Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Eagle Eye - DVD Review

EAGLE EYE (**) - Starring Shia LaBeouf, Michelle Monaghan, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, Ethan Embry and Anthony Mackie.
Directed by D.J. Caruso.

Kalukistan? Really? Did I hear that right? Because at first I thought I heard them call it Palooka-stan, and I knew the filmmakers weren't that cynical. I'm not a big fan on made-up countries in movies, unless it's something like Freedonia with Pres. Groucho Marx. Or Moldavia from Dynasty, but then, Moldavia eventually became a real country.

I am almost over Shia LaBeouf. I've been rooting for him ever since I saw Holes and season 2 of Project Greenlight. The movie he made on that series - The Battle of Shaker Heights - wound up being forgettable tripe, but Shia had professionalism about him, and he seemed like a good kid. His persona, though, hasn't evolved beyond the fast-talking hustler type, where he's pretty much been the same character in the last four or five movies he's done.

So we now come to Eagle Eye, from Disturbia director D. J. Caruso, and it comes off as a Jon Turteltaub remake of The Game, with some Enemy of the State thrown in, containing a third-act revelation that's hard to swallow, even in a movie like this. (Diagram that sentence, Abbott!)

The movie gets its name from a government project that enhances its ability to spy on its citizens. Hence this female voice is able to call Jerry (Shia) no matter where he is, and give him instructions that he must follow right then. She can see through every camera, hear every cell call, access every database, jam any signal...

Jerry must go on the run because he finds himself being framed for terrorism. Meanwhile "she" is putting him through a series of tasks he must complete if he wants to stay alive. Billy Bob Thornton is the determined FBI agent hunting Jerry down, and like Gerard from The Fugitive, he eventually figured maybe Jerry's innocent of what they're pursuing him for.

I don't want to hint at the reveal, as I figured it out well before it happened, much to my chagrin ("they're not really going down this path, are they?..."). It has some good chase scenes, but otherwise, allow me to damn it with faint praise by saying it's better than Jumper.

And I'm hoping Shia chooses something a little more challenging once he's done with Transformers 2.

American Teen - DVD Review

AMERICAN TEEN (****) - Directed by Nanette Burstein.

The best teen drama of the decade. Maybe that's because it's a documentary cut together like a John Hughes movie.

Yes, Virginia, high school is still like you remember it. Your social cliques, your awkwardness, your pressures, your joys, your failures, your fleeting friendships and crushes, and your sense of impending doom or release when graduation comes. All there. All here.

It focuses on four seniors at a small Indiana high school. They introduced as cliches, and then we see them fleshed out into real people. There's Hannah, the artsy rebel; there's Jake, the band geek; there's Colin, the basketball star; and there's Megan, the popular mean girl. Fifth kid Mitch (handsome jock) is thrown in there, so there can be five like The Breakfast Club, but it's really about the four.

It's amazing how much frank footage Burstein was able to gleem. These kids don't seem to care they're being filmed, like everyone's life is its own reality show. Particularly Megan, who does some cruel things in this movie that surely inspired some nasty retaliatory posts on her MySpace page.

I was rooting for each kid, especially as you learn more about their personal lives and what may have shaped them this way. I wanted Megan to recognize how hurtful her behavior was. (In a fiction movie, she'd end up with punch poured on her head at prom, and that would be that.) I wanted Colin to get that basketball scholarship. I wanted to Jake to finally figure out how to talk to a girl. I wanted Hannah to find some happiness that wasn't related to today's boyfriend.

Some of it feels staged, but I was moved by the plights of these kids, and as this chapter closed on their lives, I wanted to just know that they're all okay. Call it the beauty of using real people.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Valkyrie - Movie Review

VALKYRIE (***) - Starring Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretchmann and Eddie Izzard.
Directed by Bryan Singer.

Maybe when it was conceived, this movie was Oscar-bait material. Its journey has resulted in a straight-forward action-thriller, albeit one with an inevitable unhappy ending. As my wife put it, "it's hard to watch a movie about good people doing the right thing, knowing they're going to fail miserably."

Nevertheless the Nazi is Hollywood's most utilized villain, and by extension, the German. Now we get a movie where the majority of Germans are good guys who just find themselves trapped in a bizarro world where their country is ruled by a madman. Tom Cruise is fine, if a bit out of place, as Col. Stauffenberg, the one-eyed soldier who sees that Hitler must be stopped, and he finds a circle of rebels, generals and such, all played by Brits, who need a decisive man to join their team.

Every man knows he will be killed if they fail, but they fear the consequences if they do nothing. I didn't read in advance, so I didn't know the fate of their families, and every time we see Mrs. Stauffenberg (Black Book's Carice van Houten, underutilized here), I wondered if she and the children would suffer the same fate we know her husband will.

Adding to the pain is to see how well the rest of their plan would have gone, if only Stauffenberg's bomb had actually killed Hitler. I'd love to see the Holodeck simulation on that one.

