Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater


The Adventures of Tintin (PG)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell
December 2011

Upon discovering a clue inside a model ship in a bottle, young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell), Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and sidekick dog Snowy set out on a globetrotting journey to find a sunken ship named the Unicorn; one of Haddock’s ancestors was skipper of the boat. Of course, the adventurers have no interest in the actual ship…only the treasure contained inside its decomposing hull. As usually happens when treasure is involved, opposing forces are soon drawn to the search and here the villain is nefarious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). The race is on, but which group will be the first to find the Unicorn and lay claim to its bountiful riches?

Based on the series of comic books written and drawn by Belgium artist Herge in the 30s and 40s,
The Adventures of Tintin is the new CGI/motion capture extravaganza envisioned and produced by two of cinema’s finest action/adventure directors: Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park). In various interviews, both auteurs have expressed their immense affection for the source material. That profound reverence is abundantly evident in the loving detail lavished upon every frame of the film. Adapted from three Tintin stories, The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944), The Adventures of Tintin is the perfect marriage of the Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones franchises.

The opening credits sequence, which features a traditional animation aesthetic with an infectious jazz score by the inestimable John Williams, is an amusing and stylish montage of action vignettes that sets the tone for the film. The snappy opening recalls similar sequences in the
Pink Panther movies, Casino Royale (2006) and Catch Me If You Can (2002), which was also scored by Williams.

When the film begins, the cutting-edge alchemy of mocap and startlingly photorealistic CGI backgrounds overwhelms the eyes with its mesmerizing brilliance. Indeed, it takes a moment for the brain to adjust to the fact that what you’re seeing isn’t real but, as Miracle Max from
The Princess Bride (1987) would say, only “mostly” real. Or maybe we should use the word partially real to describe how staggeringly real-to-life the mocap images appear in the film, courtesy of Jackson’s team of FX wizards at Weta Digital.

One of the issues Pixar ran into while producing
The Incredibles was that the CG humans were so lifelike that test audiences reacted negatively toward the pixilated people. Apparently there’s such a thing as designing CG characters that look too real. Pixar’s solution was to redesign their character templates with less detail while adopting facial features more in step with traditionally hand drawn cartoon characters. Judging from the film’s runaway success, it seems that Pixar made the right call.

That said, if there’s a tolerable range for how realistic CG characters can appear (without producing mental revulsion),
Tintin definitely pushes the boundaries with its startlingly photorealistic people, places and things. Though some of the movie’s characters look more cartoony than others, detective duo Thomson (Nick Frost) and Thompson (Simon Pegg) for instance, others, like the eponymous character, are astoundingly realistic in appearance—especially around the eyes. Tintin’s trusty companion, a scrappy dog named Snowy, is rendered in CG but has more of a traditional 2D appearance, with matted fur rather than the poofy pelt boasted by Sully in the Monsters Inc. films.

While the
Lord of the Rings trilogy cracked open the door for motion capture performances, Avatar (2009) kicked the door down with its breathtaking blend of mocap and CGI. The mocap employed here is the next iteration of the process and it only seems fitting that Jackson would return to his go-to guy for one of this film’s mocap characters. Having already brought Gollum and King Kong to life, the brilliant Andy Serkis was the perfect (only?) choice to play Captain Haddock. Serkis turns the boozy bearded one into a fully realized character, filled with fears and foibles. It’s doubtful that anyone else could’ve pulled off the character quite the way Serkis does. Jamie Bell, likewise, wholly inhabits the title role and imbues the character with a degree of exuberance and wide-eyed wonder befitting the young adventurer…such emotions are perfectly conveyed by Bell’s facials, body language and movements. Tintin’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge in pursuit of a good story is infections and makes Bell’s captivating performance a joy to watch.

As for the movie’s action, and there’s plenty of it, there can be no doubt as to Spielberg’s involvement with the storyboards as his signature is evident in each frame of the movie’s many action scenes. Few would argue that the makeshift zip-line course in Morocco is the finest action scene in the film. The sequence is an exhilarating series of close shaves and gravity defying stunts which is immersive to the degree that you feel like you’re on a roller coaster ride. Although a completely different setting and scenario, this sequence is reminiscent of the frenetic, high-throttle mining cart pursuit in
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). What I like most about the sequence is that it actually allows your eyes to adjust to each movement or course correction, unlike the majority of action films these days which use a blurry handheld camera in capturing chase/fight scenes. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for bringing back the sheer visceral elation of a well choreographed, judiciously filmed action sequence.

Tintin is a rollicking, rousing good time with memorable characters, dazzling action sequences, stellar direction and a bracing mystery all rolled into an intensely fun and frenetic action/adventure yarn told with classic Hollywood flair. When Jackson and Spielberg first met to discuss bringing Tintin to the big screen, they agreed to do two movies and that they would each direct one of the films. Looks like it’s Jackson’s turn to step up to the wicket. We’ll see if he brings a darker sensibility to the sequel: Tintin and the Marauders of Mordor.

Rating: 3

J. Edgar (R)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
November 2011

What everyone will be talking about after seeing the Clint Eastwood helmed biopic,
J. Edgar, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the title character…and why shouldn’t they? It’s a career defining turn by the actor who once stood on the bow of a ship and yelled “I’m the king of the world!” If he keeps turning in performances like this one, DiCaprio may someday own that very title.

A fascinating character study of the former FBI director during the 40s and 50s,
J. Edgar is psychologically complex despite the character’s single-minded furor to rid our country of any trace of Communism. The central thesis of the film, as is conveyed in an opening narration by DiCaprio portraying a doting J. Edgar Hoover, is that “even great men can be corrupted.” J. Edgar spent his entire life and career ferreting out communists and other nefarious agents with an unholy zeal.

The bitter irony here is that J. Edgar himself was corrupted, not by the system, but by his own hubris and egomania. J. Edgar’s bloated view of himself is powerfully exposed near the end of the film by his good friend and assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The essence of Tolson’s scathing comments, if they are to be believed, rewrites some of the major events of the film effectively excluding J. Edgar from many of the story’s main events, which, of course, would make for a brief and dull movie.

Tolson gives his friend a reality check when recounting arrests that were made not by J. Edgar, as he claimed, but by other agents. Tolson’s frank assessment of his friend’s consistent self-aggrandizement stuns J. Edgar at first, but the moment of mental sobriety is short-lived and the FBI director is back to ridding the world of perceived evils. There’s something poignant here about how we see ourselves versus how others see us.

As portrayed in the film, J. Edgar was a grade-A narcissist who was in love with himself and his work, to the exclusion of anyone else. J. Edgar had mommy issues (his mother is played by the inimitable Maggie Smith) and eschewed heterosexual (Naomi Watts) and homosexual (Hammer) offers for companionship. There’s something to be said for the ardent adherence to an ideal, especially one that ensures domestic tranquility, but all extremes are dysfunctional and J. Edgar’s rigidity of behavior and thought alienated even the few people in his life who actually cared about him. Though addled by a different form of psychosis, J. Edgar was just as mentally ill as John Nash was in
A Beautiful Mind (2001).

None of these broad stroke characterizations take anything away from the intricate nuance of DiCaprio’s performance and one wonders how much instruction the actor received from Eastwood, who is notorious for getting what he wants in the first take. It seems to me, and this is just a guess, that Eastwood was more hands-off than micromanaging with respect to the film’s performances. As an actor himself, Eastwood is an actor’s director, so it stands to reason that he would just roll the camera and trust his talent to deliver fine performances—which they do to a superlative degree here.

