Frozen Planet Review

           Discovery Channel’s Attenborough nature productions (or more probably known as the Planet Earth style tv shows to American viewers) are always visually stunning but run a little too long for their own good.  The latest installment, Frozen Planet, is no exception.  Unfortunately, for Frozen Planet it focuses on such a limited subject matter that the problems with its predecessors are even further amplified.

            Frozen Planet follows life at the north and south poles.  Unlike its predecessors it actually delves into other subjects besides the flora and fauna of the setting.  Later episodes in the series deal with human life at the poles as well as a discussion on global warming. 

            The global warming episode was of particular note as it was involved in a scandal over whether the episode should be even aired in the United States for political reasons.  You can clearly tell the episode was included on a last minute whim as David Attenborough narrates it (he also narrated the original BBC version of the series) instead of Alec Baldwin (who narrated all of the previous episodes in the Discovery Channel version of the series).  Here comes the shows first major fault.  Attenborough is clearly a much better fit for narrating this series.  He just seems a natural at it.  This is in stark contrast to the narrating style of Alec Baldwin who tries to disguise his voice with a much more serious tone.  Unfortunately, it does not work and it just seems like Baldwin is trying to labor through mimicking a foreign accent.  I highly doubt the use of a notable American celebrity for narration duties would bring many viewers to the show so it just seems like a waste.  It seems to be a poor move on Discovery’s part to ignore Attenborough’s superior work only to give it a sneak peak in the finale.

            The series is directed by a crew led by Alastair Fothergill (who led the crews from Planet Earth and Life as well).  The series, as usual from this crew, features some jaw dropping sequences.  Of particular note is a chase between a large pack of wolves and a large herd of bison, but the series best sequences are those set underwater.  Almost every other shot under the water either features an innovative shot or a jaw dropping moment between animals.

            The series spends so much time trying to unearth every little detail from so little about the poles that they actually end up with too much material too fit into this series.  In its final presentation, the series comes across as disjointed.  The first few episodes have a collective theme as they showcase different seasons in the poles.  However, the second half of the series seems to focus on a completely unrelated subject from week to week.  I’m also pretty sure I saw many sequences multiple times through the course of the series.  The series would have worked much better as a four or five episode series (the human survival and global warming episodes especially felt out of place) instead of the seven episode series that was presented.

            Despite all of this, Frozen Planet has too much to offer to be completely ignored.  Just realize before watching that this is a lesser installment in this nature documentary series.  It is a good series, just don’t be coming in expecting the next Planet Earth.


The Cabin in the Woods Review

The Cabin in the Woodsis easily one of the most interesting films in cinematic history.  But is it a good film?  Despite its faults, The Cabin in the Woods is an entertaining film that does enough right to be one of the better films that will come out this year.  The film’s parts may be better than the sum of its parts, but the parts that work, work really well.

The Cabin in the Woodsfollows a group of college students that are going on vacation at a remote cabin.  At the same time, a group of technicians at a laboratory prepare to work on their latest project.  The two storylines do ultimately connect in horror film fashion, but to say anymore will ruin the many surprises in this film.  The film is directed by debut director (but veteran television genre writer) Drew Goddard and is based off a script written by Goddard and geek legend Joss Whedon.  Goddard’s direction is surprisingly strong here as he raises the film above its horror film foundation.  The film at times even becomes a deconstruction of the entire horror genre.  A strong vision is always necessary to effectively do a deconstruction.  Goddard clearly has that vision.

The script is where some of the issues of the film occur.  The film tries to tackle multiple storylines (and at times multiple genres) during the course of its runtime.  While the visual style of the film allows these storylines to mesh, the script doesn’t do much to relate these storylines.  Also causing a problem is that one storyline in particular is terribly written.  This particular storyline just uses every cliché of the horror genre and offers nothing new (which is something all of the other storylines have in spades).

Ultimately, the script does a lot more than most films even think about doing.  It tries to make you look at one of film’s less critically acclaimed genres (horror) in a new light.  While not all of it works, it is easily one of the most ambitious scripts in recent memory.

