Review: The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

Chris Weitz's The Twilight Saga: New Moon (which I suppose was subtitled to highlight the franchise and avoid confusion with this year's excellent Moon), is a lot better than I thought it would be. I still haven't read any of the books, though I enjoyed the first film, though, for vampire fare, it was a bit bland and pretty stupid in places.

New Moon is also a bit bland, but less so, with the addition of the wolf pack characters, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) from the first film and his Native American buddies who protect their land from vampires. Lautner was likable in the first film, and he's really very good in this one.

The film opens with a quote from Romeo and Juliet, and continues referencing star-crossed love of several kinds, mostly between Bella Swan (Kirsten Stewart) and Jacob this time, and still always between Bella and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the vampire boyfriend.

When Bella and Edward's romance is threatened when the Cullens decide to leave the town of Forks, where Bella lives, a really pretty convincing romance ensues between Bella and Jacob, complicated by Bella's seeing visions of Edward which lead her to take part in some risky behavior, and Jacob's initiation into his tribe's vampire-hunting wolf pack.

I suppose I have to be on "Team Jacob" now, as he's played so well and the romance between him and Bella is more interesting, dangerous and intriguing than the foreordained one between her and Edward. Edward's okay, but his vampire family is pretty annoying and they show up too much. In general, in both romances this time, there's a lot of eternal swearing which is then promptly ignored for sometimes less than persuasive reasons, leading to more eternal swearing.

However, Bella's depression, which exactly follows the romantic developments, is not, as it could have been, particularly depressing. It's more of a metaphorical teenage angst which is at times humorously or interestingly handled. It kind of reminded me of Fannie Brawne's mid-romance depression during her affair with John Keats in this year's Bright Star. Both films take romantic loss and separation seriously, not as character flaws or necessarily useless or permanently damaging emotions in themselves, which is kind of refreshing. There's a pretty witty From Here to Eternity reference when Bella gets in trouble in the water.

Director Weitz seems to have found a pretty good franchise niche after failing to launch the His Dark Materials trilogy with his The Golden Compass (2007). He stays quite faithful to the successful markers laid down by Catherine Hardwicke in the first Twilight movie and sticks to the story pretty effectively.

From the previews, I honestly thought the addition of the "Voltori," elder, powerful vampires who enforce their vampire code with the vampire death penalty in their vampire Vatican, had the potential to ruin the film. But it ended up being not bad, with Dakota Fanning and Michael Sheen doing all right with the material as powerful elders. Sheen is better here as a vampire than he was as a werewolf in this year's Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.

So, if you're a diehard or even slightly interested fan of the books or the first film, breathe a sigh of relief. It hasn't been ruined yet. I'm sure there are a million details from the book which haven't made it to the screen. I overheard several conversations like that just on the way to the parking lot. But it's an entertaining, solid film that leaves you wanting to see what happens next. It's fun, soap opera-y vampire cheese. What would that be, like blood pudding? There are, what, one or two more books? I don't know for sure.

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Review: Astro Boy (2009)

Astro Boy is an Americanized adaptation of a Japanese manga story, and fairly well done. If it brings to mind the Superman story (or the Nativity story), Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the Star Wars movies, A.I., WALL*E, or other futuristic robot stories and films, I'm sure this is intentional. Nevertheless, it holds its own as an independent story, though it's maybe a bit dark or rough for the youngest kids.

Toby (voice of Freddie Highmore) is the son of the ruthless but brilliant scientist Dr. Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage) in Metro City, a floating city sent aloft with technology to avoid the environmental despoliation which has befallen the Earth. In Metro City, tech is everything, and techies and the politicians who can exploit their know-how have all the power. Robots do all the work, and, when used up or made obsolete, are dumped down onto the surface of the Earth.

Toby, like his father, is a whiz at science and technology, and an all-around perfect kid, until he sneaks into the Ministry of Science to see the debut of his father's latest invention, the Peacekeeper. An unfortunate decision to power the new defense robot with negative instead of positive energy leads to an accident which takes Toby's life.

Overcome with grief, Dr. Tenma creates a sort of resurrected Toby (still voiced by Highmore), armed with all the latest and greatest defensive technology and powered, this time correctly, with the positive energy core. Still, upset that he may not have made a perfect replica, Tenma decides to power down his creation, but before he can, the new Toby escapes capture and finds himself in the dumps on the surface.

