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Starring the voice talent of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, and John Ratzenberger
Directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.)
Rated PG for some peril and action
Appropriate for all ages


    78-year-old widower and retired balloon man Carl Fredricksen has dreamed of one thing all of his life – flying to Paradise Falls in Venezuela.  When urban developers threaten to take his house away from him and put him in a retirement home, he uses his remaining balloons and helium tanks to launch his house into the sky and set out on his dream-journey to South America.  Unbeknownst to Carl, though, is that a young scout named Russell has stowed away on his front porch and is now forced to travel with him on his journey.

    It’s hard to know where to start the praise of this film.  I think what stands out most is the originality of the story and the courage for a studio to go with it.  This is the least conventional film that Pixar has ever created, and therefore the riskiest.  An animated film about an old curmudgeonly man and his flying house does not sound like a hit at first thought and I seriously doubt that any other studio would have ever taken a second look at the script.  Yet Pixar takes the story, nurtures it, and turns it into yet another in a string of masterpieces. 

    It hardly needs mentioning if you’ve seen the trailer, but the animation is absolutely breathtaking.  The colors are rich and vibrant and the world around Carl is a fantasy, and yet familiar to the audience.  The little touches to the story, such as the adventurer he and his wife watched as children, the dogs with collars that talk their thoughts, the elusive giant bird that befriends Carl and Russell: all of these elements and more make this film both highly enjoyable and memorable. 

    Pixar opens the film with a very cute short titled Partly Cloudy, about a stork that is forced to deliver dangerous baby animals, but the silent film style montage in the first act showing Carl’s life from a young man to old is one of the most beautiful and touching stories I’ve ever seen in a film.  It could be an Oscar winning short all on its own.  You will feel more familiar with this man in five minutes than you will with most characters in an entire film.  This is what ultimately propels you into empathy with Carl’s quest.

    Before you think that I watched this movie wearing rose-colored glasses (actually, the 3D glasses had more of a dark tint), I do have one negative thing to say about the it.  I am very afraid of heights (being 6’7″ probably doesn’t help that) and being up in the air for so long during the film and looking down made me very queasy at times.  I’m certain that the 3D effects exacerbated it, but if you have severe acrophobia, you might want to be aware of this.  I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the movie, but my stomach might have.  A+

New on DVD

New on DVD

He’s Just Not That Into You
Rated PG-13 for sexual content and brief strong language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This set of interconnecting stories tells stories of love, loss, cheating, loneliness, desperation and revelation.  The main thrust of the story revolves around a young girl named Gigi (Gennifer Goodwin) who is bluntly told by a bartender (Justin Long) about the signs that guys give when they are and aren’t into women.  Upon this realization, she attempts to play dating by a different set of rules that may or may not work out for her.  I’ll freely admit that I liked this romantic comedy and consider it one of the better ones of the last couple years.  It tries to be Love Actually, and never comes close, but is still witty, funny, and engaging.  The women are written a little more dense and shallow than the men, but then again, the basic idea of the movie is taken from the point of view of a man, not a women, so that makes sense in this situation.  The huge cast including Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Scarlett Johansson and many others worked well as an ensemble and each has their own memorable moments.  B

Revolutionary Road
Rated R for language and some sexual content /nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are just your normal 1950’s suburban couple in love.  They have a young family and seem to be living the American dream.  But when life starts to get in the way of their plans and both of them start to become regretful, the whole thing begins to fall apart.  This is really a great movie, but like Winslet’s other recent film The Reader, this one is very hard to watch.  It’s a punch in the gut that becomes very unsettling.  To make the audience more uncomfortable is the Oscar-nominated performance of Michael Shannon as a mentally disturbed man that comes into their lives and sees through their masquerade of happiness.  A-

Defiance
Rated R for violence and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

During World War II, the Bielski brothers (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell) create a village consisting of hundreds of Jews in the Belarussian Forest in order to protect them from the encroaching Nazi forces.  While the history of this movie is fascinating, the script has some real problems.  It attempts too hard to be Braveheart meets Schindler’s List instead of merely telling this amazing true story.  The special features on the disc are better than the movie this time around, with featurettes on the survivors and descendants of this event.  Also of note is the beautiful score by James Newton Howard and violinist Joshua Bell.  It is truly one of the most beautiful pieces of music to come from Hollywood last year.  C+