Eastwood’s direction might feel a little labored at times, but his method is actually an unqualified work of genius. Most of the shots, with a few notable exceptions, are done in the style of a classical Hollywood film. As such, Eastwood mirrors the filming techniques employed in the period he’s portraying—clever. Though difficult to defend, it’s also my belief that Eastwood’s conservative direction is the perfect parallel for the conservative politics displayed in the film. In a sense, Eastwood, whose career has been marked by decidedly conservative narratives or sentiments, was the perfect choice to helm this Oscar bait biographical period piece about such a fiercely conservative political figure from the not-too-distant past.

Though the production values are superb across the board, we hardly even notice the sets due to DiCaprio’s scenery-chewing performance. Indeed, there are moments when the actor so inhabits the character that we no longer see DiCaprio—only J. Edgar. This is especially true of his scenes as the older J. Edgar where his acting is genuinely convincing despite that fact that he’s buried under latex and make-up. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the make-up or performance by Hammer as Tolson. We often get the sense that Hammer is “playing” an old person rather than simply being an old person. In many instances that noticeable disparity pulls us out of the reality of the film. Granted, Hammer’s make-up isn’t as good as DiCaprio’s, but he’s decisively overmatched by DiCaprio and one wonders if a different casting choice would’ve served the story better.

J. Edgar might be a name frequently bandied about come awards season. Although a nod for Eastwood’s directing is uncertain at this time, DiCaprio seems to be a strong contender for Best Actor and might just walk away with the golden statuette. It’s anyone’s guess if the film will win Best Picture, but one thing’s for sure, come February, J. Edgar will be well acquainted with Oscar.

Rating: 3

In Time (PG-13)

Directed by: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Justin Timberlake
October 2011

In Time, the trippy techno-thriller from director Andrew Niccol, features futuristic twists on ripped-from-headlines issues like the global recession and the evaporation of the middle class. The film features an intriguing “what if” scenario which taps into universal anxieties, such as growing old and living in the moment amid increasing socio-economic uncertainties. Oh, and don’t look now, but Justin Timberlake is the male lead. Yep, you heard right…Timberlake has earned leading man cred, but should he abandon his day job…er other job, just yet?

In a World…: Where time is the currency, many must die so that a few might have immortality. But we weren’t meant to live forever, as Amanda Seyfried’s affluent Sylvia Weis asserts in a tone so earnest that we almost miss the line’s stilted edge. The movie’s premise, which feels like yet another Philip K. Dick adaptation, is harrowingly cautionary yet easily digestible…we learn the rules of the game quickly. Unfortunately, the metaphor of time as currency looses its novelty after the first hour, just about the time meaningful dialogue or character moments are replaced by shootouts and car chases.

An Investment in Time: Let’s face it, movies are an investment in time (and let’s not forget money…as if we could with today’s exorbitant ticket costs). For poor films we often hear people say “I wish I could get those two hours of my life back.” While the employment of such a line is oh so tempting for a film like In Time, I honestly don’t feel like it would be a fair assessment of the film’s high concept premise, however heavy-handed and unwieldy it becomes by the end.

Borrowed Plots: In the film’s mildly-dystopian future, individuals running out of time must beg, borrow or steal time in order to survive. In a similar practice, Niccol (who serves as writer and director) has liberally lifted story elements from other literary or cinematic sources. Aside from time bandits being called minutemen, the most obvious antecedent here is Aldous Huxley’s eerily prescient 1932 novel Brave New World. In Huxley’s near-future society, individuals are assigned to castes based on genetically engineered abilities or proclivities. Here, the class system is purely based on time: those who have it and those who don’t, those who use it wisely and those who waste it. The movie depicts time zones, which clearly demarcate those who have very little time left in their life, those who have an adequate amount of time left and those who are “time rich.” Another literary touchstone is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862). Cillian Murphy plays a futuristic cop (dubbed “time keeper”) hell-bent on apprehending the movie’s stars and exhibits more than just a few of the characteristics inherent in the intractable Inspector Javert. As heavily pursued fugitives, Seyfried and Timberlake are a type of Bonnie and Clyde, but these two actors are a far cry from the superlative Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who played Bonnie and Clyde in the landmark 1967 film of the same name. A more obscure source of inspiration for the film can be traced to Nickelback’s 2007 music video for their song “Savin’ Me.” In the video, the balance of a person’s lifespan appears overhead and the main character in the video saves people from falling pianos, etc. He knows a person’s life is about to expire when he sees that their life counter is nearly depleted. A virtually identical system is employed in this film as characters can glance at the inside of their forearm to get an up-to-the-second balance of their life account.

Stepford Society: Early in the film we learn that the near-future humans are genetically engineered to stop aging at twenty-five. Most people would view that arrangement as ideal and highly desirable. On the downside, however, such altered individuals only live to age twenty-six. This plot element is obviously another thinly veiled attempt at making social commentary; this time the eternal quest to look and stay young is called into question. I suppose Botox and nip/tuck will eventually give way to genetic alterations on a grand scale, but why do members of the film’s futuristic society die at twenty-six (barring a risky venture to obtain more time)? Could it be that the plot needed an artificial deadline in order to produce urgency…especially when characters see the last few precious seconds of their life ticking away? And who says twenty-five is the ideal age? Isn’t that a bit, well…ageist? Ultimately, a world where Olivia Wilde is your mother and Amanda Seyfried is your girlfriend may seem perfect, at least on the surface, but isn’t it just a little creepy—much like the enhanced women in The Stepford Wives (1975, 2004), which serves as yet another filmic precursor to this movie?

The Need to Fix Things: In TVs Lost, Dr. Jack Shepherd (Matthew Fox) has the co-dependent compulsion to fix everyone and everything around him. Screenwriters, especially those who write sci-fi films it seems, have the same need to reconcile societal dysfunctions or imbalances by movie’s end. A recent example of this is Bruce Willis’ Surrogates (2009), which features a society where humans live out their lives through android surrogates (again, it’s a cosmetically perfect society since androids never age). The moral dilemma of whether or not to preserve such a perfect, yet shallow, culture falls to Willis, who makes the fateful choice to reset society to its original, flawed status. Here, the inference is that the two leads have determined to change the corrupted system when they resolutely march up the steps of a government building in the movie’s final scene (as if changing nationwide policies could be that simple.) The movie seems to imply that a coup will set everything right…a frightening notion for our current society, despite its pervasive governmental corruption and economic turmoil. So why do writers/producers feel the need to resolve these cautionary tales with touchy-feely endings? Do they think it will result in more butts in seats? Didn’t work out too well for Surrogates, did it? I assure you, a film can be just as compelling by depicting some dark dystopia, plopping some characters into the middle of the mess and allowing them wrestle with the exigencies of life in such a disparate landscape…and then leave them there. Ridley Scott did it successfully in a little film called Blade Runner (1982). Seems to me it’s been pretty well-received over the years. Note to Hollywood: “You don’t have to fix everything.”

