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Avalon (2001)
Avalon (2001, R)
3 November 2010
"Avalon" follows in the tradition of movies based on a fictional video game (named Avalon in this case). These tend to work better than films based on real life video games. "Tron" and "eXistenZ" are two popular movies to do the same tactic. But Oshii's "Avalon" deserves to be better known.

The story follows a heroine, Ash (Malgorzata Foremniak), her gamer name, as she plays a virtual reality game for money in the near future. She plugs into the game by sitting in a dentist-like chair and pulling on a metal helmet (with wires dangling everywhere). The game rooms are in a decaying, back alley building because Avalon is officially illegal. She looks lifeless as she sits in the chair and seems exhausted when she awakes from playing.

Much of Mamoru Oshii's past work as a director was on mature anime films ("Ghost in the Shell" & "Ghost in the Shell 2 - Innocence"). "Avalon" breaks with his tradition and uses human actors, real tanks, and real city locations filmed on location in Poland. Some scenes and special effects are computer generated. But like "The Matrix", most of the movie takes place in a virtual game.

The game rules come to us in small bits of information. Here are some of the basics. At first, it looks like a war game in which she walks around shooting tanks, helicopters, and other players. But then we learn you can form teams with other players and fight missions to collect points. Game players have different classes: warrior (like Ash), thief, mage, and bishop. They get paid depending on how well they play. They also have to pay-to-play, and this restricts them in certain ways: we hear that Ash cannot switch to bishop class without playing so much she would run out of money.

Ash plays alone, for the most part, and she seems to make good money playing the game. She's one of the top players and makes enough to do it full time. Some characters she meets in the game are other players, and some are purely digital programs. Actually, the recent film, "Inception", has similar rules for dream worlds since you only have a chance of dying in a dream if you get lost in lower levels of them. You also don't die when you die in the game (in Avalon, too, that is), you just wake up. But you run the risk of becoming brain dead if you delve into the game too deeply. Sometimes players never awake and become vegetables. Ash is not afraid of the risk, however; she's cocky and courageous (or addicted).

Do previous game players who choose to stay there (and let their bodies go brain dead back on earth) die when they get killed in the game? Their body is unplugged and over at a hospital, but the projection of them still exists in the game. Some of them seem to think a game existence is important enough to choose to stay in the game forever. But what if Ash kills a previous player in one of her game missions? The choice of whether it's ethical to kill a previous player is quite complicated and depends on your definition of a person. Do game projections qualify when they float around in the game? Do they actually "die" if Ash shoots them? The plot moves along a bit faster when Ash hears about a secret level, and the ethical questions come to greater conflict. Usually the game is never-ending during typical play, but rumors spread that she might be able to beat the game or, at least, get a heck of a lot of experience points in a secret level. To get to the level, she has to find a ghost and shoot it, so she teams up with Bishop to get help.

Oshii first shot the film in full color, but then he digitized and edited it into mostly black and white. Some color remains, mixed in here and there by choice (the computer text is orange, a hologram is rainbow colored, and the end of the film is in full color).

It takes great care to get the director's vision on screen. But the long pauses for effect (as in "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Solaris"), may annoy impatient viewers. For example, we hear a classical opera piece twice, almost all the way through both times. The first time the piece has subtitles and we get a montage about the city and game environment. The second time the song plays during the climax of Ash's secret level mission, perhaps the most exciting part of the movie. It slows down the movie at just the moment we want more information about the deeper levels of the game. It could give us a better look around, but it chooses artistic silence instead (which is commendable).

Where "The Matrix" ends the movie with bullets and martial arts, "Avalon" ends with dramatic music and meditative imagery. "Avalon" never went long without giving important information. But you might discount the information if you don't love intricate video games. Visually it's still well worth watching if you are in this situation. My only major complaint seems minor: Bartlomiej Swiderski (as Stunner) needs to learn some table manners since he eats like a dog! "Avalon" deserves more attention for its ideas. Like in "The Matrix" and "Inception", it asks whether virtual reality is better or worse than reality. Ash discovers blurry lines between game and reality (her dog goes missing and shows up in the game, for example). More properly, the film argues that reality is constructed by her individual perspective and possibly by her choices (she sees the same statue once with its head and once headless).
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Predators (2010)
Predators (2010, R)
3 November 2010
The latest Predator movie, "Predators", tries to follow in the difficult footsteps of James Cameron's "Aliens". It's a sequel to the first film ("Predator"), it emphasizes action like the original, and it mixes in a few interesting ideas in its own thought experiment. It shares some characteristics with past films to depict humans as game for hunters ("Death Race 2000", "The Running Man") and to drop humans in a mysterious environment as select participants in a something ("Cube"). The mixture of these elements, with additional ideas about warfare and morality, creates an entertaining brew of action, Sci-Fi, and adventure.

Robert Rodriguez (as producer) and Nimród Antal (as director) breath new life into the Predator franchise. As aliens go, Predators replicate the typical human form as a safe foundation and then get enough simple variations to make the resulting being somewhat alien and believable. The movie perhaps imagines that the Predators control multiple life supporting planets (suggested by their advanced technology), and have enough of them to turn at least one into a hunting preserve, which becomes central to the story. They hunt multiple kinds of species at the preserve, but humans are a particular favorite. And these games have been going on for many seasons. We don't learn much about Predator culture broadly speaking, but we get little hints about them and their intentions.

The dominant perspective is that of 8 newly arrived humans. They wake up in free fall over a jungle, their shoots open automatically, and they don't trust anyone. A little luck helps get a team assembled when Royce (Adrien Brody) and Isabelle (Alice Braga) work together to settle down a trigger happy Russian soldier (Oleg Taktarov). They are suspicious enough of their new environment to seek answers and not just shoot anything they meet. Some of this seems convincing. Someone waking under such strange conditions would likely suppose that other people were also taken from their previous lives and were likewise dropped off. The plot also has enough of the opposite mind set (where a life form attacks fellow game participants in a panic) to make sense of it as a realistic world and not just a simple setup for a death hunt.

Royce (Adrien Brody) emerges as the reluctant leader, but Isabelle (Alice Braga) is the connective tissue of the group. The other humans seem mostly chosen for their skill as human predators in the human world, including soldiers from around Earth, a death row inmate, a silent Japanese gang member, and a Mexican drug cartel gunman. But one member says he's an American doctor, Edwin (Topher Grace), and Royce notes he seems out of place with a team of mercenaries, which adds an element of suspicion between the group members.

The group learns their situation indirectly from plot twists, but Royce makes a few logical deductions from clues around them: A dead special forces soldier, previously engaged in the game, had left a perimeter of defensive traps (for what purpose?). A herd of vicious, thorny alien creatures suddenly attack them and then run away at the sound of a whistle (who directs them?). Royce concludes that the creatures were meant to scurry and test the humans in the same way humans use dogs in game hunting. And, third, the Predators maim a human and use him as a trap to lure other humans (a tactic made popular by Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket"). It isn't clear why the Predators use such a trap when they have such excellent fighting skills and a warrior ethic, but perhaps it's meant to bring out the other humans and open them to attack.

In any case, it presents a theme of survival versus morality. Do they walk into the trap and help the maimed man (reducing their survival chances) or do they leave him and save themselves? It recurs throughout the movie. Of course, a popular movie made to revitalize the Predator franchise can't produce any shocking takes on the question, and can only give the socially acceptable answer. But it does mix in a few unexpected twists on the theme when the group meets a scavenger and survivalist, Noland (Laurence Fishburne), another human soldier who has experience fighting Predators for many seasons. (He measures seasons by the number of times humans have dropped in and Predators have wiped them out). Laurence Fishburne gives a strong and compelling performance with such a short time to make his character convincing.

Noland is in favor of survival over any moral considerations. Noland (Laurence Fishburne) gives us interesting information on their intentions. Predators seek to continually enhance their weapon technology, abilities and techniques by adapting from their hunt encounters and occasionally from their defeats. We don't see how they pass along such knowledge, but we can imagine they must have a communication method or a warrior, trade-secrets database, perhaps accessible from their technology.

Royce is also conflicted on the question. But the Predators are not. The Predators have a warrior ethics and try to avoid turning the hunt into mindless slaughter. They don't always succeed and break their ethos regularly with many technological advantages, including advanced camouflage and energy beam weapons.

One of the best parts to the movie is its vision of the hunting preserve. It allows us to imagine the rules of the place and figure out how it works along with the characters. The action is fast paced and interesting, but it doesn't overwhelm the plot with forced action-stunt sequences; they mostly seem to arise out of the plot. It doesn't deliver a broad or intricate vision of the aliens, but as a rare plus it refuses to destroy some of the novel parts of its scenario after so lovingly putting them together. Usually anything alien from our social norms is prime target for destruction!
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Galaxy Quest (1999)
Galaxy Quest (1999, PG)
3 November 2010
"Galaxy Quest" is a SF-comedy gem and a hilarious parody of Star Trek antics and Trekkies. It revels in ridiculous situations and has a lot of fun doing it. Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" has one such situation that pushes unprepared actors into an all-too-real adventure. Mel Brook's "Spaceballs" is similar in another way. Its characters also stumble through exaggerated SF plots and themes (Star Wars mainly in their case). But "Spaceballs" doesn't seem quite as absorbed in its idea and the broader fan base for imaginative worlds like Star Trek or Star Wars as Dean Parisot's film.

The film is as much about fans of Star Trek, the Trekkies, as it is about Star Trek itself. It features former crew members in a popular TV series. The out-of-work actors sign photographs at Trekkie conventions and appear at ribbon cutting ceremonies. We are told, but never see, that Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the Commander, participates in paid garage reenactments of the show alone. The other actors resent the Commander for leaving them out.

Tim Allen is believable enough as the Commander, but he excels as an actor coming off a popular TV show and as a dejected past star (especially as a couple critics of the Trekkie convention laugh at him behind his back). As events unfold in the more ridiculous moments, he's at his best. Eager to become a true Commander and go boldly across the solar system, through a worm hole, and into space and alien worlds, he genuinely believes he could act his way through commanding a Star Ship. Being hung over and mistaken about his surroundings helps, though.

His other cast members are the heart of the humorous parts. Sam Rockwell has some of the funniest scenes as a miscellaneous crew member without a last name, simply called Guy. Tony Shalhoub (as Tech Sergeant Fred Kwan) has the nonchalance of a Bill Murray ("Ghostbusters"). Sigourney Weaver (as Gwen DeMarco, the eye candy), Alan Rickman (as Alexander Dane, the intelligent adviser), and Daryl Mitchell (as Tommy Webber, the youthful helm) round out the rest of the crew.

Enrico Colantoni as Mathesar, leader of the Thermians, comes close to stealing the movie with his robotic mannerisms, off key vocals, and fascination with human culture. Thermians are an alien race able to engineer great feats of technology and science, but awful at operating their gadgets and even worse at dealing with deceit or defending themselves against their enemies. In the plot, they mistake the "Galaxy Quest" TV show for "historical documents" and, consequently, they mistake actors for astronauts.

However, a real version of them would quickly detect the absence of any Star Ships around Earth, and make the deduction that humans are not capable of such technology. How could the Thermians become so advanced in the first place while being so easily duped? How can an entire species fail to work its own technology and come to need humans? Well, it's possible of course, but highly unlikely. But it doesn't matter because the Thermians have so many redeeming qualities. They are the biggest "Trekkies" of all.

The Thermian mistakes make for subtle comedy. They add ridiculous elements and allow us to relish the equally ridiculous reactions to the unlikely situations. Guy (Sam Rockwell) constantly thinks he's in a show (where lovable aliens will surely turn vicious, and expendable crew members will usually die), Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) defends parroting the computer (and the computer will only respond to her), and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) suddenly becomes an expert pilot. Many such odd things happen in the final parts. Some are just plot devices, but others are truly funny.

The best moments are the realistic responses to absurd situations. Guy exclaims in horror as the crew lands on an alien world and opens the landing craft without testing for air. Later, Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) yells in disgust at having to navigate a course of "chompers" or mechanical traps that a bad writer tossed into an episode to keep the tension high (and that the Thermians were duped into reproducing).

The movie doesn't dwell on the deeper messages of Star Trek. Instead it focuses on the ethos of the crew and repeating phrases ("never give up, never surrender") as central to the human parts of the show. Usually such themes about our humanity are deeper and more interesting in actual Star Trek. But it does depict a group of super Trekkies who ask riddling questions about logical holes in the show. They would be the future scientists or engineers that write about their love of Star Trek (such as Lawrence Krauss in "The Physics of Star Trek").
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Lake Tahoe (2008)
Lake Tahoe (2008 movie, unrated)
3 November 2010
"Lake Tahoe" is a wonderful, placid drama about a boy's strange encounters as he, externally, seeks help to fix his car, but, more to the point, as he internally seeks something (to escape, to cope, to get reassurance) after the death of his father. He seems willing to befriend the people he meets as long as he chooses the terms himself, and as long as performing favors or going out with friends gets him away from home or anything that would tie him to his town. Don't expect action in this little personal odyssey (taking place over the course of a single day). The viewer gets a chance to focus as intensely on the day's weird experiences as Juan (a teenager experiencing his father's death) does. Even if only for as long as Juan searches for answers.

