The Sense of an Ending


Jim Broadbent may be stalking YOU.

(2017) Romance (CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Peter White, Hilton McRae, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes, Andrew Buckley, Karina Hernandez, Nick Mohammed, Charles Furness, Guy Paul, Alexa Davies, Dorothy Duffy, Kelly Price. Directed by Ritesh Batra

 

Our memories are in many ways what shape us; they are the filter of our experiences and our means of recalling the important things in our lives both positive and negative. As any police detective will tell you however memory is notoriously unreliable; we have a tendency to bury the unpleasant ones and often change facts to suit our world view. Confronted with the things that actually happened to us, our memories can turn out to be a fragile, ephemeral thing.

Tony Webster (Broadbent) is retired and spends his days running a used camera shop in London, one of those delightful niche shops that give London character. He is a bit of a curmudgeon who compared to most shopkeepers doesn’t really want to be bothered by actual customers; they tend to throw a monkey wrench into his carefully organized existence which he protects like a mama bear with her cubs. He has an existence largely removed from the world and that’s very much by choice.

He is essentially a jovial sort on the surface but a bit of a dodderer, enough to be the source of rolling eyes for his barrister ex-wife Margaret (Walter) and his pregnant lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery) who is preparing to embark on single motherhood. Both feel genuine affection for the man (Margaret keeping his last name even though they’re long divorced) but he can be exasperating at times.

Then he gets a letter from a solicitor announcing that the mother (Mortimer) of an ex-girlfriend has passed away, bequeathing to him a small sum of money and more important to Tony, the diary of his ex-friend Adrian (Alwyn). He is reminded of his college days when he (Howle) and Veronica (Mavor) were a thing and Adrian was his closest friend and a person he looked up to with almost a sense of hero-worship. However when Veronica ends up dumping Tony in favor of Adrian, the young Tony writes a poisoned pen letter to the both of them that ends up with tragic consequences.

Now the aged Veronica (Rampling) isn’t willing to part with the diary and Tony isn’t willing to let it lie on general principles (“She willed it to me. It belongs to me” he whines) and  so he pursues legal recourse but possession is nine tenths of the law and in any case no constable is going to force a grieving daughter to give up a diary that she doesn’t want to. Without other recourse, Tony decides to take matters into his own hands and starts stalking Veronica and discovers that what happened in his past isn’t exactly what he thought happened and his own role in events was not what he remembered.

Based on a novel by Julian Barnes, this is directed at a somewhat stately pace by Batra who has also helmed the excellent The Lunchbox. In some ways this has a Merchant-Ivory vibe to it, not necessarily because some of it is set in the past but more the literary feel to the film as well as content that appeals to a more mature, thinking person’s audience.

The smartest thing Batra did was casting Jim Broadbent. One of the most reliable actors of our time, Broadbent – who has an Oscar nomination on his resumé – is given a complex character to work with and to his credit gives that character further dimension. Tony has a heavy streak of self-deception in his nature and Broadbent humanizes that aspect of the part. When confronted with his behavior, I do believe Tony doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong and he is surprised when others think so. He simply doesn’t understand why Veronica behaves towards him as she does. He may not even realize that he opened a second-hand camera shop due to her influence (she was a photographer when he met her and her love for Leica cameras stayed with him to this very day) although I suspect he does.

Rampling is fresh off an Oscar nomination of her own and while this is a much different role for her, she reminds us what a capable actress she always has been and continues to impress with roles that in lesser hands might have ended up being one-dimensional or at least possessed of less depth. Veronica has been visited by tragedy that Tony simply doesn’t understand and it has haunted her the remainder of her days.

The movie won’t appeal much to those looking for escape or for those who may lack the seasoning to appreciate the movies nuance. In my own taste I don’t think there is such a thing but I have to say that it may be too nuanced for some. While I generally recommend reading a book to watching a movie in most cases, this has a very literary feel that I find refreshing in a day and age when movies tend to rely more on CGI and star power.

The film is a bit flawed in the sense that its twist is heavily telegraphed although to be fair the book this is based on is told chronologically so in a sense that follows the book as well although the movie relies on flashbacks more so than the book. What makes the movie worth seeing is the character study particularly of Tony; Broadbent gives us plenty of meat to chew on from that standpoint.

Definitely if you are in the mood for a mindless blockbuster this isn’t where you want to go but if you are in the mood to have something appeal to your intellect, if you want a slice of English life or if you just want to watch some fine acting this is a pretty good selection in that category. It’s definitely flawed but Broadbent and Rampling are both so wonderful that they make even a flawed movie seem like great art.

