Given that Sky Blue Sky Studios was the same group that brought us Ice Age and Robots, I really wasn't expecting much from Rio. After all, we live in an age where Pixar has repeatedly shown us that not just animated movies but family movies can have full, rounded characters with complex relationships in stories with real emotional depth. In comparison, Blue Sky's movies have typically just tried to cash in on celebrity voices and visual gags. And in a lot of ways, Rio follows that same formula. Still, I have to admit that it did a better job than any previous Blue Sky offerings, and while that's not exactly high praise, I can say that I enjoyed the movie well enough.

There's not really a lot to the movie, plotwise. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue parrot who lives with his owner Linda (Leslie Mann) in Minnesota. It turns out that he's the last known male of his species, so a Brazilian biologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) brings Blu and Linda down to Rio de Janeiro to try to pair Blue with a female blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). But Blu and Jewel wind up getting stolen by bird smugglers and wacky hijinks ensue as the parrots try to escape.

I think the main problem I had with this movie was Jesse Eisenberg's voice acting. Not that he did a particularly bad job, and in a lot of respects that casting choice makes sense. Blu is, after all, shy, awkward, and young. If you want a voice that sums that up quickly you're pretty much down to Eisenberg or Michael Cera. The problem is that both of those actors have such distinctive voices that hearing them immediately evokes their images, so having Eisenberg voice a cartoon bird kept jarring me out of the movie.

On the other hand, despite the fact that the jokes were mostly pretty facile, they were executed well enough by the various actors that I found myself laughing out loud several times. Plus, the movie was quite pretty to look at--it's really amazing how far computer imagery has come in such a short amount of time.

It's pretty unlikely that Rio will be winning any awards, but if all you need is a movie you can take your kids to without too much pain, you could definitely do worse.

Viewed: 5/8/2011 | Released: 4/15/2011 | Score: B-

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Gnomeo & Juliet

2010 was a pretty good year for animated movies. Of course, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon were fantastic, and I wrote before about liking Tangled quite a bit. Heck, even the latest Shrek offering was decent. And then Jason's interest in movies has been growing steadily, and we had a bunch of theater gift cards left over from Christmas, so we decided to take a chance on Gnomeo & Juliet.

Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, this gnomish take on Shakespeare's classic tale of star-crossed lovers failed to measure up to the high bar set by last year's animated hits.

I had my suspicions going in, of course. I mean, a tragedy ending in a double suicide doesn't seem like the most fertile ground for a family cartoon, does it? But then, animation studios have been doing a great job with creating more honest, engaging children's fare lately, well-written stories with fully realized characters. Maybe this one would follow that same path, I thought. And then I heard Kenneth Turan's review on NPR's Morning Edition, in which he called it "playful, inventive, and endearing," and "the pleasantest surprise of the season." With that kind of praise, I let myself be talked into overcoming my initial reservations.

Having seen it for myself, I have to wonder whether Mr. Turan and I actually saw the same movie. The writing was completely formulaic and dull, replete with your wise-cracking sidekicks and pop music montages. The performances were forgettable. The humor was tired, and there was no real sense of emotional engagement. In short, there really wasn't anything to lift this above the level of, say, Shark Tale or one of the middle Shrek movies.

Leaving the theater afterwards, I had this image of a bunch of clueless studio execs sitting around saying things like, "Our focus studies showed that parents appreciate pop culture references," and "You know what would be hilarious? Let's give this one character a bunch of malapropisms for no reason. And then he'll be voiced by Michael Caine!"

Now, look, I don't have anything against these ideas, per se, but if you must put in pop culture references, could you at least put in some fresh ones? There must be hundreds of movies at this point that have used the Matrix bullet-time gimmick or the American Beauty rose petals or thrown in an "I wish I could quit you" for no reason. Maybe that was OK the first year after those movies came out, but it's just not topical anymore. Nobody cares anymore.

The really tragic thing about this movie is that there was actually some evidence that somebody involved actually did know something about filmcraft, because there was one scene that had some genuine emotional content. (Tellingly, there was no dialogue at all in that part.) But even that didn't really work in the context of the film as a whole, being almost a throwaway scene that ended up just feeling incongruous with all the silliness in the rest of the movie.

Of course, there's always the chance I'm just being snobby. Most of the other families coming out of the theater with us talked about how good and cute it was. They seemed pretty happy on their ticket purchase. Maybe they really did like it; maybe they just liked having a chance to get out of the house with the kids. I don't know. But in an era where Pixar is repeatedly proving that you can make animated movies that are both entertaining and emotionally complex, I just can't recommend a movie like Gnomeo & Juliet.

