Monday, November 30, 2009


Tonight I screened Brothers, starring Natalie Portman and Tobey Maguire.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #83, which is available here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Today I saw Wes Anderson's first animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Based Roald Dahl's classic book, this film centers around the Fox family—Mom, Dad, their son Asher, and a visiting cousin named Kristofferson. Mr. Fox has given up a life of crime stealing birds for a more respectable job as a newspaper columnist. He's moved the family from a modest hole to the inside of an above-ground tree. His son Ash competes with his seemingly perfect cousin for his parents' attention because he feels he can do no right.

Mr. Fox doesn't like the new farmers in town, so he decides to go behind his wife's back and perform one last "job" of stealing with the help of a friend.

The first part of the theft goes well, though his wife is suspicious. She finds a tag with the farmer's name on it still attached to the chicken Mr. Fox claimed to get at the supermarket, but he talks his way out of it.

The next attempt at stealing is not as successful and results in the farmers waging an all-out war against the fox family, endangering all of the animals that live beneath the surface. In the chaos of the fight, the farmers also capture Kristofferson and hold him hostage above ground, mistaking him for Ash.

This all happens in a very fast-paced, visually appealing way. The landscapes are beautiful and the animals are life-like, especially in the way the foxes move. The dialog is clever but not too cute and the delivery (by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and other well-known actors) is right on. It's refreshingly not exaggerated like many other kids' film characters.

Is it the best animated film of the decade? Well, no—but it's certainly a satisfying, entertaining, family friendly option amidst many lesser alternatives.

Wes Anderson deserves kudos for switching genres so seamlessly and his style translates well to animation. Perhaps he'd consider doing another?


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Blind Side

This morning I saw The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron.

The story is filled with all sorts of characters that would seem unappealing: society wives, stereotypical African Americans, likable republicans, annoying children, etc. But the remarkable thing is that it works.

Big Mike (Aaron) is a from-the-streets neglected teenager who is granted a private school education due to the persuasion of a football coach. His grades are awful, his social skills are non-existent and no one, save for one obligatory teacher, seems to be on his side.

Enter Leanne Tuohy (Bullock), the mother of two students at Big Mike's school and a respected member of Memphis high society. As her family is driving home from a school play one chilly night, she sees Big Mike walking down the street in shorts and a T-shirt. She forces her husband to stop the car (sidenote: whatever she wants, her husband apparently delivers) and offers the young man their couch for a night. He reluctantly accepts and ends up spending the Thanksgiving holiday with the family.

When they realize he has no where else to go, they invite him to live in their guest room, where he is presented with the first bed he's ever owned. Yes, it's a tear jerker.

Basically, the entire movie centers around Leanne's (uncharacteristically) selfless actions and Michael's secretive, troubled past. Both parties are understandably slow to trust one another, but somehow the love that surfaces takes care of that.

Because this is based on a true story, I cut it some slack for being unapologetic in its sappiness. I found myself tearing up about every 15 or 20 minutes, but that was okay because I knew what I was in for when I bought the ticket. Boy needs home, boy gets home, boy plays football.

The film is very predictable (because the audience will wonder why the movie was made if things didn't turn out well), but when the acting is as good as it is here, it's not hard to stay with the scenes and enjoy the way they unfold.

Sophisticated drama this is not, but if you need a dose of your faith in humanity renewed, you could do worse than this film.

I'm glad there are real people out there like Leanne Tuohy, and I didn't mind spending a few hours with her character.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Couples Retreat

Tonight I saw Couples Retreat, starring (and written by) Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau.

The film begins by introducing us to four couples: one that appears very average, another that seems detached, one that's clearly just about the sex, and the last who are very obviously having problems.

The couple who are struggling to reproduce (played by Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) are in the process of deciding whether or not their marriage is worth saving when they find a special resort called "Eden," which claims to help folks find their way back to one another. The trouble is, the place is very expensive, and to be able to afford the visit, they need to talk three other couples into going with them. This happens, almost too easily, and before we know it we're transported to a Bora Bora-like paradise.

Of course, the other three couples feel as if they don't need to follow the "program" of therapy and want to spend the time there as if on vacation—but that wasn't the deal. To enjoy the benefits of "Eden" they must complete the planned activities. So, they do. Sort of.

