Monthly Archives: August 2009

Review: Taking Woodstock

taking woodstock one sheetYou’d have to be hiding under a rock not to know that August was the fortieth anniversary of a little outdoor concert in upstate New York called Woodstock. On August 15,16, and 17 of 1969, an incredible lineup of over thirty folk and rock groups ranging from Ravi Shankar to Arlo Guthrie, The Grateful Dead to Joe Cocker, jefferson Airplane, The Who, Janis Joplin, Santana, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix entertained a huge crowd.

With 500,000 in attendance, Woodstock took place in the small (population 4500) Catskills town of Bethel, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. The movie Taking Woodstock is based on the book by the same name written by Bethel motel owner Elliot Teichberg.
I missed the concert, even though we lived in New York at the time, because I was in elementary school and, well, my parents were definitely not heading to the Catskills for a weekend of free love, drugs, and hippies. Nonetheless, I’ve always been interested in Woodstock and how it all came to be.
Director Ang Lee does a good enough job with the historical retelling of Elliot’s (Demetri Martin) story of Woodstock, but fails to create engaging characters, instead leaving us with a motley collection of one-dimensional caricatures, like Billy (Emile Hirsch) the scroungy misunderstood Vietnam war vet and Elliot’s stereotypically Jewish parents, the angry, critical and secretive Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and the long-suffering Jake (Henry Goodman).
If you were at Woodstock or even love the music, you’ll be disappointed how little of the concert shows up in the film too: It’s exactly mirrored by the presence of the momentous Apollo 11 landing in the film, which we see on TV, all but the most pivotal moment of Armstrong taking that one giant leap for mankind.
For a film based on an amazing, world-changing concert that represents the zenith of the 60’s free love hippie culture, Lee has crafted the worst possible insult: a movie that just isn’t particularly funny, insightful or engaging.

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Review: Inglourious Basterds

inglourious basterds one sheetIt’s wonderful to watch a talented professional mature in their skills and with the release of Inglourious Basterds that’s what’s clearly happened with wunderkind director and film biz bad boy Quentin Tarantino. His earlier works are best typified by Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, interesting stories that are so extraordinarily violent that the graphic violence appears in lieu of story or character development. Let me put this another way: Inglorious Basterds is the first Tarantino film I’ve actually enjoyed.

You’ve probably already been exposed to a number of different trailers and previews from the film that feature Brad Pitt as the tough Tennessee-born redneck Lt. Aldo Raine. What you can’t tell from the previews is that the film is most assuredly a revisionist history of the American (and English and French) resistance to the Germans.
Lt. Raine is the leader of a group of Jewish soldiers drafted to go deep behind enemy lines and wreak havoc, not just killing Nazis but torturing and scalping them, creating fear and great anxiety in the German high command. Raine describes the “inglourious basterds” of his unit as a bushwhacking guerilla army and assures recruits that each “owes me 100 Nazi scalps”.
The film opens, however, with the antagonist, the evil and cunning SS Colonel Hans Landa (a stand-out role for Christoph Waltz), toying with French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), who is harboring a family of hunted Jewish farmers, including daughter Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent). Within a few minutes, it’s clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, a necessary element in good war films, though there is definitely some moral ambiguity as the basterds prove a rowdy, violent bunch.
I really liked Inglourious Basterds even with its few moments of extreme violence (it is, after all, a Tarantino film and that’s one of his trademarks). To the woman who asked me before the film started “is this a comedy?” I now say “no, but it’s a darn good movie and does have some quite amusing scenes.”  If you don’t like Tarantino’s previous films, you might well give this one a chance, and if you’re already a fan, you’ll definitely enjoy his maturation as a director and storyteller.

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Review: Avatar (Avatar Day footage)

Note: My full Avatar review can be found in a different entry, this is just a writeup from when I saw the 15-minute preview of the film in mid-2009. For the full review of the movie, please go here: Dave On Film Review: Avatar

Along with what was apparently a smaller number of film geeks than was expected, I dutifully showed up at the local RealIMAX “quasi-IMAX” screen (see my earlier article on RealIMAX versus IMAX) to see 16 minutes of James Cameron’s much discussed, ultra-expensive Avatar footage unveiled, in all of its 3D glory.