The acting is also surprisingly strong for a horror film.  Kristen Connolly plays the lead.  While all she is doing is playing the stereotypical teenage horror lead, she does it very well.  Also helping her is a script that takes her character in some surprising directions in the film’s second half.  Actually, all of the teenage characters are played well (with the exception of Jesse Williams as Holden). 

The storyline at the laboratory involves the more experienced actors and you can tell.  Richard Jenkins and Amy Acker are solid as two of the “scientists”, but it is Bradley Whitford who steals the show.  Whitford (despite being most remembered for his role on The West Wing) is one of the funniest actors around, and this film takes full advantage of that. 

While not everything in this film works, The Cabin in the Woods succeeds with a talented cast, a strong second half and the ambition of two masters of genre films/television.


Wrath of the Titans Review

           When Clash of the Titans was released back in 2010, it seemed people were using the horrible 3D usage as an excuse to further ravage the film.  While that film wasn’t anything great (and was nowhere near the quality of the original film), it wasn’t anything to make such a huge fuss over.  Wrath of the Titans continues the franchise in that vein as a solid entry that improves upon the first film.

            In this sequel, Perseus is living a normal life with his son after Io (a sorely missed Gemma Arterton) has died.  However, that normality is doomed to be short lived as Hades and Ares are hatching a plot to help Kronos (the father of the Gods and the first appearance of an actual Titan in the series) escape from Tartarus (the jail of the Gods).  Jonathan Liebesman takes over in the director’s chair from a script by Greg Berlanti, David Leslie Johnson and Dan Mazeau.  While Liebesman is a definite improvement over Louis Leterrier as director, the screenplay doesn’t fair so well.  There is little attempt to flesh out any of the characters.  The dialogue is subpar and the film’s ending leaves much to be desired.  However, the screenplay does one thing right.  It actually develops a theme, which is something most blockbusters fail to do.  The film ends up having a distinguishable theme about the relationships between fathers and sons.

            However, it is Liebesman’s direction that is the highlight of the film.  He may not know how to handle a story, but this is a film about action.  Liebesman delivers on that.  Most of the action scenes are expertly handled.  The opening fight scene has a stunning tracking shot and is well choreographed.  A later fight scene involving Cyclops has some ingenious mechanisms to it.  The only time Liebesman falters in this department is when he goes for a “bigger is more” approach in the final fight scene.

            The acting is a mixed bag.  Sam Worthington seems right at home with his role as Perseus, but it doesn’t involve any serious acting.  Rosamund Pike is this film’s female lead, although she isn’t given much to do.  That is such a shame and a real waste of talent.  Bill Nighy and Edgar Ramirez play two new (to the series) gods.  Nighy fares much better than Ramirez.  Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Danny Huston all benefit from added screentime.  Neeson and Fiennes are awesome and they give the viewers hope that these two will have a Schindler’s Listreunion in a much more substantial film than this one.

            For those who complained about the visual effects in the last film, you will be happy to know that they are much better in this film.  They aren’t anything groundbreaking, but some of the effects (especially the Chimera in the opening fight scene) are very lifelike.  In fact, the entire visual design of this film is top notch (from the set to the costumes to the cinematography).

            While this certainly won’t be anywhere near my top 10 of the year, Wrath of the Titans is a solid and fun time at the theater.


5 Reasons Why Children of Men Is One of Cinema's Greatest Films (And Why You Should Vote For It As LAMB Movie of the Month)

When Alfonso Cuaron released Children of Men in late 2006 he delivered us his masterpiece.  Children of Men is one of the great science-fiction/dystopian films of the 21stcentury.  While the film may be most known for its single-shot takes and its jaw dropping cinematography courtesy of the great Emmanuel Lubezki, there is a lot more to the film than that.  Here are 5 reasons (besides its cinematography) why Children of Menis one of the best films in cinematic history:

1. It takes risks

When I first watched Children of Men, I was surprised to learn that it was based on a book, The Children of Men by P.D. James.  I eventually picked up the book and read it.  The book taught me that Alfonso Cuaron and his screenwriting team made a film that wasn’t afraid to deviate from its source material.  Supporting characters in the book had different personalities in the film, the antagonist of the book was changed in the film and even Theo’s character journey deviates from the book.  All of this leads to a film that rises above its source material.  The film is able to hone in on a particular theme and let the visual aspects of the film take center stage (something the book, with all of its in-your-face messages, cannot do).

