Thursday, May 28, 2009

Movie Review: "Up"

I wrote a more standard review for The Source. But the truth is that this movie is so wonderful that I want to take the time to write my thoughts out a bit more.

Drunk, giddy and spellbound.

Those are the only words to describe how I felt upon leaving the screening of "Up" the other night. A joyously original blend of adventure, comedy and heart, the latest film from the magicians at Pixar is a fresh blast of imagination, a warm hug of a film that makes one grateful to be a moviegoer at a time when this studio is churning out a masterpiece each year.

And you are reading the words of a man who went into the theater with expectations set sky high.

I grew up on Disney films, a kid just old enough to see the studio's renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, when "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Best," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" were released. There was a time in my childhood when I wanted to be an animator for the simple reason that I wanted to bring these stories to life and tell these timeless tales.

Obviously, the Disney brand ended up dipping in quality over the years, turned into less of a dream factory and more of a sweat shop by Michael Eisner. But around that same time, when the quality was starting to lag, a little upstart known as Pixar came out with "Toy Story." The rest is history.

Of course, in those first few years, Pixar was just telling really good, funny stories that were all the more amazing because of special effects. "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life" were beloved films, mainly because of the originality of the storytelling but also because the story's were funny comedies. The big draw for Pixar movies used to be the "outtakes" at the end. Adults and kids loved the movies but the truth is there's not a lot of depth in the first "Toy Story" or "A Bug's Life."

And surely, I thought, Pixar's domination would be tested when companies like Dreamworks began releasing their CGI comedies with megastars--and, indeed, I was a big fan of the first "Shrek," upon its release and even was pleased when it beat out "Monsters Inc." for best animated picture.

But we all know what happened. Dreamworks and the other studios went the easy-money route, cranking out several films a year that feature huge stars, double entendres and pop culture refrences. Sometimes they manage to still deliver gems ("Kung Fu Panda," "Bee Movie") that make me laugh very hard--feature length Looney Tunes, basically. But more often than not you get a series of anthropomorphized animals telling dated jokes. The "Shrek" template--which was once so fresh--is now the formula that most of these films cling to.

Except for Pixar.

While the other studios keep cranking out sequels and films that look identical several times a year, Pixar has worked at its own pace. It was only recently that they began releasing one film a year. And while the early films still stick to a recognizable template, they've always managed to keep story and character first, with laughs that are organic to the situation and a surprising depth that proves that these films are not just kids' stuff.

I remember the first time I realized that Pixar knew exactly how to work me. Ironically, it was with its only sequel--"Toy Story 2." I was having a good time with the movie, laughing and marveling at how far the CGI had come. It was a fun family movie.

And then "Jessie's Song" played.

I'm sure you all know the sequence--it's the part of the film where Jessie the Cowgirl is singing to Woody about how her owner abandoned her. And the pure beauty of that sequence and the sincerity of the lyrics turned what I expected to be the film's cheesy spot into something I never expected in an animated film--a heart-breaking emotional moment. Yes, the song was about a toy. But at that moment the film's themes came to life--this was not just a fun kids' movie (although it's very fun, as all Pixar movies are). This was about our fears of being forgotten and many people flashed to breakups at that moment?

That's exactly what Pixar does--tells original stories that are funny and exciting...and then they hook your heart...remember the pure bliss of that final shot in "Monster's Inc." when Sully beams upon seeing Boo again? The very real fear a father has for his son's safety in "Finding Nemo"? Pixar's supehero movie, "The Incredibles" was about culture's tendency to celebrate mediocrity, wrapped up in an action-comedy that touched on fears of marital infidelity and midlife crises...and STILL is more exciting than most superhero movies out there. Even the "minor" Pixar--"A Bug's Life" or "Cars," in my opinion--have to settle for being "merely" very very good films.

But recently, the studio has surprised even me, a diehard fan. I expected Brad Bird's "Incredibles" followup "Ratatouille" to be charming and funny, which it is...I did not expect it be a celebration of passion, collaboration and art, while also reminding critics of the responsibility/privilege we have. And I certainly knew "WALL-E"--the best film of 2008--was something special from the day I saw the first trailer. But I was not prepared at how beautiful that first dialogue-free half would be, nor how intelligent its mixture of sci-fi and social satire would be while still telling a very human tale of love.

So I'm on to Pixar's game. And although I thought "Up" looked cute and visually astounding, there was a part of me that was a tad looked funny and exciting, but I couldn't understand where the depth was going to come in. And my attitude was that after nine great films that continually pushed the bar, I wasn't going to be satisfied with "minor Pixar." There was going to have to be more than just a cute kid, a grumpy old man and a talking dog.

When the tears began flowing five minutes into the movie, I realized that I should never ever doubt Pixar.

Yes, the trailers are correct: "Up" is about a 78-year-old man named Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who attaches balloons in hopes of flying to South America as part of a way to fulfill the wishes of his late wife. And yes, there's a cute kid named Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai) who stows away in hopes of getting his "Assistng the Elderly" scout badge. And upon reaching Paradise Falls, there are dogs with collars that allow them to talk, a very colorful bird and a villainous old man named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an adventurer who went mad after being called a fraud. And yes, "Up's"'s very literally a snipe hunt.

But the alchemy used by director Pete Docter (Monster's Inc.) to weave excitiment, humor and heart into this tale is astounding. In a year where even the best films--and there haven't been many--have been reboots, retreads, formulaic comedies or comic book adaptations, "Up" bursts at the seams with invention and imagintion. I smiled watching the film as I realized I had no idea where the story was going, and --even better--that I had never seen this movie before. It's a fast, fun and breathtaking ride that will easily rank among Pixar's best.

I mentioned the tears starting in the first five minutes. The truth is, they were only a few tears becaue I somehow managed to hold in the sobs that wanted to come. The movie begins with a montage, completely wordless and brilliantly scored by Michael Giacchino, that depicts how Carl and his wife Ellie met as children, bonded by adventure, and fell in love. The sequence follows them as they get married, learn a heartbreaking truth, pull themselves together and save money to eventually go on an adventure, and then watch that fund dwindle as life intrudes--bills, health problems, work...they soon seem to forget about Ellie's dream to find Paradise Falls. By the time the montage ends, with as heartbreaking an ending as a family film has ever had, there will probably not be a dry eye in any theater showing this film. In just five short minutes, Docter has captured the joy and heartbreak of human life and also endeared Carl to us. We don't blame him for being a cranky old recluse when we catch up with him...we've mourned with him, dreamed with him and the film actually creates an older character who isn't just a rascally old man, but actually is a character that feels real and aged. Most live action films can't even do that right.

But at that point I realized the film also had its claws in me for another reason. I'm less than half Carl's age. But I could relate to him. I'm hitting 30 in two months and, as people are prone to do, I've started reflecting on life so far. How many of my own dreams and adventures have I had to put on hold because of the demands of daily life? Will I one day be an old man who has nothing to show for it but a 401K, a house and a routine? If "WALL-E" asked us to consider the difference between living and surviving, "Up" gives us a character who had no choice but to survive and is now wondering where life has gone. Again, this is heavy stuff for a kids' film.

