Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Showbits bloggers' thoughts on films they've just seen, both new and old.

Jean-Claude Van Damme Is JCVD

06-Oct-09 1:11 PM by
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Some films creatively walk the line between fiction and fact, though not all such ventures are cinematic successes. Although the crossovers (in both theme and cast) between the movie No Holds Barred and the then-WWF were interesting, neither half stood alone well. Still, the intersection has potential, and so I was intrigued when I saw the trailer for the film JCVD.

JCVDThe movie stars 49-year-old Jean-Claude Van Damme, the "Muscles from Brussels", a down-on-his-luck has-been actor who needs money to pay for his child custody case. That is both the star and his character, as Van Damme plays himself in JCVD. The divergence comes when, unable to find work in Hollywood, he returns home to Belgium and robs a bank. The hostage situation that ensues is unlike any other for the star power of its perpetrator.

At least, that's what I took the plot to be when I saw the film advertised a year or two ago. But anyone who watches the first 20 minutes, or who reads the back of the DVD case, will find that Van Damme is not a crook but simply someone who stumbles into a bank heist already in progress. The true villains then brainstorm to make their celebrity hostage into the mastermind behind the crime, lending their demands more authority.

Although this is an unexpected twist, it is also a disappointing one. Rather than look at how someone copes with the loss of fame, talent, and family, JCVD instead becomes a ponderous standoff without any of the substance of Dog Day Afternoon. The entire film hinges on its titular hero, but when Van-Damme is shifted from desperate actor to hapless hostage, JCVD's strength is put in a corner, without more interesting characters or events to take its place.

The film captivated even less of my attention by constantly shifting perspectives. Some scenes are told in flashback, even to the point of re-watching familiar scenes but from different viewpoints. Anything shot in "the present" has a nauseating, greenish tint. I thought the red or blue component video cable had come loose of my television, but no amount of jiggling could correct it. Finally, I looked up the official trailer and found the same issue — or "feature", rather. It made the movie feel like a security camera tape instead of a professional production. But if you're a slow reader like me, you'll probably spend more time reading the French subtitles than you will looking at the imagery.

I confess that I watched only the first 40 minutes of this film and fast-forwarded the rest, so this cannot be considered a properly informed review. Nonetheless, I'm discouraged at the issues this film could've tackled and chose not to. Any star who depends on his body's ability to execute demanding moves must eventually face the deterioration of age. In Jackie Chan's autobiography, he describes his decision to use CGI to complement his natural agility. Van Damme has apparently chosen to try non-action roles, but he is too connected to the genre that made him famous. Without those moves, JCVD falls flat.

Nothing Fishy about Ponyo

28-Aug-09 10:38 AM by
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It's been a good year for animation. Early in 2009, we had the phenomenal Coraline, a technically brilliant stop-motion that provided a chilling horror experience without being inappropriate for its target audience. Later, we received Up, a melancholy but still excellent movie that lives up to the high standard that past Pixar productions have set. Now, we have the wonderful Ponyo, the newest title from the most respected animator in the world today, Hayao Miyazaki.

Ponyo's plot is very heavily influenced on the classic tale of The Little Mermaid. It's a simple tale: the fish, Ponyo, meets a human boy, falls in love, and becomes a human. There are a few complications — Ponyo's father dislikes humanity, Ponyo's transformation upsets the balance of nature — but on the whole, the plot never gets much more complicated than the simple friendship of two children that forms its base.

Ponyo is geared towards smaller children — my 8-year old and 20-month old daughters both greatly enjoyed it — but there's much to be enjoyed by older viewers as well. The animation quality is phenomenal, with a heavy storm providing many especially spectacular moments. Characterization is well done and the film is filled with gentle humor that does not rely on awkwardly inserted pop culture humor like so many lesser animated films use.

The English localization of this originally Japanese movie is respectable. Of all of the voice actors, the only one I had any issues with Liam Neeson, not because he did a bad job but because his voice seemed at odds with his character's appearance. That's the only minor quibble I had; the rest of the cast fits perfectly and does an excellent job with the voices.

