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Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Movie Review: The Informant

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

The Informant DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Advance Style A

Have you ever told a lie, that lead to another lie, that lead to a deception, circling back on itself until you’ve landed in the center of a small, intricately woven web of falsity? Usually, these moments compound quickly, in a blur of deceit, and when the dam finally breaks, you’re left exposed and embarrassed – half by the truth you didn’t want told and half by your ridiculous inability to tell it. Well, try to maintain that endless series of lies for more than a decade and you’ll perhaps feel something like whatever Mark Whitacre must have felt while leading the FBI into a corporate price-fixing investigation entirely of his own design.

Such is Steven Soderbergh’s, The Informant!

A mid-level executive at a corporation called ADM, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) works to ensure the continued good sales of the company’s popular food additives, but when a mishap in the lab begins to cost the company significant amounts of money and threatens Whitacre’s job, the mustachioed quasi-Everyman simply invents, out of thin air, a Japanese corporate blackmailer to whom he assigns the blame. Enter the FBI, who might easily have caught on to Whitacre’s deception had he not, in turn, spun yet another series of lies which propelled him into being the government’s key witness and undercover informant in a massive corporate conspiracy case. And like all good con-jobs, Whitacre built his lies upon half-truths. There was, indeed, a price-fixing scheme in place, but the laughable audacity with which Whitacre lead investigators through the ranks, deflecting attention from his own involvement – and subsequent embezzlement – is worthy of a standing ovation.

The Informant! is a one-man show, carried completely by the strength of Damon’s tremendously effective performance. Whitacre, for all intents and purposes, should be a hugely unlikeable guy, but Damon lends the character a sense of kamikaze bravado and wide-eyed whimsy that makes it impossible not to feel at least slightly sympathetic toward him. From the paunchy mid-section to the ridiculous hairpiece, Whitacre seems like the kind of guy trying desperately to move up and be taken seriously in the corporate world. Despite the fact that the film just barely touches upon his back-story, one imagines him to have been the atypical nerd, picked-on and ridiculed for much of his life, eventually realizing that his only real talent is the ability to weave stories and manipulate people. It feels, in a sense, like the comical, white-collar version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, about a marginalized character who, in an effort to appear like a more substantial, important person, builds a pyramid of lies that eventually leads to his own tragi-comic downfall.

But then something happens: an FBI raid and a revelation about Whitacre that drains the audience of any remaining sympathy they might have developed for the man. He becomes, over the course of the film’s burdensome third act, little more than a thief and a liar. The joke wears thin; the deceit becomes tedious. And while the turn may be an intentional attempt to demonstrate how easily these lies keep coming, yet how heavily they weigh, it becomes equally frustrating for the audience, who’ve been laughing along steadily for 90 minutes and are eventually handed, in the last 30, a rather uninvolving, if marginally quirky, drama.

Soderbergh’s direction is, of course, incredibly confident and until that meandering third act, he balances both character and comedy to near perfection. For a film about corporate America and price-fixing, The Informant! is never boring, due in large part to the supporting cast that Soderberg has amassed. Interestingly, he chooses to cast comedians in rather straightforward side-roles – Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Dick Smothers and Arrested Development’s Tony Hale being among the view. The Soup’s Joel McHale has perhaps the largest of these roles as one of Whitacre’s two FBI handlers, the other being Scott Bakula, who likely delivers more laughs than his comedian counterpart.

Overall, The Informant! starts out strong and burns out just shy of the finish line, but Soderbergh’s direction and Damon’s performance are enough to make this a wildly watchable character study that’ll keep you laughing through much of the runtime. While it might not be a masterpiece, it’s certainly worthy of an evening at the theater. We promise. After all, we’d never lie to you.

Movie Review: The Final Destination

Saturday, September 5th, 2009

The Final Destination DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Advance Style A

Remember the early days of IMAX? Back when there were only three or four theaters, scattered across the major cities, each with some hour-long 3-D extravaganza? Remember how those movies were all some variation on two kids traveling back in time to the Paleolithic era, complete with sweeping shots of some breath-taking vista (like Africa by way of New Mexico) and the all-too-frequent T-Rex attack? Sure, the kids couldn’t act and the movie wasn’t so much a story as an excuse for the 3-D, but the presentation was decent, the format was inventive and the massive, face-sized glasses ensured that a sufficient amount of stuff leapt out at you across the screen.

I feel much the same way about The Final Destination. It’s not really a movie, or rather, it’s not a real movie, but it’s a hugely entertaining carnival ride of elaborate, three-dimensional bloodletting. It’s difficult to say whether the filmmakers took the 3-D format as permission to eschew things like story and performance, but beyond the non-existent narrative and uninspired acting, the kills are perfectly orchestrated to provide some gut-wrenching, laugh-inducing gore, all of which spatters back on the audience via the 3-D eyewear.