There, he meets some fellow orphans of the surface and falls in with them as they scavenge for robot parts for the Metro City exile and robot repairman Ham Egg (voice of Nathan Lane), a sort of futuristic Fagin with his own agenda for Astro, the new name our hero takes for himself. The Robot Liberation Front, mostly ineffective, provides some ongoing comic relief as they pursue their mostly ineffective schemes for the "Robotolution."

Astro rehabilitates a big, old security robot named Zog (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) for Ham Egg to use in the "Robot Games," which Astro first mistakenly believes to be a sort of fun Olympics, but which turns out to be much more gladatorial, with a starring role for himself, which kind of blows Ham Egg's nascent father-figure qualities out of the water for him.

Meanwhile, the government of Metro City wants its positive energy core back to start a war with the surface and facilitate the reelection of President Stone (voice of Donald Sutherland), so, foolishly, the Peacekeeper is reprogrammed and fired up again with the negative energy core to reacquire Astro. This turns out pretty predictably, but is well handled, with the "adaptive technology" capabilities of the Peacekeeper imaginatively portrayed.

The vocal talents are all pretty good, and the animation is above par, a blend of Japanimation and almost stop-motion quality digital techniques. I found its future more interesting and persuasive than the deadworld of WALL*E.

In all, Astro Boy is entertaining, well animated, and has a little something to say about robots, technology, grief, selflessness and heroism. It's a pretty good time at the movies.

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Review: Bright Star (2009)

Jane Campion's Bright Star is a beautiful, well-made biopic of the Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw, very good), with enough visual and Keats poetry to satisfy moviegoers and Keats fans alike, and, more specifically, it is the story of his love affair with Fannie Brawne (Abbie Cornish, very good as well), a next-door neighbor, which is also quite well done. Brawne is actually the main character, so the audience is allowed to fall in love with her as she falls for Keats.

This proves a wise decision for the film, as watching someone write poetry is just hard to portray dramatically, and though Keats was a genius, Fannie, a designer/seamstress and independent young woman, turns out to be quite an involving and believable character on her own.

The film opens, as did this year's Coraline, with a needle and thread magnified to fill the screen, so that one wonders for a few moments if the threads are ropes, and just what's happening, then moves back to show Fannie at work on one of her own new fashions. The web sewn in Bright Star is very much different than the one woven in Coraline, however.

Fannie and Keats encounter each other at home and at neighborhood social gatherings, and Fannie, intrigued, soon buys a copy of his book Endymion, not yet widely recognized, "to see if he's an idiot." Fannie has strong opinions and is happy to test them against the greatest minds she can find, and she certainly finds one in Keats.

There's a strong interplay of gender roles throughout the film. Both Fannie and her mother (Kerry Fox), are extremely strong and practical women who value the arts, fashion, sensitivity, people, love. Keats and his housemate, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, complex) are more typically male, though poets, with high tolerances for drink, play, sport, carousing and unseriousness. Their encounter with a strong woman like Fannie sobers them up a lot, changes their minds and ultimately their lives.

Convention, as in many of the best period pieces of the era, plays a large determining role in the results of their interactions, and is cunningly played in loaded dialogue which is yet profound, polite, proper and often devastating.

I wasn't read up enough on Keats's life beforehand to know how the story would end, so I won't spoil it for those who may not be aficianadoes themselves, but the courtship between Fannie and John is moving, and moves through and among all the colors of love without getting too sappy. This is hard to do when the poetry read and recited is some of the greatest love poetry ever written, i.e., the template for very much in the way of sappy facsimiles, for all the years after, but both the poetry and the love story get their due.

Whishaw and Cornish are very good as the young lovers, and Fox and Schneider are more complex than their smaller parts would seem to allow. Edie Martin and Thomas Sangster are effective as Fannie's younger siblings, and Antonia Campbell-Hughes is convincing as a serving girl with a complementary subplot to the main story.

Bright Star is a convincing love story, a useful biography and traces the roots and rewards of creativity in the arts. There are also several Keats poems read by the actor Ben Whishaw over the end credits, so you can inform your seat partner early that you won't be leaving until the lights come up.

