Tag Archives: Romance

MOVIE REVIEW: Hotel For Dogs: Undemanding Fun

The trailers for Hotel For Dogs make much of the Rube Goldberg devices that are created for the titular hotel and, in truth, they are pretty amazing. The film is not nearly as much fun, but it does have its good points.

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Andi [Emma Roberts] and her little brother, Bruce [Jake T. Austin] are foster kids who have adopted a stray dog they’ve named Friday. Their latest foster parents, Lois [Lisa Kudrow] and Carl [Matt Dillon] are obnoxious, and talentless, would be rock stars who have a no pets policy. In trying to find ways to keep Friday with them, yet unseen by Lois and Carl, they have gone to extraordinary lengths – which take them into a closed down hotel, where they find two dogs, that Bruce names Lenny and Georgia. Before long, Andi and Bruce are being helped by a pair of pet store employees named Dave [Johnny Simmons] and Heather [Kyla Pratt] as they turn the place into a hotel for dogs. Along the way, a guy named Mark [Troy Gentile] joins the band, maybe because chunky kids are funny… or something.

The Rube Goldberg devices in all those trailers? They’re to take care of feeding the dogs and give them typical doggie experiences – like playing fetch, barking when there’s someone at the door, or sticking their heads out of a car window. The devices are created by Bruce [who is clearly the reincarnation of Mr. Goldberg], but one of the key plot points is what happens when the devices malfunction and the dogs all flee the building.

The villains are the pet control officers who rake sadistic glee at putting strays in their cages and count the moments until the unclaimed ones will be put down. Other than the sympathetic Bernie [Don Cheadle], the kids’ social worker, all the remaining adults in the film are pretty much twits [though not as bad as Lois and Carl].

Despite its flaws [and they are several], Hotel For Dogs kinda works. The dogs are well trained and steal every scene, though the kids hold their own, for the most part. There’s a certain lowbrow charm to the piece – though perhaps one too many dog poop jokes. The movie is aimed at tweens [the Nickelodeon demographic], but the dogs and Bruce’s wacky machines will keep adults interested while the forced romance between Dave and Andi develops.

Hotel For Dogs is a put your brain on hold and eat your popcorn movie. That’s precisely what it intends to be and, on that level, it works.

Final Grade: B-

MOVIE REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Youth, Apparently, Is Not Wasted on the Young!

One of the strangest – and yet most normal – films of the year is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Even you’ve not been paying attention to pop culture for the last six months, it would hard not to have heard about the movie about the guy who ages backwards while living forwards. Directed by David Fincher [Fight Club, Zodiac], Button stars Brad Pitt as the titular button – a man who is born an eighty-five year old baby whose every breath rasps and rails as if it might be his last and grows physically younger with each passing day. Whether this odd journey through life is supposed to mean something specific, in terms of metaphor, will no doubt be the subject of much debate.

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For Benjamin, though, life is the same puzzle as it is for the rest of, though he views it from a unique perspective. When he first sees Daisy [Elle Fanning], they are seven – but he is, physically, seventy-eight. This makes their relationship, which would otherwise be completely normal, something else entirely. Even so, his first love, first drink, first sex, first affair [and so forth], all happen in pretty much the conventional order – only Benjamin’s de-aging is different.

Perhaps the point of the movie is that “normal” is strictly a point-of-view, not a definitive quantity; maybe, it’s a tone poem on the idea of youth being wasted on the young; it’s even possible to see the film as an argument for the idea that the beginning and ending of life are the same thing seen from different perspectives – and what happens in the middle will be much the same no matter which way we progress, physically.

When Benjamin and Daisy [now played by a luminous Cate Blanchett] finally come together in the middle of their lives – when they both look their age – they do the expected things, like move in together and have a child. Benjamin’s de-aging means that he will appear to be teenager when his daughter hits puberty, which leads to his having to deal with being unable to be a father to his child – again, an ordinary thing that happens to many men but here because of a unique reason.

In the context of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the importance of the ordinary… the normal… is brought home in a new way. Pitt’s performance [including the CG grafting of his face onto older and younger actors’ bodies] is perfect because Benjamin is, in spite of his unique manner of aging, an ordinary man whose life is except for brief moments, pretty ordinary. The film winds up showing us that even the ordinary is wondrous. That’s a pretty heady achievement.