Fernando Eimbcke's film is shot and takes place in Puerto Progreso, Yucatán (Mexico), a mostly vacant, small town. Juan (Diego Cataño) meets a couple auto mechanics and a clueless auto receptionist, and checks in with his little brother and his grieving mother (she's locked herself in a bathroom for much of the movie). The viewers mainly see him walk across the screen for several long shots, some of which recur as he retreads his path this way and that way.

Nearly every scene is shot with motionless camera angles, a huge difference from many movies in which the camera constantly moves, zooms, or shakes to the point of nausea. The effect of this odd camera work is to make the whole background become part of the film. Patient viewers may get absorbed in the movie, especially as all the individual shots start adding up to a meaningful story. Most of the eventful action takes place off camera, during frequent cut to blacks (sometimes with important sounds in the background, plain natural-musical sounds, or silence). The film has a sense of immersion and simplicity in which the viewer fills the missing fragments with sound or their imagination.

We aren't given much information about where he wants to go or where he was going when he crashed his family's car into a pole (on the side of a low traffic road). How did he crash it in such a seemingly straight and hazard-less area? The point is probably that Juan is just as uncertain as the viewer. He has no ready explanation for the car crash, but perhaps he was trying to get away or somehow escape his intense feelings after his loss. We only learn about any of these feelings until a good way into the movie.

He seems mostly passive at first, just taking in the oddly tangential actions of the people he meets, but he intermittently prods them to hurry. Juan seems stuck between a desire to get out of these places he visits (to always find another auto mechanic) and a strange fixation on experiencing the little quirks of the people he meets. His motive to get away usually wins.

Juan often says "no" or shakes his head in the negative to requests. Juan meets an elderly auto mechanic, Don Heber (played by Hector Herrera), who makes the boy wait as he eats breakfast with his dog, Sica. He goes on to the next person after Don fails to help him fix his car. Juan waits even longer for a young mechanic, David (Juan Carlos Lara II), an energetic follower of martial arts who is apt to break into a series of kicks and arm movements (turning martial arts moves into a sort of dance) and Bruce Lee reenactments. As he hangs out with Lucia (Daniela Valentine), the receptionist at David's auto shop, she starts to trust him and asks him to babysit her infant while she goes to a concert. He declines several times.

Many such encounters play out. David's mother wants him to comment on a passage from the Bible (he sneaks out of the house), Don wants him to walk his dog (Juan accepts only very reluctantly, loses the dog, and then childishly goes on to the next auto mechanic), and David wants him to go to a Bruce Lee movie (he declines at first).

He only accepts any of these offers after he has time to think them over and make his own choice, or perhaps only after he gets home and finds he wants to get away again (perhaps it has to do with the place reminding him of his father). And then these requests for favors and friendship suddenly become the perfect thing to go do.

An excellent, climactic scene takes place between Jaun and Lucia after she isn't able to go to a concert. Jaun doesn't need to stay on as a babysitter and seems intent to leave, but, again, he seems needy at the same time. Lucia takes advantage of his indecision with a sexual advance (they take off their shirts), but he uses it as a cathartic chance for release and ends up crying on her. Probably not what she had in mind, but a very well done scene in minimal, natural light. The rest of the film is also shot with just natural lighting.

Juan is an interesting case study in loss (partly autobiographical by the director) in that it leaves Juan's motives mysterious for the viewer to figure out. Juan tries to escape from everything that holds him in place. But he overcomes such desires in a rush of emotional release. The film leaves me with the feeling that the journey was much more interesting than any likely consequence to it. The post emotional release period sort of kills all the meaningful possibilities and mysterious encounters that took place for most of the film.
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The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010, PG 13)
3 November 2010
The Twilight movies (so far) began with a vampire's dangerous love. Edward's romantic intensity boiled his undead instincts to their max and attached him to Bella beyond his control. In an unguarded moment, Edward might uncontrollably drink Bella's blood. Most of this is absent from "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," the third movie in the saga. Hidden behind artful landscapes (waterside sunsets, firelight chats, dark vampire nights, green forest fields, snowy mountains) and flashy, humorous sequences is a hollow and wordy love triangle that had fantastic potential.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has a way of getting into mortal danger. Again she's hunted by vampires. Victoria, from the second movie, "New Moon," wants revenge for the death of her lover. But it will take Riley's army of vampires (and a little luck avoiding the Volturi, an order to the most powerful vampires) to get past the Cullen family led vampires and Jacob's werewolves.

Riley (Xavier Samuel) uses a new weapon and it's probably the best fantasy idea in the movie. A mysterious, deceitful, and smart vampire is able to breed new vampires and control them for short periods of time like puppets. New vampires are ultra powerful (stronger than regular vampires, or werewolves even), uncontrollably thirsty for blood, and known for mass killing if they are left without guidance after their conversion. Vampires and werewolves unite to defend Bella against the army. Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) has experience with controlling them and helps train the Cullens and the werewolves to deal with the new born vampires.

Much of the plot involves an ongoing romance triangle. Enter Edward (Robert Pattinson): all of our knowledge of Edward, the 100+ year old vampire, comes in glimpses and mostly from the point of view of other characters. His character sort of hovers around waiting, and waiting for the last two movies, without us getting to know much about his inner world (perhaps he's like a stage under construction left with minimal shape or feature). Traditional marriage (abstinence, for example) and Bella's safety are the main things he functions to promote. But maybe if we dig deeper, we could find something more about him in Bella's interesting confession.

Edward is so other worldly and so non-human, for Bella, he stands for an existence other than the normal mortal one. Bella doesn't just love Edward and want to be a vampire; she wants to be a vampire for her own reasons (and happens to love Edward too). Bella feels strange in the human world. She's more comfortable with a vampire's embrace and feels natural in it. But all of this is difficult to put on a poster or to frame in a close up, so none of this spoils anything important because David Slade's film doesn't get to any interesting uses of it.

Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), a werewolf, further complicates the triangle. He wants Bella to choose him over Edward for the sake of his warm, beating heart and normal life (of the living). Plus he hints that werewolves sometimes imprint on humans and they would do anything for their loved one once imprinted. (Perhaps he would be as much a puppet as Edward is from his love for Bella, or as a new born vampire is for blood.) Some of Jacob's scenes are shirtless, muscle poses while others are humorous or warm exchanges with Bella or Edward. His wordy dialog says a lot but doesn't mean much of interest; it certainly doesn't give the viewer much sense of aggression, action, comfort, etc., that characterized him in the novel.

One final complaint is about the spacing of characters: in the mountain scenes, it was a bit difficult to tell where characters were without the help of dialog. Is Edward watching Bella and Jacob kiss? Is Jacob running fast enough through the forest to adequately spread his scent and successfully hide Bella?

The film is certainly made for fans and audiences familiar with the world. Don't try to count the number of references based on other Twilight movies, but this didn't seem harmful to the story. Some of the best parts were the snowy battle scenes, the dark vampire setups/intros, the werewolf battle attacks, and Riley's mastery of newly bred vampires. But the villainous vampires were not as scary as they could be. The high body count of supposedly immortal vampires makes you wonder whether Bella and Edward should argue so much about whether (or when) to transform her to a vampire. It was a bit more enjoyable to watch than "New Moon," but it still didn't deliver highly interesting characters (besides Bella) or well developed ideas.
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The Time Traveler's Wife (2009, PG 13): Lovely Fate
3 November 2010
Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) travels through time, starting at age 5 when he witnesses his mother's death in a car accident. The movie uses time travel in similar fantastic ways as in "Slaughterhouse Five". Henry jumps between key moments in his life, and a few random places here and there without any control. He fails to save his mother hundreds of times. He can't change major events in any significant way, so he concludes that events in the past, present, and future happen by fate. Or mostly by fate. Fate is a fascinating topic in "The Time Traveler's Wife" and perhaps it's the idea (along with love) that holds the story together, giving it a heightened emotional feel for some viewers.

The cinematography by Florian Ballhaus is appropriately picturesque, and many of the characters are completely adorable, especially the few glimpses you get of Henry's mother, singing to Henry as a child with falling snow all around. Its notion of time travel is absurd, but it puts it to great use, following the effects of fate on a person's experiences.

Henry is difficult to track in the plot, but his love interest and eventual wife, Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams), is not. You see her as a child, a teenager, and an adult. The film follows Henry's story next to hers, with his parts broken into fragments and confusing time lines. Hers is a straight line journey. She meets Henry at age six when he travels to a meadow near her house. She helps ease his trips by providing clothes. His clothes don't jump through time with him, a definite side effect of time travel. He visits her frequently until she's 18, and they become best friends.

Time travel makes this romantic, fantasy story possible, but the movie doesn't make any attempt at physical plausibility. Instead, time travel elevates key moments in the story to focus your attention on the experience of a tragedy, made more intense the more it comes out of necessity. Fate is fascinating in that it has the ability to negate your immediate first person experiences of freewill (Henry isn't able to make significant changes to history). Freewill satisfies your momentary experiences and excites your sense of control and responsibility. Fate, however, does something just as interesting, if not more so. It gives perspective to all the good and bad things that happen at any moment, and suddenly makes them necessary instead of good or bad or purposive. In fact, fate makes your own decisions, which still always feel mostly free even if only falsely so, extend and unfold across the ages and, hopefully, beyond to some extent, but not always the way you want.

It also means Henry is more than one unique individual through the movie. He jumps from different periods of his life and as different versions of his self. For example, at older ages he leaps to his 5 year old self to comfort "him" with a blanket as he watches his mother die in the car crash. Apparently his ability activates in moments of crisis, emotional excitement, and drunkenness. Clare meets a version of Henry and they become instant lovers. Clare already loves him ever since she was a child and a teenager. He takes a bit longer to fall in love with her, making her explain what she knows about their history. After they get married, he jumps back to her childhood and firmly implants the idea of him in her. Did he jump to make sure the love of his life would go on to love him, or did fate cause him to go to her early periods and he merely interacted with her as demanded by the situation? These kinds of questions get some explicit treatment in the movie. It isn't afraid to ask big questions, but it won't wait around to hear all the possible answers.

One excellent answer comes in the wedding sequence, perhaps one of the best moments in the movie. Henry is so emotional about their wedding he jumps three times: just before they walk down the aisle, before they dance as husband and wife, and before they go to bed afterward. She's in a daze and simply accepts any and all versions of Henry. The gray hair Henry that marries her and the young Henry that dances with her. She wonders whether she's engaging in bigamy, but fate solves the problem because all the versions of Henry have a similar causal history. He can't significantly change who he is, so he can't help being basically the same person in all closely related versions of Henry. Perhaps this would change if he came back as a 60 year old man or if he jumped to her wedding as a 5 year old child, but those kinds of possibilities would disturb the romantic side of the sequence.

Fate is central to the story because it makes any particular action completely rational and understandable if only you could trace all its causal links back through time. It frees Clare from having to label her experiences as good or bad; instead, she simply accepts them because they are necessary and because she loves Henry. In some particular moments, she forgets this and they fight. Over time, she simply comes to love him just as he is and wouldn't have it any other way. All the good and bad things fade away; love and fate take over. Although she suffers from freewill withdrawal at times, she comes to discover the beauty of fate as so many other thinkers have done (Buddha, Spinoza, etc.). This also makes for a very tragic ending.

Clare wonders whether Henry is always with them even when he's not physically present. He is in the sense that she knows so much about his causal history and personality, she would be able to predict his actions in most any moment in time besides the extremes.
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The A-Team (2010)
The A-Team (2010, PG 13)
3 November 2010
Two action films this summer, "Knight and Day" and "The A-Team", fudge physics and avoid cause and effect. They falter on standards of crafty plotting in the name of action, adventure, and fun. "Knight and Day" was the funnier of the two and made use of its fantastical elements to comedic and witty effect in a few scenes, but mostly both of these films work despite their silliness – not because of it.

"The A-Team" is the more exciting and fascinating one. Not to mention the more enjoyable and watchable one. The film features a group of four special forces soldiers, the "A-Team", who seek to clear their names of a crime they didn't commit. They include Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson, the Colonel and master planner), Faceman Peck (Bradley Cooper, the slick intelligence operative and ladies man), B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson, the muscle), and Murdock (Sharlto Copley, the crazy pilot).

Joe Carnahan's film updates the original idea, from a TV series in the 80s by the same name, to the contemporary military world, having them fight 80 successful missions in Irag (off camera), and facing off against non-military members of a private security firm (Black Forest). At a U.S. court martial, they are found guilty of disobeying orders. The court strips them of rank, discharges them from the Army, and puts them in prison. But, luckily, a CIA operative, under the false name "Lynch", helps free and reunite the team to give them a chance to clear their names. To do so they must track down stolen U.S. treasury minting plates (to avert the counterfeiting of U.S. money).

