July 31, 2008

Chicken Run (2000)

Chicken Run was the first full-length feature for Aardman Studios, creator of the Wallace & Gromit short films. It opens with an inspired homage to The Great Escape, comparing life in a chicken farm to being a prisoner of war. But beyond that, the film falls a bit flat, carrying a gray overcast both visually and in its tone.

It tells the story about a group of chickens led by Ginger (Julia Sawalha), who try repeatedly to escape their hatchery in gloomy 1950’s England. After several failed attempts, they’re about to give up when in lands Rocky (Mel Gibson), a “flying” rooster who’s trying to escape his traveling circus. Ginger agrees to hide Rocky from the ringleader paying visits to the farm’s owners, Mr. & Mrs. Tweedy (Tony Haygarth and Miranda Richardson). In exchange, Rocky must teach the chickens how to fly so they can soar over their farm’s fence to freedom.

Simply put, Chicken Run didn’t do it for me or my 5-year-old son. While it does have an egg-citing climax (sorry, couldn’t resist), it doesn’t redeem the previous 70 minutes. My recommendation: Watch Aardman’s more fun and far superior Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of The Were-Rabbit.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
If your kids are expecting zany action and laugh-out-loud high jinks, Chicken Run will disappoint. It’s got a handful of action sequences, but it’s also a bit heavy on dialogue for its short running time (84 minutes).

Some scary/objectionable stuff:
  • A chicken is beheaded off screen by Mrs. Tweedy (you hear the “chop”)
  • Mrs. Tweedy is quite menacing, always shot from below and sporting a wide, scowling grimace
  • Scary, growling dogs (is there a pattern here?)
  • A giant chicken processor is a bit scary, with sharp spinning blades and a hot oven
  • One chicken says to “kiss your bum goodbye”
  • A few innuendos which will probably go over most youngsters’ heads
Yet of all the things listed above, my 5-year-old makes the following observation right before the film’s climax…

“I don’t like this movie. You shouldn’t have taped it.”
"Why not?"
“It has the word ‘stupid’ in it.”

Will your FilmMother like it?
Moot point. Skip Chicken Run and rent Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of The Were-Rabbit – especially if she likes bunnies.

Chicken Run
Directors: Peter Lord, Nick Park
* Screenwriter: Karey Kirkpatrick
* Stars:
Mel Gibson, Julia Sawalha, Miranda Richardson, Phil Daniels, Lynn Ferguson, Tony Haygarth, Jane Horrocks, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Benjamin Whitrow
* MPAA Rating:

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July 29, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

Based on the record-breaking gobs of money it’s made since it opened 11 days ago, chances are you’ve already seen The Dark Knight. If you haven’t, I’ll tell you why you should see it – and why your pre-teen children shouldn’t.

I won’t go into plot details, because The Dark Knight has so many of them happening one after the other. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just that once you think something’s over, something else comes along to crank things up again.

The buzz you’ve heard about The Dark Knight is true – it’s a great film with amazing action sequences and compelling characters. What takes it to another level is that you feel like you’re watching a sprawling crime drama, not just a superhero movie. Christian Bale is once again effective as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Heath Ledger’s Joker gets under your skin and stays there. But the biggest character arc has to be Aaron Eckhart’s crusading district attorney Harvey Dent. His transition from white knight to fallen angel makes him the true tragic hero of the film.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
If you have small kids (okay, boys), I wouldn’t be surprised if they ask to see this movie because it’s Batman. But as much as I question the MPAA’s unscientific ratings process, they were right giving The Dark Knight a PG-13. In addition to the adult tone of the film, I can all but guarantee that the two villains will give your children nightmares.

The Joker’s antics are sadistically violent. Here’s a sample of his work:
• Impaling a pencil in a man’s head
• Sticking a knife in someone’s mouth
• Videotaping two of his victims’ final moments
• Implanting a bomb under a man’s skin
• Numerous shootings

And when the film finally revealed my favorite Batman villain of all time, Two-Face, I was both exhilarated and horrified. The “bad” side of his face will haunt little children, trust me. Also, his path of revenge at the end of the film is swift and brutal.

