Country Strong

It its attempt to be “Country Cool” it fails to define and deliver a vignette of what the title Country Strong really means.

Sarah and I had a great 3 day weekend in Las Vegas and part of the fun was seeing Country Strong starring Gwyneth Paltrow (Kelly Canter). I’m a big fan of her movies and I was looking forward to seeing a great performance in a movie that looked to be about the life and times of a professional female Country Music musician. I was right on what it was about. Unfortunately it’s a predictable storyline that starts out charming like a gift of everlon but ends up choking on its poor writing. It takes simple concepts and takes too much time and energy to relay what is already known and conveyed. There may be some minor spoilers ahead but I don’t give away much.

I like Tim Mcgraw’s character, James Canter, a lot. This is because he starts out a class “A” a-hole but in the conclusion of the film, I saw him a whole different way. He is Kelly’s husband and manager and when we think him a cheater, we find out he is just a tortured person trying to keep the show going on. Whereas the “Beau Hutton” character, played by Garrett Hedlund, starts out my favorite character, in the end I sort of despise him. We find out he is not Kelly’s AA sponsor and a really selfish guy in many ways. I’ll never believe sleeping with every woman who crosses ones path is a wise or acceptable move. Paltrow plays an excellent modern country singer haunted by her drug and alcohol addiction. She wants to restore her life after a devastating miscarriage and accidental overdose shrouded her public image. I won’t get into the end but really, has any of this plot so far struck you as incredibly original?

We saw the same theme of “fame is empty” in Rock Star (2001). Scene after scene we are shown how seeking fame is a foolish game. In the end, 2 characters find that out and drop out of show business. One has to wonder if these young talents would have been so forthright in the real world. Ultimately, we are left with a scattered image of the real world in “Country Strong.” If I may be so bold as to say that the ending proves that Country Strong really isn’t strong at all. There is a lot of coffee conversation here. I recommend this film for a date but understand it is like eating melba toast with watered down iced tea. Nothing “feels” real. Even when Beau and the young starlet Chiles Stanton, Leighton Meester, “get it on” in his hotel room (They apparently get drunk and dare each other to take their clothes off) there is a feeling like neither is really attracted to the other. Certainly this is not a romantic scene. I can almost hear her say, “when am I getting paid for this?” What probably exists on paper as a “love scene” is just two marginal actors filling up space on a time-line of a movie that says little and delivers less in the way of any message.

My final word is this: It its attempt to be “Country Cool” this movie fails to deliver a vignette of what the title and term Country Strong really means.

Despicable Me

This is my article first published as Despicable Me Is Not Your Typical Villain Movie on Blogcritics.

People have asked me what movie is the best of 2010. This is my answer. Despicable Me is a delightful film with much to offer families and any movie-goer looking for fun in a film. It was co-directed by relative newcomers: Pierre Coffin, Gary’s Fall 2003, and Chris Renaud, in production on The Lorax and creator of No Time for Nuts, a short on the Ice Age DVD. I watched previews for Despicable Me with some cynicism thinking: “Here we have yet another piece of CGI predictability.” I was pleasantly proven wrong, however, when the characters, writing, and voice performances turned me around 180 degrees. I haven’t been this impressed with an animated film since Meet the Robinsons (2007). In the same way Robinson’s does, Despicable Me does more than entertain us: it shows a portrait of our humanity.

Without giving away too much, the movie is about Gru, a super-villain who is trying to recover a shrink ray from Vector, another super-villain. This is sort of the opposite of a human growth hormone. After multiple efforts to penetrate Vector’s lair, Gru discovers Vector’s weakness for girl scout cookies as he lets girl scouts come past the gate. Gru then gets a “lightbulb” and surreptitiously adopts three girl scouts from a local orphanage to do his bidding. Gru quickly learns what caring for kids is all about, and the girls prove less expendable than he thought.

