Friday, May 29, 2009


As you may know, I'm not exactly smitten with the touchy-feely detailed antics of Pixar. I did enjoy "Monsters, Inc." and "The Incredibles" and believed that "Ratatouille" had an interesting premise of sorts, but not until last year's powerful and innovative "Wall-E" was I impressed by a product of the animation company. No, it was not perfect, but it was quite an improvement from what I'd seen previously. At parts, I was severely moved. But that was the work of Andrew Stanton. Pete Docter, "Up"'s director, only doctored with the story of "Wall-E" and had no say in the real bulk of the film. Here, he gets to control his own film. He didn't write it, so he can't be attributed with the successes and failures of the gimmicky idea and MacGuffin of the film. That was Bob Peterson. He's the force that drove "Up" into the skies and then into the ground.

He spins a piece of magical realism, a house propelled by balloons. This is the idea of Carl Fredricksen, who's inspired by Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a real crackerjack explorer that has seen South America and Paradise Falls. Fredricksen is a fanboy, and as he is going about his idolatry of his favorite adventurer, he meets a young girl also sharing his obsession named Ellie, who has a Cher-like set of hair and a possibly even more avid passion for Muntz. To make a long story short, the two get married, and dream of making it to Paradise Falls, but Ellie passes on and Carl (now played as an old man by Ed Asner in his Pixar debut) now becomes a recluse of sorts. Since as a young boy he made a promise to get eventually to South America, Carl vows to keep it true.

Just as he's about to be carted off to some cliche retirement home, he takes off with his house, using the balloons to keep him off the ground (they have a previous significance-Carl was a balloon vendor at a zoo). It's sort of like an Americanized, animated knockoff of "Danny Deckchair" which I doubt Bob Peterson ever saw or heard about. Anyways, literally like 90 seconds after he takes off, he's interrupted from his relaxation by boy scout wilderness explorer cliche animated youngling Russell (Jordan Nagai). He unfortunately makes the plot utterly predictable. The film's major plot point can be seen much before it's intended to. So, the two travelers make it to Paradise Falls but land on the other side. Fredricksen wants to be right on the edge of the falls, so the two begin a semi-epic journey through the tropical undergrowth and bump into two major characters: Kevin, some sort of bizarre, toucan-esque bird that makes a pretty funny call, and Dug (Peterson's voice), a collared, somewhat sadistic but overall amusing dog. Dug is trying to catch the bird, and bring it back to Muntz, who's been staking out in the jungle, searching for it all the time. Why? Because it signifies his legitimacy, since he originally brought back a skeleton and no one believed that he had found a new species.

I won't reveal much more, but just let you know that it all eventually dissolves into misguided chase scenes and underwhelming CGI animation, not unlike the special effects in the "Star Trek" film (sort of agreeing with Ebert, who has a distaste for big CGI and "Star Trek" but also loved this movie). Pixar, too focused on the little details, seems to forget that a film needs some sort of hook or point of interest besides little references and such. Fredricksen's quest to get from one side of Paradise Falls to the other is actually quite pointless, or at least it becomes pointless. It seems like some sort of vehicle to drive the film onwards. This shows all the more that the film is really, really rushed. Maybe it was to get it to Cannes where it would be the first animated film to open (as the Playlist said, "Inglourious Basterds" was the very same, so that's how I got this idea).

The editing is where the film most goes wrong. It might have been trying to mimic the 40's style (oh, right: the film's coy ideas of that decade are really quite cliche), but altogether it comes off really clipped. There is too much emphasis on the transitions (which grow extremely strained in the closing minutes) and not enough on less hyperkinetic cutting. As I've said before, the last 20 minutes make almost absolutely no sense and would be considered purely rushed if not for the sentimental hooks that are provided. It seems in the end that the whole structure is scrapped just for a couple of throwaway jokes and such. In the end, "Up" is the Pixar movie with the least amount of effort altogether. There were some nice details, but it still seems that Pixar is trying to tinker with success. C