And here's where the movie turns from borderline charming to undeniably predictable: the couple who thought they were happy turns out to have problems that surface during therapy; the couple who are sincerely trying to work out their issues are so focused on the plan, they've forgotten how to communicate with one another. And so forth.

The somewhat believable premise is then compromised by a series of ridiculous situations (a husband who requests a female massage therapist and then gets aroused when she touches him; a sexually suggestive yoga instructor). These scenes feel like they would be more at home on a network sitcom than in a feature film, and the laughs are few and far between.

It's almost as if Vaughn and Favreau wanted to take a snapshot of their lives at this age (as they successfully did years ago with Swingers) and found that reality as a 30 or 40-something isn't as fun as reality as a 20-something.

Perhaps the film would've been better if they'd just captured the heart they were going for and channeled it into a drama instead. Or even a dramedy.

This film felt like the writers were trying too hard to make light of poor choices that many real people make in life. And it just wasn't that funny.


Pirate Radio

On November 12, I saw Pirate Radio, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #82, so tune in November 30th for our review.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Tonight I saw 2012, starring John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Let me first state: it's completely ridiculous.

John Cusack plays author Jackson Curtis who seems to be late for everything in life: work, picking his kids up for a camping trip, saving his family from apocalyptic catastrophe, etc. When we meet him, he has overslept and is rushing to his ex-wife's house to collect the children for a Yellowstone expedition.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a geologist who we first meet in India, where he's visiting his friend, an astrophysicist, and working on a serious government assignment.

Uh-oh. The earth isn't behaving like it's supposed to. The "earth crust displacement" (a real-life theory by a 1950s American scientist) isn't supposed to go down for at least a few more years, but temperatures are heating up so it's time to crash a party in Washington, D.C. and let the head honchos know.

As you can imagine, this doesn't go down well across the globe. And it all falls on the U.S. (though it was the Indian astrophysicist who really cracked the case) to organize the evacuations and sell tickets aboard monster ships built to withstand the disastrous impact.

Luckily for audience members, 2012 looks a whole lot like 2009, so it's relatable. The Terminator is still the Governor of California, the President is still black and grocery stores are even stocking the same issues of Rolling Stone (I noticed one on the shelf that featured U2 promoting their album No Line on the Horizon, which came out earlier this year).

It's not hard to imagine how greatly we'd all freak out if confronted with such havoc because like the citizens in the movie, they gave us no time to prepare.

But that's when it gets fun.

After a cameo from Woody Harrelson (as a crazy hippie with all the answers) and a few establishing scenes to let us know Cusack isn't winning any Father of the Year awards, we have liftoff as California falls off into the ocean (literally).

Luckily, Jackson is able to get his family (and his ex's boyfriend) into a rented airplane in the nick of time to escape the destruction. These scenes aren't as suspenseful as they should be (how could they not make it out when the movie's barely begun), but I'll be happy to admit I enjoyed the effects immensely.

After California is gone, we see Vegas go and then other handpicked cities/monuments that are cool to watch explode. I must emphasize: if you like explosions, this is the film for you!

In between massive explosions you'll find cheesy one-liners, awkward 'almost' romances, brave kids, regretful parents, asshole government reps, righteous scientists and repeated product placement (Bentley™ and Pull-Ups® must've spent a fortune).

I spent more time laughing than I did recoiling in horror or gasping in surprise. But that's okay—I still had a good time at the end of the world.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

An Education

Today I saw An Education, starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard.

It will be the topic of Cinebanter #81, so tune in November 16 for our review.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

This Is It

Tonight I saw the documentary This is It, directed by Kenny Ortega.

When I was about seven years old, MTV began playing three videos in heavy rotation that would re-define pop music: "Billie Jean", "Beat It" and "Thriller". They were all superb songs and they were all by Michael Jackson.

When I brought home my fold-out vinyl of the Thriller album, I momentarily put away my beloved U2 and Pat Benatar to absorb its greatness. I bought a sticker from a grocery store vending machine and used a straight pin to attach it to my jacket (which resembled one of Michael's). I also, as an aspiring young writer, carried with me a tiny notepad bearing his likeness on the cover (I still remember the yellow sweater he was wearing). He was the moonwalker—he was magic.

