Sunday, June 26, 2011


A pedigree cast of Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent can't save this plodding, depressing story. Even the addition of a cute dog doesn't help. Written and directed by Mike Mills, this autobiographical story meanders back in forth in time, has characters that only appeal to the writer and follows no logical course except to constantly remind us how dysfunctional and sad all the characters are.

Mr. McGregor plays a humorless man who discovers his 78 year old father, played by Mr. Plummer, is gay and then shortly thereafter, also dying from cancer. I'm not giving anything away as all of this is revealed in the opening moments. The two men are wonderful actors and play their roles well but the material makes it hard to care for either one of them.

Jumping ahead a few months after his father has died, Mr. McGregor begins a relationship with Ms. Laurent (so good in "Inglorious Basterds"). We learn that his character is terrible at relationships and this one seems to be no different. The tedious film ends as they begin again (hence the title) and that's the big emotional payoff. Ironic that for a film called "Beginners", I couldn't wait for it to end.

A Better Life

From director Chris Weitz, comes this story of an illegal Mexican immigrant and his teenage son. Carlos is determined to give his son, Luis a better life in California and when he has the opportunity to have his own gardening business, he believes he's found his salvation. Life, however, takes unexpected turns for father and son in this poignant drama.

The film stars Demian Bichir, who is a major actor in Mexico but known here primarily for his role on "Weeds", the past few seasons. Mr. Bichir is just terrific as Carlos. He fears he is losing his son in many ways and with one turn of fate, they learn from each other and grow closer for it. His scenes with Jose Julian, who plays Luis are honest and heartbreaking.

The story has moments of quiet beauty, suspense and sorrow but the growing strength of the father/son relationship anchors the film in hope for the future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Super 8

In a summer filled with sequels, I was looking forward something fresh from two of the most talented people in the entertainment world, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. I guess I'll have to wait a little longer. Written and directed by Mr. Adams with Mr. Spielberg as Executive Producer, "Super 8" comes with huge expectations. And unfortunately it doesn't live up to most of them.

You can see and feel the Spielberg influence everywhere in this film. You might consider Mr. Abrams was paying tribute to his mentor but the film ends up a mixed bag of Mr. Spielberg's greatest hits. From "Jaws" to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.", everything about this film feels like you've seen it before. Throw in a little "Stand By Me" from Rob Reiner and there you have it.

I will say the film's young cast is first rate. The boys have a natural friendship and ease with each other that is honest and refreshing. Elle Fanning is really coming into her own as an actress with a very bright future. The adults don't fare as well. Kyle Chandler (of TV's "Friday Night Lights") might as well be in a TV movie of the week and Noah Emmerich is simply a cartoon villain.

Steven Spielberg is one of my favorite directors but he can easily lay on the heavy sentimentality. You can just feel him pulling the strings in the last five minutes of the film. The over orchestration and abrupt change in attitude of two major characters has his stamp all over it. There is a spectacular train wreck early in the film which pulls you in quickly but is spoiled by the unrealistic moments after the crash. I don't like to give things away but I think you'll know what I mean if you see it. Like "Jaws", the threatening menace is unseen for most of the film which does heighten the suspense but again gets ruined by an "E.T." moment.

I give "Super 8" a not so super 4.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Tree of Life

Or more appropriately, "The Tree of Slow Death". Director Terrence Malick has made only a handful of films over his career and every one is a visual masterpiece. "The Tree of Life" is no exception. It is beautiful to watch but I was bored beyond belief trying to decipher his message.

The film has little dialogue, and what little there is exists as voiceovers to the exquisite visuals. On the surface, the plot revolves around Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as a couple raising their three young sons in '50's Waco Texas. We learn early in the film that the middle son dies and then we are temporarily transported back to the dawn of creation as interpreted by Terrence Malik. After about 20 minutes of this highlight mind-blowing sequence, we return without explanation to the family.

Sean Penn turns up in the modern day sequences apparently as the oldest son now grown to adulthood but tortured by his past. At least that's the impression we get, in a role that is basically a cameo. The oldest son, Jack, as a boy is played by Hunter McCracken and he is a standout who holds his own in his scenes with Brad Pitt.

Mr. Malick likes to tell his stories visually and while they are a treat, many of the visuals are repeated to the point of exhaustion. You can view this film as pretentious or as a masterpiece but either way, you will be talking about it long after it ends...if you stayed awake.

Monday, June 13, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Five writers are credited with the screenplay and however they collaborated, they got it right. Director Matthew Vaughn takes a great script and translates it into a truly first class film in every respect.

The X-Men have always been sort of the "Anti-Avengers", much more serious in their own corner of the Marvel universe. This is a smart script that takes itself seriously and reboots the "X-Men" franchise. All the comic book mythos is there but the film works even if you are a casual fan or even unfamiliar with the other films. Of course if you are new to this franchise, you will miss the pleasure of two great cameos.

Coupled with a strong story, Mr. Vaughn brings a deft hand to the action sequences and molding the story to the real life Cuban missile crisis of the '60's brings plenty of gravitas to a film that could have gone in a completely different direction. He makes you believe that mutants forced the Russian's hand and almost set off World War III.

The casting is first class as well with James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Michael Fassbender as the young Erik Lensherr (Magneto). Mr. Fassbender, in particular, is outstanding as the mutant balancing good and evil mixed in with a strong revenge motive. Rose Byrne has fun with her CIA operative role, as does Oliver Platt. Jennifer Lawrence moves on from "Winter's Bone" and takes on the role of a young Raven/Mystique. January Jones is perfectly cast as yet another "ice queen", playing Emma Frost (an important figure in X-Men lore) and rounding out the major cast is Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, the central villain of the film.

With so many superhero sequels constantly bombarding us, it's refreshing to have the original idea of a "prequel" that really jumpstarts the franchise. Smart, action packed and fun from start to finish.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


"Priest" is a futuristic sci-fi western version of "The Searchers" with Paul Bettany filling in for John Wayne and vampires substituting for Indians. Mr. Bettany plays Priest, a military man of God, trained by the church to hunt vampires who goes in search of his missing niece, Lucy. Karl Urban plays a vampire version of Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" from his early spaghetti westerns. If this all sounds appealing, you will find it to be a lot of fun.

The special effects are well done and there is plenty of action (in 2 or 3-D) as Priest, his cowboy partner Hicks, played by Cam Gigandet, and another priest, played by Maggie Q try to rescue Lucy and stop the vampires from reaching the unprotected cities. The vampires are depicted more like monsters than the Dracula version. They are muscular and fast, have no eyes but huge teeth and of course, can only hunt at night. Only Mr. Urban, as a former priest turned vampire, can exist in sunlight. The last third of the film takes place on a gigantic transport train keeping the vampires safe from sunlight as they move closer to their target. We've seen the climax before but credit Mr. Bettany and Mr. Urban for pulling it off with a fresh twist.

Christopher Plummer takes a paycheck in a cameo as the head of the church and Brad Dourif also cameos as a stereotypic western "snake oil" con man.

The film comes to a conclusion but also sets up a part two, which if this one ends up successful, will be inevitable.