REASONS TO GO: Broadbent and Rampling deliver strong performances as you might expect.
REASONS TO STAY: This is probably not for younger audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as an image of violence, a bit of sexuality and mature thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer and Goode were previously featured together in Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Six Rounds

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A Dog’s Purpose


Dennis Quaid goes nose-to-nose with one of the canine stars in the film.

(2017) Family (Universal) Josh Gad (voice), Dennis Quaid, Peggy Lipton, KJ Apa, Bryce Ghelsar, Juliet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Gabrielle Rose, Michael Bofshever, Britt Robertson, Logan Miller, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, John Ortiz, Nicole LaPlaca, Primo Allon, Peter Kelamis, Caroline Cave, Jane McGregor, Robert Mann, Ron Vewymeren, David J. Lyle, Kelly-Ruth Mercier. Directed by Lasse Hallström

 

Let’s get one thing straight; I am a dog person. Seriously, Da Queen often shakes her head at the extent of my love for the canine species. I have trouble watching cruelty perpetrated to dogs on film (even in animations) and quite frankly all it takes is my dogs whimpering just the right way and I’m putty in their paws. In other words, I’m pretty much the target audience for this film so keep that in mind when reading the review.

The essential concept is that we look at the lives of a variety of dogs, all voiced by Gad, who have been reincarnated one life from the other complete with the memories of previous lives. Bailey belongs to a young boy (Ghelsar) named Ethan. Ethan rescued Bailey from the inside of a hot car and with the support of his mother (Rylance) and over the grumbling of his salesman father (Kirby) he is allowed to keep him.

As Ethan grows into his teen years (Apa) it becomes clear that his father is a drunk and abusive as well, frustrated over his lack of success. Ethan has become a high school football star and through Bailey’s timely intervention, the boyfriend of beautiful Hannah (Robertson). He is well on his way to a college scholarship but a tragic accident changes Ethan’s life forever.

Ethan does go off to college but only after breaking up with Hannah. Bailey goes into a tailspin (no pun intended) without Ethan and not long afterwards, his health fails and Bailey passes on. However, to Bailey’s surprise he wakes up young…and female. Now he’s…I mean, she’s…Ellie, a police dog whose handler (Miller) is lonely and maybe content to be that way – or maybe not. Still, Ellie is brave as can be and a fine partner for Al until…

…she comes back, this time as Tino, a chubby corgi who becomes the object of affection for college student Maya (Howell-Baptiste). Their relationship continues on past graduation and after Maya gets married and starts a family. It continues until it’s Tino’s time to leave and he comes back as…

Buddy, a lovable St. Bernard who ends up chained in the front yard of a dilapidated shack, ignored and neglected and occasionally abused, wondering what it all means until at last he finds a way to someplace familiar…someone who he remembers (Quaid).

Hallström has never shied away from sentiment and this might be the most sentimental of all his films. It’s based on a book by W. Bruce Cameron and while there are some differences in plot line, it is essentially the same where it matters. The subject matter is essentially a dog wondering what the point of it all is; what is his/her purpose in life and what is it about buttholes that is so dang appealing?

Of course this is really about the place of all of us in the universe, not just dogs. Do we just live and then die? It’s heady stuff for a family film and why the Judeo-Christian tradition of heaven and hell is largely ignored here, the film does suggest that our place in the universe is largely determined by how much we love. Dogs are a metaphor in that regard because after all, who is more loving than man’s best friend?

Some might be aware of the video that went viral just before the film that was released that showed one of the dogs – the one who plays Ellie – apparently being forced into the water and being submerged. It should be said that while PETA and other animal rights groups made a big deal out of it, as it turns out the video was doctored and CGI was used of the dog in the water. There’s no doubt that the film crew did have a reluctant dog that should not have been forced into the water (it had more to do with the position of where they were filming the stunt rather than the stunt itself which the dog performed on other occasions without incident) but there was no abuse going on and Hercules, the stunt dog in question, is alive and well. It’s another case of people manipulating truth to suit their own agendas.

The performances here are adequate. You know the old showbiz adage of working with animals and children – it applies here. The best performances tend to come courtesy of those with four paws. That’s not in any way denigrating the two-legged actors here; Quaid is fine as always and Apa looks to be an Elar Coltrane in the making. The focus is on the dogs here and so the humans tend to be more background than anything.

Some movies are tailor-made for critics and others are not; this falls in the latter category. For the most part critics don’t like emotionally manipulative films and this one is certainly that. Yes, the movie is rife with clichés and that’s a problem but I don’t think that kids are all that picky about such things. There are at least two or three places where tears were flowing down my cheeks without shame. As catharsis goes you won’t get better than what I got here in most any film.

