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Monthly Archives: June 2012


Ten Word or Less Review: Brave?  Not really.

For the first time in Pixar’s illustrious history the animation giant is being coy and evasive about one of their movies.  For the past year Brave has been sold to audiences in a cryptic way.  The previews have been selling a generic looking fable about a fiery haired Scottish princess wanting to hang onto her freedom by refusing to marry a pack of dorky suitors.  There’s something about a bear involved.  That is pretty by the numbers material for Pixar and no one really believed this is all the acclaimed studio would have up its proverbial sleeve.  Now, after successfully keeping a lid on things until release, the audience finally sees what Pixar has in store for it’s first princess story.  Sadly, the end result is mundane and unexciting, two things Pixar’s skills have routinely been successful at avoiding.

Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the free spirited lass in this particular princess tale.  Not since the days of senseless Snow White has a Disney princess not been as such.  Prone to wielding a bow and arrow, riding her horse through the woods and climbing great, scenic looking rocks which reach up to majestic waterfalls, marriage is the last thing on Merida’s agenda.  None the less her mother (Emma Thompson) tireously tries to prepare her iron willed daughter for her inevitable position of royalty.  The dreaded day comes when three dopey marriage possibilities vie for Merida’s hand.  Embarassing her family and insulting the visiting clans, she vies for her own hand in an archery contest and swiftly trumps the three losers.  Merida and her mother have a knock down drag out resulting in Merida taking off for the woods in a fit of rage and anger.  This is everything Pixar and Disney have decided to tell you about Brave.  Here’s the rest they didn’t want you to know before hand.

Once in the woods Merida is lead to a shack by mystical little ghosts which is inhabited by a goofy witch.  She wants to sell her wood carvings of bears.  Merida promises to buy all of them in exchange for a potion which will change her mother’s mind about the situation tearing them apart.  She gets said potion, but change her mind it does not, it morphs her mother into a bear.  Stuck in a castle with a bear hating father and three clans of violence prone Scots, Merida has to find the wood carving witch and get her mother turned back into a human before she gets impaled on a spear and stuffed.  Of course she only has two days, after which her mother will remain a bear forever.  This is the plot Brave spends the majority of its time trying to sort out.  Merida desperately wanting to save her mother from permanently being a bear.  If that sounds underwhelming and off from Pixar’s more inspired efforts, it is.

Once this story of transformation takes hold of Brave the movie comes to a thematic crossroads and winds up getting stuck in the mud, doggedly going nowhere fast.  The traditional way this story is dealt with, independent princess finding Mr. Right and getting hitched, is mercifully absent.  To see Pixar tread over that hypocritical arc would have been awful, but there’s nothing worth while in its place.  The movie becomes a series of pratfalls and adventures having Merida trying to save dear old Mom.  There is of course the gradual story beats where Merida and Mom connect emotionally and Merida learns that she’s being bratty while Mom learns that she’s been close minded.  It’s all very okay but pretty unchallenging and predictable and not up to Pixar’s unusually high standards, Cars flicks not included.

Making everything just a little worse is a glaring missed opportunity in the story department.  A subplot about a vile, terrifying old bear who chomped off the leg of Merida’s father’s and is haunted by the spirit of a lost king has more potential narrative heft, but is never given much attention.  It winds up feeling like a big Macguffin to make everyone act in tandem when they need to.  This ferocious antagonist appears rarely and there is a better movie lurking in it’s fierce, fleeting moments.  Why they shoved aside the story possibilities involving this twisted behemoth with a ghostly soul so we could watch Merida teach her bear mother how to catch trout is anyone’s guess.  Maybe they didn’t think girls would like that story.

Whatever mistakes Pixar has made in the story department will likely be glossed over by many due to the film’s voluptuous visuals.  Brave has that lush, detailed look that Pixar specializes in.  No matter how mundane the story feels one can at least appreciate the artistry of the top tier CGI.  Merida’s hair deserves some kind of special award come Oscar season.  Her mane is made up of thousands of strands of fire which flow across the screen, always in stark contrast to the deep greens of the forest and shadowy castle surroundings.  It’s almost hypnotic.

