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This is a movie that political observers on neither the right nor the left will enjoy

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Josh Brolin plays the 43rd President of the United States in the confusingly pedestrian and trivial biopic W. From once-controversial director Oliver Stone (Nixon; Platoon), this movie feels more like a standard made-for-TV exercise, with little humor and no clear point of view.

The movie begins in the Oval Office as the principal players chew on the decision to invade Iraq. The scene is like a Saturday Night Live skit as each actor — most of them familiar to us — impersonates key cabinet members. (Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice comes closest to going for laughs and thus gets a few.) It is unclear if this is supposed to be a funny scene or not. Indeed, as we go further, it becomes apparent that Stone is not here to make fun of Bush or to praise him. Instead, Stone is taking a first shot at presenting the life and times of Bush as straight bio-drama.

There are even fewer laughs in the flashbacks showing us how Bush got where he is today — that is, sort of showing us. The film (with nauseatingly constant use of close-ups) gives us a few examples of lessons Bush learned on the way up, but it rarely shows those lessons in action. For instance, surely Bush’s biggest successes were his electoral wins. However, except for his initial Congressional loss, we strangely never see him on the campaign trail or in election mode — not for governor of Texas and not for president.

Without a point of view and with few points to make about W the man or the president, perhaps the best that can be said about this movie is that it is a straight telling of the man who would be the worst president in history. Maybe Stone felt that Bush’s approval ratings, Iraq quagmire, booming national debt and the country’s economic disaster (the film mentions nothing about the latter two) is indictment enough. He seems to think that viewers go in knowing this, so the facts (such as Stone presents them) are interesting in themselves without their consequences.

The result is a movie that political observers on neither the right nor the left will enjoy. Perhaps Stone’s plan was to alienate neither side. However, he succeeds in alienating all interested political observers. And let’s face it, political observers are the only ones who would be interested in the first place.

Fair drama • PG-13 • 129 mins.


Good storytelling meshes with wonderful to animation to push the envelope of what an animated feature can do.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A small trash-compressing robot falls for another robot and subsequently changes the course of humankind in the enchanting and masterfully constructed animated feature WALL•E. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life) and the wizards at Pixar have done it again, meshing good storytelling with animation wonder and pushing the envelope of what an animated feature can do.

It is about 1,000 years in the future, and Earth is covered in junk and trash. WALL•E is the last of his kind, and one of the few moving things left on Earth, still carrying out his robot mission of smashing and compacting trash. Yet this cute little lonely robot also has personality. He collects things; he befriends a bug; he is enchanted by the movie Hello, Dolly! (Yes, the 1969 Hollywood version of Hello, Dolly!, which plays a critical role in the film.) WALL•E’s life changes when a high-tech robot — seemingly female, name of EVE — is dropped off on Earth to explore for signs of life. It only takes WALL•E a moment to fall head over heels, and he follows EVE on her mission that takes them both to a mother ship and ultimately to a world-saving, life-altering destiny.

To give away much more than that would be to ruin the wonder of the film. WALL•E features a clever romance and animation full of shine and sparkle, but perhaps most enticing is its vision of what has happened to Earth and humans — and robots — so many many years into the future. The movie consistently surprises us with interesting and often funny takes on our future selves. This isn’t the usual rehash of H.G. Wells’s concepts. This film has real ideas.

Essentially the movie is a silent film. Not just because virtually no words are said in the first half and the two main characters say little more than their names, but also because the way the characters interact. The film captures the cinematic dance of the best films of the Silent Era. Indeed, WALL•E is the closet thing to Charlie Chaplin since Chaplin.

Oddly, because of that, I have no idea how much kids will like this film. Will it be too slow for them? (I must admit, as the film picked up with action sequences, it seemed too slow in its storytelling and get too long.) Or will the children be enchanted and entertained? I assure you, adults will be.

Great animated comedy • G • 97 mins.


Good enough as a popcorn flick, but not near as good as its graphic novel source.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Masked adventurers skim through a complex tale in this flawed adaptation.

