Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

In The Kids Are All Right, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a married couple raising their two teenage kids in their happy-yet-imperfect home. But that’s not what the film is about. It also, for that matter, isn’t about how the kids get the urge to locate their biological father. No. The Kids Are All Right, better than any movie so far this year, is about troubling family dynamics. It’s about struggle and sacrifice. It’s about making sense of a situation you thought you understood. Essentially, it’s about life.

It’s Joni’s (Mia Wasikowska) last summer before she heads off to college, and her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) encourages her to seek out the anonymous sperm donor whose… product was used by each of their moms years ago.

Once the kids secretly meet up with Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the kind of laid back guy who wears his flannel shirts loose and ends each sentence with “right on” or “yeah, man,” they take a quick liking to him. But once Paul is introduced to Jules (Moore) and Nic (Bening), the minor troubles the family previously had slowly begin to seep their way to the surface.

Littered with insecurities, Jules is becoming afraid that her unmotivated, peace-and-love mentality is pushing her career-driven wife away. The impressionable Laser spends his days with an overly aggressive, Adderall-snorting buddy, while Joni deals with her looming virginity. There’s a void in everyone’s life. For better or worse, that’s where Paul comes in.

What The Kids Are All Right pulls off so well is the reality of everyday family life. You can thank director Lisa Cholodenko, who has explored emotional drama with the good High Art and the better Laurel Canyon, or her witty screenplay written with Stuart Blumberg, or you can thank the pitch-perfect cast.

Bening turns out the same repressed ferociousness she brought to her brilliant role in American Beauty, while Moore, in her best role since Far From Heaven, takes Jules to stages of such convincing grief and regret that it is nearly unbearable. Ruffalo has made a career playing likable, unfocused characters (which he perfected in You Can Count on Me), and here he delivers some of his best work to date. But it’s the 20-year-old Wasikowska who steals the show.

Brilliant in her role as a troubled gymnast in HBO’s In Treatment but wasted in Tim Burton’s Alice and Wonderland, Wasikowska presents Joni with such an internal intensity, at times it feels as if she’s going to explode. Wasikowska is a serious force to be reckoned with, emotionally going pound for pound with the A-list cast. Get used to her name, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of her.

You may expect some talk in the film of how lesbian parents aren’t fit to raise children. Don’t. This isn’t a political movie. It’s a family drama. The fact that they are gay is merely an afterthought. Is the family unconventional? Sure. But aren’t all families? They have their troubles and hardships like all parents do in raising teenagers, and they work through it as best they can.

Don’t get me wrong, this film isn’t all tears and screams. It is funny – really funny, actually – and will provide a genuine, if not too honest, good time. The kids may be all right, and this movie sure ain’t bad either. A-

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Salt

I’ve felt for a while now that Angelina Jolie is a lot like her life counterpart: both are extremely good looking, extremely wealthy, a little odd, and both are exceptional actors. While Jolie has churned out her fair share of heavy-hitting dramatic roles (winning an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted, being nominated for Changeling and criminally overlooked in A Mighty Heart) she always looks like she’s having the most fun in a down-and-dirty action flick.

The premise for Salt is as simple as movies get: super agent Evelyn Salt is mistaken for a Russian spy, secretly embedded within the CIA. Instead of presenting her case as a rational adult (what fun would that be?) she flees the authorities in a desperate attempt to clear her name.

Once the action starts full throttle, you can’t help but enjoy Jolie as she takes down bodyguard after bodyguard; climbing down high rises, jumping onto moving semis, creating a mini bomb with household cleaning products, and so on. Her intensity, action role or otherwise, has gained steadily over her career.

It helps that Jolie is backed by subtle heavy-hitters Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor, but Salt, as directed by veteran government-operative-action-flick guru Philip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), gets bogged down by farfetched antics that even the most loyal action enthusiasts will roll their eyes at. Most of the movie is pleasantly enjoyable, but seriously, do we really believe that this agent-on-the-run could roam the White House grounds for hours on end, slowly making her way to the President?

