Saturday, March 22, 2008

Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who (2008)

* * * *

In yet another big screen adaptation, Dr. Seuss' classic tale of Horton the elephant who discovers Whoville and his subsequent efforts to prove it exists is treated with an extended script, a star-studded voice-over cast, and vibrant computer animation. To transform a sixty-page children's book beyond a thirty minute animated special into a full-length feature movie requires a significant amount of original material, but this version of Horton stays true to the vision and spirit of the original work for the most part. The cast, which features Jim Carrey as Horton, Steve Carell as the Mayor of Whoville, Carol Burnett as Kangaroo, and Will Arnett as Vlad the vulture, is at times genius and off base. Carell is perfectly cast as the goofy, insecure mayor and brings depth and humor to the character. Likewise, Burnett and Arnett are superb as Horton's detractor and nemesis, respectively, both staying true to the original character and adding great original material. Carrey, and Seth Rogen, as Horton's best friend Morton, have their moments but are also distracting as Carrey goes way beyond what is necessary to portray Horton and is almost annoying at times, and the character of Morton is so clearly voiced by Rogen that it takes away from the unique environment of the film. The film is surprisingly very funny for children and adults, particularly for a G-rated movie, which is a credit to both the voice-acting and the writing. Original scenes, such as a short Japanese anime sequence, and original characters, such as the bizarre and hilarious Katie, are good for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The animation is stunning, up to par and beyond what is now expected from computer animation, and creates a unique atmosphere for the strange characters and events. There are many characters, small and large, and to watch them interact in the Seussian world many have come to love is great entertainment. Some dedicated Seuss fans may think too many liberties were taken with the script, which may be true, but this is simply another, more modern version of Horton for a new generation. Is it better than the original hand-drawn animated version? Probably not. But it maintains the fun and essence of Dr. Seuss to a great degree with many laughs and lessons for kids and their parents. Long-time Seuss fans will enjoy Horton for its faithfulness to the original, and those new to the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss will likely find much of what his dedicated fans have loved and more.

Good for: Seuss fans, children of all ages, the young at heart, a date

Bad for: mean people

Eastern Promises (2007)

* * * *

The formula of director David Cronenberg (The Fly), leading man Viggo Mortensen, and serviceable leading lady led to the highly disappointing, utterly awful A History of Violence; but somehow, the same formula results in the highly surprisingly, utterly brutal Eastern Promises. Italian and Irish mob films have become overplayed and run-of-the-mill, but Cronenberg's take on the Russian mob operating in London is an engaging thriller with moral undertones and strong performances. Mortensen stars as Nikolai, a callous, focused grunt on the rise, ready to take on any task handed down to him by his ruthless boss Semyon, played excellently by Armin Mueller-Stahl. Nikolai encounters Anna, played by Naomi Watts, a midwife who discovered a diary with a young girl who died giving birth to a baby. After asking her Russian uncle to translate the diary, Anna finds that the young girl and the father of her child had strange, dark ties to the mob. In her efforts to seek justice for the young mother's death and safety for the young baby, Anna must deal with the pressure from her own family to stay out of trouble and the interesting characters in Senyon's crime family. Cronenberg weaves the multiple stories involving Anna and Senyon's family masterfully with both revolving around Nikolai. This is likely Mortensen's best performance, menacingly strong, but subtle and human. The supporting cast is also well above average with noteworthy performances by Watts, Mueller-Stahl, and Vincent Cassell as Kirill, Semyon's flamboyant, erratic son. The original screenplay makes this more than just another gangster-flick, and the depth of the story will engage a broad audience. Eastern Promises is also one of the darkest movies of 2007 with a handful of scenes involving excessive violence that are difficult to watch. Although the scenes may be he necessary to convey the nature of the characters and events, some drag on and come across as unrealistic. The strong accents make the English difficult to understand, and even the most attentive viewer won't feel comfortable with the plot until nearly halfway in. At only 96 minutes, however, the movie never drags and comes and goes before you know it, so that difficult to watch and difficult to understand parts are never excessive. The fine editing, direction, and acting produce a compelling thriller that is surprisingly entertaining, but may be just dark enough to only merit one viewing.

Good for: crime-film fans, fans of dark movies, Viggo fans

Bad for: people bothered by violent films

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Film Maker: * * * *

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Bank Job (2008)