Before the good stuff, we have to wait for the writers to tell some of the back story through implausible action sequences, and to contrive a way to get themselves, and the characters, out of difficult positions with even more implausible means. "Face" is especially cartoonish in his luxurious prison life, and the long escape sequence with a flying tank. The plotting and background story becomes almost magical as if the show can't go on unless all four team members unite together, like some sort of magical set of stones that only light up in the presence of the other stones.

The style of the original show comes back with a vengeance once the movie gets into motion. It has semi-intriguing battle plans that appeal not because they make the viewer think or build suspense but because they involve highly likable characters. But it has some good parts early on, such as the conversion of B.A. Baracus to a peace loving and airplane hating tough man, and Murdock as a head case at a loony bin. The enjoyment is in the unfolding of these charismatic characters. Sharlto Copley is especially funny as Murdock, the mentally nuts, expert pilot. He has some of the best moments in the movie playing off B.A.'s fear of flying.

Quinton Jackson (as B.A. Baracus) is convincing as a tough fighter, no doubt because he actually is a highly successful mixed martial arts fighter (in the UFC and Pride). He gets minimal screen time, perhaps for fear that his acting experience is limited. Mr. T. (the old B.A. Baracus) was much more colorful and forceful, a huge screen presence in the original TV series and more natural reading PG-13 lines. It was a shame that he didn't get the chance at his old character. It isn't that Mr. Jackson doesn't fill in just fine, but Mr. T. had greater magnetism and (dis)harmony with the other team members.

At center of the prep and plan sequences is Liam Neeson as Hannibal, a cigar loving and deep, raspy voiced man that "loves it when a plan comes together". Mr. Neeson takes a bit to fit into his role and decide how he will play it. He's at his best when he starts to mimic George Peppard's style from the original show. Hannibal is known for making plans that don't always work out as expected, giving his character the sense of a smart, loose cannon. He doesn't foresee everything, but believes that purpose underlies seemingly chance events. He would have been more convincing if his plans didn't involve so much implausibility, which would have contrasted better with Face's contributions to the team later.

We get to see the team at their best in awesome build and prepare sequences, but they could have held these sequences longer to prevent us from having to sit through a few too many action, stunt, and explosion parts near the end. But the entertainment factor is high and it was fun to watch. The film was shot in Canada, but the story takes place in Mexico, Iraq, Germany, and elsewhere. It uses some of the theme music from the old show, even coming close to having the old show play in the background of a shot. The red striped, black van also makes a short appearance. The A-Team is in a similar situation to the "The Hulk" in that they work as outcasts, trying to settle problems from their past.

They are truly fascinating as a group of rebellious, quirky characters. They have some overblown action stunts and silly, implausible moments of physics breaking maneuvers. These are most noticeable through the first half of the movie. Despite these low points, they still come off as a group of independent and skillful tacticians, succeeding with style as much as with competence (for all his craziness, Murdoch amazes his counterparts for his skillful flying, Hannibal for his daring plans, B.A. for his brawling bare knuckle fists, and Face for his charming cleverness). By the end it's difficult to avoid cheering for them and wanting them to fight against more bad guys in a whole new TV series or series of movies.
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The Last Airbender (2010, PG)
3 November 2010
"The Last Airbender" has moments, especially early, where the potential it showed in the trailers comes through and gives the impression of an interesting action-fantasy story. But Airbender fails miserably at a nearly mandatory condition for fantasy: the story and execution of the script should excite us to imagine ourselves in the world. We get sent here and there in such a rush, the adventure becomes a burden too heavy to carry, with minimal contact with characters, their powers, their thoughts, their interactions, their culture and nothing to envision after the movie but a few glimpses.

It rarely pauses to have a look around or immerse itself with its possibilities. It begins with an ambitious story of four clans, each specializing in one elemental power from the four traditional elements of ancient cultures (western culture included, such as the ancient Greeks). Usually benders have power over one element, the element of their clan, but one Avatar bender, Aang (Noah Ringer), has the ability to control all four elements: water, earth, air, fire.

Aang has an excellent role as the 12 year old, artfully tattooed, and bald Avatar. Three of his best scenes stand out over the course of the movie. His introduction as a cloaked, mysterious figure gives the film a bit of needed mystique. His first attempts to control water, involving elaborate martial arts type stances, and a glimpse at his potential as waters collectively tremble at his undisciplined attempts to manipulate it. And, finally, the climactic sequence when his tattoos turn fluorescent blue and he unleashes some of his powers. His scenes are rushed and momentary. More of these types of scenes by Aang or some other character would give the movie a better connective fiber.

The confusing plot takes over and dictates an artificial world in which benders get very little freedom to vary their abilities or share screen time with the half developed ideas. It takes place at an unspecified time and location during a period of post war decimation (only the Firebenders have advanced technology and machines, which the movie seems to dislike in a shameless respect for bender mysticism). The fire clan tracks the movements of the Avatar, capturing him a few times for an unspecified reason (perhaps to hold him prisoner and allow them complete domination). According to the story, the Firebenders won't kill the Avatar. The Avatar (Aang in this iteration) is immortal and reincarnates in another body after death. Since he always reincarnates as an Airbender, apparently the Firebenders seek to limit their search by annihilating the whole clan. The rest of the plot is difficult to follow and amounts to a "Lord of the Rings" type adventure, with Aang going to one of the major Waterbender cities to try to bring peace and stop the Firebender aggression.

Somewhere in here is a fatal flaw in the script or in Firebender thinking. If the Airbenders are already dead and nearly extinct, and the Avatar can only reincarnate as an Airbender, then it's senseless to let him live. But if the Avatar reincarnates into any body and becomes an Airbender, whether any Airbenders exist or not, then it's senseless to kill all the Airbenders. The same logic would suggest killing all people (Earthbenders, Waterbenders, and perhaps many Firebenders) to prevent the Avatar from ever coming back in secret.

On occasion we get meaningless action and awkward responses from characters. For example, when Sokko is suddenly infatuated with Princess Yue at the Waterbender city, we gather this from a couple glances, reaction shots, and dialog. So later Sokko volunteers to protect her awkwardly, with the other characters behaving as if this is no surprise. It certainly is to the viewer who hardly knows anything about the two. Scenes like these run all through the movie. Suddenly one of the bad guys, a Firebender, starts using his fire powers without a fire source (he seems to turn against the Firebenders but it's difficult to tell).

Also some of the scenes and characters are unclear. When we first meet Aang and his flying creature (a six legged, giant thing with a beaver's tail, reminding me of something out of Star Wars), the shots are so disorienting that the creature appears first as if from nowhere. Is an Avatar in there somewhere? Additionally, the Fire Lord Ozai is difficult to identify apart from other Firebender commanders. Or perhaps these scenes were difficult to understand because of the shady 3D that makes almost every shot so tinted you might want to find a theater showing the movie in 2D.

Many angry user postings around the Internet note the casting of non-Asian actors, especially for Aang's companions Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone). But Noah Ringer (as Aang) and Dev Patel (as prince Zuko of the Firebenders) would get a pass probably since they have a few of the better moments. The casting choices are potential problems for fans of the TV series. The original story came from the first season of an animated Nickolodean TV series, titled "Avatar: The Last Airbender".

The director, M. Night Shyamalan, has done many popular films, including "The Sixth Sense", "Unbreakable", "Signs". Recently he's been doing horror films. Action-adventure is a new genre for him and it shows most clearly in the incomprehensible plot. Instead of a fantasy vision rich with things to imagine, we get a story only understandable by fans, and only a few glimpses of picturesque scenery or Aang's cool antics. Fans leave a typical "Harry Potter" movie ready to go to Hogwarts. In contrast, we get little detail in bender powers, and the adventure is so wide ranging and tedious it overtakes the potentially appealing parts and consigns them to flames.
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The Wolfman (2010)
The Wolfman (2010, R)
3 November 2010
"The Wolfman" is a head rolling good time in this remake of the 1941 horror classic. It uses shadows effectively to give a feeling of the "beast within" looking out at us with haunting, glowing eyes. Set in 1891 England, the contrast between the stately courtesy of the period and the razor sharp claws of the werewolves works well. The atmosphere is dark and picturesque in the tradition of "Sleepy Hollow" or "The Nightmare Before Christmas", which makes it appropriate to have Danny Elfman (composer of all three) provide the original music.

That said, it's difficult to take some of the graphic scenes seriously with so many shock cuts and blood splattered bodies filling the screen. At times it seems more like a vision for a Roman coliseum than for a silent audience expecting gripping horror. Should we get up and cheer with each kill? Joe Johnston ("Hidalgo," "October Sky"), the director, tried to modernize the film into a flashy, faster story, but the result is an uneven mix and not enough screen time for characters that could have given the film more flare, such as Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving. The film also suffers from slower moments and unimportant plot points that serve as a speed bump after so many werewolf attacks.

Anthony Hopkins is a strong point as Sir John Talbot, the resident werewolf. His son, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro, "The Usual Suspects"), returns to Blackmoor after he gets word that his brother, Ben, is missing. Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) doesn't react much to his father's calm and stoical treatment of Ben's death (he tells Lawrence about it heartlessly), but, of course, he hasn't been home much and doesn't like his father very much either.

Lawrence sees Ben's stripped, skeletal body and wants to solve the mystery of the death for the benefit of Ben's fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), and his own curiosity. He visits a camp of gypsy's and has a cryptic conversation with Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin), who figures as the local expert in mysterious happenings. Some of the setup to the action is unclear, but a werewolf attacks the camp in almost a comical manner, but perhaps the scene was shot from the point of view of the superstitious locals, who see the gruesome attacks as some sort of evil curse.

Lawrence gets brutally bit by the werewolf, becoming one of them. His father enjoys setting him loose in the full moon, almost as if he's training his son to be a werewolf by sending him out into the wild. Anthony Hopkins delights in the beastly form his life has taken. In the way the movie imagines them, werewolves are similar to "The Hulk". They unleash the beast within, the lawless "dog eat dog" or "kill or be killed" animal of nature. But they also inhabit ordinary people, as the beginning quote says: "even a man who is pure of heart … may become a wolf." The movie questions whether we could draw a line between werewolf (as the beast within) and human (as the civil being that makes laws and has moral standards to protect its dignity). The unexplained part is Lawrence's frequent dreams of a young werewolf child. His father was originally bit by such a child during his field research into lycanthropy. Does becoming a werewolf pass along shared memories?

In an excellent scene, Lawrence is captured and taken to an asylum (doctors think he's insane for claiming to be a werewolf), where a doctor brings him before an audience on the night of a full moon. He wants to prove to Lawrence and everyone in attendance (calm scholars and students from the looks of them) that Lawrence is mad and won't turn into a werewolf. Symptomatic of the film's problems, it briefly uses situational humor when the doctor doesn't notice Lawrence turning into a snarling beast behind him. It could actually have been held a little longer to build the tension and add detail in the scene. Here we start to see a bit of favoritism by the beast. He picks out his victims more than in earlier, random killings, which also helps to obscure the line between werewolf and human.

The lead up to the ending is a bit tedious, but Anthony Hopkins has an excellent scene as he plays a piano with blood soaked fingers. Some of the best scenes are these that slowly build up to the bloody parts. One major problem with the action-slasher scenes was the lackluster special effects. Heads and arms pop off a bit too easy (to the point of comedy), and one of the transformations has a ring strangely glide off a finger. But the film is still enjoyable, especially for some of the supporting performances (Hopkins, Weaving) and visual style.
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Knight and Day (2010, PG 13)
3 November 2010
The cryptic trailers for "Knight and Day" didn't mention that it's a spy thriller with a heavy dose of action, comedy, and silliness. But after a bit of thought, the trailers are accurate. The least important part is the point or plot of the movie. Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise evade and escape foreign bad guys as they get to know each other in odd and dangerous situations. The quirky connective tissue is Diaz's realistic responses to absurd situations, most of which are made more absurd by Cruise's predictable, action hero magic where he escapes most any circumstance and doesn't seem restricted by normal rules of physics. Even so, Tom Cruise makes a charming and smart performance.

Tom Cruise's slapstick silliness excessively parts from reality in some action sequences. One clear example was Cruise laying face up on the top of a speeding car without ever falling. But the action is mixed with enough cleverness to make it somewhat interesting. James Mangold's film ("3:10 to Yuma," "Walk the Line") was a pleasant surprise with witty and funny moments. The locations were numerous (Jamaica, California, Spain, and Austria), but most of it was shot in Massachusetts.

With all the death and absurdity around her, Cameron Diaz plays her character realistically. June is a car expert. She carries around parts and components to prove it. But mainly she's concerned with getting to a wedding (she's a bridesmaid). Her character is lovable because she does what any ordinary person would do in her situation, easily caving in to pressure and trying to get back to her life. We follow her thoughts and experience her decisions without any loss in her authenticity. The result is the type of funny exchanges that came across in the trailers.

