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Ratatouille (2007)
Absolutely beautiful - visually and thematically
16 June 2007
One of the most wonderful things about a Pixar movie is the sense of discovery. The sense that, no matter how many commercials you've seen, no matter how much you've heard about the plot, you're going to discover hidden layers with each viewing that make the experience more of an event than a movie. Ratatouille fits this description to a tee. I went to the special sneak preview tonight and, honestly, I have not heard an audience this involved in a film since Finding Nemo four years ago and I would be thrilled if this movie found that large of an audience as well, because it certainly deserves it. There is a grace and a beauty to this movie that is present even in the physical comedy sequences. After a summer of sequels, how refreshing to see such a startlingly original story told so artistically with such a high level of humor and warmth. When it opens on June 29th, go see it. I know I'll be in line to see it again.
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Monster House (2006)
3D Makes All the Difference....
21 July 2006
First of all, let me establish that I have never been impressed by the 3D process. The best that I had previously seen was "Ghosts of the Abyss", but there were still too many glitches for my eye to really buy into the process. I never had a chance to see "Polar Express" in 3D, but wasn't really anxious too because of my previous lackluster responses to the 3D experience. Then came "Monster House"....

I have NEVER seen anything like this before. The story itself is entertaining and very reminiscent of the type of movie that Steven Spielberg would have made in the early 80's, but the 3D element makes it an EVENT! If you have a choice to see this in a regular theater or in 3D, do not hesitate to see it 3D! From the moment the title comes on screen, I knew I was going to see a level of realism in the 3D process that I had never experienced before. In fact, seeing "Monster House" in a regular theater might be akin to seeing all of "The Wizard of Oz" in black and white. It would severely diminish the potential impact of the film. "Monster House" was obviously envisioned as a 3D experience and the technical process envelopes you in the story and the world in which it takes place in a way that is so immediate and palpable.

Lest you think that only the technique is worthy of praise, let me mention that the script, the performances, the direction, the score are all of the fun, adventurous spirit of all the best movies I remember from my youth. It has the feel of "E.T.", "The Goonies", even a little bit of "Poltergeist", just a lot more kid-friendly. The movie isn't extraordinary, but it's a heck of a lot of fun. So a giddy 8 stars for the movie, but an enthused 10 stars for the experience. PLEASE, do yourself the favor of seeing this on a 3D screen!
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Cars (2006)
Tractors is so stupid......
10 June 2006
I, like most fans of Pixar studios, felt my heart sink when I saw the first preview for "Cars" when it ran in front of "The Incredibles" in 2004. There had been previews of other Pixar movies that left me underwhelmed, but this was the first one that looked...well...bad. The constant shots of racing cars, the frenzied editing, the apparent belief that the phrase "dadgum" was funny in and of just looked like Pixar had come up with their first stinker. I am so glad, no...ecstatic, to say my first instincts were wrong. "Cars" has every bit of the Pixar spirit at its core.

I'm also happy to report that Mater the Tow Truck, who I thought might end up being the most loathed character since Jar-Jar, ended up being one of the funniest, most heartfelt characters in ANY Pixar film.

Every frame of this movie is wonderful to look at, containing all of the vibrant color and rich texture that we expect from Pixar. The voice work is uniformly excellent and, contrary to what I've read in some reviews, the story and script are just as engrossing and imaginative as their other films. Yes, the movie does have a lot of car puns, just like Monsters Inc had monster-ish puns (the "grossery", the "stalk/not stalk" crosswalk sign) and A Bug's Life had a lot of bug puns (the mosquito ordering the "bloody mary, o-positive", but these type of jokes are never the main type of humor. The biggest laughs come from the characters. They stem from knowing their personalities and their foibles. This has always been the key to Pixar's comic genius and "Cars" continues this great tradition.