The Tale of Desperaux - Movie Review

THE TALE OF DESPERAUX (***) - Starring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Tracey Ullman, Christopher Lloyd, Frank Langella, Tony Hale, Frances Conroy, Richard Jenkins and Robbie Coltrane.
Directed by Sam Fell & Robert Stevenhagen.

This movie was more thoughtful than I expected, more dramatic, which I appreciated. It would be more at home with Disney's old-school classics than most animated movies of the past ten or twenty years. As such, it was one where my five-year-olds squirmed through most of the movie. But for older kids, it's a rich tale, and the animation alone is quite beautiful, more closely resembling paintings come to life than anything else.

It's based on a book, and it feels like it throughout. After all, what original screenplay would have a side character that swirls to life embodied by the fruits and veggies that happen to be in the room?

It's an ensemble story, taking place in three worlds. There's the Kingdom of Dor, where the humans are. There's Mouseworld, hidden behind the walls and under the floors of Dor, and then there's Ratworld, a dark place in the underground sewers. It starts with Roscuro (Hoffman), a sea-faring rat who loves the smell of the soup coming from Dor. (I know many will compare this to Ratatouille because of that, but really, the book was written years before that great Pixar movie, so, be fair.) After Roscuro's nose gets him into trouble and sets off a chain reaction of tragedy, he finds himself plunged into Ratworld, led by the creepy albino rat Botticelli (Hinds). Dor becomes a gray kingdom, where rats and soup are declared illegal, and the princess (Watson) looks out her window every day, praying for rain to return to her land.

Meanwhile in Mouseworld, Desperaux is born, a tiny mouse with big ears and an unparalleled sense of adventure. Mice are supposed to be full of fear and anxiety; what's wrong with this child?

The movie opens up a tapestry of characters. We see a scullery maid in the corner at the end of the scene, and hey, what do you know, she has a part to play in this story too.

My main issue would be probably be with pacing. Some characters cried out for more development while other scenes lagged and went on too long, but it still takes some unexpected turns, and I appreciate any movie where I don't know what the next scene will hold but I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who! - DVD Review

DR. SEUSS' HORTON HEARS A WHO! (***1/4) - Starring the voices of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Isla Fisher, Jaime Pressly, Amy Poehler, Jonah Hill and Charles Osgood.
Directed by Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino.

Finally a big-screen Seuss movie done right. For decades, the half-hour Boris Karloff-narrated TV special of How the Grinch Stole Christmas has been the standard bearer. The live-action version I thought was okay at the time, but it doesn't hold up to repeat viewing. Mike Myers' Cat in the Hat was a monstrosity.

This one feels faithful to a Seussian world and sentiment, and it still allows for the humorous riffings of Carrey & Carell. Carrey's Horton isn't the humbledrum pachyderm from the old TV-animated special. He's hyper, he's over-the-top, he's precisely the animated vehicle to capture Carrey's natural cartoonyness. Carell gets his own clever verbal asides as the eager-to-please Mayor of Whoville.

It also pulls off a feat I feared most: it doesn't feel padded. It flows nicely and naturally in the story, with Charles Osgood's dutiful voice narrating in verse, guiding us through. It's from Blue Sky studio, and I'd take this over either Ice Age movie (excluding Scrat's scenes of course.)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor - DVD Review

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (**) - Starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, John Hannah, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong and Liam Cunningham.
Directed by Rob Cohen.

There are some problems with this movie that should have been ironed out before filming began. I usually like Maria Bello, but giving her dark hair and a British accent just pounded it home that she's not Rachel Weisz. And if in 1999 there was The Mummy, where Rick & Evelyn fell in love, and in 2001 it was ten years later where they had son Alex in tow, I guess it makes sense that in 2008, their son would now be 21. But Brendan Fraser is 39, and Luke Ford is 27. Freddie Boath, who played Alex in The Mummy Returns really was only ten when that movie came out, so he's 17 now. Anyway at this rate, Brendan Fraser's son will be his same age in The Mummy 4. And since this movie made almost $400 million worldwide, don't dismiss Mummy 4 just yet.

Now I know what some are thinking. Why make a third Mummy movie? Was there really that big a clamor for one? I repeat: it made almost $400 million worldwide. Movies are in the business to make money. I find it strange how Brendan Fraser could be in two successful blockbusters, but neither seemed to do a thing for his career. Well, I guess it means he can put off starring in a TV show for a couple more years.

Arnold Vosloo's mummy was laid completely to rest, and The Rock's Scorpion King became a good guy, so it's time for a new one. Alex O'Connell is now his own man, doing archaeological digs in China. He unearths the burial ground for the dragon emperor, played by star-power upgrade Jet Li. He'd been cursed by a witch, but naturally, with a drop of blood from one pure in heart, he can be awakened. Why do witches put little caveats in their spells like this?

