Reviews for 2010

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Paranormal Activity 2

Starring Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden, Micah Sloat.
Directed by Tod Williams.
Rating: 5/10

My original concern about Paranormal Activity 2, the sequel to a very low-budget but effective horror movie, was that a bigger budget might decrease its charm. After all, when you know a movie was made for peanuts, its special effects will have you legitimately wondering, "How did they do that?" and "That's creative!" But when more money is available to invite professional techniques, the viewer might take the effects more for granted. As it turns out, I needn't have worried about that -- instead, this movie disappointed me on a whole different level. In spirit, Paranormal Activity 2 follows the first film -- stationary cameras survey a large house haunted by an invisible force, so when the lights go out, we watch things move by themselves and hear occasional sudden noises. But whereas the first movie paced the paranormal events to create a steady buildup of dread, suspense, and anticipation, the sequel decides to move much more slowly, barely cracking a scare moment until roughly an hour in (about two-thirds of the movie), and even then it basically repeats ideas and stunts from its predecessor. I believe I understand what director Tod Williams was going for -- more anticipation, more "bomb under the table," as Hitchcock might have put it; but here it not only drags out too long, it fails to pay off at the end (it revisits a stunt for the climax, and in this case I can say knowledge of a higher budget makes it less effective). And while the movie's story ties in rather nicely with the one from the first movie, we should remember that the appeal of the original didn't really come from its story. Paranormal Activity 2 has it backwards -- nobly, it seems -- trying to pad the tale with more details and mystery while focusing less on the cheap thrills. In this case, though, the cheap thrills -- in both senses of the word -- were more fun. (added 2/20/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Starring Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson, Catherine Keener, Kevin McKidd, Joe Pantoliano, Uma Thurman, Jake Abel.
Directed by Chris Columbus.
Rating: 6/10

It continues to be a surprise to me that Greek mythology, with its vast and fantastic array of stories, doesn't get much coverage in the movies. So perhaps this accounts for my relatively pleased reaction to Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It's a movie one can be easily critical towards -- for starters, it's very clearly a Harry Potter ripoff, what with a kid (Logan Lerman) discovering his real past with ties to the supernatural, his going off to a training ground for just such kids, and his partnering with one male (Brandon T. Jackson) and one female (Alexandra Daddario) peer to head out with on adventures together. The movie is also based on a series of popular books (by Rick Riordan) for youths, and is even directed by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone's director, Chris Columbus. Meanwhile, it has a goofy feel to it, from its so-so special effects to its rather dorky sense of humor.

And yet the movie somehow manages to pay its respects to the Greek myths and actually convey them as fun. Yes, all the usual suspects are here -- Medusa (a rather funny Uma Thurman), the Hydra, a Minotaur -- but it's the little attention to details that made me smile, like making sure we understood that the Olympians are always in the midst of a power struggle amongst the brothers Zeus (Sean Bean), Poseidon (Kevin McKidd), and Hades (Steve Coogan); that Hades has a reluctant wife Persephone (Rosario Dawson) (who even alludes to her allotted time away each year); that there's a lair of the Lotus Eaters (and it's in Las Vegas, ha!). There's a ferryman to hell, winged shoes (OK, winged sneakers), centaurs and satyrs -- the whole thing is a mash-up of the delights of Greek myths. Perhaps the most bothersome part to me was that all their key locales were in the United States, but I suppose the mythological figures would move on to whatever was the most powerful civilization at the time. In any case, it was good to see that these characters were being introduced to a new generation of kids through a fun, updated interpretation. (added 8/4/2010)

Please Give

Starring Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Ann Guilbert, Sarah Steele.
Directed by Nicole Holofcener.
Rating: 7/10

The most prominent character in Please Give is Kate (Catherine Keener), a business owner in New York, married with daughter, and saddled with a massive sense of good fortune guilt. She can't pass by a homeless person without offering some money, and yet her very business is, in a way, taking advantage of others -- she and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) buy the furniture of the recently deceased and resell them at their store. They've also bought the apartment adjacent to them, currently occupied by a 91-year-old woman (Ann Guilbert), whom they are just waiting to die so they can expand their own place. It would seem Kate, a sincerely thoughtful woman, has many things to feel guilty about.

Her neighbor's granddaughters, introverted Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and callous Mary (Amanda Peet), also figure into the mix, as does Kate's teenage disgruntled daughter Abby (Sarah Steele). When they all get to know one another, sparks don't necessarily fly, and thank goodness. Please Give, a movie mostly played for light comic effect, manages to maintain a sense of decorum, and in doing so, actually feels more believable -- the people here live their lives, have thoughts and opinions about this and that, engage in funny or revealing interactions, and, perhaps most importantly, exhibit contradictions and inconsistencies. They feel like real people -- they'll believe certain things and later might change their minds; they contrast each other, as some are easily more considerate and others are more rude; they form new friendships and shift the degree of their allegiances depending on new information they obtain.