All in all, I highly recommend Ponyo to children as well as adults who appreciate beautiful artwork and simple but cute stories. Audiences looking for something darker and deeper like some of Miyazaki's earlier work such as Princess Mononoke may wish to look elsewhere. If you're still not sure, see the trailer after the break.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Adapted Script

04-Aug-09 1:45 PM by
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Though scoffed at by some as children's literature, the Harry Potter series has nonetheless made a fan of me, though not a hardcore one. I bought each book upon its release, read it once, then put it away, never to be re-read. In a way, my lack of fanaticism has prevented me from appreciating the degree of detail with which author JK Rowling has invested her world, as she rarely repeats herself, choosing instead to reward those who have dedicated themselves to her work.

But it took only a single reading for the sixth entry, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to be my favorite book of all seven, so I had high expectations for the movie. I knew the constraints of the film medium would likely leave it wanting, and I was right — but even with that forewarning, I was still disappointed.

I enjoyed the book's depth of characterization, especially as we came to know many players we previously knew only by name and deed. But in the movie, the history of Voldemort, Dumbledore, and the titular prince are all emasculated, and the ending stripped of much of its tension and the opportunity for Harry to show how much he's matured. Further, one of the joys of the books is never knowing what trivial fact will later prove significant. With the hindsight provided by the movies now lagging behind the completion of their source material, I can say that I'm challenged to see how this movie sets up the story's conclusion in the 2010 and 2011 releases of the two-part Deathly Hallows.

If I find fault with the script, I am not so easily critical of its actors: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint continue to perform admirably, as they have since founding the roles in 2001. Perhaps it was because I had, less than a week earlier, experienced my third viewing of the new Star Trek film, but it was in watching Half-Blood Prince that I finally realized that Rowling has done with her protagonists what Gene Roddenberry did with his: created a balanced triumvirate. There is the cool, logical, dispassionate sidekick; an emotional, human counterpart; and the main character who looks to both for support, balancing their advice while still relying on instinct. I am not proposing a one-to-one relation with Spock, McCoy, and Kirk, but there is definitely a tried-and-true formula at work here.

The film makes good use of its minor characters as well. I was consciously aware that Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) had zero lines in Order of the Phoenix, relegating her to annoying pouty faces, which is thankfully not the case here. And Natalia Tena is back as Tonks — but without the purple hair she featured in Order of the Phoenix, seems somehow less cute to me.

From a production standpoint, Half-Blood Prince left me with an observation I've never made about this film's franchise's previous installments: it has an excellent soundtrack. I don't just mean the recurring Harry Potter theme, but also the original pieces that swell dramatically at just the right points. Although composer Nicholas Hopper worked on this film's predecessor, that soundtrack didn't leave an impression. The last film to make me want to buy its soundtrack was Enchanted, which was a musical; for a non-musical to similarly motivate me is unusual.

I did not leave the theater disappointed; the action, acting, pacing, and soundtrack of Half-Blood Prince were together worth the price of admission. But fans of the books will miss what was left on the cutting room floor, and non-readers may find the plot a bit confusing without the underlying support.

I want to close by sharing a product of Emerson College (where I myself am a student), which collaborated with Warner Bros. to create this trailer that takes the unique approach of featuring no actual film footage, instead focusing on how Rowlings' fictional sport has influenced real-life athletes:



Star Trek + ER + Buffy = The Librarian

16-Jul-09 10:46 AM by
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I'm a fan of Jonathan Frakes, be he acting as Commander William Riker or directing silly sci-fi flicks. It's been two years since the second Librarian film, a made-for-TV series of action-adventure movies in the style of Indiana Jones. Looking back, I wonder why I judged the first two entries so harshly, as I thought the recent third film, The Curse of the Judas Chalice, to be a fun romp.

The main character, Flynn Carsen, is a young man with an eidetic memory and a knack for finding himself in trouble — a perfect combination for someone charged with finding and preserving all the artifacts of lore. His newest adventure sends him not through mountains, deserts, and other exotic locales (been there, done that, I suppose), but to New Orleans in search of the relic that made the first vampire.

And yes, this film features not just vampiric cups but vampires themselves (in much the way the fourth Indiana Jones film featured aliens — do we really need to suspend our disbelief this much?). But I love how stereotypical they aren't. They aren't pale, they don't wear all leather, they don't mope around, and they definitely don't sparkle. There's hardly anything to give away who is or is not a vampire. And really, isn't that how it should be? If I had to flop my sleeping schedule and change my diet, I don't know that it'd make me evil.

