Capsules for 2007

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2007. Includes all the movies of 2007 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

3:10 to Yuma
Director: James Mangold
Rating: 9/10
I could call 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of a 1957 film, the Silence of the Lambs of Westerns. Strange description? Yes, I'll admit, but consider the piece's villain, outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), and the fact that he's a prisoner here who plays mind games with those escorting him to the titular train. The way this guy can slither under your mental armor with his words would give Hannibal Lecter a run for his money. His main mental battle is with rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a family man of strong moral fiber but empty wallet who's further put upon by the city officials planning to run him off his land in order to build a railroad. Ben senses Dan's weaknesses and begins to work his wiles on him, but it may be Dan's decency that will indirectly rub the other way. This is a rip-roarin' Western with thrilling gunfights to match its moral tug-of-war, and both Bale and Crowe are terrific. Crowe's so smooth you do end up rooting for him, much the way audiences side with Lecter, because in the end they share the same character model. Ben may be evil, but he's no boor. Meanwhile, Dan's struggle to maintain his high ground is constant and at the fore. It's these cracks in the characters that make them compelling and worth the ride they take us on. (added 9/7/2007)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Rating: 8/10
"Romanian New Wave"? That's apparently a phrase being floated about to describe the recent lauded film movement in Romania, being lead by three movies in particular: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (which I thought was pretty great), 12:08 East of Bucharest (which I haven't seen), and the one reviewed here, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Cristian Mungiu's work bears many similarities to Mr. Lazarescu, sharing a cinematographer (Oleg Mutu) and working in a mode of documentary-like realism, with long takes and naturalistic dialog. The methods serve 4 Months well as it tells its tale of two friends preparing for an illegal abortion for one of them, back in the last days of Communist Romania. The story is stark, a bit sordid (the college-aged ladies meet with an abortionist with skeevy designs), and, actually, pretty straightforward. It's in this regard that I feel it falters a bit -- it's a harrowing story, but doesn't say anything particularly original about its controversial subject and serves about the same purpose as any back-alley abortion horror story you can imagine. It does get points for making its protagonists less than fully sympathetic -- it's not looking for pity here -- thereby focusing on the objectivity of its issue's presentation; however, it thus lacks an emotional anchor like the paramedic in Mr. Lazarescu, who helps put in perspective her film's cosmic absurdity. By witnessing such an unblinking, unexpressing gaze at abortion, the viewer may likely come away with whatever his or her views already on the subject simply reinforced; better, then, to focus on the movie's strengths in character development -- the relationship between the immature, cavalierly selfish, pregnant Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and the less naive, duty-bound-almost-to-the-point-of-resentment Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is well-played, and Otilia's dinner table scene is a standout, especially for Marinca's performance. The movie is actually better viewed as an illustration of the extreme dynamics of a friendship of personality contrasts than as a movie about illegal abortion or oppressive Communist regimes. (added 10/1/2008)

Across the Universe
Director: Julie Taymor
Rating: 7/10
For sheer Beatles geekiness, you won't be able to beat Across the Universe. I don't know why Julie Taymor decided to make a Beatles movie musical, since given the band's very defined and well-known/researched discography, the idea seems just plain bad, as the movie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band once proved. Still, at least she takes the idea and runs with it without looking back, putting it all out there for everyone to see. Characters are named after the songs, and the songs themselves are interpreted painfully literally, cleverly subversively, and everything in-between. It's enough to make a Beatles fan both cringe and grin, sometimes at the same time. Taymor's method works partially due to the appropriateness of subject matter -- the band's music is interwoven as the sonic texture of a tale that takes place in the turbulent times from which the music itself was born. Thus, the songs illustrate the highs and lows of a group of New York friends who find themselves at first coming together, then having their relationships strained by the presence of the Vietnam War (replace the war with AIDS, and you pretty much have Rent). Taymor then adds her own special visual layer, so that the look becomes more surreal as the music gets more angry/introspective and the friends' lives become more troubled -- all in all, an ambitious parallel progression that I think she is able to just pull off. I'll go ahead and say it: I'm embarrassed by how much I liked this movie. Simply catching all the Beatles references alone makes me feel like a major Beatles nerd -- but I'm sure it's a feeling I'd be able to share with the zillions of die-hard fans across this rock 'n roll universe. (added 9/16/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