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Review: The Fourth Kind (2009)

The Fourth Kind is pretty much a straightforward alien abduction film which follows a straightforward alien abduction storyline. (Usually, this is deemed too boring and familiar for Hollywood movies.) There are a weird prologue and epilogue, in which actors from the film stand in front of a moving background of backlit trees in a forest and inform us that yes, this really is a true story, which is enough to convince us that it is not, even when so-called "real footage" is interspliced with the "fictional recreations" to bolster the illusion.

Even if none of the so-called reality of the story is believable, the film follows the tropes of many reported alien abduction stories, so it's hard to see why calling it real was necessary. It doesn't create more credibility, but less.

I happened to watch The Fourth Kind the same day I watched A Serious Man, so I noticed a few structural similarities. Both films are about a seemingly pretty average person dealing with the stress of losing a spouse and raising two children. In both films, strange and disturbing incidents build and build to a similar climax.

But in A Serious Man, this prompts the main character to look for the hand of God in his life. In The Fourth Kind, Dr. Abigail Tyler (Milla Jovovich), a psychologist in Nome, Alaska, also looks heavenward, but sees only aliens.

Having lost her husband under mysterious circumstances, officially ruled a suicide but subject to her own repressed or unfolding memories, Dr. Tyler begins noticing a similar theme of night disturbances with several of her patients, who report seeing a "white owl" staring at them through their windows, sometimes seeming to mesmerize them. Consciously or subconsciously hoping to bring together the threads of their stories in harmony with her own jagged memory of losing her husband, she uses hypnosis to relive and uncover missing information, which turns out to sound a lot like alien abduction tales.

There are some other quite disturbing consequences as well, which I won't spoil, but which are backed up with more supposedly real footage which isn't very scary or creepy, for my money.

Suspense is lacking as well. While A Serious Man is a masterwork of tension and suspense, with multiple story threads overlapping and developing into a stunning tapestry, the choices made in The Fourth Kind--sidelining into presumed-to-be-interesting "evidence," the editing, the choice of effects and when to use them--make it boring, boring, boring. Especially, it is unhelpful for the "real" Dr. Tyler to appear in her boring, longwinded "interview" with the director, which features the logo of Chapman University (a real school, shame on them) to lend it credence. She looks like the worst Halloween costume ever, no offense to the actress, whoever she may be.

As for comparisons with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there are few if any. That weird Kay Jewelers commercial where Jane Seymour paints a heart connected with a loop to a pair of breasts reminds me of Richard Dreyfuss maniacally constructing a mountain out of mashed potatoes, but this movie doesn't remind me about anything in its similarly named predecessor.

I suppose if you're a UFO nut, or a big Milla Jovovich fan, or have some other reason to really want to watch this movie, you'll probably find the reason you're looking for. But it's pretty rote and boring, with little payoff. Why not watch A Serious Man, instead? Or Close Encounters.

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Review: A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man is a dark and light comedy-drama about looking for God in the world, about family, faith and stress, and mostly about the lingering mysteries of life which are never quite explained or resolved, but which always seem to be standing somewhere near the things that give our lives meaning, hinting at deeper truths.

I had heard before seeing it that it was a retelling of the story of Job, which features God and Lucifer in starring roles, and I wondered exactly how this could play out in a film about a mathematics professor and observant Jew in Minnesota in the 1960s.

I was thinking a lot of tweaking would be required, and indeed it's not a programmatic interpretation of the Bible story. But in another way, it does hit most of the plot points of the Job story, and all of the emotional ones, in a very satisfying and effective way, without taking away from the reality of the more modern tale being told.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, the titular professor, and, just as with Job, the hits start coming fast and seemingly out of the blue, threatening to consume his stable and (as far as he knew) happy life in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs with two kids and a wife. First a failing grade prompts a bribery/blackmail scheme in which whatever move Gopnik might make would probably be wrong. Then a conversation with his wife destroys the illusion of his happy marriage, presenting him with more bad choices. Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast and indeed note-perfect as a faithful man with quandaries.

