Wednesday, May 26, 2010

FROM THE ARCHIVES 9: a review of "Seven Pounds"

There is a certain melancholy spirit lingering after the finale of "Lost," so I wanted to present to you another older review of an atmospheric and mournful film featuring an uncharacteristically grim performance by Will Smith.

Originally written April 26, 2009

"SEVEN POUNDS" Directed by Gabriele Muccino
*** (three stars)

When "Seven Pounds" was released this past winter and met an onslaught of negative reviews, a major criticism against the film was how manipulative it was which therefore took a sense of reality away from the story. While I do kind of understand what those critics were getting at, I do however feel that addressing a film as "manipulative" in a negative way is a strange comment to make as ALL MOVIES ARE MANIPULATIVE. Films tell stories and because of the nature of visual storytelling especially, films are designed to bring out certain responses within the viewers who watch them. Filmmakers want you to laugh, cry, be afraid, get your heart racing, take you to a meditative state and all manner of emotions. How successful they are at those feats is up to each and every film goer. That's just what films are and "Seven Pounds," brought to us by the second collaboration between Will Smith and Director Gabriele Muccino (who previously gave us the terrific "The Pursuit Of Happyness"), is no exception.

"Seven Pounds" is a decidedly somber, moody affair that I will describe as discreetly as I am able to not produce spoilers. Smith plays Ben Thomas, a deeply tormented man who is feverishly trying to positively alter the lives of seven complete strangers, including Woody Harrelson as a blind man and Rosario Dawson, an artisan forced to cease producing her work due to a heart condition. With that description, I am certain that you astute movie watchers out there can see where at least some of the roads the film is going to travel and again, I can understand the criticism. There is a convoluted nature to the story which does feel a tad false here and there. I know I was annoyed at the somewhat cryptic discussions between characters that felt forced and prefabricated such as:

CHARACTER #1: Remember the thing I gave you?
CHARACTER #2: I remember. Do you remember what I gave you?
CHARACTER #1: Yeah (dramatic pause) I remember.

And then it's on to the next scene.

For a few moments, I felt as if the filmmakers were trying to emulate something akin to M. Night Shymalayan's work and it was frustrating me. In fact, even some of the film's evocative music score, which features one badly thumped piano note--signifying Dawson's broken heart perhaps--seemed silly. But then, somehow it began to weave a spell over me and I was ultimately taken in.

"Seven Pounds" may be one of those films where the honesty comes from emotional truths regardless of how preposterous the proceedings may be. A filmmaker who performs that feat for me consistently is Writer/Director Wes Anderson whose "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Darjeeling Limited" often feel like stories from some other universe but they are always emotionally truthful to me as their melancholy spirits take hold and I can see how his fractured tales of family and loss resonate fully. Muccino orchestrates the film with a steady, empathetic hand never allowing the film to slide into grand melodrama even as it threatens to in a number of sequences. And by the film's end it really did build to a certain power of catharsis. The predominant theme of death certainly made it a companion piece to last year's much more successful winter films "The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button" and the highly artful "Synecdoche, New York" as it pursued the push-pull tension of lives failing and lives rising.

My greatest credit towards this film is the performance of Will Smith, an actor who continues to surprise and amaze. I really think of him as being in the same league as someone like Tom Cruise, strong actors who are actually quite underrated as the enormity of their celebrity may cloud people's views of their actual talent. While Smith utilizes his unbreakable determination again, it is through a character where Smith is forced to travel down some extremely dark emotional tunnels--previously unseen by him on screen.

Appearing as if he were the adult version of his character from "Six Degrees Of Separation," he is by turns charming (a Smith trademark), eerie and even at points, sinister. Mostly, Smith portrays the weight of a man crushed by a past tragedy and he lives in a crippled, broken state of sadness. His redemptive path by improving those aforementioned lives of the seven strangers is a suicidal one and the duality of seeing him wanting to shed light while he himself lives in an emotional black hole makes for a honest, riveting performance. When he says, "I think about dying every day," you believe it, the effect is simultaneously chilling and sorrowful and that is a testament to the power of Smith's stunning performance.

By the moment the end credits began to scroll, I realized how much "Seven Pounds" actually moved me. I know some elements may provide unintentional laughs or moments of disbelief with some viewers (including a much maligned jellyfish--I won't get into it here) but somehow, it felt just right. The poetry of it all worked for me.

As the flesh fails, the soul prevails and in the film's final moments, I think Muccino and Smith delivered that sentiment in an unusual, sometimes needlessly complicated yet decidedly honest fashion where the manipulation on display never felt like a cheat. I am happy to recommend this film to all of you.

Monday, May 24, 2010

WHEN TV ECLIPSES THE MOVIES: a tribute to "Lost"

...And now it is finished.

Last night, the world saw the outstanding and soul shaking conclusion to "Lost," one of the most groundbreaking serialized television programs of the 21st century and in every conceivable way, I was enormously satisfied. At this time, I wanted to take a few moments to pay tribute to this television series that captured my imagination and spirit for the previous six years. Now, dear readers, you may be wondering why I am going to spend time writing about a TV show on Savage Cinema. I will explain shortly, asking you to understand that there is a connection. However, I will tell you that as I ponder everything that I saw last night, it still amazes me that for a time, I almost did not even watch this show and I only, and graciously, have my wife to thank for steering me towards it. Maybe like the island itself, it called to me and I was meant to watch it!

Six years ago, I remember the intrigue I felt when I first saw the advertisements depicting a new television series set on an island, featuring a large cast of characters who had been shipwrecked somehow. The only familiar faces to me where the ones of Matthew Fox (previously from "Party Of Five") and Dominic Monaghan (whom I was happy to see had found new work after "The Lord Of the Rings" trilogy), uttering his now iconic phrase, "Guys, where are we?" Despite my curiosity, I kept telling myself that I just did not want to get myself involved with any new series and that it would be better for me if I did not watch it at all.

On the night of its premiere in September 2004, I actually happened to not be home--either pleasantly out with a friend or miserably engulfed within a school staff meeting. Upon returning home, my wife greeted me with the vehement admonition, "YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW!!!!"

"Was it really that good?" I asked.

"YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS SHOW!!!!" she said again, even more emphatically.

Fortunately for me, the ratings for the premiere went through the roof and the network repeated the two hour premiere that very weekend. Still not desiring the vortex of a new program to get myself involved with, I somewhat reluctantly sat down to watch.

"Lost" began six years ago with a shot of an eye suddenly opening, gradually revealing the body of a man, lying on his back in a field of bamboo staring up at the sky. Over the course of the following ten minutes or so, we are as disoriented as this man as he discovers himself upon an island after a horrific plane crash. He races from one wounded victim to another through a cacophony of sights and sounds, all presented with a level of such intensely gripping visual heft, that after those first ten minutes, I said out loud to my wife," This is better than most movies!!" I was immediately hooked, previous trepidation be damned.

From there, we are formally introduced to the man with the newly opened eyes as Dr. Jack Shephard (beautifully played by Fox), and our strange, lengthy, difficult, sometimes frustrating and at times furiously harrowing and tragic odyssey has officially begun. As you all know by now, "Lost" began with the cataclysmic mid-air destruction of flight Oceanic 815 and subsequent crash onto a mystical island housed somewhere in the South Pacific. We are introduced to a diverse cast of survivors including, along with the good doctor, a fugitive, a con man, a married Korean couple, a previously estranged Father and son, a young pregnant woman, a drug addicted rock musician, and most notably, a paraplegic who now has regained the usage of his legs among others.

As the survivors attempt to find their collective ways back home, "Lost" dove tailed into a myriad of mysteries that delved into a dense, deeply convoluted and epic morality tale. Utilizing concepts and story lines depicted through intensely detailed and heartbreakingly emotional character flashbacks and flashforwards, "Lost" featured time travel, quantum physics, mysticism, mythology, as well as a hefty dose of biblical allegory mixed with spiritual and philosophical debates concerning fate, destiny, free will, reason, science, faith and mortality. Yet, what grounded the series from the very beginning was its emotional core via its commitment to the inner lives of the characters, an assortment of lost souls before their plane crash, now on their own respective roads to redemption or damnation. And without any disregards to all of the brilliantly executed head spinning questions and concepts, what kept me coming back to this program was my devotion to these characters, their pasts, their developments and their futures. And again, many, many, many times over the course of this six year series, I said to myself, "This is better than most movies!!"

Last night's finale, entitled "The End," was a masterful achievement. If this were a theatrical movie, it would easily garner four stars and earn a spot as one of the best films of the year from me. It had it all! From an epic clash of good vs. evil, to piercingly intimate moments where you could not help but to find lumps in the throat followed by tears flowing down your cheeks, the final episode of "Lost" spoke to the heart and the soul while being consistently pulse pounding and supremely haunting.

