Two years ago, three of my favorite ten movies of the year were animated. I like films that are creative, I like cartoons, and I like smart kids films. This movie is not really all that creative, it certainly is not smart but it is an animated cartoon. I’m not sure why Sony is doing a cartoon movie featuring what were essentially Universal characters in the first half of the last century. As I think about it, maybe their emphasis has been to take cartoons and put them to live action (ala “the Flintstones”) rather than going the other way. Universal does have “Despicable Me 2” coming, so I know there is an animation presence there, but somehow this is not theirs. From a financial point of view, maybe they wish they had this but from an artistic one, they can live without it.

Hotel Transylvania is really a movie made for little kids. I mean five years and under. The characters are simplistic, the story is well worn, and plot points feel like they are lifted from a thousand kids movies in the past. When the Monsters jump on stage and start playing music like a rock band for no reason what so ever, I felt like I was in an episode of “Scooby Doo” or “The Archies”. I know I am showing my age with those two references, but that is basically how the movie feels. If characters from kids cartoons still do this, then fill in your own example.

The look of the movie is fine but not dynamic or unique. Everything is passable as a castle, or vampire or werewolf, but none of it feels very interesting and when the fart jokes start coming, I was ready to give up. The movie actors giving voice to the Monsters are not doing anything to make the characters really sing, it feels like they are going through the motions and collecting their paychecks. I did not hate the movie, I just did not care about anything in it. It is a little better than Madagascar 3, but it doesn’t have the Rainbow Afro/Circus song to make it memorable. If you have tiny children who want a Halloween style movie, this may be OK, we waited on “Frankenweenie” because we thought it would stay in theaters a little longer. Let’s hope it is better than this inconsequential effort.

James Bond 007 Celebration Episode 2

A couple of weeks ago, I started my 50th anniversary celebration of James Bond. This date marks the actual debut of Dr. No, so it is a pretty safe bet that there will be Bond tributes all over the net. I checked on Google, but they did not have one of their trademark logos celebrating 007. All is well however, I just finished watching the EPIX exclusive documentary “Everything or Nothing: The Secret World of 007” and it satisfied my needs for a Bond fix. Today, as I was watching “Taken 2” with my daughter Amanda, we saw the trailer for “Skyfall”, I leaned over and said “35 more days” and we both gave out a shout of anticipation.

The set up for the current project is to rate the 007 films by the actors outings as James Bond. Since Lazenby was only Bond once, he started us off. The fact that he never made another Bond film is not really a tragedy, he was not really an actor, and subsequent Bonds have been more than sufficient to replace him. I do think on the other hand that it is a tragedy that Timothy Dalton did not get to portray Bond more than the two opportunities afforded him. My friend Art and I both thought he looked the most like the James Bond we had envisioned in our heads when we read the books (at least when we could get Sean Connery out of our minds). Dalton is an excellent actor and he did a fine job restoring some dignity to Bond after some of the over the top Roger Moore outings. The one thing that he seemed to lack was a deftness with a comic line. He always brought great intensity to the role but lost the light touch that the audience had grown used to.

Anyway, my ranking of his films is complicated. I think both movies are excellent, but they are both fairly grim. My final decision is a personal reflection of my mood at the times I saw these films in theaters.

“The Living Daylights”

This ends up as my second favorite Bond, even though it is the more “Bond” like of the two Dalton films. The scenario of the assassin who Bond is supposed to kill but instead merely prevents from caring out their orders is straight from the original story. A pretty face stays his hand. In the original short story, that is as far as it went. Here an elaborate set up of spy vendetta, corruption in the KGB, and ultimately a little detente, fill in the story.

I like the characters of the duplicitous Russian general, and the American mercenary who sees himself as a war historian/General. Their plot to steal from the Russian arms stockpiles, sell the arms on the open market and exploit the British Secret Service to do so, reminded me a bit of the intrigue in “From Russia with Love”, with two sides being played while a third is profiting.

There are a couple of long sequences in Afghanistan, and at the time it was easy to look at the Russian quagmire and shake our heads at a distance. Today, it is a little more difficult to do that.