August Rush
Director: Kirsten Sheridan
Rating: 6/10
Sometimes a Hollywood movie actually isn't necessarily geared toward left-leaners -- even though August Rush has as a central character a born out-of-wedlock boy, the rest of the movie seems made to appease our conservative sides. It's a split-true-lovers romance combined with Oliver Twist, and the story's whole idea is that the mother (Keri Russell), the father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and the kid neither of them are aware of (Freddie Highmore) all belong together, so how do they find their way back to each other? Faith. In music, that is. Music makes a pretty interesting and uncontroversial substitute for religion, frankly, and all of the musical elements in the film contain enough metaphorical punch such that the story could be read as promotion of the divine (particularly since the kid is a Mozart-like musical savant). It's funny to me, though, that such stories inevitably fail at avoiding schmaltz, and the triumph of true faith is presented here as sappy as can be. Its almost desperate earnestness actually turns out to be its greatest appeal -- August Rush does believe in fairy tales, it does it does it does! And it can earn a few smiles and tears with that. (added 4/18/2008)

AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Directors: Colin Strause and Greg Strause
Rating: 2/10
AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem doesn't seem to exist for itself. It appears to be far more occupied with paying homage to the two franchises it mashes together. Audio and visual references abound, and there are so many scenes shot to reflect scenes from previous "Alien" and "Predator" movies that you'd think AVPR was an exercise in iconography. Whether or not this provides the movie with value is debatable, though -- only die-hard fans might appreciate the odes, but they would have little reason to appreciate the bad movie they're included in. It starts with the story, which seems to draw very little inspiration from either of its subjects, the realms they've inhabited, or the potential they'd inspire, settling to take their showdown to a small town on Earth. There, the Aliens go on the rampage and we're forced to follow around some bland human survivors as they run, hide, arm themselves, and try to find a way out of town, effectively turning the movie into little more than a zombie movie retread. Where are the Predators in all this? Well, only one of them (Ian Whyte) drops in with the purpose of cleaning up the mess, hunting the aliens and getting severely outnumbered. He has no reason to interact with the human characters, and since the human side of the story is so generic, one wonders why they're even included at all. A common, legitimate complaint about the movie is that everything is dark -- when the Predator first encounters some Aliens in a sewer, you can barely what's happening -- and, as if being able to see the action wasn't challenging enough, halfway through the movie the town's power goes out. Topping it all off is the movie's unusually cruel streak: kids are no longer safe, but worse is its apparent hatred of pregnant women, of which several are victimized in the name of showing off a new (and, frankly, redundant) way of Alien reproduction. It is, in a word, repugnant. We can now firmly claim wasted potential and filmmaking incompetence to be the hallmark of the AVP series, two movies strong and hopefully no more. (added 11/15/2010)

Away from Her
Director: Sarah Polley
Rating: 9/10
Alzheimer's disease is difficult enough to deal with on its own, but, as Away from Her shows, it can be even tougher to handle when coupled with just the wrong circumstances. Grant (Gordon Pinsent) finds he has no choice but to place his wife Fiona (Julie Christie), who is in the beginning stages of the disease, in a home, which has a policy that prevents family from visiting for the first 30 days. Unfortunately, he finds that this has caused her not only to forget him but also to display strong affections for a fellow patient. The effect of watching this happen is devastating -- it's just crushing, really -- and we find ourselves wondering if Grant has the strength to handle what has happened, and, by extension, wondering if we would have the strength too. The movie is poignant and patient, and has the wisdom not to depict Grant as a saint but instead as a man with human needs who is confronted by a sudden, rude, and unexpected gap in their fulfillment. This is a really wrenching film, and all the better for it -- and it's also a stellar feature film directorial debut from young actress Sarah Polley (yes, the leading lady from Dawn of the Dead). If she is to be judged by the splendid performances she got from her actors and the movie's remarkable tone of maturity, Polley should be officially anointed as one to watch. (added 10/19/2007)

