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Movie Review: Shutter Island

Saturday, February 20th, 2010

Shutter Island DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Style A

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese takes us back to the paranoid Cold War era in Shutter Island, based on the best-seller by Mystic River’s Dennis Lehane. (Please be advised that this review may contain some spoilers.) This psychological thriller, set in Massachusetts in 1954, follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) as they venture to Shutter Island, home of the fortress-like mental institution Ashecliffe Hospital, to investigate the inexplicable disappearance of a patient named Rachel Solondo. To make matters worse, a hurricane has trapped the two cops on this godforsaken rock for the time being.

As they try to determine how Rachel escaped and her current whereabouts, Teddy and Chuck are stonewalled by the warden (Ted Levine) and the hospital’s urbane but shifty administrator, Dr. Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley), who is championing a (then) revolutionary new method for treating the criminally insane. The deeper Teddy digs into the mystery of Rachel’s disappearance and what is really going on at Ashecliffe, the more he himself grows disturbed. Teddy becomes haunted by memories of his late wife (Michelle Williams) and of the atrocities he witnessed as a G.I. during World War II. Has Teddy been exposed to something sinister on Shutter Island that’s causing this breakdown, or has Ashecliffe simply unleashed demons that were already within him?

I started reading Lehane’s novel a few months ago, but stopped about a quarter of the way through for two reasons. First, I guess I didn’t really want to spoil the movie for myself after all, and, secondly, I had a hunch that I’d figured out where the story was going and what its big twist was going to be. After watching the movie — and then reading the end of the novel — it turns out my hunch was right on target. It’s tough to find a thriller truly suspenseful when you’ve figured out its big twist within the first act (or from just watching the trailers). Anyone who has seen enough psychological thrillers, or for that matter almost any given episode of The Twilight Zone, will be able to figure out Shutter Island just as easily. But that doesn’t mean you still won’t be entertained.

Rather than being able to enjoy Shutter Island as a psychodrama as it was meant to be, I instead appreciated its style, atmosphere, production values, direction and the lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a B-movie made by A-listers, with Scorsese fashioning his most Hollywood movie since Cape Fear (and maybe even more so than that film). Shutter Island is a great filmmaking exercise for Scorsese to make the type of pulpy, overwrought genre B-movies he grew up watching. It plays like an old Hammer horror film (Vincent Price could have played either the Kingsley or von Sydow roles back in the day), and at other times like the German Expressionist classics (such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) that reportedly influenced Scorsese in making this film. It’s also an homage to Shock Corridor, a film made by one of his idols, Sam Fuller. While it’s fun to see Scorsese having fun, it’s also a lot of effort spent on a shell game where you know which shell the nut is hidden under the entire time.

Check out the Shutter Island movie clips

DiCaprio just gets better with each film, especially the ones he makes with Scorsese. As they did in The Aviator and The Departed, Scorsese and DiCaprio have created another protagonist perpetually on the verge of losing his grip as they intensify the pressure on his psyche until the stress finally causes a climactic rupture. There are layers to DiCaprio’s performance that should be more evident upon subsequent viewings, but he is, along with Christian Bale, one of the few young actors who can bring depth, complexity and subtlety to obsessed, often unhinged characters.

The rest of the cast is solid. Ruffalo is tasked with perhaps the most challenging role in the film, while the reading of Kingsley’s character is entirely dependent on the reliability of the protagonist’s questionable perspective. I don’t want to say more about their roles than that, suffice to say their performances become increasingly critical as the narrative draws to a close. Michelle Williams’ role is a small but pivotal one. Jackie Earle Haley has one gripping scene with DiCaprio that further showcases why he’s become such an in-demand (and deservedly celebrated) supporting actor these last few years. It’s also nice to see Max von Sydow appear in a Scorsese film, albeit in a rather one-note role. Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and Elias Koteas also have small but showy roles.

From the opening shot, Scorsese creates an atmosphere of gloom and uncertainty that permeates the entire film. He transports us to a frightening, alien world populated by untrustworthy and dangerous people. You’ll feel like you’re really inside a 1950s asylum in Shutter Island, and that sense of authenticity and ominousness – thanks to Lehane’s research as well as the cinematography, production design, costumes, score and sound design – keeps us invested in the protagonist and his plight even when the film bogs down about midway through.

Shutter Island is a well-acted, handsomely made, old-fashioned haunted house movie that’s nevertheless marred by the same elements — plot holes, red herrings, familiar genre tropes and an overall reliance on heavy-handed trickery — that have undone so many other thrillers from lesser filmmakers. Scorsese’s virtuoso craftsmanship here may be both the best and ironically the worst thing about Shutter Island, but he has unquestionably made it a far more intriguing incarceration than it otherwise could have been. A mixed bag from Martin Scorsese is still better than most other filmmakers’ best efforts.


Edge of Darkness – Movie Review

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Edge of Darkness DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster -Style A

“Edge of Darkness” is a must see this weekend. Read the review and let us know what you think.

Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Green Lantern) revisits the Edge of Darkness in this truncated, Americanized retelling of the award-winning British TV miniseries he directed back in 1985. The original miniseries was one of a number of UK political thrillers, including Defence of the Realm and Hidden Agenda, made during and commenting on the Thatcher era. The feature film remake keeps the basic premise of the small screen original — a cop uncovers political intrigue and corporate corruption while investigating the murder of his daughter — while updating what the villains are up to.