Tough thought-provoking, the movie’s extended metaphor is overdetermined, especially in the opulent time zone (do the “time rich” dole out their precious time to “time poor” charities?). The movie comes close to making poignant commentary, like the dangers of wasting time for example, but the message fails to penetrate the barrier of contrived story devices and heavy-handed homilies on societal ills. When the premise starts to wear thin, Niccol defaults to a series of action sequences to move the film toward its inevitable, predictable conclusion, since he really has nothing else to fall back on.
In Time is a big disappointment because it had something to say but got in its own way. It’s a shame, but in the end the movie prevented itself from having any lasting impact. Only you can determine whether or not the film is worth your time, but for my money it’s only worth about two dollars of yours.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Big Year (PG)

Directed by: David Frankel
Starring: Owen Wilson
October 2011

The comedic dream team of Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin star in an offbeat dramedy that manages to be all about birds without being for the birds.

Filmic Antecedent: Twister (1996) gave us a glimpse into the lives of extreme hobbyists known as storm chasers (there’s even a reality TV series based on this thrill seeking subculture). While the enthusiasts in The Big Year don’t face the same kinds of imminent dangers while engaging in their hobby, their furor, devotion and blatant disregard for anyone who doesn’t share the same passion is just as intense as those tornado tailgaters in Twister. The fanatics in this film are called “birders,” not bird watchers, which anyone can be by looking out their window. Birders travel far and wide to find rare and exotic birds and some can identify a bird by its chirp or warble (others can even approximate such sounds with their vocal cords and throat…weird).

Martin is Masterful: This isn’t the first time Steve Martin has teamed up with two other film funny-men (Chevy Chase and Martin Short in 1986’s ¡Three Amigos!, for instance), but his compadres in this film (Wilson and Black) are significantly younger than him. Even though Black’s character narrates the movie and Wilson serves as a pseudo-antagonist, it’s Martin who emotionally anchors the film. We feel pathos for Martin’s character when he tosses his cookies on a boat or when he misses a plane that costs him a trip to Attu, Alaska—a hotspot for birding in May. We can’t help but chuckle when Martin initiates his patented victory jig. But most of all, we can only try to fight back tears when Martin whispers his first words to his newborn grandson. It’s moments like this that ground the movie and prevent it from degenerating into an off-kilter buddy movie centered on a fringe pastime.

Winners and Losers: Of course, Wilson and Black aren’t chopped liver. Black is charming as the unlucky-at-love everyman with daddy issues and Wilson is the most disarmingly likable antagonist to come along in recent film history. One of the prevalent themes in the film is sacrifice—what are these characters willing to give up in the pursuit of their goals/hobbies/dreams? By the end of the movie, each of the main characters looses in one area of his life but also wins in another; such tradeoffs are an accurate depiction of real life. It’s a credit to Howard Franklin’s screen adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s book that the resolution holds some surprises for the viewer: who wins and who looses what might not be exactly what you’d expect.

Semiotics Playground: Part of the enjoyment in watching buddy films, especially if some type of journey is involved, is tracking the progress of the characters throughout the course of the film. Here, checkpoints of different stages of the characters’ “big year” are demarcated with a variety of graphics and other visual cues. In film studies, semiotics is a theory that deals with signs and symbols in movies. In many instances a film’s deeper meaning can be gleaned from its patterns/textures, lighting/shading, camera position/angle/movement and, indeed, physical signs. Here, geographical maps of various stops on their journey are superimposed over live action shots of the characters, a la the Indiana Jones series. A similar effect shows handwritten text over the Alaskan countryside, designating the exact spot where a particular bird has been spotted. Text markers appear at random intervals in the movie and represent specific locations or points in time. Most visually innovative is the film’s use of overhead counters to indicate the current number of birds each character has spotted—the graphic is especially effective when all three characters spot the same bird at the same time.

In the final analysis, those expecting to see these A-list comedians in an all-out goof fest are sure to be disappointed with
The Big Year, which breaks down at roughly 90% drama and 10% comedy. Still, this is one of the most original movies to have come along in quite some time, and so much the better since it offers an educational component to its often single-minded, straightforward narrative. The film definitely isn’t earth-shattering, but it offers a few humorous and touching moments that make it a worthwhile entertainment. Sometimes it’s just nice to see something fresh, however unusual. The Big Year is both…highly recommended.

Rating: 3

Moneyball (PG-13)

Directed by: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt
September 2011

So here we have one of the timeliest movies regarding the current state of our society and economy. Oh, and it just happens to be about baseball.
Moneyball chronicles the actual events surrounding a general manager’s brazen decision to eschew the tried-and-true recruiting strategies employed by MLB franchises for over a hundred years in favor of a statistical algorithm developed by an economics graduate from Yale.

Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), indicts his team’s old guard for upholding errant philosophies of recruiting talent—i.e. don’t trade for a player if his girlfriend is ugly because that means he has no confidence. In 2001, the A’s put 39 million dollars worth of talent on the field while the New York Yankees fielded a team worth 114 million. Knowing that his David will never be able to slay the Goliath’s of the league, Beane tells the room of stodgy scouts, “It’s an unfair game…we’ve got to think differently.”

Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and his paradigm shattering notion of buying wins not players. Beane sticks his neck out for Brand and his revolutionary concept, but club manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is resistant to the radical adjustments made to his line up. In the early goings, it appears that Beane will get the axe, but by season’s end something magical happens in the other City by the Bay as statistical probabilities turn into logic-defying reality.

There’s little suspense here for MLB fans who know the results of Beane and Brand’s experiment, but the storytelling is compelling and the performances—across the board—are superb. Also, those normally turned off by “sports” movies just might enjoy
Moneyball because it’s more about characters and convictions than memorializing some legendary game from the past. However, Moneyball isn’t completely devoid of competition as it effectively weaves actual game footage along with reenactments by actors into a seamless tapestry that supports the story rather than dominates it. All of this to say, Moneyball is an engaging “true story” drama that just happens to be about sports.

So what does all of this have to do with the current state of our country? Well, maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t it seem like we can use some of Beane’s and Brand’s open-minded strategizing on Capitol Hill about now? Clearly the old ways, promulgated by old guard politicians (many of whom are, well…old), just don’t work anymore. I’m not suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there can be no doubt that some new ways of thinking are needed in order to get our economy back on track.

Moneyball exposes, in microcosmic form, the kind of myopic and rigid reasoning that’s lead to stagnation and entropy (not to mention apathy) in that colossal franchise called the USA. So I guess it’s true what they say about baseball imitating life. Heck, for many people, baseball is life!

Rating: 3

Drive (R)

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling
September 2011

When I saw the trailer for
Drive, I thought it was going to be another of those high-octane, lowbrow car race/chase movies in the mold of the Fast and Furious franchise. How wrong I was. Although centered on cars, specifically a silver Chevy Impala, Drive is more Shakespearian than Vin Dieselian (that didn’t quite roll like I wanted it to). There are plenty of scenes or elements in the movie that hearken back to earlier cinema staples involving a solitary man driving a car at night, the most obvious antecedent being Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Drive also borrows from a variety of styles/genres, including: films noir (Double Indemnity) and thrillers (Vertigo) in the way it anthropomorphizes the city as an ancillary character in the film with streets and highways representing veins and arteries.

As it turns out, the story more closely resembles a Shakespearian tragedy, particularly
Macbeth, than any other car-centric film. Though not quite approaching the bloodletting witnessed in an R-rated splatter fest like Scarface (1983), the film is exceedingly bloody and sees nearly every main character stabbed or shot by movie’s end. However, the movie never crosses the line of becoming gruesome or gratuitous, and, if anything, is artful in how its characters are dispatched. Again, car movies aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath as art films, but Drive comes close to straddling both sides of the street—it’s the perfect balance between a well made mainstream movie and a stylish indie.

