Friday, May 8, 2009

star trek fucking rocks

One of the great geek battles is the whole “Star Trek” versus “Star Wars” debate, and with the eleventh big-screen film from the Gene Roddenberry sci-fi canon, that debate will rage on with fresh vigor. This new Trek, from “Lost” mastermind J.J. Abrams, will totally reboot the beloved franchise and fits in nicely with Hollywood’s incessant need to hit the refresh button on every established franchise and return to the beginning.

From the get-go, “Star Trek” (sans any numbers or subtitles) is loads of fun. It opens with an eye-filling, slam-bang action sequence that establishes the birth of James T. Kirk, whose father, George, sacrifices himself for his family at the hands of malevolent Romulan Captain Nero (Eric Bana).

We then follow the grown-up but still young Kirk (Chris Pine) through his rebellious journey through the Academy, where his unruly nature is self-imposed guise for his true brilliance as an inevitably great leader and Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Along the way, of course, we re-engage with all of the old faces: “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and, eventually, Montgomery “Scotty” Scott (Simon Pegg). We naturally get a virtual “greatest hits” album of their great phrases (I’ll never tire of hearing “Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor!” or “I’m givin’ her all she’s got!”).

But the crux of the story involves Kirk’s testy relationship with Spock (Zachary Quinto), half human, half Vulcan, who is a bit of a rebel himself. We learn more of Spock’s back story and revisit him in another form later on in the story, and seeing Kirk and Spock debate and disagree is one of the more refreshing elements while all of the film’s character relationships – familiar, funny, engaging and somehow new –ground the entertainment.

The actual storyline has so many surprises for fans it’d be a shame to spoil it, suffice to say that it places Spock’s home planet in peril and involves toying with the space-time continuum that works on screen in the moment the less you scrutinize. The cast, from top to bottom, is perfection, successfully making the characters their own without simply resorting to imitation.

“Star Trek” is consistently enjoyable from beginning to end and tells a nicely structured story, but it bears its excellence more for its popcorn credentials than as a complex piece of science fiction. The technical credits – lush colors, photography, visual effects, sound, scoring, costumes, make-up – are all excellent, though director Abrams still overkills with close-up camera work. The storytelling is clever, balancing the classic Trek elements with modern action. There is ample humor, the required number of brainless sequences, a touch of romance and some real suspense, even in sequences that stretch credibility to the nadir.

As an actual story, the film is rounded without being mind-blowing. The film can’t resist, for example, turning the one scene set in a bar to erupt into a fist fight (proving that even in the future, some clichés never die), and a thrilling sequence involving parachuting into a planet’s atmosphere to engage with villains is so well choreographed that you forget how illogical it all seems (after all, had they simply beamed down, where would the fun be?). Another wild scene involving alien creatures chasing Kirk on snowy terrains ends with one of the film’s biggest surprises, regardless of how improbably coincidental it is. And while Nero, as a villain, is never overused or exploited, audiences won’t find out much else about the Romulans other than that they look scary and want to make life a living hell for our heroes.

And yet none of this diminishes the film’s considerable achievements. This is easily the most entertaining pure adventure film in a long time, and refreshingly upbeat in an era where action pictures are becoming increasingly brooding and nihilistic. By the end, we I had a sense of how completely I enjoyed the journey these fresh, familiar faces engaged on and had a sense that their greatest adventure is still waiting. And that’s precisely the idea.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

"Slacker Uprising" review

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Ahh, Michael Moore. I honestly have mixed feelings towards him. On the one hand, nobody can deny what a skilled, professional, inventive documentary filmmaker he is. He is a man of the people, a muckraking journalist who may be worth millions but hasn't lost sight of where he's from or who he is.

He cares about issues, understands them, is unabashedly liberal in his politics and is unafraid to challenge long as that authority remains on the other side of the aisle. Let's face it: Moore has his tactics and like a savvy PR person, he often leaves out details or information that might conflict with his central thesis. (In "Fahrenheit 9/11," for example, he took a letter to the editor and re-printed it for his film to make it look like a headline to a major article).

Overall, though, I think he hits the right notes and makes important points.

His newest film is something of an oddity, a film designed solely for partisan campaign purposes and released online and available for download, streaming, you name it. This is not entirely a bad idea and moves the medium forward in an interesting new way.

"Slacker Uprising" is less documentary and sort of like a concert film, revolving around Moore's ambitious 62-city tour he conducted in 2004 in a failed effort to unseat President Bush.

