super hero movie get. Smart, funny, exciting, made with filmmaking prowess by director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects). When Singer took a break from the franchise to direct Superman Returns, Fox hired director Brett Ratner to direct X-Men: The Last Stand, and every aspect of the series took a downward turn in quality. Perhaps it was just because my expectations were lowered, but I found the follow-up, X-Men Origins: Wolverine to be a little more enjoyable, but it was still extremely problematic. The bloom was definitely off the rose for what had once been one of my favorite franchises.

When it was announced that Singer wanted to come back for the prequel, X-Men: First Class, I dared to hope that there might still be some life left in the X-Men. and, even though Singer had to relinquish the director's chair (due to other commitments) to Matthew Vaughn, it's still Singer's vision of the world and the characters in it that makes First Class a welcome return to form. It's not quite as good as the first two films, in my opinion. But it's a huge step back in the right direction. Interestingly, there are enough blatant contradictions of events and details from part 3 and 4 that it indicates those may now be considered apocryphal. Or, more, likely, those things will just never be addressed. Either way, this is a sequel to the first two movies that all but ignores what came after.

James McAvoy plays young Charles Xavier as a much more cocky, energetic character than the one we've come to know, but we certainly see the seeds of Patrick Stewart's iconic characterization. Michael Fassenbender's Magneto is almost the Wolverine of this movie: the dark, brooding anti-hero who seems uncertain of which side he's on. Jennifer Lawrence is certainly adds more layers to Mystique than Rebecca Romijn ever did, and her brother-sister relationship with Xavier, and her budding romance with Beast (Nicholas Hoult), both add depth and humanity to the film. It's also great fun to see Kevin Bacon as smarmy villain Sebastian Shaw.

Director Vaughn gives the film a "groovy" 1960s style reminiscent of a Sean Connery James Bond film, and has a very good handle on the suspense and action. The movie isn't tacky and garish like Brett Ratner's Last Stand. And it's not sloppy and half-baked like Gavin Hood's Wolverine. It's solidly crafted, quality summer entertainment, and for the first time in years I'm excited to see where X-Men goes next.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 **** Out of Four

While Dreamworks Animation certainly hasn't given us the consistent greatness that it's arch rival, Pixar, has, I feel that those who dismiss Dreamworks outright are mistaken. Tehy've made some high quality animated films (last year's How To Train Your Dragon was genuinely up there with some of the better Pixar films), and what they do is consistently better than most non-Pixar kids fare. And, this summer, Dreamworks gives us another one of their very best films, a triumphant adventure/comedy that's as appealing to adults as it is to kids.

The story essentially picks up where the first film left off, with our hero, Poh (a panda voiced by Jack Black), now having found his place in the world as the Dragon Warrior, protecting China alongside his heroes, the Furious Five. But China is threatened by a new evil: Lord Shen, a peacock (voiced by Gary Oldman) has harnessed the power of fireworks to create, well, a weapon of mass destruction. Poh and his cohorts must spring into action. At the same time, Poh, raised by a Goose, is beginning to wonder where he came from, and who he really is.

Kung Fu Panda 2 features some of the most spectacular and thrilling action scenes any movie has given us in a while. Notice I didn't throw in the modifier of "animated" film. This dwarfs most of what we're seeing in live-action, including the adventure films I've seen this summer, which generally have been a lot of fun. Of course, it's easy to do that in animation. There are no boundaries of safety, practicality, or gravity. But, while we see the benefits of that in most animated movies of today, those films typically lack the sense of intensity and peril that puts us on the edge of our seat in an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie. Here, the stakes are that high, and you're actually left with the the feeling that one of the Furious Five could lose their life in the proceedings.

That may seem like a liability to some. While my 4 to 6 year old niece and nephews, who saw the film with me, were fine, this could possibly be too intense for some little ones. In particular, one plot element is surprisingly disturbing:


When Shen first began experimenting with fireworks, a soothsayer prophesied that he would be defeated by a warrior of black and white. This lead Shen to go all Ten Commandments on the Pandas of China, leaving Poh orphaned and seemingly alone among his race. It's handled tastefully and without on-screen carnage, but, still, the idea of a panda holocaust is awfully intense for kids.