It’s 1985. Nixon reigns on in his third term, and the doomsday clock nears midnight. Costumed heroes are relics of history, America having hounded the second generation of adventurers into the shadows via public outcry and a federal ban. When one of the original heroes, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan: Grey’s Anatomy), turns up murdered, it’s clear that someone’s really got it in for the masks.

It’s left to vigilante detective Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley: Semi-Pro) — the lone hero to stick it out — to warn and rally the fraternity to its own defense. But as the plot against them unfolds, it seems the truth may be direr still.

The film is derived from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, arguably the most esteemed title in that popular genre. His heroes are imperfect, sometimes even despicable mortals, as well as one superhuman suffering a dissolve of empathy. Their noble intent has shaped this dark and deep alternate reality.

On film, director Jack Snyder (300) validates Moore’s disgust with filmic adaptations of his work.

There are good points, mind you. Like costuming, scenery and special effects. Loyalty to the source is thorough and works well enough to engage with an original, intelligent tale.

But much of this distillation is hard to swallow. Most unforgivably, Snyder tips his hand early and often with obvious foreshadowing, and mystery dies accordingly. In condensing the massive original into just under three hours, the filmmaker opts for Cliffs Notes summation.

Scenes of violence in the book are severe to begin with, but Snyder seems intent on trumping Moore’s gore. Moore might have shocked, but he measured the doses. Snyder runs with dumb aggression.

There’s enough here to make Watchmen enjoyable as a popcorn flick. But come seeking the substance of Moore’s creation, and you’ll be disappointed.

Fair sci-fi adventure • R • 163 mins.

When a Stranger Calls

Despite the ingredients for a taut psychological thriller, this call goes slack

reviewed by Mark Burns

Stalker torments babysitter in this tepid remake of a 1979 cult horror.

Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) has gone over her cell phone minutes. And oh, the consequences. As punishment, she’s drafted into a babysitting gig and dropped off at a remote lakefront home in the mountains of Colorado. She’s left to skulk through the shadows alone as the baby sleeps and a live-in maid tinkers out of view. But her dull evening takes a turn for the sinister as a psychotic stalker torments her with increasingly menacing phone calls.

This horror is at the opposite end of the spectrum from such graphic gore flicks as Hostel. Stranger aims for psychological chills, preying on themes of isolation, entrapment and the unknown. Jill’s only link to the outside world is the telephone line, and it’s been corrupted. She is stranded in the midst of a looming wilderness, itself violently alive in alpine tempest. She sits in a glass house, unable to see into the night yet fully revealed to he who might invade. All fine ingredients for a taut psychological thriller.

Yet it goes slack. Director Simon West (The General’s Daughter) seems preoccupied with supplying explanations and justifications for Jill’s predicament, sealing up the holes so common in horror plots. That’s good and fine, even lending the film some intelligence. It’s certainly brilliant compared to mental duds like Wolf Creek. But West’s compulsion with framing the fright makes for a slow, laborious build. Much of his setup is carried over ubiquitous phone traffic, filled with dry detail as the sitter chats up friends and calls around for help. Smart character, but boring to watch.

From the beginning, Stranger doesn’t live up to its promise of thrills. It starts weak, as West tries to establish the psycho threat by juxtaposing crime and carnival. But the savagery of the crime is only hinted at, so the effect is negligible. From there on, a terse soundtrack of piano and violin pervades every moment in a cheap play to ramp up tension; instead it just gets annoying to hear doom in adagio as Jill walks the high school corridors, ties her shoe, picks her nose.

As the real chance for thrills rolls around, West under uses his opportunities of fright. For instance, children can serve horror well; here the kids wake to nightmarish horror and a sitter they’ve never met. Their peril does not compel as they are reduced to squealing tots scrambling unhunted along the periphery. Telephone conversation is constant, yet those insidious calls from the stalker are barely sinister enough to raise a goosebump. Predictability saps most moments of their crucial surprise. Confrontation is uncreative, repetitive and all too brief on the heels of such a slow buildup. West may be trying to horrify by courting realism, but it doesn’t work.

To the movie’s benefit, West pulls together sharp cinematography and paints a shadowy, ominous setting for the stalk. He also garners unusually good performances for the genre. He just doesn’t manage to excite.