Final Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: Slumdog Millionaire – Can 20,000,000 Rupees Buy Happiness?

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire tells a pretty basic rags-to-riches tale that has oddly charming and wrenchingly violent sidetracks. It begins when Jamal Malik’s [Dev Patel] hot streak on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire culminates in a ten million rupee total before he is taken away by police on charges of fraud/cheating. They use all kinds of methods of torture but he insists he knew the answers.

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As the Police Inspector [Irrfan Khan] and Jamal watch a tape of his performance on the show, Jamal tells the Inspector how his childhood experiences taught him the answers to questions ranging from an individual cricketer’s record to knowing the name of the star of a certain film. As Jamal tells his story, we watch as he, his brother Salim, and a girl named Latika come out of the slums of Mumbai. While Jamal has always been a good kid, Salim [Madhur Mittal] has chosen another, easier path – and he loses touch with both of them.

Slumdog Millionaire’s cinematography crackles with energy and lays out the slums of Mumbai without apology – the poverty, the race violence, the criminal activity. It is a place with a veneer charm that isn’t quite enough to cover its grimy underbelly. Jamal’s path to the famous quiz show is fraught with all kinds of perils, spiritually as well as physically – and when he does well on the show, the immediate question has to be, how can a call centre assistant – “a chai wallah” – possibly possess all this specific knowledge? But Jamal isn’t putting his hard won street education to work for the money – he’s hoping that Latika [Freida Pinto] will see him and find her way to him. Love, he hopes, will conquer all.

This may be Danny Boyle’s finest film. The characters are engaging – even while they’re conning their way along – and smart [as Taj Mahal tour guides, for example, they improvise all kinds of material to give their tourists the “real” story]. Somehow, though, as the boys grow up, Salim becomes a professional criminal while Jamal, well, he gets tea for the people in the call centre. Latika, however, comes through even more dire circumstances as a prostitute and then the mistress of Salim’s boss.

Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies that energize its audience. It’s all about hope and staying true to oneself, no matter what trials one must overcome. Like Beat Takeshi’s The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi, Boyle gives us a bonus burst of energy over the closing credits as the crowd in the train station breaks into a Bollywood song and dance number that encapsulates the joy of the film.

Final Grade: A+

DVD Review: PIXAR Outfits The WALL*E 3-DVD Set With A Cornucopia of Goodies!

When WALL*E premiered, I described it as follows: “WALL*E is the best film of the year – let alone the summer – so far. Easily.” While that was before The Dark Knight and a number of amazing smaller films came out, this eco-fable/romance between the decidedly blue collar trash compacter on tank treads and the equally decidedly uptown seeker of life is still one of the year’s best films.

WALL-E Cover Art

Looking like a Bizarro World hybrid of ET and Johnny 5, WALL*E may be the year’s most unlikely leading man, while sleek, shiny EVE should be far, far out of his league. For some reason, though, the duo have become a classic romantic duo – in spite of their differing backgrounds – and their story plays almost as well on a twenty-seven inch screen as in a theater.

The three-DVD set is almost overflowing with features: Disc One: Audio Commentary by Director Andrew Stanton; BURN*E, a new animated short featuring a peripheral character from the film; Presto, the animated short that accompanied WALL*E in theaters; Deleted Scenes [two, lasting over six minutes], Sneak Peek: WALL*E’s Tour of the Universe, and Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from the Sound Up – Legendary Sound Designer Ben Burtt Shares Secrets of Creating the Sounds of WALL*E.

Disc Two: The PIXAR Story, a ninety-minute documentary by Leslie Iwerks; Deleted Scenes [twelve more minutes – with optional introduction by the director]; Behind the Scenes Featurettes [The Imperfect Lens, Captain’s Log, Notes on a Score, Life of a shot: Deconstructing the PIXAR Process, Robo Everything, and WALL*E & EVE]; BnL Shorts [The History of Buy n Large; Operation cleanup; All Aboard the Axiom; Captaining the Axiom, and Meet the BnL Bots]; WALL*E’s Treasures and Trinkets; Lots of Bots [Interactive Storybook & Games].