Also, at the risk of giving too much away, I feel I must mention how much of a cop-out the ending felt like. If we’re going to get sequels, then there’s a way to still end your film rivetingly (i.e. the Bourne films). But here, it’s as if they couldn’t think of anything better. Either way, Jolie is having a good time, more so than her role in Noyce’s Bone Collector, so I suppose not all is lost. C+

Predators

I can just imagine the Hollywood pitch meeting: “Okay, so, we open on Adrien Brody falling from the sky. He’s asleep, then he wakes up in a panic, because he’s… falling.” SOLD!

Producer Robert Rodriguez was originally set to direct this Predators rehash until he got caught up with his soon-to-be-released Machete (which looks like a riot), before passing off the duties to Nimrod Antal. But Rodriguez made one thing clear: this new film was to take place after the first and second Predator films, and completely ignore Alien vs. Predator and Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem. Wise choice.

What we’re left with is one hell of a jumpstarted first act, followed by standard action fare. A slew of badasses (mercenaries, criminals, mob members, gang leaders, etc.) are mysteriously dropped in a random jungle, completely unaware of what or where or why they are there. Soon the gang, led by a perfectly miscast Adrien Brody, discovers they are being hunted, or “preyed,” by some seriously savage beasts.

You know where this is going.

The gang will slowly be picked off one by one in increasing more gruesome ways. By the end, there will undoubtedly be a mano-a-mano showdown between human and predatory beast. But that’s not the fun part, is it.

The best aspect of this relaunch is the ballsy casting of Brody. The youngest lead actor to ever win an Oscar is best known for his subtle vulnerability. But I can’t tell you how much fun it is to see a him ridiculously beefed-up, with a gravely Christian Bale-Batman voice, kicking some serious predator ass. Kudos to the producers for giving him a chance to play against-type.

The rest of the film? Eh. Much in the way of Salt, this movie ends abruptly and with far too many questions open. But given the film’s better-than-expected box office returns, we might see Bordy suit up again faster than expected. C-

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception



Films like Inception are the reason I love movies. It’s smart, original, entertaining and, among other things, effortlessly compelling. It’s that rare summer blockbuster that not only entertains but, gasp, makes you actually think as well.

The plot, for which I can’t even begin to fully describe, as Mr. Nolan is a far more brilliant man than I, is essentially a heist flick, except these thieves don’t steal pieces of fortune, they plant ideas. The film takes place in a futuristic world where your dreams can be corrupted by other people. What could your subconscious reveal if other people teetered around in your brain? Everything, the movie repeatedly stresses.

After a failed attempt to access a man’s safe via his subconscious, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hired by his would-be mark, Saito (Ken Watanabe) not to steal something from his corporate business rival (Pete Postlethwaite), but instead to implant a false idea that will cause his son, Fischer (Cillian Murphy) to get rid of the family empire altogether, a notion referred to as inception.
You with me? Try to keep up.
In an effort to get his name clear of a murder he didn’t (or believes he didn’t) commit, Cobb accepts the inception offer, much to the dismay of his loyal right-hand man, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The two set off recruiting an elite crew of dream thieves, including Ellen Page and Tom Hardy, all planning to kidnap Fischer, put him in a deep sleep, then sneak into his dream and plant the inception.
But let’s not get bogged down by plot details. Inception is a movie that is damn near impossible to explain, whether verbally or in print, and much better experienced on a movie screen.
In what may be the most original American film since, well, Nolan’s own Memento, Inception opens its audience up to a world they’ve never seen before. The plot, while immensely complicated, is so layered in its delivery, that by the end, you feel as though you’ve viewed an entire television season, let alone a brisk two and a half hour movie.
Nolan is known for avoiding special effects whenever he can. In Batman Begins and the superior Dark Knight, he actually made 18-wheelers flip upside down and cars actually crash through walls and men actually fall from dozens of stories up. Hospitals actually exploded, bridges actually collapsed, and so on. Now, when you envision a movie in which an entire city collapses on itself, cars fall of bridges at a rate of 1,000 frames per second, and people fight on the sides of walls, a little F/X is to be expected. Well, expect all you want, and try to tell the difference if you can.
In the film’s best, most thrilling scene, Gordon-Levitt fights a slew of bad guys in a hotel hallway as the walls turn and twist and topple on each other. The floor suddenly becomes the wall, the wall suddenly becomes the ceiling, the characters quickly float into each other, desperately attempting to land a critical punch or shoot a fatal bullet. During the scene, which deserves to be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I actually found myself holding my breath as chills ran down my spine. I knew in that moment that I, like everyone else in the theatre, was witnessing the evolution of a cinematic masterpiece. I’ve never seen anything like that in a movie before, simply because, nothing like that has ever existed in a movie before.