But Asner's so perfect for the role--a crusty old curmudgeon with a touch of mischief--that the film never is maudlin. He's not a grumpy old man without any trace of life. Rather Carl is a man clinging to what's familiar--the home he and Ellie showed--and resisting the changes springing up around him, including neighborhood developers who want his home. The circumstances that lead to his imminent eviction--which sets his plan to fly the home away in motion--are surprising for a family movie--Carl basically assaults a construction worker. But because the montage we had shows us why Carl reacts that way and we don't feel shocked by his actions but rather a bit angry ourselves at how he's been treated. No wonder this man, faced with abandoning the home he and his wife shared for decades, decides to harness balloons to the roof and fly away so he can be alone with his familiar surroundings.

And, of course, we'd all be just a little peeved and confused if a pesky little Wilderness Scout knocked on our door while we were a mile off the ground.

Russell is another great Pixar creation, a fat little scout who simply wants to be a world-class explorer (and mirror of Carl's own lost childhood dreams, which may be why he is so resistant to liking the kid). Nagai gives a great childhood performance as the nerdy, lovable and adorably annoying kid. But there's also a sad side to him--we don't learn much about Russell's family but what's said shows that he's a product of divorced parents and that the situation has had an affect on him. And so not only is Carl about to find an adventure companion but Russell will find a father figure. And yet the film never beats you over the head with it but simply lets the characters develop and react to each other naturally. There's no forced emotion in this movie; every feeling is genuine.

And I haven't even mentioned Dug yet, who will quickly be the fan favorite.

Dug is one of Muntz's trained dogs, equipped with special collars to translate their thoughts into speech. Dug, however, is not as agile or dedicated a hunter as the other dogs and is more prone to lick the people he meets. I love that Docter doesn't use the translator as a way to simply give a wisecrack animal sidekick but allows the humor to come from the fact that Dug thinks and acts just like a dog...complete to being easily distracted ("Squirrel" will be this summer's big catch phrase). Even his thoughts are not the standard "witty" one-liners we're faced with in these movies. When Dug greets Carl by saying "I have just met you but I love you," the line is even funnier because of the realization that that is probably exactly what a dog is thinking. I won't spoil more of the character, except to say that Dug's "joke" about squirrels is one of the funniest lines in the film.

And yes, Dug is just one of many talking dogs. Muntz has trained them to be at his beck and call and Docter wrings giant laughs out of this--from the sounds made by failed translators to the various tasks the dogs to to a literal aerial dogfight at the end, "Up" is packed with fantastic sight gags, clever dialouge and wonderfully bizarre touches that make the film a constant joy and surprise. There's a colorful snipe named Kevin, a dirigible that serves as Muntz's headquarters and break-neck chases through the jungle. I don't even want to describe these sequences because part of the joy of the movie comes from the way it manages to throw bizarre, hilarious and exciting surprises at the audience every minute. It's definitely the most out-there thing the studio has done (and also, I guarantee it, the first kids' film to pay homage to Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo) and also the funniest and briskly pace.

The animation is superb, as is always the case with Pixar. I love the bright pallete Docter and his team use, from the wonderful assortment of colorful balloons that start the journey to the vivid landscapes awaiting in South America. I love Docter's skill at framing a joke--there is a comic timing to the sight gags here, such as when the snipe first appears, that is truly an art form. And I love the way that the film remains grounded in its tale of an old man learning to let go of what's familiar and take on one more adventure while also lavishing surprises on the audience.

"Up" is the real deal folks. And I conclude by saying this--I haven't even scratched the surface of what I love about this movie; do yourself a favor and see it for yourself.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: "Terminator Salvation"

When "Terminator 2" came out and Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back" was all the rage among my middle school friends, it used to be a clever joke to follow it up with "is that a threat?"

Sadly, when that line is uttered in "Terminator Salvation," I wasn't joking around.

The latest attempt to drag classic franchises through the mud, "Terminator Salvation" is a pointless, suspenseless, witless and brainless barrage of robots, explosions and Christian Bale alternating between screams and growls. Director McG--the director of the two "Charlie's Angels" films and the perpetrator of "The O.C."--has said he was able to talk to franchise creator James Cameron about his vision for this fourth film. Cameron refused to give his blessing without seeing the film but wished McG good luck...and warned him that he still reserved the right to hate the final product.

I don't know that Cameron will necessarily hate "Terminator Salvation." That would require some sort of emotional investment. At best, it merits a shrug and a sigh.

Set in 2018, about a decade or so after Judgement Day (for the uninitiated, that's when Skynet went self aware and launched its war on humans...for more backstory, rent the first two films before you see this. Or instead of seeing this), the film opens with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convicted murderer, signing his body over to science before he is executed. He then wakes up years later without any memory of what's happened. But the world has been overrun by giant machines and the only humans he runs across are a kid named Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and a mute kid who's job is to hand people things at various points throughout the movie (I'm serious).

Meanwhile, John Connor (Bale) is a grunt soldier who leads a raid on a Skynet facility only to find that there are humans imprisoned there. He then heads back to base and to his girlfriend Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) who looks like she's pregnant with their child but they never once mention that. Of course, Connor is too busy doing action hero stuff like diving into the ocean and swimming to a submarine where the resistance leadership is headquartered. He also listens to recordings his mom Sarah left him, preparing him for the future war...which is now the present war. Other than that he growls and screams about how much he hates robots, only going soft when Reese's name is mentioned...because, of course, 20 years later John will send Reese through time to sleep with his mother and plant the seed (literally) of the resistance. Have I mentioned that John Connor really doesn't like robots?

There's some mumbo-jumbo about a signal that can disarm the robots and the movie poses questions about Marcus's identity--questions that the previews already gave away, putting the audience in the very unlikable position of being five steps ahead of the movie. There's a semi-romance between Marcus and a female soldier (Moon Bloodgood)...well, basically they just cuddle. And robots that look suspiciously like Transformers pick people up to take them away.

I find myself in the sad position of being very apathetic about this film. And I say sad because I love the first two "Terminator" films. I just watched the original last weekend and was impressed how Cameron was able to take a low budget and, on his second outing as director, craft something that is still intense, involving, smart and exciting. "Terminator 2" is widely regarded as one of the greatest action films ever still holds up as a fantastic chase movie, the special effects were groundbreaking and it actually had something to say about fate, mankind's proclivity for violence and the value of human life. It was a poignant moment when John Connor had the T-800 say "I swear not to kill anybody."

In "Terminator 3" the T-800 told us to "talk to the hand." But as campy as the movie was in areas, it made up for it with an out-of-left-field, bleaker than bleak ending in which all the efforts to stop Judgement Day were for naught and Connor was left as the lone hope for humanity.

In "Terminator Salvation," John Connor really hates robots. Have I mentioned that? Because he does. He really hates them. A lot.

We really didn't need a movie about the future war, in my opinion. The war existed in the first two films to simply be the reason why it was important that John Connor stay alive...the films used that as a jumping point for two strong chase stories. The glimpses we got of the war against machines were chilling enough--the cyborgs stepping on skulls, lasers blasting through the sky--I never really needed an entire movie about it.

But, okay, let's say that there was a good story to tell about mankind's rebellion against Skynet--this story is not it. In fact, I would say that any story that takes place prior to John Connor sending Kyle Reese back to 1984 is pointless. For all the talk about "no fate but what we make" or alternate timelines, the audience knows one thing--John Connor and Kyle Reese have to survive until 2029 so that Kyle can go back to 1984. Until then, they're untouchable. We also know that the war is still raging at that when you set the movie in 2018, you've robbed us of any suspense because we know our main character is going to be fine.

