REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

UP (2009)

In Adventure, Animation, Computer Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, U on February 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

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STUDIO — Disney/Pixar

CAST — Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson

DIRECTORS —  Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

MPAA Rating: PG

How do they do it?

How do the geniuses at Pixar make such beautiful magic with their terrabytes of computer technology? So far, nearly every Disney/Pixar offering I have seen has been a magical ride through some of the most imaginative stories ever conjured up, and Up is no exception!

In this movie, a retired balloon vendor named Carl Fredicksen (voice of Ed Asner), faced with eviction from his home, decides to launch thousands of balloons to fly his home to South America, pursiung a life-long dream shared by him and his late wife, Ellie. Shortly after he takes off, however, he discovers a stowaway: a Wilderness Explorer scout named Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) who is one badge short of advancing to Senior Wilderness Explorer. That badge, by the way, is the Assisting the Elderly Badge.

Carl Fredricksen's house, en route to South America

Up is a very wonderful film to watch. My only regret is not seeing it in 3-D when it was released in theatres. At the risk of sounding cliché, I laughed, I cried, my heart pounded, I cheered, and I booed. The visuals are stunning, as always, the character performances are riveting, and there is great comic relief from a talking dog (!) named Dug (voice of co-director Bob Peterson). And of course, this movie has what will arguably become the most memorable flying house since The Wizard of Oz.

Okay, the dogs don’t really talk, but they are fitted with special collars that allow them to communicate with humans, courtesy of disgraced explorer (and Carl’s childhood hero) Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer). A great running gag in this film has the dogs alerting and saying “Squirrel!” while in mid-sentence. There is a also a wonderful riff on Star Wars in this movie, too (a reference, of course, to Pixar’s origins as part of LucasFilm).

One endearing quality I found with Up is how it told the story of Carl’s life, from the time he first met Ellie when they were kids, to their marriage, to their ups and downs, and finally to her death, in only 12 minutes. It was touching and funny, and we (as the audience) learn to really care for Carl right away. It also sheds light on how some old people (especially the grumpy ones) become the way they are; in this case, Carl is so sentimentally attached to the life and home he created with Ellie, he refused to let go, even when developers tried to intervene. Carl Fredricksen will go down as one of the most memorable Pixar characters of all time. Sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it? An old man among toys (Woody and Buzz Lightyear), monsters (Sully and Mike), a car (Lightning McQueen), an insect (Flik), a fish (Nemo), and a robot (Wall-E). But I believe this to be true, and Disney will one day create an attraction centered around Carl (likely with Russell at his side). Of this, I have little doubt.

Pixar has come a long way since 1995’s Toy Story, which is an acheivement in itself. This is a must-have for any DVD collection (I would recommend the 2-disk Special Edition; the single disk has only the movie and some trailers), a must-add to your Queue, and must-see movie for all ages.

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THE HURT LOCKER (2009)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, H, Independent, Motion Pictures, War on February 17, 2010 at 1:36 am

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STUDIO – Summit Entertainment 

CAST – Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes 

DIRECTOR – Katheryn Bigelow 

MPAA RATING – R 

Welcome to Iraq, the most violent and chaotic place on earth. Director and co-writer Kathryn Bigelow takes us inside the lines and shows us what war looks like today in the guerilla environment of the Middle East. In The Hurt Locker, a team from an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit is on their final days in-country before heading back to the States. When the team leader dies in the line of duty, his replacement, SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) reports to the company to take his place. At first, SGT J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and SPC Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) think James is a loose cannon, but with hundreds of successful missions under his belt, he must be doing something right. 

SGT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie, left) and SPC Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) help SSG James (Jeremy Renner) suit up

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, war has been largely portrayed as ugly, gritty, dirty business. The Hurt Locker takes this ball and runs with it by visually telling us that war is literally a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at any moment, and no one is ever safe. In fact, Kathryn Bigelow borrows from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playbook more than once, in that at least two prominent actors in this movie are killed off, and one of the three stars gets wounded (I won’t say who or when, of course). 

This movie is one of those that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Working in EOD is very intense, very stressful, and very dangerous, and to do it, you gotta have a little crazy in you. In one scene, SSG James finds so much explosives packed into the back of a car, he walks back to his team, takes off his explosives suit, and says “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortable”. And I am willing to bet that nearly every EOD and police bomb squad technician agrees with that mentality (though they know they shouldn’t). 

