Reviews for 2010

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The Last Airbender

Starring Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Dev Patel, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Rating: 4/10

Director M. Night Shyamalan's reputation has taken a dive not only with movie critics but also with the moviegoing public. It's not wholly undeserved -- Lady in the Water and The Happening were fairly terrible movies, but now I'm beginning to think everyone is just piling it on. His latest movie is The Last Airbender, a live-action adaptation of a popular animated fantasy series that aired on Nickelodeon, and it's gotten crushed both in published reviews and popular word-of-mouth. Digging through some of the reactions on the internet, it became apparent to me that if you were a fan of the original cartoon, you were likely to hate this movie. It seems Shyamalan forgot to incorporate the series' spirit into his film -- a fair criticism. I myself have never seen the cartoon, and if I had, perhaps I would agree; but the movie I saw didn't seem awful per se, just poor. The acting wasn't good, the dialogue was stiff, but it had decent special effects and a nice color scheme -- in other words, as far as children's entertainment goes (and it is children's entertainment), it could be a lot worse. The story dabbles in a lot of pseudo-Eastern mysticism, even borrowing from the story of the Dalai Lama, but doesn't really say anything about it one way or the other. I was more bothered by some fuzzy logic, as in, how could fire-based warriors possibly threaten people who could manipulate water by traveling to their territory on ships? In any case, Shyamalan's recent track record doesn't necessarily improve with The Last Airbender, but neither is it worse, really, than where it was before. At least he tried something different this time. (added 12/7/2010)

Legacy

Starring Idris Elba, Eamonn Walker, Monique Gabriela Curnen.
Directed by Thomas Ikimi.
Rating: 7/10

In Legacy, Idris Elba plays Malcolm Gray, an ex-Special Forces member who holes up in a motel room, apparently having escaped from a healing institution. His existence has been covered up by the government, and on his last secret mission, which resulted in his torture, he and his team were left for dead; therefore, he plots to expose the activities he had been involved in, which would also mean revealing the involvement of his brother, an ambitious U.S. senator. However, the acts he has committed and witnessed haunt him, and his mind begins to unravel.

Legacy is primarily a one-man show. Although there are several characters who visit Malcolm in his room, we are soon led to believe they might be all in his head. It's a device now tried-and-true that director Thomas Ikimi levels, but it also drives home the notion that the story is strictly about the mind of one man. Therefore, the focus remains on Elba's alpha-level performance as that man struggling to hold himself together while his subconscious tries to tear him apart. The movie reveals a bit about the internal task of apportioning responsibility for one's involvement in terrible deeds -- in order to deal with his own guilt, he holds up a scenario that ultimately lays blame on his brother, yet his conscience continues to attack him.

Any criticism of illicit U.S. government operations feels incidental relative to the character study here, for Legacy's concerns appear more soldier-centric, though any real interest it has in personal trauma gets weakened by the exaggeration of its protagonist's military experience (there's an Eastern European crime boss bad guy, for instance, who feels like he belongs in some neighboring action movie). But as a showpiece for Elba, the movie functions well, and will probably be regarded mainly for being just that. (added 1/13/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Starring the voices of Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Abbie Cornish, Miriam Margolyes, Sam Neill.
Directed by Zack Snyder.
Rating: 5/10

With Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, I've finally reached the point where I feel I must simply accept the high quality of any computer-generated visuals in a studio animated film as a given. To put it another way: they're simply all expected to look this good now, which means this aspect will factor in less and less when assessing the quality of such a movie as a whole. To give the animators who worked on Ga'Hoole their due, it should be said that their movie looks great, with realistic looking owls and attention to details right down to the individual feathers. They've done a wonderful job, and they should be proud. But the movie itself lacks in story, characters, pacing, and originality.

Ga'Hoole offers up a hero's journey in the world of owls, but unfortunately every part of the story comes off as generic. There's a young protagonist who looks up to a legendary group of heroic owls called The Guardians of Ga'Hoole, who once fought off a group of evil owls called the "Pure Ones" (they believe in racial cleansing amongst owls). Naturally, the protagonist somehow gets caught up in this struggle he once only heard about in stories, and then plays a deciding role in the current wars. It throws in the wrinkle of sibling rivalry, where the hero's brother joins the bad guys and it becomes brother vs. brother, but otherwise it's the same kind of thing you expect from stories like this, where the hero is joined by some goofy friends and eventually meets a wise old mentor. There are even bits about having faith in the guidance of an inner source, and some magic rocks that have an unexplained harmful power over owls.

