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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

You have to hand it to Edward Cullen—for a vampire, he’s rather traditional when it comes to love and marriage. Despite being a bachelor for the past century, he’s willing to wait until the right girl comes along. And my parents thought I waited a long time to get married.

If you’ve been hiding under a pop culture-shielding rock for the past few years and have no idea who Edward, Bella, and Jacob are … well, sorry. Much in the same vein (seriously, no pun intended) as other multi-part epics such as the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, Breaking Dawn Part 1 doesn’t waste time catching us up on what has already transpired. Bella has finished high school and is now preparing for her marriage to Edward (even though cold feet seems to have finally caught up with the “make me a vampire now” girl from last year). As we already know from the previous three films, everything has been leading up to this—Edward and Bella are destined to be together, but before he’ll agree to (a) consummate their love and (b) officially make her part of the J Crew-model Cullen family, fangs and all, she has to marry him first. Such an admirable vampire.

The supernatural love triangle wouldn’t be complete, however, without a last disapproving growl from Jacob, who runs off in anger upon receiving the invitation to Bella and Edward’s wedding. It has to be mentioned that Bella shares a close connection to Jacob that would raise the hackles of any groom. Nonetheless, not only does Edward accept their relationship, he apparently condones it by allowing Jacob to show up at the wedding to wish Bella well. Again, what a guy.

Jacob is, of course, a rising member of the sometimes-shirtless werewolf clan that despises all thing vampiric. They’re the lycanthropic McCoys to the Cullen’s Hatfields, if you will. While he would love to literally bite Edward’s head off, he wants Bella to be happy, and he’s also bound by an ancient peace treaty that prevents the wolves and vampires from killing each other off.

Immediately after the wedding, Edward and Bella depart for an island paradise off the coast of Brazil for their honeymoon. Here they finally get the passionate somethin’-somethin’ they’ve been denying each other for years. A two-week montage of newlywed awkwardness (yes, it feels like two weeks, also) follows, and then … morning sickness? Bella and Edward are flabbergasted. Is this even possible? What will happen now? Not even Carlisle, Edward’s physician “father” knows.

Meanwhile, Jacob’s clan finds out about the demon-bun-in-the-oven, and the wolf feces hits the fan. The child won’t be able to control its feeding like the Cullens have, it would threaten the wolf/vampire covenant, and it could even destroy Bella in utero. It will be an evil abomination, they think. It must be destroyed. Jacob is torn—he loves Bella and cares for her safety, but he’s also lower on the wolf totem pole and has to follow the pack leader. If only he could assert himself somehow…

As a standalone film, Breaking Dawn Part 1 is somewhat shallow on plot. Not a lot happens here, but it’s somewhat forgivable since we know it’s essentially a buildup chapter to the final installment (much like the penultimate Harry Potter film—another story where not a whole lot happens, but with that one it felt as though there was a lot more on the line). And, it does drag at times, although it does successfully build up to an emotionally satisfying ending.

Kristen Stewart, who has always seemed too tomboyish and monotone in the past for Bella, comes across here as ladylike. I never completely bought the Jacob/Edward feud over her before, but I did here. The Twilight films have never lacked for melodrama, but these are teenagers prone to be that way by nature. That being said, there are a few scenes where the melodrama is turned up to 11, and one moment in particular that is meant to be intense comes across instead as laughable—even the giggly fangirls in front of us couldn’t help but LOL.

The secondary characters have always brought some gravity to the other films, and they do well here, too. Edward’s family becomes more and more likable in each new installment, as do Bella’s parents. Bella’s dad deserves a special mention. He has continually been one of my favorite characters, and here he shows great emotional depth during his daughter’s wedding as he gives her away in a way he couldn’t possibly understand.

If I have one lingering complaint, it’s that the special effects aren’t always consistent. Back in the day when it had a lower budget, it was understandable. Nowadays, though, Twilight is a bonafide blockbuster. To be fair, it looks great. The cinematography is one of the film’s strong suits. As for computer trickery, one visual effect presents an emaciated body and is done flawlessly, but any scenes that involved animated wolves did little to convince me that I wasn’t watching a video game.

