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Tron: Legacy
Tron: Legacy
DVD ~ Jeff Bridges
Price: $7.86
107 used & new from $0.03

13 of 44 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This Movie Needs a System Reboot, December 17, 2010
This review is from: Tron: Legacy (DVD)
Is it wrong of me to prefer logic over spectacle? Did I miss the point when I left "Tron: Legacy" feeling it was a monumental failure as a story? If I'm to continue with this review, I must first make it clear that I don't see the "Tron" films in the same way a lot of people do. I don't believe they deserve praise simply for their innovative special effects; I personally require an engaging plot, character development, and the sense that it's operating under a heightened but nonetheless understandable set of rules. In other words, I like a good sci-fi/fantasy film, but not when all effort is put into visuals and absolutely nothing is put into the screenplay. If that makes me a prude who wouldn't know a cool movie even if it came up and bit me, feel free to stop reading and start searching the web for a more enthusiastic review.

Just like its 1982 predecessor, watching "Tron: Legacy" is a little like watching a demo reel from the visual effects department - all flash and bang but no substance. It makes not the slightest effort to be plausible or consistent, it freely glosses over glaring technicalities, the dialogue is unbelievably awkward, and the performances are wasted on characters with no depth. The plot is convoluted and impenetrable, and it seems the more it tries to explain, the less sense it makes. The entire concept of people living inside a computer is a logistical nightmare, but if I start rattling off a list, I fear I might not be able to stop. Its greatest offense is not having any audience in mind other than the original film's fan base, which, when you think about, hardly seems big enough to have warranted a sequel in the first place.

I will admit that the film is a dazzling sight to behold. I was especially impressed with work done on the character of Clu, a hacking program; he was designed to look exactly like his creator, Kevin Flynn, but since people age and computer programs do not, it was necessary to digitally reconstruct the face of Jeff Bridges as it appeared over twenty years ago. The results are uncannily convincing. With just a little more development, we may someday see digital recreations of bygone Hollywood icons and not notice a difference. Imagine it - Humphrey Bogart acting alongside Ingrid Bergman in a sequel to "Casablanca."

Since the events of the first film, Flynn got married, had a son, became a widower, and was promoted to CEO of a computer corporation called ENCOM International. He disappeared in 1989, leaving behind his son, Sam, and vague promises of a cutting edge digital revolution, one he claimed would forever change science, medicine, and religion. The story begins twenty years later, when a now twenty-seven-year-old Sam (Garrett Hedlund) breaks into ENCOM headquarters, distributes their newest operating system over the internet for free, uploads a virus into their mainframe, and escapes by jumping off the rooftop and releasing a parachute he just happened to have stowed away on his person. After his arrest and release, Sam is approached by ENCOM's consultant and Flynn's old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), who says he received a page from Flynn's office, the number of which has been disconnected for twenty years. So help me God, the man is still using a pager.

Upon entering his father's abandoned arcade, Sam discovers a secret room with a miraculously functional computer and a fully operational laser; with a few careless strokes of the keyboard, Sam is zapped with light and transported into the computer world, known as the Grid. We then witness must have been an homage to the sepia-tone-to-Technicolor transition shown in "The Wizard of Oz"; the film shifts from 2D to 3D, which is a new one on me. Sam is immediately captured by electronically-voiced guards in black suits with glowing orange stripes. After being stripped of his earthly clothes, fitted with a black suit with glowing blue stripes, and linked with a memory-storing disc that doubles as a Frisbee, he's pitted against Flynn's program, Clu (Jeff Bridges), who has since turned evil. He's then forced to participate in games of survival, including a race on digital motorcycles that trail light behind them. He's rescued by a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde) and driven away from the city into the surrounding mountains. Mountains. In a computer grid. And there are clouds in the sky, too.

I will now stop describing the plot and move on to some of the little things that drove me mad. There's a house stocked with furniture, physical paper books, and food. I must assume it's not some digital replication, for Sam is able to eat it without a problem. There's a club high atop a sky rise in the heart of the computer city, where a program played by Michael Sheen struts around with a cane and speaks like a Dr. Frank N. Furter wannabe. There's an ending which begs the question of how anything created in a computer could ever exist in the physical human world. After all, it's all just a bunch of immaterial zeros and ones. The fact that I'm fixated on this when I'm supposed to be enjoying myself should tell you everything you need to know. "Tron: Legacy" is a horrendous miscalculation, one of the least understandable films to come along in quite some time.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 19, 2010 1:22 PM PST

The King's Speech
The King's Speech
DVD ~ Colin Firth
Price: $4.75
170 used & new from $0.01

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Man in Need of His Voice, a Country in Need of a Leader, December 16, 2010
This review is from: The King's Speech (DVD)
"The King's Speech" is the one of the few films I know of to humanize the embarrassment of stuttering. It tells the story of Prince Albert, Duke of York, who, following the death of his father and the resignation of his older brother, became King George VI and had the unenviable task of leading England and its many colonies into World War II; although he had a voice and had plenty to say, his debilitating stammer made it virtually impossible to actually say it. Imagine what that must be like. You're a public figure, your country is on the brink of war, and the frightened masses long for your words to comfort and guide them - but you have not yet mastered the skill of getting those words out. Your mouth gets in the way of your brain, and what's worse, it's at a time when it's most inconvenient.

