Archive for December, 2009

30
Dec
09

Movie Review: Avatar

A little “Aliens,” a whole lotta “Dances With Wolves.”

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, and Stephen Lang. Directed by James Cameron.

NOTE: I viewed the movie in IMAX 3-D. Oh yeah.

“Avatar” is here, and it’s a benchmark in filmmaking. Maybe not the best benchmark, but it’s important just the same.

I had reservations about seeing the film. While I am a fan of a good chunk of the Cameron catalog (“Aliens,” “The Abyss,” “Terminator 1&2,” “True Lies”) “Titanic” left a bad reaction to the world of film. Yes, the film made serious BANK and still sold more tickets than last year’s uber-blockbuster, “The Dark Knight” and yes, the recreation of the “Titanic” as well as its effects was incredible. The big problem was that the script itself (girl marrying for money meets guy from wrong side of tracks and falls in love with him on a doomed ocean voyage) was so formulaic (read: bad) that it might as well have been culled from a Final Draft template. For all I know, it probably was.

That was part of the problem facing James Cameron as he released his first feature film in 12 years. While Cameron is an incredibly gifted technical director, his screenplays leave something to be desired. Maybe “The Abyss” didn’t need much of one, and “Terminator 2” was the first “Terminator” script extended, but “Aliens” and “True Lies” had reasonably good ones. “Titanic” brought forth the idea that Cameron may be foregoing good storytelling for special effects. “Avatar” was Cameron’s chance to redeem himself as a storyteller/filmmaker.

So, is it everything and a bag of chips? On the technical side “Avatar” is not only the bag of chips, but the chip factory. On the story end, it’s slightly better than “Titanic” but not without its faults.

Speaking of, the story goes like this: Corporal Jack Sully (Sam Worthington) is a disabled Marine; his legs don’t work. His twin brother, who happens to have earned a PhD, was recently killed. Sully is given an opportunity for a change in scenery: the planet Pandora.

Sully gets to the planet and is immediately greeted as “meals on wheels”: he has to use a wheelchair to get around. He meets Pandora lab researcher Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) who shows him to his current assignment: the Avatar project. Using a hybrid combination of Na’vi (12-foot tall indigenous blue people of the planet) and human DNA, the “Avatars” are used for diplomacy because the Na’vi people refuse to speak with humans. Fancy that.

Norm then introduces him to Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao) and Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver). Augustine is pissed-off about the growing hostility between the humans and Na’vi, the fact that her research funding is strained, and that one of her scientists is being replaced by his twin brother; a simpleton self-proclaimed “Jarhead.” She confronts Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi playing mini-putt and channeling Peter Boyle’s character from “Outland”) who tells her that the reason the entire operation is happening at all is because mineral rock located under the Na’vi homeland tree is worth serious BANK (again, “Outland” anyone?). They allow her to do her research because genocide looks bad on the Corporation and that she needs to put up with the new recruit.

Meanwhile, Corporal Sully goes to check-in with Marine Command. Specifically, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Lang). Quaritch is your hard-ass, war-hardened commander with facial scarring who proclaims that going to Hell would be a vacation compared to their stay on Pandora. He secretly speaks with Sully and promises that if Sully can get him some intel, then he can get Sully’s legs restored.

Sully is loaded into what the “Avatar” interface system, which looks like a giant tanning bed with gel-filled padding and a wire “body” cage. Instantly his mind is “transferred” into his avatar and he’s up and gone. He can run again, climb again, swing, jump again, slide again… he’s got legs again and it’s great. Grace and Norm have avatars as well When he wanders off he makes a stupid movie, jeopardizes the people he’s with, and winds up alone to fend for himself.

He attracts a group of “wild dogs” and is saved by Na’vi native Neytiti (Zoe Saldana). While the reasons she saves him are unclear, she tells him to get back to where he once belonged. He follows her and upon being covered in special “seeds” that float around inside the home tree, she brings him to her folks.

Lucky for him her father Eytukan (Wes Studi) is the Chief of their Na’vi clan and his wife/her mother Moat (CCH Pounder) is the psychic spiritualist. In an act of “brainless wonder” he tries introducing himself and they find he’s a “warrior” and which, unbelievably, leads to them deciding to bring him into the clan, teach him their ways, etc. (see also: “A Man Called Horse,” “Dances With Wolves,” and every-other movie where the “civilized ignorant” must go through tribal initiation in order to find his own humanity and get a better grasp of mankind before the eventual disaster that looms on the horizon approaches).

