31 August 2011

Movies: Gnomeo & Juliet

Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0377981/

Animation

Animated retelling of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" acted out by garden gnomes and assorted other garden statuary.
That's probably my quickest and most accurate summary of a story.

The film is cute. The animation is good, the close-up texturing of the gnomes makes them really look like garden pottery gnomes. The filler sound effects are great too, little clinks and stuff when the gnomes contact things. The voice acting was good too, some recognizable, others not, but all seemed fitting to the characters.

As for the music, I was thinking "Man, the soundtrack is very Elton John heavy." Then I saw during the end-credits that Elton John was an executive producer on the project. So yeah, that explains it.  Thankfully there wasn't a bunch of recent pop-culture references that will make the film dated in years to come. For some reason I prefer the sound tracks that are made for the animated films vs. those that use popular music shoehorned in to the film. For me, if it feels forced it detracts.

The film is definitely targeted for children, and most likely should be a hit with the kids. The gnomes are cute, the colors are bright, it's paced well so as to not lull them off to sleep.  There's a couple of scenes that might be scary or possibly emotionally crushing to the young'uns too. But if they ride it out long enough they should be okay about it. There was one really obvious 'adult themed double entendre joke' that may or may not go over a young'uns head involving squirrels. Aside from that, for the big kids (adults) there's a couple references to other Shakespeare works. If you missed 'em, check out IMDB's Trivia page for the film. I caught some of the more obvious ones, missed out on some others.

There's a song-and-dance number at the end of the film, much like what you get from Shrek films. Nothing at all to do with the story, just there for there's sake.

Overall is it a great film? Great ideas, but on the whole an average execution despite very good technical production. We're not talking Shakespeare here. Oh wait. Actually the film is very much aware of itself and that's obvious from the opening monologue. I think the feeling of mediocrity for adult viewers comes from forgetting this film is targeted for the child audience. It gives them a good introduction to a well-known Shakespearean play.  Like him or hate him, there is a reason why Shakespeare's works have endured for 500 years.

I still liked it. It's entertaining enough. Not bad for a non-Pixar film, and avoided most of the pitfalls other animated films tend to fall in to if their story is lacking. Good flick for the kids and garden gnome enthusiasts.

27 August 2011

Movies: Ironclad

Ironclad (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1233301/

Action/ Historical drama

Set in early 13th century England. After being forced to sign the Magna Carta, the tyrant King John begins his Church-backed retaking of the country. King John's reneging on the Magna Carta is opposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the barons behind the Magna Carta.  The Archbishop teams a Knight Templar with Lord Albany to bring a ragtag group of mercenaries together to take and hold Rochester castle, stopping King John's advance to retake England, while envoys of the Archbishop negotiate with the French to invade and depose King John.

The film has an incredibly strong cast with Paul Giamatti as King John, James Purefoy as the Templar Thomas Marshal, Brian Cox as Lord Albany, quite a few other recognizable strong supporting cast members. I was pleased to see Vladimir Kulich. He played Buliwyf in The 13th Warrior, one of my favorite films.

The watch-ability of the film does improve by having an awareness of the history surrounding King John, the Magna Carta and its significance. The film does take some liberties with historical accuracy, probably to ratchet up the drama. I have no idea how much of the Magna Carta history is taught in schools any more, I barely remembered anything from my school days. I did the next best thing - took a quick Wikipedia look-see.

In some ways the film has a Seven Samurai feel to it - mostly in that the ragtag group assembled by Albany numbers seven and they face a large opposing force of King John and his Scandinavian mercenaries. But in comparison the writing, character depth, direction and story Seven Samurai (and even its remake The Magnificent Seven) is much stronger and plays out much better.

The cast did great. The locations and sets seemed late Dark Ages enough, as opposed to 'pretty-fied' squalor.  The special effects during the fight scenes were good and grisly. Chopping and maces and stuff. Considering a modest budget of $25mil they did quite well.