Inception is filled with scenes like that. Moments and ideas that are brand new to the cinema art form. You can credit Nolan’s fantastic screenplay, or Hans Zimmer’s eerily pitch-perfect musical score, or Wally Pfister’s sweeping cinematography, or Lee Smith’s seamless editing, or even Guy Dyas’ layered production design. But, usually, we credit who is right in front of us. And who better to hold that responsibility than a cast as A-listed as this?
Leonardo DiCaprio, who has done leaps and bounds with his acting in the last decade, delivers yet another flawless, internal performance as the deeply conflicted Cobb. DiCaprio’s acting is maturing in ways I never imagined. He’s getting to be as good as an actor can get. Gordon-Levitt, the indie darling from (500) Days of Summer, Brick and The Lookout, once again proves his fierce ability to completely embody his character. The kid is 29 years old, 130 lbs. and 100 percent badass. Page (miles away from her snarky Juno character), Hardy (as good as his ferocious Bronson two years ago), Murphy and Watanabe all contribute equally to the believability of Nolan’s pseudo sci-fi world.
But, in perhaps the film’s most complicated character, Marion Cotillard delivers the performance of DiCaprio’s slain wife with such a broad array of emotions, it’s as if you’re witnessing multiple actresses in the same role. The way Cotillard manages to shift from tender to psychotic to loving in the span of a minute is a bravado work of art.
Inception isn’t your typical summer action flick. It’s complex yet developed. Convoluted yet organic. The type of movie you won’t be able to see just once. Go on, it’s okay, test yourself. Push your own personal limits of cinematic expression.
"Entertainment Weekly" recently asked if Inception could save this lackluster summer. No, it can’t. But it’ll come damn close to saving the entire year. A

The Girl Who Played with Fire


Maybe you’ve heard of the “Millennium Trilogy” currently sweeping the globe. Or the fatal circumstances in which Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s three brilliantly detailed crime novels reached mainstream praise without him ever living to reap the benefits. Either way, as Larsson’s novels hang atop the “New York Times” best sellers list, the Swedish films are making a name for themselves, too.

The producers who acquired the rights to the novels did the smart thing and shot all the films at the same time, using the same two leads. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the series, was released domestically this past March to much critical acclaim and an impressive box office pull. Now comes The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second, and dare I say, more engrossing installment in the evolving series.

At the close of Dragon Tattoo our hero, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), had solved a decades-old mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young girl and served his brief prison sentence for libel, but not without the help of a punked-out, genius hacker Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace). We last saw Lisbeth walking into the sunset, hidden under a plush blonde wig, with thousands of stolen dollars secured in her bank account. Thankfully, for us, Played with Fire takes little time getting to the point.

After hiding out in the Caribbean for several months, Lisbeth is compelled to return home and take care of some unfinished business. Within days, much to her surprise, she is the lead suspect in three murders, all linked to a human sex trafficking ring. Blomkvist, longing for his would-be lover since her departure, immediately throws himself into the case, helping to clear Lisbeth’s name since the police apparently cannot.

Forgive me for ceasing discussion on plot details, but the fun of these films is discovering them for yourself. Even if you’re one of the millions of people who have read the books, the films will give you a fresh perspective. By the movie’s end, the story will have gone through enough twists and turns and spasms to make Christopher Nolan raise his eyebrows with envy.

As was evident in the first film, Nyqvist is marvelous in his ability to explain very complex topics within a matter of seconds. We actually believe Blomkvist could pull off everything he manages to, simply because Nyqvist convinces us he can.

