Capsules for 2006

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2006. Includes all the movies of 2006 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

Akeelah and the Bee
Director: Doug Atchison
Rating: 8/10
If there's ever any evidence that originality and predictability aren't necessarily absolute elements by which to judge a movie, Akeelah and the Bee is it. In this Karate Kid of spelling bees, there's pretty much no point where I couldn't see what was coming, yet I found myself invested in the fate of the characters anyway. I'm sure it had a lot to do with solid acting, especially from where it counted the most -- Keke Palmer as Akeelah is versatile and charismatic in a bona fide breakthrough performance. She gets great support from the ever reliable Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, whose character takes a welcome turn that just makes you want to sympathize and cheer some more. Actually, the movie's whole theme of inclusive community support, communicated with all sincerity, adds greatly to its overall likeability, practically ensuring that its predictability becomes more than just a non-factor -- it becomes a strength, since we just want to see everything turn out well. Extra points are awarded for ethnic diversity, with J.R. Villarreal stealing his scenes in particular. As the movie itself would advocate, strong support from every little true, honest element come together to make Akeelah a winner. (added 9/21/2006)

All the King's Men
Director: Steven Zaillian
Rating: 4/10
Steven Zaillian's All the King's Men possesses what any attempted "prestige picture" should dread: a conspicuous sense of self-importance. It shows in the way Jude Law, playing a journalist-turned-political aide struggling to reconcile ugly political realities with his lost sense of idealism, mopes about with a forlorn expression in every scene; in the way Sean Penn, playing corrupt governor Willie Stark, is only shown either doling out cynical profundities or rabblerousing his working class constituency in fiery speeches; in the way the score oppressively signals every key moment; and in the way the sunlit cinematography advertises the artistry in its image constructions of 1950's Louisiana. In other words, it feels heavy and it never lets up, creating a low-energy, dreary experience surrounded by an air of preachiness. As a current warning of omnipresent political corruption, it's muddled in its delivery; the motives of Law's protagonist are mystifying; and the dimensions of its supporting characters are badly underplayed. Perhaps most unfortunately, though, it stands to be compared to Robert Rossen's superior 1949 same-titled adaptation of this Robert Penn Warren novel. Its clarity of themes and character trajectories, delivered through a focused, well-paced script and with an unassuming tone, makes it a pleasure to watch, feeling ever relevant. And frankly, Broderick Crawford's Willie Stark, one of the most effective performances in the movies, could mop up Penn's greasier version, who never feels like he once had true idealist roots, on the stump any day. (added 9/21/2006)

Annapolis
Director: Justin Lin
Rating: 3/10
Poor working-class kid (James Franco) barely makes it into the Naval Academy. His blue-collar father doesn't approve and would rather see him remain as a riveter. Once there, he finds a romantic interest in a petite but tough female officer, and he ends up rooming with the teacher's pet, the screwaround, and an overweight kid who wants to do his hometown proud but whose predilection for snacking makes him the least likely to pass physical tests. Meanwhile, the protagonist runs afoul of a superior officer who singles him out as someone who isn't good enough. This guy also happens to be a boxing champ and, what do you know, our hero's also a boxer and the Academy has a boxing tournament, so etc. These aren't characters, these are character templates, and the story they've been cut-and-pasted into couldn't be more cornball. The movie's also thematically confused -- our hero is critical of the harsh system that utilizes demoralization and somehow scraps by with his rebellious attitude, yet the whole project feels like a hoo-rah recruitment video for the Navy. One wonders why Justin Lin, who's made Asian-American themed features up to this point, was tapped to oversee this robot parade. He gets to have fun with the visuals during the boxing matches, but otherwise this movie's about as indistinct as they come. (added 1/26/2006)

The Ant Bully
Director: John A. Davis
Rating: 5/10
The glut of 3-D animated movies is finally making the belly swell -- so much more of it is looking like junk food, and one's appetite for it should logically start to diminish. It's time for the good ones to start standing out, and, unfortunately, The Ant Bully isn't one of them. There's nothing drastically wrong with it -- the animation is competent, the voice work is passable, the story has decent morals, and the whole thing is probably just energetic enough to distract the children for whom it's meant. It's just also utterly forgettable. Its tone reflects other similar productions that have come before, its characters act predictably enough that I'll bet savvy kids can see what's coming next (and for the second time this year, a pest control expert is a villain), and it doesn't help that it's the third such production about ants (you know, ants really do get a break when it comes to these stories -- come on, writers, if we have to use insects to teach the value of cooperation, how about switching to bees for a change?). One gets the feeling that this movie wasn't striving to be anything more than it is, which is fine, I suppose. Ah well, any movie featuring Bruce Campbell in it somewhere can't be all bad. (added 7/27/2006)