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Lucky Ones

"The Lucky Ones" is a calculated screenplay of a film, predictable, mildly surprising at best, pretty awful at worst. It's about the coming home of three soldiers, two on thirty day leave, one permanently. It sets these three into obvious and at times over-the-top situations, and we are subjected to bad acting, dialogue, and editing for the duration of roughly two hours. Tim Robbins is a respectable actor, so how did he get attached to such an off-peak film? He plays the elder statesman, who gets home and within minutes is back on the road, barreling away from a wife who's threatening divorce and a kid who's bound for Stanford but can't make up the $20,000 he needs to supplement his scholarship. It's an affable, no-show performance that isn't Robbins' best work. Rachel McAdams and Michael Pena, neither of which I very much like as actors, step up as the younger soldiers. McAdams is as a gung ho, devout Christian who's smitten with some sort of folk hero whose guitar supposedly belongs to Elvis and who robbed some sort of tiny casino. Pena is a subtle man who's wounded in his sex organs and who talks about skills so much, he nearly puts Napoleon Dynamite to shame. These types are in one car, providing for some melodramatic incidents and other shenanigans, including Hummer product placement and a CGI tornado. Neil Burger, who made the fantastical film "The Illusionist," comes up very short here, especially in terms of screenwriting. He may have been aiming for a mix of satire and middlebrow humor, but he just ended up with a handful of recurring, unfunny patriotic jokes and such. My least favorite bits had to do with the music and the episodic, meaningless editing. The score, by the experienced Rolfe Kent, is no Philip Glass and forces a tone not relevant enough. It only reinforces the fact that this film is pretty unnecessary. Naomi Geraghty, previously associated with the wonderful "In America" which I recall had very good editing, has such a weak hand here that everything scurries along, with no time to consider what just happened. "The Lucky Ones" doesn't seem to be one of those contemplative movies at all. I really don't know why it was made. It's a screenplay, not a film. C-

Friday, May 15, 2009


James Toback's "Tyson" is able to unveil a different side of Mike Tyson. It's structured like Tyson himself would have structured it, as he mentions in the doc that he loves conversation. The film is pretty much an 90 minute conversation, using the sound and feel of Tyson's voice, track over track over track, captivating and moving in its devastation.

Disturbed by his childhood, shaken by the death of his trainer, unable to get a hold on himself, Tyson is authentic on camera with Toback, who he's comfortable with. The boxer speaks on the violence, sex, and religion of his life, and with such passion, it's very enrapturing. He's fascinated with women, and he's sexually active. All of his relationships with women turned disasterous, and it seems to be his brutal anger that drove him to be like that. It's hard to hear Tyson's thoughts on his fight with Evander Holyfield, murderous, destructive thoughts that rage on with him throughout the fight. Excluding this fight, Tyson believes that boxers and pigeons are alike in the way they swarm and attack each other for the goods, although they live together like brothers all the other time. This is probably true.

When you analyze Tyson's style, you see that he does not have the brute force of Holyfield or the quick feet of Muhammed Ali, but instead he has pure aggression and rage, and what Tyson says definitely reflects this. This rage is ultimately what has swallowed him whole. He reiterates that he "cannot trust anyone" and that his anger is pointed at himself. His talent is really there, but you can see that gradually Tyson isn't, and he repeatedly falls apart. On another note, the reason the techniques that Toback employ in the film work is because Tyson has a monologic, poetic style as a speaker that pulls you in and gives Tyson's words meaning. "Tyson" as a film is powerful and incredibly moving since it shows the inner core of a man that the media has made out to be a terrible person. In some ways, Tyson can be bad, but he's also very vulnerable and shaken from his roots. That makes "Tyson" a deep, nuanced portrait of a fighter, who's career in the end hurt him as much as a taxing blow from an opponent. A

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek

"Star Trek" is some sort of attempt to monetize a bygone series that lays just perfect untouched by my standards. I'm not a Trekkie by any means, I have a fondness for the show and get some of the jokes, etc. I'm sure that J.J. Abrams' new film is not an embellisher. It's full of overblown special effects, performances, and dialogue, and I don't like it. Some of it is pretty good, actually, but altogether, it's dominated by its visuals, that are numbing after a while. It seems like action films these days are made with the sensibility that the audience pays to see shit being blown up.

