Archive for May, 2010

No Real Bond with “Brothers”

Posted in Action, Drama on May 24, 2010 by ericstraus

The theme of a veteran returning home after witnessing the horrors of war is unfortunately quite relevant at this point in time.  How does one try and regain their “normal” life after living with such ugliness and torment?  How does a family reconnect with their loved one, especially after believing that he was dead?  These are the questions posed by “Brothers,” and while blessed with some strong acting performances, the film runs a gamut of clichés with no real impact.

We’ve seen this family dynamic many times before – the career military patriarch, the one son who follows in his footsteps and wins his admiration, and the other son who chooses his own path and receives his father’s disdain.  The heroic son in “Brothers” is Sam (Tobey Maguire), and the black sheep is Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Sam is a family man, married to the beautiful Grace (Natalie Portman) and father to two precocious daughters Isabelle and Maggie.  Two days before Sam ships off to Afghanistan for yet another tour, Tommy is released from prison, his time there due to a foiled bank robbery attempt.  Their parents Hank and Elsie (Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham) join everyone for one last family meal before Sam leaves; the tension between Hank and Tommy is obvious, but corny to the point of the viewer expecting to actually hear the line “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” 

Sam’s return to Afghanistan takes a tragic turn as his helicopter crashes.  Two military men arrive to tell Grace the bad news, which she later imparts to Tommy.  The family goes through the five stages of grief, and after some time, things settle down, largely due to Tommy stepping into the “man of the house” role as he plays with Isabelle and Maggie, remodels Grace’s kitchen, and basically fills Sam’s void.  Eventually Grace and Tommy find a brief romantic connection, but it doesn’t go any further than a kiss.

Meanwhile, we learn that Sam has actually been captured, not killed, and the scenes of what he endures while in captivity, along with another soldier, are intense and horrific, particularly what he is forced to do to his companion in order to survive.  Sam is later rescued by a military squadron and returns home.

We immediately see how Sam has changed – he seems emotionally distant even as he embraces his family at the airstrip.  His return also affects Tommy – the reunited family heads home, leaving Tommy behind, once again feeling like the outcast.  But the happiness doesn’t last long, as Sam tries to re-assimilate to his home life.  He feels disconnected, like his family can’t possibly understand what he’s been through – he even asks to get sent back to Afghanistan.  He suspects something happened with Tommy and Grace, and despite his assurance that he’d understand if that was the case, something just isn’t right with Sam.  His daughters become fearful of him; Grace is frustrated and upset.  Eventually Sam snaps, trashing the new kitchen and fighting with Tommy.

Maguire and Portman give great performances; it’s nice to see Maguire not being Spiderman for a change.  Gyllenhaal is a bit disappointing; his performance is somewhat wooden and stiff.  But the most amazing actor in the film is young Bailee Madison, who plays Isabelle.  Only 9 years old when the film was made, her emotional range is staggering.  She goes from happy to sad to faking happiness seamlessly; her performance outshines everyone else’s.

But apart from the acting, the film falls flat.  The story is much more about Sam and his family than about Sam and Tommy; we don’t feel any real connection between the brothers, be it love or hate or anything.  Once Hank sees how helpful Tommy has been with the family, he gets over his disappointment and they accept each other, predictably so.  There are scenes of Tommy cavorting with the girls, with happy music playing and Grace smiling approvingly…very clichéd and boring.  The only real intensity occurs when Sam is in captivity and in the scene where he finally snaps at home.  But other than that, everyone’s emotional states are very predictable.  It would have been more beneficial to the audience if we didn’t know what happened to Sam; we would not be able to predict his behavior and everyone’s reaction to it.  But because we are kept in the know the whole time, we see everything coming.  The only thing I couldn’t predict was Madison’s terrific acting. 

Final Grade for Brothers: C+

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Imagination Running “Wild”

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , on May 20, 2010 by ericstraus

Director Spike Jonze’s first film, “Being John Malkovich,” was a breath of fresh air in a usually stale Hollywood.  The film was imaginative and original, unlike anything previously seen on the big screen.  His latest film “Where the Wild Things Are,” adapted from Maurice Sendak’s award-winning children’s book, is another triumph of creativity and ingenuity.  It is far from a family-friendly film, instead tackling the inner workings of a troubled child’s mind while simultaneously bringing Sendak’s characters to larger-than-life status.

It is made clear that this film is not for kids during the first 2 minutes, as Max (played by relative newcomer Max Records) tears around his house, chasing the dog while wearing his wolf costume.  He eventually catches the dog, wrestles with it, and then Max’s seemingly innocuous play fighting turns ugly, as he tightens his grip on the dog and howls menacingly.  The frame freezes, catching Max in a disturbing pose.  It’s a very effective way of setting up the rest of the movie.