Sully returns to the main base where all sides applaud him for getting initiated into the Na’vi, having gotten farther than anyone previously. The Corporation and the Corps eye him as an asset for intel they had previously not been able to get. This affords Augustine and her team money and opportunities. Selfridge gives Sully an ultimatum: get the natives out of the tree within three months or the Corporation will bulldoze over it.

Sully is required to video after each avatar session and the longer he stays an avatar, the more he wants to be one of the Na’vi. He, along with Augustine and Company, learns that on Pandora everything is interconnected. His name in Na’vi means “moron” but he gainfully receives their attention and appreciation, finally becoming like them. It’s only when the three months are up and he realizes what he’s done that the shit hits the fan and he must fight against the Corporation and the Corps in order to do the right thing and win back the respect of the Na’vi.

Let me talk for a second about how the film succeeded: technically, the movie is f’n incredible. It’s one thing for advertisers to say, “You’ve never seen a movie like this!” and it’s another for the movie to BE that way. Quite literally, you have never seen a movie like this. The colors and the attention to minute detail (reflections on glass, seeing through objects, etc.) and in a 3-D environment make for an incredible watch. This movie was made for IMAX 3-D, and it utilizes as much of it as it can. I cannot state enough how visually cool it is. One of my favorite things was the projected holographic display monitors. I’m tech-geek like that…

Moreso than a lot of movies of this year, this one invokes multiple emotional responses. Heart-pounding action sequences and breath-taking effects are literally that. At moments you can be wowed, saddened, or even cheer for the eventual comeback of the Na’vi people. Some moments are flat, while others are incredibly in-depth. This is filmmaking that raises the bar, and filmmakers (and ones standing in the wings) should take notice and learn).

To be fair, I also have to mention where the movie failed me and that lies primarily in the story. The opening setup worked out well enough but the characters given dialog that, for the most part, felt left-over from “Aliens.” And yes, from a farther-away viewpoint the plot does sound like “Fern Gully.” When the film relies on formula conventions, such as the tribal chief accepting Sully because he is a “warrior” and because of his daughter… it was hard to forgive it for that and it took about an hour to rebuild my believability in the film. Just as the moment of Redemption occurs, there’s another big snafu: the ultimate battle between Quaritch and Sully.

One of the most difficult scenes/parts of this formula is that battle. It has to be believable. It has to be warranted. You’ve seen it dozens of times before and it’s pretty much a convention of filmmaking. In my lifetime Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader would be the first instance I know and remember. Then there’s Biff Tannen versus Marty McFly (or George) in “Back to the Future.” Sometimes, it doesn’t come off so well; I love the film “Dark City,” but the face-off between Mr. Book and John Murdoch didn’t work for me (it has since gotten better with the Director’s Cut). In “Avatar,” Quaritch uses one of the robotic mechs (like the robots in Mechwarrior) and uses a rifle, as well as an overly-large Rambo knife, to kill Sully and his avatar. My suspension of disbelief on this one got shot to hell.

So, why watch this movie? It’s colorful, innovative, breath-taking, and innovative with heart-pounding action sequences and incredible attention to detail. The script/story isn’t perfect (very few are) but when it works, it works well. The general public should see it because there’s not another movie like it (sorry Pixar) and overall it’s good. Filmmakers should watch it to see what can be done with 3-D, and the fact that Cameron raised the bar on how to tell a story (how to tell, not necessarily what the story was about). Writers should see it to get an idea on how to construct a world (and be jealous of Cameron’s visuals).

My grade: B+/A- (technical alone was an A+, but it lost points for story)

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30
Dec
09

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Winding his way down on Baker Street…

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Strong. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Based on the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes is back in the latest adaptation from director Guy Ritchie. The story begins with the illustrious English detective (Robert Downey, Jr.) infiltrating a building’s basement, slowly closing in on a sacred ceremony. Friend and assistant Dr. John Watson (Law) is blocks away and not far behind, bringing with him Scotland Yard’s finest presided over by Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan). Meanwhile, back at the ceremony, a woman in a white dress lies on a stone slab and convulses as incantations are muttered by guys in black robes surrounding her. Watson quickly joins Holmes and they stop the ceremony, arresting its leader Lord Blackwell (Strong).