Bee Movie
Directors: Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith
Rating: 5/10
By now, my animation studio biases should be pretty apparent, and DreamWorks products aren't very high on my praise list. One of the reasons is that they rely too heavily on current cultural parody, and Bee Movie is fully guilty of this. I know this is not a surprise, given that one of the major creative forces behind the movie is Jerry Seinfeld (co-writer, one of the producers, and main character's voice); however, this doesn't excuse it from being annoying anyway. Not only that, the cultural riffs and reference-heavy humor is pretty much all Bee Movie has going for it -- it's otherwise bland, watered-down Seinfeld-ian humor for kids, amusing at best, grating at worst. Seinfeld's observational comedy is biting and revelatory when aimed at adults, but here it's just the mild stuffing for an oddball plot that seems to move at one speed (brisk) and in unrelated phases (beehive working man humor, silly court case shenanigans, then save-the-world action). There's some lunacy in it to keep things interesting, but overall it exudes inconsequentiality. Apparently, someone heard my lament (in my Ant Bully review) that they should make an animated movie about bees instead of ants to reinforce the value of strong social organizations, but I'm disappointed that the idea was wasted on what was essentially a jokey piece of harmless, time killing fluff. (added 4/18/2008)

Black Book (2006; released in U.S. in 2007)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Rating: 7/10
Paul Verhoeven has returned to his roots, the Netherlands, after apparently having had enough with the disppointments of the Hollywood system. However, his new movie, Black Book, feels like a Hollywood natural -- though it's in Dutch and German, it's very well-paced and relatively glossy. The film endeavors to create a tragic air for its wartime saga, yet it can't help but feel pulpy, almost James Bond-like in its mix of spy thrills, action, sex, intrigue, and bold characters. We follow a young Jewish woman, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), as she looks for a way to escape to a safe region of the Netherlands, away from German occupation. The plan fails, though, as her family falls victim to an ambush; the next thing she knows, she's fallen in with a small Dutch resistance group and volunteers to be a spy by cozying up to a handsome SS officer (Sebastian Koch). Before you can say "the spy who loved me," we get twists, betrayals, and uncertain allegiances as Rachel (under her new name "Ellis") fights to survive while uncovering many ugly truths. This is a good topic for Verhoeven to explore -- seeing the various shades of evil that emerge from people during wartime, where supposed allies and war profiteers could be even worse than the Nazis, and observing how their actions affect innocent lives -- and the movie is consistently entertaining. It's only hindered in its attempts to be dramatic and serious by its general movie conventionalism, and yet it's exactly that conventionalism that makes it a relatively breezy two-and-a-half hours. I am, though, a bit disturbed at how much punishment our poor heroine has to put up with -- her suffering seems to stand in for the untold tribulations of those who had to do everything to survive that tumultuous time, as everyone's capacity for cruelty seems to get demonstrated on her. Point made, but towards the end I was practically begging for someone to give her a break. (added 10/19/2007)

Breach
Director: Billy Ray
Rating: 8/10
Breach was something of a surprise, as I was expecting a rather generic Hollywood thriller, and instead found a more subtle character study about the inexplicability and inevitability of the darker of human tendencies. Chris Cooper plays real-life Robert Hanssen, the former FBI agent and traitor who sold secrets to the Russians. He is presented as a man of contradictions -- strict, God-fearing, upstanding, and righteous on the outside, but with inner perversions and harboring, of course, his criminal secret. He's compared/contrasted with the young agent tasked with spying on him, Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), whose own tendencies show a potential for harmful obsessiveness. That the movie is about smart people primally driven to do things they know are wrong and may even outwardly decry made a lot of sense when I found out the director was Billy Ray, whose previous movie, his debut Shattered Glass, was about an admirable young journalist who is discovered to have made up the majority of his reported stories. With these movies, Ray is not only exposing how relatively insecure our systems are -- that trust is a much more valuable commodity than even the most guarded of us may think -- but also showing that society's morals and rules have trained us to be easily confounded by any natural human tendencies to desire or perform aberrant behavior. While many stories explore the thin line that separates man from beast, Ray so far chooses to look at the thin line that separates "good" and "bad" behaviors within the bounds of civility -- and he approaches it from a standpoint of curiosity, rather than for shock value. Breach, nevertheless, is saddled ever so lightly by a little narrative conventionality, but is still able to preserve a discernable identity and unique concerns. I look forward to Ray's future output. (added 6/22/2007)

