January 26, 2009

Taken (2009)

HERE IT IS, a FilmFather first: an advance review for an upcoming theatrical release.

Taken won’t be in theaters until this Friday. Don’t ask me how I saw it before it was released – a journalist never reveals his sources. (That’s right, I called myself a journalist. Deal.)

Before getting into Taken, let me start by saying that I love revenge films. Loooove them. Someone done horribly wrong by others, only to dust him or herself off and commit calculated, poetic (and sometimes brutal) justice on the wrongdoers.

Which brings us to Taken.

• Divorced father and newly retired US intelligence operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) struggles to stay connected with teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who’s living with his frosty ex Lenore (Famke Jenssen) and her current, super-rich husband, Stuart (Xander Berkeley).
• To help gain his daughter’s favor and come off as a “cool dad,” Bryan reluctantly agrees to let Kim go to Paris with her best friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy). But soon after arriving at their Paris apartment, the girls are abducted while Kim is talking to Bryan via cell phone.
• Bryan records the kidnappers’ conversations through his phone and enlists former intelligence colleague Sam (Leland Orser) to help him identify the men. Sam says that based on their dialect, they’re from a region of Albania known largely for dealing in the trafficking of women, aka the sex trade.
• Bryan immediately hops Stuart’s private plane to Europe to gather clues to his daughter’s captors and her whereabouts, enlisting the help of a few old contacts along the way.

Okay, first observation about Taken: Neeson kicks a lot of bad-guy ass. No exaggeration, he gives Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne a run for his money. And with nearly every bad guy he took out, I found myself enjoying him lay waste to these thugs who dared take his child. (Now that I have kids, my feeling was probably even more intensified.)

Director Pierre Morel (with a quick, clever script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) delivers a taut 90-minute thriller, yet he still takes time to set up the relationships between father and daughter before the proverbial sh*t goes down. He keep things moving briskly, with nary a wasted moment of film time. Every scene matters.

A couple nits:
Neeson’s trail of ass-kicking does get a bit much after the first 20-odd bad guys are killed off (chop chest, break arm, ram head into object, repeat). And the finale does play a bit like a video game, with Neeson wasting henchmen one by one on his way to confronting the big boss.
• It was also hard at first to buy 25-year-old Maggie Grace playing quite a teenager (especially after seeing her as an adult on Lost) – but she does such a good job of conveying the mannerisms and quirks of a 17-year-old girl that it quickly became a non-issue.

Still, never mind the nits -- Taken is a gratifying movie experience. It serves its purpose, and I mean that as a compliment. You sit down, it rocks your world for an hour and a half, providing plenty of action without dumbing things down, and you leave satisfied.

Taken opens in theatres January 30.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
I could see teenagers wanting to check out Taken after seeing the trailer, but I would steer your kids clear of the film if they’re younger than that. The film is rated PG-13, and that’s a “hard” PG-13: There’s a lot of hand-to-hand violence, gunplay, and several nasty killings – and in one sequence Neeson tortures a bad guy via long metal spikes and electrical currents. Its brutal yet largely bloodless violence reminded me of the PG-13 tone of The Dark Knight and that film’s level of sadistic yet crimson-free content.

Will your FilmMother like it?
• Guys, this is the movie you watch when it’s your turn to pick. Some FilmMothers may also enjoy Taken, but others may be put off by the abduction of a child and the path of violence that follows.
• And to any FilmMothers reading this: Definitely recommend Taken to your man if he’s looking for something to see on his own or with the guys.

* Director: Pierro Morel
* Screenwriters: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen
* Stars: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Jenssen, Xander Berkeley, Leland Orser
* MPAA Rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and torture, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language)

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January 22, 2009

Fly Me To The Moon (2008)

I'M NOT SURE what exactly prompted me to rent Fly Me To The Moon for Dash and I to watch. I’d seen reviews ranging from so-so to sub-par, but I still had an indescribable soft spot for it. Blame it on a combination of the following:

1) The trailer. Bugs, astronauts, and outer space. A winning combo for a 5-year-old boy, I’d say:

2) With motion picture animation largely dominated by Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, and Blue Sky Studios, I wanted to give somebody else a chance (in this case, nWave Pictures).

3) The title comes from one of my favorite songs by Frank Sinatra:

Set in July 1969 on the eve of Apollo 11’s attempt to put a man on the moon, little winged bug Nat (Trevor Gagnon) dreams of going to the moon himself one day. When he hears about the planned Apollo 11 lunar expedition, he recruits his friends – brainy buddy IQ (Philip Bolden) and portly overeater Scooter (David Gore) – to join him in sneaking on the spaceship to join the crew.