The story assumes that you know the drill by now. A bunch of attractive teenagers survive some horrible accident thanks to a random, psychic premonition only to be hunted down by the unstoppable force of Death which they so ironically avoided. The kind of mythology that used to take an entire movie to figure out is now communicated by a character saying, “We stayed up all night Googling death and premonitions and it works like this…” The Final Destination begins with a group of friends at a NASCAR event, one of whom, Nick, has the obligatory vision of a crash so implausibly epic that it causes a series of explosions resulting in the deaths of dozens by crushing, slicing, burning, impaling and decapitation by errant tire. And, of course, all of this happens through some extraordinarily in-your-face 3-D. The vision ends, the group runs out, taking a few other survivors with them, and the next 80 minutes is spent re-killing them in dynamic, though somewhat repetitive ways.

Where the first two movies, and to some degree the third, tried to expand upon the initial concept, adding layers of mythology and upping the cinematic ante, this film is content to give viewers more of the same, though in a way they’ve yet to experience. Whether this is enough for you depends entirely on your tastes, and while this critic would have liked to see the series explore a few of the bigger questions or attempt something different with the set-up, there’s certainly enough popcorn entertainment here to warrant the price of admission.

Director David R. Ellis returns from having crafted the second and most well-balanced chapter in the series – at least with regard to its kill-to-story ratio – but seems to struggle a bit with the execution. The balance is absolutely in favor of over-the-top, mindless fun, which is, for the most part, perfectly acceptable by Final Destination standards, but the kills aren’t nearly as inventive as in past films. The Rube Goldberg, mousetrap-esque nature of Death’s design was always the most interesting element of the series, but with this outing, one might as well put a counter at the bottom of the screen to clock the number of spilt liquids and gasoline trails that contribute to the death of our main cast. There are one or two memorable deaths – one involving a pool, the other an escalator – but there are an equal number of moments that borrow openly from past chapters, including the silent vehicle that strikes a joyous survivor or the aforementioned gasoline trails that always bend toward the fire. Were it not for the 3-D, which really makes each death play a bit better than it might have otherwise, the movie might easily have ranked as the least fulfilling of the series. But seen in the intended format and in the intended spirit, The Final Destination trumps the last chapter to rank as the franchise’s third-best entry.

While we suspect that this isn’t truly the final destination, we certainly hope that the next in the series will find some new creative ground or thematic area to explore. Because let’s face it, there’s only so much that one can do with stuff falling on other stuff that eventually ends up impaling somebody.

Movie Review: Shorts

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Shorts DS 1 Sheet Movie Replicas - Advance Style A

For a filmmaker who’s known for making ultra-violent genre fare, Robert Rodriguez has never failed to balance his cinematic machismo with his softer, more kid-friendly role as a father, taking time out between bloodbaths to create something for both his family and ours. Shorts is perhaps Rodriguez’s best and most inspired young-adult film since the original Spy Kids. Whether this is faint praise or a legitimate compliment is entirely up to your taste, and quite possibly your age, but there’s little doubt that this sci-fi fairy tale is the perfect piece of back-to-school entertainment for children and their young-at-heart parents.

The set-up is relatively simple. A magical wishing rock falls into the center of a residential community built around a super-advanced technology company responsible for the creation of the “black box,” a device which can become, essentially, any other electronic device you need it to be. In an interconnecting series of – you guessed it — shorts, Rodriguez spotlights four groups of neighbors whose wishes produce what one might best describe as shenanigans.

The first follows young Toe Thompson – ignored by his distant, work-addicted parents and bullied by the daughter of his parents’ boss, Helvetica Black – as he wishes for friends who appear as troublesome, super-powered, miniature alien spacecraft. The second story follows a group of three children whose wishes create walking alligators, giant pterodactyls, venomous snakes and one incredibly smart, telepathic baby. The third chapter focuses on super-scientist Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy), his son and the family tutor (Toe’s sister Stacey, played here by Kat Dennings), as young “Nose” Noseworthy accidently mutates a booger into a giant, flesh-eating monster. The fourth section finds Toe’s parents wishing to be closer and suddenly being joined, quite literally, at the hip. The fifth and final chapter illustrates how all the madness comes together as the company’s CEO, Cole Black, wishes himself into a massive, unstoppable, all-powerful robot.

The real success of the film is in the tone it strikes. It’s colorful, but not overly cartoonish; it’s good, silly fun, but it never panders; it’s aimed at children, yet it has enough maturity to entertain the adults. It is, in a sense, the kind of bed-time story a parent might make up with their children, incorporating the enthusiastic suggestions shouted from beneath the covers. The presentation of the film as a set of short movies is fun and inspired – and certainly on DVD kids will watch and re-watch their favorite chapters – but it’s not, critically speaking, entirely necessary. Shifting around the timeline and showing how one event leads up to something you’ve already seen is a clever invention, but the story never really gains anything from the structure. That said, given the film in question, if an idea is fun, it has a place here within the craziness, regardless of the questions or criticisms that might apply to more straightforward movies.

Rodriguez doesn’t really flex the visual style here that we’ve seen in his higher-budget productions, but he manages a narrative and tonal juggling act that’s no less impressive for the film’s being aimed at younger audiences. The effects are surprisingly well rendered and while, for this critic, the booger-monster seemed a bit sillier than the rest of the film, each of the wild creations – from walking reptiles to five-story mechanical behemoths – look relatively respectable.