I thought the film felt less polished when it came to the flow of the film - I don't know if it was editing choices or some of the dialog or what. At times there is voice-over exposition, but it seemed more intrusive than helpful to me for some reason. Thankfully it isn't too often. At times the pace of the film seemed to drag, but then it would pick right back up. The film did lack some in the fleshing out of the mercenary characters collected by Albany, so there is less connection felt with them than one felt with "Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven" core cast.  The film focused more on the major players: the Templar, Albany, and Albany's squire, with bits of big King John attitude and ruthlessness.  To be fair there is a little character-type establishment for each one brought along, but after that first meeting there isn't much else to define them.

Despite the film's flaws I still enjoyed it and felt it was worth the watch. Not so much a must-see film, but more a worth watching if you've got a free evening and happen to enjoy medieval themed films. I thought it much better than the latest Robin Hood film. As for learning something about history - it's best to look it up to correct the historical inaccuracies of who was where when.

22 August 2011

On the dearth of August film reviews

August 2011 seems to be shaping up to be the month of the significantly least number of film reviews.
Prior to August I seemed to be putting out a review every day or two, whereas August seems to be shaping up to average maybe one review every 3 to 5 days.

Sorry about that.

It isn't for lack of desire to watch films. More like too much watching other stuffs.

I don't review every film I watch here. Sometimes I'll end up watching a favorite film again, or maybe re-watching a film or two I've already reviewed just to see if the second viewing changes my first impressions.  And some films I just don't feel like reviewing at all. For example I just re-watched Beavis and Butthead Do America. There's no reason to review that.

I don't review every documentary I watch either. And after having re-discovered some really great programming on PBS, I've been watching a lot more than I used to. Plus there's been some good documentaries on the premium channels as well. But I don't always feel compelled to point 'em out.

There's been some watchable episodic television series this summer season too. A few more than I usually watch.  Especially weird (for me) is how SyFy sucked me in on series like Haven and Alphas. Warehouse 13 already sucked me in its first season, mostly because WH13 doesn't take itself that seriously, the cast has fun, and it makes the series more enjoyable. There's been a few new series on the premium movie channels I've been watching, and some older faves that have returned.  So glad Breaking Bad is back on.  Plus there was Falling Skies, Wilfred, Louie. I started regularly watching Jon Stewart and Colbert instead of watching piecemeal, and added The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson to the lineup as well.

Plus there's the few reality series I watch, like Big Brother, America Gots Talent, Hell's Kitchen, Master Chef and Expedition Impossible. BB is especially time consuming because of Showtime's Big Brother After Dark. Although I didn't watch the first 10 seasons I finally got sucked in. There's something compelling about trying to analyze the game and where people's heads are at. Luckily DVR technology allows me to fast forward through the more boring parts. Except for the live Thursday shows I already know what the state of the game is before the Sunday and Wednesday shows air.

Plus there were shows on various Discovery channels like Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, Curiosity, Wonders of the Universe. Investigation Discovery seems to always suck me in too. Various shows on National Geographic. History Channel's Top Shot started a new season too.

So yeah, I'm still doing a bunch of watchin, there's just been a glut of TV recently consuming time.  I'm sure things will balance out soon.

Movies: 127 Hours

127 Hours (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1542344/

Drama based on a true event

Perhaps you remember hearing about this story in the news.
Aron Ralston is a mountain climber. Back in April 2003 he went hiking in Blue John Canyon in Utah without telling anyone where he was going. During the hike he dislodged a boulder and fell with it into a crevice, where the 800 pound boulder pinned his arm to the wall. After spending six days trying to free his arm, out of food and water, he ends up cutting his arm off with a dull knife, rappelling and walking out of the canyon, and is rescued.
I don't think telling the gist of the story counts as a spoiler, this was big news in May 2003, and the film is basically billed as that story.

Written and directed by Danny Boyle, director of "Slumdog Millionaire," "Sunshine," "28 Days Later," "The Beach," all of which I've seen and enjoyed, plus "Trainspotting" and a few other films.
Stars James Franco as Aron Ralston. Franco was in "Freaks and Geeks," Harry Osborne in the Spider-Man films, in the newest Planet of the Apes flick, and a bunch of other films. Most likely you'd recognize him.