On another note, as Jacob grows into adulthood, we are meant to accept his position as a powerful figure in the wolf clan. There’s just one thing—Taylor Lautner still sounds like a 14-year-old. It’s no fault of his own, but it makes his voiceovers less authoritative.

All things considered, though, Stephanie Meyer deserves a tip of the hat. She has taken some heavy-handed concepts—love, devotion, family, respect, sacrifice, celibacy, choice—and made them relevant to teenage girls. Meyer knew early on who her target audience would be, and she imbued her characters with the kind of traits she felt her readers should honor. Bella, Jacob, and Edward may be odd choices for role models, but the ideals they hold important are a welcome message for young adults in a culture that tells them these things don’t matter anymore. Long story short, parents, if your 16-year-old daughter wants to date a 100-year-old vampire from a good family, there are worse alternatives.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

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Paranormal Activity 3

As in years past, Rachael and I have celebrated Halloween with a month-long horror movie marathon. We finished off this October with the third installment of the Paranormal Activity series, now in theaters.

If I were to ask you to name the top 10 scariest movies you’ve ever seen, and if any of those titles started with the word Saw, you can stop reading now.

To be fair, the Paranormal Activity films aren’t for everyone.  There tends to be two dominant opinions among those who have seen any of the now three offerings: (a) they’re maddeningly suspenseful creepers full of nail-biting tension, or (b) they’re boring and nothing happens. If you find yourself agreeing with the latter, this isn’t the movie for you.

Paranormal Activity 3 continues (and hopefully ends?) the tale of two sisters, Kristi and Katie, whose trials at the hands of a malevolent, unseen entity formed the basis of the previous two stories. The first movie (wide released in 2009) presented probably the most original piece of first-person horror narrative since The Blair Witch Project, while the second (2010) expanded on a back story in which both women mentioned being terrorized by a demon when they were children. This, then, is that story.

Set in 1988, the girls live with their mother, Julie, and her boyfriend, Dennis (a videographer, of course), in suburbia, where they share a room in the attic. One night, after Dennis sets up a video camera to film his and Julie’s weed-induced bedroom antics, they experience an earthquake that shakes the tripod to the floor. Upon reviewing the film (on VHS tapes), Dennis notices that debris shaken from the ceiling seems to land on something. Hoping to catch this something again on video, he sets up a number of cameras around the house, setting in motion the multiple-angle views we’ve come to expect from the series.

Before long, the familiar title cards (“Night #1,” etc.) begin appearing to let us know it’s time to be on guard and begin inspecting every square inch of the screen in anticipation. On one of the first nights, we hear the offscreen closet door in the girls’ room open. Kristi, the younger daughter, nonchalantly crawls out of bed and talks to someone out of our field of vision.

When asked about it, she says it’s “Toby,” who the rest of the family assumes to be an imaginary friend, however as we all know from numerous horror films, children’s “imaginary friends” are never too innocent—Captain Howdy from The Exorcist or “The TV People” from Poltergeist, anyone?

In Paranormal Activity 2, the gimmick of multiple security cameras was added to intensify the suspense. When just one camera angle is shown (as in the original film), we wait for something to happen. When numerous camera angles are thrown into the mix, many of which show long stretches of nothing, it becomes unsettling. In this one, Dennis comes up with a solution to get a full view of the living room and kitchen—he attaches a camera to the base of a swiveling house fan. This is, of course, an ingenious move on the filmmakers’ part, allowing us to only see half of the room at a time, waiting for it to turn slowly back in the other direction so we can see what has or hasn’t changed. It’s an extremely unnerving effect and played out well.

I can’t say too much more, but there are a few drawbacks that need to be mentioned. First, because we know that the girls grow up to be in the other two films, we know their safety is never really at risk. Fortunately it doesn’t really dispel the feeling of impending dread, and I did find myself caring about the characters—something that doesn’t frequently happen in most horror films.

