Let's start with the good news and continue on down...
How to Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks/Paramount)
How to Train Your Dragon is a surprisingly heartwarming and good-humored treat, with stunning use of 3D effects and spot-on voice work from Jay Baruchel as "Hiccup," the young Viking outcast who recognizes a potential for peace amid a culture of war. Hiccup befriends a rare and mysterious "Night Fury" dragon that he names "Toothless," and watching their relationship develop proves beautiful and touching. Toothless looks like an overgrown salamander and acts like a overly curious kitten. When he perks up his ears and displays a wide grin, he is instantly endearing. Still, I missed the fantastical elements of dragon lore-- the shiny scales and touches of magic-- in this land of flying reptiles. The story could be smoother, too. And it's particularly disappointing that after all is said and done, the cycle of fear and ignorance that propelled a centuries-long Viking-dragon conflict is placed in blame upon an external entity-- a "big bad"-- in the typical Hollywood storytelling fashion. I know this movie is about dragons, but come on people, let's get real.
Shutter Island (Paramount)
Shutter Island opened nearly two months ago, but I didn't get a chance to write anything about it. Martin Scorsese is a master manipulator, employing stylish genre tactics toward artistic and emotional crescendos. His film is a spellbinding haunted house carnival ride, and its tracks run through long corridors, across jagged cliffs, and up spinning spiral staircases. Leonardo DiCaprio offers his typical devotion, but no one in the cast seems properly committed to the film's flashy theatrics-- except, perhaps, for Michelle Williams, but her character exists solely in memories anyway. But as more than fireworks and thrills, Shutter Island's message gets a bit jumbled. There's a pointed commentary on the disturbingly fine line between sanity and insanity, between our world and a world of madmen, somewhere in the film, but Scorsese allows misdirection and thriller movie conventions to overwhelm his narrative.
The Runaways (Apparition)
The Runaways, the much ballyhooed rock-and-roll biopic starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, has a strong sense of style and solid leading performances, but the film get lost along the over-trodden path of a conventional biographical narrative.
Read my full review of The Runaways at THE DAGGER!
Alice in Wonderland (Disney)
Alice in Wonderland is a richly-imagined Gothic visual fantasy, as is typical of any Tim Burton production, but the decaying alternate universe depicted in the film lacks much of the humor and whimsy that made Lewis Carroll's story so appealing. A mostly inconsequential, dully haphazard narrative only adds to a dearth of excitement, and conflicts climax in Wonderland on a chessboard battlefield-- far from the most imaginative plot construct in a fantasy-adventure film. A deliriously toothy CGI Cheshire Cat and Helena Bonham Carter as the gloriously fussy Queen of Hearts offer delectable escapist absurdity, while Anne Hathaway is frozen and light years from home as the flighty White Queen. Johnny Depp, meanwhile, is top-billed as the Mad Hatter, but it seems that Depp himself is the one with screws loose-- his performance entirely lacking focus or purpose. Integration of Carroll's "Jabberwocky" poetic fable into the story is an inventive homage, but Alice emerges from Wonderland armed with a new-found confidence and moral finesse that even Carroll himself would deem a stretch. With respectable post-production 3D effects, and a theme song against the end credits, sung by Avril Lavigne, as aurally destructive as the screech of an approaching Jabberwocky.
Clash of the Titans (Warner Bros.)