There's a moment late in the film when Albert, known to his family as Bertie (Colin Firth), watches newsreel footage of Adolph Hitler addressing the Nazis: "What is he saying?" asks one of his daughters. "I don't know," he answers slowly and deliberately, "but ... he seems to be saying it rather well." When the film begins, it's 1925, and Bertie fails miserably at delivering a speech to close the British Empire Exhibition; from that, it's easy to understand his frustration, dread, and shame, knowing he was teased as a child, knowing his nanny favored his brother, knowing his father's inability to comprehend, knowing every single certified speech therapist in London failed to relieve him of his stutter. So then it's understandable that he would eventually admire Hitler's speaking voice. He was an evil man, but boy, when he spoke, his voice rang loud and clear.

Bertie's story begins when he was still a Duke. In the mid 1930s, desperate to get her husband help, the future Queen Mother Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) happens upon Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist and failed actor from Australia who loves performing Shakespeare in front of his family - in all likelihood because of the flowing, eloquent language. He's not like the other speech therapists. He makes the rules. He insists that he and his clients be treated equally, which is why he addresses the Duke as Bertie rather than Your Highness. He wants to be called Lionel, not Doctor. He demands that all sessions be held not in Bertie's estate, but in his own office, which, in its dinginess, takes on an oddly organic quality that suits his profession. He's witty and isn't afraid to show it, not even in front of royalty. Elizabeth, while unaccustomed to eccentric commoners, is willing to comply for the sake of her husband.

And so begins Bertie's speech therapy, an unconventional routine of diaphragm exercises, tongue and jaw techniques, and memorization of tongue twisters. But this is not merely a clinical series of activities; over time, a friendship grows between the two, one that enables Bertie to try a little harder, even in desperate situations. When he puts on headphones and listens to music, for example, he's able to recite a Shakespeare soliloquy without stammering. How is this possible? It's a matter of distraction; with his attention focused away from the fact that he's speaking, he can go from start to finish almost completely unhindered.

But how can he speak with any degree of confidence knowing the crown would soon be on his head? He never wanted to be king; he was a naval officer and a prince. Following the death of his father, George V (Michael Gambon), the next in line for the throne was his brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), but he abdicated in order to be with the woman he loved - a twice divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Elizabeth sensed this in Edward, which is why she sought out Lionel in the first place. If her husband was to be king, and if this meant addressing the people on a regular basis, it would be necessary for him to treat his stammer and conquer his fear of public speaking. Everything leads up to the fall of 1939, at which point Bertie, as George VI, must announce over the radio that England is at war with Germany.

Firth's portrayal is extraordinary. Watching him, we don't see a prince or a king; we see a man who wants to be heard. We may also marvel at his ability to stutter, which isn't at all easy to mimic convincingly. Credit also to Carter, who lends a quiet but nonetheless wonderful air of caring and sympathy to her role. On the basis of this portrayal, it's no wonder that the Queen Mother was one of the most beloved royal figures of the last century. And as for Rush, he finds the right balance between humor and heart in his depiction of Lionel. He may crack a few too many jokes, but he is a person with feelings, and it's clear that he cares deeply for his wife and children. "The King's Speech" is an absorbing, touching, inspirational film, and is definitely one of the year's best. Its only flaw is its R rating, which the MPAA deemed necessary for exactly two scenes of swearing. I don't pretend to understand what goes into making these decisions.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2010 9:31 PM PST

Black Swan
Black Swan
DVD ~ Natalie Portman
Price: $4.75
148 used & new from $0.01

12 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfection Has a Price, December 15, 2010
This review is from: Black Swan (DVD)
Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" ingeniously merges the spectacle of dance with the base emotions of melodrama, two schools of theatricality that, if done right, are equally demanding. The result is a lurid, daring, and mesmerizing psychological thriller, one that's founded on the idea that the pursuit of perfection is not a matter of time or effort but of sanity. The line between reality and fantasy is at times easily distinguishable, but at other times is blurred to the point of sheer confusion. It challenges perceptions with questionable events and unreliable characterizations - which, I have no doubt whatsoever, were intentionally written that way. It continuously frightens us, and yet it lures us in with disturbing but beautiful imagery. This is the kind of film you don't simply watch. You experience it.

This could not have been an easy ride for star Natalie Portman. She and Aronofsky must have known that the film's success would depend entirely on her, for her character doesn't merely drive the plot but is in fact the plot itself. Not only would she have to be believable, she would also have to be willing to tax herself physically and emotionally - and numerically, assuming you choose to interpret her work as a duel role. She would have to endure six months of ballet training and body toning. It would be a commitment, not an acting job. She was clearly more than qualified to meet these demands; her performance is brave, complex, stirring, and nothing short of extraordinary.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a New York ballet dancer driven by the need to be perfect. She practices rigorously. She rarely eats, and what little she does eat, she throws up. She auditions for the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," which would require her to give a duel performance. The director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has already told her that he would be featuring her more this season. Still, there seems to be room for improvement; while he sees nothing wrong with her interpretation of the innocent and elegant White Swan, he sees all technique and no passion with the devious and sensual Black Swan. More suited for the latter is Lily (Mila Kunis) a new dancer from San Francisco. She's everything Nina is not: Relaxed, outgoing, a little bawdy, and embracing of her imperfections.