It’s worth noting, though, that I didn’t always find the characters’ actions believable. Despite the fact that everyone seems terrified, Julie always seems annoyed by Dennis’ need to film everything. Maybe she’s just in denial? Also, despite the weird goings-on, everything goes back to business as usual at night. I saw The Ring in the theater and slept in my living room with the lights on for a week—these characters experience supernatural frights but go back to sleeping in their own beds at night as if nothing happened. Maybe I’m just a little girl.

As with the first two films, most of the special effects appear to be done with conventional moviemaking techniques, although a couple here seem to be obvious CG. While CG can sometimes be even more convincing than miniatures and strings, it stretches credibility slightly when you’re watching something that looks animated on video that was supposedly shot on VHS tape over 20 years ago.

All that aside, however, Paranormal Activity 3 is an effectively made scarefest that draws you into the story and presents characters who are likable in situations that seem mostly plausible. I also give props to the film’s marketing team for creating trailers with scenes that appear nowhere in the movie. When we see a series of scary scenes in a trailer, they lose a little of their impact when we finally see them in the movie. When none of those scenes happen in the final cut, anything goes—it’s all new to us. Bravo, advertising peeps.

Yes, some of the scares tend to be more subtle, but this is what sets the Paranormal series apart from the standard jump-cut-loud-music boo! moments of most contemporary horror movies. We are asked to imagine we’re experiencing a real-life account of a family terrorized by an unseen evil. In real life, there isn’t any ominous music or alternate points-of-view that warn us something is about to happen.

I’ve always felt it’s what we don’t see that scares us the most. There’s nothing more scary to me than a closed door at the top of a dark stairway, and this movie has plenty of them. I’ve never personally experienced any real, terrifying supernatural events, and I hope I never do. But, if I did, I’m guessing it wouldn’t be some monster or deformation that jumps out at me accompanied by an audible crash of strings and percussion. Instead, it would probably be a dark shape at the end of the hallway that stands there silently, watching me as I slowly become aware it’s there.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

 

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Thor

Thor

As a comic book fan, it has been a thrill seeing the recent string of successful films coming from Marvel Studios over the past decade, beginning in 2000 with X-Men and continuing with its sequel and the first two in the Spider-Man series. With only a small number of misfires (I’m looking at you, makers of the bloody awful Fantastic Four movies), Marvel’s latest offerings have brought a touch of class to the superhero genre. Now with both Iron Man films and an Incredible Hulk reboot out, the stage has been set for the eagerly awaited Avengers in 2012. Only two more pieces to “assemble” remain: the upcoming Captain America and Thor.

Of all the titles in Marvel’s classic lineup, Thor is probably the one I looked forward to the most. Just mentioning the title brings to mind interdimensional rainbow bridges, fire and ice giants, and majestic cities in the clouds. Based on Norse mythology, Thor’s adventures have always been grandiose, even Shakespearean, in drama and scale.

Who better to tackle this than Kenneth Branagh, one of the finest contemporary director/actors of the Bard’s tales. His take on Thor is a brilliant combination of action, emotional depth, and humor, with dazzling effects that owe much to the era of Walt Simonson (who is given a nod in the credits).

Over a thousand years ago, the Scandinavians revered a race of powerful beings from the extradimensional realm of Asgard. When the frost giants of Jotenheim stage an uprising to conquer the nine realms, beginning with Earth, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of the Asgardians, leads a mighty war against them and steals the source of their power. He relates this story to his young sons, Thor and Loki, one of whom will one day become the heir to the throne.

Fast forward years later. During a ceremony to honor Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as the successor, a small band of frost giants breaks into Asgard. In retaliation, the headstrong Thor leads a group of his warrior friends and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) into Jotenheim, breaking a long-held truce. As punishment, Odin strips Thor of his power and his magic hammer Mjolnir and banishes him to Earth.

Thor is discovered by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team in the middle of the New Mexico desert. When Mjolnir is found miles away, S.H.I.E.L.D., that crazy espionage agency that always seems to know what’s going on, gets involved and steals Jane’s research (which we know, by now, will probably play a role in a future film) and bars access to Mjolnir as they study its strange powers. Meanwhile, back on Asgard, Loki has his own ideas as to whom should be king, and Thor’s warrior friends begin to grow suspicious and lead a secret mission to bring back Thor.

