Way late review: Kramer vs. Kramer

Dustin Hoffman is short. He’s really short. In Kramer vs. Kramer he has a six year old son and it looks as though his son will be hovering over dad within a year max. Too bad height doesn’t determine one’s acting chops. Otherwise I’d be a decent actor. Hoffman puts on one of his finest performances in the 1979 Oscar winner. He wins a little gold trophy as does his counterpart, Meryl Streep. Not bad, and all in a film where melodrama could easily trump the natural drama in which a barely there father becomes an only parent overnight thanks to his wife walking out on him and his son.

Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is making his way up the corporate ladder at an advertising firm. He’s landing and managing ever larger accounts. Meanwhile his wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), and son, Billy (Justin Henry), hardly make it on the ad man’s radar. Joanna decides she’s had enough and abruptly walks out on her husband and child. Ted is convinced this is an irrational act committed in anger, she’ll be back in a matter of hours. She never shows and Ted begins to realize what life is like as a single parent.

The driver in the two first acts of the film are that of Ted and Billy getting to at first know one another on the level of a healthy father and son relationship, followed up by a growing bond between the two. In between the developing relationship between he and his son, Ted wrestles with balancing his work with his new found responsibilities. The daunting nature of the challenge is hard to miss. The breaking points are in the smallest of moments early on when Ted is still coming to grips with having to care for Billy without any help.

Unlike many modern day dramas, Kramer vs. Kramer uses very little music to signal the emotional cues. In place of a sweeping, sappy soundtrack is an incredible set of performances by Hoffman, Streep, and even Justin Henry as Billy. Most child actors in this type of film fall into the trap of being overly emotional in response to the situation or serving as comic relief, but Henry’s performance never does either. He is a child coping with the loss of his mom and adjusting to life with a father he hardly knows.

The courtroom drama that drives the last third of the film, and earns it its title, does tend to swing an emotional hammer in intense questioning between lawyers and the two parents. The scenes are believable and convey the outrage felt by this mother and father fighting over the custody of their child. The case seems sealed and shut from the viewer’s perspective, which makes the outcome a punch to the gut.

If you’re feeling down about your own parenting, want to watch two of the finest actors alive today give landmark performances, or simply want to feel taller, Kramer vs. Kramer is a can’t miss film.

[xrr rating=5/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNLcfJ06y34[/youtube]

Way late review: Puss in Boots

My desire to see movies based on characters from the world of Shrek is somewhere between that of having my eyeballs poked with hot irons and watching an extra inning t-ball game. Thus, my expectations were not high for Puss in Boots. I’d had enough of the “let’s see how many clever pop culture references we can cram into 90 minutes of schlock” approach. Good news. The sword wielding cat movie is not of that ilk.

In place of rapid fire quips that will feel dated five minutes after they’re spoken, Puss in Boots is a modern spin on a mix of fairy tales. Puss (Antonio Banderas), we learn was once friends with Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). They grew up in the same orphanage where Humpty was bullied and Puss came to his defense. Their friendship came to an end when Humpty pushed Puss too far into a life of crime, the final heist being the town’s bank. Puss left the town a wanted feline and his friend in the hands of the local authorities. The two meet again later in life when Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) encounters Puss and convinces him to join Humpty and her at finding the golden egg laying goose from Jack’s beanstalk. This is the mission Puss and Humpty had once dreamed about and worked towards in their youth to no avail. Now it’s said that the outlaws, Jack and Jill have the magic beans and Humpty needs Softpaws and Puss to help get the golden goose. The adventure dashes off from there with a number of twists along the way.

One of the most oddly conniving and original bad guys I’ve seen in a children’s film in a while, Humpty Dumpty makes the movie what it is. While the story is strong enough to hold interest, the sinister egg man makes the movie entertaining. He is an inventive choice as the bad guy who you kind of feel sympathy for until you realize he’s as much a weasel as he is egg.

Credit Puss in Boots for not resting on its main character’s heritage from the ever popular Shrek series. The breakaway from that tired series leads to a somewhat inventive and entertaining movie.

[xrr rating=3.5/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Znuq-daWfLE[/youtube]

Way late review: Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven shows what remained of the director’s interest in more traditional forms of storytelling. Like his more recent films, beautiful cinematography and stream of conscience voice over narration are dominate. Missing are the elements that some would label as self-indulgent. I won’t go quite that far, but let’s just say that Malick has a way of testing an audience’s patience at times.

