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Review: Inception


Christopher Nolan's 2000 breakthrough film Memento set up an expectation for complex, intelligent storytelling. Inception secures Nolan's reputation as an outstanding director and writer.

In Memento, Nolan skillfully turned a relatively simple story into a complex thriller by toying with the timeline. In Inception, he's taken a complex story and simplified it by focusing on two things: one final job and the fundamental emotional reason why it's both necessary and more risky than his colleagues realize.

Inception is a science fiction thriller about Extractors, who construct shared dreaming scenarios to steal secrets. Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team take corporate espionage to a new level, and after a botched job, are offered a job they can't refuse -- an Inception. Unlike Extraction, where thoughts and memories are stolen, Inception is planting a thought. Inception is thought to be impossible, but Cobb feels up to the job; after all, he's not only in no position to refuse, but his payment includes something he would do anything for.

Review: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky


Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

Another chapter in the life of history's most influential woman in fashion continues with the screen adaptation of Chris Greenhalgh's 2002 novel Coco & Igor as Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (French title: Chanel Coco & Igor Stravinsky). This dramatization of Chanel's alleged affair with a man as influential and diverse as herself picks up not long after where last year's critically acclaimed by Anne Fontaine, Coco Before Chanel, ends. Although the two films have much in common, there's less appeal and passion to this adaptation.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky begins with a scandal, but not quite the one immediately expected -- the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s modernist ballet, "Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring)." Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) is nervously awaiting for the curtain to rise as Ballet Russes impresario/founder Sergei Diaghilev (Grigori Manoukov) and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (Marek Kossakowski) are frantically directing the dancers and orchestra. Within the first act, the classical music audience becomes enraged at the violent motif and dissonance of Stravinsky's work, so much that a riot breaks out and police must be called to calm the masses. Throughout the chaos, Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) quietly and intently observes the ballet and the crowd's reactions. She departs without meeting Stravinsky, but it's evident she's drawn to him.

Review: The Girl Who Played with Fire


The Girl Who Played with Fire

A few years ago, few people would have taken the phrase "Swedish crime thriller" seriously. Sweden has long been known for films as reserved as its culture; its cinematic output has consisted mostly of thoughtful, understated, often lethargic and slightly dreary films, few of which have generated much international interest. (There are obvious exceptions, of course. Masterpieces like The Seventh Seal vaulted Ingmar Bergman into the world's top echelon of filmmakers, and the indie vampire darling Let the Right One In was a not-so-surprising success in the Twilight-crazed U.S. and Europe.)

Sweden's cinematic reputation may change, however, with a trio of films based on Stieg Larsson's smashingly successful trilogy of crime novels, all international bestsellers. The first film, the taut and gripping The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has wowed critics and audiences alike in dozens of countries and has just been released on DVD in the U.S. -- read Jette's review for more details.

The series' second installment, The Girl Who Played with Fire (Swedish title: Flickan som lekte med elden), opens in Austin on Friday. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very tough act to follow, but The Girl Who Played with Fire is a smart, complex and chilling thriller that rivals its predecessor in most respects.

Review: The Sorcerer's Apprentice


What happens when Disney recycles one of its classics? In the case of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, it gets a perfectly genial summer fantasy action tale likely to please most audiences. Based on a 20th century short film based on an 18th century poem, Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure) has created an energetic if uneven adventure about a young man who inherits magical powers and along with his unwelcome mentor, tries to save the world.

"Der Zauberlehrling" was written by Goethe in 1797. In the original, an apprentice uses magic beyond his means to clean while his master is away, resulting in comical disaster. In 1940, the poem was adapted by Disney into an animated short featured in Fantasia, and remained so popular it was included in Fantasia 2000.

The original story has exploded from a simple mishap into a centuries-old battle between evil sorcerers (Morganians) and the good ones (Merlinians), with Balthazar (Nicolas Cage), the last of Merlin's apprentices, seeking out an heir to Merlin's power. After a brief and traumatic encounter, young David (Jay Baruchel) has put the episode behind him, only to have his life turned upside down again. Now Balthazar and David have to stop the Morganians from completing a particularly heinous spell that will end the world as we know it.

Review: Predators



How do you rate big dumb summer movies? Sometimes they can be clever, like the first Iron Man movie -- sometimes all you want is for them to entertain you without being annoying. Predators isn't fresh or new and it isn't even memorable, but on the other hand, you can enjoy some suspenseful scenes and even a few explosions without feeling bored or annoyed. In terms of summer blockbuster scale, that counts for a lot. You don't even have to know anything about the previous Predator movies -- in fact, maybe it's best if you don't.

Predators is so predictable that you can actually recite along with the dialogue, knowing exactly what the characters will say, and then feel a small sense of pride and accomplishment at having got it right. I made a bet with myself on the time and victim of the first death and was off by only about two minutes. The problem with having a number of character actors and little-known actors among well-known stars is that the audience has a pretty good idea of who's going to survive at least the first hour of the movie.

The characters don't reveal their names, which is appropriate because they are a collection of stereotypes and ass-kicking archetypes from the action-film genre. We've got the Tough Reluctant Leader (Adrien Brody), the Tough Military Chick (Alice Braga), the Mexican You Don't F*** With (Danny Trejo, natch), Silent Yakuza, Wise-Ass Serial Killer ... you get the idea. Oh, and one meek and seemingly out-of-place Doctor (Topher Grace). They each find themselves suddenly parachuting into an unfamiliar jungle, and after a few scuffles, all band together to find out what's going on.

Review: The Last Airbender


The Last Airbender

With The Last Airbender, I've officially given up on M. Night Shyamalan.

