Archive for January, 2009

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Eagle Eye Has Tunnel Vision

January 30, 2009

EAGLE EYE (2008)
d. D.J. Caruso 

Executive Producer Steven Spielberg and director DJ Caruso muscle in on Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott territory with this techno-thriller involving a Kafka-esque persecution of Copy Cabana boy Shia LaBeouf and single-mother Michelle Monaghan as they are “activated” in scenes reminiscent of The Matrix into Jason Bourne-style American homeland security terrorists. It’s Disturbia taken out of the next door neighbor’s yard and moved to the entire country.

The conceit here that American privacy has been handed over to the government and that we are subject to the whims of technology and identity theft feeds our paranoia and distrust of power out of control that would make many conspiracy theorists and Luddites feel justified in their beliefs.

After a somewhat surprisingly slack first act where the world of hi-tech “smart” warfare is introduced and we get to know our leads, the film takes off on a thrilling cross-country chase from Chicago to our nation’s capitol where the plot threads lead our hapless protagonists to confront Aria (voiced by an uncredited Julianne Moore), a super smart self-aware computer that seems to be the love child of HAL and Mother, and the progenitor of VICKI and SkyNet, who has taken it upon herself to act in the nation’s best interests and decides to assassinate the President and others in top Cabinet positions.

Shia proves to be capable and charismatic in the lead, and Michelle is adequate and able to keep up. Less convincing is the hyperreal use of technology in this world and Aria’s reach — from remote control cranes gone amok to the ability to down power lines (though being able to listen in on a conversation by analyzing the sound waves vibrating the coffee in a mug is pretty cool). And even less convincing is how Shia and Michelle are able to survive and avoid capture.

Other name actors fill out the rest of the cast — Rosario Dawson, hot and convincing as an Air Force officer who is investigating Shia’s twin brother’s connections to Aria; Billy Bob Thornton, ornery as ever as the Fed hot on the trail of the two victims; and Michael Chiklis as the Secretary of Defense who barely registers a presence.

Overall, the action sequences are well-staged and provide a modicum of thrills, but the main conceit of omnipresent and omniscient technology collapses under its own weight as it escalates from plausible to ridiculous. If not for the presence of Shia and Michelle to ground some of the high concepts, this film would have been less watchable.

**1/2 stars.

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High Wire Act Highly Entertaining — Man On Wire

January 21, 2009

MAN ON WIRE (2008)
d.  James Marsh

Phillipe Petit, the charismatic subject of this documentary, recounts his wirewalking stunt and enters the history books as the only person to ever traverse a wire strung between the Twin Towers a scant several months after the building was first erected.

It is a story he tells with relish and flair, filled with dramatic beats and tense moments. Speaking of wirewalking as his art, Phillipe turns the iconic image into a metaphoric symbol of ambition and dreams realized.

His accomplices and girlfriend of the time are on hand as well to fill out the details and provide context, and it is obvious that they too are moved by Phillipe’s grand gesture.

What amazed me about this documentary, other than the behind-the-scenes account of their strategy to infiltrate the WTC, was the vintage footage of the young schemers showing us their plans (especially the scale model of the roofs of the Twin Towers).

Man On Wire is a touching and entertaining recounting of an amazing one-of-a-kind stunt and is well worth the watch.

***1/2 stars.

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When Bad Times Get Worse — The Strangers

January 11, 2009

THE STRANGERS (2008)
d. Bryan Bertino

A very effective thriller/horror movie in the vein of Straw Dogs about a couple terrorized by three masked individuals in an isolated summer home that starts really strong, but a number of missteps on the way and the film goes off the rails that by the conclusion I was left feeling empty and sour.