Overall, when a critic can see a film that’s meant for children in a child-less room filled with fellow film critics and still have a good time, that’s absolutely a credit to the filmmaker and his cast. Adults will no doubt be forced to find their inner child to enjoy the movie, but one wouldn’t suppose they’d be flocking to theatres without children of their own – children who will no doubt have a blast making their way through Shorts.

IGN Review: District 9

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

District 9 DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Style A give District 9 5 out 5 stars. Doesn’t get much better than that. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do yourself a favour and see it. Now either read the review or watch the video:

In truth, there is a downside to what we do here. In this online age of previews, reviews, trailers, clips, interviews, blogs and podcasts, we have traded the mystery of movies for the knowledge of their industry. Remember back to the pre-Web days, when trailers were merely 60-second edits of imagery and plot, when the darkness of a movie theater concealed the promise of some uncertain journey. This is how I saw District 9, having glimpsed nothing but a vague teaser trailer, having read no rumors, having scanned or examined or pondered not one single image. And whether this was the result of some poorly-executed marketing campaign or a brilliant strategy of secrecy, it was the best and most appropriate way to see it.

So let’s begin at the ending, starting with that final paragraph, the general summary which renders our verdict with nary a spoiler to be found. Read on for more if you choose, or come back after having seen the movie fresh, so long as you see it at all:

District 9 is a remarkable work and a truly benchmark science fiction film. Offering an expert balance of narrative, character, sub-text, action, effects and performance, Neill Blomkamp’s cinematic debut is the film that fans have been waiting years (or perhaps even decades) for. There is scale here, both grand and intimate. Its heroes are distinctive; it’s setting unique. Its action is spectacular and its drama is equal parts heartfelt and terrifying. Most importantly, it feels new. There is a mind at work in Blomkamp and District 9 is that rare celebration of science fiction that will undoubtedly help define the genre for years to come.

When a derelict alien spacecraft drifts into the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa, the world is stunned to find the remains of a dying alien population aboard. Brought down into a facility called District 9, the Prawns – as the humans refer to them – have had nearly 20 years to integrate into society, but racism and prejudice against the impoverished, shanty-town aliens steadily increases. The corporation MNU is developed to handle the human-alien relations and it is during an unprecedented attempt to relocate the more than one million alien residents that Wikus – little more than an Everyman pencil-pusher – is unwittingly made the key to the human’s ability to utilize the aliens’ DNA-encoded weaponry. On the run with an alien named Christopher Johnson, Wikus must find a way to make things right for both himself and the Prawns so that both species, alien and human alike, can return home.

District 9 is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg — the short which got the attention of producer Peter Jackson and Blomkamp subsequently attached to the long-abandoned adaptation of Halo. Using the same documentary-style approach to the material, District 9 is incredibly grounded, making grand science fiction feel tremendously real. This is partly due to the fact that the special effects in the film are taken almost for granted. The massive alien ship hangs in the sky above the city like an afterthought, hazy and out of focus through the constantly shifting lens of the camera. The aliens – a triumph of computer animation and digital character work – feel fully a part of the universe, blurring the line between CG creations and human performers, the standout of which is Wikus himself, Sharlto Copley.

With no prior acting experience, Copley creates a wholly fascinating character. Just promoted by his father-in-law who runs MNU, Wikus wants nothing more than to get ahead, kissing ass and acting far more authoritative than his status allows. In fact, he’s relatively unlikeable. He’s a white-collar nobody, inconsequential to both the characters and the audience. And that Copley is able to transition Wikus into an increasingly sympathetic character as the film continues – still flawed, still evolving – is a testament to the actor’s raw talent. Equally impressive is Wikus’ growing bond with Christopher, demanding that Copley create a dynamic relationship with little more than thin air, a relationship without which the film simply doesn’t work. We’ve seen this attempted before in Jackson’s own films, with Gollum or King Kong, but never has it worked so well and to such emotional effect.

Needless to say, however, the genre requires some degree of action, and Blomkamp absolutely delivers. While District 9 begins as a character piece, exploring and growing this new alien-human world, the second half features some stunning action pieces. The alien weaponry which becomes such a driving force to the story is put on brilliant display with some disastrous effects to the human anatomy. This film definitely earns its R-rating once the fighting begins, and Blomkamp knows how to layer the film with bigger and bigger moments without completely disengaging from the reality he so successfully creates. For all the explosions, all the gore, all the lasers and giant, fully-equipped mech-suits, it all feels, oddly enough, completely authentic and totally plausible.

The best pieces of genre filmmaking – be they horror or sci-fi or fantasy – begin with an idea, some human and universal notion that audiences can take with them throughout the journey, either consciously or unconsciously. Sadly, this is so often lacking in most modern-day fare, and District 9 is almost wholly unique this year in combining fantastic action with thoughtful, narrative filmmaking. In the mainstream, there’s no reason this film should exist. Set in South Africa, no big stars, sub-titled alien dialogue, unlikely heroes, an unpolished documentary approach… And yet, the film works so well because of not in spite of all of that.