I'd heard plenty of positive buzz around this flick, especially going into the Academy Awards season. I still remember the news stories about the incident because it was quite an extreme act of self-preservation, and various news stories were quite detailed in describing his ordeal.  But I still wasn't convinced I wanted to see it, or I would at least wait until it hit the movie channels circuit. There was that slight niggling thought in the back of the mind about how the heck could a film about the event successfully fill an hour and a half and be interesting?

Well, I got an answer. My wife wanted to see it sooner.

We don't just see the build-up to the arm-trapping boulder and his struggles to free himself, we get to see depicted the memories, imaginings and hallucinations he experienced while trapped. The story actually does unfold in an engaging way and delivers quite a punch in the end. Kudos to Danny Boyle. He did good with this film and met the expectations I formed based on enjoying his earlier works.
I especially liked the no-nonsense approach to the film. Very little seemed contrived or overly fictionalized for the film. I'm sure some of that happened to some extent, it's practically unavoidable in any drama based on real-life events, but its overall feel was quite authentic.

The film starts off at a good pace, slows a little during the middle, then slams it home at the end. Only one continuity editing issue stood out to me early on, just a minor thing. Great location shooting and framing. Franco's performance was quite good.

For me the film was well worth watching and much more engaging than I had anticipated. The payoff at the end is worth the time getting there, and the time getting there does a good job putting your brain in a place to feel relief and elation when he is rescued despite knowing the basics and conclusion of the story ahead of time.

If you do choose to watch the film, the arm-severing event is graphic, so be prepared if you are a weak-stomached sort.

-----------

The IMDB trivia page has some interesting tidbits of info. Especially because the film is based on a true story of recent occurrence. What stood out to me especially is this quote:
When Aron Ralston was asked how how authentic the film was, he said, "the movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama."
It was also interesting to read that the camcorder Franco (as Aron) talks to in the film when he's recording messages to his family is the actual camcorder that the real Aron used when he was trapped.

21 August 2011

Movies: The Roommate

The Roommate (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1265990/

Thriller

Sara from Des Moines, Iowa, goes to college in LA to become a clothing designer. She is paired up with Rebecca as her roommate in the dorm. Rebecca is from LA, her parents live not too far away, but wants to distance herself from them while attending college. Then Rebecca gets freaky obsessed with Sara, wanting to be her only friend and works against the 'competition' for Rebecca's friendship.

Stars Minka Kelly and Leighton Meester, with small supporting roles filled by the 'big guns' Billy Zane and Frances Fisher. Yeah - most likely you'd recognize Zane and Fisher before Kelly and Meester, but they gotta start somewhere. Actually they both have been in a few films and TV series, all of which I've not seen or if I had seen them I never realized they were in there.

Kelly and Meester did ok looking pretty in their roles, and they did fine with the material they were given to work with. But I think the problems with the film are much deeper than the cast. The best, most exciting thrilling part of the film is the very end of the film, the final showdown. But the rest of the film is transparently plotted and weakly delivered. Even the epilogue even falls flat. Other than the Sara to Rebecca and Sara to her boyfriend relationships, the satellite relationships aren't well developed. The attempts to slowly fill the viewer in on Rebecca's family and past are sparse and thin, leaving lots for the viewer to have to fill in on their own time. Some films effectively accomplish this, this film, not so much. I realize the story they are trying to tell and recognized the attempts at trying to 'show' the buildup to the end and all, but most of it is so predictable it's almost laughable in some moments.

Despite its weaknesses, it was its most entertaining in the payoff right before the end. However the end isn't a strong enough reason to seek out the film.

This film is basically a weakly accomplished remake/rewrite of 1992's Single White Female, a much better film starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh. If you've seen "Single White Female" you would spot the weaknesses of "The Roommate" quite easily in comparison. There is no reason to even see "The Roommate" if you've seen "Single White Female". And if you haven't seen either film and are looking for a film in the 'psycho bitch wants to take over someone else's life' category, go with "Single White Female". IMO "Single White Female" is still a re-watchable film, "The Roommate" offers no reason to watch it again.