Please Give doesn't have much plot, just characters interacting and developing, and its lack of a need for drama is refreshing. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener doesn't have a thesis to expound upon nor a thudding point to make -- she's created a group of people around the idea of the selectiveness of guilt and how it's an unavoidable emotion plus a necessary moral check, manifesting itself differently in each person. But Holofcener isn't exploring why people feel guilty; rather, she notes that some simply do, and what they fixate upon with their guilt can be both arbitrary and logical. The more strongly guilt-influenced characters are counterbalanced by ones who appear to feel no guilt at all. What seems to be suggested is that there are many things to feel bad about, so it's important to acknowledge this and keep one's guilt in a proper perspective. The movie shows a mature, natural handling of an unscientific approach to its subject, which amounts to a leisured time in the company of people you could easily run into on any given day out about town. (added 1/25/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)


Starring Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Danny Trejo, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Laurence Fishburne.
Directed by Nimród Antal.
Rating: 6/10

After having slogged through the dopey Predator 2 and the dreadful AVP movies, Predators arrives as something of a relief. Perhaps this isn't the right way to judge the movie -- against the lack of merits of the previous follow-ups to 1987's Predator -- but there's something to be said about a movie with a Predator in it that is actually decent, especially after three previous tries in 20-plus years. Although I wouldn't call Predators spectacular, it is relatively admirable for its mere competence, with a very simple sci-fi plot that makes use of the alien hunter race without desperately trying to call attention to itself. It effectively starts with the set-up of Cube, wherein a group of strangers are dropped (in this one, literally) into an unknown, contained, deadly environment and have to team up to figure out what to do. It doesn't take long for them to theorize they've been placed on another planet as the prey in a "game preserve," and soon they must find a way to outwit the Predators before being picked off one by one. We get the kind of action and violence we expect here, and even some interesting characterizations too. Some interest lies in the observation that this group of people is comprised of professional killers of varying nationalities, suggesting that our own race is something of a reflection of this ruthless alien one. Adrien Brody acquits himself as an against-type action hero, and he even gets to recall some of Arnold Schwarzenegger's lines in the climax -- a way for this movie to communicate that it's humbly aware of its roots, for which we should all be thankful. (added 12/1/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, Gemma Arterton, Alfred Molina.
Directed by Mike Newell.
Rating: 5/10

I know we've been trained not to expect much from movie adaptations of video games, yet I was disappointed anyway with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. I thought the material had real potential for a fun movie. I'm not even familiar with the plot from the games, so I'm referring to its elements, but those elements have promise: the swashbuckling setting in the desert sands, the hero's Parkour-like acrobatic abilities, the magical item that can reverse small increments of time. Someone could've written a movie that would've made good use of these, but that didn't seem to happen here. Instead, we get a few passable scenes of the acrobatic stuff and very few uses of the time reversing, only one of which is somewhat clever.

What we're left with is a rather standard and forgettable adventure. Screenwriters Boaz Yakin, Doug Miro, and Carlo Bernard try to create one of those fun antagonistic couples with Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), but their dialogue and interplay isn't as snappy as they could've been. Blame the chemistry of the leads, or maybe the writing itself -- most of the other dialogue suffers from characters having to explain too many things (about plot or their motives and thoughts), all in British accents. The plot involves some trickery in trying to mislead the viewer from determining who the main bad guy is for a while, but it really isn't hard to figure out; what does become hard to figure out is the story itself, which becomes confusing towards the end as our heroes seem to warp from one location to the next. As mentioned, at first there are a few set pieces with some fun stunts, reflecting the nature of the games, but for the last half of the movie this gives way to sword combat, which becomes repetitive. I will say, though, that I found the ending to be rather nifty, but when the whole thing was over, I could see that the movie had a lot of its parts in place, but as a whole most of the parts didn't shine.

Director Mike Newell was able to elicit some charm, but no grandness, no real sense of thrill or suspense, and the movie was at many times predictable. Prince of Persia really should be an ideal fit for big studio Hollywood -- it didn't need large ideas, grand themes, or artistic touches, just a lot of production values, shiny stars, and a simple story. And yet with a little complacency in some departments, and too much fussing in others, the movie feels mediocre. It could've been much more, and so it seems the video game curse is still alive and well. (added 9/25/2010)

Princess Ka'iulani

Starring Q'orianka Kilcher, Barry Pepper, Shaun Evans, Jimmy Yuill, Julian Glover, Tamzin Merchant, Will Patton.
Directed by Marc Forby.
Rating: 4/10

Princess Ka'iulani has no qualms about being a fairly fawning biopic about Ka'iulani, the young Hawaiian princess who lived at the turn of the century, when her nation was being annexed by the United States. It should've been concerned, though, about wading in a sea of clichés, making the majority of the movie stale and, frankly, stone boring. While the princess (Q'orianka Kilcher) is in Hawaii, life is ideal, until an attempted insurrection convinces her Scottish father to take her to England. There, she experiences the combination of a bad children's story and a corny romance, as her foreign-ness and island nation royal status subjects her to various belittlements, while she finds friendship with her guardian's daughter and son. The romance that emerges only serves to show how much more fiercely she loves her country, as she eventually tries to do what she can to use her royal stature to protect her people against an evil business-driven American (Barry Pepper), who surprisingly resists the temptation to twirl his moustache. Actually, none of this is even as potentially entertaining (in a good or bad way) as it sounds. After watching Princess Ka'iulani, we can barely say we learned much about this historical figure, nor even much of the history of the time, which feel as if they get blurred over in favor of trite, undercooked character drama. It's a shame to see that this was Kilcher's next role after her starring gig in The New World (2005) -- this stiff part as Ka'iulani couldn't be more different than her previous role as Pocahontas. She looks as nice in her period costumes as the lush scenery and photography do, but they're all just dressing for what amounts to be a sleepy biography. (added 12/1/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

