Thursday, November 18, 2010

Movie Review: "127 Hours"

In 2003, hiker Aron Ralston found himself literally trapped between a rock and a hard place.

While hiking in a Utah canyon, a boulder dislodged and pinned Ralston in the gap by his arm. For five days, Ralston fought hunger, thirst and pain before finally using a dull pocket knife to amputate the appendage and escape to safety.

It's a harrowing and intense story, even without any visuals. And much of the early press for Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," which is based on these events, has focused on how audiences have reacted to the climactic amputation sequence, with a few reports of fainting at early screenings. The stories have caused some people I know to say they couldn't bring themselves to see the film.

That's a shame. While a suspense-riddled and intense survival tale, most audience members aren't likely to leave "127 Hours" feeling sick or upset. I suspect exhilaration is a more common experience. Rather than create a dark and graphic "dare you to look" story, Boyle weaves a tale that is just as much a celebration of life and the human spirit as his "Slumdog Millionaire." It's a true-life adventure, wrapped up in a meditation of what keeps pushing humans on when all hope is lost.

James Franco, who seems to flip between drama and comedy, has found a role that will define the rest of his career. As Ralston, he captures the spirit of a man with an insatiable thirst for life and adventure, and a dangerous sense of independence. Ralston's a self-described "hard hero" who helps with survival and rescue missions, but he neglects to tell anyone where he's going on this excursion and doesn't bring along a cell phone or any means of contact.

Aside from a flirtatious meeting with two female hikers early in the film, Franco is the only face on the screen for the majority of the run time. And, trapped in a narrow canyon with his arm pinned to a boulder for the majority of 90-minutes, he brings to life the frustration, fear, determination and intelligence that fueled Ralston during his five-day ordeal. At times he collapses in tears as he realizes his plight; at other times, the comedic sensibilities that served Franco so well in "Pineapple Express" come into play, such as when Ralston airs his feelings on a mock interview show he captures on his video camera. It's a fantastic performance that shows a range to Franco that I was unaware existed prior to this.

Boyle, a director who has helmed everything from junkie dramas ("Trainspotting") to zombie movies ("28 Days Later") to children's films ("Millions"), has his work cut out for him here; it's not easy to helm a movie that takes place in two feet of space featuring a lead character who can't move. Boyle utilizes every trick in the book - pulsing soundtracks, split-screens, switching film stocks - to keep the story moving, from its adrenaline-charged opening sequences to the riveting hallucinations Ralston endures in the canyon. In doing so, he expands the story from a simple tale of survival to a meditation of meaning, our need to depend on others and the triumph of the human spirit. With Franco commanding the screen and Boyle masterfully manipulating everything behind the camera, "127 Hours" is a constantly riveting and powerful experience.

I know some won't be able to stop thinking about the amputation sequence and, yes, it is intense, as Boyle uses sound effects to suggest more than he actually shows. But my hunch is that the scene is so intense not because it's graphic - audiences primed by the "Saw" films have been shown much worse - but because it really happened. Boyle drags us into that moment to share, as much as he can, what Ralston endured in that canyon.

But by sticking with that moment, viewers are rewarded with a life-affirming and triumphant final act that makes all the discomfort and pain worth it. The film's final moments are among the most joyous and victorious I've seen in years and a parting shot of the real Aron Ralston only underscores the story's heroic nature.

Lately, it seems that every "great" film has to feature a tragic ending. While that sometimes is the ending that fits, the truth is I miss being elated as the credits roll. With "127 Hours," Boyle and Franco take us to some dark and dangerous places, but reward us with an ending that reminds us of the heroism of which we're all capable.

This is one of 2010's best films.

Originally posted at and in the November 21 edition of The Source.

Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--Part I"

After 10 years, six films and billions of dollars in box office receipts, it's finally time to say goodbye to Harry Potter.

But don't worry honorary Hogwarts students: It's going to be a long farewell.