Given the lofty production design and dialogue of the scenes set in Asgard, Thor is easily a film that could run the risk of taking itself too seriously. However, many of Thor’s attempts to fit in on Earth strike just the right amount of humor. Much of this credit goes to Hemsworth, who plays bold and heroic just as convincingly as he does charming and gallant. And, let’s face it, he does look every bit the part of a dashing god of thunder.

Other strong performances include Portman, who brings a likeability factor to everything she does, and Hiddleston, whose Loki wears his inner turmoil for all to see. But a particular nod goes to Hopkins, who brings gravitas to Odin as both a benevolent father and a commanding force to be reckoned with. You’ll never be able to send your child to his room and ground him with the same amount of panache as when Odin casts Thor out of Asgard.

Also worth noting is how true the effects team stayed to (or even improved upon) the Asgard of the page. Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that transports people to the different realms, never looked more impressive, and the enchanted suit of armor known as Destroyer has Jack Kirby’s stamp all over it.

Some of the scenes feel a little rushed at times, and the movie probably could have even been a little longer. Given how familiar I am with the material, I’m not sure how confusing it is to those who haven’t read the books—I’ll have to ask Rachael. Also, for those who like their stories neatly contained, it does lack some closure. However, with at least one Avengers movie right around the corner, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of Thor, Loki, Jane, and hopefully Odin in the near future.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

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Insidious

When I first saw the previews for Insidious, I thought, “Now that looks like a creepy movie!” Then I saw the phrase, “From the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity,” and I was somewhat ambivalent. Would it be a sadistic grossfest, or would it be a nail-biting, tense thriller? I’m happy to say Insidious is more Paranormal than Saw. Directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell—the two men who brought Jigsaw to life but then killed him, sort of—Insidious is a successful throwback to some of the classics of the horror genre.

As with any haunted house tale that we’ve already seen (The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, and so on), we meet a family moving into their new house. Sure enough, the house comes equipped with lots of creaky doors, floors, and an attic that would convince me to have the realtor brick it off before I moved in. By the end of the first couple days, things have already started moving around on their own, doors open by themselves, and strange whispers are heard. I know—you’re already saying, “I’ve seen this same thing happen in I-don’t-know-how-many movies.”

You would, of course, be right. One of the great touches of Insidious is that it flirts dangerously with becoming cliché, and yet, through brilliant camera work, mysterious atmosphere, and clever misdirection, it manages to draw us into the story with an increasing level of dread. Many shots are left with just enough space in the periphery to build tension. Something’s going to appear, right? Maybe? I frequently felt myself sinking lower in my chair.

Tragedy strikes the family when Dalton, one of the young boys, falls on his head and goes into a coma that lasts for months. Mom, a stay-at-home songwriter, looks after Dalton and the baby during the day and soon begins to sense an evil presence within the house. Dalton’s brother makes a statement one night that made my skin crawl, and Dad seems to prefer working late nights at school over going home. Meanwhile, where is Dalton, and what’s in his room with him?

To tell you any more would be a crime. What I can say, unfortunately, is that the second act takes a wrong turn. Have you ever played that old campfire game where one person begins a story and passes it off to the next person? In this case, that next person wasn’t as imaginative as the first guy. One thing that made both Paranormal Activity films so successful was the idea that the unknown is always scarier. What we can’t see or define is a hundred times more terrifying than a drawn-out textbook explanation.

Despite some of the distractions that derail the story, Insidious is an extremely effective film with some of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The mood is augmented by a jarring soundtrack that owes a lot to Krzysztof Penderecki (whose music featured heavily in The Exorcist and The Shining), and that’s not a bad thing. Another strength of this film is that I found myself actually caring about the characters rather than berating them for their blandness or stupid decisions.