The film tries to steer clear of this by giving us the story of Marcus. And it's an intriguing concept, especially when his true identity is revealed (which, unfortunately, was in the trailers). But Sam Worhtington isn't as big of a star as Christian Bale, so his story is short-changed so that we can get more of John Connor being mad at robots. Word was that Bale was originally approached to play Marcus, which probably would have been a smarter move. Connor should have been left in the periphery, not been a major character.

But John Connor IS made a major character in the story, even though we never see anything interesting about him. In "Terminator 2" we saw him as a smart alec juvenile delinquent...I realize this takes place about 20 years later, but there is not even a hint of that personality there. He listens to recordings by his mother, but shows no emotion. Bale either growls each line in that horrible Batman snarl of his or he barks orders into a walky talkie. We don't get a hint of what it's like for him to be the one hope for humanity. We don't get any hint of chemistry between him and Kate. Does he wonder about meeting Kyle Reese and whether he should tell him he's his son? Does he know he's untouchable? We don't know...because there's not a character presented, just a loud personality we're supposed to care about because, a.) an A-actor is playing him and b.) we know the name John Connor from the other three movies so our recognition should create some sort of bond. It's lazy and dull and to watch Bale, a charismatic actor, stuck in such a one-note role is excruciating.

Not that Worthington always fairs much better. Like I said, there's a better idea with Marcus's story but I feel like the deep questions James Cameron would have posed--what makes a person a human?--are thrown out in favor of increasing John Connor's time and making the film come in at under 2 hours. By the time Marcus makes a crucial decision in the end of the film there's no real resonance to it because we haven't gotten to know him as a human being.

Which by the way, is probably the film's major flaw. Think back to the first two "Terminator" films. Yes, they had fantastic action sequences. But they worked best because, at their core, they were about humanity. There was a tender romance between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in the first film and Michael Biehn created a hero who was resourceful, smart and passionate. In "Terminator 2" we had the story of a mother trying to train her son to be a leader and that very son teaching a machine the value of life. It's not Oscar-caliber stuff, but it made the film's more involving because it was about human dilemmas and concerns. Here, in a film that is about taking back the world from machines, it comes across as a lost cause anyway because almost all of the human characters are so machinelike. There's no joy, laughter, emotion or passion...just yelling and screaming and shooting.

The one exception is Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese. Fresh off a smaller role in "Star Trek," Yelchin creates the one character who is somewhat developed. He not only captures Biehn's presence and scowl but he gives the character enough heart and brains that we see him quickly becoming the soldier we knew back in the first film. Yelchin's the best thing about this movie...unfortunately his character is also saddled with the mute kid, which is the most extraneous and pointless character in the film (seriously, the character exists to give guns, band-aids and detonators to people...items that are within reach!).

I haven't even mentioned the supporting cast, which McG gets absolutely zero charisma from. The jury is still out for me on Bryce Dallas Howard...she seems to be a smart actress but her roles are so scattershot. Here we really don't get to see what she's capable of because she's saddled with a role that is non-essential and never explored. There are several shots where she looks pregant and I assume the baby must be Connor's...but it's never mentioned, never explored. Moon Bloodgood is nice eye candy but her acting is stiff and a tender scene between her and Marcus just feels rushed and awkward. And the less said about Helena Bonham Carter, the better. But that's just the way it's becoming lately...I see Carter in a movie and my interest is sapped. She's cinematic poison.

Now I know this is where I will be told that "hey, it's a Terminator movie. Lighten up and turn off your brain, enjoy the action." And while McG brings a nice bleached-out look to the film and Stan Winston's team delivers top-notch creature effects, I can't really call the sequences good.

See, what makes an action scene exciting is that we need to care about the people involved. We need to be afraid that they are going to get hurt or killed or that something is going to happen to deter them from meeting their objective. When your characters are untouchable or inhuman, you lose that investment.I knew John Connor wasn't going to die and that Kyle Reese wasn't going to die...and I knew nothing else about the characters or their goals to make me care one way or another if they escaped unscathed. Without that investment, especially in these days of CGI, I'm simply watching pretty colors and hearing loud noises.

And yes, Arnold does appear. And yes, it's neat. Totally pointless, but neat. And then, just as I was starting to care...they decided to make the climax a total ripoff of the climax to T2.

You know what? I'm done. I have nothing more to say about this film, no more interest in writing about it. I'm sure it will make money and McG will make a sequel. Bale will continue taking this role for the paycheck.

But I don't plan on being back.

Chris's Catch-Ups--"Dark City" (1998, dir. Alex Proyas)

There hasn't been a lot of activity here lately and it's basically because I haven't had the desire to hit the theater. "Angels and Demons" holds no interest for me and I was unable to make a screening of "Terminator Salvation"--and the buzz I'm hearing makes me wonder if I even want to check it out. I still eventually need to get around to writing my thoughts on "The Apartment" and "Chinatown," which I watched about a month ago...but those will come in time.

The Chris's Catch-Ups entries are just that, by the way. These are movies that I have never seen that are deemed essential viewing by many critics. "The Apartment" and "Chinatown" are two of those and, in the coming weeks, I hope to also catch up with "Vertigo," "La Dolce Vita" and "The 400 Blows." This weekend, however, seems to be all about sci-fi...maybe an subconscious rebellion against what Hollywood feeds us now. Later tonight I hope to sit back and watch John Carpenter's "Escape from New York." But for now, here are my thoughts on Alexander Proyas' "Dark City," from 1998.

I always find it amazing, this business of what succeeds in Hollywood and what gets ignored.

Take science fiction in the years of 1998 and 1999, for example. During that time you had two very intense science fiction thrillers released. Both dealt with the idea of different life forms manipulating human reality and one man who could fight back. Both were very dark, imaginative visions that incorporated noir, science fiction and elements of the action genre. One had a cast of fairly respected actors and a director whose last film had been a commercial success. The other had an actor who was pretty much a punchline and several co-stars who were respected, but in know way well-known. The directors' previous film was a heist movie about lesbians.

And yet, the one that had the higher pedigree was the one ignored by many audiences. In 1998, Alex Proyas' "Dark City" was passed over by audiences, despite some strong critical support--especially from Roger Ebert. Just one year later, "The Matrix"--a visually similar film--was a box office smash. Maybe it was the kung fu.

Nothing against "The Matrix," by the way--at least, not the first one. I was one of the audience members who never thought twice about "Dark City" but thought, for one summer, that "The Matrix" was the greatest thing ever made--I saw it about three times in theaters and spent hours discussing its theological and philosophical underpinnings with friends. Ten years later, it's been years since I've sat and watched the film, which truthfully was tarnished by two inferior sequels--one massively bloated the other just massively awful. And while I still hold "The Matrix" in high regard as a revolutionary moment in Hollywood, thanks to its groundbreaking special effects, the truth is that I've come to realize that it's just a really cool action/sci-fi hybrid that manages to pile a mishmash of Christian/Buddhist/Post-Modern thought into a blender, spouting lines of "deep" dialogue that mask the fact that the Wachowskis really had some ideas but no real beliefs. And that's fine..."The Matrix" is still a fun movie and it's more intelligent than most action flicks. But anyone who tries to tell you it's a deep film really hasn't stopped to think much about it. There are a lot of cool concepts...just no real ideas.

