May 31, 2009

Up

Russell assists Carl amid a lost Peruvian Jungle in Pixar's 'Up'Up, the tenth feature film by Pixar Animation Studios, is an impossible picture to pin down. It borrows liberally from our collective subconscious, not the least of which with its iconic image of the house floating through the air, carried by a massive swarm of balloons. It is a love story, a tragedy, a coming of age story and an adventure serial. It has talking animals, but it is not a talking animal picture. It is a children's film starting two old men (and a Wilderness Scout), told from an elderly perspective. It is joyous and melancholy, brazen yet at times incredibly subtle. Most of all, it is a celebration of living.

The film opens with a news reel about the great adventurer Charles F. Muntz, a heroic Charles Lindbergh-esque adventurer who returns to the jungles of Peru for proof of his disputed discovery. Inside a dilapidated old house on the way home with the name of Muntz's zeppelin scrawled on it, he meets Ellie. Another passionate Muntz fan, she is as talkative and outgoing as Carl is laconic and introverted. A beautifully rendered montage follows their life together, through all of the blissful small moments as well as a few cruel tragedies. It ends with Carl at Ellie's funeral, alone again.

To picture Carl Fredrickson as the film resumes, imagine Walter Matthau at the end of his career with hair just a shade darker than snow -- and then squash him to a third of his height. His personality is all Ed Asner, though: curt, growled opinions often hastily reconsidered. All of fire of Lou Grant, but with the additional gravel of an additional four decades of living. Unlike Asner's famous TV incarnation, Carl is as unabashedly sentimental anyone who says so little can be. Ellie was the light of his world, and his devotion to her is the guiding force of his life.

He is joined by Russell, an overly eager wilderness scout who floats away with Carl while searching for an animal under the old man's porch. He frustrates Carl, who seems him as both an obstacle to fulfilling a promise and as a symbol of the child he could not have. Russell has his own share of vulnerabilities, leaving himself emotionally exposed as only an innocent child can. Watching the two bond is one of the great pleasures of the film, as they slowly peel back the layers of each others' lives. Russell helps complete Carl's story, and Carl helps preserve Russell's innocence for just a little while longer.

They relationship grows over the course of a 1930's adventure yarn full of exotic jungles, mysterious creatures, a mustache-twirling villain and thrilling mid-air acrobatics. Though anchored by the poignant human developments, Pete Doctor's setpieces are arguably the broadest and most fantastic in Pixar's history. Only minor concessions are made to the rules of gravity and physics, with many moments that would be impossible even by standard action movie logic. Anyone who has a problem with it should remember they bought a ticket to a film with a house floating through the air on balloons on the poster.

Up aims for something unusual in for modern cinema, especially animated fare: it reflects on how time changes us and effects us, how we miss out on things we deeply desire and discover wonderful things we'd never have expected. It explores what it means to be old with a lifetime of experiences and relationships behind you, and from that perspective it witnesses youth with a lifetime of experiences and relationships yet to be had. It is a coming of age story for a man nearing the end of his life; a man who experienced the kind of love we all hope for faced with the opportunity of experiencing the kind of love he'd long since given up hope for. Despite occasionally going too far out on a limb, it stands as an instant classic.(***½)


May 27, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Humans battle machines in 'Terminator Salvation'"Come with me if you want to live," Kyle Reese barks at Marcus Wright and it's to Anton Yelchin's credit that we aren't distracted by the callback. His performance, quickly following his take on Chekov in the rebooted "Star TreK" in a grim commentary on Hollywood originality, channels Michael Biehn's crazed eyes and unwavering intensity. His supporting role is one of the few highlights of McG's strange little hybrid of a movie, a frustrating war epic that marries the mythology of the earlier Terminator films with the iconography and sensibility of the Mad Max films.

This is not the Future War we saw flashes of in the earlier films; it's browner, dirtier, more rural. Unanchored from the real world of the present, there isn't the same tension and weight to the proceedings. Cameron's films and Mostow's follow-up were all deceptively intimate films; two or three good guys at war with one seemingly unstoppable bad guy in a world that largely failed to acknowledge either. With more primitive machines hunting far better trained and equipped humans, McG's end of the world feels far less threatening than 1984. A rotating roster of protagonists and the lack of a clear villain results in a two hour epic with shockingly little character development.