One of the biggest strength of the film is, of course, its humor. If only Jack Black were still anywhere near this funny in his live-action films. I found myself laughing out loud routinely. And, amazingly, while the running gag is that Poh blows every big hero moment by doing something stupid or clumsy, that never undermines the dignity of the character, or the more dramatic moments in the film. And there are some very dramatic moments. Poh's adopted father is one of my favorite characters in animation, and I admit I shed a few tears over the relationship between them.

Kung Fu Panda 2 entertains and engages on every possible level. It's the best film of the summer so far, and trails on Robert Redford's criminally underrated The Conspirator on my list of best films of the year.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides *** out of Four

The first Pirates of the Caribbean struck me as having potential to be one of the worst films ever made. Jerry Bruckheimer making a movie based on a theme park attraction? In a genre that hadn't really worked since the days of Errol Flynn? Starring Johnny Depp, who was talented but had made far more bad films than good ones in his career? (in fact, pre-Pirates I think Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood were the only films I had liked. No, I haven't seen Benny & Joon. Yes, I have seen Chocolat, and I really did not care for it)  But the result was a delightful, witty adventure film, with Depp dazzling with a hilarious and completely unique performance.

The sequels were still fun on their level, but they suffered from all of the standard sequel problems. A "bigger is better" mentality that just meant throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks instead of telling a strong story. And they also had the problems inherent to shooting sequels back-to-back (much like the Back to the Future or Matrix sequels), namely that part 2 merely felt like a setup for part 3. And I personally felt it was a miss step to turn Pirates into a Lord of the Rings style epic trilogy. I thought Captain Jack Sparrow might be better suited stand alone adventures more in the vein of Indiana Jones or James Bond. That's the approach taken by the latest installment,  On Stranger Tides, and I feel that, for the most part, it works.

On Stranger Tides picks the story of Sparrow and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) searching for the Fountain of Youth, but drops the characters of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan, and all of the increasingly convoluted mythology surrounding them. This ends up leading to a more streamlined story that is fun and exciting. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has toned down the bombast of the last two chapters, and applied an overall lighter touch that, to me, comes closer to capturing the silly fun of the first movie. While I have to admit the sword fights aren't up there with the best in the earlier films, there are some great action sequences, and a particular chase with Sparrow running over the tops of carriages was, for me, worth the price of admission on it's own. A sequence wherein beautiful mermaids turnout to be quite deadly is also thrilling and inventive. I credit some of the smooth flow of these sequences to legendary film editor Michael Kahn, Oscar-winning editor of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Kahn is one of three credited editors (he is credited with "Additional Editing", but I felt like I saw his hand prints all over this one).

Penelope Cruz, as an old flame, now rival of Jack Sparrow, is a more than welcome addition to the cast. Her chemistry with Depp is terrific, and she adds a fire to the movie that is very entertaining. The new beautiful young couple, a missionary and a mermaid, are a poor substitute for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, lacking in much a story, or individual personalities (I don't especially blame actors Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who are perfectly fine. The characters, especially his, are just dull). Kevin McNally continues to be fun as Gibbs, Sparrow's first mate, and Ian McShane is an enjoyably nasty Blackbeard. For the first half Geoffrey Rush seems a bit misused, as if the filmmakers don't know what to do with him, but this improves later on. But, as always, it's Depp's movie, and Jack Sparrow is still a delightful goofy and whimsical presence.

This is definitely a movie for fans of the franchise, and I count myself among those. It's not going to win over anybody new, and it may or may not bring back your enthusiasm if you're a bit burnt out on it. I was burnt out on Pirates, and I felt On Stranger Tides helped reinvigorate the franchise and remind me why I loved this so much in the first place. It's nothing new or innovative. It's part 4 in a franchise, after all. But I had a great time, and am already looking forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Lesser Known Films From Celebrated Filmmakers, Part 1

Every noted filmmaker has certain films for which they are best remembered. But does that mean their less celebrated films aren't so great? Oftentimes, yes. But not always. The following are selections of lesser known but worthwhile films from some of the most celebrated and/or popular directors.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Best Known For: Psycho, North By Northwest, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window, dozens of others

