August 23, 2011

Rango (2011)

WHEN IT COMES TO animated feature films, there’s Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky Studios (to a lesser extent), then everyone else.

Sure, Sony Animation Studios delivered the great Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in 2009, but this summer they brought us The Smurfs – and from what I’ve heard, it’s smurfin’ terrible.

Now there’s a new player in the feature-length animation game: Paramount Pictures, who teamed with Nickelodeon earlier this year to bring us Rango

A pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) bitten by the acting bug is tossed from his family’s vehicle during a close call on a desert highway. He stumbles into the creature-sized western town of Dirt, dubs himself Rango, and uses his acting skills to make the townsfolk believe he’s a stone-cold killer who shouldn’t be messed with. Convinced of his toughness, the people of Dirt see Rango as the man who can help them solve the mystery of their vanishing water supply – and in turn, save their town.

With Rango, director Gore Verbinski (who worked with Depp on the Pirates of The Caribbean films) delivers a fresh, offbeat, occasionally dark, and wonderfully unique picture. Working from an intelligent, homage-laden, and often funny script by John Logan (Sweeney Todd, The Aviator), Verbinski keeps everything moving at a steady clip without it feeling rushed, while making masterful use of foregrounds and depth (no doubt to emphasize the 3-D when Rango was in theaters).

Everything in Rango is wonderfully drawn and animated by Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). There’s jaw-dropping scenery of deserts and western landscapes, and the frontier town of Dirt is right out of a classic western – featuring rustic saloons, storefronts, and dusty streets. The townsfolk include a very colorful cast of creatures filling the standard western roles: the doctor, the bartender, the banker, the mayor (Toy Story 3’s Ned Beatty) the village idiot, the Native American, and yes, even the ladies of the oldest profession.

Casting Depp as a chameleon is an especially inspired choice, given his ability to transform himself into such diverse characters as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Jack Sparrow. And it’s the ability to blend in which helps Rango hustle his way to the position of sheriff and leader of Dirt’s people as they struggle to find water to keep their town alive.

Rango also features a great mariachi-meets-Dick-Dale soundtrack by the legendary Hans Zimmer, with additional songs by Los Lobos. (Bonus: You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Flight of the Valkyries” done with banjos.)

While it’s not for all ages (see below), Rango is an original and highly entertaining adventure with a heart at its sun-baked center. Fans of animation will love it. Fans of westerns will love it. Fans of both will most likely have a new addition to their list of favorite films.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Rango is rated PG. As you may expect from a western, there’s a-cussin’, and a-drinkin’, and a-shootin’ goin’ on in this here flick.
Language: There are a handful of “hells,” a cut-off “You son of a –,” and the phrases, “I’ll kill you, you stupid lizard!” “Sign the damn paper!” and “Go to hell!”
Smoking/Drinking: Several characters smoke cigars; there are subtle and obvious references to drinking and being drunk.
Violence/Scariness: There are numerous threats of violence; several animals are killed by being shot, crushed, or drowned; there are mentions of hanging suspected criminals; one character beats his grown sons with a stick; as a laugh, an armadillo is shown after being run over by a car; and Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), while an amazing feat of animation, could be scary to little children – especially when squeezing a potential victim and saying, “Look into my eyes. I wanna see you die.” (Didn’t Johnny Cash do that to a man in Reno?)
Humor: Most of the adult jokes are probably too quick and over the heads of kids, with mentions of “fecal matter,” someone’s prostate, and taking a laxative. At one point, Rango asks a naked torso of a Barbie doll, “Are those real?” There are also many citizens of Dirt with missing or artificial limbs, and one character goes through the entire film with an arrow through his head (via his eye socket).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Even if she’s not a fan of westerns, she’ll most likely enjoy Rango. The characters and story are deeper than expected, and there are potential sparks between Rango and Bean (Isla Fisher), the town heroine.

No fair! I can't win a two-on-one staring contest!

* Director: Gore Verbinski
* Screenwriter: John Logan
* Stars: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy, Stephen Root, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone
* MPAA Rating: PG (rude humor, language, action, and smoking)

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August 16, 2011

The Kids Grow Up (2011)

DASH AND JACK-JACK are 8 and 5 respectively, so I have a few years before I have to worry about when they are grown up and old enough to leave home.

Still, I wasn’t sure how I’d react to filmmaker Doug Block’s documentary, The Kids Grow Up. Would I be unable to relate to Block’s story of his daughter (and only child) Lucy leaving for college because my boys are much younger than her, or would I end up fretting a decade in advance about that day when my first-born son plans to move on?

As his only child Lucy prepares to leave home for college, Manhattan-based documentary filmmaker Doug Block (51 Birch Street) struggles with letting go. Drawing on three generations of evocative family footage, The Kids Grow Up is an intimate first-person look at parenthood in an age when dads are increasingly involved in their children’s lives.