I didn't find much originality here (except maybe for the out-of-place magic rocks), but that might have been forgiven if the pacing wasn't so awkward. Ga'Hoole's sections, which all cover distinct events, seem to be glued together without spaces for breathing or reflection. That's not to say the movie moves fast; rather, it seems that all it wants to do is cover the ground of the narrative without regard for much else (other than action sequences). It feels like there was a lot of story to tell -- indeed, the movie was based on the first three books of a fifteen book fantasy series called Guardians of Ga'Hoole by Kathryn Lasky. The movie feels like it's cramming in a lot of story because it is. It ends up being a packed epic with all the characters playing parts familiar to epics of this kind, and none of them having the chance to show a little dimension individually.

The pity here is that Ga'Hoole had a lot of possibilities for distinction. Director Zack Snyder brings his trademark visual style to the movie -- its action scenes come complete with speed-ramping and violence (visibly bloodless, but also a lot of suggested violence going on) -- and its dark themes (again, we're talking about bad guys who are racial supremacists) suggest daringness on the part of creating something scarier and more suggestive for its targeted younger audiences. To have such strange ingredients (including the fact that the main characters here are, of all things, owls) come together in such a flat manner is disappointing. The Owls of Ga'Hoole had everything it needed to be unique, but instead it emerges as unmemorable and run-of-the-mill. (added 12/15/2010)

Let Me In

Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloë Grace Moretz, Elias Kostas, Richard Jenkins.
Directed by Matt Reeves.
Rating: 8/10

Let Me In is the rare American remake of a very good foreign horror movie that is itself quite good, perhaps even standing as an equal. I'll have to hand it to director Matt Reeves, who put together this very reasonable facsimile of Sweden's Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson. The location has been transplanted to New Mexico during the 1980's, but otherwise it duplicates the original's darkness, coldness, loneliness, sadness, and temptations. What becomes apparent is how well the story stands up, and how it still wreaks havoc with our moral compasses, showing us cycles of wrong decisions and bad influences that we somehow sympathize with because the victims are so trapped by their dreadful situations. Reeves also lucked out in getting two young actors who were more than up to the task of carrying this film: Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz, who were each excellent in two films I didn't care much for (The Road and Kick-Ass, respectively). Here, they are perfect in working with great material. Although overall I may still prefer the Swedish version to the American one -- the Swedish one still felt creepier, though that might be from the advantage of first impression -- Reeves has shown with his work that he understands what was so appealing about Let the Right One In, and has done his own laudable job in communicating it. (added 12/29/2010)

Letters to Juliet

Starring Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Egan, Gael García Bernal, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero.
Directed by Gary Winick.
Rating: 5/10

Letters to Juliet is one of the latest in the line of travel romance movies, where our heroine usually ends up in some beautiful foreign country and falls in love with either the surroundings there, a man she meets along the way, or both. This one takes place in the popular destination of Italy -- Verona, to be specific, where vacationing would-be-writer Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), neglected unwittingly during the trip by her fiancé (a surprising Gael García Bernal), is left to her own devices. She gets involved with a group of women who answer the letters tourists leave to Juliet Capulet at her tourist attraction home and statue; through this, she winds up on a quest when an elderly lady, Claire, (Vanessa Redgrave), whose 50-year-old letter Sophie answers, arrives in town with her grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan), to look for the lover she didn't have the nerve to stay with those 50 years ago. The three of them travel around the countryside looking for this long lost lover. And it's all rather pleasant, but it's also all rather conventional.