Let me break down this review into several facets...

Design and Animation:
• The settings and scenery in Fly Me To The Moon are impressively designed, as well as the long shots of space and the spaceships.
• The bugs are also well-animated to a large extent, though at times they do look a bit underdeveloped.
• My test for any animated feature is this: If there are human characters, are they animated well? Here’s where Fly Me To The Moon falls flat, literally. The movie’s humans look stiff, hard-edged, and lack any depth to their appearance – it’s like they jumped out of a video game circa 1996. In the era of the mighty animation studios mentioned earlier, this is unacceptable. (It’s also confusing and disheartening that the animators paid so much attention to scenery detail and the bug characters, then let the humans come off looking less evolved than the insects.)

Not to put too much pressure on the kid actors voicing the three main bugs, but their performances were a bit lackluster and flat – unlike, say, The Lion King’s Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) or Finding Nemo’s titular character (Alexander Gould).

Other Observations:
• For a kid’s film, Fly Me To The Moon features an accomplished, sweeping musical score by Ramin Djawadi that fits well with the monumental, majestic scope of space travel and the lunar landing.
• Even though it’s set in an animated kid’s movie, it was still a poignant scene to watch the astronauts set foot on the moon, walk on the terrain, and plant the American flag.
• The running joke of Scooter’s overeating gets old fast. Hey, he’s fat and he eats a lot, get it? In fact, Scooter’s gluttony reaches a point where it almost gets him killed near the end.
• The film digs up dated Russian stereotypes for its villains, a group of commie bug saboteurs. I know, it’s set in 1969, Russians were the bad guys then, fine. It still took some explaining to Dash as to whom these baddies were, since the Cold War ended some 20 years ago.

So, did nWave succeed in their attempt to compete with the aforementioned big boys of motion picture animation? In short, Fly Me To The Moon may have been reaching for the stars, but ultimately failed in its mission.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
Much like floating in space or walking on the moon, Fly Me To The Moon’s pacing seemed to move in slow motion. Dash even declared “this is a long movie” at the 66-minute mark (the movie’s less than 90 minutes long).

Will your kids like it?
• Dash gave it more of a chance than I did. I thought it was slow before he actually said out loud that it was.
• As with other kid films that can’t create compelling characters or better jokes, Fly Me To The Moon features the requisite burp/booger/poop/fart humor for cheap laughs.
• Speaking of the poop factor, a sticking point for me is that a minor character actually says “crap” twice in this G-rated film when describing a ball of dung.
• Minor cartoon violence alert: The final confrontation features the Russian bugs using fisticuffs and a bit of knife fighting.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I don’t think she would find Fly Me To The Moon very entertaining. She might declare it “passably cute,” but I highly doubt she’ll find it rewarding to watch.

Fly Me To The Moon
* Director: Ben Stassen
* Screenwriter: Domonic Paris
* Stars: Trevor Gagnon, Philip Bolden, David Gore, Nicollette Sheridan, Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Robert Patrick, Kelly Ripa, Adrienne Barbeau
* MPAA Rating: G

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January 16, 2009

Man on Wire (2008)

I saw a great documentary last weekend.

Wait, where are you going?

Seriously, Man on Wire is astounding to watch. I heard raves about this film throughout 2008, but it was the passionate praise by talk radio host Michael Smerconish that convinced me to check it out.

Man on Wire focuses on high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his amazing feat of walking on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers on August 7, 1974. Through old footage, recent interviews with Petit’s team, and reenactments, director James Marsh uses the majority of the film to set up events that led to this historic stunt – setting up Petit’s act as if it were criminals planning a heist.

This is not much of an exaggeration. Petit’s stunt involved much of the same elements as a well-plotted robbery: a van, disguises, fake credentials and documents, even an “inside man” who helped Petit’s team gain access to the towers, which were brand new and still largely unoccupied.

One of the more amazing aspects of Man on Wire, aside from the event itself, is the vast amount of pristine archival footage (with full color and sound) of Petit’s team preparing, planning, and practicing the stunt in French fields and at their homes. And when the walk between the towers finally takes place, the images (accompanied by the tranquil piano score of J. Ralph) are, in a word, breathtaking.

Petit speaks about his stunt with such passion and animated expressions and gestures, it feels as if he had just done it yesterday, not 35 years ago. He’s not only a life-risking tightrope walker; he’s a master storyteller.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the feelings that rose in me while viewing footage early in Man on Wire of the World Trade Center towers being built. It was somewhere between depressing and bittersweet to watch these men build the foundation and skeleton to the towers – two monuments to global capitalism that are no longer there.