The One On The Right Is The Cutest

The One On The Right Is The Cutest

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Winner and Still Champion — Aronofsky’s The Wrestler

January 4, 2009

THE WRESTLER (2008)
d. Darren Aronofsky 

Perhaps the single most astonishing visual effect this year that doesn’t involve the digital removal of limbs or the digital placement of heads on children’s bodies is the stunning and somewhat grotesque physique of Mickey Rourke in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

His beefy pumped up body and home-bleached long hair and sprayed-on tan is the most convincing body transformation since Christian Bale shed pounds for The Machinist or Rescue Dawn. But it all fits in the world of the professional wrestler, and Mickey Rourke wholly inhabits the life of Randy “The Ram” with eerie echoes to his own life as an actor turned boxer turned actor again.

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His Technique Is Strong — Kung-Fu Panda

January 2, 2009

KUNG-FU PANDA (2008)
d. Mark Osborne & James Stevenson

Another top-notch animated feature, but with a very engaging storyline, Kung-Fu Panda delights with its depiction of the least likeliest of heroes in the form of a fat panda, Po.

Po (Jack Black) starts off as the son of a noodle-shop owner (James Hong), dreaming of glory and adventures with the Furious Five, a team of kung-fu masters made up of Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu) and led by their master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his master, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim).

With the threat of the evil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escaping prison and making his way back to the valley to retrieve a sacred scroll that promises unlimited power, Oogway holds a celebration to choose the fabled Dragon Warrior who will protect and save the valley from Tai Lung. Guess who gets picked.

Po, burdened with a new responsibility, perseveres to train to become the Dragon Warrior in spite of everyone else’s misgivings and judgements. What we are treated to are some of the best animated and most hilarious training sequences committed to film. Honestly, these bits were the funniest parts of the film.

The training sequences, the bridge fight and the final confrontation between Po and Tai Lung stand out as the most amazingly choreographed fight sequences in animation that I have seen in a long time. Taking some cues from The Matrix, the animators slow down the action to emphasize hits while milking the laughs all the while. Its quite a balancing act that is successful every time.

The only misgiving I had was that the Furious Five voices did not bear easy recognition. I had no idea of all the big names attached to the characters until the end credits. Really, the only voices I recognized were Jack Black, James Hong and Dustin Hoffman. Other than that, I have no other complaints against the film.

Kung-Fu Panda is laugh-out loud funny and at the right moments very touching. Especially when Po comes into his own and realizes his own worth and power.

Another cool thing about this movie is how they allow Po to have total geekgasms when he meets the Furious Five and enters the hall of memorabilia. It’s a great way to allow us to empathize with Po, because who doesn’t act that way around their heroes?

*** stars.

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Dead On Arrival: Resident Evil: Degeneration

January 2, 2009

RESIDENT EVIL: DEGENERATION (2008)
d. Makoto Kamiya

In this direct to DVD computer-animated feature, the world of Resident Evil is expanded slightly, but the main thrill is seeing Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield reunited since their first pairing in the videogame, Resident Evil 2.

The storyline is what one expects from Resident Evil: an outbreak of zombie-ism perpetrated by a mysterious person behind the scenes. The location this time is an airport terminal where Claire must protect a little girl and a slimy Senator, and Leon is sent in to rescue survivors. However, this only takes up the first act.

The rest of the story has Leon and Claire splitting up. Leon teams with an SRT member, Angela (who bears a striking resemblance to Angelina Jolie) to track down a suspected bio-terrorist, who turns out to be her brother, Curtis. Claire, meanwhile, travels with a doctor to the WilPharma institute where she discovers that they have a cure for the T-virus, but they house the G-virus as well. Danger!

The two threads draw together when Angela’s brother attacks the WilPharma institute and injects himself with the G-virus, transforming himself into a deadly creature.

While the narrative, on the whole, is clunky and peppered with leaden dialogue typical for this series, the animation is crisp and detailed; I found myself admiring the rendered dust motes more often than paying attention to the story.

For plot-hounds, this story takes place after Resident Evil 4 as there are mentions of Leon’s involvement with Ganados and the President’s daughter; I have a sneaky suspicion that there is the most tenuous of connections to RE5 with the appearance of the TriCell members toward the end as they sift through the rubble for remnants of the G-virus.

In any case, the story is so-so, and the animation is top-notch — though the people are somewhat stiffer than the zombies.

** stars.