It's not a great film, and it's easy to see why he put it straight to the web, but it's not at all a failed effort and it ultimately works as a love paean to the youth of America -- the slackers -- who literally have the power to heavily influence and shape current and future elections.

The review, in short: A lot of the footage is interesting, if egotistical (how many standing ovations and cheering audiences do we need to see), there are some poignant star cameos by musicians (Eddie Vedder, Steve Earle and Joan Baez are given full screen time to sing), and there's something fundamentally fascinating about a filmmaker confronting his success and failures. Although Bush won re-election (interestingly, Moore doesn't examine or engage in voter fraud theories regarding the controversial Ohio victory eeked out by Bush) by the slimmest majority of any sitting incumbent president, Moore's attempt worked: 54 of the 62 cities he visited voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, and young people did it.

The film's best scenes revolve around these types of contrast. Aside from the sobering conclusion to Moore's (and others) efforts, there's a lot of good stuff here where people with opposing views are allowed to present their viewpoint. Some of it is rational, well-intentioned (if misguided). Some is pure hatred. The film does a good job of showing Moore's response, but also the various lawsuits filed to stop Moore from speaking and using "illegal tactics" (read: giving people clean underwear and ramen noodles -- literally -- to register for vote).

At times, I wanted more from "Slacker Uprising" as a legitimate documentary. It plays like a lot of cut footage or extras you'd find on a DVD, but that's the point: this is a movie about the young people, and there are some good short stories of young citizens who have lost a loved one or returned from the war, four years ago, and were already fed up with it.

"Slacker Uprising" won't go down as one of the great documentaries, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, moves quickly, is entertaining for most of its length, showcases the young voters of America fairly well, and provides a new way to market movies to the instant download generation. I'd call that progress.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tropic Thunder

It's been a while since I've had time to review anything, mainly because I see far less movies these days.  I'm embarrassed that I've seen basically no independent films all year.  Oh well.

On vacation, I did catch "Tropic Thunder" (*** out of ****), Ben Stiller's frequently hilarious, sharply written Hollywood satire that boasts an especially memorable supporting performance by Robert Downey, Jr.  Despite all the buzz about Heath Ledger's work in "The Dark Knight," I think 2008 will be the year of Downey.  As Roger Ebert put it, he's back, big time.

In "Tropic Thunder," Downey has a plumb supporting role playing the Russell Crowe-ish megastar Kirk Lazarus, a blond Australian actor known for his chameleon-like ability to take on any role; he's even won five Oscars to boot.  Lazarus is one of three actors to star in a Vietnam war epic based on the bestselling real-life memoir of a grizzled war veteran (Nick Nolte), but he does something amazing for his newest film: he dies his skin black to play a real-life African-American.

The other actors are Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the plump actor who's like a mix of John Candy, Chris Farley and Eddie Murphy, and is hot off his latest comedy epic, "The Fatties: Fart 2," a variation on Murphy's "Klumps" characters from those "Nutty Professor" films years ago.  He's also a chronic drug user, constantly searching for his next hit while filming, and Black rarely breaks character.  And finally there's Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), the Tom Cruise-esque Hollywood mega-celeb whose star is fading rapidly.

As the actors group together in the Vietnam jungles to film, their diva antics and method acting becomes unbearable for "auteur" director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) and studio head honcho Les Grossman (Tom Cruise).  Their twist: to throw the actors into a real jungle and tape their antics guerrilla-style, with hidden cameras.  Naturally the plan is a disaster-in-making, as the filmmakers and actors find themselves in a real war.

It's a clever premise and Stiller, in his first co-writing and directorial effort since 2001's "Zoolander," hits more targets than he misses.  There are enough in-jokes to please movie buffs (the fake trailers that precede the film are especially clever) and good portraits of the Hollywood elite, though those targets have been exploited better by films like Robert Altman's "The Player."

Like the best recent satires, the film fearlessly goes for broke.  The satire isn't simply on outsized Hollywood celebrity egos, but also on the types of roles actors play to specifically win Oscars.  In one of the film's most controversial (and funniest) subplots, Stiller's Speedman missed out on an Oscar nod for playing a mentally retarded character in the saccharine drama "Simple Jack."  Downey's Lazarus, always in character throughout, proclaims that you "never go full retard."  (And he's right, too).  Another growing trend is the rapper-turned-actors in Hollywood, and here we have a character named Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who presides over crude commercials for drinks called "Booty Sweat" but is trying to prove his serious side on film.