Viewed: 2/19/2011 | Released: 2/11/2011 | Score: D+

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Tron: Legacy

In retrospect, I'm not really sure why I was so excited when I first heard that Disney was finally making a sequel to Tron. That is, I know why--the original movie had rocked my young world with its lightcycles and frisbee combat and glowing costumes, and the prospect of spending more time in that world blinded me to the question of what a sequel would actually bring that was of value. Well, what was the sequel worth?

At the opening of Tron: Legacy, the hero of the original film, Kevin Flynn, disappears on the verge of some major discovery. He leaves behind a young son, Sam, who grows into a troubled young man. Like his father, Sam eventually winds up getting transported into the world inside a computer and must find his way back out while also stopping the machinations of an evil program bent on world domination.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it's because the plot of the new film is essentially the same as the old one. But while that sounds like a big knock against Tron: Legacy, it's worth pointing out that the "stranger in a strange land" scenario is actually a fairly standard sci-fi plotline, aside from which, Tron has always been more about the visual spectacle than a gripping plot or complex characters.

And what about those visuals? You'd think that with 28 years of technological innovation in the film industry, this new film's effects would rock the socks off of it's 1982 counterpart. Well, they did. But the problem is that with those 28 years of innovation came 28 years to get used to visual effects. When Tron first came out, the effects were so amazing that they ran the risk of making people's heads explode; no one had ever seen anything like them before. Now, on the other hand, simply having cool action sequences, computer-generated graphics, and a weird aesthetic isn't enough to blow anyone's mind. We've simply seen too much cool stuff in the movies for this to really make an impact.

What, then, does this long-awaited sequel really bring to the table? Fan service. Miles and miles of fan service. The movie is jam-packed with references, both to the original film and to other classic science fiction. The problem with fan service, though, is that if you don't get the references, there's no payoff for you, and if you do get them, you focus on that instead of what's actually happening in the scene. For example, I snickered a bit at a line cribbed from War Games, and while that was kind of fun, it also completely undermined any dramatic tension the scene might otherwise have had.

At the end of the day, though, Tron: Legacy isn't a terrible film. Much of the plot and the fictional world are either derivative or nonsensical--all the pseudo-mystical technobabble was a little tiresome but not awful--but as a brainless but inoffensive action flick, it wasn't bad. In that way it actually has even more in common with its predecessor, which, if you go back and watch it today, really doesn't hold up all that well. Unfortunately, Tron: Legacy isn't really competing with Tron; rather, it's competing with our memories of that film, and that's a fight it just can't win, not even with two identity discs.

Viewed: 1/1/2011 | Released: 12/17/2010 | Score: C-

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How Do You Know

You might guess that this one was Juliette's pick, and that's more or less true, but I had actually been intrigued by it as well. I like Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson, after all, but more than that I was interested to see what kind of movie Reese Witherspoon would pick as her first after a two-year hiatus, especially since I'd liked pretty much everything I'd seen her in before. Sadly, that streak has come to an end, because despite the strong cast, How Do You Know was mediocre at best.

I think that writer-director James L. Brooks and I just aren't on the same wavelength. I didn't care for As Good As It Gets and found Spanglish disappointing and scattered. With How Do You Know, Brooks has continued his streak of well-cast films that can't get past the poor script, and with respect to the writing, this one was the worst of the three.

Things just sort of... happened. Characters behaved oddly with little to no warning and often for no apparent reason. Important relationships were insufficiently explained, leaving me with no clear idea of how or why the people involved should have been acting. Neither of the main characters' plotlines made a lot of sense, nor did they come together or resolve in any meaningful way. It was just a strange, barely connected series of scenes, many of which didn't work individually and none of which worked together to form a coherent whole.

Mind you, I've seen all of the principal actors (and most of the supporting ones) do great work before. I have to give them an A for effort here, because the performances were about as good as they could be. It made it all the more frustrating when they were able to find ways to make moments click, because it was easy to see how good the movie could have been if it had been better written. Alas, it was not to be.


Viewed: 12/30/2010 | Released: 12/17/2010 | Score: C-

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True Grit

I think the first question most people will ask when you mention that you've just seen a particular movie is "How was it?" When I got that question after seeing the Coen brothers' new version of True Grit, the best I could manage was a noncommittal "Uh, yeah, it was good."

