Monthly Archives: July 2010

Review: Salt

salt one sheetAfter her uninspired acting in the tedious Wanted, I was leery about seeing Angelina Jolie in another action film, though I loved her as Laura Croft in Tomb Raider. She’s back in fine form in Salt, however, as tough CIA field agent Evelyn Salt who is forced to flee the agency to clear her name after being accused of being a Russian sleeper spy.

Salt works for Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and is married to arachnologist Mike Krause (August Diehl), who knows she’s a CIA agent but ignores the ever-present danger, focusing instead on hunting spiders for the Smithsonian.
Salt opens with Jolie prisoner in a North Korean detention camp, being beaten and tortured to force a confession that she is indeed a CIA spy. Sound like Quantum of Solace?  It’s very similar, and we flash forward to present day, but then bounce back and forth in her timeline as the story unfolds.
In many ways, Salt feels like a Bourne film, with bursts of action and violence followed by expository passages, punctuated by unbelievable escapes from FBI, CIA, the police, and just about everyone else possible. Perhaps The Bourne Identity meets Tomb Raider, by way of MacGyver, as Jolie often accomplishes ingenious and amazing feats with everyday objects. It’s an exciting ride and it’s a pleasure to see Jolie this tough in the title role.

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Critic vs. Critic: Inception

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When I wrote in my review of Inception that I thought it was the best film of the summer and possibly of 2010, I didn’t realize it’d strike a nerve with my friend and fellow critic Christian Toto. It did, and we started debating the merits of the film, the end result being this back and forth that I hope you’ll find interesting and entertaining. No spoilers, don’t worry!
Christian Toto: I wanted to love Inception as much as most critics. The summer movie season has been a big disappointment, so who better than the mind behind The Dark Knight to save the season? But Inception taxes our brain without delivering a story to engage our emotions. The film spends so much time explaining itself there’s precious little time to engage in character development or a lucid narrative.
Dave Taylor: I disagree, of course. I think that DiCaprio’s Cobb was an interesting, troubled man who had some extraordinary gifts (i.e. the ability to go into people’s dreams) and a complex, half-buried back story with his wife Mal, children and such. But I suggest that the lack of lucidity is consistent with the entire storyline and as Cobb says to Saito (Ken Watanabe), part of the self-referential nature of the film was that there were “half-remembered dreams”.
I will say that I think Ariadne (Ellen Page) brought up some interesting ethical dilemmas that were quickly glossed over in the film, but then again, I don’t expect a deep philosophical treatise or indie film from Chris Nolan, but a visually stunning action film that has more of a story than the usual banal dreck that we have to sit through. And I think he delivered with Inception.

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Review: Inception

inception one sheetInception is one of the most complicated stories I have ever seen on the big screen, but if you can figure out what’s going on, it’s an amazing movie filled with mind-boggling visuals and an intriguing exploration of how our minds work and the subconscious. It might also be the best movie of the summer, if not 2010.

The story takes place in a near future where companies send agents to steal secrets from within people’s dreams and the military are trained in artificially constructed dream worlds where they feel pain, worlds indistinguishable from reality, but from which they wake up if, in the dream, they die or are killed.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, a rogue dream extractor who believes that in addition to exploring other people’s dreams, it should be possible to plant ideas in their subconscious too. Called “inception”, it’s highly controversial, if even possible.
He’s hired by Japanese industrialist Saito (Ken Watanabe) and assembles a team to plant an idea in the mind of competitor and troubled conglomerate heir Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Cobb brings together an unlikely group: Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young “architect” who creates the dream worlds, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his point man and long-time collaborator, Eames (Tom Hardy), a likable, sarcastic forger and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) as a chemist.
In a world where dreams can be embedded in other dreams, nothing is ever quite what it seems, people aren’t who they seem to be, and the very fabric of reality can bend and distort without warning. It makes for one heck of a movie, and is one of the first I’ve seen this year where I’m ready to see it a second time to ensure I understood the layers of what was happening on screen. It’s that good.

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Review: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

the sorcerers apprentice one sheetI really liked Fantasia (1940) as a kid and recall being amazed at how well the music and ;animation synchronized in one of the most trippy of the Disney animated films. The centerpiece of Fantasia was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene, where Mickey Mouse used magic to clean his master’s lab, just to have the mops and brooms take on a life of their own. The message: magic is tricky work and not for amateurs.

Nicholas Cage was equally captivated by Mickey’s cameo in Fantasia, and made that the centerpiece of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a glossy confection from Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pirates of the Caribbean team. Unfortunately, while Cage pulled a full-length story out of a short vignette, he skipped the hard part: making a great story.
The result is a film that, while enjoyable to watch, is shallow and unsatisfying, demonstrating yet again that Nic Cage has forgotten how to act. He walks through his role as Master Sorcerer Balthazar Blake as if it were a “one take” indie experiment, and even in scenes when he should have been elated, terrified, or angry, bland Nic Cage is all we get.
Regular guy Dave (a likeable Jay Baruchel) is the apprentice and a la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, he’s plucked out of a mundane existence as a student at NYU and learns that he has hidden powers as a sorcerer and is, in fact, the only person who can stop the evil sorceress Morgana (Alice Krige) from unleashing unspeakable evil on the Earth. Or something like that.
Starting with the time-tested story device of everyman learning he has amazing special powers, director Jon Turteltaub has given us a piece of eye candy, a film that’s pleasant enough to watch and has the splendid production quality of all Bruckheimer’s movies, but has no depth, no engaging roles and a storyline as banal as they come. I’d skip The Sorcerer’s Apprentice if I were you.