Valkyrie
Rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Tom Cruise is Colonol Claus von Stauffenberg, the German military leader that almost assassinated Hitler during World War II (sorry for the spoiler about Hitler not getting killed).  Based on yet another amazing true story, this film plays more like an adventure thriller and focuses very little on the actual war.  While the lack of violence and cruelty surrounding the Nazi party represented by the film bugged me at first watch, I found it less annoying the second time around.  I would have still preferred the film to be a Rated R, more dramatic and realistic approach to the war.  Historically, it’s not too far off and the performances by the very talented cast are terrific.  The disc contains two commentaries as well as several featurettes and a documentary.  B

Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation

Starring Christin Bale, Sam Worthington, and Anton Yelchin
Directed by McG (Charlie’s Angels)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, and language
Appropriate for ages 13+


    This fourth installment of the Terminator franchise (unless you count the TV show) follows the infamous John Connor (Bale) in the year 2018, commanding the human resistance during what could be their possible extinction.  As he is looking for Kyle Reese (Yelchin), the man he sends back in time to become his father, he finds another man named Marcus Wright (Worthington) that informs him that Reese has been captured by the machines.  The only problem is that Wright himself is a terminator that thinks he is a human, and Connor and gang do not know if they can trust him.  The one thing that John does know is that Kyle must live if there is to be any hope for the human race. 

    Before I rip into this one, I will sing a few of its praises.  First off, the special effects are off the charts.  While they aren’t as groundbreaking as what we saw in T2, they are still hugely impressive.  The new machines are equally terrific, although I would have rather waited to see the gigantic killer robots during the movie rather than having the trailer spoiling them, but oh well.

    My first gripe is that this is a lousy script full of fuzzy logic and plot holes galore.  I’ll try not to give too much away here, but it seemed way too easy for Wright to find Reese (guess it was destiny) and if Reese truly was enemy number one to the machines – either Wright would have been programed to kill Reese when discovered, or at least the machines would have killed Reese when captured rather than trying to use him as bait for Connor.  After all, if Connor’s thought process was correct (if Reese was killed, Connor would cease to exist and the resistance would die) then killing him as soon as he is captured would have made the most sense, and subsequently got us out of the theater an hour faster.  But let’s put logic problems aside, the dialogue is what really stinks here.  All the silly banter and clich├ęd rebels were just annoying.  I wish Bale had lashed out against the writers rather than the cinematographer.

    I also have a huge problem with the direction here.  McG has lots of style, but his scene work is not strong, and he is not good at compelling storytelling.  What looks like an acting problem is really just bad directing.  While the film will make a lot of money, giving McG $200 million when he is largely untested was kind of a dumb idea of Warner Brothers.  After its advertising campaign, I predict that this pic will be a big money loser for the studio. 

    Finally, Terminator is an R-rated franchise, and this teeny bopper, toned-down version doesn’t help the film at all.  I think a real director, with the same budget and a better-written R-rated script, could have really done something with this story, and possibly turned it into another classic.  C-

New on DVD

New on DVD

Powder Blue
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Four lonely souls living in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve (Jessica Biel, Ray Liotta, Forrest Whitaker, and Eddie Redmayne) try to find what might make them complete in this straight-to-dvd title with marquee names.  This is being sold as Jessica Biel’s first nude scene, but in reality, it is a waste of time.  The story is simply a mess.  Everyone is acting depressed and needy and not only are the scenes poorly directed, but the film doesn’t seem to have a foothold in reality.  I’ll admit, some of the characters are interesting, such as Patrick Swayze’s slimy strip club owner and Lisa Kudrow’s lonely diner waitress, but they are not in the film long enough to really get a feel for them.  So how did this film get all the big names?  My guess is that the cast thought it was going to be the next Crash, and by the time they figured out it wasn’t – it was too late.  D

History Channel Megasets
If you have a lot of time on your hands, the History Channel is releasing some massively impressive 14-DVD boxed sets this week.  First there is Military Combat which follows over 39 battles brought to life with computer animation and archival footage.  The set includes Battle 360: The Complete Season One, Dogfights: The Complete Seasons 1 & 2, as well as my personal favorite – Dogfights of the Future.  Next there is America at War, which contains over thirty hours of documentaries ranging from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq.  Finally, there is American Originals containing the entire first seasons from the very popular shows Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, and Tougher in Alaska.  All three sets are reasonably priced on amazon.com and would make pretty phenomenal Father’s Day gifts.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Rated R for violence
Available on Blu-ray

Widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly makes its debut on Blu-ray in bold fashion.  This gritty spaghetti western teams Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef as an uneasy trio attempting to find a large stash of gold buried in a remote cemetery.  This new fully-restored extended version looks and sounds great and has loads of extra documentaries and even a commentary by noted cultural historian Christopher Frayling.  I especially loved the featurette on legendary composer Ennio Morricone.  A+

New on DVD

New on DVD

True Blood: The Complete Season 1
Unrated but contains gory violence, strong sexual content, nudity, drug usage and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

HBO had a huge feat in replacing it’s most recent hit dramas The Sopranos, Rome, and Deadwood.  With Showtime nipping at its heals with Dexter and The Tudors – HBO needed a hit.  And this year they got it with this inventive vampire series by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball.  In world of True Blood, the Japanese have invented a synthetic blood, making it possible for vampires to not have to feed off of humans any longer, thus allowing them to come out of the coffin.  When a virginal waitress (Anna Paquin) from rural Louisiana falls in love with a vampire (Stephen Moyer), she must decide whether to live a normal, boring life, or set off on an exciting journey full of danger.  Once again, HBO has hit it out of the park.  More like a twelve-hour movie than a TV show, True Blood proves that it can still keep the creativity coming and keep its audience fully engaged.  While I would normally suggest getting a set like this on blu-ray, I was disapointed that the special features easily found on the menu of the DVD could only be located within the enhance viewing mode of the actual episodes on blu-ray.  While this mode can be entertaining, I think it’s annoying to not have the ability to watch all of the features at the touch of a button.  A-

Paul Blart: Mall Cop
Rated PG for some violence, mild crude and suggestive humor, and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Kevin James is Paul Blart, an overweight mall security guard that takes his job very seriously.  When he finds himself in the way of a dangerous band of thugs determined to steal millions of dollars from his mall, he sets out to stop them.  Let me start by saying that I really like Kevin James.  I think he is funny, smart, and talented.  I also think he is far above the brainless level of this film.  While there are a few occasional laughs, this movie is an unintelligent mess full of moronic humor and bad jokes.  To make matters worse, the x-games bad guys were insulting to watch as they stuntworked their way to try to stop the painfully inept Blart.  I don’t know what’s more painful – that the film was made or that the film made $150 million at the U.S. box office.  D


Rudo y Cursi

Rudo y Cursi

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna
Directed by Carlos Cuaron
Rated R for pervasive language, sexual content and brief drug use
Appropriate for ages 17+
Spanish language with English subtitles


    Two very competitive brothers working as banana farmers in rural Mexico get the opportunity of a lifetime when a Soccer talent scout discovers their skills and signs them up for the pros.  Tato (Bernal) is an excellent offensive player that gains a reputation for being an aggressive scorer.  Beto (Luna), on the other hand, is a goalie with a shut-out record on an opposing team.  When it comes time to face off against each other, they must decide which is most important: family or football career.

    In 2001, an independent film named Y Tu Mama Tambien put Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, director Alfonso Cuaron and writer Carlos Cuaron on the map.  Everyone involved in that film went on to much bigger and better things.  Bernal and Luna have went on to star in many big-budget American and international films.  Alfonso went on to direct Harry Potter 3 and Children of Men.  So no doubt it’s a big deal for the Latin world that the team was brought together again for another little independent film. 

    I’d like to say that this new film is as good as their last outing, but with expectations high, results came in low.  It most certainly is not a bad film though.  The acting is as good as can be expected and the deliveries bring many laughs and cringes at the appropriate moments.  With the part of the story that is most important – sibling rivalry – the script and directing are very good.  Where the writing and directing fail is almost everywhere else.  The relationships of the lead characters to the outside world are awkward at best.  The extras are poorly directed throughout and the pacing is off in way too many scenes.  The film almost feels undone or at least unorganized.  Also, I find it very funny that there is absolutely no sports action in this sports film.  Still, there is a strong chemistry between Bernal and Luna that makes the film at least a little entertaining.  C+

New on DVD

New on DVD

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Rated R for bloody violence and some sexuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This prequel to the original Underworld series sets up the story of the first half-werewolf half-human lycan named Lucian (Frost/Nixon’s Michael Sheen) and the war the lycans begin with their slave-master vampires lead by Viktor (Love Actually’s Bill Nighy).  I have the same criticism for this third film in the the series that I did for the first two: this would be a great movie with more money.  With a big studio to back these films, they could have something on a grand level.  The story is pretty good, and the actors are very talented.  More money would bring a better director and special effects worthy of this project.  Still, I think this film can still be appreciated for what it is.  B-