Viewers easily scared and looking for a moderate chill might twitch at a lonely screening. Colorado babysitters may cringe. But most thrill seekers will find this one a snoozer.

Poor horror • PG-13 • 83 mins.

Where the Wild Things Are

© Warner Bros. Pictures

When not rumpusing, Max and his Wild Thing friends peer into the darkness of their developing emotions.

Filmgoers expecting cheery rolic may be disappointed.
But this stunning, immersive experience does credit to
the classic. Check it out.

reviewed by Mark Burns ~ October 30, 2009

An adored children’s book unfolds to creative, insightful, yet heavy interpretation in this surprising film.

Max (Max Records: The Brothers Bloom) is a rambunctious boy. He crashes through the house in his wolf suit, threatens to devour his mom and wins exile for it. Alone, Max’s imagination sets him sailing to the island where the wild things live. He becomes king, declares rumpus and tears trough the jungle on a juvie bender.


But Max is also an introverted dynamo with a rich internal life, ricocheting in reaction to hurt feelings and going defiantly wild to steal attention from his mom’s boyfriend. As king, he learns the crown is heavy when his magical proclamations and rumbling fun aren’t the simple cure for wild-thing malaise. So the boy wrestles with empathy and vague, complicated emotions among his new friends. His journey deepens as he discovers the heart of love and friendship through and between bursts of impulse and consequence.


This might be expected. Author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), who co-wrote the screenplay, mines grayer reaches than most. Here he puzzles at inferred depth in Maurice Sendak’s seed tale. Thus the screenplay, a condensed version of Eggers’ new novel The Wild Things, is an exploration of that moment of fear and wonder when the child’s mind expands beyond itself to grow up a little bit.

Expected or not, it’s stunning. Filmmakers might have failed had they tried to pander to disparate childhood memories of the book. Instead they challenge with adult interpretation. The story’s original elements are melded with fresh invention to put the substantial meat of a growing-up story on the bones of a deceptively simple picture book.

Said invention can drift to the dreary. Max’s new best friend — stripey, maned, round-faced wild thing Carol (voice of James Gandolfini: The Sopranos) — frequently goes glum from loneliness between tantrums and zen. He becomes the outward expression of Max’s own internal roil. Carol and the other wild things tend to cycle through a child’s daily phase, expending energy in a riotous explosion of joy before growing tired, cranky and pouty.

Records, as Max, makes the sell. The kid is deep, fluxing sympathetically through the highs and lows and knowing how to rumble like a kid in a wolf suit should. Music-video auteur Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) knows how to let the kid loose, and his aesthetic touch amplifies the fantastic and the emotion in just the right measures.

Filmgoers expecting cheery rolic may be disappointed. The film mulls and considers and challenges, occasionally to a fault. It seems better suited for grown fans than young ones. But it’s an immersive experience that does credit to the classic. Check it out.

Good mostly animated adventure • PG • 94 mins.

The Wolfman

© Universal Pictures

The Wolfman provides some quality frights … so long as you can forgive sloppy storytelling.

There will be entrails.

reviewed by Mark Burns, February 18, 2010

Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro: Che) is a traveling actor, returned to the foggy moors of his family’s estate by news of his brother’s disappearance. When Lawrence discovers his brother’s grisly demise, he sets out to investigate. He’s prowling the moors for answers on a full-moon night when he is mauled. Lawrence will soon howl at the moon. Between rampages, he will fix his affection on his brother’s fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt: The Young Victoria), and seek revenge on the werewolf that turned him and killed his brother.

So plays this loose adaptation of 1941’s The Wolf Man, in which a guy named Larry goes home to Wales and is bitten in a scuffle with a werewolf. Parallels, nods and direct connections in the reprise offer touchstones of inspiration, sometimes even loyalty. Yet this one doesn’t quite follow.

To start, 1941’s harrow is not 2010’s horror. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry wrestled with the actor’s own German shepherd and staggered away hand-on-neck, insinuating the werewolf’s bite. Killings were hammy or vague; climactic cane beatings had the hero swinging away at something obscured by a dark tree. Here, Del Toro’s Lawrence is graphically mauled in the neck after watching the beast tear heads, limbs and fingers from other victims.