Without going into plot descriptions and remaining SPOILER FREE for the benefit of those who have not seen the finale as of yet, I will say that it reminded me in many ways of how I felt about the conclusions to both "Star Wars" trilogies, the final installment of the Harry Potter book series as well as the conclusions to both the book and film versions of "The Lord Of The Rings." The series finale of "Lost" left me wanting for nothing and concluded every thread of its massive amount of story lines in the most honest, emotionally wrenching and satisfying way. It was a definitive ending which brought the complete series full circle while also leaving room for interpretations. It was an episode, and ultimately a series, to cherish, savor, re-visit, and remember. And again, this finale proved that at its best, "Lost" is better than most movies being released week to week in our cinemas these days.

When a television program of this caliber ends, like "The Wire," David Simon's unbelievably extraordinary five year Dickensian series for HBO, the remainder of what is actually shown on television looks depressingly trite. "Lost" is a series in the same caliber as "The Wire" as week to week, the actors, writers, producers, directors and everyone else behind the scenes worked at the peak of their collective talents to deliver the very best television could possibly offer on a consistent basis. It pushed the medium forward while delivering the best of classic storytelling. Certainly there are aspects of TV that cannot be duplicated in film, most notably having the luxury of taking hundreds of hours to develop characters and stories instead of a motion picture's two or three hour limitations. Aside from that, the commitment to storytelling should be the same for both mediums.

What I would hope is for current filmmakers and screenwriters to take the time to study a series like "Lost" and witness how filmmaker J.J. Abrams, program head writers and executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carleton Cuse and the show's full artistic staff constructed and weaved their deeply imaginative fabric to create a program that was downright literary. "Lost" transcended its own science fiction and mythological genres to plunge straight into the viewer's heart and speak directly to the human condition, our spiritual beliefs and questions and hopes for what may lie beyond the world as we know it. In some ways, "The End" also reminded me of the brilliant 2008 film "Synecdoche, New York" from Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman, as it forced me to think of the very issues I would rather not think about. But, it did so in a way that filled me with a hope of the utmost bittersweetness. It was a luscious sorrow, A gorgeous melancholy. A painfully beautiful sweep of feeling that only this series could deliver so handsomely.

I hope this series is nominated again for a collection of Emmy Awards, with acting nominations especially for Fox and Terry O'Quinn (who portrayed the once wheelchair bound and tragic man of faith, John Locke), whose joint battle of wills was the centerpiece of the series as a whole. But, beyond the awards, I sincerely hope that new viewers discover this series and watch it from beginning to end and see that when television wants to get it right, they can do it to the level where it becomes an artistic expression of the highest order.

Now, I will not recount my favorite memories from this series for they are too many in quantity. Are you kidding me???? I have to spout out a few! In addition to those very first ten minutes of the pilot...

1. The opening of the hatch.
2. The capture of Walt.
3. The numbers....
4. The aching love stories of Sun & Jin, Sawyer & Juliet, Desmond & Penny, Hurley & Libby, Daniel Farraday & Charlotte and even Bernard & Rose
5. Dharma in the 1970s
6. Hurley's enormous heart
7. The sound of the smoke monster
8. Michael Giacchino's elegiac music score
9. The sacrifices of Charlie, Sawyer and Sayid
10. Jughead's explosion

...and so much, much more...

I must say that due to the dense and nearly impenetrable nature of the series, I was unsure if I actually wanted to sift through it all over again. But, I have to say that after last night's finale and seeing an ending this complete, I am compelled to watch it all over again.

Was every single episode perfect? No. Some did indeed drag their feet while other episodes prolonged frustration as I just wanted to have some answers. And there was one time-waster of an episode as it was inconsequential to the series as a whole. But, just when I was at the point of giving up, there would be yet another home run that made me say again and again, "This is better than most movies!!!" Now having seen the entire series, start to finish, and having the knowledge not present during the initial run, perhaps the series can been seen with newly opened eyes, giving the series an even more profound depth. I have already re-watched that very first episode, nearly six years after having seen it the first time and I was amazed at how many elements were conceptually in place from Day 1!

What a GIGANTIC hole "Lost" has left for all of us who do indeed watch television. And what an equally GIGANTIC lesson it is for filmmakers who churn out cinematic garbage for too much of the calendar year. What a shame it is for people blessed with the gifts, means and opportunity to create works that we end up regretting spending our hard-earned money on...especially when, over the last six years, you could receive the high quality of "Lost" for FREE!

For now, I save my vitriol and produce only grace as I deeply thank all involved for "Lost." Thank you for producing a series that not only entertained greatly but greatly spoke to our collective humanity. We all have our own islands to travel, be tested by, be vanquished by and to conquer in life. The journey of Jack Shephard and all of the passengers of flight Oceanic 815 was one to behold and in the end, I was so deeply moved and forever changed by it.

I wonder how and when television can recover from this loss! "Lost," including its profoundly exceptional finale, was indeed better than most movies and I wish, most of all, for movies to catch up and reach the bar that this television program has so dramatically raised.

Friday, May 21, 2010

FROM THE ARCHIVES 8: a review of "Coraline"

Now that my review of "How To Train Your Dragon" has been posted, here's another trinket from the archives...

Originally written February 9, 2009

"CORALINE" Written and Directed by Henry Selick
Based upon the novel by Neil Gaiman
*** (three stars)

I have been told that fairy tales usually consist of three basic components: the opening "Once Upon A Time...," the positive "..and they lived happily ever after" as conclusion and all of the excitement occurs in the middle.

When I was a child, my favorite fairy tale was the eternal classic, "Jack and the Beanstalk." I never tired of it and truly relished the high tension of Jack entering into the giant's castle, stealing from him and hiding in various places to avoid being eaten. The story's set-up got me ready and the climactic chase down the beanstalk was deeply thrilling but it was the middle portion I liked the best. It was deeply frightening and as I have gotten older and have even watched children explore the same classic fairy tales many adults are now trying to shield them from, I have to wonder what is the magic found in the terror of classic children's stories and what fears are the children trying to work through on their own through their play? As adults try to keep toning things down in order for the children to not be frightened, children keep seeking healthy fears to overcome.

Now we are presented with a new film aimed at children that is a throwback on two fronts: the attempts to strongly evoke the style and tone of the brothers Grimm and the usage of the painstaking hand crafted, stop-motion animation in the digital age.

Writer/Director Henry Selick mostly succeeds in his adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel "Coraline," the dark cautionary tale of a neglected and rightfully sullen pre-teen girl sucked into an alternate universe where the world is colorful with delightful surprises around every corner and most importantly, her parents are interesting, fun, and appear to be more loving than her real parents. But of course, in stories such as these, there is always a catch--and that is our heroine has to sew a pair of buttons over her eyes and remain in this now dangerous world forever, relinquishing her soul to the evil "Other Mother."

There are articles popping up everywhere wondering if this story will be too frightening for children. That's hard to say as it would depend upon each child's sensibilities. But, this is a creepy fable that dances to the edge of nightmares but never fully plunges into them. It's more "Hansel and Gretel" than anything truly harrowing. That said, I found myself not terribly involved or even scared during this film. Selick certainly captures the right tone and an eerie pace but sometimes, he lets his gorgeous animation get the better of him in sequences devoted to Coraline's grotesque and eccentric neighbors in scenes that go on a little too long and bog the main storyline down a bit.

If I could rate this film purely on style and technique, I would give it the four star rating without question. But, the story is what makes it all pop and while Selick does conjure up moments that reminded me of Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits" and Miyazaki's astounding "Spirited Away," "Coraline" never built upwards into a full experience for me. "

"Finding Nemo" was a film that was almost a good way and that was due to the story's construction, pacing and execution. That said, don't let my slight detractions steer you away. "Coraline" is a worthy effort told in high style and if you look over your shoulder here and there after it's over, then that's even better.

A BOY AND HIS DRAGON: a review of "How To Train Your Dragon"

Co-Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Based upon the original novel by Cressida Cowell
**** (four stars)

Extraordinary!!! How and furthermore, why did I wait so long to see this outstanding animated film?!! Dreamworks Animation Studio’s “How To Train Your Dragon,” co-written and directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders and based upon the original novel by Cressida Cowell, is everything anyone could ask for. It proves once again, along with the recent daring features from the wizards of Pixar (2007’s “Ratatouille,” 2008’s “Wall-E,” and 2009’s “Up”), plus Director Spike Jonze’s ground breaking “Where The Wild Things Are” and Writer/Director’s Wes Anderson’s hugely clever and entertaining “Fantastic Mr. Fox” from just last year, that films aimed at young audiences need not be propulsive day-glo colored, hellzapoppin’ brain melting time-wasters filled with gratuitously flatulent pop culture driven humor. “How To Train Your Dragon” shows that in the best of hands, with complete respect for its audience and with a vision and heart as wide as the open sky, children’s film entertainment can perform and ultimately be of the highest cinematic quality. If you have not seen this film yet, I strongly urge you to go immediately after reading this review. (Why waste time? Go see it before reading this review! It’ll be here when you get back.) If you already have seen it, immediately go see it again. The bar has been raised as this is a film to treasure for the ages.