Leroy, lecherous and creepy, tells Nina that she must be seductive as the Black Swan. She must lose herself in the role. She must be in touch with her own body. Nina would know nothing about this. She's cared for and encouraged by her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer whose expressions of love mask an alarming psychological fixation, one that fuels her artistic abilities and gives no latitude for privacy or trust. Into Nina's life enters Lily, who seems friendly enough but may actually be plotting to take over the duel role in "Swan Lake." She eventually understands the plight of Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), an aging ballerina who was once a great star but has now been replaced.

Nina, her rivalry with Lily doubling as a strange friendship, is ultimately consumed with revenge fantasies, ones that get increasingly shocking as the opening night of "Swan Lake" approaches. Little by little, her grasp on reality slips. For no apparent reason, a rash on her shoulder turns into a wound. Does she deal with the stress of attaining perfection by mutilating herself? Her reflection isn't quite in sync with her body - or perhaps it's the other way around. Events that seem to have taken place may not have. People who appear may not actually be there, and vice versa. The more Nina's world unravels, the more we can't stop watching; reality fades into a hypnotic dreamscape of primal urges. Some are deeply unsettling. Others include a lesbian love scene that would be frightening were it not so sexy.

Aronofsky visualizes Nina's descent in two distinct ways. One is through the use of computer-generated imagery, and while that may be expected in this day and age (perhaps even required), it allows for the inclusion of specific symbols that are necessary to advance the story. The other is through the handheld camera work, giving the film an unsteady look. Close up shots are naturally jerky. He follows characters as they walk from one room to another. He circles dancers in broad, dramatic sweeps during major dance sequences. The images literally move along with the plot. This is what makes "Black Swan" some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It's a dark and shocking drama that stimulates the senses and plays on emotions.

The Tourist
The Tourist
DVD ~ Johnny Depp
Offered by Shopcents
Price: $7.25
189 used & new from $0.01

14 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars He's Having an Identity Crisis, and She's Just Beautiful, December 12, 2010
This review is from: The Tourist (DVD)
Angelina Jolie's appearance in "The Tourist" may someday set records for sheer photogenic appeal. She plays one of the most glamorous undercover agents ever to grace the silver screen; her wardrobe, her makeup, and her hair are all immaculate, and for some strange reason, they stay that way all 103 minutes of the film. Even when her character is roughed up by an odious mobster near the end, she still looks as if she has been prepped for a "Vanity Fair" photo shoot. This is, of course, a testament to her beauty as well as to the capable hands of her makeup artists, her hairdressers, and costume designer Colleen Atwood. Credit also to co-writer/director Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck for letting the camera linger on her face and figure a little longer than necessary. He clearly knew what the people wanted to see.

But where does that leave the film itself? Is it supposed to be less about plot and more about serving as an extended fashion show? This is one of the few action thrillers that doesn't get away with being preposterous, for it doesn't have the conviction to go all out with it. Unlike Jolie's previous action film, "Salt," "The Tourist" is timid and flimsy. The stunts are never daring enough, the romance isn't passionate enough, and the sense of humor is so reserved that it seems completely out of place. The story is exceedingly simple, pretty much to the point that it barely holds our interest. Worst of all is the lack of onscreen chemistry between Jolie and costar Johnny Depp. The only real credit I can give it is for its beautiful cinematography and breathtaking scenery, the canals and Byzantine architecture of Venice shot with the same care and precision of an Italian tourism commercial.

In the film, Jolie plays Elsie Clifton-Ward, a British beauty who cunningly misleads a federal investigation of her former lover, the unseen Alexander Pearce, a career criminal wanted in many countries by many people. This includes the heatless gangster Reginald Shaw (Steve Berkoff), who he embezzled billions from. Scotland Yard's Inspector John Acheson (Paul Bettany) has been keeping tabs on Elsie for two years in the desperate hope that she will lead them to Pearce; for reasons never adequately explained, he's driven to capture the elusive criminal and bring him to justice. Pearce stays in touch with Elsie through a series of handwritten notes, which are delivered in plain but neat white envelopes. Her latest instructions: Board a train from Paris to Venice, and along the way, throw off the authorities by seeking out and befriending a man with Pearce's height and build.

Here enters Frank Tupelo (Depp), a nervous math teacher from Wisconsin hoping to forget a personal tragedy. He reads a spy novel. He puffs away on an electronic cigarette. He fumbles for his words like a man on his first blind date. Elsie regards Frank calmly, all the while calculating every move. They arrive in Venice. She convinces him to accompany her to a hotel and stay in her luxury suite - and, of course, he'll have to sleep on the sofa. In the aftermath of an intimate dinner and a few drinks, they kiss on the balcony. The next morning, while Elsie is out, a group of strange men barge into the suite intent on killing Frank, believing he's Pearce. And so begins the thriller portion of the film, highlighted by awkward action sequences, a contrived romance, and curious sudden appearances by Rufus Sewell. I leave it to you to discover whether or not his character is red herring.

