Reviews for 2010

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Tales from Earthsea

Starring the voices of(for Japanese version) Junichi Okada, Aoi Teshima, Bunta Sugawara, Yűko Tanaka, Teruyuki Kagawa, Jun Fubuki; (for English dub) Willem Dafoe, Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, Matt Levin, Cheech Marin, Blaire Restaneo.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki.
Rating: 6/10

I don't envy the position of Goro Miyazaki as he stands up to direct his first animated feature, Tales from Earthsea, at Studio Ghibli. After all, he's walking in the mighty large shadow of his father, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. It wouldn't be fair to judge his work against his father's, although the temptation would be great. It may suffice to say the movie doesn't exhibit quite the gentle and fantastic whimsy of the elder Miyazaki's work, but that's all right -- Earthsea is more somber and dark, a straightforward coming of age fantasy set in a magical medieval realm. The film is based on a series of fantasy books by Ursula K. Le Guin, though I can't speak of the pros and cons of its adaptation. As a stand-alone work, the movie is decent, but it certainly could use refinement. The story itself offers no real surprises for anyone familiar with this genre -- the hero's a young lad, an old wizard is his mentor, a feisty young girl helps develop his character, and the bad guy is an evil wizard seeking a secret magic. Visually, Earthsea plays it relatively safe -- there are beautiful displays of scenes both urban and pastoral, though some of them also feel a bit plain. The movie is mostly supported by the familiar Ghibli look and feel, which combine a few warm touches (a concern about the preciousness of life, a sweet and sad song sung by the young girl) with a few bits of the spectacular (namely, the very little-seen dragons). It comes across as a passable piece from the junior Miyazaki, and one only hopes the reservation in voice felt here will be far more loosened in future projects. (added 3/16/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Tales from the Script

Directed by Peter Hanson.
Rating: 6/10

Tales from the Script allows the beleaguered screenwriters of Hollywood to tell their war stories. After listening to them, one can't help concluding that they haven't chosen an ideal career. Yet perhaps what's most surprising about this is how unsurprising it is to anyone paying attention to popular depictions of screenwriters. Tales from the Script consists of pieces of interviews with over 40 scribes talking about their trade in Hollywood, assembled into thematic "chapters," such as how to pitch your screenplay, how they sold their first ones, what's it like to work with producers, etc. It's ironic how each of those chapters is preceeded by a movie clip usually featuring a screenwriter character taking some form of abuse. In other words, we've already been trained to understand about these fellows being the lowest on the Hollywood totem pole; all this documentary does is feature actual writers spelling this situation out explicitly (one of them, for instance, uses the "totem pole" metaphor, only he amends it to say the writers are the part of the pole that sticks into the ground).

The movie is presented as straightforward as possible, with no frills: each interview uses a single stationary camera focused on the subject talking. The approach seems understandable -- why dress anything up when the stories themselves are the main deal? But at the same time, it's not very exciting, and frankly nothing appears here that couldn't have been read (incidentally, the movie acts as a companion piece to the book of the same name; both film and book were written by Paul Robert Herman and Peter Hanson; Hanson also acted as director). However, the stories themselves come across as entertaining, even if they are limited specifically to the experience of breaking into Hollywood -- there really isn't much in the way of, say, the independent filmmaking path here. Tales from the Script works best as a primer for would-be screenwriters (and the interviewed subjects are actually quite aware that this group is most likely their main audience) and primarily gets across the message that the job is tough and not at all glamourous. In fact, I wonder if the movie serves more as practical discouragement, working off the idea that would-be writers are mostly deluded and starry-eyed, and what this movie can do is hammer in the reality, reinforcing with real-life stories what the other movies have shown about how unappreciated screenwriters are. (added 4/23/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Tangled

Starring the voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy.
Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard.
Rating: 7/10

Tangled, a milestone marker on a strange and interesting journey taken by Disney, is really the movie this production company should have come out with back when the powers that be decided to retire their traditionally animated features in favor of computer-animated ones. But the road that led them through that path was fraught with bad timing and worse decisions -- having strayed far away from their initial claim to fame (princess stories and fairy tales), their last traditionally animated movie was the poorly received zany comedy Home on the Range (2004). Blaming the "outdated" media for their failures, they rebooted their animation department, which then produced the computer animated zany comedy Chicken Little (2005) -- fairly successful, but not in the league of the more successful Pixar and DreamWorks releases. Also, it was not well-received by critics.

Disney would sputter out two more animated films of no particular distinction, but, under the guidance of Pixar's pioneer John Lasseter, the studio would find itself back to its original princess/fairy tale bread and butter. Last year they released The Princess and the Frog in glorious traditional animation. This year, Tangled, officially their 50th animated feature, finally marries computer animation to a treatment of a fairy tale (in this case, an adaptation of "Rapunzel"), and is the result of everything they've learned so far: that their brand matters.

