Capsules for 2007

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2007. Includes all the movies of 2007 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

The Hoax
Director: Lasse Hallström
Rating: 5/10
I'm happy to see Lasse Hallström can have some light-footed fun directing The Hoax, but I still found the movie rather conventional overall. It's a caper movie with a lot of close calls, but the character portrayals are disappointing. In a fact-inspired story, Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, who wrote a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. In a corny scenario, the writer is simply shown to be a frustrated author who spent his bonus before finding out his book was being pulled at the last minute, and thus concocts a scheme to stay afloat. I don't know whether or not this is really why Irving tried this stunt, but presented here it seems mundane. He has a partner-in-crime, played by Alfred Molina, who is shown to be the kind of annoying sad sack who nearly botches their cover on several occasions with his nervousness; book publishing reps are all seen as corporate reptiles; Irving has a jealous wife (Marcia Gay Harden), who's something of a shrew, etc. So, despite good energy and a source with ample potential, the film is held back by trite ideas and fails to surprise, enlighten, or offer fresh insights into the conditions surrounding this unusual event. The beginning doesn't try hard enough, the ending overreaches somewhat (delving into paranoia, delusion, and Nixon), and the whole thing just ends up squarely in the realm of passable entertainment. (added 1/14/2008)

I Am Legend
Director: Francis Lawrence
Rating: 7/10
In this third attempt to adapt Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend as a film, the blame for the end of the world lies squarely on the shoulders of human hubris, when a genetically-engineered cure for cancer mutates into a devastating plague. This detail, given at the very beginning of the movie, may be the only time the movie directly reflects a current fear about our demise coming at the hands of our unchecked ego and overconfidence. Emma Thompson, in a perfect cameo, can barely suppress her eager glee when the newswoman interviewing her asks her if she's cured cancer. But that's just the first couple of minutes. The rest of the movie follows Will Smith as Robert Neville, the only surviving human, as he roams an unpopulated New York City. With only his faithful dog as a companion, Neville has not only created a regimen for survival, he's also working on a cure for the disease which, if it hadn't killed its victims, turned them into deadly raging monsters who can only come out at night. I Am Legend provides a well-produced, if not necessarily fresh, version of the apocalyptic scenario, with the most haunting visuals being that of empty New York, overrun with weeds and abandoned vehicles, with only the sounds of wild animals in the distance. Atmosphere becomes the key strength of the film, along with Smith, who is convincing enough to carry the weight of pretty much the whole movie (though credit also has to go to his co-star, Sam the dog, for capably sharing that weight). Eventually, the story unfolds to reveal itself as an acid test of faith. I Am Legend isn't anything new -- besides its two other film versions, The Omega Man and The Last Man on Earth, shades of 28 Days Later, Signs, The Descent, etc. appear here, but the movie is notable for being daring in how downbeat it is, especially for a major studio release during the Christmas season. Personally, I'm glad this motion picture doesn't pull any punches, and, frankly, its tone helps to lend credibility, making the film a firm entry into a well-worn genre. (added 12/14/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

In the Valley of Elah
Director: Paul Haggis
Rating: 7/10
Never let it be said that Paul Haggis shies away from heavy-handedness, a major criticism leveled against his well-intentioned Crash. That word, as well as "well-intentioned," also describes In the Valley of Elah, where Hank, a retired Army officer (Tommy Lee Jones), travels to the nearest military base to investigate the disappearance of his son, who just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Along the way, he learns brutal, sobering truths about today's military, especially about the poor way the young soldiers cope with the immoral devastation they become mired in overseas. Haggis gains points by turning the story into a procedural mystery, with Charlize Theron as a police detective who gradually feels compelled to assist Hank; as the mystery unravels, the revelations get uglier, and the pace at which this unfolds always gives the viewer enough time to stew on the last observation. Haggis eventually overdoes it, exposing his tendency to lead viewers by the hand and knock them over the head with his messages -- to some degree, I don't disapprove, simply because I know an audience can't be entirely composed of critical thinkers, but at the same time one wishes he would trust us more. Luckily for him, the movie delivers its impact, really, through Jones, who makes the father's pride, determination, stubbornness, patriotism, and love extremely, utterly believable, sympathetic, and involving. (added 2/26/2008)