Mom and Dad show up in China, and apparently Rick & Alex have father-son issues. "Why can't you let me fight my own mummies?" Weird as it is to see Fraser pretend to be Ford's father, it weirded me out more when I realized Ford looks like a 25-year-old Matt Damon and a 25-year-old Ethan Hawke have been photoshopped into one face. But I digress.

It was the big dumb explosion-fest I expected. Rob Cohen took over directing duties from Stephen Sommers, and he's actually a little worse. Proof of this is the fight scene between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. It's so choppy and slo-mo'd, it could be any two amateurs fighting. What is Cohen trying to cover up? You telling me Li and Yeoh can no longer choreograph five punches in a row without needing a break?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Mamma Mia! - DVD Review

MAMMA MIA! (*1/2) - Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski.
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Yikes. I'm glad everyone looks like they're having fun, but wow, what a trainwreck.

Movie musicals need leeway to get everything set up, and then you can swept up in the show. The good ones, like Chicago or Hairspray, can hook its audience right away. This one doesn't benefit from that great opening number. Where it lost me though was its first big number. "Dancing Queen" is when the whole island joins in, and the choreography is terrible. It's embarrassing to watch them do the same moves I've seen in school musicals.

Meryl Streep leads the hands-waving-in-the-air parade to the pier, and then they break into this jazz-hands, hip-shake thing that looks improved on the fly. Its chorus isn't rousing; it's a welcome signal that the end of this number is nigh.

Then there's Pierce Brosnan's... valiant attempt to sing. And Christine Baranski's creepy cougar number.

The plot's a flimsy thing about a girl inviting three guys to her wedding, any of whom could be her real dad. It's an excuse to string some ABBA tunes together, which should be doable. The ending's silly, and a bit painful since Brosnan's vocals come into play. It's supposed to be escapist fluff entertainment, but yeesh, would that it had a better director! Too many numbers feel forced, too many cast members feign fun, and too many of the songs fall flat.

Critical Consensus on 2008 Movies compiles the top ten lists of various film critics. With over 50 down, and several more to go, here's where things stand currently:

1. WALL-E - 277.5 points
2. The Dark Knight - 207
3. Milk - 185.5
4. Slumdog Millionaire - 182
5. The Wrestler - 153
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - 118
7. Rachel Getting Married - 114.5
8. A Christmas Tale - 112.5
9. Synecdoche NY - 101.5
10. Happy-Go-Lucky - 95.5

11. Wendy & Lucy
12. Let the Right One In
13. The Edge of Heaven
14. Man on Wire
15. Frost/Nixon
16. In Bruges
17. The Visitor
18. Che
19. The Reader

(4 Months, 3 Weeks 7 2 Days is the actual #19, but since it finished #12 in 2007, I took it out).

Now looking back through the years, these charts have been semi-indicators of how Academy voters might swing. * - winner

*1-No Country for Old Men
2-There Will Be Blood
15-Michael Clayton

2-The Queen
*3-The Departed
4-Letters from Iwo Jima
7-Little Miss Sunshine
(#1 that year was United 93)

1-Brokeback Mountain
4-Good Night and Good Luck

*3-Million Dollar Baby
4-The Aviator
13-Finding Neverland

1-Lost in Translation
*2-The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
3-Mystic River
8-Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World

6-The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
7-The Pianist
10-Gangs of New York
11-The Hours
(#1 that year was Far From Heaven)

So by this terribly unscientific look at the thing, no film has been nominated for Best Picture finishing outside the Top 19.

And Pixar movies have finished at fifth (Finding Nemo), sixth (The Incredibles), and ninth (Ratatouille) in their respective years, but never #1. So if ever there was a year to nominate a Pixar movie outside of the Best Animated Film category, this is it.

It also raises the question about best picture hopefuls like Doubt, Gran Torino and Revolutionary Road. Unless there's some critical surge, I'd write those three movies off for the big one. There's still a question as to whether or not The Dark Knight will get nominated. Far as I know, no superhero movie has ever been nominated, but it's unlike any superhero movie ever made.

I think the three locks for Best Picture nominations are Milk, Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Dark Knight should be a lock, but you never know with this Academy. Frost/Nixon is the likely fifth. It's doing well in limited release, it's from Ron Howard, it leans left politically, but now I wonder if WALL-E could get a groundswell from out of nowhere, or if The Wrestler can get enough buzz about it's not just Mickey Rourke's performance that makes it great. If Harvey Weinstein worked for Pixar, I'd say he'd get the job done. This is the guy who talked the Academy into giving Roberto Benigni a Best Actor trophy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Best of TV 2008

1. LOST (ABC) - The flash-forward twist was awesome, revitalizing the show to its best since Season 1. New cast members like Jeff Fahey and Jeremy Davies added interesting constants to the formula, and the show seems more focussed now that they have an endgame. The best acting moment of the year for me was when Sun watched Jin die in the ship's explosion. It's been years since I've hoped a character isn't really dead, but I'm crossing my fingers Jin somehow got off that boat in time. I love a show that makes me care like that.