Another way of putting this is to say audiences expect certain things from Disney, and are happy when they deliver. Tangled plays it very safe -- its story, about a girl who longs to see a fantastic sight outside of her "protective" home/prison, avoids complexities (her current mother kidnapped her when she was a baby, and though they may actually have a relationship there's no question the mother's wickedness is seen as irredeemable). The film boasts an assuring formula with stepmother-type villain, dashing hero and heroine, animal sidekicks, and musical numbers (and its ending seems actually a bit too neat). Its attitude is modern, its humor fast, and the movie appears aware of its role as a girl-empowerment vehicle. Its look reflects the familiar style of the Disney princess line -- though rendered in computer animation, the characters have large eyes and very expressive faces and body language.

The movie could have easily danced by in the hand-drawn style, fitting right in with its predecessors, but it represents a successful transition, finally, to the modern playing field while keeping the studio's identity intact. Tangled comes across as an entertaining movie that does its job well, yet its polish simultaneously gives it strength and limits it. The film suggests that audiences will be happy to watch these movies as long as Disney does exactly what they expect. At this point, the logical direction to move in would be to work off of this foundation and expand from it, stretching its formula while not straying so far away from it in visionless roaming as was the case in the last decade. Yes, easier said than done, but consider Tangled newfound solid footing. (added 12/7/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Thorn in the Heart

Directed by Michel Gondry.
Rating: 6/10

Imagine a filmmaker decides to make a documentary about one of his normal relatives, and you might get The Thorn in the Heart. The filmmaker in this case happens to be Michel Gondry, not known for making conventional films, but this seems like an odd project even for him. The movie is about his aunt, Suzette Gondry, her path in life and her family. Now retired, Suzette was a teacher constantly on the move, thus allowing her to teach in many schools throughout rural France. But she also has a strained relationship with her son, Jean-Yves, which reached a critical point when her husband passed away years and years ago. The subject contains an inherent level of fascination, if only because if you picked any person and dug into their lives, there are bound to be interesting dramatic nuggets to find. Still, however interesting Suzette's life may be, Michel Gondry doesn't locate anything larger than life, or anything that might appear particularly relevant to his audience; we can recognize the portrait for its intimacy and appreciation of the challenges of a life lived, but it doesn't have any other real pull. Gondry also doesn't apply much of his trademark homemade visual trickery -- for the most part, the documentary is shot rather normally, interspersed with some home movie clips, and once in a while we glimpse that love of creativity Gondry usually loves to display (a scene with children wearing "invisible" clothes; a scene showing the assembly and running of a makeshift outdoor movie theater; and a scene with the family watching and commenting on some pre-edited footage). The lingering question, perhaps, is why was this film made? The answer may be as simple as Gondry deciding it was a project that interested him very personally, and he had the resources to pursue it, which is probably enough. However, for the rest of us, The Thorn in the Heart might remain mainly a curiosity. (added 8/22/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Tourist

Starring Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff, Rufus Sewell, Christian De Sica.
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
Rating: 4/10

Directing a light, humorous romantic thriller didn't turn out to be Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's best choice to follow up his critically acclaimed drama, The Lives of Others. On paper, though, The Tourist looks like an instant hit: take superstars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie and put them in Venice for a "wrong man" type of outing, where Depp runs from Euro-villains as he yearns for Jolie, the sexy woman who put his life in danger in the first place. However, the most unpredictable luck-dependent problem emerges -- Depp and Jolie together create a chemical black hole. They couldn't produce sparks with dry hair and a comb. Even though at different times their characters say it out loud, it's hard to believe for one second that either one is in love with the other. Is it the fault of the script? Some blame might be assigned to the fact that Jolie's character must be played aloof, while Depp's character spends most of his time in some kind of lovestruck stupor. The ludicrous plot certainly doesn't help, but in a movie like this, that should be beside the point. The first priority here is to make sure the leads work well together, and here they simply don't. Depp, Jolie, and Venice are pretty to look at, but even that becomes tedious eventually. One can appreciate the light, almost self-consciously silly yet sophisticated touch Henckel von Donnersmarck tried to instill the movie with -- he might've been trying to aim for Charade territory -- but so far it looks as if his strengths more lie in material with dramatic weight. He had something frothy with The Tourist, but he and his main stars just played it all too cool. (added 5/3/2011)

The Town

Starring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper.
Directed by Ben Affleck.
Rating: 7/10

It appears Ben Affleck understands the flow and the appeal of the crime drama, and in a year where Martin Scorsese gave us an M. Night Shyamalan movie and Michael Mann is in between films, Affleck fills in with The Town, a no frills movie about bank robbers in the small Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. It's his second directing effort after 2007's Gone Baby Gone, and all signs indicate a promising new career trajectory ahead. The Town is a solid movie that knows which buttons to push and does so with the right timing. This time, Affleck himself plays the main character, a crook who has inherited his lifestyle but now is looking for a chance to leave it behind. He's supported by a great cast that includes Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, and especially Jeremy Renner, who plays Affleck's much less stable partner in crime. The movie's thrills are old-fashioned and assured, with its action sequences owing a debt to the work of other crime genre directors such as the ones mentioned above. They make up for a lack of story inventiveness -- the characters are all genre archetypes -- and nothing stronger in the way of theme other than the criminal who wants out, or the idea that Bostonians form a very tough, proud working class. But in terms of gaining filmmaking credibility, Affleck is definitely still moving in an impressive direction, and I hope he will prove even more ambitious with his next project. (added 12/17/2010)

Toy Story 3

Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger.
Directed by Lee Unkrich.
Rating: 10/10

The first Toy Story addressed identity -- understanding your role in life, the strength of your place in it, and accepting it. Toy Story 2 addressed obsolescence -- knowing that your role will one day run its course, but choosing to embrace it anyway. So naturally Toy Story 3 is about that end -- reaching it, and having a very primal reaction when it's finally upon you, no matter how much you had prepared for it. It's about letting go, or to put it more bluntly, death.