There is a solid sequence in which the Russian General fakes his own kidnapping from British intelligence. The monosyllabic blond Russian strongman, infiltrates the safe house and engages in a series of hand to hand combat situations with other British Agents. I always liked the fact that the MI6 guy in the kitchen was almost a match for the guy. Bond was not alone in her Majesty’s Secret Service, and the other guys were competent as well. Of course Bond is special, which is why he rises like cream to the top of the heap.

The girl in the story is the weak link. She is pretty but not any more convincing as a cellist than she was as a sniper. The European scenes and chases are effective and the pre title sequence was good looking although a little confusing the first time through.

License to Kill

“License to Kill”, which in my mind should have remained “License Revoked”, is at the top of my Dalton list for a couple of very personal reasons. It is the last James Bond film I saw with my best friend.We had seen nine Bond films together when they first opened. Art died during the six year interval between this and the first Brosnan film. It is also the first Bond film I took my daughter Amanda to. She was a year old and slept in the car seat that I deposited in the seat next to me in the theater. When she did wake up, she never fussed or in any way bothered anyone else in the theater, but it was an early matinee that was sparsely attended.

I also like the movie because it is one of the most violent of the Bond films. It’s subject is personal vengeance, and one of the classic scenes from the novel “Live and Let Die”, ended up in this story. The feeding of Felix Leiter to a shark and his subsequent delivery with a sadistic note reading “He disagreed with something that ate him”, is a classic nasty piece of work from Ian Fleming himself. It is one of the reasons that the original novels were criticized for their sadism. The character of Milton Krest is from a different short story in the same collection as “The Living Daylights”, and the punishment of the villains girl by being whipped with the trail from a stingray is also a gruesome slice of that short story collection.

There is a strong leading lady, a good plot that makes use of Felix for something more than simple exposition, and a real villain. Actually we get to see Bond dispose of two thoroughly disagreeable bad guys, one of them played by Benicio Del Toro. The main villain is Sanchez, brought to life by the truly great character actor Robert Davi. He has flare, intelligence and a brutal personality to match those other characteristics. His character could also be a real person, the Mexican drug lords are probably even worse so it is not really an over the top visualization of a drug cartel story.  I also think the tanker truck stunt toward the end of the picture is a memorable Bond style trick. Throw in Wayne Newton, and Q in the field for some comic relief and you get a pretty good package despite some script issues.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

The James Bond 50th Anniversary Celebration will Return.

Taken 2

There was almost no chance I would not like this movie, but there was also almost no chance that it would be as great as the original. Apparently I can predict the future because I was right on both counts. Taken 2 is a satisfying sequel to the original revenge story from 2008. It is hard to believe that it was nearly five years ago that the original came out. Liam Neeson has become a go to action star in his late fifties and early sixties and he looks completely credible doing so. In the time between the two Taken films, he has built up his bonifides by playing a series of tough guys in starring and featured roles.

I’ve enjoyed his work since I first saw him in “Excalibur” back in 1981, but in the last few years he has become a personal favorite. It may be that since Gene Hackman is no longer working, I am looking for an actor to trust when it comes to parts that feature traditional masculine traits. Tough and intelligent, with a sense of purpose in the way they walk and talk. My daughter would probably say I have a “mancrush” on him, but it is really just that he embodies a lot of the mannerisms and directness that actors like Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Hackman possess. They all play real types much more effectively than any other role. I have sort of avoided the “Clash of the Titans” films, because the costumes and hair styles undermine the very things I like about Neeson as an actor. He is not affected in his portrayals, there is no method angst and no tics or traits that seem obviously to be actors crutches. An action movie like “Taken 2” requires a sense of heightened reality, but it has to be grounded in what is real.