Veteran homicide detective Tom Craven (Mel Gibson) is delighted when his twenty-something daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) comes home to Boston for the weekend, but she’s fatigued, sick and somewhat aloof. Something is clearly wrong with her, but before Tom can learn what that is she is gunned down in what everyone initially assumes was a hit meant for him. Everything changes, however, when Tom finds a Geiger counter and handgun among Emma’s belongings. She worked for Northmoor, a private firm with shady government contracts, and Tom comes to suspect that they were behind her death.

Tom is soon visited by Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone, who replaced Robert De Niro), a British “cleaner” for the U.S. government who is, curiously, as helpful in Craven’s search for the truth as he is vaguely threatening. What did Emma find out about Northmoor that got her killed? And who else was she mixed up with? These are the questions that drive an increasingly desperate and violent Craven to take the fight right to the bad guys’ door.

Mel Gibson hasn’t been seen on-screen as a leading man since 2002’s Signs, but you’d never know he hadn’t acted in front of a camera for the better part of a decade while watching Edge of Darkness. Gibson delivers one of his most restrained and potent performances here, channeling the righteous, vengeful fury we’ve come to expect from “Mad Mel” while also conveying a world-weariness befitting the role of an aging single dad mourning the loss of his only child. Gibson’s subtle performance helps elevate the film from being just another revenge movie or political thriller. (And, as a native Bostonian, I can attest that Gibson does a fine job with the accent, nailing the inflections and attitude.)

The rest of the cast is solid. Winstone is both gruffly sophisticated and subtly sinister as the enigmatic Jedburgh, whose loyalties and agenda are almost as murky as his past. Winstone damn near the steals the show from Gibson. Danny Huston plays his latest villain with a sense of entitlement and white collar aloofness that epitomizes the old line about the banality of evil. Ditto Denis O’Hare as a government stooge and Damian Young as a soulless senator. Jay O. Sanders delivers in his few scenes as a cop colleague of Craven’s. Novakovic isn’t in the movie quite enough to really make too much of a lasting impression, while Shawn Roberts, who is a dead ringer for young David Keith, is a bit forced as Emma’s paranoid boyfriend-colleague.

The screenplay adaptation by Oscar-winner William Monahan and Andrew Bovell has more shadings and nuanced characters than other genre movies of this stripe. (Monahan, a Boston native who scripted The Departed, also brings a lot of local flavor to the piece.) There’s a shorthand used in the depiction of Craven’s relationship with his daughter that’s simple but effective; his flashback to teaching a very young Emma how to shave is both sweet and moving, and will surely pull on the heartstrings of daddy’s girls everywhere. This becomes all the more poignant when Craven finally realizes he didn’t really know her as well as he thought.

Also especially effective are the exchanges between Craven and Jedburgh that mix tension, humor and even a bit of pathos as the latter begins to take stock of his own life while learning more about the former. The dialogue, especially Jedburgh’s doublespeak, is brandished like a weapon by hero and villain alike to threaten people and “clarify” increasingly complicated situations for them. But when words aren’t vicious enough, there are moments of brutality here that prove screen violence can still have genuine emotional impact and shock value.

With Edge of Darkness, director Martin Campbell, the screenwriters and Mel Gibson have delivered a thriller that is, oddly enough, as energetic as it is melancholy, a film that’s rife with political intrigue, populated with captivating characters and punctuated by sporadic bursts of startling violence.


Movie Review: The Book of Eli

Friday, January 15th, 2010

The Book of Eli DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Advance Style A

Thirty years after the flash, a man named Eli cuts across the desert — a speck against the sun-bleached horizon. He is dressed in tattered rags and well-worn shoes. Above him, bomb-blasted freeways dead end in piles of rubble and exposed girders. A dying car battery powers the last iPod on Earth, the final notes of music in a world devoid of life or color. In his bag, beside the shotgun and long-blade, is a book. The only book that matters. And in a lawless town of mindless marauders, a civilized man named Carnegie has been searching for that book for a long, long time.

The book, of course, is the Bible — perhaps the last of its kind since the war saw them all hunted down and burned — but in a scorched world of lost souls, such a book would have the power to either liberate or control.

In a strange way, The Book of Eli is really one movie disguised as another, presenting a lyrically filmed story about the importance of religious faith wrapped in the guise of a post-apocalyptic, quasi-western action film. There is a sense as Eli progresses that beyond the awesomely constructed wasteland, the sharply choreographed action sequences and the dynamic performances by Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, there’s something far deeper and more dramatic passing itself off as popcorn genre entertainment. It’s the very opposite of heavy-handed, subtly layered to be about something, and that’s a rare quality in a film that could deliver just as well on the merits of its action and visuals.

The Hughes brothers return to the big screen to tell the story of one man’s journey of faith, sheparding the Bible across America until chance or divine intervention delivers him to its purpose. That said, Washington’s Eli is still an apocalyptic bad-ass who can easily take down a gang of rapists and thieves with a single blade or win out in a gunfight against 25 fully-loaded shooters. He’s not much of a talker and Washington’s biggest challenge in the role is to maintain a quiet and believable presence throughout. Most of the dialogue belongs to Oldman as the black-hatted Carnegie, delivering a well-balanced performance that’s consistently engaging without ever spilling into the overly eccentric territory that Oldman has been known to explore. In many ways, Carnegie is a more complex character than Eli, played with occasional notes of sympathy and suggesting a past that might render him more than just a one-note villain.

