Reviews for 2011

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The Adjustment Bureau

Starring Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp.
Directed by George Nolfi.
Rating: 5/10

The Adjustment Bureau is a romance in the guise of a science fiction movie, though if one takes a good look, it's not really even science fiction, although it's loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story. In the movie, the main plot device doesn't correlate to any scientific, technological, futuristic, or what-if scenarios that test ethical, intellectual, or moral implications. It's simply what it is -- a fantasy device designed to obstruct our hero from attaining his true love. Specifically, youthful politician David Norris (Matt Damon) finds out there are actually higher beings who control the fate of mankind, and for his fate in particular, he is not allowed to have a life with the woman (Emily Blunt) he's found an instant connection with. It's not much different from your usual contrived romantic plot -- for instance, she's engaged or he has to go off to war or something -- except that this time it's the ultimate contrivance: the great boss itself (here dubbed "The Chairman") can not allow their union to be so, and his "agents" magically manipulate circumstances so as to carry out his plans.

To its credit, the movie is approached with much humor -- David's first encounter with the agents would normally play as unnerving or freaky, but here it feels pretty funny. The tone's overall lightweightness fits with the movie's less ambitious intentions of being less sci-fi, more love story, and at first this is welcome. However, ultimately it proves to undo the film, for when it reaches its third act, where suspense ought to appear, instead it becomes tough to take it seriously. The interesting ideas the film touches upon -- how mankind can't be trusted to run their own planet, really -- doesn't receive much play, and eventually the whole thing feels a little too silly to be able to take any of its inherent concerns meaningfully. Honestly, I have nothing in particular against The Adjustment Bureau -- Damon is one of my favorite actors, and I enjoyed the first half of this movie -- but when this "Twilight Zone"-style premise got drained of that intriguing "Twilight Zone" quality, whatever remained just felt like airy cotton candy in the end. (added 7/26/2011)

Cars 2

Starring the voices of Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro.
Directed by John Lasseter.
Rating: 7/10

The sentiment around Cars 2 being echoed by most movie critics is that Pixar's winning streak appears to be broken, and for the most part that's true. The animation studio's last streak lasted about four movies -- movies with grand themes, a mastery at tapping emotions, and perfection in presentation and execution. Yet with each successive film, I never conformed to expecting the next one would be every bit as great as the last. Instead, I maintained a sense of awe because I know these achievements aren't easy, even when a company makes them look so easy. All streaks come to an end, though, and that Cars 2 is not great Pixar, but a passably entertaining Pixar, comes as no shock to me at all -- it had to happen sooner or later.

And, truthfully, one could see this coming. I mentioned their last streak lasted about four films -- and the first Cars was five films ago. To me, that was the last non-great Pixar movie, yet there was plenty to admire about it, particularly in form, if not necessarily in content. Since Cars 2 is a sequel to a non-great Pixar movie, it would be astonishing if it surpassed the original. It does not, though, and for a variety of reasons. Like its predecessor, the new movie adopts a simple storyline with a simple moral. The first Cars basically boiled down to "stop and smell the roses, winning isn't everything." Cars 2 is automatically handicapped, however, because it boils down to "be yourself, even if it may take time for others to appreciate who you are." The first moral involved changing one's character and maturing. The second expects you to stay the same and hope others come around -- a much less challenging proposition.

Cars 2 applies this lesson to Mater the tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) this time around, as he becomes the protagonist in place of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson). The plot is a loving parody of secret agent stories, with the dusty device of the redneck Mater being mistaken for a spy, and having him mostly luck through various dangerous situations. One's mileage with this movie depends a lot on how one reacts to the character of Mater in general -- I myself do not possess much love for the character, but neither does he irritate me. If the idea was to show that no matter how idiotic he is, his goodheartedness comes through, then I would consider the movie's portrayal of this a success.

The rest of the movie comes across as eye candy, for the visuals, which were the strongest part of Cars, impress every much as they had before, with a boost from "location" work -- the locales here, which are mostly the famous foreign cities of Tokyo, Paris, Rome, and London, are rendered with wonderful attention to environmental detail. It's clear the movie is meant to be an exercise in creating a travelogue; recreating exotic locations has always been a fun and challenging goal for animators. Cars 2 also spares some room for an acknowledgment of energy concerns and plenty of car talk for the car buffs (for instance, the plot has much to do with famous clunker models trying to exact revenge for becoming the jokes of car history).

So no, Cars 2 isn't another pearl from Pixar, but it's entertaining and well-made. Outside of a concern that it's somewhat more violent than their usual fare (the spy theme lends itself to a few captures and kills, with firing weapons and explosions), I think the movie stands up fine as a lighter offering. Had another studio produced it, the film might be seen as a better effort. I suppose it's dangerous for Pixar to set the bar so high for itself, but I feel it's reasonable to accept that they might crank out the occasional non-stellar work. It's interesting to see that their movies about sentient cars prove they're human after all. (added 6/25/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Directed by Werner Herzog.
Rating: 8/10

Director Werner Herzog provides us with a wonderful irony in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, for he uses the latest in cinematic technology to present what might be the oldest existing man-made visual art. He gained special permission to film the fantastic cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in southern France, a location not accessible to the general public. To give us the best approximation of both the contours of the art on the walls of the cave and the sense of depth of the space inside, Herzog utilized 3-D cameras. Though it may seem funny to present an artistic documentary in 3-D, the result struck me as the most thoughtful use of 3-D I've yet witnessed.

By now Herzog is a thoroughly seasoned documentarian who often also uses his films as launching points for his observations and whimsically frank commentaries about the nature of humanity, artistic inspriation, and the world we live in. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is approached similarly, but perhaps with much more deserving reverence for its subject matter -- one senses that Herzog understands the great privilege he's been afforded to be allowed to film the images inside the cave, and he knows they should be the show's true stars. The first part of the film gives us introductions to the subject via his narration and comments, as well as interviews with researchers of the cave. Once we've become well-acquainted with what's inside, the movie reaches its high point with an extended set of shots that simply linger on the paintings, the cave walls, and all the details we can soak in -- all in 3-D.

This gives us plenty of room for thought, which is what Herzog assuredly encourages. He muses about what the original painters of 30,000 years ago might have been thinking. Interviews provide insight into how differently primitive man must have viewed the world, not just in beliefs or ideas, but in the all-encompassing sense of how one understands and perceives the universe, physically and spiritually. The film is a tonic for our fixed perspectives; it opens up the breadth of the human experience and should serve to make us feel smaller, confirming our place in the grand scheme of things. Or, at the very least, the paintings themselves can simply entrance the viewer, who may marvel at the basic artistic skill on display.

It may be true that Cave of Forgotten Dreams can't shake off a feeling of good-for-you stodginess, and it doesn't contain as much of Herzog's color as his other films do. However, that shouldn't detract much from the feelings of wonder and awe evoked, especially when the images are speaking for themselves. As moviegoers, we should definitely take advantage of this film's availabilty, since we will likely never be able to see this amazing place in person. Thanks to Herzog for giving us the next best thing. (added 5/19/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2011

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