The movie tries hard to press all the romantic buttons, with ideas such as: when a true love shows you an opportunity, you should take advantage of it immediately, or it might cost you 50 years. This plays out with some interest in regards to Redgrave's subplot -- and thanks to her presence, the material gains some dramatic heft where it otherwise might not have earned it. But in comparison, the main protagonist's own romantic problems and solutions are not very convincing. Seyfried is charming on her own, but she doesn't have much chemistry with Egan, who is supposed to provide the temptation of a better partner when compared to Sophie's current beau. Part of the problem is that Sophie and Charlie start off greatly at odds with each other, and then nothing really sells the idea that they would fall for each other outside of the familiarity they gain from simply being in close proximity for a few days (on a side note, the device of making one man look better by having the heroine be stuck with another man who clearly does not meet her needs is a personal pet peeve of mine -- it's a cheap way to stack the deck). Obviously, Letters to Juliet isn't trying to be anything more than it is -- a diverting romance -- but such efforts require star power and chemistry, and in these areas the supporting players and storylines outshine the primary ones. (added 9/21/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Love & Other Drugs

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Josh Gad, Gabriel Macht.
Directed by Edward Zwick.
Rating: 5/10

Love & Other Drugs initially reminded me of Up in the Air, which came out the year before. Both are romances dealing mainly with the redemption of a man whose relationships with women may be physical but strictly non-committal. Both also heavily involve the atmosphere of each protagonist's career -- in Love & Other Drugs, Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a pharmaceutical salesman for Pfizer, trying to hawk Zoloft to prominent doctors who are otherwise prescribing Prozac. A lot of the movie's draw comes from this depiction of that particular career; it's a bit eye-opening to see drugs being aggressively pitched to doctors in this way, and it has something to say about the operations of the corporations behind the manufacturing of such drugs.

Similarly, Up in the Air used its own backdrop of people losing their jobs to frame its love story -- the development of an adult relationship -- and the whole thing managed to achieve a mature, regretful feel. Here, though, Love & Other Drugs suffers by comparison -- its background is interesting, but its central love story less so. Jamie falls for artist Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), who suffers from an early onset of Parkinson's disease. Her condition makes her defensive and intentionally distant from any potential relationships; likewise, Jamie, the seasoned ladies' man, also doesn't want a relationship. They spend their first interactions predicting what the other is thinking (we suppose they've seen it all; unfortunately, this makes their dialogue borderline obnoxious) while openly acknowledging their physical attractions to each other. Naturally, they eventually end up in a relationship.

Ultimately, Love & Other Drugs is a love story not unlike Sweet November, where the complications of the woman's condition makes her believe the best course of action would be to set her lover free, so he wouldn't have to deal with it; and, of course, he responds by saying he'd do anything for her, right? You can guess the ups and downs of this story before they occur, and it turns out to be a shame. The movie is set up with an interesting background (that gets even more interesting when Pfizer's wonder drug Viagra becomes ready for prime time) that ultimately doesn't contribute much to what we take away from it. Highlighting Parkinson's disease in particular is noble, but for the purposes of motivating the characters, that could've been any debilitating condition.

Frankly, there were several potential avenues to develop here, but the film settles for something conventional and sentimental with its love story. It's always disappointing to encounter triteness, but perhaps more so when you detect potential in the surrounding material. Ah well, Love & Other Drugs means never having to say you're sorry, right? (added 4/8/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Machete

Starring Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis.
Rating: 7/10

Machete started off as a fake trailer in the stunt double-feature Grindhouse, one of four such trailers in which ironic humor was the name of the game. While the full-length movies in Grindhouse were presented with a mix of irony and a surprising amount of straightforwardness, the trailers took the opportunity to fully lampoon the aesthetics of the exploitation flicks they pretended to represent. The "Machete" trailer, about a really mean-looking doublecrossed Mexican avenger (Danny Trejo), was a standout piece of comedy, so one assumed that when its director, Robert Rodriguez, announced he was making it into a real movie, that movie would also be an irony-laden piece of nonsense -- a movie making fun of the kind of movie it was dressed up to be.

That description wouldn't be wholly inaccurate, but the more Rodriguez movies one watches, the more one realizes his goofy sense of humor is coming from a very sincere place. I now believe that Rodriguez (who co-directed Machete with Ethan Maniquis, usually his co-editor) doesn't truly have irony in his heart -- he knows what it is enough to make a very funny 3-minute trailer, but when he makes the whole movie he pours his genuine passion, real goofy humor, and true love of outrageous violence into it. Such is Machete, in which its expected ridiculous moments -- naked girls, sudden beheadings, bad lines -- are presented with actual appreciative glee and not malicious mockery.