There will be entrails.

Such savagery crops up regularly throughout director Joe Johnston’s (Hidalgo) shadowy peek-a-boo. He’s done a decent job crafting fright. Classic monster-movie jump jolts and hunter’s stalk yield respectable suspense across an inky dark landscape shrouded by every available fog machine in Britain. The creepy mausoleum, wicked asylum and dilapidated hunter’s manse further elevate the brooding atmospherics.

The tale plays as more of a quiltwork of gnarly scenes than lucid story. There are a million delicious leads followed to nowhere. For instance, an asylum tangent serves little purpose other than to serve weak premise for shooting action scenes in London. A twist on the source’s father/son complication, if predictable, has promise. Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins: Beowulf) might have made for meaty intrigue. But it’s squandered by fractious distraction. And romance with the brother’s fiancée crops up out of nowhere.

The Wolfman is good for a few jolts executed in bold visuals. There are quality frights to be had … so long as you can forgive sloppy storytelling. This dog is feral, an unrefined mauler, in spite of its Victorian airs. But then, that might be enough.

Fair horror • R • 102 mins.

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone divines a glint of the positive among the wreckage of September 11 in this poignant true tale.

reviewed by Mark Burns

On September 11, a small group of first responders from the Port Authority Police Department, led by Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage), are gathering supplies for a rescue effort when the first Trade Center tower collapses on top of them. Miraculously, McLoughlin and rookie officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) survive, trapped in the rubble of an elevator shaft in an underground concourse. In the film, Oliver Stone explores their stories from just before the attack through their rescue, showing the disaster from the point of view of the men, their families and, to a lesser extent, their rescuers.

Every facet of the film’s story is relating direct accounts of the people involved. It’s an intimate portrait of a boggling disaster, and its firsthand perspective is a jolting reminder of the human toll. While intense, director Oliver Stone is measured with his representation. His film picks at a partially formed emotional scab until the wound stings, then blows on it a little with its positive themes of heroism, survival and hope.

To this end, Stone avoids overwhelming with a direct-from-CNN replay of the calamity. The silhouette of an incoming plane sweeps over the cityscape and a scarred tower is shown looming over the streets, but moments of impact and distant views of collapse are never shown. Most footage of the smoking towers is seen indirectly through glimpses of recycled news footage. Stone instead sticks to the officers’ perspective as they are rattled by the shockwave of first impact and jolted by the collapse of the towers.

Traces of Stone’s stylistic touch can be seen early on, but once disaster strikes it evaporates in his effort to be sensitive to the story. His provocative nature is absent, instead offering an apolitical view via straight storytelling. It’s such a straight recitation that some film buffs may fault it as uncreative.

In a sense the film is an oddity, a Stone picture that plays like a Hallmark feature: a tale of heavily emotional sentimentalism sound-tracked with the sad tinkling of a solitary piano chord. Still, it’s a mighty punch in the gut. Stone and his actors capture the pain and confusion of the moment to wrenching effect and easily absorb viewers into the swell of emotion. In particular, the ordeal of the two officers at the movie’s backbone is stirring and relatable as the men struggle to survive through shock, pain, flashbacks and visions. But the film is challenged in its attempts at weaving in the tales of other rescuers, namely former marine Dave Karnes and the Wisconsin officers who came to assist recovery. Their contributions are of note but nearly get lost in the prevailing story.

As for the controversy over whether it’s too soon for World Trade Center (or spring’s United 93, for that matter), that’s a personal call. But consider the oft-compared tragedy of Pearl Harbor. Just one day after the sneak attack, 20th Century Fox started production on the slapdash melodrama Secret Agent of Japan in a stated effort to be the first studio to use the attack in a film. The ensuing Hollywood scramble pumped out a total of five Pearl Harbor-themed dramas within a year’s time. Against such precedent, the timing and tone of this year’s September 11 dramas shows restraint.

This is no cinematic masterpiece, but its insights make for a poignant and gripping film. Not to mention exhausting. It’s one worth watching, at some point.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 125 mins.

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