Plus, the tractor tipping scene is one of the funniest things I've seen in a movie in a VERY long time.
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A Duller Shade of Lame.....
3 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I have a confession. As a kid, I was a sucker for scary campfire stories. Ghost stories, monster stories, psycho stories, I got creeped out by them all. And of all the stories and all the clichés, the most classic and repeated was "THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!" So logic and better instinct be hanged, I saw the remake of "When a Stranger Calls". So instead of going through the plot (the above line pretty much sums it up), I will just start by listing the major problems with the execution of this telling of the story.

Problem #1: Acting. Aside from a couple of the adults (I still think Clark Gregg has a lot of potential), the acting is sub-high school production. Every teenage actor in this movie looks like they're reading from a cue card. And unfortunately Camilla Belle's (the babysitter) acting talents can be described thusly: She can effectively look scared. Really scared. Really, really scared. For a very, very long time.

Problem #2: Script. "What?", you may ask, "There was a script?". Well, apparently, because there is a screen writing credit, but the ending result still makes me wonder. It's sort of like they took the first ten minutes of "Scream", drained it of humor and lengthened it to an hour-and-a-half. You can almost hear the conversation inside the screenwriter's head: "Well, she's a babysitter, so what do babysitters do? Um, study........and go through the bathroom of the house owners.....oh, and they raid the fridge! Hmmm, that's not really scary.....but it will be if we put it in the dark with scary music!" So, instead of genuine scares, we get the babysitter studying scary music, trying on the moms scary music and searching the fridge for orange juice, but if we're to believe the soundtrack, it's somehow "scary" orange juice.

Problem #3: The ending. So, we finally, after a full hour, get to "THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!!!". The movie finally starts to move a little. Kids screaming, lights turning off and on, mass pandemonium. Unfortunately, the stranger is channeling Michael Myers and moves...very...slowly. However he's not as imposing as Michael Myers so I'm thinking, "the sick little girl could kick this guys butt". Granted, just the concept of a psychopath stalking you is not pleasant, but we've finally gotten to what's supposed to be the payoff and we still get the same bored feeling we've had through the whole movie, it's just faster.

Now for a small concession. I saw this movie sitting behind five 11-year-old girls. They screamed every time the cat jumped out. They held on to each other for dear life. As they left the theater they were shaking and making comments like "Oh my gosh, you guys! That movie was SOOOOO scary!!!". Apparently, it would seem that devotees of Raven-Symone finally have a horror movie to call their own. So if you're a girl between the ages of 11 and 13 and have never seen anything remotely scary in a movie, this little number may do the trick. To all others...let the tweens answer this call.
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The critics cry wolf once again....
15 November 2005
It seems that since about 1996, critics have been ready to say that Disney animation is dead. I remember reading mighty harsh reviews about "Pocahontas" (sorry guys, it's not a bad movie. maybe not historically accurate, but if that's what you're after from an animated movie where people break out in song, then your issues go beyond what I can discuss.) I also remember reading about how "The Emperor's New Groove" was going to kill the Disney name (forgetting that it is one of the funniest movies Disney had made in a long time). In fact, I'm of the opinion that Disney feature animation hasn't made one out-and-out stinker. "Home on the Range" is certainly a far cry from "Beauty and the Beast", but taken on it's own terms, it's still a light, colorful, fun cartoon.

Which brings me to "Chicken Little". I did lament the decision by Disney executives to kill their traditional animation department. I felt that it was a knee-jerk decision based on numbers and not rational thought. The only thing that made me somewhat hopeful for "Chicken Little" was the pedigree of the people involved in making it. Needless to say, the advanced commercials for the movie did little to ignite any further desire to see it. Well, I'm happy to report that, despite reports to the contrary, the sky hasn't fallen at Disney. While "Chicken Little" is no where near the studios glory days, it's far superior to the dreck that most other animated studios put out (excluding Pixar, of course).