More revealing of Rodriguez's sincere approach comes from his movie's actual concerns -- yes, Machete has concerns. This film has much to do with the illegal immigration mess, particularly along the Texas/Mexico border. Here, irony is indeed conscientiously and skillfully used, but mainly as a mitigating factor in what should be a non-serious film. The right-wing American characters are presented in such a cartoonish way -- Robert De Niro (yes, Robert De Niro) as a senator with an overdone Texan accent, Don Johnson (yes, Don Johnson -- this movie's cast is crazy, going from Lindsay Lohan to Steven Seagal) as a vigilante border patroller who would dare to shoot pregnant border crossers -- that it serves to remind us these are just movie characters and no one is probably this crazy; and the plot, which eventually reveals the bad guys to be part a web of profit-minded American politicians mixed up with Mexican drug lords, might say the corruption can't possibly be this ludicrous.

Or can they? The concerns themselves are real enough, and even when delivered through this rather silly movie they still manage to deliver the criticism that the illegal immigration debate is often used as an inflammatory topic to help politicians in their careers while masking potentially greater concerns underneath. Also, perhaps most urgently, the issue tends to strip humanity from its equations, and Machete is keen to remind us that the real people affected by this debate still deserve to be treated like real people. Yes, this might be a bit strange, given that reality is definitely not what anyone is going for in this movie, but Rodriguez can't help being who he is, and that is something to smile about. He means it whether he's delivering a dose of honest Mexican pride, absurd gags, or over-the-top mayhem featuring blood, guts, knives, explosions, and missile launchers. He's in his groove when he's giving us a combination of them all. (added 9/8/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Marwencol

Directed by Jeff Malmberg.
Rating: 9/10

The act of creation leads to catharsis, and though I'll never forget this I appreciate the good reminder once in a while. Marwencol tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, who was attacked brutally outside a bar. He fell into a coma and lost the memory of his life up to that point. During his recovery, he turned towards an unusual hobby for therapy: in his yard he began to construct a miniature World War II-era town, calling it "Marwencol." He then populated it with action figures and dolls, each of them representing people he knows in real life, including himself, and took photos of them enacting scenes from the stories he spun about them in his head. This sounds pretty crazy, but the personal project absolutely works for him, as he tends to the most minute details of his creation and the photographs he takes of them. Those photographs turn out to be amazing -- he could create a comic book out of them, with the characters in intricate costumes and dynamic poses. They become an outlet for violent aggression as well, with some scenes depicted to be as gruesome as the bloodiest of movies. Eventually, Hogancamp's work is discovered by an art magazine, whose publishers help to arrange an art show for his photos in New York, creating a little anxiety as Hogancamp must accept opening up both his private world and, possibly, a peculiar personal quirk to the public.

Marwencol touches upon the dynamics of the creative process, beginning with its origin as something innate, indelible -- Hogancamp finds out that he used to be quite the pen artist, and that he had detailed illustrations of often violent imagery. Deeming his old self to be something of a disturbed individual, he says he doesn't want to know this person, but his creative impulses are undeniable, and even as he starts his life over he is back to creating intimately detailed imagery, eventually leading again to visions of violence. Although his work begins by lightly reflecting his real life, naming his characters after real people, it eventually more strongly reflects his psyche -- he replays the attack that took away his memory as a story about a squad of intrusive Germans demanding to know where his character's famous bar is, and who then string him up and torture him when he refuses. The working out of sexual concerns also receives an outlet in his world, naturally -- only within such a world could the playing out of these issues feel safe.

Hogancamp's artistry appears incidental until we understand that all art begins as self-expression, and the more that expression appeals to others who view it, the more likely it will be labeled as art. But the labeling is secondary, as it should be; primarily, Hogancamp works to satisfy an unstoppable drive searching for self-fulfillment, contentment, and the mitigation of personal pain. Marwencol practically ends up as the real-life version of Synecdoche, New York -- its ending suggests the other's mad idea of its artist recreating a full-scale interior set of his own life. All of this speaks to the addictiveness, the catharsis, the unpredictability, and the eternity of the creative process. (added 3/4/2011)

Megamind

Starring the voices of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross, Brad Pitt.
Directed by Tom McGrath.
Rating: 7/10