"The Tourist," a remake of the French film "Anthony Zimmer," has all the reliable crime thriller clichés, including exotic locations, mobsters, a train ride, a mystery woman, and an apparent case of mistaken identity. It even has Timothy Dalton, although his role doesn't require him to be James Bond once again; he plays Chief Inspector Jones, who finds Acheson incredibly irritating and seems to take great pleasure in telling him off at the end. But even with all this at hand, something is missing. For something meant to be thrilling, we never quite go beyond the image of Johnny Depp running barefoot across loosely tiled Venetian rooftops. The blood never really pumps. The adrenaline never really rushes. It's all so flat and tired and insipid - not at all what I expected from a movie like this.

There is, of course, an inevitable plot twist, one that surprised me by not being surprising. Perhaps that was shortsighted on my part. Considering everything that happens, considering what was said, considering what we're shown, could the film have ended any other way? Crime thrillers are constructed with the intention of misdirecting the audience before revealing the truth. What bothers me is that this movie makes no real effort to trick us; it leads to a conclusion that was obvious from the very start. With no good romantic subplot, with no decent action sequences, and with no engaging plot, what else is there? The more I think about "The Tourist," the more I return to its star, Angelina Jolie, whose beauty thoroughly overshadows everything else. That's not much of a compliment for the film itself, but it's the best I can do.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 2, 2011 3:39 AM PST

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Two-Disc Edition)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Two-Disc Edition)
DVD ~ Ben Barnes
4 used & new from $8.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lead Us Not Into Temptation, December 10, 2010
So there I was, sitting in my seat at the theater awaiting the start of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," the third film in the series. As I tore open the plastic bag containing a set of 3D glasses, I came to a worrying realization: Although I remembered greatly enjoying the previous "Narnia" film, "Prince Caspian," I had by now forgotten just about everything concerning the plot and the characters. Would that mean I would be lost watching this new film? Fantasies are a great cinematic distraction, but if they're part of an epic series released over several years, keeping track of key events can be next to impossible. To my surprise and relief, the film makes the occasional reference to previous events but doesn't dwell upon them. In other words, I was allowed to forget the previous films, sit back, and immerse myself in nearly two hours of pure entertainment.

Adapted from the novel by C.S. Lewis, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" begins with a painting that gushes water into a bedroom and ends with a battle between a ship and a sea serpent; in between, we encounter fairy tale creatures, witness acts of magic, and follow the leads on a quest to save Narnia - and themselves - from slave trading and the forces of darkness. I guess what I'm saying is that this movie is a fun, exciting, great-looking fantasy adventure that adults and children will enjoy. That it has joined the 3D bandwagon is really of no concern to me, since the process is now about as commonplace as drive-in theaters were fifty years ago. See it in that format if that's what you prefer. I personally think everyone would be much better off saving themselves a couple of bucks and sticking to traditional 2D.

At the beginning of the film, we find the youngest Pevensie siblings, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), spending the summer holiday with their uncle and insufferable cousin, Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter), who does nothing but complain, complain, complain. Their older siblings, Susan and Peter (cameos by Anna Popplewell and William Moseley), have matured enough to start living their own lives; Susan in particular has joined her parents on a trip to America. Thanks to a painting of a ship at sea, Edmund, Lucy, and cousin Eustace are transported back to Narnia where they board the "Dawn Treader" and reunite with King Caspian (Ben Barnes, who seems to have forgotten the Spanish accent he used in the previous film) and the swashbuckling talking mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg).

Caspian's mission is to seek out the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia. The Pevensies are happy to tag along, but Eustace is not; he's far too rational and proper to believe that a magical world could ever exist. As he continues to make life difficult for everyone, the "Dawn Treader" sails from one island to the next claiming the swords of the Lost Lords with the intent of gathering them at the table of the great lion Lord Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson). Our intrepid leads will engage in a number of harrowing adventures, including encounters with a band of slave traders, one-legged troll creatures, a pond that turns ordinary objects into gold, an evil green mist, and a dark island that can bring to life one's darkest fears. Caspian and the Pevensies will have to resist temptation numerous times along the way; Lucy must not wish herself as beautiful as her sister, Edmund must not hunger for more power, and Caspian must not think he was a disappointment to his father.

Since the Pevensies have been well established, let's focus on Eustace. Say the word "Eustace" - does it not sound an awful lot like "useless"? At the start, he's exactly that. But then he goes through ... a transformation, and by the end of the film, he proves himself more useful than most of the other characters combined. He initially has a contentious relationship with Reepicheep, who continuously taunts him for his profound lack of adventure and skill. In due time, they will become friends, which is just about right for this kind of film. As for Poulter's performance, he has the whiny, stuck up, snot-nosed twit stereotype down to a tee.

There's an unfortunate tendency for fantasy epics - especially ones adapted from books - to be so overloaded with material that they alienate general audiences and appeal only to those intimately familiar with their sources. What I've been enjoying about the "Narnia" films is that, while all connected by recurring characters and themes, each chapter is generally self contained. "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" could have easily existed within a closed universe, defined by a plot that only an elite few would understand or care about. Fortunately, director Michael Apted and writers Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, and Michael Petroni had all audiences in mind. This includes people like me, people who like a film at the moment it's being watched but don't necessarily retain any information about them.