The real test of a good scary movie, though, is how well it stays with you. After seeing The Ring, I didn’t turn my TV off for three days. The night after seeing Insidious, while Jake and Rachael slept soundly, I lay there in the dark, hoping for sleep to come so I wouldn’t hear the whisperings coming from the closet or see the dark silhouette standing in the doorway.

Rating: ★★★½ 

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Rachael and Ian’s Oscar Picks

Here are our picks for Oscar Night. I entered these into a contest at work. If we win, hopefully there are big prizes in our future. Or at least candy. Stay tuned for our March Madness picks soon! – Ian

Actor
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech 

Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter

Actress
Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Supporting Actress
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Animated Feature Film
Toy Story 3

Art Direction
Alice in Wonderland

Cinematography
True Grit

Costume Design
Alice in Wonderland

Director
David Fincher
 

Documentary Feature
Inside Job

Documentary Short Subject
Strangers No More

Film Editing
The Social Network

Foreign Film
In a Better World

Makeup
The Wolfman

Original Score
The Social Network

Original Song
“We Belong Together,” Toy Story 3

Animated Short Film
Day and Night
 

Live Action Short Film
Na Wewe

Sound Editing
Inception

Sound Mixing
Inception

Visual Effects
Inception

Adapted Screenplay
The Social Network

Original Screenplay
The King’s Speech

Best Picture
The King’s Speech

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some additional quick reviews…

The Kids Are All Right

Rating: ★★★½ 

Toy Story 3

Rating: ★★★★★ 

The Fighter

Rating: ★★★★½ 

127 Hours

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Winter’s Bone

Rating: ★★★★ 

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True Grit

Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone
Even with someone they love
– Waylon Jennings / Willie Nelson

As a kid, I remember seeing commercials for a Time/Life series of books about the Old West. Those were tough times filled with tough people, like John Wesley Hardin who supposedly “killed forty-three men, one just for snoring too loud.” The Old West probably wasn’t what young fans of The Lone Ranger or even Woody’s Roundup had in mind. It was a harsh, lonely place where even the hardiest men with strong moral codes could lose their way.

This is the setting of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, an unflinching remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic. The story opens with narration from Hattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose father was robbed and shot down in cold blood by outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Hattie (Hailee Steinfeld) sets off to seek retribution, even though she knows she may never see her family again. Hattie is no ordinary young girl. She has seen the worst of what the West has to offer and knows how to play tough. When she asks a local lawman who the best bounty hunters are, he offers up three names, one of which is “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a take-no-prisoners wild card. She obviously chooses to hire him.

Rooster is not one to be ordered around by a young girl but agrees to pursue Chaney. Along the way, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who plans to apprehend Chaney and take him back to Texas to hang, joins the trail. Rooster and LaBoeuf decide to split the ransom in Texas, but Hattie will have none of it. Vengeance is to be hers, and should Rooster try to back out of their agreement, she will charge him with fraud. LaBoeuf decides the other two will hold up his own plans and sets off in search of Chaney on his own.

I found myself both fascinated by the adventures that follow but also overwhelmed by the conditions they endure. How would you go about tracking someone down in those days? These days I can’t visit a new town without my GPS—back then, a wrong turn in the woods could cost you days. For Hattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf, men with guns and horses remain a constant threat, but so do the harsh cold of a desert night and the unfriendly species that inhabit the dark corners.

Rooster Cogburn is, of course, the role John Wayne made famous, and when I heard this movie was coming out, I wondered how Bridges’ performance would be compared. Beyond the eyepatch, the similarity ends. This is the type of role Bridges has grown into. Once the pretty boy leading man, Bridges won a Best Actor award last year for his turn in Crazy Heart as a bearded, gravel-voiced, world-weary traveler—kinda like if his “The Dude” character from Lebowski took a turn for the worse. Here, as in Crazy Heart (not to mention this year’s Tron: Legacy), Bridges not only occupies the role, but I forgot I was watching an actor and saw only the character.

Steinfeld is also a true standout. In her portrayal of Hattie, we see not only an eager, young girl that we want to support but also a confident woman of value and loyalty whom we respect. Even if she doesn’t win the Best Supporting Actress award, I hope to see her again soon.