What's that, you say? This is too dark a subject for one of the delightful Toy Story movies? Well, that's really the beauty of it. Toy Story 3 is indeed delightful. On the surface, you have everything you could ask for from the possibly final entry in the series -- another adventure with Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) the pullstring cowboy and Buzz Lightyear (voice of Tim Allen) the space ranger action figure. There's plenty of comedy, lots of new characters, movie references galore, and moments of suspense in action set pieces, all delievered with amazing computer animation, glorious color, and in 3-D, if you choose to see it that way (I did not -- I'm already tired of 3-D). If you go in expecting just that good time, you will get exactly that.

But for me, the greatest strength of the Pixar films has been what rumbles just beneath their glossy shells. And still I wasn't prepared for the gravity presented in Toy Story 3. While on a story track similar to that of Toy Story 2 -- toys faced with their version of mortality try to take actions against that inevitability -- the third movie feels much more urgent because they no longer have the few more years of their owner Andy's childhood to cushion them. Now, the end has come -- Andy is about to go to college, and the gang we've come to know and love have had their numbers thinned, and the remaining core of the group had been stuffed in a toybox for presumably years. Now Andy's mother has asked him to do one of three things with them -- store them in the attic, donate them to the local daycare center, or throw them away.

Except for Woody, the toys have real reason to believe that they're being tossed to the curb, so they manage to stow away in the donations box to be taken to the daycare. At this point, you really feel the fright -- that the end is impending, and now they will do anything to curtail it. Woody claims that Andy planned to stow them in the attic as they had initially expected, but they no longer believe it, so panicked are they. Here it may not be presumptuous of me to say this has echoes of Ingmar Bergman, and how starkly he depicted the effects of anticipating the finality of death.

The daycare center turns out to be some kind of purgatory -- toys go there and, as the leader of the daycare toys, cuddly teddy bear Lotso (voice of Ned Beatty), claims, they will always be played with, since new kids always replace the ones who grow older. This proves to be a double-edged sword, since initially the kids that play with the newly arrived toys are toddlers who mash and mangle their playthings. Purgatory gives way to a glimpse of hell, when it turns out the ruling toys there have instigated what amounts to a prison system. So naturally, our heroic gang must find a way to break out, giving us the makings of a prison-escape movie, which leads to a climax that builds up to what I would call the thematic key of the movie. Without trying to spoil anything, I will say the gang does indeed face hell, and understands what their final fate must be. The film's ending could appropirately be described as divine -- from what delivers them directly from danger to their next phase, which amounts to a rebirth. And at the end, you may shed tears, unashamedly.

Myself, I felt the weight of life. Toy Story 3 addresses the final phase of the path of life through the allegory of the lives of toys, of all things. It's such a deep wrap-up that it makes the previous two movies feel like episodes, while this movie feels like the summation. It lifts the perspective from the local one of Andy's toys to the much bigger picture that all toys -- all beings -- walk similar paths and must one day face their fates. It is indeed the darkest of the three movies, and it makes me very happy to know that the team at Pixar didn't back down from the corner they knew they were writing themselves into. What started out as a cute idea -- toys have secret lives of their own in which their purpose is to bring happiness to the kids who play with them -- became extrapolated to its natural endpoint, i.e., the toys' usefulness ends when the kids outgrow them. There really isn't a happily ever after for them, but, like all of us, they put off the thoughts of the far future and invest in the present. And then one day, that far future is here, and where do they go? How do they react?

It's worth noting that the message re-emphasized is the one of friendship, of sticking together. This time, though, the relativity of that good weighed against what's out there past infinity and beyond is huge. It really gets across the idea that the little doses of love are our best and only arms against the idea of impermanence.

Please don't get me wrong -- as I've said, Toy Story 3 is masterfully constructed to be a crowdpleasing riot of a movie, one that doesn't require deeper inspection in order to receive a full dose of satisfaction and smiles from it. It doesn't do anything too unpredictable in terms of plot and plot devices -- in fact, one might cite this as its main weakness, that these elements are actually too predictable. But the folks at Pixar know exactly what they're doing, because those deeper themes are there, and they greatly outweigh the weaknesses of any mechanical elements. Look past the comedy, and the gravity and the truths are there. Boy, are they there.