REASONS TO GO: Dog lovers will be absolutely charmed. The film examines some pretty deep questions in a non-lofty manner. There’s a Middle American sensibility here.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who don’t like having their emotions manipulated won’t like this at all.
FAMILY VALUES: Children and sensitive sorts (particularly about animals) may have a hard time with the peril several dogs (and the family) are put into and may be unable to handle the passing of various dogs in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bradley Cooper was originally slated to voice the various dogs in the movie but the scheduling couldn’t be worked out so Josh Gad was hired instead. Also, the bulk of the movie was filmed in Winnipeg.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Old Yeller
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Death Race 2050

Reversion (2015)


A lift is still a lift.

A lift is still a lift.

(2015) Science Fiction (Fluency) Aja Naomi King, Colm Feore, Gary Dourdan, Jeanette Samano, Lela Rochon, Amanda Plummer, David Clennon, Sachin Joab, Scott Bailey, Matthew Bellows, Chris Spinelli. Directed by Jose Nestor Marquez

Memory is a very subjective thing. It is shaded by our experiences and often by the need of our psyche for self-protection. It can be unreliable but it can also color our entire lives; what are we but the sum total of our memories?

Sophie Clé (King) is the head of the marketing team on the eve of the release of a revolutionary new device in the near future. Called the Oubli, it recalls and enhances our best memories so we can relive them over and over again, whenever we like. The device’s inventor is her father Jack (Feore), the CEO of the medical device company that is marketing the device. Sophie has been an early test subject, using the device to relive memories of her mother (Rochon) who has been dead for some time, having taken her own life when Sophie was a teen.

However, Sophie is kidnapped by Isa (Samano), who cuts an incision in her neck and informs Sophie that she has an implant in her brain. Isa has one of her own but the implant is degrading and when it finally shuts down, so will Isa; she desperately needs the codes to help stave off her own mortality. Sophie manages to escape but she’s shaken by the experience; her bodyguard/driver/confidante Ayden (Dourdan) becomes much more vigilant about her activities.

It turns out that Isa had reprogrammed Sophie’s implants so that the Oubli no longer works for her; instead, she finds unpleasant memories that she had forgotten beginning to bubble to the surface, Memories that make her suspect that her father may be up to something along with Dr. Ciespy (Clennon), the family physician. Isa may have some of the answers but even Ayden knows more than he’s telling her and the key to everything may reside in the hands of a bitter retired scientist (Plummer) who hides a monstrous secret.

This is kind of continuation and less of a sequel to a SyFy TV movie that aired last year called Isa (it’s available on most streaming services if you want to see it) that was also written and directed by Marquez – Samano, who starred in that film, returns to this one in a much reduced role. Like that film, Reversion has a compelling subject in terms of memory, its role in our lives and its ultimate unreliability. We remember what we choose to, after all.

Feore is a veteran character actor who often plays the role of sinister corporate types and essentially that’s what he is here, although his character seems more low-key than what we’re used to from movie villains. It is a credit to Feore that when he is showing fatherly concern for his daughter, he still manages to project an air that something’s not quite right which goes a long way in making the ending work.

King, best known for her work on the Shonda Rhimes TV potboiler How to Get Away With Murder has a very difficult task here and unfortunately she doesn’t pull it off. Sophie is a basically unlikable character, something of a spoiled princess and she throws a few tantrums here and there, and spends a lot of time whining. I am not sure whether it is just the way the character is written or King’s interpretation of it but I found it very hard to empathize with her throughout the movie and that’s crucial to making the movie work. I’m just not sold on her performance here to be blunt.

Marquez has a bit of the artiste in him and there are some sequences that are fairly esoteric, especially early on, that don’t seem terribly germane but I will give him credit where credit is due – the ending of the film is absolutely the right one and endings as most veteran moviegoers will tell you are the hardest thing to nail. This one gets it right.

I think this is a very well-intentioned movie and as I said, there are some powerful concepts to explore here but the movie instead falls into the doldrums of following poor little rich girl Sophie through her travails and quite frankly I think that the movie bogs down because of it. I think that Marquez was torn between writing a thriller and a thought-provoking science fiction film, decided to do both and ended up doing a fair to middling job on both aspects. Something tells me that Marquez has much better films in him that we’ll hopefully see in the future. As for this one, it’s an okay film that could have been much more.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling concept. The right ending.
REASONS TO STAY: Sophie is too much of a princess to be sympathetic. A little bit too esoteric at times.
FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and a few disturbing images. Adult themes and a few adult words.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “Oubli” is based on the French word for forget.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Everest

The Giver


A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

A cool blue young adult sci-fi romance scene.

