Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


The empire strikes first.

The empire strikes first.

(2016) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Guy Henry, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Ben Daniels, Paul Kasey, Stephen Stanton (voice), Ian McElhinney, Fares Fares, James Earl Jones (voice), Warwick Davis, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Ingvild Della. Directed by Gareth Edwards

 

Most movies, particularly those that build entire worlds and mythologies, leave tantalizing questions. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is no different. Some of those questions were answered by the three prequel films. However, one tantalizing bit of information – how did the Rebel Alliance get the plans for the Death Star – remained unknown. Until now.

Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of a brilliant scientist (Mikkelsen) who has been shanghaied by the Empire into building a new super-weapon – a planet killer called the Death Star. The elder Erso convinces a freighter pilot (Ahmed) to defect and carry a message to Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a former Alliance member who found the Alliance not radical enough for his taste and had holed up on the occupied moon of Jedha. When Alliance intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna) discovers this, he helps spring Jyn out of a rebel prison and takes her to the Alliance to propose that she introduce him to Gerrera, who is almost like family to her.

Jyn sees the message sent to Gerrera and realizes that her dad has left a flaw in the system, a flaw that the Rebellion can exploit to destroy the planet killer but in order to do that they’ll either have to retrieve her father from an Imperial work camp or the plans from an archive on a closely guarded tropical planet. Accompanied by the blind monk Chirrut (Yen) who believes in the Force and fights like he’s dialed into it, and his friend the gruff sharp-shooter Baze (Jiang), they go to fetch Jyn’s dad. Unfortunately, hot on their trail is Director Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) and Governor Moff Tarkin (Henry/Cushing) along with the Emperor’s new Lord of the Sith…one Darth Vader (Jones).

This is the darkest of the Star Wars films and by a lot. In order for the story to work, the odds have to be incredibly long and the Empire has to be justifiably evil. Both of those are true and it feels more realistic; the rebels don’t sail in and save the day at the last minute. It gets messy.

Jones makes for a nifty heroine in the franchise. She’s tough, she’s clever and she has good reason to do what she does. She’s no idealist but when push comes to shove she is in this for all the right reasons. Jones is an Oscar-nominated actress who is becoming one of the most reliable actresses in the business now. She’s the perfect choice to play Jyn.

The rest of the cast boasts some impressive names and more than a few familiar ones from previous episodes, mainly in cameo form (Anthony Daniels shows up for just a few lovely moments as C3PO. Tudyk provides most of the comic relief as a re-programmed imperial war droid K-2SO and Whitaker is impressive as the fanatical Gerrera who is almost all prosthetics now.

The special effects are just what you’d expect them to be; the best in the business. The climactic fight has as many moving parts to them as you’ve ever seen in a Hollywood movie and the environments created are realistic and yet alien all at once. You are immersed in the environments, be they an Imperial garrison, a desolate asteroid, or the re-constructed Death Star itself.

Perhaps the most impressive special effect is bringing back the late Peter Cushing, who’s been dead for 24 years, as the odious Tarkin whose foul stench Princess Leia recognized in the very first Star Wars movie. Using a motion actor (Henry) to approximate the late actor’s build, the face of Cushing is digitally projected on Henry’s body and his voice synthesized. It is actually pretty unsettling in many ways. It doesn’t exactly bring Cushing back to life but it comes closer than anything I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie won a special effects Oscar just for that.

This is a marvelous film that hits every right note. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with what you get here (and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely seen it more than once already as I have). If you’re not a fan of the franchise, chances are this won’t make you one – while it does make a fine stand-alone movie, knowledge of what happened in the first Star Wars film is extremely helpful in understanding what is going on here. The only drawback is that some fans of the series might find the tone too dark – it certainly isn’t your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be.

REASONS TO GO: This is a real change in tone from the other Star Wars films. The special effects are absolutely amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: It might be a little bit too dark for the hardcore fans.
FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of action, some of it strongly violent and of a sci-fi nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Star Wars movie not to feature the iconic scrolling text at the beginning of the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge on the River Kwai
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro

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Holy Motors


Roses are red...and delicious!

