Monday, June 30, 2008

The more I think about it, the more I love WALL-E.

I don't know what it is about that little robot, but the more I revisit it and mull it over, the more he grows on me.

I came out of the theater loving the movie, but with the feeling that it hadn't grabbed me the way Finding Nemo and Ratatouille did. I think there are two reasons for this; one, it is not as funny as Finding Nemo, but then it's not supposed to be, and two, it doesn't have the same witty elegance of Ratatouille, but again, it's not supposed to. WALL-E is not a dialogue driven film, it's an image driven film. It's 2001: A Space Odyssey meets City Lights.

Instead, WALL-E is a film built around a nearly wordless protagonist that nevertheless builds a deep personal connection with the audience. WALL-E differs from its predecessors in that it's unique sense of humor is not the focus. It is a film of wonder and beauty, just as WALL-E is awed by the simple world around him, so too is the audience. The film shows us the beauty in the simple and sublime, from the amazement at the simple workings of a light bulb to the charms of old musicals like Hello Dolly!, which WALL-E listens to constantly.

It is that kind of sense of child-like awe that the humans in the movie have forgotten, and when the two humans voiced by Kathy Najimy and John Ratzenberger are accidentally set free of their mindless, view screen stupor, their first reaction isn't fear or anger, it's awe at a world they have never taken the time to look at. And that is WALL-E's greatest achievement, to make us look at the world with different eyes.

For me, the film's quintessential scene is the one where WALL-E clings desperately to the hull of the ship carrying the lifeless EVE back to the Axiom, and suddenly the wonders of the galaxy are at his fingertips. It is a purely visual scene, swept off by Thomas Newman's beautiful score, that for me perfectly captures the film's sense of childlike wonder. It is also one of the most jaw-droppingly animated scenes in recent memory. It is that kind of open-mouthed amazement that WALL-E inspires that is what the humans in the story have forgotten about in their laziness, and the film wants us to recapture before it is too late.
After gaining international recognition in 2004 for his vampire film, Night Watch, Russian director Timur Bekmambetov makes his English language debut with Wanted, a new action thriller starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie.

McAvoy stars as Wesley Gibson, a wimpy accountant stuck in a seemingly meaningless existence, with a boring job, a horrible boss, and an unfaithful wife who is cheating on him with his best friend. His life seems to be going nowhere until one day a beautiful assassin named Fox (Angelina Jolie) rescues him from certain death at the hands of the man who killed his father, who as it turns out was a world class assassin himself, a member of a super-secret organization of assassins known as The Fraternity.

Wesley is saddled with the task of tracking down his father's killer who was a member of the fraternity who went rogue and betrayed them, as Fox and the members of the Fraternity train him and help him hone the skills he inherited from his father that he never knew he had.

It is the kind of film where one must totally surrender to it in order to fully enjoy it. It takes place in a world where bullets can be curved and collide in midair, where the blood flows fast and candle wax can heal anything. It is not something that can be thought too much about (the mysterious Loom of Fate could have used more development), but the ultimate product is one of such eye-popping spectacle that it's well worth the ride.

Bekmambetov brings an energy and a verve that keeps the adrenaline pumping and the action coming fast and furious. Wanted is a film that never lets up once it gets going. Through his inventive visual style, Bekmambetov shows he knows just how to thrill an audience by creating some truly jaw-dropping action set pieces.

James McAvoy is an appealing lead, and it's good to see him showing up more often. Jolie is basically playing Jolie, but she's still great fun.

The naysayers are already complaining about the level of extreme violence and vigilante themes, but you can't come into a film like Wanted looking for politics. It is only intent on showing the audience a good time, and it spades. You have to evaluate it on its filmmaking skill, and Bekmambetov has crafted, a mean, taut thriller with a slash and burn, take no prisoners sensibility.

I loved its balls-to-the-wall aesthetic and rebellious spirit. It comes blazing out of the gate flashing the middle finger on both hands, almost daring anyone to hate it. Which is something I don't see how anyone can do. We're not dealing with great filmmaking here (music is a different story though, Danny Elfman's Russian/rock flavored score is one of the best of the year, period), but that's not the point. It's a bold, raucous adrenaline shot, and I left the theater with a big, goofy grin on my face, which is often all I can ask for. Wanted may quite possibly be the best film of its kind since The Matrix.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

WANTED; Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; Stars James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Thomas Kretschmann, Terrence Stamp; Rated R for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Seriously. People need to get over their insipid moral nosebleeds about "oh it's so violent, it condones bloodshed and vigilantism blah blah blah" shutthefuckup.

I am sick and tired of people going into movies like this and getting caught up in moral umbrage as if it were some kind of real life situation and completely ignoring the skill of the craft. Wanted is an extremely well made action thriller, maybe the most innovative and balls-to-the-wall entertaining of its type since The Matrix. It has a verve and a style that is addictive, and for director Timur Bekmambetov's (Night Watch) obvious skill to be ignored because some people find the central idea morally objectionable is bordering on obscene.

One of the great things about the movies is that normal rules of right and wrong do not apply. I myself do not agree with vigilantism or killing of any kind, in fact I am a pacifist. But I loved Wanted. I detected nothing hateful, bigoted, or evil in its nature, just a desire to entertain and send adrenaline pumping through the audiences' veins. Which it does, with great aplomb.

I'll be typing out my full thoughts later this evening.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

I' love it!

Disney/Pixar's WALL-E is just about as close to avant-garde as any modern children's film is ever going to get, because it is essentially a silent film.