Blackwell is tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. For his last request he calls for Holmes. Holmes is in a slump, having no clientele for weeks and spending time with experimentation over socialization. Watson is moving out and planning to wed Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). Answering the request Holmes visits Blackwell at prison who tells him that three people will die and he cannot do a thing about it. Also, Holmes will question his sanity and he will rise from the grave. Blackwell is subsequently hanged and Watson confirms that he’s dead.

Or is he? Holmes and Watson are called down to the cemetery because Blackwell has apparently risen from the grave. Preceding that long-lost love and cat burglar Irene Adler (McAdams) re-enters Holmes’ life. She needs him to find out about a guy named Reordan (Oran Gurel). Who she is working for and why is a mystery. Holmes finds Reordan in Blackwell’s coffin and while the whole scene looks like dark magic, to Holmes it smells like something else. Holmes is then abducted by a Secret Society that keeps order in England and who are afraid of Lord Blackwell as well as the black magic he wields.

Caught between a conspiracy, a secret order, and dark magic, Holmes and Company must keep themselves alive long enough to figure it all out. When Irene is nearly cut to pieces Holmes gets away unscathed –until barrels filled with explosives almost take his life, along with Watson and Adler. He’s woken to find that Blackwell, who is now calling the shots over Scotland Yard, wants him brought to his justice. The game is afoot (had to put that somewhere in here) as Holmes uses his wits, strength, and powers of deduction to stop Blackwell and save Parliament.

I liked it. It may not be the best movie of the year (ok, it’s not) but it’s far from the worst and a decent addition to the Sherlock Holmes catalog. I found the movie to be entertaining, witty, funny at times, and decently original.

Let me start off with what worked for the movie. First, it’s difficult to have a character such as Sherlock Holmes and “re-invent” him. The guy has been in movies since 1905 and TV since its inception; Basil Rathbone is the most renown of actors to have played him. Add to that our society’s cynicism (I’m not saying it isn’t undue) about re-inventing characters for franchise (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, etc.) and there are some heavy odds to battle. I’ll give Guy Ritchie the fact that he did a fairly solid movie without relying on too much substance.

Instead of making an “origin” story, or basing the film on a previous book, Ritchie instead opted to craft a creative story that involved dark magic, a difficult subject to tackle in the mystery/suspense genre. “X-Files” pulled it off pretty well, but a late-19th century detective dealing with black magic? Current culture might not be on the boat with that idea, but I found it original enough to keep my interest.

While “Snatch” had amped the style found in “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” Ritchie has kept a good deal of his filmmaking style down (undoubtedly hampered by Madonna). This, his first post-Madonna feature, has him back telling a solid story and taking a few risks (original story). One scene has Holmes in a boxing match. With the folk music playing in the background, it felt like the bare-knuckles boxing match in “Snatch.” Also, there are jump-cuts and fast edits that Ritchie fans will be familiar with. Lastly, the recap on how Holmes “figured it all out” was pretty cool.

One thing I have a problem with is the formula for a Sherlock Holmes movie. Although I will state that as of this writing I have not read any of the books, I know the formula: mystery that leads to a rapid resolution at the end where everything is explained (best used in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) It works for this film because the ending justified the means of getting there, but the “non-motive” formula (where the reason why is really thin and it’s merely an explanation of how things got to where they did) is not conducive to our “CSI” society. Or maybe that’s me.

On the downside, I wanted more –umph- from the movie. I felt like it was too soft, like Ritchie wanted to make something geared more for teenagers and maybe senior citizens instead of adults or kids. I hoped for something great but the return was good/better than mediocre. Plus some of the CG of olde England didn’t feel finished or detailed enough.

As for RDJ as Holmes… interesting. Sherlock Holmes has always been a stoic, staid character. In this movie Ritchie, and Downey, portray him as more of a discombobulated scientist-meets-detective. Law as Watson has more control over emotion and deduction than Holmes. I’m not saying this is bad, just different. McAdams’ Adler is limited, as is Strong’s Blackwell.