A Prophet (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif, Reda Kateb, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Philippe Ricci, Gilles Cohen, Antoine Basler, Leïla Bekhti, Pierre Leccia, Foued Nassah, Jean-Emmanuel Pagni, Frédéric Graziani.
Directed by Jacques Audiard.
Rating: 8/10

I confess that I found the idea of yet another movie about the goings-on of the mobster underworld unappealing. It's certainly a genre that's been done to death so much that every aspect of such stories is now a cliché. And I couldn't see what a A Prophet might have to offer -- its only wrinkle is that a mob is being run from prison by a ruthless boss whose faction of inmates controlled the guards -- an idea that's been thought of before, I believe. But the movie focuses on the "career" of a new inmate, one Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), and here's where it does get interesting. Aside from being an Arab with no religious loyalties, he's morally blank. His only faith is to self-preservation, which he initially enacts by trying to be a loner, but that doesn't work when the mob boss, Luciani (Niels Arestrup), forces his involvement with a brutal task -- murder a certain prisoner or else. With right or wrong serving no place in Malik's instated six-year sentence, he forces his way past his fears and trepidations, assimilates all the knowledge that he can, and simply tries to survive -- and if that involves having to deal with gangsters or assassinate others, that's the way it goes.

A Prophet turns out to be a mob story with no concern for the redemption or salvation of its protagonist. We are not asked to worry about his soul, nor, on the other hand, to judge any baseness of his character, or to vicariously experience the thrill of such a lifestyle. We end up wondering if he can just get the hell out of this situation in one piece. With this approach and the genre machinery installed well in place by director Jacques Audiard, the movie is an epic-styled comment on the practical side of getting through modern life, with spirituality and loyalty playing side parts to gaining raw skill, nerve, judgment, useful connections, and experience. And it also might have something to say about the perceived effectiveness of prison systems, seeing as how one is shown here to be a perfect training ground for aspiring kingpins. (added 8/17/2010)

Rabbit Hole

Starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney, Sandra Oh.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell.
Rating: 7/10

Rabbit Hole might be considered a dedication to anyone who has ever lost a child; it sympathizes without being condescending, respects the struggle that is the process of grieving and healing without giving way to wallowing or histrionics. It is, in a word, tasteful. I felt the screenplay was written in a way to give the grieving couple Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) just enough leeway not to feel constrained, but otherwise it plays things safe in trying to tell a very accessible story. When we join the couple, their 4-year-old son has already been gone for eight months; they are in that awkward phase of coping where the initial shock has worn off. Their lives are in positions to move on, and yet they can't admit how deeply the tragedy still affects them. Each of them copes in a different way, too -- Becca acknowledges the weight on her emotions and tries to slowly remove reminders and mementos of her son, while Howie appears outwardly ready to move forward but is actually having a terrible time letting go. The characters are each allowed to stretch by having incidentally therapeutic interactions with certain people -- Becca befriends the guilt-ridden teenager (Miles Teller) whose car was involved in the accident, while Howie spends time with a woman (Sandra Oh) from their support group. There is also give-and-take with Becca's mother (Dianne Wiest) and new emotional challenges to face in the form of Becca's newly pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard). This pretty much covers all the bases. Rabbit Hole goes to places you'd expect it to go and never quite goes to where you wouldn't want it to. Director John Cameron Mitchell handles everything respectfully, realistically, and even with gentle doses of humor, allowing only a few blow-ups, thus ensuring the weighty material never feels burdensome. I'm not sure this movie says anything newly instructive about the grieving/healing process, nor do I believe it wants to. Instead, the film acknowledges the uniquely awful space that comprises reality for anyone who has suffered as Becca and Howie have, and, in so doing, suggests that acknowledgment itself provides some of the strongest support. (added 12/21/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Starring Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Spencer Locke, Boris Kodjoe, Wentworth Miller.
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.
Rating: 3/10

The law of diminishing returns rears its ugly, ugly head with Resident Evil: Afterlife, the fourth movie in a series that is going absolutely nowhere. To recap some of what I wrote about the series in my review of the previous movie, Resident Evil: Extinction, the film franchise has strayed far away from the world portrayed in the video games it adapts, and made a bad move in going post-apocalyptic, which the games have yet to do. That is, now that zombies have taken over the world, the only stories that can be told are the usual zombie survival stories (by contrast, the games deal with ongoing fights against corporate experimenting in biological weaponry). But Afterlife can barely even be bothered to do that right -- this movie pretty much has no plot (some survivors try to make it out of a prison fortress, surrounded by zombies, onto a rescue ship -- whoopee), and also decides to discard anything interesting that had been set up by the last two movies (the first sequence arbitrarily dispenses with Alice's (Milla Jovovich) clone army and her superpowers in very lazy, dismissive fashion). So it has no more particular story to tell, all the better to indulge in Shoot 'Em Up-style action silliness (without the tongue in cheek), with plenty of slow motion gymnastic flipping and bullets ripping through heads and bodies. The most one can say about the movie is that it sets up some decent-looking tableaus, mostly of Jovovich and Ali Larter running and firing guns -- and since this was meant to be a film viewed in 3-D, reveling in these glossy shots is understandable. But if this is what 3-D is mostly going to be used for -- the set up of cool-looking but totally disposable scenes -- then there's not much of a road left to travel for the gimmicky technology. The same can be said of this movie series, which once started out with some kind of story to tell but which now is fully invested in nothing but spectacle. (added 2/2/2011)


Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger.
Rating: 8/10

Restrepo could be called the non-fiction companion piece to The Hurt Locker -- both take the perspective of U.S.-waged war in the Middle East down to the level of the field soldier, and both are staunchly apolitical. It doesn't matter how they got there, say the movies -- it only matters that circumstances have placed their trained lives on the line, so their existence comes down to pure survival. And although the same could be said about any soldier fighting in any war throughout the centuries, what changes is the context of battle, and in the case of Restrepo, the context is greatly daunting. The film follows the activities of a platoon as they are stationed at the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan, in the Korengal Valley. The valley works well to conceal Taliban forces, who constantly monitor and attack the U.S. troops there; the troops featured in the film consider it a major victory when they are able to establish another strategic outpost, which they name "Restrepo" after a fallen comrade.