2. DEXTER (Showtime) - I can't believe Michael C. Hall hasn't won an Award for this yet. Maybe once Boston Legal is finally gone, James Spader will stop blocking Hall from winning for his intriguing anti-hero, the Serial Killer with a Moral Code. Jimmy Smits is sure to get some Emmy love this summer for his district attorney who goes from righteous to scary.

3. THE OFFICE (NBC) - Probably the only show on TV where I'll watch the reruns again.

4. MAD MEN (AMC) - Personally I like the restraint of basic cable that Sopranos vet Matthew Weiner has on him. I think adding nudity and profanity to this would subtract from its power in the moments of quiet devastation. For the rape scene, it's most effective when all we see is the shocked, deadened look on Joanie's face as she just tries to bear what's happening.

5. HBO MOVIES - History comes to life in fine form in John Adams, with Paul Giamatti breathing life into our second president, the most underrated one we've had until author David McCullough gave him his due. Bonus points for Tom Wilkinson's wily Ben Franklin, but there was also Wilkinson as James Baker in Recount. Baker may have been cast as the villain, but his scene where he reveals why he became a Republican makes it all okay. It made history suspenseful, which is hard to do. And House of Saddam was really good, too. So yeah, hard to choose just one.

6. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (Sci-Fi) - All good things must come to an end too soon. I can't wait to see what the crew does now that they've found Earth, and found her to be a barren, radioactive planet. And then in a handful of episodes, it'll be gone.

7. SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH (HBO) - Wisely, HBO didn't remake this show; they're airing it as it originally was in Australia, and I can't imagine anyone trying to do what Chris Lilley does so well in embodying three awful people (a self-absorbed drama teacher, a mean girl, and a Polynesian bully) week after week and making the next episode funnier than the previous. Sadly this was its only season.

8. LIFE ON MARS (ABC) - Jason O'Mara's a break-out star who holds his own with Harvey Kietel each week. I just hope this show is able to find an audience and stick around.

9. SURVIVOR (CBS) - Two good seasons in a row. The spring Fans vs. Favorites had some great twists and staggeringly stupid moves, each dumber than the week before. It was only marred by having a harpy like Parvati win it all, but that's what happens when idiots like Eric and Jason are all that stand in their way. The fall season had Marcus's Foursome look like an immovable force, but the underdogs overthrew it, and Sugar single-handedly made sure it was mixed up each week, to her own peril, but to the credit that a nice guy like Bob could win it all.

10. THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION (Bunch o' networks) - Endless entertainment. The drama of Obama overthrowing the Clinton machine. John McCain emerging from the ashes. Sunday-news round-tables becoming must-see spin rooms. Romney vs. Huckabee. John Edwards revealed to be a total scumbag. Fox News vs. MSNBC and the winner is CNN's Campbell Brown. Saturday Night Live becoming significant again. Daily Show & Colbert Report with mounds of material. And so on.

Honorable Mentions:

PRISON BREAK (FOX) - Season 4 is the best since the first. The action's always amped, and the twists and turns don't feel desperate or made up on the fly anymore.

BREAKING BAD (AMC) - Bryan Cranston's wrenching protrayal of a dying man going to the dark side to financially secure his family has had its darkly funny moments, but it makes Weeds look silly by comparison.

DAN on BIG BROTHER 10 (CBS) - Sometimes when you watch a weekly-elimination reality show, it is so dang entertaining to watch a nice-guy underdog brilliantly outplay his housemates and come out on top.

My Worst of TV 2008

1. MOMMA'S BOYS (NBC) - I'm not sure who deserves more blame on a show like this. The producer? The casting director? The first six minutes - six minutes! - was a preview of what we'll be seeing this season, and it featured a ton of bad behavior. This is the Bachelor, Meet My Folks, and Rock of Love rolled into one. It had the usual catfighty stuff the first night, where one mean girl made another girl cry. What killed it for me was when it revealed the Michigan mom is a total racist. ("No blacks, no Asians, and no Jewish girls!") The fountain of ugliness gushed out, and what reason would I have to tune in for Episode 2 that didn't involve a degree of morbidity?

2. KATH & KIM (NBC) - Selma Blair, staring blankly at someone is not funny. Molly Shannon, this is not an SNL sketch; it's a character we're supposed to want to see week after week. Supposedly there was this funny Australian show on which this was based but it got lost in translation.

3. HOLE IN THE WALL (FOX) - Picture taking one game from the array of MXC, and focussing an entire show around just that, week after week. What next, a show solely dedicated to the Pyramid challange from American Gladiators?