Washington, however, plays many of his later scenes against Solara, the daughter of Carnegie’s mistress, played here by Mila Kunis in the film’s least effective performance. Kunis plays the role of Eli’s companion in the most straightforward fashion possible, never suggesting any real depth or emotional connection beyond what’s scripted on the page. She’s hardly bad in the role so much as she’s mechanical, serving the story in such a way that never pulls you out, but quite never invites you into the material. The deficiency isn’t tremendously noticeable until the closing moments when the character’s fate is finally revealed and the audience discovers that they simply don’t care. Thankfully, Washington is around to help elevate each sequence and does so with his typical bravado.

The performances are also informed by the wonderfully visual world that the Hughes brothers have created. The Book of Eli is a painterly film, crafted with style and nuance as opposed to more grounded, realistic depictions of the Apocalypse as seen in The Road. The action is fast and the camera moves — the shots — are meticulously framed. One pivotal shoot-out finds the camera floating into and through the ruins of a bullet-ridden house in a singular movement, illustrating the brothers’ distinct style and penchant for visual flare. But Gary Whitta’s script — with some help from Anthony Peckham — offers the pair a strong balance of action and substance, as does the very premise of the film itself.

Make no mistake, however, The Book of Eli is a film about religion. Or at the very least, faith. One gets the sense from various cultural references scattered throughout the movie that the filmmakers hope that viewers of any belief system might be able to make the mental switch from the Bible, to the Koran, to the Torah… That Eli isn’t carrying the Bible so much as he’s carrying a representation of the very notion of faith itself. But the fact that the set-up demands that the story choose one particular book will no doubt make the film feel very Christian to many audiences. While one gets the impression that other Eli’s may exist within this world, carrying the sacred texts of any number of religions, it’s never communicated quite so clearly as to satisfy those who are likely, perhaps fairly, to inquire, “Why is it only the Christian God who speaks to the post-apocalyptic world?”

With all that in mind, Eli is a surprisingly moving film. The action and the visuals are superbly entertaining, but there are several moments, however stylized, when the more philosophical subtext rises to the surface and elicits an actual emotion out of the audience. Sophisticated, exciting and particularly well-crafted, The Book of Eli is worth a read, cover to cover.


Avatar: Movie Review

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Avatar Double-Sided Movie Poster - Advance Style A

Read what Jim Vejvoda of ign.com has to say about James Cameron’s, “Avatar“. I saw it and I plan on seeing it again. It’s that good. Give yourself a Christmas present and see this one before it leaves the theaters; but see it 3D if at all possible.

The highly anticipated sci-fi epic Avatar centers on Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former Marine who is offered an amazing opportunity after his twin brother dies. Recruited by a big faceless corporation (is there ever any other kind in a movie?), Jake travels to the distant world of Pandora, inhabited by the simple, indigenous Na’vi, blue-skinned humanoids who stand 9′ tall and have tails. Pandora is also home to a valuable mineral that could solve all of Earth’s energy problems … if only those pesky natives didn’t live on top of the richest deposits of it.

Since humans can’t breathe Pandora’s atmosphere, the company has created Avatars, in which human pilots use their consciousness to remotely-control a genetically engineered body that is a hybrid of Na’vi and human DNA. Jake’s deceased brother represented a big investment on the part of the Company, but since he shares the same genome as his twin Jake is offered to take his place as an Avatar driver. Gung-ho for action, Jake agrees and then has the pot further sweetened for him by Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the scar-faced leader of the Company’s private military wing. Quaritch offers Jake a deal: he wants Jake, via his Avatar, to spy on the Na’vi, learn their ways and gain their trust so that he can convince them to “relocate” off their mineral-rich land. In return, Quaritch guarantees the Company will pay for the costly operation to cure Jake’s paralysis. Jake eagerly agrees, but a few months into the job finds himself “going native” after falling for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a beautiful and fierce Na’vi who takes Jake into her tribe. Love and a guilty conscience, along with the realization that he has found a place to belong and call home, propels Jake, in his Avatar form, to switch sides and help the Na’vi make a stand against the increasingly violent encroachment of “the sky people.”

Wow. James Cameron pulled it off. I was a big skeptic about Avatar ever since I saw the promotional footage Cameron showed at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con; the effects, the characters, the hype — none of them were affecting me even though I really wanted them to. I suffered through every Delgo or FernGully or Dances With Wolves joke — and even made a few myself, I’ll admit — and remain shocked that we’re a week away from the movie’s release and no one in the general population seems to be buzzing about the movie let alone fully understands what the hell it’s about. But neither the film’s marketing nor the sizzle reel roadshow that 20th Century Fox and Cameron went on have done Avatar justice. You just have to see it to believe it.

