Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hot Fuzz

The boys are back. The "Shaun of the Dead" crew is back for another round.

The tagline to this movie is: Big Cops. Small Town. Moderate Violence.

I just read that and I started laughing.

This movie is not what I was expecting. I was expecting slapstick comedy, and while there is some of that, the humor is grown more from the situation. And the situation is this:

Policeman -- oops, sorry, Police Officer -- Nick Angel is assigned from London to a small town simply because he's too good. He's super cop, but without a sense of humor. He's the one who would've politically corrected that first line about his position. Nobody likes him because he makes everyone on the force look bad. His girlfriend left a long time ago because she took a distant second to the job. When Nick gets to the town, he discovers that the police there have a rather lax view of things, even when there are several fatal "accidents" occurring daily around town.

You have to have a little patience to let the plot grow in this one. I.e., it's not a laugh-a-minute, although there are plenty of chuckles, guffaws, and plain lol's.

The script is wonderful, the actors are sparkling: while Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have done it again, their supporting cast is just as good.

Thumb's up.

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Monday, November 24, 2008


Director Danny Boyle is now the darling of the movie-covering press. Slumdog Millionaire is a genuine hit among independent films. I loved that movie, so I thought I'd go back and look at the last film he had directed. That search led me to Sunshine, released in 2007.

You'd think with a title like that, you'd have a wonderfully upbeat, colorfully lit movie, wouldn't you? Well, at times we do have "colorfully lit," if you count gold hues of the sun among them, but you certainly wouldn't call this movie upbeat.

There's no backstory to set us up. We're plunged into the spaceship plummeting toward the sun, and in a way become one of the crew among the eight women and men already onboard. Capa, played by Cillian Murphy, explains what we're up against best in a monologue: "Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa, and a crew of seven left earth frozen in a solar winter. Our payload was a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose to create a star within a star. (Long pause....) Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to the Icarus Two."

Intense doesn't describe it. It's easier to compare Sunshine to other like-type sci fi films than describe it. It's the first-half of Alien without the payoff. It's Silent Running, showing all the isolation of that film, only without the personality of Bruce Dern. Or Huey, Dewey and Louie. It certainly evokes 2001, but without the epic grandness of that film, and especially the weirdness of the last half an hour of that classic.

The cast is first-rate. Besides Murphy, who doesn't fall back on the schizoid personalities of his usual film roles, there is also Chris Evans (Fantastic Four), who establishes a very deliberate and consistent character, and Michelle Yeoh, the delightful Hong Kong actress who is almost impossible to find these days.

The script is mostly at fault here. While the writing gives us a taut and gripping drama, it also gives too many boring moments in looking too tightly at high-strung crew members, too many moments that don't lead anywhere, to maintain interest. And the direction is also to blame: many scenes are distractedly filmed with lens tricks so that we can't really tell what's going on. Perhaps the latter is due to the fact that Boyle doesn't want to show us the gruesome, but I think that's an excuse. The whole last half an hour is filmed this way, and is hard to watch, let alone figure out what's going on.

At the end, however, the film is a downer. Plain and simple. Wait a couple of years when Danny Boyle finds a really good script to film and discovers his talent.

Thumb's down.

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Friday, November 21, 2008


My first thought upon seeing this movie was, Who are these people? They're stupid party mongers who got caught in a dreadful situation and act stupidly throughout. And then I was hit by the thought that I just got taken.

You may remember the very careful and clever advertising campaign of the movie to build up anticipation. Scenes of people rushing into the street during their party, but they don't know what the danger is, and then a gasp-producing special effect.

Cloverfield has the look of Blair Witch Project. That means cheap and useless, but it also means amateurish photography. In fact, the whole deus ex machina holding the plotlines together is that one party-goer is holding a hand-held camcorder, and it's his point-of-view throughout the entire movie.

It's an interesting concept. If the people were worth caring about, perhaps I'd be into it more.

We enter a party, which is Rob's going-away party in a posh apartment in New York, because the 20's-something guy just got a promotion and transfer to Japan. His brother, Hud, is given the camcorder to record guests' farewell to Rob. All of a sudden, the lights go out, gigantic noises and shudders hit the house, and they all spill out onto the street. After another roar, the Statue of Liberty's head goes flying down the street. And so it begins.

