Friday, June 30, 2006

Superman Returns

I'm a bit of a douche, but damn I'm hot!


I came to this movie completely cleansed of any high expectations. Having never been much of a fan of the Superman mythology, I feel I am capable of observing the cinematic qualities of this film without any distracting intervening fan bias. Superman has always seemed a little too upstanding and perfect for my tastes. I prefer my superheros to be a bit darker and flawed, with a nuance that says: "Yes, I'm pretty damn awesome, but I'm tortured by these talents too!" Having said that, is Superman Returns worth a trip to the theater?

In a word, yes; however, it is not that simple.

Superman Returns is a film that is supposed to take place between previous film sequels. Superman (Brandon Routh) leaves earth to go and visit his home planet, only to find that it has become a ruin. Five years later, he returns to our blue planet and doesn't take long to get back to hero work. In the meantime he has to deal with a jaded Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who has in that time that her caped crusader has been absent, become a mother to a little boy and fiance to Richard (James Marsden fresh from his role as Cyclops in the X-Men series).

His arch-villain, Lex Luthor (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey) is up to shennanigans involving the use of crystals from Superman's Fortress of Solitude which he plans on turning into a brand new plot of real estate. Apparently when these crystals make contact with water, they become entire rocky uninhabitable landmasses, and Luthor sees a whole lot of value in this. Apparently it's not enough to have world domination; today's villains are all about location.

The problem with this film does not center so much around the plot or even the movie's production values. It's with the characters. Brandon Routh in the title role has all of the looks that one could hope from the character, and he even resembles a young Christopher Reeve, but he lacks all of that actor's charisma. The chemistry between he and Lois Lane is shoddy at best, and this has a lot to do with the fact that Kate Bosworth does not protray this character in a very likeable light. She exhibits no joy and is coldy aloof, making it difficult for me to sympathize with her. Scenes between her and Superman have a small heartening element, but they only seem to exist to further the plot; I saw nothing in this dull, stiff superhero that would make me believe that she previously fell in love with him. The only person who brings some entertaining zeal to the screen is Kevin Spacey's nemesis, but those scenes are few and far between in the two and half hour running time. Suffice to say that seeing Superman Returns for the characters would render one in disappointment.

Let's talk about the film's strong points. The special effects were breathtaking. There were moments of pure movie magic that had my pulse pounding, such as when the hero rescues a runaway jet airliner, and when we get to see exactly what happens when someone tries to shoot Superman in the eye. Lex Luthor's girlfriend Kitty (Parker Posey) also garners a good number of chuckles with her superficial ditziness, but I still walked out of the film feeling more ambivalence toward the Man of Steel than actual like. A man who is completely invincible save for one vulnerability is just not terribly interesting for me, and while Bryan Singer's take on this hero was competent, it failed to be compelling enough for me to actually care.

Gouda's Final Grade: C

Saturday, June 24, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

If my professors used Power Point presentations this good, I might stay awake...


It seems like the debate over the environment is always between two distinct groups: the Haves and Have Nots, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. The fact that there even has to be a debate on this issue is pretty telling about the human condition. People are often in denial about the consequences of their indulgences, and this denial usually begets addictions, obesity, wars, and perhaps even a steadily warming planet. It often takes going to extremes to rouse human beings to do what is right instead of what is easiest.

In the environmental arena, people make billions from exploiting the Earth's resources. They offer a vital service, and the power given to these providers naturally creates a state of cognitive dissonance that is almost impossible to shatter. Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth attempts to break through that barrier by effectively illustrating that the planet is going through unprecedented changes that can be directly correlated with human behavior.

A lot of people who doubt global warming, and even go so far as to call it a hoax have commissioned studies of their own to contradict what 938 scientific studies have unanimously agreed upon--that global warming exists. The former chairman of environmental affairs in the Bush administration (who originally worked for the petroleum industry) resigned after it was found he edited an EPA report to downplay the effects of CO2 emissions on the atmosphere. He immediately went on to work for Exxon-Mobil. This is but one example of the conflicts of interests inherent in the global-warming debate.