"Star Trek" is in no way an exception to this rule. J.J. Abrams' amazing computer generated dreamcoat is not at all satisfying. Admittedly, there's a little more to "Star Trek" then that. Namely, it's Zachary Quinto as Spock. The actor is able to keep his emotions believably in check like his predecessor (who also makes an appearance). Upon this building block, "Star Trek" shows stabilization. He's matched by a decent Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, who befriends Spock after some academic troubles. This is also after Nimoy has instructed Kirk to verbally dismember Spock so he can captain the Enterprise. This scene is a bizarre and mistaken interjection here, and it seems utterly detached for Kirk, who seems to be presented as a heroic character. Here he does something kinda sadistic. Not that Spock has not been mistreated before. We all know he's half-human, half-Vulcan, and he's subject to some bullying on his planet. His planet also gets bullied, by the stereotypical Nero, played by a totally misused Eric Bana. He isn't anywhere as good as he is in the Spielberg masterpiece "Munich." He's another reason the film can't reach greatness. I couldn't stop thinking about how different Bana was here, how boring.

When the film boards the Enterprise, it goes right. Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yechlin all turn in good performances as Scotty, Sulu, and Chekov respectively. Bruce Greenwood is a very uninspired choice to play Pike. Zoe Saldana is Uhura, and she's okay. But I'm drifting into a type of nostalgia. The references to the original series were nice: the beaming, the guns, etc. Did it need a new place, on a new launching pad for possibly another line of spinoff films? No. I said it last time with Cloverfield, which was superior, and now, for old time's sake: Better luck next time, J.J. C+

Friday, May 8, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

"Last Chance Harvey" is a sound romance that rushes way too fast to a end point that is charming. Joel Hopkins' writing and directing is somewhat lukewarm, and his story is as tepid as a so-so pulp. But his actors, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, act together well enough to transcend what's going on around them. This is how the movie pulls together. Hoffman, probably not half as good an actor as he used to be, plays Harvey, a pianist whose estranged daughter is tying the knot in London and who's career as a jingle music writer is slowly fading. He's succumbed from the fun guy he used to be to a bumbling, cell-phone bound divorcee (his wife Kathy Baker is now married to James Brolin). Thompson, who's still decent, plays Kate, an airport worker who's personal life is dominated by her demanding mother (Eileen Atkins).

These two stories converge since Thompson bumps into Hoffman at the airport and the two start to fall in love. This creates the first real joy of Harvey's last-chance-bound life. From their meeting, the story starts taking predictable turns and going into unfortunately familiar ground. Bad literature, wedding toasts not nearly as awkward as those in "Rachel Getting Married," etc. Hopkins doesn't go far with a possibly above average premise. It's all wrapped in corny backstory, one of the reasons I didn't like it as much as I could have. It could have been innovative, more than just cute and light. I know, people like to escape to such fare as "Last Chance Harvey." It is prime escapism. Although it's charming, it's also moderately disposable. I know, I know, I'm harsh and such. I liked it, and I think it assembled a nice relationship that provided for a nice time. But still, can't we expect a little more? C+

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wendy and Lucy

It's rare to find a movie of 80 minutes. Of those movies, it's highly improbable that you will find one that doesn't feel shortchanged by its length. "Wendy and Lucy" is a prime example of a typical, too-short 80 minute movie, a feature length vignette of sorts that's not substantial enough as it needs to be. Director Kelly Reichardt ties things up way too fast. I would have been fine with 20 more minutes of the magnetic Wendy and her dog Lucy as they live off of a small sum of money. Wendy is, if you don't know already, Michelle Williams, who turns in a deep but somewhat overdone performance as a woman suffering from her poverty and relying on her dog to keep her company. She stops in a small Oregonian town to sleep and when awoken by a kind parking lot guard (Wally Dalton) realizes her car will not start. When she goes to the local grocery store, she's harassed for stealing a can of dog food for her canine, who goes missing as she's unnecessarily dragged into the police station. This leads to the central event of the plot: the search for the dog. This was underwhelming for what could have been mostly a brooding, quiet piece (which it is) instead of having to really have a purpose. Reichardt also decides the viewer needs to know Wendy's backstory, which I will not go into, but it's a flaw that chips away at a good study. The cinematography, by Sam Levy (who shot the weird "Green Porno" series) is odd and creates a strange touch. One strange touch that perhaps is a little too quirky is Williams' repeated interludes of humming. At first a nice moment to hold things together, it doesn't take long before the little melody she murmurs gets old. If this and a couple of other things had been fine-tuned, there would have been a big difference. I really liked "Wendy and Lucy" and at it's best it was nuanced, detailed, and saddening. But there was a little too much to stall it in the end. B