I've never seen Noah Wyle play any role other than Flynn Carsen or Steve Jobs, so I can't attest to his acting range, but one trait he has down cold is subtly competent. Flynn can get himself out of any situation, even if he is easily distracted and rarely sees them coming. Stana Katic (Quantum of Solace, The Spirit) as the love interest has a twinkle in her eye that reminded me of… I'm not sure who. Perhaps Famke Jannsen's character on Star Trek: The Next Generation? Bob Newhart and Jane Curtin (Third Rock from the Sun) are amusing in supporting roles as library staff.

Jonathan Frakes (can you spot his cameo?) directs the action well, though again, The Librarian scores points for execution, not originality. There was one odd transition, one scene that made no sense, and a plot twist that can be seen coming a mile away (when has Bruce Davison ever played a good guy?). There's also a plot device that's lifted right from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the ending is similar to Twilight. But it's obvious the actors are having fun, which makes it easy to empathize with them and the occasionally hard decisions they make.

The DVD's special features includes a deconstruction of the special effects, similar to the Pink Five video previously posted here. Though some are obvious, the extent of the subtle effects is astounding. A rural library becomes a metropolitan one; a townhouse becomes a cathedral. It's a stunning reminder that little of what we see out of today's Hollywood is truly authentic. Kudos to the actors for not letting that stop them from making a film on par, in both quality and enjoyability, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Chai Wallah Millionaire

13-Jul-09 11:45 AM by
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I'd heard much about Slumdog Millionaire, but all of it praise; I didn't actually know anything about the film itself. From its title, I assumed it to be a violent tale of gangs and turf wars. I couldn't've been more wrong — or more pleasantly surprised!

In the spirit of The Usual Suspects, the film begins near the end, with the main character being interrogated by the police as to how he got where he is. It seems Jamal, an uneducated 18-year-old from the slums of Mumbai, has made it further in the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? than anyone ever has. Therefore, he must be cheating. But through a series of flashbacks, the police and the audience learn that each question he was asked on the show coincidentally corresponded with a chronological event in his short life. Through these vignettes, we discover the hardship he has endured and the loved ones he has lost and found.

The first half of the film can be distressing, only because it reflects the reality of life in a slum — or, more accurately, life in India. Most people (including me) don't comprehend how impoverished that country is compared to America. We associate India with little more than call centers and customer support, and though the film does offer us a glimpse of that, the reality is far starker and needs no exaggeration for Hollywood. One Columbia University student recently spent a semester abroad and made these observations:

While I lived perfectly comfortably, and in no ways was I even close to being among the poorest of India, I saw the poverty and the filth from the very moment I woke up (the maid who swept my room and washed my clothes arriving before sunup only to leave by 8am to get to her ‘real job’ then to return at 6pm to do night duties) to the moment I went to bed (the starving puppies that run wild even in the nicest of neighborhoods and never sleep at night, whining all night). And it was there in every moment in between: no trash cans in the whole country, people throwing every piece of waste and garbage out the train windows day and night …

For Slumdog's Jamal to have remained within this environment without succumbing to it makes him a true hero. I don't speak of his becoming a doctor or lawyer or scientist; the story doesn't extend that far. I speak more of his dedication to people and values over his own self-gain; that, despite few people watching out for him, he consistently chooses to watch out for others. In that respect, the story may be predictable, but by giving it an unfamiliar setting, it becomes new again.

It's also unbelievable, in that a slumdog would become a millionaire (obviously, the local authorities agree). But this artistic license underscores that even the smallest, most trivial detail of our lives can ultimately prove significant. A long-dormant memory might bubble up at just the right moment, or a missed train might lead to a new adventure. A man can have an Apple II and a woman multiple sclerosis so that three decades later their son will fly 1500 miles and accidentally find what he'd always been looking for. We often overlook these details, yet that is often where life is found. Slumdog Millionaire manifests that truth in a uniquely Hollywood fashion.

Just as Firefly was interspersed with Chinese, Slumdog Millionare liberally alternates between English and Hindi. When understanding Hindi is essential to the plot, subtitles appear not under the frame, but within it — an unusual style that makes the words appear to be coming from the actors' mouths, except when the text illegibly blends into the background. However, like Firefly, there are no subtitles when the foreign text is throwaway, and I was often left wondering if what I'd just heard was Hindi, or if my hearing had failed to understand English dialogue. As a result, I watched most of the movie with the subtitles on (which may be useful if you have trouble with accents anyway).