Shot on location in Jordan, The Hurt Locker has built-in authenticity, in terms of locale and environment. In the DVD’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Jeremy Renner says that the sweat on the screen is real sweat. And in a hostile place where nights are no cooler than 90°F (32°C), there is no need for fake sweat! 

One more thing worth mentioning: Anthony Mackie’s performance as SGT Sanborn was also very exceptional. On many levels, I found myself relating to Sanborn, from how “by the book” he is, to how he somehow remains level-headed throughout most of the movie, to his desire to just get the job done. I hope I get to see more of Mr. Mackie in the future. 

Now to Kathryn Bigelow. Historically, war has been the pervue of men, and movies about war have been primarily written, directed, and produced by men. And most of the time, it was men who starred in nearly every movie about war since the beginnings of the motion picture industry. This makes The Hurt Locker a game-changer. Kathryn Bigelow did a superb job helming this movie, thus receiving a well-earned Oscar™ nomination (among the nine nominations for this movie overall, including Best Actor for Jeremy Renner) for 2009. 

Gripping, insightful, painful, reckless, and chaotic. This is an excellent movie, one that demonstrates the madness of combat in Iraq in the early years of the 21st Century. 

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

In Action, I, Motion Pictures, War on February 15, 2010 at 3:03 am

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 STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger

DIRECTOR —  Quentin Tarantino

MPAA Rating: R

O Quentin, where art thou?

When I think of Quentin Tarantino, I think of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and the Kill Bill saga. These are movies I could sink my teeth into (and I have). But Inglourious Basterds is a very different movie, with a very different feel to it. In fact, the only things Tarantino-esque about it are the “chapter” slates, a few select “call-back” edits, and that Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel lent their (uncredited) voices to the film. This movie features dialogue in not one, but four different languages (French, German, English, and Italian). Of all the World War II movies ever made, only a relative few don’t fall under the conventional “everybody speaks English” wisdom. While I found this delightful, I must confess I had a little difficulty keeping up with the subtitles.   

Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) chats with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), while "Enzo Corlomi" (Brad Pitt) looks on

Cinematically, this is a stunning movie. Tarantino’s directing style makes for a visual masterpiece nearly every time out of the gate, in both filming and editing technique. But as I said before, this doesn’t really “feel” like a typical Tarantino movie. Yes, there is plenty of blood spatter, but it doesn’t feel as over-the-top as, say, Michael Madsen gleefully disfiguring a cop while dancing to “Stuck In the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.

Most of the cast did well in this movie. Kudos to Christoph Waltz as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. In the opinion of this writer, Waltz single-handedly saved this movie from being a complete mess. In an interview, Quentin Tarantino said that without Waltz, this movie would not have been made. Frankly, I completely agree with this statement. As Landa, Waltz is both predator and slippery eel, dashing and cruel, friendly and suspicious. It is a masterful performance, with well-deserved accolades, including an Academy Award™ nomination. 

But what about the “Basterds” themselves? In the movie, they were a band of eight Jewish soldiers on a singular mission: kill the Nazis. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they spent a significant portion of the movie succeeding in just that. But as it turns out, the movie is not centered around them; it is primarily about a young Jewish woman who had escaped death three years earlier, only to plot revenge by killing hundreds of Nazis, including Adolph Hitler himself (!), at her movie theatre. The “Basterds” just happened to catch wind of the event and planned their own Nazi-killing party there, too.  

As is typical of any Quentin Tarantino movie, you have to suspend your disbelief. But come on! Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) was more accurate than this movie! By the time the climax started, as visually striking as it was, I ended up throwing my hands up and calling BS. I’m sorry, Quentin, but I think you went too far with this one.  