Will your FilmMother want to see it?
My FilmMother passed on The Dark Knight – she has a bad track record with darkly shot Batman films (she fell asleep during the original Batman and Batman Forever). Still, I would try and convince your FilmMother to see The Dark Knight. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking, with solid pacing and a superior script. And if you need a romance angle, there is a love triangle (albeit a tragic one) between Bruce Wayne, childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and Harvey Dent.

The Dark Knight
• Director: Christopher Nolan
• Screenwriter: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
• Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
• MPAA Rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and some menace)

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July 23, 2008

Oliver & Company (1988)

Oliver & Company is Disney’s spin on the classic story Oliver Twist: A homeless kitten named Oliver (voiced by Joey Lawrence) roams the streets of New York and is taken in by a gang of homeless dogs, including Dodger (Billy Joel), who survive by stealing from others. Meanwhile, their human friend, a vagabond named Fagin (Dom DeLuise), is constantly trying to avoid the evil mobster Sykes (Robert Loggia), to whom he owes a large amount of money.

There are two main reasons to keep young children away from Oliver & Company: boredom and fear. Regarding the boredom: My 2-year-old bailed after 7 minutes to play with his toy cars. My 5-year-old went the distance, but stopped watching twice – once to show me a photo album he made, and the other to let me know that “we need to buy more Scooby-Doo Band-Aids.” And it’s only a 74-minute movie.

As for the fear, the film includes:
  • Lots of close-ups of growling, snarling dogs showing their sharp teeth
  • Threats of death and inflicting of pain
  • A phone conversation by Sykes where he says, “Don’t kill ‘em yet” and agrees with using “concrete shoes”
  • Kidnapping and gunplay
  • Electrocution (both comedic and fatal)
Other criticisms:
  • The film is dark in both lighting and tone. No one is nice to each other for the first half of the film – which is almost totally comprised of dreary, unlit hideouts and waterfront piers.
  • The musical numbers are almost nothing but disposable late-‘80s pop songs.
  • The animation is iffy; at times, you wouldn’t know it’s a Disney film unless someone told you.
Bottom line? Oliver & Company doesn’t hold up in terms of pacing, character development, or child-friendliness. But I guess it’s always darkest before the dawn: Disney’s next three films would be The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

Rating: 1 star (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
Since Disney doesn’t really mention Oliver & Company when touting their “classics,” it’s highly unlikely your little ones will know about this 20-year-old film. [UPDATE: Disney released the Oliver & Company: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD on February 3, 2009.] But if they trip across it somehow, guide them toward better Disney titles (maybe any of the three I mentioned above).

Will your FilmMother want to see it?
Hopefully no, since you’ll tell her about this review. Right?

Oliver & Company
Director: George Scribner
Screenwriters: Jim Cox, Timothy J. Disney, James Mangold
Stars (voices): Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia
MPAA Rating: G

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July 15, 2008

Stitch! The Movie (2003)

Stitch! The Movie is yet another of Disney’s sub-par, direct-to-video films created to make a fast buck on the success of a popular, well-done original (others include Lady and the Tramp II, The Return of Jafar (Aladdin II), The Lion King II, The Lion King 1 1/2, and Cinderella II and III).

In this uninspired sequel, we find aliens Pleakley and Dr. Jumba (who pursued Stitch in 2002’s Lilo & Stitch) living with Lilo, her sister Nani, and Stitch (aka Experiment 626). What nobody knows is that Dr. Jumba has brought along the 625 other experiments with him, each in a “deactivated,” marble-sized shape. Captain Gantu (the baddie from the first film) is sent back to Earth by rodent-like Dr. Hamsterviel (get it?), who constantly yells in a grating faux-German accent. Gantu’s mission: Bring back the 625 experiments for Hamsterviel’s own evil purposes.

With Stitch! The Movie, gone is the warmth of the original Lilo & Stitch and replaced with animation and dialogue that could’ve come from any B-grade, 2-D Saturday morning cartoon. A few of the bigger scenes show sparks of classic, fluid Disney animation, but they’re not enough to salvage this “movie” (its running time is barely over an hour). This film is a perfect example of the direct-to-DVD titles that have devalued the Disney brand for the past decade – to the point where parents now trust the Pixar brand more than Disney for their family entertainment (and rightfully so).

