Reviews for 2011

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Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone, Timothy Olyphant.
Directed by Gore Verbinski.
Rating: 7/10

The movie counterpart which Rango reminded me of was Fantastic Mr. Fox, not necessarily because both movies contain a cast full of little critters, but mostly because they both felt like unfiltered visions straight from their directors' brains. In Rango's case, that director is Gore Verbinski, more studio-friendly than Mr. Fox's Wes Anderson, and therefore also less obviously quirky. Verbinski's most visible works were the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, which showed how comfortable he was in staging huge set pieces and shooting action with both a dramatic and humorous eye. These elements show up in Rango, which also displays a large amount of faith in its audience's willingness to keep up with its offbeat presentation, as well as an obvious love of movies, and of Westerns in particular. Verbinski clearly has ideas -- odd, funny, visually creative and grand -- and plays with them in this animated space, but perhaps to call them unfiltered here might not be entirely truthful.

Rango's strength is that it's quite different -- different enough to feel more like a personal Verbinski film as opposed to a studio's animated product -- but, rather exasperatingly, it also doesn't go all the way in that direction, giving in to a story that hits the usual template-mandated beats and appeal-to-mainstream crises and climaxes. Its look is both grotesque and exquisite, a great job by special effects company Industrial Light & Magic in their first animated feature production. You may never find another protagonist as strange and charming in a Dali-esque way as Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp), an asymmetric domestic chameleon with thespian dreams who finds himself stranded in the Mojave Desert, wandering into a Western complete with saloons, outlaws, shootouts, and a corrupt mayor. All the character voicing is caricature style, with the overall tone feeling just surreal enough to suggest a large mirage. The comedy is not overt and is derived from quirks, personalities, and references, which lends itself to the notion that the movie is asking the viewer to meet it halfway, instead of pandering to kiddie audience expectations.

And yet some pandering is there, after all. There's a great action sequence in the middle, but these kinds of sequences always feel requisite in U.S.-animated films. The protagonist is on a rather classic hero's journey, with not much insight to be gained from his character growth that we haven't already gleaned a thousand times before. While the beginning is full of the promise of the strange, the ending has the softness of the familiar. Verbinski had something here -- an ode to Clint Eastwood and Spaghetti Westerns, to Depp's turn as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to Chinatown, and perhaps the idea that all of these works were challenging and unique in their visions, dirty, morbid, uncomfortable. In animation, a similar vision could be unfettered, so kudos to the director for making it as oddball as it could get away with before succumbing to the American concern that the animated film must appeal to kids and their parents in the most obvious ways. (added 7/20/2011)

Red Riding Hood

Starring Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Lukas Haas, Julie Christie.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke.
Rating: 4/10

Director Catherine Hardwicke must have caught Twilight fever because her latest film, Red Riding Hood, feels like a rehash of that movie's moods, atmosphere, subject, and visual strategies. In case anyone has forgotten, Hardwicke directed the first Twilight, but circumstances led to her being unavailable to direct its sequel. Apparently, she couldn't truly let it go because her following movie would also feature a lovelorn teenage heroine (Amanda Seyfried), a brooding competition for her affections by two good-looking teenage boys, all while surrounded by the specter of a supernatural horror element -- not vampires this time, but werewolves (which, of course, showed up in the second Twilight). The main difference is in the setting -- this one takes place centuries ago in a small village in the woods -- but otherwise, tonally, everything else is similar, such as the wintery environment, the glossiness of the cinematography, and the use of the horror element to metaphorically enhance the "dangerous" qualities of teenage angst and female coming-of-age.

"Enhance" might be the key word, for at its core, Red Riding Hood, like Twilight, makes the shallow desire to run away with a boy the heroine's main concern. This desire is misleadingly linked to the burgeoning of independence -- that, because of her love, she's willing to stand on her own and consider leaving her village and all its superstitious, hypocritical residents behind. But stubbornly wanting to be with a certain person does not actually equal standing on one's own (the only thing holding her back is the possibility that her boy might be the werewolf -- see that metaphor working?). Consider the movie Fish Tank as an antithesis, where the girl discovers the need to be independent, partially due to experiencing the painful fallout from a stupid ill-advised crush, before considering leaving with a different boy and, more importantly, a new mindset. All a movie like Red Riding Hood does is give its young audience the idea that finding the hot guy and following him wherever he goes is a justifiable aim, which is a repulsive thought.

On top of this, the movie is fairly bland, laden with dull expository dialogue, teenage boys who can't smile, and teenage girls who keep a tee-hee look to signify their lack of intelligence in relation to the heroine. Things only liven up when good ol' hammy Gary Oldman shows up as the werewolf expert/killer who might be more dangerous to the village than the werewolf; at least the film is fun when he chews its scenery. He's the only real character in a movie that also contains an underutilized Virginia Madsen and Julie Christie, which might be saying something about Hardwicke's directing priorities. Personally, I think I'm giving up on Hardwicke. I always felt she had potential to bring better insight to the rebellious nature of teenagers, but her movies have only continued to grow more dull and hokey. I'll now leave her small towns and I won't be looking back. (added 7/15/2011)

Source Code

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright.
Directed by Duncan Jones.
Rating: 7/10

Director Duncan Jones's sophomore film, Source Code, is an assured second step into the realm of thoughtful science fiction, following his contemplative retro-style Moon. This time, though, slow pacing is exchanged for that of a quick thriller, as his new movie reflects its mindbending peers, such as Inception. Here, Capt. Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds himself on a train, in which a bomb will explode in 8 minutes. After he "dies," he is sent back to the train again, to the same starting point in the same 8-minute scenario; in between sessions, he communicates with figures who are running this apparent project, and they inform him that his overall mission is to find the bomb and the bomber. At first, he believes it's a simulation, but each successive "rest period" between sessions brings more disturbing truths to light.

Source Code actually shares a number of thematic similarities with Moon, as both have a protagonist who is victimized into service by an organized entity (e.g., a corporation, a government program). They have limited communication with those who send down their orders, emphasizing the gap between the organizers and the human grunts whose work their successes depend on. Also in both films, the grunt discovers the truth -- an ethical violation, or at the very least an initiative that demeans the grunt's humanity. The fight to regain this humanity is what causes the subject to assert whatever free will he has left.

The struggle to retain humanity in the face of technological advances is a science fiction standby, but when employed well it almost never fails to be compelling. Source Code can be counted among these successful implementations, with its main weakness being its "fiction" threatening to overshadow its "science." Frankly, the truth about the project in the movie feels much too farfetched. The ending is then served up as something of a compromise -- a good, character-driven event that reaches its conclusion by stretching the story's improbabilities even further. But focusing on the positives here is easy to do -- it's not often that a movie climaxes with something as simple and elegant as a being's request for a chance at personal closure. It's a surprisingly sweet gesture in an often brutal, pessimistic genre, and it shows that Jones continues to have his priorities straight in the stories he chooses to tell. (added 8/3/2011)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2011

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