Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz
Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend)
Rated PG-13
Appropriate for ages 13+

    When folks asked me which movie I have been looking forward to seeing in 2011, the first film on my lips has been Water for Elephants.  I so much adored the book by Sara Gruen and couldn’t wait to see how director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Horse Whisperer) would adapt it to the big screen.  

    While the book follows the life of veterinarian Jacob Jankowski as an older man and as a younger man whose life is about to be changed forever, the movie focuses primarily on younger Jacob (Pattinson) and leaves older Jacob (Hal Holbrook) in a much smaller part.  When young Jacob’s parents die in a car crash in the early 30’s, he finds himself working as a vet for the second-rate Benzini Brothers Circus, led by the sinister but flamboyant August (Waltz).  When he falls in love with August’s wife Marlena (Witherspoon) and a beautiful elephant named Rosie, both of which are severely mistreated by August, he puts himself in a dangerous situation that could cost him his life.  

    It’s a great story on page but its a little hit and miss on screen, mostly due to miscasting of some major parts.  I’m sure with my previous reviews of his films, you’d probably expect me to say that Pattinson was miscast as the lead.  Actually, I thought he was great.  His performance, which showed great range in both the softest and most intense of scenes, was dead-on.  Also well-cast was Waltz as August.  While he is becoming a bit niched as the goto bad guy, he does it so well that you hardly care.  Stealing the show here was the Tai, the elephant actress.  Not only was she beautiful and talented, but she brought more to the table than I’m sure was expected.  She had me mesmerized every minute she was the in the film.

    Miscast here is Witherspoon who simply went the wrong way with her character.  She has shown great talent and depth in other roles, but here she came off as the weakest link.   I’m not sure what she thought she was doing, but the director should have demanded that she be Marlena and not whatever it was she brought with her to the set.  What I also missed was a colorful cast of circus performers and workers.  The actors they chose to fill the supporting cast were subpar and their roles were downplayed significantly, most likely in the desire to cut down the running time.  This is a film that should have been longer and suffered a bit from brevity.  

    As for the production, it was first rate.  The look of the film, driven by the director and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) was gorgeous and memorable.  Also of note is the beautiful, sweeping score by James Newton Howard (Dark Knight).

    So did it live up to high expectations?  Mostly.  I expected Titanic in circus form and merely got a nice period love story.  I still think that it is an exceptional date night movie and many of the scenes touched me, just as they did in the book.  B+

New in Home Entertainment – April 26, 2011

New in Home Entertainment

April 26, 2011

Blow Out: The Criterion Collection
Rated R
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

This 1981 film by Brian De Palma didn’t turn any heads back in the day, but it is currently looked to as a major achievement by film scholars and students alike.  The story follows John Travolta as B-movie sound man who is out recording wind one night when a car carrying Nancy Allen and the soon-to-be president crashes into a river.  He manages to save Allen, but her lover dies and Travolta thinks he has proof that he was murdered.  If you want to truly appreciate this title, you may want to watch some of the special features first, even though they might act as spoilers.  I would definitely check out the interview of De Palma by filmmaker Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) and the interview with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown.  It’s not a great film by any standards, but these features will help you understand its significance.  B

The Universe Blu-ray Mega Collection
Available on Blu-ray

It’s funny how The History Channel has taken on a bigger role than Discovery when it comes to well-produced science programming.  This new set contains all five seasons of the show which should provide you with almost everything you would ever want to know about the greater cosmos around you.  Watch this once and it’s very possible to transform yourself into the next Cliff Clavin at any party.  Filmed in HD and containing tons of great footage from NASA as well as decent CGI effects, The Universe presents an all-encompassing and slightly whacky look at our universe that you’ll enjoy during your “I need to feel smarter” phases.  While the information becomes a tad redundant due to trying to stretch 30 minutes worth of content into an hour, it still works as a good educational experience.  B

Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The SyFy channel has never been known for bringing forth high-quality original films but lately they’ve released some pretty bearable bad movies like Mega Python vs. Gatoroid and Sharktopus.  Unfortunately, there is an art to making bad movies watchable and the creators of Dinoshark couldn’t find the secret recipe.  Watching this 150 million year old shark take out tourists in Puerto Vallarta was a cruel experience for the viewer.  You expect the acting to stink, but when the wannabe thespians are worse than porn stars and the effects look like they were done on a teenager’s iMac, you almost wish for the shark to put you out of your misery.  F  

Scream 4

Scream 4

Starring Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox and Emma Roberts
Directed by Wes Craven
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language and some teen drinking
Appropriate for ages 17+

    Ten years have passed since Sidney Prescott (Campbell) was haunted by the Ghostface Killer and now she has written a book about how she has pulled her life back together again in light of everyone of her friends getting killed around her.  Unfortunately, on this particular anniversary, a new Ghostface killer is back and again taking the lives of everyone she cares about.