All of this and more is covered in An Inconvenient Truth. Most shocking is watching the actual trends in the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue upward as the polar icecaps and Antarctic glaciers melt, Greenland's ice shelf recedes, and the delicate balance of ecosystems worldwide are disrupted due to increasing carbon emissions. Al Gore demonstrates through chilling photographic evidence how Mt. Kilimanjaro, once covered in snow and ice even 10 years ago, is now mostly barren dirt and rock. Within the last twenty years, the frozen tundras in Alaska have thawed to such a state as that they can only be driven on 75 days out of the year instead of the previous 270.

And of course, there are the storms, demonstrated by the record numbers of hurricanes in America, and appearing in 2005 for the first time in the southern Atlantic. Unprecedented numbers of typhoons in Asia and increasingly-devastating monsoons in India are also noted. The impacts of global warming are far-reaching, and paradoxical. While there are floods and storms raging in some parts of the world, in others there are devastating droughts brought on by the heat evaporating moisture from the land.

This is not a political film. Despite the opinions of those who feel threatened by what is shown in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore does not set out to condemn one man over what he views as a global crisis. He emphasizes an element of urgency that is backed by solid scientific research, and how the media spins their findings and thrives off of sending mixed signals to the public. For example, even though there is a consensus in the scientific community regarding global warming, there is an agreement of only about 65% when one views magazines and periodicals. Their job is to keep people confused.

Throughout the documentary, we get glimpses into Al Gore's personal life and what got him started on the environmental path, when he started showing his slide show years ago, visiting hundreds of cities around the world, believing that a real difference can be made by opening people up little by little. Some would call this movie alarmist, but is that really a bad thing in this instance? Using the adage about the frog and the pot of boiling water, he talks about how people have become complacent in their behaviors, and how that complacency can doom them. When our entire way of lives are potentially at stake, is it not best err on the side of caution? To preserve what resources we can to ensure the survival of future generations?

When I look at people who debate these scientific findings, I have to wonder what their motives are, exactly. What is so nefarious about trying to improve the condition of our planet? They use arguments of economics as though making improvements on environmental policies would bankrupt businesses. History has shown that the marketplace is nothing if not adaptable. Technologies that help reduce CO2 emissions and conserve energy can actually save companies money in the longhaul. But we're too scared to change, to deviate from what is bringing in the money right now.

The final question is, does Gore's film do a good job of trying to debunk the opposition? Some say no, but I have to disagree. The staggering wealth of information alone is enough to give pause. Gore acknowledges previous periods of warmth over several centuries, but they are like occasional blips on the radar, until you get to the last 100 or so years, and you find an explosion the the graph that has never before been seen, and it coincides directly with the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide at the beginning of the 20th century. I think he presents such a solid case that it should stop anyone in their tracks and give thought to their own behaviors.

Even if it is later found that this is all a natural fluke, that the earth is warming all by itself despite all of the crap we're spewing into the air, would you really regret that we as a people decided to be less wasteful? Why is it that the people who oppose the findings that humans have an impact on the environment sound like little kids who want to have another slice of chocolate cake?

Al Gore's film serves to pummel people with information, information which can help people to be more conscientious. This is something which should always be promoted and encouraged. Be wary of the words of those whose livelihoods depend on people remaining ignorant and indulgent.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Woodsman

Throw it back and walk away, Kev...

While my school schedule has wound down for the summer, I have decided to review some movies I've watched on DVD recently, the first of which is this independent film released last year starring Kevin Bacon as a pedophile recently released from prison who attempts to reintegrate himself into society while being branded as a registered sex offender.

After 12 years in prison for molesting young girls, Walter has been released on parole into a world that has little, if any, forgiveness for his type of criminal. He is given a job at a lumber yard by a man (David Alan Grier) who knows and is willing to keep quiet and give Walter a chance. He quietly goes about his work, avoiding other employees and doing his best to reside in an apartment that has the unfortunate placement near an elementary school. His parole officer (Mos Def) is a hostile man who makes no secret of his opinion of pedophiles, and is just waiting for Walter to slip up so he put him back behind bars. The only friend Walter has is his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt), and that relationship is touchy at best. So to speak.