On a technical level, Avatar is a landmark in motion picture history, a film that will be remembered 70 years from now as redefining the boundaries and possibilities of cinema much the way that D.W. Griffith’s films did. It helps audiences take a giant step forward in their suspension of disbelief in what is “real” onscreen, while raising the bar for what mass appeal genre movies can be and achieve. It also validates all the hype and investment in 3-D and motion-capture animation. And if all that sounds too good to be true, then just know that Avatar is a grand, glorious and kick-ass piece of entertainment, an old-fashioned movie gussied up by state of the art filmmaking. Does Cameron cannibalize from his own films here? Sure, you can’t help but think of Aliens (the presence of mech suits and Sigourney Weaver being the most obvious), but to dismiss the film out of hand on that basis would be narrow-minded. After all, every filmmaker poaches from their own work (Scorsese and Tim Burton spring to mind). Cameron simply knows what he does best, and he does all that and more in Avatar.

My apprehension about Avatar dissipated after the first 10 minutes, by which point I knew that I was in great hands. Cameron displays such confidence here that you’d never know it’s been almost 13 years since he’s released a feature film. He has done a Toklien-esque job of creating the world of Pandora, exploring its ecology and zoology and offering an almost anthropological study of the Na’vi. (I know that all sounds very pretentious and maybe even a bit boring to some, but Cameron manages to make it all an organic part of the story as everything on Pandora is connected; the balance of nature there is such that when one part of the environment is damaged or destroyed, everything else is affected by it.) Perhaps even more so than Dances With Wolves, Avatar reminded me of what Malick was attempting to do with The New World — an exploration of nature and a native culture couched in a culture clash/love story where the white hero falls for the chief’s daughter — but done far more effectively and excitingly. (Yes, Avatar is essentially a sci-fi version of the Pocahontas story.)

Still, don’t think that Avatar is some haughty, New Age-y message movie about environmentalism and the horrors and guilt of colonialism. It certainly is about all those things and much more, but it’s ostensibly a Western set in space crossed with an undercover/behind enemy lines story. Indeed, Avatar shows how tough it is to get a Western made in Hollywood these days: you’ve got to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, set it on another planet and shoot it in motion-capture in order to tell the story of the displacement and destruction of Native Americans. (Na’vi, native, get it?) The Na’vi are sort of a cross between the Sioux and the Cherokee. Their war whoops sound like those of Indians in old Westerns (perhaps too much so; even their “horses” sound, well, too much like horses). Quaritch is essentially Andrew Jackson, a tough old soldier driven to “relocate” the natives by any means necessary. “The Company” is the railroad, while “Unobtainium” (a real term) is akin to gold in the Black Hills or oil in Oklahoma.

For a Westerns fan, U.S. history buff, and sci-fi fanboy such as myself, Avatar offered an embarrassment of riches to geek out over. However, Avatar is also just as much a commentary on the state of the world (and imperialism) today as it is the past. Metaphorical nods to America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are loud and clear and undeniable. The film’s private military company is essentially Blackwater in space. There’s a scene of cataclysmic destruction that overtly suggests 9/11 and the World Trade Center. The terms “terrorists” and “shock and awe” are used. Yet Cameron never gets too lost in a political argument; he is, after all, a filmaker keenly aware of the need to keep domestic audiences happy if he’s to make commercially successful movies. So by making his tale an escapist fantasy, Cameron has swiped a page from the Red Scare playbook and used genre to cloak the tougher and more critical aspects of his message.

Of course, the film’s themes and subtext wouldn’t matter if we didn’t like the characters. Like District 9’s Wikus van de Merwe, Jake Sully is capable of both kindness and treachery and is out to save himself as much as he is the aliens. Avatar is the make or break Hollywood movie for Aussie actor Sam Worthington, especially after Terminator Salvation flopped, and he acquits himself well, striking a nice balance between callowness, ambition and guilt. As for the rest of the cast, Lang is a revelation as Quaritch; it’s tough to believe that this muscle-bound old soldier is the same actor who played cowardly Ike Clanton in Tombstone and the doughy, sleazy tabloid reporter in Manhunter. Sigourney Weaver brings grace (no pun intended) and wit to her role as cranky but goodhearted scientist Grace Augustine, and the darkly comic Giovanni Ribisi shines as the d-bag suit who represents The Company’s interests on Pandora. Worse than Paul Reiser’s corporate stooge in Aliens, Selfridge is a soulless, bigoted careerist who epitomizes the expression “the banality of evil.”

Saldana, hot off of Star Trek, is solid as Neytiri, but the Na’vi themselves are rather one-dimensional characters. Cameron recycles the stereotypical screen depiction of Native Americans, but sidesteps the thornier aspects of it somewhat by making them aliens. Still, the Na’vi are all types we’ve seen before in Westerns: the noble chief, the warrior princess, the earth mother, the tough brave who is the hero’s rival but ultimately comes to respect him. These archetypes (or stereotypes, if you want) coupled with such a familiar story is the film’s biggest drawback. It could be argued that given the fantastical premise of the film and its strange alien characters, it was probably necessary to employ a more traditional storyline, something relatable for an audience since there were enough other elements that could have possibly lost them. Still, if Avatar sequels happen then it would be nice to see the Na’vi given more depth and dimension as characters.