And speaking of art, there are some beautiful shots/sequences in the film—and many of them have absolutely nothing to do with cars. There’s an understated scene, with minimal dialogue, where Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan converse inside their apartment complex and we see the orange-red glow of a sunset bathing the distant skyscrapers seen through the window the couple is standing in front of…the same hue highlights Mulligan’s hair and back in an ethereal outline. As far as production is concerned, the scene is fairly unremarkable, save for the narrow window of opportunity the crew had to work in before the rapidly setting sun disappeared beyond the horizon and the lighting effect was lost. Besides the execution of the shots, what’s being conveyed between the characters—the subtext—is what’s most fascinating about the scene. Indeed, it could be argued that the lovelorn characters realize, on some innate level, that the kind of relationship they yearn for with each other can never be realized and the setting sun signifies the impending cessation of their friendship.

Even though the themes and mode of storytelling are completely different, there’s something about
Drive’s characterizations, pacing and narrative structure that feels similar to a Coen Brothers film, especially Blood Simple (1984). I have no reason to make such a comparison other than my own interpretation of Drive. Although the trappings are divergent in nearly every way, Drive and Blood Simple are examples of thrillers or postmodern films noir. Both movies boast complex characters/relationships, a botched heist and excessive bloodletting.

Another genre quoted from here, although certainly not directly, is the Western. I will stop well short of classifying
Drive as a modern Western, but in addition to bounty hunters and shootouts, Gosling’s character is a laconic, rugged individual who is competent not as a gunslinger but as an expert driver. Additionally, Drive turns Western conventions on their ear when Gosling’s character leaves behind a fortune and the woman that he could’ve settled down with, and drives off not into the proverbial sunset but into a pitch black night. The movie also leaves us with a lingering question: Will Gosling’s character even survive since he was wounded in the final confrontation?

The performances here are, fittingly, just as stellar as the performers. Gosling and Mulligan mesmerize as misfortunate lovers, whose ill-timed and ill-fated romance never has the chance to blossom into the kind of lasting relationship they both need and desire. Just as serendipity brings the couple together, tragedy splits them apart. Oh how fickle fate can be. In addition to the dazzling leads, the movie’s supporting players are equally impressive: Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston and Ron Perlman were all perfectly cast and deliver rich and authentic performances.

Drive is a subtle and engrossing character study and a thinking person’s action film. Some will criticize Drive for not having enough, well…driving in its story or that it needed more action sequences. For me, I just wanted the story to keep going—to learn what would happen next with these characters. Regardless, the movie successfully upholds the old show biz maxim that instructs writers to “always leave them wanting more.” There’s definitely part of me that wants to follow Gosling into that good, dark night to learn the fate of this fascinating lone wolf. Drive on, young Gosling, drive on.

Rating: 3

Contagion (PG-13)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon
September 2011

Contagion is a film that literally has everything going for it and yet somehow ends up being a mild disappointment. The cast is beyond stellar. The old expression “more stars than you can shake a stick at” certainly holds true here…Damon, Paltrow, Winslet, Law, Fishburne, Cotillard, Cranston, Gould, ad infinitum. Director Steven Soderbergh, who’s no stranger to assembling large ensembles (Traffic and the Ocean’s trilogy), cleverly recruited the dazzling array of A-list talent by meting out bite-sized roles that only required, in most cases, a minimal time commitment on the shoot. Such a strategy to lure top-shelf talent is as insidious as…well, a population eradicating virus.

Other than acting and directing, the one area of the film that gets an A+ is the real-world science behind the nature of infectious diseases and the contingency plans or protocols set forth by media, military and other government organizations after an outbreak has occurred. The procedural factor, however, is also detrimental to the film, as some scenes play like a glorified episode of CSI (and, indeed, Fishburne’s presence at the CDC does nothing to discourage this notion), while simultaneously slowing the pacing to that of a courtroom drama.

I would refer to
Contagion as a thinking person’s disaster film, but that description would be grossly inaccurate: the film’s methodical narrative is more educational than sensational and more filling than thrilling. Still, the film isn’t devoid of merit, especially when it comes to the human equation—i.e., how do people react to the species-threatening epidemic? Do they cower in fear or off themselves? Do they cloister themselves from the rest of the world and wait it out until a cure is discovered? Do they go out of their way to help others even if their own safety is jeopardized? Or, as Law’s character does, do they attempt to make a buck off of the tragedy…the capitalism of catastrophe?

As interesting as the various displays of the human condition are, the humanity of the characters themselves is often as cold and sterile as one of the many science labs seen in the movie. Look no further than Damon for an example of how unemotional the humans are in this film. Damon’s best scene is when he insists on seeing his wife (Paltrow) even after the doctors have told him that she’s passed away. We can forgive his numbness during this scene (and, as ironic as it sounds, the sequence isn’t without an element of humor), but Damon only transitions from denial to grieving during the film’s dénouement. Granted, his thoughts have been preoccupied by the crisis, but he shows no remorse over his wife’s death until the waning moments of the film and doesn’t even mention, much less shed a tear over, his departed step-son.

Though the film achieves a praise-worthy degree of technical proficiency, with startlingly realistic direction that delivers a blow-by-blow description of how infections spread, the story, despite its best efforts to endue the audience with feelings of anxiety and panic, is strangely unmoving. Perhaps it’s that we have little to no emotional investment in or identification with any of the characters before they start keeling over…and then we’re on to a different place with different characters. Though the ping-pong plot certainly doesn’t foster character development, Soderbergh’s direction keeps the audience at arm’s length, never inviting viewers into the middle of the action. In short, the story lacks heart.

Contagion’s brilliant final sequence, which tracks the virus from its improbable creation all the way through to its transmission to patient zero, is worth the price of admission. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film didn’t capture the same degree of visual verve and visceral vitality. One thing’s for sure, whether you like Contagion or not, I bet you’ll start washing you hands more frequently after watching the film. Oh, and stop touching your face!

Rating; 2 1/2

The Help (PG-13)

Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Emma Stone
August 2011

Based on the book of the same name by Kathryn Stockett,
The Help tells the tale of a progressive young journalist (Emma Stone) who has the conviction to write about the mistreatment of the black nannies/maids in the Deep South during the 1960s. Of course this decision doesn’t sit well with the bridge club and Stone is soon ostracized by fellow whites for her stance against the inhuman and unethical treatment of black workers at the hands of white employers. Stone is embraced by the black women whose testimonies soon fill the pages of a book she writes on the subject of the hostile and adverse working conditions “the help” is made to endure on a daily basis.

Bryce Dallas Howard is magnificent as the ringleader of the elitist white women and is the perfect foil for the idealistic and seemingly harmless Stone. Although her screen time is limited, Sissy Spacek is delightful as Howard’s not-all-there mother, and some of the most memorable lines and moments revolve around her character. The African American stars are all superb, especially Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as feisty Minny. Certainly not to be forgotten is Allison Janney’s turn as Stone’s well-meaning, matchmaking mother.

Performances aside, the movie’s moral is delivered in a subtle, palatable manner that avoids the kind of sermonizing that often plagues social message films. In that regard, the movie does an excellent job of showing the injustices being perpetrated against the black women instead of just telling us about their plight, which would be far less compelling.