    It’s kind of ironic that this 90‘s franchise based on nostalgia of older horror films is now trying to recreate that same nostalgia on itself.   While it mentions some of the newer horror films that have come recently, the cast is mostly concerned with the original Scream murders, entitled Stab for the movies based on them.  I’ll fully admit that the opening of the film is a very clever vehicle for making fun of the scream films while at the same time helping you remember what they were all about.  

    But then Wes Craven and crew continue to try to be witty in order to make us laugh while we are watching everyone die.  While this worked for the original film, it only creates a parody of it rather than trying to actually scare you.  The whole thing was kind of silly, almost like Wes Craven creating a Scary Movie sequel rather than something new and original.  

    One trick that does work is that Craven really tries to fool you into thinking that you can try to guess who the real killer is.  He uses every trick in the book.  But just like the first films, your guess would have to be random rather than educated in order to find out who is holding the knife.  The only real clue is that if they are dead – they can’t be the killer.  

    There was a scene in Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back where Craven is filming a Scream sequel, but not really paying attention because he is too busy counting his money.  Meanwhile, the real killer is an ape.  This wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t that good either.  C

New in Home Entertainment – April 19, 2011

New in Home Entertainment

April 19, 2011

The King’s Speech
Rated R for some language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

I’m not sure if The King’s Speech should have won this years Oscar for best picture, but it sure has all of the right ingredients: WWII period drama, compelling tale about a stuttering king, beautiful score by composer Alexandre Desplat and some pretty great performances.  It’s the kind of stuffy English film that certainly has the power to win, and that power showed through this year at the Academy Awards.  All of the performances were worthy of accolades and the look and the basic story were very engaging and interesting, but where I think it lacks is in its let-down of an ending.  The movie leads up to what I thought was going to be the king of England leading his people, and instead became all about a speech.  I guess I should have known that from the title, but I was really hoping for something more.  B

Rated R for sexual content, nudity and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Sofia Coppola directs this snoozer of movie about a famous Hollywood actor (Stephen Dorff) who doesn’t know what direction to take his life in.  He goes from one long scenario to another in a pseudo-trance, with only the company of his young daughter (Elle Fanning) to pull him back into reality.  While it’s an interesting and probably realistic vision of an A-lister lifestyle, the film becomes too artsy to be enjoyed.  The movie opens up with a wide shot of him racing his sports car around a track over and over and over again for what seems like forever, and never really goes anywhere from there.  And while I didn’t think it was possible to make twin strippers pole dancing uninteresting, Coppola purposefully pulls off the almost impossible feat in order show the audience what a miserable life our hero has.  Too bad that makes the audience miserable as well.  D

Ip Man 2
Rated R for Violence
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The first Ip Man film showed the life of the legendary Kung Fu instructor as he helps lead his Chinese town against the Japanese during WWII.  This time around, though, he is living in Hong Kong and having a tough time getting his school enrollment up.  When he does finally get paying students, he is forced to fold by the other Kung Fu schools.  Only when he fights an obnoxious British boxer does he have the opportunity to resolve his financial problems and expose his now-famous Wing Chun style of Kung Fu to the world.  I loved the first Ip Man due to its fantastic fight sequences demonstrating Chinese vs. Japanese styles of martial arts.  Unfortunately, this new movie feels very much like a ripoff of Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China.  Donnie Yen certainly has the fighting chops to match Li’s but the movie itself isn’t as compelling or interesting as either of these other two films I mentioned.  It would have been so much nicer had they went a decade into the future and shown Ip Man training the pupil who became his most famous student – Bruce Lee.  C

The Way Back

Rated PG-13 for violent content, depiction of physical hardships, a nude image and brief strong language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Director Peter Weir (Master and Commander) tells the true story of a group of imprisoned soldiers that escape a Siberian gulag only to cross 4000 miles of treacherous land to find freedom in India.  The story is not only fascinating, but beautifully told and masterfully acted by a strong ensemble including Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, and Jim Sturgess.  So why did this film not get better traction during awards season?  Probably because the subject matter is so difficult.  Inspiring true stories don’t always make the most successful movies when the hardship is so brutal.  Is it worth seeing?  You betcha.  Do I think most of you will watch it?  No way.  A-