While it’s true that not every frame of footage of Lucy can be a heart-wrenching, three-Kleenex event, a lot of The Kids Grow Up plays quieter than expected. The Brocks seem an inherently mellow family, and conversations about exciting or life-changing events are more somber than stimulating – making the film feel longer than its 92 minutes.

The Kids Grow Up is at its strongest when Block directly juxtaposes footage of Lucy today with her as a child or toddler, such as milestones in Lucy’s life (jumping from her first ear piercing as a grade-schooler to her driving test in high school) or when Brock cuts from 18-year-old Lucy breaking down over the incessant taping to a child-age Lucy happily proclaiming that she loves when her daddy tapes her.

In addition to Brock’s feelings about Lucy leaving, Kids also sheds light on other aspects of his life – including his resentment over his emotionally distant father (also interviewed here) and his wife Marjorie’s opinions on what she feels is Block’s clownish or ambivalent approach to parenting. He also finds himself dealing with other events while filming Kids, such as the birth of his first grandson (from Lucy’s stepbrother Joel) and a serious recurrence of Marjorie’s ongoing battle with depression.

While he does have great footage of Lucy and other family members, Brock isn’t the strongest interviewer; he waffles and thinks out loud for the right words when talking to, or attempting to comfort, his subjects.

However, whether you have a teenager who’s about to leave home or you sometimes wonder what it’ll be like when your little kid does so, The Kids Grow Up will affect you…and make you hug them a little tighter afterwards.


Is it suitable for your kids?
The Kids Grow Up features some light talk about sex, and in one scene Lucy explains through tears how she’s “pissed off” at her dad taping her so much; Lucy and her high school friends drink beer with their meals at a deck party.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Not many mothers like to think about the day their children will leave home, so The Kids Grow Up may stir up emotions. But that’s the point of an effective movie, isn’t it?

Get outta the road, kid! That's dangerous!
Look what happened to your friend above you!

The Kids Grow Up
* Director: Doug Block
* Screenwriter: Doug Block
* Stars: Lucy Block, Doug Block, Marjorie Silver, Mike Block, Josh Silver, David Silver, Romain George
* MPAA Rating: NR

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August 10, 2011

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2011)

I’VE BEEN A FAN OF comedian Bill Hicks since I first saw him on a Rodney Dangerfield HBO special in the late ‘80s. He was different, funny, and smart – a trio of traits that stand-up comedy desperately needed at the time.

In his best work from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Hicks proudly talked and joked about his smoking, and the holier-than-thou attitude of non-smokers; his use of mind-altering (or as he saw it, mind-expanding) drugs such as mushrooms and LSD; and his insatiable thirst for challenging the status quo, the beliefs of the masses, and the lies of the government.

Yet Hicks did not achieve comedy superstardom before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32 – nor has he achieved it since then. But in recent years, more and more people are discovering Hicks and his inimitable form of comedy (despite Denis Leary’s best efforts; more on that later). And Hicks’ exposure to the mainstream increased even more this year with the full-length documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story.

Since his tragic death, comedian Bill Hicks’ legend and stature have only grown, and this unique documentary tells his story – blending live footage, home movies, interviews, and animation to fill in the details of a life cut short. A comic's comic and unflagging critic of hypocrisy and cultural emptiness, Hicks was one of a kind – a Lenny Bruce for the late 20th century.


Knowing that Hicks was lionized in England when U.S. audiences weren’t “getting him,” it’s a bit ironic that American’s Brit directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas couldn’t pull off a definitive and wholly engaging documentary about their subject.

American is a full-length feature documentary, but it feels incomplete for several reasons: Footage of Hicks at his best is shown, but not until almost the third act; there are no interviews with comedians Hicks worked with during his peak; and there is no mention of the long-standing claim by many that Denis Leary stole Hicks’ act to launch his own stand-up career.

For true fans of Bill Hicks, the early rare footage in American is great, but clips of his best performances are overly familiar…and a bit scarce. For the uninitiated, American is a passable introduction to the man who once described the human race as “a virus with shoes.” Both parties will much more rewarded watching Comedy Central’s 1995 documentary on Hicks, It’s Just a Ride; view Part 1 here.

American is essentially shot from one collective perspective: That of his family, childhood friends (and creative partners), and comedians from his early stand-up days in Houston and Austin. It comes off more like a well-produced home movie than a comprehensive, from-all-angles dissection of Hicks and his wicked brilliance.

For more on Bill Hicks:
Required listening - Relentless, Arizona Bay
Additional listening/viewing - Rant in E-Minor, Dangerous, It’s Just a Ride


Is it suitable for your kids?
American features clips of Hicks that, while brilliant and often scathing, are populated with lots of profanities and adult language. There are also frequent mentions of drug use, and some very brief nudity.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Even if she knows and loves Bill Hicks – especially if she loves him – American will be a bit of a disappointment. You’re both better off watching It’s Just a Ride or listening to the albums shown below.

One of my favorite Bill bits (a tad NSFW).