Now, you'd think that being a fan of the Coens, Jeff Bridges, and Westerns, this movie would be the type to immediately garner lavish praise from me. The problem, though, is that I'm also a giant fan of the 1969 John Wayne version of the film, so both before and after I found myself with a deep ambivalence about the very existence of a remake.

Remakes, in general, are always problematic for me. It's the kind of thing critics and movie buffs have been bemoaning for years, the bottom-line orientation of the modern studios having lead to a glut of remakes and sequels and a dearth of new, creative work. The Coens, of course, tried to head off such criticism by claiming that their film was a new adaptation of the original 1968 novel rather than a remake of the Wayne film, but that always struck me as splitting hairs.

Unlike most remakes, though, the Coens' True Grit is neither shallow nor technically incompetent--quite the opposite, in fact. What's more, I have to say that it does, indeed, bring something new to the story. The 1969 film is a classic, an iconic movie that cannot be replaced. The new one may not be either, but I don't think the comparison really does right by either movie, and having had some time to think it over, I've decided that the best thing is to simply take this new version on its own merits.

When you do that, it's easy to realize that it's a very well-crafted film. The Coen brothers visual aesthetic, which worked so well with a Western setting in No Country for Old Men, made for stunning scenes. Their signature Coen-y weirdness worked well when they needed a comic moment, but they used it sparingly enough to allow the film an earnestness that made the dramatic moments effective. The performances, too, were excellent. Jeff Bridges was great, of course, bringing a more menacing touch to the character of Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon was also quite good, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld was perfect as Mattie Ross.

I'm still not on board with the idea of remakes, especially not of classics or of movies that were done right the first time around. I have to admit, though, that there are times when a fresh point of view can make something new that, while perhaps not better than the original, is at least worthy to stand in its company.

Viewed: 12/26/2010 | Released: 12/22/2010 | Score: A-

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I've been a bit ambivalent about Disney movies for a while now, and particularly with Disney princess movies. Like everyone, I grew up with the Disney classics--Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, as well as the newer ones, at least from The Little Mermaid through The Lion King. I loved those movies as a child, and like most bits of entertainment from my past, they'll always have a special place in my heart.

As I've grown up and revisited some of the movies with adult eyes, I've noticed things about the stories and characters that don't sit well with me. I've talked about my issues with Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid before. It all boils down to Disney's general tendency toward facile storytelling, which has become ever more obvious since the arrival of Pixar in the mid-nineties, who continue to show how much depth you can achieve with "children's" movies.

So, going into this movie--Disney's new take on the Rapnuzel story--I didn't have very high expectations. But since I only went as an experiment in family movie-watching, I didn't really care much about what I was seeing. Surprisingly--and I have to wonder if it's precisely because of the comparison with Pixar--but Tangled turned out to be both very entertaining and rather nuanced.

Structurally, Tangled has a lot in common with most other Disney princess movies. You have the wistful girl singing about what she wants, the dashing, handsome male lead who leads her on a transformative journey, and so on. And, like the other modern Disney animated movies, you have the wisecracks.

Where it's different is in the characterizations. Here, instead of being a damsel in distress or a rebellious teenager, Rapunzel finds herself in her predicament mainly out of a sense of duty. And rather than a cartoonishly villainous antagonist, the "evil stepmother" here turns out to be merely selfish. This sets up a dynamic between the two that is both more plausible and considerably more interesting.

Of course, no story, however well written, can work as a film without good acting, and here Tangled does very well. The movie is essentially carried on the shoulders of the three leads: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, and Donna Murphy, and each of them executes perfectly. The humor never feels forced or desperate, nor do the emotions ever feel dishonest. What's more, the animation is simply brilliant, with so many details of the facial expressions and body language being just spot on.

My only difficulty came with Levi's performance, but not through any fault of his. No, he did a wonderful job here, but after watching him in Chuck for two seasons, it was just too difficult for me to separate his voice from his character in that show, which in many ways is the polar opposite of his Flynn Rider in this movie.

Of course, it's possible that my opinion of Tangled is colored by the fact that it was the first movie outing I took with my son. On the other hand, the fact that it kept him entertained for an hour and a half does speak to its quality. I'd say that whether you have kids or you just enjoy solid animated entertainment, this one is well worth your time.

