Sunday, January 30, 2011

Movie Reviews: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

It's the coolest job ever.

Directed by: Jon Turteltaub

Written by: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Matt Lopez, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Jay Baruchel, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Toby Kebbell

Primary Genres: Action/Adventure; Science Fiction/Fantasy

The sorcerer Balthazar Drake has spent over a thousand years seeking the heir to Merlin's powers, but when he finds him, the young man is more interested in pursuing his life than in learning sorcery.

In yet another film attempting to capitalize on the contemporary fantasy genre revitalized by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, a young boy -- and, after a brief adventure, a young man ten years later -- finds himself plucked out of his normal, mundane life and facing all sorts of supernatural menaces.

Unlike Percy Jackson, the film is not adapted from a young adult story, and therefore the pacing is more in keeping with a film than a children's novel. Nicolas Cage, who has a tendency to annoy, works well as Balthazar, the sorcerer; his typical over-the-job performance works well here, but manages to be sufficiently restrained. In contrast, Jay Baruchel's hapless nerdiness that worked well in She's Out of My League comes off as a bit nasal and grating. It's a fun adventure for teens but lacks some of the crossover appeal that "Harry Potter" has for adults.

My Grade: B+

Movie Reviews: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Directed by: Chris Columbus

Written by: Craig Titley (screenplay), Rick Riordan (novel)

Starring: Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Abel, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener

Primary Genres: Action/Adventure; Science Fiction/Fantasy

A young teen discovers that he's the son of the Greek god Poseidon when he's framed for the theft of Zeus' lightning bolt, triggering a war between the gods.

In the spirit of Harry Potter and similar contemporary fantasy stories, a kid in present-day America is suddenly thrust into a world of magic and fantasy, discovering a legacy of power that had previously been unknown.

Those familiar with Greek mythology may be pleased with how many myths and legends are woven into the tale. Though I have not read Rick Riordan's original novel, I will guess that it's a rather faithful adaptation because the pacing is off for a movie. Each scene feels like a mini-story arc, like a chapter of a novel (especially a novel geared towards younger readers), and that interrupts the overall flow of the film. Even Chris Columbus' adaptation of the first two Harry Potter films had a better pacing.

That said, though the characters never had much of an opportunity to develop any depth, it's a fun popcorn flick with nice visual graphics and a fun delve into mythology, but not a lot of substance. Perhaps subsequent films will have an opportunity to flesh things out.

My grade: B-

Movie Reviews: When in Rome

Did you ever wish for the impossible?

Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson

Written by: David Diamond, David Weissman

Starring: Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Anjelica Huston, Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard

Primary Genres: Comedy; Science Fiction/Fantasy

A career-oriented young woman suddenly finds herself besieged by a number of suitors when she plucks their coins out of a fountain of love in Rome.

When in Rome faithfully follows the romantic comedy standard, albeit with a rather annoyingly bit more slapstick than most, that leaves no one surprised by the ending. Kristen Bell works perfectly as the beautiful, charismatic ingénue, and Josh Duhamel could easily play the romantic lead in every rom/com released in the next ten years. The film is perfectly satisfying for those seeking a little snuggle-up chick flick, but there really is nothing surprising or innovative about it. It serves its purpose but never strives for more, and for that will probably not end up on any of my Cosmique Movie Awards ballots, positive or negative.

My grade: B-

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Movie Reviews: The Social Network

You don't get 500 million friends without making a few enemies.

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: Aaron Sorkin (screenplay) & Ben Mezrich (book)

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer and Josh Pence, Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Patrick Mapel, Rooney Mara

Spurned after getting dumped by his girlfriend, a Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg, creates a retaliatory website that leads to the creation of Facebook, the largest social networking site of all time.

Historical films come in all varieties. Some try to more-or-less faithfully depict long-gone historical figures with the significant events of their lives, like Elizabeth. Some take historical figures and put them in a more fictionalized story, like Shakespeare in Love. Some place fictional characters against a recognizably historic backdrop, like Gone With the Wind and Saving Private Ryan. Some blend both historical and fictional elements, like Ragtime. Some speculate about what might have happened, like JFK and similar conspiracy theorist films. Often they cover their asses by saying that they are "inspired" by actual events.

But when a biographical story is current -- especially a story that is still ongoing -- audiences expect a higher dedication to accuracy. And in that sense, "The Social Network" probably fails. Only one person involved in the founding of the company, Eduardo Saverin, was involved in the original book "The Accidental Billionaires," and in Aaron Sorkin's subsequent screenplay. But despite the inaccuracies, the film is nevertheless a brilliant character study and a collection of truly brilliant performances.

Jesse Eisenberg stars with his most significant role to date, finally breaking out of the hapless teenager roles dominated by Michael Cera. He portrays Zuckerberg as somewhat petulant, snide, aloof yet quietly passionate, all with an economy of words and the most subtle of facial changes. The minority of critics who have felt that the character was a little two-dimensional need to see this film again to watch for subtle depths that Eisenberg instills in his portrayal.

Andrew Garfield as Zuckerberg's best friend and company co-founder Eduardo Saverin also delivers a tremendous performance, albeit one not forced to be so restrained. And restraint was clearly out the window for Justin Timberlake's delightful performance of the flashy Sean Parker, the founder of Napster who wiggled his way into the company -- and Saverin out -- before himself being forced to resign after being arrested for cocaine possession with an under-21 year old girl.

Is it historically accurate? Some of it, at least, is probably not. Much emphasis, probably too much, is placed on Zuckerberg's reaction to getting dumped by his girlfriend. His initial reaction is no doubt accurate -- the blog entries Zuckerberg wrote about it were included in court deposition transcripts when Saverin and the Winklevoss twins were separately suing him. But Zuckerberg had already met another woman even before TheFacebook launched, and they were dating not long after the company moved to Palo Alto, perhaps already living together by the time the lawsuits occurred. (They remain together to this day.) To suggest that Zuckerberg ended up lonely, dateless and friendless, is an overstatement. Did he plant negative stories about Saverin? Did he set up Parker with the cocaine bust? Did he steal the idea and concepts for Facebook from the Winklevoss brothers? The film, to its credit, raises the speculations made by Zuckerberg's critics without trying to answer them.

Of course, the film doesn't go into much about Facebook's present issues itself -- breaking away from its college exclusivity, finally embracing an advertising-supported financial model, or the controversial privacy issues the company has faced. Nor should it. The story is about the people who founded the company, their relationships. And those relationships reached the end of their story arc with the lawsuits and financial settlements. As a character study and as an example of truly brilliant acting, the film is worthy of the acclaim and the awards being bestowed upon it.

My grade: A

In Memoriam

Gone but not forgotten: celebrities from Hollywood and elsewhere who left us this year.