Unfortunately, the ending of Stitch! The Movie leaves the door wide open for sequels – which Disney has already exploited with the direct-to-DVD titles Lilo & Stitch 2 and Leroy & Stitch. I don’t know if these films continue the story from Stitch! The Movie. Frankly, I don’t care – and neither should you. There are so many better Disney films (not to mention every Pixar film) to share with your kids. See them. Don’t see this.

Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
  • My 5-year-old son was entertained by Stitch! The Movie (in fact, he’s viewed it repeatedly, to my chagrin). But he asked a million questions while watching it – which means the plot is either too complex or too muddled for children his age. A sampling of his questions: “What happened?” “Why did he do that?” “Why is he mad?” “What is he doing?” “What are they doing?” “What’s that?” “What did they do?”
  • Also, I was surprised at a couple doses of questionable language. Dr. Jumba cheers on Stitch as Stitch chases Captain Gantu in their respective spaceships, telling Stitch to send a phaser “right up his afterburner.” Later, the butt fixation resurfaces as Gantu describes Stitch as a “pain in the rear.” I know, it’s not Scarface, but I didn’t think that kind of dialogue was appropriate for the audience who would see this film.
  • There’s also a moment near the end where Stitch faces the possible fate of being sliced in half by a laser beam at the hands of Dr. Hamsterviel. It passes relatively quickly, but still…

Will your FilmMother want to see it?
Even if she liked Lilo & Stitch, tell your FilmMother to avoid Stitch! The Movie. (I did a lot of internal groaning and eye-rolling as I sat through it.) Again, choose any Pixar movie or any of the many classic Disney titles instead.

Stitch! The Movie
* Directors: Tony Craig, Roberts Gannaway
* Screenwriters: Roberts Gannaway, Jess Winfield
* Stars (voices): Daveigh Chase, Chris Sanders, Tia Carrere, David Ogden Stiers, Kevin McDonald, Kevin Michael Richardson, Jeff Bennett
* MPAA Rating: G

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July 14, 2008

The Mist (2007)

Writer-director Frank Darabont has a successful history of making movies based on stories by Stephen King. The Shawshank Redemption is an amazing film that eventually found widespread acclaim and immortality on home video. Some people claim The Green Mile was manipulative and hokey, but it remains one of my 20 favorite films of all time.

For both of these reasons, I was excited to watch Darabont’s adaptation of King’s novella The Mist. And while I can’t say it ranks as high for me as Shawshank or Green Mile, it’s a film that has stuck with me for days since viewing it.

The film opens in rural Maine with movie poster artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his family weathering a violent storm. The next morning, as a mysterious mist crosses the lake behind their house, Drayton and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble) head into town with estranged neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher). While they’re at the supermarket, a local man charges through the front door, blood smeared across his face, screaming to everyone inside to lock the doors – that there’s “something in the mist” that “got” his buddy.

Drayton is the first to notice that there just might be something out there, when he sees the large, closed metal door to the store’s loading dock getting pounded by something outside. When a couple of the locals open the door to clean the vent to the store’s generator, a slew of large slimy tentacles violently drag off one of the bagboys.

Things get progressively worse as some of the creatures in the mist bust through the glass storefront and attack the people inside; a group (led by Braugher) decides to leave and is torn to pieces; and a religious woman (Marcia Gay Harden, in an intimidating, under-your-skin performance) slowly but surely convinces people that it’s the end of days, and the mist and its creatures are God’s wrath coming down. (Giant locusts work to prove her point.)

After the first hour of The Mist, I didn’t have much faith. There’s isn’t a lot of action, and the development of the trapped characters doesn’t happen as much as you’d hope. However, the second half of the film cranks up the suspense, creepiness factor, and boiling over of personalities to almost make up for the previous 60 minutes.

The Mist is just as much about the dynamic of the people in the supermarket as what’s in the mist, and Darabont achieves a decent balance of both. He also does a superb job of showing the power of mob mentality in times of crisis.

Then there’s the ending. I won’t give anything away, but The Mist contains one of the most disturbing, unsettling endings I’ve seen since Se7en. It’s a one-two punch of a finale that will leave you deflated...yet thinking about it for days to come.

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
If you have teenage kids, let’s be honest: The Mist is the kind of movie they’ll enjoy watching so they can scare the hell out of themselves. And while it is rated R, I doubt there’s anything amongst the carnage and profanities that they haven’t seen in other films or on the Internet.