(2014) Science Fiction (Weinstein) Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, Odeya Rush, Taylor Swift, Cameron Monaghan, Emma Tremblay, Renate Stuurman, Vanessa Cooke, John Whiteley, Kira Wilkinson, Jefferson Mays (voice), Jaime Coue, Thabo Rametsi, Vaughn Lucas, Meganne Young, Katharina Damm. Directed by Phillip Noyce

Utopias aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be. In fact, there are those who believe that the human animal is incapable of living in a Utopian society for very long; we’re apt to mess it up entirely because we can’t be trusted.

In a Utopian future, war, poverty and hunger have been abolished. People live a peaceful existence in the Community. They take their medication every day, are admonished to speak with a precision of language, apologize for every possible perceived mistake and accept the apologies of others, and live in a world free of color and powerful emotions.

It is a world in which wise elders make the decisions that determine the shape of your life. After a period of nurturing (kind of like schooling) they are given their jobs – mostly tasks like gardening, drone piloting and for certain women, birth giving. There is no Big Brother but a Chief Elder (Streep) smiling benevolently on her flock.

Three friends – Jonas (Thwaites), Fiona (Rush) and Asher (Monaghan) – are eagerly awaiting the ceremony that will elevate them from childhood into productive adult lives. They are all smiling, happy sorts who are satisfied that their lives are going the way they should be.

At the ceremony, Fiona is given nurturer (basically the care giver for babies until they are assigned to a family) as expected and Asher – the class clown – is given drone pilot, monitoring both the Community and the territory beyond the boundary which is barren and uninhabited. However, oddly, Jonas is skipped over. Jonas’ mom (Holmes) – the security chief of the Community and one of the Elders – and Dad (Skarsgard), essentially the community’s doctor, exchange puzzled, troubled looks but at last Jonas is given a tremendous position at the end of the ceremony. He is to become the new Receiver of Memories.

Since the world basically fell apart and the Community sprung out of it, all memories of what preceded the Community have been deliberately removed from the population. Only one man, the Receiver, is allowed to possess those memories and from time to time, use them to advise the Elders on matters that fall outside the normal range of happenings.

The current Receiver doesn’t just tell the new one the tales of the distant past like some sort of Homer. Instead, he clasps hands with the new Receiver and the memories are transferred to him, in this case Jonas. That makes the old Receiver, Jonas tells him wryly, the Giver (Bridges).

The memories change Jonas. They begin to revive color as he sees colors that the memories identify as Red, then Blue, then Yellow. The primaries begin to combine and a whole palette is revealed to a wonder-filled Jonas. That’s not all Jonas receives though; he begins to experience emotions and stops taking his medication which further allow him to experience everything that’s new. His training allows him to lie because the Receiver must conceal these things from the members of the Community.

He discovers things like snow, which doesn’t exist in the climate-controlled Community, and sledding. He also discovers love, which doesn’t exist in the Community and whose concept is confusing to those he tries to explain it to. He soon realizes one thing – he’s falling in love with Fiona, and she might be falling in love with him.

But that’s not all that Jonas discovers. Conformity is everything in the Community and not everybody conforms easily. The Giver who is certainly a non-conformist has been tolerated because of his position but there have been tragedies. Things happen to the babies who don’t meet the minimum weight and length and a baby named Gabriel that Jonas has begun to develop a great deal of affection for may be targeted for those things.

Jonas realizes that the people have had too much removed from them, including their freedom but more importantly the essence of who they are. He will try to save Gabriel from being removed from the community – and at the same time removing himself to pass the barriers of memory. Once he does, the Giver believes that all those memories, emotions and colors will be restored to the Community members. And the Chief Elder will do anything to keep that from happening.

Based on the beloved young adult novel by Lois Lowry, Australian director Noyce takes on a book that is fairly complex and full of metaphors. He’s not always successful here. The look of the film is pretty exciting. The film switches from black and white at the beginning, slowly adding colors as Jonas’ perception begins to expand. The effect isn’t unlike the dining rooms on the Disney cruise ships that change from black and white to color over the course of the meal.

Bridges, resembling the late James Coburn in looks here, has been a huge admirer of the book and has been trying to get the movie made since the 90s, at the time with his father Lloyd in the title role that he plays in the final version. You can see him channeling his Dad, down to the way he clips the dialogue into groups of phrases the way his Dad did. It’s actually kind of sweet.

Streep, allowing herself to look older with little make-up and long silvering hair, doesn’t get a lot of screen time but she has that polite menace that have made certain villains memorable. Like all of the citizens of the Community, she stays on a fairly even keel most of the time.

Therein lies the challenge of the movie. The very essence of the community is emotionlessness. It’s the whole point for its existence. That’s great on the printed page but in a movie, it turns into a bunch of Stepford teens. The overwhelming politeness makes you want to do something unbelievably rude just to get these people to react. I don’t doubt that’s the effect the filmmakers were going for but it can be distracting when you’re trying to follow a story that’s plenty deep as it is.