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Review: Despicable Me

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Despicable Me is a surprisingly violent animated movie that suffers from being released within a few weeks of the film Toy Story 3. Where Toy Story 3 has warm characters who seek to do well by each other, Despicable Me is populated by characters who constantly hurt each other as the filmmakers clearly sought a cheap laugh and tried to string together a series of hit-or-miss sight gags.
The story has Gru (voice of Steve Carell trying to sound Russian) as an evil mastermind, ensconced in suburbia with his black Victorian house and huge metal jet car. Beneath his house is a vast subterranean lair where he’s plotting to (insert evil laugh) commit the perfect crime. He’s created little yellow creatures known as minions, and while there are amusing scenes where hundreds of them congregate to hear his evil plans, they generally treat each other in a slapstick violent manner that really got on my nerves and was far too aggressive for a children’s film.
The Great Pyramid of Giza has been stolen by the up-and-coming evil genius Vector (voice of Jason Segel), as shown in an amusing opening sequence. Gru is determined to regain the title of most evil criminal and comes up with a plan to steal the moon. To fund his efforts, he goes to the Bank of Evil seeking a loan, just to bump into Vector and the Spy-vs-Spy competition is on. Gru’s plan to bring down Vector?  Adopt three little girls Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) and use them to break into his lair.
There are a lot of fun sight gags in the film and the story, while predictable, isn’t that terrible. What really upset me was the non-stop level of violence that the characters exhibited towards each other. I realize that’s part of the story, the “comic book slapstick violence”, but I was startled how each time a character would punch, kick, push, shoot or otherwise hurt another that the audience would laugh. That’s not my idea of a good kids film, but if you disagree, you might well find Despicable Me a good diversion.

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Review: Predators

predators one sheetThe 1987 film Predator inspired a number of spinoffs from the inane (Alien vs. Predator) to the ghastly (Predator 2), and it was definitely time for a reboot before the titular hunter became a tedious cliché. I’m not a huge Robert Rodriguez fan, but this is one time where he’s assembled the perfect team for the job, and Predators is a non-stop thrill ride of an action film, laced with satisfying violence, exotic weapons, and vulgarity.

Predators immediately jumps into the action with Royce (a terrific, pumped up Adrien Brody) in freefall without having a clue how he got there. He deploys his parachute at the last possible second and slams into the earth. When he rises, he finds he’s been dropped into the jungle with a cast of killers including Central American guerilla fighter Isabelle (Alice Braga), Russian Spetsnaz soldier Nokolai (Oleg Taktarov), Mexican enforcer Cuchillo (Danny Trejo), Sierra Leon death squad soldier Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), escaped death-row convict Stans (Walton Goggins) and odd-man-out doctor Edwin (Topher Grace).
After evading some vicious traps and an attack from strange and unknown boar-like creatures, they realize that they’re not on Earth at all, but instead have been transported to an alien game preserve with strange, alien creatures seeking to hunt and kill them, purely as sport.
Most man-against-nature films get derailed with back story, narrative devices and a desire to build sympathy for the characters. Predators doesn’t waste the time, it’s an action genre picture boiled down to its essence, and it’s thrilling and suspenseful, even with the occasional plot hiccup.

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Review: The Last Airbender

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M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a film that amply demonstrates the adage that everyone outside of Hollywood understands: special effects do not a movie make.  The brilliant effects by Industrial Light & Magic are all there is to this incoherent mess of a movie, and it’s too bad, because there could have been a visually stunning story. Unfortunately Shyamalan has demonstrated in every post-Sixth Sense film he’s made that he just isn’t a very good storyteller.
Then there’s the issue of race. I’m not concerned about issues of whether actors of the appropriate ethnicity are cast in ethnic roles (most recently this debate flared up over Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia) but The Last Airbender pushed that suspension of disbelief out the window. In the story, the world is split into four races, the four elementals of earth, wind, water and fire. The ostensible hero, Aang (Noah Ringer), is the last airbender, while the main characters are actually Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) of the water tribe.
The dissonance comes from the entire Northern Water Tribe living in the frozen north in an Aleutian village, dressed in Eskimo furs, but the lead actors are caucasian. It was bizarre and was never explained in the film. Were there no Asian actors available to take the brother-sister roles of Katara and Sokka?
That’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg with the problems throughout The Last Airbender. If you can stomach an incomprehensible movie with stilted self-conscious dialog because of some cool special effects, go see it. Otherwise it’ll be on Nickelodeon soon enough, just wait and save the ticket price.

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