The plot begins with a nice gimmick. June Havens (Cameron Diaz) and Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) collide with each other at an airport. Miller seems interested in her for some unknown reason. They make polite conversation on the plane. June goes to the bathroom to cleanup after a spill while Miller kills all the bad guys, which just happens to be everyone on the plane. The gimmick requires that June is oblivious of the commotion and Roy is magically fast at momentarily erasing any traces. He doesn't have anywhere to hide the bodies, so his efforts are senseless of course. But it allows the two lead actors to have a few comedic exchanges.

The wittiness continues as the they crash land in a field. Miller (Tom Cruise) drugs June but first gives her important memory aids. Her life could be jeopardy. She's to stop any agents from taking her in a car or putting her under their "safety". He mainly just seems to be toying with her in these exchanges. He has no confidence that she will follow any of his tips, so he leaves notes for her and tracks her movements.

Similar witty exchanges repeat in new variations on a train and a beach. After a few twists, Roy leaves another note for June, subtler this time, as she awakes on the train, which still doesn't have the desired effect on her. Roy catches up with an ingenious scientist, Simon Fleck (Paul Dano), who Roy is trying to protect from an arms dealer, Antonio (Jordi Mollà). Fleck invented a new power source device (called a Zephyr) worth a lot of money, so he and the device is in danger of falling in the wrong hands.

Cruise and Diaz are at their best in frequent, brief glimpses here and there. Roy has a comical exchange with June's ex, commending the work of a firefighter right in the middle of capturing June and evading a mini army of bad guys. In one of the escape scenes, Roy is suddenly hanging upside down. Just before another escape sequence, June throws a fit about being constantly drugged without her consent and, not to mention, dressed in a bikini while she was out. It's important to cover some of these examples because the movie is most enjoyable and funniest in specific, fragmentary scenes.

Simon Feck (Paul Dano) is also an interesting character as an aloof and sympathetic inventor. Roy (Tom Cruise) seems protective of Fleck out of a genuine fascination and desire to see Fleck's inventions succeed. The film also has good uses of technology, such as Roy's tracking device that detects movement by satellite to a scary degree of accuracy and closeness on the ground. However, after Roy and June flee to a remote island, you would think that Roy would take extra precaution against her answering her cell phone (and thus alerting another mini army of bad guys to their location), perhaps by turning it off or discarding it, especially since he took such care to never completely trust her. (But the mistake allows the necessary plot points to develop.) The ending was repetitious and went against the grain of the better middle parts. June (Cameron Diaz) suddenly takes on Roy's magical, heroic abilities. She repeats a few of the same gags too, so it doesn't add much to the movie. Even so, the movie has excellent entertainment value, a bit of imagination, and many witty and comical moments.
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The Karate Kid (2010, PG)
3 November 2010
The remake of the 1984 classic, "The Karate Kid," has flashes of brilliance. Jackie Chan, the new Miyagi, intensifies the training sequences with common sense physical conditioning and ultra exotic teachings. Very little of the training and teaching from the original survive intact. And when they do superficially show up again, they don't fit with the flow or logic of the action (whether taken on their own or taken in comparison to the original). Dre Parker, the new Daniel, faces tougher bullies with his move to China. The bullies have a more brutal, commanding coach, and the cultural differences increase the bad coach's authority.

The major casting differences are noticeable in Harald Zwart's film. Jackie Chan has the role of Mr. Han, again as an apartment maintenance guy. Chan's screen presence has a couple striking effects. First, his role as a teacher is awkward, especially if compared to Miyagi's/Morit'a effortless mystique and kookiness in the original. He lacks the heart of a rouge, Kung Fu instructor, and seems more like a retired and top of the class, martial arts fighter (ready for action, not for creating clever motivational techniques). Second, he grows into the role of an instructor through the fighting and conditioning scenes, and, by the end, seems like he is ready to build his own army of Jedi Knights (Dre's comparison). (Miyagi might gone fishing instead, but was more comfortable as a trainer right from the beginning.) Dre is only 12 and he's played by Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. He has fewer problems living up to comparisons to the original character, Daniel, and he actually seems more energetic in the physical scenes. But Ralph Macchio, as Daniel, has him beat in some of the talky scenes, especially in the lengthy, final speech (when Dre/Daniel decide whether to stay in the fight).

The plot progresses in parallel to the original only in broad terms. It begins with Dre (Jaden Smith) and his mother moving to Beijing, China. Dre learns to hate China's bullies, but he meets a China love interest and trains with Han (Jackie Chan) for a Kung Fu tournament. Some of the same Kung Fu principles remain. You train for peace and defense if you are on the good side; the opposite for the bad characters.

But here the differences start to emerge. After Dre gets continually assaulted by a group of six Chinese youngsters (and one in particular, Cheng, is furious over Dre's growing relationship with a girl he likes), Han comes to his rescue in a Jackie Chan style fight scene, and becomes Dre's protector and martial arts trainer. Some of the initial training drills are reminiscent of the original, but they are completely awkward, implausible, and preachy in their new variation. Han has Dre hang up and take down his coat repeatedly. We discover that somewhere embedded in his coat motions is Kung Fu. (Han's Jedi mind tricks don't work on any sane viewer, however.) Instead Han (Jackie Chan) mostly ignores the coat hanging motions, and simply starts training Dre in defensive postures and counter pushes. These are the fun and enjoyable scenes to watch. New for "The Karate Kid" is physical conditioning in push ups, sit ups, sprints, and Jean-Claude Van Damme leg splits. Training in kicks is a special interest in the new version, replacing punches (original version). Also mixed in are high kick poses on the Great Wall that perhaps have something to do with Kung Fu.

Han uses a few inventive training methods based on his martial arts principles. It has something to do with water reflections, snake taming, and Kung Fu existing in everything. It would probably confuse the most intelligent of students, and most likely went way over the head of the 12 year old Dre. It seems taken from eastern philosophy, but it doesn't logically impact the action parts of the movie. In comparison, the original seems like "Karate Kid for Dummies" with peace, balance, and defense at the center flow of the story. Dre mentions the "dummy" version, balance, at the end, but it doesn't make sense with the unique ideas that came in the training parts. Dre is more interested in flexing his muscles in front of a mirror and trying to "snake tame" his mother.

Han is clearly not ready to match the natural mystique of Miyagi, but more from his limited development in the plot. Plus Miyagi, a bit of a rule breaker, was more fun. Han hovers over Dre like a hawk, lecturing him to use better language, respect his mommy, and ask permission to enter his house. Perhaps Dre needs it at his age, but it puts Jackie Chan in an awkward position. Mr. Han finally becomes a bit freer coaching Dre at the final tournament, where he becomes something of a sagacious mentor and seems most at home.

Visually the move to China has interesting cultural interactions and beautiful landscapes and monuments. In the final tournament parts, the fights flash by in fast paced camera shots to the point of us missing much of the action. We get help, however, from a few instant replays on a big screen. The film was enjoyable for Jackie Chan's growth over the course of the lengthy movie, as well as Dre's colorful performance. But the new Kung Fu principles made for some awkward moments, and Han wasn't developed much in the pre-fight scenes.
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Despicable Me (2010)
Despicable Me (2010, PG)
3 November 2010
For kids, Gru is an outlandish villain. More importantly, he has a fun and whimsy minion of little, yellow servants, perhaps another robotic creation of Gru's associate, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), or a cartoon species of some sort. They look like Twinkies with human features (little arms, little legs, huge eyes) and they wear worker outfits (protective glasses, blue overalls, work gloves). They mostly act like kids, but they are obedient to their boss, Gru.

Gru shows all the signs of losing his touch. He was once a despicable villain, but now he's mostly grouchy and unsuccessful. He reacts negatively against things that annoy old people: he uses his freeze gun on other customers to get around waiting in lines, he threatens his neighbor about a dog dirtying the lawn, and he warns three little girls to avoid making any annoying sounds. The ultimate death blow is his failure to go green (he drives in the worst pollution machine on the road) and his failure to conform (his lawn is dead and his house probably violates every local law in existence). Mix his old age rage and anti-green offenses with a bit of dark demeanor, antisocial attitude, and mean mom, and you get the basics of his villainy.

In other words, he's not very despicable as advertised. He wasn't nearly as funny as one might expect from the trailers and title of the movie, but it doesn't ruin the movie in the least. It still has lots of little witty details, funny side characters, and cool gadgets. No one truly expects him to be bad in a kids movie anyway. No doubt his character will pull in an audience looking for a bad guy in the star position, but it wouldn't necessarily be any greater than if a well known, nice superhero was the star (which is a common misconception: just look at the popularity of Spider-Man or Superman).

Far funnier is Gru's adversary, Vector. Gru wants to shrink and steal the moon to regain his position as the greatest of all villains. However, he can't deploy his plan because Vector (Jason Segel), a ridiculous, inventor villain, laughs his way to stealing the shrink gun. Vector is a geeky, rich kid who, when he isn't one upping Gru by stealing the pyramids, invents worthless weapons or sits around watching TV. Perhaps someday he would get around to stealing the moon for his own glory (and lucrative prospects). He's much more despicable than Gru, and Jason Segel (his voice) makes him sound something like Jon Lovitz, an egoistic loon. He certainly doesn't make intelligent plans. Vector's great accomplishment is to have better results copying Gru's tactics and thwarting Gru's plans.

Gru is just the opposite. Dark, serious, devious, he's a hard working, constantly scheming villain from the suburbs who's had bad luck. Steve Carell voices him with a menacing accent that he reportedly takes from a mixture of Ricardo Montalban and Bela Lugosi. But the truest and most villainous characters in the entire movie are the evil, underground bankers (named Lehman Brothers) that refuse to fund Gru's moon ploy unless they see the shrinking gun in his possession.

Being him, Gru devises another plan to take advantage of Vector's weakness for cookies. He adopts three girls from an orphanage to distract Vector and try to steal back his shrinking gun. This sets in motion a typical story of his reversal from insensitive to sensitive, dark to colorful (his spacesuit becomes pink after the girls mix in their clothes with his), or, as the tagline says, "superbad to superdad". Some of these sequences are enjoyable, especially with Gru putting out bowls of food for the kids, and having to read them a bedtime story about kittens.

The youngest of the girls, Agnes (Elsie Fisher, voice), is the funniest of the girls. She fearlessly dominates the relationship over Gru and his vicious pet. She's particularly funny at an amusement park, which not only gives the audience an easy thrill for the roller coasters on the big screen but also allows Agnes to win a unicorn toy and joyously exclaim, "it's so fluffy," with the amusement park game burning in destruction behind her.

The various side characters around Gru were funniest. A few of the best jokes are at the expense of the little yellow minion sidekicks and Dr. Nefario, an old genius who has hearing problems (he mistakenly invents the wrong gadgets sometimes). The film also has its share of fun gadgets down in Gru's secret lab, including a NASA like mission control setup. It may disappoint some adults expecting a more humorous and evil villain, but it's very watchable, fun, and fast paced.

The image quality of "Despicable Me" didn't seem negatively impacted by the 3D treatment. The 3D was more enjoyable and noticeable than in "The Last Airbender", but not so frequent that you get a huge advantage. The audience seemed to enjoy the film, but many of them had to stay for the credits since the yellow minion give a nice send off.
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Hot Tub Time Machine (2010, R)
3 November 2010
Although suffering from occasional lazy writing and attention getting banter, "Hot Tub Time Machine" has genuine laughs and hilarious moments. John Cusack gives it extra star power with a solid reputation for offbeat films. It lacks highly quotable lines or clever dialog, but it has plenty of energetic physical comedy and insider jokes, which seem funny even when you have no idea what they mean. They also keep tripping over things in a subtle tribute to Chevy Chase, who briefly appears as a cryptic repairman, and they run into a few squirrels reminiscent of the ground hog in "Caddyshack".

It's a quirky comedy with a time travel plot device: three guys travel back to the 80s and relive moments they shared as friends at the Kodiak Valley Ski Resort. A younger video game and Internet junkie, Jacob (Clark Duke), joins them, perhaps because his uncle Adam (John Cusack) wants to get him unplugged and out of his basement. You might remember Clarke Duke from "Greek" where he plays a more ambitious science student. Here he plays a loafer but still a geek.

They decide to go on the trip after Lou (Rob Corddry) recklessly drives into his garage and ends up in a hospital. He was heavily drinking from two bottles, one in each hand, with exhaust spewing into his garage as he rocked to 80s music, keeping beat with air drums and revving the engine. The doctors think he tried to commit suicide, as do two of his childhood friends: Nick (Craig Robinson) and Adam (John Cusack). Well, technically they're friends since they were as kids, but mostly Lou is a pain and they avoid his calls. However, they don't have stellar lives either – Adam just got dumped and Nick suspects his wife of cheating – so they feel his pain and take him on a trip back to Kodiak to relieve stress.

After hospital humor, with Lou splashing urine from his catheter, we get car humor. The three older guys whisper about a great white buffalo as they slowly work into a mood of nonstop guy humor. They don't stop to explain anything to the audience; instead they count on mood and energy to bring laughs (they succeed). Jacob (Clark Duke) gets into fun sarcastic exchanges with Lou, which are more funny on a second viewing once you know their past relationship.