The best material is often at the sides.  Though Matthew McConaughey never quite clicks as he should as Speedman's Hollywood agent (Jeremy Piven forever owns these roles with his Ari Gold), Cruise totally revitalizes himself with a terrific comic performance.  Draped in unrecognizable make-up, his Les Grossman is a balding, pudgy, unrelentingly profane studio exec probably based on real-life people Cruise has met.  It's comic gold when Cruise is on screen.

As a director, Stiller doesn't cut costs.  The photography, by Oscar winner John Toll, one of the best in the business, is lush and evocative, and the pacing is brisk, despite the conventional, overly formulaic conclusion.  The script is focused throughout, and the actors also wisely play their parts straight, rarely winking to the audience, never fully in on the joke.  The movie has a commentary, of course, about the way actors and filmmakers manufacture their own realities on celluloid, and threatens to grow too serious towards the conclusion, though the nonstop high energy keeps the momentum going even when a few jokes stumble.

And then there's Downey.  It's great there are actors brave enough to give a performance like this.  For years plagued with drug addiction problems and the heart of reckless tabloid fodder, he deserves an Oscar nomination for his comic work here, always carefully managing to avoid crossing the line between satire and offensive racism.  At one point, a character asks him to stop staying in character, to which Downey's Lazarus replies, "I don't drop character until I'm done with the DVD commentary!"  That's the heart of "Tropic Thunder," a satire where actors believe they can connect with the audience -- and the world -- by finding the heart and soul in even the most handicapped of characters, and where their heart and souls ultimately bleed as their cynicism and egos ultimately handicap them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

For Roger Ebert, one show ends and the other must go on

It's hard to describe modern film criticism -- indeed it is impossible -- without mentioning the contributions from Roger Ebert, America's best and most popular film critic. For the past two years, he's also been one of the most courageous. More on that in a minute.

I can remember a full decade ago, with the internet now in full-bloom, discovering Roger's email address. I simply guessed it --- I won't tell you how, because I don't think he wants even more email than he receives, and I myself haven't heard from him in about four or five years, about the same time as he's dealt with and recovered from serious health issues that have, remarkably, not silenced his writing. It was at this time I was a freshman in college, studying film at the University of Washington (as well as journalism), and for years I had loved and really had a talent for writing about film. For years prior, I was a regular viewer of his movie review program with Mr. Siskel.

I wrote an article, short, obit-style, on the death of Akira Kurosawa. No matter that it had a few spelling errors. Ebert liked it, and wrote back to me a simple, one-line response: "Very elegantly phrased. What a great loss." The email was signed "RE." Since then, I sent him so many emails I lost track. I have had a number of submissions for "Questions for the Movie Answer Man" as well as his Glossary (I'm particularly proud of my suspension bridge addition).

Eventually, my nonstop mails would become too much for Ebert. Consider this exchange.

"Paul, I enjoy reading your emails, but you are averaging a question a day, and with my
film festival, I am incredibly busy."

Ouch! But he wasn't kidding: aside from full-time duties reviewing nearly every film, without freelance support, that opened each weekend, Mr. Ebert taught film classes, appeared weekly on TV, ran a film festival, as he said, and had a variety of recurring columns, including his brilliant and generous series of reviews devoted to classic and unsung films he never got a chance to review as a critic. It's quite possible any other newspaper or organization would hire a minimum of three or four people to handle those duties. But not for Roger Ebert. He's the man, the best, and for decades was the only film critic to ever have won a Pulitzer Prize (for his 1974 film criticism).

And despite that exchange above, where he kindly asked me to cool down (I didn't reply, and he was extra quick to reply to future messages), Mr. Ebert was always generous with his wit and scholarly advice on every mail he ever sent to me. I have dozens saved, and they range from telling me how he got started to providing me advice when some of my copy editors at a Seattle daily metro screwed up my byline (I had submitted my full name but they messed it up): "Tell them to correct it!" Mr. Ebert exclaimed. "A reporter's byline is their soul!"

And a movie critic is the soul of the movie-going nation, able to do what is most important, to keep alive the discussion of the arts because without discussion, art can't exist. Ebert and his departed partner Gene Siskel (who died tragically in 1999 the same way, and at the same age, as one of Mr. Siskel's heroes, Francois Truffaut) weren't simply "showbiz film critics" but serious scholars of film, and their efforts helped get little-seen films into the spotlight.

Would "
My Dinner with Andre" or "Hoop Dreams" have become smash successes without their courageous support and devotion? I don't think so.

When Siskel died, I had an email newsletter (I stopped it eventually) and wrote a little obit of Siskel. Ebert wrote back: "Paul, this is a [lovely] piece and I am forwarding it to Gene's family." The outpouring of support wasn't just for aspiring film writers like me, but from the nation, and it really meant something he took the time to write back to me so unexpectedly.