I’m going to include a number of stills from the Avatar trailer to illustrate some of what I’ll talk about in this review, but I’ll start out by saying WOW, the footage was breathtaking in its crisp, alien realism and sporadically terrific with its 3D effectiveness.

avatar still 1
What I was most interested in was the story because, after all, even amazing digital effects can’t make a great movie: if there’s not an engaging story to tie it around, no-one is going to care and it’s going to be a boring demo reel, not a movie.
From the footage screened, however, it’s clear that there’s an interesting story – albeit one that’s been told and retold dozens of times in modern cinema….

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Review: Shorts

shorts one sheetIf you’ve seen any of the Spy Kids movies, you already know that director Robert Rodriguez has a knack for making frenetic kids films that have extraordinary, wacky special effects, all harnessed — often loosely — into telling a story that’s exciting and a bit goofy. There’s a certain glossy sheen to his films, an extruded plastic sort of sense that’s uniquely his, and it’s delightful when it’s not too far over the top.

His new film Shorts is definitely cut from the same cloth as Spy Kids.  It’s a frantically paced whirlwind of a movie where the narrative bounces around and the actors look like they’re having just as much fun in their crazy universe as we are watching it. And it’s hilarious. There were so many jokes, play on words, visual gags and more jammed into its brief 89 minutes that it was easily one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year.
The story is set in Black Falls, Texas, a small town that’s dominated by Black Box Unlimited, a company that sells a gizmo that can transform itself into just about anything you might desire, from a cellphone to a dog groomer, can opener to a music player. It comes in three sizes: Super Grande, Grande, and Niño, and its primary competitors are the Purple Pyramid and the Silver Cylinder.
The company is run by the evil Mr. Black (James Spader) who relishes his power and control, all the while trying to motivate employees to create the ultimate Black Box, version “X”, that will do everything and be owned by every single person on the planet. Black has two children, the fabulously named Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) and her older brother Cole Black (Devon Gearhart), and they’re the bullies of the local school, particularly relishing the chance to pick on new-kid-in-town Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), whose parents run the main development teams at the firm.
But the storyline is almost just an excuse to weave together a series of funny and often quite astonishing special effects and visual effects that combine to make Shorts a rollercoaster of a fun ride for children and adults alike.

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Review: Ponyo

ponyo one sheetThe original story of The Little Mermaid is about a mermaid who dreams of some day becoming a human. Ponyo is based on the same theme, but this time it’s a goldfish called Brunhilde who dreams of becoming human. This isn’t Disney computer-assisted animation as usual, however, but rather the amazing hand-animated world of Japanese legend Hayao Miyazaki.

You’ve probably heard of Miyazaki, he’s had three films in relatively wide distribution here in the United States: Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. None of those hit the big time, however, and with the backing of Disney and some top voice talent, there are high hopes for little Ponyo.
The film was released in mid-2008 in Japan under the name Gake no ue no Ponyo, with a tagline “Welcome to a world where anything is possible.”  All of the voices in that original are Japanese actors, as you’d expect, including Yuria Nara (Ponyo) and Hiroki Doi (Sosuke). In the new release, everything’s redubbed into English, with Miley Cyrus’ little sister Noah Lindsey Cyrus as Ponyo and littlest Jonas Brother Frankie Jonas as Sosuke.
In this lovely story, little goldfish Brunhilde (Sosuke names her Ponyo when he finds her) is chafing under the grip of her batty mad-scientist dad Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), who has grown a hatred of humans because of their littering of the oceans and is storing up magic potion to bring the sea back to the “Devonian Era”. 
Escaping his grip to explore the greater world, Ponyo finds herself trapped in a jar, unable to break free. Luckily five year old Sosuke, a kind-hearted, sweet little boy, finds her while playing in the surf with his toy boat and carefully breaks the jar, freeing her. He puts her in a bucket of water and carries her about as a pet and playmate. 
The story, about Ponyo and Sosuke’s adventures as the water level of the ocean keeps rising and cuts them off from Sosuke’s mom, Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey), is wonderous and Miyazaki avoids the heavy environmental moralizing of his previous films, making this an instant masterpiece of its genre.