See proof that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Books can (and will) be written on Avatar’s visual effects. Cameron and his team have achieved a stunning level of photo-realism in the environment and inhabitants of Pandora and of the mech suits and vessels of the humans. (One thought kept going through my mind during the climactic battle: James Cameron should direct the Halo movie.) He gradually introduces us to the various fantastical elements, allowing us time to let these things become real in our minds. For the most part, the yellow eyes of the Na’vi seem alive and expressive (a first for motion-capture characters, in my opinion), although there are a few times when Jake’s looked “dead” to me. The level of detail in the Na’vis’ skin, and in the vegetation and beasts of Pandora, is astounding. Not since seeing Star Wars as a little kid have I felt so completely and magically transported to such a strange, new world.

This gradual approach has its drawbacks, though, in that it contributes to the film’s bloated running time. This is a real bladder buster of a movie, and I’d be amazed if there were any deleted scenes of importance on the eventual DVD release. For example, the “learning to fly your dragon” sequence goes on far too long, with Cameron using it as a travelogue to show off Pandora — and all the nifty and costly CGI landscapes his team created — rather than to advance the story. That’s just one example, but the film definitely could have been tightened up. The running time and the overall formulaic nature of the story is what keeps me from giving Avatar a higher score.

To say that I was pleasantly surprised by Avatar is an understatement. My advice to you is to forget all that you think you know or believe about Avatar. Just go and experience the world of Pandora and revel in the fact that one of the most entertaining filmmakers of our time is back in action.


Movie Review: The Blind Side

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

The Blind Side DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Style A

Sandra Bullock takes on the role of a privileged Southern matriarch who takes in a failing football prospect and finds her life is transformed by sport and charity. Based on the real life story of Baltimore Raven Michael Oher, “The Blind Side” is pure Hollywood hokum — but there’s plenty of beauty in the details.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron

I guess you’re not really a big star in Hollywood until you’ve played a character with big hair. So give yourself a slap on the back Sandra Bullock: You’ve gone toe-to-pedicured-toe with the drawling ghosts of outspoken Southern belles and held your own as Leigh Anne Tuohy — a Memphis housewife and home designer who took a kid from the streets and turned him into an NFL hopeful.

So stand back Julia Roberts and hang on to your hoop skirt Vivien Leigh. Bullock is strolling down a very storied lane in this new movie from John Lee Hancock (The Rookie), and with a little help from some well-placed bling and designer jeans, she recreates the unique blend of Southern femme fatale and matriarch that’s defined some of the best screen heroines of all time.

Based on Michael Lewis’ book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, this ambitiously upbeat fairy tale formula tells the story of Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a kid who grew up in the bad part of town as a ward of the state.

When we first meet him, he’s on the verge of being accepted to a fancy private Catholic school for one reason, and one reason only: He’s huge, and the football coach wants a big guy to be the wall around his quarterback; he needs to be protected on the “blind side.”

Oher is the ideal candidate because he’s not just big, he’s quick, and the position of left tackle demands both.

The only problem is Oher doesn’t possess the academic skills for acceptance. Passed on without ever proving himself to any scholastic standard, the kid is perceived as a moron by most of the faculty.

Sooner than later, however, Michael finds a champion in Leigh Anne (Bullock), a society gal who decides to take him into her home.

It’s a big moment that proves life-changing for everyone involved, but there’s a sweet understatement to the scene as Hancock leaves it to Bullock to carry with a single comic glance.

One minute the character of Leigh Anne Tuohy is just another faux blond eating overpriced salads with her Botox-plumped peers. The next, she’s an accidental activist taking on a hundred years of racial history to discover true Christian charity.

In real life, watershed moments don’t come with musical scores. Half the time, we aren’t even aware a transformative instant is upon us. Life just happens in those split-second gut decisions, and from there, we face the consequences — be they fabulous or frightful.

For Leigh Anne, the impulse to take Michael in is expressed as a moment of “Mama-knows-best” behaviour. As the undisputed queen of her beehive, Leigh Anne is apparently quite adept at manipulating everyone in her family to go along with her inspired plans.

She’s got an opinion about just about everything, and because she’s so darned cute — with her expensively streaked hair and Pilates-trained tummy — she can swish in all the right spots to get her way.

Apparently, we just can’t get enough of this bossy Southern belle character. Maybe it’s because Southern women find the right balance between bosomy availability and kick-in-the-pants toughness.

Whatever the reason, a sassy broad with a mind of her own, and a great sense of humour, goes a long way in the world of genre filmmaking because they create tension with their unpredictable presence and power of self-possession.

Bullock finds all the larger than life dimensions to her character, but it’s in the smaller cracks that she makes the most of her performance and shows us the true face of transformation as it happens from the inside out.

At one point, she realizes Michael never had a bed of his own, and you can see her entire world-view disintegrate in her hands.

Bullock brings the same edge of gravitas to the scene as she did in Crash, showing us a woman emerging from the cocoon of privilege.

The film revels in the halfway point of her character’s change before finally unveiling the full metamorphosis, and that was a good strategy because the actual dilemmas in this movie are rather small — and pragmatically benign.

The real drama comes dressed in the details of everyday life and the infinite number of choices we make daily. With outstanding help from the supporting cast — most notably a clean-shaven Tim McGraw as Mr. Tuohy and Quentin Aaron as Oher — Bullock and director Hancock stretch the skin of cliche over an old drum and give it a memorable thump.