After opening in 2003 with Marcus Wright donating his body to science minutes before being executed, the film quickly jumps to 2018 where John Connor and Kate Brewster have emerged from the fallout shelter and joined the burgeoning resistance. Despite repeated successes on the battlefield, Connor's superiors are highly suspicious of him. Their unease has a lot to do with his ham radio broadcasts, which mix seemingly uncanny predictions about the enemy with the gospel of the late great Sarah Connor. Christian Bale's performance doesn't help either; Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl played Connor as compassionate, brilliant and visibly tormented by the weight of destiny. Both played the character with a warmth that made them easy to like and trust. Christian Bale's steely and impenetrable performance keeps us at arm's length, one of the most crucial missteps of the film.

The closest thing to a human performance is Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright. His character development, while sparse, far exceeds the glimpses we get of Bale's John Connor. Worthington gamely works his way through action setpiece after action setpiece with obvious athleticism. The twist involving his character, spoiled in seemingly every trailer and TV spot, raises some of the film's more interesting questions. Nothing were shown, however, demonstrates why a new protagonist had to be created when fans walked into the theater far more interested in what Kyle Reese and John Connor were up to. Had the focus been on either of those two as the sole protagonist, the result would have been a far more cohesive final product.

And yet for all of my criticisms and disappointments, the film remains an enjoyable two hour thrill ride. The use of apocalyptic cliches like the mute child sidekick and the roaming nomadic tribe led by a frail old lady don't seriously detract from what is already a flawed enterprise. McG's elaborate pyrotechnics and action choreography are unlikely to be paralleled again this year. Compared to Mostow's slavish recreation of Cameron's style and pacing, the production here feels like a bold leap forward.

As a preposterous but entertaining ride that showcases key events from the Terminator mythology, Terminator Salvation is perfectly satisfactory. The disappointment comes from remembering that it is the successor to one of the most critically acclaimed action series of all time. Sometime around Judgment Day, the franchise lost track of its characters and story.(**½)


April 05, 2009

Adventureland

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart find love over water races and ring tossing in 'Adventureland'There are moments in our lives that are preserved with crystal clarity, such that when our present reality bumps into one of them an aching burst of emotion tears through us. We can go back to places, which may or may not have changed over the years, but we can't go back to the moments. With Adventureland, Greg Mottola recaptures a microcosm of American life in 1987 with all the intensity of the original experience. The promos for this film promise another Superbad, but the reality is something both deceptively simpler and more unembellished.

James Brennan is the well-to-do son of well-to-do parents. After graduating from Oberlin with a liberal arts degree, he is excited to embark across Europe with his well-to-do friends before heading to Columbia for grad school in the fall. But fate intervenes: his father has been transferred to a different department at a much lower pay scale. Suddenly Europe is off the table, and Columbia looks threatened unless he can raise some cash. For the first time, he's going to have to work.

Possessing no employment history and unqualified for even manual labor, the summer job picture looks bleak. He finally turns to his immature neighbor for a job operating the midway games at the local low-rent amusement park.

Adventureland has a certain internal rhythm native to dead end jobs like it. Everybody with someplace better to be is alread gone, so the teens and twentysomethings are left marking time with nobody left but each other. A couple days in, NYU undergraduate Em slips in from the neighboring booth to save James from an altercation with public. Under the circumstances, that's all it takes for her to become an increasingly important part of his world. James, Em and everybody else have plenty of time to get to know each other from trash duty in the morning to conversations in the parking lot (sometimes enhanced with a little well-to-do pot) as the garish lights flicker out.

Like most young on-screen couples, James and Em face their share of complications. But in this case none of those complications feel even the slightest bit artifical. Everything that happens in this movie not only does happen, but has happened many times before. A party in this case is a dozen co-workers hanging out in an empty house, not the bash of the century. Late night drives with mixed tapes filling the silence chart out James and Em's growing closeness. A booth in a dive bar gets under the neon glow of a beer sign is the setting of their first extended conversation.