At work, Walter meets a woman, Vickie (played by Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick), whom he begins dating, and we see Walter trying to form a normal relationship with a woman, something that is obviously unfamiliar to him. Eventually he tells her about his past, and her reaction and everything that unfolds between them is handled convincingly and without melodrama.

Amidst all of these obstacles, we observe a man who has an innate compulsion to touch children, who is doing everything he can to lead a normal life, but at the same time we are not required by the script to sympathize with him. We only begin to wonder how long he is going to make it before his urges overwhelm him again.

This movie was seen very little throughout the country on its release, and it's a shame because it not only is a compelling, well-told story, but it is superbly acted. This is Kevin Bacon's best acting work, and it deserves to be seen. Make sure to pick it up on Netflix or at your local video store.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Lake House

So... where do you see yourself in a couple of years?


If you often find yourself frustrated by movies that deal heavily in manipulating the time and space continuum, then The Lake House, a story about two soul mates who find themselves separated by a gulf of 2 years, is certain to tie your brain in knots. I only ask one favor from here on out regarding this film, because I understand completely your need to parse and analyze plots until their magic is all wrung out: just let it go. For 2 hours, don't ask "those" questions.

We start out peering into the lives of two melancholy people: Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock), and architect Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves). They share a common bond in that they both spent time occupying a lake house just outside of Chicago. Kate lived there for a short time before taking a job at the major hospital in the city and when we first see her, she is moving out of the house. We then see Alex moving in. Only we later find out that it was he who was moving in first, in the year 2004; Kate moved out 2 years later.

The house itself is a marvel to behold as it is made almost completely of glass and sits on stilts above the water, suspending its inhabitants in the world while at the same time holding them apart from it. It's a work of art designed by a famous architect who also happens to be Alex Wyler's father Simon (Christopher Plummer), a prideful man who never managed to be satisfied with his son's decision to design mid-level condominiums. As Alex observed: "My father could always make a house, but he could never make a home."

As Alex unpacks his things in the house his father built, he notices a letter in the mailbox from Forster, asking the new tenant to please forward any of her mail to her new address. He notes the date and tells her that no one has lived in the house for quite some time, and that she might have the wrong address. In 2006, Kate makes a trip back to the still-empty glass abode she once loved and notices the flag up on the mailbox and sees Alex's reply. The mailbox itself is acting as sort of a conduit for these two people in these two separate times, and as they start to first doubt the possibility of what is happening before their very eyes, they eventually grow to have a beautiful, meaningful dialogue. He plants a tree in front of her apartment building (which was still in the earlier stages of construction in his time) and it appears on a rainy night before her very eyes. They take "walks" together, with him pointing out his favorite places on a map that she goes and visits and finds little signs of his appearance that he left for her to discover. As the plot develops further, they find other ways to make contact, some successful, some not so much, for reasons I will not reveal here.

All this time, we are dying to ask the question of how any of this could be happening. We want to inject reality into this dream, because none of this is even remotely possible, but doing that would ruin this film. Watching The Lake House is like holding a delicate, mysterious gem in the palm of your hand. If you poke and prod it too much, it will crumble apart and scatter in the wind, but if you just hold it and admire at its beauty, then you will realize that it doesn't matter what elements composed it. It simply exists as a wonder to behold. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves are reunited for the first time since Speed and they both have a likeability and chemistry that make us believe the impossible. Good characters are key to making plots like this work; we don't care how they are successful, so long as they are.

Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti used a very skillful eye in framing the beauty of Chicago and illiciting great performances from both Bullock and Reeves. The movie has been panned by critics who have apparently grown so cynical that unless a movie's plot can be explained by logic as clear-cut as a skyscraper, then there is nothing worth seeing. I couldn't disagree with them more; The Lake House is magical, moving, wonderful, and one of my favorite films so far this year.