The historical elements—costumes, cars, etc—are authentic to the milieu and lend the “feeling” of being in small town Mississippi in the 60s. The narrative, which certainly isn’t radically different from other stories of its ilk, populates its plot with believable people faced with a variety of realistic challenges. Sometimes these pressure filled situations produce memorable moments, like the “poo pie” scene.
The Help is a superb period piece that presents a slice-of-life story of a dark period in America’s not-too-distant past.

Rating: 3

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13)

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco
August 2011

The seventh movie in the outlandish sci-fi series is more down-to-earth than its forebears, but is more commonplace and less spectacular as a result of its contemporary plot and settings. An origin story of the decades-spanning furry franchise,
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended as a series reboot, much like Batman Begins (2005) was for Christopher Nolan’s modern tales of the Caped Crusader. Although the film flirts with a message, something along the lines of not harming animals or how unethical scientists create monsters, it ends up as an irrelevant tale coupled with uninspired direction and largely unremarkable performances, which leads us to…

Let’s Be Frank About Franco: James Franco is serviceable in the lead role, but takes a back seat in nearly every scene he shares with Caesar, the story’s focal point and top ape. Franco’s performance is understated, which is appropriate to the role, but he doesn’t bring anything special to the part of a scientist with a conscience grappling with an ethical dilemma. As such, Franco’s presence and performance are serviceable, but not necessarily memorable. Let’s be frank, Franco has always been a fairly flat actor who works well in an ensemble but really isn’t leading man material, which this film amply proves.

Lithgow Finds Another Furry Friend: John Lithgow just can’t seem to get away from furry animals in his more fantasy themed films. It’s been an eternity (1987) since Lithgow befriended an amiable Sasquatch in Harry and the Hendersons (he had a little more hair back then too). Here, Lithgow gloms onto Ceasar who becomes a therapeutic presence in the life of his character, an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Lithgow’s performance is finely tuned and subtly executed—his swings of lucidity aren’t nearly as dramatic as many other Alzheimer’s portrayals in film, which is refreshing to see. I guess it should come as no surprise that Lithgow could so successfully pull off such a role, but it is confirmation of what we’ve known about the versatile actor for years…he’s got quite a range (I mean, compare his character here to the one he played for six years on TV in 3rd Rock from the Sun). Lithgow’s greatest contribution to the plot is his sometimes quirky, sometimes profound advice to his screen son, Franco. As a foil and voice of reason, Lithgow’s interactions with Franco help to ground a movie rife with fantastic notions. Lithgow provides a major assist to Franco, whose often uninspiring performance needed plenty of support.

Solid Support: Brian Cox walks a fine line between dictatorial overseer at an animal control center and outright villain. We dislike him because he’s deceptive and, ironically due to his choice of professions, because he doesn’t seem to care one whit about animals. But, at the end of the day, Cox’s character just does his job and goes home—presumably to avoid the wholesale destruction of the last half hour of the movie. Cox is certainly an antagonist in the film, but he fails to measure up to bona fide villain status. David Hewlett (Stargate: Atlantis) delivers a memorable turn as a set upon side character who always ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time—that is, clawed into submission by the movie’s main mammalian. To add insult to injury, Hewlett’s character contracts a virus when infected by a doctor’s bloody sneeze. We’d feel bad for him if he wasn’t such a self-important twit throughout the film. Of course, the key performance (via motion capture) belongs to Andy Serkis as Caesar the ape. Serkis continues to amaze in bringing various CG creatures to life (Gollum in LOTR and the eponymous behemoth in the 2005 version of King Kong) and has unassumingly become the monarch of mocap. The physical demands of the role were considerable and Serkis really sells it, especially the close-ups of Caesar’s face and eyes which reveal and array of emotions that, ironically, serve to humanize the advanced ape.

Plot Holes:
Animal Control—No Dogs or Cats?: One of the movie’s main interiors is a facility dedicated to sheltering simians, to the exclusion of other types of animals or pets. Just how many stray simians are there in the greater San Francisco area? Plus, isn’t this a pretty mundane and drab interior for a big budget, summer blockbuster?

Who Needs the FDA?: The black supervisor, who’s resisted using Franco’s drug the whole movie, fast tracks a new variation of the drug based on Franco’s testimony that it works on his dad. Wouldn’t there need to be a series of trials before attempting to use a drug on a living animal? Is the supervisor really that greedy?

The Second Half is Like the Drug After it Wears Off: Gets Dumber and Dumb…:
Of all of the possible population centers to terrorize in the City by the Bay, why did the apes select the Golden Gate Bridge? Wouldn’t pedestrians on city sidewalks provide better targets than people sitting in their locked cars? Or better still, shouldn’t the apes attack Gen-Sys to exact revenge for the way they’ve been treated? Could it be that the finale locale was selected by the writers since the bridge would make for an immediately identifiable and exciting set piece? If so, how contrived was that decision?

Going Ape on the Golden Gate: Besides its location, just how silly is this climactic action scene? The escaped apes pound and pounce on stalled cars and occasionally attack a person dumb enough to get out of their vehicle or cops riding on horses…‘cause that was a good idea. In King Kong (1933), the mighty ape swats attacking planes from the sky. Here an ape jumps up into a helicopter and brings it to the ground for no good reason other than the fact that it would make for a cool visual. Derivative? You bet! Dumb? It goes without saying.

Not Even a Slap on the Paw?: Even after all the destruction the ape’s caused, Franco still isn’t frightened by Caesar? I would be. What’s more, wouldn’t he chastise Caesar for instigating such a catastrophe? After all, an evolving ape should know better.

If there was any hope that
Planet of the Apes could be resuscitated as a franchise, after Tim Burton’s middling effort in 2001, this latest film in the series has effectively pulled the plug. The movie is just this side of awful, and it’s only the fine performances by Serkis and Lithgow that save the film from becoming an utter laugh-fest. Rupert Wyatt’s direction is uninspired and the entire movie feels cash strapped for an ostensibly big budget blockbuster. Hopefully this lackluster effort will forestall any thoughts of producing a sequel to this prequel…there certainly isn’t anything in this film worth aping.

Rating: 2

Cowboys & Aliens (PG-13)

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig
July 2011

Certainly the most original film of this summer’s panoply of big-budget blockbuster hopefuls, Western/sci-fi mash-up, Cowboys & Aliens, comes like a breath of fresh air amid the stale slate of tentpoles featuring transforming machines, wizards and superheroes. The movie’s holy trinity of director Jon Favreau and megastars Harrison Ford (Han and Indy) and Daniel Craig (Bond), pack this cinematic carbine with tremendous firepower, and boy do they deliver a rip-roaring good time.

As stellar as the two stars are, the supporting cast here is nearly as impressive. Olivia Wilde (TRON: Legacy) plays comely Ella Swenson, the film’s eye candy for teenage boys. Sam Rockwell plays the saloon owner, Keith Carradine is the town sheriff and Clancy Brown is the minister. In a similar role to the one he played in Shanghai Noon (2000), Walton Goggins (Justified) is a high-strung, trigger-happy bandit.

Other than the novelty of aliens in the Old West, there isn’t anything earth-shattering about the story. However, Cowboys & Aliens is a fanciful, farcical romp through familiar territory with a futuristic twist. The movie is a thrill-a-minute entertainment that aims at fun-filled diversion and hits the bull’s-eye.