* * *

The Bank Job is a guilty pleasure; a thrill ride that is quite fun at the time but has little, if any, redeeming value. Thoroughly British, the film is based on the true story of the most lucrative and peculiar heist in the history of England. Jason Statham, most well known for his role in The Transporter series, stars as Terry Leather, a part-time villain given the opportunity to strike-big one last time before getting out of the world of crime. Saffron Burrows co-stars as Martine Love, the bombshell ex-model who gives Leather the tip on the caper. The heist is complicated but plausible, but what Leather doesn't know is the role and stakes Martine and the British government have in the heist. The back story involving government corruption, political and social radicals, and the underworld of pornography and the sex business provide a terrifically entertaining counterpart to the thrills involved with the heist itself. Unfortunately, beneath the shell of entertainment, the audience will likely find absolutely nothing. The acting is definitively mediocre, the direction rips off countless heist movies of the past, the score could not possibly be more chiche', and everything from the characters' names to most of the dialogue is pure cheese. The only noteworthy performances are by Peter De Jersey as Michael X, Britain's counterpart to Malcolm, and David Suchet as Lew Vogel, a smut-director and sex entrepreneur who has paid off Britain's finest for years. The two bad-guys are both deliciously dirty and the few scenes involving the two of them together stand out. There are more than a handful of honest laughs, most provided by the typical "team" of friends and specialists involved in the completing the heist. The laughs are supplemented by a twisting plot involving many shady characters who have a lot to gain and even more to lose. The silver-lining surrounding the entire film is that it is somehow based on truth. The plot seems inconceivable in terms of reality and cheesiness, yet the fact that the events actually happened the way they are presented takes away some of the shame felt for having enjoyed a film with zero emotional, artistic, or social value. The loony British humor and "how did this happen?" factor make The Bank Job an unexpected, yet slightly embarrassing, suspense-thriller indulgence.

Good for: heist fans, fans of "based on true story" films, British film fans, someone bored

Bad for: "film" lovers

The Gallery
The Economist: * * *

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

* * * *

Ben Affleck was brilliant in choosing the source material for his first turn as a director. Gone Baby Gone is an adaptation (screenplay also by Affleck) of a novel written by Dennis Lehane, whose last novel to be adapted for the screen was Mystic River. Affleck stayed close to home in more than one sense; the film is shot in Boston and Affleck cast his brother Casey as Patrick Kenzie in the lead role. Kenzie and partner Angie Gennaro, played by Michelle Monaghan, are two private detectives asked to investigate the case of a missing girl. As the investigation ensues it becomes clear that there is more to the story than a simple missing girl or kidnapping. The child's mother, played by Amy Ryan, is found to be a drug-user, accessory to drug-deals, and neglectful mother with strange family members, and the private investigation begins to conflict with the police investigation headed by Captain Jack Doyle, played by Morgan Freeman. Casey Affleck delivers a surprisingly powerful performance, showing he is capable of starring the show, at least with his brother in the director's chair. Supporting roles by Freeman and crime-movie veteran Ed Harris playing a cop for what has to be double-digit times are what can be expected; competent and adequate. Amy Ryan, nominated for an Oscar for her performance, effectively plays the troubled mother in what is probably the most believable and most bizarre character in the film. Gone Baby Gone comes extremely close to falling into average-movie traps with some painfully cheesy lines, scenes, and performances. The character played by Michelle Monaghan is a combination of bland acting and completely forgettable writing. But what makes the film a success is the unexpected transformation from a simple spider-web plot suspense-thriller to a contemplation on personal values, morality, and humanity. All of the twists of a mystery, surprises of a thriller, and relevance of a drama are there, and the impact of the conclusion will just be icing on the cake for most. Gone Baby Gone rewards the viewer for having attention to detail and will leave many with something to talk about for a few days after. As Affleck's first film as director, it will be interesting to see what comes next.

Good for: mystery fans, a date, philosophers

Bad for: the easily confused, those bothered by violence

The Gallery
The Economist: * * * *
The Surfer: * * * *

Annie Hall (1977)

* * * * *

For those who have never seen a Woody Allen movie, the door to his unique-brand of cinema should be Annie Hall, his 1977 romantic comedy and Best Picture winner. Annie Hall may be best viewed as a virgin to Allen's work, so that all of his idiosyncrasies and quirks as an actor, writer, and director can be experienced in a raw, to-the-point, finely crafted film. Allen is not a great actor, but the character he created for himself, Alvy Singer, is a great character, and only Allen could play him. Neurotic, witty, pessimistic, and bitingly sarcastic, Singer is a stand-up comedian that meets and falls in love with the young Annie Hall played by Diane Keaton. Hall is a simple yet talented girl that sharply contrasts with Singer who is beyond complicated. Keaton won the Best Actress award for Hall in 1977, and her performance is subtle and elegant, but not phenomenal. Despite the lack of mesmerizing performances to draw the audience to the characters, the perfect script and timeless dialogue produce effortlessly real characters. To add to the feeling that the audience is sitting in on real life, Allen adds abrupt asides where Singer speaks directly to the camera and absurd situations the scene breaks and Singer approaches extras to ask them a question or the topic of a random conversation happens to appear in the room. Singer's cynicism and references will seem over-the-top and over-the-head of some viewers, and some of the lines and scenes are a bit indulgent, but Allen clearly understands the beauty and pain of the human relationship, and explores it in a way that is clearly distinct in film history. The opening and closing passages, spoken to the camera and in voice-over by Singer, are perfect book-ends to the perfect romantic comedy. The romantic comedy has been beaten to death in the 30+ years since 1977, leaving little relevance behind. But with Annie Hall, Woody Allen delivered an enduring blend of intelligent, sharp humor and thoughtful meditations on how essential and absurd relationships are.

Good for: Allen fans, fans of romantic comedies, a date

Bad for: those bored with art-films