Most of the movie, at least after the party, is the camcorder recording Rob and his friends going after a former girlfriend, and the chase leads them to a part of Manhattan they really shouldn't be in.

It's all green-screen, mostly bad and, again, amateurish-looking. These are actors we've never heard of playing characters we never want to meet. And we get to watch them do things they really shouldn't be doing in a dangerous area. The ending is interesting, but it's not enough.

I expected more from producer J.J. Abrams (Lost and the new Star Trek movie, released next year). Instead, Cloverfield is all hype and no delivery.

Thumb's down.

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High School Musical 3: Senior Year

Troy and Gabriella and most of their friends are now seniors in high school in New Mexico. The plot revolves around the fact that each of them has different plans for college and they're not happy with that. They also agree to put on a musical that will address their hopes and dreams.

This is the 3rd go-round, and although I really liked HSM the original, I missed HSM2, which went straight to video. Apparently Disney execs figured that to be a colossal mistake, as the sequel did outstanding numbers in the video department. So, HSM3 was released into theatres, and has been doing a bang-up job in terms of numbers.

I found it disappointing. I did like the plot underlying the entire thing, which was a rather adult one of having to grow up rather quickly and make decisions that will take a teenager away from the familiar. But I didn't care for most of the musical numbers -- which sounded like a twelve-time repeat of the same tune -- or the actual musical the kids ended up performing.

The choreography is, again, amazing. And the arrangements make the songs seem better than they actually are. The kids are very good.

I did enjoy the fact that the adults are the stable element around which the cast revolves. Alyson Reed as the drama coach, especially, does a fine job. But there were too many teen characters in this one to keep it all straight -- too many subplotlines going off into Mickey-and-Judy-Land to really care about them all. This movie could have done with far fewer characters, and more time on the interesting ones we've got. Sharpay, for instance, got very little time; as our villain, she should've had a large spotlight on her. While her voice isn't the best one in the cast, at least hers is one of the more interesting characters.

Somewhere in between movies, somebody figured out that Zac Efron is the star here, and they wisely give him much more camera time than anyone else. Hudgens is cute and sweet as Gabriella, but her smile never varies, and her voice has no edge at all to it. She's shown the back room here.

High School Musical 3 is Grease Lite in my view, preferring to completely lobotomize sex or even the notion of a good kiss out of these kids' minds. But a good thing for all those young females watching this movie: Unlike Grease, where Sandy gives up her life and changes for the sake of what her man wants her to be, HSM3 does no such thing. In fact, roles are reversed. And that's refreshing.

It's a thumb's up for pre-teens and teens for High School Musical 3: Senior Year. But it's a thumb's down for any adults watching.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Price Above Rubies

When a young woman's stubborn, questioning spirit comes into conflict with a traditional ultra-Orthodox life, it is a meeting of the proverbial irresistable force and immovable object. A Price Above Rubies (1998) explores territory that one might have thought well traveled in The Chosen (1981) except that where the latter movie examines the narrow life of a young man in a situation of relative privilege, this film looks at a young woman who married such a man.

The film mixes flashbacks and magical realism so that one of the Jewish seniors with whom I watched it asked, "Was she crazy?" and generated quite a nice discussion. The consensus was that maybe she was, maybe she wasn't-- or perhaps such a situation would have driven anyone crazy. I do not want to spoil any of the surprises in the film, so I can't say more than that.

The film is not flattering to the fictional ultra-Orthodox community it portrays. It shows a religious community that includes saints and sinners, and in at least one notable case, sinners who are also predators. I think that it is best to remember that is a Hollywood film, and it exploits the picturesque dress and customs while going for the shock value of sin amongst the saints. If you want to learn about ultra-Orthodox American Jews, go watch a documentary.

Renee Zellweger seems an unlikely choice for the role of Sonia, but she plays it with a believable accent and spot-on body language. As a portrait of an independent and wounded young woman who struggles to find her way with integrity, I give this film an enthusiastic "thumbs up!"