Our story begins in the mythical Viking village of Berk, described as the “midland to misery” by our teen aged hero, the unfortunately named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, from “Tropic Thunder” as well as a member of filmmaker Judd Apatow’s key repertory players). This lanky, klutzy, mop top haired boy is the misfit of the village teens (featuring the voices of voices of Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plaase and Kristin Wiig), the put-upon assistant to blacksmith Gobber (voiced by Carig Ferguson) and is hopelessly in love with Viking teen dream Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera). Yet most of all, Hiccup harbors enormous dreams of becoming an acclaimed dragon killer, not only for his village, but for the long sought approval of his Viking warlord Father, Stoick (voiced be Gerard Butler). During the film’s opening battle sequence between the Vikings and a slew of dangerous dragons, all possessing fearsome names like “Gronckle,” “Deadly Nadder,” “Hideous Zippleback” and the terrifying “Monstrous Nightmare,” Hiccup impetuously sneaks away from the melee with his self-made bolas cannon weapon in tow. Surprisingly, he shoots down the most dreaded dragon of all, the always unseen "Night Fury," an unprecedented feat which no one believes the hapless Hiccup could accomplish on his own.

Stoick grudgingly enrolls Hiccup into Dragon Training with his peers, where the winner has the opportunity to kill a dragon in full view of the entire village. After his first disastrous lessons, Hiccup wanders through the woods to a secluded section and discovers the roped and wounded Night Fury dragon. Armed with his dagger, Hiccup prepares to kill the sleek black creature with the huge, piercing and soulful eyes and almost feline features, yet finds himself unable to do so. He sets the dragon free and in turn, just as the dragon aims to kill Hiccup, it elicits a mighty roar and scurries away, setting Hiccup free. This curious meeting inspires Hiccup to return to the secluded area where he discovers that the dragon has lost one of its tail wings and is now unable to fly. Naming the dragon “Toothless” due to its retractable teeth, the pair make their first tentative steps towards understanding and friendship.

Their repeated secretive meetings not only strengthens their bond towards each other but also clues Hiccup into the ways of the dragon species (they enjoy gentle strokes on their skin and roll around in grass as if it were cat-nip, love to eat fish and despise eels), all the while increasingly realizing that everything he had ever learned abut dragons had been completely wrong. Hiccup’s newfound knowledge ultimately makes him a local celebrity in his non-violent dragon training sessions, where he appears to be the master of the beasts. Hiccup gains the pride of his Father, the envy of his peers and more than a little bit of reciprocated interest from Astrid and then…his secret is discovered, painfully impacting his relationship with his Father, the safety of Toothless and placing the collective fates of the dragon and Viking races in dire jeopardy.

“How To Train Your Dragon” is superlative entertainment and the perfect antidote to a somewhat sluggish beginning to my 2010 movie-going experiences--a beginning where even the mighty Martin Scorsese stumbled a little and Tim Burton fell flat on his artistic face. Despite some gems (“The Runaways,” “Iron Man 2,” and “Hot Tub Time Machine”), I just hadn’t sent that “home run” of a movie just yet. But, this film more than fits the bill as it is beautifully rich in artistic detail and its overall presentation is expertly written and directed.

Yes, the film contains familiar themes of individuality, the power of trust, unity and community as well as tenuous parent/child relationships yet this film makes all of these well-worn themes feel brand new. The pace is brisk but not rushed. Surprises are consistently abound and every moment is completely engaging. The entire voice cast is uniformly excellent, the animation is gorgeous and all of the humor is contained within the constraints of the characters and story—no flatulent pop culture driven humor is anywhere to be found. The epic climax never overstays its welcome and is honestly breathtaking, thrilling, heartbreaking and always spectacular without becoming bombastic or shorting itself on heart and humor.

The film succeeds strongest in three specific areas. First of all, is the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless as it fully understands the deep spiritual bond between animals and humans through several nearly wordless sequences that never grow portentous or saccharine. The elegant courtship between Hiccup and Toothless are some of the most graceful and poignant animal/human bonding sequences I have seen since those long ago glorious island scenes between boy and horse from Director Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion” (1979). They are also, of course, happily reminiscent of cherished moments from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.:The Extra Terrestrial” (1982).

Secondly, I absolutely loved the care and attention placed upon all of the dragon characters as each and every creature had its own physical and emotional features, character and presence and they were completely unique from each other. The sheer and extremely complex characteristic detail displayed throughout the film opened up this magical world even wider for me and I relished seeing, hearing and learning about each dragon’s particular traits. Every detail contributed to the cumulative effect of the story as a whole and nothing was superfluous, not even for one moment.

Best of all are the flying sequences, of which there are many, and all of them are nothing less than majestic—and I saw this film is 2D!! You see and feel the scope of the landscapes in relation to the sky and clouds. You sense the speed, grace, occasional danger and euphoria of flight as Hiccup and Toothless learn how to jointly navigate this method of travel as well as their new relationship together. When it takes to the air, the film soars even higher.

Right now, I have to address a topic that is not meant to re-open any cinematic wounds but I do think is apropos. This topic is in regards to the hefty comparison this film has been receiving between itself and a certain 2 BILLION DOLLAR (and counting) box office behemoth known as “Avatar.” I do think the comparisons between the two films are more than fair as they share specific visual and thematic elements, most especially the theme of discovering where your allegiances lie: with the family you are born to or the family you have created for yourself. Where “Avatar” left me completely under whelmed as that endless film suffered under the weight of its own pretentiousness and self-congratulatory heft (in addition to the derivative and badly presented storyline), “How To Train Your Dragon” bests that film at its own game and in every conceivable way...and in nearly half of the running time! The late, great Gene Siskel and still great Roger Ebert long ago expressed that for many successful films, it is not due to what the films are about but how they are about what they are about. The stars were definitely aligned for “How To Train Your Dragon” as somehow, someway, all of the time tested elements and forward thinking technology combined to create cinematic alchemy. As Writer/Director James Cameron heads into preparation for the inevitable "Avatar 2," perhaps he should take a long look at this film, which strongly and always emphasizes story over special effects and shiny new filmmaking toys and maybe he can come up with a new film that can exist in the same neighborhood as this one.

Although the Dreamworks Animation Studio has had it share of box office smash hits, not many of them appealed to me very much aside from the original Shrek” (2001) and the enjoyable Kung Fu Panda” (2008) as they seemed to be too reliant upon the aforementioned pop-culture driven humor and high profile voice cast in relation to simple strong storytelling. With “How To Train your Dragon,” however, Dreamworks has now elevated itself to the repeated gold standards set by Pixar…so much so that Pixar should take notice and perhaps begin looking up over its shoulder! I can only imagine the healthy competition between these two animation studios if the quality of their respective outputs continues this highly. But, that's the future…

For now we have this glowing achievement, a familiar story with familiar themes told in a thrillingly fresh, vibrant, emotional way. This is not simply a movie to see as “How To Train Your Dragon” is not designed to be watched passively. This is a movie to feel and feel deeply as it obviously wants you to become as enthralled with the sights and spectacle in the same ways that our young hero Hiccup is.

“How To Train Your Dragon” has easily soared to being one of the very best films of 2010.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

FROM THE ARCHIVES 7: a review of "Religulous"

Originally written March 8, 2009

"RELIGULOUS" Directed by Larry Charles Produced by Bill Maher
*1/2 (one and a half stars)
This film was frustrating and the more I think about it, the angrier I feel. If you have ever had an argument with someone who was not even remotely interested in hearing or attempting to understand your side of the issue--or even cared in the first place, then you will understand the experience of watching Bill Maher's "documentary" about the hypocrisy in the world's religions. This was so unfortunate as Maher is someone I truly count on to go into the media and passionately cut through the double speak that plagues our ears and minds on a daily basis. From his series "Politically Incorrect" to his current "Real Time With Bill Maher," he always has the final word--hey, it is HIS show--yet, he always makes the time to have differing points of view on his stage for healthy and hilarious debates about the state of the world. The programs make for consistently riveting television and with his brilliant jabs at life's absurdities, and politics in particular, it is also raucously funny. That is why this enormously hypocritical film is a strangely confusing and disappointing one. I expect so much more from Maher and unfortunately he tragically succumbed to his own dogma.