Worth noting is the bold cinematography that deserves a win, as well. The American West has always lent itself well to amazing visuals. But unlike the blue skies and sweeping vistas of yesteryear, we find ourselves in landscapes both barren and forbidding yet majestic.

The Coen Brothers’ resume is a list of cinematic classics populated by some of the most unbelievable characters out there—Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou; The Hudsucker Proxy; The Big Lebowski. This film is unlike the rest. It involves real people in real situations forced to make tough decisions and question their own abilities in the face of danger. In the West of fiction, the hero smiles proudly as he rides off into the sunset. In reality, I can imagine the West took even the most virtuous of men and women, chewed them up, spit them out, and only the strong ones—the ones with “true grit”—survived.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

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The King’s Speech

Years ago, I once read somewhere that Prince Charles uses one of those plastic devices that helps squeeze toothpaste out of the tube, and it fascinated me. Charles, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom, is a regular bloke just like me, who puts on his £1,000 trousers one leg at a time.

This idea, that despite the grandeur and etiquette of royalty, kings and queens are in fact people with the same fears, emotions, and desire for true friendship as the rest of us, is central to Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, one of the year’s best films.

The film opens on a BBC announcer, sitting alone in a studio, going through a preparation of diction exercises and vocal warmups before going on-air. He is introducing a live broadcast from the British Empire Exhibition. Contrast this with what follows. The man delivering the address at the exhibition walks nervously up a flight of stairs, up to a microphone where he is being watched by thousands in Wembley Stadium and heard by millions more over the radio, opens his mouth, and painfully stammers his way through just the first sentence of three pages.

The man in question is Prince Albert (Colin Firth), Duke of York and second son of King George V. It is the 1930s, and all of Europe seems poised for a second World War. The British public will look to its leaders for a strong voice to give them courage in an increasingly anxious environment. King George (Michael Gambon) is a commanding speaker who was a national figure for Britain during the first World War, but he knows his health is in decline. His eldest son, David, is the heir apparent to the throne, but he has recently taken up a relationship with a twice-divorced socialite. Should David become king and marry the woman, he would be forced to abdicate the throne to Albert, who would then be called upon to be the voice for the British Empire.

Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), takes it upon herself to hire the services of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed actor-turned-speech therapist. Lionel’s methods are unorthodox, and he requires that he will only treat Albert if they address each other as equals and by first names. Albert will have nothing of it—he is royalty, and… well, it just isn’t done. Lionel makes a recording of Albert reciting Shakespeare while listening to loud music over headphones. Albert is convinced he stammered through the entire thing, but in a fit of depression one night, he plays back the recording. Elizabeth tearfully listens as the confident, pronounced voice of her husband plays—something she has probably never heard before.

Meanwhile, the king passes away, and the throne passes to David (crowned as Edward VIII) who must choose between marriage and the British public. After choosing to abdicate, Albert takes the throne, choosing George VI as his royal name, in honor of his father. The transition is not an easy one for Albert, and we are able to share his point of view in a few key scenes and feel the same trepidation as crowds of people (and even the portraits of his ancestors) hang on his every word.

The friendship between Lionel, a commoner, and Albert, the king, is key to the story. Conflict develops as Lionel continually shows disregard for royalty and tradition. However, it becomes clear that Lionel’s actions are not disrespect for the position but rather a confirmation of Albert’s abilities to lead. That we can share in their struggle is a tip of the hat to the performances of Geoffrey Rush and especially Colin Firth, who seems a sure bet for this year’s Best Actor win.

