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A Long Wait for Eight

Posted in Action, Comedy, Documentary, Drama, Mystery, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2010 by ericstraus

Oh, my poor neglected movie blog.  It’s so sad.  But I decided to give it some holiday cheer with this condensed review of the last films I’ve seen.  Enjoy.

Invictus – The true story of the South African national rugby team, and the events that transpired following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his becoming South Africa’s president.  Morgan Freeman is terrific as Mandela, and Matt Damon is equally good as the captain of the rugby team.  With South Africa hosting the 1995 rugby World Cup, Mandela believes that if the team can win, it will help unify the nation.  It’s a good story, and the performances are the highlights of the film.  The rugby match at the end is too drawn out, and extends the movie longer than necessary.  But overall it’s an inspiring story.                                                                                                                                                                           Final Grade for Invictus:  B

 

The Ghost Writer – A tale of suspense from director Roman Polanski, the film follows the adventures of an up and coming writer, played by Ewan McGregor, as he is tasked to ghost write the autobiography of a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan) with a shady background.  As McGregor uncovers more information about Brosnan’s past, the more dangerous things become.  It’s a well-made film – suspenseful, great acting, and a nice twist at the end.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Final Grade for The Ghost Writer:  B+

 

Date Night – Steve Carell and Tina Fey play a married couple with kids, who decide to infuse some excitement in their dull lives by stealing another couple’s dinner reservations.  Wacky hi-jinx ensue, as the mistaken identity premise runs its course via gangland shootouts, car chases, etc.  With two comic geniuses like Fey and Carell, this film should have been way funnier.  There are humorous moments throughout, but not enough to sustain 100 minutes of film.                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Final Grade for Date Night:  C+

 

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – Based on the seemingly ancient video game Prince of Persia, this digitally dominated film tells the tale of Prince Jake Gyllenhaal, who does nothing but leap, jump, tumble, climb and fight all over Arabia, attempting to save the world from villain Ben Kingsley.  The film stays true to the game in that the character really does jump everywhere.  I think Gyllenhaal spends 90% of his screen time in the air.  Overall it’s not a great movie – but the action is actually quite good, the story moves along quickly, and for a mindless popcorn film, it’s pretty good.                                                                                                                                                                                                                Final Grade for Prince of Persia: Sands of Time:  B-

 

The Last Station – This performance-driven drama tells the story of the last days of Leo Tolstoy, celebrated and revered Russian author.  Christopher Plummer is really good as Tolstoy, and the fabulous Helen Mirren is, of course, a real treat as his wife Sofya.  We get a glimpse at how truly revered Tolstoy was, and the story plays out with great intrigue.  Paul Giamatti is great as a Tolstoy devotee trying to manage his affairs, butting heads with Sofya over Tolstoy’s finances and his estate.  The acting is superb, the drama holds your interest, and if nothing else, the film provides a great education on Russian culture and politics shortly before the Communist Revolution.                                                                                                 Final Grade for The Last Station:  B+

 

Iron Man 2 – Usually sequels (especially superhero action sequels) fail to live up to the original.  Iron Man 2 is unique in that it is more entertaining and has a better story than its predecessor.  Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark, the eccentric billionaire who created the Iron Man suit to fight crime worldwide.  Since the first film, Iron Man has basically brought peace to the world, as criminals cannot compete with Iron Man’s technology, a technology that the U.S. government is constantly trying to get its hands on.  Mickey Rourke plays a Russian prisoner whose father was spurned by Stark’s father, and now seeks revenge by recreating the Iron Man technology that his father helped develop for Stark’s father.  Sam Rockwell is marvelous as the slimy, egomaniacal defense contractor that enlists Rourke to help him get the technology into the government’s hands.  The action is fantastic, the story well written, and Downey’s performance is great.  With all the bad superhero movies that Hollywood produces, it’s nice to see a good one.                                                                                                                                          Final Grade for Iron Man 2:  B+

 