Which may be why people stayed away from "Dark City." While Alex Proyas' film is a top-notch, very exciting thriller, it's also about ideas. Proyas is a visual master who is also not afraid to tackle heavy science fiction premises. Here, he not only deals with a very intriguing idea (SPOILER!)--what if humans were really subjects in a massive alien experiment to see what makes us tick--but he also moves beyond that admittedly cool premise to delve into deeper ideas...what makes someone human? If we are the sum of our memories, what happens if our memories aren't real? If you supply someone with the information and background that tells them they love a person, is that love real? Audiences, especially those who just want to be entertained, don't like having to grapple with questions...they'd rather be spoon fed answers. And "Dark City" doesn't simply say "here's a cool idea" and then go on deals with the implications and questions raised. It's one of the most visually astonishing films I've ever seen and also one of the most brilliantly-imaginative pieces of science fiction of the past 15 years.

Do yourself a favor if you rent the regular cut, as I forward past Kiefer Sutherland's opening narration. From what I've read, Proyas added that narration...which explains way too the insistence of studio execs. I understand his Director's Cut--which I haven't seen but plan to eventually purchase--removes that narration and allows audiences to be kept in the dark a little while longer. Which is the right way to play the much of it is rooted in the genre of film noir that giving it a dose of confusion and mystery just feels right.

The film concerns a man (Rufus Sewell) who wakes up in a hotel bathtub, naked and covered in blood with no memory of who he is, where he is or what he's done...although the murdered prostitute in his room is probably not a good sign. The man finds out he's been in the hotel for three weeks. There are newspaper clippings in his pocket that suggest he's responsible for the death of several other prostitutes. He has a wife (Jennifer Connelly) who is a torch singer at a local club who apparently had an affair. He receives a breathless call from Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) who tells him he knows why he has no memories and he can help him. There are reminders of a beautiful location named Shell Beach that the man--who later learns his name is John Murdoch--assumes must have some importance...the problem is that, while everyone has heard of Shell Beach, no one knows quite how to get there or leave the city at all. Despite the hours he spends trying to figure out his identity and run from a police inspector (William Hurt), Murdoch also notices the sun never rises...and no one can remember the last time they did anything during the day.

And that's all I'm going to tell you even if, as I said, the theatrical cut spoils some of the plot's surprises early on (again, I really want to see the Director's Cut for this). I guess I could hint that there are some pale faced, very-evil looking men following John of them has the body of a child although I have to admit it's the most terrifying kid I've ever seen. Oh, and John learns he can move things with his mind.

And the city actually physically changes at midnight each night. And I only mention that because it's impossible to discuss this film's visual beauty without mentioning that.

I wasn't a huge fan of Proyas' first film, "The Crow," although I did think it was beautifully filmed. Since then, Proyas hasn't really been on my radar. I still have yet to see his take on "iRobot," although I was one of the few critics to absolutely love this year's "Knowing," which managed to meld smart science fiction, chilling special effects and bold musings about randomness vs. determinability.

But "Dark City" is head and shoulders above any of that. Even if it wasn't such a thrilling tale, the visuals alone would make it worth a mention (how I regret not seeing this on the big screen!). Proyas has said "Dark City" owes a massive debt to the films of Fritz Lang and, yes, it's all there on the screen. The movie doesn't so much ape "Metropolis" as build on the idea of reality being controlled by underground beings...but many of the visuals, including the mechanical devices that control things and the use of clock faces--or set pieces designed to resemble clock faces--are unmistakably inspired by Lang's masterpiece. And the Strangers, with their pale, shadowy faces, are dead-ringers for the underworld thugs in Lang's "M."

But the city itself, with its mixture of period detail--its a 1940s-esque setting, but the cars are often from the 1980s--is something totally original, inspired however by the work of German Expressionists. The buildings cut through the sky at steep angles, much of the city is in shadows. And then, when they move...but I'll let you see that for yourself. Ebert has written extensively about this film and stated how he has, on shot-by-shot analysis, stopped and admired certain frames and is grateful that such beautifully photographed shots exist.

One thing that kept crossing through my mind was that this film was made in 1998. Yes, it was five years after "Jurassic Park" revolutionized computer generated imagery, but I also know that "Dark City" had to cost only a sliver of "JPs" budget. So was this all done with computers? Some of the sets are clearly physical locations...and some of the shots--such as when a building comes crashing close to another...bear the imprint of actual being physical effects. If it is computer generated, it's better than I would have expected for the time. If it's not, it's an astonishing use of physical effects.

But it's not just a movie about sensory overload. Proyas is interested in deeper themes here and, when the truth is revealed, it's impossible to keep your brain from jumping around from question to question. This movie poses big musings about humanity, memory, reality, the existence of the soul, the triumph of the individual over the collective, and while it never spoonfeeds audiences the answers, it explores each question fully. It's brilliant science fiction, which manages to ask some of life's deepest questions while never losing its bullet-pacing or suspense.

The performances are all strong here, although I've never thought Sewell as much of a screen presence and, to be honest, I don't think he quite has the gravitas to make Murdoch an iconic hero (not that he's supposed to be). Connelly is beautiful as ever and, although her role is fairly small, it's the lynchpin of the movie; "you were looking in the wrong place," Murdoch tells a Stranger at the end of the film...and when you see that scene, and know what he was talking about, you'll know why Connelly's role was so important. Hurt is great as always as the detective who begins to suspect something about the world isn't write. And Sutherland, pudgy and out of breath, is as far removed from Jack Bauer as you can get...he's fascinating here and it's one of my favorite roles he's played.

Being the summer season, we've been bombarded already with science fiction, from "Wolverine" to "Star Trek" and "Terminator Salvation." The problem is that these take the idea of science fiction but don't honor the heart of it...using it to dig deep and show us things we've never seen before. "Dark City" pulses with originality, intelligence and heart. And even if it's not perfect (they never do explain why Murdoch has the same ability as the Strangers), it's still a pretty fantastic experience.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Movie Review: 'Star Trek'

Originally published in the May 10, 2009 edition of "The Source."

Exciting, witty and fun are not words typically equated with “Star Trek.”

Unlike many of my peers, I did not grow up in a Spock-loving home. I viewed “Star Trek” as the domain of nerds, a logic-obsessed cult obsession that was as lifeless and dull as high school physics.

The best compliment I can pay to director J.J. Abrams’ re-launch of the franchise is that it is not only all the positive things I said earlier, but it also made me want to revisit the previous films and see if my prior judgment was completely wrong.

Part reboot and part sequel in a way that only “Star Trek,” with its time-hopping and alternate realities, can be, Abrams reignites a tired franchise in an intelligent, entertaining sci-fi adventure that wins over the uninitiated while still satisfying hard-core Trekkies. It starts the series fresh without denying the dozen films that came beforehand and does so with energy and charm that provide the real jump-start to the summer movie season. Forget the flaccid “Wolverine;” “Star Trek” is the origin film to see this summer.