Sweetie: The Criterion Collection

Unrated but contains unsettling adult content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Before director Jane Campion released her multiple Oscar-winning masterpiece The Piano, she made this small Australian Indie about two twenty-year-old sisters.  Kay is a bit quirky but her sister Sweetie (who we don’t see until the second act) is a disturbed woman full of delusions.  What starts out as kind of fun, mischievous film ends up being a stomach-turning drama.  Still, the story is well told and beautifully shot.  Also, disc contains an enormous amount of special features including a great interview with Genevieve Lemon and Karen Colston, the two sisters from the film, reflecting on the making of the more than twenty-year-old project.  B



Starring Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett
Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexual material and language
Appropriate for ages 16+

    Sixteen-year-old Hanna (Ronan) has spent her entire life isolated in Northern Finland, all the while being trained by her father (Bana) to be the perfect killing machine.  When the government learns of her existence, Hanna must find and kill the agent responsible for her exile (Blanchett) or be killed in return.

    Even in the parts of the movie I didn’t like, I was completely fascinated with every minute of this film.  The story itself isn’t completely original since it is essentially the same basic plot as all three of the Bourne movies.  But the telling of the story is completely original and rather breathtaking.  You take a young girl who has never been exposed to the outside world, but who is very educated on it, and basically throw her to the wolves.  Except that she is more dangerous than the wolves.  The story, and moreover the mystery, is well told and extremely exciting to watch unfold.

    Part of this movie is very much an art film.  When Hanna is not kicking butt, she is discovering the things that all of us take for granted such as music, electricity, cars, and the list goes on.  So in one sense it is a movie about self-exploration for a girl who is only intellectually acquainted with the modern world.  

    It helps to have such a talented actress like Ronan in the lead role.  At age sixteen she has already been nominated for an Oscar (Atonement) and has placed herself as one of the premiere young actresses in Hollywood.  To say she was perfectly cast for this part is an understatement.  

    Then you take Joe Wright who is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors.  His talents in filmmaking can only be described as brilliant.  He has an exceptional eye and an even better ear.  Not since Spielberg and Williams has a director been able to so perfectly marry sight and sound.  Although Hanna uses The Chemical Brothers rather than his go to composer Dario Marianelli (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement), the music is melted elegantly with the visuals on screen.  While I wouldn’t think of purchasing the soundtrack for this film to listen to by itself, it matches the movie in a way that will leave you both thrilled and exhausted.  A-

New in Home Entertainment – April 12, 2011

New in Home Entertainment

April 12, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence, frightening images and brief sensuality
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Video On Demand

The Harry Potter saga might be winding down but the intensity is heating up as Harry and gang go on a mission to destroy Voldemort once and for all.  This first in the two-part movie does little in the way of exposition, but rather assumes you know the what’s going on so they can get down to business.  While young kids will find it rather scary at times, the kids who grew up with it will be enthralled.  This release features some great extras including Maximum Movie Mode which takes you on a deeper journey of the production than if you were to listen to a simple commentary.  Also check out the feature Behind the Soundtrack that explores Alexandre Desplat’s original score which all but killed off the original themes by John Williams, and yet still triumphs as a lovely piece of music.  B+

Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Rated PG for some frightening images and sequences of fantasy action
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Fox-Walden took over the Narnia franchise from Disney, but you’d hardly notice it with this third installment which places Edmond and Lucy, along with their annoying cousin Eustice as they meet up with Prince Caspian on his ship The Dawn Treader.  Just like the first two films, the acting is a bit flat, but the story and special effects are impressive enough.  Essentially a biblical allegory from author C.S. Lewis, many parents will find Voyage to be a nice alternative to Harry Potter.  B-

Casino Jack
Rated R for pervasive language, some violence and brief nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Based on a true story, Kevin Spacey plays infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff as he goes from one scheme to another in order to use his influence to scam millions off of his victims.  Why this film didn’t do better at the box office I have no idea.  Sure it gets a little old towards the end of the second act, but there so much good comedy here that you hardly notice it.  Unfortunately, the comedy is based on reality which makes it slightly obscene.  Spacey and his talented cast come off as complete slimy misfits and you laugh on their way up and cheer their way down.  B

The Incredibles
Rated PG for action violence
Available on Blu-ray

Making its blu-ray debut is Pixar’s brilliant animated feature about a family of super heroes who have been forced to live their lives as their alter egos, only to be brought back to action by a sinister villain determined to wreak havoc on the world.  The only thing missing in this film, until now, was a 1080p transfer.  In hi def, this original super hero story comes to vibrant life like never before.  While this release isn’t as loaded with as many new features as I would have hoped, I love that along with the blu-ray, Disney decided to throw in Digital Copy so I can enjoy it on my iPad as well.  A



Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey
Directed by James Wan (Saw)
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language
Appropriate for ages 16+

When their child slips into a coma, his family starts to see strange apparitions around their home.  When they discover that those apparitions, composed of demons and ghosts, want into his body, they set out on a journey to keep their son from being possessed and having his soul permanently trapped in another dimension.  