To Marsh’s credit, however, there is no discussion of 9/11 and the fact that the towers are gone. In describing Man on Wire as one of the best films of 2008, Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum summed it up best: “…nowhere does Marsh mention that the buildings no longer exist, or why. There's no need. For a brief, sweet moment in a film of tender awe, they stand again.”

If there’s one thing to take away from Petit’s story, it’s the attitude he had when scouting the World Trade Center location before his walk. His reaction is a mantra for anybody up against insurmountable odds or obstacles: “Okay, it’s impossible. Let’s start working.”

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
I think any kid 10 or older would find Man on Wire interesting to watch. It may prompt a longer discussion about the World Trade Center if you’re children still aren’t completely aware about what happened to the towers. And while Man on Wire is an unrated documentary, there are minor instances of adult language and a partially nude woman shot in shadows (this scene lasts for less than 10 seconds).

Will your FilmMother like it?
I implore you to have her watch this movie with you. And if you see it before she does, I think you’ll agree it’s worth a second viewing.

Man on Wire
* Director: James Marsh
* Producer: Simon Chinn
* Stars: Philippe Petit, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Annie Allix, Jim Moore, Mark Lewis, Jean-Francois Heckel, Barry Greenhouse, David Foreman, Alan Welner
* MPAA Rating: NR (brief adult language, adult situations, brief nudity)

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January 12, 2009

Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

Let me start this review by saying I've always had a chip on my shoulder when it comes to animated films by DreamWorks. Granted, I haven't seen some of their movies like Over The Hedge (which I hear isn't half bad) and Kung Fu Panda (which I hear is actually pretty good).

But Shark Tale was abysmal, I couldn't sit through the hyperkinetic, ADD style of Madagascar, and to be blunt, I feel the Shrek films are derivative, pop-culture-laden marketing tools whose jokes will be stale (and their films irrelevant) 10 years from now.

Such was my mindset when I rented DreamWorks' Horton Hears a Who! In addition to my lack of enthusiasm for DreamWorks films, do we really need another Dr. Seuss book stretched out to the length of a major motion picture? Mike Myers' Cat in the Hat, anyone?

Still, I did hear good things about Horton from co-workers and other parents, so I set aside my pre-conceived notions and pressed Play.

Plot:· Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) is a carefree, fun-loving elephant who comes across a clover that blew his way - on which, he's convinced, is a speck containing the smallest form of life in the shape of Whoville and its occupants, including mayor Ned Who (Steve Carell).
· Since the inhabitants of Whoville are too small to bee seen, no one believes Horton's story - and no one more fiercely than Kangaroo (Carol Burnett). She feels that Horton is a menace, that "he has the kids using their imagination!" She begins speaking ill of Horton to the other animals in the jungle.
· Meanwhile, just like Horton tried to convince his fellow animals of the Whos' existence, Ned tries in vain to convince the people of Whoville that Horton is real (Norton's out of sight above the clouds of Whoville; Ned speaks to him through a series of pipes and horns leading off the speck [just play along here]).

Horton's characters are drawn very true to Seuss' illustrations - Horton, the Whos, and the Whos' houses and horns look like they came right off the pages of his book.

Carrey and Carell do great jobs with their roles, especially considering their interactions could have easily devolved into a "ham-off" of these two scene-stealing stars.

At its essence, Horton Hears a Who! is about acceptance, imagination, and the power of believing - as well as a good lesson in how ignorance and intolerance can breed a mob mentality. It also takes several jabs at how those who champion a cause or belief for the sake of "protecting the children" may not be able to think of a better argument, or they simply don't have a leg to stand on.

So yes, Dash and I both enjoyed Horton Hears a Who! And yes, I will try to approach future DreamWorks movies with a more open mind. In fact, Horton had me all the way to the very last scene - when they had to go and bust out a cast singalong to a cheesy '80s ballad. (It was only a few verses, but cheese is cheese.) Nevermind, though - it doesn't negate how well-done, how fun to watch, and how much of a surprise Horton Hears a Who! turned out to be.
[UPDATE/CORRECTION 6/25/09: I just realized that Horton Hears a Who! was created by Blue Sky Studios, not DreamWorks. My apologies to Blue Sky...though my opening opinion on DreamWorks still stands.]
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).
What did Dash think?
· After learning why it's wrong to spread rumors (thank you, LarryBoy), Dash immediately latches on to anybody (real or cartoon) who is saying false things about somebody else. To wit, his first declaration while watching Horton was, "The kangaroo's all wrong! She's the baddest because she's the one who started the rumor."
· On a lighter note, Dash said that the funniest thing in the movie was when Horton's cute little friend Katie (right, who steals her scenes), says about her clover, "In my world, everyone is a pony, and they all eat rainbows, and poop butterflies." Can't imagine why a 5-year-old boy would find that funny...