Continuing the amusing trend that certain cinematic high concepts occur in pairs of films, often released less than a year apart, Megamind gives us the superhero movie that focuses on the supervillain as the protagonist (Despicable Me was the other villain-centered animated flick). It also adds to the ever-growing pile of ultra-ironic postmodern takes on superhero mythology, and indeed would be lost in the crowd, perhaps deservedly so, if it didn't pull aces on its execution. In an animated field that now experiments with visual styles ranging from cartoonish caricatures (like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) to ultra-detailed and realistic-looking (like Legend of the Guardians), Megamind strikes a distinct, polished middle ground, with a colorful, appealing environment, physically well-designed cartoon characters, and a solid foundation of cartoon physics. No matter where the story was going, it was being sold by very good work on facial expressions and voice-acting; here, Megamind is supposedly an evil villain, but the character's "acting" (voiced, with noticeable control, by Will Ferrell) does the real work in engendering symapthy. Another bit of superb animation comes in the form of his henchman, Minion (voice of David Cross), a fish in a bowl that has a robot body attached to it -- the fish's movements as the "head" and "face" of the character is a fun-to-watch bit of inventiveness.

The character arc is predictable, even within the film's flipped-on-its-head premise, but the story encouragingly emphasizes the idea that we all have a relationship to our moral compasses, which in turn are not all created equal. Three of the major characters here are contrasting illustrations of this idea, the most extreme of which are, of course, Megamind, who has all the equipment necessary for being a solid citizen, yet is encouraged by society to adopt a villain's life; and a nerdy guy named Hal (voice of Jonah Hill), who seems to ignore any sense of right or wrong especially once he's overpowered by the anger of a romantic slight. The ultimate message regarding the protagonist is straightforward -- you should be who you are, and not what others say you are -- but there's enough sociological ingredients to the story to make it interesting for anyone who likes to overthink things. Despite some bad DreamWorks Animation habits sneaking in -- overreliance on stale pop music cues comes to mind -- Megamind runs on a smooth engine, telling its story and performing its job with confident skill. (added 5/26/2011)

Micmacs (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Dany Boon, André Dussollier, Omar Sy, Dominique Pinon, Julie Ferrier, Nicolas Marié, Marie-Julie Baup, Michel Crémadès, Yolande Moreau, Jean-Pierre Marielle.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Rating: 5/10

When Micmacs director Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses a cutesy approach and a fantasy-color-tinted visual scheme to tell the story of a winsome Parisian girl, as he did with Amélie, the tone fits the subject. But when he uses the same approach to tell the story of group of homeless misfits working together to bring down the heads of two rival arms manufacturers, the result is a misfire.

The misfits are headed by Bazil (Dany Boon), a simple fellow who survived a stray bullet to his cranium and whose father was killed by a landmine. After being adopted by a group of strangers who live in a hidden shelter, he discovers the companies responsible for both the bullet and the landmine, and decides to teach their CEOs a lesson via elaborate tricks and schemes designed to play them against one another. We are encouraged to cheer for Bazil and his friends because they are so warm, quirky, and lovable, and in case we couldn't see that, they are each given distinct goofy personality traits and abilities-- one can make complex puppets out of junk, one constantly espouses cliché phrases, one's a contortionist who can fit inside a fridge, etc. Their plots are Rube Goldberg-styled, overly complex but oh-so-neat in their precise timing and results (they have shades of Amélie's little schemes to influence the lives of the people around her).

Frankly, it's all a bit obnoxious. Supposedly the childishness of the protagonists is meant to endear them to us, but I'd rather have sympathy earned through actual character dimensions. Toward the end, the movie even dares to take a serious stance against the evils of irresponsible weapons makers, a decision both ill-advised and clunky. Jeunet leaves no doubt that he can really put together a movie -- the craftsmanship here is admirable -- but unfortunately his style also tends to bonk you over the head. With Micmacs, he also reveals his politics are simplistic enough to create an entire simpleton's fantasy out of issues that deserve to be looked at beyond a naive point-of-view. (added 1/10/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Mother (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho.
Rating: 8/10

Korean director Bong Joon-ho populates the world of Mother with sad, ugly people -- bums, boobs, jerks, and perverts. It seems to be a terrible way to view a society, but it's actually quite compelling because we can recognize everyone there. There are truths to be found amidst these flawed citizens, all of whom are normal people just dealing with whatever comes their way in the only way they're wired to do. No one, perhaps, is more flawed than the titular mother, Mrs. Yoon, perfectly played by Kim Hye-ja.