The madness of warfare is starkly presented here, as dozens of questions potentially run through the viewer's mind. How discouraging is it that the side with so much supposed technological and weaponry advantage can be kept so easily at bay by the nature of concealed combat and geographical terrain? How clear does it become that the notions of bravado and toughness provide only thin armor for normal human psyches and morale, vulnerable to being bruised and traumatized (witness the soldier who finds his friend killed after an ambush and then just breaks down and cries)? And how in the world did the filmmakers, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, get this combat footage? They are either brave, crazy, or both.

One observation that struck me as interesting is how war movies in general have become quite accurate in portraying modern combat. When action occurred in Restrepo, it felt very much like action sequences from well-made fictional war movies, perhaps just less exaggerated. In that sense, the you-are-there impact of Restrepo was dulled a bit, as the purely observational movie (which also interjects interview footage with some of the soldiers post-mission) did not also have the advantage of establishing dramatic narrative nor total dramatic control of camera point-of-view. But suspense isn't as crucial to this movie's impact as shellshock is. There aren't any chracters with funny written personalities here -- just soldiers who would otherwise be normal people in a civilized environment, here doing their jobs which unfortunately requires them to experience a terror most people would never be able to relate to. The matter-of-factness of their experience is almost striking in its banality -- it's sad to know that war happens as it happens, that most of us know there will be deaths, and there will be survivors who will be haunted by what they lived through, and that the world will just keep on turning anyway. (added 11/22/2010)

Robin Hood

Starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Mark Addy, Oscar Isaac, Danny Huston, Eileen Atkins, Max von Sydow.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Rating: 3/10

The Ridley Scott-directed Robin Hood is yet another offering along the lines of the recent Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans in which a known story is adapted in a revisionist manner, quite different from their known sources. As I've said before, I don't mind revisionism, and again, I don't mind new points of view brought to an old story, but again, it feels like a waste of time and energy when the revision isn't compelling in any way on its own. With Robin Hood, the ill-advised angle Scott takes is to tell the famous outlaw's origin story, before he became an outlaw -- that is, before he became interesting. Robin Hood's whole raison d'etre is to steal from the rich and give to the poor, defying corrupt government and standing up for the common people. Without this concept, he's just a noble fellow, just as Batman would be a bitter young guy before he donned his cape and cowl, or Spider-Man would just be a regular nerd before getting bitten by a radioactive spider. We use these parts of the stories as stepping stones to get to the interesting parts.

Thus Robin Hood has little insight to offer, partly because the idea isn't interesting, and partly because what Scott decides to do is just make up a story and populate it with Robin Hood characters. For starters, King Richard (Danny Huston) is killed on his way home from the Crusades, and Robin (Russell Crowe) and his friends, who fought alongside their ruler, make their way back to England to report the bad news, whereupon Prince John (Oscar Isaac) is made King. At this point, the story is split into two paths -- one following Robin as he effectively lucks his way into becoming the heir of a land baron (Max von Sydow); the other following a plot by the French to use a spy to further disenfranchise the English populace from their new ruler in order to weaken them for an invasion. Robin eventually gets involved with the political/war side of the story, but he doesn't do anything particularly distinct; rather, his distinction amongst the other barons comes from a rallying speech and solid battle skills, though little of it is reminiscent of anything we'd associate with the character of Robin Hood. It's a blah story with roots in neither history nor popular myth, and it doesn't set up Robin Hood as someone we'd care to follow after this story is told.

Climaxing with the kind of well-produced but been-there-done-that battle scene we always get in movies like this, Robin Hood can't even make that work as it conjures up a preposterous development involving Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett), only to follow it with an out-of-place superhero-like feat. As if admitting its own insignificance, the movie then ends with a title card that reads, "And so the legend begins." Certainly the "legend" would have been much more entertaining to watch, rather than the generic historical action/drama that came before. (added 10/27/2010)


Starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andre Braugher.
Directed by Phillip Noyce.
Rating: 6/10

The further we go on, the more clear the strength of the influence of the Bourne movies becomes. Salt is the latest movie to use the Bourne action pace as a template, this time with Angelina Jolie playing the part of a highly trained agent, named Salt, who also happens to have an ambiguous identity and allegiance. The biggest challenge here would have been to make it convincing that a woman of Jolie's small and slender frame could pull off the film's featured tough physical feats, but, being an action veteran, she handles her work well and makes it entertaining. The action sequences are also directed well by Phillip Noyce, who, thankfully, dispenses with handheld cameras and confusing editing, opting for a more sturdy presentation that manages to retain its physical force. He also doesn't ease up on the action's suggested brutality -- Jolie is made up to appear quite battered on occasion, creating a nice added level of discomfort that toys with our appetite for movie mayhem.