There are some big names behind the voices in this movie; most are incredible performances. Steve Carell brings a superstar appeal to the film’s marketing. Having said that, I don’t find anything extra special about his voice in the film. He does an okay job as “Gru,” the Pinocchio nosed, Russian-accented villain who becomes an unwitting dad. The CGI is what makes his character amazing. His legs are unnaturally spindly and belie his enormous rotund body. He’s hilarious without uttering a word. I really liked Steve Carell in Dan in Real Life and most everything he does. He has a great personality-filled voice, but I think he served more to get people into the movie than to give Gru a memorable voice.

The other characters are a whole different story. The actors doing the voices for the girls, (Margo: Miranda Cosgrove, Edith: Dana Gaier, and Agnes: Elsie Fisher), Miss Hattie (the adoption lady): Kirsten Wig, and Vector: Jason Segel, are noteworthy and special. They provide a sonic reality to the animation rarely seen in the minions of CGI animated movies nowadays.

This movie is being marketed as a villain movie. It is indeed that for a while, but eventually it moves to a wider encompassing place. The juxtaposition of such an evil guy, Gru, with three sweet little kids lends the movie a global warmth, taking it beyond a potentially one-dimensional villain movie with just “neat” effects. I think it will have mass appeal with family movie-goers. It made me want to hug my kids. Comic relief is provided by the “minions,” amazing little yellow tubes that serve Gru and do many hysterical things. Interesting trivia: the minions are voiced by the two directors of the movie, Coffin and Renaud.

Vector is a great “villain’s villain.” You love to hate him. He is reminiscent of villains we’ve seen in the past, but Jason Segel brings new character to the villain we love to hate. I had to stay after and watch the credits because the voice was just so familiar to me. I was a big fan of him in I Love You Man and, when I saw his name in the credits, it was a V8 head-smacking moment. Segel does a great job voicing the true villain in this film.

The littlest girl Agnes is beautifully portrayed. The scenes when she talks to Gru begging for a bedtime story get me to the core. I would say any father in the theater could attest to the same. I’ve already alluded to it twice but I will say it again that I feel the audio performances like the one of Agnes make this a unique and special animated film.

To wrap this, I recommend Despicable Me to families and people who appreciate more than just visuals in an animated movie. The characters, writing, and voice performances work together to make this film exceptional. Despicable Me made me glad I spent my $10 and 95 minutes at the movies.

Tangled

Disney’s new movie Tangled is a delight for anyone who’s overcome fear to break out of a bad situation. Disney has long been a voice that tells of our humanity. This movie takes us once again to the center of our human condition. The combination of a simple message, spectacular songs, and mesmerizing animation makes it a winner in my book.

This article I wrote was first published as Tangled – Epic Journey Out the Front Door on Blogcritics.

Disney’s animated movie Tangled is a delight for anyone who’s overcome fear to break out of a bad situation. Disney has long been a voice that tells of our humanity. This movie takes us once again to the center of our human condition. The combination of a simple message, spectacular songs, and mesmerizing animation makes it a winner in my book.

There are 2 relatively new Directors: Nathan Greno, writer on Meet the Robinsons, and Byron Howard, director of Bolt. Though new to the scene, their accomplishment in this film is noteworthy. Their direction on Tangled amounts to a film that audiences will treasure on many levels.

There are not many characters in this movie but in this case less is more. Mandy Moore does a stellar job as the big-eyed Rapunzel. The nuances of her voice match the “painted” style of animation very well. I was deawn in to watch carefully on extended speaking scene because the syncopation was flawless. Because of such excellent animation, these characters are real to us from the opening scene. By the end we think they are our friends. We are invested in them because the movie grows to prove quite deep in its concept.

The basic story is that Rapunzel, a baby princess is kidnapped by a miserly old woman. The old woman then casts a spell from the magic flower into Rapunzel’s hair and the hair keeps the old woman young. As Rapunzel grows, she is kept captive in a tower until she starts to get curious about the outside world. Through a rescue by Flynn Rider, a prince charming type voiced by newcomer Zachary Levi, she eventually breaks free of the castle. There is a lot of psychology to this escape since she has never been outside of the castle and it is food for thought to be sure. I could relate with a lot of it, as I am sure the general audiences will be able to as well.