JK Rowling bid adieu to the beloved wizard in one massive tome, released in 2007. Warner Brothers, astutely realizing that there is still plenty of money to milk from muggle moviegoers, made the decision to split the grand finale into two films, with the conclusion due in theaters July 2011.

Yet what might seem to be another Hollywood money grab is actually the best thing to happen to the franchise, allowing Rowling's characters to finally breathe and grow up without rushing to hit every plot point and wrapping up the story in two hours. The love and care put into this first part of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" almost makes me wish all the other films had been split up this way - at least beginning with "Goblet of Fire," when the stories became darker and more complex.

Director David Yates expects that audiences have avidly followed the other films in the series and picks right up after the events of "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince," without so much as a pre-credit recap. Hogwart's headmaster Dumbledore has been murdered by Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), the Ministry of Magic has been infiltrated and overthrown by Voldemort's Death Eaters, and wizards everywhere are going underground, fearing for their lives. Harry, along with friends Ron and Hermione, set out into the big, dark world to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes - artifacts that hold pieces of Voldemort's soul and can allow him to be defeated once and for all.

If the preceding paragraph makes no sense to you, you're probably better to hit the video store and catch up on the series before buying a ticket for this final ride. "The Deathly Hallows" is less interested with garnering new fans as it is with satisfying those who have grown up with Harry and the gang over the past decade.

As the characters have matured, so has the series, both in print and on film. What started as a whimsical children's tale has grown into a surprisingly complex, dark and imaginative fantasy that rivals the works of Tolkien and Lewis in popularity. Just as with the book, this final chapter is a dark and harrowing adventure, without even the comfort of Hogwarts to reassure the heroes or provide familiarity.

Freed of the stricture of the school-year formula that dominated the previous installments, Yates turns this into the most grown-up film in the franchise so far. The film careens from an opening chase sequence through the city to a mysterious encounter in a small village before spending time in the forest for an extended period. This portion, which tended to drag in the book, actually provides a great opportunity for Yates to let the characters breathe a bit and show some depth that had been lacking in the preceding films.

It's a bit shocking to realize that much of the franchise's core audience has, in fact, grown up right alongside Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Plucked from obscurity 10 years ago to headline a major franchise, it's fascinating to have had the opportunity to watch them grow into adulthood and turn into fine young actors, all of whom have the chance to shine here. Radcliffe has turned Harry from a naive and awestruck young boy to a tortured hero, but still manages to keep a sense of adventure about him. Watson has found a way to blend wit and emotion with the character of Hermione; a heart-breaking moment at the beginning of the film when the character must erase her parents' memories to keep them safe is her strongest moment in the series yet. Grint's Ron Weasley remains the humorous heart of the franchise.

Free of Hogwarts, Yates creates the most beautiful and haunting "Potter" film yet, with stops in the forests, on the Moors and in small hamlets providing bewitching backdrops to the action. He respects Rowling's work and remains faithful, but isn't afraid to deviate when necessary. One such deviation, which finds Harry and Hermione finding some joy in a dance, is one of the most powerful and perfectly crafted quiet moments of the series.

Potter fans will find a lot to love here, as Yates makes sure to incorporate all the humor and excitement of Rowling's stories. In its 2.5-hour running time, he manages to bring back most of the major characters for at least one appearance, allowing some of Britain's top actors - Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Jason Isaacs and Helena Bonham Carter - a chance to shine.

Those who have no interest in the saga will likely not find anything to sway them here. But that's to be expected - after 10 years, this franchise has found its fan base. And as the movie's final moments unspool, promising just one more adventure left for Harry and his friends in eight short months, I suspect those fans will feel a twinge of sadness at having to say goodbye so soon.

But at least Harry knows how to go out in style.

Originally published at and in the November 21 edition of The Source.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Movie Review: "Morning Glory"

The new comedy “Morning Glory” argues that hard news and fluff can not only coexist, but are both equally important and essential to helping Americans start their days.

As a journalist, I want to resent this idea. But the film’s just too darn cute.

