Vantage Point

This post I wrote was first published at Blogcritics.

I just saw Vantage Point at the matinee with my wife and really liked it. This is director Pete Travis’s first film. His recent television work includes Omagh (2004), a true story about a car bomb that killed many innocent people, and the 2003 television series Henry VIII. One was about a bomb, the other was criticized as being untruthful.

The bomb theme together with an unbelievable story is sort of what Travis brings us in Vantage Point. Nonetheless, the plot is original and clever, along with the editing. Plus certain humanitarian elements played out by an all-star cast make the movie enjoyable. The cast includes: Dennis Quaid as Thomas Barnes, Matthew Fox (of Lost fame) as Kent Taylor, Forest Whitaker as Howard Lewis, Sigourney Weaver as Rex Brooks, and some other fine actors who are sure to be up-and-comers.

When I say the plot is original and clever, I am being quite literal. I have never seen a movie that plays the same scene over and over again this way. It is reminiscent of 1999’s Nick of Time, starring Johnny Depp. In that film the scenes are done in “real time,” so it is a little different. Most of Vantage Point takes place in a Spanish town square where the President of the United States is shot. The 20-minute scene of the shooting is played over and over again, each time revealing new facts as seen from a different vantage point.

This would be a stellar idea for a movie, but the facts as they unravel are way too planned to have been random, and the parts of the “plan” that unravel are just too perfect to be believable. For example, the terrorists know exactly what room the President will escape to after the shooting, and what about an ambulance? We don’t see one. Another example is when thousands of Spaniards are running through the street and Howard Lewis happens to see and save a little girl whose ice cream he spilled earlier in the square. You must suspend your disbelief to enjoy this film, but it is still riveting to see the different vantage points played out. My wife said it made her a little queasy at the beginning seeing the same things over and over, but she agreed it was an original concept and in the end we both enjoyed it.

Obviously a terrorism/political movie is going to be very suspenseful. The camera running through the crowd keeps you on the edge of your seat. There are some relationship themes developed in the film, such as the one between Howard, who has left his wife and kids and ends up saving the young girl, and his family. After he saves her, he is moved by the experience to go back home to his estranged family in the US. Another one is Thomas Barnes’ dedication to protecting the President, so dedicated that he throws his own body in front of a bullet to save him.

The twist at the end is very predictable (my wife had it solved in the first scene) but as I have said, despite the unbelievability of it all, the ride is still worth the admission. There is a feeble attempt at making a statement about how terrorism will “always be with us.” That was an interesting thread running throughout and it would have been nice to see more done with that. As it is, it is only developed as a shadow of a theme.

It was also interesting to see how terrorism is enabled by blackmail and kidnapping. The primary assassin in the movie does his killing because his brother has been kidnapped and the terrorists use him as a puppet to do the sharp-shooting, promising his brother’s release once he does the killings. There is also a suicide bomber who we see checking his text message before exploding and it reads: “Make us proud.” But these are short scenes that don’t make up much of the movie. The majority of the movie is made up of playing the same scene over and over and that is obviously what the director hoped would make the movie a unique success.

My final word on Vantage Point is that it is a great suspense/action ride that lacks believability but makes up for it in creative editing and plot as well as some very humanitarian themes woven throughout. Go see this one.

Dexter (TV Review)

This post I wrote was published first on Blogcritics.

If you haven’t yet heard, Dexter is a new show to network TV (CBS Sundays at 10pm) that features the comings and goings of a serial killer. It’s not a completely new series however, having started and completed two seasons on Showtime. I saw it Sunday for the first time and it is definitely an engaging show.

The title character, Dexter, is a very likeable fellow, which makes it all quite creepy. He works as a blood spatter specialist for the police and weaves a series of double meanings through both the actual plot and his diary-like narration. For example: when a murderer leaves a miniature doll in his refrigerator, he smiles and sees it as an invitation to “play.” It’s difficult to determine whether his idea of playing is to capture the murderer, to admire the ways he kills, or both. I had heard a lot about the series and before I saw it I imagined he must be truly a benevolent person but after seeing it I can’t say whether that’s actually the case.