It all would have worked much better, too, if the plot tried to keep the scale humble. The story, which starts as a mystery concerning Salt's true identity, eventually spirals into plot-hole-ridden ridiculousness, with no less than world nuclear annihilation at stake. The Bourne films get this right by understanding the place of one agent in an unwieldy machine of uncontrollable world politics; Salt, instead, opts for the silliness of a bad James Bond movie. It can't even be bothered to stay current, since its plot dredges up the grudges of the Cold War, with evil rogue Russians still interested in bringing down the U.S. government; eventually it goes so far as to have the U.S. President taking refuge in a bunker with the Football, making the movie a comfortable fit for the 1980's. As a result, Salt's urgency drains as it goes, and the seriousness of its protagonist loses considerable credibility. Just enjoy watching Jolie roll through her stunts, then -- a good time can possibly still be had by all. (added 1/25/2011)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman.
Directed by Edgar Wright.
Rating: 10/10

Movie critics, like anyone else, are subjective creatures, but readers expect us to be objective anyway, so most of the time a reviewer will try to maintain a balance between the two sides. However, there are times when objectivity will just have to go straight out the window. For me, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of those times.

I was already mightily looking forward to the movie because it's directed by Edgar Wright, the yet-to-be-household name who directed two of my favorite recent comedies, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Yet I had no idea just how much his next project would be meant for someone like me. Scott Pilgrim, based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, is about a 22-year-old bassist (Michael Cera) in an aspiring rock band who falls for a girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but in order to win her hand he must defeat her seven exes (as in "ex-boyfriend"). And here "defeat" means to actually beat them in one-on-one combat -- video game-style.

The movie immediately shows how different it plans on being by reveling in an array of visual gimmicks, mostly meant to emulate the style of comic books -- sound effects get written out on screen, labels point things out, certain moments are revealed in a series of split panels, etc. But steadily and surely, the video game references come out -- and not just any video games, but stuff from that classic block of time when Nintendo ruled gamers' households. 8-bit style graphics adorn the shots, music from a Legend of Zelda game is used in the background, and the name of Scott Pilgrim's band -- the "Sex Bob-Ombs" -- is a direct reference to a character in Super Mario Bros. games. Even if the movie only felt cute and teasing in these moments, it truly invites you to take the plunge once the first "evil ex" shows up. As he rockets fist-first towards the stage where the band is performing, challenges Scott to a fight to the death, and Scott actually responds with graphically-enhanced fighting moves, you will either check out completely, or embrace it with a grin that says, "I get this... I totally totally get this." Before you know it, the word "VS" flashes on the screen, the frenetically shot fights are lit up with colorful effects, and the bad guys get eliminated in a burst of coins and the appearance of a score.

Wright's handling of this material is some kind of revelation -- based on his Simon Pegg collaborations, I always knew he was a visually attentive humorist with great comic timing, but Scott Pilgrim shows he understands a whole mindset about the way an old-time gamer is geared. It's not only in the way the world is filtered through an obsessive attention to mathematically-oriented details -- levels and meters and rigid adherence to numbers and structure -- but also through the ways those games set up patterns of thought. Goals are there to be climbed towards, no matter how absurdly; every mini-task built up to a boss; every boss had to have a weakness, and so on. All these games, in a rather funny way, were about growth, refinement, and analysis, and here this idea gets applied to the real-life mess that is romance (and, perhaps more to the point, the straightening up of one's self). Wright delivers on the idea that the strongest appeal of many video games involves the sense of defined structure and dramatic embellishment that's absent in real life. The most brilliant application of this may be in the climax, which uses a very common video game element to solve a relationship crisis.

Scott Pilgrim speaks to a shared attitude many of us had during those days in the late '80s and throughout the '90s when it was our time, in high school or college or freshly post-college, to geek out over video games, comic books, indie rock, and anime. The movie tosses its elements together to create what is effectively a fantasia -- probably better termed a "geek-tasia" -- of a world its target audience can indulge in.

Now I almost never talk about the ratings I assign to movies, but for this one, so much about numbers and scores as it is, I'll make an exception. If I had to lean more toward objectivity about it, I might give it a 7 or 8 out of 10 because it has wondrous inventiveness, style, and technique, but it could be considered lightweight and it's also certainly not for everybody. But since it's definitely for people like me, and it does everything so right, I'll give it a 10 out of 10 on principle. So there you have it -- a 10 out of 10. You win -- perfect! (added 8/15/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Secret in Their Eyes (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Guillermo Francella.
Directed by Juan José Campanella.
Rating: 8/10

The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film directed by Juan José Campanella, added the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2009 to the list of accolades for this tightly structured, visually conscious, well-acted mystery and love story. Retired federal justice agent Benjamín Esposito (Ricardo Darín) decides to write a novel about a past case that still haunts him as well as the unresolved feelings he has for his former boss, Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Flashbacks tell the story of a young woman raped and murdered, and the subsequent hunt by Benjamín, his associates, and her grieving husband (Pablo Rago) for the killer; all the while Benjamín nurtures a closer relationship with Irene but holds himself back from initiating anything more than a professional relationship with her. The story is involving, the characters are rich, the politics of Argentina are touched upon, and each new development only increases the viewer's interest.