Pixar-wise I think it falls somewhere between Finding Nemo and the original Toy Story. I still think Ratatouille is the studio's finest effort. But WALL-E is such a beautifully unique joy. It takes two characters who can barely say anything more than each other's names, and builds an entire narrative using mostly just images and Thomas Newman's gorgeous score.

The filmmakers can deny, deny, deny all they want about WALL-E's "green" themes, but they're there, and quite blatant. It's above all a love story, but it's a love story with a message, and some very pointed satire. I think in many ways Disney wanted to do some damage control, lest conservative middle America catch wind that this is some kind of pro-environment anti lazy fat ass movie. Which it is, in all honesty. It's a film about being good stewards of the planet and of ourselves lest we fall into some kind of mega-corporate nightmare where everything is a marketing tool and we're just drooling, obese sheep who have been lulled into a kind of walking death.

But enough about all that. WALL-E is a sweeping, glorious film with a sense of humor reminiscent of the films of Charles Chaplin and Jacques Tati. It's a groundbreaking work of art, both breathtaking and intimate in its scope. Pixar has scored another triumph, and WALL-E is the best American film so far of 2008.

My full review will be published in The Dispatch on Thursday.
Vulture has posted a list of the Pixar films in order from best to worst (if you can use the word 'worst' in a discussion of Pixar films), and come up with a list that is so singularly bizarre and backward that it's barely worth mentioning (kind of like AFI's latest list, which I have not mentioned on the blog until now).

I don't plan on posting the list. If you want to see it you can click here. Instead, I offer my own list of the Pixar films in order:

1. Ratatouille
2. Finding Nemo
3. Toy Story 2
4. Toy Story
5. Monsters, Inc.
6. The Incredibles
7. Cars
8. A Bug's Life

Thursday, June 26, 2008

From The Dispatch:
Director Peter Segal, who has made a career out of making second-rate studio comedies like this one, seems to sap all the natural humor out of Carell and turns what should have been an incisive send-up of the spy genre like the Mel Brooks TV series with which it shares a name into a loud, bombastically obnoxious action comedy that takes itself way too seriously. The script is flat and dull, causing most of the jokes to land with a painful thud.

It stumbles even more when it tries to foray into political humor, where the jokes fall embarrassingly flat. I almost felt bad for the actors who had to chew on the tired dialogue, filled with one-liners that second rate stand-up comics would have found outdated five years ago.
Click here to read my full review.
The fact that Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress (IFC, 6.27) begins with a long shot of an elderly Viscount biting into a piece of chicken should have sent up a red flag right away. It's that kind of aimless, choppy misdirection that pockmarks the film and serves little purpose in the grand narrative. In fact, Breillat's odd bookending of the film with the Viscount (Michael Lonsdale) and his flibbertigibbet wife (Yolande Moreau...aka the female mime from one of my favorite segments in Paris, je T'aime) serves as an unnecessary distraction, making for one of the most glaring examples of a film that doesn't quite know what to do with itself.

Based on the novel, Une vieille maîtresse, by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aureville, The Last Mistress is the story of Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), a penniless upper crust Lothario who is finally settling down with a virginal aristocrat, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), and putting an end to his wild days. However, he cannot shake the memory of his ten year love affair with Vellini (Asia Argento), a tempestuous Spanish firecracker known not for her beauty, but for her domineering, independent spirit and eccentric ways.

That's a kind way to put it, because Argento's Vellini, is a coarse, uncouth, wholly unlikable whore of a woman who is all but impossible to like. I can't remember a more reprehensible romantic heroine in all of cinema. She makes Scarlett O'Hara look like a sweet Southern lady who just wants to be loved.

That was perhaps my biggest problem with The Last Mistress. My absolute loathing for Argento's despicable character nearly killed the entire movie for me. But there were plenty of other weaknesses to help it along. For a movie as filled with sex and infidelity as this one, it's surprisingly un-sexy. The sex scenes are dull, lifeless, and boring. I never once felt like these teo people ever really wanted each other, even without their seemingly random love-hate dynamic.

This is mostly due to the fact that Breillat has an annoying habit of telling rather than showing. A good chunk of the story takes place in flashback, as Marigny relates the story of his torrid love affair to Hermangarde's grandmother,
La marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute). But instead of showing, Breillat spends more time watching Marigny tell the story.

This would not be a problem if it had been done with any kind of dramatic tension or psychological drama, but instead Breillat sucks out all the energy with stilted pacing and awkward dialogue. It's an 18th century French soap opera by way of Telemundo.

In fact, much of the film has the feeling of a second rate high school play with unusually high production values. Fu'ad Ait Aattou is an extremely attractive and magnetic lead, but Argento is,'s just a bizarre performance let's leave it at that.

Mostly the actors are just saddled with a stiff screenplay that should have been fluid. The film seems as if its never quite sure where it wants to go. It's trying to be a steamy, bodice ripping period soap opera, but it just comes off as uninspired and unsatisfying. When you have this many attractive people having this much sex onscreen, the result should not be so ho-hum. But The Last Mistress is a creaky yawn from the word go.

GRADE - ** (out of four)

THE LAST MISTRESS; Directed by Catherine Breillat; Stars Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale; Not Rated; In French w/English subtitles; Opens Friday, 6/27 in select theaters.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rolling Stone's Pete Travers has gotten a sneak peek at Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (Warner, 7/18), and he pretty much creamed his critical pants.

