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Dragons Of Autumn Twilight

Dragons of Autumn Twilight DVD cover

“We need to find the dragonlances, if they still exist.”
-Raistlin Majere

Ripped straight from the same childhood memories as the Lord of the Rings saga, comes this first installment in the Dragonlance trilogy, Dragons of Autumn Twilight.

Opening with the brief history of the world of Krynn and the cataclysm that ultimately set the stage for our story, Dragons of Autumn Twilight begins the saga with a fairly faithful retelling of the tale from the book. Our party of heroes: Tanis Half-Elven, Sturm Brightblade, Flint Fireforge, Tasslehoff Burrfoot and brothers Caramon and Raistlin Majere, reunite in the town of Solace after years apart. There they are thrust into the quest of Goldmoon and Riverwind to uncover the truth of a crystal blue staff that the forces of evil are bent upon claiming as their own. Has the true healing power of the Gods of Light returned to Krynn to stand with its peoples against the evil goddess, Takhisis? Only a path that leads them from the lost city of Xak Tsaroth to battle against goblin slavers to alliance with the elves of Qualinesti and finally to the slave pits of the High Dragonlord Verminaard in his fortress of Pax Tharkas will tell.

All in all, the movie stays true to the book. The creators of this film weren’t given the same free hand, or budget, as Peter Jackson was given for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and when forced to cram 400 pages of text into 90 minutes of film, there’s sure to be some slipping through the cracks. Secondary characters from the book like Laurana and Gilthanas become hollow shells. Laurana, in particular seems to serve no purpose in the movie aside from some undeveloped back-story. A good deal of the epic battles are lost or truncated, particularly in Xak Tsaroth where a battle with the fearsome black dragon guardian of the city becomes perfunctory and largely moot.

The other, more obvious, problem with the film is its second rate animation. On its face, it comes from the same school as the 80s Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, which one could almost chalk up to a clumsy homage. The computer-generated forces of the dark goddess Takhisis, though, spoil that theory. A devotee of the books can look past it to an extent, but it damages any credible attempt by the film to convert newer followers. A lot of the dialogue is similarly clumsy or corny, the off-color remarks of some of the servants of evil in particular. The inclusion of voice talents such as Lucy Lawless (Goldmoon) and Kiefer Sutherland (Raistlin) does do a bit to restore some legitimacy.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight is definitely worth it to a seasoned fan of the books. The telling of the tale is abbreviated and streamlined, but the heart of the story and its major characters are there. If a successful release for this film helps set the stage for the rest of the story, then so much the better; the conclusion of the movie certainly sets the stage for a possible Dragons of Winter Night. Perhaps a particularly successful outing will give the project the legitimacy it needs to get proper respect and execution which really is the only thing lacking in this first chilly season.

-Late

Dragons

Dragons Of Autumn Twilight

Rating by Larry McCloskey: 2.5 stars
**1/2

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Ultimatum

Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Julia Stiles and Albert Finney
Runtime: 111 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action

I’ll avoid saying anything silly like THE ULTIMATE BOURNE!

I remember seeing The Bourne Identity at a sneak preview back in 2002, not really because the movie was that great but because it was the night before I was going to leave for a three week trip to France.

I was surprised at the development of the relationship between Jason Bourne and Marie Kreutz (played by Franka Potente), a rarity for action-chase films. That was what stood out the most.

Two years later, after a rushed production, came The Bourne Supremacy, with a new director and a script that deviated much more from the Robert Ludlum book on which it was based. It was one of the big surprises of 2004, both commercially and critically, and most of all it surprised me. The new director Paul Greengrass brought an electric style that made the entire movie come alive. I remember walking out thinking that there were no boring moments, that it didn’t follow the beaten to death format of most action films that was exposition, action set piece, exposition, set piece, set piece, last minute exposition, tacked on ending. There was more to it – everything was wrapped together. The action served the story, the exposition was told through action, and yet as hectic and crazy as it got it managed to still have character moments.

So, oddly enough, The Bourne Ultimatum became my most anticipated film of this summer and after being disappointed by so many recent films (Pirates I’m looking at you), I was almost sure I’d be let down.

And then…I wasn’t.

In this film Bourne chases and is chased, and sometimes both happen at the same time. It all becomes twisted yet it never loses a basic simplicity that keeps us involved.

There are some great additions to the cast, including Albert Finney, Scott Glenn and David Strathairn (he was Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.) The acting has been strong in the entire series, and it’s great to see the “evil higher-ups” not spitting and screaming at each other but talking calmly and realistically, their menace more believable. Then when they do yell, it actually means something.

There is also a great twist that puts this movie into chronological perspective with the second film.

It is further proof of great directing and writing that the same scene with the same dialogue can have two completely different emotional meanings when spun in different ways. Really connecting this film to The Bourne Supremacy, this further stressed that this is one story told over multiple films. It does that trick better than many sequels nowadays shot back-to-back.

Also, Bourne’s connection to a character with a small role in the previous two films is given new meaning that easily could have become silly and cliché. Instead, it really works and actually gives an extra layer of substance to Bourne and to the people helping him on his dangerous journey to self-discovery. That’s why the film works, because it has real characters who aren’t idiots.