4. DO NOT DISTURB (FOX) - Jerry O'Connell, show-killer. I can't say it's all his fault. The writing was bad enough, the cast of Cheers couldn't have saved it.

5. LIVING LOHAN (E!) - So that's why Lindsay's so screwed up. Actually the majority of the episode I saw seemed to focus on how much grief Dina Lohan's kids get for being Lindsay's siblings. These kids need some privacy, not a reality show.

6. THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (FOX) - I watched three or four episodes. One problem with this show is that the polygraph is wrong sometimes. Clearly most of the time it said someone had lied on their test, the contestant had told the truth. The main problem is that the questions are so probing and personal that it destroys lives. Literally. One couple got divorced after the episode aired where she admitted she'd had an affair.

7. REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER (HBO) - I watched him on and off for years, but he's become meaner and angrier to the point there's no point seeing what he thinks of this weeks' issues. He loves strip clubs and pot; he hates religion and Sarah Palin. Got it.

8. TRUE BLOOD (HBO) - I'm sorry, but if most of an episode revolves around a guy with an erection that makes his unit swell up like "an eggplant", I'm done with you. Cool opening-credits sequence though.

9. FOOTBALL NIGHT IN AMERICA (NBC) - I never would have guessed a football show anchored by Bob Costas would be the lamest one on TV, but his supporting cast doesn't offer much help. CBS, FOX, ESPN, and the NFL Network all do it better.

10. THE WRITERS' STRIKE - It hurt the industry, killed viewership, eroded support of enough shows that they got cancelled, and when the dust settled it was clear that the concessions the WGA was not worth the money lost to their guild members, let alone the entire television industry. Besides, Saturday Night Live was dark during the GOP primary race. I hear Bill Hader has a dead-on Mitt Romney we'll likely never see.

Dishonorable Mentions:

DEAL OR NO DEAL (NBC) - I'm not bitter that I stood in line for seven hours for a 10-second audition, where I went first in my group then saw how the other nine in my group used their 10 seconds and wished like mad I had gone last instead of first so I could have done it better. Not at all. I mention this show because the episode where someone finally won the $1 million, they promo'd it with every commerical break that it was going to happen. That's like Survivor saying at every commercial break: "And tune in to watch Randy get voted out." Not to mention the winner was from Utah and so likely among the 10,000 that were there that day. I think she was the one dressed up like a fairy.

HEROES (NBC) - I loved Volume 1. I was iffy on Volume 2. Volume 3 committed some egregious sins continuity-wise, but I'll be back for Volume 4 to see if they learned their lessons. But the quality drop from Volume 1 to Volume 3 is glaring.

JOSHUA on BIG BROTHER 9 (CBS) - Somehow he beat out Mike Boogie and Evel Dick for being the biggest jerk ever on that show. How? By making fun of a houseguest's father's suicide.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

SAG Award Nominations


Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langhella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet, The Reader


Boston Legal
Mad Men
The Closer

30 Rock
Desperate Housewives
The Office

Michael C. Hall, Dexter
Jon Hamm, Mad Men
Hugh Laurie, House
William Shatner, Boston Legal
James Spader, Boston Legal

Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters
Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU
Holly Hunter, Saving Grace
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men
Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer

Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Steve Carell, The Office
David Duchovny, Californication
Jeremy Piven, Entourage
Tony Shalhoub, Monk

Christina Applegate, Samantha Who?
America Ferrera, Ugly Betty
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds
Tracey Ullman, Tracey Ullman's State of the Union

Ralph Fiennes, Bernard & Doris
Paul Giamatti, John Adams
Kevin Spacey, Recount
Kiefer Sutherland, 24: Redemption
Tom Wilkinson, John Adams

Laura Dern, Recount
Laura Linney, John Adams
Shirley MacLaine, Coco Chanel
Phylicia Rashad, A Raisin in the Sun
Susan Sarandon, Bernard & Doris


Fly Me to the Moon - DVD Review

FLY ME TO THE MOON (*1/2) - Starring the voices of Christopher Lloyd, Kelly Ripa, Tim Curry, Nicolette Sheridan, Robert Patrick and Ed Begley Jr.
Directed by Ben Stassen.

I guess the best thing I can say about is the animation is better than a quickie like Happily N'Ever After, but it apes the look of A Bug's Life too closely. Take the ants from a Bug's Life, make them shorter and fatter, add little antennae and wings, and now you have the flies. Flies are the sort of creatures I don't want to see made cute for kids. Baby flies are maggots, and the sight of maggots that are supposed to be cute just seems wrong.

It also features a Grandpa Fly who's at least forty years old. Um, excuse me?

It takes place in the 1960's, where three kid flies dream of going to the moon. They find a way to stow away on Apollo 11. Meanwhile there's a silly subplot of Russian flies trying to do the same thing. The movie was filmed to be in 3D, and there were several parts where I could almost hear the filmmaker whisper "Look what I can do in threeee-Deeeee!"