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(SPOILER: Read only if you've already seen this movie. I just want to talk about a personal way I interpreted the end of Toy Story 3. For all intents and purposes, by the time the toys reach the furnace and hold hands to accept what's coming, they've essentially died. What happens next? A literal deus ex machina rescues them -- "the claw" -- and when you think about the origins of the term deus ex machina, it makes perfect sense [not to mention the Pizza Planet alien toys have always referred to the claw as some kind of deity]. By this point, the toys have completed their Divine Comedy-like journey, having visited Inferno and Purgatory, and now receiving a Paradise-like afterlife, where they start anew with a new owner. Or, perhaps more appropriately, this is a reincarnation. And at first glance, it's a happy ending. But all you have to do is think a little further and understand that this cycle will repeat again, not just for this group of toys, but for all the toys out there -- and for all of us. And what we see from them is that one day they will get to the end, but they'll squeeze every minute getting there. A delicately happy tragedy, the Toy Story series has matured into a masterpiece.) (added 6/23/2010; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Tron: Legacy

Starring Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
Rating: 6/10

Tron: Legacy amounts to a minor guilty pleasure for me because the film really has very little to offer outside of shallow pleasures. It's a fetishist's movie, full of neon lights, body-tight suits that have the appearance of leather, slick vehicles, and the sights and sounds of a nightclub populated by space age people. There isn't much one can say about falling for this atmosphere; it's a matter of taste, and there's no accounting for taste, but the look is just done so nicely here. It's really an instance of technology being able to recreate a gleaming dream from the mind, a rendering of an excessive vision that is all too appropriately employed in the successor to a movie that could not originally fully achieve that rendering.

That predecessor was, of course, Tron, a movie I couldn't embrace even back when I was a young kid obsessed with video games. Groundbreaking special effects and all, it just never looked right -- instantly dated the moment it hit the screen. Also, the story wasn't very good, and yet the film had a weird appeal that allowed it to attain minor cult classic status. That appeal came from the dark, within-the-computer world; it had a lonely, cold, foreboding vibe to it that might've appealed to fantasy lovers.

Tron: Legacy doesn't even dedicate itself to reproducing that vibe, really, but I expected this -- instead, the world it creates comes from a more modern and popular vision of sexy sleek. One way of putting it is that it reminds me of an alcoholic beverage commercial. Surely, however, this movie meant to visually expand upon its predecessor's world, and I feel safe in guessing that director Joseph Kosinski was going for what we all would have wanted: to give the world of Tron the look it always meant to have. And yet this isn't Tron -- 28 years is just too large a gap to make a recognizable evolutionary connection, so this new movie is assuredly its own being, and its Wachowski Brothers-inspired nightclub look is the direction it decided to go in. So be it.

This observation of being slightly off the path from the original applies to the rest of the movie as well. The story isn't more complex than your usual fantasy quest, where the adult son (Garrett Hedlund) of Tron's Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) searches for his missing father and ends up finding out he's been sucked back into that computer world. Once inside, the story doesn't really match any of the ideas from the first movie -- it becomes about discovering a new life form and then creates its own set of rules in this universe. The movie misses a golden opportunity to comment upon how far cyber-technology has come since 1982 -- Kevin has to ask how the world has changed since the time he disappeared, which leads one to believe the Tron world is still operating on obsolete technology, bringing up the question of who's been supplying it with its population of programs. The soundtrack, even though it's by techno innovators Daft Punk, sounds much more conventional than the original's electronic nightmare sounds of Wendy Carlos.

So it's tough to accept Tron: Legacy as a true sequel to Tron, but since I was never really a Tron acolyte in the first place, I'll take the easy pleasures this new one has to offer: a better visualization of lightcycles; Michael Sheen hamming it up in a crystal club; Olivia Wilde adorned with a short haircut and glowing blue-white lines; and Jeff Bridges playing two roles, one of which is a computer-generated younger version of himself (the movie pulls this trick off relatively smoothly). If Tron might have been about having a new world to hang out in, Tron: Legacy puts up a gleaming version for our loitering pleasure. (added 12/22/2010)

True Grit

Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld.
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Rating: 9/10

It wouldn't be wrong to call the Coen Brothers' new film True Grit a remake of the 1969 John Wayne starrer, but sometimes the word "remake" just doesn't apply well. The original Western directed by Henry Hathaway is unmistakably a Wayne vehicle. This meant taking the source material -- the novel by Charles Portis -- and adapting it to shift its focus from the main protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, in favor of creating more spotlight on Wayne's character, Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn. By the end of the '69 film, Rooster, an aging, ornery pounds-packing fellow obviously adapted as a direct metaphor for Wayne's career persona, has clearly been defined as a hero. By the end of it, I remember thinking it hardly mattered what the story was, just as long as it gave Wayne the chance to comment on and contribute a little further to his own legend.

I don't believe Joel and Ethan Coen gave Wayne's True Grit a single thought; instead, they re-adapted Portis's novel from square one, by all accounts staying more faithful to the original story and this time keeping the spotlight on the journey of Mattie Ross, here played by Hailee Steinfeld. The tale, following Mattie's attempt to avenge her father's murder by hiring the toughest marshal she can find to help her track and arrest the killer, is more solidly a revenge tragedy, where the business of revenge proves messy, harrowing, and high-priced. As handled by the ever detail-oriented, visually thoughtful, and dialog conscious Coens, the movie emerges as a strong work, confident in its own scope and themes.