Director: Jason Reitman
Rating: 8/10
There are movies that you watch and can see every trick it's playing -- the seams, the gears, what it's trying to accomplish with its dialog, its music, and so forth. This usually causes me to resent a film, because it knocks me out of my suspension of disbelief, but once in a while a movie like this comes along and works wonders anyway. That's Juno. The movie practically reeks of calculation, and yet it's endearing, and I got wrapped up in it, laughed at a lot of the comedy, and was with it all the way through to its optimistic ending. I'll give a lot of credit to the actors, a skilled and likeable bunch starting with its main star, Ellen Page, who takes a smart-mouth character, a teenager who finds out she's pregnant, and plays her like a real person, flawed and confused on the inside but in no way ready to drop her defenses. Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, and Olivia Thirlby also all deserve credit for their warm contributions here, all believable despite being dressed up in a lot of quirk. I found Diablo Cody's screenplay a bit self-conscious, and Jason Reitman's direction a tad twee, and, yes, I got the faint whiff of Wes Anderson-style derivation, but an Anderson movie is about depression and disappointment, and Juno turns out to be about hope and understanding. Everyone's heart is in the right place here, and maybe that's why the movie wins out. (added 12/5/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Kingdom
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: 5/10
The Kingdom comes across like a fairy tale for adults, where heroes ride off to a faraway land and battle the forces of evil, the two sides delineated clearly and any obstacles stated neatly. In this case, after Saudi-based terrorists strike an American compound on Saudi soil, a four-person FBI team (Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) flies out to investigate, only to find their work hindered by both local police restrictions and cultural differences. But, lo and behold, it turns out some people aren't so different after all, as the Saudi officer (Ashraf Barhom, one of the best parts of the movie) assigned to escort the team wants to see justice done every bit as much as the Americans. The Kingdom makes its points obviously and hits its marks on cue, stressing its message of yes-we-are-different-but-we-are-the-same, and rather strangely making its case for recognizing shades of grey on a canvas that's essentially black-and-white. It's intriguing for a while -- director Peter Berg plays up the American cowboy attitude, emphasizing the pros and cons of it; and when the FBI team is allowed to do its detective work, it moves in a police procedural kind of way. Too bad the movie throws most of that out the window when it hits its big gunfight climax. Though nicely staged, everything that happens in it is too fast and convenient, almost to the point of corniness. It's all very wish-fulfillment stuff, but the gratification doesn't end up feeling deep. (added 9/28/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Kite Runner
Director: Marc Forster
Rating: 4/10
The Kite Runner, adapted from Khaled Hosseini's novel, is another one of those movies made with such noble intentions it dares one not to feel like a Grinch for disliking it, but dislike it I did. This film means well by trying to expand Western cultural-consciousness, exploring a story about childhood friends who are close despite their class differences, and who grow up in Afghanistan before the Soviet-Afghan War. An incident brings betrayal, and the future holds the chance for atonement. But the movie's robotic execution doesn't match its ambition to tell an adult story for an adult audience. Leading viewers by the hand, it hits every perfunctory beat in the screenwriters' handbook (amazing, considering it was adapted by David Benioff, who wrote the organically-flowing 25th Hour). You can read every scene's purpose as it's happening, and the characters all play fairly two-dimensional roles: the noble father, the mean bully, the encouraging family friend, and, not least, the ultimately betrayed friend who is nevertheless the model of selfless saintliness. Although the movie features good child acting by Zekeria Ebrahimi and Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, as well as a solid turn by Homayoun Ershadi as the father, these actors tend to highlight what's missing in Khalid Abdalla's central performance -- an ability to convey conflict and pain from a moral source, and not merely to appear spineless. The last act seems quite unbelievable, and one character's surprise re-appearance made my eyes roll out of my head; and if that wasn't enough, it was followed by a sequence more appropriate to a cheesy spy movie. As a film about childhood in a pre-war Middle Eastern country and the guilt of having to leave home, The Kite Runner invites comparisons to its contemporary, Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, which trounces it. That movie, though animated, bleeds humanity; meanwhile, The Kite Runner ignores complexity in favor of shiny-package storytelling and manufactured moments of drama, thus doing a major disservice to the sad stories of the people it tries to shed light on. (added 12/14/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Lars and the Real Girl
Director: Craig Gillespie
Rating: 7/10
Independent "quirky" comedy-dramas can practically get their own trademark now, and Lars and the Real Girl is a trooper in their tradition, applying all the right touches for the formula to work -- solid acting, gentle humor, and a focus on individual family struggles in a localized version of America. This one also has a particular nice streak, in that it treats its story about a loner who buys a life-size sex doll as a stand-in for a human companion with empathy, tolerance, and a noticeable lack of crudeness. Easily, there could have been lewd gags and the cruel contempt of others thrown in here, but Lars (Ryan Gosling), a pained soul whose delusions, it is suggested, were triggered by immediate childhood trauma, doesn't even consider his "mate," named Bianca, for physical pleasures. His aghast brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), is there to ask all the questions the audience would ask, but the movie very much wants to move in the direction of his sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer), who treats Lars with compassion and patience. Heck, the whole town gets into the act, treating Bianca as if she were real for the sake of helping Lars. Avenues of absurdity are explored, such as when a neighbor defends Bianca after she and Lars have had a "fight" -- they're predictable, but funny in their strange awkwardness just the same. The movie is a plea for compassion and understanding; its lack of the negative side of human nature almost makes it seem desperate in that regard, but overall it's deft at achieving its goal of evoking the warm fuzzies from its viewers. (added 6/9/2008)