But the real star of the show is the petite 110-pound, bisexual little baddie. As the conflicted, damaged Lisbeth, Noomi Repace goes places that could redefine what method acting is. She’s vicious, lean and, perhaps most importantly, smart as all hell. In a role that requires her to say very little, Repace presents her character with more depth and conviction than most working actors do today. Watch how, in the film’s most thrilling moment, Lisbeth not only takes on two huge biker boys, but she manages to steal one of their choppers, before riding off into the sunset, all with the slightest of smirks on her face. Classic, controlled acting.
As is often the case with sequels, people want to know if this one is better than the first. Dragon Tattoo, was excellent in the Hitchcockian method of presenting a single problem and blowing it wide open. But Played with Fire, as directed by Daniel Alfredson, taking over for Niels Arden Oplev, is slightly more detailed and technically controlled. The film deserves comparisons to the works of Polanski and Michael Haneke.

Dragon Tattoo, which is out on DVD, could’ve survived as its own film; the story could’ve been considered complete after the credits rolled. But Played with Fire leaves a little more open, which, if you’re a fan, gives even more reason to anticipate the October release of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
And if that isn’t enough for you, David Fincher is currently developing an American version of Dragon Tattoo, reportedly starring Daniel Craig and Carey Mulligan. Will those capable-enough hands be as good as the original? You be the judge.

Forget the whiny teenage vampires and wimpy wizards constantly littering our cinemas. Here is a worthy film, and book, franchise for adults. Leave the kids at home. A-

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Winter's Bone

If the Twilight "saga" demonstrates how to screw up a book-to-film adaptation, then Winter’s Bone is the epitome of how to get it right.

Instead of leaving the viewer confused by not sharing enough details from Daniel Woodrell’s brilliantly specific novel, director Debra Granik leaves everything in, while managing to crank out a brisk 100 minute movie.

The plot is simple, yet meticulous. Ree, an impoverished 17-year-old living in the barren Ozark Mountains, provides for her young brother and sister while her mother sits mentally vacant in their living room. Void of any pleasure and excitement, Ree, as remarkably played by newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, is an angry young girl. She’s full of resentment, hatred and fear; symptoms having an absent, meth-dealing father.

When the Sheriff tells Ree that her father has skipped bail and is nowhere to be found, Ree is completely indifferent. But when she learns that he put their house up as bond, and if he doesn’t surface in a week, Ree and her family are out on their ass, she puts herself in charge of tracking him down.

Fans of this blog know that, for me, the plot of a film is the boring part. I enjoy films for their overall story and how that story is displayed. Trying to figure out why the director chose that shot or that location. Why the actor decided to play that scene that particular way, and so on. With that criteria in mind, Winter’s Bone is easily one of the best experiences I've had in a film so far this year.

When I said barren earlier, I wasn’t lying. As Ree walks to the various homes occupied by her filthy relatives, she walks in a land that is reminiscent of the place Cormac McCarthy described in "The Road." Ree’s house, like all of her relatives’, looks abandoned. Moldy couches and rusty lawn chairs litter the front yard, doors are nearly off their hinges, etc. Inside is even worse. The homes are filled with endless amounts of clutter and grime. I mention this because this is what a movie is about. All those tiny details make a movie because they convince you, even for 100 minutes, that everything you’re seeing is real. If cinematographer Michael McDonough and production designer Mark White aren’t considered for Oscars, something is seriously wrong.

Same goes for select cast players.

The 19-year-old Lawrence carries this movie through and through. She’s in every scene of Winter’s Bone, but it initially seems that she does very little, which, of course, is not the case. If an actor, let alone a teenage one, can tell you everything she’s thinking and feeling with a single grimace, then she’s doing her job beyond what’s expected. Keep Jennifer Lawrence’s name in your mind, she’s the Gabourey Sidibe of 2010.

If Lawrence is the emotional anchor of the film then John Hawkes is the force of nature. You’ve seen Hawkes before. He’s popped up in great character parts for the past two decades. Roles like the rambling liquor store owner in From Dusk Till Dawn, the comic relief in The Perfect Storm, the hotel clerk in Identity, the anguished con in Miami Vice, and so on. In short, I’m aware of John Hawkes’ career.