It was a real treat, too, to receive advice and funny notes. This isn't me being egotistical or overly self-important, but a reminder of how generosity can sneak up by surprise, as well as a sobering reminder of where film criticism is going in popular culture. It's a SCARY world for film critics, as so many of them have lost their jobs. When I was able to write a small number of freelance movie reviews for my local daily metro papers and throughout college for my university's paper, it was basically like living a dream. Ebert has been unusually blessed in his career, and few of us will be able to follow his fine example.

The shock of Siskel's death didn't stop Ebert from continuing his movie review show. Briefly retitled "Roger Ebert & the Movies," it would feature a guest series of critics that rotated. Some were memorable; others were not. When Ebert eventually settled on Chicago Sun-Times columnist
Richard Roeper in 2000, the show was retitled "Ebert & Roeper" and it carried on sort of as a lighter-hearted version of what had come before (Ebert and Roeper got along more than Ebert and Siskel appeared to, and at times Ebert could be seen almost trying to entice a small argument or two). It's great fun to watch the old clips on the website, and on YouTube.

I remember congratulating Mr. Ebert on his choice (it was a good one, even though nothing could really overshadow the memories of what had come before for rabid movie fans of the show), and he wrote back a simple thanks, saying that Richard simply "felt right."

In 2006, Mr. Ebert nearly died from complications from surgery related to salivary cancer. He's detailed those painful times in depth, has had a number of reconstructive surgeries that have also lead to major complications and he can no longer speak.

But (and I know this is cliched) his voice has never really dimmed -- he's as prolific as ever. Despite several months of being unable to do his work, he has returned full-force as a writer, handling all of his major duties before with similar grace, wit and panache, and has launched a blog on his website. His writing during this time, I must say, is among the best of his career. As he said in one article some time ago, he hasn't lost his marbles.

It's a good thing, too, as his TV series, now titled "At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper" (where Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune has been a recent permanent replacement for Mr. Ebert), is officially coming to an end with the departure of both Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper. This comes after very public and ongoing feuds Ebert and Roeper have had with the network, which lead to a ban of Ebert's trademark "Thumbs Up" routine.

The reasons are maddeningly familiar --- the typical "new direction" crap and the new hosts leave much to be desired. They include Ben Lyons, who works for the E! station, and whose father, Jeffrey Lyons, is a film critic more geared towards the popular crowd. (It's worth noting that Lyons took over as co-host of "Sneak Previews," the show Ebert and Siskel hosted in the 1980s; one of Lyons' co-hosts was Michael Medved, the conservative author and "cultural crusader" who believes in evaluating most movies on their appeal and accessibility to family audiences).

Will serious film criticism survive on TV? I don't know. We live in an age of sound bytes and dumbed down journalism, but the web opens the doors to so many wonderful possibilities.

Despite his ongoing recovery, I won't count Mr. Ebert out. Who knows what scientific and medical advances we might see. The thumbs may be silenced and his vocal abilities may currently be lost to cancer, but his writing isn't.

It was a strong 33 years of on-air television, and just as one show ends, the other must go on.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (**** out of four stars) is the natural progression from 2005’s Batman Begins into darker territory, but instead of a retread, this continuation takes the Batman character, shakes him and turns him on his head. This is a dark and constantly surprising crime epic that elevates the “comic book movie” to dizzying new heights of grittiness and emotional resonance.

Consider the thrilling opening sequence, a seamless bank heist featuring a group of thugs in clown masks lead by the Joker (Heath Ledger).
We’ve seen many robberies in the movies, but none like this, as the Joker has each thug execute each other in cold blood before stealing a bounty of mafia-controlled loot. It’s typical of the film’s intense tone, quick pacing and technical mastery, but it serves as the impetus for what follows.

What follows is a labyrinthine crime drama that disrupts the moral foundation of its heroes, villains and civilians.
Whereas the previous film primarily focused on how the haunted Bruce Wayne overcomes the tragic slaughter of his parents to emerge as the crime-fighting Batman, this new film throws him (and the audience) head-on into the world he has partially created. Now living in a penthouse in downtown Gotham (a nice touch), Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has fully embraced his alter-ego of the Batman, and not without reason: Batman and the unshakably decent Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) have made real progress cleaning up the city’s criminals. Their alliance becomes all the more effective when it expands to include newly elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (the terrific Aaron Eckhart), the fearless “white knight” of Gotham who, partnered with Assistant DA (and former Wayne fling) Rachel Dawes (the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), focuses on bringing down the mob, now controlled by oily Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts).