The Lookout
Director: Scott Frank
Rating: 7/10
Small-town bank robbery tale plus recovery story of a mentally-impaired accident victim equals... what, I'm not sure. But main star Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes the most of it, giving us a character who, though not immediately admirable, nonetheless draws us into his world. He plays the accident victim, now practically incapable of sequencing events in his head. A former high school hockey star, he struggles not only with his disability but also his new place in life as a bank janitor, rooming with a bluntly cynical blind man (Jeff Daniels), as well as his guilt from his involvment in the accident, which claimed the lives of two of his friends. It's an interesting case study, as the character feels unique in the land of easy movie stereotypes -- he has a lot of pride, anger, and frustration, but what we take away isn't the woe-is-me despair he may feel but the determination he builds as he tries to do his best to crawl upwards from his own wreckage. Complicating things is a new pal (Matthew Goode) who asks for his help in the robbery scheme. The Lookout is a satisfying movie, even if it doesn't all quite come together -- the heist-related portions feel almost perfunctory in a movie about a character who's anything but. (added 8/24/2007)

Manufactured Landscapes
Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Rating: 8/10
A documentary that blends an artist's profile (in this case, that of Edward Burtynsky) with the observations found through his art, Manufactured Landscapes also serves as a surreal look at the results of mass global industrialization. Burtynsky reasons that the new man-made landscapes are just as compelling as those of nature, but he also doesn't try to hide the concern behind that view -- that the changing face of the earth is a warning that man's current home has waste products as its foundation and main output. With modern China as the canvas -- appropriate because of its huge population contributing to a singular goal of commercial modernization -- most of Burtynsky's photographs here show mountains and rivers of industrial waste, weirdly awesome to behold, sometimes juxtaposing them with the citizens who live and work among them. The movie contains shades of many similar docs that have come before, from Koyaanisqatsi to Tokyo-Ga to Rivers and Tides, and if it doesn't quite reach as transcendent a plane as those movies, it may be because it falls back on a show-and-tell mode, where Burtynsky explains his intuitions, followed by a slide show of his photos. Nevertheless, there are some disturbingly gorgeous scenes to behold here, most notably starting with the opening single-take shot of a seemingly neverending Chinese factory. And Burtynsky's awe-inspiring work ultimately speaks for itself. (added 12/28/2007)