But herein lies the rub. The trouble with giving this film the five stars we’ve elected to give it is simply that it elevates expectations; it drives people to know more, filling their cinematic bellies before the main course even begins. Know only that the movie is good, it is important, it is strongly made. Let words like “great” and “brilliant” and “genre-defining” linger after the credits have rolled. Go to the film as empty as you can, and believe us, you’ll leave satisfied, and with the urge to book a return trip to District 9.

Movie Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Style A

Let’s get this out of the way right up front – The Time Traveler’s Wife is first and foremost a love story. Author Audrey Niffenegger put it all right there in the title of the book on which the film is based. If it were a more intellectual or scientific exploration of the theories of temporal displacement, it would have been called The Time Traveler (and it would have been written by somebody else). But, as the title indicates, there are two protagonists in this story. The well-worn plot device of time travel is used as a metaphor for the emotional distance that often creeps into even the most solid of long-term relationships. The film asks the audience to engage with the story and characters using their hearts, not their brains. If you know that going in, you’ll undoubtedly be able to enjoy the film more for what it is.

The star-crossed lovers in question are Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams) and Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana). Henry, a research librarian, was born with a genetic anomaly, later dubbed Chrono-Displacement, which causes him to slip away from the present into the past or future. He can’t control where or when he goes, and his clothes and personal belongings don’t travel with him. So he often finds himself in compromising positions which require him to run, steal, fight and somehow survive until he’s pulled back to the present. One afternoon in the library he runs into Claire, an artist who not only knows everything about him, but tells him she’s been in love with him all her life.

Although none of this has happened yet for Henry at this point in his life, Claire first met him when she was six years-old. He continued visiting her at different points throughout her childhood, and she has grown up knowing that one day she’ll be his wife. By the time they meet in the library, although he doesn’t know her, she’s been waiting for that moment for years. Waiting will continue to be a theme for Claire as their relationship grows and develops into cohabitation, then marriage. His unannounced departures and arrivals begin to wear on her, as does a series of miscarriages which prevent her from carrying his child to full term. It turns out that happily ever after is not as simple as it may have once seemed, for both Henry and Claire.

The film does touch on the conflict between destiny and free will, but only in the most superficial ways. In this world, the future is seemingly predetermined. Henry explains to Claire that he’s never been able to change anything, including his own mother’s death in an automobile accident. There’s a lot of explaining going on in this film, actually. The old writer’s mantra of “show, don’t tell” seems to have been thrown out the window here in favor of dialogue describing action we never get to see (like Henry’s attempts to save his mother). A few more scenes and a little less dialogue would have gone a long way towards furthering the emotional resonance of the film.

To be fair, a big part of that may have been lost in the tricky translation of the book to the screen. It’s much easier to set up details like time, place and age in a novel. In the film, the audience is left to guess and fill in the blanks for themselves much of the time, which can make for a disjointed and confusing narrative. And this brings us to the part of the review that applies to those who read and loved the book. Fans of Niffenegger’s version would be well advised to bear in mind that the film takes a few liberties with the source material, as most films do. It glosses over some of the big moments in Claire and Henry’s history, makes only a passing reference to others and leaves a few things out entirely. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin does his best to translate the spirit of the book, though, with the same pathos he put into the supernatural romance Ghost.

Aiding in that emotional journey are McAdams and Bana, who make for a believable couple. McAdams in particular does a fine job of portraying Claire’s wide emotional arc, from the initial blush of infatuated youth to the tired exasperation of a long-suffering wife. Bana is more steady and reserved as Henry, which is appropriate for the character, but it makes it more difficult to identify with him. Ron Livingston brings some levity to the film as Gomez, a close friend who discovers Henry’s secret in a startling way. The other standout in the supporting cast is Arliss Howard as Henry’s father, whose deep sadness at the loss of his wife and conflicted feelings about his son’s condition are palpable.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is the ending, which felt superfluous and tacked on. It wasn’t until after seeing the film that I found out it was, in fact, tacked on after test audiences responded negatively to the original ending. It wouldn’t be the first time a studio has intervened, but it says more about director Robert Schwentke’s faith in his own storytelling that he allowed the film to be altered in this way. Without giving anything away, the new version betrays the pathos and emotional impact it would otherwise have with a coda that adds nothing to the story. This is perhaps the biggest affront to Niffenegger’s novel, but thankfully it isn’t representative of the adaptation as a whole.

Thankfully, The Time Traveler’s Wife is not at all the frothy romance the marketing campaign has made it out to be. The presence of McAdams may bring to mind comparisons to The Notebook and similar sappy, manipulative fare, but that’s perhaps a bit unfair. Yes, this is a love story, but one that doesn’t pull its punches or hesitate to portray romance as a difficult, painful and all-too-fleeting thing.