I may find no better compliment than to say the movie is indeed the sum of its wonderful parts. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, but this isn't "The Dude" playing "The Duke" -- his version of Rooster feels more authentic to the type of character he was surely meant to be, a mercenary thug on the right side of the law because he retains some rattled semblance of moral dignity. Matt Damon portrays LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins the hunt, and whose easily wounded pride and name's pronunciation (as in "la-beef") provides a bit of incidental comedy. Rightly, though, 13-year-old Steinfeld owns the stage here, more than holding her own against her veteran co-stars; her line deliveries alone ensure that we remember she's the reason we're here, to witness her adventure.

The movie's production looks marvelous, not necessarily because the Western setting feels authentic but perhaps more because the environment feels engrossing enough to taste. There's no doubt about the story being set in winter this time, with the chilling sights of snowfall filling the screen. Nighttime shots in particular feel darker and scarier; praise goes out once again to the Coens' usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins. The Coens themselves wrote the screenplay, imbuing the speech with the color of a different place and time.

It's also a kind of revelation to see how well the story of True Grit fits the sensibilities of the Coens, that all along it was about events not cooperating with the best-laid plans. Mattie is a meticulous character, and though the story isn't meant to be an overt lesson for her, it does provide the kind of extraordinary circumstances and experiences that would fill those spaces of her mind reserved for wisdom. As the trio's quest continues and verges on falling apart, the importance of the matter of specific revenge wanes relative to the differing dynamics, interests, and actions of all the characters involved, and is dwarfed even further by the greatness of the unsettled country through which they travel. Once again, the Coen universe proves unkind to small minds and reveals its cruelty to the more thoughtful; the more determined characters decide to keep a course, the more absurd the world seems to become.

In the face of this, it's all Mattie can do to keep a sense of control, a little hope, and some faith in the people she chooses to place that faith upon. And as the Coen Brothers show, that requires true grit. (added 12/22/2010; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

Starring Kristin Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Bryce Dallas Howard, Billy Burke, Dakota Fanning.
Directed by David Slade.
Rating: 5/10

Although The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is perhaps the most watchable entry in the Twilight series so far, it's still saddled with the most cipher-like heroine of all time: Bella (Kristin Stewart). She doesn't do anything, yet her presence causes a lot of trouble -- two guys fight over her, an evil vampire is out to get her, and a vampire order wants to see her either transformed into a vampire or dead. That's quite a bit of fuss over an ordinary gal, though I'm now starting to understand this may all be by design. The stories cater to young girls everywhere who may also believe they are ordinary, and would probably think being fussed over -- especially by two boys who are sexy for different reasons -- is terribly romantic. It's even more romantic when the main boy you like saves you from yourself -- Bella's main agenda is to be turned into a vampire by Edward (Robert Pattinson), with a sub-agenda of being deflowered by him, yet he stoicly refuses, looking out for her honor and her best interests. That's the cue to swoon, but I still find this lamentable, as it all represents feminine passivity and validation through the attention of others. Small wonder, then, that if we're seeing this story from fantasizing girls' eyes, that the boys' personalities and interactions have more going on than anything having to do with Bella. They become the reason the movie's even halfway entertaining as they glare at each other, take cracks at one another (says Edward about Jacob (Taylor Lautner): "Doesn't he own a shirt?"), and even share a moment late in the film. There's also buildup to an action climax, but in the grand scheme of things it takes a backseat to Bella's solidifying a decision that everyone around her tells her is foolish -- most of the movie, really, is a parade of different people variously making this point. Apparently, the only empowerment Bella communicates is her right to make her own choice, no matter how irreversibly bad everyone claims it would be. (added 12/29/2010)

Unstoppable

Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson.
Directed by Tony Scott.
Rating: 7/10

With Unstoppable, director Tony Scott subdues his more stylized tendencies to deliver the kind of meat-and-potatoes action thriller that might very well be watched and enjoyed by the heroic blue collar characters in this movie. The premise is simple enough -- in Pennsylvania, a careless mistake causes a train to roll unmanned down its track at 70 mph. Carrying a toxic load of molten phenol, the train threatens to crash or derail in any number of populated cities on its route. As railroad officials try everything they can to stop it, all hope may rest on two regular Joes, an engineer/conductor team (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) whose train is currently on the same main line as the runaway. I admit I was pleased by the amount of creativity injected into this scenario in order to create a line of fun, suspenseful set pieces -- early on, we have a kids-in-peril situation, then later there are chances to create a crash, attempt a landing from a helicopter, cause an explosion, try a derailment, and initiate a chase. The climax then involves an elevated curve. It's all good in-the-moment stuff, only slightly marred by obvious attempts at character drama and redemption (both Washington and Pine's characters have estranged relatives -- guess what the crisis will end up bringing together?). Unstoppable goes for a working class rah-rah sentiment and isn't shy about it; everyone rooting for the good guys won't be disappointed, and the movie is put together tightly enough to be almost totally convincing in saying there's nothing wrong with that. (added 3/21/2011)

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

Starring Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michela Cescon, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio.
Directed by Marco Bellocchio.
Rating: 9/10

Director Marco Bellocchio takes a refreshingly different route for a biopic with Vincere, which tells the story of Ida Dalser, who claimed to be Benito Mussolini's first wife and mother of his first son. After Mussolini came into power and ditched socialism for fascism, Dalser discovered he had married another woman. As Dalser pressed to make known the legitimacy of her original marriage to Mussolini, the dictator decided it would be better for his reputation to remove her existence, so he had her committed and sent her son to an orphanage. Rather than deliver this story in a straightforward manner, Bellochio chooses to make it an artistic metaphor for Mussolini's seduction and then betrayal of Italy, punching it up with operatic gestures and visual flourishes. The events occur not to tell a narrative, but to illustrate an emotional progress; thus Vincere is more a montage of moments, even intersplicing actual newsreel footage, creating a rush for the first half of the movie, then slowing down to a more solemn pace after Dalser is sent to asylum.

