Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Smart People

This was a little movie that slipped in and out of theaters back in April. I saw a couple of trailers for it, but never heard from it again. A few days I was finally able to catch it. I was excited because of the great cast involved, but it turned out to be a moderate dud.

The movie is about widowed English professor Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) and his family. He has a strained relationship with his conservative daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), rebellious son, James (Ashton Holmes) and deadbeat brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church). A combination of impatience and arrogance results in Lawrence injuring his head. This acts as a catalyst to bring him closer to his brother, whom he hires as a driver, and introduces Lawrence to his love interest/doctor Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker).

The movie primarily deals with egotism and a holier than thou mentality. This prevented me from enjoying much of the movie. Even when the characters try to redeem themselves, it's done very superficially. Just as he's starting to connect with his daughter, Lawrence starts spending all of his time with Janet. This drives Vanessa and Chuck awkwardly close together. Neither of these two grow much from this new situation either. As the characters realize their faults, they simply become more and more stubborn. The movie is about imperfections, but instead of improving them, it seems they simply don't care. The only characters I could understand was James, in his attempts to distance himself and move on with a new life in college.

The acting is all well and good. This was certainly an A level cast, but they weren't really stretching themselves here. The actors could only do so much with such single dimensional characters. That's one way to judge an actor against a director or the movie as a whole. If the whole cast is uniformly stiff, it's probably not just their fault.

The movie had potential to be one of those great dysfunctional family movies like The Squid and the Whale or Imaginary Heroes. Somehow those movies managed to rise above the unlikeable characters, whereas Smart People just kind of wallows in them. The movie wasn't bad, but it didn't have the sparkle I would expect from such a powerhouse cast.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Estelle Getty

Estelle Getty

Best known for her role as Sophia Petrillo on The Golden Girls, Estelle had an impressive career- made even more impressive that her first acting role was at the age of 55.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

This is likely the best comic book adaptation ever. I was of two minds about Batman Begins. The first half with Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) transformation into Batman was wonderful, but it kind of fell apart once he got back to Gotham. The Dark Knight, however, is fantastic from beginning to end. This is with little doubt the most anticipated movie of the year, and it did not disappoint.

The Dark Knight starts immediately after the previous movie. Batman is cleaning up Gotham City, and organized crime is on the run. We are introduced in the first scene to the city's newest scourge, The Joker (Heath Ledger). He teams up with the mob to hunt down and kill Batman, but has deeper rooted plans to simply bring Gotham City to its knees. He wants nothing short of anarchy. The only thing standing in his way is the Triumvirate of Batman, Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), and the newly elected DA, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). As The Joker's terrorist attacks get more more severe, he seems to always be one step ahead of the law. The heroes must then compromise their own morals to do what's best for the city.

I don't want to sound like I'm just being influenced by Heath Ledger's recent death, but he managed to dethrone Jack Nicholson's Joker from the 1989 Tim Burton Batman. It wasn't just that he brought a more intense and unstable performance to the character, it was the entire package. Nicholson's Batman, despite being uncomfortable crazy was still more mischievous than terrifying. His plan of using makeup to poison the city, and clean looking clown makeup were both outlandish and kind of goofy. Ledger's Joker makeup is grimy and frightening, and he engages in much more direct acts of terrorism. This marks the full transformation of the character from cartoony to truly frightening. Just as an example, my favorite Joker moment (I can't say what without giving stuff away) was completely improvised by Ledger.

I felt the most important relationship was between Batman and Dent. The new DA is willing to whatever it takes to clean up the city. He teams up with Batman to do the dirty work, while Dent makes sure they're prosecuted legally. He is even referred to many times as a white knight, in contrast to Batman's Dark Knight. Tension arises between them, however, because Dent is in a relationship with Bruce Wayne's former love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

The Joker makes it his goal to bring Dent down from his pedestal, and undo all the good he's done. In fact, this is one of the most prevalent themes with the Joker. He's a master at bringing out the ugliness in people. The battle becomes a fight for Dent's image, with Batman shouldering the weight of all the dark deeds. This truly paints him as a tragic hero more than any other movie. He does everything for Gotham, and bares the brunt of their hatred.

There are some fantastic action sequences. Somehow director, Christopher Nolan, manages to hold your attention and not overwhelm with the almost three hour running time. A few if the more action filled scenes got a little confusing and disorienting, but these were made up for by some other fantastic ones. A car chase between a semi, a SWAT truck, and the Tumbler (the new Batmobile) was wonderful. And a sequence a little later with The Joker in jail was just as good.