Were this movie released under anyone else’s watch the expectations wouldn’t be so titanic and perhaps opinions would be tempered to some degree.  An average Dreamworks animated movie?  Big deal.  But this is Pixar, a studio which has set the bar so high for itself that to see it’s ambitious nature all but missing feels like a major slight.  The fact that this is their first non-sequel in three years, and also coming after the abysmal Cars 2, adds to the sting of things.  We’re left to wonder what kind of stories Pixar has left to tell now that their golden age looks to be ending.  A prequel to Monsters Inc. next year could be fun but doesn’t really fill one with unhinged excitement.  If this animation giant has reached its creative apex the slide back down to Earth to join mere mortal filmmakers will be a sad journey indeed.


Ten Word or Less Review: Sam and Suzy’s Excellent Adventure

Sam and Suzy are both unhappy.  Sam is an orphan spending his summer at Camp Ivanhoe, a diligently maintained scout base run by firm but well-meaning Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).  Suzy lives with her three brothers, two unhappily married lawyer parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and a kitten.  A year earlier, during a chance encounter at a local theater production of Noah’s Ark that Sam found boring, the two meet, fall for each other and begin to correspond.  They hatch a plan which will see Sam escape Camp Ivanhoe, Suzy flee the quiet angst of her home life, and have the two establish a home for themselves far from the troubles that overwhelm their 12-year old lives.   The fact that they are kids confined to a small island and that all outside forces will conspire against their dreams does not deter their efforts in the slightest.  They will create their own world and live as they see fit, off the land and unencumbered by the cruel forces over which they have no control.  They will fish, they will read and dance and they will love without the problems they see so many else endure.

Moonrise Kingdom is the latest effort from Wes Anderson.  This is the sixth live action feature for the occasionally overpraised director, Life Aquatic was lousy, and nearly his best.  Anderson captures the innocence of first love but avoids being coy or condescending towards his characters or the viewer.  Sam and Suzy, portrayed by first time actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, may be barely young adults, but Anderson shows a deep respect and understanding for both.  Gilman and Hayward effortlessly embody the kind of reserved but deep emotions in which Anderson’s characters specialize.  They are children, but instilled with an innocent wisdom, well aware that life can be cruel and unfair and undeserved in both regards.  None the less they conspire and scheme to be together, the world and its wishes be damned.  The look of the duo also stands to possibly be iconic.  By this Halloween expect to see the hip kids dressed as Sam, black glasses and raccoon hat, and Suzy, pink dress equipped with kitten basket.

Filling out the cast is a collection of fine actors who fit snugly into an Anderson concoction.  His muse Bill Murray is of course on hand, once again playing middle aged and unhappy.  Edward Norton tries mightily to steal the show as the diligent and concerned Scout Master Ward.  Always smoking, it’s 1964, Norton’s Ward emotionally dictates notes into a recorder each night, but for who I could never say.   Bruce Willis makes an unexpectedly good fit into the Anderson universe, playing the village police officer who pines for Murray’s wife, played by Frances McDormand in a somewhat under served role.  Harvey Kietel, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban and Jason Schwartzman round out the cast in small but showy parts.

With all of his trademark style in full effect, Anderson spins his tale with the signature sense of finely structured whimsy his devoted audience should be well familiar with by now.  Anderson loves meticulous details and sublime visual tomfoolery and Moonrise has all of that in abundance.  He draws out laughs through observations and pin point editing.  Kingdom captures the look of the 60’s but never feels stodgy or reverent to the time.  It is by turns charming and delightful, with consistent sense of looming darkness that builds into a wonderful, well-deserved and thrilling climax.  He’s basically filmed a lost, great young adult novel from the age.

At its best, Kingdom takes on the feel of a rebellious tall tale that should entertain young and old alike.  It’s a tight rope of story and style, rich in detail and not afraid to jar its audience on occasion.  From narrator Bob Balaban suddenly revealing to himself to be a character to the fate of an unfortunate dog named Snoopy, it quietly surprises the audience again and again, and in the end, leaves the viewer thrilled with the end result.  I hope this spirited version of Anderson, the one who made this and the equally wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox , decides to stay with us.  May dour auteur who made Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited no longer feel the need to rear his head.