The movie’s mash-up element might be off-putting to certain attendees—some audience members might find space aliens in their Western to be a little weird, while sci-fi fans will probably be disappointed by the paucity of the extraterrestrial element in the film. In the spirit of fairness (and because we’re in the throes of a global recession) the movie is approximately 80% Western and 20% sci-fi, so plan accordingly.

Based on a 2006 graphic novel of the same name, the movie has plenty of the prototypical conventions found in most Westerns like a solitary, rugged individual (Craig in this instance) descending a lonely hillside into a bullet-riddled town and riding off into the sunset at film’s end. The town ruffian (Paul Dano) gets in trouble with the law, requiring his cattle baron father (Ford) to bail or break him out of jail. An uneasy and unlikely partnership is forged between Craig and Ford when a common enemy threatens the town and their very existence.

But for all of the Western movie conventions utilized in the film, there are a number of unique story elements here as well. For instance, most Westerns are told in a linear fashion.
Cowboys & Aliens, however, employs a series of flashbacks to fill in Craig’s mysterious abduction. The film also turns some Western film tropes on their ear, like who the “us and them” are in the story. The old adage that maintains “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” undergoes an interesting variation in the film where we have cowboys and Indians joining forces against the alien threat. If anything, this scenario certainly breathes new life into a nearly defunct genre.

Further distinguishing
Cowboys & Aliens from traditional Westerns is its postmodern trappings. One of the more exciting scenes in the film is when Craig brings down an alien ship with his alien bracelet—surely a unique tableau in the expansive annals of the Old West. The scene is cathartic on two levels: 1. Good triumphing against evil (a cornerstone of classic Hollywood storytelling, the period when the bulk of Westerns were produced) is always reassuring, and 2. Craig using the alien’s technology against them is an echo of 9-11, but in reverse.

Perhaps the most un-Western element in the movie (other than the presence of aliens, of course) is the Zemeckis-esque flourishes of existentialism. In director Robert Zemeckis’ masterpiece,
Forrest Gump, a languid feather drifts in and out of scenes, adding a unique visual referent as well as a purportedly deeper meaning to the events in the story. In Cowboys & Aliens, the repetitive object (or totem perhaps?) is a hummingbird. It’s not to say that hummingbirds didn’t exist during the Old West period, but they’re not the usual bird you’d associate with a Western—maybe a crow or hawk. Is Favreau tampering with the genre’s well-established iconography? With the presence of aliens in the picture, why not?

So there you have it: cinema’s first high profile Western/sci-fi hybrid with postmodern sensibilities and existential embellishments. While the movie never quite eclipses the lofty expectations placed upon it by the ubiquitous media blitz and fans of either the comic book or the movie’s A-list headliners,
Cowboys & Aliens is still a wildly entertaining adventure, a quality romp that gives “popcorn movie” a good name. If nothing else, it’s just great to see Ford back in the saddle again.

Rating: 3

Sarah's Key (PG-13)

Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas
July 2011

Sarah’s Key begins as a holocaust film and quickly transforms into a decades-spanning missing person mystery. On the face of it, such a radical thematic shift would threaten to produce an uneven film and run the risk of frustrating or confusing the audience. However, Sarah’s Key is executed with such precision, and such a streamlined through line, that tonal variations merely serve as variegated patterns against which the bracing drama unfolds.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays a contemporary journalist who’s writing an article about the heinous events that took place in France on July 16, 1942—Jews living in France were ripped from their homes and shipped off to internment camps. A narrative device, employed with near-clockwork precision in the film, is the cutting back and forth between present and past, which gradually brings both timelines to meaningful intersections and resolutions. Part of the thrill of this story structure is that the audience learns clues right alongside Thomas as she continues peeling back the layers to learn the secret of one detained French family, and their courageous daughter…the eponymous ingénue.

The early stages of the film, particularly the unsanitary living conditions the Jews were forced to endure while being held captive inside a stadium, are a bit rough to watch. Still, the most graphic scene here doesn’t even come close to the horrific tableaus displayed in
Schindler’s List. Even though what is suggested in the scenes is generally worse than what is actually shown, those with weaker stomachs are advised to take caution.

The mystery surrounding Sarah’s key is revealed about midway through the film and the balance of the story deals with the ramifications of Sarah’s fateful decision. Though the movie is a bit leisurely at times, the frequent trips to the past keep the story moving along, never allowing us to loose interest. However, the scenes involving Thomas’ personal life,
a la her foundering marriage, serve as a detraction and distraction from the main purpose of the story and feel a bit like the earnest character moments frequently featured in Lifetime movies. The modern story here isn’t nearly as compelling as past events, a narrative condition that also plagued Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia.

Thomas certainly can’t be faulted for the movie’s soap opera moments; she makes the most out of what she’s given. In addition to her sumptuously understated performance, Thomas deftly delivers English and French dialog in a challenging bilingual role. Appearing only in the last quarter of the film is Aidan Quinn, whose character helps Thomas assemble the puzzle of Sarah’s life. Though his screen time is limited, Quinn, like a good anchor man, really brings it home with a finely attenuated performance, fraught with nuance and genuine emotion.

Even though American audiences may only be familiar with Thomas and Quinn, the rest of the cast is rounded out by some terrific French actors. As such, roughly half the movie features French speaking with English subtitles, so fair warning for those with an aversion to foreign films. However, it’s my sincere hope that subtitles won’t dissuade potential viewers from watching this superbly crafted, acted and scripted film, which makes salient observations on the finer and baser aspects of the human condition.

Sarah’s Key illustrates how the best of intentions can have dire outcomes when waylaid by evil designs. Though frequently bittersweet, Sarah’s Key is a deeply moving film rife with profound sadness and shame over the atrocities committed against scores of innocent people. But, as the film implies more than preaches, hope can arise from the ashes of tragedy and provide a better life for future generations, so long as we never forget the lessons of the past. After all, as the film dramatically illustrates, “We’re all a product of our history.”

Rating: 3

Captain America: The First Avenger (PG-13)

Directed by: Joe Johnston
Starring: Chris Evans
July 2011

The nationalistic hero receives big budget, big screen treatment, starring Chris Evans of the
Fantastic Four franchise. But will the red, white and blue superdude fare better than that Marvel-ous quartet?

A Matter of Identification: Traditionally, the stereotypical comic book geek has been characterized as a scrawny, pimple-faced, anti-social teenage boy. The reason why many of those male teens read comic books (beyond the scantily clad superheroines) is the matter of identification—they yearn to possess super-strength, speed, intelligence, etc. In this sense, comic books become a visual panacea for angst-ridden teens (or older men attempting to recapture some semblance of their youth). The form of identification found in comic books, then, is a potent catharsis, especially when the audience is given a front row seat to the hero’s transformation—the pivotal moment of any origin story.

Transformation Comparison: The transformation story structure worked like a charm in Spider-Man (2002) and, for the most part, it works well here too. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and Steve Rogers (Captain America) both experience a dramatic uptick in strength, speed and agility after the transformational event in their origin tales: Parker is bitten by a mutant spider while Rogers undergoes a government experiment. However, while Parker merely sees an increase in bicep size, Rogers emerges from the mechanical cocoon, which is part of a top-secret military initiative to create super soldiers, as a fully fledged beefcake (with his shirt off, of course). Whereas most of the aforementioned teenage males would gladly accept Spidey’s superpowers, I’m confident that all of them would want Rogers’ physique, which makes his transformation all the more resonant for the comic book set.