It's strictly for little kids, a place-holder to keep the munchkins quiet for an hour and a half, and there are plenty of better titles out there that can do that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My Academy Award Predictions

This'll change next week, and the week after, but...

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

Dark Horse: Revolutionary Road

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langhella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Dark Horse: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Dark Horse: Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Dark Horse: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler

Josh Brolin, Milk
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Dark Horse: Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder

Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Dark Horse: Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Bolt - Movie Review

BOLT (***1/2) - Starring the voices of John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton and Greg Germann.
Directed by Chris Williams.

Pixar's John Lasseter served as executive producer on this, and I can see his touch. The story is more solid than Chicken Little, if not more familiar, and yet it has its own flavor.

I have a hard time counting the CGI animation movies as part of the Disney animated classics. To me, Disney animation stopped with Home on the Range (a bad note on which to end) and it will be revived with The Princess & the Frog next year. Meanwhile this is the best of the Disney CGI flicks, and actually the best non-Pixar animated film to come from Disney since Lilo & Stitch.

John Travolta voices Bolt, a Hollywood action dog who isn't aware that he has super powers and he's just on a TV show. When an episode ends in a cliffhanger, bolt still fears his person Penny is in danger. He escapes but accidentally gets shipped to New York, so he must trek back to L.A. to save her. Along the way he picks up a declawed cat and a fat hamster in a roller ball as traveling companions.

I counted three subplots from the Toy Story movies in here, but the characters are likeable enough that it's easily forgiven and forgotten. Right now for me, it rivals Kung Fu Panda as to what was the second-best animated movie of the year.

What We Do Is Secret - DVD Review

WHAT WE DO IS SECRET (**) - Starring Shane West, Bijou Phillips, Rick Gonzalez, Noah Segan, Ashton Holmes, Tina Majorino, Ray Park and Azura Skye.
Written & directed by Rodger Grossmann.

I got into listening to late-1970's punk for a bit in the late 1980's. Sex Pistols, X, Black Flag... I don't remember the Germs. Nevertheless, we get a biopic of Germs lead singer Darby Crash, who died from a drug overdose at age 22 in 1980. It's not a very long story to tell if it starts in high school and his band rises and falls so quickly.

Darby is played by Shane West, previously known to me as Tom Sawyer in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and one of the prime suspects on why that movie was so bad. He also played the punk doctor Ray on ER, and his first season was the year I finally stopped watching ER. So here he is. And he wasn't half bad.

The movie's problem is that it, like its subject matter, is so shallow. Darby Crash was a jerkwad whose music wasn't special or unique. None of the music played in the movie really stood out of any other punk song. The Germs might have been able to get big if they didn't get banned from every venue they played in, as they and their fans were prone to destruction, vandalism and violence.

And they were so young. There's no wisdom to benefit from knowing them, other than drugs kill. Gee, really? So it was interesting to see Reaper's Rick Gonzalez as a punk rocker, and it was nice to see that West can be a decent actor, but it doesn't do anything to shed light on the punk movement, thus rendering the story fairly pointless.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Day The Earth Stood Still - Movie Review

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (**) - Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler and Robert Knepper.
Directed by Scott Derrickson.

This sci-fi remake updates the 1951 original for today's times, which means its message couldn't have been any less subtle if the robot Gort was played by Al Gore. It keeps the Cold War paranoia vibe, which made me wonder if in the filmmaker's heads, Dick Cheney was somehow president.

I'd like to think our society wouldn't be as arrogant and shoot-first as it's portrayed here, but to be faithful, Klaatu has to get shot when he gets off his ship, and the plot needs to unfold from there.

An alien ship lands in Central Park. When a being steps off, he's greeted by a handful of scientists and a hundred machine-gun-toting soldiers. One of the itchy-fingered soldiers accidentally fires, and Klaatu needs surgery, stat! He's a being of light but he morphs fairly quickly into Keanu Reeves. I think it's a great idea to have Keanu play an alien. I think he'd be a good terminator too. Any of those roles where he seems disjointed and doesn't talk much, he can do. Look how well he broods in Much Ado About Nothing.

Jennifer Connelly, who really needs to find a non-downer role, is a microbiologist named Helen who must fight to save mankind when the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates) decides that the aliens must be dealt with like al-Qaeda. Klaatu, Helen, and Helen's annoying stepson (Jaden Smith, who was better in The Pursuit of Happyness) go on the run, away from the government but to get back to Klaatu's ship. As they run, Helen tries to convince Klaatu to call off the planned annihilation of the human race.

I was looking most forward to seeing Jon Hamm and John Cleese in this movie, but Hamm's role is so underwritten it could have been played by anyone, and Cleese only has one scene. His scene made me lean forward in my chair and look forward to his character's integration into the movie, as a thoughtful professor who tries to reason with Klaatu why the humans deserve another chance, but then he's gone.