Ten Word or Less Review: Drag me to Hell.

“Scratching at the door!”  If Nic Cage ever gets some kind of lifetime achievement award, a dubious gesture at this point, his magnificent line reading of that phrase from this garbage movie should be the grand finale when they give a career montage of his peak moments as an actor.  It’s right up there with that bee scene from his asinine remake of The Wicker Man in terms of pure Cage.  Cage is so tweaked saying it he could pass himself off as a meth head riding a fierce high or suffering from a catastrophic case of withdraw.  If all of Spirit of Vengeance was as delightfully cracked as that line reading Marvel would have a true camp classic.  But it isn’t and they don’t.

One of the more dubious sequels in recent years, the first Ghost Rider effort was one of those embarrassing pseudo successes for which everyone involved feels shame.  The people who made it looked like assholes and the people who showed up and got ripped off feel like suckers.  To mount a sequel to a film so universally branded a loser is kind of ballsy in its own way.  You basically pissed on everyone the first time through so now you’re asking them to come back again and this time you’re promising not to piss on them.  But piss on you they do.  This Rider is really not much more than a straight to DVD effort with an inflated FX budget and a fading box office power getting one more payday before the IRS takes it away.

Nic Cage brings the tweak as he’s contractually obligated to do.  He’s bugged to the hilt, trying desperately to make this Rider flick more than the running joke of the Marvel universe, but no matter how crackhead he goes, he can’t save this crap, because it’s crap.  With its reduced budget and Eastern Europe locals, Vengeance has all the earmarks of being just a tossed off action movie usually reserved for the likes of Wesley Snipes.  The whole movie takes place in abandoned buildings, rock quarries, traffic free highways and ancient ruins, basically all things with no bystanders and available on the cheap.

Neveldine and Taylor, the genius/moron directing duo who bear the responsibility for Crank, Jason Statham’s finest hour, were brought on to hopefully breathe some misfit attitude into the proceedings.  For the first 30-40 minutes it feels like they might pull it off.  Of course there’s Cage, but there’s also a go for broke sequence with the rider turning a massive piece of excavation equipment into a flaming arm of death.  A few moments pepper things which lead the viewer to hope that things will really go for broke when they need to.  The Rider pisses fire and spits bullets.  But these bits are fleeting  and the things just falls to pieces.  After a while the it has settled into the tired, ragged ass plot about a lame Satan (Cirian Hinds), his demon offspring and a henchmen who makes things rot when he touches stuff.  I know this particular Marvel character doesn’t come with a rogues gallery of antagonist, but Rot Guy?  Who the fuck thought that up?  Was Rot Guy in the comics?  Why would a guy with a flaming skull and a chopper from Hell be the least bit intimidated by Rot Guy?

The spiraling decline of Nic Cage continues on unchecked.  With the IRS after him and his castles the once mighty and unlikely box office star continues to grasp at anything with a paycheck attached.  Spirit of Vengeance could have been a sick, cracked exercise in genre mayhem, but it’s just a pile.  If you want to see Cage antagonize Satan in 3D to much better effect go find a copy of Drive Angry.  It’s damn near the same movie except it doesn’t blow.

Ten Word or Less Review: In space, we all watch you fail.