Disc Three: Digital Copy [for uploading to other media]

Grade: WALL*E – A+

Grade: Features – A+

Final Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: Twilight – Lush, Romantic and Empty

Twilight is beautiful to look at, with its sweeping vistas, picturesque small town streets and almost inhumanly beautiful cast. It’s well filmed, though there are far too many close-ups and tight two-shots for my taste. The editing is flawlessly; Catherine Hardwicke does a perfectly fine job of eliciting performances from the cast – and the casting is as close to perfect as humanly possible [though Edward really should be a redhead if you want a precise translation from the novel which, yes, I read in anticipation of the movie].

Bella & The Cullens

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart work well as Edward Cullen and Isabella “Bella” Swan. Their chemistry is almost overwhelming in those close-ups and two-shots. Billy Burke is spot on as Bella’s police chief dad, Charlie, and Sarah Clarke is as effective as her mother, Renee Dwyer. Both the school kids and Edward’s family are equally appropriate – though Ashley Greene’s Alice is a small scale revelation.

So why doesn’t Twilight work?

Well, there are far too many moments that might work for fans, but there are as many that will be a source of humor to people who come in to the film cold. Plus there are moments where the film is perhaps too faithful to the books. The lingering looks that Edward and Bella exchange over the course of Twilight could amount to nothing more than two adolescents mooning over each other [“You’re so pretty,” or “You smell so good”]. It comes down to the script isn’t really structured well. There’s too much of the so-close-you-see-the-valleys-in-their-pores close-ups, and the use of a narrator is more than occasionally intrusive [the movie rule being “show – don’t tell”].

If you’re a student of film, you can certainly appreciate how well the film is made. Technically, it’s pretty damn close to perfect – from casting through final edit. If only the the story wasn’t so thin. All that angst and mooning might work in a Harlequin Romance, but in a moving picture [emphasis on “moving”], it simply doesn’t cut it – and not even the brawl between Edward and the evil James [Cam Gigandet] can save it.

Final Grade: C-

DVD REVIEW: Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty: 50 the Anniversary Platinum Edition – The Pinnacle of Disney’s Hand Animated Achievement!

Although the Sleeping Beauty fairytale has been around for much longer, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was inspired by the Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky ballet – some of Tchaikovsky’s music is even quoted in the score.

Sleeping Beauty 50th

Sleeping Beauty is remarkable for a number of reasons: it was the first Disney film to be done in an angular, more medieval style in which every aspect of every scene was detailed and in focus; it was the first Disney film which Disney didn’t work on from beginning to end; it was the last Disney animation to use hand-inked final art. From the opening sequences, the film is more vibrant, more alive than any previous Disney animation – and it remains almost impossibly lovely to look at today.

As with previous Disney animations, the voice casting is superb: Mary Costa did both speaking and singing for Princess Aurora; Eleanor Audley’s Maleficent is pretty much the standard for evil females in animation, even now; and the Three Good Fairies – Flora [Verna Felton], Fauna [Barbara Jo Allen] and Merryweather [Barbara Luddy] – are quite possibly6 the best example of characters who not only provide comic relief, but are actually integral to the story.

The new restoration of Sleeping Beauty marks the first time since its original theatrical run that we can see the film in its original widescreen aspect ratio, with the additional edges of the film adding even more richness to the experience.

This 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition of the Disney classic also comes with enough Bonus Features to please the most discerning film buff: disc One: Audio Commentary by PIXAR CEO John Lasseter, Film Critic/Historian Leonard Maltin and current Disney Animator Andreas Deja; Once Upon a Dream Music Video by Emily Osment [Hannah Montana]; Disney Song Selection [plays just the actual song sequences from the film]; Princess Fun Facts – Pop-Up Video-style track that provides some historical background both for the film and princesses in general; Grand Canyon – a beautiful half-hour film that explores the Grand Canyon, set to the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe; The Peter Tchaikovsky Story – an episode of the Wonderful World of Disney that featured a biographical film of Tchaikovsky’s life, plus sneak peeks at Sleeping Beauty. Disc Two: Briar Rose’s Enchanted Dance Game; Sleeping Beauty Fun With Language Game; Picture Perfect – The Making of Sleeping Beauty; Eyvind Earle – The Man and His Art; Alternate Opening; Sequence 8 [Forest Scene; Deleted songs; It Happens I Have a Penny [Version 1]; It Happens I Have a Penny [Version 2]; Art Galleries; Original Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough Attraction; Publicity; Four Artists Paint One Tree; Storyboard Sequences.