I wasn't expecting much going in, so I didn't think it was that bad. The logic of the destructive force in the final act wavers (the outrunning-an-explosion type of logic-wavering), and while we mercifully don't get a final speech spelling out today's lesson, it still ends on a cold and empty note. So, all technology is bad? Klaatu, can't we compromise?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Golden Globes Nominees Film Acting...

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Meryl Streep, Doubt
kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading
Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!
Emma Thompson, Last Chance Harvey

Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road
Frank Langhella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Javier Bardem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Colin Farrell, In Bruges
James Franco, Pineapple Express
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
Dustin Hoffman, Last Chance Harvey

Golden Globe Best Picture Nominees

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Slumdog Millionaire

Burn After Reading
In Bruges
Mamma Mia!
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blockbuster vs. Netflix

I've been going back and forth between Blockbuster and Netflix recently. I suspended both of them for a month after switching to DirecTv and getting tons o' movie channels for a few months. I'm back on Blockbuster, but they can be frustrating.

Netflix gives you 3-at-a-time DVD's for $16.99 a month. Blockbuster does the same at $15.99. The advantage of Netflix is they're faster about sending the DVD's to your home. The advantage of Blockbuster is that they have some titles that are exclusive to them the first couple months, titles like Miss Potter and Superhero Movie.

Blockbuster has a policy to limit Monday mailings. They told me the post office requested this; Netflix has no such policy so I wonder about that. Both of them used to be good about same-day turnaround with DVDs shipped. Netflix is still good at that, but Blockbuster only seems to be good about that on certain days. For instance, when I reinstated my Blockbuster account on December 1st, they only mailed out one title. Even though I'm paying for three-at-a-time, they didn't mail the other two titles until the 3rd. I emailed a complaint but got the usual explanation:

"To avoid shipping delay, may I suggest that you maintain 15 or more 'Available' titles at the top of your queue at all times."

Now when I talked to a live person a couple months ago I was told that when they receive a DVD in the morning, the system checks your top three titles and if one of them is Available, it will send it out that day. I've had too many examples of that not being the case. The lady also told me that on Day 2, it checks further down the list, I want to say 8.

So I mailed two DVDs on Friday. They received them Monday. I had 15 'Available' titles at the top of my queues, even though some of the titles I really wanted next were designed as Short Wait, Long Wait and Very Long Wait. Monday they sent me a title from around position 30 of the 40 in my queue. Huh? Weird. Well, at least they mailed something. Tuesday came to a close without the other DVD being sent. I called a live person. She told me that even though the title may say 'Available' it may not be Available at the distribution center near me. Really. Man on Wire was #1 on my list, and yesterday was its first day being Available. How could my center not have it in stock? She apologized and sent me an e-coupon for a free in-store rental, which I appreciate and will use. The next title sent came from somewhere around 26 of the 40 in my queue. Okay, why did it skip the 25 titles above it?

I'm paying $19.99 for the 5 in-store exchanges a month. I think it's worth it for the month, even though Blockbuster can only be counted on mailing out DVD's Wednesday through Friday. I can always check out on Mondays and see what the free rental code and get something from there.

Wanted - DVD Review

WANTED (***) - Starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Thomas Kretschmann and Common.
Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

This wild ride of a movie is based on a comic book series, and if you didn't already know that the first few minutes into the movie, you'd know it based on how stylized the whole thing is. The movie isn't trying to be realistic, but it is trying to be fun, putting Fight Club, Matrix and Harry Potter in a blender and hitting Frappe.

James McAvoy, a long way from Mr. Tumnus, is our hero Welsey Gibson, such a loser than his name in Google gets no hits. Although my theory is that the Fraternity was rigging his computer to do that, because Welsey Gibson actually yields 142,000 hits (the first few related to the 'Wanted' character, but if the movie addressed that, it would be eating its own tail.)

He finds out his long-lost father died yesterday, and he was one of the best assassins in the world. He finds this out from a beautiful woman named Fox (wink!) who instantly gets into a gun fight with the man who killed his father. She then brings him to the Fraternity, a secret organization of assassins run by a mellifluous man named Sloan, played by the almighty Morgan Freeman.

Bullets fly in this movie like they have a mind of their own, like they could hover in mid-air and then change direction in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Blood splatters nicely against white walls, and the action scenes get the blood pumping.

This movie dared bill McAvoy first even though Jolie and Freeman are the big names, but this is where McAvoy really comes into his own, for my taste, as a movie star. Yes, he was very good in Atonement, and he was very different in Narnia, but I can remember him better from this. It's fun to watch him go from pathetic office drone to top-notch rootin'-tootin' shooter.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I snoozed, I losed

I voted for the new Mountain Dew flavor. I saw the winner was the Wild Berry flavor (Revolution?), and that my local store had it in 12-pack form. The next week I went in to buy it and it was already gone. Not sold out. The store decided they didn't move enough its first month to justify keeping it in stock. That came and went faster than Black Cherry Mountain Dew.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - DVD Review

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (**) - Starring the voices of Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Ian Abercrombie and Tom Kane.
Directed by Dave Filoni.