Torn Curtain is not one of Hitchcock's greatest efforts. But, Hitchcock is without a doubt one of the greatest geniuses in the history of film, and a lesser effort form him is still light-years ahead of a great deal of what's out there. and when it stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, it's certainly worth the time. New plays physicist Dr. Michael Armstrong, who arrives at a conference in Eastern Europe and announces his defection, much to the shock of his wife (Andrews). But it's a Hitchcock film, so of course things aren't as they seem. Newman and Andrews are good (though Hitchcock clashed repeatedly with method actor Newman, and felt his stars didn't have chemistry), and of course Hitchcock builds the suspense expertly. One sequence  in a farmhouse ranks, in my opinion, up there with Hitchcock's best.

Director: Steven Spielberg
Best Known For: E.T., Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan

Spielberg is my all-time favorite director, and he has only directed one film I consider an outright dud (1941) . Always is decidedly not up there with Spielberg's best, but, for it's flaws, it's a charming little love story, with some spectacular sequences of aerial firefighting. Richard Dreyfuss (in his third and, to date, last collaboration with Spielberg) plays pilot Pete Sandich, who, after his death, lingers to help his girlfriend Dorinda Durston (Holly Hunter) move on. Aside from the obvious weakness in choice of character names, flaws include mediocre chemistry between Dreyfuss and Hunter, the bland supporting turn by Brad Johnson (I'm not especially surprised you haven't heard of him) and the fact that the story, a remake of the World War II era A Guy Named Joe feels forced in a peacetime setting. Strengths include John Goodman's highly entertaining supporting turn (Dreyfuss and Hunter both play very well off of Goodman), Spielberg and cinematographer Mikael Salomon's great work on the firefighting scenes, and Audrey Hepburn in her final performance. There is also a very memorable sequence of the ghostly Dreyfuss dancing with Hunter (who doesn't know he's there) to Smoke gets In Your Eyes. For once, I'm not arguing that the Spielberg film is great, but it has it's charms.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Best Known For: Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, The Departed, Mean Streets

When people think of Martin Scorsese, they don't usual think of PG rated love stories set in the 1870s. But this adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel is brilliantly directed and superbly acted by Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfieffer, and Winona Ryder (the only one of the three to receive an Oscar nomination). Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer, a successful and proper lawyer engaged to May Welland (Ryder0, who begins to reconsider his respectable but passionless life when May's cousin,  Countess Olenska (Pfieffer), arrives. Scorsese's virtuosity with the camera and eye for detail in production design have never been on better display. The mannered performances (perfectly suited to a film about emotional repression) and deliberate pace may be off-putting to some, but there is a great deal to savor here.

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen (only Joel is credited as director)
Best Known For: Fargo, No Country For Old Men, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, True Grit, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

This one certainly has a cult following, and my guess is a fair portion of those reading this have seen it, but it's certainly not as celebrated as much of the Coen's other work, and, while it's not their best film, it is my personal favorite (in no small part because it's the first film of theirs I saw). Tim Robbins is hilarious as Norville Barnes, a country-fried rube who, through a complicated series of events, is chosen by Chairman of the Board Paul Newman as the new C.E.O. of Hudsucker Industries, a mammoth corporation. But Norville was chosen to make the company fail so Newman and the other board members can buy up the stock. That plan fails miserably when Norville's silly invention "for kids" becomes an overnight sensation. Odd as can be, but hilarious and visually stunning. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

5 Things That Would Make Modern Movies Better

Pretty self explanatory.

1. Comedies With Stories -I love to laugh as much as anybody, but, with few exceptions, the comedies I enjoy the most have an engaging story, not just a series of gags. This can go as highbrow as To Be Or Not To Be or Sullivan's Travels,  or as lowbrow as Three Amigos. Once in awhile now a movie like The Other Guys comes along and entertains me, and even a little less often we have a comedy like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World I genuinely find to be a very good film. But, for the most part, I feel better comedy is being done today on television than in feature films.