No Title Available

1 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tchaikovsky is Turning in His Grave, December 9, 2010
Movies like "The Nutcracker in 3D" are the result of directors who put off having that long, thoughtful conversation with their inner child. Those of you expecting some facsimile of the original Tchaikovsky ballet will be sorely disappointed, as will those of you expecting an immersive 3D experience - this is probably the worst 2D-to-3D conversion since "The Last Airbender." Those of you expecting a charming children's fantasy will be bewildered and more than a little angry. This movie is bizarre, nonsensical, and unendurably dreary, almost as if it were made with the sole intention of punishing the audience. I suspect that many parents will dutifully take their children to see this film, unaware that they will only end up confused and frightened. I too was taken by the ads, all edited in such a way that they gave not the slightest indication of what co-writer/director Andrei Konchalovsky was really hoping to achieve. That's a form of cruelty, if you ask me.

With this version of the story, the villainous Rat King and his army are transformed into a fascist regime that closely parallels the Nazis. In what way does this sound appropriate for children? How do you think they will react when they hear about the rats tossing toys into furnaces, producing enough smoke to blot out the sun and keep the city in perpetual darkness? Will they know what to make of the propaganda flyers that constantly rain from above, littering the streets? Will they understand the sudden shifts in tone, as when the Rat King (played by an unrecognizable John Turturro) bursts into a song set to a 1920s swing beat before dancing over to a massive fish tank and electrocuting his pet shark? This is more than cinematic boo-boo. It's a sign that Konchalovsky is in serious need of a therapist.

But wait a minute. Did I just say 1920s swing? What is that doing in a story musically driven by Tchaikovsky? Questioning this is a moot point; the remaining bits of his score are buried by lyrics, penned by Tim Rice. He's a gifted lyricist, and if you don't believe me, listen to the cast recordings of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "Evita." Still, I'm shocked he didn't realize that certain compositions simply don't require the assistance of words. There's only one point at which the music is properly utilized, and not surprisingly, it also happens to be the film's only good scene; a girl named Mary, having ascended an impossibly behemoth Christmas tree, is magically carried through the air and across a piano keyboard in a flurry of dancing snowflakes. Naturally, this moment is musically enhanced by the beautiful "Waltz of the Snowflakes," which, in the ballet version, marks the end of the first act.

The plot is preposterous and baffling - a mishmash of awkward dialogue, odd character development, and magical events that I suspect were intended to be whimsical. We're never told when or where it takes place, although the name Dr. Freud is mentioned. So is Albert Einstein, portrayed as a laughable caricature by none other than Nathan Lane, who eventually sings about the Theory of Relativity to the tune of "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy." In this story, Einstein is uncle to little Mary (Elle Fanning) and her brother, Max (Aaron Michael Drozin), a toy-destroying monster who shows all the signs of being a sociopath. On Christmas Eve, Mary is given a wooden nutcracker as a gift, one she's able to bring to life simply by believing such a thing is possible. The talking nutcracker, nicknamed N.C. (voiced by Shirley Henderson), tells her that he's actually a prince and was placed under a spell by the Rat Queen (Frances de la Tour) so that her son, the Rat King, could take over his kingdom. Wouldn't that make him the Rat Prince? Never mind.

Mary's efforts to help N.C. regain control over his kingdom involve the recruitment of three toys that act so strangely, it's as if we've suddenly stepped into the realm of Lewis Carroll. One is a fat clown with a very pronounced lisp. One is an erudite chimpanzee with a stuffy British accent. One is a Jamaican little drummer boy, who I suspect some will find offensive. We also eventually meet N.C. in his human form (Charlie Rowe), a boy of considerable charm. Why couldn't the filmmakers follow his lead and make the rest of the story the same way?

Other character, like Mary and Max's parents (Richard E. Grant and Yuliya Vysotskaya), add even more oddness to the film - the mother especially, a woman so disconnected from every situation it's a wonder she isn't a regular on Dr. Freud's sofa. De la Tour doubles as the children's nanny, Frau Eva, drunk one moment and just plain eccentric the next. What is Konchalovsky trying to tell us here, given that this has been his pet project for the last twenty years? That Mary is a normal girl trapped in a world of loonies? Surely it isn't that dreams are better than reality, since, according to what we're shown, both are pretty much the same. "The Nutcracker in 3D" is a horrendous miscalculation, one of the least enjoyable holiday films ever aimed at children or any other audience. The only saving grace is that Tchaikovsky isn't alive to see what became of his enchanting ballet.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 19, 2011 7:17 AM PDT

No Title Available

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking for Comedy in the Jihad World, December 7, 2010
"Four Lions" is one of the most intelligent, important, illuminating, disturbing, and uncompromising political comedies of recent memory. It takes one of the biggest risks a movie of this day and age can take, and pulls it off: It presents us with a farcical look at modern jihadism. And yet it's not content with merely making us laugh at the very, very serious; it aims to humanize and shed light on a situation many of us are completely unfamiliar with apart from impersonal news reports and media generalizations. Set aside any notion that all Islamic terrorists are squirreled away in caves deep within Pakistan or Afghanistan - many live Westernized lives in densely populated cities, and as is the case with the planning of any large-scale event, there's a lot of doubt, puzzlement, fighting, and mistake making.