Rachel McAdams finally gets a role tailor-made for her talents as energetic, effervescent and over-caffeinated Becky, a producer at a middling morning show in New Jersey. A go-getter with a Blackberry constantly in her hand and a smile permanently affixed, Becky is defined by her job, as we see in a disastrous first date that opens the film. Not that Becky seems to mind the single life; she loves her job and is so assured that her boss wants to see her about a promotion that she has a shirt prepared saying “I accept.”

Such confidence is rewarded—as it always is in movies—by Becky being fired, not promoted. Desperate to prove her nay-saying mother wrong, Becky scrambles for a job and lands one at a fourth place television network. Her boss (Jeff Goldblum) is initially weary of Becky’s inexperience, but hires her to shepherd “Daybreak,” a morning show that places dead last in the ratings. Eager to save the show, Becky shakes things up by firing the program’s lecherous male anchor (Ty Burrell), goading the weatherman (Matt Malloy) into outrageous stunts and forcing a reclusive reporting legend and news snob (Harrison Ford) to sit alongside the somewhat daffy and cynical female lead (Diane Keaton).

“Morning Glory” makes passing references to the way American news programs have devolved into ratings-starved circuses, trading in investigative journalism and foreign news for cooking segments and celebrity interviews, but it’s not interested in a serious exploration—if anything, it takes the side of the fluff. Rather than make any serious commentary about the state of journalism, “Morning Glory” instead wants to be a wacky workplace comedy, an ensemble piece with larger-than-life characters who butt heads, get on each others’ nerves and ultimately become a family. It’s less “Broadcast News” and more “The Devil Wears Prada” (which is fitting, as the two share a screenwriter in Aline Brosh McKenna).

It’s not a fresh approach, to be sure, but “Morning Glory” overcomes nearly every cliché and formula on the strength of its ensemble and the speed with which director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill”) propels the characters through the craziness. The dialogue is fast and sharp, particularly a frenetically-paced sequence set on Becky’s first day when she’s seemingly overwhelmed by the chaos around her and then barks back orders just as quickly. The newsroom is the typical sitcom blend of wackos and divas, but Michell wisely gives each supporting cast member just enough of the spotlight to elicit chuckles before they wear out their welcome.

McAdams, smiling and talking a million miles a minute, has never been as good as she is here. The actress has been typecast in self-serious romantic dramas ever since “The Notebook” and, while she’s never been unlikable, she’s never really had a role she could tear into like it was her own. Here, rushing around the newsroom and keeping a joyful disposition while the media circus comes to life around her, McAdams shows a true flair for witty repartee and physical comedy. There’s an infectious joy to her performance that she is somehow able to keep from toppling over into annoying. It’s the kind of role Meg Ryan was doing 15 years ago and calls to mind Amy Adams at her most winning.

McAdams is so good that she elevates everyone else’s game, but none more so than Ford. It’s been way too long since Ford has seemed anything less than comatose in a movie that doesn’t require him to wear a fedora, but here his curmudgeonly attitude is the perfect foil to McAdams’ optimism. Ford wisely doesn’t ham it up ala Jack Nicholson, but instead creates a believably serious news anchor who resents what his profession has come to. He’s effortlessly funny in the role, selling a scene with just a glowering look and rumbling delivery. Few will be surprised to learn that the character has a soft spot and wounded heart, but what is surprising is just how subtly Ford reveals it and how his opening up at the end is less of a character revelation and more of an inevitable thaw as the character comes to respect his boss. It’s a great role for Ford, who has been absent from good movies for far too long.

When “Morning Glory” focuses on the workplace, it’s a very funny, extremely enjoyable ensemble comedy. When it detours into Becky’s obligatory romance with a fellow producer (Patrick Wilson), it sputters and feels a bit too formulaic and cliché. I appreciate that Becky needs to come to terms with her own work addiction and learn to turn off the Blackberry, but the whole romance proceeds with a sense of obligation that is at odds with the energetic workplace scenes. It may have been wiser to find another way for Becky to learn her lesson, particularly if it gave more screen time to Keaton, who we don’t see enough of here.