To wit:
Heads up: a thunderbolt is about to rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies. The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's absolute stunner of a follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins, is a potent provocation decked out as a comic-book movie. Feverish action? Check. Dazzling spectacle? Check. Devilish fun? Check. But Nolan is just warming up. There's something raw and elemental at work in this artfully imagined universe. Striking out from his Batman origin story, Nolan cuts through to a deeper dimension. Huh? Wha? How can a conflicted guy in a bat suit and a villain with a cracked, painted-on clown smile speak to the essentials of the human condition? Just hang on for a shock to the system. The Dark Knight creates a place where good and evil — expected to do battle — decide instead to get it on and dance.
I'm trying not to get my expectations up too high for this one. But Travers' largely spoiler free review (I only had to skip a few portions) has really got me excited. Admittedly, I was not a big fan of Nolan's Batman Begins, which I found a bit...underwhelming and overpraised. But I am fully expecting The Dark Knight to make up for that.

Travers finishes up the review by saying:
The haunting and visionary Dark Knight soars on the wings of untamed imagination. It's full of surprises you don't see coming. And just try to get it out of your dreams.
Of course, as Jeff Wells points out, Travers is not necessarily to be trusted in cases such as this. He has a tendency to go a bit overboard on films that don't always deserve it. Although I've always respected Travers, he's no Pete Hammond in that regard. But I can't help but feel that he's right on the money with this one. It sounds as if it's exactly what I hope it will be, and if it is, then The Dark Knight truly will blow the summer wide open.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

10,000 B.C. (*)

It's all supremely silly, as it continues to defy logic and intelligence at every turn. I would have preferred to see the filmmakers take a chance and make a movie totally without dialogue (these cavemen would not have had much of a language to speak of, let alone English) and let the images speak for themselves. It's an interesting concept, but the execution is beyond ridiculous. The scenery is pretty, and the special effects are passable, if nothing special (the close-ups of running men early in the film betray their greenscreen roots), but the dialogue is truly atrocious to the point of being laughably bad, and the rest of the film, well, if this is what passes for good entertainment these days then we have reached a sad state indeed.

IN BRUGES (***½)
In Bruges works on so many levels - as a comedy, as an action film, as a mood piece, but above all, an exercise in pitch perfect filmmaking. McDonagh really nails this one, everything about it is perfectly executed and finely tuned for maximum impact, and all the performers are in absolutely top form (Gleeson and Farrell have never been better).
Click here to read my full review.

It is a masterful balancing of socially conscious drama, childhood memoir, and outright comedy, highlighting the absurdity of a culture ruled by petty fundamentalism. It is a film whose relevance resonates beyond Iran - and is at once a fascinating first-person historical account and a gorgeous work of art.
Click here to read my full review.

All the elements add up to a film that is an utter delight. It's not a perfect film by any means, but Salvadori is quite adept at creating outlandish situations that are kept grounded by likable characters with believable personalities. Priceless is a bubbly, frothy, grandly entertaining romantic comedy as delicious as its champagne tinted cinematography.
Click here to read my full review.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is pure escapism of a rare quality - it never panders to children or tries to shove an ham-fisted message down their throats. It's a far more successful adaptation than the first two Harry Potter films, and even though I have never read the book series on which this is based, I had a great time.
Click here to read my full review.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The term 'painfully unfunny' comes to mind. This is great comedy as ruined by big budget corporate mentality. Get Smart ultimately takes itself too seriously, and tries too hard to be an action-centric comedy aimed at teenage males, therefore neutering it of all the incisive zing and intelligent satire of the similarly themed French film, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which was released earlier this year.

It stumbles even more when it tries to foray into political humor, where the jokes fall embarrassingly flat. I almost felt bad for the actors who had to chew on the tired dialogue, filled with one liners that second rate stand-up comics would have found outdated five years ago.

I'll be hammering out a full review for publication this week, but I just wanted to get my opinion up there while the movie is fresh in theaters and on my mind. I didn't hate it like I did The Happening, it's not totally inept, but it is gratingly indicative of the direction that studio bigwigs push these summer films in, complete with bombastic, wholly inappropriate Media Ventures score by Trevor Rabin, that doesn't compliment the jazzy, wailing saxophones of the television theme at all.

It's a bland, generic, assembly line action comedy, that I'm sure will pack 'em in and make millions, when there are so many more worthy films out there being totally ignored by mainstream audiences.

How sad.
Brick Lane was a movie I wanted very much to like. It's beautifully shot and well crafted, and has lots of potential to be a great, deeply probing cultural drama. But ultimately, I was rarely anything more than profoundly disinterested.

I respect the film (which is based on the novel by Monica Ali) for what it is and what it is trying to do, but I was never interested or invested in the plight of the central character, Nazneen, a Muslim Bangladeshi woman who is married off by her family as a teenager to an educated man in England, where she goes to raise a family of her own. Confined in a loveless marriage by the cultural traditions of her people, Nazneen falls in love with a passionate young Islamic political activist, whose group begins to become more radicalized in the days after 9/11, when anti-Muslim prejudice hits a fever pitch.

I kept expecting the film to delve into this widening cultural divide between the Muslim community in the western world, as well as the gulf between radical Muslims and moderates, and the prejudices both face, but it never does. It touches on each of these things, giving them obligatory mentions, then turns back to Nazneen and her familial woes, which are never as interesting as the cultural and religious tensions that are always right beneath the surface, but never quite bubble to the top.

That being said, Brick Lane is a beautiful film, filled with striking imagery courtesy of cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Director Sarah Gavron has crafted her film well, as it is solidly put together with a competent knowledge of film form. But I just couldn't get into it. I always felt as if the film were missing the point, as if the story was much bigger than what they chose to focus on.

Fish-out-of-water cultural angst is nothing new, and Brick Lane never really brings anything new to the table, despite plenty of chances to explore its Islamic roots that are so dear to its characters, and ever more at odds with a world gone mad, as their own brothers and sisters begin to take up arms in jihad against the West. This is a fact that is given little consideration, and un-mined drama abounds from all angles.