The crux of the story examines these three unique men and their very specific approaches to upholding justice and how all of these methods are all scarily exploited by the ruthless, homicidal Joker. The screenplay, by director Nolan and his brother Jonathan, unfolds over the course of a brisk 152 minutes and never sacrifices the little details. Despite its PG-13 rating (due to no nudity, swearing or gore), it’s an often chilling, uncompromising experience. It presents to us flawed heroes nevertheless devoted to justice and a villain who is just the opposite, a man who raises the stakes and threatens the moral foundation of the city and its dwellers, and of course, our three heroes. There’s a lot of scary stuff here, from the darkly comic (the Joker’s ruthless “pencil trick”) to the just plain uncomfortable (the Joker’s varying descriptions of his scarred face).

This is all deftly handled by the film's ace crew of technicians (Wally Pfister’s rich cinematography, Nathan Crowley’s handsome design, Lee Smith’s crisp editing and the expressively moody music by composers Hans Zimmer and James Newtown Howard all deserve particular recognition), but this is a director’s picture if there ever was one. In interviews, Nolan said he chose to disperse the Joker’s appearances in the same manner, in story and technique, as Spielberg did with the shark in Jaws. The similarities are uncanny. Like the shark, Joker is always preceded by ominous, dissonant musical cues, and each appearance grows more threatening, more devastating for our protagonists.

Ledger, who died tragically in January at age 28 from an overdose of prescription medication, gives a performance that’s one for the books, creating one of the screen’s great villains.
With his precise speaking manner, piercing eyes and progressively sloppy, smudgy make-up job that by no means hides the brutal scars on the character's face, the actor is mesmerizing as a man with a horrifying past who has no moral foundation. He creates a battle of wits, not simply weapons, and because his sadism isn’t prejudiced to any particular faction (he targets the bad guys as well as the good guys), Ledger’s scenes work on multiple psychological, dramatic and darkly comic levels. What an acting job.

Brilliant as he is, the rest of the cast absolutely grounds the film.
A particular improvement here is the expanded screen time for pros Gary Oldman, Michael Caine (as loyal butler Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (as Wayne’s scientist and CEO of his family's company), all critical to the storyline. Caine’s Alfred is more than simply a resource of one-liners, but the glue that holds Wayne together and inspires him. Freeman’s character has fun scenes where he helps modify and improve Batman’s costume and toys, and he gracefully handles a moral dilemma near the finale that pays homage to the recent wiretap scandal under the Bush Administration.

It’s also a terrific summer blockbuster, pure and simple, and not without real crowd-pleasing fun in spite of the dark tone. As with Batman Begins, the film gives us a fuller, more believable metropolis than before, one that’s nearly swallowed by a system of corruption that lies at every corner, from thugs on the streets, crooked cops, shady businessmen and the mob.
Unlike variations in the 1990s by directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, this Gotham isn’t simply a visual wonderland, but a functioning, three-dimensional, believable world, an amalgam of our fears, hopes and desires; it’s a character all its own.

Nolan and his crew create action sequences worth writing home about (and filmed in the unique IMAX format, which still translates well on a regular screen). The opening heist is tense and thrilling and a major action sequence involving tank-like cars, semi-trucks and the “Batpod” (Batman’s motorcycle) is expertly choreographed and filmed (Nolan improves upon his work in Batman Begins, where the action was framed exhaustively in close-up). There’s a sharp sequence set in Hong Kong, and the crisp night photography showing Batman flying against the skyscrapers is one of the year’s most memorable images.

Beyond the dazzling stunts and location photography (Chicago makes a nice substitute for Gotham), one of the pleasures of The Dark Knight is the seriousness in which it treats its characters and the gritty realities it grounds the story in.
The characters somehow seem believable and real, and even the most elaborate of stunts and special effects sequences derive from the storytelling, with set-up, execution and pay-off. And the movie doesn’t short-change the moral ambiguities posed by the dilemma of the superhero. Bruce Wayne genuinely believes in what the Batman can stand for and inspire, and Gordon and Dent believe in their methods, too, but each man, at some point, fails to anticipate the consequences of their actions. This unique plot angle makes The Dark Knight not simply a full exploration of good and evil, but elevates the story to high pulp drama.