I haven’t read the book although I’m told it’s amazing so I’m not sure how closely this sticks to the narrative – again, I’m told that it is fairly close but there is some material that is new to the movie. There are some issues that I have with the logic of the overall concept. For example, what’s the need to eliminate the perception of color from the citizens of the Community? I understand the metaphorical reason, but it seems a bit unnecessary. Perhaps I’m just being dense.

Also near the end, after seeing bicycles as the only means of transportation for the whole movie, motorcycles suddenly show up. And not only does Jonas ride the motorcycle (apparently he has the memory for it), he’s able to make a nearly impossible jump from the Community down to the badlands outside the barrier – all with a baby mounted on the front of the bike. Jonas may have the memory of how to ride a motorcycle and even how to jump a motorcycle but he doesn’t have the memory of how to defy physics. The baby should have gone flying like a football through the uprights. Three points!

I like the look of the movie; the Community is clean and futuristic and park-like, while the Giver lives on the outskirts in a mansion that looks not unlike a Romanesque temple that overlooks the clouds and a single tree visible beyond the barrier. It’s visually striking.

Still, despite that I left the movie feeling somewhat unfulfilled. Not that it isn’t entertaining nor can I say with absolute certainty that this is a movie you should avoid seeing. It has its merits. However, I can’t say with absolute certainty that most viewers are going to appreciate and enjoy the movie either. Most folks, I think, are going to react much the same as I did – neither liking nor disliking the film, but not remembering much of it after the final credits are over. For a movie about memories, there’s a certain irony in that.

REASONS TO GO: Streep and Bridges are terrific as always. Some interesting visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild violence and some mature thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep shot some of her scenes in England (the rest of the film was shot in South Africa while she was shooting Into the Woods.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go

Warm Bodies


Love is not only blind, it doesn't have much of a sense of smell either.

Love is not only blind, it doesn’t have much of a sense of smell either.

(2013) Zombie Romance (Summit) Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, John Malkovich, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict, Daniel Kindress-Kay, Vincent Leclerc, Clifford LeDuc-Vallancourt, Billie Calmeau, Adam Driscoll, Robert Reynolds, Christine Rodriguez, Debbie Wong. Directed by Jonathan Levine

Zombies are in these days with the success of The Walking Dead television show (one of the best things on television right now) and movies like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. For the most part we see those imperiled by the zombie apocalypse. But what are the zombies thinking?

A young man wanders around the airport, listlessly. He doesn’t work there; he’s been dead for some time but has been reanimated by forces unknown. He has some memory but can’t remember his name, other than that it starts with R. So R (Hoult) it is. His best friend (if you can call it that) is another shuffling undead flesh-eater whose name might have begun with M (Corddry).

R’s life kind of sucks but then it kind of doesn’t. He collects things and puts them in the jumbo jet he’s converted into his home, a kind of zombie man-cave. He listens to old LPs on a turntable (where’s the power coming from for it?) and stares at little knick-knacks he picks up around the airport. Occasionally, he goes hunting for food with M.

There are zombies and then there are Bonies who are kind of like hardcore zombies who have given up. One day they just start tearing their own flesh off. They’re superstrong, super-aggressive and super-grouchy. There are a few humans left who live in a walled-off section of town. They are led by the military-stiff Grigio (Malkovich) whose daughter Julia (Palmer) and her boyfriend Perry (Franco) are leading a party of scavengers to get medical supplies for the survivors.

That’s where R’s hunting party finds them. The attack is brutal and the outcome inevitable. Perry is a big talker but not a great shot – and as you know from your zombie 101 that zombies can’t be killed with anything other than a head shot. Perry’s shot hits R in the chest which just pisses R off and he chooses Perry to be his brain snack.

When a zombie eats the brains of a victim, they are able to access the memories of that victim. R sees Perry’s memories of Julia and decides to save her, managing to smuggle her out and to the relative safety of his airplane. After an aborted escape attempt convinces her that it is terribly unsafe to go out of the plane, she agrees to stay with this most unusual zombie.

The presence of Julia is changing R rapidly. His vocabulary improves. He begins to have tender feelings towards Julia (although are they his own or a product of Perry’s memory? an intriguing question the movie doesn’t bother to pose) and there are physiological changes as well. What’s more, M and the other zombies are beginning to change as well.

The Bonies don’t like that one little bit and want to find R and stop this “cure” before it gets too far. Julia needs to get back home but her father and his fanatical soldiers would shoot R on sight (and it’s for damn sure that they’re better shots than Perry). What’s more Julia has developed some powerful feelings for R as well. Is this love as doomed as that of Romeo and Juliet?