Gouda's Final Grade: A

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cars

Hey bud, even if we ain't as good as the other Pixar movies, that ain't necessarily bad!

You know the saying about how even when pizza and sex aren't great, they're still good? I think it's also safe to add Pixar movies to that list. The latest effort by the animation giant was clouded by uncertainty prior to its release as people were just not sure if a movie about talking cars could really live up to the previous movies about talking toys, talking fish, and talking ants. At least those were biological creatures, or appeared to be. But talking cars? With tongues, even? Call me a naysayer. What I do know is that Pixar has what is probably one of the best writing teams in Hollywood, and it was that and that alone that kept my hope alive for this film.

Imagine a world where every creature, from a city's inhabitants even down to the insects, are vehicles of some sort. It's a similar world premise as the one in last year's animated movie Robots, only imagine it in a movie that doesn't suck, and you'll have Cars. In this world, the main sport is, of course, racing and Owen Wilson voices a flashy, arrogant red rookie named Lightning McQueen (love the tribute to Steve in that one) who is on the fast track to winning the championship Piston Cup, only there is a problem; what should have been his winning race ended in a 3-way tie, forcing a three-way matchup between he and his rivals a week later. During Lightning's trip to California, however, his transport truck, aptly named Mack (voiced by Pixar fixture John Ratzenberger) falls asleep and events ensue which lead to McQueen's accidental exit from his comfy abode and in a pursuit to catch back up to his ride. In the course of this, he gets turned around and winds up from the main freeway to the dusty remains of the legendary Route 66, where he meets some colorful characters in the dilapidated town of Radiator Springs. Among them is Mater, a lovable, rusty tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), Sally the Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), and the grizzled Doc Hudson (Paul Newman).

This is where the story gets formulaic, but it also gets incredibly charming and I found myself, as I always do with a Pixar movie, starting to like and care for these characters. There are a lot of laughs, but there is also a ton of heart, particularly between McQueen and Newman's character Doc, who is a worn down racing champion from the 1950s.

The movie was full of subtle strokes of genius that set it apart from a "by the book" animated morality tale about the transition from arrogance to humility. The world created here was not only beautiful to look at (and by beautiful, I mean absolutely stunning and hard to look away from for even a second), but there were plenty of cultural references and nostalgia to keep the adults entertained. The use of Paul Newman in particular was a great move given his long involvement with NASCAR, and the history of the once great Route 66 and its eventual abandonment was portrayed so poignantly that even though I have never been on that stretch of highway, I found myself missing it anyway.

This is probably the best movie for children to come out so far this year, and although it doesn't quite stand up or endure the test of time like Pixar giants Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and even Monsters Inc, it retains most of the heart and intelligence that make their movies appeal to people of all ages.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Omen

Oh yeah, kid? Well at least MY dad doens't have hooves!

One good thing about being a critic as jaded as I am is that I typically walk into most films with lowered expectations. With remakes, especially remakes of horror movies, I use those expectations to pad my shoes. If The Omen had opened on a regular Friday, I most likely would not have seen it right away. As it were, I'm sort of a sucker for marketing tactics like this, and before I knew it, I found myself sitting in a packed theater one row behind a guy who had glued horns to his head for the occasion.

I saw the original Omen about 10 years ago, mainly due to its presence on most "Top 10" horror lists compiled by people who think they are smarter than me. I thought the 1976 version was entertaining, but ultimately underwhelming. It centers around a powerful diplomat and his wife who have a baby and are informed that night that the child did not survive birth. The father is offered the chance by the doctor to adopt an orphaned child who was born that very night. The two raise the child as their own, completely unaware of his nefarious ancestry. As little Damien grows older, it becomes clearer that the boy is quite the creepy little bastard.