The film opens with a brutal attack on the S.S. Kelvin by a Romulan vessel that has appeared out of nowhere, commandeered by vicious Nero (Eric Bana). Nero kills the Kelvin’s Captain, leaving George Kirk to sacrifice his life to save the crew, which also includes his wife and newborn son. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) grows up to be a reckless juvenile delinquent, stealing cars and picking bar fights before a chance encounter with Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) causes him to enroll in Starfleet.

Right about now, devoted “Trek” fans are probably counting the ways in which this origin is wrong—Kirk knew his father, was a dedicated leader and best friends with Spock. I know this not because I was a fan of the series but because the film addresses these very inconsistencies; Nero’s attack, it seems, has altered the space-time continuum and changed the way that Kirk comes to serve on the S.S. Enterprise.

It has also changed his relationship with Spock (Zachary Quinto), the half-human, half-Vulcan who becomes the center of Nero’s plan. I won’t address anymore spoilers, except to say that the apparent discrepancies are explained by a beloved “Trek” icon whose appearance hammers home Abrams’ respect to “Trek” fans while setting the tone that while the film will be respectful, it’s going to evolve the franchise into its own animal. The continuity issues that many Trekkers complained bogged down previous films have been changed and the series has the freedom to move forward in a new direction.

While the events of the “Star Trek” universe may be altered, Abrams’ masterstroke is to use those as a way to re-introduce beloved characters. Although I was not a Trekker, it is probably to grow up without accumulating some “Star Trek” knowledge by pop culture osmosis. That’s why even I can smile when Kirk is introduced to “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), the gruff, no-nonsense doctor who becomes Kirk’s best friend in Academy. Mr. Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Uhura are also along for the ride. The film also finds a new way to introduce Scotty, played by “Hot Fuzz’s” Simon Pegg, who manages to steal every scene he ends up in.

Make no mistake, though; this is not merely a “get the band together” film. At heart, Abrams is interested in restarting the franchise in a way that honors beloved characters. And that means creating a story in which Kirk’s cockiness will be put to the test and Spock will have to struggle with clashes between his human emotion and Vulcan logic. A key theme in the film is the balance needed between Kirk and Spock, who must overcome their bitterness and work together. The theme wouldn’t work if the actors didn’t deliver and its here that the film truly comes to life. Quinto, best known as the cold and calculating villain on television’s “Heroes,” embodies Spock’s brilliance and logic but also brings a human anger and sadness to the icon. Pine (“Smoking Aces”) never once goes for a William Shatner imitation and, instead, delivers a movie-star making turn as the reckless, womanizing and overly-confident Kirk. I was curious as to whether a young, unproven actor could anchor such an iconic franchise but, by the time Pine sits in the captain’s chair in the film’s end, I had no doubts. He’s a charismatic, funny and likable lead who directors would be wise to keep an eye on.

The lion’s share of the credit, however, belongs to Abrams, the TV producer who also helmed the underrated “Mission: Impossible 3.” Balancing healthy respect for the franchise while injecting it with much-needed life, Abrams brings a fresh, fast and exciting energy to the film. The special effects are skillful but not overwhelming and the film deftly balances heart and humor with thrilling action sequences. Rather than deliver a bleak origin, as the Batman and Bond franchises have, Abrams peppers this feature with the sense of adventure, excitement and hope that Gene Roddenberry’s series was known for. Tonally, “Star Trek” recalls last year’s “Iron Man,” which had the same giddy, exciting and supremely entertaining feel. It’s the rare summer film that feels completely satisfying and a ride worth taking again.

I have a feeling those “Star Trek” conventions may be a bit more crowded next year.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

DVD Reviews

Because I assume most people caught these movies upon initial release, I'm going to keep the reviews short. Thoughts on "The Apartment" and "Chinatown" coming in the next few days. Enjoy!


Yes, I'm as surprised as anyone that they made a third entry in Jason Statham's "Transporter" franchise. But as long as the series' success spares us a third "Crank" or second "Death Race," I'm fine.

Statham returns once again as Frank Martin, the titular Transporter who has a knack for getting in over his head and having to karate-kick his way out. As the film opens he's supposedly retired but reeled back in when one of his friends dies on a mission gone wrong. Martin is locked into a car with some top-secret bags, a mysterious Russian woman who he may or may not fall in love with and a bracelet that will cause him to blow up if he goes more than 25 feet from the car.

The first "Transporter" film, produced by Luc Besson, was an absurdly fun martial-arts, cars and bullet caper that succeeded because it never admired to greatness; it simply wanted to be a fun little action film and a showcase for Statham, who I may add has never gotten the break-out success he deserves. "Transporter 2" was a cartoony bit of fluff that didn't so much bend the laws of physics as break them over Martin's knees.

The third entry keeps the proceedings a bit more down-to-Earth, focusing on fun physical stunts and effects that may have been practical or CGI, but it's hard to tell which. Statham's charisma goes a long way and he's always fun to watch. The martial arts sequences are a blast and never go too over-the-top or venture into absurdity; even an extended car chase flirts with ludicrousness when Frank takes his vehicle on two wheels,but still maintains its suspension of disbelief. And I haven't even mentioned the sequence where Frank chases a car through an alley and a warehouse...while he's on a bicycle. Unlike the latest in the "Fast and Furious" franchise, none of the computer-effects are overly distracting and the film keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek at all times, winking at the audience that Statham and the director, Louis Megaton, know just how silly this all is. When the filmmakers give you permission to laugh at the insanity of it all, it's a bit more enjoyable.

Which is necessary, because without the action this film would be utterly forgettable. The plot is needlessly complex (when the twist of Frank's cargo is revealed, ask yourselves why everything else was necessary) and the characters are so thin that Frank could drive a truck through them. But for action fans, there's some true cleverness at work, held together by Statham's likability. It's a rainy-day DVD at best but sometimes there's nothing wrong with that.


I may have to turn in my man card after this.

The truth is that I picked up "Marley and Me" at my local Blockbuster only after hearing raves about it from critics and family. I thought the trailers made the film look like a cliched family comedy and had no intention of enjoying it; the positive response encouraged me to give it a chance.

The fact that I found myself with tears rolling down my cheeks in the film's final moments is what makes me think I may have to relinquish that "Y" chromosome.

Based on the best-selling book, the film tells the story of John (Owen Wilson) and Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) Grogan, a newlywed couple who move to Florida to pursue careers as journalists and adopt the "world's worst dog" in preparation for children. As often happens in these films, Marley (named after Bob Marley) trashes their home, embarrasses the Grogans in front of company and destroys anything nice they may have (his treatment of a necklace is particularly disgusting). But, as is wont to happen in these films, Marley is also a beloved family friend who is loved in spite of his flaws.

While "Marley and Me" has a plot that we've seen in films from "Beethoven" to "Turner and Hooch" (masterpieces all, I'm sure), director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada"), working from an honest and heartfelt script by Scott Frank and Don Roos, avoids the pitfalls of family comedy hell by keeping the movie grounded in reality and focused on John and Jennifer, with Marley as a catalyst in their lives. Thankfully, there are no attempts to personify Marley and give him human-like reaction shots...he's a dog and much of the movie's humor comes from the fact that Marley isn't really a bad dog--he's just a normal dog who refuses to be thoroughly domesticated.