Vincere is interested in the power of propaganda and images, and part of the movie also touches upon the potential of the cinema to create sympathy. Historically, Ida Dalser's claim is still questionable -- there exists no documented proof of her marriage -- but the movie plays as if there was no doubt that she was indeed married to the dictator. Although the film chooses this route to more effectively deliver its allegory, it's also interested in communicating the power of its own medium. When the Italian audiences watch Charlie Chaplin movies and stand up to cheer when he achieves a sympathetic goal, Vincere is also conveying the hope that it will win over its own audience's hearts with its grand portrayal of Dalser's tragedy.

It's noteworthy to me that I responded very well to Vincere, and not so well to its similarly-styled Italian contemporary, I Am Love. I mentioned in my review of that movie that, most of the time, I react positively to big injections of style; in Vincere's case, it may have helped as well that it was based on some fascinating historical speculation -- also, it was in and of itself a fascinating interpretation of history, and, effectively, of Mussolini's relationship to his country (in the beginning, he's played by handsome Filippo Timi, personal and initimate; in the last half, we only see the real man in newsreels as the familiar balding figure). And though both films featured an impassioned woman in the lead, here Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Dalser also stood for a defiant, unbending will, loyal to truth, that tragically faced the consequences such heroic displays of will often succumb to -- a breaking of the physical vessel but never the spirit. (added 3/2/2011)

Waiting for "Superman"

Directed by Davis Guggenheim.
Rating: 6/10

In Waiting for "Superman", director Davis Guggenheim takes a broad swipe at the American education system. It makes the case that the current system is failing our students, that the network of schools across states and the nation is too tangled and disorganized to figure out a way to improve itself. Eventually it settles largely on one major villain -- teachers' unions that effectively prevent the removal of bad teachers -- and one major solution: charter schools, which can directly control the qualities of their faculties. I found these arguments to be suspiciously simplistic, but at the same time I appreciated the documentary's aim to bring these issues into a spotlight. More troubling were its decision to heighten drama just to milk concern (the last half-hour of the movie gives no new information, instead settling on watching kids and their parents cling to the hope of getting selected in various charter school lotteries) and its insistence, in the end, that we can do something about all this, without really making clear what it is we can do. But there you have it. I'd suggest watching the movie just to be able to get a picture of what's going on in your head, and then following up with further research afterwards. I believe that a child's education and ability to learn is influenced by a number of things (parenting, teachers, living environment, etc.), and that the system does require repair, but for every family it's a unique, individual uphill battle. Perhaps the best message Waiting for "Superman" gives, by showing us certain families and individuals dedicated to education, is that a child's education can not be taken for granted. (added 12/29/2010)

Waking Sleeping Beauty

Directed by Don Hahn.
Rating: 8/10

Waking Sleeping Beauty is a documentary for any Disney feature animation fan who stuck with them when they went through the dark days of The Black Cauldron and eventually emerged in the "Disney Renaissance" period that peaked with The Lion King. Disney film producer Don Hahn puts together a retrospective, mostly relying on past media footage, home videos, and numerous voiceover narrators, that chronicles the unique set of circumstances and personalities that eventually lead to the resurgence. What's refreshing about this look back is how it doesn't hide the studio's black-and-blue bruises from the rampant alpha dog battles that raged on behind the scenes. Specifically, we see the power struggle among notorious Disney execs Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney, and Peter Schneider, with the put-upon team of animators often caught in the middle. What it reveals is an everpresent disconnect between the leaders and the personnel in a corporate environment, how ego-driven personal politics at the top move proceedings, and how, despite it all, sometimes serendipity makes everything come together. It's clear that strong personalities are the ones that survive at the steering wheel, and whether or not we're talking about creative godsend Howard Ashman or the villainized Katzenberg, they're the ones who made things happen. Waking Sleeping Beauty shows how some great works emerged from turmoil, creative perseverance, timing, and luck, and while this might be representative of how most of Hollywood runs, the story here carries the mystique of Walt Disney, whose animated features can be regarded as a genetic line with ups and downs as compellingly dramatic as the history of royal families. (added 1/7/2011)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Starring Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella.
Directed by Oliver Stone.
Rating: 6/10