I enjoyed this film but am surprised it won nine Academy Awards. Would the same story set in the streets of New York have done as well? Or would that not even have been the same story? Regardless, I recommend Slumdog Millionaire, not as "the feel-good film of the decade" as some would portray it, but for the fascinating — and, at times, heartbreaking — tale of growing up with nothing, yet still having everything to lose.

A New Star Trek for a New Generation

08-May-09 6:32 PM by
Filed under Reviews, Star Trek; 6 comments.

My father with his oldest and youngest sons

My father with his oldest and youngest sons

After years of cautious optimism, this is the week we've long lived and prospered for: the return of Star Trek to the silver screen. Much has changed in the seven years since the last film, including the cancellation of the TV series Enterprise, marking not only the end of a continuous 18-year run for the franchise on the small screen, but also a changing of the guard. A familiar cadre of talent had run Star Trek for decades — into the ground, some would say. The 2009 film, directed and produced by J.J. Abrams and starring mostly unknowns, could either invigorate or distort Star Trek. With my father (who introduced me to the show in 1987) and my oldest brother, we were there for last night's premiere. How did we — dedicated and casual Star Trek fans, young and old — react?

I'll answer for me: The first ten minutes had me in tears. That isn't hyperbole or dramatic effect; it's literal truth. This action-packed opening sequence is so tragic, yet so heroic; and what it does to the Star Trek universe is terrible, yet also elegant and necessary. This film is both a prequel and a reboot, documenting the first voyage of Kirk, Spock, and company — but it's not the same ship and crew we remember from 1966. There are differences, both subtle and profound, which the opening sequence makes possible, thus giving the creative team the leeway they need to make something both fresh and familiar.

Fans will find much to like here, such as in nods to Trek lore that don't feel forced, be it the death of a character or Chekov's accent. But there's more going on here than in the details, such as the recasting of the iconic crew. I found it surprisingly easy to accept fresh faces in roles that we've long identified with particular actors, and these newcomers' performances are mostly true to the characters as originally written, without being mockeries. Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty each get notable scenes; Bones and Uhura, a bit more. But this adventure is really about the young, brash Spock and Kirk. These aren't the older, wiser Starfleet officers we're accustomed to, yet I can imagine Chris Pine's Kirk acting and reacting just as William Shatner's Kirk would've under these circumstances.

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The Majestic Jim Carrey

23-Apr-09 1:15 PM by
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I recently rewatched the 1998 film The Truman Show. I've often considered the movie, ostensibly a comedy, to be Jim Carrey's first dramatic role, representing a turning point for the actor similar to what Stranger than Fiction did for Will Ferrell. (The two movies aren't all that different in plot, either.) Not to say that comedic roles are of lesser value, or that Carrey wouldn't or shouldn't continue to capitalize on that strength; but The Truman Show demonstrated that he was not limited to that genre. Inspired to trace his growth, I turned to his next dramatic film, The Majestic.

The Majestic (click for full size)One morning in 1953, Jim Carrey wakes up on a California beach shore with no memory of anything that's come before. The residents of the nearby sleepy town of Lawson find the amnesiac Carrey to bear a striking resemblance to Luke Trimble, one of their 60+ young men who died in World War II. Since Luke's body was never found, and a decade can age both a person's face and his father's and fianceé's memories, it seems plausible that their lost son has returned.

But there is a fundamental flaw: this is not the movie's opening. We are instead introduced to Peter Appleton, a Hollywood screenplay writer whose career is a victim of the Red Scare. Depressed and with nowhere to turn, he goes for a drive one rainy night, resulting in the accident that leaves him on Lawson's shore.

As a result, the audience finds no mystery in Carrey's identity; even as we can relate to the hope that he is Luke, we know that he is not. This approach is not without benefit, as we are able to cringe as we see the townsfolk expect of "Luke" what only we know he cannot provide. But if we are to be introduced to Carrey first as someone who is decidedly not Luke, then further exposure to Appleton's life would've made the development of Carrey's character more marked.