Aquamarine
Director: Elizabeth Allen
Rating: 5/10
Aquamarine is a tween girl fantasy about two best friends (Emma Roberts, Joanna 'JoJo' Levesque) who find a rather forward mermaid (Sara Paxton) and decide to help her win over a boy (Jake McDorman) in exchange for a wish that one of them won't have to move away after the summer. Not terribly ambitious, the movie hits all the assured beats -- there's squealing over cute boys, catty run-ins with the older rival girls, the culling of advice from teen magazines, and the requisite shopping orgy montage. And, of course, along the way, bonds will be strengthened, fears and insecurities will be overcome, and lessons of love and selflessness will be learned. Everything here is borderline passable -- the writing, the acting, the effects -- probably just enough to satisfy its undiscriminating intended audience, but it'll be neither here nor there for anyone else. Personally, I'm both a little alarmed and amused at observing that a movie like this features its target boy as sweet, well-behaved, and virginal, as if he forgot to pick up his libido card when he reached puberty. How optimistic. Ah well, I did say this was a fantasy, right? (added 3/2/2006)

Bambi II
Director: Brian Pimental
Rating: 6/10
My reaction was to cringe harder than usual when I heard about Bambi II, the latest of Disney's direct-to-video sequel cash grabs. The original Bambi, after all, walked a style long abandoned or forgotten (or both) by the current standards of animation; that movie was animation as metaphor, a meditation on the cycle of life alternately spoken softly through nature and environment, playfully in the voices of children, and frighteningly when danger imposed. In contrast, the aimed-at-kids movies Disney makes now are as literal as school lessons. And that surely is the weakness of Bambi II -- its gestures made in the name of easy accessibility (most notably in simplistic dialog and new-school facial expressions) threaten to sink any charm it may develop. The surprising part is that the potential for that charm is pretty strong -- this is now the best quality of animation any of these sequels has received, and the overall story (a "midquel" that takes place in the middle of the original Bambi story) is paced in a patient way that isn't concerned with overtly stating a three-act plot. Had the forces behind Bambi II been a little more adventurous, this might've been a true winner. Playing it safe renders it mediocre, unaligned with its predecessor in spirit, though its thoughtful efforts in visual and musical homage shouldn't go unnoticed. (added 3/2/2006)

Basic Instinct 2
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
Rating: 2/10
Let's be honest. If you're walking into Basic Instinct 2 -- a 14-years-later sequel to an over-the-top sex-and-icepick-violence cult flick with Sharon Stone, on the lookout for the spotlight again, reprising a role of infamous vampy villainy, notorious for a revealing uncrossing of the legs -- you're just hoping for some good trashy fun. Or, at the very least, something unintentionally campy. That's why it's such a surprise when the movie turns out to be just plain boring. I wasn't a big fan of the original movie, but this too-little-too-late follow-up made me appreciate the relish with which Paul Verhoeven attacked the sordid, nasty naughtiness of the material. He's not around to direct the new one -- the task fell to Michael Caton-Jones, who seems reluctant here to publicly embrace any inner sicko he might possess. Instead, the movie is played safe and thus worse off for it. Yes, Basic Instinct 2 has bad movie traits -- its suspenseful situations aren't, the psychological motives of its characters are utterly unconvincingly conveyed, and Stone plays her character like a frozen icon, uttering lines as if we'll just take their devilishness for granted when they really just sound silly. However, more disappointing is how these contribute to the movie's lack of energy as a whole -- in the end, there isn't much fun to be had, just sleepiness. The least I can say for it is that it didn't annoy me or make me angry -- actually, I kind of felt sorry for it. (added 3/30/2006)

Blood Diamond
Director: Edward Zwick
Rating: 6/10
It's perhaps a sign of our times when many of our movies emerge as lesson-filled sermons against unscrupulous means of moneymaking. Blood Diamond is the latest and one of the most handsomely mounted -- it's virtues are mainly technical, although most of that, from the fierce (maybe too fierce) acting to the photography to the score, seems to be trying hard to convey a sense of bigness, of importance. The main problem is the movie doesn't know when to quit. It has so much it wants to say, and it wants to say it with so much urgency, that it falls into a predictable rhythm -- the main characters talk on and on about their stances on certain issues and situations, and right when they finish the revolutionary terrorists attack, so they have to run for their lives. At the next quiet moment, they talk more, and repeat. We are left with no doubt about the gravity of the movie's concern: that "conflict diamonds" are made available at the cost of many human lives ended violently (and, more alarmingly, the massive number of children who are brainwashed into becoming terrorist soldiers). But by the time the movie has gone past its two-hour mark, after countless scenes of shocking violence, people screaming at each other, and numerous implausible outcomes, we may just get the urge to say that we get it, thanks. This type of movie derives its force from content and brute delivery, and I get the feeling that although this method can work for a lot of viewers, it could also still benefit from a bit of restraint and a better sense of efficiency. (added 12/10/2006)