Oh, What Webs We Weave: Surprise, this section isn’t about Spider-Man! It’s actually a play on words regarding the movie’s villain… Hugo Weaving, he of the Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, is a fine actor and actually doesn’t go too far over the top here as Nazi henchman Johann Schmidt. However, one of the goofier elements of the movie is the Red Skull prosthetic/make-up, which in no way resembles Weaving’s facial structure. I understand that Red Skull had to be in the movie, to appease comic purists, but this is one of those instances where strict adherence to the comic undermines the writers’/producers’ efforts to have us buy into the “reality” of their story. Weaving is a much more convincing villain without the hokey vermillion mask.

The Other Guys: Tommy Lee Jones was the perfect choice to play crusty Col. Chester Phillips, but he brings nothing to his role beyond what you’d expect. Stanley Tucci is memorable as Dr. Abraham Erskine and Hayley Atwell is Rogers’ cute-as-a-button love interest, Peggy Carter. There are plenty of secondary characters in the movie and one of the standout parts is handlebar mustached mercenary, Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan (Neal McDonough). Something about Dugan’s gung-ho demeanor makes for amusing and captivating viewing, much like David Graf’s Sgt. Tackleberry in the Police Academy films. You’ve gotta’ love characters whose sole function in a film is to be a blunt force weapon.

Imitating Art: Before becoming famous as Cdr. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jonathan Frakes impersonated Captain America at a mall for meager pay. Here, Rogers tries rallying the troops on a European tour as Captain America—the mascot, not the superhero. Rogers wants to be on the battlefield, but despite his incredible speed and strength, the military feels he can do more to advance the war effort on stage instead of on the front lines. What’s that old oxymoron…military intelligence? These scenes humanize Rogers to the degree that we almost want to stand up and cheer when Captain America finally takes the European theater by storm, singlehandedly turning the tide of the war. What better way to insure that an audience is sympathetic toward a character than to inject a healthy dose of pathos concerning the hero’s plight?

All in all,
Captain America is a middling comic-to-cinema effort, but you could do far worse…like Evans’ earlier superhero films. Now that the table has been set by Marvel mainstays Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and now Captain America…bring on The Avengers!

Rating: 2 1/2

Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG)

Directed by: Jennifer Yuh
Starring: Jack Black
May 2011

Black is back as panda Po, but does the sequel have the same disarming charm or killer action sequences as the original?

All-Star Cast: Voice talents abound in the Panda sequel. Notable returning characters are: Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mr. Ping (James Hong). New characters include: Shen (Gary Oldman), Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh), Wolf Boss (Danny McBride), Master Ox (Dennis Haysbert), Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Master Rhino (Victor Garber).

Family Matters: The narrated prologue sets up one of the movie’s major plots…the mystery surrounding the fate of Po’s parents. Midway through the film, Po confesses to Tigress his surprise over discovering that his father, a goose, isn’t his “real” father. The hilarity of the scene soon turns to a serious, heart-rending plea to know “Who am I?” Po gradually learns the answer to his question during intermittent flashbacks throughout the movie and during the climactic confrontation with the new villain.

Artful Art: Speaking of the flashback sequences, the use of various animation styles makes for a very effective means of storytelling. The opening sequence, which tells the back story of how peacock Shen turns bad, is a superbly crafted teaser that’s animated in the style of a Chinese shadow puppet show. That style is repeated later in the film, but most of the remaining flashback scenes employ traditional animation and one flashback is rendered in CGI.

Irrational Fears: One of the movie’s plot elements involves the impending demise of kung fu at the hands of a new mystery weapon. We’ve seen this scenario played out many, many times in cinema history, ranging from the emergence of the Gatling gun threatening to put gunfighters out of business in John Wayne’s The War Wagon (1967) to the very same weapon making swords, guns and martial arts obsolete in Shanghai Knights (2003) and putting samurai warriors out of business in The Last Samurai (2003). What makes this fear an irrational one, and therefore a flawed plot device, is that kung fu, as a mode of hand-to-hand combat, serves an entirely different function than that of a weapon of mass destruction. In other words, someone with no fighting skills can wreak havoc by pulling a trigger, but that same person would get his butt kicked by someone trained in physical combat. Therefore, a WMD threatening a form of martial arts is a wholly fallacious premise.

Inner Peace: Po, who tends to be uncoordinated, unfocused and undisciplined, is given a new challenge this outing, finding inner peace amid the swirling maelstrom of random thoughts and nagging questions in his mind. Master Shifu, the series’ version of Yoda or Miyagi, appears just long enough to give Po his assignment but, disappointingly, doesn’t really factor into the story except for a deus ex machina appearance during the climactic melee. Though this theme is a bit force-fed, inner peace ties in nicely with Po’s struggle to learn his true identity and is also critical in Po’s efforts to turn the tide against the advancing evil at movie’s end.

So is the sequel as good as the original? Not quite. The
Panda sequel only possesses half the charm and half the heart as the original. Other than panda protagonist and peacock antagonist, none of the other critters get much character development, if any at all. Oh, and speaking of the villain…a peacock? Really? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to make the one-eyed wolf the villain? Just saying. The action sequences are well-executed, but offer little innovation from the dynamic fight scenes featured in the first film. Still, some things do work well in the sequel, like the humorous “stealth mode” and “dragon costume” sequences, the heart-warming scenes between Po and his adopted father and Po’s refusal to allow his painful past to dictate his present and future. So, will we see Po and co. again in the near future? The movie’s clever coda should leave no doubt.

Rating: 2 1/2

Source Code (PG-13)

Directed by: Duncan Jones
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
April 2011

Too soon on the heels of
Inception (2010) or The Adjustment Bureau (2011)? Perhaps, but director Duncan Jones’ (Moon) Source Code is more derivative of TV series than heady, mind-trip flicks.

Exhibit A: Quantum Leap (1989-1993). Scott Bakula’s Sam Beckett leapt into different people (and the occasional space chimp) on a weekly basis to rectify some past wrong. In order to identify what person he was impersonating, all Sam had to do was look in the mirror—a concept that Source Code exploits early in its narrative.

Exhibit B: Seven Days (1998-2001) a lesser known UPN sci-fi series centered on the exploits of Frank Parker (Jonathan LaPaglia), a Navy captain who is sent back in time seven days (in Source Code it’s a breezy eight minutes) before a major catastrophe in order to avert it. Source Code borrows liberally from the premise and trappings behind Seven Days, right down to the military officer as the central character, a dubious space/time apparatus and multiple jumps backwards and forwards through time.

Exhibit C: 24 (2001-2010) Counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) must thwart terrorist plots designed to cripple or nation in a perpetual race against time. Since Source Code deals with acts of terrorism in metropolitan areas, specifically a bomb on the train, we can also cite 24 as a possible antecedent to Jones’ shifty/trippy yarn.

Jones’ direction is taut, especially his stylistic flourishes to signify time travel and time compressed montages for less significant loops, and the performances are solid across the board (although Gyllenhaal and Monaghan’s foisted romance is a bit saccharine and Jeffrey Wright’s attempts at channeling a techno-babbling scientist are less than stellar). The movie fails to soar due to the myriad contrivances upon which its premise and story are based. Even the concept of learning more clues with each new perspective is reminiscent of Vantage Point (2008), which was heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951).