Margot at the Wedding
Director: Noah Baumbach
Rating: 6/10
Quite a few reviews of Margot at the Wedding mention how dislikeable its characters are. I don't really mind this myself, just as long as I detect some sense of human truth in the portrayals, and this is indeed offered here. Director Noah Baumbach has a few particular gifts, including the ability to recognize, re-create, and make realistic -- without necessarily belittling -- the kind of human monsters we all recognize, those beings who act out their insecurities by imposing their presence on others, with, of course, family members always being their most unlucky victims. Margot (Nicole Kidman) is not unlike Jeff Daniels's character from Baumbach's previous film, The Squid and the Whale, and Kidman gives a similarly effective performance. But Margot at the Wedding lacks Squid's perspective -- the former movie's protagonist was Jesse Eisenberg's confused teenage son, who goes through a tough development in the story's course, while here it's the monster herself, who barely has the screen time to register the havoc she hath wrought (the young kid this time, her son, played by Zane Pais, is more of a cipher casualty). Also, Margot is hurt by its last act, one that comes across as the cinematic equivalent of arms flailing -- in particular events surrounding the tree at the end veer into the melodramatic and "melo-comic" (for lack of a better way of putting it), thereby foregoing the film's early sources of credibility, which resided in its character-centric realism. This gives a 90-minute movie the curious feel of overstaying its welcome. Still, for the nuggets of insight to be gleaned from the good performances of Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Jack Black, Margot may be worthy of the curiosity felt by those interested in seeing Baumbach's continued exploration of his themes from Squid. (added 11/16/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Mist
Director: Frank Darabont
Rating: 7/10
Even though the themes and premise of The Mist have been the bases for many other horror movies, a well-made and timely reminder once in a while is always welcome. Director Frank Darabont's third adaptation of a Stephen King work -- but first of a King horror story -- is a solid production, featuring a large group of strangers trapped in a grocery store when a monster-filled mist descends upon their small Maine town. The monsters are deadly enough, but of course the real monsters are the ones inside, i.e. the people who become desperate and irrational when they utterly succumb to fear. Thomas Jane plays the leader of the more level-headed, more educated faction, while Marcia Gay Harden lights it up as the Old Testament God-fearing doomsayer, who whips the more weak-minded of the store's prisoners into a cult frenzy. I find that it's never irrelevant to bring up issues about the divide between blue collar and white collar, locals and outsiders, less educated and more educated, and the harbored resentments that, when combined with crisis, so easily fuel fear-mongering. The Mist paints these divides starkly -- perhaps a bit too much so -- but combined with its spooks and gore, it makes for effective, smart entertainment. The movie only really stumbles with its ending, which feels unearned, as if it was tacked on without being much of an extension of any of the themes that had been presented earlier. It also ends up overshadowing the rest of the movie, which is a shame, since The Mist ought to be remembered as good old-fashioned horror fun. (added 10/30/2009)

The Namesake
Director: Mira Nair
Rating: 7/10
It's hard to be down on The Namesake, so sincere is its intent and evident its humanity, but, simply put, when the two-hour adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel ends, this sweet and sad story about an immigrant Indian family feels both too much and not enough. After its more leisurely-paced first half concludes, it tries to squeeze in too much, too hurriedly; and, overall, the movie lacks any particularly strong, focused elements needed to allow it to stand out. For me, part of the problem involved not seeing enough of Irfan Khan, whose performance here is the most sympathetic and affecting. He plays the father, Ashoke Ganguli, who, along with his arranged bride, Ashima (Tabu), tries to make it in the land of opportunity. The movie is equally about them and their son, Gogol (Kal Penn), who rebels against his parents' traditional culture but eventually learns to open his eyes further. Although the story's main concern focuses on Gogol's character arc, it was Khan's character, a soft-spoken man of gentle dignity, who really drew me in. He's such a contrast to the usual fathers who are in movies of this kind, so opposite the caricature of the strict, harsh, and hot-tempered patriarchs who terrorize their offspring's non-traditional aspirations. Alas, the movie eventually shifts more to Gogol's story, told with less care and more predictability, thus generating less interest. Nevertheless, with this project, director Mira Nair consistently maintains her interest in the generational clashes of her culture, and the universality of those experiences. The Namesake stays the course in terms of her thematic interests without making a big noise in the process. (added 3/9/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Rating: 5/10
National Treasure: Book of Secrets reminds me of a sequel from the '80s, where all the filmmakers tried to do was rehash everything from the first movie, hoping that would pass muster with the audience. This film is pretty much the same as its predecessor, except that the principle characters are well-acquainted with each other this time, so they can cut right to the chase. Puzzles seem to be solved even more easily here; Nicolas Cage does his usual Nicolas Cage thing; there's a car chase plus a lot of sneaking around and so forth. As before, the saving grace of the movie involves how it seems to embrace its own nerdiness by making heroes out of people whose most admirable attribute is their vast knowledge of the facts of the past. Book of Secrets is passable entertainment, a family-friendly globe trot that features, as its most impressive set piece, a trap in which four people must balance a giant board resting only on a central pivot. Outside of that, little seems to be designed to make a lasting impression, though the movie may achieve its modest goal of providing mild fun. (added 12/21/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