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Apocalypse Now

One of the greatest war films in the history of cinema, "Apocalypse Now" delves deeply into the Vietnam War in a disturbing, bleak manner. Francis Ford Coppola pieces together a skillfully made, affecting, and existential movie that centers upon Captain Willard's military quest to kill an AWOL named Kurtz. Willard is played by Martin Sheen, and Sheen is excellent, capturing the tired emotion of a veteran who can't find his place on the battlefield, while ever longing to be on it. Kurtz is played by Marlon Brando, who was famously a difficult actor to work with. Brando is very interesting, finding a common pitch as a shaken hero who retreats to a strange palace of sorts, complete with a doting photographer (Dennis Hopper). Willard's journey is by boat, through the waters of the war, where the violence continues and his men, who are wishing to go home, don't know where Willard is off too.

Coppola's methods are odd, but effective. He mixes the battle zones and the helicopters blasting and Killgore (Robert Duvall, rightfully nominated for Best Supporting Actor) with the bleak, gothic, downtempo moments where soldiers can see what horrible effects the war has had on the forrests of Vietnam. The cinematography is terrific, by Vittorio Storaro, who finds all of the details, especially in the battle scenes. The art direction is stellar as well. The feel is very authentic, as well, and many movies try to dig from the well of this film to grab this same touch (with usually negative results). It also drifts into a non-linear, philosophical state, especially towards the end, when Willard gets to his destination. It's how to make a true war movie, that's definitely for sure. A

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Valentino Garavani seems like one of the most influential fashion designers of the past century. For 45 years, he's made countless dresses, for actresses like Julia Roberts, that are very interesting and take more than a second to analyze and take in. I don't know quite a lot about fashion, and I'm not that involved in it. But I can see the effect that Valentino had on the industry and how his eccentric personality rendered him hard to work with. "Valentino: The Last Emperor" is pretty much a behind-the-scenes look at Valentino towards the end of his career that shows how he prepares for his huge retrospective.

It is one of those typical pieces that shows how life is for the fashion master, meaning quick scenes and a quirky tone. Here, it's hard to really focus since it jumps very quickly from scene to scene. The cuts are pretty much never longer than 5 seconds, which can be hard to follow if you're not terribly into fashion. Matt Tyraneur is a first-time director, and this documentary would be kind of a big start for a rookie (due to it's high-glam celebrities and all). But for the viewer it can be a little bit of a tedious pain. It's also quite self-indulgent, especially the lavish finale, with the Coliseum painted "Valentino Red" and dancers on wires coming from the sky. This seems to be much of the focus. I was much more interested in Valentino's inspirations. As a young boy, he went to the movies and saw the likes of Judy Garland, Lara Turner, etc. in garish dresses and decided he wanted to do more of the same. I really liked the scene where he constructed a white, asymmetrical dress with sequins that as I said before took more than two seconds to take in.

His personality is a big theme in this film as he throws small fits about, well, somewhat insignificant things. He also has a thing for pugs; he has a few and they roam free through most of his work period. This detail is somewhat of plus for such a movie. "Valentino: The Last Emperor" is any fashion lover's dream, since they'll be able to get what they like from a lukewarm doc. I understand Valentino more as a result of this film, and I believe it portrayed him well, as it shows a man keeping soul and fashion together. Valentino is a man that will seldom be less interesting than the film he doesn't want to be in. C+

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Bottle Shock

"Bottle Shock" is as appealing as a crushed grape. It's a corny, cliche piece about when, in 1976, a Californian vineyard topped a ton of French wines. The actual competition is shown in very little detail, perhaps a 3 minute scene. The rest of the movie is overcooked. The music is constantly an annoyance, especially in the scenes in France where we can be sure that the American portion of the cast isn't going to ruin it. Here, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), an owner of a small, drafty French wine shop, is told to expand his business by a neighboring owner (Dennis Farina). He settles on gathering American wines to hold a U.S.A. vs. France faceoff. He goes to America, and the movie gets laughably bad. Bill Pullman and Chris Pine play a father and son combo of winemakers. Pine's a slacker, replete with surfer hair and a love for Woodstock. Pullman plays an expressive man, but he's too subtle or too overbearing to capture any moments of realism. Oh, and there's an intern named Sam (Rachel Taylor), who predictably attracts Pine's eye as well as that of Freddy Rodriguez. He's there to set up racially "powerful" scenes. He's also there to deliver a monologue practically identical to the one that Virginia Madsen gives in "Sideways." Subplot: Rodriguez makes secretive wine... and it's good! Pullman ain't too happy about this, since he's a masochistic alcoholic who doesn't want any help. He's eventually made out (however unintentionally) to look like an amateur, since he doesn't know that Chardonnay turns brown when deoxygenated and he throws out tons of it. Add to the fact that Pullman doesn't really give much to his performance. I also should add that, as my friend said,the editing detracts entirely from the film. Miller and Dan O'Brien cut way too much, so much that, as my friend said, "it's at times impossible to concentrate on the scene at hand." Plus, how many crane shots of the vineyard do we need here? What I'm saying is that this film is devoid of flavor in almost all fields. Rickman is alright, but he's the only pro. It's a poorly made and executed movie off of a subject that could have elicited at least something pretty decent. D