Whether intentional or not, Days of Heaven borrows its main narrative straight from the Bible. Possibly a mix of stories between Moses and Abraham. Set in the early 1900’s, Bill is a steel-mill worker in Chicago who leaves abruptly after accidentally killing his supervisor. Bill heads south for Texas with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and Abby’s younger sister. It’s the younger sister whose voice we hear narrating much of the movie with her distinctive Chicago accent. It’s a voice that contrasts with the beauty of the scenery on display – like a rusty spoon dragging across a chalkboard.

Bill does what any outstanding gentleman of his day would do which is pretend his girlfriend is his sister. He and his “sister” find work in a wheat field that belongs to a rich farmer (Sam Shepard). The farmer notices Bill’s fake sister and makes it known that he wouldn’t mind if she stayed on past the harvesting season. Around this same time Bill overhears the farmer’s doctor say that the farmer is dying. The setup is perfect for Bill, a man who has proven himself to be less than upright so far. He tells Abby that she should accept the farmer’s invite to stay. She’ll marry the farmer, Bill and the Abby’s little sis will get the run of the house as they wait for the farmer to keel over. Ah yes, the best laid plans.

Everything starts to fall apart when the farmer doesn’t die. A bit of conflict arises as a result and the whole thing ends rather practicably. In the midst of this simple story is sparse but generally solid acting. Malick will never be accused of letting his actors run rampant with dialogue. The tension that should result from the story and character conflict within never resonates. Instead, the film feels as though it’s never sure what is more interesting, the characters and their developing plot or the gorgeous scenery around them. As a result, the end is inevitable more than tragic. A beautiful film that is too distant from its emotional drive.

[xrr rating=3/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlZDsMCW0U4[/youtube]

Way late review: The Adventures of Tintin

2011’s scariest movie of the year, The Adventures of Tintin? Maybe not, but the animation style first made popular by the just as terrifying Polar Express is not comforting. Even more disconcerting is Tintin’s orange on a toothpick head. His boyish looks mashed up with his Bourne like skills don’t make sense. Every other character in the movie seems to have oversize cucumbers for noses. It’s as if Gonzo mated with a human. Bizarre.

Beyond the off putting looks of the characters in Tintin, there is a somewhat fun adventure movie buried underneath. Not a great screenplay by any stretch, as Tintin annoyingly rushes through endless iterations of journalistic “by golly, I’ve found another clue!” moments, the film sprints into action set pieces as if those will make up for the cold characters. Whatever magic Spielberg or Peter Jackson could lend the movie goes wasted on animation that fails to deliver and a mundane screenplay.

[xrr rating=2/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xz3j8gKRUTg[/youtube]

Way late review: Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema, Hugo, is like most love letters – full of passion, often beautiful, yet lacking in anything resembling a cohesive narrative.

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan who keeps the clocks ticking behind a train station in Paris. Why he and almost everyone around him have British accents is a mystery. I suppose every story set in days of old (yet not too old) demand British accents. Regardless, Hugo does what he needs to do in order to survive, which entails stealing food and other small items he needs to complete his project his father left him, an automaton, a mechanical man who writes with a pen and has a head just small enough to give everyone an uneasy feeling. The station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) doesn’t make Hugo’s life easy. He is determined to catch Hugo and put him in an orphanage. Inserted for comedic value, the station inspector seems like a distraction more than an integral part of the story, which is fine except for the fact that a decent portion of the film is spent on that character and his pursuit of Hugo. It’s as if someone told Scorsese he had to add some slapstick fun in his film or no child would tolerate it.

Desperate to find all the parts to get the automaton working so he can see what message his father left him, Hugo gets caught trying to steal a mechanical mouse from Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) by Méliès. He is forced to give up his notebook which contains the detailed sketches his father left of the automaton. Méliès promises to burn the book that evening and hands Hugo the ashes the next morning.

Hugo makes friends with Méliès’ god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is desperate for adventure. It isn’t long before Hugo sneaks her into Isabelle’s first ever movie. Her godfather won’t allow her to watch films. She is mesmerized by the experience and Hugo is reminded of his father’s shared love for the cinema.

In a moment of chance Hugo discovers that Isabelle is wearing a key with a heart shaped end, which is exactly the key he needs to get his automaton working. In exchange for giving up his secret headquarters behind the walls of the train station, Isabelle allows Hugo to use the key to rev up his automaton so that he can finally see the message his father left for him. To go further is to spoil the surprise, which isn’t much of a surprise mainly because it takes numerous unnecessary twists to revel in Hugo’s true purpose, an undying love for films of old.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully shot film than Hugo. Every scene is masterfully shot with colors dazzling and the motion of the camera purposefully setting every moment. And yet for all its beauty, the story and characters pale in comparison. A two hour film that should be at least twenty minutes shorter without losing an ounce of its cinematic grander, Hugo still entertains even while reminding the audience that it could have been so much better.