Bobby
Director: Emilio Estevez
Rating: 6/10
Bobby wishes it were Robert Altman's Nashville. Writer/director Emilio Estevez's star-studded feature is a quilt of a dozen small stories all taking place at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel on the eve and in the location of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. But as the movie moves along, it becomes apparent just how useful Altman's trademark overlapping style of dialogue is in scenarios like this. In an Altman movie, people are natural and what they say doesn't seem forced; here in Bobby, the opposite occurs. Much of the dialogue feels canned, and almost every mini-story has at least one moment where one character says something profound or meaningful to another. Anyhow, this shouldn't be surprising -- the movie is trying very hard to be profound and isn't shy about it. Its idea is to present a cross-section of America at the time of the assassination, an America faced with ugly realities against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the turbulent '60s, pinning its idealistic hopes on the idealistic senator and presidential primary candidate, hopes that were about to be given another disheartening beating. Given the movie's unsubtle approach, what is surprising involves how it comes together nicely at the bottom of the ninth. Perhaps the characters have settled in after almost two hours; perhaps an appeal to our own idealism, especially in a situation that draws an easy parallel to our own times, is more effective than we might've expected. In any case, its finishing sweep has some force to it and mostly rescues what is otherwise an awkward but well-intentioned movie. That said, Nashville -- to which Bobby strikingly, and uncomfortably, bears many similarities in tone, style, structure, and thematic material -- still did all of this better. Bobby could stand to learn a lot from it. (added 11/16/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Catch a Fire
Director: Phillip Noyce
Rating: 6/10
Save for a committed performance by Derek Luke in the film's lead role, there's little that's terribly remarkable about Catch a Fire. The true-life story of former anti-apartheid terrorist Patrick Chamusso is presented as straight-lined and no-frills as can be. Chamusso starts out as a family man who does his job and doesn't want to ruffle any feathers, but as soon as he's unjustly detained by the South African government during their investigation of terrorist activities, you know where this is going. The film doesn't take a stand one way or another about the appropriateness nor the effectiveness of such terror tactics to bring down an unjust government, but it doesn't really matter, since at its heart it's simply about how much better it is to be angry and take a stand than to be content and quietly conform. That's a message that's been delivered by movies since the beginning of motion pictures, and Catch a Fire doesn't have anything that will allow it to be distinguished from the usual crowd of seriously-acted, socially conscious works. Well, it does have Luke, though -- you can see him pouring his heart and soul into this one, and if the movie breathes through its uncomplicated narrative at all, it's largely due to his credit. (added 10/27/2006)

Charlotte's Web
Director: Gary Winick
Rating: 6/10
Charlotte's Web is a decent movie that nevertheless has the unfortunate circumstance of having the 1973 animated version to be compared to. The cartoon, even with its less-than-A-grade animation, might be considered a minor classic, and a recent viewing of it helped me to understand why -- its presentation is sweet but it doesn't pull its punches, and it clearly communicates its undercurrent theme, which is about the cycle of life and the inevitability of (mostly unwelcome) change; hence, Wilbur the pig's fate, which resists a normal inevitability, is seen as a miraculous aberration. This live-action movie, by comparison, is rather straightforward in its delivery, just telling the story without really delivering on those more enriching themes; instead, it prefers to concentrate on imparting observations about the ability to see beauty in the ordinary. This isn't a bad approach in and of itself, but compared to a fondly remembered 30-plus-year-old cartoon, it contains less resonance. 30 years from now, we may still recall the cartoon, and this new one, even with its humorous talking animals, excellent cg work, and an imposing Dakota Fanning (if she told you that you shouldn't be slaughtering a baby pig, by golly you'd listen!), might end up a distant curiosity. The difference in appeal might best be exemplified by the two voices of Charlotte the spider -- compared to Debbie Reynolds's warm and motherly reassurances, Julia Roberts feels aloof and even a bit patronizing. With elements both bad (too many distracting celebrity voices) and good (the noisy elements fade more towards the end), I find my opinion in the middle, perhaps just more glad that the time spent was passably pleasant. (added 12/14/2006)