In the film's opening segments, we meet members of Maher's own family and learn that he was raised Catholic although his Mother is Jewish. His family left the church when Maher was 13 years old, most likely due to the church's stance on birth control and he has never returned. Maher then voices his spiritual doubts as an agnostic and decides to head out into the world and speak with people about religion, faith and all spiritual matters in order to better understand people's ties to issues that cannot be proven. But, if only he did this honestly. Yes, it is his movie and he can do whatever he wants with it but he spends the entire time talking out both sides of his mouth. Maher claims to essentially be an agnostic but most of what he spews is clear atheism--which would be just fine if he were honest about his motives.

While opening scenes may feel a bit more authentic and filled with Maher's trademark blistering sarcasm and challenging nature, the film quickly nose dives into Maher essentially going around the world and telling everyone that their need to have faith is wrong because there is no God, no Christ or any unproven faith that one subscribes to. He comes off as a bully by refusing to allow people to speak, mocking them constantly and refuting anything anyone says, even if it is something reasonable to ponder. A telling sequence is a discussion between Maher and an actor portraying Jesus Christ at an outdoor crucifixion re-enactment facility. When speaking of the possibility of the Holy Trinity, the actor makes an analogy of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being something similar to water, as it can exist in the three different substances of steam, liquid and ice while always being water. Maher gives it a moment and then slaps it down as hogwash. When the actor gently challenges Maher and asks him, "What if you are wrong?" Maher doesn't give it an honest thought. He evades it entirely with a childish, "What if YOU are wrong?" For someone that claims to want to understand, that is a close-minded way to show it.

From there, the film gets worse as Maher essentially speaks only with a variety of fanatics to prove his own point of how religion is hostile and hypocritical. How people, evangelists, religious leaders, man-made organizations, and world leaders have consistently used the Bible as a weapon to discriminate, to pass judgement, to wage wars and so on. But why didn't he speak with average everyday people about their ties to religion and faith to provide a counter-balance? I just don't believe he was interested at all. And besides that, crazy fanatics make for a better movie, don't they?

It is when he approaches Muslims that the film came to a deeply disturbing point as his footage essentially presents a jingoistic view of the world and a view he completely rallies against within his own television show. While I do not feel that Maher is a racist, I have to admit to being confused and hurt by this stage of his movie. Are you really trying to say that all Muslims everywhere in the world are all fanatics and suicide bombers ready to subscribe to a faith and kill us all? It was demeaning and ugly and I found it to be contradictory to his nature as presented on his show and comedy routines for decades.

Even as a movie, it is a disappointment as his sole point could be uttered in ten minutes. Since he had nothing else to say other than his main point, the running time makes for slow going, despite a laugh here and there. The finale of the film is a nearly ten minute rant similar to his brilliant "New Rules" segment, in which he makes his point yet again and ultimately says that everyone in the world should toss religion aside, put away their unshakable certainty with all things unproven and belong to a religion of doubt because the fact that no one really knows is the only thing we know. Great point, yet it is presented with the precise unshakable certainty he has spent the entire movie condemning.

I should say at this time that my critique is not coming from a place of faith. I am not a church-goer and I haven't been one since my adolescence. My church upbringing was a positive one and I hold nothing against that experience. I had a wonderful Pastor and I remember a conversation we had before my confirmation in which I asked him about the Holy Trinity and how did that work. He was actually unable to answer. I never held that against him because he was a brilliantly good man who led his church with tolerance and grace and whose faith was a powerful one. I just knew that I had some questions that maybe I needed to find answers to on my own spiritual path. As a dear friend once said to me a few years ago, "There are many roads up the same mountain." It is because of that friend, I left my agnostic thoughts of my 20s behind and found a stronger place of faith today. But...I still have my questions.

There are many of Bill Maher's points that I agree with. The man-made structure and the hypocrisy behind it just does not work for me and at times enrages me as world leaders arrogantly used the word of God to commit crimes against humanity. But what does that have to do with my friends who believe, who go about their lives the best way they are able, who have friends and families of their own and hurt no one? I would never and could never begrudge anyone else's faith or need to have it. How is that hurting anyone? I have often consulted with friends more deeply involved with their church organizations and have found every discussion and source of spiritual perspective enlightening and helpful. I thank those people for being gracious enough to share.

My criticism of this film is coming from a place of fairness. How can Bill Maher have a film covering the wide range of religion itself and only speak to a small fraction of fanatical people on the fringes? It inadvertently lumped everyone who believes in any sort of a higher power together in the same boiling pot of crazy. It is a disjointed, aimless, mean-spirited movie that is beneath the character I want to believe Bill Maher has. It was Maher against the world and since in his mind, as depicted in this film, he's always right, there is no room for any other differing points of view whatsoever. And isn't that the very issue he wanted to tear down in the first place?


With my review of "Iron Man 2" written and published in cyberspace, I wanted to add some older reviews about some other recent men of action. Enjoy!

"QUANTUM OF SOLACE" Directed by Marc Foster
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
I have to admit, I was never the greatest fan of James Bond. Yes, the mythology of the character and the great theme music was always a point of interest but I have to say that for very few movies, I was actually involved with the proceedings. Perhaps it was too much myth and not enough humanity for me to truly care. Then came "Casino Royale," a visceral reboot of the series with Daniel Craig grandly stepping into the iconic role and completely making it his own as we trace Bond's first steps into becoming the secret agent for the ages.

With "Quantum Of Solace," we have our first direct sequel which I enjoyed perhaps as much the previous installment. There has been much criticism for the velocity of the film and confusing plot (always a Bond standard if you ask me) but I think what we are witness to this time is a race through Bond's psyche as he hurtles himself through this tale of revenge, hoping to find that "quantum of solace" in his broken heart and compromised soul but never slowing down enough to try and fully capture it. Craig is perfectly brutal and unforgiving in the role and his rapport with Judi Dench's "M" continues to solidify as she seems to represent not just a motherly figure to Bond but the remaining fragments of his conscience and better judgements.

Like "Royale," there are flaws. "Royale" was a bit too long and perhaps "Solace" feels like a footnote at times. But, what struck and impressed me about both films is that Bond is finally a human being. He makes mistakes, he bears emotional scars and I love that he doesn't rely solely on those fancy gadgets--which are cool but sometimes boring. Even the villains are more "real world" and I must give special mention to Mathieu Amalric's slithery performance as a member of the still mysterious organization of Q.U.A.N.T.U.M. who dabbles in government coups and environmental terrorism.

Overall, I highly enjoyed this latest installment and I am looking forward to future adventures with Craig at the helm. This is a James Bond I would follow nearly anywhere.

Originally written December 2008

"Taken" Directed by Pierre Morel
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
What a difference the right actor makes! In the case of the recent bare knuckled thriller "Taken," from the brain of filmmaker Luc Besson (the director of the equally bare knuckled thriller "The Professional" as well as the sci-fi dreampop confection "The Fifth Element"), the right actor is Liam Neeson and his brawny, brainy and ferocious performance not only elevated the leading role but also the entire film a degree. You may not respect yourself for liking this somewhat scuzzy piece of pulp fiction but it certainly is entertaining, involving and effective.

There's actually not much to the plot. Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a divorced and retired CIA agent (and self-described "preventer") who is deeply devoted to continue nurturing a relationship with his beloved daughter Kim (Maggie Grace in a performance of such forced virginal innocence it borders to near goofiness). Mills' cautious nature is placed to the test when he allows his daughter to travel to Paris for the summer with a girlfriend, under the impression that they will be staying with "cousins." Not even three seconds off of the plane, Kim and her friend are accosted by a mysterious stranger complete with party invites and within a possible hour, they are both abducted from their home by Albanian sex traffickers! Thankfully, Kim is able to place one frantic phone call to Mills who immediately springs into action with an unrepentant, punishing fury that would make John McClaine, Jason Bourne and even the Terminator beg for a level of mercy which they would not receive.

That is essentially the plot and in around 90 swift minutes, the tale has been told and the endless damage done. Now, while this movie definitely kept me involved and excited, I'm not really certain as to how much I actually liked it. It's sort of like an old Steven Segal movie--and it doesn't contain the "A level" presentation of say "Die Hard" or "Lethal Weapon." The film is a fairly ugly experience that does contain a particular veiled racism (Don't send your gorgeous blonde daughters overseas where they will undoubtedly and instantly be sold into sex slavery by dark skinned foreigners!) and a nasty worse-case-scenario for Kim (remember, her Dad described himself as a "preventer"--what do you think he is trying to prevent with this storyline?). The violence is pitched at such a grisly and gruesome (yet bloodless) level that I am honestly stunned it received a PG-13 rating.