Everybody and their brother has been telling me about this show for the past year. They’ve been saying the same thing: “It’s violent and not for kids, but I love it.” Now that I’ve finally seen it I’m asking myself, “Why do we as a culture love Dexter?” Here are two reasons I’ve come up with (I’m sure there are more, but these stand out the most):

He’s worse than us. We all have dark rooms in our psyche. As we watch Dexter we imagine that our “sins” are pale in comparison. It’s cathartic. No matter what kind of stress or guilt we may feel, Dexter’s sins are worse and watching him makes us forget what we thought was wrong with ourselves.

He thrives even though he has so many issues. While I wouldn’t call him likeable, he gets up each day and goes to work. Besides the fact that he has an ongoing killing spree on his mind, he also has a highly dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend. In all his twisted actions. the viewer ironically can draw hope from Dexter. He is “making it work” as we all have to, despite whatever problems crop up.

Dexter is an interesting series. I now have the cut (censored) version on my TiVo and I will likely be writing more about it. I’m looking forward to getting to know this serial killer who has everyone talking.

What’s your take on Dexter?

The Beaver

Article first published as The Beaver on Blogcritics.
The Beaver is directed by Jodie Foster who is well known as an actor and now fairly well-known as a director for Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays. This is her most gritty production to date, taking on the issue of mental illness. Jodie Foster also plays an important role in the movie, that of Meredith Black, the main character’s wife. The Beaver stars Mel Gibson as the protagonist Walter Black. There are also key roles played by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek’s “Chekov”) as Porter Black, the main character’s son and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone and the upcoming Hunger Games) as Norah, the friend of Porter Black. Seldom does a movie bring such an important yet taboo subject into the light with such clarity. Mental illness now has an illustration to show us our humanity and better understand the mentally ill people around us.

This is a story of a family man and executive well into his 50’s who appears to be depressed. In reaction to his depression, he buys a crate of alcohol seemingly to drink himself into oblivion. In the parking lot dumpster, he notices a haggard old hand puppet in the shape of a beaver. He is drawn to its charm and takes it home with him. Through much of the movie he communicates only through the puppet and puts his wife and those around them through a frustrating series of challenges. The executive tells his wife he’s been back to the psychiatrist and the use of a beaver hand puppet is a form of therapy. When the “therapy” seems unending, there begins the movie’s conflict. Walter is sick, and his wife knows it. Unfortunately, his sickness is generating great ideas at work that earn him a spot on the Today Show with Lauer, among another places. Mentally ill people often make creative contributions to our world, that’s what this movie appears to be telling us.

There is a father/son dynamic going on here as well. Walter and his son Porter are at odds. Walter has been guilty of the same thing most middle aged executives are: being absent in the home. Porter accepts payment to write people’s essays in High School and has a very dysfunctional crush on Norah that winds both of them up in jail for the night for vandalism. One can’t help but wonder if Walter’s condition contributed to his son’s issues. There is a climax and a slowing and at the end a horrific self mutilation leaves Walter “better.”

I really like this movie because it shows that mental illness is not just an embarrassment we should hide in our family trees. I am deeply interested in people which is probably why I like movies so much. The extent to which they portray the human condition is usually the extent to which I like them. If you know someone who has a mental illness or if you yourself struggle with on, this movie is a must see. This is not Braveheart and it’s not Nell. Instead, it is something in the middle and it addresses mental illness quite accurately, in my opinion.  Only through understanding the unknown can we embrace it and make peace with it in our world, Mental illness is largely an unknown in our society. It is good to see Mel Gibson stepping away from the action hero role to shine light on something many families and individuals deal with.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of three bestselling books by Stieg Larsson that has been made into a movie. It was just released this week which made me surprised to see such a small turnout. Maybe people decided Christmas shopping was more important and/or entertaining than this movie. Maybe some found it offensive? I’m not sure but I am sure that I had a pretty good time watching it with my wife Sarah, a huge fan of the trilogy.

The story centers around Lisbeth and Mikael Blomkvist, played by Daniel Craig. They work together to uncover the identity of a serial killer who has been at it for decades. there are side stories as well that I thought were more interesting than the backbone of the story.