2. More Judicious Use of 3D - I actually do quite enjoy 3D in certain films, namely Avatar and the Pixar movies. But, while post-production 3D conversion is getting better than it's Clash of the Titans nadir, it's still weak and frequently distracting. we should have one or two 3D movies in a year, and they should always be shot for 3D.

3.  More Time Taken on Sequels - As hard as it is for me to wait for the next Star Trek movie, I'm so glad J.J. Abrams and company are taking their time, the way Christopher Nolan does between Batman movies. This almost always leads to better sequels. The very best case scenario for a rush job sequel is a very entertaining but flawed movie like Iron Man 2. The worst is a train wreck like X-Men: The Last Stand.

4More Thought About Whether a Movie SHOULD Have a Sequel - What possible reason beyond money could there be for The Hangover Part II? It never has been this way, and it never will be, but sequels really should be reserved for movies that really lend themselves to either another story, or a continuation of the previous story. In the past decade we've had films like The Dark Knight or the Bourne sequels (ignoring the divisive shakeycam style for a moment and just looking at the story) that made things deeper and richer. But we've also had a lot of sequels that seemed to beat a dead horse.

5. Audiences Willing to Take a Chance - I do, in fact, blame an awful lot of what's wrong with movies right now on audiences. There are films being made that are not recycled 80s properties or brainless drivel, but audiences aren't supporting them. Even if we're not looking at highbrow fare like The Conspirator, which I concede don't offer the escape most audiences want from a movie,  we're seeing smart, quality films like Source Code doing less business in their entire run than something like Fast Five does in it's opening weekend. We complain that we want Hollywood to make good, original movies instead of just remakes and sequels, but most audiences don't seem to back that up. Humorist Dave Barry wrote of a restaurant concept called "Mr. Mediocre", which was essentially a thinly veiled McDonalds. "Mr. Mediocre" was based on the idea that people are afraid to take a risk that food could be really bad or really good, and they stay with safely mediocre. That's what movie audiences are doing today, in my opinion, and it's doing more damage to movies than anything Hollywood could come up with.

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Murder by Decree" *** Out of Four

I love the original Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories, and am therefore both a sucker for film versions of the characters, and also a bit picky about them. When everyone else was singing the praises of the early trailers for the Robert Downey Jr film, I was upset at what a butchering of the character it appeared to be (because I was so prepared to hate it I actually ended up quite liking the film). I've never been able to embrace the classic Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films, partly because of Bruce's portrayal of Watson as a blustery old fool (Watson is extremely intelligent and a year younger than Holmes).

Easily the most accurate realization of the Holmes characters is the BBC/PBS series starring Jeremy Brett. If there is a definitive Holmes, this is definitely it. But there a number of other versions I quite enjoy, including director Bob Clark's 1979 film Murder by Decree, which pits the consulting detective against Jack the Ripper. If you know any of the conspiracy theories regarding the ripper, the title has a good chance of tipping you off to the solution.

As with any Holmes film, the casting of the two leads sort of makes or brakes the film. Christopher Plummer has has all the right qualities for Holmes. While I was ambivalent about the film's tendency to turn him into something of a moralistic crusader toward the end, Plummer did hit the big speech out of the park. He looks the part, and acts the part extremely well, making him probably the biggest asset the film has. Mason, a superb actor, is saddled with a bit of the Nigel Bruce take on Watson, but it's still a strong performance, and the chemistry with Plummer is certainly there.And Watson's buffoonish tendencies certainly decrease as the film goes on.

Other members of the distinguished cast are mostly strong. of course John Gielgud adds greatly to the proceedings. The great Donald Sutherland is oddly out of place (which has happened too many times over his career). Genevieve Bujold does good work as one of the women central to the investigation, and Susan Clark is a pleasant surprise as another. If you know Clark at all, you probably know her, as I did, for the TV series Webster or the Disney film The Apple Dumpling Gang. Seeign her not only doing a British accent, but also giving a haunting, disturbing performance, is not an experience i expected to have.