It’s no secret that the story here is loosely based on the Shakespeare play with several characters referencing characters from the play (R=Romeo, Julia=Juliet, M=Mercutio, Perry=Paris etc.). That no doubt suits the audience that this is intended for just fine – the preteen/teen girls who adore Twilight and their moms. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that most of the target audience is only aware somewhat of the R&J connection and have had little contact with the original play itself if any.

One of the things that works really well here is the chemistry between Hoult and Palmer. Hoult, who as a young man has become a seasoned veteran of the movies (some of you might remember him as young Marcus in About a Boy), is rapidly turning into a star. This might be the film that propels him to the next level. Palmer, whose done several genre films targeted towards young adults (I Am Number Four and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice among them), plays a plucky independent sort that the young teen girls seem to flock to these days. She and Hoult make an attractive couple (even if one of the is rotting away).

There are some pretty funny moments, particularly with R’s inner monologue. There is also a nice sweetness here that while not going to get you running out to the nearest zombie apocalypse to find yourself a boyfriend, it will at least touch the teddy bear softness of your heart. The only real complaints I have about the movie are the CGI Bonies which are unconvincing (which is a rather charitable assessment) and several plot points that kind of get little play, like Julia’s reaction to the news that R ate her ex. Not something most girls are going to get past very quickly I would think.

Still, this isn’t a bad movie at all. In fact, it’s a pretty good one – much better than I thought it would be, wondering if the filmmakers would be pandering to that target audience (they do but they don’t – Levine and cohorts seem to be of the opinion that teen and preteen girls appreciate a good movie more than a mediocre one). It’s actually a movie that I wish more Twihards had gone to see – I think those pining away over the absence of Bella, Edward and Jacob might find this right up their alley.

REASONS TO GO: Endearing and funny when it needs to be. Nice chemistry with Hoult and Palmer.

REASONS TO STAY: CGI Bonies are weak. Glossed over some important plot points.

FAMILY VALUES:  As there are zombies, there are extensive scenes of zombies eating people as well as getting shot in the head, although the gore is relatively mild (think The Walking Dead). There’s a lot more bad language though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Nora character was part-Ethiopian with brown skin in the book but was changed to a Caucasian for the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100; I’d say the reviews are slightly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fido

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Amour

Inception


Inception

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's world is all askew.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Lukas Haas, Tai-Li Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

In perhaps the most famous soliloquy of all time, Hamlet muses “To sleep, perchance to dream.” In this speech, he’s referring to death, wondering what the dead dream of. Perhaps death is a dreaming in a way, the ultimate dream. Maybe life itself is the dream – who’s to know?

Dom Cobb (Di Caprio) is a corporate thief with an unusual technique; he enters the dreams of CEOs and billionaires to extract the secrets that their mind has locked in those dreams. It’s an apparently lucrative profession; he seems to have a fairly extensive bankroll. However, Cobb isn’t a happy man. His wife Mal (Cotillard) died recently, and he was implicated in her death. Their children are being cared for by Mal’s mother, and Cobb hasn’t seen them in awhile, although he longs to.

Getting back to them is problematic, until Japanese billionaire Saito (Watanabe) comes up with an offer. He can take away Dom’s fugitive status if Dom will do one job for him, but instead of stealing an idea, he wants one implanted. This process, called inception, is deemed impossible…by everybody except Dom, who claims to have done it on one occasion.

Dom puts together a team of experts, including his right hand man and researcher Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), con man, impersonator and demolitions expert Eames (Hardy) and chemist Yusuf (Rao). The last they need to put the subject into a deep sleep, deep enough so that the dream architecture doesn’t collapse, because in order to make the idea work without his mind removing a foreign idea from itself (similarly in the way antibodies tackle viruses), the idea must be implanted so deeply that the subject thinks that the idea is his own.

The subject is Robert Fischer (Murphy), the son of a billionaire energy mogul whose father (Postlethwaite) is dying and stands to inherit his company. That company, which supplies nearly 80% of all the earth’s energy needs, has become too big to stand against and is in danger of becoming a power rivaling that of nations.

Dom also needs a dream architect and for that, he visits his father-in-law (Caine), who teaches the architecture of dreams and who helped Dom become what he is (although dear old dad-in-law disapproves of how Dom utilizes his gifts). Dom needs one of his students, a particularly gifted one, to create a realistic enough world that will fool Fischer into believing he is awake. That student is Ariadne (Page), who in Greek mythology led Theseus safely through the labyrinth on Crete where he slew the Minotaur.