Charlie Wilson's War
Director: Mike Nichols
Rating: 6/10
Aaron Sorkin, known for scripting stories with witty banter in political settings, adds to his list with Charlie Wilson's War. However, maybe it's just me, but I didn't feel exactly comfortable with this movie. It's a real-life story about Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), who was in the right position at the time to be able to provide secret funding and weapons for the Afghan rebels who were fighting the Russians near the end of the Cold War, and who was persuaded to do so by a socialite activist (Julia Roberts) and a very frank CIA agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman, the film's main highlight). It sounds like a spy movie but it's handled as a comedy, and while the whole thing is droll (there's more than a few funny exchanges in the film), it also feels weightless. Also, since the movie covers a full plate of very specific events, the story moves by like a quick history lesson, so the comedy ends up feeling like sugarcoating to make it all go down easier. Apparently, the idea is for us to be fascinated by how this whole thing came together and ended up handing the Soviets a big defeat (and then, in what feels like a bit of tacked-on irony in the epilogue, led indirectly to arming Al-Qaeda and the Taliban), but the approach most directly leads one to finding it all amusing. Although I found the film generally pleasant, I thought there would be more to chew on afterwards. (added 12/21/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

The Darjeeling Limited
Director: Wes Anderson
Rating: 7/10
The Darjeeling Limited is Wes Anderson's follow-up to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and as much as the previous movie was unfettered and somewhat unfocused, the new one is compact and concise. One might call this a welcome shift, although the result, for me, was somewhat surprising. I found it satisfactory, yet somewhat slight. In the Anderson oeuvre, it feels minor: although it hits its goals, it doesn't necessarily aim big this time. We join three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) as they meet up in India for a bonding excursion. But it was the idea of only one of them -- the other two seem to be only reluctantly complying -- and it soon becomes clear that they each have their own issues, and that a tragedy blunted their recent collective past. Things don't go quite as planned, but the unplanned events create resonance for them, in ways both comic and tragic. Anderson is already a pro at layering a quirky comedy over even more layers of bitter sadness, regrets, and frustrations, and he delivers them all with his unique panache. However, a greater depth isn't achieved this time, perhaps due to having three main characters split a relatively short running time; and India as a healing locale isn't given its due, feeling more like a colorful tourist stop than a spiritual place. Still, for the most part, you get what you expect from an Anderson movie here. I once read somewhere that the good directors don't make many different movies. Instead, each movie is just one part of a long continuous film. If this is the case for Anderson, then The Darjeeling Limited is simply keeping up the pace. (added 9/29/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Death at a Funeral
Director: Frank Oz
Rating: 4/10
To suggest derogatorily that Death at a Funeral might be the British version of lowbrow humor might not be fair, considering that lowbrow humor does exist in British comedy, and it just often comes with a fair bit of wit. And therein lies the problem with Death at a Funeral -- it goes for easy gags. Much of the comedy and plot (things go wrong at house-set funeral) depends on a poorly contrived catalyst -- the accidental taking of a hallucinogenic drug. Not only does it ask its audience to suspend quite a bit of disbelief in order to just get this device going (it starts with someone stumbling upon a bottle marked "Valium," then spontaneously giving some to her partner -- would anyone really do that?), its critical plot/comedy points depend on it. It causes one man to prance about naked in public, and another to fulfill the film's title by dancing about and knocking himself out on the corner of a coffee table. This is just lazy comedy, and it's only made passable mainly by its manic cast and pace (and that a gross amount of silliness often tends to overcome anyone's defenses). I will admit I didn't sit stone-faced throughout the whole thing, but I certainly could have done without the feces gag, or a main turn-of-events that relies on slight homophobia. That said, again, non-PC'ness itself isn't a bad thing, but comedy writing that barely even tries is. (added 7/17/2010)