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage – Obviously if you do not like the music of Rush, you would have no interest in this film.  But even if you just have the slightest bit of interest, this documentary will blow you away.  Incredibly honest, revealing and even touching, the film explores the band’s beginning, middle and end with no lack of detail, interviewing a slew of current artists, showing footage of the band members’ home movies, and numerous concert performances.  I thought I knew just about everything about Rush, and this film showed me how much I was missing.  It was just humbling to hear musicians like Billy Corgan, Gene Simmons, and Les Claypool describe what they love about Rush, and realize that it’s all the same reasons I love them so much.  But this was not a “fluff” film at all – the negative aspects were not shunned, such as how Rush turned off a chunk of their fan base in the mid-80’s by experimenting with new synthesizer-driven sounds.  I can’t emphasize enough how complete and telling this film is.  Again, if you have even the slightest tingling of an interest in this band, you must see this film.                                                                                                                                                                                                   Final Grade for Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage:  A+

 

Robin Hood – This re-imagining of the classic Robin Hood, a prequel of sorts, stars Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride, an expert archer in King Richard’s army returning from the Crusades.  When King Richard is killed in France and Robert Loxley is murdered trying to return the crown to England, Longstride uncovers a plot by one of Prince John’s henchmen to allow England to be invaded by King Philip of France.  Longstride takes Loxleys’ identity and returns to Nottingham, meets Marion and helps defend England against conflict from within and from the outside.  The story is pretty good, as is the action.  Ridley Scott directed the film, and there are many similarities to the last Scott/Crowe film Gladiator.  But it’s entertaining enough, and the end creates the premise for how Robin Hood became an outlaw and lived in Sherwood Forest.  Cate Blanchett is very good as Marion, and it was nice to see Max von Sydow still alive as Marion’s father…who knew?                                                                                                                                                                                           Final Grade for Robin Hood:  B

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Synoptic Six

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Mystery, Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated, Thriller with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2010 by ericstraus

I know all 3 of you who regularly read these film reviews have been wondering if I’d given up the movie blog, being that it’s been a good 5 weeks or so since the last post.  But no, I return to you today with brief reviews of the six films I’ve seen since that last post; hopefully this will satiate your itching desire to know what I think of these recently released DVDs.  Enjoy.

The Messenger – A moving film with superb acting performances from Woody Harrelson (Oscar-nominated) and Ben Foster.  Two Army men are tasked with personally informing families that their loved ones have perished during combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The veteran Harrelson and the newcomer Foster have differing views about how their job should be carried out, complicated more when Foster begins to have feelings for one of the widows he meets.  There is a decent amount of humor which helps to keep the film from being a complete downer; the relationship between Harrelson and Foster and their performances make the film well worth a viewing.  Final Grade for The Messenger:  B+

From Paris with LoveA fast-paced, silly action film that is a sort of throwback to the cheeky Schwarzenegger films of the 80’s, fraught with one-liners and a pointless story.  John Travolta is actually quite entertaining as a rebellious CIA agent who does things his way, but always gets the job done.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers is pulled into Travolta’s world as a young CIA agent trying to stop a terrorist plot, and the two men battle bad guys all around the City of Light.  The action sequences are very fun to watch, if you’re into that sort of thing, and even some of Travolta’s one-liners are funny.  But it’s little more than a big-budget action film; if you’re looking for character depth, or depth of any kind for that matter, don’t.  But lots of explosions and car chases make for a fun popcorn movie, and to that end, the film delivers.  Final Grade for From Paris with Love:  C+

Edge of DarknessIt’s hard to judge a Mel Gibson film these days without considering what’s been going on in his personal life, but I’ll sure try.  This movie marks Gibson’s return to the screen following his anti-semitic diatribe and drunk driving offense, and overall it’s not bad.  Gibson is a homicide detective who watches his college-age daughter get gunned down right in front of him.  He assumes that he was the target, but as he investigates he learns that his daughter was a political activist and she indeed was intentionally murdered.  He throws the police rulebook away as he conducts his own interrogations, stopping at nothing to discover the truth.  The film has some gritty, intense sequences, but too much of the film is spent on Gibson’s personal reflection and humdrum investigation scenes.  By the time he finds his daughter’s killer, we’re not too bent on seeing him exact his revenge (which we all knew was coming) – there’s no real climax to the film.  Gibson is decent, but it’s obvious the drama in his personal life has taken a toll on his acting chops – he seems like he’s aged a lot more than he actually has, and it’s hard to know how much of the anger and desperation his character takes on is Gibson’s acting or Gibson’s actual personality these days.  Final Grade for Edge of Darkness:  C