Then things took a turn for the worse and fame seemed to eat my prized star alive. His skin changed color, his face changed shape and horrible allegations surfaced in the coming years that he conducted inappropriate relationships with young boys. After his follow up album Bad, which really was quite Good, his music faltered as well.

He was always fascinating to watch whether he was showing up for court appearances "looking like Captain Crunch" (as Chris Rock so humorously pointed out), or dancing his way across a stage. But I really thought he lost his mind when I watched the Martin Bashir documentary Living With Michael Jackson a few years back. He'd named his youngest son Blanket, admitted to having children sleep in his bed with him and blatantly lied about how many times he'd had plastic surgery. There wasn't much left of the sweet kid from the Jackson 5.

After dismissing him, like many, I forgot about him. I went on about my life.

And then in June word came that Michael had gone into cardiac arrest and fallen into some sort of coma. I learned of this at work and found it difficult to turn CNN off as I finished my days' duties. I turned the audio live feed on as I filed papers and wrote Web pages. I heard of his death announcement live. I got goosebumps; I felt sick. Why? Because at the end of the day, looking past all of the questions of his character, the world lost an immense talent.

Now, we're left with this documentary that could easily have been released even if he had lived. It's that good.

We see director/choreographer Kenny Ortega and Michael himself leading a group of hundreds through the taxing rehearsals for what would've been his "final curtain call." From choosing the finest dancers to forming a family within the performance circle, the team functions as a productive, joyous machine. It's an incredible amount of hard work, but the mood is remarkably calm and positive—mostly a testament to Michael's lack of ego.

I'm not saying he didn't have one. Of course he had several people on hand to attend to him (which the audience doesn't see much of), but with his singers and dancers and crew, the man is nothing short of a team player. He works just as hard (or harder) than they do and takes obvious pleasure when they all perform well. After watching him in action, you want to jump on stage and join him.

It does help that the songs hold up, too. The elaborate appearing-within-a-classic-film production that surrounds "Smooth Criminal" would've made a wonderful video (if a wonderful video for the same song didn't already exist) and seeing Michael sing and do the "Thriller" dance front and center over 20 years later nearly made me giddy.

This wasn't a man who looked strung out on anything but a natural high. In fact, when he launched into some old Jackson 5 tunes, I wondered if the mood would turn melancholy, but it didn't. Then I realized, in all of his miserable childhood, the one place he was probably genuinely happy was on stage, singing those songs. No one could touch him there—everyone was proud of his talent.

And he was brimming with talent. Right up until the end (some of the footage in the film was taken less than two days prior to his death) his voice was strong, his dance was graceful and his spirits were soaring.

Had he lived, he appears to have been up for the challenge of 50 consecutive concerts, perhaps more so than any other performer.

Kudos to Kenny Ortega for giving us all a peek at what might have been.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Act of God

Tonight I saw the documentary Act of God, directed by Jennifer Baichwal.

The film centers around folks who have been struck by lightning or have lost someone close to them because of a lightning strike.

If only the narrative had some coherence.

The first story told is compelling: a man and presumably his mother sit inside a cabin-like house in the woods and recall stories of happier times. Parties were held, drinks were enjoyed and both agreed at one time this was a great place to be. But years ago that all changed when "the boys" were out camping in those woods and got struck by lightning. The survivor who is telling the story recounts ambulances arriving, watching others go unconscious, watching a dying friend vomit up his blackened insides, etc. It was a horrible tale, but I wanted to hear more.

Unfortunately, that was the most interesting story in the bunch.

Another man found "God" or purpose, or whatever it shall be labeled and began working with dying veterans; a religious Mexican woman lost her children and accepted it as God's will to make them young angels. Yet another man read poems about camp as a youth in NY (where lightning claimed his buddy) set to overly dramatic guitar music.

About a quarter of the way through, I'd had enough.

The trailer leads one to believe the story is about how folks are changed after surviving a lightning strike; the film instead emphasizes how evil/dangerous concentrated electricity really is, and tries to package that information in an artistic, creative format that just doesn't work.

The result is a pretentious mish-mash of shots that are way too long of stories that aren't all that interesting.

The concept should never be the strongest part of a film.