Taken
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, disturbing thematic material, sexual content, some drug references and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Liam Neeson is an ex-CIA operative whose daughter has been kidnapped in Europe and forced into the sex trade.  Realizing that there is only a short amount of time before he loses her forever, he flies to Paris and kills everyone that has ever come into contact with her.  I believe that this film had real potential as a thriller.  After all, it’s about a father trying to save his little girl’s life and that can bring out some very strong emotions.  I was disappointed in the film primarily because it is a Rated R film posing as a PG-13 picture.  This really gets in the way of the film’s integrity.  Also, I thought that the involvement of the mother and stepfather was ludicrously absent throughout.  There were also some major script problems that I don’t want to discuss due to possibly spoiling it for some folks.  This film did make a lot of money though ($217 million world-wide) so audiences obviously found something in it that they liked.  C

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin: The Complete Series
Unrated – Made for television
Available on DVD

This 1970’s BBC comedy tells the story of Reginald Perrin, an unhappy man going through a mid-life crisis.  He is deeply bored with work and hasn’t had a holiday in years.  He is in love with his wife, but dreams of an affair with his secretary.  One day he decides he has had enough, fakes his suicide, and disappears.  When he desires his old life again, he assumes a new identity and attempts to re-enter his old life through a new persona.  This very ambitious three season comedy had me in stitches with its dry British wit and off-the-wall sense of humor.  A-

Taking Chance
Unrated – suitable for all audiences
Available on DVD

Based on real events, Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon) volunteers to escort fallen marine Chance Phelps from Delaware to his home in rural Wyoming.  Along the way he sees an America that is touched by the sacrifice the marine has made and meets the many people whose lives were effected by this young man’s death.  There is no real drama here, but rather a simple, short story that almost feels like a nicely produced reenactment on what goes on behind the scenes when a soldier dies overseas.  While it is not a compelling feature film, it is a very moving, patriotic story that I am glad was told.  I will warn you, though, that it is an impossible feat to watch this film without crying.  And to make the tears fall even harder, check out the special features section with accompanying interviews from Chance’s family and fellow Marines.  A-

Star Trek

Star Trek

Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Eric Bana
Directed by J.J. Abrams (Mission Impossible 3)
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content
Appropriate for ages 10+ (but just try to keep a younger boy away from this)


    This prequel to the original Star Trek series and movies begins with Kirk and Spock (Pine and Quinto) both as children and as rivals when they come to work together on the USS Enterprise.  The enemy this time is Nero (Bana), a Romulan warlord from a different dimension determined to destroy Earth in order to avenge the destruction of his own planet.

    It was apparent that the life had been stripped out of the Star Trek series until JJ Abrams and crew decided to reinvent it.  While there had been ten movies before this one, none had ever been as successful as Star Wars, Close Encounters or other big-budget sci-fi films.  Star Trek was kind of considered a genre within the genre.  A sci-fi movie for nerds only (it’s ok – I’m a nerd – I can say that).  But this categorization is not what Abrams wanted, because he didn’t fit in that category.  So with this new reimagining, he is hoping to pull Star Trek out of that box-office graveyard and into true blockbuster status – and I think that he just might have done it. 

    The TV ad says proudly “This is not your father’s Star Trek,” and I, for one, agree.  The first difference you will notice, if you’ve seen the old films, is that the special effects and production design show a huge improvement.  That makes sense considering that the most expensive of the films was Nemesis, with a budget of $60 million, and this budget is estimated at a whopping $150 million.  The first ten films always had a cheap look to them compared to other sci-fi films of their days.  This new creation is truly state-of-the-art.  Everything about it is big and beautiful, and you could tell that the limits were pushed. 

    The next difference you will see is in the acting.  The original cast was iconic, and therefore the bad acting was somewhat forgivable.  With the Next Generation came a new crew with better actors, but it still felt like bigger budget TV.  This new cast brings with it much more talent and with that talent – a breath of fresh air.  Pine and Quinto make for a terrific Kirk and Spock, and adding John Cho (Harold and Kumar) as Sulu and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz) as Scotty was a touch of genius.  And I can’t think of a better Dr. McCoy than Karl Urban who managed to steal scene after scene.  Lastly, Eric Bana made for a truly terrifying baddie as Nero.  It might help that the writing here by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers) is better than what the casts have had to work with in the past, but I’d still give a ton of credit to this cast and I can’t wait to see them in future installments. 