Like all grand epics, The Dark Knight is not without small flaws.
An early appearance by a past villain has a hokey resolution, and the film’s commentary on the need for heroes and the cycle of violence on society, while powerful, is also a tad presumptuous, as it sometimes asks us to enjoy the villainous antics it seems to decry (a torture of a man on raw video and the burning of another victim, while off camera, are particularly tough to take). Some moments in the finale involving sonar technology are a bit clunky.

But this is still a masterfully crafted and executed film, an emotionally gripping and challenging experience, and it cements Christopher Nolan as one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation. It’s great there are people with the nerve to make movies like this, fearless and uncompromising until the very last frame. By the end, as the Batman has further evolved from where we met him years ago, there's a renewed feeling of discovery and excitement to this series, as we can only eagerly imagine where Nolan's searing vision will take us next.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Summer So Far

This has been a better-than-usual summer for big tentpole blockbusters. I haven't had the time to write in-depth about them, but here's a look back, so far, on what I've enjoyed.

Iron Man was the surprisingly terrific genre piece -- like many this summer, its source material is from a comic book. It caught on not only for its sharp, clear visual style and sure-handed direction from actor Jon Favreau, but for its dymanic cast --- Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard and of course, in one of the performances of his brilliant and varied career, Robert Downey, Jr. As Tony Stark, Downey's character is like the hip, fun version of Bruce Wayne's Batman --- a weapons dealer who lives in Malibu, romances women and winds up one appealing superhero. Terrific work all-around.

Sex and the City, which I saw with my fiance, was also a small surprise. Even at two-and-a-half hours, it managed to revisit its appealing quartet of female characters with reasonable big-screen panache. All four women shine, and I wish more time was spent with the four of them simply hanging around together and talking. The show was the wish-fulfillment fantasy of so many women --- living in the most fabulous New York locations, going to the hottest clubs, meeting the most interesting people --- and seeing the women now well into their 40s was kind of enjoyable.

Kung Fu Panda, with its marvelous design and voice work and straight-foward storytelling, was the real surprise for me. It's not another Shrek clone, with laughs derriving from the story itself versus spoofing other movies. Loved the animation, really liked the storytelling -- ideal family entertainment.

Ditto to Wall*E, the absolutely brilliant and magical entry in the impeccable Pixar Animation canon. What an amazingly designed, wondrous, magical film. What a bold commentary on who we are and where we're going. What a total charmer. This is eye-candy of the first order, and also thoughtful, thought-provoking filmmaking, as we follow a robot hundreds of years into the future on a most unusual, unpredictable journey.

Hell, even The Incredible Hulk wasn't half-bad. I wasn't a fan of Ang Lee's ambitious, thoughtful 2003 downer and this follow-up isn't a marvel of storytelling (Bruce Banner's Hulk isn't really that interesting of a character), but this new variation is smartly played out like a big chase picture -- tense, moody, lively, and it gets the job done respectfully for fans and non-fans alike. It's helped immeasurably by Edward Norton's fine performance in the lead role, though Eric Bana was just as good five years ago in the same part.

More good surprises were in store for Get Smart, which is far from great but was an unexpected lark. Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway shined in the leads, Dwayne Johnson and especially Alan Arkin provided pitch-perfect support, and even better, both the jokes and action sequences really deliver, sometimes simultaneously. Expect at least another installment from this crew.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army was kind of interesting, too. It was basically an excuse for returning director Guillermo Del Toro to empty a toy box full of visual treats. He did that in the first, slightly better Hellboy in 2004; what I loved about that film were the unexpectedly bold, robust characterizations, particularly Ron Perlman, marvelous in the lead. In that film, I went for the visuals and came away with the characters; this time, I felt like I went in for the characters and left with the visuals. The movie doesn't really do much with its most appealing story elements in the early scenes -- namely, Hellboy is discovered by the real world, and the film immediately goes to different visual leaps and bounds instead of delivering a coherent story. But it has its moments.

So far, that's what I've seen. I'd rank Iron Man and Kung-Fu Panda at the top of the list, with the rest trickling on down.

Coming tonight is a screening of the most anticipated film of the summer, The Dark Knight.

Monday, May 26, 2008

R.I.P. Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008

The film world has lost one of its best and brightest: actor-producer-director Sydney Pollack has died at age 73, apparently from cancer, and all too soon. He looked and acted younger, and was the rare breed in Hollywood, an actor as reliable and strong as he was an exceptional filmmaker. What a loss.

It was unknown, I believe, that Pollack was ill. I saw him in the past year on "Real Time with Bill Maher," adeptly talking politics, a subject he bravely and frequently covered in his films. During the conversation, Maher pointed out something important: that Pollack was the rare Hollywood filmmaker, who made adult films. That is, he made films for intelligent adult audiences, and rarely condescended. Like Stanley Kubrick, Pollack could work inside the studio system and somehow remain independent.