This go round, Neeson’s character Bryan Mills is the subject of a revenge plot, created by the families of the characters he wiped out in the first film. If there was any way to make sense of the notion that someone would be “Kidnapped” again, this is the lone plausible stream. Otherwise, the movie would seem like lightning striking the same spot or someone winning the lottery a couple of times in a row. The basic set up takes place pretty quickly and I think that may be a weakness of the film. The head of the family of gangsters is cast well and the Albanian environment seems believable, but we get no sense of the scope of the group and their power. I think some plot development that followed their planning of the whole revenge would be helpful. The only reference we get to the set up of their plan, was a scene with the corrupt French security official who was Bryan’s friend in the first movie. After that, we barely see the evil doers except as faceless drivers of chase vehicles or thugs shooting innocent bystanders for almost no reason. In the first “Taken”, Neeson has to track a guy down with only a brief vocal clue as to his identity. Along the way he interacts with members of the crime family for brief moments, which give him an opportunity to practice his spy-craft, and allows us to loath some of the bad guys individually. In this film, we see the bad guys working but without much sense of animosity or purpose; except for the head man. All of Bryan’s tools are used this time against the setting or environment of the abduction. We can see he is clever in tracking the path of the van that is whisking him away, but none of his tricks has anything to do with the people involved (until the very last).

It’s not that the first bunch of gangsters were so interesting because they were not. The weakness is that only two of the bad guys seem motivated. The best scene that brings us closest to the set up that I think I needed a little more, takes place with Bryan hanging from a bar in cellar and the evil “Godfather” character gloating over him. The threats he makes and the violence that he acts upon do mark him as the one person that we most want to see get a comeuppance. While the resolution works, it lacked the soul satisfying (or destroying if you are a pacifist) gut reaction of some of the first films multiple climax moments (Yeah, I see how it reads). To be honest there was never going to be a moment like in the first film when Bryan nails the bad guy in the legs, hooks up the electricity and then just walks out. It is a hard moment to top. This version tries to remind us that Bryan’s character is not a monster, although he is a death dealing demon of vengeance. There is some slight hint of the emotional release we want, but it was less orgasmic than I hoped for.

There are some terrific fight sequences. The one where Neeson takes on a half dozen or so of the criminal crew with a piece of a baton or re-bar was exciting and well staged. There were a couple of shootout scenes that had the kind of tension and resolution that an action fan is looking for. The car chase sequences were only mildly effective to me, I think the crowded marketplace setting and the lack of a point of view from the pursuers weakened the suspense a little, but that could just be me. The set up of the story focuses too much on Bryan and his family drama, and not quite enough on the hateful (and should be hated) villains. It still works and an 80% dose of Liam Neeson whoop ass still makes for a great two hours at the movies.


When I saw the trailer for this film and that Bruce Willis was in it, I assumed it was simply another in a long line of fall action pictures that he has been in for the last few years; “Surrogates” and “Red” come to mind. They are enjoyable pictures and sometimes have something going for them, but the expectations are not really great. It did not bode well that it would be Joesph Gordon-Levitt’s third or fourth film of the summer. Sometimes an actor gets hot and then the market gets over-saturated with product that has been around but was not on the front burner for the studio (Jennifer Lawrence in “House at the End of the Street”). So while I expected to see this, and liked the idea of a science fiction action film with Bruce Willis, I did not highly anticipate it. I was not looking for blogs that discussed it, I did not seek out clips that would shed light on the story, and this weekend, I did not read any reviews of the movie. For that I am truly grateful. This is a film where a minimal amount of information is needed before seeing it and anything more would spoil it. If you are planning on seeing this, stop reading now and come back after you are done and we can compare notes. I won’t be giving up any plot points but by necessity, I will have to reveal a couple of tonal changes that occur in the movie and you should not be sitting there waiting for them.

This may be my favorite film of the year so far. It was intricately plotted, well acted, brought to life in a coherent manner and made me want to see it again immediately. The title of the film gives away some of the issues the story is concerned with. Are we in a perpetual loop of inevitable history or can we change it? Every Science Fiction film that has used time travel as a theme is ultimately faced with these kinds of questions. The first time I remember seeing this used as a plot point was a “Twilight Zone” episode with Russell Johnson (The Professor from Gilligan’s Island) in a story attempting to stop the assassination of Lincoln. It has been used for serious dark stories like the “Terminator” series and for light comedy in the “Back to the Future” trilogy. “Looper” is concerned with both the possibilities of changing the past to alter the future and the morality of taking any action that may potentially alter the future. From the start of the movie and in the trailer, we learn that Time Travel is being used for criminal purposes of the worst kind. The limits that have been placed on the technology make it perfect for a particular kind of murder and apparently not much else. This is a plot issue that jumps up immediately and if you can accept the premise than the story should work. If you start exploring other possibilities and seeing the holes in the set up, everything else is going to fall flat. Fortunately, the fast pace of the story at the beginning steam rolls us along and before you know it you believe the circumstances.