Movie Review: Ponyo

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Ponyo DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Advance Style A

It’s not particularly close-minded or inaccurate to describe the Japanese approach to animation as somehow weird — strangely, beautifully, playfully, colorfully, sometimes violently weird. This is true at least in as much as we can say as Americans, watching from our country half-way across the globe, and not at all a judgment considering how wonderfully weird it can be. But there are few Japanese filmmakers, if any, who have applied this style in a more universally heartwarming fashion than Hayao Miyazaki. The creator of such cross-over classics as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki has charmed audiences in Japan for decades with his brilliantly drawn and dream-like fables.

To describe the story of his latest creation Ponyo is deceptively simple: A young boy name Suske discovers a colorfish fish, Ponyo, who magically becomes human. But when her desire to stay with Suske threatens the very balance of nature, their friendship must be tested before things can be set right. At its most basic level, this simple description sounds normal enough, though it leaves out details like the following: Ponyo only becomes human after tasting Suske’s blood; Ponyo’s father is an undersea wizard who looks like 1970s David Bowie; her mother is Mother Nature herself; Ponyo is a fish who loves ham sandwiches; the sea pursues Ponyo in the shape of giant whales made of water; Ponyo’s meddling causes the moon to approach the Earth and raise the tides; Suske’s mother works at a retirement home with some rather bizarre residents; a giant flood brings creatures from the age of the dinosaurs back to the surface.

Etc, etc…

Ponyo may indeed be Miyazaki’s most narratively odd movie in quite some time – which is saying something, to be sure – but its design and tone are that of a child’s bedtime story. The world of Ponyo is one seen through a child’s eyes, operating by a child’s rule, so logic be damned in favor of emotion and spectacle. Color is king here, painting every edge of the world, both above and below the surface of the sea. Ocean blues and Ponyo’s pink scales offset the lush greenery of the island and its myriad of multi-colored flowers and foliage. But most importantly, the relationship between Ponyo and Suske, made of the boundless love and affection that children can share for one another, truly drives the film. Every adventure, every sequence, every magical moment is precipitated by their desire to stay together and their utter willingness to believe that magic is not only possible, but real.

The American voice cast leaves a little to be desired, offering that quasi-overacted quality to the English dubbing, though thankfully the children work wonderfully. This isn’t to say that they may not be overacting as well, but only to say that it makes sense that children might react to the world with that broad, matter-of-fact delivery. The cast includes Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Suske’s mother and father, as well as Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett as Ponyo’s mythical parents. But the real star here is the visuals, the colorful, lush hand-drawn animation that makes Miyazaki films such a feast for the senses. We wouldn’t be so foolish as to say it’s his best film to date, but Ponyo might just be his most imaginative, vibrant and family friendly tale in quite some time.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Harry Potter and te Half Blood Prince DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Style A

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince arrive in theaters, July 15 and you can read the review below.

There are two faces to the story of Harry Potter. The first is that of a young boy forced into the wondrous and oftentimes dark world of wizardry in order to destroy the evil Lord Voldevort who had long-ago murdered his parents. This is the face that bears the saga’s many adventures – magical tournaments and enchanted creatures, harrowing broomstick battles and spells exchanged like gunfire. It is also the face of mystery and intrigue – of secret sects both light and dark, of ministries of magic and old vendettas made new. Then there is the second face – the one of a boy growing slowly and awkwardly into manhood with friends who will prove to be the greatest of his life. It is the face of a boy becoming aware of his abilities and weaknesses, developing a passion for Potions or sports, discovering confidence and virtue, romance and responsibility. It is a face we’ve all worn, and while those of us who’ve followed Harry Potter on his seven-story adventure might never know the joys of conjuring a Patronus or casting some spectacular spell, we’ve all known the joyous — and occasionally painful — experience of growing up.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince knows this, too…

The sixth film in the franchise, Half-Blood Prince finds Harry thrust into a world that has finally, and stubbornly, accepted the return of Voldemort, a world in which Voldemort himself has doubled the efforts of his minions to rid Hogwarts of his many enemies there. The danger, as it does from book to book and film to film, has increased exponentially, and the secret to defeating this constant threat may just exist in a forgotten memory. Tasked by Dumbledore, Harry must befriend the newest addition to the Hogwarts staff, Professor Slughorn, and retrieve this long-lost recollection about a pivotal moment shared with a young Tom Riddle, then a student at the school. A recollection which will, believes Dumbledore, offer the key to the Dark Lord’s ultimate plan. Meanwhile, Snape’s suspicious activities, Draco’s scheming and frequent attacks by Bellatrix and her fellow Death Eaters all point to the inevitable final confrontation which many of you, no doubt, have experienced in the seventh and final book.

Harry Potter Photo 1

But if Half-Blood Prince is really about anything, it’s about that singular turning point into adulthood. It’s about the year in which Harry, Ron and Hermione discover romance as something to be embraced rather than embarrassed by…It’s the year in which each character finally seems to come into their own, and after two films heavy in plot and effects-laden action, we’re offered a portion of the story devoted to the development of the characters we’ve truly grown to love. It’s a testament to the brilliant balance of tones struck by director David Yates that the movie is able to shift between dark, somber moments in which characters must ultimately decide their loyalties and lighthearted, carefree exchanges between boys who are, much to their own chagrin, desperately in love with girls.