Roses are red…and delicious!

(2012) Art House (Indomina) Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Geoffrey Carey, Elise Lhommeau, Jeanne Disson, Michel Piccoli,  Leos Carax, Nastya Golubeva Carax, Reda Oumouzoune, Zlata, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, Elise Caron. Directed by Leos Carax

Making sense can be overrated. Our world is a series of contradictions made by hypocrites and swallowed whole by most of us who merely want to live our lives without too much interference. Sometimes it feels like an eccentric French movie that we’re all taking part in.

Leos Carax can feel your pain, ladies and gentlemen. He knows exactly how you feel. Fortunately, as a director of eccentric French movies, he can do something about it.

We meet Monsieur Oscar (Lavant) on a movie screen (don’t ignore the preamble in which a sleeping man finds himself hearing sounds of a harbor while planes land at the airport outside his window, then proceeds to use a key growing out of his finger to open a door which leads into a movie theater – that’s director Carax himself, setting you up for the rest of the film) in which he appears to be

Monsieur Oscar climbs into the back of a limousine, driven by the taciturn Celine (Scob) into Paris to drive him from place to place for a series of appointments. He is given a file as he approaches each one. When he arrives at each destination and exits the limousine, he is not the same as he entered the limousine.

In one location he’s an old crone begging for change, mumbling about how sad her lot in life is. The next he’s a virtual reality ninja warrior whose shortcomings lead him into a reptilian sex session with…well, a kind of snake-like alien dragon thingy. Then he’s a nearly-mute chain-smoking sewer-dwelling troglodyte who kidnaps a supermodel (Mendes) from a famous Paris cemetery (where the headstones read “see my website”) and takes her to his subterranean lair where he changes her dress into a Muslim outfit after which he strips naked and lays with his head in her lap (and with a raging erection) while she sings him to sleep with a lullaby.

He’s a disapproving father with an unpopular teenage daughter who lies about her misery. Which gives him a full opportunity to show what assholes fathers can be. Then he meets an old lover (Minogue) for possibly the last time, in a bittersweet melancholy musical number – you read that right, a musical number. Not so much with dancing and production effects but more a solo act with a certain wistfulness. It’s actually quite moving.

He’s an assassin killing someone who looks suspiciously like himself. He’s an old man on his deathbed consoling his beloved niece and saying goodbye. And finally, he’s a family man with a highly unusual family.

We get the sense that he’s being filmed in all of these appointments – for whom? What for? The inside of his limousine is much bigger than the outside, a kind of low-tech TARDIS with a make-up table and costumes – tall enough to stand up in, although from the outside it wouldn’t appear so.

There are connections to other films here. Scob, who once starred in a horror film called Eyes Without a Face dons the mask she wore in that film near the end of this one. Lavant’s troglodyte character has also made a previous appearance – in the Carax-directed segment of the anthology film Tokyo! complete with the same Godzilla-like musical accompaniment. His appearance is far more brief here (and thankfully, no courtroom scene afterwards) but like all of the scenes is oddly touching in one way or another.

Da Queen had a hard time with this movie. She’s not really into movies that don’t have some kind of sense. To her and to others who find this a hard movie to get behind, the thing to remember here is that this is a film meant to be experienced rather than watched passively. You are meant to let the images and dialogue wash over you and let it take you wherever your mind wanders to.

I admit that I have to be in the right frame of mind for a film like this and I wasn’t completely there when I saw it at the Enzian. Not all the segments connected with me (the crone sequence for example was too brief and nothing really happened; the father/daughter sequence just rang false to me) but those that did connected deeply, either through the fascinating images or the places they took my mind/heart/both to.

Lavant gives a magnificent performance, his pliable face changing with each segment. Each mood that is engineered here is different from the one that preceded it, sometimes subtly. Overall there’s a kind of bittersweet vibe that is like a moment of nostalgia for a moment that has been lived once and will never be lived in again. There is enough whimsy to bring a smile to the face but not enough to get us to French surreality – this is no Cirque du Soleil.