Curious George
Director: Matthew O'Callaghan
Rating: 6/10
I know close to nothing about Curious George, but I had heard of the character when I was a kid, so I wondered what in the world took so long for anyone to make an animated movie about him? Now I've looked him up in Wikipedia and found out the first of the children's book series came out in 1941! Over 60 years later, here's a movie! And it must be more than a little anti-climactic, since the movie is rather bland. As a children's movie, it's passable but not innovative or particularly creative. One could say it maintains a sense of tradition (especially in how it is refreshingly animated in 2-D), but it also caves in to non-demanding standards of storytelling and characterizations. So not only is it a decent distraction for the young ones, it also seems content to be merely that. There are also a few story elements here that I don't really agree with (e.g., it's ok to try to present the public with a giant illusion when you're in a pinch, rather than tell the truth -- nitpicky stuff like that). On the positive side, Jack Johnson provides a gentle soundtrack with his songs, setting the general mood for the pic, thus creating a wonderful alternative to the hyperactive loudness that kids' movies seem to be exploding with these days. The art style is clean and attractive. And George is really really cute. (added 10/13/2006)

The Dead Girl
Director: Karen Moncrieff
Rating: 8/10
Yes, it's another collection of vignettes loosely connected by a common theme, and, like so many movies with a similar structure, its overall tone is one of sadness and misery. But The Dead Girl actually has some purpose to its structure, as writer/director Karen Moncrieff uses the opportunity to patch together the various faces of women who have been abused, neglected, alienated, or any combination of the above. Even though the women have cause to suffer, they all fight back to some degree, most of them ironically spurred by the existence of the titular corpse. The movie scopes the different degrees of pain often caused by the tendency of women to gravitate toward the victim mentality; rather interestingly, it lays much of the blame not on men but on mothers. In this way it is unblinking and critical about female-rooted and female-specific concerns. The overall plot of a kind of murder mystery adds a little extra suspense to the proceedings, which, along with a sharper thematic focus that's not so hung up on whimsical coincidence and notions of fate, makes the movie one of the stronger examples of its genre. (added 4/23/2007)

Death of a President
Director: Gabriel Range
Rating: 5/10
Using the enacted death of a still living person as a launching point for an artistic/commercial endeavor is, in my personal opinion, quite distasteful, but I can hardly govern what can and can't be produced in the movie world. Therefore, I watched Death of a President, a fictional documentary -- set about a year-and-a-half in the future -- that covers the aftermath of the assassination of President George W. Bush (whose policies I disagree with, to say the least), hoping it would offer something insightful along the way. Unfortunately, this movie doesn't take any unexpected routes -- it uses the scenario, which is outwardly contructed as a speculative investigation of an unsolved mystery, to extrapolate several national consequences, but all of them are simply more extreme versions of what's happening now, i.e. the restriction of additional civil liberties, the further persecution and scapegoating of Middle Easterners to justify armed conflict with their countries even more, and the escalating unrest of a public that doesn't understand for what purpose we're sending our troops over to get killed. In other words, it's the aftermath of 9/11 times two, which anyone following the news could predict, perhaps even without having to imagine the president getting shot. As a result, the movie's proposed shocking scenario comes off as a stunt, becoming the main morbid draw and leaving us little the wiser. I'll have to admit, though, the "footage" of Bush (and even Cheney delivering his eulogy) looks quite convincing -- which left me wondering more about "how'd they do that?" than pondering the possible real-life ramifications of the supposed assassination of our current president. (added 10/27/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Cristi Puiu
Rating: 9/10
This Romanian movie is a harsh critique of the modern medical system, and though it takes place specifically in Romania, its events could be easily transferred elsewhere. Basically, Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu), an old man with a poor health history that includes a dependence on alcohol, feels ill enough to call an ambulance, and when it turns out he may have a condition that requires immediate treatment, he's shuttled to the nearest hospital. But on the same night, a bus accident crowds the hospital with victims, and as a result the doctors show a rather appalling indifference to Lazarescu's condition, even berating him for being a drunkard and not taking better care of himself. The ambulance team -- a driver and a paramedic (Luminita Gheorghiu) -- then face a repeating scenario where each hospital's doctors, after giving a hurried diagnosis, ultimately ask them to take the dying man to the next nearest hospital for treatment, whereupon the doctors there give another diagnosis after not fully trusting the previous results. Meanwhile, Lazarescu fades further from clear consciousness, barely aware of his surroundings. It's a nightmare with a dark view of the health system, with doctors who have grown indifferent to human suffering almost because they're forced be that way under the pressured circumstances they work in -- expanded further, it's about how people look after themselves and how the urge to look away when others are in need is everpresent (especially when those others are feeble). The viewpoint is harsh, yes, but delivered in too believable a fashion, almost documentary-like, and anyone who's ever been to an ER can feel how familiarly the scenes are played. This is great work all around by the actors involved, especially Gheorghiu, who, torn between wishing the night would just end and making certain that her charge gets the right treatment, is the closest thing to an ally with a sense of humanity that Mr. Lazarescu has. (added 11/8/2006)