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Interview with Kevin Murphy of RiffTrax

plan 9 from outer space one sheet

This Thursday August 20th in theaters nationwide, the RiffTrax team is hosting a snark-a-thon live screening of the cheesy masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space. You can learn more at Fathom Events, or you can just show up at the Boulder screening, where I’ll probably be laughing hysterically throughout.
I had a chance to ask a few questions of Rifftrax partner and former Mystery Science Theater 3000 co-creator Kevin Murphy. Who was Kevin in MST3K?  Tom Servo. Awesome!
If you haven’t seen the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka “MST3K”) show, it was brilliant, a series where they screened a movie and on the bottom of the screen had silhouettes of viewers (a human host and two robots, Tom Server and Crow) who added a sarcastic and biting commentary to “enhance” your viewing of the movie. It ran from 1988-1999, with just under 200 episodes screened.
Heretofor, my Q&A followed by a bit more information on Kevin…
Q: I loved Mystery Science Theater 3000 because it’s exactly how my pals and I watch bad movies, with a sarcastic running commentary. But robots? Being sent to a satellite orbiting the Earth?  WTF?  Where did all that backstory come from?
I believe we bought it from the Elves…

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Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife

time travelers wife one sheetThere are lots of movies about time travel, from the asinine Land of the Lost to the political The Time Machine and Sleepers, to the edgy Time Bandits and 12 Monkeys. Most of those have a gizmo or contraption that causes them to travel through time, but what if you just “hopped” without having any control over it?  One minute you were in contemporary Manhattan then in the blink of an eye you were in Los Angeles in the middle of a Vietnam war protest march?

That’s the basic concept behind The Time Traveler’s Wife, based on a tremendously popular book of the same name written by Audrey Niffenegger. The story wrestles with what it would be like for a time traveler to establish and sustain a relationship, all the while knowing that at any moment he could vanish and reappear minutes, hours, or weeks later.
The problem I had with this movie, though, was that while it was very well assembled and acted, I kept wanting to know why and how Henry DeTamble (the handsome Eric Bana) was able to travel through time. There are so many paradoxes related to time travel that were just brushed under the proverbial rug that while the film progressed, I kept waiting to “get it” and never really did.
The core paradox with time travel is whether there are multiple future realities or not: if there are, then traveling back in time can affect your own existence. If there’s only one reality and you’re but an observer, how can you actually interact with anyone else in the past, let alone have ongoing relationships with them?  It’s a causality thing (and yes, I know I’m being totally right-brained in this concern!)
The story is about Henry bouncing back and forth through time, first meeting up with the wealthy but apparently lonely and sheltered Clare Abshire (played as a child by Brooklynn Proulx and as an adult by the gorgeous Rachel McAdams) when she’s six and he’s an adult. Then he weaves in and out of her life knowing that they meet and marry (or does he create the idea in her mind that future Henry is her perfect match, thereby influencing the future?). Oddly, she is not bothered by this or creeped out by this adult man who sporadically pops out of the woods by her house, stark naked, wanting to spend time with her.
Romantic? Yes. A bit disturbing as the father of two young girls who would not be too happy if they were filling their diaries with pictures of a strange adult man and fantasizing about marrying him some day? Definitely.  Worth seeing anyway as a summer romance film?  Maybe.

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Review: District 9

district 9 one sheet
Wow. That was the first word out of my mouth when this astonishing, intense hard sci-fi exploration on prejudice and apartheid ended. Director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson have crafted a fascinating film that, while flawed, is a significant new addition to the ranks of serious science fiction movies, along with Alien, Blade Runner, The Matrix, and the like.