Not being able to relate to the historical context was probably the main reason I felt detatched from the original, and because the film centers around the son of Satan rising politically to bring about the end of the world (Damien's father is godson to the President and therefore has a very close avenue to achieving power), the political climate of the time didn't seem to resonate as clearly with me through the film. Yes, it was made during the Cold War, and the whole mutually assured destruction thing was indeed a frightening time for this country, but I think that today's events make for a more powerful backdrop, or at least it seems that way because my perception of the world is a bit sharper than it was when I was 16. There was also the fact that I found the kid to be generally unfrightening in the original, and I was therefore unconvinced of his underlying maliciousness.

In the 2006 Omen, we have a very faithful remake to the original in terms of plot, but it is framed with the modern horrific events that are supposed to signify the beginning of the end: the World Trade Center collapse, the tsunami in Asia, the Columbia space shuttle breaking apart in re-entry, among others. This is complemented by beautiful art direction and cinematography that made the movie a sheer joy to look at. Although it has been considered to be an almost shot-for-shot remake, the mood is top-notch and there are added psychological elements that amp up the creep factor to the more present-day, desensitized youth requirements. This is not to say that it is over the top. The film is still quiet and understated. People who are expecting to have their adrenaline levels spiked for 2 hours will be disappointed. The movie is all about setting a dark, thoughtful mood with the characters and the grim situations, and on occasion it jumps out to bite.

Liev Scheibner in the lead role as the father, Robert Thorn, strikes a pitch-perfect performance as a rational man who is slowly brought about to believe (thanks to the help of a smart photographer and a fanatical priest) that he might actually be fathering the son of the devil. Julia Stiles is also very convincing as a mother who is starting to suspect that her son might just be trying to kill her. This is not helped at all by the fact that Damien is being watched by a very protective nanny who is chillingly portrayed by Mia Farrow- a stroke of casting genius for anyone who saw Rosemary's Baby.

This movie has been unfairly maligned by critics. I have no idea if they saw a rough cut or if they just went in there expecting to hate it and fulfilled that prophecy all by themselves, but the new Omen is an engrossing, sleek, and yes- BETTER version of a "pretty good" but not "great" film. It was tweaked in all the right areas and given a modern enough spin to make it more than worth the price of admission.

And the kid? 4-feet of creepy. Director John Moore made the right decision to stick with the original formula of not having the kid talk much. Damien's piercing blue eyes and deceptive innocence are presence enough.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Sunday, June 04, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

The "X" Variable


I've always had a particular fondness for the X-Men mythology. Not only does it artfully broach ethical and political issues (should the government put restrictions on mutants who have powers that can be threatening to national security? Should they have forced upon them a cure?), but it presents us with characters who are complex. Good vs Evil simplifies way too much the relationships between Professor Xavier and his earnest students and Magneto and his wayward band of gifted rebels. While Xavier favors teaching mutants how to harness and control their powers so they can be peaceful and productive members of society, Magneto takes a more fantical approach in that the world should not only accept mutants for who they are, but that "normal" people are outdated on the evolutionary scale and are enemies that should be dealt with accordingly. Amidst such differences, however, the two old rivals maintain a sort of fascinating, civilized high-regard for one another, which makes for great movie watching. There are other fun interactions in the storyline that carried on throughout the series, such as a love triangle between the characters Jean Grey, her boyfriend Scott (Cyclops), and Logan (Wolverine), and they are all revisited here. But therin also lies a problem.

Brett Ratner, who took over the directing reigns from Bryan Singer when Singer went on to direct the upcoming Superman Returns, is a competent director who can pull off technical sequences that are awe-inspiring. His weakness is in properly framing a storyline, and with X-Men, where there are several independent ones, Ratner chose to juggle all of them like a cranked-up circus performer while also condensing the film's runtime to a brief 104 minutes. This causes many of the characters to suffer from under-development that an additional half-hour could have somewhat remedied.