The one word I would use most about Lisbeth Salander, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is deliberate. She breaks through firewalls on her laptop to spy on bad guys with speed and focus. It is fun to watch her do her work. When she is done in one place, she hops on her unassuming black motorcycle and heads down the straightest path to get to her destination. She takes vengeance like a little grim reaper and we find this twenty something woman to be smart and mature about the world beyond her years. We watch her have sex at least twice where it’s by her choice and, most importantly, under her control. The scenes where she is raped she is not as composed, and understandably so. I kept wondering about her life as a child and teen. She is calculated and without emotion most of the movies. How did she get to be this way? All we hear is that she is a ward of the state and she burned her father over 80% of his body. I imagine the book tells us more about why, the movie does not.

In the final analysis, this film could be called all flash, no substance. We aren’t invested in the characters but some James Bond action and leather and straps sex scenes hold some interest. Watch it expecting just those things and you’ll have a good time. Whether or not that familiar formula can support two more movies remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, this actress better sign the papers quick because this is not a role for a thirty something. The Marlboro Reds should start having their effect on facial lines and physical fitness in a couple years. As long as it was tech, it would suit this girl. I give it a 3/5 for the awesome suspense and action scenes. Unfortunately though, for me, it didn’t explain Lisbeth Salander, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo enough and that’s why it lost points. Character development could have been embellished a bit more. Oh and in case you are wondering about the tattoo? Yes we do see it.

Gnomeo and Juliet

Here’s a brief review of a good movie that children and their parents will like. I watched this movie today with my kids ages 3, 6, and 12. They all loved it. There were a few spots when it dragged a little but all in all the “cuteness” of these garden gnomes sold me.

There is no global solution offered here just Gnomeo and Juliet falling in love. A great afternoon out with your kids. I thought the animation was spectacular and the story light and fun.

There are little asides here and there paying tribute to Shakespeare. It is very well-suited to have Patrick Stewart play the bard himself. Elton John was the producer and his music is woven throughout. It sounds amazing. If nothing else, this movie teaches people about the Shakespearean play. What’s more, it reintroduces the music of Elton John to a new generation. There have been some really bad reviews so far. I’ll admit, it’s not the best movie but the visuals and music are stunning. Listen, these garden gnomes are so cute, you have to see them for yourself. It will hold your kids’ attention for over an hour, what more could you ask for in a movie?

I am really surprised this movie hasn’t received higher ratings. I saw it as an 8/10. I think this is a great one for kids and the pop culture jokes here and there will keep the parents’ interest. Don’t go into it expecting more or you’ll be disappointed. BUT, if that is your expectation, you’ll have a great time at a cute movie.

Gulliver’s Travels 2010

I know I run the risk of stating the obvious here. Gulliver’s Travels with Jack Black does not deliver the messages in the book. It’s obvious because most reviews show that most people aren’t expecting it to. Still, even those who expected your typical Jack Black movie are giving it a 6/10 or less. That’s about what I think of the movie. It focuses on CGI instead of the human perspectives that shine in the original written work.

The film was directed by Rob Letterman (Shark Tale, Monsters vs Aliens …). His work on this film marks a departure from animation and I don’t think he ever leaves the gate. It plays more like a wild-eyed cartoon than an intelligent comedy. He spent more time directing tiny cannonballs into Jack Black’s CGI tummy and then flexing them back at the little people than he did making sense of anything in the original story. That’s a shame.

The 2010 movie is, in a nutshell, about Lemuel Gulliver, Jack Black, who is basically a loser clerk in the mailroom of a newspaper. The beginning of the movie shows laboriously how Gulliver will never amount to anything beyond the mail room. Amanda Peet plays Darcy Silverman, a professional byline writer who Gulliver seeks to impress through lying and plagiarism. Bear in mind, none of this has anything to do with the original Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver ends up being assigned his first big correspondent trip to the Bermuda Triangle. There, he has encounters with small people. Really small. In the book, this is used as a metaphor to show how perspectives can change when our size changes. In this movie, it’s just crazy antics with miniature and giant plastic devices. It was sort of cool when they used a giant iPhone, but not cool enough to stop my yawns.

Other stars in the film include Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, and Billy Connolly. If you like to see these actors whether the script and acting is good or bad, go see Gulliver’s Travels. If you are hoping to see a side-splitting comedy that uses intellectualism to tickle your funny bone, you’ll wind up empty after this one. Do yourself a favor and make a gamble on Tron instead. I wish I would have.
[xrr rating=1.5/

The Grapes of Wrath

My wife and I watched “The Grapes of Wrath” recently and while it was a bit tedious at times, it packed some powerful and therapeutic messages for me. The adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel was about the Joads, a family from Oklahoma, traveling in the 40’s to find work. It is during the ferocious dust bowl period that made farmers’ land fallow. Those who once owned the farms were now vagrant/migrant workers. The greed and selfishness of the banks and landowners is an eerie backdrop to this realistic fiction. With our country in such financial crisis it seems it could return to this. Maybe it’s not so bad to be afraid of that.