If the original Wall Street was like a man in his prime -- ambitious, opinionated, sexy -- then its sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is like the man who's older and mellowed out. Much of this, as Michael Douglas's iconic villain Gordon Gekko suggests, may have to do with our awareness -- over 20 years ago, the world of stock trading (and all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that went with it) felt very exciting, and now knowledge of it is more commonplace, with the public more wary of its corruptness. But the agenda of Oliver Stone, who directed both movies, appears to have mellowed out as well -- if he was ideally warning about corruption before, now he takes a different approach, accepting its everpresent existence and admonishing those who have made their fortunes in finance (and who may have contributed to the 2008 financial crisis) to take a step back and realize what's really important. Thus main character Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is motivated less by greed and more by revenge for the fall of a mentor, and Gekko agrees to help him against their common enemy (Josh Brolin) in exchange for access to his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan), who is Jake's fiancée. Money Never Sleeps focuses less on the seduction of the game and more on the effects the game has on real people. Unfortunately, though, this makes the movie come off as a softie, and even though it uses the 2008 crisis as a backdrop, it says nothing compelling about it. Those looking for another demonstration of financial power play from Gordon Gekko may be disappointed, but those who see him as an antihero worthy of redemption might find this kinder, gentler Wall Street worth sitting through. (added 2/2/2011)

White Material

Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, William Nadylam, Michel Subor, Isaach De Bankolé.
Directed by Claire Denis.
Rating: 8/10

The woman at the center of director Claire Denis's White Material, Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), would traditionally be the heroine, except after some time into this movie the viewer finds the character harder and harder to sympathize with. Mme. Vial, along with her husband and grown son, owns a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country, where the government troops are working to crack down on a rebellion. Since the violence is escalating, everyone in the region is advised to get out, but Vial steadfastly refuses, saying this is all she has. As the mounting danger grows more and more threatening, Vial holds out more strongly, even as her husband (Christophe Lambert) makes preparations and insists on their vacating, and as her shiftless son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) encounters a few near-misses involving his very life. The further this goes on, the more illogical she appears to be, as the case against her wishes continues to grow -- the children in the area are taking up arms, her hired hands all run away and reveal the contempt they have for an expatriated white family living amongst them, and the wounded rebel leader (Isaach De Bankolé) somehow ends up taking refuge in her house, thus drawing the warring participants closer.

Is Denis flipping certain old movie conventions -- of the relocated white protagonist who benefits from living with the natives, of the resolute woman fighting to protect her own -- on their heads, exposing a certain foolishness in their romanticism? It may not be that simple -- Vial is presented as a complex character who feels she's been backed against a wall, and on the one hand we can see where she's coming from (having adopted the land as her own, she sees herself as native, but the actual natives just see her as "white material"), but on the other hand we might think she's just nuts. White Material bleakly spins toward an inevitable conclusion, brutal and unsentimental, appearing to be an indictment of colonialism, but perhaps more acutely serves as an acknowledgement of today's more strongly aware and defensive territorial world landscape. (added 3/4/2011)

Wild Grass (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Sabine Azéma, André Dussollier, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Michel Vuillermoz, Edouard Baer.
Directed by Alain Resnais.
Rating: 7/10

Director Alain Resnais, aged 87 at the time of the release of Wild Grass, knows exactly what he's doing, which makes his latest film all the more fascinating and, frankly, maddening. Not beholden to storytelling conventions in the slightest (in case anyone needs a reminder, this was the man who made Last Year at Marienbad), Resnais exercises his right and well-earned freedom to play with ideas that don't need to lead anywhere, instead manifesting themselves as memorable moments of observations, whimsy, reversals, and humor.

There is a story here: elder fellow Georges (André Dussollier) picks up the stolen-and-discarded wallet of dentist Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) and fancies that the act of returning her property may lead to... well, something exciting. A romance, maybe? (He's married, but that doesn't seem to bother him.) He ends up awkwardly stalking her, which disturbs Marguerite, of course, until the tables are turned and she finds herself unable to let go of her own fascination. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, a straight romance is definitely not where this film is headed -- more accurately, we follow these characters as they stumble along the plot as if they know what the goal should be but don't have a map for it. They act rather randomly and unreasonably, driven by something that could be described as passion if the events weren't so confounding.

Resnais is having fun here, possibly at the expense of audiences who demand tradition, though the purveying mood is one of amusement rather than of malice. His scenes are thoughtfully composed with bold uses of color, emphasizing an artificiality. Wild Grass could be called a very "conscientious" film -- I might've found it more embraceable were I able to get lost in it, the way I can with the dreamlike Marienbad. As it is, Wild Grass reminds the viewer over and over that these characters are doing things on the whims of what can only be a writer, less interested in the animal logic of people than with their capability for, shall we say, animal illogic. (added 2/23/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Winter's Bone

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener.
Directed by Debra Granik.
Rating: 7/10

From the moment you meet Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in Winter's Bone, you know what she's capable of. Living deep in the poverty-stricken Ozarks, she's a 17-year-old who has effectively become the head of her household, taking care of her much younger brother and sister. Her mother was apparently traumatized and is now nonresponsive, and her father is... well, now, that's the mystery. Having had been arrested for his activities in illegal methamphetamine production, he's currently skipped bail, and since he put up his house as bail bond, Ree and the rest of the family will lose their home if he doesn't show up for his impending court date. Ree therefore takes up the dangerous -- yes, dangerous -- task of asking her relatives and neighbors for clues about his whereabouts. In this bleak microcosm, no one is willing to help -- in fact, everyone is downright hostile, and Ree's own safety appears to be more and more in jeopardy the more she goes poking around.