This isn’t a movie that spoonfeeds things to its audience; you have to work for it and use your noggin and your heart. That might not be why you go to the movies – you might be looking to turn your mind and heart off for an hour or two and that’s okay. Holy Motors is a movie for people who like puzzles, who like a good challenge. It’s abstract art and what you bring into the theater is largely going to determine how you view Holy Motors. It’s not for everybody – but it might be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always intriguing. Lavant gives a performance that is multi-faceted.

REASONS TO STAY: Can be disjointed and jarring. Doesn’t always make sense.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, sexuality and brief graphic nudity, some violence and bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The supermodel part was written with Kate Moss in mind and offered to her; she seriously considered it but her impending wedding was more of a priority (imagine that) so she passed. The part went to Eva Mendes instead but the character is still called Kay M in honor of who it was written for.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. No doubt about it, the critics love it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Mars Needs Moms


 

Mars Needs Moms

Ki, Gribble and Milo look at the box office bomb descending on their heads.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney) Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack, Elizabeth Harnois, Mindy Sterling, Kevin Cahoon, Tom Everett Scott, Adam Jennings, Amber Gainey Meade, Julene Renee, Seth Dusky, Jo McGinley, Daniel James O’Connor. Directed by Simon Wells

 

Director Simon Wells has also done The Land Before Time and The Time Machine. This is significant because he’s the great-grandson of the legendary writer H.G. Wells who not only wrote The Time Machine but also War of the Worlds which depicted an attempted invasion of Earth by Martians. Here, they’re only after one specific Earthling.

Milo (Green, voiced by Dusky) is a stubborn, self-centered 11-year-old boy. That is, typical. He hates doing homework, won’t eat broccoli, lies to his mother (Cusack)  and says particularly cruel things to her. Dad (Scott) travels a lot so he’s not around much to help. When Milo voices the wish that his mother would not be around so that his life would be easier, his wish is granted – not by a kooky angel trying to earn his wings but by the Martians.

You see, they have a litter of hatchlings come to term every 25 years. Their mothers are far too busy to take care of the kids so they are entrusted to nanny-bots. Unfortunately the programming needs rebooting every 25 years or so, so an Earthling mom who shows the right stuff (the Martian culture is a rigid disciplinarian one) is kidnapped to download her memories into the nanny-bots. Unfortunately, the process destroys the mother forever.

Milo sees his mom being kidnapped and manages to stow away on the Martian spacecraft. On Mars, he meets Gribble (Fogler) whose mom was also kidnapped 25 years previously. He lets Milo know that he has until sunrise to save his mom or else poof. Unfortunately, Gribble was too late to save his mom, so he had to grow up all by himself without mom, dad or family, hiding out from the Martian police in a trash dump.

Aided by Ki (Harnois), a rebellious Martian girl that Gribble is sweet on, Milo sets out to rescue his mom from the clutches of the Supervisor (Sterling) but that is much easier said than done. He must overcome his somewhat less-than-reliable new friend and the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Martian police if he is going to save his mom – and even then, getting her back home may take even more doing.

This was badly mismarketed as a science fiction spoof rather than as a family adventure as it should have been. There are some truly poignant moments that work far better than the humorous ones, even though the film was based on a graphic novel by Berkeley Breathed, the creator of “Bloom County” and other politically-oriented strips.

Part of the problem is the motion capture technology used to animate the film. While there have been some decent motion capture films, one of the problems is that they never really get facial expressions right, giving the humans a kind of robotic emotion-less look. The same holds true here; there is no sparkle of life in these characters so they look kind of like re-animated dolls. It’s a bit creepy and I’m not alone in thinking that.

Cusack holds her own but Fogler’s comic relief is a bit lame – he doesn’t have the personality to pull off the rather weak dialogue. This became a major bomb for Disney and in a lot of ways has killed the motion capture subgenre altogether (plans to make a motion capture remake of Yellow Submarine were quietly shelved by Disney after Mars Needs Moms tanked) which might be a good thing – I think the technology has to improve before it becomes a viable artform.

Critics were surprisingly easy on the film, given some of the wooden performances both onscreen and vocally. The movie certainly has its champions but I think the public got it right on this one. It really isn’t a very good movie.