Aniston and Wilson give solid performances in this film and the movie's success actually hinges on them portraying a likable couple. This isn't just a movie about two adults learning how to handle a dog. It's a story about a couple trying to navigate the big decisions of life--having children, moving, careers and the sacrifices that all entails--while they also happen to have an unruly dog at home. This is a family movie in the most literal sense--despite its PG-moments kids may be a bit bored when Marley's antics don't take center stage, but families will likely be moved at the honesty (sometimes brutally so) with which the life of an American family is portrayed. John and Jennifer are not perfect people and they wrestle with resignation, fear and contentment like anyone else. They struggle with the fact that life with three kids makes them deviate from their carefully planned lives. And they admit frustration when a hectic day is made even more difficult because of a dog who just can't sit still.

Yes, Marley's a fun dog to watch and there are several big laughs in the film. And no, the movie isn't perfect--particularly in the third act when the honesty of the film seems to be replaced by moving the family to Pennsylvania and to a lifestyle that is just a little too perfect, more like an LL Bean catalogue than anything we'd recognize as suburbia. But those who, like me, struggle with contentent and complacency and those, unlike me, who struggle with family and the choices of being a parent will find a surprisingly emotional resonance with this film, anchored by the joy, frustration, humor and warmth of having a family dog nearby.

The family genre has fallen on tough times lately, with every PG rated film either a smart alec cartoon or sugary, jittery kids' movie. "Marley and Me" is the exception-- a warm-hearted film that works because it dares to be about something more than just a dog.

Movie Review: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is the type of movie that immediately forces its admirers to come up for excuses in its defense. "It's just summer fun." "It's brainless action escapism." "It's just a comic book movie." "At least the special effects were good."

While many people are no doubt using those same phrases to defend the fourth installment in the tired "X-Men" franchise, the truth is that "Wolverine" is pretty much defenseless in a time when "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight" and even the other "X-Men" films have proven that comic book films needn't be brainless event films without plot, character or deep meaning.

Indeed, in recent interviews, the film's producers have invoked "Dark Knight," saying that this dark, gritty take on the edgiest of the X-Men is what audiences are clamoring for right now; a brutal, harrowing anti-hero epic.

Maybe audiences are clamoring for that in the wake of "The Dark Knight"...but they aren't going to find it in this cliched, braindead and maddeningly mediocre summer entry, which tells us how Wolverine got his shiny claws and wound up an amnesiac in the Canadian wilderness when we first saw him in 2000's "X-Men."

It turns out that Wolverine, better-identified as Logan (Hugh Jackman), was a sickly kid in the mid-1800s. He was cared for by a man who said he was his father but wasn't; the movie doesn't explain why that's important but goes to great pains to reveal it in its opening sequences. His brother is Victor (Liev Schreiber) who, like Logan, can heal quickly from any wound and sprouts long fingernails; Logan doesn't yet have his metal claws and, as a child, spouts gnarly bone extensions.

Anyway, both Logan and Victor grow up and decide to fight for their country. Actually, that's not true. They decide to fight for their neighboring country and, in the film's best sequence, we see them fightining side by side in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam (apparently they stayed out of the Korean conflict. They are then recruited for an all-mutant black ops squad that includes samurai-sword wielding Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Agent Zero who can shoot very fast from the Black Eyed Peas, who dresses like a cowboy and can teleport. Things go horribly wrong on a mission in Nigeria and Logan decides he's had enough and leaves to go work as a lumberjack in Canada and live with a beautiful woman in the Canadian Rockies, where female viewers will happily see him frolicking without a shirt. Victor, now known as Sabertooth, doesn't take kindly to this and kills Logan's woman. Logan, angry and seeking revenge, returns to Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) and volunteers to have his skeleton laced with Adamantium, a rock-hard substance derived from a meteor that gives Wolverine his ginsu-bones.

But wait, there's more! See, Wolverine wants to track down Sabertooth, so he boxes a really fat guy and then plays cards with a cool Cajun named Gambit whose superpower seems to be either charging playing cards with energy and blowing them up or hitting things with his walking cane so that they blow up. A lot of things blow up in this movie, by the way. There's something about caputring mutants and sending them to Three Mile Island, we see a teenage Cyclcops in high school and then Wolverine and Sabertooth fight Deadpool, who now not only grows samurai swords from his hands shoots from his eyes, but he's also bald, his mouth is sewn shut and he's no longer played by Ryan Reynolds for reasons that are never explained. I haven't even mentioned the introduction of adamantium bullets, which we're first told will kill Wolverine and then are informed will only cause him to lose his memory.

I'm, in principle, opposed to the idea of prequels. We know they're going to deal with characters who will live to fight another day. Even many of the villains introduced in this film show up again in the X-Men trilogy, so there's not much in teh way of suspense there. And while there may be a promising idea in seeing what made Wolverine who he was, I was never really too curious. I'm not a comic reader so I don't know his backstory but I felt we were given sufficient information in the first two "X-Men" films. Here we don't really learn much about him as a character--all the interesting ideas about his bond with Sabertooth or his romance in Canada are just rushed through to get to an overly complex plot that exists only to throw in as many Easter Eggs for comic book fans as possible and introduce characters for further spin-offs (a "Magneto" one is in the works and I'm sure we'll see Deadpool get his own movie soon enough).

Hugh Jackman's a charismatic, likeable actor who never seems to catch a break. Wolverine's his best-known role and I admire the way he's thrown himself into promoting this film; he's proud of the work he's done here. But, honestly, I don't know that this is a good step forward for him. What made Wolverine such a cool character was his mystery, his edge and his humor. Here, the mystery is explained and he's basically shown to be a softie from the very beginning, questioning everything he's asked to do and being a hero from the get-go...the thing that made his arc in the first two "X-Men" films so strong was his reluctance to be a hero. But here, there's none of that. He's been declawed.

Much more intriguing would be a deeper exploration of his journeys with Victor/Sabertooth. Liev Schreiber is one of those actors who grows on me each time I see him and he's definitely the standout here. He's a bloodthirsty, angry mutant who can't understand his brother's hesitations. Had the movie followed Logan and Victor through war and ended with Victor's betrayal and Logan's agreement to turn into Wolverine, the movie would have been more compelling. Instead, it's a mish-mash of barely passable action sequences and ludicrious plot turns.

Director Gavin Hood is definitely out of his element here and I hope he's not one of those directors that fizzled out after his first masterpiece. "Tsotsi" was not a subtle movie but it was unflinching, humane and emotionally resonant. His follow-up, "Rendition," was ignored by critics and audiences in 2007. Here, he's been given the keys to a big-budget action film and yet can't seem to inject anything unique. The entire "soldier betrayed by his outfit goes seeking revenge" plotline has been done to death...this is a Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal movie with mutants (without the benefit of starring Chuck Norris). Hood makes no attempt to get into Wolverine's head or explore his relationships--we never know what drew him to the woman whose death puts him on his journey and we never really see him bond with Victor or any of his other mutant friends. Everything just jumps from one plot point to another, from action scene to action scene without any resonance or depth.

And here is where the excuses will start. "It's a summer comic movie! It doesn't have to be deep or meaninful!" But I'm not buying that excuse anymore. "Iron Man" managed to inject wit, style and class into the genre and still be a fantastic's worth noting that there's not a whole lot of action in that movie. But we remember the action sequences because we spent time with the characters and seeing their relationships and, when things heated up, there was something at stake. It showed enough respect to the characters and the audience to take the time to slow down and build a story that gave the action a reason.