No End in Sight
Director: Charles Ferguson
Rating: 9/10
Even though the information in No End in Sight has been available through print sources, this movie, with its reach and forceful clarity, needed to be made. The who, what, when, where, and how of the catastrophe that is the Iraq War is presented here concisely, thanks to a scientist's approach to the material by director Charles Ferguson. Most fruitful are his interviews with the policy-implementing figures who were actually there, men and women of skill and knowledge who were hired to engineer Iraq's reconstruction, whose advice was subsequently, summarily ignored by political heads acting like shortsighted warlords. Most of the interviewees are seen left in a head-scratching state, as most of them understand that the current amorphous war with insurgents could have been avoided with a few key decisions (or, as it was, the prevention of certain key bad decisions). Ferguson presents cause and effect here, with little inquiry as to what the decision-makers were thinking; instead he simply lets the current evidence speak for itself, which winds up being more damning than any editorialized piece could have been. For anyone who's wondering why we're still stuck in Iraq, give this quick 100-minuter a whirl and get filled in -- you'll whittle away confusion and arm any anger and sorrow you have with real teeth. (added 11/25/2007)

No Reservations
Director: Scott Hicks
Rating: 4/10
In No Reservations, an American remake of the German Mostly Martha, a bunch of sumptuous ingredients have been gathered -- Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin -- but the result feels like a big waste. The actors play stock characters in a very conventional drama, where the dots it connects by are printed big and bold. Zeta-Jones is a control freak chef, her world is turned upside-down when her sister's death lands her niece (Breslin) in her care, and Eckhart is the colorful guy she at first hates but will soon loosen her up. It's template material, but I can't imagine the German version executed itself as unimaginatively as this version does here. For instance, when we first encounter Eckhart, he's found in the restaurant kitchen playing opera on a boombox and singing to the other chefs; could the contrast to Zeta-Jones's uptight head chef be presented more desperately? Meanwhile, the niece slowly gets used to her new situation, but at the first possible sign of something going wrong, she runs away, through traffic, crying that she misses her mother. I couldn't help thinking that, even at her young age, Breslin is above this kind of obvious melodrama. All of the actors are, really; here, we get glimpses of their charms, but the film is content to try to coast on them, giving them only recycled parts to work with. No Reservations is one of those movies that just treads water, filled with obvious developments, demanding nothing. For a movie that occasionally highlights fancy dishes, it doesn't try to be anything more than bland comfort food. (added 7/27/2007)

Offside (2006; released in U.S. in 2007)
Director: Jafar Panahi
Rating: 8/10
In Offside, Jafar Panahi utilizes an approach that works very well with me -- to call attention to how outdated or unjust a social tradition is, and to make it look absurd. Here, the Iranian director follows a few young countrywomen to the soccer stadium, where they must try to sneak in because Iran doesn't allow women to attend sporting events. Rather ironically, all they want to do is root for the Iranian team in a World Cup match. Much of the time is spent with the gals -- about a half-dozen of them ranging from rebellious to spunky to shy -- as they are loosely detained just outside one of the stadium's entrances, guarded by a few young military men. The guards claim they are only doing their jobs, and when the women ask why they can't be allowed inside, the men can only guess at some reasons before just saying, "I don't know, it's just the rules!" Panahi's film is a comedy that shows Iran's youth being indoctrinated with traditions that don't even make sense to them, and make even less sense in an ever-shrinking world (at one point, one of the ladies complains that when visitng Japanese come to the stadium, their women are allowed to attend). It's a plea for cultural evolution that doesn't point fingers, instead only hoping that the next generations will wake up and take the sensible steps towards the future. (added 9/14/2007)