WHY RENT THIS: At times very moving, a treatise on the importance of family.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Motion capture still doesn’t quite capture facial expressions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some minor sci-fi action and peril, nothing that’s too rough for most kids except for the very youngest.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Disney’s worst box office loss ever and the fifth biggest bomb of all time (unadjusted for inflation).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a major financial bomb.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW:Hannibal

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

British rioters make it to San Francisco.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson, Madison Bell, Karin Konoval. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Most of us have seen Planet of the Apes in one form or another, from the classic 1968 original to the less classic 2001 remake. But how did it get from humans ruling the planet with apes and chimps mute and unreasoning to them becoming the dominant species on the planet?

Dr. Will Rodman (Franco) works for one of the main players in Big Pharma. He’s working on a viral component to gene therapy that if successful will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. He has a stake in this because his own father (Lithgow) suffers from that dreadful disease.

Steven Jacobs (Oyelowo), the CEO of the firm is more interested in the bucks than the cure. He wants something that will improve the corporate bottom line which a cure for Alzheimer’s will certainly do. Rodman has brought his most promising formula, ALZ-112, to testing on chimps – PETA protesters take note. Everything looks pretty copacetic until the chimp goes on the rampage at the worst possible moment – during a board meeting to decide whether or not to fund further tests on human subjects. The project is then shelved and the chimps are put to sleep.

However, one of the chimps left a little present – a baby. The corporate chimp handler (Labine) can’t bring himself to put another animal down and so Will is left with the prospect of putting up the baby chimp for a few days until another home can be found for him. That’s not the only thing Will takes home with him from work – a few vials of the ALZ-112 also make their way into his pocket and then into Will’s dad.

The serum works on Will’s dad and before long it becomes evident that Caesar (the baby chimp that Will “adopted”) is much smarter than the average chimps. Apparently the ALZ-112 was passed on from mama chimp to baby. Caesar’s accelerated learning curve allows him to become fairly fluent in sign language. All in all it’s a pretty idyllic home life for Will; dad is doing fine, Caesar is a loving addition to the family and Will has found a girlfriend in Caroline (Pinto), a primatologist who helped treat some injuries that Caesar incurred as a young ‘un.

As Caesar (Serkis) grows into young adulthood, he becomes more and more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. An incident with an overbearing neighbor leads to Caesar being taken from his happy home and left in a primate care center run by the diffident John Landon (Cox) and tended to by his sadistic son Dodge (Felton). There the apes – and Caesar – are brutalized by Dodge despite the objections of Rodney (Harris), the other caretaker in the primate center.

To make matters worse Dad is turning for the worse; his own antibodies are wiping out the ALZ-112 in his system which is allowing the disease to return with a vengeance. Will is running out of time; he needs a new delivery system that will overcome our own immune system. In the meantime, Caesar is turning out to be much smarter than anyone – even Will – ever suspected and the brutality and betrayal are going to bring things to a head and the fate of humans as the dominant species on this planet hangs in the balance.

This is a nicely done story that explains how the apes came to be intelligent and able to speak; in that sense the movie is realistic. Where it falls flat, surprisingly, is in the CGI. Not the motion capture performances so much (we’ll get to that in a minute) but some of the movements of the apes looks like they were captured on an old silent-era movie camera; they’re downright choppy.

That’s basically the reason that the movie didn’t get one of the higher scores of the summer from me because everything else about it from the acting to the script is outstanding. Serkis in particular does a magnificent job of capturing Caesar as a character and giving him personality and allowing the audience to sympathize, leaving us in the odd position of rooting for our own extinction.