The Dark Knight seems to capture perfectly the revitalized franchise. Gotham is as dark as it's ever been, and Batman has to act accordingly. The movie explores the complex morality of sinking to the level of those you're trying to capture. There's even a fairly direct commentary on government surveillance and what happens when one person gets too much power. The action, the character, and these themes of relative morality tie in perfectly together. I have little doubt that this will be the biggest film of the year.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

I'm not terribly familiar with the Hellboy mythology, but that doesn't seem to pose much of a barrier to the accessibility of this movie. Guillermo del Toro certainly has proven himself as a master of the fanciful. He showed this sense of dark whimsy in Pan's Labyrinth, and again in Hellboy II.

The movie is centered on an ancient war between humans and elves. Centuries ago a peace had been reached, and this truce hung in a delicate balance for all that time. Jump forward to present day, where Elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) has grown tired of being relegated to the shadows of the world. He wants to gain access to a mythical and indestructible Golden Army. The only thing standing between him and control is his twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton) and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. For those that didn't see the first one (which is not required to understand this movie) the Bureau consists of our hero, Hellboy (Rom Perlman), Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, and voiced by David Hyde Pierce), and is led by the bureaucratic and perpetually unhappy Tom Manning (Jeffery Tambor). As well as a slew of unimportant Men in Black. These forces now must face off, as usual, to save humanity.

The strongest part of this movie is the art direction. The creature design is nothing short of spectacular. This is demonstrated perfectly in the design of Wink, a monstrous troll, and the ravenous "tooth fairies" towards the beginning. Even the most annoying character, Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth McFarlane), the ethereal gas housed in a fish bowl domed body was interestingly designed. The character, a proponent of protocol, was brought in to reign in Hellboy's renegade nature. The Krauss character in general was simply cringe worthy. Hellboy and Abe Sapien, naturally, were very well designed. The hours they must have spent in makeup each day were well worth it.

Hellboy takes a more sarcastic approach to superheros. This smartass attitude was touched on in Iron Man, but is perfectly embodied in this franchise. Hellboy is the hero with an "I don't care what happens" outlook. He'll do what he wants, let his anger get the better of him, and let his love for Liz cloud his judgement. The movie touches on the themes of the public turning on the hero. Because of his disregard for property, he's not the most popular. This is important, because it adds depth to an otherwise mono-dimensional character.

The best scenes in the movie were actually towards the beginning. We get a telling of the history of the war between Elves and humans. This sequence is completely animated, and the characters are represented by what appear to be wooden puppets. This part, along with most of the movie, is just visually stunning. The plot is fairly paint by numbers, but it really is a visual work of art.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

This movie is pretty much exactly what I expected it to be. It's an action filled, special effects extravaganza that's short on everything else. Unfortunately, it wasn't playing in 3D at my theater, so I didn't have the opportunity of spending an extra five dollars for that experience. So maybe I didn't get the whole brevity of the movie, but I find this unlikely.

It's difficult to really attack the story. Obviously it's based on Jules Verne's classic novel of the same name- perhaps one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. The problem with this one is the drastic character change. In the book, the professor is an intelligent academic. In the movie, he's Brendan Fraser. In the book, his nephew is in his 20's, and able to hold his own, not very fitting for the 15 year old Josh Hutcherson. And finally, the book employs a rugged Icelandic sherpa, instead of the young Anita Briem. I guess that was an attempt to bring the story to a younger audience. But instead I feel that none of these characters could really handle themselves in this situation.

I'm always dubious about when a movie is directed for 3D stereoscopic projection. It tends to influence illogical shot construction, and an excessive amount of things coming straight at the camera. Flashlights, dinosaurs, and slime are all a part of this. So when you watch it not in a 3D theater, it just looks kind of dumb. As far as the effects themselves go, they're fine. The story is inherently whimsical, so glowing birds, giant dinosaurs, and rather stylish magma despite being over the top, doesn't seem all that out of place.

Some of my favorite moments are still there, even if they don't follow the book very closely. The vast underground ocean fulfilled its thrillingly obligatory scenes, and there was an interesting sequence with Hutcherson leaping across floating rocks, baring a strange resemblance to video game jumping puzzles. I imagine that will play prominently in whatever video game tie in they come out with.

There were a few fun moments, but on a whole, they movie was just dull. When something is made for 3D, that influences the directing choices a bit too much. I really hope this isn't going to be a trend, because it makes for a weaker movie. I'm sure audiences won't be drawn in by these gimmicks. Unfortunately, however, I think people will continue to be drawn in by Brendan Fraser.