"The Dark Knight" will likely become the go-to film for comic book examples and I don't know that's fair--"Dark Knight" has more in common with crime dramas like "Heat" than with the entire superhero genre. But its box office success shows that audiences are willing to deal with deep themes, dark characters and a solid buildup before jumping into action. Even the "X-Men" trilogy itself took time out of the special effects to deal with thematic issues like genocide, homosexuality, disease and civil rights. "Wolverine" asks us to follow Logan because, hey, we liked him in the other movies...he must be worth following here. But there's never anything compelling enough to show WHY we needed this material. And Hood is so out of place that he resorts to every single cliche--the slow-motion walk from a fireball, the team marching down the street side-by-side like in "Reservoir Dogs," dialogue like "we're not too different, Logan" followed by the always dependable "I'm nothing like you." And, my personal favorite, the main character in a moment of despair staring up at the sky and screaming "NOOOOOOOO!!!!!"...we get this beloved chestnut twice, actually. If you thought it was bad in "Star Wars," you ain't seen nothing yet.

But let's honor the logic for a moment that because "Wolverine" is a summer comic book movie, it's to be enjoyed as nothing more than fun escapism. To that, I'll say that the movie never gives me anything that I haven't seen done better in other movies. Shootouts with impossible physics? "The Matrix" did that a decade ago. Brutal fistfights with claws stabbing into someone...there's nothing here that hasn't been done before better in the other "X-Men" films. A character jumping onto an aircraft as it crashes? If John McClane couldn't get away with it in 'Die Hard 4' then why should Wolverine be exempt? The ultimate fight above a nuclear power silo is ruined by shoddy effects and choreography that is so computer-assisted that nothing feels real. Even the end twist of how Wolverine ends up as an amnesiac is ham-fisted and non-sensical. Say what you will about "Transformers," but as brainless as that film was it gave me special effects and action on a scope and scale I had never seen before.

And that's another thing. This film cost close to $150 to make but the special effects are surprisingly bad. There's a scene where Wolverine is examining his claws in a mirror where it seriously looks like they animated it with 2D looked like someting out of "Roger Rabbit." Some of the other effects--a jeep being shredded, a nuclear tower crumbling--look like the special effects were initially loaded into a computer and then a final touch was never put on. A cameo by Patrick Stewart is just creepy in its lameness--which is pretty sad, considering that "X-Men: The Last Stand" presented a young version of Stewart that was extremely convincing.

Had "Wolverine" not been the movie to start off the summer, I likely wouldn't be so hard on it. But this is just a suprisingly bland, pointless action entry that should have been shuffled with the other mediocre action flicks usually released in February or March. How come Wolverine is able to forget everything that happened in it but I can't?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: "Dear Zachary--A Letter to a Son About His Father"

The DVD cover for the documentary "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father" describes it as a true crime story.

While the description is technically accurate--the film deals with the surprising twists in a murder trial--it fails to prepare viewers for the harrowing journey ahead. Alternately infuriating, touching, poignant and devastating, "Dear Zachary" is one of the most emotionally wrenching film experiences I've ever endured.

When his best friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was found murdered in a parking lot, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne decided to pack up his camera and travel cross-country to interview those who knew his friend. It may have been his way of coping, but Kuenne soon came upon another reason to make the film--the woman who was alleged to have shot Bagby, a jealous ex-girflriend, revealed that she was pregnant with his son. Bagby's mission, as the title states, shifted; the film would now be a testimony to a man deeply loved by friends and the only son of two caring parents; it would be the introduction to a father that young Zachary would never know.

The twists and turns the film takes--some victorious, some frustrating and some downright horrifying--could never have been foreseen by Kuenne. Like the best documentaries, the events that occur and the people involved would be deemed too unbelievable for most narrative films. And the sledgehammer viewers receive to the heart is one that couldn't be delivered by overwrought melodrama or manipulation.

On the surface, the film provides a gripping and angry look at the Newfoundland criminal justice system. Bagby's parents are told early on that the courts move slow but surely they weren't prepared for a case that would force them to be uprooted from California to Newfoundland as they waited for their son's killer to face trial and endured an arduous custody battle. What starts as being almost comical in its inefficiency turns into a portrait of a deeply-flawed court system that failed the victims' family and did much more harm than good.

As a piece of activism or true crime drama, "Dear Zachary" would be an effective work on its own. But Kuenne's film is about so much more. On a deeper level it's about the impact the death of one person has on those left behind. Kuenne grew up as a filmmaker and his best friend was always in front of the camera. In the glimpses we have of Andrew, we see a likable, funny and self-effacing young man. A touching montage describes him as the guy everybody wanted as his best friend. A former fiancee remembers him lovingly and his parents are haunted by the tragedy and challenged by a new mission--to keep Zachary out of the hands of the woman who killed his father.

Kuenne isn't a polished filmmaker. Sometimes he succumbs to visual and audio tricks to hammer home a point and other times his camera work is sloppy. While these things would normally derail a film, here they lend it poignancy. Kuenne isn't making a film to gain notice--this is a personal mission to remember his friend, to express how his life was touched by this man. When Kuenne's voice cracks and he breaks down in sobs during narration, it doesn't come off as manipulation but as genuine anguish and sorrow. I found myself not only caught up in the courtroom antics but actually mourning the death of a man I never knew...the descriptions of friends and family and the glimpses we receive of Andrew made me see him as a man I would have loved to have as a friend. Kuenne may have set out to make a film about a father but he creates a touching portrait of a man beloved by everyone.

But what elevates the film to greatness is the courage displayed by Andrew's parents, David and Kate Bagby. Early in the film we learn that the Bagby's, upon learning of the death of their son, planned on coming home and killing themselves; without their son, life was meaningless. Yet they find the courage to go on, uproot themselves to another country and fight for custody of their grandson. It's a battle filled with beautiful moments of bonding and moments filled of the darkest moments anyone could ever endure. The Bagby's could be forgiven for not wanting to appear in such a personal film. Yet they are candid, recalling their son's finest moments and describing the horror of going to identify his body. When the film reaches its darkest passages--indeed, passages where I alternately screamed at the TV and broke down in sobs--they erupt in moments of self-doubt, viscious anger and despair. But they also remain good, loving and friendly people who are deeply loved by Andrews friends and their new neighbors. What starts as a murder mystery and then devolves into a portrait of a man turns into a poem of courage and heroics by David and Kate who, in my opinion, are two of the most heroic people to ever appear on screen.

I fear that many reading this review will think they know exactly what happens in the film and think they have it pegged. They don't...even as I was on the lookout for twists and turns I never anticipated where this movie would take me, both in terms of its structure and the emotional places it asks us to accompany the Bagby's to. This is not an easy film to watch but it is one that must be seen. "Dear Zachary" is a great film.

Friday, May 1, 2009


My apologies that this site hasn't been updated much this week. Work intruded with some massive writing that needed to be tended to and, well, I wasn't much in the writing mood after all that. But my hope is to really dive in this weekend. On top of this column, I have DVD reviews of "Dear Zachary," "Transporter 3" and "Marley and Me" waiting in the wings, along with thoughts on two movies I hadn't seen until recently that all movielovers deem essential--Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." Plus, the summer movie season kicks into gear this weekend with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which I'm supposed to be seeing tomorrow night.