For the first hour of insidious, the film is extremely scary.  Scary to the point where every hair on your body will be standing up as if they are warding off the spirits themselves.  For this alone, the film is worth watching.  It steals a little bit from Poltergeist, but it is largely original.  Rather than having the body stuck in the TV, its the soul that is trapped in what the medium calls “the further.”  Okay – bad name.  I like the name “the in-between” from The Lovely Bones better, but we can’t change that now.  I digress.  The demon and ghosts are horribly frightening until you find out what they actually are.  

And that’s when the movie loses its edge. Once the technology of ghost whispering comes into play, the movie relies on comedy relief and weird contraptions to help the family – and loses what momentum it had going.  The technology should have enhanced the film and instead it got in the way.

I was also very disappointed in the look and feel of “the further.”  There was great room for creative freedom in its construction, and the end result was just boring.  Not only was it simply a dark, confusing house, but the special effects looked like something out of a 70’s horror film, not from the creators of Saw.  There was a real opportunity to not only scare, but to mystify as well.  Instead we are left with half of a good horror film.  But that half is pretty darn good.  B-

New in Home Entertainment – April 5, 2011

New in Home Entertainment

April 5, 2011

Black Swan
Rated R for strong sexual content, disturbing images, language and some drug use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

It is safe to now use the phrase “Academy Award Winner Natalie Portman” thanks to this surprise hit about a ballerina who must transform herself into the Black Swan, both physically and mentally, in order to perform the leading role in Swan Lake.  While Portman’s performance was certainly noteworthy, this film wins on several levels including the powerful and stylish directing of Darren Aronofsky, the haunting cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the beautiful score by Clint Mansell.  It also doesn’t hurt to have actors such as Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Barbara Hershey  involved.  For those who perceive this to be a ballet film or chick flick, you will be quite shocked at the macabre nature of the movie.  A

The Mikado: Criterion Collection
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

In 1939, The Mikado was the first screen adaptation from legendary light opera team Gilbert and Sullivan.  Over 70 years later, the classic British satire based in Japan is getting the Criterion treatment, including a newly remastered digital transfer, deleted scenes and many other great features.  Also being released this week from Criterion is the 1999 feature Topsy-Turvy which stars Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner as Gilbert and Sullivan as they give their first production of The Mikado in 1885.  B+

Little Fockers
Rated PG-13 for mature sexual humor throughout, language and some drug content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

The Focker gang are back in the franchise that follows the battle between Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) as they come to  blows over anything that will separate Greg from Jack’s daughter.  The second film had some major problems as all it did was rehash the jokes from the first film, but this third installment attempts to at least break some new ground, although the gags are largely cliched and unoriginal.  I did like the addition of Jessica Alba as the drug rep attempting to place herself as the other women, but I wish Harvey Keitel would have had a larger role as the contractor putting the screws to Greg as he builds his new house.  While not as good as the original, number 3 is a vast improvement over Meet the Fockers.  C

TRON: Legacy
Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language
Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3D

Decades have pased since Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) disappeared into the computer world he created and now Flynn’s son (Garrett Hedlund) finds himself stuck in the same world; and the only person who can help him escape is his father.  I remember going to see TRON almost 30 years ago, but the only thing I really recalled from it was the production design, not the plot.  So revisiting the world, I was more than a little lost.  Unfortunately, the writers felt they needed to create a story that relies on the knowledge of the first film for full enjoyment, and Disney chose not to re-release the original TRON on home video until this week.  My advice – watch the original (no matter how cheesy it is) and then check out Legacy.  Legacy is not a bad film – it just needs to give its audience a helping hand to get them through the maze of confusion.  C+

Fair Game
Rated PG-13 for some language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn star is this political drama based on the true story of Valerie Plame, the CIA operative who was outed by members of the Bush administration when her husband Joe Wilson began pushing the wrong buttons.  I don’t see this film getting a lot of positive press from Fox News, but if your politics run neutral to left, you’ll find this to be an exceptional movie that will have you glued to your seat for almost two hours.  The performances are riveting and the story maintains much credibility considering the real-life guilty parties went to jail for their crimes.  A-