Director: John Carney
Rating: 9/10
Once features so simple a concept that the film ends up being quite disarming. Set in Dublin, it's a boy-meets-girl love tale where both protagonists also happen to be musicians; as such, much of what they feel is expressed through the music they play and the songs they sing. I know this sounds suspiciously like a musical, and although Once certainly qualifies as a movie belonging to that genre, it isn't what most people expect from a musical because the characters sing the songs in the context of their realistic environment (either that, or the songs are sung-over certain scenes as the soundtrack). Although no one bursts into song here, the music and lyrics are still integral to the story, where the songs are a more subtle, rather than literal, expression of thoughts, feelings, and desires. However, to talk here only about the technique, which is executed seamlessly and transparently, would do the movie a disservice. Grubby, gritty, tender and sweet, enamoured with the working class, with a realistic outlook in place of a dreamy romantic one, Once is characteristically Irish with a nice touch of modern borders-aware sensibility -- as indicated by the man's object of affection being an immigrant Czech woman. Exploring the complications of an illicit love without ever overselling the point, it's no-nonsense with a big, burdened heart shown mostly in the music written and performed by the main actors (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová). The movie's appealing music enhances its story, especially if you like Irish-flavored acoustic rock ballads. Once deftly communicates the magic of making connections through music. Looking at those connections with a grounded romanticism, this film emerges as a top viewing choice for the musically-inclined cynical idealist. (added 6/5/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Orphanage
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Rating: 7/10
With The Orphanage, I find myself again feeling torn between what is effectively skillful filmmaking/storytelling and what appears to be a tendency to cater too strongly to genre conventions. The number of movies this one borrows from is not modest, and although a list of previously made similar movies would be easy to compile (you can start with one or two films by this one's producer, Guillermo del Toro), suffice it to say that this film involves a strong-willed mother, a child with imaginary friends, and possibly the ghosts of wronged children. And it's also set in a large, creepy house. Naturally, there are a lot of opportunities for haunting visuals in a setting like this, and director Juan Antonio Bayona takes full advantage, in ways both inventive and time-tested; he's also not above throwing in at least one cheap shock to undermine the fairy tale substance he was building up. Working strongly to create involvement is the central character of Laura (Belén Rueda), whose move to the creepy house (the former orphanage of her own childhood) along with her family is a chance to recapture a once happier past and build a more meaningful present. What makes The Orphanage work, despite its nagging familiarities, is how it directly links its protagonist to the central mystery -- it's Laura's son who disappears, and the ghosts are from her own childhood (other similar ghost stories usually use the model of the main character stumbling upon an old mystery that didn't originally involve them). In doing this, it visits grief inescapably upon her, thus directly communicating her emerging mother-mania and desperation to solve the disappearance to the viewer. Therefore, the artistic and technical elements that the movie does deliver well enhance its hard-hitting sadness, as well as the bittersweet, distinctly Spanish taste of the idea that muerte does not equal el final. This makes The Orphanage durable and engrossing, traits that help overshadow its genre-bound features. (added 8/26/2008)

Paprika (2006; released in U.S. in 2007)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Rating: 7/10
Hard to imagine, but I hoped Paprika would be weirder and creepier than it actually was. Given its boundary-less territory of dreams run amok to explore, I expected much less coherence and much more eerie sensation. Still, it's satisfying enough that the animated movie delivers what it promises -- the dream-involved sequences are indeed surreal, as director Satoshi Kon exercises his visual mastery of that uniquely dreamscape phenomenon of sudden displacement and dislocation. The story involves misuse of a stolen technology that allows therapists to enter a patient's dreams; in the wrong hands, it's apparently powerful enough to induce anyone to a dream state and potentially trap them within (or, as the case may be, to allow the dream to spill without). Enter one of the inventing team's scientists, Atsuko Chiba (voiced by Megumi Hayashibara), who enters dreams as her alter ego, the spry and sprightly Paprika, to play detective and find the criminal perpetrator; also involved is a real police detective with troubles of his own. Thematically, it tackles dreams, cinema, and the internet as conduits for repressed desires. The movie's a fantasia, to be sure, but its uniqueness may be relative to the amount of familiarity you have with anime in general. Weirdness is a given here, as is a lot of sci-fi/philosophical dialogue and exposition. Not as sure a bet is the communication of a humanity in the characters -- to its credit, Paprika devotes much time to getting to know its protagonists, but I found their issues a little too easily reduced to familiar pop psychology. For this movie, it's better to sit back and enjoy the detail-rich visuals while appreciating the unfettered imagination at work in constructing them, as well as the apparent wild enthusiasm with which they were tackled. (added 5/25/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Director: Sunu Gonera
Rating: 6/10
What distinguishes Pride from any other inspirational teacher/coach drama about guiding ragtag underdogs to championship-level teamwork and dedication? Well, not much, really. If anything stands out in this relatively routine take on an old sports standby, it's Terrence Howard, who takes his role very seriously and understands his performance must hold the movie together, for it's a whole team of swimmers he's coaching, with no particular strong focus on any one of them. Howard plays real-life Jim Ellis as a man driven nearly to the point of relentlessness, arguing that only someone with such singular (tunnel?) vision would be able to enact the kinds of positive changes his community needed. Even a somewhat goofy character played by the usually scene-stealing Bernie Mac is subdued by comparison. Other than that, the pairing of this drama with the significance of the rise of civil rights makes Pride a decent and natural reminder about prejudice being something that had to be overcome, and in this case not so much by forceful or calculated measures but by a sheer blunt determination to attain equal participation in even the most humble of activities. (added 3/23/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2007

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