[xrr rating=3/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5IP-78xH6g[/youtube]

Way late review: Being Elmo

It’s Elmo’s world, we only get to watch it. That’s until Being Elmo exposes the red furry one’s diabolic plans to rule the world! OK, so maybe the documentary Being Elmo isn’t anything like that. Part of me wishes it was or at least dared to take a bizarre twist in the third act in that direction.

Kevin Clash is the gentle giant behind the most beloved character on Sesame Street. (Wait, did I just start a controversy with that statement? Fight amongst yourselves Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Count fans.) His story is one of the outsider whose obsession is the world of puppetry. From a very early age Clash has been infatuated with the worlds Jim Henson and Frank Oz managed to create on television and the big screen. His keen interest moves from curiosity to making his own puppets and performing wherever he can. Mind you, Clash is doing this in Baltimore, not the suburbs of southern Cal. Despite ridicule from his peers, Clash continues to pursue his passion. Before long he gets a chance to star in a local TV show using all his own handmade puppets.

The love Clash has for his craft is enthralling to watch. He is so sincere about his desire to become a great puppeteer that it’s easy to miss the contrast of this large African American male from Baltimore performing with his felt covered creations. As Clash continues to hone his craft he gets the opportunity to work with the best of the best, including Jim Henson, Clash’s hero. The retelling of how the two met and the working relationship they developed is endearing. Hearing Clash talk about it makes it feel as though it happened just moments ago.

Throughout the doc there is the use of still photos, but rather than settle on the now tried and true practice of Ken Burns like camera movements on and around the photos, the doc uses a 3D like journey through the stills. The effect draws you into the story and is never overused as to make it feel gimmicky. The same cannot be said for the narration by Whoopi Goldberg. Her style of narration seems to be one of over pronouncing every syllable to the point of distraction. While her voice is distinguishable it does not enhance the film.

By the third act the fairly short documentary runs out of steam. Clash is a quiet man and, like so many who are completely taken by their trade, doesn’t seem to have much of interest outside of his puppetry. The film makers do their best to draw more out of his story but it becomes clear that the most interesting story has been told.

The highest notes of Being Elmo are fantastic. The sincerity cannot be missed and the story of the man behind one of the most popular children’s characters of all time is an enjoyable one.

[xrr rating=3.5/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRotWuJNIQA[/youtube]

Way late review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

When I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind a number of years ago for the first time I remember being disappointed. I wanted E.T. and instead I got a bizarre story of a man who sees a UFO and proceeds to lose his mind. Years later I appreciated Spielberg’s first alien movie much more having my expectations reset.

When Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) encounters a UFO, he’s left with a sunburned face, a skeptical family and a shaken psyche. In an attempt to make sense of what he saw, Roy starts seeking out others who’ve had similar “visions”. Among those he finds are a woman, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) who has lost her son to the invaders, and a researcher (Francois Truffaut) preparing for Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrials.

The second act is all about observing a man who appears close to losing his mind. He sees images of a strange mountain that he can’t escape. Everywhere he looks he sees this vision and feels an uncontrollable urge to model it out of everything he can, including mash potatoes and piles of dirt he throws inside his home. His wife loses patience after Roy begins his indoor landscaping project. She and the kids take off. Roy tries to stop them but it’s no use, they’re gone so he continues to build a large model in the middle of his home of the image that’s burned into his mind. The model is built and Roy is no closer to understanding what it is or what it means. He’s lost his family and his sanity until he catches a glimpse of Devil’s Tower on a TV news report. This revelation leads Roy to Wyoming where he meets Jillian.

The government is trying to scare everyone away from the area near Devil’s Tower. They know they’re making contact with alien lifeforms and they don’t want the public to know about it. That doesn’t stop Roy, Jillian and others from making their way to the sacred spot. The army does its best to capture and deport all those who’ve made the trek but Roy and Jillian escape.

The last act is quite long and a bit disappointing after experiencing the full on insanity of knowing what Roy saw and the torment he went through trying to convince himself and others that what he witnessed was real, that it wasn’t the end of the story. What should act as closure feels more like a merciful ending.

Spielberg has commented in the past that he wouldn’t likely end Close Encounters the same way if he was making the movie today. I respect him for admitting this yet still leaving the original film intact unlike some other directors I won’t gratify by mentioning by name who take their prized works of the past and tinker endlessly with them.