Even when much of what happens seems presposterous, The Secret in Their Eyes makes you believe what's going on. The relative impossibility and/or unlikelihood of certain events was not lost upon me, and yet they were delicious all the same. Campanella knows how to weave his world, and he also has enough ambition to stage a stunt take at a soccer match where the camera dives in from the sky and continues to follow characters into the bowels of the stadium in one minutes-long continuous shot. The movie is confident in the images it creates (which certainly require a boldness in the use of old-age makeup), in the twists and curves of the story it's telling, and in the delivery of dramatic emphasis and profundities (among them: death is far more merciful than an empty life) -- all without feeling self-conscious or overstated. If The Secret in Their Eyes can be criticized for displaying a depth more pronounced than subtle, it at least puts on a quite satisfying and deft show. (added 9/25/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Shrek Forever After

Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas.
Directed by Mike Mitchell.
Rating: 6/10

Shrek Forever After gives the Shrek franchise a desperate jolt. After draining the storyline of comedic possibilities by the third movie, this fourth one decides to give it the It's a Wonderful Life treatment. Shrek (voice of Mike Myers) now lives in domestic hell and has lost all distinctions of being a scary ogre. He is then tricked by Rumpelstiltskin (voice of Walt Dohrn, in a rare move by DreamWorks to allow a major character to be voiced by a non-celebrity) into signing a magical agreement to live one day as a regular ogre again. However, of course, the change to Shrek's world turns out to be real and potentially permanent, unless he can exploit a loophole; in the meantime, he has to recreate ties with Donkey (voice of Eddie Murphy), Puss-in-Boots (Antonio Banderas), and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), all of whom now don't know him. This premise reveals an urge by the filmmakers to wipe the slate clean, as large an admission that the series is out of ideas as one could get. That said, all involved do try to make the most of it, with the result that this fourth and supposedly final entry has a little more zing to it than the tired-feeling previous entry. As another animated adventure, it coasts on its brand of humor and harmlessly tosses around that old idea of romantic destiny. It might be a little sad to note, though, that the entire arc of the series now gives us an initially rebellious, obligation-free character who is dragged down kicking and screaming into accepting as best for him the "happiness" of family, friends, and settled living. It's a wonderful life indeed, Shrek. (added 12/17/2010)

Shutter Island

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow.
Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Rating: 6/10

Martin Scorsese flexes his filmmaking muscles by taking on an old-fashioned mystery thriller with Shutter Island. The key term here is "old-fashioned," as the movie uses a plot (based on Dennis Lehane's novel) full of psychological overtones that Alfred Hitchcock might've found comfortable to work with. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) are sent to an island which houses an insane asylum to investigate the escape of one of its inmates, Rachel Solando. Once there, Teddy suspects sinister government-backed experiments are taking place on the island, while his own tragic past continues to haunt him in his sleep, revealing a possible connection to the happenings at the asylum.

Scorsese's film hums along like a well-oiled machine, and the first half of the movie, when all of the intrigue is set up, is easily the more enjoyable half. There's just something about genre conventions done well, and at first Shutter Island capitalizes on that. Unfortunately, the ending lets the air out of the balloons -- to give any hint of it would be to risk spoiling the movie, but it might be enough to say it plays fast and loose with what's believable in a movie without giving much hint of irony. There is admittedly a dose of poignancy to it, and it does allow Scorsese to touch upon the debilitating effects of self-inflicted guilt, but it still feels a bit too sobering and wilted after we'd gotten drunk off of the power-punching first and second acts. The unfair, unwritten rule of a mystery is that, no matter what it's about nor how deep it is about it, the ending should be impactful, moreso than in any other genre. Shutter Island, after an involving and entertaining beginning, settles for a victory by judges' decision rather than a final knockout. (added 6/23/2010)

The Social Network

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella.
Directed by David Fincher.
Rating: 10/10

I'll be the first to admit that I feel uneasy any time a story based on true events drags someone's name through the mud, but in the case of The Social Network, I must make an exception. It's not that the film's subject, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, deserves it -- honestly, I can't even agree that it makes him look wholly bad. What helps Zuckerberg in this case is that this movie, which happens to cover the phenomenon of global interconnectivity through the internet, is being released in a world that can quickly check the facts on almost any subject and share news to millions in a matter of seconds, so if he makes enough noise casting doubt on the movie's veracity, it will certainly be heard. Frankly, if you've been paying attention to the news lately, it already has been heard.

So his reputation should be secure, but even if it weren't I might defend this movie for telling its story the way it does, simply because it's told so well. Director David Fincher's film (written by Aaron Sorkin) follows the footsteps of Citizen Kane in telling the story of a man who makes himself into a gazillionaire, but at the possible cost of his soul. There's just something very resonant about these stories, and for me they're even better when they link the path to material success to an extremeness in human behavior. It's not surprising then that I'd call The Social Network this year's version of There Will Be Blood (which itself had also compared to Citizen Kane).

Movies like these express that the most successful personalities are driven by a psychotic need to win. The Social Network begins with Harvard student Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) getting dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and then deciding to enact a great personal revenge on her by trashing her over the internet. But he takes it further, using his genius hacking and programming skills to find a way to humiliate every woman on the campus. The snowball rolls on as he eventually creates Facebook (or, at the time, "TheFacebook"), a social networking website that caters to college campuses; as he does so, he mistreats other people who were supposed to be involved with the idea to the point that we see him caught in two lawsuits via intermittent flashforwards in the movie.