The title, of course, refers not only to the king’s disability but also his broadcast declaration of war with Germany in 1939. The film is based on real events, so I’m not giving anything away by letting you know that one of the film’s most dramatic points comes from not only sharing that moment with a tense public who knows their sons will soon be going off to battle, but also our hope that Albert (with Lionel by his side) can successfully make it through his speech at a time when Britain most needs his confidence. The scene itself is a masterpiece of editing and composition and earns its Best Picture nod in just a few minutes.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

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Inception

Everyone I know has had some variant of the dream where they realize they’re naked and hope no one else notices. Or, it’s the last week of classes, and you suddenly remember there’s that one class you never attended all semester. Entire books have been written about the meaning of our dreams, but suffice it to say, our mind is an amazing place where our memories, emotions, hopes, and fears are allowed to shine. Defining what is real can be difficult, and what we perceive as reality is merely our subconscious presenting all of our innermost feelings in a way that makes sense to us. That’s why we wake up and look around for clues that let us know it wasn’t real; that everything is right with the world.

This is the idea that pervades Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a labyrinthine journey that challenges our very idea of what is real and how safe we are within our own heads. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), are veteran thieves of the most unusual sort—hired to enter the subconscious minds of others and steal valuable secrets. After testing their abilities, a powerful businessman named Saito (the always intimidating Ken Watanabe) hires them to perform a near-impossible job—enter the mind of a rival and create an idea that the target must believe is his own. Arthur says it can’t be done, but Dom (who has become a wanted fugitive in the States) reluctantly agrees after Saito tells him he will take care of his legal problems and get him back to his estranged children.

At its core, Inception is a heist film, and with any good heist (think Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job), one needs to assemble a great team. It is here that we meet Eames (a master of disguise), Yusuf (a chemicals expert to assist with the sedatives), and Ariadne (the architect, played by the great Ellen Page). The architect, as Dom explains and Ariadne learns in one of the film’s most visually creative scenes that challenges the laws of physics, designs the virtual spaces in which the dreams occur.

Saito’s target, a young heir named Fischer (Cillian Murphy), is set to inherit control of a vast energy empire from Fischer Sr. who lies on his deathbed. To allow for fair competition, it is Saito’s wish that the Fischer corporation be split up, but this is the idea that needs to be implanted. It’s determined that the best way to go deep enough into Fischer Jr.’s psyche is to create a series of dreams—a dream within a dream within a dream—and an organized series of “kicks” designed to bring the participants out of the dreams.

But, even a professional like Dom can lose track of what is real and what is a dream. To lose one’s grip on reality could doom one to become lost or become dependent on the dream like a drug. Dom carries around a lot of emotional baggage and guilt that not only threatens every operation but also makes him question every move. To say too much would be foolish—part of the fun of this film is following along yourself.

Inception is easily one of my favorite films of the year. In many ways, it bears the marks of Christopher Nolan’s other films, especially The Dark Knight, and that’s not a bad thing. In addition to being a visual and aural delight—almost surely to win this year’s awards for special effects and sound—it also is full of Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score that makes everything seem epic. You will never see a van fall off a bridge more dramatically.

But more importantly, the strong cast, action, complexity, originality and emotional depth round it all out. The characters are especially successful in explaining everything to us without seeming too “talky.” But even after a second viewing, you may find yourself discussing the plot with others.

I, for one, tend to be someone who usually never remembers my dreams—at least in any detail. Inception is a film that makes me wish I could take this journey but also fear what I might find there.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

posted by Ian in Flicks and have No Comments

The Social Network

There’s an old saying that goes something like, “Behind every successful man is a woman.” Already a billionaire and still under 30, Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook and TIME Magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year, is a modern-day success story. Like other technological pioneers before him—Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs—Zuckerberg took an idea in college and turned it into one of the world’s top corporations. But in each case, there was that first moment of inspiration that set everything in motion. Was it a woman? Is it possible that an ex-girlfriend is to thank/blame for Facebook?

The Social Network opens on Zuckerberg (convincingly portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend at a restaurant in 2003. There are a few details about Zuckerberg that become evident during this initial conversation—he’s extremely arrogant, has no sense of tact, and he’s completely unaware of it. We wonder how his girlfriend maintained a relationship, while he doesn’t understand why she’s breaking up with him.

A frequent blogger, Zuckerberg goes home and begins ranting online about his ex, and then… that first spark ignites. The correct combination of alcohol and rejection comes together to make magic. The time appears at the bottom of the screen the same way it does in a film based on a true story that says This is an important moment in history, and we realize we are watching the birth of Facebook.