Franco, recently Oscar nominated, remains one of those actors who doesn’t do things the way other actors do and that makes him memorable in most of his roles. Here he has a character that is essentially second banana (pun intended) to Caesar and is terribly underwritten as an impulsive mad scientist type (see Bruce Banner and Victor von Frankenstein) but has a good heart. I would have wished to see his relationship with Caroline fleshed out a bit more but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie is particularly well-written in the sense that it is logically drawn and while there isn’t much in the way of surprises, it is at least tautly written. It is certainly well-acted with Serkis getting kudos for one of the best motion capture performances ever. Franco and Pinto do fine jobs and Lithgow does his best not to make a caricature of a role that could easily become one. Was this great summer entertainment? You bet. Was it better than I thought it might be? Yes, I’d say that was true. Was it all it could have been?  No, it definitely could have been better but for my money, it’s more than good enough to head on down to the multiplex for.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar. Nice backstory to explain how the Apes took a giant leap forward on the evolutionary ladder.

REASONS TO STAY: The CG movements of the apes didn’t seem natural in a lot of places. The story was rather predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, with some scenes that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dodge Landon is named for the two fellow astronauts of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes while Maurice is named for Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original. Dodge also snarls “Take your stinking paws off of me you damned dirty ape!!” arguably the most iconic line from the original.

HOME OR THEATER: Hmmm. Tough call on this one. I think that the final battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge might be better on the big screen but much of the rest of it would probably be just as effective at home. You make the choice.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Jack Goes Boating

Avatar


Avatar

A gunship moves through one of the majestic landscapes of Pandora.

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

A race with superior technology has a responsibility to protect those races that are less advanced than they. However, the history of humankind has shown that to rarely be the case in those sorts of situations.

In the year 2154, Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) was a grunt whose spine was injured during a campaign in Venezuela, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. His identical twin brother was a scientist who had been leaving for the wondrous world of Pandora, an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, as part of the avatar program. The journey was supposed to take five years of cryo-sleep just to arrive but it would never happen; Jake’s brother was killed during a mugging.

Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. The planet is full of flora and fauna, much of which is aggressive and lethal. There is an indigenous race of humanoids called the Na’Vi, a race of 10-12 foot tall tailed bipeds that have a great deal in common with Native Americans. Even their language sounds similar.

Humans communicate with the Na’Vi through avatars, genetically engineered creatures utilizing human and Na’Vi DNA that humans link through a machine that transfers the human’s mind into the avatar allowing the human to experience what the avatar sees, tastes and touches. The Na’Vi call the avatars “dreamwalkers” because when the humans return to their own bodies, the avatars lose consciousness and appear to sleep.

Because avatars are so hideously expensive, it is determined that Jake will take his brother’s place on Pandora despite the fact that he has had no training in an avatar and is abysmally ignorant of Pandora and its dangers. When Jake arrives on Na’Vi he finds a bit of a power struggle going on in the human fortress-encampment between the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), a cantankerous botanist, and Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), a gung-ho ex-Marine employed as a mercenary by the RDA Corporation and its smarmy representative Parker Selfridge (Ribisi) – notice the similarity to the word “selfish” here – who are after a rare mineral called, somewhat irreverently, unobtanium. One particular Na’Vi settlement sits on a particularly rich deposit of the stuff.

The Na’Vi don’t trust the humans and with good reason. The humans look around Pandora and see a dangerous world whose resources exist for their exploitation for corporate gain. The Na’Vi sees a living world that is beautiful and inter-connected.

Jake goes on his first mission into the forest accompanied by fellow rookie Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Augustine and immediately gets himself into trouble, winding up being chased by a rhino-like creature (with the head of a hammerhead shark) into a chasm where he is separated from his fellow avatars. Day turns into night and the forest becomes even more dangerous as a pack of black canine-like creatures attacks Jake. He is saved by one of the Na’Vi, the beautiful Neytiri (Saldana) who has nothing but contempt for the avatars,who as she puts it walk through the forest like ignorant children and “see nothing.” However, when a jellyfish-like lifeform becomes curious about Jake, Neytiri interprets this as a sign and takes Jake to their village.

There her father Eytukan (Studi), the clan chief and her mother Moat (Pounder), the shaman of the clan, make the determination that Jake should be trained as a hunter for the clan. Tsu-tey (Alonso), the clan’s best hunter who is also heir to the position of chief and as thus betrothed to Neytiri, is skeptical that this can be done.