Despite that problem, X-Men is highly entertaining, and we are introduced to a sort of mutant smorgasbord, including a guy who can replicate himself, another guy who has giant white wings, a girl who can make giant shockwaves just by clapping, among others. But it all starts with a little boy, code named Leech, who has the ability to sap mutants of their powers once they get within a certain proximity of him. He also produces a special antibody that can be injected into other mutants, thereby "curing" them. The political and social reprocussions of such a cure are where the story gets complicated. Magneto takes the stance that not only do mutants not need to be cured, they are the cure for what's wrong with humanity. He wages a war against the company who is producing the antidote as well as the government whom he fears will eventually start forcing the serum onto the mutant population. What makes this complicated is that for the most part I found myself agreeing with him, and I had a hard time understanding why the X-Men were trying to stop him, other than perhaps they wanted the solution to be less violent, or they were starting to feel kind of bored. This is another consequence of Ratner's plot condensing.

Along the way, we get reacquainted with Jean Grey, who went through an unfortunate incident at the end of the first X-Men sequel and has come back changed for the worse. She ultimately joins Magneto in his quest, and we get a new, albiet weak, love triangle between Anna Paquin's character Rogue (who kills people just by touching them, which makes for challenging relationship material), her ice-weilding boyfriend cleverly named Iceman, and a girl who can walk through walls. Choices, choices! This is a sideline plot that should have either been further developed or dropped altogether in order to further explore other more pertinent details. Kelsey Grammar also has a winning performance as a blue-hued beast (aptly named Beast), who serves as a diplomat between the mutant community and the rest of society.

The Last Stand is not a perfect movie. A lot of it was just plain absurd, but you have to expect such things in films like this. It was entertaining and at times poignant. Oh, and if there is any doubt, the end was left open to another sequel. So The Last Stand might not actually be as such. We already know that Hugh Jackman is doing a Wolverine prequel to be released sometime next year.

Also: Stick around after the credits for a pretty big revelation.

Gouda's Final Grade: B-

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Over the Hedge

It's a wide, wonderful world of Twinkies out there...

In a modern world filled with all of the man-made delights of junk food, video games, SUVs, and television, it would stand to reason that our addictions to these things would eventually transfer to the animal kingdom. With Over the Hedge, the best animated effort from Dreamworks since Shrek, we get a keen observation on what a mere potato chip would drive a group of woodland foragers to do to a quiet suburban neighborhood.

It all starts when RJ, a loner raccoon (voiced by Bruce Willis) gets himself into a spot of trouble with a hungry grizzly bear (Nick Nolte). In order to save his fur, RJ attempts to meet the bear's demands for food by staging a heist on the packaged goodies in a modern, well-manicured housing development. To meet his ends, he recruits a group of creatures who have found their forest paradise overtaken by this neighborhood during the course of their hibernation. They are initially resistant to help the raccoon, but once RJ introduces them to the wonderment that is the powdered cheese-coated tortilla chip, the creatures are hooked.

If Over the Hedge isn't an allegory on the effects of the commercial food industry on our planet (think of all the McDonald's in Asia), I don't know what is. Its mockery of suburban America is at times hilarious and a little painful. I don't remember the last time an animated movie aimed mostly at kids made me think so deeply. Not that it was too deep, mind you; it's still a cartoon, and I think most of these observations will go right over the heads of the intended audience.

Speaking of the intended audience, there was a lot in Over the Hedge to keep the adults entertained, but I'm afraid that it was a bit too much to keep my 3 and 4 year old kids contained. This movie might play better for slightly older children, around 6. While they were enthralled with the wonderfully vibrant simplicity that was Curious George, Over the Hedge had a lot of jokes and situations that were perhaps slightly too advanced for them to grasp. If you have young children, they might be better suited to this movie on DVD where they would have the luxury of walking away from it for a little while when they get tired of trying to understand the jokes.

That being said, Over the Hedge looks great, and given the animated tripe (Robots) and underwhelming efforts (Shark Tale and Madagascar) that have come out of Dreamworks of late, Over the Hedge was a refreshing new edition to the fold. It might not quite have the timeless storytelling capability of even the worst Pixar film, but it still has the cutting wit that made the Shrek films an instant classic.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+