She might be what you'd call an average person getting by -- widowed, runs her own shop, practices an unlicensed profession on the side (acupuncture) for the benefit of her friends. All the while she overly dotes on her young adult son, Do-joon (Won Bin), who appears to be somewhat mentally challenged -- he's not exactly handicapped, but he is quite slow on the uptake, has a horrible memory, and seems to be oblivious to the events around him most of the time. As it happens, one night he was in the area where a teenage girl was found murdered. Very quickly, the police determine he's the prime suspect and lock him away in the local prison; his mother, who can not fathom that her son would even have the capability of harming anyone, then becomes determined to find out the truth behind the murder.

Although this could've led to a fairly generic thriller, Mother is anything but. Mrs. Yoon's "investigation" is impulsive and a bit reckless -- e.g., at the start, she quickly decides that Do-joon's misbehaving friend must be the real culprit and sneaks into his house to steal evidence -- and continues until she trawls out some unsavory secrets and causes some real harm. But all the while, we can see this person is going to do exactly what she's going to do because she can't help it. She's a mother whose son literally means everything to her, and she's not equipped to handle the crisis, so she unwittingly bumbles her way through this journey. She's driven, like everyone else in the picture, by an overpowering protective instinct (the same instinct, incidentally, that drove the main players in Bong's The Host). "Protective" could also be translated as "defensive," and when people most strongly react with this trait, everything else that happens is fallout.

Bong presents his characterizations with a blend of black humor and pathos, understanding that this wrecking ball story is both a comedy and a tragedy. He also happens to write (along with co-writer Park Eun-kyo) one heck of a narrative -- the third act comes across as a tightly wound series of ironic and appalling events unfolding with precision. Mother runs the gamut of people's bad behaviors -- laziness, greed, salaciousness, voyeurism, and fear of accountability -- and gives us a rather low view of humanity; but it's honest, and in the end we're given the choice to resign with either a smile or sigh at the thought of most people preferring to dance away from all the troubles they've accumulated. (added 7/31/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

My Soul to Take

Starring Max Thieriot, Denzel Whitaker, Raúl Esparza, Shareeka Epps.
Directed by Wes Craven.
Rating: 3/10

I'm still trying to figure out what the hook of My Soul to Take was supposed to be. This is a teen slasher flick, written and directed by horror veteran Wes Craven, who gave us such interesting ideas as the bogeyman who kills teens in their dreams, and the postmodern teen slasher, where everyone in the movie realizes they're in a horror movie and must follow the rules to get out alive. So what's this one about? Well... there doesn't seem to be much to it. There was this killer who supposedly died 16 years ago, and who several believe is coming back specifically to kill the seven kids who were born the day he was killed. Why? I don't know, but indeed this starts to happen. One of the kids, the main character named "Bug" (Max Thieriot), appears also to be able to channel (gather?) souls within him, specifically those of the other kids who are killed. They don't seem to help him very much, other than to warn him that the killer is out there, and eventually Bug and the killer do have to have a standoff. Meanwhile, the mystery of who the killer is doesn't play fair -- he could be supernatural, or he could be one of the other characters in a costume, and none of this feels like it matters much amidst a sea of bad acting, one-dimensional characters, and lack of any general scares. By the time the movie ended, I really wondered what the point of it was. What was the catch? It's Wes Craven, so there had to be one, right? Or is it just possible that Craven fumbled the ball this time and gave us the equivalent of a fairly amateur teen horror flick? That thought is scarier than the whole movie. (added 3/21/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Never Let Me Go

Starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling.
Directed by Mark Romanek.
Rating: 7/10

What makes Never Let Me Go unique is not necessarily its premise, but the way this film handles it. The story takes place in an alternate past, when in the late 20th century sicknesses have been eradicated and lifespans have been increased due to a certain science fiction scenario like the one in movies such as The Island. In most stories like these, the natural path would be for some of the "victims" to discover the truth and then fight for their lives. Here, however, our main protagonists know the truth, which is not kept secret, and simply follow along the path laid out for them in a kind of resigned acceptance.

Resignation appears to be the key attitude of the movie. It's embodied by Kathy (Isobel Meikle-Small as a child, Carey Mulligan as an adult -- dead ringers), who suffers from an unrequited love for her friend Tommy (Charlie Rowe as a child, Andrew Garfield as an adult). When Tommy seems to be attracted to Kathy's best friend Ruth (Ella Purnell as a child, Keira Knightley as an adult -- they don't even look similar!), Kathy doesn't make waves. Her reaction could barely even qualify as being passive-aggressive. She just accepts the circumstances and does the best she can with the limited life she's been given.