Bob Clark's directing career was made up mostly of critically reviled sex-comedies, and a few horror films here and there, but he has a place in cinematic history for directing the classic A Christmas Story.  Murder by Decree is certainly one of the better films of his career, and he guides it very well, from his handling of the performances and characters with a aplomb, to establishing the creepy London fog atmosphere, to engaging us in the story. It's not the best film ever made about Sherlock Holmes, but it's certainly a good one, and well worth seeing for fans of Holmes or anyone who enjoys a good mystery. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Movies & Mom

I considered doing a spotlight of memorable movie Moms - Baby's Mom, Dumbo's Mom, the Mom in E.T., Norman Bates' Mom - But, for me, Mother's Day is about MY Mom, instead, I've decided to talk about some of my late Mother's favorite movies, and/or films that I particularly associate with her.

1. Somewhere in Time -  This Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour  time travel love story was probably my Mom's all-time favorite film, and I will always have a soft spot for it for that reason. The film is quite good in it's own right, if admittedly sappy in some places (to it's credit, it never claims to be anything but a sappy love story). Less than six months after my Mom's serious stroke, when she was having trouble thinking and processing a lot of what was being said to her, I told her I was interviewing Jane Seymour for my TV series Slicc Fliccs, and she smile and said "From Somewhere in Time?". I told Seymour that, and she cried, then told me about her own mother's stroke. We spent several minutes of what was supposed to be an interview to promote her latest film talking about out Moms.

2. Superman II - No, it's not at all a coincidence that the first two title feature Christopher Reeve. he was my Mom's favorite actor and all time screen crush. No small part of why Superman became pretty much casred in the Gibbs family, and this was widely accepted as the best of the series. We saw this what must have been at least five times at the Redwood Drive-In, and to this day if I go to a drive-in, I want to be seeing Superman. I'm so grateful that I got to see Superman Returns with my Mom just before her stroke, and have a hard time with the idea that I won't get to see the new one with her.

3. The Indiana Jones Series - Mom took us to see Raiders of the Lost Ark several times, and I have vivid memories of every time (including one time when she took just Patrick and me, because each kid got one "alone thing" activity with mom and we chose to combine ours and see Raiders for the umpteenth time). This movie began my movie obsession, and my Mom always support the filmmaking pursuits of Patrick and me (even going along with naming our Home School "Covenant Academy"). The Villa Theater, where we saw the first three movies, became almost a holy place for the Gibbs family (my Mom had loved going to movies there as a child). Again, I'm grateful I got to see The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with my Mom, even though her health had declined considerably at the point and she didn't fully comprehend it. It made me cry on so many levels when, months later, she saw it again at the nursing home and, not remembering the earlier experience, she immediately called to let Patrick and me know there was a new Indiana Jones movie and we had to see it.

4. The Terminal -  This was one of the last movies i saw with my Mom, and one of the last films she called one of her favorites. It was the epitome of the kind of movie she loved. Sweet, funny, hopeful, and with a lovable, good-hearted protagonist. I love this movie, but I haven't yet been able to watch since my Mom passed away.

5.That Darn Cat/Snowball Express - My Mom had a particular fondness for live-action Disney comedies, and these were two of her favorites.They also are movies that demonstrate that these live action Disney comedies were much better and funnier then their reputation sometimes suggests.

I could go on considerably longer with this, but I think I'll end it here for now. I love and miss my Mom, and I hope everyone has a Happy Mother's Day.

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Thor" *** 1/2 Out of Four

I have been extremely ambivalent about Marvel Studios, and it's long term set-up for The Avengers: Iron Man was one of the best superhero films I've ever seen, and one of the most entertaining all around films of the 2000s.

To me, The Incredible Hulk as a colossal dud. I realize I'm in a minority for loving Ang Lee's misunderstood, underappreciated version (though not as small a minority if you look at film critics instead of internet geeks), but I found it to be a flimsy, uncompelling story with cardboard characters, mediocre (Edward Norton) to terrible (William Hurt/Tim Roth) performances, lackluster action, and bad CGI.

Iron Man 2  was a mixed bag. Highly entertaining, but seriously overcrowded to the point of almost completely failing to give the strong story and character arcs that made the first film so good. A big part of the problem was giving so much of the film over to set-up for The Avengers. I had seriously soured on the whole Avengers project, and, as much as I love Firefly, Joss Whedon's presence did not silence my fears. Whedon's last project, Dollhouse, was, to use Whedon's own vernacular, "all manner of stupid".