This Ariadne is required to construct a labyrinth, because once the mind realizes that there are intruders in it, it sends what are called constructs to remove the intruders. The maze serves to keep the constructs off your back, at least for a little while. Not forever, however, and once the constructs arrive they are well armed and willing to shoot first and ask questions not at all. Once you are killed in the dream, you wake up – quite a different take on the usual Hollywood mythology which has dreamers dying in real life when they die in dreams. However, because they are going so deep into the dream, those who die in this dream will be sent to a limbo of the subconscious where they will slowly go mad until they awaken.

There is a time dilation too – while in a normal dream, five minutes of real time equates to an hour of dreamtime, the deeper level you go to, the more pronounced the dreamtime – to the point where five minutes can equal ten years.

There is also another wrinkle. Dom has never really been able to get over the death of his wife, and she is a powerful figure in his subconscious, so powerful that she has been able to manifest in the dreams of others and wreak havoc. This is why Dom needs another architect instead of doing it himself. Her presence in his subconscious is becoming more and more pronounced and only Ariadne, who went into one of Dom’s own dreams to figure out what was going on, knows the truth. Will Dom be able to overcome his own subconscious in order to win him the freedom he so desperately desires?

Nolan began writing this when he was filming Memento (2000), and it took him eight years to complete it. That’s largely because of how densely layered a tale this is; this is one of the most complexly plotted movies you’ll ever see. Pull one thread out and everything collapses.

Fortunately, Nolan is a good enough writer that he can pull it off. First, he has to create a believable dream mythology. Secondly, he has to create characters that the audience can relate to and care about. Thirdly, he has to inject a real sense of jeopardy. Finally, he has to make the plot simple enough for a general audience to keep up with, yet complex enough to make all the elements work.

He succeeds in all these points. The mythology is believable; the science may suffer from a little bit of what I call “mumbo jumbo science” – an overuse of technobabble – but it isn’t so much that you shake your head and feel stupid. The characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; they live and breathe and seem real.

The jeopardy part is accomplished by a series of car chases and shootouts which rankles some critics; “My dreams aren’t about car chases,” grouses A.O. Scott of the New York Times, which apparently means nobody else’s are either; of course, nobody has ever accused Scott of a lack of hubris.

All right, that was a bit of a below-the-belt shot at a fellow critic. Still, when one is discussing dreams, it’s a given there are no rules. Perhaps the dreamscapes that Nolan invents for Inception aren’t as outside the box in some ways as What Dreams May Come, that doesn’t mean there isn’t invention here. The sequences wherein Ariadne folds Paris onto itself (having cars driving Escher-like down vertical streets), or when Arthur fights a construct in a corridor that is revolving (the reason for which is explained nicely in the movie) are as breathtaking as anything you’ll see this summer.

I have a soft spot for movies that make you consider the nature of reality and leave you to form your own conclusions about what just happened. Roger Ebert says correctly that this is a movie about the process more than the plot; I can give you spoilers about plot points but the full effect isn’t as bad because those spoilers lose their effect because it’s more about how we reached that point, not about the point itself. Is this a dream? Is it a memory? Is it reality? Is there a reality? There are no easy answers to that, and Nolan wisely allows the audience to reach their own conclusions. If he has his own ideas, he keeps them to himself.

Di Caprio has never been my favorite actor – he’s a bit too angst-suffused for my taste – but this is surely one of his best performances ever. He plays Dom as a man who appears to be emotional on the surface, but the deeper we delve into the character the more we realize he represses his emotions to the extent that most psychiatrists would probably see him as borderline disturbed.

This is the kind of movie you can spend hours in discussion about. Is it a masterpiece or a conversation piece? The answer is it’s a little bit of both. Certainly people will be talking about the ending and its meaning for quite awhile. Movies that can satisfy the need for visceral action sequences and stimulate the mind simultaneously are rare indeed, and Inception does both. In a summer plagued by weak box office and mediocre movies, Inception easily shines as the best movie of the summer season.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking science fiction with some amazing visuals. Di Caprio gives one of the better performances of his career and his terrific supporting cast doesn’t disappoint.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is hard to follow along with in places, and there is a high degree of mumbo jumbo science going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of action and some violence (a lot of shooting). The themes are sufficiently adult enough that I might think twice before bringing very young children who might have trouble following the plot; otherwise, this is suitable for mature pre-teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of Leonardo di Caprio’s character, Dom Cobb, was also the name of a main character in Nolan’s first movie, Following (1998) – furthermore, both characters are thieves.

HOME OR THEATER: The amazing visuals in the movie are best experienced in a movie theater and are even better in the IMAX format if you have an IMAX screen nearby.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Five Minutes of Heaven

Toy Story 3


Toy Story 3

Buzz and Woody discover that Jessie has a bigger cut at the merchandising than they do.