Finally, it should be mentioned that this Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous, especially considering the age of the film. It gives me great hope for the release of Jaws, E.T. and the Indiana Jones series on Blu-ray yet this year. If you watch Close Encounters I highly recommend the Blu-ray release. Definitely worth the high-def treatment.

[xrr rating=4/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XA6B1_0CEDc[/youtube]

Way late review: Meek’s Cutoff

If Meek’s Cutoff is close at all to portraying the life of those braving the conditions of the Oregon Trail in 1845 then it was incredibly brutal and, at the same time, a little boring to observe. Of course, no one was observing it. That’s what those of us in this century get to do – marvel at the courage of those who brave the barren land on little more than some livestock, fragile wooden wagons, and limited supplies while also wondering how director Kelly Reichardt managed to make even the tensest moments rather mundane.

This drama follows a group of people in the mid-1800’s led by a guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who gets them off the Oregon Trail. The tension between the conditions, the settlers and their guide is hard to miss. Beautiful scenes of desolate lands fill the screen as these people walk alongside their belongings in relatively small wagons pulled by oxen. In the midst of this struggle are few words and little music or sound other than those generated by nature and the movement of the group. When words are spoken they are often faint or grunted out by Meek, whose beard seems to serve as a sort of force field for clear speech.

Along the way the group finds a Native American who they capture. Meek makes it clear he’s not fond of the idea of having this guy around. He’d just as well finish him off. The leader of the group disagrees and gets the final word. The Native American will help them find their way out of the mess Meek appears to have gotten them into. What seems like a setup for an interesting twist on the journey turns into not much more than some further heated debates between Meek and the others. The debates never happen in order to preach about tolerance nor do they heighten the drama much. Much like everything else in the movie, the debates are what they are. They happen and the group continues on.

I don’t expect a movie that is true to its realistic tone to ever raise the stakes through melodrama. Meek’s Cutoff portrays events as matter of fact and in that way it holds interest, capturing a period of history that feels authentic. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily translate to engaging and that is where the film falls short of fully capturing the story it aims to tell.

[xrr rating=3/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rhNrz2hX_o[/youtube]

Way late review: Dolphin Tale

No one tell the FBI that schools all around the country are likely violating copyright law by showing flicks to the public for the price of a suggested donation. These thieves are harming Hollywood and must be stopped! I can neither confirm or deny that I saw Dolphin Tale at such an event.

Some might argue that my neutral feelings towards Dolphin Tale came about because I feared the punishment that was surely to come. Or they might argue that the dimly lit picture and faint audio in an auditorium tainted not only my viewing experience but the film as a whole. Even taking all that into consideration, I can confidently say that the (based on a true story) movie about a dolphin that loses its tail and not only lives but gets an artificial replacement tail is not great, nor is it terrible. It’s OK at best. Much to my disappointment, as the first thirty minutes of the movie had me believing it might have some real promise.

Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a grade schooler, only has his mom, as his father died serving in the armed forces. He’s very quiet and keeps to himself as a result. One of the young men he looks up to, his cousin (Austin Stowell), has joined the army and is being deployed. To top it all off it’s summer time and Sawyer has to attend school all day.

Sawyer hangs his head and makes the journey to school. He rides his bike past the beach and a man waves him down for help. A dolphin is washed up on the beach. Sawyer gives the man his phone and then attends to the dolphin. The porpoise and boy make some sort of ET and Elliot like connection. I’m loving it. This is right in my wheel house.

The dolphin is taken to a marine life rescue center. Sawyer blasts off after school for the center. He meets a girl, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), around his age who shows Sawyer around. It’s not long until Sawyer ditches summer school and spends his days with the dolphin, who has been named Winter. The movie, up until this point, had me hooked. The story of this lonely kid who has a special connection with this tail-less dolphin and spends his every moment with or thinking about his aquatic friend is compelling. Too bad the screenplay decides that’s not enough. We get about a zillion more sub-plots, characters, and made-for-TV moments until it’s all over. The worst part is that all this extraneous material extends the movie to just under two hours. Kids in the theater…errr…auditorium…errr…”place” were wiggling restlessly through the last half hour. I can’t blame them. The movie had worn out its welcome.

Dolphin Tale could have been a really good film. That is what makes it so frustrating. There was talent and a promising first act. The lack of discipline in sticking to the most compelling story and characters doomed the movie. It could never be more than average at best.

[xrr rating=2.5/5 label=” “]

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”360″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6KbB2-q3s0[/youtube]