The plot begins simply. Chicken Little is paying the price for the whole "sky is falling" incident. Very few people, including his father, believed him before and he is taunted by all but his closest friends. Like many family films, animated and otherwise, the main point is a familiar one, a child's bond (or lack thereof) with a parent. However, the plot of Chicken Little takes an unexpected turn when the sky literally does fall. The commercials for the movie have made no secret of the fact that this involves alien life-forms, but the filmmakers did a good job of keeping the meat of the story (not to mention most of the best jokes) out of the advertising. I won't expound on the story, only to say that it's mainly an excuse for a cavalcade of jokes (some better than others) and a quite funny spoof of "War of the Worlds".

The movie is colorful in a way that somehow seems to allude many non-Pixar computer animated films and has a very game voice cast that is willing to give their all for a laugh. It has the same "everything, including the kitchen sink" feel that "The Emperor's New Groove" had and ends up being just as entertaining. Sure, overall it's just a frantic, pop-culture laden comedy, but the jokes are (mostly) very funny, so the worst that can be said is that the movie lives up to it's modest goals of entertainment.

It's not the best of Disney, but it's also far from the worst and it does make me curious what the next step for the Mouse House will be. If they could only get back the balance of humor, technique and heart that they once had, the critics might have to start eating some serious crow.
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FAR more than "Jumanji in Space"
30 October 2005
The commercials for this movie have seemed mildly amusing at best. However, based on positive advanced word of mouth and my faith in Jon Favreau, I decided to go to a sneak preview. This was such a pleasant surprise. This avoids every mistake that was made in "Jumanji". The kids act like real kids. The humor grows out of the characters as does the suspense. The story is the point of this movie, not the (impressive) special effects. The acting is strong, the score is appropriately old-fashioned and every time you think you know exactly where the story is headed, something pops up to surprise you. Funny, suspenseful and just plain fun, this movie deserves to be seen in the theater. Don't think of it as a spin-off of Jumanji. It has as much in common with "Jumanji" as "Finding Nemo" does with "Shark Tale".
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Smart, funny and real...
2 June 2005
I went to see this movie with my wife and, upon entering the theater, immediately became uncomfortable. There was only one other man at the screening and he was obviously feeling a little out of place as well (although he seemed relieved to see me walk in). I was expecting a teen soap opera, but what the movie delivered was quite different. This movie is more like a modern-times "Little Women" or a teen girl version of "Dead Poets Society". In other words, it's something that I haven't seen any sign of for intelligent drama aimed at teenage girls. My response to seeing this movie was similar to how i felt after seeing "Babe". I know this is an odd comparison, but both were thoughtful, intelligent movies aimed at a target audience that is usually fed cinematic rubbish. The elements of good film-making are on full display here. Strong acting, sure-handled directing, terrific writing....everything that makes a movie great. If you are a teenage girl or have one in your life, this is an absolutely must-see movie. If you don't, you'll still have a good time.
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Where Critics Went Wrong, Some of Critics Greatest Mistakes and Who Are These Critic People Anyway
30 April 2005
This movie is a wonderful adaptation that keeps every iota of the spirit of the original. This is why I am a bit baffled by some of the harsher critics of the film. Even if the random disjointedness of the narrative is not your cup of tea, it's hard to fathom how even the most linearly inclined viewer couldn't find this, at the very least, highly amusing. Perfectly cast and expertly directed, the movie finds its tone from the first frames with a very fun musical number and maintains that tone right until the touching tribute to Douglas Adams in the final frames. The special effects are top notch throughout and the creatures are terrificly "old-school". The Vogons were created by Jim Henson's creature shop and the rubbery monster look suits them very well.