Sendak’s book is actually quite short, with Max traveling to an imaginary land in his own mind, meeting a group of monsters who make them their king, but eventually he misses his family and finds happiness in his own home.  The film stays true to this, but fills the rest of the time with a whole story of Max’s relationship with the monsters. 

We get an understanding of why Max behaves as he does – his father is absent (dead, divorced, we don’t know), he has no friends, he’s ignored by his older sister, and his mom has little time for him.  After a violent outburst at home, Max runs away, running until he escapes into his imagination, and sails a ship to an island where he finds the “wild things.”

Max’s own behavior is reflected in the monster “Carol” (voiced by James Gandolfini) – Carol likes to break things, likes to express his individuality; Max instantly bonds with him.  The other monsters, looking for some sort of leadership, accept Max as their “king” – Max of course is happy as can be, as he has finally found people who accept him, and most importantly, listen to him.  But eventually Max’s boasting and odd demands cause strife within his new society, and he begins to realize that perhaps this is not the place for him.

There is a lot of humor in the monster clan; the dialogue is well-written for the other vocal actors like Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper and Forest Whitaker.  A love story develops between Carol and KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose, the fantastic actress who played Claire in the “Six Feet Under” series), but this is an unnecessary and uninteresting subplot.  It’s the one aspect of the film where I felt the filmmakers were struggling to fill up 90 minutes worth of material.

Where the film truly succeeds is in the personalities and the societal customs of the monsters.  They sleep in a big pile, one on top of another, much to Max’s delight (due to his apparent lack of affection at home).  They race to the coastline and howl at the setting sun.  These things are not in the book – Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers crafted a wonderful vision of the monsters’ land and their attributes, and really created a well-thought out connection between Max’s mind and what we see on the screen.  The film drags a bit as the initial triumph of Max’s coronation fades and he assimilates to the monsters’ society, but the ending is touching without being corny, and ultimately we feel as transported to another world as Max does. 

Final Grade for Where the Wild Things Are: B

For Music Fans, “This Is It”

Posted in Concert film, Documentary with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2010 by ericstraus

Whatever you might think of Michael Jackson’s personal life, whatever you believe about his legal entanglements, one fact is undeniably true: he was one of, if not the greatest performer in music history.  If you aren’t convinced of this, you will be after seeing “This Is It,” the documentary made shortly before his death.  The film chronicles the rehearsals for what was going to be billed as Jackson’s final shows, and as the footage shows, it would have been something beyond memorable.

The songs are all terrific, from the great tunes off the “Thriller” album like “Beat It,” “Human Nature,” “Billie Jean,” and of course the title track, to his beginnings with the Jackson 5 on “Stop the Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There,” to anthems like “Black or White” and “Man in the Mirror.”  The choreography holds true to the moves we all became familiar with from Jackson’s videos – we all know what someone is talking about when they say they can do the “Thriller dance.” 

We are shown clips of the video footage that was to be used as introductory material for the performances.  For “Smooth Criminal,” Jackson had digitally inserted himself in old Bogart and Edward G. Robinson crime films, running from machine gun bullets and jumping through glass windows.  The “Thriller” intro video was shot in 3D, with zombie hands reaching into the audience while Vincent Price’s creepy narration from the original track streams throughout; we get to see Jackson and director Kenny Ortega cueing actors during this part.

There are some nice glimpses of Jackson’s rehearsal style.  He is a perfectionist to say the least, but never comes off as a “diva.”  He certainly gets frustrated at points, but never projects himself as being mean or cruel.  Some of the more amusing moments come from Ortega suggesting things to Jackson in a very clear, detailed manner; his wealth of respect for Jackson is obvious.

The emotional aspect of the film is one of feeling sad that such an icon has passed, and that no one will ever get to see the actual show that we see being rehearsed.  This is addressed in the opening of the movie, as the words on the screen tell us the decision to release this footage was “for the fans.”  Jackson’s songs are truly iconic, as was he, and there is no doubt that this show would have been monumental; music fans will be grateful for this peek behind the scenes, but will be disappointed that the final product will only exist in our imaginations.  But Jackson was all about imagination, so in some bizarre way, it all makes sense.  If you’re looking for one comprehensive way to capture Michael Jackson the performer, this is it.

Final Grade for This Is It: B+

“Away We Go” Keeps it Real

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2010 by ericstraus

I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, mainly because I find them neither romantic nor funny.  They are usually formulaic Hollywood drivel, full of clichés and unfunny pratfalls.  The formula, in case you don’t know, is as follows:  boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, conflict arises, boy and girl break up, conflict is resolved, boy and girl live happily ever after.  Boooooring.  But the film “Away We Go” blasts the tired romantic comedy formula into the stratosphere; it’s a wonderfully refreshing film, as it actually succeeds in being both funny and romantic.