It's hard to knock the craft, which is undeniably good, and the film itself could never be mistaken for bad or second rate. But I never escaped the feeling that this could have been better. There is so much here left unexplored, and too many characters left with arcs I didn't quite believe (especially Nazneen's strong traditionalist husband). There is a good start here, a jumping off point for a film of great social significance.

But Brick Lane isn't quite that film. It's a beautifully made film with its heart in the right place, there's just not enough of that heart to go around.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

BRICK LANE; Directed by Sarah Gavron; Stars Tannishtha Chatterjee, Satish Kaushik, Christopher Simpson, Lalita Ahmed, Naeema Begum; Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and brief strong language.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Fans of Sex and the City are highly encouraged to seek out and see Caramel, Nadine Labaki's charming, sensual Lebanese confection about five women who work in and frequent a hair salon in Beirut, where their lives and loves blend together like the delicious caramel they make to use as body wax.

Labaki stars as Layale, a beautiful hairdresser who is having an unsuccessful affair with a married man, until she is pulled over by a policeman for a seatbelt infraction and finds redemption for her indiscretions. Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri) is on the eve of her wedding but is worried that she is no longer a virgin. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is a young lesbian in love with a beautiful, nameless customer she can only be with through doing her hair, and Jamale (Gisele Aonuad) is an eccentric, aging actress trying to recapture her lost youth. The final storyline (and my favorite), centers around Rose (Sihame Haddad), a older tailor whose devotion to her eldery, senile sister, Lili (a delightful Aziza Semaan), takes precedence over a tentative romance with a gentlemanly American customer.

This being a Lebanese film, the sex in this PG-rated city is pretty much non-existant. Labaki gets her kicks through implication, metaphor, and suggestion, and she does it with aplomb. Like Sex and the City, there is little depth here. But Labaki displays a keen visual eye and treats her characters with such warmth that it's hard not to feel as if you belong in the salon right there beside them.

But for all its lack of sex, Caramel may very well be the sexiest movie of the year, and it does it without so much as a kiss. Labaki displays a distinct flair for atmosphere, and Caramel is as warm and sultry as PG-rated films come.

It's also very well performed. But my favorite performance in the film (despite very fine turns by Nabaki and Haddad) belongs to Aziza Semaan, whose Lili could have very easily been turned into a caricature of a crazy old woman. Instead, Semaan portrays Lili as a woman whose true self still exists beneath her senility, and while she provides much of the film's comic relief, when her old self shines through it makes for some very touching moments.

In fact that is the way most of the film is, equal parts funny and touching. It never really goes to the level of being moving or soul-stirring, but it's a heartwarming little piece and a solid, entertaining film. It brings these five women, all separated by age, class, and religion, and melds them together into a Beirut that may not actually exist, but into an ideal that is hard to resist. It never goes any deeper than that, but that's not really a problem for what it is.

It is utterly inconsequential but completely lovely, and is a strong first film for Labaki as a director. There is nothing particularly extraordinary about it, but it's likable, and in Caramel's case, likability goes a long way.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

CARAMEL; Directed by Nadine Labaki, Stars Nadine Labaki, Yasmine Elmasri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisele Aonuad, Adel Karram, Sihame Haddad, Aziza Semaan; Rated PG for thematic elements involving sexuality, language and some smoking; In Arabic and French with English subtitles. Now available on DVD.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

After two years in a row with a film dominating the Best Original Song category with three nominations (Dreamgirls and Enchanted), AMPAS has decided to rule that no more than two songs can be nominated from any given film. Studios can submit however many songs they want for consideration, but only two can be nominated from a single film.

This is especially good news, after Enchanted elbowed out several deserving songs (most notably from Into the Wild), to unnecessarily dominate the category.

The procedure for nominating foreign language films has also been changed again, after last year's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days snubbing debacle. For a full rundown of the changes and the official Academy press release, click here.
From The Dispatch:
With the help of a script doctor (or maybe a different screenwriter), he may be able to pull himself out of this hole he's been digging ever since "The Village," and make a movie worth watching. But just as Wahlberg's teacher talks to everyone like they're stupid, so too does the film, climaxing with an all-too-late attempt at humanity that is just as ridiculous and forced as the rest of it. It's distant, aloof and painfully self-aggrandizing, clearly overconfident in its ability to scare the audience, when the reality is quite the opposite. The only thing scary about "The Happening" is just how far Shyamalan has fallen from the standard he set nine years ago with "The Sixth Sense."
Click here to read my full review.
With 2008 nearly half over, here is a look back at the top 10 best and top 5 worst films so far this year.

1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
2. The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin, Israel)
3. XXY (Lucia Puenzo, Argentina)
4. Reprise (Joachim Trier, Norway)
5. The Year My Parents Went on Vacation (Cao Hamburger, Brazil)
6. Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, Israel)
7. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
8. Young @ Heart (Stephen Walker, UK)
9. Battle for Haditha (Nick Broomfield, UK)
10. In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, Ireland)

1. Prom Night
2. 10,000 B.C.
3. The Happening
4. Savage Grace
5. Teeth

Once again, as I mentioned in a previous post, the amount of American films on the upper end are seriously lacking (the lower end has plenty, though), but there have been a few good ones - most notably Helen Hunt's Then She Found Me, Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, and the best studio summer film so far, Kung Fu Panda.

Of the top five that I published in my first quarter report, the top 2 are the same, the #3 pick is now #10, the #4 pick is out, and the #5 pick is out of the top 20. That means it's been a relatively strong year for obscure films.

