Monday, August 24, 2009


Coraline is a different kind of movie. Not animated, not real life, but stop-motion photography taken to the hundredth degree. It's a much improved The Nightmare Before Christmas process. And with a much better script.

Coraline is a little girl who's had to move to Oregon from Michigan, Oregon which is cold and lonely and rainy. And her parents are totally involved with their time-sensitive project, their gardening catalog. They're much too busy to garden because they're both busy writing the catalog. So Coraline looks for something to entertain herself. She finds a secret door in her room. She enlists her mom to help her open it, and, during a dream one night, follows the ribbon-like mice into the doorway, and disappears into another world. This world has a much more attentive mother and father who cook what she wants for dinner and who play games with her. The only difference, it seems, is that the other mom and dad have button eyes. Coraline soon learns this is a dangerous world.

This is a very dark film. No parent should think their kid under the age of 15 should see this. Even then, parents should keep it away from sensitive children, or even adults.

It's a fascinating world created by Neil Gaiman but changed so that the world works cinematically by director/producer Henry Selick. The plot is so strong, and it's a good thing, because otherwise it would be really easy to lose track of what's going on because everything in Coraline's world, real or not, is amazingly colorful and animated. And the fake world seems even moreso.

It's gorgeous, it's intriguing, it's simply amazing. Take a look at the extras with the DVD, and learn just how much that's true.

Thumb's up.


Killshot is a lot like a hundred movies we've seen: predictable plot, predictable ending, likeable stars that don't do anything different or startling. However, this particular movie has one, or really two, things going for it. The villains are played by real actors.

A couple (played by Diane Lane and Thomas Jane) -- who are having their own difficulties in their relationship -- are relocated by the federal Witness Protection Program when she witnesses a crime. However, the couple is stalked when the bad guy figures out where they live.

Sounds like a simple plot. However, almost half the movie is interestingly about the villains, two guys who are so dissimilar that they think they'll work well together. Armand "The Blackbird" Degas (Mickey Rourke) is the brains behind the outfit, but he's older and less likely to pull the trigger. Richie Nix (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is in the habit of pulling the trigger first, then figuring out what he's doing there. And he's lost more than one partner due to their poor planning. He thinks Blackbird will solve that problem.

The movie is an intriguing look at these two guys who think they know what they're doing, and how they fail in almost every way possible. The relationship between these two is easily comparable to the relationship of our protagonists, Lane and Jane: they have their problems communicating, there are definitely trust issues, and so on. It almost seems redundant to say that Mickey Rourke has hit the top of his game, always menacing but amazingly vulnerable even as a bad guy. And Joseph Gordon Levitt keeps getting better and better. He's so much fun to watch.

Thumb's up.

Friday, August 14, 2009

District 9

Step aside, Gregor Samsa. We have a new treatment on what it's like to morph into an insect.

District 9 is a movie, an idea -- or actually, several of them -- I've never seen before, and it should be commended just for that reason. However, it's not for the faint of heart. The first few minutes, and every minute thereafter, will bring out the queasy in you.

The movie opens in documentary fashion, showing us that an alien ship is hovering above Johannesburg, and has done so for the last 20 years. After the first three months of no activity from the ship, military forces break into the ship to find sick, leaderless aliens, and transported them all down to earth in a humanitarian effort to a fenced-off section of town called District 9. In casual glances at the District 9 aliens, we see that they're basically uncontrollable aliens with a penchant for cat food. We then shift to Wikus (played by Sharlto Copley), who's been given a promotion and the tough job to move these aliens to a more controllable facility, District 10. Much of the first half of the film shows this project and its disastrous consequences.

So much of this film is made from great choices. Picking Johannesburg, for instance, is a much better choice than the U.S. or Europe, a place where they're still fresh from apartheid, and maybe a bit more accepting of it for an alien population (nicknamed "prawns" because there is definitely a resemblance), and there's definitely a fringe human element that may not be playing by the rules.

I have a friend that claims he will not be seeing District 9 because he believes it has a heavy hammer. He thinks we all know the horrors of living in a concentration camp, and that history has demonstrated that lesson effectively. However, the film departs from this notion -- without straying too terribly far from its idea -- by about halfway into the film when something incredible happens which changes the scope of the film.

The first half of the film is a bit slower paced as we learn the players and the circumstance of belief; the second half is a wild ride which makes us question our humanity.