Still, the action does not disappoint. In fact, what makes the action so successful is that there is a sense that it is captured rather than created.

I’d say the style most reminds me of the television show The Shield, which also uses a lot of hand-held camera work and zooms, sometimes shifting out of focus as if it were documenting real events unraveling at breakneck speed before an audience. It’s a style that has gotten Greengrass notice since his 2002 film Bloody Sunday. It’s also a style that could get tiresome, but Greengrass doesn’t keep everything at “11.” Although the handheld is a constant, there are different degrees to how the shots are framed and, especially, how they are edited together. There is a dramatic curve to the writing, directing, and editing, which creates room for slower scenes that aren’t about running around on roof tops.

The second film got a lot of complaints for its use of “shaky cam.” It never bothered me that much, but I do think Greengrass has gotten better at his style. He perfected it with last year’s United 93.

He brings what he has learned to the table here. Even a few shots in The Bourne Ultimatum are completely breathtaking and memorable. One involves a dive into a river, and another is that money-shot from all the trailers of Bourne as he jumps in mid-air through a window. And you can feel the crunch of the metal against the hard road in the New York City car chase.

Yet, the directing is never about just one shot but about how they all connect together. I think this is what helps Paul Greengrass stand out as a director, as in some ways he is almost like a modern (and non-communist) Sergei Eisenstein.

The editors know exactly how to cut the shots together in a rhythmic, almost musical way. One example involves a code word, which we see on a computer screen. At a different location, a character answers when asked for the codeword but does not give the same one. You’re confused for a split-second, and then back on the screen another word is revealed with a different meaning. This all happens in about three seconds, and the entire film is directed and edited with this care, always keeping a sense of mystery and spontaneity. When characters make choices, we feel there are literally making those decisions on screen.

And the credit really goes to everyone who made this film. The music is fantastic, and the best in the series. It really sets the mood without devolving into cliché, and there is some surprising orchestral work.

The writing especially stands out for delivering a script that escapes a lot of its genre confines. In a way, The Bourne Ultimatum becomes the ultimate character driven action film.

This story isn’t going to change your outlook on life, but that was never the intention. And when you look at it as the third sequel in a series based on 80’s spy novels, well that’s something even more startling!

Few things are perfect, though, and there are some small nitpicks.

The flashback scenes are a bit too formula “streaky lights” and “jerky slow motion.” I think it would have been more original and effective if a different film stock were used, perhaps 16mm with a different range of colors to more subtly reveal these important moments. Some very important moments happen during the flashbacks, too. Also, after one particular crash Jason Bourne only has a few bruises on his face. Although in all the movies there are unrealistic moments, everything is still fairly grounded to Earth. This one has the most “superman” elements of any of them, and though the majority of it all fits for the filmic world created it would have been nice to see him a bit more beat up at the end, kinda like how he was bloodied and limping at the end of The Bourne Supremacy. Furthermore, one could argue that the revelations behind Bourne’s past aren’t exactly earth shattering, but the series as a whole has always been more about the journey than the destination. I would argue, as well, that the real twists are more character based than narrative based.

With these minor details aside, this is easily the best action film of 2007. The Bourne Ultimatum will help solidify the Bourne trilogy as being one of the big movie surprises in recent memory. Who would have guessed five years ago that Jason Bourne would become one of the defining action heroes of the decade, like John McClane of the 80’s and Jack Ryan of the 90’s?

Critic’s Conclusion: An endlessly entertaining ride that I can’t wait to see again. Really, it’s up there with the greats. Exciting, tense, but not tiresome, Jason Bourne joins the ranks of other action heroes with J-themed names like John McClane, Jack Ryan and James Bond.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Rating by Dan Russell: 4.5 stars
****1/2

Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard

Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant, Maggie Q, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Kevin Smith
Runtime: 130 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation

This is a movie that should have never been made.

At least, that’s what I thought when I first heard about Die Hard 4.0, a cyber thriller that would bring John McClane into the 21st century.

I’ll admit I’m tired of all the remakes and sequels. Especially lately, a lot of big 80’s movies are getting revivals. Rocky Balboa came out last December. Next year we’ll get Rambo 4 and Indiana Jones 4.

However, if Live Free or Die Hard is any indication, that might not be a completely bad thing. This doesn’t mean I want to see Back to the Future 4, RoboCop 4, or Breakin’ 4: Revenge of Electric Boogaloo anytime soon, nor is it to say that this is a great movie. It’s not, and it’s not a movie that needed to be made. Yet, at the same time, it doesn’t ruin the previous movies in any way and it’s the most enjoyable summer action movie I’ve seen so far.

My biggest worry was that Justin Long would be impossibly annoying in the role of the plucky comic relief. Thankfully he actually has quite a bit of serious moments. He plays the character as a character rather than a caricature, and although there isn’t a lot of depth written to Matt Farrell there was a certain grounded reality to him. To be fair, the ten year old stereotypes about hacking and nerds do get a little tired, but he plays them down and manages to keep the character interesting. Not all of his comic lines work but they are rarely cringe worthy.