The central character is Omar (Riz Ahmed), a disheartened English Muslim at odds with the world over its persecution of Islam and its followers. He longs to go to Pakistan and train as a soldier, which might be possible due to family connections. He has a wife and son, and they both expect he will not only blow himself up very soon, but also do it in such a way that it feels right in his heart. Unfortunately, he has to put up with three fellow jihadists, all of whom are a few coconuts short of a palm tree. Waj (Kayvan Novak) is easily confused and has no real idea what he's doing or why he's doing it. Faisal (Adeel Akhtar) is training crows to be suicide bombers due to the less than optimal health of his father. Barry, a white Islamic convert (Nigel Lindsay), is a raging, paranoid extremist who hates just about everyone, including Omar.

Omar and Waj travel to Pakistan only to return earlier than expected, their terrorist training having gone disastrously wrong. Barry then conceives of a plan to bomb a mosque, which he believes will inspire moderate Muslims to finally get off the fence and become jihadists. Omar is vehemently against the idea; he argues that murdering Muslims as a call to other Muslims makes about as much sense as punching your own face in the middle of a fistfight. Into this infighting enters a new recruit, Hassan (Arsher Ali), who raps and talks big about jihad and Muslim discrimination but is really just an angry kid in need of a big brother. Barry discovered him in the audience of a political debate, where he made a statement by setting off phony explosives loaded with streamers.

Even though the location of the bombing is still being argued, they all agree that a bombing will take place at some point in the not-too-distant future. In due time, they converge at a marathon run, their explosives concealed by rented cartoon costumes - the kinds that poor, unappreciated performers have to wear at birthday parties and sporting events. The heinousness of this plan is masterfully balanced by the sheer absurdity of it; there are times when I honestly didn't know whether to laugh at these men or shudder at the thought of innocent people being killed.

One of the things I enjoyed most was director Chris Morris' ability to focus our attention on nuances hidden within the overall situation. Most movies about terrorists would not only be deadly serious, but would also provide us with a very broad view of the actual terrorist act, in effect neglecting the characters and the emotion. With "Four Lions," the overall situation is secondary to the ups and downs of making it happen. With Omar, for example, we know that he's plotting a terrorist attack, but we're more interested in the fact that he has to do all the work because the other jihadists are incompetent fools who don't make terrorist tapes so much as extended blooper reels. Although most people are not extremists who have masterminded a bombing, working towards something and feeling as if your progress is being slowed is undeniably relatable.

The film's single greatest accomplishment is its balancing act between satire and sincerity. Morris and his writers are essentially acknowledging that within comedy there is a great deal of truth, and that we can recognize that truth even when we're laughing hysterically. This isn't to suggest that drama isn't truthful, although it certainly goes about in a much different way. The film exposes frailties that are all too human, and by making us laugh at them, we own up to our own inherent flaws. Comedies work best not when they beat you over the head with a gag, but when they personify a highly ridiculous situation. "Four Lions" is a masterpiece of tone, characterization, performance, theme, and dialogue. It's without a doubt one of the best films I've seen all year.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 11, 2010 8:19 PM PST

I Love You Phillip Morris
I Love You Phillip Morris
DVD ~ Jim Carrey
Offered by Sparks DVD Sales
Price: $5.99
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57 of 64 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Conman Finds His Soulmate, December 6, 2010
This review is from: I Love You Phillip Morris (DVD)
"I Love You Philip Morris" tells the real life story of Steven Jay Russell, who in 1998 received an unprecedented 144-year prison sentence for fraud, conning, impersonating, and multiple escapes from Houston's Harris County Jail. The film shows us sequences that seem utterly impossible, but in fact actually happened, which only goes to show that truth really is stranger than fiction. No, I will not describe them to you. Enjoying the film depends on the audience's reaction to Russell's actions. It's a little like a magician revealing his secrets; the trick itself is a lot of fun, but seeing what went into making the trick work can be quite fascinating, especially when you realize just how much effort goes into making something look simple. The apparent ease with which he executes his schemes is equally mind boggling.

Jim Carrey's portrayal of Russell is a delightful bag of contradictions. He's funny but touching, exaggerated but believable, contemptible but justified, caring but manipulative. There are times when it seems like he's thinking of no one other than himself, and there are other times when it's clear that he does what he does out of love. It's a daring, complex performance, and it's for reasons other than the fact that his character is gay; it establishes that Carrey is capable of something deeper than outlandish personalities and extreme physical comedy. His take on Russell is engaging, although it's not necessarily understandable. This isn't a criticism. Sometimes, it's preferable for audiences to figure out characters for themselves, for them to put their own spin on why certain people are they are way they are.

We're given a small glimpse of his childhood, in which he learns that he was adopted. We then flash forward to his early adult years; he's married to a woman who's a bit too religious and perhaps a little ignorant but sweet nonetheless, he has a delightful daughter, and he's the manager of a Texas food service company. But after surviving a car accident, he decides to live his life as an openly gay man, and he leaves his family behind for Miami. It's there he realizes that living a gay lifestyle is more expensive than his salary as a sales manager will allow. So he does what any man vowing to live authentically would do - he becomes a conman. After relatively simple schemes like feigning slips and falls in public places, he plunges headfirst into various types of fraud, including credit card, passport, and insurance. He even sells bad tomatoes.