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hellboy II

They're pretty much your typical couple. They're in love, but they're having problems living together. "I'd give my life for her," he says, adding in a dejected voice, "but she also wants me to do the dishes."

They're your typical couple. Except he's huge and red and has two devil-like horns. She, on the other hand, catches on fire when she's angry.

It's Hellboy 2, Guillermo del Toro's latest. del Toro co-wrote the script with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, and directed the movie. He seems to have figured out what went wrong in the first Hellboy go-round, and has corrected it. Hellboy the Original has a marvelous first half where we learn all about our main players, including our many-flawed hero, but the second half got too carried away with the villain. The villains here, although interesting, never get in the way of telling the stories around the characters we grow to love.

In the second story, which pretty much continues where Hellboy I left off, we learn more about the agents of the U.S. Bureau of Paranormal Research. Included among them is Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a Nazi experiment whose favorite things are candy bars and kittens, Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), who is an amphibian, Liz (Selma Blair) who, yes, lights on fire but she's learning better how to control it, and Jeffrey Tambor's stiff manager, who has the not-so-easy job of corralling our guys.

And the script is funny throughout, and marvelously shows us little things about these characters. When Abe falls for the princess, the sister of the villain who's trying to destroy all humanity, they have this little discussion:

Hellboy: Have a beer.
Abe Sapien: No, no. My body's a temple.
Hellboy: It's now an amusement park. Take the beer.

And then Abe puts on a Barry Manilow song. It's a very funny sequence. Super-heroes on beer. Okay, "flawed" works here.

The actors del Toro hired for this series are in their prime. Ron Perlman, famous for roles in which his face and sometimes his body is covered, is the right touch of sarcasm and innocence. Doug Jones, whose last role as the Silver Surfer didn't fully use his talents, is able to use his mime ability and his high-pitched voice to make the amphibian come alive. Jeffrey Tambor is the bureaucrat we almost pity but love to despise. The director is wise enough to realize that unless these characters are brought to life by capable actors who can emote beyond the masks they wear, we have nothing but a hollow story. These actors are more than capable.

Amid all the angst and fighting, there's a serious theme going on here, as Hellboy, and also Liz and Abe at various times, wonders how human he wants to be. del Toro has created a series of wondrous worlds here, visually stunning and all-at-once freakish, and characters who are more-than-human with whom we want to spend more time.

Thumb's up.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stranded: I've Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains

I think most people over a certain age know the story about the 1972 crash in the Andes of an airplane filled with 45 rugby players. Unless you had read the book "Alive," you probably don't know the sometimes gruesome and always harrowing details.

Stranded is a documentary to chronicle the return of all 16 survivors, now middle-aged, to the site where it all happened. It's chilling to hear them talk about the event in their own words, particularly when they finally talk about their source of food. The survivors resorted to cannibalism, eating of their dead friends' and families' bodies, which they had dragged outside the remains of the aircraft. They spoke of eating only enough to survive from the bodies, which they carved up in a rite resembling Holy Communion.

The director uses actors to re-create the 72 days of the survivors, and intersperses the interviews to explain what happened. It's a chilling re-creation of an incredible example of how these teammates worked together to survive. The fact that we're still riveted to our seats to see how it all worked out, some 35 years later, is testament to good storytelling.

Thumb's up.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

The first thing I have to do in this review is to tell you to see this film. This is one of those stop-what-you're-doing, find-this-film-and-see-it kinds of movies. I obviously have not seen the films that Hollywood is saving for Oscar contention, but I still think I can say with some confidence that Slumdog Millionaire is one of the best films of 2008.

And, by the way, if you think you'll see the film and don't want any kind of spoilers, stop reading and immediately leave your house and see the film. Because you're bound to hear from some other source -- internet, radio, T.V., friends -- about this new film. There are a few spoilers here because I want to tell you basically what the film is about, but I'm not going to fill in many details.

Jamal and his older brother Salim live in one of the poorest cities of India: Mumbai (aka Bombay). Everybody's got a job in Mumbai, even little kids, as everybody in the family has to pitch in to earn money or food so that the family can live. One of the earliest scenes in the movie shows Salim at his job, collecting coins for a port-a-potty. And it's a very funny sequence. Right away, we see the love the brothers have for each other, but we also see sibling issues. It's not so much rivalry as angst, a disagreement on their values on the issue of survival. We also see Jamal's persistence at getting what he wants and what he's willing to do to get it, a theme that will come up later.