However, if you have pre-teens in your house, I highly recommend keeping this film away from them. It’s not just a typical creature feature; there are scenes between the people and the creatures – and even between the people themselves – that can traumatize.

Will your FilmMother want to see it?
If you have a FilmMother who likes holding on to your arm during scary movies, then go ahead and watch The Mist together. HOWEVER, if she has issues about films with a child in peril, think twice. David’s son Billy encounters peril throughout the film, and Darabont even takes the peril to a place that most films won’t go.

The Mist
* Director: Frank Darabont
* Screenwriter: Frank Darabont
* Stars: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Andre Braugher, Laurie Holden, Toby Jones, Frances Sternhagen
* MPAA Rating: R (violence, horror, gore, and adult language)

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July 11, 2008

Casino Royale (2006)

I won’t lie: I haven’t seen a James Bond film since Pierce Brosnan took over the role in 1995’s Goldeneye. But with the next Bond film (Quantum of Solace) due out November 7th, I figured I should see what kind of 007 we’ve got in Daniel Craig, the new James Bond who debuted with 2006’s Casino Royale.

We’re introduced to Craig’s Bond in a big way: After the film intro where he coldly kills another spy, we’re taken on an amazing chase as Bond pursues a suspect on foot through a construction site -- including the entire framework of the building and the sky-high cranes being used to construct it.

The core plot of Casino Royale is Bond’s attempt to prevent a global terrorism network from getting over $100 million to do their dirty work. Assigned to help Bond is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a British treasury officer. The quest for the money sets up the centerpiece of the film: a high-stakes poker tournament where, if Bond loses the money provided to him by the UK Treasury, then England “will have directly financed terrorism,” according to Lynd.

At first glance of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Daniel Craig, I didn’t think, “James Bond.” But that quickly changed once Craig’s Bond jumped into action. And he is largely a man of action and few words until the one-hour mark (enter Vesper Lynd).

Craig plays 007 less suave and much edgier than past Bonds (Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan). He gives him an almost sociopathic personality, which is unnerving at times but probably more accurate given that he's a trained spy and assassin.

While Craig's 007 has been described as “not your father’s James Bond,” there are still several elements in Casino Royale from the classic Bond checklist:
  • Exotic locales (Venice, the Bahamas, Prague)
  • Amazing action sequences, all done with real stuntmen (no CGI human blobs here)
  • A sufficiently creepy villain in Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who has a bleeding tear duct for added ickiness
  • Quippy one-liners and comebacks, though not as many as in past Bond films
  • An updated yet unmistakeably Bond soundtrack by David Arnold

While I doubt I’ll revisit Casino Royale for repeated viewings, I did enjoy it. The action sequences are intense, and they did make part of me feel like a kid again when I watched Roger Moore in action. And even though Casino Royale looks and feels a bit different from earlier Bond films, it’s exactly the reboot the series needed.

  • Director Martin Campbell is no stranger to action films. His other works include The Mask of Zorro, Vertical Limit, and, ironically, Goldeneye (see my first paragraph).
  • The theme song for Casino Royale is “You Know My Name,” a largely forgettable tune by Chris Cornell. I can’t remember the last time a Bond theme song hit the top 20. I’m guessing Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” in 1985? Please comment if you know the answer.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
I don't know how many pre-teen kids care about James Bond, let alone have a desire to see one of his films. Which works out fine, because Casino Royale is rated PG-13 for good reason: There are many shootings, close-ups of brutal strangulations, and at one point Bond makes creative (yet nasty) use of a nail gun. And since it is a Bond flick, he does get his game on with a couple of women (though it's mostly shown as heavy make-out sessions).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
In the same vein as pre-teens, I can't really say I've ever met a true female Bond fan. (Of course, I don't get out much.) But I will say that Bond does develop true feelings for one of his lady friends, which takes the film in a romantic angle I've never seen in a Bond film -- so your FilmMother may find that to be enjoyable to watch. And she probably won't have any problem watching Daniel Craig -- with his buffed, glistening physique -- emerge from the ocean. Twice.