My son characterized the plot as “Dances With Aliens” and he has a point. There are many similarities between the plots of Avatar and Dances With Wolves but this definitely has its own take on it. The conflict between the needs of the corporation and the world of the Na’Vi eventually come to a head. There are some intense battle sequences but in all honesty, these are not why you come to see this movie.

Never before in motion picture history has so complete an alien environment ever been created. The look of Pandora is astonishing and realistic. It is certainly alien with some familiar elements; lush vegetation, grasses and trees and many unusual flora and fauna. There is literally no way to take it all in with a single viewing which is what the filmmakers intended undoubtedly.

Some movies become event movies simply on the basis of hype and a precious few because they are game changers. Star Wars was one of the latter and so is Avatar. This is a movie that many will see simply because everyone will be talking about it and they want to get in on the conversation. Director Cameron has once again proven himself one of the most visionary directors of his generation. While some think of him as the director of Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time, his legacy may rest with Avatar. This will literally change how movies get made.

The acting is surprisingly good. Weaver has made a career of delivering strong, capable performances and her Grace Augustine may rank with Ripley as the character most associated with her in the future. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that has already landed him the lead in high-profile movies and undoubtedly will continue to do so. He has all the qualities to be a big star and while his performance in Terminator Salvation hints at it, he delivers big time here. Michelle Rodriguez, an actress I’ve never really connected with before, is superb as a sympathetic pilot.

The movie runs two hours and forty minutes which is a bit long; the 3D glasses are bulky and uncomfortable and I wound up with a sore nose where the glasses rested. I have to admit that Cameron’s strong point is not dialogue and some of the characters utter lines that made me groan out loud. His points on corporate greed and its role in wiping out the ecology of our own world, the treatment of aboriginal races and the general irresponsibility of humankind are well-taken but at times he uses a 2×4 to whack us over the head with it when an ostrich feather would have done the trick.

Reviews for this movie are almost superfluous other than to pile on superlatives for a movie that richly deserves them. Avatar may be the closest thing to a visit to an alien world that most of us will get to experience in our lifetimes, but I’m sure most people have either already seen it or were planning to see it anyway without my endorsement. Still, count me in among the endorsers of this film; widely-hyped, intensely scrutinized and greatly anticipated, it delivers as one of the year’s very best.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals, the visuals, the visuals. This is a detailed, realistic world that has an internal logic. Even the elements of the fantastic make sense.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is probably about 20-30 minutes too long and can cause a bit of sensory overload at times. Some of the film’s points get hammered in a bit too strongly.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair bit of violence and some language, but pretty much okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The avatars have five fingers and toes while the Na’Vi have four.

HOME OR THEATER: This absolutely must be experienced on the big screen, preferably in 3D and in the IMAX format if you have a theater equipped for it nearby.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: World Trade Center

The Polar Express


THe Polar Express

All aboard the Polar Express!

(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, Phil Fondacaro, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There comes a time in all our lives, it is said, that we must put aside childish things. That is the first step in becoming an adult. There are those who say that it is the first step in losing something irreplacable and vital, something that makes us better people.

Hero Boy (Hanks, voiced by Sabara) is at that time. He has begun to question his childhood faith in the existence of Santa Claus as fact after overwhelming fact begins to dispute that such a person ever existed. It is bedtime on Christmas Eve and he is listening intently for the bells of Santa’s sleigh, certain that he will never hear them.

Suddenly the room begins to rumble and shake then is filled with a great light. Startled, Hero Boy runs outside in his bathrobe to see a mighty train waiting there for him. A conductor (Hanks) cries “Alllllll aboooooooard” and after some hesitation, Hero Boy takes him up on it. This is, after all, the Polar Express, headed straight to the North Pole where one of the lucky children on board will be the recipient of the first present of Christmas, given to them by Santa himself.

On board is a Know It All (Deezen) and a quiet young Girl (Gaye), as well as a Lonely Boy (Scolari) who comes on board last and sits by himself in the last car. While a group of Dancing Waiters serve up piping hot chocolate to the kids in the passenger car, the Girl sets a cup aside for the Lonely Boy. As she and the Conductor take the steaming beverage back to the Lonely Boy, the Hero Boy notices that the Girl has left her unpunched ticket on her seat. As he steps outside to cross to the back car to give her the ticket, it flies out of his hand, apparently lost. The stern conductor orders the Girl to come with him.