Will your kids like it?
I'll answer that with another question: What's not to like? It's based on a classic Dr. Seuss story, it's a well-made film, and except for a couple of tense scenes involving a bad vulture and a mob of monkeys trying to cage Horton, it's (pardon the cliche) a film for the whole family to enjoy. Horton Hears a Who! is definitely one to consider for a family movie night.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Absolutely, and for many of the same reasons I mention above. Parents and kids will enjoy Horton, and for grown-ups it'll feel like time and money well-spent versus sitting through a lame, uninspired movie aimed at kids with no regard for parents in the audience.
Horton Hears a Who!* Directors: Jimmy Hayward, Steve Martino
* Screenwriters: Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul
* Stars (Voices): Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler
* MPAA Rating: G

January 5, 2009

About Schmidt (2002)

Filmmaker Alexander Payne has turned to his native Omaha, Nebraska for some of his biggest pre-Sideways films (Citizen Ruth, Election). And the city’s flat, broad, bland landscape is the perfect setting and metaphor for Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a newly retired insurance professional who – in the opening scene of Payne’s endearing About Schmidt – literally watches the clock tick on the last second of his career before leaving his already-boxed-up office for good.

We then follow Schmidt through the immediate stages of retirement: a farewell dinner, time-filling hobbies, mid-morning errand runs, etc. He must also deal with the impending marriage of his Colorado-based daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to underachieving waterbed salesman Randall (Dermot Mulroney). Filling out Schmidt’s time is his decision to adopt an underprivileged orphan in Tanzania (the scene where Warren sees his orphan’s name, Ndugu, in his adoption kit is quietly humorous).

After the sudden death of his wife, Warren evaluates his life via letters he writes to Ndugu and the discovery of an old affair between his wife and best friend. He decides to hit the road in a newly purchased RV. The destination: his daughter’s wedding in Denver. Along the way he meets a whitebread couple doing their own RV trek, visits his college alma mater, and sees various sights you probably wouldn’t recognize unless you live in the heartland.

Fans of Nicholson may have initial concerns over such an expressive actor playing as subdued a role as Schmidt. But that’s the beauty of his performance: As the film progresses, Nicholson pulls us into Warren’s world so well that viewers won’t even notice (or remember) their initial reservations about him playing against type.

In terms of the supporting cast:
• Mulroney is cringe-inducingly memorable as Davis’ fiancé – the kind of small-town loser who you hope won’t corner you at a party with his get-rich-quick schemes (one of which appears in the film).
• Davis, meanwhile, plays Jeannie largely in reactionary bursts of anger and frustration towards Warren that, while largely justified, doesn’t earn her character any points with an audience that is slowly warming up to her flawed on-screen father.
Kathy Bates appears late in the film as Randall’s mother, adding a little spark that Payne probably thought necessary to see viewers through to the end. No harm, no foul, though her nude hot tub scene may be one of the more talked-about disrobings in recent movie history.

Some viewers of About Schmidt may ask where all the “action” is, feeling that Payne is just taking us on a sprawling, mundane trip. But that’s the point: We’re watching an average man, who has lived an average life, embark on a relatively tame cross-country trek (an incident with the whitebread wife aside). No greater conflict arises than whether or not his daughter is marrying a putz. And when it’s all over, it felt good being along for the ride.

About Schmidt is (and should be) all about Warren P. Schmidt. We witness a man who lived his entire adult life selling insurance (arguably the ultimate symbol of a mediocre, unmemorable career) and married to a softly oppressive wife. He can’t connect with his daughter, but he can open up to a 6-year-old boy he’s never met who lives on another continent. In a letter to Ndugu, Schmidt displays the rhetoric we all feel at some point in our lives – hoping that somehow, in some way, somebody will actually answer with affirmations:

“Relatively soon, I will die. Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn't matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference, but what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?”

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
Even if you offer About Schmidt to your kids despite its R rating (for nudity, language, and the good ol’ “adult situations”), the film’s length and pacing may be too much to ask kids or tweens to sit through. Older teens, however, may find themselves satisfied if invited to watch.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Is she’s interested in dramas focusing on a strained or quirky family dynamic, she should enjoy About Schmidt. Like I said at the beginning of this review, the film is an endearing character study, one that ultimately finds a place in your heart. And the final scene should leave her misty, if not in tears.

About Schmidt
* Director: Alexander Payne
* Screenwriter: Alexander Payne
* Stars: Jack Nicholson, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Len Cariou, Howard Hesseman, Kathy Bates
* MPAA Rating: R (nudity, language, adult situations)

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