Casino Royale
* Director: Martin Campbell
* Screenwriters: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis
* Stars: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Judi Dench, Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini
* MPAA Rating: PG-13 (violent action, a scene of torture, adult language, sexual content and partial male nudity)

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July 9, 2008

WALL•E (2008)

Over the past six months, my 5-year-old son absorbed everything Pixar offered in teasing their upcoming film, WALL•E: billboards, TV spots, online clips, you name it. So when the film finally came out this past weekend, my lovely and loving wife volunteered to stay home for our 2-year-old’s afternoon nap so I could take his big brother to the local multiplex.

And I’m glad she did. WALL•E is a great film — a triumph on multiple levels. It tells the story of a garbage-covered Earth 700 years in the future, where all humans have evacuated the planet and are living on luxury spaceships while Earth is cleaned up by WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class) units.

There’s only one WALL•E still operating, and life’s a bit lonely for him. Only a cockroach sidekick and an old videotape of Hello, Dolly! keep him company. Until one day, a rocket ship lands and deploys a robot named EVE, whose mission I’ll keep secret. Eventually, WALL•E and EVE form a bond, one which takes them to one of the spaceships containing the pampered, doughy, somewhat baby-shaped humans awaiting the chance to go home (or are they?).

WALL•E is yet another amazing entry in Pixar’s film oeuvre. A good story, great balance of action and cuteness, and animation so amazing you forget it’s not models or studio sets. It also carries a none-too-subtle message about consumerism, corporate culture, and our bloated human race as a whole.

(An observation: This is Pixar’s 9th consecutive creative and box office success. In the near-40 years I’ve been on this planet, not even Disney has had that kind of a hot streak.)

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
My 5-year-old son was entranced with the film from beginning to end. There are a few intense scenes of action (EVE packs a laser gun she uses about a half dozen times) and spaceships loudly igniting and landing, but nothing I’d label scary or frightening. That being said, I think it was wise to keep our 2-year-old home.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Absolutely. Even if she’s not a sci-fi fan, she’ll get past it quickly once EVE shows up and the courtship between her and WALL•E begins.

* Director: Andrew Stanton
* Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton
* Stars: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, Sigourney Weaver, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy
* MPAA Rating: G

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July 8, 2008

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie (2008)

You’ve probably heard of VeggieTales, even if you haven’t seen their home videos or their TV show on Qubo (NBC’s Saturday cartoon lineup). A quick history: Since the early ’90s, VeggieTales has promoted Christian morals through animated, talking vegetables, and made a small fortune in the process.

Now that they’ve gone more mainstream, the VeggieTales have curbed a lot of the Bible lessons and references, which are completely absent from The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. Still, the film delivers a positive (if not recycled) message about believing in yourself and the power that comes from within.

Working at a pirate-themed dinner theater as busboys, Elliot, Sedgewick, and George (Larry the Cucumber, Mr. Lunt and Pa Grape) dream of starring in the theater’s big pirate show. But Elliot's timidity, Sedgewick's laziness, and George's lack of self-confidence all seem to get in their way. Things change when a mysterious ball drops from the sky, sent from the past in search of heroes. Our heroes push a button on the ball, which sends them back to the 17th century and into a series of dangerous encounters where there bravery is put to the test.

At times, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything feels little more than an extended episode a VeggieTales home video. But there are several memorable musical numbers, and animation that’s on par with most of the other CGI-animated feature films out there. You may find the action and pacing a little more subdued than a Pixar or DreamWorks film, but it should keep you engaged.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
My boys were almost 5 and 2, respectively, when we saw The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything (their first movie theater experience). Big Bro was glued to the screen the whole time, while Little Bro got restless about halfway through the film and had to be taken to the lobby by FilmMother for about 10 minutes. (Of course, this is a moot point when you watch the DVD at home.)

The only things possibly scary are the giant rock monsters and the cheese curls with teeth (don’t ask), but they’re both done with such a soft, cartoonish edge that they shouldn’t upset any young viewers.

Will your FilmMother like it?
She’ll probably like it, in that she’ll watch it with your kids and go the distance without any eye-rolling or glances at her watch.

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A VeggieTales Movie
* Director: Mike Nawrocki
* Screenwriter: Phil Vischer
* Stars (voices): Phil Vischer, Mike Nawrocki, Cam Clarke, Laura Gerow, Yuri Lowenthal, Alan Lee
* MPAA Rating: G

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