Sunday, July 6, 2008


These are genuine animated movies done by a Brazilian production company. If you ever wondered what Pixar and Dreamworks movies would look like if they were really really bad, here you go.

Sorry about the Spanish on this one. I couldn't find an English version that would let me embed it. It's called Little Panda Fighter and is about a Panda that fights, but really wants to dance ballet.

And unfortunately I could not embed these, but here are the links to a few more.

Tiny Robots

Little Cars

Saturday, July 5, 2008


This movie is just a mess. There's no doubt about its success, however. It knocked WALL*E out of the #1 spot, but we'll just have to wait and see if it has any longevity- I have my doubts. The movie starts out strong enough, with typical Will Smith attitude, and Jason Bateman awkwardness. But the last act completely throws everything before it out, and completely ruins the movie.

As the very well constructed trailers show, Will Smith plays Hancock, a superhero hero without much hero. He's a drunken hobo who inflicts his own brand of vigilant justice. It's essentially his Bad Boys (the loose cannon Mike Lowry) character with super powers. He usually does more damage than he prevents. As a result, public opinion of him is not the most favorable. He ends up saving Ray Embrey's (Jason Bateman) life. Embrey, a PR consultant decides to help Hancock turn his image around. This involves repaying his debt to society (at least until the police realize they need him) and sporting some superhero digs.

The first half is actually fairly entertaining. Smith oozes the attitude that's become synonymous with his roles. And Bateman exudes his charming good guy awkwardness. The two of them form a great chemistry, resulting in some very entertaining scenes. Unfortunately, the movie takes a darker and more serious tone. Without giving away too much, this involves Ray's wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and the random arrival of a super villain. Some of this was included to show Hancock's detailed history. But really all this accomplished was ruining what could have been a simply a fun, exciting movie.

Director Peter Berg has developed a distinctive hand-held look. This worked well in the war movie The Kingdom, but here it just got rather annoying. In the more action packed scenes, (especially towards the end) I think every shot included either a whip pan or a drastic zoom. Half of the time during the climax, I had no idea what was even happening. As the movie became more serious, the camera work seemed to get more erratic.

I was skeptical of this movie going into it. The first half of the movie managed to win me over to its side, and I was enjoying myself. This new found trust was betrayed by the time the final act rolled around. It tried to take itself too seriously and explain too much. The movie would have been good if not for this fact. In the end this ruined everything the movie had going for it.


Just to give an idea of what I'm saying: After re-watching the trailer, I could only pick out one split-second clip that was not in the first hour or so of the movie. This should give a clear indication of the problems the plague the second half.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


If you've read my previous reviews, you'll know that I really like both Night Watch and Day Watch by Russian director Timur Bekmambetov. Wanted is his debut American movie. He tries to maintain his unique style with this movie, but it doesn't quite work as well with the slightly more realistic plot.

Wanted essentially follows Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) as he is recruited by an organization of assassins known as "The Fraternity." The group is led by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and Gibson's mentor is Fox (Angelina Jolie). The clan take on missions of assassination assigned to them by a loom. Yes, a loom. What's more- a loom of fate. This really is as dumb as it sounds. Bekmambetov is no stranger to this brand of idea, however. In Day Watch the coveted artifact was The Chalk of Destiny. The difference between those movies and Wanted is that those were based in a sort of underground mythology. This movie is supposed to be based in reality, but these pivotal absurdities make it rather unbelievable.

His directing is slick as always. Tracking bullets from across a city, spectacular car chases, and an obnoxiously overdone train crash. These types of epic scenes worked perfectly in harmony with his Russian movies, and here they looked great- but unfortunately they didn't save this movie. It's difficult to put my finger on why this movie didn't work as well. I think it's trying to transplant the very uniquely Russian feel to a very American movie. This was not a necessary cast at all. The acting took a back seat to the camera work and action. Having big names in the leads only functioned to be a distraction. It's more difficult to see Angelina Jolie in this gritty yet hip underworld than an unknown actress.

Thematically the movie was decent. Gibson is pulled from his depressing humdrum life into this world of violence and intrigue. It was amusing that his assassin skills had been been diagnosed as panic attacks in his normal life. He had to break out of his cubicle job to accomplish what he was really meant for (kind of like a lesser Neo from The Matrix). And there are a fair amount a twists towards the end. Unfortunately these all turned out to be pretty underwhelming. It's not a terrible, and looked pretty good. It's a shame this great director had to resort to pandering to a Hollywood movie. Hopefully the sequel to Day Watch will be coming soon, and hopefully it will recapture that Russian spirit that made the first two so good.