The dynamic between James and Em works because Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are extraordinarily gifted at communicating a lot without saying anything. Em initially seems quite forward, but the closer James gets the more she seems to be retreating. Ever-serious James's has an innocence that she longs for. Moments when James's intellectual aspirations are undercut by a certain base horniness provide some of the movie's best laughs. Eisenberg offsets that awkwardness with a sturdy even-headness that earns the respect of those around him. It's an essential quality that separates him from the goofier and more lovable Michael Cera.

The supporting cast is composed of the type of people we all know. The comedic moments depend on the memories they stir up as much as the delivery. I've had these conversations, been around these people. As the park owner, Bill Hader completes his takeover of Dan Akroyd's old niche. Ryan Reynolds is the biggest surprise, trading his smarmy onscreen persona for an understated, largely dramatic performance weighted with long-settled sadness over a life that didn't quite turn out as planned.

At key moments James and Em hurt each other deeply. Remarkably, they respond by empathizing with their transgressor. After the immediate emotional reaction, they march ahead with eyes a little more open. Who happens to them after the credits roll is left to our imaginations. But one thing is for sure: the summer they shared together is a memory they'll be bumping into for the rest of their lives.(***½)


February 21, 2009

All Roads Lead Home

Vivien Cardone attempts to save condemned animals in 'All Roads Lead Home'It's easy to find reasons to dismiss All Roads Lead Home. Shot in Kansas City by a small independent producer on a shoestring budget, it bears many of the unfortunate hallmarks of the direct-to-video family genre: cinematography that's only a step or two up from amateur video, a cloying and overly literal score and a screenplay full of overly familiar archetypes and cringeworthy dialog. None of that changes the fact that it's an incredibly hard film to dislike.

The story centers around Belle Lawlor, the daughter of a dog catcher and the granddaughter of a horse breeder. This resulted in a childhood surrounded by animals. She loves them as much as her mother does. But when her mother dies, very early in the film, that love causes her regular heartache. One of her father's responsibilities is to euthanize the animals that require it. Culling the inferior offspring is a necessary part of her grandfather's business model.

Though the film pulls back from the worst of its punches (don't expect your kids to be blindsided by an Old Yeller ending), it doesn't shy away from tackling the difficult questions it raises. The film is emphatically promotes alternatives to euthanasia, but recognizes that there are times when euthanasia is necessary. Belle's grandfather indulges her desire to save all of the animals near the end of the film, but is frank that he can't do it forever. Belle's father is equally frank about the circumstances of her mother's death. At the hospital, he repeated refused to sign off on a do-not-resuscitate order. But after 39 hours of trauma, his wife died anyway. In the end, he wished he'd done the thing his daughter had resentfully assumed he'd done. I appreciated that the film respected its young audience enough to think they could handle dealing with these issues.

Aside from a few local supporting actors, the performances are a step above what you normally get from movies with this kind of budget. Vivien Cardone had years of experience playing a grieving daughter on "Everwood" and it no doubt helped her with the formidable burden of carrying the film on her shoulders. Peter Coyote brings an incredible warmth to the grandfather, essential for a character that must share many horrible truths. I've long considered Jason London one of Hollywood's most wooden working actors, so I was very surprised with his convincing portrayal of Belle's dad. As written Evan Parke's character seems dangerously close to the Magic Negro stereotype, but his execution helps to counter that. Patton Oswalt got the best written character of the bunch and makes the most of it. Vanessa Branch got the most poorly scripted character of the bunch but makes the most it too. I don't know if it's because he so close to the end, but the late great Peter Boyle brings an entirely different energy than we expect from him for his last on-screen role. His inn-keeper character is either a little crazy, or wants everybody to think so.