Grade: Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition – A+

Grade: Features – A+

Final Grade: A+

TELEVISION: The Ex List: Grey’s Anatomy’s Ava Strikes Out On Her Own!

Elizabeth Reaser did such a great job of playing the badly injured Ava/Rebecca on Grey’s Anatomy that it seems only right that she should have asked to front a series of her own. The Ex List [CBS, Fridays, 10/9C] is a bit of a high concept dramedy – Bella Bloom [Reaser] is told by a psychic [Anne Bedian] that she must marry within the year or she never will – but she has already met her soulmate, and he’s someone she’s had a relationship with in the past!

Ex List - Bella & Psychic

Bella’s situation arises from the bachelorette party for her younger sister, Daphne [Rachel Boston], and her own weird thought that visiting a psychic would be the perfect way to cap the evening. When other predictions she made come true in wildly unexpected [and funny] ways, she begins to take the psychic seriously – not least of all when bird poop leads to her discovery that former boyfriend Johnny Diamont [Eric Balfour] is back in town – and has a punk rock band. When she and roommate Vivian [Alexandra Breckenridge] go to his show, his first song shows he remembers her, and not particularly fondly…

The Ex List is based on an Israeli series, but seems to be of a vastly different tone [Diane Ruggerio, who adapted the series for America, left the show over creative differences – and she wanted to maintain the tone of the original]. In the premiere, she has a life – she runs a flower shop and has a core group of friends who share a house with her: the aforementioned Vivian, her best friend; Augie [Adam Rothenberg], Vivian’s boyfriend, and Cyrus [Amir Talai], who is a bit of a cynic and a slacker.

Although Reaser doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, she is the principal here, and her ability to shift from comedy to drama to melodrama in mid-line [and to look really, really good in a bikini] is the show’s primary plus. The cast has solid chemistry [always important], but the writing isn’t quite right, yet. The balance between humor, drama and melodrama needs to be tweaked [less melodrama, more drama – the humor content is about right]. I enjoyed the pilot, but I hope that the show will find that balance – that sweet spot – that can elevate it to the next level.

Final Grade: B-

MOVIE REVIEW” WALL*E Is Simply Dazzling!

With an A-story that features the love story between WALL*E [Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class] and EVE [Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator], and a B-story that involves humanity’s possible return to a post-apocalyptic Earth, WALL*E is more than a bit of a gamble on PIXAR’s part.

Neither WALL*E nor EVE has a large vocabulary [at least, in terms of actual words – he has a number of R2D2-like sounds that clearly express what he’s feeling, and she has her own electronic vocabulary as well] – and neither has what you could call a real face [he’s a pair of binoculars on a box and she’s a floating egg with occasional arms & hands] – and yet we always know exactly what they are thinking and feeling.

Their romance is a classic one – and simultaneously poignant and hilarious – even though the film goes almost twenty minutes before a word of English is spoken.

The B-story features humans who have, in 700 years in space, become obese figures on floating couches/chairs. They live on a gigantic starship called the Axiom, where they are waited on, hand & foot, by robots of all sizes, shapes and functions [there’s more than a bit of eco-satire here, and it’s quite sharp].

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The appearance of EVE [and WALL*E] with a fragile little plant from Earth should signal a return to Earth, but there are problems…

WALL*E does pay homage to various classic SF films [he resembles ET more than Johnny 5, and the ship’s autopilot, Otto, will certainly remind one of Hal from 2001], but homages are only cool if the film is worth seeing.

WALL*E is, quite frankly, dazzling. Purely from a cinematography perspective, almost every frame of the film is a perfect composition – and yet not predictable, or in any way sterile.

Some of the best moments include the realization that the deserted city we first see is only partly man-made [you’ll see what I mean…]; the lovely moment from the trailer when WALL*E trails his hand through asteroid dust like a little boy trailing his fingers through the water as a motorboat zips across a lake [see photo]; the beautiful skyscapes that open the film, and so many more [including the fact that WALL*E is hooked on Hello, Dolly – and has a cockroach as his only friend!].

WALL*E is the best film of the year – let alone the summer – so far. Easily. It may be too intense or hard to follow for younger children [the lady and four kids, ages about three to six, who were sitting next to me got up and left well before WALL*E reached the Axiom], so you should be aware of that.

Grade: A+