Michell is a pro at this kind of stuff and the film looks beautiful. I wish he had trusted his characters and the setting a little bit more without having to lean so heavy on an unnecessary romance; he also gives in a bit too frequently to his love for montages—there are at least two sequences of McAdams walking or running through New York, set to music. They’re done just about as well as those scenes can be, but they feel out of place. Mostly I just wanted her to stop running and get to the newsroom.

“Morning Glory” is no “Broadcast News,” but it’s not pretending to be. No one here is setting out to make the defining satire about the modern news business—even if, at times, they come frustratingly close. It wants nothing more than to be a fun and fluffy feel-good movie. The fact that the cast exceeds the movie’s reach is a nice little bonus.

This review appeared in the November 14 edition of The Advisor and Source .

Friday, November 5, 2010

Movie Review: "Megamind"

Just two months after Steve Carell made evil lovable in “Despicable Me,” one can be forgiven for thinking “Megamind” is a case of been there, vanquished that.

But the new take on the life of a supervillain is a refreshing and original tweak on the superhero mythos, delivering smart laughs and capping a banner year for DreamWorks animation, which also released the sublime “How to Train Your Dragon.” If it hadn’t been for the latest “Shrek” debacle, they’d be competing with Pixar in terms of consistency.

Megamind (Will Ferrell) is a blue-skinned, big-brained menace constantly trying to defeat superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt), guardian of Metro City. The two have had a rivalry going back to infancy, when both were launched from their dying planets to Earth to fulfill their destinies. Metro Man crash-landed onto a wealthy estate where he discovered superpowers, loving parents and the adulation of his peers. Megamind landed in a prison and has a pet fish named Minion (David Cross).

After years of battle and to everyone’s surprise—including his own—Megamind accomplishes the unthinkable: he destroys Metro Man. With his arch nemesis out of the way, the villain can now rule Metro City with an iron fist. But soon, defacing works of art and playing target practice with fire trucks grows old, and Megamind finds himself in an existential funk: what good is being a villain if there’s no hero to challenge? Once you’ve conquered the world, what else is there for you?

A cleverly-skewed and thinly-veiled take on the Superman story, “Megamind” has a great time playing with superhero conventions in much the same manner as the original “Shrek” did with fairy tales. Where “Despicable Me” had fun playing with the idea of making a supervillain sympathetic, “Megamind” cleverly subverts the superhero genre and presents some genuinely intriguing questions about its conventions. When Megamind discovers he has no more heroes to vanquish and sets out to make his own hero (Jonah Hill), he fails to realize that super DNA and a flashy costume alone don’t make a hero and winds up making the situation much worse. There’s also a funny and surprisingly affecting romance between Megamind and his favorite victim, reporter Roxie Ritchie (Tina Fey).

DreamWorks’ animated films have traditionally relied too heavily on comedic personalities, lazily plugging in dated pop culture references and jokes meant only for the parents in the crowd. Like “Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda,” however, “Megamind” lets the comedians develop full characters—Megamind may be a villain with a bit of a reading problem, but there’s a bit of sadness Ferrell allows to seep into the character as well. He and Fey have a clever rapport with each other and the characters’ romance has the same sweetness that the “Shrek” franchise showed in its best moments. Pitt is clearly having a ball sending up his hunk persona and there are some great laughs to be had at tweaking Metro Man’s Boy Scout image.

Yes, Megamind finds his heart and, yes, everything builds to a happy ending. But the route that “Megamind” takes to get there is full of some clever and frequently hilarious twists and turns. The dialogue is witty, full of Ferrell’s randomness and Fey’s smart alec charm. The action sequences are surprisingly energetic and had me wondering why directors don’t just stop and make the next Superman movie a computer-generated adventure. The use of 3D, seemingly required in every family film these days, is actually quite effective. Kids will love the comic book heroics and adults will get a good laugh at the way the film twists and turns familiar tropes (I was particularly pleased with Ferrell’s nod to Marlon Brando’s work in “Superman.”)