The movie tells the story of Burt and Verona, played by John Krasinski (The Office, Leatherheads) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live, Idiocracy) respectively.  The film opens with the couple discovering they are pregnant, during a very funny and sexual moment.  Burt and Verona are very down-to-earth, unmarried, living in very modest conditions.  The rest of the film follows them from their home in Connecticut and continues as they travel across the country, visiting friends and relatives while they try and find the best place to settle down to raise their child.  Along the way they are exposed to the many different styles of parenting and family dynamics, and in the end they find the perfect place to start the next phase of their lives.

The minor characters, while certainly exaggerated for effect, represent a good slice of the variety of parents and families nationwide.  Verona’s parents died when she was in college, a subject she doesn’t like to discuss.  Burt’s parents decide they’re moving to Belgium a month before the baby is due, just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do.  Family friend Lily, played by Alison Janney, belittles her children sarcastically, completely ignorant of the ill effect it has on them.  Maggie Gyllenhaal plays LN Fisher-Herrin, a new-age lactation nurse.  Her over-protection and intellectualism is played with tremendous comedic effect.  Friends Tom and Munch (yes, Munch) have four adopted children because Munch has continual miscarriages, and despite the joy she feels from the kids she has, her depression at not being able to have her own is obvious.

The main reason this film succeeds is the writing.  Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida co-authored the script, and it is fantastic.  The comedic parts are truly funny – there is a recurring gag where Burt, after learning that the baby’s heart rate is slightly low, keeps trying to get it racing faster in creative ways.  The dialogue that comes out of Burt’s mom, played by the magnificent Catherine O’ Hara, is hysterical, as is the darkly funny yet disturbing rants spewed by their friend Lily.  The romantic, sensitive dialogue, which usually seems so forced and corny, is written very naturally and organically.  We completely believe that Burt and Verona are in love because what they say to each other is honest and real.  The film doesn’t rely on emotional music to tell us what the characters are feeling – the dialogue is 100% believable.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) paints a colorful backdrop for the various locales visited by our main characters, from Connecticut to Phoenix, from Wisconsin to Miami – although most of the film was actually shot in Connecticut, Mendes’ use of props and colors convince us that a Miami backyard is really in Miami and not the Northeast. 

Verona eventually confronts her past, and while the final scene is a bit predictable, it’s been such a fun journey that it doesn’t matter.  The film is very atypical of romantic comedies, which is perfect for someone like me who is not a fan of the genre.

Final Grade for Away We Go:  B+

Inside the Aquarium: Phish 3D

Posted in Concert film, Documentary with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2010 by ericstraus

This review of the film “Phish 3D” will be from a film standpoint.  For a review from a musical standpoint, please visit my music blog.

3D seems to be the big thing these days – all the blockbusters are released in 3D format.  I saw “Avatar” in 3D, and it didn’t really add anything to the film.  So when I heard that Phish was releasing a concert film in this format, I was skeptical as to the necessity.  But after seeing the movie, not only did the 3D work really well, it was essential to the overall experience.

As a sort of teaser for their upcoming summer tour, Phish has released a 2-hour film of highlights from their three-day festival called “8” (in recognition of it being their 8th festival).  “8” took place over Halloween weekend of 2009 in Indio, CA, and featured Phish’s first-ever fully acoustic set, as well as their performance of the Rolling Stones masterpiece album “Exile on Main Street” in its entirety. 

The 3D really puts the viewer at the concert – balloons float by and you feel compelled to reach out and grab them.  The intense light show affects your eyes as though you were seeing it in person.  As the camera tracks along the stage, the perspective makes it seem like you’re standing right there.  This is how 3D should be used, when it’s not being used for jump-out-at-you gags. 

As far as concert films go, “Phish 3D” is a good one.  I’m a fan of concert films – I love seeing the guitar strings being plucked close-up, the furious fingering on the keyboards, and the terrific sound blasting out of the amplifiers.  The song selection for this movie was well-chosen.  For the uninitiated, it’s a good mix of Phish’s styles and influences, as well as some marvelous jamming.  There are a few behind-the-scenes segments, showing rehearsals for some of the Rolling Stones songs, as well as some shots of the other festival activities.

Phish fans came to the theater prepared – glowsticks and balloons floated around the theater, and sometimes it was hard to distinguish between the balloon in front of you and the 3D balloon floating toward you.

This was actually the 4th time I’d seen Phish in a movie theater.  During their final tour of 2004 (after they had announced they would be breaking up), they did a live simulcast of a concert in June, and then their final two shows in Vermont.  The simulcast went to movie theaters nationwide, and the atmosphere was very much like being at the show.  People tailgated in the theater parking lots, people were dancing in the aisles.  But the mood at “Phish 3D” was much mellower, probably because this was not a live performance.  But it was a lot of fun nonetheless, although it did leave me wanting another 30 minutes of footage or so.

So if you have been curious about what a Phish show is all about but haven’t felt motivated to go see them, this film is a great way to get introduced.

Final Grade for Phish 3D: A-