Yet, maybe because of the nature of this storyline with it's father/daughter relationship, the overall brutality of the piece is warranted which ultimately makes the film much less about escapism and more about something primal. What would you do if someone abducted your child? There is a savage satisfaction to watching this father's level of rampage. Where other movie heroes may let a bad guy live because they wouldn't want to be "brought down to their level," Mills doesn't care a whit about any of that hokum. He wants his daughter back and nothing will stop him. He is a loving parent and mad dog all in one and you really want him on your side in a bar fight!

And here is where I head back to my original point...any success this film has rests securely on the shoulders of Liam Neeson. I really do not think that any other actor could've pulled this off so well. He is sensitive enough for the parenting sequences, intelligent enough for spy matters and his physicality is unquestionable and formidable for the relentless action sequences. He makes what could've been an unwatchable film compulsively watchable. His level of gravitas weighs this film down to Earth and makes it somewhat credible--even in a silly early sequence (Mills is assigned to bodyguard a pop star) which is designed to establish Neeson's skill as a "preventer." Again, this is really a dirty feeling film with a meanness that mainstream audiences don't tend to flock to when it's not presented through a horror filter. Even with Quentin Tarantino's ultraviolence, there is a delirious filmmaking and writing joy that is palpable to me but for this film, it got under my skin a bit and I not sure why I didn't simply dismiss it.

I cannot help to have some curiosity as to how this film earned well over $100 million dollars at the box office early this year. We are living in dark times and there is much blame to be passed around and perhaps this film was a way for viewers to channel the vengeance we all would wish to inflict on someone or something that has wronged us if only we could.

Originally written July 21, 2009

Friday, May 14, 2010

METAL MACHINE MUSIC: a review of "Iron Man 2"

“IRON MAN 2” Directed by Jon Favreau
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

As the Marvel comic book universe expands its reach into our Cineplexes with a new collection of features films slated to hit our screens over the next several years, I strongly feel that Director Jon Favreau should be given the keys to the Marvel kingdom…or at the very least a hefty raise and bonus. As he was the guiding force behind the fledgling studio’s flagship film “Iron Man” which set the box office on fire and firmly placed Marvel on the movie studio map two years ago, Favreau’s skill and craftsmanship should be greatly celebrated, by Marvel as much as audiences. My high praise continues because Favreau has done it again with “Iron Man 2,” his more emotionally complex, exquisitely wittier, more exciting and almost defiantly story driven sequel. He has not rested upon any creative laurels as he, along with his priceless leading man, Robert Downey Jr., have opened the 2010 summer movie season in grand, highly entertaining style.

Our story begins immediately six months after billionaire playboy/scientific genius Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) had revealed to the world, via press conference, his identity as the metal clad superhero. Stark’s ego in the meantime has not settled into a humble existence due to his newfound purpose by any means. On the contrary, there is not enough space in the world for his seemingly megalomaniacal peacock strut, which is only matched by his rapid-fire cocksure patter. As “Iron Man 2” opens, Stark is jointly involved with two events in the style of the MAJOR proportions that have become his trademark. First, there is the annual Stark Expo convention, presented with requisite fireballs, hot pants wearing dancing girls and Stark/Iron Man is the white hot main attraction. Stark is also the white hot main attraction during a contentious Senate hearing (led by a deliciously nasty Garry Shandling) where Stark models himself a “peace profiteer” who absolutely refuses to turn over his Iron Man suit(s) and all designs and technology pertaining to it to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Certainly, there are eyes watching everywhere including seriously unwanted ones. Rival scientific engineer Justin Hammer (a great Sam Rockwell), obviously channeling his deep jealous envy of Stark into a bizarre emulation of him, continuously attempts to ape Stark’s revolutionary technology for his own gain. More dangerously is the presence of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a renegade physicist of bottomless patience and rage. Vanko, upon the death of his Father, plots his revenge against Tony Stark, due to scientific transgressions and possible theft committed toward his Father by Stark’s Father, by creating his own destructive hybrid “Iron Man” suit (known in the comic book series as “Whiplash”). Also, behind the scenes is secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who continues his covert attention on Stark’s whereabouts and actions and who is Natalie (Scarlett Johansson) that new, curvaceous assistant in Stark’s company and what are her motives?

Tony Stark also has profound inner demons to confront as his own technology, which allows him to survive, is also inadvertently killing him. Fearing his demise, Stark’s already eccentric behavior becomes erratic thus yielding some positive results (the promotion of Gwyneth Paltrow’s assistant Pepper Potts to C.E.O. of Stark’s company) to negative (staging certain death wish scenarios including an escalating bout with alcoholism-inspired by the comic’s groundbreaking “Demon In A Bottle” storyline from the 1970s). As the inner and outer tensions continue to build, Stark begins to lose grounding with Potts, and his long-frustrated best friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over for Terrence Howard from the previous installment), leaving the fate of his relationships, company, the world at large and his soul hanging precariously over a potentially grim future.

For my money, Favreau (who also acts in the film as Stark's chauffeur and bodyguard Happy Hogan) has made a film that only improves upon the impressive original film. It not only takes the most successful elements and makes them bigger, sleeker and more polished, it is through his commitment to character and story that carries this film valiantly to the finish line. Maybe this achievement arrived partially through Favreau’s experience as a screenwriter himself (he wrote the 1996 indie film hit “Swingers”), because he understands how successful films are crafted and constructed from the conception stage through celluloid premiere. In many respects, I would say that “Iron Man 2” is a character driven sequel more than a plot driven sequel, although there is a hefty amount of plot to travel through. Unlike Director Sam Raimi’s dangerously bloated “Spider-Man 3” (2007) where even The Sandman, one of the film’s four villains, was superfluous to the point of being unnecessary and inconsequential to the overall plot, Favreau and his screenwriter Justin Theroux firmly tied every plot and character thread together. The omission of one element would have certainly unravelled the entire piece.

I particularly loved Favreau’s loose hand with his actors. Instead of too many summer movies that cram every moment and inch of the frame with visual and sonic details, Favreau allows his scenes to breathe, giving his actors proper space to be in character and play their verbal gymnastics. Again, I must make special note of Theroux’s strong, loquacious and consistently droll and clever screenplay (which I am certain worked in conjunction with some ad-libbing). For audiences accustomed to being pummeled and bludgeoned into a brain melting submission by their summer movies, “Iron Man 2” may feel more than a little chatty, especially during the mid-section. Yes, you will get a lot of bang for your buck with the CGI heavy climax. But when that climax arrives, we care about what happens and to whom because of those dialogue heavy sequences. It is that riveted attention to the characters and their motivations plus the knowledge that special effects should be used as a storytelling tool and not as the basis for the entire film itself, that makes these characters people to become and remain invested in once the explosions begin rocking the movie theater.

To think, Favreau almost lost this job because he wanted to take more time to weave an excellent film than Marvel Entertainment would allow. He remained on board through Marvel’s constraints due to his emotional connection to the source material and desire to ensure quality control for the sake of the audience who greatly embraced the first film. The feverish pace at which this film must have been made seemed to infuse the filmmaking with greater purpose and commitment to getting it right and the results have paid off handsomely as we are given not just a superhero movie, but a romantic comedy, corporate satire and excellent character study as well!

Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is again…ahem…marvelous! It is amazing to me that this man, who was once a person thought to be unimaginable in a role of this sort, has turned this character into something no one else can play. His unpredictable talent and skill plus his physical and verbal agility often makes me think of Downey Jr. as a real world “Bugs Bunny.” He knows all of the angles and he is always three to five steps ahead of everyone in the room, almost daring anyone playing a scene with him to keep up. This particular trait keeps the acting energy electric between all of the cast members and also shows that while he is the film’s star, he is a team player, as he elevates everyone’s game to achieve cinematic gold.

Downey Jr’s subtle ability to expose the various layers of Tony Stark’s emerging soul and conscience continues to impress. Of course, there is the juxtaposition of Stark’s remaining and rampant teenage rebellion (I loved the scenes of him working within his personal laboratory as he listens to The Clash, the kings of anti-establishment rock and roll—it was like viewing a petulant kid in his basement) against his supremely adult responsibilities of owning a massive corporate conglomerate. All of these exploits, plus his heroics, are extensions of his wild narcissism and Downey Jr. seems to be having a blast keeping you guessing in regards to the truth of his motives. Is Stark is truly this much in love with himself or is it simply an act for the entire world stage or a melding of the two? In the film’s emotionally darker sections, you think that he cares more humanely than he lets on and even moreso, he cares, quite possibly, more than he even understands himself. It is, again, a remarkable performance that continues to illustrate that Robert Downey Jr. is a gift to cinema and any filmmaker who is fortunate to utilize his immense and seemingly effortless talents.