Movie Review: Astro Boy

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Astro Boy DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Style A

Astro Boy is proof that Pixar has virtually ruined CG animated filmmaking for its competition. In the midst of sophisticated, multi-layered releases such as Up or WALL.E, Ratatouille, it’s easy to look at a basic, well-executed, family-friendly adventure and somehow think less of it. Astro Boy, for example, is not The Incredibles, nor is it trying to be. Rather, it’s a surface level bit of animated entertainment that’s certain to please children while preventing the parents from nodding off in their seats. It aims unabashedly for the adventurous youngsters in the audience and succeeds in delivering a fun, raucous, visually polished romp through a colorful sci-fi landscape. Nothing more, nothing less.

That said, the film doesn’t stray too far from the relative darkness of its source material. The story of Astro Boy’s creation remains generally the same: The brilliant Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) and his colleague Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) have extracted the power of both red and blue matter – blue representing positive energy and red, of course, representing evil. But when General Stone (Donald Sutherland) seizes the red energy source to power his new unstoppable war machine, Tenma’s son is caught in the crossfire and killed. Yes, killed. Not fake-killed or quasi-killed, but real, 100 percent, no-coming-back dead. And so Tenma, in his grief, creates a robotic replica of his son, Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore), equipping him with unlimited defenses, powered by the blue energy, and downloads the boy’s consciousness into the robot copy.

For all intents and purposes, Astro believes himself to be human, but Tenma quickly learns that a robot is no replacement for a son, and dismisses the boy in his confusion. Sent out into the wasteland below the city, Astro meets a group of orphans supervised by former scientist Ham Egg (Nathan Lane). Among them is Cora (Kristen Bell), a tough pre-teen with a grudge against robots. Hunted by General Stone for the blue energy source within him, Astro must come to terms with his robotic self and prove to Tenma, Cora and the world that despite being a machine, he’s equally as human.

Astro Boy deals with some pretty heavy themes – the death of a child, rejection, robot slavery, warmongering politicians – and if it fails on any real cinematic level, it’s in choosing not to explore these notions in a more meaningful way. The colorful animation and fast-paced action washes over the more complex emotional core of the film, never taking the time to explain these issues to the younger viewers and failing to address them dramatically enough to move the adults in the theater. That said, the very same colorful animation and fast-paced action are both refreshingly executed, so if your kid can either grasp the heavier themes or simply choose to ignore them, there’s a lot of sci-fi spectacle to keep them entertained.

As Astro Boy becomes increasingly aware of his powers and General Stone closes in on him and his newfound family of friends, the action escalates into some fairly impressive sequences of Astro battling giant, city-destorying robots. Meanwhile, the presentation itself is very soft, very clean, offering a stylized look that combines the previous iterations of the series with the polish of CG animation. The vocal performances are all passable, though Cage seems terribly miscast as Tenma, turning in a performance that ultimately fails to capture the character’s struggle. Highmore gives Astro a kind of “golly gee” innocence that makes the boy considerably more affable and Bell’s Cora is a suitable friend-slash-potential love interest.

Overall, Astro Boy is a reasonable, if not perfect, adaptation of the popular franchise that’ll no doubt captivate the kiddies if they can push past some of the darker themes into the vivid, sci-fi action.

Astro Boy is now playing in theater near you. Click HERE to read the synopsis and watch the trailer.


Where The Wild Things Are Movie Review from Spill.com

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

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Check out this hilarious review, from Spill.com, for Where the Wild Things Are?, Couples Retreat, Zombieland, 9, Gamer, and more. Check them out! It’s fun.


Movie Review: Where the Wild Things Are

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

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In so many ways, Max is a modern child. His father is gone. His older sister has outgrown him. His mother, who works late to support the household, is dating a stranger. His teachers are slowly introducing him to the realities of an adult life, offering lessons on tsunamis and supernovas. He has no friends with whom to share his frustrations or figure out his feelings, some combination of betrayal or anger or loneliness. Yet his imagination is strong and provides him with a shelter from the storms of his everyday existence. But when, one evening, his emotions boil over and he runs from his home in a rage, he crosses some imaginary boarder into the realm of the Wild Things.

With that in mind, Where the Wild Things Are isn’t so much a movie for children as it is a movie about children, awash in a complicated sea of emotions that one can only associate with childhood long after becoming an adult. Director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers have crafted an incredibly sophisticated, multi-layered and strangely subversive adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s novel by replicating all the wonder and imagination, all the volatile sadness and emotional uncertainty, of being an innocent kid in a grown-up’s world. The pair seems to grasp that in lacking the vocabulary to fully explain or understand their most complex feelings, children turn inward, drifting into imaginary worlds to make sense of the inexplicable. But all too often, their imaginings are subject to the limits of their own experience, and all the painted vistas and pretended friendships are just as broken and unknowable as the lives they were trying to escape.

When Max crosses an ocean and ends up in the midst of the Wild Things, he quickly proclaims himself the king of this odd assortment of gentle-hearted behemoths. Immediately, Max forms a bond with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini with both a quiet tenderness and boiling anger). He’s trying to figure out his feelings for K.W. (voiced by Lauren Ambrose), an approximation of Max’s sister in her desire to break away from the pack, away from the people who love and need her the most. Carol’s emotions are unsteady to say the least, prone to abrupt, violent outbursts, but much like Max himself, there’s a great melancholy about the character – the very same melancholy that hangs above almost every sequence of the film. They are characters confused, wanting to love and be loved, but incapable of adapting to life’s inevitable changes.