The trip comes to a screeching halt when they find the resort town rundown and much less enjoyable than in their youth. They sit flipping quarters. But luckily a trip back to the 80s (through a hot tub as the title suggests) reinvigorates them, which is especially true since they transform into their younger selves when looking at mirrors (not sure how that works).

The reveal at the 1986 time period is nicely gradual. They notice colorful clothes, long hair, and a "where's the beef?" shirt. But finding out that Michael Jackson is still black provides definitive proof. Tape cassettes are in and email is meaningless. Ronald Reagan is president and AIDS is rampant, so they want out. They decide to do everything they did in 1986 to avoid causing any unwanted butterfly effects. Lou has to take humiliation from a bully all over again, Adam has to dump his girlfriend (and get stabbed in the eye with a fork), and Nick has to relive his mediocre signing performance.

The director, Steve Pink, has a history working as a credited writer, co-producer, and music supervisor in previous John Cusack films ("High Fidelity", "Gross Point Blank"). Pink gets many jokes to work based on the 80s time period, such as Jacob's realization that he can't communicate online and would have to meet people in person. But we have to tolerate a bit of loud banter about time travel, which sounds all too much like the stuff people say at parties just to get attention. It works better in person where people feel an obligation to laugh.

As with many comedy films, the buildup and middle parts are funniest. But some of the later scenes are noteworthy: Nick calls his nine year old wife, blubbering and crying like a child as he blames her for cheating on him in the future. Mostly he is just distraught that his life has become devoid of any meaning besides his wife (of the future) and he's giving himself a pep talk to take control of his life. It's the same lesson they all learn (along with the value of maintaining friendships). Except Jacob -- just try to take away his video games. Jacob endures his share of problems: his 1986 mom is obsessed with sex, which shouldn't surprise him since he knows he was conceived at about the same time period. Once the crude jokes and moral of the story intrude on the plot, it becomes a bit like stock comedy. But the crudity isn't very extreme, and it has fun moments that arise out of 80s humor and the sheer energy of Rob Corddry.
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Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010, PG)
3 November 2010
After three quests for pearls, contentious negotiations with Hades (the Greek god of the Underworld), and sagacious advice to follow his intuitions, Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) gets out of any homework he might have had. Not that he's doing well in school with ADHD (the modern clinical term for ADD) and dyslexia. Despite Percy's total ignorance on the topic, the oddest revelation in "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is the existence of the gods and culture of ancient Greek religion. The story takes place in the contemporary world with no explanation for the swords, shields, gods, and mythological creatures coming from nowhere. Maybe the Ghostbusters have made another mistake, or maybe the Olympians have been oddly peaceful for the last 17 years of Percy's life.

Besides this ludicrous intro to the gods, we learn that Percy has special powers, which he inherits from his father Poseidon (the god of sea, storms, and earthquakes), played by Kevin McKidd. We can expect great things from Percy, for it's rare to have one of the big three gods as a father (Poseidan, Hades, Zeus). Water gives him regenerative powers, instant sword expertise, and water manipulation abilities (like the Waterbenders in "The Last Airbender"). He also reads Greek without having to learn it (perhaps following Harry's example of instantly understanding Parseltongue, a snake language). Will he become immortal like Wolverine (due to his regenerative powers)? Will he realize that swords are silly in the modern world, especially when he's a Waterbender? But at first he's a normal boy with a single parent. His father deserted him when he was young, and his mother keeps around a smelly, deadbeat stepfather, played effortlessly by Joe Pantoliano. Perhaps to wash off the stink and clear his mind, Percy sits at the bottom of pools for up to 7 minutes. The underwater lighting effects are cool, but his best friend's legs look like a Halloween outfit (until you get to the feet). Percy doesn't know it, but his best friend, named Grover Underwood (Brandon T. Jackson), is a Satyr (half man and half goat). He's also a guardian watching over Percy as is his Latin teacher, Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan), who turns out to be the centaur Chiron (half man and half horse).

But a storm is brewing. War between the gods is imminent after someone steals thunder from Zeus (Sean Bean). For some unknown reason, Zeus blames Poseidon's son, Percy, for stealing it and sets a deadline (14 days) for its return. In the meantime, mythological creatures attack Percy, such as his substitute English teacher after she turns into a Fury. And a nasty minotaur attacks his mother, vanishing her to the Underworld.

Percy must train up a bit first. He goes into hiding at a training camp for demi-gods (mortals with half human and half god blood). He gets the typical newbie treatment in a sword duel with Annabeth Chase (Alexandra Daddario), a daughter of Athena and a hardened sword fighter. But after he wins in a game of "capture the flag", she expresses strong feelings for him. She's not sure whether they are positive or negative feelings given the feud between their godly parents.

Once the team is in place, Percy, Annabeth, and Grover (the satyr) sneak off on a series of quests necessary to save his mother from the Underworld (or, to be precise, to allow themselves to get back out of the Underworld). On the way, they run into Medusa, a snake haired lady played by Uma Thurman. If she stares into your eyes, then you turn to stone. Other tough tests include a many headed, fire breathing dragon (Hydra) and a group of Lotus Eaters, who trap gamblers in Las Vegas with narcotic lotus flowers (one comical visitor has been there since the 70s). And in Hollywood, Hades himself makes for the biggest challenge. He's not quite as understanding as Zeus, who Percy wants to visit at some point to make him understand that he didn't steal the thunder.

Chris Columbus is the director, but he doesn't regain his old glory from his first two Harry Potter films. The plot is hectic and contrived. It makes you wonder why Percy spends so much time saving his mother when he should be averting a war between the gods and saving humanity as we know it. But perhaps it's just another contemporary allusion: he's able to deal with more than one problem at a time. But actually the film has three steps: find three magic pearls that get you out of the Underworld, save mom, and save humanity from a war of the gods.

In any case, the film is better than a recent magical quest film set in the contemporary world, called "The Sorcerer's Apprentice". Both films have comic and silly elements, but Percy Jackson has a cooler and darker side that makes it a bit more enjoyable. The Greek religion and gods give the story great visual background and exciting transformations. Hades has an interesting squabble with his wife, Persephone (Rosario Dawson), making it clear that goddesses also have problems with faithfulness. But Percy's immense powers come too quickly and seem out of place in a training camp for sword fighting. He'd be better off at Hogwarts or with the Waterbenders.
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The Crazies (2010)
The Crazies (2010, R)
3 November 2010
For a high suspense horror film, "The Crazies" begins at a calm pace with creepy characters and slick snapshots of conspiracy theory. But then Breck Eisner, the director, and the writers zoom in on individual kill segments and chase the main character, Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), and his party of survivors around a rural farming town (Ogden Marsh, Iowa). The kills are a bit inventive at times, but the rescues are definitely not. It isn't a zombie film, Eisner opting instead for the contagion route: the town's people start behaving sometimes like silent, disoriented lunatics and sometimes like ruthless stalkers. But the attempts at paranoia – in a weak effort to exploit the virus so that the survivors won't know who to trust – are mostly confusing and didn't cause enough genuine feelings of deception.

A gradual increase in suspense, however, is well done, especially in the terrific opening sequences. At a baseball game, a local man, named Rory Hamill, wanders onto the field with a drunken, crazy look and a rifle. A little later another local, Bill Farnum (Brett Rickaby), sits oddly at a doctor's office as if he's gone mad. Clever details ensue as Bill's son hides in a closet and tells his mother he saw dad with a knife. Bill creeps up the steps and locks his wife and son in a closet, torching the house on his way out.

These sequences have a genuine sense of paranoia. Rory slowly wandering onto the baseball field is weird enough to make us wonder who is next. But elsewhere the "crazies" mostly run around as wild and aggressive killers. Not to sound like Yoda, but paranoia requires deception and deception requires you to mistake craziness for normality. It's a difficult trick to pull off. It works with Rory and Bill initially, but ultimately it fails. It's difficult to leave time for error when you are busy running away from a crazy person with a pitch fork.

As the military try to control the situation with extreme measures, the story stays with the perspective of Sheriff Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), and his deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson). The three of them break out of military quarantine and try to find a way out of town, and past the military patrols, blockades, watchful helicopters, and communication blackouts. In George A. Romero's original 1973 version, the military was central to the story. Here the story spirals into the personal mayhem experienced by the Sheriff's party of survivors.

Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) also starts acting erratically and a bit aggressively with his rifle, but it isn't clear whether he's just being careful, reactive (out of fear), or aggressive due to the contagion. What are the symptoms for being crazy anyways? For him to deceive us and give us a genuine feeling of paranoia (to the point of having nightmares over our next door neighbor turning into a "crazy"), we would need better information about how the symptoms work and whether he has them. It simply isn't clear that he does.

Together the four of them walk through streets of fire and debris. They sometimes hide to avoid the military or the townsfolk. For example, they watch three odd characters hunting crazies. Or are they crazies themselves? It isn't clear, but for the rest of the film most anyone who is crazy, military, or outsider is out to harm anyone in their path. The military becomes especially destructive as they lose control of the situation. And since zombies aren't specifically involved, the "crazies" can use a bit of intelligence and a ready supply of lethal weapons (pitch forks, saws, knives, and guns) to add variety to the kill segments. The local school principal turns particularly ruthless with a pitch fork; hopefully not as a result of a writer's bad experience in school.

The film tries increasing the tension with extreme paranoia (as best done by "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Thing"), but it gives us frightful kill scenes and maniacs instead, none of which deceive us to the degree of paranoia. Timothy Olyphant (from "Deadwood" and "Live Free or Die Hard") fits the role of the main survivor well. The best parts are perhaps the gradual opening scenes and small town charm, and it also has a couple conspiratorial special effect shots of satellite monitoring. Many of the kill segments are suspenseful and chilling for fans of slasher type horror. We get perfect locations for scare tactics, including a remote car wash and a truck station, and the kill scenes have sufficient moments of silent stalking to keep you on the edge of your seat.
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Hunger (2008)
Hunger (2008, Unrated)
3 November 2010
"Hunger" is a true story about an iron willed Irish Republic Army (IRA) protester, Bobby Sands. It may make you recall the tactics of Gandhi in his popular hunger protests, but Steve McQueen's film is anything but about peace. Of course, Gandhi's methods weren't just about peace either. Hunger strikes may be passive, but when they take place in a culture where people generally have a moral conscience for such tactics (1980s Britain), they become a weapon as strong as any but the most destructive bombs. They require enough force of will to overcome our most basic instincts and capture the sympathies of outsiders. Thus, hunger protests are also to the highest degree human, and, out of necessity, visible forms of public action.

The main character, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), arrives later than usual in the plot, but you are able to imagine the sort of steps he went through by seeing his fellow prisoners go through the routine of stripping in front of the guards, acquiring their blanket and beating, and getting sent to their two-person cell. At some point the initial prisoner we meet gets visually replaced and the film focuses on Bobby Sands, an endlessly energetic resistance leader. You see some glimpses of him as a child riding on trains and running cross country as he reflects during his hunger strike. He's not always great to look at with a beaten face and messily cut hair, but he's not exactly cooperative with the guards.

You can detect a flow of events as the prisoners are noticeably uncooperative. They first appear in cells so squalor they seem best fit for pigs, but the prisoners aren't exactly cleaning up after themselves. Next the guards transfer them to better antiseptic cells, but the prisoners start destroying the neat little rooms in unison. You discover the prisoners are somehow working together as a result. These aren't normal prisoners. They don't accept being in prison. It's more like a P.O.W. camp.

In his debut film, Steve McQueen skips the introductions and jumps right to the point of view of prison guards, doctors, and prisoners. You have no precise idea what's going on, why this guy is checking under his car, or why these people are in prison. The story takes place mostly in a prison, but also in other unnamed locations with a man looking suspiciously under his car and, later, visiting his mother. He's one of the guards, but it's best to know as little as possible before going into it.

Bobby Sands isn't the first symbol of a rebel that comes to mind. It's more fun to think of Mel Gibson in "Braveheart". But rebels don't come from nowhere in this film, they come from a particular life story, suffer police lines of vicious batons, and slowly deteriorate due to hunger. They endure any amount of suffering for their cause. The film doesn't portray the guards as evil either. They just happen to be on the front lines.

All of Bobby's leadership occurs off camera except for in one lengthy conversation scene with a priest. Bobby claims that people act based on the unique experiences they have in life. This separates Bobby from the priest's inclination to prefer peaceful resolution over a hunger strike. Bobby is different. He must act. And he's down to one of his strongest and last weapons for resistance. Something about a hunger strike gets the attention of the public if the cause seems worthy. It forces people to look at the reasons for the resistance and perhaps become critical of a system that pushes people to this extreme.