By hacking into the online photo directories of Harvard’s residence halls, and with the help of his math whiz roommate, Eduardo Saverin, he builds a Web site (“FaceMash”) that allows users to pick the hotter of two random female coeds. (The computer geek in me delighted in listening to Zuckerberg explain to us the techniques he uses to bypass the various firewalls, as well as Eduardo’s method of ranking photos with the same algorithm a chess program uses to rank players.)

The site is an instant success (over 20,000 page hits in four hours), and the drain on bandwidth nearly causes the campus’ network to shut down. Although this results in the first of Zuckerberg’s many clashes with authority (not to mention the female student population), it grabs the attention of the Winklevoss twins—two affluent upperclassmen—and their business associate who hire him to code The Harvard Connection, their idea for a university-based social network. Zuckerberg agrees to help, but the innovator in him decides to build his own site and improve on their concept. After a couple months of work and collaboration with a team of Harvard’s brightest, thefacebook.com becomes a campus phenomenon with half of the student population registered and expansion to other schools before “the Winkelvi” are aware it exists and that their idea is now irrelevant. Drama ensues.

As Facebook’s popularity spreads to other universities across the country, it captures the interest of entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake playing the smarminess to a hilt) who realizes the once-in-a-generation potential behind the site. His big picture visions appeal to Zuckerberg, and in no time, Facebook makes the move from cool Web site to a presence that brings in such business partners as PayPal and Microsoft. Meanwhile, Eduardo, now Facebook’s CFO, finds himself increasingly left out and estranged from the company’s progress. In all fairness to him, Zuckerberg is never actually shown as a bad guy, and indeed, he wants to include his friend, but business is business, Eduardo is in over his head, and a lot of it seems to be happening even faster than Zuckerberg can control it. More drama ensues.

Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires and directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men), The Social Network is a fast-paced, dialogue-intensive story of big ideas, big brains, betrayal, and seduction. The creators have made a point to let us know that this a somewhat romanticized version of real events. I read the account of one team member from the early days who said their lives were much less exciting than their film counterparts. Let’s face it, though—there’s a part of us that wants to believe that the creators of Facebook weren’t just slaving away at computer screens day and night. We don’t mind imagining they lived in a world of pool dives from the roof, all-night parties, and college girls who drank and played video games in their house all day.

More than just drama and partying, though, The Social Networking is a celebration of Zuckerberg’s genius. To hear him explain everything from the visual layout to the status wall is like watching the pieces of a puzzle come together. One brilliant takeaway involves a friend asking Zuckerberg if a certain girl in his class is dating anyone. While remarking that girls don’t wear around signs indicating such information, he realizes people will be more than happy to let everyone know their personal details. Bam! The “relationship status” line in a Facebook profile is born.

Ultimately, though, this is the story of online communication, how it has affected our daily lives, and how the lack of communication, especially in the digital age can strain the closest of friendships—those who can’t keep up with it get left behind. I must admit, I graduated from college a few years before Facebook made its debut, but I often wish it had been around in those days. Back in the B.F. (Before Facebook) years, we always wondered what happened to old friends or significant others. Are they married? Do they have kids? What are they doing these days? I’ve heard numerous firsthand accounts of people (including myself) who have reconnected with others through Facebook after years or even decades. We can instantly share our day-to-day lives and thoughts with anyone who agrees to be our “friends.”

It’s interesting, then, that the man behind Facebook is able to correctly intuit how people want to interact with each other while lacking his own close-knit relationships. It’s even implied that his lawsuits were settled out of court because a judge or jury wouldn’t be particularly sympathetic to his personality. Mark Zuckerberg is a young man who has it all—wealth, fame, and his own company with cross-generational appeal and more than 600 million subscribers worldwide. But when it comes down to it, he still thinks about that one girl. The one who started it all. The one friend he doesn’t have.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

posted by Ian in Flicks and have Comments (3)