Leaving the tower is a metaphor of breaking away from ones comfort zone. This is universal to the human condition. We are all held captive at times by forces that would seek to destroy us. Rapunzel fights against this force and wins. As she does, the audience cheers her on!  She breaks away from imagined prison bars and become free. What better message could there be for people in a  recession-burdened 2010 audience. If you enjoy getting tangles undone, this movie is for you!

The movie is in 3D, but I saw it is 2D. There is amazing attention to detail. As I watched the tiny nuances in the characters’ expression I realized it must have take many hours and much money to get this movie completed. Whether or not you like the story, this movie is a gem to look at. Even in 2D, it’s as if you can reach out and touch the characters. It is fitting one director worked on Meet the Robisnons. That movie is an incredible piece that will stand the test of time as great family entertainment. Tangled is the same. Disney did what it does best, it captured humanity.

Disney gets back to what it does best in Tangled. The story encapsulates human experience and makes the viewer feel what the protagonost feels. The movie was made to inspire and not just entertain. I believe many people will find personal inspiration from this film.

I Have Been Granted the Mystery Blogger Award

Thanks to Vern for nominating me for the ‘Mystery Blogger Award.’ In this post, I do all the required sharings and pay it forward to some great film bloggers and podcasters I know.

I want to thank Vern for nominating me among his ten for the Mystery Blogger Award.

mystery-blogger-award
I’ve been nominated for the ‘Mystery Blogger Award‘ by the Vern.
I was fortunate enough recently to be on a Lambcast with Vern. He has a great amount of energy for movies and films from the past especially. Appropriately, we were on a show reviewing the Movie of the Month as Jay is wont to do over there, every month ;). It was Howard the Duck and it was so cool to get Vern’s take o the film. I especially enjoyed his retro settings he described from that time period (1983). I had plenty of memories of my own and the show really turned into a good time, despite the marginal film (sorry Vern lol).

Anyway, I hope to stay connected with Vern for a long time. I have invited him to appear on the Damien Riley Podcast and he accepted so I just need to get that all sorted out and get him on as soon as possible. Stay tuned, it should be another awesome time. We’ll see what film from the past we can dig up and talk about, other than poor Howard lol.

The rules of the tag/award are:

  • Put the award logo/image on your blog
  • List the rules.
  • Thank whoever nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  • Mention the creator of the award
  • Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
  • Nominate 10 – 20 people
  • Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog
  • Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question
  • Share a link to your best post(s)

I also want to give a word of thanks to Okoto Enigma for creating this award.

Ok, so I’ve been asked to tell my readers 3 things about myself. Here goes:

I have a tattoo of Wile E. Coyote on my back.
Roger Ebert is my movie blogging hero.

I got marred quick which usually raises eyebrows. I met my wife in 2002 when I was 33 and married her after only 2 months of dating. We got married in Las Vegas. We’ve been married now over 14 years. She is 8 years younger than me.
There’s three things about me. Now, I get to nominate 10 people. Wow, this will be tough there are so many to mention. Here are some that weren’t mentioned by Vern and I’d like to recognize out there. Keep up the good work!

  • Audrey
  • Kira
  • Zoë
  • Darren
  • Jason
  • Todd
  • Janet
  • Julie
  • Nikki
  • Tom

I’ll notify these bloggers by comments on their blogs.

Now for the 5 questions I’m asking these good-hearted and talented bloggers.

  1. Did you ever give a film a score higher than it deserved because you knew your readers and/or the critics as a whole loved it? In other words, you didn’t want to look stupid.
  2. How do you dive in to doing a review online? What’s your routine or do you have one?
  3. Have you ever watched a movie on your phone?
  4. (silly one) If you are single, or even if you aren’t, what is your dating age range. ie; when I met my wife I would go no more than ten years older and six years younger. I had to break my rule to date her.
  5. Best suspense film?

Then they say to close with a good post of mine. Here’s one I’m proud of from my podcast. at 5 some odd minutes, it’s the longest on my podcast yet. I aim to keep them short.:

The Damien Riley Podcast #19 – Freedom and Activism in ‘Anthropoid’ & ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

Inception

I recently saw this movie and felt the strong need to go against the grain of public opinion, as it were, in a brief blog post.