The Blind SideI usually make it a point to not see Sandra Bullock movies; most of the time she does films I wouldn’t see anyway, but I usually just don’t like her as an actor.  But with her Oscar hype for this film, I decided to let go my dislike for her and watch the movie; she does deliver a fine performance – not sure if it was Oscar-worthy, but it didn’t annoy me, so that speaks volumes.  The film is a true story of Michael Oher, a young man who has sprinted through the foster system from family to family, never finding a home, and is eventually taken in by the Tuohy family.  The Tuohys are very well-off, and Oher is presented with opportunities he’s never had – Bullock takes him clothes shopping, gets him a tutor, and he begins to understand what it means to be a family.  Colleges begin to recruit him as his terrific athletic ability becomes well-known, and it’s up to Bullock and her family to keep him grounded and safe.  Bullock is very charming as the no-nonsense mothering figure, whose compassion and love for someone like Michael extends to her own family, and actually makes you feel good that she’s based on a real person, Leigh Anne Tuohy.  Quinton Aaron is also very good as Oher; he’s convincing in his obliviousness to what many of us take for granted – family dinners, our own bed, etc.  The film definitely has some overly sappy scenes; the tearjerker moments, if you will.  But overall it’s a good movie, and the ending is particularly moving as they show video and photos of the real Michael Oher and the real Tuohy family.  Final Grade for The Blind Side:  B-

Green ZoneMatt Damon is an action star, as the three “Bourne” films prove.  Those films are sharp, intruiging and fun to watch.  “Green Zone” is not any of those things – it’s a boring military action film, and despite Damon’s always-good acting, it should never have been made.  Paul Greengrass directs this film – he directed the last two Bourne films, so it seems that someone thought putting him and Damon together again would be a good idea.  But they apparently forgot to get a good script to go with it.  The film tells a ficticious account of Iraq in 2003, shortly after the U.S. “liberation,” with specific focus to Army units trying to find WMDs.  Damon’s squad continuously comes up empty after their intelligence reports directs them to where supposed WMDs are being kept.  Damon begins to unravel a conspiracy between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and of course his work puts a stop to it by the end.  Maybe it’s because the story is no longer timely, or maybe because it’s too close to the truth, but it’s not a compelling tale at all.  The action scenes are ok, but they don’t drive the plot and by the end we just don’t care.  Final Grade for Green Zone:  C-

Pirate Radio We saved the best for last.  This is a marvelous film about censorship and rock n’ roll in Britain in the late 60’s.  The British government has virtually banned pop music from its airwaves, but a group of DJs skirt the ban by broadcasting rock music 24 hours a day from a large commercial ship, anchored somewhere in the North Sea, much to the delight of English youth.  It’s basically an ensemble comedy, taking place almost entirely on the ship.  The writing ranges from funny to truly hysterical; the actors do a great job of delivering the hilarious lines.  Kenneth Branagh plays the government pencil-pusher whose mission is to stop the DJs from broadcasting.  His performance is wonderful, as he ranges from ecstatic when he thinks he’s come up with a fool-proof plan, to blisteringly angry when his plans are foiled.  The soundtrack is a delight as well, featuring a lot of well-known tracks from the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and the Who, but also touching on some less-known hits like Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” and the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind.”  The end of the film gets a bit silly, and at times it’s unnecessarily preachy regarding the music=freedom vs. music=indecency argument that we’ve become all-too familiar with regarding the 60’s.  There are also a couple of sub-plots that are amusing, but don’t drive the story much.  For those reasons I had to include the “minus” in the final grade – but overall it’s a very funny movie that entertains from start to finish, highlighted by Branagh and the other actors’ comedic performances.  Final Grade for Pirate Radio:  A-

The Truth and Lies of “The Informant!”

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Mystery with tags , , , , on April 26, 2010 by ericstraus

In this age of corporate irresponsibility and greed, we tend to view “whistleblowers,” the ones who expose the executives for their wrongdoings, as heroes.  20 years ago, however, the attitude was not quite the same.  This discrepancy is depicted in the Steven Soderbergh film “The Informant!” in which we sympathize at first with a corporate whistleblower until we learn more about his motives and his personality.