Sita Sings the Blues

Ramayana has never been told like how it is told in "Sita Sings the Blues," a visually masterful animated film that not only shows the legendary Indian figure and his wife, but also puts it in modern context and adds very sharp narration. Nina Paley has done two previous shorts, but this is her first feature film, where she does practically everything.

Going for greatness straight out of the gates, she does very well. She supplements her story with Annette Hanshaw's eerily perfect music and with extreme visuals where she goes way over the top and is successful. The story itself is enough to drive a movie, but fortunately she sees the full, fascinating potential. Rama (Debargo Sanyal) is almost crowned king, but is kicked out for 14 long years. His love, Sita (Reena Shah) comes with him to the forrest where, at least for a while, they share a happy existence. Everything is utterly ruined by Ravana (Sanjiv Jhaveri), who lusts after Sita from the minute he sees her and steals her away from Rama, deeply saddening him. Hanuman (Aladdin Ullah), a monkey of some sort, offers to find Sita. He does, but he does not bring her back. Our strategists (Bhavana Nagulapally, Manish Acharya, and Aseem Chhabra) believe this is the mistake that made all the troubles begin. Although Rama fights a war to perish Ravana (with help from the monkeys), he believes Sita to be impure and shuns her now repeatedly.

Sita sings her troubles frequently, voiced by Hanshaw and by a different type of animation than that that is used for the more important scenes. Although this at times can be a little too much, it adds a twist that is very interesting, and the film wouldn't be the same without it. At the same time, Paley also looks back apparently her own past relationship with Dave (also Jhaveri), who gets a job in India and slowly begins to separate from her. The parallels that she establishes between her life and the story she eventually finds, Ramayana, are skillful. This shows that Paley has got a mind for details. "Sita Sings the Blues" is a fascinating, bizarre, and crafty piece of animation. Paley has a magnificent imagination, and if this is any sign, her next film will be a delight. A
Note: You can view the film online here:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pineapple Express

"Pineapple Express" is a pot comedy that's pretty hilarious, produced by Judd Apatow and directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg, the movie is so stupid it provides for nonstop laughter while maintaining the requirements of the "marijgenre." Although its structure is pretty thin, it's easily one of the funniest films of 2008. Seth Rogen is Dale, a high man with a job as a process server. He goes to Saul (James Franco, nominated for a Golden Globe), who supplies him with a rare kind of weed called Pineapple Express. He gets it passed down from Ted Jones (Gary Cole), who's in cahoots with a cop (Rosie Perez) and at war with "Asians." Dale sees Ted and Carol the cop kill an enemy and they see him see them kill the enemy, so they believe he is working with the Asians. They identify him by the pot he's smoked and left on Ted's property. Thus begins an outrageous diversion that kept my laughing for its entire length. The main supplier of the idiocy is Red, played by North Carolinian Danny McBride, who plays a fair-weathered, moderately earnest friend of Saul who also deals joints. The fight scene between Rogen, Franco, and McBride is perhaps the best scene in the film. Rogen overdoes most scenes, and they turn out amazingly. This is all great, but what about the actual movie itself? It's pretty mediocre, the plot structure. Nothing makes any sense, but I guess that's the point. The performances embellish this. Rogen and Franco strike it up nicely, as does McBride. The villains are extremely one-dimensional, and they are not, until the final minutes, in a scene longer than 30 seconds. It's all in good fun, though. With any more depth, the silliness of the movie might wear off, just like the effects of toking up. When you try to go deep, the plot's as fuzzy as smoke. B