So why didn’t I recognize him in his first scenes of Winter’s Bone? Maybe it was the spotty grey beard, or the long, greasy hair he was sporting. Maybe it was the utterly convincing thick country accent he was vocalizing. Maybe it was the fact that you fear him in every scene he is in.

I call it the Col. Jessep complex. As Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson is immediately feared within seconds of his first scene. He hasn’t done anything expect speak, but you know you can’t mess with this guy. Hawkes pulls that off here. As Ree’s aggressively vengeful uncle, Hawkes is a serious force to be reckoned with. Christ I hope he’s remembered come awards season.

Winter’s Bone is directed by Debra Granik, whose last film was the fantastic Down to the Bone, which remains one of the most convincing films I’ve ever seen about drug addiction. Granik has a serious eye for detail, which, even if the audience doesn’t notice, they subconsciously appreciate. Down to the Bone was made seven years ago, I sure hope we don’t have to wait that long for her next film. I’m going to say this for every worthy film this year until 2010 starts to pick up, but Winter’s Bone is by long and far up there for the best film of the year. Scout it out. It’s worth it. A

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cyrus

When we first meet John - the main character in a movie named after a secondary, less interesting character - he is walked in on while nakedly whacking away to his Macbook. It's a pretty appropriate introduction for such a helpless, desperate character. And an even better way to acknowledge the fearlessness of the man playing him.

John (John C. Reilly) lives alone in his sloppy L.A. apartment, works part time as a film editor, and has no friends, except Jamie (Catherine Keener), his divorced wife of seven years. After Jamie announces she's getting remarried, she tells John she is determine to get him back on the playing field. So, because this is a movie, John conveniently meets the woman of his dreams at the first party he's been to in nearly a decade.

Molly (Marisa Tomei) is funny, attractive and most importantly, accepting of John's faults, of which there are plenty. The two hit it off and, after a set of unusually stalker-ish circumstances, John comes to meet Molly's grown, weirdo son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), a kid with virtually no communication skills and a serious Oedipus complex.

You've seen this before: the son will get jealous of the new man taking up all of mommy's time. He'll try to sabotage the relationship by lying, stealing, fighting and manipulating, before finally getting his way. Or not.

And that's the fun of Cyrus; it's conventional storyline is smartened up via a fresh, witty script and a trio of pitch-perfect actors.

John C. Reilly has made a career of brilliantly playing the goofy, lost manchild (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and it's nice to see that he's finally making his way up to leading man status. I initially found it unconvincing that John could bed Molly so quickly, but their romance is not only believable, it provides the film its best moments.

Marisa Tomei, who gets better looking with each passing year, has seriously stepped up her game in recent years. She should've won her second Oscar for The Wrestler two years ago, but if her heartfelt performance in Cyrus is any indication that she'll keep her hotstreak alive, I'm sure she'll be back in the Academy audience soon enough.

Catherine Keener, who gets better looking with each passing year, already proved this year that she is an emotional force to be reckoned with (in Please Give). Her hopeless pity over John in this film is so tender it will make your heart melt.

If there are faults with Cyrus, they are few and far between. I wish directors Jay and Mark Duplass would chill out with their camera work. Their zoom in zoom out, focus in focus out urgency gives the film a feel of an over-directed music video. Likewise, while I appreciate Jonah Hill's indie effort to tone his antics down a notch, he's no match for the other players in this film.

It's funny, I recently read an interview with fashion designer Tom Ford, whose directorial debut A Single Man came out on DVD last week (go rent it). In the interview he said that Brad Pitt was one of his favorite actors because he actually looks less perfect now. Pitt's face is now more seasoned. With each wrinkle of imperfection, he actually looks like he's lived. The same, I believe, goes for the three lead actors in Cyrus. Maybe that's why contemporary romantic comedies don't do it for me. I find it silly watching 17-year-olds tirelessly complain because their precious boyfriends dumped them. Most young actors (like Jonah Hill) can't express real anguish with a single glance. Leave that to the pros, who make Cyrus a film worth watching. B+

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

The Twilight Saga (“saga,” really?) encapsulates everything I hate about most book-to-film adaptations: if you haven’t read the book, you are completely out of the loop.