The Descent (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Neil Marshall
Rating: 9/10
The best horror movies for me are either the ones that creep me out with something psychological, or leave me a with a feeling of sadness and recognizable despair. The Descent's got a little of both -- stronger on the despair side -- and, to top it off, it's well-mounted as far as these kinds of movies go. On the surface, the film is competent, with its moments of requisite gore and shock -- at its worst, it relies too much on my ol' pet peeve, the false-alarm jump scare (although one of them has an unexpected payoff) -- but where The Descent triumphs are in the little details. It's a story of six British women exploring a cave in the Appalachian Mountains and getting more than they bargained for, where the gals feel like women as people and not Barbie-doll scream queens (to go even further, these women are physically capable thrill-seekers). It takes its time with a back story, features convincing work on the depiction of certain adversarial forces, and contains visuals, arcs, and themes parallel to Deliverance and Carrie. Best of all, it focuses on the mental turmoil of its protagonist, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) -- suffering from a debilitating trauma -- and its effects on her relationships with her friends. By becoming more isolated with them, trapped in a nightmarish labyrinth, Sarah embarks on her own inner descent. The manifestations of despair here are every bit as dangerous as the external physical dangers are -- actually, they just might be the same thing in the cinematic sense -- and they reveal something disturbing about the psyche's desires to both wallow in and violently purge itself of that despair. In another welcome turn, the second main character (Natalie Mendoza), a big key to Sarah's story, is given a very human portrayal. The film additionally comments on the nature of adversarial friendships (and more specifically on the female variety). Note: The American version ending cuts out before the final couple of minutes of the more bleak British ending. (added 8/6/2006)

The Devil Wears Prada
Director: David Frankel
Rating: 8/10
The intersection of career and personal life is explored in The Devil Wears Prada, a slick yet refreshingly mature take on the boss-from-hell premise. Amongst a great acting supporting cast (including Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci), Meryl Streep plays to perfection what may be my favorite movie character of the year so far: Miranda Priestly, the powerful and feared editor-in-chief of the fictional fashion magazine "Runway." Far from being two-dimensional, Streep turns Miranda into a soft-spoken terror -- not a madwoman, but a no-nonsense veteran of the industry. She represents professional machinery and personal indifference to the protagonist, Andy (Anne Hathaway), hired as one of Miranda's personal assistants. The setup is perfect because it's extreme -- our heroine has a boss she must keep up with, working in a self-justified industry as booming as it is absurd. There's a point in the movie when Andy first learns what it takes to commit to this kind of career, and from there her personal life is destined to suffer, as well we know it should. The film weakens in presenting a balance between the choices -- frankly, Andy's friends felt a little too naive to me, and the end of the movie lobs a softball to placate our desire for happy endings -- but what is presented clearly is how the choices are indeed laid before Andy, as well as how she learns what sacrifices are required in order to live on a fast track that won't stop for her. At least there's some hard truth in that; had this been any other kind of career fantasy, comeuppances would've been issued, but if The Devil Wears Prada is any indication, these kinds of movies have become smarter observers of what might be realistically fair and unfair to the most capable runners in the rat race. (added 7/6/2006)

The Devil's Miner
Directors: Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani
Rating: 6/10
The raw power of superstition is one theme you can pull from The Devil's Miner, an otherwise straightforward documentary expressing concern for the miners, especially young boys, who work in the nearly mineral-exhausted mountain, called Cerro Rico, of Bolivia. Inside, they believe they are out of God's reach, and therefore make offerings to the devil (whom they call Tio) so that he may spare them from fatal accidents. The film's main subject is 14-year-old Basilio, who reveals a most curious facet of human nature when he plainly explains that the belief in Tio was manufactured by the conquering Spaniards centuries ago in order to coerce their forced laborers. That doesn't stop him nor any of his fellow miners from believing in Tio's control over the mines wholeheartedly. Basilio's voiceover is heard throughout most of the movie, and the images tend to feel secondary to the narration, except in moments where the camera tracks deep into the mines. The film has a tendency to repeat itself, even within its short running time of 82 minutes, but is still able to express a sincere sorrow for the situations people can find themselves trapped in as the continuing result of a capitalistic thoughtlessness only made more powerful, dangerous, and meaningless via self-perpetuation throughout many many generations. (added 7/6/2006)