EDITED 2/25 TO ADD THE FOLLOWING:  

It is rare when I revisit a review to add to it, but I have taken some time to digest this movie a little further. As a result, I am amending my review of Inglourious Basterds.  One of the things I have overlooked is the fact that Quentin Tarantino is unlike almost any other director out there. There are so few directors working today with the passion and drive to make movies the way he does. On top of that, he carries a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic history within that oddly-shaped head of his. Both of these qualities come to the forefront in every movie he makes, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception. For example, most of the movie posters (“Nation’s Pride” and the Bridget von Hammersmark films excepted) are from real movies made in the 1920s and 1930s, and that they provide a subtext to this movie which illustrates the oppression felt by the French and the Jews under Nazi Germany, and the desire to break free from it. Also, in “Nation’s Pride”, the film-within-a-film, a John Wayne-like actor playing an American colonel gives an impassioned speech about preserving the tower where the Nazi sniper (and star of the film) is holed up. That actor is Bo Svenson, who starred in a 1978 movie entitled The Inglorious Bastards (no relation), directed by Enzo Castellari (who also has a cameo, as a Nazi dignitary at the cinema).  

It is little “Easter eggs” like this which makes watching a Tarantino movie fun to watch. It’s amazing, the things you learn from watching the Special Features disc. While I still maintain it is not one of his best films, Inglourious Basterds is still a fun-to-watch romp done only the way Quentin can do it.  

3-1/2 out of 5

DISTRICT 9 (2009)

In Action, D, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on February 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

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STUDIO — TriStar

CAST — Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike

DIRECTOR —  Neill Blomkamp

MPAA Rating: R

In 2009, the science-fiction/fantasy genre made a generally strong impression upon moviegoers. Among the top-grossing films of the year were Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator: Salvation, and of course, a small little-known movie called Avatar. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

But not all sci-fi is big-budget tentpole films. Meet District 9, one of two movies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre to receive an Oscar™ nomination for Best Picture of 2009 (Avatar is the other). This movie, the cinematic directorial debut of Neill Blomkamp, made with a modest budget, and featuring a cast of unknowns, is one of the boldest and most eye-popping movies of 2009. It is also one of the most polarizing. This is one of those films that received both critical praise and derision, and sometimes both at the same time. On a personal note, I can say that more than a few of the people with whom I have spoken did not like this movie, and my brother hated the first half when I popped this movie into my DVD player (But he did love the second half). But this isn’t my brother’s review, nor my friends’, nor a recap of what the professional critics said.

HMU Manager Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) serves eviction notices in District 9.

District 9 is the story of an alien race who had been stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa, for over 20 years. Since their arrival, a series of incidents with the aliens (known derisively as “prawns”)  created tensions among the locals, leading to the formation of a designated colony in town known as District 9. Eventually, District 9 turned into little more than a shantytown under the jurisdiction of corporate giant Multi-National United (MNU). Finally, the locals demanded the aliens be dealt with once and for all, so MNU moved in to relocate them to a new settlement 200 kilometers away. Even though they are being served eviction notices, the move is mandatory. And the man placed in charge of the evictions is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley).

Now that you know the premise, I won’t go any further into the story for the sake of spoilers, except to say that Wikus (pronounced “VEE-kus”) has an eye-opening experience which leads to his discovery that his employer is not as benevolent as he thought they were. The first half of District 9 was a chaotic mix of shooting styles to give a documentary feel, including news, corporate, file and security footage. This mix of mostly hand-held footage sets up the story in a rapid, if not unique, way. As the movie progresses, the camerawork evolves into a more cinematic feel, with some of the documentary footage mixed in to provide tension in key scenes. For example, now a wanted man, Wikus walks into a restaurant and tries to order food. A security camera shows him entering, then the cinematic storytelling takes over when the news splashes his face on the TV. It may be a gimic, but for the most part, it works with great effect.

This movie took advantage of parallels of South Africa’s own history (The title itself is a nearly direct reference to an area in Johannesburg once known as District 6 during the Apartheid era, and the alien settlement was once a real slum near Soweto). In the opinion of this writer, science-fiction is at its best when it makes social and political commentary based on either historical or current events (hence the appeal of the Star Trek franchise all these years), and the story of District 9 is both frightening and real in its examination of the human race, which fears the “prawns”. And we all know that people fear what they do not understand.

The choice to shoot this movie on location in South Africa, using a South African cast and a native South African director was both bold and visionary (I may be a little prejudiced – for lack of a better word – as my grandfather was born in Pretoria). District 9 is not for everyone, but it is gripping from start to finish.