    One thing this new installment has in common with the others (at least the first couple of films) is a great score.  Composer Michael Giacchinno (Ratatouille) creates a grand original score that is sure to be one of the best-selling soundtracks of the year.  From the forceful french horns in the beginning to the homage to the original series at the end, this is one great piece of music. 

    The only slight criticism I have here is that there is just a little too much Leonard Nimoy in this film.  I was lead to believe he had a cameo, but his part is much larger than that description.  I realize that Abrams might have been trying to keep the Trekkies happy, but a little Nimoy could have gone a long way.

    Overall, while I admit to being a nerd, I have never been a Trekkie.  This film might have converted me.  A

New on DVD

New on DVD

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Rated PG-13 for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is born into the world as an old man.  Over the course of a lifetime he ages in reverse, while all the while trying to connect with the people that come into his life.  This epic tale by director David Fincher (Fight Club) and screenwriter Eric Roth (Forest Gump) takes on so many genres that it’s hard to categorize.  It’s probably first and foremost a drama, but it is also very romantic, extremely funny, and it has a fantasy feel to it.  Everything about this film screams Oscar, however, with Slumdog Millionaire as its competition, the only trophies it took home on the big night were for make-up, visual effects, and art direction.  This, however, doesn’t make me adore the film any less.  After the dust has settled, I still consider it to be the best film of 2008, and a must own for 2009.  A+

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schriber, and Danny Huston
Directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity
Appropriate for ages 13+

    As you may recall from the first two X-Men films, Wolverine has a problem remembering his past, thus Marvel Comics has brought us this prequel to explain how Logan became Wolverine, one of the most famous of super heroes.  In the mid 1800s Logan (Jackman) and his brother Victor (Schriber) both discover that they have uncanny powers of self-healing and retractable claws.  Together they fight in war after war, decade after decade.  When they kill an officer in a skirmish and a military firing squad is unable to harm them, they are put into a special forces unit with other mutants, doing the dirty work for Uncle Sam.  When Logan refuses to act on an order and walks away from a mission, his brother (who is now called Sabretooth) sets out to destroy him.

    Going into the X-Men franchise almost a decade ago, the one hero comic fans wanted to see the most from the group was Wolverine, and much of the first two films was about him, so giving him his own origin movie is a good, if not profitable, idea.  In order to give Wolverine more depth, the filmmakers did something unusual by going to South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) who has never directed a tent pole picture.  While this has worked in the past with directors like Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson, this film felt a bit sloppy at times, almost like Hood was in over his head a bit.  Too much of the film looked green-screened and the pacing was off in many of the scenes.  I’m sure Fox was in control of most of the big action sequences, and some of them are spectacular sequences, but it’s the slower scenes that stick out.  If you are seeing this just for the action, however, there is enough to keep you excited throughout.

    Looking at the amount of writers that have been assigned this project, it is apparent that Fox and Marvel had script issues also.  Too often did characters do or say things that they probably wouldn’t have done or said had the situations actually been happening (I can’t prove this point, but I’m working on it).  What I can say for sure is that the plot devices used here to maintain continuity between this film and the first X-Men could have and should have been different.  Due to spoilers, this is a conversation for after everyone in America has seen the film.

    What did work well in the film are the terrific performances from the lead actors.  Jackman and Schriber are incredibly gifted actors and they both are very fun to watch here.  Danny Huston also makes a weaselly good Stryker, although he wasn’t quite as strong in this role as Brian Cox was in X2.

    I usually don’t comment on this in my reviews, but I’d like to criticize Fox for their paranoia surrounding this film.  I have been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen this much defensiveness from a studio.  It is unfortunate that an unfinished copy of the film leaked before it was released, but to be this worried is ridiculous.  The studios claimed that when a copy of the Hulk got out a few years back, it cost the movie millions at the box office.  I call bull on that.  How about the fact that Hulk wasn’t a very good film.  I think that the recent successes of Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, and X-Men prove that when Hollywood provides a quality product, people will come – in droves.  If the reviews of Wolverine come in strong, and the public likes it – it will make a lot of money.  If not, it won’t.  This much concern gives off the aroma of a bad film, and while it’s not brilliant, this movie is far from horrible.  C+