The top three are incredibly strong, and it will be interesting to see if they remain that high at the end of the year. Still, six months is along time, especially on the movie calendar. And the best season for movie going is still ahead.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends." - Anton Ego, Ratatouille
Halfway through 2008 and it's still by far the year's finest film. If you haven't seen Cristian Mungiu's Palme D'Or winning Romanian masterpiece, now's your chance.

From my review:
A brilliant example of the New Romanian Cinema, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, like Cristi Puiu's 2006 The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, uses long takes, few edits, and a lack of musical score to create a raw, earthy realism. It moves slowly and takes its time, but it's a gripping work, drawing the audience in and refusing to let it go. It's a sometimes agonizing build-up to the inevitable abortion, but that's not really the focus here. Many have called 4 Months a pro-life film, but I wouldn't say that. It confronts us with decisions too powerful to be ignored but it never stoops to preach. Instead it takes a neutral stance and lets the audience come away with its own feelings. But contrary to popular belief, this is not really so much a film about abortion as it is about oppression.
Click here to read the full review.

Monday, June 16, 2008

From Ain't it Cool News:

Stan was a great man. I'm proud to have been his friend, and his collaborator on what for both of us, was some of our best work. We met in pre-production on Terminator in 1983, and quickly sized each other up as the kind of crazy son of a bitch that you wanted for a friend. We've stayed friends for over a quarter of a century, and would have been for much longer if he had not been cut down.

We've lost a great artist, a man who made a contribution to the cinema of the fantastic that will resound for a long long time.
Click here to read the full letter.
I just learned via Craig Kennedy's Living in Cinema, that Ain't it Cool News is reporting that legendary makeup effects wizard Stan Winston has died.

Winston was the man behind the animatronic dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the predator in Predator, The Terminator, and many other iconic creatures.

This story has yet to break on Variety or any of the major news networks, so details are few and far between, but AICN seems to have substantiated the news through sources close to Winston.

Another sad loss for the film community.

UPDATE: Variety has confirmed the news, and has posted the story here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I've never had the (dis)pleasure of seeing Ang Lee's 2003 original Hulk, so I'm in the unique critical position of judging Louis Leterrier's current do-over on its own merits, and not in comparison to Lee's much maligned original.

Taken on its own, The Incredible Hulk works. It's an enjoyable throwaway summer action film that doesn't take itself too seriously, and has enough character driven drama to not be a complete waste of time. In other words, there's actually something going on beneath those fluorescent green eyes.

Leterrier (The Transporter) pretends the original doesn't exist, but dives right in to the meat of the story, recapping Hulk's origin story in an opening credits montage that fills in the gaps for the uninitiated.

When we first meet Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), he is a man on the run. Having been the victim of a military experiment gone wrong, he is being hunted by the the United States Army, led by General Ross (William Hurt), who wants to find a way to harness his energy into a new weapon to create the ultimate supersoldier. Banner only wants to be cured of the radiation poisoning that causes him to mutate into a massive hulk when his heart rate hits 200.

Desperate, Banner returns to his onetime lover, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who is also the General's daughter, for help, while the General sets about to test his new supersoldier serum on an ambitious soldier named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who goes out of control in his lust to become the ultimate fighting machine, and becomes a seemingly unstoppable creature called Abomination. Faced with a disaster of his own making, the General is forced to turn to Banner, whose inner rage is the only thing that can stop Blonsky's path of destruction.

In a year that has already seen Iron Man (which also figures into this film), The Incredible Hulk has had a lot to live up to. And while it doesn't quite reach the high benchmark set by that film, it is a solid film in its own right. The character motivations aren't always fully fleshed out, and the fact that the Hulk talks (voiced by Lou Ferrigno, no less), brings in an unnecessary element of camp that hampers an otherwise pretty serious atmosphere.

It does rectify one of Iron Man's weak points, in that the climactic final battle between Hulk and Abomination is every bit the titanic smackdown that the final battle of Iron Man wasn't. The rest of the film doesn't have the same zing as Iron Man though, it doesn't have that same freshness brought to it by Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau's nimble direction. If it had, it may have surpassed it. It is a more serious film, free of the breezy, lighthearted atmosphere of Iron Man, but it is also more action-centric, focusing on the conflicted nature of Banner and the demon inside he wants so desperately to excise. Although, in his quest for killer action sequences, Leterrier lets some of the finer points get lost in the carnage.

The special effects are first rate, however, and the cast commit themselves totally to the premise, and give fine performances as a result. I was also impressed by Craig Armstrong's score, that while not destined to be a genre classic, is quite good and features some moments of surprising beauty.

I found The Incredible Hulk to be entertaining and diverting, but little else. It doesn't hold up to scrutiny very well because it begins to show its holes (what about Ross' current boyfriend? What happened to Tim Blake Nelson's kooky scientist?), but it's a fun ride if you give yourself up to it. It's a film that has to be taken on its own merits, but those merits are enough to provide a some great summer thrills.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

THE INCREDIBLE HULK; Directed by Louis Leterrier; Stars Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson; Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images, and brief suggestive content.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Yesterday I posted my initial reaction to The Happening, in the form of "M. Night Shyamalan is over." I feel the need to elaborate even though my review will be published next Thursday.

Watching The Happening may be hazardous to your health.

I don't think I've had a theatrical experience this year so wholly repulsive and utterly devoid of anything resembling solid filmmaking integrity outside of Prom Night. The Happening is pandering nonsense at its most disgusting, the product of a director who treats his audiences with the utmost contempt, feeling the need to treat them like children with overwrought, expositional dialogue. In short, it's an ego-trip.