Look at his four decades plus career as a director, including titles like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), "The Way We Were" (1973), "The Electric Horseman" (1979), "Havanna" (1990), "Out of Africa" (1985), "The Firm" (1993). Many of those were with Robert Redford, and Pollack made possibly my favorite Redford thriller: 1975's brilliant "Three Days of the Condor," the quiet, deliberately paced and intelligent thriller where Redford plays a young man who returns to work from a break only to find his entire office dead, and cracks down on an internal conspiracy that he never fully overcomes. The film has one of the great unresolved endings (and final shots) of any film I have ever seen.

"Out of Africa" brought him an Oscar for best director (it was one of the many traditional "romantic epic Oscar sweepers" of its time), but I think Pollack's best film may very well be 1982's "Tootsie." Has there ever been a better comedy ever since? The film, a pitch perfect, hilarious and very humane screwball farce given weight and depth by its sensitive attention to character detail, and is one of the great ensemble comedies of all time.

This exchange, found on Youtube, is one of the moviest sharpest scenes, where Pollack's agent informs his incredibly difficult actor, Dustin Hoffman, the sad truth that nobody wants to work with him. Look at his comic timing as an actor, but also his precise framing and composition as a director, all flawless.

Key to the success was Pollack's direction, yes, but also his portrayal of Dustin Hoffman's overworked agent. It was marvelous work, and showed Pollack to be equally adept in front of the camera as we was behind it. (The movie's plot involves cross-dressing, but it's so smart and winning it doesn't even need its subject to succeed).
In recent years, Pollack became the go-to guy to play evil corporate bosses and CEOs, in such films as the underrated "Changing Lanes" and last year's praised "Michael Clayton." But he also had a warm, genial presence as well. Behind the camera, there were few genres he couldn't successfully work in.

Pollack worked with the best of the best: Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford (his frequent film partner), Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, you name it. According to the Internet Movie Database, he directed twelve actors to Oscar-nominated performances. His films again had both commercial and artistic appeal, often simultaneously.

The wire obits will do the routine job of discussing Pollack's career and influence, but the best way to honor him is to watch his films and savor in their craft and detail. Not all films were runaway successes, and they require patience. A Pollack film usually runs well over two hours (even the hilarity of "Tootsie" takes 116 minutes to unfold), but more often than not, the viewer is rewarded with intelligent, thoughtful moviemaking.

So let's all raise a glass to one of the real giants of contemporary filmmaking, whose influence will be felt for generations.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Dead Franchises Revivals!

I saw the midnight screening of Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" at downtown Seattle's Cinerama theatre, and couldn't help but realize this growing trend in Hollywood, one that I sort of like: the revival of ancient film franchises.

In the past couple of years, audiences have reconnected with old action figures from the 1970s and 1980s, with updates in the "Rocky," "Rambo," and "Die Hard" film series, respectively. Though an obvious feeding of fading action star egos, the reviews for "Rocky Balboa" and "Live Free or Die Hard" were much stronger than expected, and the results, particularly with the "Die Hard" movie, were surprisingly energized and old-fashioned. If Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't playing the Governator in California, I'd fully expect updates to "True Lies," though even his "Terminator" series is carrying on without him, and maybe Clint Eastwood will show up in his 80s to play Dirty Harry one last time.

Now Indiana Jones is back, and he, along with his creators, George Lucas (producer/writer) and Steven Spielberg (director), is now in his 60s. Harrison Ford lets his graying hair proudly shine, and under the fedora, bloody scars and sweat, he not only looks better on screen than he has in about a decade, he feels comfortable in front of a camera, giving an acting job of surprising gusto.

We feel comfortable, too, maybe a little too comfortable. "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (a title Roger Ebert recommends you repeat twice) never reinvents the wheel, but doesn't need to: it simply needs to be a superior example of what it is, an amalgam of old-fashioned 1950s pulp sensibilities brought to life with decidedly contemporary film techniques. It's a fun movie, entertaining, fashioned with Spielberg's nearly unmatched eye for blending comedy, action, visual effects and chaos in simple film frames. Even when the camera moves and the ingenious stunt work is on display, the movie feels sort of relaxed, never trying to impress us with fancy shots or camera angles.