American: The Bill Hicks Story
* Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
* Stars: Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth, John Farneti, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Andy Huggins, David Johndrow, James Ladmirault, Dwight Slade
* MPAA Rating: NR

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August 4, 2011

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

THREE YEARS AFTER seeing Star Wars in the theater as a kid in 1977, I was still starving for more science fiction movies and TV. That hunger was fed mostly by lesser fare such as Disney’s 1979 sci-fi flick The Black Hole and the original Battlestar Galactica TV series.

Then, while still riding high from seeing The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, my aunt (and multi-contest winner) Kathy took me to see the latest attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze, Battle Beyond the Stars.

In this Roger Corman-produced sci-fi fantasy, Shad (The Waltons’ Richard Thomas) must scour the cosmos to recruit mercenaries from different planets and cultures to save his peaceful planet Akir from the threat of evil tyrant Sador (Enter The Dragon’s John Saxon), who’s bent on dominating and enslaving the entire universe. The team of mercenaries includes:

* a young female scientist named Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel)
* a buxom Valkyrie warrior named Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning)
* a wanted hitman named Gelt (The Magnificent Seven’s Robert Vaughan)
* a space cowboy named, uh, Cowboy (The A-Team’s George Preppard)
* a lizard humanoid named Cayman (Morgan Woodward)
* a quintet of telepathic aliens all named Nestor (led by Earl Boen) 

Comparisons of Battle Beyond The Stars to the two films probably yelled out at the pitch meeting (“It’s The Magnificent Seven meets Star Wars!”) are so obvious and frequent, they’re not even worth pointing out. But if you must, some quick examples: Robert Vaughan is basically repeating his character from Magnificent Seven as Battle’s Gelt, and Shad’s ship features a sassy, no-nonsense voice system named Nell (Lynn Carlin), who’s essentially Han Solo to Shad’s Luke Skywalker.

And while it’s true that it seems like another attempt to cash in on Star Wars fever, Battle Beyond the Stars has an impressive pedigree: It’s executive-produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman, written by John Sayles (Alligator, The Howling, Piranha), scored by Oscar winner James Horner (Titanic), and features impressive set designs by some art director named Jim Cameron (Avatar).

A big part of what makes the film so enjoyable, next to the cheese-tastic space battles, is Sayles’ dialogue: It consists of real, relatable conversations – the kind that makes the original Star Wars trilogy fun, and its prequels’ oh-so-serious dialogue unbearable. The occasional stabs at humor also largely hit the mark (Preppard’s line about hot dogs is classic).

Yes, some of the special effects look dated (and steal sound effects from Battlestar Galactica), and both the acting and Horner’s score teeter on melodramatic. Also, the action in the third act is a bit uneven, including an abrupt ending probably due to budget constraints. But ultimately, Battle Beyond The Stars is a fun trip through retro B-movie pseudo-camp.

* Footage and music from Battle Beyond The Stars were re-used in the 1983 sci-fi cheapie Space Raiders.
* Watch for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene early in the film with comedian Kathy Griffin as an inhabitant of Akir.


Is it suitable for your kids?
Battle Beyond The Stars is rated PG, largely for its sci-fi violence and adult situations and language.
Violence: Many people are shot with lasers; several die in spaceship explosions; Cowboy stabs one of Sador’s soldiers and green blood pours out; a man is impaled; one of the Nestor’s arms is severed by Sador’s doctor, who then attaches it to Sador in place of his lame arm (most of this is done in cutaway; no pun intended); a sonic weapon by Sador’s army causes Akir’s soldiers to scream in pain (one man bleeds from the ears); scientists working on upper torsos and body parts of lifelike humanoid robots might freak out younger kids.
Adult situations: Nanelia’s father plans to have Shad breed with her, ordering his androids to prepare “the conjugal suite” for the couple; Cowboy smokes and drinks on occasion; it’s implied that one of Sador’s henchmen had his way with a woman from Akir (a young Julia Duffy), as she emerges from a back room with mussed hair and a tattered robe.
Adult language: Phrases such as “sons of bitches,” “son of a bitch,” “damn it,” “what the hell,” “snowball’s chance in Hell,” and “that’s a hell of a note;” Saint-Exmin uses several double entendres for sex (“recharge his capacitators,” “tingle his transistors”); there is occasional talk between Nanelia and Shad about breeding, mating, etc. (“I think your torque bar slipped its groove”).

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she’s a fan of sci-fi and/or quality cheese, you could have a fun time watching Battle Beyond The Stars together.
That’s Shad’s spaceship. Yep, the bottom looks like something. Two things, actually.
There’s actually an online debate about whether they’re “his” or “hers.”

Battle Beyond the Stars
* Director: Jimmy T. Murakami
* Screenwriter: John Sayles
* Stars: Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughan, John Saxon, George Preppard, Darlanne Fluegel, Sybil Danning, Morgan Woodward, Earl Boen
* MPAA Rating: PG

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Watch or download Battle Beyond The Stars via StageVu (.avi file) >>


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