Sunday, May 31, 2009


It helps to not be well-read in watching a movie like Valkyrie. I had never heard of the aftermath of the attempt to kill Hitler by his own officers near the end of WWII. So this movie became an interesting thriller for me.

We see Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) stiffen at Hitler's orders way before he gets involved with other officers to plot Hitler's demise. In a very dramatic beginning, Stauffenberg is injured in a strafing by Allied Forces in Africa, and his hope of saving his troops dies next to him. This incident undoubtedly strengthens his resolve to save as many Germans as possible and, indeed, Germany by getting rid of Der Fuhrer.

The strength of this recreation of history by Bryan Singer is in the details. A pivotal moment, and a jarring one, is when we enter the communications room in Berlin, where the pounding of the manual typewriters sounds like the staccato of a machine gun. Just getting a glimpse of how things probably were in pre-computer age Germany during the war is worth the price of admission.

I have to say, though, that the most jarring moment of the movie is Tom Cruise. He gives an admirably restrained performance, but it's still Tom Cruise, and hard to believe him as a German officer, particularly when his American accent clashes with the Brits' among him.

In addition to Cruise (or in spite of him), the supporting cast is magnificent: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, so many more, and they're definitely worth watching.

I enjoyed this film, even though I knew the ending. Thumb's up.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I've put off posting a review of the new Wolverine movie until I could see the other sci fi blockbusters, Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation. Why? Because Wolverine was all at once exciting and disappointing, and I wanted to compare it to other films that fill in details on sci fi canon.

In essence, I think Wolverine was doomed to, if not fail, at least be a disappointing downer. We know from X-Men films that Logan has a mysterious past and that his memory has been wiped. But we don't know why. However, knowing we have to end the prequel at a place where the Wolverine cannot possibly redeem himself, well, things are bound to fall flat.

However, the movie starts out in winning fashion, showing Logan with his brother, Victor, played by Liev Schreiber, living many years as shown by all the battles in which they fight, all the world wars, and always on the "right" side. It's a bit of a shock when brother turns renegade.

There are some warm moments when Logan takes up a love interest, but she's so totally telegraphed as a red-shirt that it's hard to enjoy the relationship. Still, this relationship shows what Logan as a human is capable of, and shows us more of his personality, a man who can actually smile.

There are some great things to watch in this movie. There are some incredible feats, certainly worth watching. There are some other mutants featured, briefly, which make you hunger for more, specifically Gambit and whatever-that-guy-is-called, the swordsman played by Ryan Reynolds. And Schreiber is a real actor, with corny lines like "look who the cat dragged in," and he still makes you believe them. And Hugh Jackman, all buffed up and ready to emote his way through difficult material, is always worth watching. It's just that the movie doesn't work as a whole.

Thumb's down, but sci fi and X-Men fans will still have to watch it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Terminator: Salvation

I have seen the future, and it is LOUD.

As soon as the film starts, it's a cacaphony of noise on the screen. It's 2018, and Skynet has taken over the earth, save for a few pockets of resistance which greet the terminator robots with as many explosions as they can muster. We're not really sure why Skynet wants New York, however, since there's not a decent plot of grass or life left, and everything is in rubble. Still, we know the canon of Terminator, unless you've been living in a cave for over 20 years, and we know that John Connor is the leader of the resistance, and their whole survival depends upon Kyle Reese getting back to save John Connor's life some 20 years before.

Yeah, we admit, it's a little confusing. Thankfully, Terminator: Salvation has an understandable storyline even though there are a few interesting twists and turns.

The story explains how John Connor and Kyle Reese meet, how the resistance works militarily, and also how a rogue terminator plays a very important part. I don't want to lead with any spoilers here, but it's a fascinating plotline with an age-old question attached: what constitutes "human?" It's a question T2 spent some time perusing, particularly when a robot makes a better parent to a young John Connor than his schizophrenic mother ever could.

The film features great battle scenes, with, yes, lots of skull-shaking BOOM!, superior effects -- and you can't tell me those robots are animated! -- and heart-stopping action. But these wouldn't mean anything without a linear storyline, and we have that here.

Christian Bale, as John Connor, keeps us anchored. Connor is about 40 here, and obviously a lot has happened since we knew him as a teenager. And remember that little trick that hoodlum John pulled when he stole money out of the ATM? Well, the movie gives a nod to that kid and then some.

It's great to see Michael Ironside, whose gravity even trumps Bale's, as the boss of the resistance. And how wonderful to hear the voice of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor on John's cassette tapes, telling him all she knows. There aren't very many heartwarming scenes in this film, but this is one of them.

The denouement takes forever to arrive at, complete with lots of explosions, but it's worth hanging in for, especially due to a gape at Arnold Schwarzenegger in a bit more than a cameo.