Who created life on Earth?  What was the creator’s purpose?  Was the intent benevolent or hostile?  Is our creator through with us?  Is God really a porcelain skinned, white guy in a big, weird space suit?  These are all the questions Ridley Scott’s ambitious science fiction epic Prometheus  has on it’s mind.  Sadly, the sounds of crickets chirping are about all you get for an answer.  Except that last one.  Poorly executed on the page and ultimately devoid of any sense of closure or point, Prometheus is yet another example in the growing list of old directors returning to the stories which established their greatness but in the end only demonstrate diminished results for the audience.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are a couple of scientist with a wild theory.  The two posit that life on Earth may have been created by a superior race of alien visitors whom they dub The Engineers.  All over the Earth in unrelated civilizations they’ve discovered the same image, a tall being pointing to a certain layout of stars.  They see it as a map humans are meant to follow into the heavens.  We follow the two on their most recent discovery of this image in the hills of Scotland and then we are promptly thrown forward 4 years onto the starship of the title.  Shaw and Holloway are leading an expedition to a planet they believe is inhabited by our creators.  They seek the why’s and how’s of human creation but of course what they find when they arrive slaps them squarely in the face.  They find the corpses of their mysterious Engineers and an ominous black liquid which does all kinds of weird, unpleasant things to those who come into contact with it.  And before you can say a word much of the character IQ’s start dropping and subsequently start dying.  When one particular moron treats the appearance of a weird looking, snake sized worm creature which appears as if it’s a lost puppy, we begin to accept that things aren’t going to break our way.

Ridley Scott’s much touted return tho the Alien universe he kicked off 30+ years ago lands with a complete and resounding thud.  Several critics have attempted to stave off disappoint with Prometheus by firmly announcing that the film is not really similar to Alien and that one shouldn’t watch it expecting as much.  Fine.  But what is it then?  Prometheus, for all it’s supposed ambition, isn’t much more than an incoherent and shaggy science fiction horror story.  We’re given a crew of 17 cast members, most of whom serve little purpose than to be dispatched as the movie chugs along.  Noomi Rapace’s (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) Shaw is our lead but she’s no Ripley.  She’s not even a second cousin twice removed.  Rapace’s character is more a failure of writing than performance.  Shaw is a wide eyed optimist who is defined by mentioning faith from time to time but little else.  This is the kind of film which portends to talk about faith because a character hangs onto a cross.  Her cohort Holloway is even less defined.  He is supposed to be a central character to the whole piece but if he were ejected from the story in its entirety he wouldn’t be missed.  It’s an amazing example of poor storytelling when halfway through the movie these two are shown to be lovers, but until that point gave zero indication that they were such.  Charlize Theron plays a cynical corporate overseer who feels the expedition is a waste of effort and resource.  Her character should have trusted her gut and stayed home.  The only cast member who really gets to shine is Michael Fassbender.  His android David draws his behavioral ticks from watching Peter O’Toole’s performance as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.  But as fun as it is to watch Fassbender enliven the proceedings, the screenplay applys no logic to his character.  He keeps doing nefarious things which lack purpose or motive.  The screenplay simply has him there to cause trouble for others.  And the screenplay is where most of Prometheus’s  issues slowly gestate and gradually burst forth from within.

Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts are the credited writers and so much of what’s wrong with this feature feels as if it should be placed at their feet.  Maybe the circumstances conspired against them.  While not regarded as a troubled production Prometheus is known to be a movie which went through several major overhauls before going in front of cameras.  Once intended as an epic, two-movie Alien prequel with no ifs ands or buts about that fact, what finally makes it to the screen feels cobbled together and poorly thought out.  Those grand and reaching questions the characters so achingly want answers to are giving little more than cynical, uninspired half answers, if any answer at all.  Lindelof may deserve a lot of the drubbing on this point.  He was a prominent creative force on Lost and in some unfortunate ways he’s brought that show’s storytelling tendencies with him.  Lost could throw out question after question, week after week, diligently being coy and aloof about answers because there was always next week.  That same storytelling attitude seeps into Prometheus in the most unsatisfying of ways.  It doesn’t feel like a complete or fleshed out story which can exist on its own.  It leaves tons of baggage on the table as well as many, many things which need an explanation but don’t get one.  To go into specifics would require a lot of spoiler discussion which I won’t get into.  But when it’s done the whole movie winds up feeling like an unfinished setup for another movie we may never get, or in this instance even want.