Yates is aided substantially by a set of actors whose performances continue to get better with each film, as well as a script that brings some of the more supporting characters to the forefront for a refreshing change of dynamics. The re-emergence of Draco and Ginny Weasley underscores both sides of the Harry Potter coin, forwarding the plot while demanding that Harry develop further as a character, never growing stagnant, both confronting enemies and admitting his growing affections. Ron’s interplay with Hermione in the film is also quite moving, allowing for equal instances of comedy and drama. And lastly, Jim Broadbent’s turn as the absent-minded, socialite Professor Slughorn is perhaps the best of the cameos we’ve seen to date – creating an immensely likeable and sympathetic character out of material that might easily have been more disagreeable in less capable hands.

Harry Potter 6 Photo 2

The film’s only real weakness is one inherent to the series itself – that in trying to fill a school-year’s worth of time, most of what occurs in the movie simply feels like filler for the final few minutes. The “Thing That Happens at the End” – an event which we surely won’t spoil for you here – is, in a real sense, the only thing that actually happens, at least in as much as it relates to the continuing story of Harry’s battle against Voldemort. The events of Order of the Phoenix feel almost inconsequential here – just as the tournament in Goblet of Fire felt like something to puff up the page-count before Voldemort could re-appear in the final sequence. Thankfully, the character work is so finely developed in this outing that each of those concerns is quite easily forgiven amidst all the first-rate performances and overall impressive filmmaking. Readers should note, however, that the film cuts down substantially on the Voldemort flashbacks and never does explain the significance of the “Half-Blood Prince” — an odd omission, considering the title — but this is never to the detriment of the film itself.

That said, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a refreshing change of pace from the dynamic set pieces and wizarding intrigue of the last two films, offering up a heartfelt and surprisingly character-driven chapter in the epic saga of Harry vs. Voldemort. It is without a doubt among the very best in the cinematic series thusfar, second perhaps only to Azkaban, which to this critic offered the most skillful and well-executed balance of narrative and character, of momentum and pause, with never a beat of action too far from some honest and human exchange. Half-Blood Prince is a shockingly intimate film, propelled forward by its engaging characters into a few scattered moments of magical mayhem, yet never bores and never slows despite its insistence on following our heroes into their rapidly-approaching adulthood. It is, in a sense, the breath before the battle, setting up viewers for the epic confrontation to come – a battle so dark and so expansive that it’ll take two films to tell the entire story – and if the finale is conjured with all the drama and heart of this chapter, surely any reason to linger at Hogwarts a little longer will leave audiences shouting, “Abracadabra.”

Movie Review: Away We Go

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Away We Go Movie Poster Print - Style A

Who would have thought that the director of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road would make a film with an optimistic attitude about the power and strength of love? But that’s exactly what Sam Mendes has done with Away We Go, a story about two people searching for their place in this world, and finding it in each other. After the cynicism and “hopeless emptiness” of his previous projects, Mendes’ latest effort offers a refreshingly realistic and supportive couple who take on the world together as a unified team. The result is a sweet little film that doesn’t attempt to confront any grand, philosophical issues, but approaches life-sized dilemmas thoughtfully, without manufactured conflict or forced sentimentality.

Co-written by married novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the story follows expectant parents Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) as they travel around the country looking for a place to settle after Burt’s self-involved parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, the first wave in a steady tide of terrific supporting players) announce they’re moving to Belgium a month before the baby’s due. Determined to live near someone they know, Burt and Verona set out to visit friends, relatives and acquaintances in different cities, from Phoenix to Madison to Montreal. The road trip that follows becomes a sort of Dante’s Inferno-esque tour through successively awful circles of nightmare parenting scenarios.

The first stop introduces us to Verona’s mouthy former boss Lily (Allison Janney) and her willfully pessimistic husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) , who turn a day-long outing at the dog track into a sort of white-trash version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That’s followed by a visit with Verona’s sister (Carmen Ejogo) in Tucson, where we get a little of her closely guarded backstory. Then it’s on to Madison and a disastrous dinner with Burt’s childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her partner Roderick (Josh Hamilton), who flaunt their trust-fund-supported neo-bohemian lifestyle and embrace a very specific method of child rearing – “no sugar, no separation, no strollers.” Just as Janney does in her scenes, Gyllenhaal dives right into her contemptible character, and the scene escalates into one of the laugh-out-loud funniest sequences of the entire film.

Vastly different situations are explored in Montreal – where Burt and Verona’s college friends Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) have built a loving home for a multiracial brood of adopted kids – and Miami – where Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) is dealing with the departure of his wife and his sudden status as a single dad. There are no big revelations or showy fireworks at the climax of the film, just a simple understanding as Burt and Verona come to terms with their past, present and future through the lessons they’ve learned on their journey.

Mendes takes a naturalistic, low-key approach to the material, making good use of the different locations to set the chapters apart from one another. Along with cinematographer Ellen Kuras, he gives each destination a distinctive feel, from the overly bright, sunburned desert hues of Phoenix to the rich, smoky dive bars of Montreal to the soft pastels of Miami. Thankfully, he resists the road-movie cliche of long tracking shots showing nothing but scenery, often transitioning between segments in more interesting ways, such as a view of a plane reflected in the mirrored glass of a building.