13 August 2011

Movies: Unstoppable

Unstoppable (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0477080/

Thriller, some Action

While moving a string of freight cars in the train yard the engineer jumps out of the locomotive cab to set a track switch. A mistake in setting the controls sends the unmanned locomotive off on to the main line under full power, dragging the freight cars which included some filled with fuel and toxic chemicals.  Meanwhile another loaded freight train is headed in the opposite direction on the same line. Watch as everyone scrambles to stop the train before it potentially derails in a highly populated area.
The film is based on a real incident, which if you are curious you can read about it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSX_8888_incident.

Stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pine (Capt Kirk in the Star Trek reboot), Rosario Dawson, and a great supporting cast. Even has Ethan Suplee in it, which I only mention 'cause I've been catching him popping up in some good supporting roles over the years after first seeing him in "Mallrats" and "American History X". If you ever happened to catch "My Name is Earl" you'd recognize him as Earl's brother Randy.
Directed by Tony Scott who has probably directed something you've already seen - like maybe "Enemy of the State" or "The Last Boy Scout" or "Man on Fire" or "Top Gun". He also directed the remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3", which, if you've read my review, I didn't particularly care for. But that's okay - because "Unstoppable" more than makes up for that film.

Great cinematography, good story, great performances by the cast, and once that thrill ride starts going it doesn't stop until the end. I was pleasantly surprised. Going into it I wasn't sure if a 'save the train' movie would have the legs to go the distance and even debated watching it or not. Glad I did.

Yes the film has a little 'punching up' from its inspirational source and has fictionalized characters and dialog and such - but that's why the film works so well.  Don't look to it for historical accuracy, just sit back and enjoy the thrill ride.

Great Friday night thriller with light action film, a real 'edge of the seat popcorn burner'.

11 August 2011

Movies: The Rite

The Rite (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1161864/

Supernatural thriller film, supposedly based on real events.

It's about a young priest-in-training. He basically went through the training to get away from his family mortuary business, and his father. He was a skeptic going in, and a skeptic upon graduation. He planned to not become a priest when finished. One of his instructors talks him into attending the Vatican's exorcism academy. Even there the instructors realize he's not toeing the priestly line so they apprentice him under an experienced exorcist instead, one that has experienced many of the same skepticism and doubts over the years, yet continues in that role.  Then exorcism-y events occur.

Stars Colin O'Donoghue. Don't worry, I thought "who?" too. But yeah, that guy is the central character. The supporting cast includes a few recognizable members such as Anthony Hopkins, Rutger Hauer, Alice Braga. The publicity and film poster pushes Hopkins, but he's not the central character. Which means the film is being sold to audiences on big name cast members over content. It is good to see Rutger Hauer still taking on more serious roles from time to time. I was afraid the guy was forever doomed for hack roles like "Hobo with a Shotgun".

I'm not entirely sure how 'real events' this film is, beyond the Vatican's push to put more exorcists in the field. I heard that the director got to listen in on some exorcisms from outside the room while putting the project together, and supposedly a couple of the characters are based on real exorcists.  Probably as 'based on real events' as "The Exorcist" was.

As exorcist films go it wasn't terrible, wasn't exactly groundbreaking either. This film did have decent enough production, acting, story line for the subject matter.  The story concentrates more on the spiritual journey of the budding young priest-in-training than it does on possessions and exorcisms. But it also seemed to just drag about and not do a whole lot. It still seemed a few shades better than "The Last Exorcism" in many ways. But overall, for me, it just seemed rather ho-hum if not boring in retrospect. Not much different than other exorcism films that precede it. At least it didn't go overboard with the possession/exorcism portrayals, except maybe the 'turning point' event. Not near as crazy creepy as "The Exorcist" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which are both films I would recommend to anyone wanting to watch exorcism films. I'd say "The Rite" falls sort of between those two should-see films (in the exorcism genre) and the probably-should-avoid-because-I-found-them-disappointing films like "The Last Exorcism" and "An American Haunting".  Regardless, you won't miss out on anything by not seeing this film.