L'Enfant (The Child) (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Rating: 8/10
I believe creating a credible sympathetic character is easier than creating a credible unsympathetic one. Instinctively, we know what it feels like to seek love and acceptance, so those feelings would inform the shaping of a sympathetic protagonist. Artists, such as auteurist directors, tend to be compassionate, so they may not know where a character with unsympathetic motives comes from; thus, creating a convincing one might take twice the work. Such is the case for the Dardenne Brothers and their protagonist, Bruno (Jérémie Renier), in L'Enfant (The Child). We observe a character who is basically a young homeless amateur criminal, towing along a naive girlfriend and their newborn son, and capable of an early key thoughtless act that propels the rest of the movie. His decisions are arbitrary and spontaneous, but they serve to drive him to his fate, foreordained, as it were, by the writers/directors. As we may be consciously aware of the story path being taken, the Dardennes use everything in their stylistic power to make the events feel as real as possible, right down to the complete absence of any score. The effort does yield dividends -- Bruno's capriciousness, as much as it's governed by forces we may not fully understand, feels believable (maybe because we all know people like this). Also, the film becomes an exploration of the existence of morality -- where does it come from, especially in a world as cold as what's presented here? Bruno finds it based on how much he's hurt people he cares for, and thus this implies the inclination to care is inherently human. That's not a bad answer, if you ask me. (added 9/6/2006)

Eragon
Director: Stefen Fangmeier
Rating: 4/10
There's no other way to put it -- Eragon is just Star Wars in Lord of the Rings drag. Even without bringing up the bad dialogue, the mediocre acting, the hurried pacing, and the generally silly feel of the whole thing, one must get past this first. The story is very nearly a plagiarism of Star Wars! I don't think I need to go into detail, as I see several other reviews have mentioned the similarities as well, and frankly it wouldn't take very long before any Star Wars fan who watches Eragon to realize that, yes, there's Jeremy Irons playing the Obi-Wan character, telling Edward Speleers, playing the Luke character, that he too would've been killed by the evil empire's soldiers if he had been back at the farm. About the only major difference Eragon has is its dragon character; otherwise, the feeling of a rip-off is so blatant that it practically ends all other discussion of the movie. There's not much left to say, really -- this is pretty much a harmless film aimed towards pre-teen boys, and its saddest flaw outside of its unoriginality is how it relies so much on lazy fallbacks like movie plot cliches, borrowed style elements, and dopey one-liner exclamations that fall just short of a Keanu Reeves "Whoa." In a way, it's constructed to be familiar to the point of mind-numbing, which I suppose is better than painful -- one can't really work up a lot of venom over it, which is just as well, since there are worse movies that would be more worth that kind of energy. (added 12/18/2006)

Fast Food Nation
Director: Richard Linklater
Rating: 7/10
Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, teamed up with director Richard Linklater to write a fictional movie adaptation of his book, ostensibly to communicate the same themes in a format that would be more accessible than a preachy documentary. They don't quite succeed, since the movie feels more like a documentary than an organic story anyway, and, frankly, it still feels a bit preachy. What they did was create characters from the different groups of people who affect and are affected by the fast food industry (and, more generally, by growing corporatization and commercialism). Thus, we have Greg Kinnear as a corporate executive sent to investigate the meat-packing plant; Catalina Sandino Moreno, Wilmer Valderrama, and others as Mexican border-crossers working at the plant; and Ashley Johnson (Chrissy from Growing Pains!) as a young fast food restaurant employee who finds her inner activist awakening. The movie bounds from story to story, driven mostly by Linklater-style college-philosophy dialogue, but pauses a little too often for a character to do some speechifying. It becomes too obvious that every character was written for a specific lesson-imparting purpose. So it's not the most naturally flowing film, but it does get its point across, and should do its part to make you think twice before chomping down into your next local fast food burger. I think the movie's serious subject matter does give it some considerable impact -- what the film succeeds in showing is how far the industry's negative side effects reach, giving but a small sample of the number of lives it affects; to grasp that observation is to embrace a larger perspective that most of us are eager to ignore. At the very least, Fast Food Nation offers us another reminder of the gross negligence of humanity that occurs when chasing the dollar becomes the bottom line. (added 11/16/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Fateless (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Lajos Koltai
Rating: 8/10
It's troubling when a holocaust movie can feel familiar, even routine. As one of the latest such movies, Fateless is a curious case. It's everything you'd expect from a film about a concentration camp experience, but with a bit of a different angle. The usual suspects show up -- a well-mounted production, detailed design, serious acting, pervasively somber mood -- put together in three unsurprising acts (before, during, and after) and shot with some beautiful, color-conscious photography. Meanwhile, the differences are more subtle, emerging from origin and attitude. Fateless is a Hungarian production and is specifically about a Hungarian-Jew point-of-view on the subject; evidently, the German roundup of their numbers was late and less organized than the job in Poland, thus a greater delusional denial of/fascination with the degree of cruelty of the war crimes was detectable on the part of the stubborn Jewish population there. Yet, an unlucky batch of them were indeed carted off to suffer in the camps, and the teenage protagonist (Marcell Nagy) of the movie has something to relate about the inhumanity of the camps relative to the inhumanity of the fallout from the willful ignorance of his people. Fateless isn't sentimental, and the longer the main character is under submission, the more detached he becomes from anything but the basics of life and survival, turning into a creature of the moment. Life then becomes a series of moments, where one rides the wave of hardship indiscriminately; it's less about where one's been and where one's going, more about the fact that one simply is, learning to primally adapt after control of one's surrounding environment has been relinquished. And, curiously, it doesn't necessarily argue the injustice of the holocaust scenario, but rather plainly observes the unfortunateness of its existence and its effects on those who weren't privileged enough to have an informed perspective from which to process it. Armed with this considerable viewpoint, the movie fights the nagging feeling that you've seen this kind of thing several times before, so it plays out as a constant tug-of-war between what makes it trite and what makes it unique, although what makes it unique has the better chance of sticking with you. (added 5/27/2006)