What keeps all these strands connected in a single through line is the performances of Krasinski and Rudolph. Here is the best example of the old adage that comic actors often do the best dramatic work, and their palpable chemistry makes for a believable, if unconventional, couple. Verona steadfastly refuses to marry Burt, but her true reasons are oddly romantic when they’re finally revealed. As many successful couples do, they seem to instinctively correspond to each other’s peaks and valleys, taking turns being the one to freak out and the one to provide reassurance.

Of the two, Verona is the more reserved, maintaining a quiet strength that belies a depth of emotion. Fans who only know Rudolph from her work on SNL may be surprised at her range here and how well she functions as the straight woman in the film. When we first meet Verona, she’s a bit of a mystery, closed off and unwilling to talk about her past. But as the film goes on and she slowly opens up, it’s like watching a flower bloom in time-lapse. When she’s ultimately called upon to deliver a long, riveting monologue near the end of the film, she makes it look effortless.

Similarly, with the help of glasses, a shaggy mop of hair and a bristly beard, Krasinski sinks into the role of Burt like a comfy pair of shoes. His slightly rumpled, rough-around-the edges style is miles away from The Office’s Jim Halpert. Though the two characters may be compared in their affability and their unfaltering love and support of their significant others, that’s where the similarities end. Burt is filled with a childlike, almost naive, enthusiasm that’s nicely complemented by Rudolph’s motherly qualities. And though he has some of the funniest bits in the film, when situations arise that strip away that genial veneer, it is something to behold. This is Krasinski’s best feature-film role date, and with more projects like this under his belt, he’s assured of a long, steady career beyond The Office.

The other element that holds the film together is the soundtrack, provided for the most part by singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch. Having a single artist predominate the score ends up working nicely as a connective device. His wistful guitar refrains give the journey a forward momentum, seamlessly carrying us from one chapter to the next, and his deep, honeyed voice sets a contemplative tone that underscores some of the film’s best and most emotional moments.

Some audiences may avoid this film because it reeks of an indie sensibility, while others may have soured on Mendes as a director after Revolutionary Road. While both of those predispositions are valid, there’s a lot more to Away We Go than meets the eye. Like a typical independent film, it eschews glossy imagery and extravagant production values for a more ordinary, grounded point of view, but it doesn’t have any lofty aspirations or take itself too seriously. It’s just a basic, well-acted road movie that will break your heart and put it back together again.

Movie Review: The Hangover

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Hangover DS 1 Sheet Movie Poster - Style A

According to Christopher Monfette of, this is one Hangover that you won’t want to go away.

Almost more than any other genre, comedy is virtually critic-proof, completely and utterly subjective in the face of your own sense of humor. Nine times out of ten, a black cat leaping out of an alley will scare most people. More often than not, a weepy scene between loved ones parted by either distance or death will elicit an audience’s sympathy. But when it comes to comedy, unless there’s simply nothing of good, old-fashioned, laugh-out-loud value, anything beyond a guy slipping on a banana peel or taking a shot to the nuts – which are universally funny – is ultimately at the mercy of taste. And so, it turns out, the absence of funny can be measured; the presence of funny is entirely up to you.

With that in mind, if it were up to this critic, The Hangover would easily be praised as potentially the funniest comedy to hit theatres in the last few years. It’s been awhile since I remember having laughed this hard or having been so effortlessly amused by a movie, and where so many Bachelor Party-inspired comedies grab too quickly for the low-hanging fruit of nudity and vulgarity – neither of which are necessarily bad, mind you — The Hangover manages to create a clever mystery and real, honest-to-goodness characters in the midst of its many of shenanigans. And that’s a surprise, quite frankly, given what this Las Vegas-set comedy could easily have become, but despite a few pacing issues in the middle of the film, The Hangover rises above the trappings into which other, similar comedies have so often stumbled.

It’s the eve of Doug’s wedding, and so his two best friends, Phil and Stu (Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms), as well as his fiancé’s slightly off-balance brother, Alan (Zach Galifianakis), take Doug for a wild night in Vegas prior to the big day. And before you can say “What could possibly happen!?” the s**t gets real. Cut to twelve hours later when Phil, Stu and Alan wake up in a luxury suite, sans Doug, with a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, a stolen police car downstairs at the valet, and absolutely no memory of the previous evening. The big question is, “Where’s Doug?” but to answer that the gang has to retrace their steps from the night before, making The Hangover a kind of comedic mystery involving a hooker, an imprisoned Chinese mobster, a pissed-off Mike Tyson and an assortment of progressively stranger encounters. Also praiseworthy are the subtle, completely logical clues that the film provides the audience as to where Doug may have vanished, leaving the sharper-eyed viewers with a sense of accomplishment that they might have put things together before our main characters.