I haven’t read a single page of any of Stephenie Meyer’s insanely popular novels, but I have seen every minute of every film that has been adapted from them. Yet, I still feel two steps behind. I never know exactly what the hell is going on, which may be because I haven’t read the books, or it may just be the fact that nothing really happens in these movies.

My feeble attempt to reconstruct the plot goes like this: whiny Bella (Kristen Stewart) is still madly in love with stoic vampire Edward (Robert Pattinson) but not without constantly deflecting come-ons from cocky werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). As a fresh new group of evil, just-turned vampires rip through Seattle, Edward and Jacob get their respective clans together to fight off the “Newbies,” who, I think, are ultimately out to kill Bella. Why? I have no idea.

But this storyline is merely a subplot, something to take up time between endless conversations that the three leads have. Roger Ebert has said it best about Eclipse: “For most of its languorous running time, [the film] listens to conversations between Bella and Edward, Bella and Jacob, Edward and Jacob, and Edward and Bella and Jacob.”

Mostly, these conversations take place between Bella and Edward. She wants to be a vampire. He wants to be married first. She wants to have sex (like... badly). He wants to be married first. Blah blah blah. Very little action occurs, and when it does, it’s usually bogged down by horribly unconvincing special effects.

There was one conversation so ludicrous I actually tried to write it down so I could quote it verbatim here. But, shame on me, I couldn’t keep up. Can you blame me? You try writing and laughing out loud at the same time. This particular exchange of ghastly dialogue is between Jacob and Edward who sit in a tent on top of a snowy mountain. Edward admits that if Bella wasn’t in the picture, he may actually like Jacob. I was waiting for Gustavo Santaolalla’s score from Brokeback Mountain to cue up.

Like most people who aren’t 14-year-old female teenagers, I’ve spent the majority of my time here criticizing Twilight. Sue me. I understand that these films target a very specific audience, and given its box office returns, it seems like the studio heads know what they’re doing. But the rest of us are left with a mumbled, incoherent franchise. It’s as if the only people in on the joke are the characters in the films and the diehard fans watching them.

Eclipse is the best Twilight movie so far; but oh how that is such faint praise. The next two films are being helmed by Oscar winner Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Chicago), so we’ll see how that goes. Maybe he’ll clue the rest of us in. But, let’s be honest, probably not. D

The Last Airbender

Wow, Sex and the City 2 has some real competition for the worst, most pointless movie of the year. Seriously, why the hell is M. Night Shyamalan still allowed to make movies? The Sixth Sense was great, Unbreakable was better, Signs was… okay, but what since? Anyone remember Lady in the Water? Didn’t think so.

I can’t even begin to explain the virtually unintelligible plot. For what I managed to pull together, the world as we know it is gone and it is now ruled by different “benders.” There’s the evil Firebenders, the quiet Waterbenders, and the polite Earthbenders, with the Airbenders having reached extinction. Until… DUN DUN DUUUN, now.

Two young Waterbenders discover the lone Airbender frozen underwater. This Airbender is an Avatar, which, I think, means he can bend any of the elements; he just has to learn how to do it first.

You with me? Didn’t think so.

My first problem with this movie is that I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on throughout any of it. It’s being marketed as a PG-rated kid’s movie, and let me tell you something, if I don’t understand what’s happening, kids won’t either. Think the 3-D will save face? Not a chance. Shyamalan, like the makers of Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans, is just the latest sellout to convert his 2-D movie into 3-D during post production. The result? 3-D effects that look about as vivid as a South Park cartoon.

The Last Airbender is based on a popular Nickelodeon anime cartoon. I’m told by trusted sources that the cartoon is actually good. Why change it to live action? Why not release it as a feature-length animated film?

And, lastly, one of my biggest cinematic pet peeves is when a film is shamelessly set up for a sequel, as if Shyamalan is saying, “Haha! Now you have to give me two more films or no one will know how it ends!

I haven’t discussed the music, cinematography, production design or acting. Forgive me. They’re all atrocious. Satisfied?