McQueen nicely fixates on the minutia: prison walls covered in grimy substance (don't ask what), hallways soaked with urine, and prisoners battered with bruises. He uses heightened visual experiences to give the viewer the information they need to make their own judgment. And amazingly he doesn't do this in only an ugly manner. McQueen nicely chooses only enough of the dirty real events to give you a sense of the prison conditions, without making you wish you didn't have to see them.

It's difficult to find any specific moral-political message. No doubt McQueen's choice of images carries some sort of a political agenda. They always do in a world where you can't show all possible images at the same time and where you must make a choice between the various options. But his movie certainly doesn't demonize any of the prisoners or guards. In fact, one guard gets shot by IRA operatives, perhaps to demonstrate the ordeal the guards went through in the line of duty. Some of the death symbolism of birds flying seems a bit out of place in such a carefully crafted piece of art, but it's a small problem in such an interesting movie.

The best description we can use for this film, given that any explicit details and facts would spoil the experience of it, is psychologically impressive. When you know everything about the overall puzzle (all the facts and history of the events), then the structure of the plot and the film's imagery makes nearly perfect sense. It doesn't tell you so much that you don't get a chance to figure out the reasons that drove Bobby and his fellow prisoners to go on hunger strikes for yourself.
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The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010, PG)
3 November 2010
The public demand for magic may begin to dwindle if movies like "The Last Airbender" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" become the standard bearers to replace the immense worlds of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. As far as fantasy goes, Airbender is actually preferable to Apprentice: it had more potential, more ideas, and more beautiful landscapes. Jon Turteltaub's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a goof-ball action film with a mere gimmick: a nerdy physics student, Dave (Jay Baruchel), finds out he has secret abilities he didn't know about.

The opening of the movie has an odd and lengthy back story to sorcery, told in random glimpses of ancient sword and magic fights and other historical events that took place since the time of Merlin. It's like watching a sequence written by a 4th grader using run on sentences, or perhaps listing to a story told by someone with dementia. Just remember that some of the most evil sorcerers in history were encased in layers of a small Russian doll trap (the Grimhold) until such time that the "Prime Merlinian", an ultra powerful sorcerer, comes to power and destroys the evil sorcerers for good.

After that confusing mess, the story begins in present day New York. It has charming moments as Dave (Jake Cherry) has a childhood romance with a young version of Becky (Peyton List), a fellow 4th grade classmate. He writes a note to ask her whether she wants to be "friend or girlfriend". But the note with her answer gets caught in a magical draft of air, leading young Dave to an old antique shop, which is run by Balthazar (Nicolas Cage). Dave learns about a magical ring, touches a few of the wrong things, and sets in motion the release of a dangerous sorcerer (Horvath) from the doll trap.

The film flashes forward 10 years. Dave is now a physics student at college. But events from his youth reemerge when Balthazar takes Dave as his apprentice to learn the art of magic-science. Dave learns that magical powers result from using his whole brain rather than 10% of it. He wonders whether magic is a science. Balthazar says it's "both".

You could quibble over the film's silly view of science, and note that magic only becomes remotely plausible in the absence of scientific explanations of physical phenomenon or in the ultimate failure to use physical phenomenon to manipulate nature, but the film doesn't dwell on such things so it would miss the point. The film is built around action, stunts, gags, and special effects. It doesn't spend time wondering about anything that would make a person imagine or enjoy the story's possibilities.

Dave is more interested in courting Becky than focusing on his magic lessons. But danger lurks because Horvath, a powerful sorcerer from the time of Merlin, seeks to free his fellow ancient sorcerers, especially the most powerful of all of them: Morgana (Alice Krige).

Some of the special effects are worth watching. Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) summons forth a mess of confetti to confuse a rampaging dragon. He uses watery mirror traps to create alternate realities where everything is backwards. And Dave and him enjoy flying on metal griffins.

Additionally, some of the gags brought laughs from the audience. Dave gets nailed in the groin, he sets mops and brooms loose in a mass of chaos, and he uses a flaming trash can to thwart a thief. It had one witty scene in which Dave and his roommate compare tutoring physics 101 students (including English and Music majors) to a charitable public service.

But it has awkward moments in the training phases, especially when Dave teaches Becky (he's still trying to win her heart) about his plasma experiment and the music it creates. He's trying to win her over (she's a music major) by pretending he had never noticed the beauty of his work, but he must be one of the few physics students to ignore the aesthetic beauty of physical laws and mathematics. The scene is beyond awkward as he hoots about their nerdy fascination with musical plasma. It's the sort of scene someone writes when they try to make something interesting that they don't think is interesting; that they think is a charitable service for dimwits who would never understand science.

Dave's powers mature out of nowhere, and he seems to understand information that his character hasn't learned yet. Suddenly he knows that magic rings add power to Horvath's staff. He casts protective shields like a pro against some of the most dangerous sorcerers in history. He's not even much like a human being by the time the story gets to its climax. It's as if his Merlin blood started magically palpitating and let out its knowledge and power in a burst of lazy script writing. They should have made him into an alien and gave him a chamber of crystals like Superman. The ending also borders on absurdity and seems nothing more than an advertisement for a future sequel.

The plot is painful throughout. The 6 credited writers never found a way to make high intensity action, fantastical comic moments, and romance all fit together nicely. It's a mess of a movie with some instants of interesting special effects or comical gags, but almost zero fascinating fantasy ideas and too many awkward moments that seem like someone wanted some laughs and lightness someplace, anyplace, in the script.
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The Black Balloon (2008, PG 13)
3 November 2010
When the Mollison family move to town, the neighbors don't come over to say "hello", they don't send their kids over to play, and they don't miss a chance to stare in annoyance. The Mollison's are mostly normal except for one major difference, they care for a severely disabled, autistic and ADD son, Charlie. But his mother sometimes refers to him as her little "Cheeky Monkey". He introduces himself to the neighbors by sitting in the yard banging large, wooden spoons or sticks repeatedly. Everyone stares at the unusual, new family, and little kids ride up to ask the other son, Thomas, about Charlie's condition.

"The Black Balloon" is a quirky and enjoyable film for the realistic way it approaches a family's struggle to cope with bringing up an autistic child. They could easily be any typical family. If they were normal, they would be in the upper level of ideal families: two parents, two children, and another one on the way. You can easily imagine the issues they encounter since they seem to react the way any normal family would react to fairly outrageous situations.

The director, Elissa Down, has personal experience with two autistic brothers and was able to model Charlie after one of them. This makes for some oddball behavior that a writer probably wouldn't stumble upon by chance. If you don't keep a constant watch on Charlie, he's liable to run out the door in nothing but his colorful undies and invade a neighbor's house to use their bathroom. Locks sometimes help. But if you lock him in his room without keeping an eye on him, he might just entertain himself by splattering the carpet with poo and joyfully playing with it.

So you can see his brother Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) has issues to overcome. Much of the film is about Thomas and his difficulty dealing with an atypical childhood. He's new at school and quickly happens to meet one of the cutest girls there, Jackie Masters (Gemma Ward, a successful model at the time she did the role). Many of his first encounters with Jackie are with Charlie at his side chewing on tampons or running down a hall naked. The film holds nothing back and fearlessly portrays the real world odd behaviors that consume an autistic family.

One possible advantage is that Thomas matures to real world situations early in his life, which he's hesitant to accept. Thomas has a mix of awkward moments at the school pool (he's not very good at swimming and the gym teacher makes him wear ridiculous yellow swim shorts). He frequently smiles at the odd things going on around him (perhaps a few too many stationary smile scenes). He juggles his desire for Jackie with his hope at having a normal brother one day. Gemma Ward not only has amazing good looks but she also performs Jackie effortlessly, holding back her unexpected capacity for acceptance and understanding until just the right moments.

Toni Collette plays the mother, Maggie, with tenacity and playfulness. She's a natural in a chaotic family. Maggie tries to manage her pregnancy and run a household to the point of putting herself in the hospital. She accepts Charlie's limitations and knows he will probably need lifelong care. In one of her best scenes, she cleans up Charlie's feces while she tries to convince Thomas to accept his brother as he is and appreciate that he will have opportunities that Charlie never will.

Besides the family struggles, the film has a vivid sense of detail and a wonderful script. It's the sort of intelligent script that makes you want to test out its ideas. This one works: as Jackie and Thomas come out of a lake to get out of the rain and head for cover under a bridge (it's the romance scene of the movie, of course, but first it has a nice little analogy), Jackie tells Thomas to close his eyes and observe what he sees. At first he sees pure blackness, then spots of dancing color, and then finally specks of white dots ingrained in blackness like static on a TV. It never goes away. (Try it sometime; it's true.) The point for the story, however, is that Charlie may have a similar condition in which some features of his experience may never change. Thomas doesn't fully compute the message as he's more interested in other things.

The location is in Australia with school uniforms, dorky bike helmets, and 80s-90s clothing (the time period of the story is the early 90s; Super Nintendo being the main game system). The Australian native, Elissa Down, had a part in writing the story as well as directing. Her previous experience was working on short films. She treats the subject with respect, but she also adds a lot of quirky details that make the story enjoyable. Luke Ford plays a convincing version of an autistic child as Charlie. It's not a unique story. It follows in the tradition of "Rain Man" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" But it has enough unique wit and pervasive reality to make it well worth watching. It isn't as funny as something like "Little Miss Sunshine", but it's on the same wavelength.
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The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009, PG 13)
3 November 2010
Something about "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" drains you of life, but it's difficult to pinpoint the precise source. It isn't lack of sex appeal. Jacob (Taylor Lautner) spends many of his lengthy chatty scenes shirtless, sporting a buff and chiseled physique. The other werewolves don't bother with shirts because sometimes they transform spontaneously out of anger and aren't rich enough to keep buying new shirts. It isn't lack of action either. If you've seen any of the trailers this doesn't give anything away, but (spoiler) Jacob and his Quileute clan members frequently transform into werewolves to chase vampires and occasionally rip them apart. Edward (Robert Pattinson), the cold and undead vampire who thirsts with love for Bella, also battles a pair of vampire enforcers for the Volturi (an elite gang of ultra powerful vampires) in a lengthy fight scene.

Even so, it lacks the sentiment or playfulness of Stephenie Meyer's novel (of the same name). It makes the same mistake as "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" by standing still in awkward moments and lacking depth in talky scenes. In the first movie, you learn that Bella (Kristen Stewart) feels more comfortable in the undead vampire world and feels out of place in a normal human life. Instead of deepening the triangle with dark talk like this, the films mostly leave it out, focusing instead on the choice between Team Jacob and Team Edward.

"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" continues where the first movie left off with Bella and Edward in an uneasy love. Edward mastered his thirst for Bella's blood to the extent that he may safely remain in her presence (as long as they practice abstinence and as long as he breaks away before any of their romantic encounters get too extreme). But Jasper, one of the newer vampires close to Edward, attacks Bella at her birthday party after she gets a paper cut. The accident makes Edward rethink his relationship with Bella. He decides to move away from town to give her a chance at a normal life. Edward makes lesser appearances in the movie when Bella hallucinates in moments of an adrenaline rush. This transforms her into a motorcycle riding and cliff jumping daredevil.

The story is sound in theory, but the way it's translated to film loses all the internal struggle Bella experiences. After Edward tells her he's leaving, you don't see her experience depression much; instead, she screams at nightmares and she sits in front of a window in a daze for months, remaining the same as the camera moves around her and the seasons change before her eyes. Her desperate run through the woods is difficult to understand. It's mostly off camera and she doesn't seem as panicked as the plot and dialog tells us.

The point of all this detail is that the rest of the story falls like dominoes. The lack of exploring Bella's inner world and emotional turmoil (on camera) dampens all the events that depend on her initial state of mind. The result is to further remove Edward from any significant part of the story. (Edward is actually a huge part of it. He causes her depression by leaving without explaining his reasons, making her question whether he cares for her if he could leave so easily.) So the reunion scenes between her and Edward at the end have very little build up and almost no psychological depth. They come out of nowhere and arrive mainly through dialog and last minute love scenes. Mostly Team Jacob gets a chance to make the case for human warmth without the other side of the triangle for competition.

Why does she need a friend like Jacob so much? Unless you pay careful attention to Bella's voice-over, the most noticeable reasons are because he's "sort of beautiful" and he makes girls in a theater scream and giggle. For the most part, the Jacob and Bella scenes seem awkward and sleepy. Particularly troubling is the uneventful exchanges between Bella and Jacob as they repair her motorcycle. The whole sequence demands more coverage, more depth, and more playfulness. For example, it lazily summarizes the gag over Jacob's lesser age (he's only 16). How do we know Jacob is warm and friendly? Take Bella's word for it; she says it, so it must be so.

In the most awkward of their scenes, Jacob stands frozen in rain, looking like he's not quite sure what to do. He looks like he wants to give Bella every chance to stay and talk when he's supposed to be telling her to go away. It seems like the director is afraid that if Mr. Lautner moves, or otherwise behaves like a person saying the words he's saying, the filmmakers might have to worry about the logistics of moving the water truck (that was dispensing the rain) to cover the actors with realistic movement.