Mickey Rourke, in a role that requires him to speak surprisingly little dialogue, is Downey Jr’s reticent equal. His Ivan Vanko is also a character who seems to be three to five steps ahead of everyone in the room as his endgame is crystal clear only to himself which makes him a deadly adversary of supreme intelligence. Always watch his eyes as other characters attempt to relate to him and a sinister world is visible to the audience. Rourke invests a sizable level of humanity through nice details (the love he has for his deceased father, a relationship he shares with a bird, for instance) in this character, extending Vanko far beyond the realm of burly super-villain.

Although Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson portray emerging characters whose fullness will be revealed over the course of several new films from Marvel as they continue to roll out subsequent characters to build into their “Avengers” film, they both make lasting impressions. Don Cheadle makes the transition from Terence Howard a seamless one with his eloquent performance that also allows him increased participation into the actions sequences as he dons a metal suit and becomes “War Machine.” And when did Gwyneth Paltrow become so foxy? She also remains Downey Jr’s equal as she continues her shrewd, alluring and crafty performance as Pepper Potts. She has the ability to volley all of Downey Jr.’s verbal asides even when it seems that he is running rings around her. But, when you view her “cat that ate the canary” grin, you realize how much influence she indeed holds over this metal clad ego-maniac.

As terrific as “Iron Man 2” is, is this a game changer like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) or as superlative as Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” (2004)? Not quite, but it is pretty close as it is a forward thinking film that also functions as a throwback to a time when films of this sort concentrated solely on delivering a strong story populated with a collective of equally strong actors as the mind blowing special effects serve as an enhancement of the experience as a whole. Jon Favreau and his terrific band of collaborators know how to sing this cinematic song and they have hit all of the right notes. I’m all set for number 3!!

As with the previous installment, STAY THROUGH THE ENTIRE ENDING CREDITS and view a bonus scene that will foreshadow the arrival of a new Marvel superhero!!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


In preparation for my review of "Iron Man 2," I wanted to dig up some shorter, older reviews from the archives that revolved around the summer movie seasons of 2007 & 2008. Enjoy!

"IRON MAN" Directed by Jon Favreau (2008)
*** (three stars)
The Summer Movie Season has begun in high style with Director Jon Favreau's classy and hugely entertaining superhero epic. Robert Downey Jr. is absolutely perfect as Tony Stark; a narcissistic billionaire playboy, scientific genius, weapons manufacturer and war profiteer who explores a change of heart and becomes Iron Man after being held captive in Afghanistan and injured by his own weapons. Jeff Bridges exudes strong menace as Stark's duplicitous surrogate Father figure. Terrence Howard shines as the best friend and Gwyneth Paltrow as never been looser and sultrier as she is as Pepper Potts, Stark's "Girl Friday." In addition to the fine performances, this film boats a strong script and Favreau's clean direction which echoes summer films of the past that stressed characters and story over special effects. STAY THROUGH THE END CREDITS for an obvious teaser for "Part Two." I'm ready for an even better adventure!!

Originally written April 2008 and incidentally, I must admit that when I re-read that posting I shuddered. It is so short and uninformative that it doesn't even qualify as a review.

"SPEED RACER" Written and Directed by The Wachowski Brothers
*** (three stars)
The Wachowski Brothers return in grandly neon, high-velocity, day-glo, psychedelic style with their adaptation of the 1960's cartoon. What The Wachowskis have accomplished extremely well is to create a living cartoon; a world of its very own making and rules unlike any film universe I have seen-all the while, completely honoring the source material.

The style IS the substance this time around but while not being completely shallow, the film gleefully offers a tale that supports the bonds of family, being true to one's own individuality and integrity, the value of choices and consequences, a subversive anti-corporate message and in the film's climactic moments, a possible glimpse into the moment of inspiration itself as talent becomes art.

While it is a bit too long, I have to say that I am stunned with the harshness of most critic's reviews. Honestly, when the film is based upon the cartoon, what kind of a film were they expecting?! Stilted dialogue?? Wooden performances? Barely there plot? Is this compared to the "Shakespearean" heft from the cartoon? Hogwash!! This is SPEED RACER, folks and the Wachowskis got the job done. I must give special mention to John Goodman who gives a solid, grounded performance as patriarch Pops Racer (complete with simmering guttural grunts straight from the cartoon) and Christina Ricci, who radiates an innocent sexiness as Speed's girlfriend, Trixie. She nearly steals the spotlight from the candygloss scenery! After "Iron Man" and now this film, I have been very pleased with the start of the 2008 Summer Movie Season.

Orginally written May 2008

*** (three stars)
While I could somewhat understand the luke-warm to negative response Director Ang Lee received for his visionary and excellent re-interpretation of Marvel comics "Hulk" back in 2003, I was also confused. What Lee delivered at the time, was not a traditional take on our green behemoth or even a "superhero" movie. It was defiantly an ANG LEE movie, (which is what you're gonna get if you happen to hire him to make your film) a deeply Oedipal complex filled psychological drama that dealt with Lee's consistent theme: the tragedy of repression. Heady stuff for the folks who simply wanted "Hulk smash!!"

Well, Marvel now has its chance for a re-boot and it mostly succeeded with this new version that is a much more traditional Hulk tale that honors the source material and the 1970's television drama (complete with cameos from Lou Ferrigno, the deceased Bill Bixby and even a brief reprise of the mournful "lonely-man-walking-down-the-road" music that concluded each episode) as well as existing as a more than satisfactory companion piece to this year's terrific "Iron Man."

What we have on this go around is essentially a highly effective chase movie like 1993's "The Fugitive," where scientist Bruce Banner (an excellent Edward Norton) is in constant pursuit by Gen. Ross (played with expert gruffness by William Hurt) who only wants to capture Banner and harness his gamma ray sourced powers to produce the ultimate military weapon. That's pretty much it and in many respects, and with no offense to Ang Lee, that's all you really need. All of the actors are game to the material and give it the proper weight so the proceedings are not without the proper excitement and dramatic tension.

My only misgiving with the film is the over-reliance on CGI effects. For me, they tended to get in the way during the film's extended climactic battle between The Hulk and the Abomination (a gamma ray overdosed Tim Roth). It felt more like a videogame than a movie by that point and if they continue the series or by the time Marvel arrives at the already announced team-up film, 2011's "The Avengers," perhaps the effects will feel more seamless.

Originally written October 2008

"SPIDER-MAN 3" Directed by Sam Raimi
**1/2 (two and a half stars)
Bigger is not necessarily better in this overlong and bloated third installment. While there was more than enough story remaining from the absolutely sensational second film, I still cannot wonder why Sam Raimi decided to crowd this film with no less than four villains (the Sandman could've been completed excised from the film and it would not have effected the story one bit) and two potential girlfriends. It felt as if he was juggling ten plates in the air and struggled keeping them all suspended. What continued to work for me was the undeniable chemistry between Tobey Maguire and the always impressive Kirsten Dunst, who played the film's romance as real and ultimately anchored it to the ground...just barely.

Originally written May 2007

** (two stars)
I have never been a fan of this series but I have to say that after the terrific extended climax of the previous installment, "Dead Man's Chest," I was actually anxious to see this (hopefully) final installment. Well after the film's great and surreal first third (it was like a cross between Terry Gilliam's 1989 "The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen" and the eternal "Return Of The Jedi" from 1983), the film sadly settled into it's dreaded and crushingly boring mid-section which exemplified the lousiest elements of this soulless series.

It's needlessly complicated from the constantly shifting alliances (sometimes within singular scenes), murky character motivations and for God's sakes, they are STILL introducing characters deep into this mess. By the time we reach the appropriately epic climax, you just don't care at all and really, did the fates of any of these characters ever truly engage you? I've seen worse movies but this is Hollywood excess at it's most crass.

Originally written May 2007

Saturday, May 8, 2010

APOCALYPSE NOW, DAMMIT, NOW!!!: a review of "2012"

"2012" Co-Written and Directed by Roland Emmerich
* (one star)

Many years ago, at the conclusion of a doctor’s appointment I attended, my doctor and I engaged with a bit of small talk during which she informed me that she had seen a movie the night before and that she had hated it. I asked her which film it was and I was surprised to discover it was a highly critically acclaimed motion picture, a film which I had even loved myself. I asked her why she disliked it so passionately to which she replied, “It had no redeeming social value whatsoever.”

That is exactly how I felt after watching “2012,” the latest from one of cinema’s resident masters of disaster Writer/Director Roland Emmerich. To say that “2012” had no redeeming social value whatsoever would be an understatement as it was a wholly depressing experience that left me with nothing to take away from it but a massive headache from the cinematic bludgeoning and a heartache due to the complete lack of value for the human experience.