But this is really Jamal's story (young Jamal is played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar). We follow him, and often his brother as well, through the next decade, and watch him become homeless. Along the way, while escaping town on the rails -- and the train becomes a theme, to be repeated often -- he befriends a little girl, Latika, who is also escaping. From what, we do not know. But as we can imagine, the life of a young child in India, let alone a young girl, must be frighteningly dangerous.

But the film opens when 18-year-old Jamal has managed to be a contestant on the very popular T.V. show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The police chief has, by request from the M.C. of the show, taken 18-year-old Jamal into custody, shake him down, and find out how he knew all the answers. Or to be quite direct about it, how he cheated.

Jamal tells how he answered each and every question, and in doing so, tells his story. It's a very clever, innovative way of telling the story, and I've never seen or heard anything like it. And with the telling, with each of Jamal's answers, we become more and more fascinated with this young man, and more and more drawn into his story, his search for who he is, and his endless quest to be reunited with Latika.

It seems obvious to say that the actors are incredibly gifted, both child and adult. The child and adult Jamal (the adult is played by Dev Patel), however, are beyond fantastic.

The image of the train comes up often. Jamal and his brother and friends often use the train to escape their situation, and amazingly enough, take the train back to Mumbai again. You would think they'd take the opportunities given them to escape and go to larger, more prosperous cities. Instead, they feel they must return home, and so the train takes them in a circle back to Mumbai. By the time they return, Mumbai has become a different town. But they, too, have changed. How they've changed is probably the most interesting part of this journey.

There are scenes of torture, child endangerment (no, more than that - child torture). I can promise you that the ending is uplifting. But if you can't make it through the dangerous journey that Jamal and other children most likely face in reality -- and, actually, as adults as well -- then you will want to skip this movie. But, much like a good Russian novel will tell you, you have to sacrifice to get the reward. And the reward is huge here.

Thumb's up doesn't quite describe the feeling I had after this sweeping epic. Director Danny Boyle has taken the material and turned it into a masterpiece. I highly recommend Slumdog Millionaire.


Saturday, November 08, 2008


Changeling takes us back in time to a Los Angeles of the 1920’s. L.A. has street cars running on rails throughout the city, private cars parked in front of many, but not all, residences. The town looks almost like modern day. Except that in this town, the police have been allowed to take over. They shoot when they want, they search and seize without warrants. If someone resists, or vocally protests too much, they put the men in jail, and do something worse to the women.

This environment is a major character in Changeling. We meet Christine, played by Angelina Jolie, who comes home from work one day to find her son missing. Months later, they find her son. But when she is finally able to meet up with him at the train, she doesn’t recognize him. This is not her son.

The rest is her battle with the police and every authority figure in Los Angeles to convince them of this fact. The local priest (played by John Malkovich), who is fighting the police chief on his daily radio broadcast, joins her in the fight.

Clint Eastwood has, in what he says is one of his final directing jobs, taken a story by Joe Straczynski, and told it simply but unsparingly, and makes it an emotional one for us. It’s one of the finest pieces of story-telling in movies I’ve ever witnessed. This movie doesn’t have the energy of Million Dollar Baby, but it has the same kind of emotional impact. And because of this, it’s not for the faint-of-heart.

Angelina Jolie gives the performance of her still-short life. She’s on the edge here, because we identify with her, but we don’t want to see a merely hysterical woman parade around. But how would you act if your baby were still missing? If the police had given up because they had already solved the case?

And it’s great to see Jeffrey Donovan as the police detective who helps her “solve” her missing person problem. Donovan is so charming in the new T.V. show, “Burn Notice.” He’s less than charming here but always watchable.

It’s a true story, well-researched by Straczynski. There’s no surprise ending as in Million Dollar Baby, but there are several endings. Just when I thought the story had to be over, there was more. And the sum of these parts makes for an extraordinary movie.

Thumb's up.

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