Fearless
Director: Ronny Yu
Rating: 8/10
The Chinese title of Fearless is Huo Yuanjia, which is the name of the movie's real-life protagonist, played by Jet Li. He was a martial arts expert who lived at the time of turn-of-the-20th-century China, a time when foreigners began to enter the country with ideas to assimilate and/or exploit it. By challenging foreigner-driven notions of the Chinese as weak men, Huo would eventually become the primary booster of national morale. Li and director Ronny Yu have taken this story and given it the modern mythical treatment; i.e., this movie is pretty much a martial arts version of a comic book superhero movie. Fearless covers Huo's life, inner struggles, and lessons learned as if he were Spider-Man, with the melodrama and character archetypes one would expect from that kind of depiction. Is this a shallow treatment of a historical figure, or a bright new delivery of a popular legend? Yu and famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping make the case for the latter, as Li's fight scenes are just that fun to watch -- Yu shoots them well enough so we can see what's going on, while Yuen's staging remains quick and spirited, all to best display Li's always impressive physical skills. Yu does get cute here and there with jump cuts, sound effects, and slow-mo, but mostly the movie feels crisp and concise in its action scenes. Meanwhile, its hero's journey story is conscientiously structured and neatly, sincerely delivered, tempting one to use the word "traditional" rather than "corny" to describe the tale's telling. (added 9/21/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005; released in U.S. in 2006)
Director: Tetsuya Nomura
Rating: 7/10
All the Final Fanatasy games' stories are pretty much about the same thing -- in a world that gives little evidence that anything out there cares for human existence and emphasizes futility through the repetition of human struggles, people persevere because their personal loves and friends make everything worthwhile; meanwhile, those loves and feelings carry on through the generations as a part of a mysterious self-perpetuating life force. The themes carry themselves out very well in the games because they take upwards of 20 hours to complete and, in that time, the characters find allies to attach to and the player really gets to know these relationships and become invested in their goals and personal stories. I don't know if it works as well in a 100-minute movie. In Advent Children (what kind of a name is that, anyway?), a disease threatens the young and the innocent, including our hero Cloud from the original Final Fantasy VII game. He's decided to run off to figure things out for himself, but sure enough he'll discover that he's much better off among people who care for him (one scene spells this out quite literally, as his friends in turn help boost him into the sky to reach and defeat a familiar-to-fans monster). So, yes, the movie is repeating themes, and only in a filler kind of way, as most FF7 fans will likely only really care to see a) the battles between the characters, and b) the return of almost inexplicably super-popular villain Sephiroth. For what it's worth, those battle scenes, during which all normal physics go straight out the window, are exhilarating in a disorienting thrill-ride way. The movie actually seems to work best as a demo for this style of hyper-kinetic animation, a refinement of the depiction of convincing superhuman feats through a purely unrestricted subjective point of view (in other words, wanna see what it feels like to be right between two fighters? Get your camera in there, I dare ya!). The action is still a little too spastic to coherently follow, but it doesn't matter as the results combine to what I can only accurately describe as an FF7 orgasm; fans (of which I'm not particularly one of; I preferred FF6, one of my favorite games) jonesing for more Cloud, Tifa, and Sephiroth will undoubtedly geek out to high heaven. (added 4/25/2006)