For better or worse the movie set itself up for another Sherlock movie, almost shamelessly. We find that Adler worked for someone named Professor Moriarty (longtime arch-nemesis of Holmes) so we’re setup for a face-off between Moriarty and Holmes, should that ever happen. I honestly hate when movies do this and funny enough, most of the time when they do it’s a movie that doesn’t get a sequel (see: “Flash Gordon,” “Daredevil”). Yes, we know the bad guys are out there waiting, but please don’t make it so obvious.

Should you see this movie? I vote that it’s a solid rental/matinee. It’s enjoyable and you’ll laugh a few times. If they work up to a bigger and better “Holmes” movie, more power too them. Otherwise, this one may be forgotten.

My grade: B

30
Dec
09

Movie Review: Invictus

Go rugby!

Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Based on the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation,” by John Carlin

1995. A man trying to keep a country united during change. A rugby team given the charge of going all the way to the World Cup. Adversity. Perseverance. And yet, there was something missing.

Story (and history for those not in the know): Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist who was released from prison after 27 years in 1990. He began campaigning for reconciliation, trying to achieve a balance between races. He ran for election and governed as President of South Africa from 1994-1999. To this day he offers his opinions on political topics and is a celebrated elder statesman.

The movie begins –roughly- with Mandela (Freeman) taking power. With blacks in South Africa able to vote alongside whites for the first time, Mandela has been chosen President. Several of the whites, fearing for themselves and/or their jobs, start to leave the Presidential office when Mandela has a meeting and tells them that if they want to leave they can go but if they want to stay and help, it would be a great service to their country.

Rugby is the national sport and the current team, the South African Springboks, leave something to be desired in terms of winning. Team Captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) has come under a lot of heat for not winning and the local community votes to change the team name, colors, etc. Mandela intervenes and persuades them to reverse the decision.

Mandela calls for a meeting with Pienaar and instills in him the idea of taking the Springboks all the way to the World Cup. With the whole country, if not the world, watching South Africa and its rugby team, will Mandela’s hopes pay off?

Director Clint Eastwood softens the line between politics and sports in tackling the subject matter. The movie is as much about a man fighting the effects of apartheid and unifying a racially torn nation as it is places hope in a team that blacks and whites don’t want to root for, but both sides need to. The country focuses on this one team which no one believes has a shot of going all the way.

What I just described sounds great on paper, even compelling, and the book may be great (I’ve not read it) but the movie seems to feel flat. Maybe it’s out sense of “film programming” in the way that we want our heroes, our teams, to overcome adversity in terms that we can relate to, or for them to go through the ups and downs as they reach the prize. Here the most confrontational anything gets is when Mandela’s bodyguards have white Presidential bodyguards that they have to accept and work with. Aside from stares and shrugs, that’s it. As for the Springboks it’s more about media scrutiny and the fact that they are given the task of winning for South Africa, which no one seems to have a big problem with; again, more short scenes but no one character feels drowned or over-burdened with the responsibility of answering the call.

And maybe Eastwood wasn’t going for that; maybe he just wanted to tell the simple, yet incredible, story of a team that brought a country together. He did just that but it didn’t feel incredible, just something that was going to happen anyway.

I also had problems with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Both are iconic in their respective fields, entertainment and politics, but should one icon be played by another? I read that the only person Mandela saw as able to play him was Freeman and that’s the first person who signed-on to the movie but… it’s difficult to see Freeman as humble. He’s played cops/detectives, God, a Civil War soldier, etc. but I just had problems seeing past the actor as the being the public figure.

Lack of character development may have been the culprit. Pienaar, the team’s captain, comes from a well-to-do white South African family that has a live-in maid and has a beautiful girlfriend (Marguerite Wheatley). The only thing the guy has to do is show up and get his team into shape for the World Cup. No esteem issues, no drugs, no otherwise erroneous or law-breaking behavior or flaws; just rugby.

As for what the title has to do with anything: while in prison Mandela found a poem called “Invictus,” which was originally written by William Ernest Henley in 1875. Invictus means “unconquerable” in Latin. Briefly, I’ll post the last of the poem:

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

Otherwise it’s a good movie. Not great but an interesting “snapshot” of a certain time and place.

My grade: B-

30
Dec
09

Movies on DVD/BD Review: G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

What, no Serpentor?