Yet we know immediately she will persevere -- she bears a fierce determination and harbors an intelligence that belies her underprivileged upbringing. But perhaps this is where Winter's Bone relaxes its grip on me even as it has so strongly taken a hold of so many viewers and critics. Simply, for me, once Ree's cards have been set, they don't really change. She's a strong character from the beginning and remains strong to the end -- admirable, but less interesting. Actually, most of the characters here don't really develop. This isn't an accident, nor is it bad storytelling. Part of what the film is trying to illustrate is a pitiable world of stasis, where things are the way they are and little is likely to change -- and the best a good girl like Ree can do is survive with some dignity. Her surrounding neighbors are all stuck in time, guarded and defensive, thus hiding other facets of their personalities. One possible exception is Ree's uncle, Teardrop (John Hawkes), a fearsome man who reveals that perhaps his blood ties do carry a little more meaning to him than he originally lets on. He may be the only character about whom we might change our mind by the end of the movie.

All the praise that has gone Lawrence's way for her acting is certainly earned, as she makes it easy to believe in this character who has been weathered by experience and the burden of responsibility, yet still finding strength in a daunting land. Ree is pretty much up against the world here, where men dominate, women keep order, illegal activities are just a part of surviving, and everyone guards their privacy with angry glares and threats. We learn of this world and its order fairly quickly and solidly; within half an hour, the sense of place is firmly established, which is a great credit to director Debra Granik. But then, as far as any character or environmental development is concerned, it coasts from there. It's my only qualm with an otherwise well-made, well-acted movie -- that once I got the gist of it, I couldn't be further drawn in. (added 11/11/2010)

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop (2009; 2010, U.S. release)

Starring Sun Honglei, Xiao Shenyang, Yan Ni, Ni Dahong, Cheng Ye, Mao Mao.
Directed by Zhang Yimou.
Rating: 8/10

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is nothing less than a valentine from one director to a famous team of others. Zhang Yimou has remade Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers' debut and still one of their best works, relocating the tale of adultery and murder to the past in a China desert. The story is almost identical, but the tone has been modified to include strong doses of farcical comedy. Thus, it's less a direct copy of Blood Simple, which plays it straight and mines subtle black humor from the increasing absurdity of the situation, and more an ode to the brothers' overall style and concerns: interest in the vision of a country's past; eyes for period detail and splendid, color-focused visuals; a penchant for exaggerated, screwball humor; the ability to ratchet up the tension whenever the story calls for it; and the belief that criminal schemes are thwarted most often by unplanned events and general human baseness/carelessness.

Zhang employs comedy that's a departure from his own usual style, but I believe he's earned the right to experiment. The movie contains a particularly Asian brand of humor, one that traffics in gross caricaturing, though, in spirit, it's in keeping with the Coens' own uses of caricature in several of their films. The comedy enhances the pitiful nature of most of the characters, though one of them offers a stark contrast. That would be police detective Zhang (Sun Honglei), whose serious demeanor and ultimately muderous intent provides the movie with its dark streak and gravity for suspense.

That Zhang Yimou decides to tell a story about a corrupt official as well as a woman (Yan Ni) striking out for independence shows he's still interested in playing out his usual concerns, whatever the mode of storytelling may be. He also breaks out a most gorgeous color palette -- not as rainbow-cluttered as his last two visual spectacles (Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers), but with more solid and contrasted tones, similar to his Hero. By the time he builds to the climax, dark blue skies hover over a red desert, wordiness has given way to whispers and silent interludes, and the uneasy humor of the characters' desperations become louder than the straight comedy -- and the Coen lesson of human beings being the architects of their own futility has found a foothold in China. (added 2/9/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Starring Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Gemma Jones, Freida Pinto, Lucy Punch, Naomi Watts.
Directed by Woody Allen.
Rating: 5/10

Director Woody Allen treads water with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a perfectly serviceable romantic dramedy about restless couples in London. Once again, Allen has a fine cast on hand to tinker with. The actors include Naomi Watts, Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, and Freida Pinto. They all play people who are married, or are about to be married, but none of their hearts are in their relationships enough to prevent them from entertaining thoughts of straying for something more passionate. Reality serves as rude awakenings for most of them, which constrasts the route the character played by Gemma Jones takes -- she sees a fortune teller to calm her nerves and buys into her vision completely and satisfactorily. The idea of happiness coming from delusion is an interesting idea to explore, but Allen is actually more interested in the wrecks in progress of the lives of the other characters; Jones's character serves as a convenient, less fleshed-out antidote, that other side of the fence where the grass looks greener. But while we're with the unsatisfied bunch, we see arcs we've seen somewhere before: the older man, fearing his mortality, finding false solace with a young (and ditzy) woman; the writer who can't seem to get another break with his career on the brink; the woman whose boss looks much more charming than the husband who refuses to start a family with her. The characters all go through the motions, reaching moments of disappointment by behaving predictably disappointingly. Although Allen's field of poorly adjusted people may be interesting to watch run around for a while, they shed little new light on an already well-expressed cynical point of view. (added 2/20/2011; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2010

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