Roland Emmerich has essentially become our modern day Irwin Allen (best known for his 1970’s disaster epics like “The Poseiden Adventure,” “The Towering Inferno,” and “The Swarm” among others). He is a creator of massive cinematic spectacle, leaving no penny unspent as he creates worlds only to destroy them. He has already vanquished the world once through an alien attack in “Independence Day” (1996), a film I still extremely enjoy. It possesses a certain goofy charm, and it was obvious to me that he didn’t necessarily take his work too seriously, as opposed to someone like the dreaded Michael Bay, a Director who obviously takes himself and his horrid work much too seriously. “Independence Day” remains Emmerich’s best piece of work as the entire experience was not only flat-out fun and contained that iconic image of aliens demolishing the White House. It was a science fiction film that was ultimately about science fiction films as it referenced every seminal science fiction epic released before it. There was a “spot the reference” spirit lodged within the well-worn yet affectionate clichés and its impressive size, scope and execution as a whole keeps it enjoyable today.

From there, the quality of his films gradually spiraled downwards, not in presentation but with intent and thoughtfulness. After Emmerich leveled New York City with his update of “Godzilla” (1998), and decimated American and world history with “The Patriot” (2000) and “10,000 B.C.” (2008), he annihilated the world again through an environmental disaster with the ridiculous “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004). “2010” is the bottom of the barrel as there is simply nowhere else for Emmerich to go after enacting the destruction, pummeling, obliteration, and nullification of the Earth to such a gargantuan and cruel degree.

Now this is typically the part of the review where I would give you, the dear reader, a window into the film’s plot. But, honestly, does it matter for a film like this? All you need to know is that the film suggests that the Mayan calendar that predicted the world, as we know it, would end on December 21, 2012 is correct. A young scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers that solar flares will either engulf the Earth or heat it up like a Jiffy Pop container and again, does it really matter what he discovers? All this film cares about is global cataclysm on a uber-epic degree and the only people it cares about are failed science-fiction novelist/limo driver John Cusack, his estranged wife (Amanda Peet), their two little moppets and perhaps between 10-15 other random characters. As the world completely falls apart around them, for nearly an astronomically unnecessary 2 hour and 45 minute running time, our “heroes” race against time to arrive in China and board four Arks that will potentially keep them safe and able to one day begin to repopulate the world.

Look, I will give the credit where it is due. It is a good looking movie with top flight special effects that do indeed deliver on the film's promises. No one can say that Emmerich didn’t wipe out the planet in a less than satisfactory fashion. There’s also no need to attack the film on its usage of those hysterical well-worn cliches, its clumsy biblical references (Cusack’s son’s name of “Noah” is a definite howler), lousy dialogue and so on as this isn’t the sort of movie that is remotely about to probe deeply into the heart of matters. That is not what films of this sort are even designed for. I just have to question and therefore attack “2012” for its intents and purposes, of which I am not certain what they were. Why even make a film like this? Was it solely just the opportunity to spend millions of dollars on the best of the best of special effects in the pursuit of box office gold? That just can’t be enough, can it?

It is more than possible to give an audience the proper spectacle yet have a brain and heart to accompany it. Take Steven Spielberg’s remake of “War Of The Worlds” (2005). What could have just been another “popcorn movie” of which Spielberg's talents and skills are peerless, he instead dropped us straight into Hell as his film explored our post 9/11 anxieties as well as the societal breakdown of humanity when the unspeakable occurs. Spielberg kept the human element front and center, making a film that deeply terrified me. Take the film’s very first alien attack, where Tom Cruise and a sea of extras race away from the death blasts. Of course, Cruise is the film’s star and you know he won’t be killed but Spielberg, the master that he is, tricks us with his devious camerawork that Cruise could die at any second. Spielberg gives us the unforgiving randomness of violence and the effect was chilling. Once Cruise arrives home safely to his children, covered in dust, we then slowly realize that he is encased in the ashes of the deceased people who were just running alongside him in terror moments earlier. The quickness of death and its overall effect on humanity was deeply felt and remained throughout the course of that nightmarish experience. As I stated in my “Time Capsule” series, “War Of The Worlds” shook me to my core. It was a primal experience and got uncomfortably under my skin. When I left the theater and saw the world as it was when I arrived, I breathed a deep sigh of thankfulness. That film made me think about what I would do and feel if the world just caved in at any second while also delivering the best special effects money can buy.

“2012” doesn't even attempt to be a part of that league of filmmaking as it doesn’t care a whit about anything beyond its most superficial elements. It doesn’t matter if millions of CGI people in cars fall into the chasms of their deaths as long as Cusack and family escape in a small plane. It doesn’t matter if a CGI Grandma is decapitated by the gigantic slab of rising pavement just as long as Cusack and Peet can reconcile their undeveloped love affair. “2012” is an endless barrage of tear-drenched faces set to ponderous and pretentious doom music signifying an unprecedented loss the film doesn’t even believe in. “2012” is beyond disingenuous. It is beyond distasteful. It is a lament for the loss of humanity in a film that doesn’t even contain a shred of it.

Well…to be fair, I will give credit to Chiwetel Ejiofor who did give a performance which treated the situation as if it were real. His performance contained empathy, dignity and at least attempted to provide the film with a soul. For that I am appreciative. But, it is faint praise.

I know it sounds like I have taken this movie much more seriously that it ever needed to be and perhaps so. I just know how this thing made me feel as it went on and on and on while billions upon billions of people perished throughout. My mind eventually began to drift and ponder what exactly is it about our culture that finds a need to consume movies such as this one. I don't just mean the "torture porn" of slasher films, because those films do cater to a specialized audience. "2012" is a movie meant for the mainstream masses. It is an event movie, expensively made and created to earn as much cash as possible regardless of the content. And yet somehow, we buy our tickets, sit in our large and comfortable stadium seats with our tasty treats in tow and gather in communion to take a front row seat to view our world's own graphic evisceration. But, oh yes, I forgot. We’re not supposed to care about that. We’re not supposed to even think about that. All we’re supposed to care about is that Cusack’s barely published science fiction novel has become the last book on Earth and his family is completely reunited in the final reel.

Dear readers, please know that I am not above just seeing a movie for fun. Trust me, I'm not. Also, I deeply understand the need for people to pay their money, check their brains at the door with the desire to just be entertained. I love a good action movie, a shoot-'em-up and the like as much as anyone else. But, when we have we allowed ourselves to watch the miserable cataclysm of "2012" with a level of detachment to the point of desensitization, I just feel sad.

We may be able to check our brains at the theater ticket booth from time to time but I fear for the day when we check our hearts there too.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

IT'S BLAND: a review of "It's Complicated"

“IT’S COMPLICATED” Written and Directed by Nancy Meyers
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Dear readers, forgive me, but I just have to begin this latest review by taking the gloves off to go after the film’s title. I hate it. I loathe it. I despise it. It is precisely the type of bland, generic, under thought, lazy titles that would actually keep me away from seeing the film the title had been ascribed towards. The Hollywood pedigree of filmmaker Nancy Meyers is long and legendary as she wrote the screenplay for the Goldie Hawn classic “Private Benjamin” (1980). Along with Writer/Director Charles Shyer (to whom she was once married), she co-wrote and produced 1987’s “Baby Boom,” the 1991 and 1995 remakes of “Father Of The Bride” and its sequel and the charming 1998 remake of “The Parent Trap” starring a delightful, pre-Hollywood cautionary tale Lindsey Lohan. I just don’t know what it is, but ever since Meyers branched out and claimed her own cinematic turf as a Director, after ceasing her professional (and personal) relationship with Shyer, her ability to find strong titles for her movies has been just this short of abominable. Perhaps I am being a little harsh as the title of her last film, “The Holiday” (2006) was simply a title so unmemorable that I had forgotten I had actually seen that film. But, her film before that, “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003) did carry a moniker that is equally as horrifically tossed off as “It’s Complicated,” which is unfortunate as that film was actually a surprisingly good and perceptive romantic comedy featuring Jack Nicholson and the radiant Diane Keaton, who just certainly gets better with age! It is just a shame that the lousy title almost stopped me from seeing it in the first place. It was akin to being presenting a visually unappetizing meal and then upon trying it, you are surprised with its succulent richness.

Now that I have gotten that out of my system, I am here to review the remainder of her latest film,…here it is again…”It’s Complicated,” a film that earns essentially all of its good fortunes through the performances from the film’s acting trio of Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. In a cinematic world where the pleasures of the romantic comedy have nearly been killed off due to painfully contrived plots set in worlds completely unrecognizable to our own starring characters who do and say the very things that would never happen in anything resembling reality, Meyers’ new film does offer a sense of refreshment. Meyers has given us a decent yet extremely bland film, which admittedly and ultimately does go down easily and leave you with a sweet aftertaste.