Starring Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Dennis Quaid, Marlon Wayans, Christopher Eccleston, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Directed by Stephen Sommers. Based on the toy line by Hasbro

It’s Shakespeare for six-year-olds (pending your six-year-old kid isn’t stuck-up and/or going to a private school). It’s over-the-top, laser-blasting, bodies flyin’, shit blowin’ up, fast-paced, unbelievably cartoonish action featuring macho guys, hot chicks, and fight scenes between good and bad guys. In short it’s a literal translation from the cartoon TV show to live-action movie. And it’s entertaining as hell.

Stephen Sommers gives backstories to characters that don’t really need them, but I guess he felt the need to be a “good” filmmaker and clue the audience in on the history of the characters. This only comes into question with the beginning segment showing a “weapons dealer” named James McCullen who, in 1641, was given an “iron mask” for dealing weapons to both the Scots and the French. His received the name “Destro,” short for “destroyer of worlds.” Yeah, okay.

Fast forward to the “not-too-distant future,” where McCullen’s descendant James McCullen runs MARS (Military Armaments Research Syndicate), a weapons contractor that has designed nanomites, micro-robotic bugs that look like green acid when they eat away at metal but come with a safety killswitch. McCullen has armed four warheads with these and wants them transported.

The convoy transporting the much-sought briefcase is sent off-course and intercepted by soldiers with technology far superior than theirs. Of the survivors there is Duke (Tatum) and his best friend Ripcord (Wayans), saved by Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Snake Eyes (Ray Park), and Breaker (Saïd Taghmaoui). Duke, Ripcord, and the case are taken to “The Pit,” G.I. Joe HQ.

The Pit is a gigantic training facility buried deep beneath the Egyptian sand. This place has LEVELS: shooting, hand-to-hand combat, and a water park addition that you makes you navigate through hoops –literally. Imagine the scene in “Wayne’s World” where Wayne opens the door to the room where “people are being trained just like in ‘James Bond’ movies” and multiply that by 10, adding some cool hi-tech gadgets; you get my drift. General Hawk (Quaid) presides over The Pit and G.I. Joe, a multi-national group of “the best of the best.” They pour over what facts they have and Duke offers up info on Ana (Miller), a woman he had proposed to 4 years earlier and one of the enemy combatants. Duke and Ripcord do a training montage and are officially Joe-certified.

There’s a reason for McCullen’s backstory as we find that he did the old con man “protect this for me while I hire someone to take it from you” routine. He’s hellbent on playing all sides against the middle just like his ancestor. Another member of COBRA is The Doctor (Gordon-Levitt), a man breathing through a mask who injects the nano-technology into subjects creating “super soldiers” whose bidding he controls via computer. Also, the Baroness/Ana, is married to Baron deCobray (Grégory Fitoussi), a noted French research scientist. I almost forgot to mention: his base is multi-leveled and underwater.

Peril is the name of the game as McCullen and COBRA unleash one of the four nanomite weapons on the Eiffel Tower. Ripcord and Duke don Delta-6 suits which allow them to run, jump, and shoot faster than anyone or anything else. Duke manages to save most of the Eiffel Tower but is captured in the process. It’s up to the Joes to get Duke back and save the world.

This is the kind of movie I had expected “Transformers” to be: whiz-bang special effects with shallow story, plot, characters, and motivation. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing because do you really need depth in “G.I. Joe?” There are a few instances where Sommers tries rising above the source material by giving the characters backstory but really, this is the kind of movie that doesn’t call for that. Tough guys with guns and lasers, bad chicks in leather and high heels, tech-geek weapons, ninja fights… it’s your inner child’s wet dream.

The one downside to this film (if you’ve already accepted it for what it is) is the inconsistency of the special effects. Some of them are really well done while some of the more massive vehicles (especially those in water or the air) seem to be need another layer or two of rendering. Outside of that as long as you know that this movie is as literal a translation of the cartoon as there ever has been… you’re green for Go.

Why watch the movie? Sienna Miller is hot. So is Rachel Nichols. Cool tech-geek stuff. You’re inner six-year-old which remembers the halcyon days of “Yo Joe!” watching real American heroes take down Cobra needs its fix. Or watch it because Sommers got right what Michael Bay gets wrong.

Watch for “Mummy” alums Arnold Vosloo, Brendan Fraser, and Kevin J. O’Connor.

My grade: C (and knowing is half the battle)

30
Dec
09

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Amusing? Yes. Fantastic? Not so much.

Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, and Brian Cox. Directed by Wes Anderson. Based on the characters and book created by Roald Dahl.

“Boggis and Bunce and Bean, One short, one fat, one lean. These horrible crooks, so different in looks, were nonetheless equally mean.”

So begins our tale of the Foxes; specifically, one Mr. Fox (Clooney). When the movie opens he’s doing stretches under a tree while listening to a radio playing the “Ballad of Davy Crockett.” When Felicity (Streep), a fellow fox, meets up with him he escorts her home but not before traveling an elaborately complex path through a farmhouse to steal some chickens. In a moment of weakness/curiosity, he trips the trap encaging them both. Felicity takes this time to tell him she’s pregnant and should they get out of the mess alive, he’s gonna have to find a new line of work.

Fast-forward twelve fox years. Mr. Fox and Felicity are now married, living in a hole in the ground and have a son named Ash (Schwartzman). Mr. Fox’s new line of work is newspaper columnist for the Gazette. Felicity cleans up around the home and helps raise Ash. Ash lives in his father’s shadow and seemingly can’t get out of it; he’s too short and in no way the athlete his father was.

Twelve years is a long time for any fox to stay the “straight and narrow,” and Mr. Fox is no exception. The first part of his “plan” is to move and against the advisement of his lawyer Badger (Murray), he moves to a tree within perfect view of the farms ran by Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. Incidentally, his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) shows up because his brother-in-law is in the hospital. Kristofferson is tall, thin, and athletic. He enjoys yoga meditations and has a want for moral accountability. The wheels begin to turn in Mr. Fox’s head…

Let me elaborate on B, B, and B. Boggis (Robin Hurlstone) is a medium-sized chicken farmer. Bunce (Hugo Guinness) is a shorter person who offers a little bit of everything but only eats duck liver. They are both trumped by Bean (Gambon): he farms turkeys and apples, as well as the best alcoholic cider ever made. Malcontent is putting it nicely for this guy; he drinks his apple cider and quietly smokes until Mr. Fox comes on the scene…

Which happens with the help of Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky), a possum friend (and the tree’s superintendent) that Mr. Fox proposes “one last job” to. They break into Boggis’s farm and steal a couple of chickens. With the sudden “rush” of thieving again, Mr. Fox suggests a “triple-header,” going for Bunce and Bean’s farms as well. The raid on Bunce’s is a success. With the help of Kristofferson they ransack Bean’s but run into a psychotic, knife-wielding Rat (Dafoe). Even though the burglary was a success, it didn’t come without consequence: Mrs. Fox finds out and she is not happy, threatening to leave if Mr. Fox doesn’t change his ways.

Bean gets Boggis and Bunce together and pools all their resources to exterminate Mr. Fox and company. Following a shoot-out, Bean takes Mr. Fox’s tail as a trophy and uses it as a necktie. They go after his tree and the family burrows even farther down into the ground. Bean continues to come up with ways to hurt Mr. Fox and the ones he loves and lives with. Meanwhile, Mr. Fox gathers his community together to fight against B, B, and B. When Ash and Kristofferson go to retrieve Mr. Fox’s tail, Kristofferson is captured by Bean and is held hostage. With the stakes raised, the animal community in peril, and his nephew captured, Mr. Fox has to come up with a plan that’s “fantastic,” and fast.

So I’ll take a moment to correct myself. I define fantastic in the sense of “awe-inspiring, magical, almost fantasy-like,” which while it does have elements of fantasy, there aren’t too many of them (animal personification barely counts). According to the dictionary it’s “unrestrainedly fanciful; extravagant” and “based on or existing only in fantasy; unreal,” which the movie does achieve, so I guess I we may both be right.

While Mr. Fox is eccentric, the story felt ho-hum. Things just happen. Maybe I’m looking too deeply into this one. The point in the movie where the “stakes are raised” up until the end was done really well. I had no problem with the stop-animation used; that’s what drew me to see the movie. I didn’t mind the soundtrack which featured The Beach Boys, Jarvis Cocker, Burl Ives, and the Rolling Stones. I thought it was “cute” how, instead of cussing, he used the word “cuss.” For example: “What the cuss?” (fill in your own word). For the most part, the movie just felt lackluster.