So let's get into the Monthly Movies. Basically I think it's a bit too tiring to do a whole summer preview--you tend to highlight big movies but you often lose sight of ones that don't tend to gather good word of mouth until close to their release date. Plus, capturing three months of film releases in one column is a heck of a lot of work.

So what we're going to do at the beginning of each month is look at the releases that are scheduled for the coming weeks. The list will by no means be exhaustive--many films hit limited release and don't open in this area. But I'll try to highlight as many films as I know about, as well as give some thoughts about what we can expect.

As is tradition, the summer movie season started this weekend, a whole three weeks before Memorial Day. So let's look at what's hitting the theaters this month!


X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE--Chances are that by the time this is posted, many of you will already have seen this film. And based on the feedback hitting newspapers and websites today, you most-likely won't be feeling too happy. Which is a shame. Wolverine was always the strongest character from the "X-Men" franchise and a Wolvie-centric film could have been a hardcore, intense action flick. Instead, it looks like director Gavin Hood and the Powers That Be at 20th Century Fox have created a lightweight action flick that belies the promise of a Wolverine stand-alone in favor of populating it with even more mutants than the first three "X-Men Films"--but because it's not the original cast, they could save on costs. It's a shame if that turns out to be the case. Gavin Hood's debut film "Tsotsi" is one of the most powerful films I've seen and I hate to think that, with this and "Rendition," he's sold out to the Hollywood machine. Also, Hugh Jackman is a charismatic and likable lead who just hasn't been able to catch a break as a leading man--if this fails, it may spell trouble for the man who also headlined "Van Helsing" and "Australia." I'm tempering expectations before seeing it tomorrow night--let's just hope for brainless fun.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past:The typical counter-programming to the summer blockbusters. Matthew McConaughey is pretty much a golden boy when it comes to bringing in the romantic comedy crowd, so this shoudl do pretty solid business over the summer; the reviews haven't been glowing but they've been fairly strong. As much as I want to see Michael Douglas chew scenery or Jennifer Garner light up the screen, I have absolutely zero interest in this. Although one day I may get we'll keep it at bay on the Blockbuster queue just in case.

The Limits of Control:I have no idea about the plot or when it's going to be released in my area. But Jim Jarmusch and Bill Murray last teamed up on the fantastic "Broken Flowers," which featured one of Murray's best performances. With Tilda Swinton added to the mix, the film could be a sequel to "Larger than Life" and I'd STILL show up.


Star Trek: I have seen exactly one "Star Trek" feature in my life--the horrid "Undiscovered Country." I never watched any of the television iterations and all I can tell you about the show is what I've acquired via pop culture osmosis. And yet, I can't wait until I screen this early next week. JJ Abrams is a name I trust. His last directorial work, "Mission: Impossible 3," was an underated film--the franchise's best entry. "Cloverfield" was one of last year's surprise pleasures. His work with "Alias" and "Lost" has solidified his reputation as being not just a skilled entertainer but one of the best storytellers in the business--a true geek who knows the importance of character and emotion. But that would still not be enough to sell me if it weren't for one thing--the trailers for this make this look absolutely fantastic. This looks to be big, intelligent and exciting fun and, for once, it actually sounds a bit cool to say "I want to see 'Star Trek.'"

Next Day Air: Oh this looks wretched. A man gets an unexpected delivery of cocaine and decides to be a my opinion this whole genre of "urban comedies" is as racist as any minstrel show, reducing African Americans to stereotypes and "oh no she didn't" quips. The wild card, however, is that the film features the very likable Donald Faison from "Scrubs" and the very talented Mos Def, who I would normally put as being above the stereotyped trash (see his turns in "Italian Job," "18 Blocks" and "Be Kind Rewing.") So maybe there's a hidden gem in all of these, um, rocks.

MAY 15

Angels and Demons: Ron Howard is fresh off "Frost/Nixon," one of last year's best films and Tom Hanks renders everything "must-seeable." The trailer looks solid, with a vast religious conspiracy and some genuine suspense. And Ewan Macgregor has been on the screen far too rarely these days. The problem? I HATED HATED HATED "The DaVinci Code" film. And no, not because of its heretical content (although that didn't win points). I actually enjoyed Dan Brown's book for what it was--a ludicrous but fun thriller; the movie was just a boring trip through Paris. But we'll see with this one--the talent involved is far too strong to turn out two duds.

The Brothers Bloom: I haven't seen Rian Johnson's previous film "Brick," which I'm told is a must-see. And I haven't seen any trailers for "Brothers Bloom," a comedy about con men, yet. But the cast (Adrien Brody and Rachel Weiz) is solid and early word has been wonderful. So this is one to keep your eys on.

MAY 21

Terminator Salvation:
Every fiber of my being tells me this shouldn't work. It's a PG-13 "Terminator" movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron directed by the "Charlie's Angels" guy. But every single thing I've seen about this film just screams awesomeness. The presence of Christian Bale gives it some credibility (although he's not infallible). But the craziness of the whole post-apocalyptic landscape, the giant cyborgs and utter insanity of the whole project have me very intrigued. Everything I know tells me this is a bad idea but everything I'm seeing is telling me this is going to rock hard.

MAY 22

Dance Flick: Don't be fooled. Even though it claims its by two writers of "Scary Movie" and trades out "Movie" for "Flick," this looks to be every bit as terrible as the "Epic/Disaster Movie" flicks. Avoid at all costs and pray that the "Naked Gun" revival is going to be every bit as brilliant as I'm hearing; the spoof genre is dead in the water right now.

The Girlfriend ExperienceSteven Soderbergh goes low tech ala "Bubble" again with this look at high-priced call girls. Soderbergh could film a traffic jam and it would still be worth a look.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian:I know that it's fashionable for critics to roll their eyes at this but I actually thought the first "Night at the Museum" was a fun little movie. True it got very stupid once Mickey Rooney began doing karate and it wasn't going to win awards--but it was entertaining and funny enough. The sequel could be the same; certainly the return of Ricky Gervais and the presence of Amy Adams won't hurt. Besides, what's wrong with eschewing the explosions and darkness of superheroes for some light-hearted fare?

MAY 29

Drag Me to Hell: A gypsy puts a curse on a young woman? I would normally yawn and pass this over as yet another lame supernatural film. But this is Sam Raimi returning to his "Evil Dead" roots and word is that it's wickedly gruesome and scary fun. Raimi's last film, "Spider-man 3" was horrid, yes, but I think that may have more to do with studio pressure and deadlines than anything with the director--his first two films revived the superhero genre and let's not forget that Raimi's "Simple Plan" is pure brilliance. But I think everyone's wanted to see him unleash the dark humor and energy that fueled his first low-budget horror movies. This could be a lot of fun.

Up: Expectations for this are higher than the balloon-lofted house that occupies this film. And they should be. This is Pixar's ninth film--and every single one prior has been increasingly brilliant. Last year's "WALL-E" was the best film of 2008 according to many critics (including myself). So do I expect anything less from this story about an old curmudgeon who flies away with a tagalong boy scout? Of course not. And I have faith that Pete Docter, who did the brilliant "Monster's Inc." will deliver the adventure, comedy and heart we all have come to cherish from the company.


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.