This first installment focuses solely on the Avatar learning how to Waterbend, and given the film’s lackluster box office performance (it grossed $70 million but cost over double that) we can only pray that this is the last we see of the Airbender. F

Toy Story 3


Admirers of this blog know that animated films don’t really do it for me. This has nothing to do with how good or bad the movie is, I just have trouble identifying with cartoon characters. That said, Pixar knows how to keep a non-fan very interested. They released Up last year, which was a phenomenon, and now, a new Toy Story, the original of which ain’t half bad either.

All your favorite toys are back: Woody, Buzz, Mr. Potato Head, and so on. But now their loyal owner Andy is all grown up and soon headed off to college. His mom gives him three options: attic, donate, or trash. Unable to fully part with his toys, he opts for attic, but momma accidently sends them to a day care center instead.

The center soon turns disastrous as little toddlers rip and pull and prod at the old toys. The appointed leader of the day care, a fizzy bear named Latso, won’t let them leave. What soon unfolds is an entertaining, complex prison escape-type movie.

Look, I have only one criterion for critiquing an animated film: Can the adults enjoy it too? You know the kids are going to love it, but will you be able to sit through it without wanting to beat your head into the ground. Most adults will appreciate the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Ned Beatty and, my personal favorite, Michael Keaton (who is clearly having a blast as a Ken doll). You’ll also enjoy the fact that the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Thank writer Michael Arndt (who won an Oscar four years ago for his Little Miss Sunshine screenplay) and director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc.).

Much like Up, the geniuses at Pixar know how to convey real human emotion, the best of which in this film takes place during a wordless scene where each toy slowly descends into a fiery blaze. I don’t want to reveal what happens, but, if only for a moment, I believed. B+

Note: Toy Story 3 is preceded by a remarkable sort called Day & Night, which basically puts two animated creatures against a black background, displaying the daytime off one creature and nighttime off another. It’s difficult to put into words, but believe me, it alone is worth the price of admission.

Knight and Day

Knight and Day (God what an awful title) is being marketed as the return of Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire charm. Which, to some degree, it is. But if that’s all it wants to be, why does it attempt to be so much more?

Knight and Day is also the return of Cruise and Cameron Diaz (they made the fantastically underrated Vanilla Sky together a decade ago). The two are charming, sure, but I wish the filmmakers would rely on that charm a little more, instead of over-the-top, F/X laden action sequences.

Super spy Roy (Cruise) “accidentally” meets innocent girl-next-door June (Diaz) at an airport. The two, of course, board the same flight and engage in a witty conversation before June heads to the bathroom. Once in the leu, Cruise proceeds to kill every passenger on board (all apparently evil spies) and even the pilots. Diaz, of course, hears none of this, but oh well.

Soon the two are off running around the world, fleeing corrupt government officials. The film’s big budget can afford to dump the A-listers in places like Spain, Port Antonio, and Jamaica, but will the studio bosses simply let the scenery speak for itself? No, of course not.

Because it’s the summer, and because the movie stars Tom Cruise, you get to see implausible car chases, a plethora of explosions, half a dozen one-man-takes-down-five fight scenes and so on. Oh and there’s even a running of the bulls scene where Cruise and Diaz try to avoid the large beasts while fleeing on a Ducati. Sounds cool right? Well, the bulls look about as real as the werewolves in Eclipse so… you tell me.

It would’ve been nice to, somehow, scale back the action and let Cruise try to work his charm. I’m not going to lie, his keep-it-cool attitude is pretty funny (he maybe raises his voice once in the whole movie) but it’s nearly hidden under wasted government mumbo jumbo dialogue and plot holes the size of a bullfighting arena.

I’m giving director James Mangold some serious benefit of the doubt. Mangold is responsible for the slightly overrated Walk the Line, the exceptional 3:10 to Yuma and the nearly perfect Cop Land. And with Knight and Day, he nails a fair amount of the sharp dialogue, but he does indeed falter with his action. The film went through nearly a dozen rewrites and recastings before Cruise took it over. Basically, Mangold did as he was told.

It makes for decent summer viewing, but nothing to write home about. C-