Thumb's up.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

After the disappointing last film, I am eager and pleased to say that Half-Blood Prince more than makes up for that last one. And it advances the story (actually, several storylines) in magnificent fashion.

However, don't go out for popcorn. The transitions are minimal. The movie jumps, although not in a displeasing way, from point to point. A lot of ground has to be covered in its nearly two-and-a-half hour playing time.

We are not only anxious to see how Harry, Ron and Hermione fare, but how Dan, Rupert and Emma are doing. How they've grown up, and indeed, they are and have. It's simply a delight to be with them again. This movie has all the darkness and humor, both together, that other of their movies lacked, and it's a joy to watch. It's not only like being in on the old joke, the inside joke, but being with family again, the odd and disjointed pieces of that family as well as the charming and familiar ones.

One thing that adds to the magic of this film is that Harry has grown out of his teenage angst. Sure, there are people, even students, who despise him, but he doesn't care anymore, as he recognizes there are people who support him as well, and who love him. This new confidence is inspiring and a lot of fun to watch as he wends his way through life on campus, through the impending threat, and through new-found adoration.

Thumb's up. And we eagerly await the next two movies, both of which make up the last of Rowling's Harry Potter books.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


During World War II, when it was evident that all Jews in their area were being slaughtered by the Nazis in Poland, the Bielski brothers hid in the woods of Belorussia, foraging for food and weapons to aid in their survival. Along the way, however, more and more Polish Jews showed up in the forest, seeking their help. This movie is about brothers Tuvia and Zus, how they disagreed about the growing population of Jews hiding with them in the forest, and, at its most basic, will it be revenge or survival?

This is a Hollywood treatment of a true story. In the end, there were 1200 Jews hiding, if you can believe it, in the forest, and the film is a chronology of how they pulled this off even though they faced extinction every day. It may be a Hollywood "take," but it's a movie with a lot of integrity, a fascinating story of collaboration with the Russians against the Nazis, of brother against brother, of Jew against Jew. It's easy enough for us to say, with elaborate hindsight, that the Nazis should be their true enemy and unite them, but when human beings are put into scary situations, with not enough to eat, facing danger at every minute, they do change.

For a riveting review of the history behind this as well as a film review, see Ruth's take.

Thumb's up.

Fast and Furious

It's really difficult to write about a movie that absolutely bored me out of my skull. Fast and Furious, unlike Too Fast Too Furious, did that for me.

Vin Diesel is terribly magnetic, too much for most of the actors around him, including the limp-acting Paul Walker. When Diesel stares at you, you want to hide. The muscle cars are the only thing around him that can hold their own, and they live up to the billing. The stunts are great. Unfortunately, that doesn't make much of a movie. So skip this one. We'll wait for Vin to find some material that's up to his level.

Thumb's down.

Last Chance Harvey

We've all seen a lot of scenarios as to how a couple meets. We have a new one in Last Chance Harvey, which happens after a good 45 minutes into the movie. Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) finally sits down in a bar after a horrendous day in both job and personal life, and starts talking to Kate (Emma Thompson), who obviously doesn't want to talk at the next table as she brought a book and is very tenacious about letting go of her privacy. Who's had the "shittiest day" takes hold as a great discussion, and when he explains that he not only lost his job that day, but his daughter told him at the last minute that she wanted her stepfather to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, well, Kate acknowledges that Harvey wins. But we also know she had a tough day as well, having been set up in a blind date and left pretty much alone when his other friends happen to be at the bar, too.

Harvey is a great deal older than Kate, and is certainly more tenacious. He finds someone who tells it like it is, is a good listener, and has the same kind of humor. So he accompanies her to her class. And he finds it hard to let go after that.

This is not the wittiest comedy out there. It's not even a comedy, or a tragedy. It's all about how hard it is to change your life once you're headed in a certain direction, and how absolutely difficult it is to meet new people and forge new relationships. The lines said by our major characters are real words, not things we've wished we had said, things spontaneously out of the mouth. And mistakes are made along the way, as in real life.

I found it very charming, not light-hearted but not heavy, either, despite its beginning. I thought it interesting that the movie ends not with a definite ending, but with hope, much like Tootsie ended when Dustin's character admits to Jessica Lange that he's really Tootsie. They walk off together talking, but you're never sure what's going to happen. But you're pulling for them. Hope.

Thumb's up.

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