So basically, if you want a smart, funny (albiet a bit random) comedy that sort of plays as a cross between "Galaxy Quest" and "Monty Python", go and enjoy this terrific movie. Just don't forget your towel.
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Severely disappointing...
22 April 2005
Woody Allen, when at his best, has one of the sharpest pens around. He can make an acute observation and wrap it around a punch line like nobody else. However, when he's at his worst his movies can stench of pretentiousness. Unfortunately, "Melinda and Melinda" has this stench from opening to closing. The set up is one of his more intriguing ideas in a while. Four friends sit in a restaurant discussing whether the essence of life is comedy or drama. To help settle the argument, one man relates the beginning of a story and asks the two other men arguing (one a comic playwright, the other a dramatic playwright) whether the story is a comedy or a tragedy. The two men then continue the story and the movie plays out the stories that they weave. Now, when I first heard about this film, my understanding was that they tell the exact same story, the genre (comedy or drama) only changes by how you look at it. Now that would have been interesting. However, the stories only share one main element and a few side elements. They are entirely different stories with major plot differences. The drama is so stiffly scripted and pretentious that it can only really work as self-parody. If this was the point, then it failed because these elements prevent the audience from feeling any emotional investment in any of the characters. The comedy is the story that has moments of success, but they are still short and fleeting. Will Farrell is obviously meant to be the stand-in for Woody, but he could have played this character so much more believably without adding Woody's stutters and hand-ticks. Woody is the best at being Woody. When someone else tries, they're not playing a character, they are modeling a recognizable actor. This type of thing only pulls the audience out of the story.

My favorite Woody Allen movies make me leave the theater a little bit lighter in spirit than I walked in. This one made me wish I could get my money back.
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Fever Pitch (2005)
Outta the park....
22 April 2005
Let's be honest, the state of the romantic comedy has been pretty pathetic over the past few years. My wife and I go to many, hoping for laughs or chemistry and leaving without experiencing either. Every once in a while one takes us by surprise though. "Fever Pitch" is one of the surprises. Sharply written and wonderfully performed, this film succeeds in a crucial area that most romances don' rings true. The characters are good people who are willing to work around the quirks and imperfections that exist in the other partner. The dialogue between the two leads was thoughtful and realistic, right down to what the characters say when they really mean something else. It's also a broad comedy with plenty of laughs for fans of the Farrley Brothers. However, this is the first of their movies that hasn't felt severely disjointed to me. It has the big laughs, but they are character based, not scatologically based. This has to be seen as progression.

Anyway, "Fever Pitch" stands as a perfect date movie: one that both the guy and the girl will enjoy.
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Van Helsing (2004)
Garish, loud, silly....and a lot of fun.
11 May 2004
I have never been a fan of the brainless summer film. That isn't to say that summer film's are, as a rule, brainless. Over the past few years we've been treated to some very well-written, thoughtful popcorn movies during the summer movie season and this year promises some of wonderful potential. However, movies like "Armageddon", "The Mummy Returns" and "Mission: Impossible 2" have left me cold and looking for the exit sign. I willingly admit that "Van Helsing" shares far more in common with these movies than it does the more intelligent summer films, but for some bizarre reason, I found myself smiling a lot during the film. Yes, it's obnoxiously loud. Yes, there are plot holes you could drive a semi through. Yes, the acting ranged from O.K. to MST3K atrociousness. But the sets are fantastic, the atmosphere inviting and...darn it all...the bad stuff was entertainingly bad. In fact, it seemed intentional. The thick-as-pine-sap accents were completely in keeping with the goofy tone that underlines the entire movie. The jokes are broad and the pace is brisk. The deliberate stagey nature of the movie is obviously in homage to the old horror films that inspired it. It may not be as smart as they were, but it doesn't want to be. This may be the best brainless summer film I've ever seen. Most likely because it has no intention of even trying to be anything else.
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9 February 2004
I don't remember ever being so underwhelmed by a movie that was as universally acclaimed as this movie. Don't get me wrong. The animation is, at times, stunning and the characters are very engaging. It's also obvious that there was a lot of thought put into every little aspect of the film. It's just that the overall vibe I got from the movie was one of self-importance. Instead of simply telling an interesting story (which this movie has got in spades), there are too many detours into pretention. The literal transformations and representations in the movie made me roll my eyes more than once (i.e.: old men literally turn into monkeys while leering over a showgirl, a Fred Estaire-esque dancer is literally eaten by his dancing shoes, a pile of excrement is in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head...) I think this is the reason that Pixar is by far the leader of the animation world. You never feel that they've got anything to prove. They simply tell a story in the best way possible. Pixar is smart without trying to wear that ingenuity on their sleeve. This is a trait that would have served "Triplets" well. The story and the characters are well drawn (literally and figuratively), however, their charm is undermined by the film's overwhelming need to be smart and quirky. Next time, just tell the story.
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I should've known better...
9 December 2003
Film critics of the world, I apologize. It is your job to give advice to the moviegoing public so that they can wisely choose what to spend money on. But I ignored your advice and I have been deeply hurt. However, my decision to see "The Cat in the Hat" wasn't made haphazardly. You see, three years ago all of you critics said that we should all avoid the "calamity" known as "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". Then some friends of mine took me to see it and it turned out to be a colorful, funny and almost hypnotic yuletide treat. So when the critics unleashed their fury against "The Cat in the Hat", another big budget Seuss update with a big name star in the title role, I thought that it must be the same old song. How wrong I was.