I do give credit to Wes Anderson for trying something new. This is his first feature stop-animation movie. Instead of dealing with the problems of people who have money (“Rushmore,” “Tenenbaums,” “Life Aquatic,”) he went the opposite direction. I’ll give him fair credit and due on these things.

If you have kids who have an attention span, you may want to check this one out. It’s not a bad movie but I was expecting more.

Watch/listen for Wes Anderson regular Owen Wilson as Ash’s coach.

My grade: B-

18
Dec
09

Movie Review: The Blind Side

A good movie based on a true story.

Starring Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Kim Dickens and Ray McKinnon. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Based on the book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” by Michael Lewis

Maybe it’s me getting older. The hype that surrounds certain movies often seem to overwhelm how the movies actually are. Sure, there are a few worthy of the hype machine yelling their praises from the rooftops but if this year has taught me anything about movie watching and reviewing it’s that more oft than not the movies you don’t expect to be all that great end up being the ones you enjoy the most. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised with “The Blind Side.” In all fairness if not for the fact that I was able to get into the free screening of it, I probably wouldn’t have seen it at all.

I’m not a huge fan of sports movies, especially football. After “Friday Night Lights,” and “Varsity Blues,” I was pretty sure the field had been played for all it was worth. Here came a football movie that wasn’t so much about the game as it was about a guy who became a player, and for once it didn’t take place in Texas.

“The Blind Side” is based on the story of Michael Oher. Michael , aka “Big Mike,” was born in the Projects of Memphis. He is one of 12 kids who grew up never knowing his father and whose mother spent her existence on crack, among other drugs. Going from foster home to foster home, always running back to take care of his mother he eventually ends up sleeping on his uncle’s couch. His uncle takes him to predominantly white Christian school and tries to get him in. With a GPA around the same as a blood-alcohol level, the cards are stacked against him.

One night while walking home he’s noticed by the Tuohy family. Leigh Anne Tuohy is a socialite who runs errands and buys/sells things. Her husband Stephen (McGraw) runs 85 Taco Bells. They live in a nice house with two kids: Stephen Jr., aka “SJ,” and Collins. The family is sports-oriented: dad played basketball at Ole Miss, mom was a cheerleader, and sister runs track, plays volleyball, and is a cheerleader. Leigh Anne, seeing “Big Mike” as someone needing assistance, decides to lend a helping hand.

Michael’s life is slowly turned around as Leigh Anne provides him with things and experiences he’s never had: owning a bed, having new clothes, studying for classes, etc. Leigh Anne’s own world is changed as she sees Hurt Village, aka The Projects, a side of Memphis her friends would rather take pity on and throw charity money at then volunteer help with. The family recognizes Michael as a “diamond in the rough” and take him in as one of their own.

Not all is smooth sailing as Michael has his share of bad experiences: his mother’s last known residence is locked with an eviction notice on it. Teachers aren’t quite sure what to make of him. He gets into a car accident. He encounters racist idiocy on the football field. His anti-social behavior has him keeping a distance from everyone. Leigh Anne does the best she can to help him out at every turn.

The final product of it all is that Michael Oher becomes the most sought-after offensive lineman in the history of sports. He attends Ole Miss and ends up drafted into the NFL. Currently he’s #4 among rookie players in the nation.

What I liked about this movie is that is was equal parts sports, learning, and the human condition. It’s about taking a chance and believing in something; it’s about making a difference. There’s a note at the end of the film that he could’ve turned out to be someone living in Hurt Village whose life was cut short. Because someone took the time to see him as being something bigger than themselves, he’s turned out just fine.

How about the performances? I’m not a huge fan of Sandra Bullock but she does disappear into this role and it seems to be something she believes in. I’ve never seen country star Tim McGraw act before so I can only say that he does well. Quinton Aaron, who plays Michael Oher, does a great job in conveying a teenage boy who has endured a life of hurt and must learn to trust and believe in himself.

Why should you see this movie? If you’ve been waiting for that movie that has a good story with a small amount of morals and message, this is it. No cussing (that I can recall), no overt drug use (though some are shown in one scene), no incredibly sappy lines or scenes (though some may strike a chord with you). It’s a well crafted and executed true story, which is saying a lot.

Watch for Phillip Fulmer, Lou Holtz, Tom Lemming, Houston Nutt, Ed Orgeron, Franklin ‘Pepper’ Rodgers, Nick Saban, and Tommy Tuberville playing themselves.