For a movie obsessed with following the book, it sure kills all the best parts. It lacks any "Godfather" moments that immerse the viewer in the story; instead, the story zigzags through major events without exploring them in any depth or detail. Sometimes you get a sense that the filmmakers simply wanted more action in the story. For example, Edward's amazing fight sequence at the end (choke slams and all) would never happen with Jane (Dakota Fanning) standing in the room, as she is. She's a vampire that inflicts pain in others with her mind (sort of like using a cruciatus curse in Harry Potter), but she apparently forgets she has these powers and simply watches Edward fight against a couple of the other lesser Volturi. For fans, it will be a must own movie, but for others it may very well be a sleepy experience.
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Salt (2010)
Salt (2010, PG 13)
3 November 2010
Full of surprises and adrenaline, "Salt" has a dark playful side that relishes in misdirection. What it lacks in explanation, clear intentions, and realism, it makes up in novelty and clever action. The film is a spy thriller involving CIA agents and KGB spies. In this sense, it's something like a remnant of Cold War conspiracy movies. The best parts use frequent red herrings to drive the story, which is evident from the tagline: "Who is Salt?".

Action is its emphasis: fantastic car stunts, close call killings, and spectacular Houdini escapes. Angelina Jolie stars as a CIA agent, named Evelyn Salt, who we discover is an expert at interrogation and, from the looks of it, a supreme master at martial arts, stealth, and marksmanship. She's like a ninja, but the main characters usually are in Kurt Wimmer action stories (anyone remember his Gun-Kata or Gun Fu invention for "Equilibrium", basically a gun training dance?).

Suddenly she seems to question her allegiance to the CIA, but the story keeps her intentions as a sort of riddle. Her close partner is Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), who councils her to avoid taking on desk jobs. We don't need to worry about that. After a Russian defector, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), walks voluntarily into the CIA headquarters and hints that Salt (Angelina Jolie) might be a Russian spy intent on killing Medvedev (the Russian president), she escapes from CIA custody. Why is she so hasty and quick to flee from counterintelligence agents? Is she allergic to sitting on the other side of the interrogation table? Is her husband in danger? And if so, from who? These questions keep you interested to figure out what's going on. She hunts for her husband and prepares for battle. The plot twists and turns through assassination attempts, sometimes aiming to provoke a war between the U.S. and Russia. Medvedev is a major target while attending a funeral in the U.S. for the vice president. Russia starts to militarize when they find out. The U.S. President is also a target, forcing him to take cover and get his nuclear strike case ready.

It's difficult to give details without spoiling the movie, so here are a few things it isn't (though not as criticism). It wasn't a version of Kurt Wimmer's "Ultraviolet", thankfully. Wimmer went back to writing after his "Ultraviolet" disaster, but in that job he hasn't suffered in the least, and perhaps this film will help revitalize his future prospects (it should). The director of "Salt", by the way, is Phillip Noyce ("The Bone Collector", "Clear and Present Danger", "Patriot Games"), but his touch for military-political intrigue shows through only slightly.

Military strategy isn't central to the story either. It lacks broad detail or chess strategy during its assassination plot sequences, almost treating them as cursory events in the tribulations of Evelyn Salt. You don't get any realistic sense of the U.S. President's guards reacting to the assassination attempts or the two nations (US and Russia) mobilizing forces against one another due to the threats. But they aren't the focus. It's a conspiracy duel between KGB and CIA agents. You are mainly in the position of trying to figure out a typical "Bourne Identity" plot.

Salt weaves through the intrigue. She changes disguises often and avoids any easy to tell moralistic sympathies. She's classy and serious, with time to take care of her little dog and reflect on her husband. She also flies down elevator shafts like Spider-Man. After a series of incredible car crashes, she bandages a small cut on her side when she should be lying in a hospital. But, still, her character has an interesting back story and her flashiness makes the movie enjoyable.

Angelina Jolie has a knack for keeping our curiosity even in the most absurd moments, perhaps best when she turns to the mysterious and dark side. Initially Tom Cruise was asked to play the lead role, but he turned it down, fearing it was too similar to "Mission: Impossible". The locations were shot in New York and Washington, DC on a budget of $130 million. The ending has an obvious contradiction in the dialog pretty much (revealing it would require a spoiler), but in a ludicrous action-thriller written this well, it isn't even annoying.
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Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 (2010, G)
3 November 2010
"Toy Story 3" has plenty of action, adventure, and fun once it gets going, but even better is the overall effect of nostalgia for the viewer. Comedy films like to make fun of these types of childhood experiences, and no doubt they do have a comical side especially through the perspective of adults; for example, Rick Moranis is memorable playing with action figure dolls in a scene in "Spaceballs". "Toy Story 3" gives playtime scenarios a positive and tear-jerking spin with high hopes of lifting them from comedy into important individual and educational experiences. However, the catch is that most of the movie is a parallel adventure played out by the toys themselves. Having the toys come to life is not quite as annoying as in other films. It actually makes sense from the perspective of a hypothetical game scenario that a kid would likely make up.

Andy, 17 years old now, is past playing such games and leaves his toys untouched in a toy box. He keeps the box around at his age mainly for the requirements of the plot, and we can imagine the writers had a difficult time figuring out how to begin the third of these "Toy Story" movies. They start with an flashback to Andy's toys in full lifelike visual effects, which seems right out of a segment for a modern video game. Andy lets some of the toy characters behave based on their inherent persona's, but some of them he creates himself, such as giving a piggy bank, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), an evil nature as the ultimate bad guy of his stories. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and associates are the main good guys.

But these are short lived events as we flash forward to Andy's grown up concerns about college. His toys quickly downgrade from a hope to play with him again to a hope that he will store them in the attic rather throw them in the trash. Is this a slight metaphor for keeping the fruits of our childhood visions alive? Well, the toys see their role as servants to any future need Andy might have for them, but an attic isn't very entertaining, so the toys get sent to Sunnyside daycare in the hopes they may be of interest to a new generation of kids. They won't. The toys get sent to a play room for toddlers, who have no imagination and only bang the toys into things and rip them apart. The kids might as well have a bunch of rocks to roll around since they certainly aren't getting any benefit out of elaborately designed toys.

Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to convince the rest of Andy's toys to break out of the place and to live in peace in Andy's attic, but they are skeptical. They think Andy was about to throw them in the trash and they want new kids to play with them. Woody escapes by himself, but a young girl, Bonnie, finds him and takes him to her house. Woody enjoys his games with her, but her toys (including a theater porcupine, Mr. Pricklepants, who shushes the other toys so he can stay in character) inform him that Sunnyside isn't sunny and his friends are in trouble. A big purple and strawberry smelling bear, named "Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear" or "Lotso" (Ned Beatty), who rides in the back of a toy truck and walks with a cane like Yoda, is actually a menacing warden over Sunnyside daycare. He loves to give hugs, but he also likes to send the newbies (toys, that is) to the toddler playroom (named Caterpillar Room) and keep them prisoner at night so they won't try to escape. He creates an oligarchy of toys in which his elderly elite get to play with the older kids (in the Butterfly Room), who actually use them as intended and imagine them in more sophisticated games.

The escape sequences are the most adventuresome and funny parts of the movie. Lotso marshals his forces to keep the new toys in line. His long time enforcer is Big Baby, but he also has Ken (Michael Keaton), an octopus (Whoopi Goldberg), and roving trucks on his side. His newest addition is Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), who he reboots to a default military mode (stripping him of his former identity) by reading his instructional manual. At one point Buzz gets reset into Spanish mode, turning into a romantic. Ken entertains Barbie by modeling clothes. He has a soft spot for clothing as much as she does, perhaps from participating in so many games imagined by girls. Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris) have parts similar to a Transformer or certain Vampires – ears, eyes, and mouths function perfectly while detached. Mrs. Potato Head sees over long distances to her lost eye, and Mr. Potato Head attaches his parts to pita bread. Are their parts therefore nearly immortal?

It expands from this arch of a playful adventure to make a point about the value of play. It's a film about nostalgia for a boy's past experiences playing with toys as a sort of simulation or self-training for life. It might be a tear-jerker for many viewers, perhaps mostly adults, because many will relate to its message. The message is perhaps that Andy had a great deal to do with raising himself, but not entirely on his own. He also had the help of toys to manipulate and use as little pegs for his memories. These toys develop their own back story for him, some of which is inherent in the toys' characters but some of which is quite unique and invented by him. In this sense, his toys are external memories, storing a mini world of his past imaginings and mental experiments. It's important to him to pass these memories along.
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Brooklyn's Finest (2010, R)
3 November 2010
If you expect something of the detail of "The Wire", an HBO series about urban Baltimore, you will likely come away with disappointment for "Brooklyn's Finest". Both portray the shady sides of law enforcement, but "The Wire" better immerses you in the city underworld from the viewpoint of drug dealers on the street and special investigators tracking them. It also dealt with corrupt and vigilante police, politics, unions, education, and more. The TV series format gave it sufficient time to give you an insider look at the city environment and the main characters. "Brooklyn's Finest" only has time for three individual cops, which it follows as independent vignettes for most of the movie, but even with this limited focus, it still fails to make the characters serve as convincing examples of its sarcastic title.

None of the three are the "finest" examples of cops. One is uninspired and 7 days from retirement (Richard Gere), one is deep undercover and wants a desk job (Don Cheadle), and one is desperate for money to support his kids and wants to rob drug dealers (Ethan Hawke). You almost want the movie to add seven more for variety, or at least include a few more criminals for another point of view. Wesley Snipes plays a recently released drug lord, but he mainly exists as a friend and associate of Tango (Don Cheadle).

Ethan Hawke reunites with the director, Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"), as one of the detectives, named Sal. But the way he lurks around on drug busts, you would think he's an outright criminal. He participates mainly to search for cash and ponder whether it's worth taking some. He supports many kids (the official website says he has 5, but it isn't clear from the movie) with twins on the way. Additionally, his moldy house is possibly harmful to his wife's asthma and their unborn children. He's desperate to get money for a down payment on a new house.

Don Cheadle has a straight forward role as an undercover detective, named Tango. He goes so deep undercover, he starts to question his loyalty to the police. He wants a promotion to get off the streets, but his superiors use carrot and stick treatment (threats of criminal charges and incentives for a promotion) to coerce him to setup his friend, Caz (Wesley Snipes), who watched over him while he was in prison.

The upper levels of the police chain of command are also shady in this film. It portrays them planting evidence and playing politics. But they have their limits. When a crooked police officer shoots a young student, the police crack down and start placing rookie cops in dangerous parts of the city. Eddie (Richard Gere) is a veteran with the job of training some of the newbies. But his idea of police work is to do as little as possible, keep the car windows rolled up, and avoid making arrests outside his precinct. Both his rookies don't have a chance in this city. They are idealists and want to make a difference.

Eddie's flaws are an addiction to prostitution and frequent thoughts of suicide. Even a bad guy, who helps run a sex slave business, recognizes Eddie's face from the frequent visits he makes around town. However, the plot seems to get very thin the closer it gets to the third act and Eddie doesn't seem nearly as interesting as the other two lead characters. He seems the most contrived of the three, but none of them feel thoroughly developed, perhaps because they don't clearly relate to a central message or because they aren't convincing as people making difficult moral choices. The choices become as subtle as a massive shootout and as a series of dramatic acts of madness that seem to come out of nowhere.

But it starts out with high potential. In an interesting discussion between Sal (Ethan Hawke) and an informant, Carlo (Vincent D'Onofrio), we hear a lengthy story about a judge who let a suspect go by finding his actions "righter" than they were "wrong", suggesting degrees of lawfulness and rightness. Most of the movie is shot in the shadows with limited light, giving the actors half lit faces to reinforce the moral ambiguity the cops experience and the extreme situations they face daily.

Are the moral choices these characters make difficult in their situations? Tango (Don Cheadle) is an excellent undercover cop before he goes way out of bounds. Perhaps corruption in his chain of command pushed him to such extremes, but it's difficult to get a sense of his decision with so little coverage of his character. Sal's actions are so over the top, you want to check him into a psych ward. With the manic way he acts, he appears a bit more crazy and self-destructive than intended probably. Can't he get a sanitary house for his wife he can afford? Are his problems mostly self-caused with the way the plot unfolds? It's almost as if he wants to create difficult moral choices for himself, or, perhaps, he subconsciously wants his wife to collect the $100,000 life insurance he's worth if he dies.

The movie lacks a common thread to link its story together into a pleasing whole, and it lacks the sort of detail and pulse pounding plots regularly seen in "The Wire" (you might notice a few cast members from that show in minor roles). "Brooklyn's Finest" would likewise be better as a TV series.
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Green Zone (2010)
Green Zone (2010, R)
3 November 2010
It comes to no surprise that we didn't find Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, so the main question is whether "Green Zone" has something to contribute that elevates it above a forgettable action-thriller movie. It tries to make you think so. Drum beats to war, covering the black credits at the beginning, suggest as much. But it fails to strike any new chords that you haven't seen debated in far more intelligent and passionate terms on political cable news programs.