Not much can be said about the plot, which is an excuse to have a class reunion with Indiana Jones, stuck in 1957 McCarthyism era. It has been nearly two decades after his last adventure, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the 1989 "finale" with Sean Connery playing his father. The plot involves Russian villains, lead by Cate Blanchett with the thickest Russian accent this side of Natasha in "Rocky & Bullwinkle" (every film critic says this, so who am I not to?), after a crystal skull that has a supernatural connection to...something.

There are lots of nice 1950s touches, in-jokes for fans of the previous films and new sidekicks for Indy to play off of, including Mutt Williams (the wonderful Shia LaBeouf), who rides a motorcycle and has a matching Marlon Brando "Wild One" outfit. He tags along with Indy to Peru to rescue his mom, kidnapped by the Russians (or something?), who happens to be Indy's long lost flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen --- yay!).

Other fine actors appear: Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, etc. This might be the best cast of any Indiana Jones movie, though even Karen Allen has too little to do but simply show up, and we're mostly grateful for it.

This is mostly Ford's vehicle, and he carries it well, though the midsection drags big time. It gets awfully talky, some of the scenes between Ford and Allen lack spark when they should be clicking like magic, and the plot never really involved me in the same way "Raiders" did.

Though uneven, the overall series quality control, however, remains pretty strong. The movie continues the series tradition of having a knockout opening sequence, no exception here, and even the opening titles are the same font and style as the previous pictures. Spielberg knows how to stage action without framing too closely and studiously avoids obnoxious, MTV-style split-second editing.

Aside from the opening, which involves kidnapping and mysterious supernatural elements and good, old-fashioned fist fighting, there's a great chase midway through on a variety of tanks deep in a jungle setting (implausible but fun), and a finale that cleverly incorporates elements of 1950s sci-fi serials into the action. I loved a comic bike chase early in the film, and a fist-fight between the preppy kids and greasers in an old diner. There's a lot more, as the Indy movies have always been the best scenes from old matinees and serials piled on top of each other.

There's inventiveness and imagination here, even though the movie walks a fine line between simply going through the motions versus rekindling and rediscovering the filmmakers' 1980s "youth." Certainly few directors are more technically adept than Spielberg; his ace collaborators include composer John Williams (reviving familiar Indy motifs), ace editor Michael Kahn, and bravura cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who steps in for nonagenarian Douglas Slocombe, and Kaminski brilliantly recreates the original look of the series while incorporating his own elements. Best of all may be Guy Dyas, the production designer, whose funhouse sets are lush, rustic and endlessly inventive, and somehow not overly derivative of previous installments.

Is the movie as good as the others? My initial reaction is no; that might change with subsequent viewings. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a classic, and influential as blockbuster entertainment but also for its technique and style, while "The Last Crusade" remains a fan favorite for its more light-hearted elements. ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is the hotly contested entry; either you love it or hate it, and I'm mostly in the former category). I think "Crystal Skull," coming late in the game and burdened by flat scenes and David Koepp's too pedestrian screenplay (Spielberg desperately needs a new writer to work with), is a respectful addition to the Indy cannon, but it doesn't blow you away like the original installments were able to. It's in competition with itself, and all the other action films in the market.

But it certainly reminds us of what a fine, energetic leading man Harrison Ford can be, and that old-fashioned adventure filmmaking is alive, and that the dead franchises of the past might have a lot of life in them after all. Unnecessary may become the new necessary.

Welcome and No SIFF

The questions never stop: why don't you write about movies any more? I probably have the time, though given the time spent on the computer at work, why do it at home as well?

Because writing about the movies is something I love to do.

Although ticket prices continue to skyrocket, along with parking costs, gas prices, popcorn -- you name it -- catching a good film is something I always love, whether it's an action picture with a rowdy audience, an art film with the latte crowd (we're people, too, damn it), or the latest discovery on the expanding HD options on television, Blu Ray or even my Xbox, there seem to be boundless ways to appreciate and enjoy film.

The number one rule of the movie reviewing game, for me at least, is this: you have to enjoy all genres. I like it all --- whether it's old or new, black-and-white or color, horror or period piece, blockbuster studio releases or lowkey independent. I judge by quality in respect to genre, and I don't discriminate. Sometimes it gets tricky even within the same genre. "National Lampoon's Animal House," for example, is something of a classic of its kind, but is it as good a comedy as "The Lady Eve," the great Preston Sturges masterwork from the 1940s?

That's up for debate, and the endless trends going on in film today will also be up for discussion.

I'll try to avoid cliches and silly phrases that use the word "popcorn" in them, or "let's go to the movies."

But...well, let's go...

Also, note: I won't be an avid SIFF participant this year.

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