While the film snob in me found plenty to sneer at, again and again I kept wishing more family films had its convictions. For all of their gloss and technical accomplishment, most Hollywood family films are ultimately pandering diversions. If When I was in the targeted age range, All Roads Lead Home would have given me a lot to consider. And given the choice, wouldn't you rather your kids watch a humble little movie that engages their minds instead of a flashy blockbuster that merely dazzles their senses?(**½)


February 19, 2009

Henry Poole Is Here

Henry Poole revisits childhood haunts in 'Henry Poole is Here'What little critical attention was paid to Henry Poole is Here, one of 2008's overlooked gems, alternately embraced or dismissed the film as a celebration of religious faith. It is unquestionably a celebration of faith, but only in the broadest sense of the word. It's about finding yourself in a place where you can't see your way to tomorrow—and discovering that meaning is everywhere around you.

The film opens with Henry Poole's homecoming. When his perky and persistent realtor shows him a dump of a house in a dilapidated L.A. neighborhood, he decides to buy it on the spot. Yes, he wants to pay full asking price. No, he doesn't want any repairs made first. He's not going to be living in the house long anyway. The full significance of that assertion is unraveled slowly.

Henry's trips to the grocery store center around the acquisition of large quantities of alcohol. The cashier, peering at him through Coke-bottle glasses, and tells him he looks angry and sad. Her observation is spot on, and has everything (or maybe nothing) to do with the secret he's hiding.

And yet, despite his tightly coiled despair, Henry is reveal through a series of small and beautiful articulated moments to be a fundamentally decent person. He really listens to his overly intrusive and deeply passionate neighbor Esperanza, even as he attempts to drive her off his property. When he discovers Millie, the young daughter of his neighbor next door, taping his conversations through the fence, he approaches her with the deliberateness and gentleness one would afford to a cornered animal. Rather than confront the child, he affords her the space she needs to express her own turmoil.

His neighbors are all just as fundamentally decent. The neighborhood has visibly decayed in the years since Henry moved away, transformed from a symbol of the American Dream to a place where dreams go to die. Its current inhabitants form a community more social than is strictly desirable. Millie's mother Dawn went through a break-up so traumatic that the girl hasn't spoken since. Patience, the cashier, faces Henry and the world with an indomitable optimism. A water stain on the side of Henry's house provides Esperanza with an affirmation of the love she shared with the man who previously inhabited it. Father Salazar tries to stay on top of the fervently Catholic Hispanic congregation that surrounds them.

The neighborhood responds to the water stain, which may or may not be a divine image representation of the Savior, in ways that range from the profoundly symbolic to the regrettably unambiguous. Henry remains steadfastly unconvinced through it all, though his experiences with Dawn and Millie leave him with a desperate desire to persuaded.

The ending feels maddeningly artificial and contrived, but how could it end anyway else given everything that has come before? Either way, Luke Wilson sells it from the first frame to the last in a performance that captures all the humanity and complexity of his on-screen personality. Through his skeptical eyes, we are greeted with a vision of humanity that is honest and affirming. Adriana Barraza makes an irritating woman sympathetic and endearing. At seven years of age, Morgan Lily turns in a three-dimensional performance in a role with virtually no dialog. Radha Mitchell and George Lopez each do a great job with a thankless role. Rachel Seiferth's first scene convinces us that Patience is pathetic. It takes a remarkable performance over the rest of the time to prove otherwise. Don't let the films few irritating contrivances detract from an artistically sound and incredibly moving embrace of hope.(***½)


February 09, 2009

Push

Dakota Fanning sees the future in 'Push'Push is an intriguing but unexceptional scifi thriller in dire need of a final act. Functionally, the movie plays like Minority Report crossbred with "Heroes" in the back alleys of Hong Kong. What sets it apart is a unique visual palette and editing choices that favor small character beats over blistering action sequences.

As thirteen-year-old clairvoyant Cassie Holmes explains over the opening credits, ordinary people with extraordinary abilities walk among us. Beginning with the Nazis during World War II, governments around the world have tried to weaponize these individuals. Until Kira Hudson, all of these efforts had been lethal. But Kira survived, and escaped to Hong Kong—where Cassie and telekinetic deadbeat Nick Gant are destined to find her.