The Devil Came on Horseback
Directors: Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern
Rating: 8/10
A social conscience-raising message documentary, The Devil Came on Horseback, offers a plea for awareness of the deadly conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. It's to-the-point, educational, and effective. But perhaps what makes this film notable involves how it so clearly demonstrates certain truths about the human condition that we civilized folks try our best to ignore. First off, in showing evidence of the murderous rampage of the Janjaweed militia upon the Darfur villagers, we see our own primal capacity for horrendously violent acts. The movie follows Brian Steidle, a former U.S. Marine, as he volunteers for peacetime observations in Sudan, and shows us his horror as he witnesses acts of pure brutality. The photographs he takes are among the most disturbing ever to lay one's eyes on, and yet they seem sadly typical for the similar ethnic-cleansing events that occupy a wretched corner in our human history. They're a sad reminder that this side of our race never truly goes away. Second, the movie reinforces evidence of our instinctive tribal nature, as the second half of the movie deals with Steidle's attempt to raise awareness and urge the U.S. government, along with the U.N., to act against the violence he's encountered. However, he runs into many roadblocks, resistance, and slow action. The mentality he runs into is one of general apathy when the horror isn't happening in our own backyard. True altruism isn't natural; we must surpass something within ourselves to really achieve it, and sadly the nagging feeling by the end of the film, whose credits are preceded by the usual "if you'd like to help" contact information and websites, is that only a small percentage of those who have watched it will be moved enough to take action. Although The Devil Came on Horseback is neither the first nor the last film of this kind, it deals starkly with its own potential ineffectiveness head-on, as Steidle wonders aloud how much awareness raising will actually make a difference. This documentary stares truth in the face in more ways than one. (added 8/29/2009; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Enchanted
Director: Kevin Lima
Rating: 7/10
Enchanted had a chance to be subversively brilliant, but instead settles for corny and unambitious. No matter, since the movie as a whole survives as an entertaining fluff, bolstered by a really-into-it turn by lead Amy Adams. Everyone who comes from the movie's initial animated world is game here, hamming it up and snacking on the scenery -- James Marsden, Timothy Spall, and, in a too-brief appearance, Susan Sarandon. Disney's idea is to postmodernize their own princess franchises, and instead of going after them with snark, the references are giddy and gleeful (and quite numerous). Most of the fun comes from the movie's early segments, which include a straight-on parody of Disney's own animated classics, where the Ariel-like Giselle (Adams) lives in the woods and yearns for a prince, a la Aurora; but when the reminiscent-of-Snow White evil queen banishes her to real-life New York, she brings her rosy outlook with her, along with her magical abilities to talk to animals (there's a great send-up of that cliche when she calls to the city and vermin respond) and jumpstarting fully-choreographed musical numbers (to the tunes of Alan Menken, no less!). But the movie loses steam and magic the more reality -- and a conventional, obvious rom-com plot -- set in, and by the time a poisoned apple makes its big play, the story feels as if it wimped out on being clever. The filmmakers seemed to have forsaken the idea that a true homage should actually be truly scary in parts, but the climax feels like something of a joke, which makes the whole thing a winking gag. Also, something is bothersome about Disney satirizing a genre they had originally deemed dead that many of us weren't ready to see die. If Enchanted is followed by a new classically-animated fairy tale willing to take the next progressive, narrative steps, then it'd all be worth it. In the meantime, we'll have this cheery little throwback to remind us how much we still believe in wishing upon a star. (added 12/12/2007)

Evan Almighty
Director: Tom Shadyac
Rating: 4/10
In Bruce Almighty, the employed high concept involved a mortal man being granted the powers of God, but the film's small-thinking plot squandered its large potential. So what to do for Evan Almighty, a follow-up starring as the main character one of the very minor characters from Bruce? Give him the powers of God, too, and take another swing at the premise? No, this time, God (Morgan Freeman) appears to command Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) to build an ark for an upcoming flood. I have no clue where anyone would come up with this idea and why they thought it would be funny, but, worse yet, it's not even utilized in a way that makes it worth the time. The motivation for this random act of God is the same as it was in Bruce -- to teach the protagonist a lesson about the value in things he takes for granted. Beyond the dubious notion of why God would single out these schmoes for such a dramatic lesson, the concept is executed illogically completely on its own. Evan must build the ark the old-fashioned way; animals line up two by two to board the vessel; and Evan is forced to grow a long, white beard and wear an Old Testament-style robe. And in the end, after the climax, you don't know why any of that had to happen, other than it probably seemed funny at the time of writing. Unfortunately, not much of the movie is very amusing anyway, despite Carell's earnest attempt at creating comedy in a scripted vacuum. Evan Almighty arrives as pretty much a morality tale aimed at kids, filled as it is with pratfalls, bird droppings, and trained animal tricks. It's harmless as a lesson-teaching device, but otherwise the movie has no easily discernable raison d'Ítre. (added 6/22/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Director: Tim Story
Rating: 4/10
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer's biggest draw is the chance to see the Silver Surfer in action, and his rendering here is actually impressive. He's a stoic alien (played by Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence Fishburne) with a striking appearance, but the seriousness of his character and the plotline he brings with him -- nothing less than the potential end of the world -- ill fit the lightweight, goofy nature of this Fantastic Four franchise. Although the movie's ample humor is at first mostly welcome, what it really ends up doing is deflating the movie of any gravitas. A couple more strikes -- namely, the return of the most unthreatening incarnation of Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon) ever, and an ending that seriously has you wondering why it was so easy (and why couldn't it have happened a long time ago?) -- and this sequel is out, overall succumbing to the weaknesses of the first movie, which, once again, relegates it to sitting at the kids' table at the gathering of comic book movies. (added 11/9/2007)