Despite that one scripting decision, characters are what the film is all about, and the director knows how to use them. The Majestic is directed by Frank Darabont, who later relied on some of the same talent in The Mist. Luke's fianceé, played by Laurie Holden, has a worldliness that sets her apart from the townsfolk, yet they share a faith and hope in common. Jeffrey DeMunn as the town's mayor is more optimistic than a stereotypical politician, yet two scenes — one in which he speaks not a word — subtly make a more serious character of him. Its these smaller roles that are perhaps the show's strength: though Carrey is the star, The Majestic is ultimately an ensemble show. Carrey is given scenes with almost every character, major and minor, giving a depth to what would otherwise be throwaway extras. Even smaller parts by Bob Balaban and Bruce Campbell find their talent effectively exploited.

Everything ties together in a story that gives its characters numerous obstacles, but not without believable means for resolution. The climax comes in a scene that is so tense, and in which Appleton is so nervous, that I was overwhelmed by the tension and had to pause the movie to calm down before proceeding. For something that powerful, the buildup is worth it. Otherwise, at 2.5 hours, the film might be a bit long — and oddly, and the titular Majestic, a theater Luke Trimble and his dad used to run and which Carrey works to restore, is featured prominently for only 20 minutes, starting 1:15 into the film. But ultimately, though I was initially surprised by much of the plot, many of those surprises proved to be pleasant ones, as even if I didn't know what the director was doing, he proved that he did.

This cross between Random Harvest, Pleasantville, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with an incongruous tip of the hat to Saving Private Ryan near the end) deserved better than the reception it received upon its 2001 release. Even if the script is as unoriginal as the critics decried, Carrey's performance had me on the edge of my seat, something Ace Ventura never could've done.

Ten Years on the Thirteenth Floor

14-Apr-09 3:43 PM by
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The Matrix turned ten years old on March 31st. It's been often imitated but rarely surpassed, including by its own sequels. But what many people don't realize is that it was one of many science fiction films released nearly simultaneously that explored the nature of reality. The Matrix's popularity overshadowed several other entries in that category, including Dark City (Feb 27, 1998), ExistenZ (Apr 23, 1999), and The Thirteenth Floor (May 28, 1999).

Having seen the other films in that trifecta, I recently watched The Thirteenth Floor. In this movie, the main character heads a software company that has spent the last six years developing a virtual world and interface. When the company's founder is murdered, the only clues to his attacker's identity are to be found in their own product.

The method of insertion into this cyberscape can be described as a cross between TRON and Quantum Leap. The Thirteenth Floor's Matrix is a persistent world whose inhabitants go about their business, unaware of their unreal nature. Each of this world's programmers has a virtual avatar into whom they can insert their personas, temporarily supplanting its virtual host. While there, the programmers experience a world as real as their own, but though they still look like themselves, their behavior may attract attention from those who find their friend's, co-worker's, or spouse's personality suddenly replaced.

The lead in this film is played by Craig Bierko, who looks like a cross between Brendan Fraser and Jake Gyllenhaal. He hasn't done many significant roles since then, which is almost too bad, as his rugged features and piercing eyes lend his roles a memorable intensity. His cohort is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who starred in the time travel film Happy Accidents. D'Onofrio has perhaps the most demanding role in the show, as we see more of his avatar than anyone else's. The actor's ability to create two characters of different appearance and mannerisms in the same film and switch between them is impressive.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning Gretchen Mol, who later went on to play The Notorious Bettie Page. Though her role here as the mysterious love interest is minor compared to the lead, she nonetheless keeps the plot moving with her machinations.

Though The Thirteenth Floor's movie lacks punch, getting there is most of the fun. Unlike in ExistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor's plot actually makes sense. Viewers will never be lost by the plot: it has enough clues that one can figure out what's happening, but some clever touches along the way keep it from being too predictable. I found it somewhat unbelievable that their first use of the virtual world proved flawless — if only every beta test could be so bug-free! There also appears to be no hardware interface between man and machine, which raises all sorts of technological questions. But only a programmer would let himself be bothered by such cinematic license. The Thirteenth Floor will likely be neither celebrated nor remembered upon its tenth anniversary next month, but it doesn't have to be — even without The Matrix's impact, it's still a fun way to spend ninety minutes of any year.