Thumb's up.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Role Models

There was no way I was going near Role Models. No way. It's going to be a silly, demeaning, sex-filled movie filled with arrogant men who can't act. Two things changed my mind: positive movie reviews by people I trust, like Peter Hartlaub from the San Francisco Chronicle, and Paul Rudd.

Almost everything Paul Rudd is in is worth watching, in my opinion. The guy has movie-star good looks, and never trades on them. He is sometimes in the strangest movies, calling on the strangest casting, but somehow makes the project better with very few exceptions. For instance, take Clueless, or Anchor Man.

In this film, Rudd plays a man who's just been jilted by his long-time girlfriend (played by Elizabeth Banks) because he's just a negative, unhappy guy. He and his workmate, played by Seann William Scott, are in a badly-paid, meaningless job where they drink energy drinks and pitch them to high school kids. Rudd, in his funk, does some stupid things and gets them both arrested. The judge gives them a choice of becoming Big Brother-type mentors for 150 hours or going to jail. As Scott's character often says, jail sometimes looked easier.

They're paired up with the two hardest cases in the camp: teenaged Augie (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is totally into dorkdom and dungeons and dragons, and 10-year-old Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thompson), who is foul-mouthed and hard to handle.

Not every gag works, but most of them do, mostly because they're plot- and character-driven. Paul Rudd and David Wain co-wrote the screenplay, and Wain directed, and they both know what works. And these actors, even the supporting actors, are perfect for their parts, worthy of guffaws time and time again. Besides the kids, who are hilarious, special mention must go to Jane Lynch, who is so funny as the tic-laden, 12-stepping boss of the big brother program.

It's nice to see Seann William Scott in better material, and working with a director who knows how to slow him down and straighten him out. Once he's not the center of hedonistic attention, he's actually likeable.

Thumb's up.


Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), a former CIA agent who knew what he was doing, has hung up his weapons to seek retirement in order to spend time with his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), who is now a teenager and barely knows him. When she finally asks him what he did in the CIA, he says he was a "preventer," that he prevented bad things from happening. That's just a taste of what Bryan's skills actually are.

The movie starts out slowly, but wisely, showing us another taste of Bryan's skills when he agrees to accompany some buddies along on a security job protecting a Brittany Spears-type singer. A few things happen during this job that come back later to a feel-good moment, when the star decides to pay back her security guy.

How many of these type of films have we seen? Actually, thankfully, none like this. This is an interesting take on the I-will-hunt-you-down plot, and we're there for every tick of the clock when Albanian sex-slave guys in Paris kidnap his daughter. The intriguing trailer's bit where he tells them about his select group of skills is here in all its glory, and is greeted by a singular "Good luck" by the kidnapper, a phrase that will haunt him later.

It's a thrill-a-minute, and Neeson is at once cutthroat but also sincere and worthy of our trust. He's more than a doting father. He's one who can make his threats come true. Watch out, future suitors!

Thumb's up.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Star Trek

I grew up with the Star Trek characters. Well, maybe not grew up as a young kid, but as a teenager I was certainly glued to the T.V. set when the first Star Trek episode aired in 1966.

Jim Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, Bones. And later Chekhov. I felt like they were my friends.

But, 40+ years later, two things have happened. One, I am totally tired of “classic,” “original,” or whatever-you-call-it Trek. And two, I have combined the memory of the character with the actor who played him or her. For instance, I couldn’t tell you the difference between Uhura and Nichelle Nichols. After seeing her so many years at live events, I really have blended the two in my mind.

So I was actually eager to see a new rendering of the old tale. Star Trek, the new movie directed by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Mission Impossible III), is, I’m glad to say, a thrill-a-minute ride that still takes the time to show us how our heroes meet.

The movie takes the same characters but re-casts them and imbues each with a different backstory. We see what makes James T. Kirk so cowboy-ish, as the best example. Each character has the individual trait we’re used to seeing, but after that, everything else about him or her seems different. And I can guarantee you, this Uhura, besides a penchant for languages and communication skills, is completely different in this version.

The casting is quirky but it works, particularly in the cases of Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto (the villain Sylar on “Heroes”). Pine is more than adequate, showing us the arrogance and impulsiveness of what will develop into Captain Kirk. Quinto is just short of brilliant as a young, thoughtful Spock. Remember that it’s not that Spock has no emotions, it’s that he struggles mightily to contain them. And Quinto shows us that, and more.

I very much enjoyed Leonard Nimoy's voice in the final frame, as he speaks those immortal words, spoken by William Shatner in the beginning of each episode of the original series. Only this time, Leonard says "where no one has gone before," replacing "man" with "one." A small change, but a welcome one.

After the abysmal outings of the last two movies, it's about time. This film will give the dying franchise new hope for those fans who have lost it.

Thumb's up.