He gets lots of unsolicited advice for his problems, and seeks out more, chiefly from the three rabbis of his congregation, who are at the same time quite helpful and not helpful at all. Luckily, Gopnik is a thinking man, and finds ways to take even the most saccharine of platitudes and do his best to apply them in useful ways for himself, his family and his actions under stress. As outrageous and unsettling incidents pile up, Gopnik is anything but a tower of strength, though he shows a lot of strength, but he never crumbles, either, despite the genuine and mounting difficulties he faces. He finds strength where he can--chiefly from his family, his self-estimated place in the world, and what is really needed from him--and compromises only where he must.

The film is full of great performances, notably from Aaron Wolff as Larry's son Danny, Sari Lennick as Larry's wife Sarah, Fred Melamed as her touchy-feely lover Sy Ableman, Richard Kind as Gopnik's failure of a brother, David Kang as the disgruntled mathematics student, Simon Helberg, George Wyner and Alan Mandell as three rabbis, Alan Arkin as Larry's divorce lawyer, Amy Landecker as Mrs. Samsky, and especially Fyvush Finkel as a mysterious traveler.

The visual story melds seemlessly with the emotional story as the gorgeous play of light, image and editing unfolds. Fades out of and into darkness and pure white have their own grammar and reasons for being, sunlit meditative moments for Larry are sunlit meditative moments for the audience, and a tale which is very much about storytelling explores plot, suspense, beauty, silence and mystery with the meticulously aware touch of the master filmmakers.

The unanswered questions are as profound and illuminating as the answered ones. The film is as simple, and as complex, as truthful and richly textured as any Rembrandt, and of a similar quality, and school.

A Serious Man is very funny, and simultaneously a very serious movie. It's subtle, beautiful, deep, enthralling, suspenseful and gratifying to watch, both in its visual movement and its story arc. It's one of the best movies of the year.

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Review: 2012 (2009)

2012 displays all of the trademarks of disaster director Roland Emmerich's films: a huge scale, impressive effects, cardboard characters whose only hope of redemption is very good acting from the beleaguered cast, and terrible, terrible dialogue.

That said, it's one of the most visually impressive, cinematically worthy and credible (within its own bounds) apocalypse pictures ever. It's grand, gorgeous, completely cheesy, and oddly, stupidly moving despite its girth and outsized moments of total empty-headedness. It drags for a few moments at the beginning and the end, but for the rest of the two and a half hours of its remaining length, it's a great, at times jaw-dropping ride.

John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis (not to hit you over the head with too many J.C.'s, but he seems to be a minor prophet, as well), a divorced worst-selling novelist with two kids and a job driving a limo for a rich Russian magnate of some sort. I suppose making him a novelist makes the many coincidences of his realization of imminent disaster and quest for survival ironic or something, anyway a bit better than just pure crap, which they also are. This is, as usual, forgiven by the disaster movie rule, also true in real life, that he who has the most and happiest coincidences in a major catastrophe shall survive the longest, and also be the character whose story we see the most of.

Curtis happens to take his kids camping in Yellowstone National Park, straight to the spot by the lake where they were apparently conceived, which is now blocked off by the military as they research the rapid superheating of the earth's core, caused by sunstorms, which is the raison d'être of the film's disaster. (Note: Never walk up to an elk corpse by a dried-up lake in an area of a national park blocked off by the military, especially with young children, yo.)

This area is also the temporary home of a crazy (but correct) radio broadcaster (Woody Harrelson, weird) forecasting the coming disaster, who happens to have a secret map given to him by a murdered friend of Curtis's, which marks the spot for potential salvation for whoever might get saved as massive flooding, tsunamis and the shifting of the earth's crust start killing off most of the population. Also while there, Curtis meets the main White House science adviser working on predicting the timing of the apocalypse, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor, pretty good), who happens to be reading a rare copy of Curtis's unsuccessful prophetic novel. Oh, and the place is just a few steps away from an airstrip with crucially full fuel tanks, for later.

Ah, bushwah. Anyway, the plot's about as unimportant as the superfluous humans in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It's sciency enough to fit in with a reasonable suspension of disbelief which gives us the excuse for the surface of the earth to crumble and the oceans to rise up biblically and spectacularly, which is what we're paying for, after all.