Of course the name in lights with this entire spectacle is Ridley Scott.  It was such a rush to hear that the elderly master craftsman would eagerly return to the science fiction game after an absence of 30 years from the genre.  But while it holds true that Scott can’t make an ugly movie, this film is never less than gorgeous, it’s still resoundingly clear that he can lead a senseless one to the screen without a lot of fuss.  Prometheus is chock full of grand, immaculate imagery and some occasionally well constructed tension but it’s as if Scott is blind to the fact that the movie he’s shooting is completely devoid of any satisfying story element.  He keeps pushing things ahead as one half-formed part of the narrative after another falls apart on the floor.  By movie’s end Prometheus has become so garbled, nonsensical and stupid one is astonished at how completely it has failed.  No movie can end with a giant tentacle monster consuming a ticked off, porcelain skinned, alien being and ask for respect in the morning.  Scott does not get this fact.

If there were some chance Prometheus could go forward into another movie some of this wreckage might be salvageable and sorted out, but I can’t see a vast enough audience really caring.  With barely a notable character to hang onto, not enough focused story, and a overwhelming feeling that you’ve been duped in the end, Prometheus will most likely wind up as an ambitious science fiction almost ran, doomed to be unfinished because the people in charge we’re too worried about what was coming later and not invested enough in what was happening now.


Ten Word or Less Review: Terminator, in a room.

James Cameron’s classic Terminator spawned scores of imitating, cheesy, low-budget rip-offs no one recalls.  I’d look up some exact names but I’m sure they involve words like Cyborg it the title and feature ‘actors’ who probably manage Los Angeles gyms or car rental outlets today.  Regardless, one such knock off of a sort was 1990’s Hardware, an off color, low-budget effort directed by young South African Richard Stanley.  On paper Hardware is ridiculously slight and silly.  Man brings girlfriend broken robot, broken robot fixes self and tries to kill girlfriend.  But in execution Hardware is a funky little piece of junk cinema that may make fans out of those who give half a chance.

In Hardware we once again find ourselves in the future, and once again the future sucks.  I’m not sure an outright Apocalypse has transpired but the world is perpetually coated in a red toxic fog, millions are jobless and the government wants people to sterilize themselves to control population.  You know things must be pretty foul for the world when Lemmy Kilmister works as a taxi driver and people spray paint goats for fun.  Outside the city lies a barren wasteland of desert strewn with garbage which nomads scour for scrap metal.  One such nomad finds a strange, busted robot and sells it to Mo (Dylan McDermott), a fellow nomad/soldier passing through town to check on his psuedo girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis).  Jill’s a secluded artist of sorts and Mo knows she’ll dig this freaky collection of robot parts.  The story lingers on them for a while and the two have a hot, lusty sex scene.  Will someone please bring sex back to movies.  Anyone?  It also establishes a creepy, peeping Tom neighbor who constantly photographs Jill and makes obscene video calls to her.  Then the robot reassembles itself Iron Giant style and immediately goes into kill mode.  Jill is trapped in her apartment with the killbot and subsequently does her damnedest to survive.

There’s no great performance or spiky dialogue to admire in Hardware.  This is B-movie material in the truest sense of the term.  The star of the piece is Stacey Travis and like the sci-fi tradition demands, she’s the tough, gutsy survivor type, but Travis is a somewhat aloof performer.  She doesn’t have much command of the screen and her chemistry with McDermott doesn’t go much past the physical.  The screenplay occasionally grasp at deeper straws but nothing really comes out of them.  What distinguishes Hardware is the scrappy, crappy style in which it was made and constructed.

Director Stanley mostly confines his story to Jill’s apartment, dims the lights and builds the atmosphere.  The movie, like it’s killer robot, looks to have been stitched together out of discarded sets and force of will of those participating.  In some way it’s as if Stanley cataloged every iconic moment from Terminator and convincingly figured out a way to make an equivalent scene take place in one spot.  He even models his homicidal droid a bit after Stan Winston’s classic T-100 skeletal robot killer.  Armed with saws, drills and poison, the hardware of the title resembles something out of a low budget science fiction movie made by ambitious minds with no money.  So I guess it looks spot on.  It’s American flag decorated skull is really the only part of it we ever see with much clarity.  The machine lumbers around like as if its ankles are broken, part costume, part puppet.  Stanley and his crew clearly don’t feel confident in showing off their killer machine in full frontal fashion so it remains an edited collection of sharp edges, saws, needles and glowing red eyes.