Inception-movie-posterThis is not my usual review format, I simply want to list a few things that bother me about this movie. Inception is a film I really didn’t want to write about because my opinion seems to be in the vast minority. However, after all the 5 star reviews are scrolled past, I found on IMDB and on Yahoo! Movies that there are many folks out there agreeing with me. Inception is a smokescreen of deceptive marketing and not much more.

To borrow David Spade’s SNL satire: I saw Inception last weekend. I liked it better the first time as The Matrix. (audience laughs). That’s basically my beef. This movie is harder to untangle than a wet mass of kite string. The worst part is that it follows no rational premise. It is a long film at 148 min. Unfortunately none of that time is spent developing characters or a plot of any logical substance. By placing the movie in a dream, anything can be done and anything can be said. Nothing can be challenged because it’s got neat cgi once in a long while. Believe me, they make you wait for it. The best part? They leave it open for a sequel. What will be new in it, a beach and some dreams of atv racing? Not a good movie experience for me, I recommend you go see Despicable Me instead.

Iron Man 2

I went to see the much anticipated Iron Man 2 this evening with my wife and son and found it duller than the first. Robert Downey Jr. does a great job of being a goofball which is indeed funny to watch. Unfortunately the writing and situations are not very clever or interesting and it had me yawning through most the running time.

There isn’t much action in the movie. Sort of like looking for wedding gifts at a horse tack store. For the most part, people exchange boring dialog with one another developing the plot of a company on a downward spiral. A symbol of the downfall is Ironman’s chest. He is slowly dying and needs a special chemical to keep him alive. Of course, in the end, he gets what he needs and become super-human again. Scarlett Johansen is an absolute fox in this movie. My wife noted she had lost quite a bit of weight for the part, which I felt was not necessary. At any rate, she makes Gwynneth Paltrow, Ironman’s love interest, look plain on the screen. If there was anything I could really praise about the movie, it was Johansen’s part.

I didn’t have time to write a drawn out review. You can read the cast, synopsis, and factoids at imdb. Suffice it to say, this movie was a lot of dull dialog with some really cool CGI scenes. I wish I would have seen Shrek 4 instead (not in 3D though). Hopefully the next movie I see will be worthy of a longer review.

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon is a delightful film that will be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. Its spectacular presentation of the black dragon “Toothless” is the product of avant garde animation and captures one’s attention right away. The main character, Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, is a likable fellow who manages through common sense and pure spirit to tame Toothless. Many adventures follow that make for both a swashbuckling tale and a fire-breathing feast for the eyes.The film is directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch, Mulan). Toothless is the most breathtaking animated character and he was crafted after the “Stitch” character. You can see influences of a hawk and a dog in certain poses. This animal alone is a reason to see this movie.

Hiccup is a bumbling Viking kid trying to please his father in dragon-fighter school. Unfortunately, his attempts never measure up and he ends up being resented by his father. Along the way, he happens across Toothless, a breed of dragon that is deadly beyond all others. Because Toothless is trapped and needs to be set free, Hiccup sets him free and becomes his master. The irony of this is that throughout the second half of the movie, he ends up saving his community with the help of a dragon. Vikings hate dragons.

There is a female interest, Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera. She is tougher than Hiccup but seems drawn to his mysterious nature. Eventually she discovers his miraculous power over Toothless and dragons in general (Toothless teaches him many things which help him have power over dragons).

The story revolves around Toothless and Hiccup but there are some other very funny and round characters, not the least of which is Gobber, voiced by Craig Ferguson. He is like captain Ahab. He has lost a hand and a leg to dragons and lives with the passion of training kids to be dragon hunters. Ferguson’s natural accent adds a lot to the movie and Gobber steals the screen when he shows up.

The visuals of Toothless are so brilliant and so breathtaking they hardly need a good script to capture audiences. At the same time, the story is warmhearted and the way the father and son interact through challenges holds some valuable family lessons. I found this movie delightful and my kids (11, 5, and 2) all loved it for the visuals and the endearing story.

This post I wrote was first published at Blogcritics.

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

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.

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.