The Hero Boy finds the ticket, which wasn’t lost after all, and runs to the back car to take it to her, fearful that she will be thrown off the train, but neither the conductor nor the Girl are there. The Lonely Boy tells him that they are on the top of the train headed toward the front. The Hero Boy decides to follow them and climbs to the top of the train. There, he meets the Hobo (Hanks) who questions the Hero Boy on his stance vis-à-vis the existence of Santa but nonetheless helps him reach the Engine car where he finds, to his surprise, the Girl driving the train while the engineers, Smoker and Steamer (both played by the late Michael Jeter, for whom this was his last movie before his death) changing a light bulb on the front of the train.

They brake just in time to avoid running into a gigantic herd of caribou, which brings the Conductor forward to scold them. The caribou are at length moved out of the way so the Express can continue on its way to the North Pole, but the train runs into some iced over tracks, barely able to navigate back onto the tracks while the ice cracks beneath them.

Eventually they reach the North Pole and the three friends manage to get lost in the vast city of Santa’s workshop, but they nevertheless make it to the town square just in time for the festivities to begin. But is there a Santa? What will it take for the Hero Boy to believe?

This was the first movie to be filmed entirely in motion capture technology (Zemeckis’ own Beowulf and Disney’s A Christmas Carol were also filmed in this way) and looks dazzling. While it is essentially an animated feature, the use of live actors to perform give the human and elf characters more life than a simple CGI feature can generate. It looks realistic, despite the fantasy setting.

Hanks gives a marvelous performance in multiple roles, including that of Santa and the Hero Boy’s father. Each character sounds, looks and acts differently as Hanks gives each its own unique look and facial expressions. It is compelling work.

The heart of the movie, however, is the story about the role of belief in our lives. Author Chris Van Allsburg has written a classic Christmas tale, perhaps the best since The Night Before Christmas or even since Dickens, and the story makes excellent cinema. I was completely entranced by the movie, even down to the songs (Josh Groban’s Believe is one of the best new Christmas songs of the last decade) which is unusual for me.

This is in every sense of the word a Christmas classic, one which I have no trouble watching every year at Christmas time. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. If you have, I hope you see it again – I discover something new about it every time I see it. That’s my definition of a classic.

WHY RENT THIS: This is the best Christmas movie to come along in 50 years. Believe is one of the better Christmas songs to come along the pike in ages. Hanks gives some terrific performances in multiple roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some find the story a bit treacly. The technology may soon become outdated as Avatar sets the bar higher but it was still ahead of its time when released.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address called out by the Conductor near the end of the film of “11344 Edbrooke” is the address of director Zemeckis’ childhood home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some games and a clip of Josh Groban performing at the Greek Theater in the kid-centric DVD edition. The best feature is the one on author Chris Van Allsburg, who penned the children’s story this is based on. There is also a 3D edition (that comes with glasses) and a Blu-Ray edition that has more extra features than the DVD.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes

Disney’s A Christmas Carol


Disney's A Christmas Carol

Jim Carey is haunting...himself.

(Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Carey, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Ryan Ochoa, Jacquie Barnbrook, Lesley Manville, Molly C. Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan, Leslie Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

No matter how badly we behave, no matter how heinous the acts we have done in our lives, there is always a possibility of a second chance. It is one of the most wonderful things about being human.

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Carey) is a miserly fellow, bitter and curmudgeonly. He is feared and despised by the citizens of London circa 1842. After his partner Jacob Marley (Oldman) dies on a Christmas Eve in 1835, Scrooge continues to operate his counting house, bullying his clerk Bob Cratchit (Oldman again). Scrooge saves particular vitriol for Christmas, which he proclaims as “humbug.”

Scrooge is visited that Christmas Eve first by his nephew Fred (Firth) who patiently invites his uncle to Christmas dinner, which is refused. Fred is puzzled as to why his uncle despises him so, but it seems to be tied to his marriage. Later, a pair of businessmen collecting for charitable donations receives Scrooge’s distinctive philosophy on life (the famous quote “Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses?”) but no cash.