Zuckerberg, though, through his computer intelligence and his ability to sense the big picture (and to see the same ability in others), ultimately comes out ahead, as Facebook becomes an enormous success. His path is contrasted with the past of his best friend and Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), whose main role was in backing up the company financially. Saverin may appear to be the sympathetic character in all this -- he's well-meaning and he effectively becomes a victim to Zuckerberg's cold and single-minded drive -- but in this scenario who do we really end up admiring? The nice guy with entrepreneurial nearsightedness, or the jerk who at least has the foresight to know what's going to work and what won't?

Throughout the movie, we're reminded that Zuckerberg really doesn't care about money. It may also be safe to say that he also doesn't care about success for his own sake -- rather, he cares more that his success teaches a lesson to everyone else who may have had any doubts or criticisms about him. He wants to win, and he wants others to hurt as a result of his winning. And he achieves it because he wants to satisfy this personal concern so badly. If you think this is far-fetched, you'd only have to look back to Michael Jordan's acceptance speech when he was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame, where he claimed others' doubts of him gave him his prime motivation. Some have described his speech as inappropriate for the occasion, but in the end, we still see Jordan as a winner.

And for becoming a billionaire, we may also see Mark Zuckerberg as a winner, heartless and shark-like though he may be. That's why the real-life man needn't worry about what The Social Network says about him -- it might just be revealing a deeper, unkind truth about what it means to achieve success, and it suggests that those of us watching, in the audience, have been conditioned to accept this standard of admiration. It may say that within us exists this primal respect for competitive ruthlessness, even if it's at odds with a conflicting humane nature that also resides in us. This nagging, better side also does not go without notice in the movie. Hints of what the repercussions of Zuckerberg's actions might really mean to him reverberate throughout the movie. The film's last shot suggests that the most success-obsessed among us will always have some kind of "Rosebud." (added 10/6/2010)


Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning.
Directed by Sofia Coppola.
Rating: 9/10

If Somewhere dealt only with a successful actor living in catatonic disillusionment at the state of his life, it might not be so special. But this movie boasts a particularly lovely grace note. The actor in question is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), who lives in a Los Angeles celebrity hotel filled with parties and easy women, though he doesn't seem to be enjoying any of it anymore. One day his (ex?) wife drops their 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) into his care for a little while. Their time together could have been played for cheap, awkward comedy, but in director Sofia Coppola's hands, we get something unexpected. Cleo is bright and well-adjusted, and Johnny clearly enjoys the time he suddenly has with her and accomodates his daughter without complaint. In their interactions, color appears in Johnny's life where once there was none.

Coppola has made clear the kinds of directors she emulates -- think Michelangelo Antonioni, Wong Kar-Wai, and other international directors who are very patient with their shots. If her style had felt a bit mimicking before, she seems fully assured with it now. Somewhere benefits from its long takes in that, with them, Coppola is more deeply able to contrast Johnny's life without Cleo and then with her in it. The shots linger for unbearable lengths when he's alone, but those same long shots attain a feeling of contentment and lyricism when he's with his daughter. This comes across as a sweet, subtle, and natural way to make the statement that so much of life's voids can be made smaller by parenthood.

Thankfully, Coppola never uses the material to go for maudlin, and, except for one sequence, neither does she include the mocking undertone of her Lost in Translation. Somewhere has a precise tonal calibration that feels realistically dependent on the personalities of its two main characters -- the story wouldn't work quite as well if Dorff didn't play Marco in such a low key, for instance. The only part that doesn't feel as genuine is the ending, which appears somewhat of a concession to needing an actual ending; but it doesn't dampen the previous warming sensation nor the bittersweet notion that such moments of emotional harmony are more likely to be fleeting than lifelong. (added 12/22/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Starring Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Monica Bellucci.
Directed by Jon Turteltaub.
Rating: 6/10

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a pretty strange idea for a movie, taking the same-named short from Fantasia as its launching point, but then really having nothing to do with it -- there's no Mickey Mouse, the master sorcerer is Nicolas Cage and not some old bearded guy, and the action takes place in modern times, involving a chase for a magical artifact. It's a fantasy/action movie, and, frankly, it's completely dorky. And yet it slips by because of its wise decision to fully embrace that dorkiness.

There's nothing in the movie to take seriously. Its hero, played by Jay Baruchel, is a nerd, brilliant at physics but overwhelmed when destiny comes calling in the form of a centuries-old sorcerer (Cage), who declares him to be the successor to none other than Merlin. Meanwhile, there's also an evil, well-dressed sorcerer (Alfred Molina) and his sidekick (Toby Kebbell), who knows real magic but can only make use of it by going the David Copperfield career route. And they all ham it up. I'll admit there's something appealing about Cage when he gets to be cheesy in a movie where the cheesiness fits, and Molina, a skilled actor, is every bit as game in this environment. They know it's fun kids' stuff.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub put together a summer fantasy movie in a season featuring competition from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Last Airbender, but unlike those offerings, their movie wasn't based on anything (no, the Goethe poem, the Dukas musical piece, and the Fantasia short don't count, even with the movie's ode in the form of a scene featuring magical mops). And yet, thanks to its absence of ponderousness, The Sorcerer's Apprentice might've been the most enjoyable of the lot. (added 12/9/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

South of the Border

Directed by Oliver Stone.
Rating: 7/10

In South of the Border, famously liberal controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone travels to South America to debunk the myths disseminated in the U.S. about the most notorious leaders of its countries. Notorious? Even as a more-active-than-just-casual observer of the news, I confess I haven't been very aware of South American politics; I had been too busy hearing about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. They're the countries U.S. President George W. Bush once labeled "The Axis of Evil," but apparently Venezuela and its president, Hugo Chávez, had been another thorn in his side.