The conceit of a time traveler stuck in a causality loop has been explored ad nauseam in the sci-fi pantheon and, unfortunately, Source Code adds very few new riffs on the formula. The only innovation here is Jones’ opaque coda, which will leave at least half the audience scratching their heads as they exit the theater (I’m pretty sure I get it, but I’m not one hundred percent sure myself). The plot was satisfactorily concluded about fifteen minutes from the end, so why did the movie overstay its welcome? Jones’ parting shot is counterintuitive in that it risks confusing a significant segment of the audience over a mind-bending “ah-ha” denouement that could’ve just as easily been left on the cutting room floor. If you get the film’s conclusion, good for you; if not, join the club.

You’ve seen it all before, but maybe
Source Code’s fresh faces and unique assemblage of standard plot devices will keep you entertained. I’ve got to admit that I had high hopes for this one, but in the end, Source Code is largely a waste of time.

Rating: 2 1/2

Rango (PG)

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
March 2011

With the creative vision of director Gore Verbinski (
The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and the hard-hitting prose of screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator), you’d expect a stylish, edgy and pulse-pounding adventure for Nickelodeon’s new animated foray into the Old West, Rango. As is the case with many movies these days, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate successfully onscreen. Even though Rango is far from being a bomb it doesn’t exactly hit the target either. It’s diverting without necessarily being inspiring or entertaining.

Everything is going swimmingly for the titular chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), who’s enjoying some RNR in the back of his owner’s car. As fate would have it, Rango’s glass habitat slips though a car window and he soon finds himself alone and lost in the middle of a desert. As a pampered house pet, Rango must now learn how to survive in the wild with very few life skills to draw upon.

This setup is similar to the opening act of Pixar’s
Cars, when hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) wakes up in the middle of the desert and stumbles into sleepy burg, Radiator Springs. Here, Rango ends up in the Wild West town of Dirt, and it just so happens that the citizens are looking for a new sheriff. Hesitant at first, Rango eventually accedes to the demands of the townsfolk when the chance to be a hero becomes too great an enticement to resist.

Rango is a pastiche of many different films, it has a heavy quotation of Chinatown, which becomes blatantly obvious from the midway point on through to movie’s contrived resolution. At the very least, Logan should’ve selected some other element than water to have a shortage of since H2O was such a central commodity in Roman Polanski’s landmark film. In addition to being a Chinatown retread, the movie also features characters from other movies, like the off kilter cameo of a rugged figure called the Spirit of the West (voiced by Timothy Olyphant), a clear-cut analog of Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” from the Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy. The spirit of Eastwood gives the chameleon hero some words of advice while sweeping the desert floor with a metal detector. It’s a strange flourish that one would expect to see in a movie helmed by Depp’s other director friend, Tim Burton.

Despite it’s best efforts at being topical, by tapping into recession fears,
Rango falls short of being relevant due to the story’s pervasive silliness. Still, there are some mildly amusing scenes and a few creative embellishments, like the rattlesnake with a semi-automatic gun in its tail, that make the movie a worthwhile entertainment. The movie’s underlying message, that anyone can be a hero if they try hard enough, is a bit overdetermined, but is heartwarming just the same. After all, don’t we all secretly wish we could be a hero?

Rating: 2 1/2

The Adjustment Bureau (PG-13)

Directed by: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon
March 2011

The Adjustment Bureau presents an intriguing premise: what if agents from a secret organization aggressively enforced the rigid adherence to the master plan set forth for a person’s life? This Matt Damon vehicle is a high concept thriller that successfully synthesizes elements from an action flick and a love story, while also traversing some heady, philosophical terrain.

Novel Fact: Adjustment is the latest in the decades-spanning string of movies based upon Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi stories (Blade Runner, Minority Report, etc).

Genre Blender: Though containing elements of a romance, drama, thriller, action and sci-fi film, Adjustment stubbornly resists genre classification, and represents the best parts of each in its mash-up mélange of narrative flavors.

Pervasive Paranoia: Harking back to the widespread suspicion of men in gray flannel suits (think Gregory Peck) during the early stages of the Cold War, Adjustment keenly displaces onto its gray-suited Bureau agents the current and widespread anxieties over lost freedoms (the Patriot Act) and growing distrust of the system (corporate and political corruption). The more things change…

Chemistry: Damon, by now, is unquestionably a bona fide Hollywood leading man. Blunt has spent her career as a sidekick in supporting roles. On paper, Damon and Blunt seem mismatched. Onscreen, the chemistry between the two actors is debatable and, as such, Blunt’s casting is dubious when considering the wealth of A-tier actresses who could’ve, perhaps should’ve, taken her place. One thing’s for sure, the Damon/Blunt pairing doesn’t hold a Bic lighter to the enduring flame of classic romantic couples like Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn.

Philosophy: The philosophical topic of fate/chance is broached with conspicuous frequency in the film. The story also grapples with the theological debate over predestination vs. free will. The cerebral lectures on fate are less intriguing here than the gut-wrenching ramifications of making the wrong decision when the future is on the line. What if your action, or inaction, holds negative outcomes for your future self (we saw this illustrated ad nauseam in the Back to the Future trilogy)? Even worse, what if your decision creates catastrophic repercussions for someone you love? Could you set aside your love for that person if it meant ensuring his/her well being, which would otherwise be jeopardized? It’s all hypothetical when couched in a two hour entertainment, but it’s still fun to noodle over.

Digging Deeper: The movie contains some breathtaking views of NYC’s skyscrapers, especially the monolithic corporate buildings, which are artfully framed in the downtown scenes. Also, the film makes effective use of expansive rooms (lobbies, libraries, etc), which, by comparison, make its inhabitants appear like a jellyfish in a gigantic ocean. And speaking of oceans, there’s a fascinating connection between this film and Titanic. In Titanic, good things generally happen at the front of the ship, while bad things usually happen at the back of the ship. Here, large rooms (e.g., empty warehouses) are bad and small rooms (e.g., bathrooms) are good. Another point to consider: the one young black man in the Bureau is characterized as open-minded, flexible and a Good Samaritan, while the numerous old Caucasian men are drawn as rigid, unimaginative enforcers of policies even they question at times. What does this say about the ethnic diversity among the leaders of the emerging global economy? Is the movie prefiguring the impending extinction of the old guard of corporate America? Also, why does the movie succumb to the prevalent “boy’s club” mentality? The Bureau consists entirely of men.

Though the movie attempts to tackle some weighty aspects of our existence, are the excessive references to free will a bit overdetermined? If so, is the conclusion too preachy? Is the existential dénouement a cop out (i.e.,
Back to the Future IIIs sage advice from Dr. Brown, “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one…”)? Even though it’s currently in fashion (especially on TV), did we really need Damon’s voiceover narration to help us interpret his character’s thoughts and feelings?

In the final analysis,
Adjustment is a cinematic double-edged sword. Those hoping to see an all-out action, or drama, or romance, or sci-fi film are sure to be disappointed. Still, since it offers something for everyone, Adjustment is sure to reach a wider audience than if it had focused on just one specific genre. Either way, if the film makes people ponder its themes and messages past the exit sign, it will have accomplished it purpose.

Rating: 3