The other Wild Things are all individually representative of Max’s feelings or emotions. Judith (Catherine O’Hara), the moodiest of the Wild Things, holds a mirror up to Max’s own indignation, saying in one pivotal sequence, “You don’t get to yell at me when I get mad! It’s your job to understand, to make us feel better,” a universal frustration that we’ve all shared as children. Douglas (Chris Cooper) represents Max’s limited sense of reason while Alexander (Paul Dano) echoes his sense of invisibility. Ira (Forest Whitaker) highlights Max’s desire to make peace, to buffer the conflicts between others and within himself.

But what makes the film work – either because or in spite of its artful, indie spirit – is that each of the creatures feel like actual characters and not simply some collection of walking, talking metaphors. They have their own personalities and arcs, and while the group’s conflicts revolve around the construction of a massive, imaginary fort – as opposed to some epic, Disney-esque adventure – they each get their moment to shine. This is in no small part due to the jaw-dropping effects work required to bring them to life, from the full-scale, beautifully-designed suits to the CG used to animate their facial expressions. WTWTA may mark the most aesthetically dynamic integration of practical and digital effects we’ve seen in quite some time, and if you feel yourself wanting to reach out and give Carol a hug, you’d hardly be alone.

Jonze’s direction is appropriately matter-of-fact, never romanticizing the world of the Wild Things. In fact, by virtue of setting most of the film in a dense forest, the monsters are generally the only visual element of the film that feels particularly fantastic. Yes, there’s a desert landscape and the fort itself is impressively grand in its design, but everything here feels like an extension of the natural world. No CG kingdoms anywhere in sight. And Jonze’s decision to film the world with a minimized sense of wonder, focusing instead on the size of things relative to Max – the monsters pose a constant threat of accidental harm – ultimately keeps the focus on Max and his relationships.

Overall, Where the Wild Things Are is a tremendously moving and intelligent film, so much so that it risks alienating audiences who are expecting a more typical adventure. There is humor here, and joy, and amazement, but for every beat of whimsy, there’s one of sadness or confusion. So it’ll be up to the age and maturity of the kids in the audience whether they’ll ultimately “get” all of what the film is aiming at. That said, if you take the film for what it is, you’ll discover a complex and extraordinary accomplishment, as moving as it is odd. A true Wild Thing in itself.


Movie Review: Whip It!

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

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Drew Barrymore makes an impressive directorial debut in Whip It!.

Based on the novel Derby Girl by Shauna Cross (who also scripted), Whip It marks the feature film directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. The dramedy follows teenager Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) who is looking for a way out of her dead-end hometown of Bodeen, Texas. Bliss’ well-meaning but domineering mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) is convinced that her daughter’s only ticket out is to win the local Miss Blue Bonnet Pageant, but Bliss yearns for something other than her mom’s debutante dreams or working as a waitress at the Oink Joint.

Bliss discovers an alternate route to liberation and happiness when she and her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) sneak off to Austin. There they attend a women’s roller derby where the teams — such as the Hurl Scouts and their arch-enemies, the Holy Rollers — inspire Bliss with their punkish attitudes and raucous, brutal antics. Convinced that she’s found her true calling in this bloodsport, Bliss lies to her parents about where she’s going and lies to the Hurl Scouts about her age so that she can attend tryouts.

Bliss joins the Hurl Scouts, adopting the moniker of “Babe Ruthless.” Her tough teammates include Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Smashley Simpson (Barrymore), Rosa Sparks (Eve), Bloody Holly (Death Proof’s Zoe Bell), and Eva Destruction (Ari Graynor). Their beleaguered coach Razor (Andrew Wilson) vainly tries to teach them the value of following his game plan so that maybe they could actually win once in awhile. The seemingly indomitable Holy Rollers are led by Iron Maven (Juliette Lewis), who seems to have finally met her match in Babe Ruthless. By following Razor’s playbook, Babe helps lead the Hurl Scouts to a string of underdog victories. (Jimmy Fallon appears as the roller derby’s ringside announcer.) Meanwhile, Bliss also falls for Oliver (Landon Pigg), a local singer a few years her senior. But how long can Bliss continue with her dual identity and deceptions before they threaten to destroy her relationships and tenuous hold on her future?

Drew Barrymore makes an impressive directing debut with Whip It, delivering a familiar but audience-friendly tale with enough sincerity, warmth and skill to make even the most hard-bitten cynic overlook the movie’s litany of cliches and get a kick (literally, for many of the characters) out of seeing a young girl’s coming-of-age story married with a rough and tumble sports flick. With over 25 years experience as an actor, Barrymore knows how to draw finely tuned performances out of her stellar cast, and that more than anything else is what makes her film work so well. As for Page, following her acclaimed performances as shrewd youths in Hard Candy and Juno, it was refreshing to see her portray a teenager who isn’t quite so overbearingly precocious.