This was originally intended as the first three episodes of the Cartoon Network TV show, but George Lucas loved it so much, it went to the big screen.

The cartoon is fine, but I can't imagine paying theater prices to see it. I do not consider this the seventh Star Wars movie. It has more in common with the two Ewok TV-movies than either trilogy.

It takes place between Episodes II & III, and before the rest of the episodes airing on Cartoon Network, so the only new thing we know we're going to get is the introduction of Anakin's new padawan, and Dooku's new apprentice. We also get to meet more of the Hutt family family. There's Jabba's baby son Stinky, and his gay uncle Zero. (And I don't mean subtle T.R. Knight gay; we're talking Liberace gay. Anyone dying for a drag-queeny Hutt with Truman Capote's voice? Your prayers are answered!)

The movie makes Lucas's world less and less magical. "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." used to inspire dreams. Now it inspires toy lines and video-game spin-offs. And it's weird how it keeps building up this band-of-brothers feel about the clone troops that you know are just going to turn around and slaughter the Jedi.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - DVD Review

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (**1/2) - Starring Georgie Hendley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Ben Barnes, Peter Dinklage, Sergio Castellitto, Warwick Davis, Pierfrancisco Favina, Tilda Swinton, and the voices of Eddie Izzard, Ian McShane and Liam Neeson.
Directed by Andrew Adamson.

I reread the seven Narnia books right before the first movie came out, and I can't say I remember how all the stories went but Prince Caspian was one of the weakest. The book is about 200 pages long in small paperback format, and it sends the four Pevensie kids back to Narnia, where it takes them about 30 pages of exploring to figure out centuries have passed there. Then they meet a dwarf who tells them about Prince Caspian, and we get 70 pages or so strictly on him. So we're halfway through the book at that point. Then they figure out how to meet up with the prince, they prepare for a battle with the Telmarines (the human race that has since banned the magical creatures of Narnia), the actual battle is about 10 pages, and then we get denouement.

The movie's first half handles this the best possible way, cutting back and forth between the two stories. The second half is about 30 minutes longer than it needed to be due to the fetishizing of big fantastical battle scenes somewhere between Braveheart and Lord of the Rings. If I'm swept up in the battle, great, but I couldn't help but think a kids movie should have a little more magic and a little less killing.

On its own merits, the attention to detail is scrumptious. The sets, the creatures, the scope, all of that works. Acting-wise, I didn't find Ben Barnes that compelling a protagonist. He's a prince denied his throne by a scheming uncle. Got it. He's Hamlet. Or Simba. Maybe it's because his long, thick hair was always perfect that I felt Caspian was more about posing than motivation.

I found it shrewd of the director to cast all the Telmarines with French or Italian actors. They have a vague Eurotrash sense about them without being overtly against any particular ethnicity. Sergio Castellitto is the main villain Miraz, but when we get Tilda Swinton back in a cameo as the White Witch, we get a taste of what a real movie villain should feel like. The White Witch is Malificent meets Cruella De Vil. Miraz is a poor man's Jean Reno.

I liked a lot of it. I thought the first 75 minutes or so were perfectly paced, but at that point I realized we still had an hour to go in what took the book about 40 pages to tell. I am encouraged that the next chapter in Narnia's tale will have a different director.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Happening - DVD Review

THE HAPPENING (*1/2) - Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Ashlyn Sanchez, Frank Collison and Alan Ruck.
Directed M. Night Shyamalan.

Oh, M. Night Shyamalan. I can't think of a single other filmmaker out there who has had such a steady decline. You can list his movies in order from when he made them and see each one is not as good as the one before it. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, and now The Happening. At least The Last Airbender, his next, is in no way a thriller and doesn't have a twist ending.

What's the scary thing here? Not ghosts, not aliens, not monsters in the woods. The movie doesn't reveal what the danger is here until 45 minutes in, so until then we get some nuttily self-aware dialogue like "Why are you only telling me little pieces of information at a time?" The second half is a band of survivors on the run, and while talented filmmakers could make the most mundane things scary, I simply felt no suspense when Mark Wahlberg tries to outrun the wind. Aagh, the wind! Run!

Some of Night's tricks really fail when Betty Buckley enters the scene as a weirdo isolationist. Someone suddenly there, speaking in strange cadence... making me rest comfortably in the back of my seat rather than putting me on the edge. Night's failing his actors. He did great with Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, and even Paul Giamatti in a lost cause, but Wahlberg seems lost. I almost wanted him to break into self-parody. ("Hey, tree, how's it going? Say hi to your mother for me.")

So yeah, being on Last Airbender, and hopefully another movie or two he doesn't write himself.