(Disney/Pixar) Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, John Ratzenberger, Wallace Shawn, Michael Keaton, Ned Beatty, Estelle Harris, Laurie Metcalf, R. Lee Ermey, Timothy Dalton, Whoopi Goldberg, Blake Clark, John Morris, Jodi Benson. Directed by Lee Unkrich

For many, the Toy Story movies are a warm reminder of childhood, either experiencing the movies as children themselves or being transported back to childhood as an adult. Eleven years after the second movie in the franchise (still the only sequel Pixar has made, although there are plans for sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc in the next two years) would there be a demand for Woody, Buzz and the gang after all this time?

Years have passed since the adventures of the first two movies and Andy (Morris) is getting ready to leave for college. As time has gone by, many of his toys have fallen by the wayside – either having been donated, handed down to his sister Molly or thrown out, leaving only a few remaining holdovers; Hamm (Ratzenberger) the caustic piggy bank, Rex (Shawn) the unselfconfident dinosaur, Mr. Potato Head (Rickles) and his wife (Harris), Jessie (Cusack), the rootenist’ tootenist’ cowgirl in the West, Buzz Lightyear (Allen) the greatest toy ever made and of course, his best friend Woody (Hanks).

Andy is cleaning out his room before he leaves and has a hard time deciding what to do with his remaining toys. They’re old and worn-out and most people would throw them into the trash but Andy is not most people. He can’t quite let go just yet so he elects to take Woody with him to college and earmarks the other toys for the attic, but his mom (Metcalf) mistakenly throws them in the trash. Woody manages to help rescue them, and the toys, thinking that Andy no longer wants them, elect to go to Sunnyside Day Care as donations where maybe they might have a future, despite Woody’s attempts to persuade them otherwise.

Sunnyside is run by a strawberry-scented teddy bear named Lotso (Beatty) who seems kindly and welcoming at first. He has quite a set-up where toys will be played with forever in an ownerless world. At first glance, it seems like heaven for the toys but it quickly turns out to be the other place as Lotso assigns them to the Caterpillar Room where the youngest tots are gathered and unspeakable things are done to the toys. Lotso is revealed to be a tyrant running the toys of Sunnyside with an iron fist. Will Woody help his friends – his family – escape? Will Barbie (Benson) find romance with Ken (Keaton)? Why is Buzz speaking Spanish?

I can’t say this is a game-changer when it comes to animated features, but it is a marvelous movie nonetheless. Unkrich has managed to recapture the magic that made the first two movies classics even without the late Jim Varney (who passed on in 2000) as Slinky Dog (Clark, a close friend of Varney’s in real life, takes over the role). There is a bittersweet quality here that is only hinted at in the first two movies (especially the second); the essence of growing up and putting aside childish things. The last scene in the movie is one of the best in the series and should this be the last Toy Story film (and there’s no sign that it will be), it’s a marvelous way to go out, bringing things full circle in a sentimental but not over-the-top way.

The look of the movie is pretty much identical to the first two so in a way this is a step backwards for Pixar in that it doesn’t hold up against the magnificent animation seen in Wall-E for example, but it really doesn’t need to. The look of the movie is like going back home again in a lot of ways and seeing that things are exactly the way you left them.

They did add 3D and IMAX to the mix which to my mind didn’t really enhance the movie overly much; if you can take or leave either of those things I’d advise you to check out the standard version while you can; no need to spend $3-$10 per ticket just for those bells and whistles when the standard version works perfectly well.

I don’t really need to go over the voice characterizations. Most everybody who cares about movies has seen at least one of the Toy Story films and knows how good this cast is. Keaton and Beatty make fine additions and interact with the existing cast very nicely. There are some really clever moments (like a brief appearance of the Pizza Planet truck, or a train full of troll orphans) and some genuinely affecting moments that tug on the heartstrings without being manipulative.

The movie succeeds on all levels. Kids are going to go bananas for it – if you’re a parent, be resigned to demands to see it three or four times this summer. For adults, the underlying themes of memory, loss and growing up will hit home. After setting a Pixar record for the biggest opening weekend, the answer to the question I posed in the first paragraph is a resounding yes. More to the point, this is a summer family movie that will please everyone in the family and bear repeated viewings. Andy may be moving on, but given how good Toy Story 3 is it’s a good bet that the rest of us won’t be.

REASONS TO GO: Recaptures the magic. Ending had Da Queen in full-on bawl mode.

REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really break new ground nor does it measure up to Up or Wall-E but that doesn’t mean it’s not terrific.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for every audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unkrich co-directed Toy Story 2 with John Lasseter and edited the first two Toy Story movies prior to being named director on this one.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, big screen, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paper Heart