2. Alfonso Cuaron

Speaking of the visual aspects, if you thought that Alfonso Cuaron wasn’t one of the great visual artists in the industry after Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, you must be believing in him now.  The grim reality of a world on the verge of an apocalypse has never been darker, and yet Cuaron is able to deliver enough moments of beauty, nature and hope that we never stop believing.  Cuaron has delivered one of the best cinematic worlds yet, and compliments all of this with some of cinema’s most memorable scenes.  Very few (if any) directors could have handled the scenes of the birth and its aftermath.  The silence that surrounds the cry of a baby in the middle of a battlefield is one of the most jaw-dropping experiences I have ever had while watching a film.

3. Clive Owen

I have never been sold on Clive Owen until this film.  The role of Theo Faron gives Owen nothing flashy to work with.  There is no “Oscar” scene in it for him.  In fact, it is a major achievement that Owen was able to pull of this performance at all.  He is playing the stereotypical good guy.  Everything the guy does is because it is the right thing to do.  While actors don’t get much credit for roles like Theo Faron, they are the hardest type to pull off.  How do you make a guy that does everything right interesting?  Clive Owen answers that with a performance that handles all of the nuances of the script.  While most of Theo’s motivations are never spelled out for you (another highlight of the film is the script), you still get them through Owen’s performance.

4. Production Design

Alfonso Cuaron’s direction had a lot to do with the world building that went on in this film, but it is nothing without the art direction.  The decaying landscape of England is a horrifying sight, but just look at all of the little details that were incorporated to make that work.  There are the buses with the pro-government ads on constant replay.  There are the cars with the dashboard on the windows.  There’s all of the anti-government graffiti on the walls of the city.  It’s a complete world that you enter when watching this film.

5. It’s a film for our time

A lot changes in six years.  Economic times were much better when Children of Men was released.  The iPhone hadn’t been released yet.  Sudan was still one country.  Yet the themes of Children of Men are still extremely relevant to the world of today.  Children of Men has its own debate on the role of government that has become so prominent in American politics today.  Theo Faron represents a messiah like figure.  One that Americans were clearly looking for in Rick Santorum when they voted for him (or Barack Obama when they voted for him in 2008).  However, the entire atmosphere of this film is one that almost everyone around the world is experiencing right now.  The film presents an atmosphere where darkness is all around us.  Yet when you look closely there is hope everywhere.

Now back to why I wrote this article now.  Over at the LAMB (, they are currently running a LAMB Movie of the Month poll, which I have entered Children of Men into.  If you would like to hear an entire episode of the LAMBcast devoted to Children of Men or read more insightful articles on the film, please vote for it at the poll here or at the LAMB here.  Vote quick as the poll ends in a week.

Children of Men was released on December 25, 2006.  It was directed by Alfonso Cuaron.  It was nominated for 3 Academy Awards (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing) and currently ranks 8th in my Film Hall of Fame.

John Carter Review

The hero’s journey has been used to death at this point in film history.  It seems every major blockbuster has some version of it.  Even when Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars in 1917 the hero’s journey was not that original.  So it should not be very surprising to hear that some of the story elements within John Carter (an adaptation of Burroughs’ book) come across as stale.  However, John Carter found the right director in Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) as he is able to inject a lot of interesting and exciting elements into the world of Barsoom.