“Megamind” isn’t the first film this year to subvert superhero conventions and, with Rainn Wilson’s “Super” in the pipeline, it’s not the last. But it happens to be one of the most clever and enjoyable yet and definitely saves the day for DreamWorks.

Movie Review: "Due Date"

Robert Downey Jr. endures cross country mayhem with “The Hangover’s” Zach Galifianakis in this frequently funny, but ultimately disposable frat boy riff on “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Downey is Peter Highman, an uptight father-to-be trying to get from Atlanta to Los Angeles before his wife gives birth. When an altercation with the fey, irritating and impeccably permed Ethan Tremblay (Galifianakis) lands the two on the no-fly list, they commandeer a car and begin the cross-country trek. As road movie logic dictates, the tightly-wound Peter quickly has his nerves frayed by Ethan, who lapses into bizarre bouts of stupidity, is fond of asking inane questions, carries a small dog along with his father’s ashes and has an unfortunate way of relaxing himself before bed.

If you thought director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) would bypass the genre’s proclivity for car crashes, run-ins with the law and encounters with ill-tempered fellow travelers in favor of nuance and heart, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to the “Old School” director’s resume. Phillips follows the road trip formula to the letter, including the leads’ obligatory fight and reconciliation and the last-minute dash to the delivery room.

But who am I to second-guess the director of “Road Trip”? The formula works because it allows Downey and Galifianakis to let their personalities clash and the ever-moving scenery allows Phillips to distract audiences with a variety of chaotic and sometimes very funny sequences.

Galifianakis worked so well in “The Hangover” because he was used sparingly, an unpredictable and offensive wildcard that scored laughs because of how deranged he came across. Ethan’s a bit cuddlier and more idiotic, dulling some of Galifianakis’ edge. But just when you think the comedian is getting a bit too cute for comfort, he pulls a joke out of his pocket, be it his obliviousness over finding a drug dealer on Craigslist or his impromptu auditions in a rest stop bathroom. Few people are better at playing annoying and offensive better than Galifianakis, who can summon a laugh with just a gasp.

Downey plays the Steve Martin role to Galifianakis’ John Candy but forgets that the film’s uptight straight man needs to have a heart to rediscover. Few do a slow burn, tart response or explosive expletive better than Downey, but he goes a bit too far with the snark and turns Peter into more of a jerk than a harried traveler. Phillips seems to have left most of Michelle Monaghan’s scenes as Peter’s wife on the cutting room floor, taking away much of the reminder of why he’s in such a hurry to get home. As a result, Downey’s character often comes across as quite unlikable.

Phillips long ago proved he’s a master of the big gag and “Due Date” features several very funny moments. Peter’s solution to babysitting for a drug dealer (Juliette Lewis) gets a huge laugh and Phillips has fun with several stops along the way, particularly an unfortunate encounter with Danny McBride at a Western Union. Downey and Galifiankis have a delightful anti-chemistry and some of the film’s finest moments involve them bouncing their particular tics off each other.

Several moments designed to add depth and heart to the film feel oddly truncated, particularly a subplot involving Peter’s old friend (Jamie Foxx). Peter’s fears of impending fatherhood and issues with his own dad are rushed over and even the film’s climax seems a bit too eager to get the audience home on time. Only a stop at the Grand Canyon for Ethan to say a final goodbye to his father has any resonance.

Little missteps like that keep “Due Date” from being ranked with the classic road trip movies. I hate to bring up comparisons to “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” again, except that this film so clearly invites them. The reason people return to John Hughes’ classic time and again isn’t just for the big laughs, but because the film has a genuine heart.

“Due Date” is content to just deliver “Hangover”-style laughs and, admittedly, audiences will likely be satisfied with that. It’s a trip worth taking; I’m just not sure how many times you’ll want to repeat the journey.


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