Let us be clear that the point isn't to take a position on the war. It's merely to express why the movie lacks what it seems to want the audience to experience. For the mildly liberal or the moderate, yes, WMDs are a big deal. For people genuinely against the war in Iraq, it misses the point. It was more the feeling of its utter randomness, a feeling of a witch hunt in process in which security "hawks" and moral absolutists had their claws ready for the kill in any indeterminate direction. Why not invade every evildoer country that has or wants to develop WMDs? This question never enters the movie. Consequently, the film has a feeling of being out of date (perhaps its low Box Office numbers support this claim).

Regardless of your stance on the post 9/11 wars, the film simply fails to make the viewer feel outraged the way it would if it was an anti-war or anti-Iraqi war movie. It seems more 'mildly annoying' when Matt Damon's character, Roy Miller, a true believer who really wants to find WMDs, finds nothing. He was told they were there, so they better be there or he will be very angry, and you won't like it when he's angry. Did he also throw a fit as a kid when he found out Santa didn't exist? It's perhaps telling that the movie is easily reducible to a childish position on the whole matter. (On reflection, perhaps those in the middle of the political spectrum would be more annoyed since they might have based their position on WMDs specifically.) Well, perhaps this goes a bit too far. If you blink, you might miss its subtle and barely intelligible effort at complexity, which tries to make up for the lack of a passionate position. One of the strongest characters, however, is Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson), a thoughtful and knowing character who basically steals every scene he's in. (You might know him as "Mad-Eye Moody" in the Harry Potter movies.) Brendan Gleeson is one of those actors who commands instant respect in this role. His character is an upper level CIA operative in Baghdad. He takes notice of Roy at an intelligence briefing where Roy throws a fit about not finding WMDs, right in front of a two star general. Martin then attempts to illuminate Roy (Matt Damon) on the darker side of the Iraqi situation.

Roy, a Chief Warrant Officer, leads a special unit tasked to find WMDs. After three failed missions, he jumps to the conclusion that something is amiss with the intelligence reports. Is three no-finds enough to warrant such a conclusion? Well, he's doing his job and simply trying to get better intelligence, or, at least, trying to find out what the basis of the intelligence is. These are reasonable questions, but the film gives them an awkward importance with shaky camera movements and dramatic music as if these kinds of scenes are soul rattling experiences. They aren't when you stop to think about it.

In any case, back to Martin. He recruits Roy as someone to trust to openly discuss his controversial stance on Iraq. He's at odds with American policy to disband Saddam's Republican Guard. He'd rather get them on the side of the US, which is basically the tactic General Petraeus took. Martin's an ultimate realist and will, on occasion, duel with fellow soldiers and bureaucrats when they aren't looking. This kind of character could have propelled the movie to broader issues and fiercer sentiments, but maybe the film would have run the risk of increased outrage over politics.

Instead it's just an action-thriller. It succeeds at holding your attention, even to the point that you don't notice the shaky camera work by the director, Paul Greengrass, who collaborated with Matt Damon on the "Bourne Supremacy" and "Bourne Ultimatum" movies. Many of the soldiers in the film are veteran non-actors, so it scores points for convincing action. It has a few side insinuations about neglectful reporters, who fail to follow up on Washington sources, and over zealous special forces guys, who act like rouge enforcers for corrupt Washington politicians. The combination of them (reporters, cowboy soldiers, and blind politicians) try to prevent Roy from getting to the truth about the bad sources of intelligence and the absence of WMDs. It also has a quizzical scene in which an Iraqi volunteer, who helps Roy as a translator and informant, turns on Roy and reminds him that it's not his place to tell Iraqis how to run their country.

It ultimately fails at posing the types of questions and memorable scenes that would cause genuine anger about the war. Maybe it's intentional in an attempt to be fair about the tough issues in Iraq. But it struggles to give these scenes deeper meaning. However, these faults also mean it's not a bad movie even if you are the most fervent supporter of operations into Iraq. It won't do much more than slightly annoy you, and the film is flashy and fun to watch at times.
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Remember Me (2010)
Remember Me (2010, PG 13)
3 November 2010
If outcasts made a film and dipped it with rawness, it might look something like "Remember Me". Besides a few diplomatic conversations and trite character transformations, it capitalizes on Robert Patterson's built in awkwardness. Watching him in a David Letterman interview is exactly like watching him perform Tyler, the lead character here. Soulless Edward he is not. The performances are key in a movie about family turmoil, romance, and loss. It may have a lasting impact that makes you think about the chaotic chance events around us.

A simple romance for Robert Patterson admirers this is not. It's about a series of people coping with loss. Tyler (Robert Patterson) lost his close brother Michael to suicide, which he blames on his father when he builds to moods to say mean and hurtful things. Tyler is a brooding and moody college loafer. He works in a library instead of taking classes, and by his own admission he isn't very special at anything. His love interest, Ally Craig (Emilie de Ravin), lost her mother to a subway shooting right before her eyes. She was 11 at the time, and she reacts like Tyler, rubbing the tragic event into her father's face when she gets angry. We can't quite call them normal because they experience New York life. However, these characters are not sheltered from the outside world, they have messy lives, and they are interesting people.

Chris Cooper expertly plays Alley's father, Neil. He's a compelling policeman who comes into the story with a mistrustful view of the world, especially after his wife's sudden and violent death. He's overly protective of his daughter and he's quick to cross the line of the law, tracking down any threats on her safety and snooping into her and Tyler's private correspondence. Ruby Jerins is also noteworthy as Tyler's little sister, named Caroline. She's just as much an outcast in school and in her social life as Tyler and the rest of the main characters are.

It's not clear whether it's Tyler's typical behavior or a mere device to make the story seem important, but he exhibits a few sudden impulses as he sees a fight break out outside of a club. He runs to the defense of strangers and then mouths off to a veteran police detective, Neil (Chris Cooper). The policeman is a bit too rough with him for his liking. But Tyler's father, Charles (Pierce Brosnan), is a successful lawyer and gets him out of jail. Pierce Brosnan is stylish as a hard working and bossy professional. He enters the picture as a cold and distant figure with little time for his son or daughter, mostly from the point of view of his son. But his caring side nicely unfolds over the course of the film.

Tyler's zany roommate, Aidan (Tate Ellington), was also roughed up by the police in the clash. He's a major instigator with distorted priorities. He runs away from a professor who he was trying to soften up over his bad grades, which is often more helpful than it should be, to follow the daughter of the policeman from the previous night. He urges Tyler (Robert Patterson) to go over and talk to her with the goal of getting back at her father, Neil (Chris Cooper). It doesn't seem like Tyler would normally do this kind of thing, but maybe he just can't resist his new found self-destructive side (will he follow in his brother's footsteps?).

Her name is Ally Craig (Emilie de Ravin) and we see her at the beginning watching her mother get shot by a thief as a child. She's a college student busy with classes, but she agrees to go on a date with Tyler after a quirky and raw exchange between the two. But sometimes they sound like two diplomats making official statements to each other. She's a lovely character and doesn't make anything easy for Tyler. The romance scenes have a lot of charming details and they develop slowly. She eats dessert before the main course because she's afraid she might drop dead before she gets a taste of the food she mainly wants. It's a lovable quirkiness, and Robert Patterson was made to respond to such stuff. Does it come from a silly belief that one should live merely for momentary pleasures, as if they trump working towards more fulfilling long term goals?

Much was made of the climax of the movie. It involves a chance event in a disaster movie tradition, but it oddly works as an advantage. Not for Alley's belief in 'living for the moment', but for a feeling of acceptance. Individuals face cataclysmic and random events beyond their control in this movie. Such events allow them to achieve greater awareness and create broader meaning for themselves, as Tyler seems to do as he makes peace with his father (for example, his knowing look of peace and acceptance as he waits for his father in his office – discovering just how much he didn't see before about his father – is especially touching). It's at once humbling and liberating.

The uncertainty of chaotic events allows the characters to broaden the typically narrow beams of light they usually use to look at the world. They sacrifice the cheap thrill of a spotlight on themselves for a chance to see things from the point of view of others and of nature, and also to share in an experience of the broader world as it is. It may not be especially romantic or Utopian to darken our view this way, but it does something perhaps better, it places truthfulness in the background of our experience instead of just the two inches in front of our faces, expanding our perspective in a way that tragic events tend to do. Some might find it a tear-jerker as a result, but others may get the same knowing look Robert Patterson's character gets as he comes to see things differently.
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The Book of Eli (2010, R)
3 November 2010
It opens in a forest with debris falling all around and a blue haze filling the screen. A hairless feline with long legs arrives to taste a human corpse as Denzel Washington's character, Eli, a bit higher in the food chain, hunts the odd looking cat. Picturesque scenes like this pervade "The Book of Eli", sometimes giving you a sense that Denzel is pausing for postcard moments. But the gray clouds overhead give you hints about the desolate, futuristic atmosphere.

Eli (Denzel Washington) walks alone, always to the west, and against many little tests of his courage to stay on the path. His fighting skills help. He's a grand master of the short sword, but luckily very few bullets exist to nullify his specialty. The first group of thieves have a rotund guy with a chainsaw, perhaps right out of the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" movies, but he's not much of a match for Eli's dexterity and instincts. It's like a video game as the body count increases and the bad guys make light of the carnage. But it also has quiet moments as Eli seeks shelter. He exchanges boots with a dead guy and listens to his iPod.

Eli stops at a local gang-town to recharge his iPod and find water. Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the town chieftain, becomes interested after he sees Eli's combat skills. He sends a female companion, Solara (Mila Kunis), who he holds captive with threats to her blind mother Claudia (Jennifer Beals), to convince him to stay. But Eli is difficult to crack. He's principled, strong willed, and gifted almost with supernatural abilities. Bullets seem to just miss him, and he finds mysterious ways to sneak away.

Oddly enough, Carnegie seems passionate for Claudia, but business takes priority as he desperately searches for a book of some sort. (It certainly isn't "The DaVinci Code" since we see him tell his henchman to burn it, along with a few Oprah magazines.) He wants more power and territory, and the book will help bend people to his will. You might remember Carnegie's #1 henchman (Ray Stevenson) from the popular HBO series "Rome", in which he played Titus Pullo, a dim witted behemoth of a fighter. Here he plays a smart adviser who stands to the side and barks orders to Eli. You need strong men like him to keep order in this environment.

Along the way, Eli becomes friends with Solara (Mila Kunis). He teaches her to pray before eating, and she helps him find a secret water source. He's suspicious of her at first since he doesn't want to be drawn into Carnegie's clutches, but she keeps running into him and they share in a few of the massive bullet exchanges in the third act. Carnegie discovers that Eli has the book and comes after him with all his men, firing a rocket at him and unloading all the ammo of a Gatling gun.

The third act strays a bit from the carefully crafted first parts. But it's still fun to watch. The dark sarcasm finally works. Just before the big shoot out, Eli discovers a husband and wife duo of survivalist cannibals. What an odd team they become as Eli and Solara join the two cannibals against Carnegie in a good old fashioned bullet fest! But, unfortunately, the film has strange explanations against cannibalism as if it feels the need to demonize it (any cannibal rights activists outraged yet?): Eli identifies cannibals from their shakes and perhaps from their fingernails. If so, why doesn't the husband shake too? Is this also why the townspeople keep asking to see Eli's fingers before they do business with him? Does a cannibal get the shakes and bad fingernails? The film, directed by the Hughes Brothers ("From Hell", "Dead Presidents", "Menace II Society"), is difficult to compare to any one kind of film. It's like a silent "Mad Max" in that it takes place post apocalypse and features a rouge man demolishing any thieves or gang members that disturb his path. Yet he's on foot most often and we don't see nearly as many loud automobile chases. It's similar to "The Road" or "I Am Legend" in that it focuses on a survival story, and Eli (Denzel Washington) is reduced to basic subsistence and self defense in a lawless future. He hunts for food, looks for water (a precious commodity), and tries to keep his iPod charged. But he doesn't contend with vampires or mutants, and he's more of a super ninja warrior, who slashes his enemies to pieces.

In a cruel, mostly illiterate, and unforgiving world, Eli walks alone as the last symbol of moral certitude and resilience. It takes great courage for him pass up a chance to take revenge on a group of thieves as they attack an innocent couple in the distance. He's one of the rare few able to master his inner desires to fulfill a greater purpose, especially rare in a movie of this scale and for mainstream consumption.

He stands for the preservation of a nearly extinct set of beliefs, all wrote down in a book he carries around with him (the last of its kind). He reads it everyday, but he barely needs to keep reading since most of it pulses through his memory so loudly he can recite lengthy portions. The film is a parable perhaps about worries that traditional beliefs might go out of circulation if individuals stop studying, reading, and remembering their literary and important teachings in the book that Eli carries. Morality, of the sort the movie prefers, must be internalized for it to become truly and faithfully resilient against external forces. You have to watch the movie to find out the book Eli wants to protect, and hopefully his memory is really good because much will depend on it.
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