So, I approached Thor somewhat cautiously. I was also a little cautious about director Kenneth Branagh. I, like every other theatre person, was a big fan in his 90s Shakeespeare days. But his bigger, Hollywood projects have had a tendency to lose their way and drown in spectacle and excess. I was very much hoping for great work from him again. And, fortunately, I feel like I got it. Thor isn't perfect, but it's definitely on the upper tier of comic book movies. There is a lot of credit to go around for this, including to Marvel Studios, who I feel finally really hit their stride with combining set-up for The Avengers with making a satisfying all-around movie (it helps to really know what you're getting into this time. This definitely feels like a transitional set-up at times, but that's less jarring me to in a film that is not a direct sequel).

The cast is strong all around. Chris Hemsworth makes a terrific, convincingly and likeably portraying the character arc from selfish, spoiled brat-god to genuine hero (that's not a spoiler, the trailer tells you that). Tom Hiddleston, as Loki, is equally strong a villain. Anthony Hopkins has one of those performances that reminds me how great he can be if he is truly engaged in the material. And Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgaard seems to be having a lot of fun (and while both are talented, I don't know that i've ever seen either of them appear to be having fun in a film before).

For me, the lion's share of the credit goes to Branagh. It turns out this is an inspired match of director to material. Branagh gives a wonderful Sheakespearan flourish to the world of Norse mythology. How much he knew the Norse legends before the film I cannot say, but this is a man who knows mythology and storytelling very well. The story sticks very closely to the Joseph Campbell "Hero's Journey" archetype, and that's a wonderful choice in a movie about classic mythology. And the juxtaposition of the deliberate campy (think the 1980s Flash Gordon) but still epic presentation of Asgard (the world of the Norse gods), and the modern world, leads a very enjoyable fish-out-of-water story of the kind that was so popular in the 80s.

Where Thor does experience some weakness in an area that seems unlikely for both a comic book film, and for Kenneth Branagh: it's actually a little too short. I'm all for the restraint of making these sort of popcorn films under 2 hours, and more filmmakers need to learn how to do that. But with the epic scope Branagah is going for, and the extra weight of juggling the Avengers baggage, I felt the film could have used another 15 to 20 minutes to fully develop. It's not bursting at the seems like Iron Man 2 was. It just could feel a little more full rounded and nuanced with the added time. I also will have to wait until a second viewing to decided how bad the post-production conversion 3D was. The viewmaster effect was not nearly as bad as I worried, but the 3D was so overpoweringly dark that it decidedly detracted from the experience (but, in fairness, I was watching it on the worst 3D screen in town).   Thankfully, it's easily worth seeing a second time.

Thor is a rousing kickoff to blockbuster season, and a triumph for Branagh. It's well worth seeing if you enjoy mythology, comic books, Branagh, or any of the above.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Endless Summer

According to Hollywood, summer begins this Friday, May 6, with the release of Thor (unless you accept the release of Fast Five last weekend as the beginning of movie summer. I have trouble accepting April as the beginning of summer even under such a ludicrous stretch, and have trouble accepting the Fast and the Furious franchise). I've already seen Thor, but a press embargo says I can't post a review until Friday. The following is a list of the top ten summer films I most eagerly anticipate.  (And no, Transformers: Dark of the Moon doesn't make the cut):

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
It will be hard to see this series end, but, if the book and the first Deathly Hallows film are any indication, it will be a glorious ending.

2. Cowboys and Aliens -  If the talent behind the camera weren't enough (Iron Man director Jon Favreau, with Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard producing), if the talent in front of the camera weren't enough (Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford together would sell me on just about anything), if the delightfully odd premise and title weren't enough, well, I'd have to just rely on the most entertaining trailer I've seen in a long time to sell me on this one.

