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.

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.

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.

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.

Boyhood

I waited a while to review this movie because I had a feeling it would age better in my memory. This movie doesn’t show life before our eyes, it puts us among it. I loved this movie for so many reasons, let me set down a few. This film project took 12 years to complete. The director, Richard Linklater, had a vision of using the same actors over a long period of time. The idea was that is would be good cinema, and it is but not for a whole lot more than that. If the film wasn’t so long, I think more people would have found the aging actors thing stunning. As it is, not many people have seen this movie.

Sarah and I drove down the hill to see it at the Ontario Mills mall. We love that place, it has many happy family and couple memories. That could be why we were emotionally MOVED by this film. We have been through the years with kids presented in the film. I have looked in the mirror through decades and seen the changes so evident in this avant garde film. I would say we are given permission to be among the family as it weaves through. The boy reminds me of Hayden Christensen. He does an okay job. Actually I thought the title was lost on such a one dimensional actor. The teen years ad up really show he can’t carry a movie. Still, having once been a boy, I appreciate the title. You’re going to see and feel a whole lot more in Boyhood than the boy. A better name might have been something like Travellin’ thru time with the fam. But hey, I wasn’t around when they were batting around names right? It’s a novelty and if you have a family with kids you’ll pour your own experiences in and have a great time. Unfortunately the film relies solely on its novelty and not enough on a believable script and actors.

Devil

One of Director M. Night Shyamalan’s stories was adapted into a screenplay and made into a movie. This is a different way to market something of his because he usually writes, produces, and even acts a small role in everything he makes. This time, he just gets the producer credit.

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Devil is a combination of light horror (PG-13), mystery, and thriller. It’s hard to believe all three of those can be pulled off from inside an elevator but they are.

Devil is directed by John Erick Dowdle who recently directed Quarantine and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. He’s created a movie that looks smart and interweaves all three genres previously mentioned to make a scary, engaging movie that adolescents and adults will love. This film is not for kids. There are some bloody scenes that kids shouldn’t see. Having said that, it is pretty tame material for 13 and up.

The premise of this movie is that the Devil has entered an elevator at a metropolitan high-rise. The people locked in the elevator all have one shared flaw: they refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes in life. In each person’s case, the mistakes have caused death or other harm to befall innocent people. The Devil delivers justice in clever ways. There is a twist, as in all of M. Night’s movies. The twist reveals the mystery and so ends the movie.

The acting is top notch. The cast is a set of relative newbies. A notable performance however is given by veteran actor Jenny O’Hara. All the acting in this movie is given with a visible purpose and it makes the mystery all that much more fun to try and figure out. You feel like the characters are so real, you have a chance at figuring out what the end point will be. I find it incorrect that the movie is being marketed as a horror movie. I almost missed it because of such marketing. It is more than that. It reminds me of Rod Serling’s short Twilight Zone episodes. We can take a moral element from it and that is rare in today’s sound byte movie culture. So, to do my part for my blogging ‘compadres,’ I’m clearing up the misconceptions. This is a smartly crafted film. There are a lot of movies out there that are scary, but not many that leave you deep in thought as Devil does.

The Time Traveler’s Wife – The poor woman!

My wife suggested we see The Time Traveler’s Wife last night and so we had a late date night. The movie was slow at first but once it got going, I found it to be touching and human. It brought up a lot of things to talk about on the ride home.

My wife suggested we see The Time Traveler’s Wife last night and so we had a late date night. The movie was slow at first but once it got going, I found it to be touching and human. It brought up a lot of things to talk about on the ride home. The Time Traveler’s Wife (TTTW) is a romantic drama starring Eric Bana as the Time Traveler, Henry DeTamble, and Rachel McAdams as his wife, Clare Abshire. It was directed by Robert Schwentke. He has directed a proud set of films the most famous of them being “Flight Plan” with Jodie Foster. There are other cast actors of note you can find at The Time Traveler’s Wife IMDB page. Minor spoilers ahead.

Now for my DVD review: Henry “travels.” His wife might as well have a bumper sticker that says “travel happens.” They don’t have any idea why he does or when it will happen. This makes for a lot of stress in both their lives as they try and have a normal marriage and baby while he is “beaming up” all the time to certain locations.

One place he travels repeatedly is the meadow where he first met his eventual wife Claire. She was a 9 year old wandering off in search of imaginary friends. He knows what to tell her so she isn’t afraid because he is with her in the future. Theirs is a rocky relationship with some seductive kissing but far more moments of distrust, acute fear, and resentment. At one point he says to her, “You made a choice.” to which she replies indignantly, “I NEVER had a choice.” In a way I think that’s true because when someone comes from the future claiming to know all your desires, and you’re 9, it’s probably quite hard to resist that fantasy. In this case, the fantasy was all too real.

You see all the token time travel issues come up here. There is talk of how you cannot change certain things. There is foreshadowing of his death before it happens. There are some interesting twists that can only be possible when you have a time travel theme. The basic crux of the movie is Claire’s growth. She herself “travels” mentally from a 9 year old girl in love with a man who visits her in the meadow to a 30-something woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown married to a “spontaneous” time traveler. There are times he is in the room one minute and then there is nothing but his clothes collapsed on his shoes. Imagine going through a marriage that way?

Her undying love for him is what’s worth watching. Bana is a little bland in my opinion. I think just about anyone could play his role. Rachel McAdams, on the other hand, is perfectly suited for the role. As I watched I was impressed by the emotion she could summon in many of the scenes. I have a feeling when you see her cry, those are HER tears. I wouldn’t say her performance is Oscar worthy but it comes close, darn close. Part of the problem might be the writing. While much of it was poetic, there was a lot of the same stuff between man and woman we’ve seen again and again. Like I said though, once the uneventful beginning is through, the middle to end is a wonderful, sometimes difficult, always romantic human love story.

I haven’t fought back a tear since “Meet Joe Black” played in the theater. This one had that effect on me. I’d say this movie is mostly for married people in their late 20’s and up. Some of this stuff I have lived through and the time travel aspect really allows the movie to delve into relationships and love and purpose in life. I’d give it 8/10. Have you seen it? Care to comment on any of these topics I’ve mentioned? Please do comment below.