It’d be easy to simply set up an insane scenario, populating a room with animals and objects, and let the audience’s imaginations fuel the laughs – which, indeed, they do for the first portion of the film – but where The Hangover succeeds is in making the truth of what actually happened live up to the promise of the aftermath. That said, the film is admittedly funniest in its first half, but that director Todd Phillips and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore were able keep the back half as amusing as they did is as much a tribute to the film’s comedic chops as to the absolutely hysterical performances from Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis.

You’d be hard-pressed to name a better-matched comedy trio since Phillips’ own Old School back in 2003, but where Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn seemed like separate elements competing for the comedy crown, these hungover friends work seamlessly together to earn and support almost every single laugh. Cooper is the likable but smarmy, self-obsessed pack-leader who, despite his ego, undoubtedly loves his buddies, while Helms plays the brow-beaten straight man with the domineering girlfriend. Galifianakis, however, completely steals the movie as the eccentric Alan, who may or may not be developmentally challenged…Make no mistake, this is the movie that will pull Galifianakis from the realm of the cult comedian into the mainstream, but one wonders if playing awkward, quasi-simpletons isn’t simply his trademark shtick. If so, it’ll certainly limit how far Galifianakis can go as an actor and calls into question whether he could ever carry a movie as a lead, but he’s just so damn funny that we can’t help but hope that he has a long, successful career in cinematic comedy ahead of him.

The only real failing of the film is its second act, which suffers from some minor pacing issues, and a 15-minute lull where the laughs simply aren’t as abundant. And that the determination regarding just where Doug disappeared to ultimately comes from a play on words during a seemingly random dialogue exchange – rather than from a legitimate clue – seems a bit too easy, like the writers were looking for a quick way to shift gears into the third act. Thankfully, however, the third act stuff – which could have felt as if the film had given up or lost its steam – actually regains some of the comedic punch of the opening moments, culminating in a series of photographs that’ll have audiences howling riotously in their seats throughout the credits.

The Hangover could easily have been a cheap, crass, throwaway comedy, but with a great cast and a solid director, audiences are about to get one of the most bankable, legitimately hilarious films we’ve seen in quite some time. With a possible sequel already given the greenlight, we’re hoping that this same group can capture lightning in a bottle one more time.

Cannes 09 Review: Taking Woodstock

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Most are too young to be even vaguely aware of Woodstock Music and Art Fair these days. But the impact of the three-day celebration of peace and music on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York back in 1969 marked the pinnacle of the hippie era and saw nearly half a million people descend on the 600-acre site. Acts included Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Who and Jimi Hendrix and the fest was an unprecedented event in music history.

Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is the tale of Elliot Tiber (oddly renamed Teichberg in the movie), president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, who held the only permit for a music festival in the area (he planned to put on a chamber music show) and invited the event’s organisers to the town when they were denied a permit in the nearby town of Wallkill. Based on his autobiography, we join him as a young man (Demetri Martin) struggling to maintain his parent’s motel business and coming to terms with his sexuality.

When he reads that the permit for the Wallkill has been pulled, he pitches the idea of bringing the festival to Bethel to promoter Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff). Before long, plans are underway to run the show on Max Yasgur’s farm, proving a much-needed investment of capital into Tiber’s motel, which the organisers use to house themselves and their offices while the show comes together.

The film is really about Elliot’s journey without moving. While struggling with his own identity and his responsibilities to his parents – a battleaxe mother (Imelda Staunton) and ailing father (Henry Goodman) – he welcomes an incredibly liberal collection of people to his town who teach him the value of personal identity. It’s an incredibly powerful theme punctuated brilliantly by Liev Schreiber as a transvestite ex-marine, of whom Elliot asks if his father understands what he is. He replies, “Honey, I know who I am. That should make it easier for everyone else.”

Maybe it’s not surprising to see a film with powerful homosexual themes from Lee, who was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, but he explores the subject with an impressively deft hand, making Elliot’s journey remarkably genuine. The real Tiber was present for the Stonewall riots, which happened weeks before the film’s timeline begins, but Lee and screenwriter James Schamus focus their adaptation on a young man whose sexuality isn’t so assured before the film begins and allows the audience to take the film’s journey with him.

It’s not quite as successful in that respect as Almost Famous, another film about a young man’s journey into the world of live music, as Patrick Fugit’s character in that film is, perhaps, less affected by a history that isn’t spelled out within the film. But Taking Woodstock is as much about Elliot’s journey as it is about the foundations of the music festival. In the clash of big business and hippie ideals that gave birth to the show it’s a film both funny and engaging. On the sidelines, Emile Hirsch as a Vietnam vet and Paul Dano as an Acid-dropping hippie provide drama and comedy respectively, while Dan Fogler is hilarious as the leader of an alternative theatre troop whose main artistic contribution to the world seems to be to dance around naked.

When the festival kicks off, Elliot is nowhere near the action – if nothing else, clearing rights to that material would have been mighty tricky – but Lee gives a comfortable sense of scale in cleverly chosen CG shots mixed, predominantly, with vast scenes involving extras.

It may not be on a par with Brokeback, nor as powerful as Lust, Caution, but Taking Woodstock is another triumph for Ang Lee, a director whose resume gets more and more diverse with every project he tackles.

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