“It’s Complicated” introduces us to Jane and Jake Adler (Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin). Married for 19 years, divorced for 10 and parents to three young adult children, Jane and Jake are reunited once again in celebration of their son’s college graduation. Jake is currently married to the much younger Agness (played by the strangely attractive Lake Bell), with whom he had committed marital infidelity with while married to Jane. Jake is also the parent to Agness’ young son, obtained through an affair she had while with Jake. Jane, however is single, finally becoming adjusted to her life without a romantic partner and facing an empty nest, while she also flourishes as the owner of a catering business and bakery—from the looks of which, is the only business this side of Goldman Sachs earning an astronomical fortune in our current economy.

On the eve of their son’s graduation, Jane and Jake (flying solo due to Agness’ son’s stomach flu) amicably meet for drinks in a hotel bar. One drink leads to several and before you can say, “It’s Complicated,” the two are dancing the night away, spending the rest of in the sack having volcanically incredible sex and embarking upon their own secretive extramarital affair. Things become even more “complicated” with the entrance of Adam (Steve Martin) a shy, recently divorced architect, who is assigned to Jane for some massively expensive remodeling on her home. He is instantly attracted to Jane, who is also won over by his calm, mature and tender hearted demeanor. The two begin to date, much to the chagrin of Jake, who is also falling in love with Jane all over again and questioning the trajectory of his life with Agness, who is feverishly attempting to become pregnant. Will Jane and Jake reunite for good or will she choose Adam? And will Adam and Agness discover the secret relationship, leaving everyone in a world of romantic comedy heartbreak?

In the world of "It's Complicated," hearts bloom, break and mend in all of the ways you would expect if you have ever seen a romantic comedy in your life. Yet, for most of the film’s first hour, I was subject to more than a fair amount of uncomfortable seat shifting due to the over-familiarity and predictableness of the material. The pace of that first hour tended to sag due to too many repetitive scenes of Streep expressing her awkwardness at having an affair with a man she was once married to while Baldwin pours on that rogue-ish charm he utilizes so well. And then, there were other and more pressing problems...

The casting of John Krasinski was a strong misfire, as he seems to only be in the film to let everyone know that he’s John Krasinski from television’s “The Office.” It is hardly a performance at all as he is solely required to do nothing more than what he seems to do on the television show: make wry facial expressions while muttering self-consciously dry sarcastic remarks in a dry, sarcastic fashion. Meyers also poorly handled describing exactly who his character even was! In fact, it was midway through the movie, where I realized that his character was, in fact, the fiancée of one of the story’s adult children and not just another one of Jane and Jake’s kids. It was one character too many and Krasinski’s presence, at worst, felt like a weakly handled ploy and shameless concession to bring in younger audience members to a movie geared towards an older audience.

A larger issue I had with the film was of a more aesthetic quality which did indeed affect the tone of the entire production. In addition to the film’s terribly generic “we’re having a good time” film score, the film’s catalog ready set design felt plastic to the point of anti-septic. No bed pillow, piece of furniture down to a picture frame or expensive foliage is out of place and absolutely nothing gives you the sense of it ever feeling lived in. The overly decorated, overly fussed with production design was actually more than a little oft putting as you can practically smell the wealth emanating from the screen as we see the world these characters exist in. Certainly, there are locations and neighborhoods like these all across the country and my complaint isn't a launch of class warfare on my part. But, the presentation of a world where money is no object and has no ends, and credit cards are casually tossed aside, contributed to the emotional falseness of the material as a whole.

Streep’s insufferable “girl talk” sessions with her wealthy entourage (which includes Mary Kay Place and Rita Wilson) seemed completely phony and worse than any cackling you could witness on “The View.” An aggravating scene late in the film where Streep consoles her adult children once her secret had been revealed is even worse. I didn’t buy the dialogue, the tone, or the motivations. Sadly and again, the characters were always taking a back seat to the stylish blankets, dishware, clothing, jewelry and so on and especially during the film’s first hour, no one registered as a real person. And come on, could the casting, down to the extras and background actors be any more “vanilla”?! You mean to tell me that there aren’t any monolithically rich people of color ANYWHERE?! Of course, I do realize that these elements contribute to the fantasy “It’s Complicated” is attempting to weave but quite often, it almost felt like a deeply arrogantly smug peek as well as a view of classism into a gated community of which you and I, the poor common folk in the movie theater, are allotted a two-hour window.

By the time I had had nearly enough and when I was just at about the point I was ready to essentially give up, Meryl Streep smokes a joint.

Aside from all of the above mentioned flaws, “It’s Complicated” does indeed have quite a few good qualities going for it, which did endear this film to me even as much as I was resisting it. For me, these qualities all came together in the best possible ways for during an extended and very lovely party sequence where Streep and Martin arrive blissfully under the influence. It is here where the film is allowed to open up and breathe. All of the formulaic aspects of the romantic comedy converge in this sequence where the character’s true emotions are first revealed and secrets are silently discovered. Meyers’ directorial skills are strongest in this section as there is much humor and unearthed romantic pain on display in a collective of mostly wordless moments. What was once a passing thought or a seductive race through a romantic red light becomes real and true and all of the actors seem to be reveling in the opportunity to play notes beyond the film’s established artifice. As the characters flirt, drink and dance and through those motions, Baldwin finally gets to show the sudden heartbreak that the woman, who is quite possibly the love of his life, is indeed moving onwards to another…and potentially much better suitor. He is faced, more than ever, with the consequences of his actions so many years before and is now confronted with the mounting regret it brings. Lake Bell, in a couple of quick shots, is able to fully see Baldwin’s infidelity with the woman to whom he was once married and her obvious anger is palpable. The blossoming love affair between Streep and Martin exudes charm and continues onwards during a sequence set at Streep’s bakery where the twosome engage in a late evening pastry cooking courtship.

It was during these point where I think “It’s Complicated” not only works best but also suggests the better film it could have been if it weren’t so busy focusing on its own glitzy sheen and probed even deeper and more knowingly into the character’s emotional worlds. That said, Meyers should be given much credit for again placing people of late middle age at the forefront of a film, especially in our increasingly youth obsessed culture. Meyers again gives viability to the sexual vitality and desirability of older women and Meryl Streep is completely game for it through a friskiness that is not often on display in her roles. She drives the story and has two men pursuing her affections (a repeated theme from “Something’s Gotta Give”), and it goes a long way in showing that love and passion in the cinema can indeed extend far beyond the overwrought teen melodramas of “Twilight.”

The jewel of this film is Steve Martin and I cannot say enough good things about him as the film elevates in quality every single time he appears on the screen. I cannot remember the last time Martin seemed so relaxed and open hearted in a role. His tenderness, his romanticism, his awkwardness, his tentativeness and fear of opening himself up to more romantic wounds were the piercing core of this film. He was absolutely wonderful and created a character whom I not only rooted for but feared seeing damaged. I wanted to see more of his life, past and present, and Martin’s performance was so genuine and rich that I wondered if we were catching a glimpse of the real man inside of the performance.

Overall, I wanted Steve Martin’s character to find happiness and I wanted the opportunity to travel with him on his quest. To think this film could have been a lighter version of the brilliant television program "Once And Again" which starred Sela Ward and Billy Campbell as two divorced people finding love again in their 40s. It was a simple conceit told elegantly as it revealed the very real complications relationships endure. As I continue to ponder this movie, I think I would have preferred if the film featured Steve Martin in the leading role, thus relegating Streep to a supporting one and eschewing with the so-called “complicated” plot all together.

While I applaud Meyers for presenting a romantic comedy that features people that could exist in its approximation of a real world during a time where convoluted and stupid escapades rule the day, I greatly suggest she tone down the formula or at least, make it a little more invisible. The truth of the piece is complicated enough without throwing contrivance and the luxurious furniture into the mix.


So, I actually did not review "Get Him To The Greek" as that film's release has been pushed to June. Maybe that is fitting, as it seems like a summer film.

That said, the Summer Movie Season officially begins this month and here on Savage Cinema, I will definitely house my new review of "Iron Man 2" within the next couple of weeks.

After all of the mentions I have been receiving from friends, perhaps I may get myself to "How To Train Your Dragon."

Beyond that, this may be a month where I will see the films of DVD that I did not see in theaters, including Writer/Director Nancy Meyers' new film, "It's Complicated."

In addition to housing a few more archived reviews and perhaps another installment of "Savage Cinema's Short Takes," I have a feeling it will be a busy month.

See you when the house lights go down...