Fracture
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: 6/10
This is a light psychological thriller that works better on a technical level than a thematic or character-centric one. Anthony Hopkins plays a man who may have staged a perfect murder in that, even as he is tried for the crime, he has engineered loopholes which will allow him to escape. Ryan Gosling plays a cocky lawyer who's assigned to prosecute him, but since he's about to move on to a new firm and the case seems open-and-shut, he hardly tries. But a humiliating court-day defeat only fires up his ego in an attempt to redeem himself. There really isn't much to either Hopkins or Gosling's characters; though both are plausibly played, they feel written specifically to keep the plot moving on its tracks. The overall result is a diverting set-up-and-punchline thriller, fairly entertaining while it lasts, but then that's about as far as it goes. (added 9/21/2007)

Futurama: Bender's Big Score
Director: Dwayne Carey-Hill
Rating: 8/10
Matt Groening's television creation, The Simpsons, may have gotten all the attention with its movie version in 2007, but I enjoyed the straight-to-DVD movie of his other T.V. show, Futurama, more. Where The Simpsons Movie had to resort to obvious external and internal crises (destruction of hometown / destruction of family) to create its sense of "bigness," Futurama: Bender's Big Score is able to create its own in a way that feels more natural, more native to its spirit. Maybe it helps that its story involves time travel and the show's enduring theme of unrequited love; or maybe this just exposes my own nerdiness in how I'm inherently drawn to these things. After all, Futurama is proudly nerdy, and the movie employs all of the hallmarks (largely consisting of rapid-fire humor and ultra-obscure references aimed towards math/science geeks) that has made the show such a cult favorite. Amidst this, the movie retains its keenness of observation and sense of the profound, balancing a hilarious extrapolation of a world taken over by commercial scammers (who lure victims to their doom via internet spam) with a rather heartbreaking examination of doomed love that ties fate to circumstance and the consistency of one's heart. Yes, we're talking about the terminally stupid Fry (voice of Billy West) here, who's fated to live through cycles of selfish actions leading to selfless sacrifices. Might this sound too deep? Don't worry, it all starts with a tattoo of Bender found on Fry's ass. (added 12/28/2007)

Ghost Rider
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Rating: 5/10
Even though I wasn't expecting much from Ghost Rider, it still feels like potential wasted. Maybe I was surprised to find myself getting into it, although I admit I've always been curious about the story of Marvel Comic's flame-skulled motorcycle demon. But the movie ended up being too much build-up (Ghost Rider doesn't even show up for the first 45 minutes; NOTE: I watched the Extended Cut DVD) leading to not enough payoff. It's not too much to ask that a scary-looking superhero actually gets to do some real ass kicking, but the bad guys that get thrown at him are pretty pathetic. He doesn't even get a chance to do much with his bike, other than ride it up and down a skyscraper, and even that comes off more as a showpiece rather than something that's functionally part of the action. To make up for its sparse moments of spectacle, a lot of time is spent on the hero's dilemma of figuring out what he's gotten himself into, but it's all played with a loose goofiness that implies it isn't even taking itself seriously. That seems to be the price you pay for having Nicolas Cage star in your movie -- he's always a double-edged sword, because although his goofy act can be charming, it also adds a comedic layer that might hinder the film's attempts at dramatic weight when it really needs it. Ghost Rider as a whole adopts Cage's personality, which means it's watchable but seems to be kidding around a lot. It feels like the wrong approach for a hero that could've conveyed some real menace. The supporting cast gives mixed results -- Eva Mendes's part feels token, while Wes Bentley's villain Blackheart should win an award for stupidity in conception. He's counterbalanced, at least, by Sam Elliott; I don't think there's anyone else so natural at displaying rugged coolness. I would've rather had the movie be about him. (added 7/6/2007)