Stone's documentary paints a picture in which the current crop of South American leaders gained power, steering their countries toward more independent economies that benefit their working class, all of which did not serve the Bush administration's interests of help in stirring the South American pots. Stone starts by profiling and interviewing revolutionary leader Chávez before moving on to neighboring countries to interview other leaders in this "leftist" South American movement, including Evo Morales of Bolivia, the Kirchners of Argentina, Lula da Silva of Brazil, and Raúl Castro of Cuba. The movie paints the leaders in a humane light while juxtaposing the smear job against them by conservative media, both in South America and in the U.S. In effect, in light of Bush's recent exit, President Barack Obama's more moderate stance towards the southern continent, and the continent's own progress, Stone's film effectively sticks it to Bush's policy of American imperialism.

To call the documentary one-sided would be like saying the ocean is blue, and Stone doesn't make it better on himself by depicting his relationship to the South American leaders as lovey-dovey -- frankly, he acts like a fawning fan of rock stars. But even with the slant given here, the bigger picture one can extrapolate from the film gives a significant perspective of how strongly the U.S. perceives its foreign interests almost solely as capitalist investments. It isn't hard to believe how far the U.S. is willing to go in order to keep some semblance of control through political manipulation over a foreign economy as long as there's some wealth to gain or preserve from it.

At the very least, South of the Border reminds us that something is going on in the southern hemisphere that may have as much impact on the U.S. as what's happening in the Middle East and Asia. So this movie is worth watching, while keeping its bias in mind, as an introduction to the political events in South America during the last decade. (added 11/2/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Survival of the Dead

Starring Alan Van Sprang, Kenneth Welsh, Kathleen Munroe, Devon Bostick, Richard Fitzpatrick, Athena Karkanis, Stefano Di Matteo, Joris Jarsky, Eric Woolfe, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson.
Directed by George A. Romero.
Rating: 7/10

I admit having a soft spot for what Survival of the Dead director George A. Romero is up to these days. Certainly I've got every reason to be annoyed at his continuing "Dead" series of zombie movies, since I'm so very tired of zombies as a story element. They've pretty much become parodies of themselves, and seem mostly to be used as a gimmick nowadays. But perhaps that's why I don't mind Romero's takes so much -- he doesn't use zombies as a gimmick, he just tries to make a point or explore an issue and the undead apocalypse is just his canvas of choice. He illustrates his thoughts through zombies.

Such is the nature of Romero's last three movies: Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and now Survival of the Dead. They're not anything grand or mind-blowing, nor are they high-concept. Instead, they're simply stories with some original thought behind them and an interest in dabbling with various types of characters. Romero unfolds each one with a storyteller's localized intimacy, and then explores the dynamics of human behavior under restrictive situations. He's gotten cozy with the worlds he's created -- and in Survival's case, he may have gotten too cozy. The zombies here are practically taken for granted, but in loosening up the terror they should represent, Romero has also freed his story up for a lighter, more amusingly misanthropic take on the worst tendencies of people.

With nothing less than the foolishness of idealogical faithfulness in mind, Survival of the Dead focuses on a family feud between two island-dwelling ranch-handy Irish-American clans -- the head of the O'Flynns believes all discovered zombies should be put to rest permanently, while the head of the Muldoons wants to round them up in the hopes that one day they can be "cured." Neither side will budge and each has resorted to threats of violence.

You can see where this is going in terms of what it wants to say about people, and yet Survival hardly has the tone of a lecture. Rather, it throws in an extra group of military-trained survivors to be caught in the middle, gives zombies the new characteristic of retaining their strongest tendencies from when they were alive, and tosses them all together for a dance that might've felt at home in the Wild West. Romero appears to be having fun just spinning his tales from the undead; he's going for episodes of entertainment rather than ambitious pretensions, and on that level I think he does just fine. (added 9/12/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)


Recorded by Lucien Castaing-Taylor.
Produced by Ilisa Barbash.
Rating: 7/10

So observational is the documentary Sweetgrass that it doesn't even credit a director. It was created by the husband-wife team of Lucien Castaing-Taylor (his credit is "Recorded by") and Ilisa Barbash (credited as producer), and it watches the work done by the sheepherders of a Montana ranch with no narration, no score, and occasional natural dialogue. We discover at the end that the film is meant to be an elegy, shot mostly in 2001, just a few years before the ranch reportedly shut down. So it is that we observe a lifestyle unique to a region, as the camera follows the shearing of sheep at the ranch and eventually trails a couple of hands on a pasture drive. To say the least, not much happens, but we get to know the environment, the animals, and the pace and difficulty of the job. The movie is decidedly no frills, and it both lives and dies by this strict adherence to its protocol. Its camera is not interested in conveying photographic beauty for the sake of aesthetics (though it does indeed contain some beautiful shots, these are contrasted with occasional practical, murky footage), nor is it looking for insights or drama; it just lets you see what is there, showing that this world existed, and the wider context in which this world existed. Bravely and starkly, along with a quiet majesty it exposes a mundanity to this life that nonetheless elicits a sigh of sadness with the knowledge that this life, too, can disappear. (added 3/2/2011)

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