Of course, there are other developments, but Never Let Me Go unfolds them calmly; it's about as low key as a movie can get. It gives the sense that most of life isn't about fighting against the system; rather, it's in being comfortable with the knowledge of your limitations (internal and extrenal) while understanding that such knowledge may lead to a lot of repressed pain. In a way, although it feels illogical, it's almost a more realistic take on this kind of science fiction premise -- most of us don't rebel, we just keep quiet and accept certain daily sufferings as blunt-sensational facts of life.

The rest of Never Let Me Go revels in a simplicity that appears to be reaching for the profound, though it can't quite make it. Director Mark Romanek endows his film with a consistently somber mood while searching for shots of lingering, quiet, sad beauty, giving it a subdued, haunting tone. But it's almost too subdued, too simple, and makes us feel that the film wants to be moving, but isn't going to try to make us ache. As a love story, the movie is patient and reiterates the tragedy of love living at the mercy of time. As a science fiction story, it retreads the ground where emotional beings of non-normal origins make the case for having souls. And yet Never Let Me Go does attain a certain level of mature peace with the fact of mortality and the potential any lifetime contains. For a movie with such a passive personality, that may be just right. (added 12/13/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Next Three Days

Starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Brian Dennehy, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson.
Directed by Paul Haggis.
Rating: 7/10

At first, The Next Three Days appears to be a rather self-serious drama, as college professor John Brennan (Russell Crowe) deals with the dreadful situation of having had his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) hauled off to prison on a murder charge (he fully believes she's innocent, though surrounding evidence is damning) and having spent three years futilely working for her exoneration. With all legal recourse drying up, he does the next most logical thing -- he meets up with a man (Liam Neeson) notorious for having escaped from prison multiple times to get advice on how to break his wife out of the slammer and get away with it.

At this point, The Next Three Days happily goes into "movie mode," diving into its implausible scenario with gusto and yet, to a degree, retaining the same seriousness of tone it began itself with. I'll have to hand it to director Paul Haggis for approaching this film (a remake of a French film called Anything for Her) with the same sense of "grounded delusion" that Crowe's character illustrates first-hand. It is indeed a bit hard to believe that John, this mild-mannered man, could actually plan and go through with the preparations necessary to achieve his crazy goal (having Crowe play the part, though, makes it easier). But Haggis somehow pulls off a delicate balancing act -- a gravity-bound fantasy scenario -- showing us John's desperate, dark, human need while playing out made-for-movie scenes: John's nervous meetings with passport forgers, his explicitly laid-out planning in the form of a giant map marked up and taped up with notes on his bedroom wall, his botched first attempt at an illegal entry, and eventually a last resort act to obtain more cash and its consequences. It feels just real enough to be able to identify with the protagonist, yet just unreal enough to be entertaining in the way David Fincher's The Game celebrates.

I now wonder if Haggis's next movie might round out a trio (his last one was In the Valley of Elah) of movies about ordinary men backed up against the wall, unable to get real help from authorities, thereby taking it upon themselves to walk down a challenging road to closure. He's showing he has a nice, grounded, working-guy touch to these kinds of stories; I'd imagine if, for instance, he remade The Fugitive, which The Next Three Days definitely descends from, it would be pretty strong. (added 3/21/2011)

Nowhere Boy (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Aaron Johnson, Anne-Marie Duff, Kristin Scott Thomas, David Threlfall, David Morrissey.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood.
Rating: 6/10

Even some of the most ardent Beatles fans may not know too much about John Lennon's upbringing during the time before he formed a rock band, when he lived with his Aunt Mimi while his mother Julia was nearby, living her own life. Nowhere Boy tells this story of Lennon's relationship to these two women and packs it into a period covering his late teenage years. Told in about as tidy a way as could be, the film focuses on rebellious John (Aaron Johnson), who's tired of Mimi's (Kristin Scott Thomas) authority and seeks out his rock-'n-roll-listening, banjo-playing mother (Anne-Marie Duff), thereby discovering his own love of playing music. Along the way, he also forms The Quarrymen, and the movie gets to press the Beatles fans' fun buttons by introducing a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and, in a lesser role, George Harrison (Sam Bell). Actually, there are plenty more references for a Beatlemaniac, as Nowhere Boy dresses up in Beatles lore and appears eager to contribute to the canonization of Beatles mythology. Although the story is told and acted in as polished and easy-to-digest manner as possible, at least it also boasts a lively soundtrack, capped off with a fine rendition by the actors playing The Quarrymen of the group's early demo, "In Spite of All the Danger." Nowhere Boy is a passable drama, and might make a nice double feature with Backbeat, released in 1994. (added 2/9/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Oceans