Without going through all the characters and plot points, I want to point out how well the film works as an entertainment. So many movies these days are cookie cutter versions of a story that there is not much suspense and certainly no surprise in the outcome. I often feel like a product on an assembly line, waiting for the next standard piece to be added. Many film makers have attempted to maneuver around this by placing surprise twists into stories where the twists are either not really surprising or are simply implausible. “Looper” manages to constantly throw in another element or plot point that makes us reconsider our position as an audience repeatedly. It does this without resorting to cheats which have no connection to the story as set up. The movie it most reminded me of is not “Inception” which I can imagine many will compare it to, but “Memento”; interestingly both of those films came from Christopher Nolan and one of them featured the star of this movie. It is not that the writer/director Rian Johnson is stealing from Nolan, it is simply that the emotional depth of the characters as revealed by the passage of time is so similar. I thought “Inception” and “Shutter Island” were basically the same plot and starred the same actor. This movie feels distinctive and smart, without becoming overly enamored of the lead character.

Stories in movies need compelling characters to motivate us to watch. Usually we like the heroic but sometimes we will live with an antihero. Straight villains as lead characters have worked but in my opinion only in rare cases. “Sin City”, another Willis film, is an example of a movie I disliked because not a single character felt worthwhile to me. At first I was afraid that was what was going to happen here. “Joe” the main character, is a murdering drug addict who only cares for himself and the criminal life he has acquired. We are not given any interesting back story, he does not possess a personality that we can latch on to (like any of the irredeemable but interesting characters in a Tarantino film). His life is on a downward, nihilistic spiral that no one would want to watch for two hours, regardless of the action in the movie. We get a brief summary of that life in a montage of events that sets up the older Joe’s function in the film. It is with the introduction of the older version of Joe, that the character starts to develop into something we can care about. Our point of view about the two versions of Joe, shifts from loyalty and admiration towards one and then back again. The story is about redemption and what a person is willing to do to gain that redemption. It gets a lot darker than a science fiction film might be expected to do.

Midway through the film, there are some dramatic shifts in the story and the focus of the film changes in very noticeable ways. As I was watching, I almost felt as if I was watching a reel from another movie, accidentally inserted into this film. Of course it does start to connect all the threads of the story together and bring back into focus some of the ideas that were presented in the early part of the film. New characters appear, and there is a reason for their presence. They add a personable dimension to the movie and at the same time begin to bring in the real issues that the story is grappling with. In the long run the story is not about the survival of the two versions of Joe, but rather it becomes about which version of the redemption story is going to prevail. I liked the questions the movie wants us to ask ourselves and I like the solution that we get as the future is being revealed to us. All of this might sound a bit mysterious if you are reading this before seeing the film. I know that might be frustrating so let me get to the hard stuff that everyone can appreciate.

The action in the movie is well staged and easy to follow. The actors do a fine job selling the character they are playing at the point they are supposed to be playing them. There are some good science fiction elements that do not strain credulity but actually feel as if this might be a world toward which we are slipping. The technology is not over the top and mostly exists to service story points, sometimes it is not even referred to or explained. The two leads are excellent and it is definitely Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s movie, but Bruce Willis has his best dramatic role in years and he runs with it. There is a quality in his version of Joe that reminded me of his lost soul in “Twelve Monkeys”. He is still a tough guy, but the certainty of his moral position is never entirely clear. There is quite a bit of violence to go with the ideas and it is often brutal. When we see how the crime lord in the present manages to get an escaped looper from the future back in line, it is horrifying and brilliantly realized. I think I need to see it again to make sure I really saw everything I think the movie put into my head. It may be that my mind was working out things so much that I just created my own justification for the movie. Of course I don’t think that is a bad thing.