Page plays Bliss as a real teenage girl, quick-witted but also vulnerable and fallible. Bliss largely treats those in her life well, but she is, as so many teens are, self-centered. And why not? Her domineering mother only wants her to relive her youthful dreams … or does she? Harden, thanks to the script, doesn’t demonize Brooke; she is, like Page’s Bliss, a real person, a stern but sympathetic parent who isn’t as wrong as her daughter would like to believe. There are several moving scenes between them, with Bliss’ coming home/kitchen scene being particularly nuanced and touching. That scene will likely be the “Oscar clip” should either Page or Harden snag a nomination.

Wiig and Lewis are also standouts, with the former showing a dramatic prowess here that suggests a range lacking in many other SNLers, past and present. It’s a performance that bodes well for her future on the big screen. As for Lewis, it doesn’t seem all that long ago when she was the young Oscar nominee playing the precocious teen; her scenes with Ellen Page have an edgy undercurrent to them, as if we’re witnessing the passing of a torch, with the elder recognizing themselves in their young counterpart even as they demand their respect. Meanwhile, Daniel Stern — where the hell has he been for the last decade? — makes a minor comeback as Bliss’ beer-chuggin’ dad. His presence calls to mind his past coming-of-age projects The Wonder Years and Breaking Away.

Just as Yoda revealed that there was another Skywalker, Drew Barrymore likewise announces the existence of another Wilson brother. Andrew Wilson is an eerie amalgam of both of his more famous brothers, mixing Owen’s stoner affability with Luke’s sensitivity and intelligence. Less effective is Landon Pigg as Bliss’ first love. While Barrymore and Cross craft the relationship with tenderness, there is a discernible lack of chemistry between Page and Pigg that renders this subplot only intermittently effective. It’s the only relationship in the movie that feels phony, but at least the final scene between them delivers. Bliss’ relationship with Pash fares better, and rings truer than most teenage friendships do in movies.

Barrymore also acquits herself well in the roller derby scenes, making them visceral and exhilarating even though they are all largely staged the same way each time. She makes you feel every elbow and punch thrown, every body check and nasty spill. These scenes put a fresh spin on the over-used (and now commercially co-opted) term “girl power.” If you can imagine Slap Shot with chicks then you get an idea of what Whip It is going for in its raucous roller derby sequences. That there is a sweet story and genuine characters one can care about when the skating stops makes Whip It one of the year’s most pleasant surprises at the movies.


Movie Review: Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

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Based on Judi and Ron Barrett’s 1978 children’s book of the same name, the CG-animated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs follows aspiring inventor Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) whose latest machine first brings joy to, and then later wreaks havoc on, his beleaguered island community.

The island of Swallow Falls was once the home of the sardine industry — made famous by their native pitchman, or infant, “Baby” Brent (voiced as a has-been adult by Andy Samberg) — until the world realized it didn’t like sardines. Isolated from the rest of the world, the now economically depressed community struggles to survive, and must use sardines in everything they eat. Flint — whose sole companion and “colleague” is the “talking” monkey Steve (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) — wants to change all that with his latest invention: a machine that can turn water into any kind of food imaginable. (The array of food that rains down will undoubtedly leave viewers craving a cheeseburger in the worst way.)

Much to his surprise, and that of visiting weathergirl and potential love interest Sam Sparks (voiced by Anna Faris), Flint’s gizmo actually works! Soon everything from burgers and hot dogs to steaks and ice cream starts raining down on the amazed residents of Swallow Falls. Flint goes from outcast to local hero and community savior, but all he really wants is the respect of his laconic tackle shop owner dad (James Caan) and the love of Sam. But when Flint’s great invention threatens to destroy Swallow Falls, he and Sam must set things right.

The lackluster marketing campaign led me to think this was yet another CG-animated kid’s movie with a sappy story and potty humor that only children could enjoy. I hadn’t read the book as a kid — so far the only person I’ve met who has read it is Andy Samberg — so I went in with zero expectations and was overwhelmed by this thoroughly enjoyable movie. Boasting smart, subversive humor and some of the most impressive 3-D yet seen in an animated feature, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a surprisingly clever and highly entertaining comedy. The writing and direction of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (best known for exec producing the sitcom How I Met Your Mother) is sharp and engaging, chock full of references to everything from first-person shooter games to Steven Spielberg movies and The Twilight Zone.

There’s malevolent glee to be had in an ice cream snowball fight where no child is safe, or a monkey’s life-or-death battle with a giant Gummy Bear. There’s plenty of verbal wit as well as visual gags, with the voice cast succeeding in making their characters alive and fun. Hader and Faris are the standouts as two nerds who strive to be taken seriously, but Samberg and Bruce Campbell (as the gluttonous, scheming mayor) have plenty of memorable moments. The voice cast also includes Mr. T, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Benjamin Bratt, Al Roker, Lauren Graham, and Will Forte.

The filmmakers aren’t afraid to push the edge with either the humor or the animation. The movie features a number of splashy, colorful set-pieces, including an avalanche of food that threatens to destroy Swallow Falls and the heroes’ climactic battle set against a backdrop of deadly peanut brittle stalactites. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is silly enough for kids to enjoy, while adults will appreciate the movie’s charmingly oddball characters, sly wit and anarchistic streak. After suffering through a largely bland crop of summer movies, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was exactly the kind of out-of-left field surprise gem you hoped that autumn would bring. Just be sure to catch it in 3-D.


 
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