Viewed: 12/4/2010 | Released: 11/24/2010 | Score: A-

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Toy Story 3

I heard today that Toy Story 3 recently passed the billion-dollar mark in worldwide box office sales, making it a member of a very exclusive club--only six other films in history have done that. And, despite the fact that the movie is now over two months old, it's still in first-run theaters and still apparently chugging along. My local cineplex still has three showtimes for it.

What with the movie being pretty old at this point, rather than doing a normal review, I'd like to take the opportunity to meld in a topic that I've been thinking about a lot lately: coming to movies after the hype.

Obviously, at this point we're way after the hype for Toy Story 3, but even though I saw the movie almost four weeks ago now, that was also still far enough after the premiere that I couldn't help but be aware of the huge buzz about the film. That's just how it goes for my wife and I now that we're parents; we see movies late, if at all. On the one hand, it's good for us, because we see so few movies nowadays that we want to make sure we get the most out of our time at the theaters. We just can't waste time with the mediocre ones the way we used to.

On the other hand, though, it also means that it's more or less impossible for us to see a movie without being biased. Of course, now that every movie is previewed and reviewed inside and out for months before it debuts, almost nobody actually goes to see a movie without any preconceptions. But back when we saw 50 or 60 movies in a year, we'd see them before most of our friends and before we knew that this movie was a flop or that one was a critical darling or this other one made a trillion dollars. Having all that information ahead of time can't help but influence the way you view a film.

Take Inception, for example. Everyone I know that saw that film came out discussing theories about what was really going on. None of them gave me any of those theories, of course, not wanting to spoil it for me, but just the fact that I knew that they were doing it meant that I watched that movie with an eye toward "figuring it out." Now, I generally do watch movies with a more analytical mindset than the average audience member, but this one had me examining things like themes and cinematography not just from an aesthetic standpoint, but also with the intention of unraveling some sort of secret. I still enjoyed it a lot, mind you, but I can't help but wonder what my reaction would have been had I seen it on opening night.

Similarly, with Toy Story 3, I went in with the knowledge that a huge percentage of my friends (both offline and on social networking sites) had talked about the fact that they cried at the end. So I knew that there was going to be a big emotional moment, and it absolutely changed the way I reacted to the plot and characters--there were several points in the film, for example, where my predictions about what was going to happen next were way off base. Even the fact that I was consciously making predictions in a movie that isn't about "figuring it out" says something.

And this brings me to the "review" portion of this post, because the fact that I knew what everyone else's reaction was, my tendency is to remove myself to a cool, analytical distance from the story and characters, one where I'm more likely to notice how a scene evokes an emotion than to actually experience the emotion for myself. So the fact that I was still hit hard by that emotional payoff and did cry, and that it came in such an unexpected and truly heartwrenching manner, that speaks volumes to the skill and talent of the filmmakers.

That I can still be amazed by what Pixar does, that I've come to the point where I can simultaneously take for granted that their films will be amazing and yet still be profoundly touched by them, that is something wonderful. With every new offering, Pixar keeps managing to bring me back to that place where film is new and exciting, where I remember what it is that keeps me coming back to theaters, and for that I cannot thank them enough.

Viewed: 7/27/2010 | Released: 6/18/2010 | Score: A

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It feels a little silly to write a review for a movie that opened almost six weeks ago, especially since I already wrote up a piece about my interpretation of the movie, but, you know, that's where I am these days.

What can I tell you that you don't already know about Inception? Probably not a whole lot, if you're even remotely interested in movies. It is, like many Christopher Nolan films, complex and layered, and rewards looking closely and (I would think) watching it more than once. On one level, it's basically a heist film and even if you view it as just that and nothing more, it's a very good movie. But, as I pointed out in my previous piece, there may be a lot more going on than initially meets the eye.

As far as the performances go, my appreciation of Leonardo DiCaprio continues to increase--a trend that kind of started with Catch Me If You Can but didn't really kick in until The Departed. I do still find his performances a little on the heavy side--he's clearly a guy who takes himself and his profession very seriously--but given the sort of films he does, that's probably appropriate. It was also very nice to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I quite liked in (500) Days of Summer) take on a more adult role, one which he handled expertly. The one who stole the show for me, though, was Tom Hardy in the role of the "forger," Eames. I've only ever seen him before in Star Trek: Nemesis--which was a pretty forgettable movie overall--but here his combination of charm, dry wit, and occasional seriousness came off just perfectly for me.

There's a lot more to talk about with a film like this, of course, but at this point it's kind of yesterday's news. Besides, the best part about a movie like this is the face-to-face discussions with your friends that you have as you're walking out of the theater, so if you haven't had a chance to check it out yet, grab a couple of friends and get to it.