Upon returning home, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley who warns Scrooge he is to be visited by three ghosts; the Ghost of Christmas Past (Carey), the Ghost of Christmas Present (ditto) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (you got it). At stake his Scrooge’s soul, and the life of Cratchit’s son Tim (Ochoa).

This is one of the most beloved and best-known stories on the planet and director Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) has the tall order of making a story so known to many seem fresh and new. Most of us can quote Charles Dickens’ original story word for word and know the story backwards and forwards. With so many already-filmed versions to choose from, the public can afford to be choosy and set high standards for any new films. Making one that stands out from the crowd is no easy task.

Most versions of A Christmas Carol depend heavily on the performance of the actor playing Scrooge. Actors have generally been classically trained English thespians, but from time to time comedians (Bill Murray comes to mind) have also tackled the role. Carey is perhaps the most unusual choice for the iconic miser. I’m not particularly fond of Carey – he tends to mug around a bit in my opinion – but one can’t deny the talent. He tackles the roles of Scrooge in all his iterations, as well as all three of the ghosts. For the most part, he restrains himself but from time to time Ace Ventura shines through.

The supporting cast is pretty good. Hoskins displays bonhomie as Fezziwig, while Penn is solid in the dual roles of Belle, Scrooge’s love interest and Fanny, his sister. Better still is Oldman, whose portrayal of Bob Cratchit (complete with Cockney accent) is superb. His scene during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence mourning his son is incredibly moving.

After a great start with The Polar Express, motion capture hasn’t really lived up to its promise. The visuals are spectacular, eye-popping really. Zemeckis has a terrific visual sense and crafts a movie that captures the imagination. Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture the heart (except for the Cratchit scene mentioned above). There’s far more emphasis on spectacle than there is on the story, and some fairly important vignettes are glossed over or cut out entirely and yet Zemeckis conducts an extended hearse chase scene that is striking to look at but ultimately feels more like a placeholder for a future theme park attraction. That gives the movie a rushed feeling that I found unsettling.

The animation isn’t perfect. Cratchit’s head is disproportionate, and his daughter Martha towers over him by what appears to be about a foot and a half or more. It looks unsettling. Also, while the faces and movements are lifelike, there is a curious lifelessness to the eyes that makes the characters look a little bit like zombies. In many ways, the more clear-cut animation of Pixar and DreamWorks is preferable because it’s more consistent; you know it’s an animation so there’s a standard for realism or its lack thereof. Here, you’re expecting a more life-like quality and frankly the technology isn’t quite there yet.

People who love Jim Carey are going to enjoy this movie because you get a whole lot of him here. People who love the original Dickens tale are going to be a bit more critical and may find this a difficult pill to swallow. The 3D effects are terrific (the snow falling is particularly nice) and definitely enhance the movie nicely. However, I can’t recommend this unreservedly. All in all, the package comes in gaudy wrapping paper with an elaborate bow, but all the pretty paper in the world can’t conceal that what’s inside is a bit empty and light.

REASONS TO GO: There are some amazing visuals here, particularly the ghosts. Zemeckis puts the story on its biggest and boldest canvas ever. Oldman gives a moving performance, particularly in the Christmas Yet to Come sequence.

REASONS TO STAY: Zemeckis sacrifices story for spectacle in several instances. Some of the figures, particularly Cratchit and his daughter Martha seem to be disproportionate. The hearse chase scene is completely unnecessary and seems to be there only to provide the inspiration for an eventual theme park ride. A little Carey goes a long way.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the ghost sequences, particularly Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come might be a bit too much for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The earliest known filmed version of Dickens tale was made in 1901 by British film pioneer Robert Paul and was under three and a half minutes long. It can be seen in its entirety on the British Film Institute YouTube channel.

HOME OR THEATER: The dazzling visuals should be experienced on the big screen, preferably in the 3D presentation (and IMAX if you can get to an IMAX theater).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Tale of Despereaux