The Golden Compass
Director: Chris Weitz
Rating: 5/10
The Golden Compass seems to confuse intelligence with talk, talk, and more talk, and it also seems to think all a movie needs to qualify as a good fantasy is pretty sets plus a lot of cgi. Far be it from me to ask that any genre follow a template for success, but why couldn't this film include at least one decent action scene in its first half? Maybe I wouldn't have minded if what happens otherwise engaged me, but so much of the movie is just explanatory and expository dialogues and monologues. New characters, new concepts = more explanations. And lots of backstories. Only a talking polar bear fight in the middle of the movie is enough to be rousing, but the big battle after that turns out to be one of those fights where character after character gets saved at the last minute from someone off screen. Director Chris Weitz, who also adapted Philip Pullman's book here, doesn't appear able to handle straight fantasy -- most of the style feels cribbed from Andrew Adamson's first Chronicles of Narnia movie, and it comes across unimaginative as a result. The story's themes, particularly about how dogmatic authority depends on the removal of their subjects' self-will and consciences, are therefore served up blandly. The movie's main weapon for better engagement lies in the hands of its appealing young star, Dakota Blue Richards, and since the ending sets up for a sequel, maybe she -- and the series -- will get a better chance to shine later, now that all the explaining has been hopefully gotten out of the way with this first run-through. (added 12/7/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Gone Baby Gone
Director: Ben Affleck
Rating: 8/10
I would call Ben Affleck's first effort behind the camera a qualified success -- better than the debuts of most actors-turned-directors in that it contains vision and perspective as opposed to concentrating mostly on performances and serious drama. Not that Gone Baby Gone isn't a drama, but really it's more of a police/crime story used to convey Affleck's concerns and themes of interest. In this case, he visits Boston, his old stomping grounds, and courageously shows a class of everyday people who live their lives in the fallout area of commercialism, consumerism, and pop media. These people are victims before they become overtly victimized by kidnappings, one of which serves as the focal point of the story (based on a Dennis Lehane novel) wherein a private detective (Casey Affleck) investigates the disappearance of the daughter of a negligent drug addict mother (Amy Ryan). The movie is stronger before it gets to its conclusion, which involves a more obvious statement of a moral quandary, but overall its attention to detail, its well-drawn characters, and its confidence in dramatic flair hold it up. Comparisons beg to be made to the last Lehane adaptation, Mystic River, and Affleck well holds his own against veteran Clint Eastwood, as he places his actors second to the colors of the environment that surrounds them. (added 12/28/2007)

The Great Debaters
Director: Denzel Washington
Rating: 7/10
Nothing will likely surprise you about The Great Debaters, which features a sports movie plot as applied to the trials of a college debating team. The main concept point here is that it's an all-black team from Wiley College that rises to prominence when it eventually takes on an Ivy League contender. Pairing this drama genre with a black history-related story makes the movie not unlike Pride earlier in the year, but The Great Debaters benefits from having more strong performances than just its central one of the coach (in this case, Denzel Washington as Mel Tolson). Particularly, Nate Parker and Denzel Whitaker (whose involvement must've been cosmically influenced, given that the movie also stars Washington and Forest Whitaker, neither of whom he's related to) both give appealing, charismatic turns as members of the squad. Unlike Pride's brute force approach to seeking racial equality, The Great Debaters argues that strength of mind and character will be the best tools to prepare for the struggle -- an idea much more appealing to general inspiration-seeking audiences. This is Washington's second directorial effort, and he's showing a tendency to favor middlebrow drama with conflicted characters as presented in a classy, glossy package. It's not daring, but it's earnest. As an actor-director, he also focuses on performances, and the sum of these elements makes The Great Debaters a predictable but sturdy genre offering. (added 12/25/2007; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2007

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