For five whole minutes I thought I was in the clear. The opening credits are clever, the kids are charming and the production values are top notch. Then the cat showed up. There are many problems from this point on, but the biggest one was the woeful miscasting of Mike Myers. Where "The Grinch" was saved by the inspired casting of Jim Carrey, "The Cat" was destroyed by Myers. He can be very funny when his energies are applied where they belong, comic sketches. Every movie he's made that was truly funny was really just a feature length comedy sketch, from "Wayne's World" to "Austin Powers". So he tries to do the same thing here, it's just that these comedy sketches are more like the stuff that they stick at the end of SNL, not funny, just painful. Not that the writers helped him out any. After the charming prologue the movie turns into an hour of repulsive bodily humor gags, poorly timed pratfalls and insultingly stunted attempts at hip humor. This movie was the most disheartening cinematic experience I have ever had. Period. So much talent and work went into something so vile. I know that the adult stars of this movie will be relatively unscathed by this mess, I just hope that the wonderful Spencer Breslin and Dakota Fanning will get more chances to show their charms in far better movies. If you are a parent, please avoid this like the plague. With movies like "Elf" and "Brother Bear" currently in theaters, you have far better choices.
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Brother Bear (2003)
Cynics, beware!
3 November 2003
This is a beautifully animated, sincerely written and genuinely funny family film. It wears it's big heart on it's sleeve and never apologizes for it. Given the sweet nature of the film, it's amazing to me that so many people have so much venom towards it. Is it's quality befitting of a Disney animated film? Absolutely! The classic Disney elements are in place, but they are serving a completely unique coming of age story that is genuinely unlike anything I've seen from the studio before. The characters are memorable, the message is timeless and the performances are top notch.

It must be stated that if you are a cynic at heart, you will loathe this movie (not that you would be drawn to see it in the first place). However, if you're just looking for something beautiful and old-fashioned to take your family to, or just to relive a little bit of your own childhood, this is the movie to beat this Christmas season!
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October Sky (1999)
The best father/son movie of all time
19 July 2003
"October Sky" is alot of different types of movies rolled all together. It's a coal-mining movie. It's a "follow your dreams" movie. It's a period piece. However, at the heart of the film is the most accurate and poignant portrayal of the father/son dynamic that I have ever seen in a film.

Homer Hickham is a son who has been told since the day he was born that he was going to grow up to work in the coal mines. That is what everyone before him has done and all of his contemporaries have resigned themselves to the fact that that is what they will do. However, Homer wants to build rockets and he seesa first prize at the national science fair as a ticket out of Coalwood and straight to college. Homer's father has worked in the mines his whole life and sees nothing practical or worthwhile in Homer's fascination with rockets, but, more importantly, he sees Homer's desire to leave as a huge insult. He thinks that Homer wants to get away from the town so that he doesn't have to follow in his father's footsteps.