Directed by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud.
Rating: 8/10

I don't know whether to be happy or sad about good quality nature documentaries being so readily available these days that one must look extra hard to recognize any as special. That's what occurred to me as I watched Oceans, a sumptuously photographed doc by directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, released in the U.S. under Disney's "Disneynature" series. The movie is undeniably beautiful, with shots of whales, dolphins, schools of fish moving in unison, creatures battling on the sea floor, all presented with crystal clarity. But scenes of this quality aren't new, nor are they limited to the seas -- Perrin and Cluzaud's own Winged Migration was an excellent example of nature cinematography (of birds in flight), and the BBC series Planet Earth -- which, incidentally, had its footage edited into a feature-length movie by Disneynature called Earth -- provided stunning shots of everything from ice regions to rain forests to, yes, the ocean.

That shouldn't diminish anyone's enjoyment of watching Oceans, and if the film does have a standout quality, it would be its meditativeness. The movie foregoes being instructive or directly educational -- in the American version, Pierce Brosnan narrates, but he doesn't tell stories or list facts; he namechecks most of the animals but otherwise waxes philosophical about what we're looking at. And yet even this feels intrusive -- frankly, the movie would work perfectly without any narration (which is mainly provided for the movie's young target audience anyway). The images have an entrancing intimate quality, but I wonder if a sustained viewing would eventually feel like staring at a screen saver.

Although Oceans also suffers a bit from hoping to cover a lot in a fairly short amount of time, perhaps this criticism just stems from a personal desire to see something with this caliber of cinematography demonstrate the ambition of having longer, fewer distinct sections, as in a symphony with four or five movements. Instead, the movie gives us bursts, visiting everything from crabs to cuttlefish, sea lions to penguins. Some of those bursts include ecological warnings, and one gets the feeling Perrin and Cluzaud had much to say on many subjects (Disneynature's release, according to IMDb, reportedly cuts about 20 minutes from the international version). It's fortunate, then, that much of what they do cover comes across as memorable in terms of sheer visual impact -- a sea floor covered with spider crabs, or a scuba diver swimming alongside a shark as if they were pool buddies. The main accomplishment of any film about the ocean is often to make us realize we're barely conscious of so much that's amazing about our own planet, and Oceans does that with swimming colors. (added 10/28/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Other Guys

Starring Will Farrell, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson, Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Ray Stevenson.
Directed by Adam McKay.
Rating: 6/10

A parody of buddy cop movies, The Other Guys is hit and miss, though its hits are pretty good. Much of this is due to the wise decision of having Will Ferrell finally play a character that isn't his usual developmentally arrested man-child -- this time he's a desk cop who doesn't like heading out into action, a role that requires some welcome restraint. He's complemented nicely by Mark Wahlberg, who plays his hotheaded, always angry partner. The pair create a lively interaction as they get to know one another while investigating a case no one else wants to acknowledge; much of the comedy comes from Wahlberg's character learning something unexpected about Ferrell's character that wouldn't be hinted at by his demeanor. Meanwhile, Wahlberg gets his moments as someone who can't live down an embarrassing past mistake, and who now bitterly tries a little too hard to prove himself.

Once again, director Adam McKay mines male insecurities as the source for his laughs. Because this often means digging for humor in moments of awkwardness, not all of the gags pan out, but when they do they get more than a few chuckles. The Other Guys throws in an added bit of awkwardness in that, as communicated by its end credits sequence, it purports to have a social conscience. Its plot centers around nabbing an investor who borrows lots of money and makes it disappear, allowing the movie to call out the evils of the billionaires who contributed to the latest U.S. financial crisis. But throughout the movie this concern feels more incidental to the shenanigans of Ferrell and Wahlberg. The comedy is more memorable than the politics, which, perhaps, works out for the better here. (added 1/21/2011)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2010

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