John Carterfollows the eponymous character as he is accidentally whisked away to Mars (which the locals refer to as Barsoom).  There he finds two groups of humans in the middle of a bloody war and a species of aliens that tries to live without any interference from the humans.  Also in the fold is a group of mysterious shape-shifters that may hold the key to a power of unimaginable lengths.  With such a complex story, it would seem odd to hand the reins over to a director who has never directed a live-action film.  Surprisingly, Andrew Stanton’s direction makes him seem like the perfect fit for the job.  The film takes a while to get going (the script is doing so much at the beginning that it becomes difficult to get into the film at first), but when it does Stanton does a phenomenal job of world building.  The onscreen representation of Barsoom easily rivals Pandora or any of the Star Wars planets.  It’s an interesting place and the script and direction adds so much depth to them.  While the characters never reach the level of depth that the setting does, there is enough there for the lack of character development to never be an irritating problem.

The acting is nothing special with one exception.  Lynn Collins delivers a breakthrough role as the Princess.  The character is not well written, but Collins brings so much charisma and heroism to the role that she will be one of the first things you can recall about this film.  Taylor Kitsch is a solid lead but comes nowhere close to bringing Tim Riggins to the big screen.  Dominic West and Mark Strong do their normal villainous bit and Willem Dafoe does an interesting attempt at a motion capture performance.

The technical aspects are all top notch.  The art direction is interesting and ultimately splendid.  The costume design, while not extravagant, fits perfectly for the film.  The visual effects and sound design may be some of the best you will see all year.  My only recommendation would be that you see it in 2D as the 3D elements only hinder the viewing experience.

John Carter may have some pacing problems early on, but it ultimately builds an interesting world that deserves another visit there and a kickass heroine that deserves another turn on the big screen.  While that will never happen, you might as well just accept the good elements in this film.


Game Change Review

Jay Roach has done it again.  The man most known for directing silly comedies like the Austin Powers films and Dinner For Schmucks has returned to HBO to create another memorable political thriller.  He first did it in 2008 with Recount, which centered on the 2000 Florida election controversy.  His latest effort, Game Change, centers on the 2008 election and the rise of Sarah Palin.  With a phenomenal performance from Julianne Moore and one of the strongest scripts ever written for a tv movie from Danny Strong, this may be a tv movie for the record books.

Game Change, despite being based off a book that covers almost all of the aspects of the 2008 election, focuses solely on the McCain campaign choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate.  While Jay Roach and Danny Strong’s choice to focus on just this one storyline seems odd on paper, it works really well on screen.  Instead of an epic account (that could have easily crumbled under its own weight) of the 2008 election, we get an intimate portrayal of one of the most controversial figures in recent American history.  Roach and Strong do the impossible and make a larger than life figure (Palin) seem like a believable human being with a complete story arc.  While the characterization of Palin isn’t anything we haven’t seen before on television, it was smart on Strong’s part to copy from the best.  This Sarah Palin has a very striking resemblance to Breaking Bad’s Walter White.  The both have an ability that no one else has (Palin’s ability to attract people to her and White’s ability to cook 100% pure meth), they both have huge egos and both get involved in a shady business (politics for Palin and the drug industry for White).  Of course in both cases these things do not mix well.  To top off this connection there is even a scene in this film that is nearly the same as Walter White's "I Won" phone call.

However, this Sarah Palin could not be complete without Julianne Moore’s powerhouse performance.  Moore has somehow made Tina Fey’s portrayal of Palin seem amateurish, and it was a smart move on Jay Roach’s part to include clips of Fey’s Palin performance to show just how much of a step up Moore’s performance is.  Fey’s performance is a caricature.  Moore’s is a performance for the ages.  The rest of the cast struggles to keep up with Moore.  Woody Harrelson is the closest thing to a male lead as a major political strategist in the McCain campaign.  He is one of the few who can hold her own against Moore.  The only other one who is able to do so is Sarah Paulson as a secretary for Palin.  Surprisingly the weak link of the cast is Ed Harris.  Harris seems to be just playing a random political figure.  He makes no attempt to recreate John McCain and the makeup, hairstyling and wardrobe do no help for him either.  This was a major miscasting.

By addressing complex subjects like the nature of power and celebrity, Game Change is able to rise above its tv movie roots.  However, the real highlight of the film is a performance from Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin that makes you wonder why there is a need for any other portrayals of the political figure.


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