Archive for the ‘DVD’ Category


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.


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.


When Bad Times Get Worse — The Strangers

January 11, 2009

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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His Technique Is Strong — Kung-Fu Panda

January 2, 2009

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.


Dead On Arrival: Resident Evil: Degeneration

January 2, 2009

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.


High Level Spy Shit — The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading

December 27, 2008

d. Joel & Ethan Coen

The Coens return to comedy a year after their intense thriller No Country For Old Men with a movie that also marks a return of many themes and character-types seen throughout their work.

Burn After Reading’s basic premise revolves around a disgraced Washington analyst (John Malkovich) who, while undergoing a divorce (from Tilda Swinton), has his memoirs and financials on disc end up in the laps of two gym managers (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) who mistakenly believe that it is high-level spy shit. The double pun here concerns the burning of information onto the disc as well as a reference to the book Burn Before Reading, which was about CIA goings-on.

A large part of the fun of the movie is witnessing how the errors of judgement and farce pile up in typical Coen fashion until the last act is a dazzling maze of twists and turns all predicated on mistaken identities and the idiotic choices made by people way in over their heads.

Frances McDormand brings in a brilliant performance as one of the gym managers who, prisoner to her desire for plastic surgery, decides to use the disc as an opportunity for a blackmail scheme. Her character is an amazing study in how everyday people can think they are in control when in reality they are anything but.

Her actions, based on her greed and self-absorption — to the point of idiocy, are a theme constantly explored in the  Coens’ films. They of course always spell disaster for several characters. It’s something we see from Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo to the barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There  to even The Ladykillers.

For example, she unwittingly sends Brad Pitt to his doom by having him break into Malkovich’s house in order to get more information they can use to supply to the Russians. Part of the humour is that her espionage skills all seem to have been culled from an antiquated idea of spy-politics during the Cold War. Even the Russians are baffled by her actions.

Another character whose world falls apart in the Coens’ hands is George Clooney’s. He is cheating on his wife with Tilda Swinton, and, because of his womanizing ways, ends up crossing paths with McDormand. But what sinks him is an event that blindsides him and reveals his inadequacies and mortality. From that point, his paranoia takes over.

It’s all done humorously and with the classic Coen irony that allows us to finger-point and laugh without feeling as if we are implicating ourselves even as we identify with these characters.

Despite the heady and mesmerizing last act where all the jigsaw pieces fall into place with expert handling, the feeling of having been there done that does linger, and I was somewhat disappointed in Brad Pitt’s antics this time around, though his character’s final scene is tense and horrifying.

Overall, a fine effort by the Coens, but not the best. Perhaps on par with The Man Who Wasn’t There in its finely crafted execution and the sense of spiraling dread it creates, but not enough to blow my expectations out of the water.

**1/2 stars.


“Looks Are Everything” — Carnal Knowledge

December 22, 2008

d. Mike Nichols 

Daring for its time, and still somewhat disarming today, Carnal Knowledge deals with the heightened reality of two men and the relationships they forge with women over several years. The movie opens with a voice-over dialogue between best friends Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) that lays down their basic philosophies. They both would rather love someone than be loved; Jonathan especially believes that both states are exclusive to one another and not mutual.

Domestic Bliss

Domestic Bliss

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“The Whole Place Is A Kill Zone” — Two-Minute Warning

December 21, 2008

d. Larry Peerce

Thank the 70s for providing us with many great thrillers and disaster movies. Peerce’s Two-Minute Warning combines the two to provide a tense nail-biter that , even if the outcome is never in doubt, makes for a great movie.

Snipers Get the Best Seats

Snipers Get the Best Seats

Like a number of disaster movies at the time, this film is chock full of star presence. Charlton Heston plays the police chief who becomes embroiled in a lone sniper’s assassination plot that involves the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the championship game between LA and Baltimore. Heston’s dilemma is how to catch this sniper who has 90,000 potential victims under his scope. The setting serves as a great backdrop against which the other stars’ stories unfold.

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“Don’t Drink The Milk!” — Lucky McKee’s The Woods

December 18, 2008

THE WOODS (2005)
d. Lucky McKee

Lucky McKee first caught my attention with his quirky horror film May, about a psyche-damaged, lazy-eyed loner that was at parts romantic and disturbing, usually in the same scene. In his feature follow-up, The Woods, Mr. McKee continues exploring the theme of the female outsider swept up in forces beyond her control when an attempt, either internal or external, to fit in ends in disaster.

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Beware the Dreaded Glue Man! Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale

December 17, 2008

d. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger 

I never thought I would not like a Powell & Pressburger film, but here it is. A Canterbury Tale is not what I expected and perhaps I am missing some vital connection or meaning that would have better informed my viewing. As it is, I found the film slightly charming — the setting of the English countryside is beautiful, the American soldier’s quaint expressions speak of a bygone era of gentlemanliness and patriotism, and the English customs as seen through the American’s eyes become a source of humor.

Unfortunately, the plot and the stakes on which the action revolves are quite thin. While this leads me to suspect that there is something else going on here (something allegorical or, dare I say, religiously experiential?), what is here is a bit daft.

Basically, an American G.I. (Sgt. John Sweet) finds himself stranded in a small town, one train stop outside of Canterbury (his destination), and he immediately becomes embroiled in an incident where a newly arrived English woman from London, Alison (Shiela Sim), gets glue poured onto her hair. He and an English Sergeant track the ne’er-do-well to the local courthouse, but lose sight of him. There they meet the local magistrate, Colpeper (Eric Portman).

Intent on discovering the identity of this “Glue Man”,who has struck several time before, the American agrees to stay and help Alison uncover the perp’s identity and have him arrested before his streak continues. What follows is an investigation by the 2 Sergeants and Alison as they explore all aspects of the small town and slowly reveal their pasts to each other.

Ultimately, the investigation seems rather silly since the answer is glaringly obvious from the beginning, and the stakes seem somewhat low on the totem pole as the enemy doesn’t seem that threatening. I mean, “Glue Man”? Really? I’ll have to chalk that up to “another time, another place”.

What Powell and Pressburger do well is the build up to finally entering Canterbury and revealing the massive cathedral located there after all the talk about it. It’s a majestic moment, though I felt left out as to why such a moment should be singled out as majestic — it seemed melodramatic.

The performances on a whole are what you would expect from a late 40s film, where everyone says what they feel. And the real life G.I. Sgt. John Sweet as the American soldier gives such a level performance that stays straight throughout the film that you will either be charmed by his gosh-darnit delivery or be infuriated by it. Shiela Sim fares better as a woman overcoming the loss of her lover (hence the reason for her return to the small town), as does Eric Portman who gives the magistrate a serene dignity in spite of his dubious actions.

Criterion does its normally excellent job of providing a great clean crisp transfer with improved audio. Otherwise, I felt this to be a minor work compared to The Red Shoes, and not as engaging as The Small Back Room, which came out the same year.

** stars.