Shyamalan shamelessly crams as much exposition into random lines of dialogue, turning what should be simple statements into laborious explanations of minute, useless details. So, "we're in (town)" becomes "we're in the small community of (town), 90 miles west of (other town.)" I wish I could remember more examples, but I don't know anyone who actually talks like Shyamalan's characters. Everybody talks like a newscaster, and spectacularly ineloquent ones at that. He doesn't trust us enough to simply show us, he has to spell it out as well, as if we were too dumb to fill in the gaps on our own.

Also, the acting is some of the worst I have seen in a production of this magnitude in ages. Seriously, how on earth can Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel be so breathtakingly bad? Their characterizations are bizarre, and rife with Shyamalan's awkwardly misplaced humor. In fact, it's hard to tell what is supposed to be scary and what's supposed to be funny. Shyamalan is skilled at creating tension, but his writing is, well...seriously lacking.

Much has been made of this being Shyamalan's first R-rated film, but the graphic deaths really serve no purpose and get very repetitive after a while. It reeks of studio interference, as if Shyamalan was trying too hard to to conform to studio demands for an R-rating.

Today's forecast, sucky with a 90% chance of boredom.

The film's only real redeeming feature is James Newton Howard's wonderfully creepy score, featuring Maya Beiser's haunting cello solos. Howard's scores have always been a highlight of Shyamalan's films, and as the films get worse the scores only seem to get better.


The film's central premise of the earth striking back against the human threat is an interesting one, but treated very poorly and heavy-handedly, ending with Shyamalan preaching about taking care of the environment. Which is all well and good, but when a director feels the need to state the theme of the movie at the end, then that shows a distinct weakness in the film up until that point.

And just out of curiosity, how does one outrun the wind? They do (at least for a while) in The Happening. It's just all to silly to be either scary or entertaining. It may end up being a great Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode one day, but there's nothing about it remotely entertaining or even diverting enough to be mildly interesting.

I think this is the end of Shyamalan's commercial viability. He needs to step back and reevaluate his technique and the direction of his career. He has boxed himself in by the limitations of his own style, because The Happening is like a bad parody of a Shyamalan film. His mise-en-scene and overall structure hasn't changed at all, unless it is to become more stiff and and unmoving. He has driven the final nail in his career's coffin, because after this and the reaction I saw coming out of the theater, his name is now commercial mud. It's going to be an up hill battle to get himself back in the public graces, and his best course of action may be to change genres and try something new, maybe smaller and more personal.

Personal connection is what is so desperately lacking in this film. It's distant, aloof, and painfully self-aggrandizing. In real life, the plants may not make you want to kill yourself, but The Happening might.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

From The Dispatch:
It is a winning combination that makes the film so unexpectedly wonderful and ultimately moving. The film never takes itself too seriously, but it never panders to the audience or goes for cheap laughs. It takes time to build character relationships, which is where most of the humor comes from, instead of the pop culture references and bodily humor typical of films of this genre. The end result is a film more creative than "Indiana Jones 4," more wholly satisfying than "Iron Man," more emotionally gratifying than "Sex and the City" and more visually arresting than "Speed Racer."

The season is still young, but 2008 has found its standard bearer of the summer in the unlikely form of a fat, butt-kicking panda bear. As Po might say, "Kung Fu Panda is awesome!"
Click here to read my full review.
From Entertainment Weekly:
When Did You Last See Your Father? is a wistful miniature of a movie, yet it creates a provocative balance in the viewer. The director, Anand Tucker (Shopgirl), lines up the audience to be on Blake's side. In every frame, though, Broadbent captures how Arthur, this monumentally imperfect man, exudes love in his very flaws. Firth's Blake, coming to terms with that ambivalence as he holds Arthur's ravaged body in his arms, is perhaps a little too closed off in a rote stiff-upper-lip way. Yet by the end, we see what he's holding back. When Did You Last See Your Father? taps into the conflicting feelings so many of us can have about parents who haunt us because they're difficult, which is part of what makes them irreplaceable.
Click here to read the full review.

Gleiberman's review perfectly sums up my feelings about this film. Of the EW critics, I've always preferred Lisa Schwartzbaum because I tend to agree with her more, and I enjoy her style. But here Gleiberman does a fantastic job of capturing the film's familiar yet comforting tone, and it's heartbreaking universal story.

When Did You Last See Your Father? may not be groundbreaking filmmaking, but it is deeply personal and powerfully moving. Tucker hits all the right notes, and it's a film that deserves a wide audience. Click here to read my original review.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Having now seen Tarsem's The Fall, I'm still not quite sure how to begin my review. Do I start by praising the film's glorious imagery? Do I start by offering comparisons to Pan's Labyrinth in the film's integration of the imagined fantasy at the heart of the story with the real world around the characters? Do I proclaim Tarsem a modern visionary? Do I recount the film's arduous 16 year, 18 country journey to the screen? I'm honestly at a loss, because The Fall is not a film that is easy to categorize or fit in a nice neat box.

It is obviously a labor of love for Tarsem (The Cell), whose passion for bringing the film to life has finally paid off, only to languish on the festival circuit since 2006. With the help of David Fincher and Spike Jonze, Tarsem's vision has finally received the commercial distribution, that while limited, it so richly deserves.

Set in a hospital in 1915, The Fall stars Lee Pace as a silent-era stuntman named Roy, who is recuperating in a hospital after a failed suicide attempt in which he jumped off a bridge because the woman he loved went off with the film's leading man. Depressed and lonely, Roy strikes up an unlikely friendship with a five year old girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who is recovering from a broken arm incurred during a fall while picking oranges with her family. Still devastated by a broken heart, Roy begins to tell Alexandria an "epic tale of revenge and romance" to try to get her to steal a lethal dose of morphine for him to end his suffering, but as the story intertwines even more with real life, Roy and Alexandria begin to form a bond that not even death can break.