Unfortunately, his crimes catch up with him, and he's arrested and sent to jail in Texas. He learns the ropes quickly; everything essentially boils down to a choice between paying someone off, learning how to fight, or giving someone oral sex. He knows who to talk to and where to guide someone should they need something. He spends all his free time in the library, where he reads nothing but law books. Into his life enters Philip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a soft spoken gay man who was tried and convicted for theft of service. He wants to see if there's a legal way to help an AIDS patient lying in the infirmary. Russell lies and tells Morris that he's a lawyer. The two immediately hit it off. Over the next few weeks, they form their own little slice of heaven in a jail cell, oblivious to the yard beatings and the cell searches.

At this point, I'm going to stop describing the plot, for I want you to be surprised by the lengths Russell will go to be with Morris. I will say that what the film, in its own offbeat way, is surprisingly sweet. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's screenplay, based on Steve McVicker's book "I Love You Philip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks," reveals a delicate and finely crafted balancing act between humor and drama; it's funny, though it never resorts to desperate slapstick or gross-out vulgarities, and it's heartfelt, yet it steers clear of broad, contrived sentimentalism. It's bold and appealing - a romantic comedy that refuses to follow the rules of a romantic comedy.

Apart from Carrey and McGregor, I was pleasantly surprised by Leslie Mann, who appears briefly but is no less important as Russell's ex-wife, Debbie. Even after learning that he's gay, even after they get divorced, even after he gets sent to jail, the two remain on fairly good terms. This is amazing coming from a woman perpetually hung up on what the Lord does and does not intend to have happen. She believes that Russell is a man who doesn't know who he is and is always searching for something. I guess that makes sense. Why else would he be so reckless in his attempts at pretending to be what he isn't? Part of what makes "I Love You Philip Morris" such a good movie is that it presents Steven Jay Russell without forcing us towards any definite conclusions about him. True, he may be serving an unusually long jail sentence (in solitary confinement, no less), but you have to admit, he is a romantic.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 16, 2012 3:25 PM PST

Dead Awake
Dead Awake
DVD ~ Nick Stahl
Price: $13.88
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How Long Before We Know What This Movie is About?, December 6, 2010
This review is from: Dead Awake (DVD)
"Dead Awake" begins as a slow, meandering, bizarre, inexplicable story that shows us a lot and yet doesn't seem to be going anywhere. By the time we discover that the film is indeed about something, we've already passed the point at which we can still care about it. We then have to endure a twist ending that's not only painfully unoriginal, but is also deeply connected to a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through. I went through three distinct emotional stages watching this film. The first was intense dislike, for it seemed as if the film's sole purpose was to hopelessly confuse the audience. The second was a quiet, reserved sense of acceptance, and it came to me the moment I finally realized that the filmmakers were in fact aiming for something. The third was disappointment, since it was obvious that their aim was way off.

The film is a moody psychological drama that always looks muddy and out of focus. It continuously hints at the supernatural and yet never gets around to confirming or denying it until the very end, at which point all interest in the subject has passed. The main character is Dylan (Nick Stahl), an emotionally distant young man who still broods over a car accident from ten years ago. He visits the crash site every year on the anniversary of the crash, and as he explains to the detective who handled the case, something about the situation just doesn't add up. He's currently a funeral director, having given up on college and life in general. He often has trouble sleeping. He's on anxiety medications. He continuously plays with a yoyo, believing its ability to keep returning to his hand is symbolic of the mistakes that keep coming back to haunt him.

At the funeral of an old high school football acquaintance, he reunites with Natalie (Amy Smart), who was his high school sweetheart until the death of his parents. She's now the girlfriend of another high school classmate (Ben Marten), who likes to boast about his fledgling legal career and still regards Dylan as a lower life form. Despite this, it's obvious that Natalie and Dylan still have feelings for each other. And with this, we come to a bet that Dylan makes with friend and fellow funeral director, a grating Irish stereotype named Decko (Brian Lynner): If he were to fake his death and put his name in an obituary, absolutely no one would come to his funeral. The next thing we know, Dylan is lying in an open casket, waiting for someone - anyone - to show up. If there was ever an event that could only exist in the movies, this would be it.

Here enters Charlie (Rose McGowan), a full-fledged junkie. She's obsessed with death. She constantly reads the obituaries. She goes to wakes all the time. Her apartment is a nightmarish shrine of newspaper clippings and filth. At Dylan's phony wake, she rambles about the sentence, "Jesus wept," which happens to be the Bible's shortest passage. For reasons never adequately explained, Dylan follows her to her apartment; through very unlikely circumstances, she becomes convinced that he's her guardian angel, that he's actually dead, and that his belief that he's still alive is merely a state of denial. She claims that the dead walk among us all the time, that Dylan is in purgatory. If he's dead, he asks her, then why is it that everyone else can see him? If you believe in it, Charlie explains, you will make it real for yourself and for others. To get out, you first have to accept that you're dead. Then you have to make peace with your life.