Find Me Guilty
Director: Sidney Lumet
Rating: 3/10
As if we could use more Italian gangster stereotypes, along comes Find Me Guilty. Starring Vin Diesel as "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio, the mobster who defended himself in what turned out to be the longest ever U.S. criminal trial, involving 20 defendants (each of whom had his own lawyer), the movie finds humor in the situation while attempting to draw sympathy for the protagonist based largely on his unwavering loyalty to his friends and family. While this is a fine virtue to uphold, the film's approach to its necessary counterbalance is questionable. These are, after all, criminals, but the attempts to show even glances at the hard reality of their backgrounds are too eagerly overshadowed by a desire to present these people as lovable, even cute -- in the way your old uncle who futzes about his routine might be considered cute. Diesel, sporting some, well, distracting hair, is given a particularly cuddly treatment, making somewhat obnoxious his rather guileless performance, sometimes easy-going, sometimes straining and cloying. A movie about an extraordinarily long trial shouldn't feel as long as the trial, but this one does, as Jackie doesn't develop as a character -- he is who he is, we get to know him very quickly and easily, and then all we do is wait and wait for the inevitable conclusion. At least it has Peter Dinklage, the littlest guy in the room, to stand out with a big presence; otherwise, Find Me Guilty commits the ultimate sad act of nailing the coffin of the terror once inherent in that cinematic icon, the Italian mafioso. We're so familiar with him now that these days we're apparently being encouraged to hug him. (added 3/16/2006)

Flushed Away
Directors: David Bowers and Sam Fell
Rating: 6/10
Flushed Away is a hybrid of the animated feature styles of DreamWorks and Aardman. From that objective statement, your subjective viewpoint of this movie will depend on what you think of both styles. Personally, I'm not too fond of the DreamWorks mold -- the tendency toward hyperactive pacing, the inappropriate ironic postmodern attitudes, and the insistence on formulaic moralizing -- but here it's tempered by Aardman's lighthearted British humor and generally celebratory take on the amusing minutiae of working class day-to-day life. The result lands me somewhere in the middle -- there's much that's enjoyable about this computer-animated movie, but in the end it feels a bit generic, and in this year's glut of animated films, one really needs something extra to stand out. Without the involvement of Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park and his particular sense of gentle eccentricity, and without the fascination of being able to see those occasional frantic kinetic moments expressed through stop-motion animation, Flushed Away, about a comfortable-living but lonely rat who gets stranded among the rats in a sewer city and chased by jewel thieves, stands to be fun while it lasts, but perhaps too easy to forget later. While I don't mind Aardman using computers as opposed to plasticine so much because they have a lot of wit to impart and the process is faster than working in stop-motion, I also hope they restrain themselves from having to follow the leads of the American animated story template (it can be argued that one of the best things about Curse of the Were-Rabbit was that it didn't have any kind of overt lesson about family, which has become the number one postive-value fallback of current animated flicks). That said, there's something to savor about a stop-motion feature because you can more easily feel the love and care that went into making it, and perhaps that's what's truly missing here. (added 11/2/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

For Your Consideration
Directors: Christopher Guest
Rating: 5/10
As a fan of Christopher Guest's previous improvisational comedy films like A Mighty Wind, I was very eager to see For Your Consideration. That may help explain why, sadly, I felt a big disappointment after viewing Guest's latest effort. This movie definitely has its moments -- the best involve Fred Willard and Jane Lynch, hilarious as entertainment gossip show hosts -- but it creates too big a challenge for itself in choosing Hollywood as its subject to lampoon -- frankly, it's just been done too much already. Guest's particular angle here is the Oscar race, and his main characters, led by the versatile Catherine O'Hara, are actors on a rather dreadful-looking period drama who all gain some measure of hope for redeeming their rather pathetic lives when the internet rumor mills suggest their performances could be award worthy. The premise has potential, but the targets -- producers, screenwriters, directors, actors -- are easy. The scenario it presents is also hard to buy -- the actors are obviously bad, so lampooning the awards buzz around them feels less like satire of the industry and more like straight-faced parody. The final blow is how the story abruptly ends before a climax we are teased into expecting isn't even allowed to occur. The movie seems to be missing almost a whole third act, and what we're left with are a handful of funny moments, some good characterizations, but nothing else on the level of the fine work Guest and his talented ensemble have delivered in the past. For Your Consideration also lacks a warmth that the others have had -- it feels a little more mean-spirited than usual, and a major strength of Guest's movies has always been the ability to generate empathy for characters we'd otherwise laugh at, so the weakness of its presence here comes across as especially glaring. (added 11/16/2006; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2006

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