Still, there's a real immediacy to many of the film's events. It doesn't get too cute politically (as, I assume, Emmerich's previous global warming epic, The Day After Tomorrow, probably did, which assumption is why I didn't see it and have to assume), while still packing all the punch of those creepy flooding pre-creations from Al Gore's film, with more interesting camera angles. The last-minute--literally--soppy clash between Helmsley and his boss, the crass but eminently practical Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt, not bad), is pretty stupid, and probably a direct political hit (you say "Anheuser," I think "Busch...Bush...Cheney"). (I tried to construct some significance out of the last president of the United States of America in its current form [both geologically and politically] being African-American, the first president apparently not related to his namesake with the same name as a previous president, and that namesake being probably the worst, most openly racist [and eugenicist] president [post-slavery], but I found it used too many parentheticals and brackets even to mention. But maybe now you know Woodrow's actual first name was "Thomas.")

There are a few too many absolute last-second escapes to be believable or satisfying, but then again this is leavened by a few last-second non-escapes which keep some tension going. If you've seen the trailer, which you probably have, you've seen some of these images already, and they're better in the movie, even if slightly spoiled, as big moments are wont to be by trailers these days. Still, Santa Monica falling into the sea is beautiful and kinetic and the airplane ride under the faultline-adjacent subway spewing out into space is pricelessly wrong and chillingly hilarious. A mushroom cloud in a national park is truly scary. A molten Hawaii is haunting. And many of the flooding sequences are handled quite well, notably the one with the Tibetan monk ringing the bell--probably too late to warn the valley below, but a lot of warnings are too late in this movie, to its credit.

You're most likely going to see 2012 already, I know, and you probably should see it, and you probably will like it. It's a guaranteed-hit popcorn movie, and for that, it's a slice above many guaranteed-hit popcorn movies. It's undeniably great to watch, and maybe even a very nice surprise, even if your expectations, like mine were, could be understandably low. F! X!

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Get yer calendars! 2010 is just around the corner

Get yer gorgeous 2010 Jose Guadalupe Posada Calaverandars at the Posada Calaveras Store (regular or oversized):
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Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

Grant Heslov's The Men Who Stare at Goats is an outlandish hippie paean to outlandish hippie-ism, using true facts about some of the weirdest ideas ever embraced by the military from Jon Ronson's non-fiction book of the same name to create characters who can spout and explicate them.

It's not exactly a true story, but it is a very funny and well executed showcase for Heslov's directing talents, and especially the acting talents of Ewan MacGregor as Bob Wilton, the fictional Ronson/journalist stand-in, George Clooney as Jedi master Lyn Cassady, Jeff Bridges as Bill Django, the Jedi masters' master--a sort of military "Dude" redux from the Coen Brothers' classic, The Big Lebowski--and Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper, the actually rather amiable, if still evil, villain.

The film imagines a psychic/druggie military corps of the real-life proposal for a "First Earth Batallion," a peace force using music, peaceful thoughts and environmentalism instead of more familiar war-like tactics to prevent war and end hostilities. While the film implies that some form of this may actually have existed, without having read the book, but only some reviews and background information, I gather that it probably did not, or at least not, perhaps, in the form portrayed in the film, though one might almost wish it had.

I am aware of some crazier things the government has done, though, so it's not too much of a stretch to play this out the way it is done here, and it seems necessary and useful to the comic story, as well as to trace how the ideas from the proposal, as well as other New Age, psychic and psychological tactics infiltrated the U.S. military from the Reagan administration up through the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars of today.

MacGregor is very good portraying a small-town journalist whose strange encounter with a psychic who has used his mind to trouble some hamsters sticks with him as his need to impress a woman prompts him to head to Iraq near the start of the current conflict. He can't seem to really get in the swing of the combat coverage, however, until a fortuitous meeting with Clooney's Cassady helps him open up his mind to a different kind of war story.

The story of the "New Earth Army" is told through flashbacks introduced by narration from MacGregor, and it's mostly fun and fact-filled, though the facts are not exactly as told here. The film strikes a nice balance between an ongoing quest and the roots of the adventure, until they come together again at the end. It's pretty cool to see Bridges, Clooney and Spacey age backwards and forwards twenty-five years pretty credibly.