Viewed: 7/25/2010 | Released: 7/16/2010 | Score: A

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The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer was the second of two movies that Juliette and I saw while we were visiting my parents. Neither of us knew anything about it going in--we'd never even heard of it. But my stepdad said that it was good, so we figured we'd give it a chance.

As it turned out, The Ghost Writer was Roman Polanski's newest thriller. The title character, a nameless writer played by Ewan McGregor, is hired to re-write the memoirs of Adam Lang, a former prime minister of the UK, played by Pierce Brosnan. As you might expect, though, all is not what it seems, and as the writer works, he begins to uncover secrets about Lang's past that put his own life in danger.

The only other Polanski film I've seen is Chinatown, and while there are some similarities--in each film, the protagonist is a lone outsider who is brought in for a seemingly innocuous job, only to find himself caught up in much bigger events. The Ghost Writer, though, falls far short of Polanski's 1974 classic.

There just wasn't much to work with, really. None of the characters are particularly interesting or well-rounded, and none of the performances are inspired or quirky enough to make them work in spite of the lack of material in the script. Instead, the entire film hangs on the plot and atmosphere. That can work when the story concept is original or unexpected, but while this movie does have enough twists and turns to keep most people guessing, it doesn't do it any better than any other conspiracy thriller, nor does it really bring anything new to the genre.

In order to make up for the underwhelming script, Polanski tries to manufacture tension with his filmcraft, presenting us with bleak, forbidding images, everything in harshly desaturated grays. On top of which, the pacing is very slow for much of the movie--there are long stretches with very few lines. The idea must have been to heighten the sense of isolation by making everything seem cold and quiet, but it just didn't work very well for me.

There wasn't anything horribly wrong with The Ghost Writer and I imagine that there are a number of people who would agree with my parents that it was pretty good. But in the end I just didn't feel engaged by it, which seems to me a rather glaring flaw in a thriller. Still, it was nice to spend a little time in a movie theater again, eating popcorn and sitting next to Juliette without any interruptions. That's something I definitely don't get enough of these days.

Viewed: 4/3/2010 | Released: 3/19/2010 | Score: C+

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Crazy Heart

My first instinct as I sat down to write this review was to make some kind of comment about how late it was in coming. But, going back through my review archives, I noticed that an annoyingly high proportion of my reviews start that way, and reading them one after another, it just sounds whiny and self-indulgent.

This review is starting off much better, I'm sure.

I think I first heard about Crazy Heart in the lead-up to the Golden Globes, when everyone was talking about Jeff Bridges' chances at winning Best Actor. Of course that piqued my interest, since Bridges is one of my favorite living actors. Then he won the Golden Globe, and then the Oscar, and I put it on my Netflix "saved" list and more or less gave up on seeing it in the theater.

It turned out, though, that it was still playing at the independent theater down the street from my parents' house when we went out there to visit them, and Juliette and I were happy enough to take my mom's offer of babysitting. We actually considered just staying in and going to bed early, but my mom was so eager to spend time with Jason and so insistent that we enjoy ourselves that she practically shoved us out the door. I'm glad she did, though. (Thanks, mom.)

Most of what I'd heard and read about Crazy Heart said it was an adequate but not terribly impressive film that was turned into something more by the strength of Bridges' exquisite performance. But I think that it really had two pillars holding it up--not just Jeff Bridges, but also the music.

There was a time in my life that I described my musical tastes as "everything but country and rap." Since then, though, I've found something to connect with in both genres. I'm still not much for the sort of country-pop that seems to be in vogue these days, but some older stuff--Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Strait--does resonate. The music in Crazy Heart hearkens back to those earlier styles of country music, I think, and works well largely because the songs really mean something in the context of the narrative. It also doesn't hurt that Jeff Bridges is a surprisingly good singer.

Of course, I can't write a review of this movie without talking about the performances, especially Jeff Bridges'. And he was brilliant. But that's not much of a surprise--in my opinion, Bridges is one of the most consistent actors currently working. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Duvall were both also excellent, and Colin Farrell was also surprisingly good.

Still, for all the talk this movie got and continues to get for its performances, what's really stuck with me has been the music. Juliette commented on the way out that she wanted to start listening to country now. I think it very well may come to pass.

Viewed: 3/31/2010 | Released: 12/16/2009 | Score: A-

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