The Fall calls to mind films such as Pan's Labyrinth and The Wizard of Oz in its blending of the fictional fantasy world that Roy creates and the real world. The people that Alexandria sees everyday are the basis for the characters in the story...notice how the Indian that Roy describes is actually a Native American, with his descriptions of wigwams and squaws, but Alexandria, who is from India, imagines an actual Indian instead. It is the details like that that really set The Fall apart. This is no mere fantasy retread, Tarsem has created a world of his own, a vibrant and wholly original bedtime story come to life, filled with heroes, villains, revenge, magic, romance, and betrayal, all filtered through the frame of reference of a 5 year old girl.

Now, lest you think that The Fall is a mere children's fairy tale, this is a dark tale and a unique vision that does not shy away from tragedy or death. As Roy's state becomes more precarious, the story gets darker and more troubled, as the five heroes at its core set out to take their revenge on the evil Governor Odious, who has stolen the love of the Masked Bandit, each one a stand in for a character in Roy's own sad story.

It is this blending of real life and fantasy that makes The Fall so engaging, and like all bedtime stories, it is subject to the whims of the child to whom it is told. As such, the story changes periodically at the behest of young Alexandria, leaving logic and continuity behind. While in many other movies this would be a problem, Tarsem makes it work to his advantage here. And it must be said that his use of visuals are nothing short of breathtaking.

The Fall is a gorgeous film, filled with stunning sets and costumes that are rendered without the help of CGI, making it all the more impressive. Tarsem has made his film the old fashioned way, which in many ways makes it more cinematic than most of today's effects-driven fantasies. It also makes great use of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which could almost become iconic in the way that "Also Sprach Zarathustra" became immortally tied to 2001: A Space Odyssey, or "Ride of the Valkyries" to Apocalypse Now.

He has also made it with clear fervor and passion that borders on obsessive, but The Fall is clearly the work of a visionary artist, whose single-minded determination has brought forth a cinematic wonder that feels as if it sprung directly from Tarsem's imagination to the screen. His last film, The Cell, demonstrated a flair for creating fantastic nightmare worlds and striking visions, but the film itself was just mediocre. This time, without the restraints of big budget commercialism, he has had a chance to spread his wings and shine. His focus on the fantastical may hinder his story at times, but the ultimate effect is a knock-out.

This is cinema without limits, filmmaking at its purest and most primal. The Fall is Tarsem's imagination unleashed, brilliantly original and gloriously imperfect, and the world is a better place for it.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

THE FALL; Directed by Tarsem; Stars Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell, Robin Smith, Jeetu Verma, Leo Bill, Marcus Wesley, Julian Bleach; Rated R for some violent images

Monday, June 09, 2008

Before I started reviewing films professionally, I used a letter grading system, like the one used by Entertainment Weekly critics (which I eagerly devoured from cover to cover each week as a teenager), to rate films.

I've since graduated to a star-rating system employed by most print critics, but I find that since there are less ratings to choose from, my opinion isn't always as readily known, especially when you start comparing films that I gave the same star rating to.

I'm not planning on changing my system, but I thought I would take a look at some films currently playing in theaters and assign them a letter grade just to give you a better feel of my feelings on each movie.

88 Minutes: D+
Alexandra: A-
Baby Mama: B-
The Band's Visit: A+
Battle for Haditha: A-
Beaufort: A
The Children of Huang Shi: D
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: C
The Counterfeiters: B+
The Edge of Heaven: B+
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: B+
Iron Man: B+
Kung Fu Panda: A-
Mongol: B+
My Blueberry Nights: B-
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies: B+
Priceless: A-
Prom Night: F
Reprise: A
Savage Grace: D
Sex and the City: B+
Son of Rambow: B+
Speed Racer: B-
Then She Found Me: A-
The Tracey Fragments: B
Tuya's Marriage: A-
The Unknown Woman: C+
Up the Yangtze: A-
The Visitor: A-
Water Lilies: A-
When Did You Last See Your Father?: A-
The Year My Parents Went on Vacation: A
Young @ Heart: A-

Sunday, June 08, 2008

I really didn't think I would be saying this based on the film's weak trailer, but Kung Fu Panda is the summer movie to beat so far.

Seriously, it's more creative than Indiana Jones, more fully satisfying than Iron Man, more emotionally gratifying than Sex and the City, and more visually arresting than Speed Racer.

It really has something for everyone, it's funny, thrilling, even moving. Jack Black is a hoot, and Hans Zimmer and John Powell provide a wonderful, surprisingly dramatic score that takes the film seriously without overdoing it.

I'll be writing a full review for Thursday's Dispatch, but be advised Kung Fu Panda is a real treat.

And no, this post is not a joke.
I'm kind of surprised, but the new teaser trailer for The Pink Panther 2 is actually quite funny and creative. The version that plays in front of Kung Fu Panda, in which Steve Martin's Inspector Clouseau is trying to buy a ticket for that film instead of "a ticket for one" is funnier, but you get the idea. It's obviously not part of the actual movie, and that's what I like about it.

The chances of the movie being any good are slim, but the trailer at least is well done.

Friday, June 06, 2008

One of the most complex and intricate parts of being a male is one's relationship with their father. It is a subject that has been poured over by psychiatrists, philosophers, and artists for ages.

It is also the subject of Blake Morrisey's 1993 autobiography, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, which has now been adapted into a new film of the same name (minus the 'and') by director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Shopgirl), and starring Colin Firth as Morrisey and Jim Broadbent as his father, Arthur.