Matt Damon stars in this true story about Mark Whitacre, a bio-engineer working on an advisory level for a leading manufacturer of corn-based products like high-fructose corn syrup and lysine.  Whitacre, fearing for his job security after sluggish performance numbers, decides to contact the FBI and disclose that his company is involved in an international price-fixing conspiracy.  Agent Brian Shepard, played by Scott Bakula, heads the case and does all he can to help Whitacre – in return, Whitacre must secretly record his meetings with his superiors and competitors to provide proof of the conspiracy.  But as the film goes on, we begin to see holes in Whitacre’s accounts of things – the FBI and even his own wife begin to question his motives and his truthfulness.  By the end, despite Whitacre’s achievement in exposing the conspiracy, his own illegal activities land him in prison and his lies permeate his professional and personal lives.

The film has elements of being a dark comedy and a mystery thriller; Damon, nominated for a Golden Globe for his work, is quite good at convincing everyone, including us, of things that turn out to be false.  It is refreshing to see him looking very different than his usual Jason Bourne action hero role (he had to pack on a few pounds for the part).  The movie certainly holds your attention for the duration, but it’s not nearly as entertaining by the end as when it starts off.  Whitacre is the focus of the film, and we are in the same boat as his bosses, his wife and the FBI as we learn more details about the cover-up without really knowing the truth.  Whitacre’s self-absorption is made obvious many times throughout as we hear his inner dialogue while he tunes out the various people speaking to him.  And that is where the film succeeds – at first we see Whitacre as a savior, a guy finally doing the right thing despite the public backlash against him once it’s made known about his whistle-blowing.  But as his selfish motives become more apparent, we feel betrayed and less sympathetic to his cause. 

Overall it’s a fairly entertaining account of Whitacre’s story and an interesting view of him both as the real Whitacre and as a movie character.

Final Grade for The Informant!: B-

“Ponyo” Doesn’t Swim Deep Enough

Posted in Family/Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by ericstraus

Hayao Miyazaki has directed some marvelous Japanese animation films of late – “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke” are all epic masterpieces of imagination and beauty, defined by their creative plots and Shakespearean characters.  Miyazaki’s latest release, “Ponyo,” maintains some of the beauty and whimsy of its predecessors, but is a much shorter, linear tale that fails to really suck you into any kind of fantasy world; perhaps Miyazaki intended to make a film more grounded in reality, but in doing so, the sense of magic and fantasy are severely lessened.

“Ponyo” is roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Mermaid,” in that it tells the story of a fish born with a human face who desires to become completely human.  Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister) gets her name when a young boy named Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas, younger brother of the Jonas Brothers) finds her sleeping in a tidepool.  Sosuke becomes fascinated with the strange creature, and Ponyo becomes enamored with Sosuke.  But Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is a strange human/sea creature hybrid himself, tracks Ponyo down and brings her back home beneath the sea.  Ponyo discovers that she has magical powers and transforms herself into a human, determined to reunite with Sosuke. 

The story doesn’t get much deeper than that, and a lot of the plot seems incomplete.  Eventually Ponyo’s mother shows up (voiced by Cate Blanchett), a goddess of the sea of sorts, and decides that if Sosuke truly loves Ponyo and she him, then Ponyo can remain human.   Sosuke’s father Koichi (Matt Damon) works on a cargo ship and is not home often, causing strife between him and Sosuke’s mother Lisa (Tina Fey), which is resolved by the end of the film.  Fujimoto is bent on keeping Ponyo with him below the waves because he has a strong dislike for the human race, and talks of an apocalypse where the earth will be covered by water, making the universe balanced once again.  But so much is unexplained:  why is Fujimoto the hybrid creature he is?  Why does he hate the human race so?  Why does Ponyo yearn to be human?  Maybe the original Japanese release went into greater depth with the characters – but the film just feels like it flies by without regard to explaining things.

The movie is not without its merits.  Miyazaki does present some stunning visuals, such as Ponyo’s mother taking on a huge shape as she is one with the ocean, or Fujimoto creating magical colors beneath the sea’s surface while encased in a bubble.  As a very short fable, the film does its job.  But the expectation of a Miyazaki film, at least for me, is to really be transported into a fairy tale, to see things unlike anything ever seen, and to simply be entranced.  “Ponyo” does very little of this; perhaps with tempered expectations I would have enjoyed the film more. 

Final Grade for Ponyo: C+