Clash of the Titans fillets a bountiful concept-- a world of men at war with their omnipotent overlords-- into a generic, well-dressed Hollywood action-adventure epic wannabe. Borrowing heavily in perspective from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and in aesthetic from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Clash of the Titans most resembles the third Pirates entry: heavy on flash, light on story, and nearly humorless. Potentially interesting Greek mythology gets pushed aside for battles with giant Scorpions and a storyline wearing blinders-- a single, narrow path toward defeating the "Kraken"-- that shifts and swerves at will. Not that the story makes much sense even in its slim construction. Sam Worthington plays the brawny Perseus, a demigod-- a child of Zeus himself-- abandoned as a baby, who swears off the gods after his adopted father is killed during an attack by Hades. He joins a growing Greek resistance against the forces of Olympus, as Zeus and Hades conspire to destroy the mortal world. But then Zeus decides to aid his son instead-- except that the destruction of man is apparently a fate etched in stone. Or not-- just as Zeus detaches himself from the plot entirely. Awfully flaky for the ruler of the universe, I'd say. Not to mention that he or any one of the gods could have easily ended the entire ordeal with a wave of their hand: casting a lightning bolt, summoning a hoard of locusts, raising the seas to flood the Earth. No matter: logic need not apply to mythology-- even though Clash of the Titans hardly acknowledges its legendary roots (and no, I don't mean the 1981 original film). Costumes and lensing are admirable, but CGI effects are regrettable-- be it Hades vomiting lava into the mouth of an underling, a glittery-torsoed Zeus, or a Play-Doh sculpted Medusa. Warner Bros. hurriedly added 3D effects to capitalize on premium ticket prices, and the "hurriedly" aspect is unduly apparent. If you decide to see Clash of the Titans, which does somehow maintain a modest momentum and peak with cautious excitement, I implore that you stick with the two-dimensional version-- for the sake of your retinal health, and for the sake of demanding excellence in 3D filmmaking.
Date Night (20th Century Fox)
Despite a narrative of inanity and a swath of lame jokes, Tina Fey and Steve Carell use their comedic charms to keep Date Night afloat. The film eventually abandons reality for improbable hilarity, but not nearly soon enough. With surprisingly strong turns by Mila Kunis and James Franco as a brashy-trashy pair of lovers, and Mark Wahlberg's dependably cut abdominals.
Read my full review of Date Night at THE DAGGER!
Greenberg (Focus Features)
Greenberg presumes prolificity, but within its extremely limited world view, the film has little to offer that is relatable or comprehensible. Characters assume quirks to feign authenticity, and writer-director Noah Baumbach carefully deconstructs each of them in a hapless quest for significance. Ben Stiller is serviceable, while newcomer Greta Gerwig almost escapes Baumbach's jaws-of-life manipulative grip. But miserabilism over petty matters can only be so tolerable.
Read my full review of Greenberg at THE DAGGER!
Dear John (Screen Gems/Sony)
Dear John opened more than two months ago, but even then I felt so unmoved to write anything about it. This is a simple story full of simple people talking simply and doing simple things. The obligatory dynamic spin involves a subplot about autism, but I could have been fooled into thinking that any or all of the characters in the film were mentally challenged. In Dear John's clumsy grasp, attempts to convey complicated issues-- lovers divided by war, emotional derangement between a father and son, and the aforementioned autism bit-- become tactless, insulting blunders. Thankfully, Amanda Seyfried displays enough resolve, and Channing Tatum enough sensitivity, to provide a charming pair of leading lovers. When the narrative spirals downward into unfounded emotional wreckage-- as per any Nicholas Sparks adaption-- one scene escapes saccharine destruction: Tatum's character finding redemption and new understanding in a tumultuous relationship with his father (played honorably though non-spectacularly by Richard Jenkins). This moment is both the film's salvation and ultimate undoing: an unexpected emotional highlight, but also a means to reconsider the focal love story-- the entire film, even-- as especially frivolous.
The Wolfman (Universal)
At some point, I do believe that The Wolfman was a strong cinematic proposition: with a talented cast, a tried-and-true story, and the promise of mythology, forbidden romance, and classic horror thrills against a moonlit Gothic landscape. But the film was clearly reworked, re-shot, and re-edited so many times that it's missing any semblance of basic narrative consistency. Instead, scenes are spliced together-- unremarkable on their own accord-- without regard for natural storytelling rhythms. A few moments provide tempered excitement, climaxing on a cliff's edge with the Wolfman bearing down upon a frightened Emily Blunt. Blunt has the self-assuredness to transcend her patchwork surroundings, but on the whole, I worry for her career: Since bursting onto the scene as the last
The Last Song (Disney)
The Last Song is nearly unwatchable and even less coherent, before imploding in soppy-sappy emotional fraud during its final act. Miley Cyrus is tragically inept as an angsty teenager reconnecting with her estranged father. As a marketable entity, Ms. Cyrus should stick with comedy, or maybe forgo the acting thing entirely, lest she should fully depreciate in value of the tween subculture-- or any culture, for that matter.
Read my full review of The Last Song at THE DAGGER!