Where is all of this going? What message is director Omar Naim trying to send? For most of the film, I was convinced that there wouldn't be an answer to either of those questions. It builds itself up in the strangest of ways, none of which seem to connect to anything. What am I to make, for example, of an early moment when Dylan talks to a corpse in a coffin and then in an unexplained flash notices the corpse's mouth move? Is he communicating with the dead, or is he on too many medications? What about his dreams? Are they dreams at all, or are they fragmented premonitions of some sort? What about the quick flickers of light, or the sudden whispering of voices?

Although we eventually find out what the film is trying to say, much of what I just asked remains unanswered. So then why was any of it included? And then there's the ending, one that would be impossible considering all the various way it ties into important plot events. It also begs the question of whose story was really being told. I don't know who was hired to keep track of the film's continuity, but that person needs a serious crash course in the subject. And now that I've written this review, I find that I've reached a fourth emotional phase: Frustration. "Dead Awake" had all the right ingredients for a reliable fantasy drama, and yet they were mixed together in the wrong amounts. The result is a confused, overwrought, dingy-looking mess of a film. This may be nitpicking on my part, but I also think the title just terrible.

No Title Available

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Wrong Combination of East-Meets-West, December 3, 2010
"The Warrior's Way" combines the brutal violence of a martial arts saga, the nostalgic lure of an old west drama, and the visual appeal of a living comic book. And yet, in trying to be all those things, it ends up being none of them; what was supposed to be an edgy East-meets-West fusion is in fact an unexplainable, unpleasant mishmash of genres that really don't belong together. It's an oddity, an otherworldly import that never aims to be funny but somehow can get you laughing at the drop of a hat. It's above all a deep mystery, not only begging the question of how it was conceived, but also of who actually believed it would work. I don't pretend to be the end all when it comes to martial arts films or even to westerns, but I think I've seen enough of each to know that combining them isn't a good idea.

It might have helped had first-time writer/director Sngmoo Lee known which story he wanted to tell. There are essentially two plotlines running through the film, and neither has a firm grasp on itself. The central character is Yang (Jang Dong-gun), a warrior from an Asian land of an unspecific location and era. He was raised to be a ruthless, cunning assassin - a man with lightning-quick reflexes and an inhuman ability to stay focused. His sole mission was to murder every single member of a warring clan. When he finds he's unable to murder the last of his enemies - a baby girl - he takes her and flees, for he knows that disobeying his clan is an automatic death sentence. His destination: America, where he hopes to reunite with an old friend, who made a name for himself as a launderer in the desert community of Lode, which bills itself as the Paris of the West.

Yang's friend has long since died. Lode is a lifeless, withering hulk of a one-horse town that bears absolutely no resemblance to Paris. Stranded there is a travelling circus; it has begun erecting a gigantic Ferris wheel, one that looms overhead and looks like a rusting skeleton. The proprietor is a miniature showman named 8-Ball (Tony Cox). His troupe is a reliable motley crew of freakish stereotypes, the most prominent being a bearded lady. The rest of the residents are the most buffoonish western caricatures of any recent film I've seen. There's Ron, the town drunk (Geoffrey Rush), who also happens to be an expert marksman. There's also Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a knife-thrower who knew Yang's friend and had even learned a thing or two from him.

And this is where the second plotline comes into play. As a girl, Lynne miraculously survived an attack by a group of men led by The Colonel (Danny Houston), whose heartless exploits go no further than raping and murdering women with good teeth. His encounter left his physically scarred, and now he has returned to Lode wearing a mask that makes him look like a cowboy retrofit of the Phantom of the Opera. Lynne wants her revenge. The Colonel wants to make trouble. Inevitably, this will culminate in a climactic battle, one that pits dozens of heavily armed men against a coffin full of guns, a Ferris wheel rigged with dynamite, and a sword-toting Asian assassin.

Think this is the end of the movie? Not so fast. As Yang and the residents of Lode battle The Colonel and his posse, a legion of ninjas descend on the town and wreak their own special havoc. It seems that Yang's past has caught up with him, although I'll be damned if I knew how they managed to find him - and I mean besides their ability to listen to the "weeping" of his sword. But that isn't quite the point I'm trying to make. All I want to know is, which of these battles is the more important one of the story? Who are we supposed to root for? If it's Yang, then why is that, after claiming the baby as his own, she's treated as nothing other than an object for audiences to laugh at and find cute? If it's Lynne, then why is her story wrapped up before we have the chance to invest in it? This is what I mean about not knowing which story is being told. The film has two plots fighting for the same screen time.

There are other problems. Ron serves as the film's narrator, and while he says all the expected things, he's hardly a reliable character given how much time he spends drinking. There's also a painfully contrived romance between Yang and Lynne that isn't anything close to believable, probably because Don-gun and Bosworth have absolutely no chemistry together. How can they when Yang is depicted as the proverbial lonesome warrior, loved by no one and unable to give love in return? There's a moment in which Ron tells us that, during his time in Lode, Yang learned to love the simple life, especially in regard to growing and tending flowers; we would not have known this without a voiceover narration, for Yang rarely speaks and his face reveals no emotion at all. The only thing I got from "The Warrior's Way" was the knowledge that I shouldn't believe anything a drunk says.

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