The film starts off as Arthur learns he is dying of cancer, so Blake packs his bags and heads home to reconnect with his father during his final days. After he arrives, he begins flashing back to his tumultuous past relationship with the eccentric Arthur, who could be selfish and overbearing despite his best intentions.

Morrisey spent most of his life trying to escape from under his father's shadow and live his own life, but Arthur always had other plans, and Morrisey never quite lived up to his expectations, not being interested in the outdoors, wanting to become a writer instead of a doctor like his father, and so on. But what Morrisey always missed was the Arthur was always doing what he did in order to bring himself closer to his son, but in his teenage angst, Morrisey rejected his father and continually held him at arms length. But now that Arthur is on death's door, suddenly everything takes on a different perspective.

It may sound like something out of a Mitch Albom novel, and indeed the film occasionally dips into being manipulative, but Tucker directs with such a tender grace that it's all but impossible not to fall for its spell. This is a universal story about missed opportunities and second chances that is filled with beauty and compassion.

It's also devastatingly heart wrenching, the kind of thing that can make grown men cry. There's nothing like a father/son story to get men's waterworks going (think Field of Dreams), and When Did You Last See Your Father? packs a massive emotional wallop. Thanks to the appropriately distant performance of Firth and the bighearted, jovial work by Broadbent, the film truly soars. Even in its more manipulative and obvious moments, the material is constantly elevated by a true sense of love and devotion to the story.

You can truly feel the passion behind every image (the film was beautifully shot in warm, nostalgic hues by cinematographer Howard Atherton), that this was surely a labor of love by all involved.

There is nothing particularly unique or unusual about the story, but that is what makes so special. It's the story of every little boy and his father, a universal tale of fathers and sons, of the gulfs between and the bonds that bring them together, even if it is not until death finally comes to call. For anyone who watches the film however, it is a call to not let those precious opportunities slip by without grabbing them. It may be sentimental, but only in the best ways, and I defy anyone to not feel their eyes burn in the films final moments.

In many ways, it resembles Tim Burton's Big Fish without the fantastical elements, and I mean that as a great compliment. It's a fantastic film, well crafted, beautifully burnished, and deeply moving. In When Did You Last See Your Father?, it is never too late to go home again.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER?; Directed by Anand Tucker; Stars Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Gina McKee, Sarah Lancashire, Elaine Cassidy, Matthew Beard; Rated PG-13 for sexual content, thematic material and brief strong language; Opens today in select cities.
The people of Kazakhstan have good reason to be proud of Sergei Bodrov's Mongol. Not only was it nominated for the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, but it showed to the world that there was more to Kazakhstan than Borat and fermented horse urine.

Mongol is the epic tale of the origins of the infamous Genghis Khan, from his childhood to his uniting the tribes of Mongolia and conquering most of Asia.

The film focuses on his childhood and early life. Born Temujin to the Khan of the Borijigan tribe, he was later thrown into a life of exile after his father was assassinated by an enemy tribe, and the Borijigans were taken over by older warriors who threatened to enslave and kill the nine year old Temujin. Fearing for his life, he flees to find Borte, the girl he was betrothed to as a child, who is later kidnapped by a rival tribe seeking revenge against Temujin's father who did not fulfill his promise of choosing a wife for his son from their tribe. So Temujin goes to his brother Jamuka to unite their clans to march against the Mekrits to win back his wife. As Temujin's power and influence grow, power struggles erupt, and he sets out to unite the tribes of Mongolia under a common law, and is resisted only by Jamuka, with whom he must fight his most bloody battle.

Mongol is a sweeping, thundering epic that never gets lost in its thirst for blood. The battle sequences are stunning and the cinematography is simply gorgeous, but Bodrov is more interested in things like story, character, and relationships than action. So when the battles do come, they are all the more spectacular. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian could have learned a lot from Bodrov's intimate approach - constant battle sequences do not a great film make. The battle scenes have a greater weight when we are not constantly subjected to them. Here, they are not used like a blunt weapon of spectacle, they are used to enhance the story, which is the way it should be.

While we're making comparisons, Mongol is everything Oliver Stone's Alexander should have been but never was. Where that film was stilted and laborious, Mongol is fluid and engaging, making the most out of its breathtaking imagery and charismatic lead performance by Tadanobu Asano as Temujin.

Once we get to the end, however, the film begins to lose its footing. It seems as though Bodrov was in a hurry to finish as he neared the two hour mark, so he starts skimming over details in order to get to the final battle. For instance, Temujin goes from being a slave in one scene to commanding the combined armies of most of Mongolia in the next, and we never see how he gets from point A to point B. Instead, the gaps are filled in by narration and title cards, which are no substitute and seem like a bit of a cop out. Mongol could have easily been a three hour film and been just fine, but around the two hour mark it starts cramming things in, as if it were trying to finish on some kind of arbitrary two hour deadline.

In fact, the film was engaging enough for me to want it to keep going. The majority of the film is top notch epic filmmaking, expertly crafted and beautifully paced by Bodrov, but the final act leaves a lot to be desired. It's as if the film was running a marathon and leading the entire time, but gives up in the final leg and chugs across the finish line somewhere in the middle.

Overall, Mongol is quite an accomplished work. This is filmmaking on a grand and rare scale. If only it hadn't stumbled in the final round it could have been great. It's still nothing to sneeze at though, because in light of 300 and other modern "epics," Mongol is a refreshingly old school light in the darkness.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

MONGOL; Directed by Sergei Bodrov; Stars Tadanobou Asano, Khulan Chuluun, Bao Di, Bu Ren; Rated R for sequences of bloody warfare; In Mongolian w/English subtitles; Opens today in select cities.