3. Super 8 -  J.J. Abrams teams with Steven Spielberg to create a tribute/throwback to Spielberg's classic 70s and 80s films. Anyone who knows instant sees that this would appeal to me, and the early trailers have been extremely promising  (the shot of the red light at the train crossing screams Close Encounters of the Third Kind loudly enough to put me in Spielberg geek heaven). I just hope Abrams pays tribute to Spielberg more effectively than Simon Pegg and Nick Frost did. But, coming off of Star Trek, I have a fair ammount of faith in Abrams.

4. Cars 2 - Okay, Cars was one of Pixar's lesser films. That's a little like being one of the less talented Marx Brothers or Bronte sisters. I still found it charming and enjoyable, and Pixar is hands down the most reliable name in film today. Plus, the added bonus of this being the first movie my 6 year-old nephew Carson is obsessively anticipating makes it likely to be one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life.

5. Winnie the Pooh -  More than another cheapie, glorified Saturday morning cartoon like the Pooh movies of the 90s and 2000s (which i admit I found mostly enjoyable on their level), this is a return to Milne's original stories, and a production from Disney's A-list talent.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger - I'm a little ambivalent about Marvel Studios, and about their "Avenger Initiative", but recent events (which I'll discuss on Friday) make me more optimistic about the direction they're taking. And the choice of director Joe Johnston, who made the delightful The Rocketeer, to helm this WWII era superhero flick, is a great one. And again, the trailer is a lot of fun, giving a sort of Batman meets Indiana Jonesand I've actually read some of the comics, so vibe (or, in essence, The Rocketeer).

7.  X-Men: First Class -  I absolutely love the first two Bryan Singer "X-Men" movies, and was profoundly disappointed in the two Singer-less followups. Even if he's not directing, Singer is producer and story writer for this prequel, and the trailer makes me hopeful for a return to form.

8.  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Yes, I'm a bit skeptical. The sequels weren't nearly as much fun as the first, and I'm a little burnt out on Johnny Depp. But I still retain a considerable soft spot for this franchise, and the trailer is, again, a lot of fun. I also hold out hope that Penelope Cruz and director Rob Marshall will breathe new life into the franchise. And, for whatever reason, I like mermaids.

9. Green Lantern - In theory, I have no problem with the CGI suit. It's part of the his powers, it should look more ethereal than spandex. But, I admit it looks a little off in the trailer. I'm not entirely sold on Ryan Reynolds in the title role (it looks to me like they've molded the character a little too much to his bad boy persona), but director Martin Campbell gave us two of the best James Bond movies, and The Mask of Zorro. My biggest concern about this one is the same as the other comic book films, namely that Hollywood is laying the whole superhero thing on a bit too thick. But Green Lantern was one of the Super Friends, so the superhero fan in me wins out over the superhero weary critic.

10. Everything Must Go -  Will Ferrell's films are hit and miss. Elf was great, Stranger Than Fiction flirted with greatness, and Anchorman and The Other Guys were guilty pleasures that offered big laughs. Much of the time, I don't bother with his films. But, I truly enjoy his talent  When he's on, in the right project, he really shines. And this one not only promises a departure, it's based on a short story, Why Don't You Dance?, that inspired one of my favorite short films.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Northwest Frontier" (Flame Over India) ***1/2 (Out of Four)

The tile Northwest Frontier immediately conjures images of a western into my head, and I suspect that is why director J. Lee Thompson's film was later retitled Flame Over India.  That second title seems more in keeping with the actual film, a rousing, epic adventure set in 1905 India.

Set against the backdrop of a Muslim uprising, Northwest Frontier" tells the story of a British Officer, Captain Scott (Kenneth More), who is charged with transporting a young Hindu prince to the Governor's residence is Hazerabad, where he will be protected from the fighting.  This being a movie, Scott is accompanied by a eclectic mix of companions who must band together to survive the a series adventures as they cross the frontier in a a ricket old train called "The Empress of India". The group includes:

Mrs Wyatt (Lauren Bacall), the Prince's  plucky nanny/governess, who is distrustful of the military and immediately clashes with Captain Scott (the fact that a romantic interest developes between them will only be a surprise to those who have never seen a movie).

Mr. Peters (Eugene Deckers), a pragmatic arms dealer who clashes with the others because of their disdain for his profession.