The interaction between father and son is at once frustrating, hurtful, loving, insightful and bittersweet. There are always kind words that can't be spoken and harsh words that can't help but be shouted. This realism is at the core of this incredibly moving screenplay, which is only made palpable by the equally moving performances.

If you are looking for a great drama that is family appropriate, smartly written and inspiring, I highly recommend this little-known gem!
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Finding Nemo (2003)
The Best of the Best
31 May 2003
Nothing really needs to be said here about Pixar that hasn't been said before. Their track record for producing amazing entertainment is currently unparalleled. That track record just gets better with "Finding Nemo". This movie is gorgeous, heartstopping and hilarious. I don't think many of the adults in the audience were really expecting it to be as drop-down funny as it was. The characters are instantly relatable and, in a nice touch, there are really no villains. Even the shark and the whale become quite endearing. (there's just the barracuda and he's gone before the opening credits)

Ellen Degeneres is wonderful as Dory. Every line that she delivers in the entire film is absolutely perfect. Actually that can be said about all of the performances, but her character steals the show because she is, at the same time, the funniest and sweetest fish in the ocean.

This movie is perfect for adults, perfect for children, heck, perfect for teenagers. See it again and again because it is, without question, the movie of the summer and deserves every bit of praise it gets.
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A Mighty Wind (2003)
A Breath of Fresh Air...
12 May 2003
Let's be honest, the first four months of this year have left a great deal to be desired at the movies. The best movies in theaters (i.e. "Chicago", "The Two Towers") were released last year and the biggest box office hits have been, at the very least, painful to watch. (If I never hear Joan Plowright sing a mortifying tribute to slavery again, it'll be too soon) Therefore, it's rather easy to be blown away by the sheer fun that is "A Mighty Wind"

For the uninitiated, Christopher Guest and his regular cast of inspired loons set their sights on an obscure sub-culture and create on-the-mark mockumentaries. With "Waiting for Guffman" it was the world of community theater. With "Best of Show", the professional dog show circuit. And "A Mighty Wind" focuses on the folk music boom of the late sixties and early seventies.

The jokes are a little more gentle this time around, and that's appropriate given the subject matter. Regardless of how much you like or dislike folk music, it's hard to be too venomous to a group of people preaching peace. However, the jokes are sharp and insightful as are all of the performances.

One of the things that I've loved about the Christopher Guest movies is the multi-dimensional characterizations. It's one thing to laugh at someone, but it's another to really feel for the person at the same time and that's precisely what happens in this film. There are genuine moments of pathos that lead the audience to really cheer for these characters.

I won't go on, just to say that it's a delightful movie. In the canon of Christopher Guest films, I would put it just below "Guffman" and ahead of "Show". However, all three are treasures.
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Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Touches the heart and tickles the funny bone
23 June 2002
Disney has spent the passed few years as the victim of falling box office receipts for its traditionally animated films. Some (i.e. "The Emperor's New Groove", "Fantasia 2000") were because of poor marketing and release schedules. Others (like "Atlantis") just didn't seem to carry the standard of Disney animation. Well, that all ends with "Lilo and Stitch" The story is bright, funny and heartfelt. While I had heard many warnings about the character of Stitch, I found him to be one of the most unique and interesting of Disney characters. The writers also did a wonderful job of making Lilo a real kid. She has a good heart, but doesn't always make the best decisions. She's smart, but troubled. The return to watercolor backgrounds is a complete success. Disney hasn't done this in over sixty years and this colorful movie, set in Hawaii, is the perfect film on which to bring back the tradition. While I know that there are many options in what to spend your family movie budget on, believe me that this is the only family movie playing that will be a treat for the whole family and not just the kids. It's smart and hilarious. The parents might want to come back on a date to enjoy all by themselves.
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