Though most (all?) of the Jedi tricks, tactics and beliefs presented are risible and, basically, hogwash, the film does a good job of graphically showing ways in which a belief system put into practice--almost any belief system--can change and direct lives, and mark people forever. Not everything about the psychic/New Age/druggie cultures, after all, is ridiculous or useless, by any stretch. Peace, situational and wider global awareness, projected confidence and the power of thoughtfulness, meditation and surprise attacks all get their due in a gently humorous but semi-profound way. (Telling someone without irony that one believes one is a Jedi warrior is a sort of surprise attack of its own.)

The film is its own, and holds its own, while also including many sorts of not-exactly-referential movie references, including the casting of Ewan MacGregor, the recent Obi-Wan, in a movie full of Star Wars references, which makes for some amusing and ironic side moments, and the aforementioned similarities of Bridges's New Age stoner/investigator with Jeff Lebowski. Clooney's Lyn Cassady is some sort of cousin of his previous Coen Brothers character from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, pugnacious, odd and with a similar look and comic whipping head movements. Joseph Campbell's concept of "The Hero's Journey," a major George Lucas influence, is dialogue-checked, and the film is as much of a magical/mythical quest as anything. The sand dunes of Iraq also recall Star Wars aesthetics (and Clooney's previous humorous foray there in Three Kings), and one character even has a Darth Vader-y prosthetic arm.

I would say it's a bit thin, and wants a bit less of a lazy ending, but it's such a hugely enjoyable tour-de-force of humor and ideas that this does not matter much. And the ending does have its own resonance, for a completely made-up sequence of events, so maybe I'm just a little sore that the movie had to end.

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Review: The Box (2009)

Richard Kelly's The Box opens with an alarm clock turning over, reminding you to set yours for about an hour and forty minutes. It is boring, bad, stupid, a total ripoff and waste of time. That said with one caveat and saving grace: Frank Langella, as watchable here as in last year's Frost/Nixon. In that film, he had competition for watchability. Here, he's all there is.

There's not one thing that's believable about the film, not the set-up, not the payoff, not what happens in between, not the performances, not the characters or their stupid actions, not the set design--you get the idea. When they watched the old sitcom "Alice," I didn't believe they were watching "Alice." Ah, but it's an allegory, so that's okay. Or would be, if it were an interesting allegory.

The film is set in 1976, and you probably know the set-up from the trailer. A young couple, Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), facing some possible financial setbacks, despite Arthur's driving a sleek Corvette, and their living in a lovely home in Virginia, near the NASA facility at Langley where Arthur works as an engineer, are presented with a package containing a button. Mr. Steward (Frank Langella), a mysterious man with half of his face burned off, informs them that pushing the button will kill someone in the world whom they don't know, and earn them one million dollars.

Seeing the trailer, my first thought was: Push the button. The odd death threat is probably a bluff, people get killed every day. My second thought was: If they'll pay a million to try to avoid or complicate responsibility for any kind of murder, real or imaginary, don't mess with them at all. It's hard to tell which position the film actually ends up taking, except that it knocks you over the head with the obvious answer, which is don't do it. On the other hand, it's 2009, and the film is set in 1976, so if certain conceits of the film are to be followed through to their logical conclusions, most people handle this sort of dilemma right anyway, so if the point is not exactly moot, one should consider it not very important or revelatory of human nature.

But this film is the story of Norma and Arthur, and what they, and some others presented with the same choice, do. Hint: They are stupid.

In case you cannot figure out the allegorical message of the film from the heavy-handed early clues, the dialogue is crafted to (a) be totally unbelievable and (b) discuss every possible aspect of the allegory like in a freshman Lit class, with no hope of your getting an A for participating.

There are a few welcome weird moments which seem to hint at a worthwhile story, something entertaining. As mentioned, Frank Langella is excellent, as is the effect used to create his facial deformity. Cameron Diaz's perfect beauty is slightly marred by another surprising flaw, presented disturbingly. The pushing of the button itself (I won't say who pushes it or when) is well done, sends little shivers up the spine. They don't really add up to anything much, however.