Hardware  is never going to have legions of fans who express such undying love for it they tattoo its killer robot on their ass.  It’s simply a gritty, weird little sci-fi flick that has managed to hold the attention of just enough movie watchers to stick around while its lesser brethren have faded away.  It’s on Blu Ray so it’s super grainy, low budget look has been miraculously captured and detailed to make its dated and crappy appearance look as good as it possibly can.

Ten Word or Less Review: Lend me your ears.  This movie is cool.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is one of the later, lesser admired works of the English languages’ greatest wordsmith.  That means high school kids don’t have to read it during English 101.  It’s believed to come a few years after the great tragedies of Macbeth, King Lear and Othello.  So it shouldn’t be too hard to give the guy a break if this is seen as a less titanic work.  Masters can make one masterpiece after another but sometimes a minor but admirable work falls through the cracks.  This brings us back around to Coriolanus, which is a uniformly intriguing story but not quite the classic when compared to its more known tragedy kin.  It’s a fascinating character study that defies easy explanations and as performed and directed by Ralph Fiennes, is turned into an astute political piece with moments of high drama, bloody action and gripping visuals.

The center of this story is Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general who thrives on war and combat, despises the commoners and loathes blind, false admiration.  Caius, though a famed warrior, has gained the ire of many Romans due to hoarding grain during war for use by the military.  With Caius Martius as their General, Roman soldiers defeat the Volsicans on their own ground and Caius thwarts his personal nemesis, Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), in hand to hand combat, though he fails to kill him.  With war at an end the adoration shy, peasant loathing Caius is coerced into joining the senate, but as his fierce dislike of the general populous becomes abundantly clear, Caius gradually loses favor with too many and eventually finds himself banished from Rome.  He seeks out the defeated Tullus and his Volsican army begging for one of two things, kill him or appoint him their general and help him lead an assault on Rome to destroy it.  This is fine dramatic fodder indeed.

Coriolanus is classified as a tragedy but it is difficult to lend sympathy towards its lead or get an exact feel for where the tragedy lies.  The story doesn’t come equipped with great dramatic deaths of major characters who pontificate their universal insignificance as their light fades.  Coriolanus himself is a stoic and tight lipped fellow.  None the less our lead remains a great piece of dramatic ambiguity and Fiennes instills him with a fierce, unforgiving righteousness.  He is a force that will not bend to temperamental whims or fluttering opinions and thus he becomes a man with no place in society absent of direct, bloody conflict.  Lacking the sneering villainy of removed cousins such as Richard III, the character remains a guarded and enigmatic presence who commands our attention and respect, even if we generally find him a prickly sort not meant for mass appeal.  Fiennes the filmmaker recruits Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave to the cause with great success.  Redgrave, as Caius’ mother, nearly walks on to the imaginary stage and struts off with the whole story.

A long time pet project of Fiennes, he and screenwriter John Logan take Shakespeare’s work and transport it to a European world of today.  Fiennes creates a world well recognizable to any regular news watcher.  Citizens revolt and march on governments, riots ensue, wars are fought, the news covers it all in graphic, minute by minute detail.  The story may be 400 years old but the themes running through it are universal.  It’s like watching the meltdown in Greece with great actors and good cinematography.  Fiennes the first time director has a keen eye for action and shot composition, building a gritty looking movie around a story he clearly feels compelled to tell with great vigor.  He works overtime to be far removed form any perception of stogginess that the Shakespeare name may conjure up in the minds of potential viewers.  While he may not quite channel the experienced finesse or action beats of Ridley Scott, or the visual audacity of Julie Taymor, Fiennes knows how to shoot a movie with a clear, distinct eye which holds our attention from beginning to end.

I know it’s Shakespeare and I know what that means to many, but Coriolanus  is enough of a visceral experience to reel in some of the more difficult viewers out there.  It’s bold and compelling and whether the Shakespeare name evokes dreaded memories of English classes so long ago should not matter.  If you start with it you will find yourself compelled to see it through.  When Fiennes stares into the camera with with his blood-streaked face you should feel well and good that you are in the middle of something worth seeing to the end.  And no, there won’t be a quiz about themes and meaning when the credits role.