Mr. Bridie (Wilfid Hyde-White), a blustery old Brit.

Lady Wyndham (Ursula Jeans), the governor's wife.

Gupta (I.S. Johar), the pleasantly goof but wise engineer.

And Mr. Van Layden ( Herbert Lom), a muckraking journalist disliked by the other passengers.

Though late in his career he descended into directing brainless Charles Bronson vehicles and the awful Richard Chamberlain version of King Solomon's Mines, J. Lee Thompson was once a skilled director of adventure films, and here he more closely recalls his classic The Guns of Navarone, with the help of veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (perhaps best known for his contribution to "Superman"), Thompson creates a sweeping adventure which is sure to entertain fans of the genre (which certainly includes me).  The interplay between the characters is entertaining, and the political/social issues that both divide them and bring them together are surprising relevant today.

The performances are strong. Bacall is terrific in a rather non-glamorous role, playing a determined and strong-willed woman who is easily the most identifiable character in the film. Though More is the action hero, she feels like the true protagonist of the film. More is quite entertaining, and one of the real charms of the film is how little like a conventional action hero/soldier he seems. A film like this, made at this time, typically called for a stoic, "man's man" Gregory Peck or Charlton Heston type. More is a teddy bear, the nice guy up the street who never quite knows when to stop talking.

Johar's Gupta is a bit of a condescending stereotype (this was 1959, afterall), but the character also has a certain wisdom and dignity that makes that easier to forgive. Lom, as the enigmatic Van Layden, is both the film's most intriguing and, in some ways, least satisfying character.


Van Layden is revealed midway through the film to be a Muslim, and the moments where Scott and the audience suspect he is attempting to kill the young Prince are thrilling suspense sequences, and very well-acted by Lom. But, the 21st Century liberal in me was disappointed when Van Layden, who protests that being a Muslim doesn't make him a killer, did indeed turn out to be the villain of the film BECAUSE he is a Muslim. While the character is more multi-layered and symapthetic than most Arab terrorist characters in modern thrillers, I have to admit this left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. But, as a fan of old fashioned adventures, I'm used to having to put aside some of my modern sensibilities and keep in mind the time in which the story was first told.


As is common for the epics of it's time, Northwest Frontier is a bit overlong, but for those who enjoy old-fashioned adventure epics, it's a thrilling good time that actually provides some chances to think along the way.

"Declaration of Principles"

The purpose of this blog is to share my movie reviews, thoughts about movies, and general cinematic ramblings. Besides posting my reviews of new films here, I will be posting a lot of reviews of older films. Primarily, these will be Siskel and Ebert used to call "Buried Treasures": films that the average person has probably not seen, but a worth a look.

They may not all be films I consider great, but they will all have something that makes them worth taking the time to view. Some may actually have been very popular at the time of their release, or even considered classics (films like  Sidney Lumet's"The Verdict", Norman Jewison's "A Soldier's Story" or Alfred Hitchcock's  "Foreign Correspondent" are examples of films I may cover which certainly cannot be called obscure), but they will be films that, in my subjective perception, the average person who stumbles across this blog is not especially likely to have seen.

I may also feature the occasional review of older films that I do not consider worth seeing, but I believe these will be less frequent. It certainly can be fun to sarcastically rip apart a film, and my experience writing reviews for the "Timewasters Guide" website was that people were generally more interested in reading these. But I'm more likely to devote my energy to films I consider to have value. I simply feel better pointing people toward something good than away from something bad.

This blog will differ from most of what is currently posted on the internet about films in a few important respects. namely, it will not be written in the style of a sex-crazed, anti-social 13 year old boy, as is currently popular on most movie news websites. Nor will any rumors, gossip, or speculation about who is going to appear the nest "Batman" movie appear.  Post modern horror/slasher films will likely never be discussed, because I simply I have no interest in that particular genre.

So, assuming anyone is actually reading this, I hope you enjoy. Also, in the interest of honesty, I will freely admit that I have taken the title of this blog from the defunct newsletter from the old Utah Film and Video Center. It's a good title, and, as far as I know, it's not being used. If I find out it is, the title will change.

Paul Gibbs