I must also mention Diaz's atrocious attempt at a Southern accent. It is truly atrocious, not resembling any actual Southern accent I have ever heard, even in the most eccentric corners of Virginia, which does feature a panoply of different Southern accents. (Once in southwest Virginia, I ordered a bag of ice to be collected outside the store, and was asked, "Ace?" "Ice." "Ace?" "A bag of ice, like frozen water." "Oh, ayce!" I have also been asked over to see someone's new "hise" in the same general area, but I digress.) Her character teaches Sartre to high school students, so she probably could have just dropped any attempted accent with no detrimental effect. Walter Lewis, the couple's son, played by the quite good Sam Oz Stone, has a mostly excellent and credible accent, however.

When it comes right down to it, save your money, really. You are not missing a good surprise, take my word for it, I implore you. There is not a good surprise. The Box is just about a total cinematic dog. The half a star is for Langella.

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Review: Amelia (2009)

Mira Nair's Amelia is a solid, well-delivered biopic and love story of the famous American aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank). While it covers the major events and textures of her life story, including her writing, her love affairs, her major achievements in the air, features very good acting all around, and is even moving in places, it does feel a bit bloodless and mannered much of the time.

The film opens on a leg of Earhart's last, round-the-world flight with navigator Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), then cuts back to her first meeting with her future husband, the publisher G.P. Putnam (Richard Gere), who is organizing a trans-Atlantic flight for a woman pilot, and incidentally offers a book deal which will help defray the expenses. The catch, which Amelia accepts reluctantly, is that she will not actually pilot the craft, but be the "commander," an empty-sounding promise which actually does end up having some meaning.

Armed with a growing international reputation as an air pioneer, and a pioneer for women, Amelia, with G.P. by her side, first as manager/business partner and later as her husband, determines to follow her dreams and ambitions as a pilot, setting more records and conquering further dangerous and adventurous travels, reluctantly using her fame commercially to finance these, and engaging in a serious affair with fellow aviator Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor) which, for a time, threatens her marriage to Putnam.

These events are intercut with further interludes from her last, doomed voyage, and a few scenes of her childhood--mostly skimpy. While breaking up the main story with the story of her last flight is a pretty effective way to prolong and heighten the suspense, one wishes for very much more of her childhood and young adulthood, the beginning of her flight training and perhaps more of her work for women's rights.

Hilary Swank is outstanding as Earhart. The physical resemblance is strong, and one feels convinced and comfortable with her unconventional Earhart. Swank's narration of much of the film from Earhart's own writings is well read, and there's a certain Katharine Hepburn quality about her which is welcome and appropriate to the role.

Richard Gere is also quite good as Putnam, who is by turns smitten, wistful, jealous, worried and encouraging of Earhart's career, and tolerant of her personal quirks and eccentric (especially for a woman of the time) personal journey.

Other standouts in the cast include Joe Anderson as Bill Stultz, the skeptical pilot of her first trans-Atlantic trip and Eccleston as Fred Noonan, the ace--but perhaps a bit too alcoholic--celestial navigator of her final journey. Both convey doubt turning to trust convincingly, with Eccleston's character a bit more complex than Anderson's. Eccleston and Swank get the very last moments we see of Amelia and Noonan just right, and eloquently, acting in a confined space with just their faces, eyes and few movements.

It's hard to call this the definitive biopic. It could have been more interesting and entertaining much of the time. Insertions of recreated and real newsreel footage are sometimes necessary, and sometimes feel like rushing, or just out of place. The clipped contemporaneous cadences of the characters takes a little getting used to. And while there is a very pronounced effort to keep going a sense of Amelia in the air, one might wish for more about how she kept her feet on the ground.

Overall, if you're going to see Amelia, see it for the love stories and the main performances by Swank, Gere and Eccleston. It has a tendency to float when it should speed and speed when it should be allowed to float.

The Magic of the Movies


Pence (again) leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for October

Rep. Mike Pence (IN) led October voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee for the third month in a row. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

October 2009

#1 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 25.4%
#2 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 14.9%
#3 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 11.9%
#4 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 11.2%
#5 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 8.2%
#5 - Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 8.2%
#6 - Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) ... 6%
#7 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 4.5%
#8 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 3%
#9 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 2.2%
#10 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 1.5%
#11 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... .7%
#11 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... .7%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... .7%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... .7%
#12 - Other ... 0%

134 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012