Bookended with opening and closing documentary-style footage, District 9 posits a race of extraterrestrials having their interstellar craft mysteriously break down over Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1980s. After weeks of indecision, humans force their way into the ship, just to find the aliens weakened and dying of hunger. They’re rescued, but they’re sufficiently different that they are forced to live in terrible slums and suffer the ridicule and abuse of mankind.
Almost thirty years have passed since then and the aliens, known derogatorily as “prawns”, 1.8 million of them, are still trapped in “District 9″, a slum on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Problem is, the aliens wander off their fenced security area and incidents between humans and “prawns” are increasing, and humans are getting killed.
As a result, it’s decided that the aliens need to be relocated to a new fenced-in village “District 10″ that’s further from the city and Blackwater-like military contractor Multi-National United (MNU) is hired to do the job. To keep it all “legal”, however, they are required to serve ‘eviction notices to the current residents of District 9, led by MNU agent Wikus van der Merwe (very well played by Sharlto Copley).
Problem is, it doesn’t exactly go as planned…

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Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

gi joe rise of cobra one sheetLet me end the suspense right up front: I liked G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I didn’t expect it to be a deep, thoughtful war film, nor did I expect it to be a profound visual essay on the challenges of morality in a wartime setting: see Flags of our Fathers and The Hurt Locker (my review). Instead, I expected a loud, action-filled movie that had attractive actors, shiny toys, banal dialog and a barely comprehensible story line. And that’s what I got.

When I was a boy, I had G.I. Joe “action figures” (the cool guy name for “dolls”) that glorified war and were a manly cultural archetype, just as Barbie was a cultural archetype for girls. Released in the mid-60s, “Government Issue Joe” initially represented the four services with Action Soldier (the Army), Action Sailor (the Navy), Action Pilot (the Air Force) and Action Marine (yep, the Marines). And a bit of film trivia: the name G.I. Joe was actually inspired by the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe.
In 1985 Hasbro’s G.I. Joe toy line, rebranded as “action heroes” to get away from the unpopular aggressive war themes, spawned an animated TV series that lasted two years, until 1987. The show opened with the explanation that “G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose, to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”
I never watched the animated series and to this day have never seen an episode. With that background and critically useful explanation of Cobra (which I thought was a character in the story, not an organization) you can just imagine what a modern, big-budget CGI-heavy action film is going to look like, and you’d be right.
But here’s the surprising thing: it was actually pretty fun and a good mindless action film romp in the spirit of Michael Bay’s and Jerry Bruckheimer’s daft explosion films.

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Review: Watchmen (The Director’s Cut)

watchmen blue ray cover headerIt wasn’t until about 75% of the way through the original Watchmen graphic novel (written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins) that I started to really understand what was going on. Once I could see where they were going, however, I was hooked and ultimately found it to be a terrific story about the ambiguity of morality and the difficulty of being gifted with unusual abilities and the concomitant expectation that you’ll use them for good. Whose good?  Why?

When the film came out, directed by Zack Snyder, I knew I had to see it, but I wasn’t sure I’d like it. After all, graphic novels are generally characterized by graphic violence and aggressive imagery: did I want to see blood splatters and dismemberment in living color?  Turns out that while there were a few minutes where the violence was unquestionably extreme, I really did like the movie quite a bit, including Snyder bringing out much more of the ambiguity of the costumed crimefighters and whether they masochistically enjoyed hurting criminals.
At over two hours, the theatrical release of Watchmen was long, but full of visually astonishing sequences in a film that provoked much thought and led to a complex and satisfying conclusion. It was, however, startlingly violent in scenes, something that constrained it to a fairly narrow audience.
When the movie was released for the home audience, Snyder recut it, splicing into the film an additional 25 minutes of footage. That’s a lot of additional scenes, giving the film a really long 3:05 running time. Is the director’s cut worth watching?  Read on…

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