If you're still in the market for an exorcism film check out "The Exorcist" if you haven't seen it already. Be warned, though, it hasn't aged very well when compared with all the possession/exorcism films that came out after, which were all heavily influenced by "The Exorcist".  It set the foundation, so it's worth the watch for historical reasons.
If you haven't yet seen "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" that would probably be a better one to watch than "The Rite". Come to think of it, "Fallen" would be a good choice too, even though it isn't an exorcism film - more of a slick demonic possession film.  If you've watched a few possession/exorcism films already "The Rite" isn't going to add anything to the genre. I would not recommend bothering to see "The Last Exorcism" or "An American Haunting".

Movies: Battle Los Angeles

Battle Los Angeles (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1217613/

sci-fi action thriller

The morning after Marine Staff Sergeant Nantz submitted his retirement paperwork a cluster of previously undetected meteors hits Earth. The meteors tend to hit in small clusters off the coast of multiple countries, about 10 miles out from their major population centers. Then the aliens show up and start systematically killing folks.  The Earth has been invaded and is at war.We follow Nantz and the unit he was assigned to as they try to extract remaining civilians from the 'buffer zone' in Los Angeles before the whole area is bombed.

The film has quite a cast of decent actors including Aaron Eckhart as Nantz. Eckhart played Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. He's that actor that looks sort of like Thomas Jane but isn't. I swear those guys are interchangeable. Michelle Rodriguez is in this, as is Bridget Moynahan. You might also recognize Michael Peña or Adetokumboh M'Cormack - he was Yemi on Lost, and Tuko in Heroes. Also got a kick out of seeing Jim Parrack in this one -- he's the guy that plays Hoyt on HBO's True Blood.

The film doesn't waste much time - it does a little bit of establishing the Nantz character and some of his background, introduces you to his squad members, then we're all thrown into the thick of things as the make their way to an LA police station to escort some civilians out to an evac site.  After that the tension keeps ratcheting up as they have to fight their way back out of the area.  Lots of explosions, gunfire, plenty of effects shots, stunts, etc. Sci-fi-ey, action-ey, and thriller-ey.

One thing I really liked was how the alien ships flew -- they had little jets blastin from different spots to maintain level, to hover, etc. It didn't look like 'mysterious alien force' keeping them aloft. Another thing I liked was that the human's weapons were actually effective. Sure they may have had some troubles, but at least there wasn't, again, 'mysterious alien force' in play to render everything ineffective. These two things open up a bunch of ways humans can defend, strike back, etc. without having to rely on deus ex machina solutions (or Independence Day's cheesy computer virus solution).

Before watching the film I anticipated something like a world war II movie style set against extraterrestrial invaders, I wasn't expecting a deep emotionally connected film with stunning dialog. That's pretty much what I got out of the film too - what I expected. I was entertained.  Is it like other invasion films or other war films? Sure, not a whole lot that's new in the film. But it didn't bother me that was the case. Seriously - how many times can someone rehash extraterrestrial invasion films without recycling what's been done by someone in some previous similarly themed film? At this point it comes down to convincingly telling a story without a lot of cheating.

I'm not sure what the large amount of negative critic reaction to this film was about. It didn't seem to promise anything more than it delivered, it had a capable cast, decent enough story line, some slight depth for the major player and not a whole lot for everyone else, some make it, some don't. The film was still more enjoyable than Skyline was for me. Less funny, though. I think Skyline was naturally funny in how bad it got at times.  I guess for me it gave me as much or slightly more than I was expecting, even though I wasn't expecting that much to begin with.

I suppose this film could be considered as watching the point of view of a military unit during an extraterrestrial invasion, instead of just seeing them in the background on the War of the Worlds remake or Skyline or basically any other alien invasion film that just puts the military in as ineffective scenery.  Effects are done well, characterizations are consistent, high action with small breathers in between.

Not a must-see, but not a waste of your movie watching time either. Easily fits in to satisfy your action or alien-invasion movie watching wants.
Either I liked the film or that week or so off I took from film watching reset my film snark centers. But I doubt that. I did watch The Rite before I watched Battle Los Angeles, even though I'm reviewing it after.

Edit: May 2012
Starz was running this flick and I decided to give it another watch. It is still an enjoyable film and made a good re-watch film. I almost liked it better the second time.