The whole aura of the movie always gets to me emotionally because my grandpa came to Bakersfield, CA from Arkansas when my dad was just a kid. Certainly my dad was younger than Tom Joad being born in 1945. I see the Joads as “my people.” It is quite a powerful movie when you really connect with the messages. Those messages re about life, death, family, faith, hard work, government, and more.

Favorite scene: When the Joads ask to buy a loaf of bread for a dime in a diner. They are told the bread is 15 cents a loaf and not for sale anyway. This being all they had, the storekeeper lets them have it for 10 and lies about how much the candy costs so the Joad kids can have some swirl sticks. The movie is great from beginning to end, but that scene is forever etched into my mind.

Where the Wild Things Are

This post I wrote was published first at Blogcritics.

I waited months in anticipation of this movie based on my favorite childhood book, Where the Wild Things Are. My parents used to read it to me at bedtime and I recall such vivid images of Max’s bedroom, the far-off land of the wild things, and those creatures with their yellowy eyes. It was oddly scary and comforting at the same time to hear that story each night. That’s probably why I was curious to see what director Spike Jonze would do with the big screen adaptation. Unfortunately, this movie had few positives for me.

It’s the kind of movie I wait and wait for and then wind up feeling empty once it’s over. I will concede that my opinion is not the norm. I read five reviews on Blogcritics alone before I decided I must be from another planet. I felt this movie was like cheap merchandise with nothing to back it up.

The movie begins with a sort of “grunge” look to it. The beginning scene is very short and the title of the movie sort of “freeze frames” in sloppy strokes reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon. That was cool but after that we get a contrived character of 9 or 10 years of age. He is stricken with fury at his mother, his sister, and those around him in those scenes. My wife and I have a debate going over whether he shows evidence of mental illness. Make no mistake … this is decidedly not the “Max” of the original book.

The Max in the book is a garrulous young boy of about six years old. He is sent to his room without his supper. The Max of the movie is deeply disturbed and much older and he ends up running away from home. There is serious convolution of character and plot here.

When the “movie Max,” played by child actor Max Records, gets to the island on his boat, the book’s magic is lost. The movie has already cashed in on the book’s familiar appeal.

I should say here that this movie is decidedly not for kids. My 2- and 4-year-old girls were on the verge of tears a couple times. A friend of mine has a daughter who cried uncontrollably through the opening snow tunnel scene. Well, maybe that was an over-reaction, it’s not terrible I suppose. More than that, it is a bait and switch from the book we all read growing up.

One particularly scary aspect of the movie is the character Judith, played by Catherine O’Hara. She is not a playful character and seems to show direct and unbridled hate toward Max in a few scenes. I have a feeling the movie wants to be a statement about refusing to grow up. This is the opposite of the book’s message, which brings acceptance of growth and maturity upon Max’s return. I could accept the Judith scenes if he grew somehow. Instead, he just seems to eventually run away again.

If you want to watch disturbing images in and out of realistic fiction, this movie will appeal to you. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate disturbing images when they make a point. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed the 1970’s Pink Floyd movie The Wall. It made excellent points through disturbing images. The difference from WTWTA is that The Wall didn’t claim to be a big screen adaptation of a beloved children’s book.

If I had to pick one positive aspect of this film I’d say it’s the Jim Henson muppet wild things. They look awesome. If that alone is worth your trip to a movie, I won’t steer you away. However, if you want a warmhearted adaptation of a children’s book, pass on this one.

I Love You Man

This post I wrote was first published at Blogcritics.

I just saw I Love You, Man, the latest film by director John Hamburg (The Letter, Along Came Polly) and I laughed myself silly. The operative word here is “silly” because in the same spirit of Hamburg’s Along Came Polly, this movie is a laugh a minute. Despite some crude references, which are more the norm than the exception in Hollywood these days, this is a wholesome R-rated comedy (if that is possible).

