Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

After outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of nowhere with an alien weapon strapped to his wrist, and after he overcomes three stereotypical Western bullies, he straps on a six-shooter, dons a hat, and rides off across classic Western movie terrain. It was enough to make my viewing-eyes itch and my heart swell for my favorite genre, the rarely produced Western.

Knowing that Cowboys & Aliens is not a straight Western, I was rather pleased as the film took pleasure in fleshing out the action-oater side of this rather curious hybrid, taking extra time with purely Western elements and themes as it develops the characters who live in the typically dry and dusty town of Absolution.

When tyrannical cattle baron, Woodruff Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), rides into town to spring his wayward son, Percy (Paul Dano), from jail before he can be shipped off to the U.S. Marshall, it’s like a scene out of Rio Bravo. For the most part, Ford’s performance is cringe-worthy, but his craggy face and macho swagger fit the genre nicely. Keith Carradine is perfect as the aging but competent sheriff; Sam Rockwell, playing the mild-mannered bartender/doc, overdoes the silly meekness but develops an enjoyable presence; and it’s fun to see Raoul Trujillo (The New World) as an Apache chief. Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde plays a mysterious woman hanging around town, very interested in how and where Jake got that cool blaster on his wrist. But when her true identity is revealed, I was rather puzzled by some inconsistencies in regards to what she knows and what she can and cannot do.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Remember Hogwarts! Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two is the raw, thrilling grand finale to the Harry Potter saga, begun by the novels of J. K. Rowling in 1997, visualized by the eight-movie series that began in 2001. Throughout, I have not been an avid fan of the saga. Unlike many readers, I was not dazzled by the first novel. I read the first four novels aloud to my young son and daughter, but I often skipped through pages of dialogue that seemed less like pith and more like padding. To me, the stories read too much like video games: meet the challenge, solve the problem, move to the next level. When the movies came out, I accompanied both of my kids to the early ones, my daughter to all of them, sometimes feeling bored, sometimes nodding off to sleep, enjoying some more than others. But I must admit that the lengthy, sometimes ponderous, often bloated movies of the series successfully establish all the details and emotional connections between characters that are brought together masterfully and very touchingly in the final film. I don’t think the books and the films had to include so much padding, but all the ground covered in the previous films prepares the way for the gripping denouement achieved here.

This time the plot is simple and not over-burdened by the machinations and convoluted (often very contrived) hocus-pocus that weigh down the previous films. Harry and friends Hermione and Ron have their work cut out for them. Find a few horcruxes, destroy the pieces of Voldemort’s soul that are hidden in those horcruxes, and do away with “you know who.” Very quickly the forces of evil swoop down upon the forces of good, holed up in beloved Hogwarts, a wizards’ Alamo, and the final battle dominates the film.

We get shades of The Lord of the Rings with the evil hordes, including battle giants, massed outside the “castle,” shades of World War II movies with the talk of a “suicide mission” and the whole Hogwarts resistance movement. In addition, Voldemort’s army bombards a magic shield protecting Hogwarts; the good guys blow up a bridge; and the Hogwarts wounded huddle in the rubble of a shelter like the Brits during the Blitz. But when the battle is drawn, the action is gripping and characteristically Potteresque as Harry and friends evade a raging fire in the Room of Requirement, a storeroom of needful things that looks like the famous shot of Citizen Kane’s collection of possessions; and Harry attempts to slay the serpent, another horcrux. In addition, the fighting pauses for some crucial character development and dramatic moments, notably when Harry visualizes Snape’s backstory, and when he walks with Dumbledore in a dazzling white train station in his mind. I love it when Harry wonders where the train will take him, and Dumbledore responds meaningfully, "On!" (Yes, and Daniel Radcliffe will have to "go on" from here, his last performance as the famous Harry Potter.)

All the action and drama are enhanced by distinctive cinematography. Visually, this is an outstanding episode filled with striking images: a fearsome dragon soaring over London; Voldemort’s horde; a long shot of beleaguered Hogwarts; the minimalist white train station in Harry’s mind where he walks with the deceased Dumbledore. In addition, the poignant departures captured in the final scene on Platform 9 and ¾, nineteen years later, make for one of the most touching scenes in the eight movies.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Monte Carlo is a Delight!

Grace (Selena Gomez), Emma (Katie Cassidy), and Meg (Leighton Meester) are three girls from a small Texas town who go on a much-anticipated trip to Paris only to end up on the whirlwind tour from hell. They have a lot more fun when they make their way to Monte Carlo after Grace is mistaken for Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also Selena Gomez), a wealthy Brit heiress brat. In a comedy of errors, they stay in the best hotel in Monte Carlo, wear Scott’s designer clothes, and attend her charity ball with handsome French playboys, while the real rich bitch plays hooky from the event. This gives Grace the chance to expose the real her to a handsome French lad, throws reclusive Meg in with a handsome Aussie guy (Luke Bracey) out to discover the world, and allows diner-waitress Emma an opportunity to taste the high life, only to realize that her heart lies with her hometown beau, Owen (Cory Monteith).