Useless but Cool Trivia: Kim Dickens and Ray McKinnon were both in the HBO TV series, “Deadwood.”

My grade: B+

16
Dec
09

Movie News and Views December 16, 2009 Poster Edition

Hey everyone! It’s the last Poster Edition of Movie News and Views for 2009! I thought about recapping the year but… it’s not my style for this column. Here’s the last tidbits of Hollywood info from me until next year,

– The “300” prequel (“299?”) has been announced and its current title is “Xerxes.” It’s the battle of Marathon through the ink of Frank Miller.

– Kevin Smith’s “A Couple of Dicks,” will be renamed “Cop Out.”

– As if there isn’t enough emphasis on special effects, 15 movies are competing for Visual Effects Academy Award. The Oscars will be broadcast live on March 7, 2010 on ABC.

– For those who have converted (or are like me, recently converted) Frodo and Company will be on Blu-Ray on April 6, 2010 (you can pre-order on March 2). All three of the “LOTR” will be in one set, released in their Theatrical Versions. For those wanting the Extended Editions, you’ll have to wait longer (dammit).

– The U.S. Congress is fighting unemployment by investing $30 million into fighting movie piracy. No word on combating ninjas…

– “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The eagerly-awaited mash-up of Jane Austen and the undead has attached director David O. Russell (“Three Kings”). The production has officially announced the involvement of Natalie Portman as not only a producer but the lead actress as well. This just keeps getting’ better and better…

– Nic Cage is in the new “Kick-Ass” movie. That might cause it to lose the credibility it had…

– “The Runaways” is a film about the girl group formed in the 70s that featured Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, and Lita Ford. The film is loosely based on Currie’s book, “Neon Angel: the Cherie Currie Story” and stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as Currie and Jett, respectively.

– MTV is remaking “Teen Wolf” as a TV series.

– What do you get for the cinema aficionado who has every DVD? Why not a book? Specifically, “Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made.” At a spry 2874 pages and very Limited Edition, no movie nerd would be complete without it. For $700.00, it’s a veritable steal! Hurry now! Supplies are limited! Check out the website at:

http://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/film/all/03844/facts.stanley_kubricks_napoleon_the_greatest_movie_never_made.htm

– Good news for indie-makers: Paramount Pictures is allocating funds for movies that cost $100k and less. If you can sell a movie that would have a budget under that, you may get to see it on the silver screen. This is inspired by the performance of “Paranormal Activity” at the box office. Ah, the little $15,000 film that could…

– Following “Avatar,” James Cameron is helming a 3-D remake of “Fantastic Voyage.” Wonder what kind of love story exists on the microbial level…

– Future candidates for Remake Radar: “Romancing the Stone,” “Overboard,” “Amityville Horror,” “The Howling”

– To further Nic Cage’s money problems, his ex-wife is suing him for $13 million.

– The domestic Box Office is expected to break the $10 billion dollar mark. Those blockbusters are really adding up…

– Howard Stern was selected, at random, to be part of the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations committee. That should be fun…

– According to Jeff Bridges, “Iron Man” had no script. I knew it!

– Feeling that he has not achieved what he set out to do as an actor, Alec Baldwin is quitting acting after his contract with “30 Rock” is up. I understand, man. I sat through “Mercury Rising.”

– Universal Studios is introducing “flipper” technology: insert a dolphin… no, wait. Much like the unfortunate HD DVD, the technology has Blu-Ray on one side of a disc and standard DVD on the other. This is for those who have yet to by Blu-Ray, or maybe they already own a player and want the ability to flip it over for s&g. The first to go to this newfangled technology will be the “Bourne” trilogy of movies.

– “Shrek Forever After” will be the fourth, and final, of the CG animated green ogre series.

– Dirk Benedict has announced he will have a cameo in the new “A-Team” movie. That leaves Mr. T as the only living “team” member. I can’t figure out how to fit “I pity the fool” in this…

– Apparently the WB is waiting out their legal disputes with the Siegel and Schuster estates before getting back into the “Superman” franchise.

– If you’re a fan of the “Happy Gilmore Swing” (which requires a running start before whacking at the ball with the club), don’t go to Canada. The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia has deemed it illegal.