In 1999, the young writer and director was crowned the Next Big Thing for his smart and suspenseful The Sixth Sense, a nuanced and captivatingly creepy ghost story. But Shyamalan's follow-up efforts like Signs and The Village were disappointingly clichéd and forgettable. And now, the dreadfully dull and incoherent The Last Airbender (opening today in a far too wide release) has convinced me that Shyamalan has forgotten how to write and direct a watchable film. This may sound harsh, but if this lifeless, overwrought clunker is the best Shyamalan can do nowadays, I think his career has run its course.

A live-action film based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, a popular Nickelodeon animated series, The Last Airbender (apparently, some other obscure film already claimed the Avatar part) is a mystical tale about the relationship between humanity and nature's delicate balance. The film is set on a fictional Earth with four nations, Air, Earth, Fire, and Water; for a century, the Fire Nation has been waging a brutal war against the other three. The story follows the adventures of Aang (Noah Ringer), a young "airbender" who also is an "avatar" with the power to manipulate all four elements. Aang uses his extraordinary powers and enlists the help of Katara (Nicola Peltz), a "waterbender" (a lot of stuff gets bent in the film), and her brother, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone), to stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the others. Meanwhile, the evil Fire Nation leaders try to capture Aang.

Review: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse


Twilight Eclipse

While viewing online photos of Twilight-themed bedrooms earlier this week, I was a bit apprehensive about seeing the latest installment of the film series that's been anxiously awaited by hardcore fans. Walls covered with posters, full-size cutouts of Edward and patchwork quilts with scenes from the film were a bit disturbing, especially for the person who was obviously in her forties. However, a wall covered with images of Bella, Jake, and Edward struck a chord -- I was that pre-teen, with pictures of David Cassidy and Donny Osmond torn from the pages of Tiger Beat magazine. It was a humbling moment, and a prelude to my experience watching The Twilight Saga: EclipseEclipse is the most mature and palatable of the three romantic fantasy films so far. Melissa Rosenberg returns again as screenwriter, but it's director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night) who strips away much of the prior films' campiness and poorly-executed special effects and delivers an entertaining film.

Eclipse begins with an attack on a dark and ominous night in Seattle that sets a sinister tone to forthcoming events. A series of unexplained deaths and disappearances causes concern amongst the Cullen family. Even more disturbing is that the vampire Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard) has been prowling nearby to seek her revenge on Edward for killing her mate. Star-crossed lovers Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) are reunited -- she is determined for him to turn her into a vampire, so they can never be parted. Edward is reluctant to do so, but sets a stipulation that she's not too keen on.

Review: Grown Ups


Grown Ups

In a typically highbrow moment near the midpoint of Grown Ups, a character falls face-first into a pile of poop.

This moment, one of too many like it, is an apt metaphor for my experience watching this movie. A howlingly awful mess even by summer goofball comedy standards, Grown Ups (which opens today in wide release) may be, dare I say, the worst film I've ever seen.

You read that right: Grown Ups may be the worst film I've ever seen. If this sounds like an exaggeration, it isn't. I know whereof I speak, having suffered through many a horrid film, from the infamous classics (Plan 9 from Outer Space, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, and Ishtar) to the too-lame-to-be-infamous dreck that sullies the multiplexes year after year (there are many, but Porky’s II: The Next Day, Rocky III, and The Towering Inferno come to mind). I can assure you that Grown Ups holds its own against the worst of them. It really is that bad.

Review: Micmacs


Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet has finally returned to the darkly whimsical form that won him a place in the heart of many a cineaste with Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot), a hit at both Butt-Numb-a-Thon 2009 and SXSW 2010. The film opens today at Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar and the Arbor.

Through improbable circumstances, Bazil (Dany Boon) loses everything after a bullet gets lodged in his skull. Homeless, he's taken in by a motley crew of salvaging outcasts making a living off Paris' discarded junk. When Bazil happens upon the weapons/munitions companies that cost him his old life, he and his new friends embark on a series of capers to shut both companies down and bring their chairmen to justice.

If you're unfamiliar with Jeunet's peculiar brand of cinema magic, then imagine Chaplin's Little Tramp in a contemporary ensemble caper film. Dialogue is limited, relying heavily on the gestures and expressions of the actors that helps Micmacs transcend language barriers. In fact, many scenes in the film rely on classic street theater techniques similar to silent film comedy devices.

Review: Cyrus



Independent filmmakers sometimes fall victim to their own success. If they're talented and lucky enough to strike critical and box-office gold a couple of times, they may find themselves working on larger films with respectable budgets and household-name talent, if not bona fide stars. But often as not, their art suffers when it moves uptown. Higher financial stakes come with strings attached, and these once fiercely independent writers and directors are forced to make concessions to commercial viability.

Fortunately, I'm happy to report that there are no such concessions with Cyrus, the latest film from mumblecore heroes Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass. The writing and directing team that brought us The Puffy Chair and Baghead have indeed gone uptown – but they've delivered another fine comedy that is true to the talky, quirky, naturalistic form, if not other mumblecore hallmarks like a shoestring budget and unknown actors.

Cyrus is very much a boy-meets-girl romantic comedy, but I really liked it anyway. It's the story of John (John C. Reilly), an eternally sad sack who still hasn't come to terms with his seven-year-old divorce. His ex-wife Jamie (the ubiquitous Catherine Keener) invites him to a party, where his ham-fisted attempts to chat up attractive women reveal exactly why he's spent so many evenings eating take-out for one. But for once, it's John's lucky night: He meets Molly (Marisa Tomei), a friendly free spirit who finds his awkwardness appealing and ends up going home with him.

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