4 out of 5

THE ITALIAN JOB (2003)

In Action, Crime, I, Motion Pictures on February 5, 2010 at 12:56 am

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STUDIO — Paramount

CAST — Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Mos Def, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland

DIRECTOR —  F. Gary Gray

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Before watching this movie, I watched the original movie from 1969, starring Michael Caine. This is an exercise I like to do to draw comparison between the original and the update in terms of quality, performance, and homage. This is something I will do often, so don’t be surprised if you see back-to-back reviews of originals and remakes like this in the future. Anyway, let’s get on with the show.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Charlie Croker, a professional thief who, in the beginning of this movie, pulls off a successful heist of over $35 million in gold buillion in Venice. But the bulk of the movie’s story takes place a year later in Los Angeles. So, unlike the original movie, The Italian Job is not centered around the gang trying to steal the gold. But it is about how one member, Steve (Edward Norton) betrayed them by taking the haul for himself, and how the others make plans to take it back from him. So, essentially, this movie isn’t about the robbery; it’s about the gold itself.

The newly-modified Minis on a test drive

So, what does this movie have in common with the original? Well, Charlie is still here, and so is Mr. (John) Britcher (Donald Sutherland). Seth Green takes over the comic relief reins as the computer whiz, only this time he obsesses about a former college roommate who stole his idea (Napster). And of course, the Minis. You can’t have this movie without Minis.

This movie was entertaining from start to finish. Wahlberg leads the ensemble cast with a casual energy, and his chemistry with the others (Green, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham, and Mos Def) is very apparent. The script was a cut above that of your average action movie, and F. Gary Gray’s direction put a fresh twist on the genre.

I guess it goes without saying that I liked this movie. I will say this: having a bus hang precariously off a ledge along Mulholland Drive probably would not have worked as an ending.

The Italian Job is a well-paced, fun action film with (mostly) likable characters (Edward Norton’s Steve is a slimeball, and he plays his character with aplomb). This is one movie I may actually consider buying.

4 out of 5

THE ITALIAN JOB (1969)

In Action, Comedy, Crime, I, Motion Pictures on February 2, 2010 at 11:53 pm

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STUDIO — Oakhurst Productions/Paramount

CAST — Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill

DIRECTOR —  Peter Collinson

MPAA Rating: G

For years, I had heard about the now-famous cliffhanger ending in 1969’s The Italian Job, and I wondered why would the makers of this movie allow it to end this way. Now that I have seen the movie, I must say that it works. Normally, I’d consider this a spolier, but in this case, the movie is about the journey, not the destination. At the end of the movie, the bus carrying the crooks and the gold skids out of control and hangs precariously over the edge of a cliff, the crooks at one end, the gold at the other (It’s pretty easy to guess which is at which end). Then Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) says he has an idea, and… roll credits!

Frankly, it is gags like this that make this movie so irreverently 60s, so amusing, so… British. On top of Caine’s ex-con with a shot at the big time, there is Noel Coward’s incarcerated flambouyant ringleader with a just-this-side-of-creepy fascination of Queen Elizabeth II, Maggie Blye as Croker’s girlfriend, who arranges a welcome home “party” with several ladies for him (only to go into a fit of rage when he tries to bed three more girls on his own), and Benny Hill’s nutty professor with a perverse predaliction toward women who are, shall we say, plus-sized.

The Mini Coopers make their escape from Turin

Yes, this is a Rated-G movie. By today’s standards, it would likely be a PG, but it sill makes for a fun-to-watch caper movie. I, for one, find it suitable for nearly all audiences. But if you like classic exotic automobiles, you’d better prepare to weep. Fiats, Lamborghinis, Jaguars and (of course) Mini Coopers get literally tossed over cliffs throughout the film.

And who could forget those Mini Coopers? The chase scene of the three Minis escaping from the overly-congested streets of Turin, Italy, is one of the most unique ever filmed. Some indoor sequences of the chase undoubtedly were an inspiration for the infamous mall chase in The Blues Brothers 11 years later. Watching these three cars jump over roofs, crawl up the sides of sewers, and plow though a river was purely entertaining.

I would not consider The Italian Job a classic. But it is fun, energetic, and very British. If you like wry comedy, this would fit in just nicely.

3-1/2 out of 5