There's lots to enjoy watching the three girls from Texas as their small-town eyes pop open in the midst of Monte Carlo extravagance, and as Grace’s masquerade leads her into some tight pickles. I laughed out loud at their delightful reactions to an experience that is a radical clash of cultures and economic backgrounds. The situations are lots of fun, but your enjoyment of those moments is guaranteed by the delightful performances of the three main performers.

Selena Gomez, with none of the brash delivery of Miley Cyrus, shows herself to be a very watchable actress. She’s cute, but believably so, and she never goes over the top. Cassidy is solid as the more daring, hedonistic Emma, but Meester as Meg steals the show, displaying a very sensitive, invested delivery of her lines. There’s an endearing playfulness about her that reminded me of Kate Winslet in Titanic. As the girl suffering the recent death of her mother and learning to enjoy life again, Meg’s character has more room for change, and Meester portrays that development very touchingly.

Delightful performances; beautiful shots of Paris and Monte Carlo; some comical turns by bit French actors as hotel clerks and policemen that reminded me of characters in Peter Sellers movies, and a nostalgic tie-in to To Catch a Thief make this an enjoyable movie. If I hadn’t taken my daughter, I wouldn’t have seen this movie, but I have to say I had loads of fun watching Gomez, Meester, and Cassidy have loads of fun portraying girls on a dream vacation.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Beginners (2010)

In Mike Mills’s Beginners Hal (Christopher Plummer) begins his life as an openly gay man after coming out to his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), at the ripe old age of 75. He also begins his decline toward death after finding out that he has terminal cancer. When his father dies, Oliver inherits his father’s highly intelligent dog, a Jack Russell terrier with separation anxiety and a sardonic humor rendered in subtitles, and tries to begin a relationship with a young French woman, Anna (Melanie Laurent), after a number of failed relationships.

In flashbacks and by means of slideshows that characterize the decades of Oliver and Hal’s lives, Beginners often charts Oliver’s deep loss and Hal’s brave steps to actualize his sexual identity with a whimsical tone, but this is a serious movie about coming to grips with the past and dealing with the realities of the present. With sensitivity and humor, once again delivering a solid performance, McGregor plays Oliver as a lost soul who wonders how his mother endured decades of marriage knowing that her husband was gay. Confused but impressed by Hal’s explanation of how he tried to play the straight husband in order to make the marriage last, Oliver attempts to make his new relationship work.

As Anna, Oliver’s girlfriend, Melanie Laurent shows a talent for very expressive acting. As demonstrated in Inglourious Basterds, Laurent uses the cast of her eyes and the movements in her lips to communicate a lot. Fittingly, she gets to play her first scene, when she meets Oliver at a costume party, virtually silently. Explaining that she has laryngitis, dressed appropriately as Charlie Chaplin, Anna communicates by means of notes on a pad of paper, but Laurent’s lively eyes and the uncanny animation in her lips communicate even more, making her performance a very engaging one.

A quiet and very understated film, Beginners is not an entirely happy one. Oliver loses his father. It looks like he might lose Anna as well. But the film is always worth watching for its humor, for the performance of a very talented Jack Russell, as well as for the three main human performances. Christopher Plummer’s subtle performance as Hal, an old man spreading his wings to live out his true sexual identity as his life is ending, is a believable, dignified performance that is definitely worth watching.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Vavoom! Kaboom! Transformers: Dark of the Moon

What’s with this Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf)? In the first two Transformers adventures his girlfriend is the curvaceous hottie Mikaela, played by Megan Fox. In the third installment, Mikaela has left him, and his new girlfriend is Carly, played by super model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. What makes Sam Witwicky a hot-chick magnet? His nerdy last name doesn’t keep them way. Being shorter than his girlfriends doesn’t keep them away. What gives? Perhaps, as his own mother so crudely suggests, it’s the size of his you-know-what.

Whatever the reason, Sam’s animal magnetism reels in this movie’s big vavoom factor! Mama! The human side of the story opens with Carly, dressed for work in a very short, very tight dress, waking up unemployed Sam by straddling him in bed. Then she puts on her spiked heels and clicks off to work. Throughout, Carly appears in each new sequence dressed in a different tight outfit that always includes spiked heels. She even has a chance to change into a skimpy top, tight jeans, and heels when she is captured by the bad humans, led by Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), who is aiding the Decepticon takeover of the world. Huntington-Whiteley's long legs and tight butt are shown in juxtaposition with those flashy pimped rides that transform into our hero bots. Dylan even says that the new Ferrari he purchased for Carly is the right car for her because both car and chick share the same sensual curves. Well, that's making it clear why Huntington-Whiteley is cast as Witwicky's girlfriend!

Of course, the film's kaboom factor comes from the many battles between the good Autobots and the bad Decepticons. This time around, the Decepticons are led by the traitorous Sentinel Prime (croaky voice by Leonard Nimoy), whose goal is to use a bunch of power pillars to form a teleportation bridge that will bring his planet, Cybertron, down to earth so that they can use the human race as a slave force to rebuild it.