Dakota Fanning and Chris Evans anchor the film. When Nick is introduced as a failed gambler and general loser, Evans plays him as a man living far below his potential. Because he doesn't let Nick seem naive, it makes his rather sudden transition to ringleader of a complex and intricately plotted conspiracy more credible. Fanning imbues Cassie with depth; she manages to balance moments of true youthful innocence with a factitious snarky exuberance that masks the heavy burden of knowing too much.

The rest of the characters exist to serve a function. As Kira, Camilla Belle is impenetrable. A human MacGuffin, Kira exists so that Nick and Cassie have something to chase after. Djimon Hounsou, Joel Gretsch, Cliff Curtis, Ming-Na, and a large cast of most Chinese cohorts serve as pieces in an ever changing puzzle.

That puzzle demands the audience's full attention, and will leave many scratching their heads. I enjoyed keeping track of it all, and appreciated the obvious work that must have gone into bringing things together cleanly. Unfortunately, there's more puzzle than the movie's 111 minutes can hold. The ending is beyond frustrating, cutting to credits just when the characters are poised to dive into the larger mythology. Good movies know better than to dangle characters in front of the audience they'll never get to meet. Imagine if The Third Man had ended right before the Ferris wheel scene, and you'll understand Push's biggest failing.

There is much to be admired about Push, including a great cast, fantastic location shooting, and a smarter-than-average plot. Unfortunately, the good parts don't overcome cardboard cut-out supporting characters and an ending that doesn't resolve anything. All things considered, it would have made a better television pilot than a movie.(**½)


July 10, 2008

Hancock

Will Smith is a drunken superhero in 'Hancock'Hancock is a mess. This is a movie that, like its title character, lacks purpose and direction. Hey, this is funny, I thought to myself as I watched. Why is everyone so down on the movie? And then it ended, just as the movie seemed to be gearing up for its second act.

There is a climax, albeit a rather lackluster one, but it's plopped down right after we've finally gotten a hang of all the relationships. The romantic leads' very miniscule shared screen time is dominated by scenes where Hancock asks what the hell is going on.

He's confused because eighty years ago he woke up in the hospital with no memory and a whole bevy of superpowers. He's filled the decades since with heroics and hangovers that dull a sense of longing for something that he can't quite place. Like Marty McFly from Back to the Future, he's got a bit of a temper problem and really doesn't like being called a certain word. He seems destined to continue on his self-destructive — really, just plain destructive — path indefinitely until he saves a do-gooder PR flack from a train wreck and gets invited to dinner as a show of gratitude.

Hancock has a major impact on the PR flack and his family, and they on him. He works to clean up his act, and public opinion turns in his favor. I actually appreciated the pro-responsibility message of the movie, but I wish it had come in better packaging. Hancock's journey is largely passive — totally submissive to the PR flack's patient direction and the PR flack's wife's fiery declarations. His only truly independent decision comes at the end of the picture, and the build-up isn't sufficient enough for his sacrifice to carry any real meaning.

There are some deliciously un-P.C. moments scattered throughout the first half of the film, though most have been spoiled by the advertising campaign. This movie had a rough go getting through the MPAA, and much of the movie's off-color flavor seems to have been lost in the process. Will Smith makes the most of a severely underwritten character; his Hancock seems to process everything that happens around him though a world-weary haze, like he isn't surprised but he somehow expected better. As the PR flack, Jason Bateman does a solid job playing the same happy-go-lucky mortal that Luke Wilson and Dick York have played before him. His even-keeled response to even the most shocking and extraordinary developments was endearing, though his nice guy nagging to do the right thing quickly becomes trying. Charlize Theron handles the wild change from stone-cold psycho in the first half of the film to bereaved martyr in the second as well as can be expected.

The ending is interesting and complex, and promises a movie full of complex characters and emotions that it has no time to deliver. The first half is a lot of fun, though each step in Hancock's rehabilitation makes the movie a little more bland. Had the movie not waited until the 11th hour to declare its ambitions, the filmmakers might have had something &151; a Highlander-esque world with polytheistic overtones. I don't mind a bait and switch, if it's interesting and well-executed. The plot twist in Hancock, in addition to being ruined in the trailers, is ultimately neither.(**)