Peter Klaven, played by Paul Rudd, is a real estate agent in his 30s, set to be married to Zooey, played by Rashida Jones. Peter needs a best man. His brother can do it but he feels they are not that close. Instead, Peter chooses to start “man-dating.” This sets a stage where some truly hilarious scenes take place. These are jokes about the insecurities some guys have about getting close. There’s nothing gay going on but it feels like that same category of humor (i.e. Reno 911, The Birdcage, etc). This is a clever job of writing; it’s nice to see a movie that takes a spin on something that’s already been done and makes it original.

One of the themes revisited several times in this film is the “man cave.” Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) has a man cave and invites Peter into it to jam Rush songs and observe his “special chair” (one of the crude references I alluded to earlier). Every guy 21 and up can relate to a man cave: a place to jam music and talk about chicks!

The conflict at the end is quite predictable, especially in its resolution, but frankly, I didn’t care to be critical. I was laughing and enjoying myself right up until the end. They might have made the Sydney character a bit more normal since most guys have friends like that. Then again, this is a movie so it doesn’t have to be exactly like real life, I guess. It never became as odd as The Cable Guy but that sort of weirdness in another shade is what I’m talking about. Take it from this writer, friends don’t have to be that weird to be weird according to our wives. I thought the writing of Sydney was a bit overkill.

The Southern California settings were beautiful, starting in Pasadena, working through Venice Beach, and finally culminating in the real on-location wedding in Santa Barbara. I found the realism of setting reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s recent film Yes Man which was shot in Pasadena, Balboa Park, and at the Hollywood Bowl.

I recommend this one to guys and/or couples 21 and up. My wife and I laughed our brains out. Sure, it could have been better with a more realistic characterization of Sydney but who’s keeping track of stuff like that in new movies that really make us laugh?

Harvey (1950) 5/5 – ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ meets ‘Psycho’

Jimmy Stewart is one of the most impressive and emotive actors of all time. His voice creates a presence of calm and attention. He usually has something to say in a film and in Harvey it’s life wisdom hand over fist.

Harvey

“Due to his insistence that he has an invisible six foot-tall rabbit for a best friend, a whimsical middle-aged man is thought by his family to be insane – but he may be wiser than anyone knows.” -IMDB
Cast

James Stewart Elwood P. Dowd
Josephine Hull Veta Louise Simmons
Peggy Dow Ruth Kelly
Charles Drake Dr. Lyman Sanderson

Directed by

Henry Koster

Written by

Mary Chase, Mary Chase

Other Info

Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Not Rated
Fri 13 Oct 1950 UTC
111min
IMDB Rating: 8.0

Directed by Henry Koster, this film was in a long list of highly successful films of its time. One that rings a bell with me is The Bishop’s Wife (1947) but the list is quite long. It makes sense such a prolific creator would have made a gem like this. Clearly he was acquainted with mental health facilities and care of the time. They are presented realistically for the time.

James Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, a happy-go-lucky homebody dedicated to taking care of his sister who is ailing and a bit hysterical. He keeps her calm and we can see early on how relaxed as a person he is. Peggy Dow plays Ruth Kelly, a beautiful young nurse who is kind and helpful to Elwood even though she may think him crazy. I hope if I am ever thought crazy I get such wonderful sweet treatment. Charles Drake plays Dr. Lyman Sanderson. This doctor has a crush on nurse Kelly and they provide some romantic tension in the plot. There are a few more really great performances in this movie. I am honestly blown away every time I see it.

The story here starts with Elwood (Jimmy Stewart). He talks to a 6 foot rabbit who the audience may or may not ever see, you’ll have to decide. Maybe you just see the impact of him but not him physically. That’s really the point of the movie. Is it bad to have delusions that don’t hurt anyone? In fact, can these delusions even help everyone?

FINAL THOUGHTS
Harvey is on my shortlist of best movies I’ve seen in my lifetime. I like it because I sometimes waffle back and forth into the land of what people expect of me and what I want for myself. Elwood P Dowd is my reason to dwell in the latter. I like movies that make me think and give me something to talk about with my wife and friends. I think we can see every neurosis there is in these characters and choose the one we want to act the part of. As for me? I pick the delusional Elwood. See it, make some coffee and call me, we’ll chat it up!

5/5

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