Bruce Willis reprises the role of John McClane fairly effortlessly. He doesn’t stretch his talents much but he retains the charm of McClane and, once again, does a good job of acting beat up. His first performance of McClane back in ‘88 has always been the freshest and will always be the best.

The role of the main villain of Thomas Gabriel is played by Timothy Olyphant, an actor I’ve seen a lot recently because I’ve been watching the series “Deadwood”, where he plays one of the main characters. Unfortunately, he isn’t given much to work with here. His main use of force is bitch slapping characters when they don’t do what he wants, and although his back story has a hint of being unique he ends up a pretty bland villain with an exceedingly unsatisfying final scene.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays McClane’s daughter and she isn’t in the movie that much. I found this a welcome relief since the cliché twist with her character was blown in all the trailers. I was worried it would drag the film down but it is hardly a major plot point.

Now, one of the reasons the first film worked so well was because John McClane was the everyman. The violence hurt. It wasn’t poetic or beautiful. It was bloody and gritty and although I wouldn’t call the latest Die Hard realistic in a medical sense, it definitely felt real. A lot of little moments were focused on, such as when McClane was almost pulled out a window because of a piece of metal attached to his waist. The sequels have lost this grittiness and this newest film is no exception. However, with that said, the movie was never as cartoonish as it may have seemed in the trailers and the jet sequence was actually pretty nifty, if overblown.

Also, my biggest pat on the back to Live Free or Die Hard goes to the pacing. Although a little long the movie rarely drags, and especially at the beginning events are kept urgent and sharp. This isn’t Pirates 3 with one overdone final sequence. There are a lot of different action sequences and most of them work well with the plot and don’t feel forced in.

There’s also the controversy over the PG-13 rating. I’ll admit, ratings are never that important to me and the system has changed a lot since the 80’s. With that said, for a bloody and brutal series that defines the adult action vehicle the rating change definitely is about studio greed. It’s ironic since the very R-rated 300 became a blockbuster just earlier this year. So can you tell the difference? Yes, but this is a hard PG-13 rating that gets away with a lot of blood (though usually after the fact) and swearing. I’d put this on par with the first Matrix film violence-wise, and that was rated R. Still, what is unforgivable is the way the classic line “yippie-ka-yay” is butchered in an extremely lame moment that is not like the one shown in the trailers. This makes even less sense because PG-13 films are allowed at least one clear use of “fuck.”

There are also some embarrassing parts. A few side characters fall flat and some dialogue just doesn’t work. Amusingly there is a moment where the dubbing is very off, and it was probably one of the worst mistakes in sound design I’ve seen in a recent major motion picture. At one point the words coming out of Long’s mouth do not match what he is saying. And it wasn’t a dream sequence.

As good as the pacing was, as well, there was a point in the last third of the movie where it did lose a bit of the steam it had been building up. The final scene is disappointing, too, and I was a little surprised that the abrupt conclusion was actually the conclusion. The first Die Hard had a great “it’s not really over” moment that has now been copied ad nauseam, so I guess I’m glad they at least avoided that cliché.

You never get to really know the henchmen, either, like in some of the previous movies, though there is one guy that hops around like a madman. Remember Casino Royale from last year? Yeah, same thing.

Then there’s the great director Len Wiseman. Underworld and Underworld: Evolution weren’t favorites in my book. They were forgettable, average movies directed by a forgettable, average director. With the newest entry in the Die Hard franchise I think Wiseman has shown an improvement, though, and for that I take back half of the sarcasm in my comment above. There are even a few really cool and memorable shots, as the camera shifts about with complex movements that retain a hand-held feel, like it was a crane shot that was hand-held. The juxtaposition of these two different styles really stands out.

So overall, this is better than the trailers make it look. The PG-13 will piss off some die hard Die Hard fans (damn, really no pun intended) but the movie fits in well enough with the previous films. It doesn’t really get what made the first film so great, but then again neither did any of the sequels and they were all fun nonetheless. So is this.

Critic’s Conclusion: I’d rank Live Free or Die Hard quite a bit below the original Die Hard, just right below the third one (Samuel L Jackson and Jeremy Irons edge this out), and I enjoyed it quite a bit more than the second film which was watchable but nothing great. Definitely not the travesty it could have been, this is a decent two hours of escapism.

Live Free or Die Hard

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Little Miss Sunshine

Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette
Runtime: 102 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Language, some sex and drug content

Before Little Miss Sunshine was released, a buzz was generating around this independent flick. When it finally was, it was well received by virtually everyone. After hearing so very many great reviews of the film, I finally decided to give it a shot, and reluctantly hand over my hard earned $6.75 for a ticket. Enough about my hatred for theatres’ ticket inflation; how about that movie?

A one sentence synopsis: A terribly dysfunctional family treks across the country to take the one unspoiled member, Olive, to California for an annual beauty contest in a severely shitty Volkswagen bus as their problems are thrust in their faces.

While that sounds not so funny, I’d hate to admit it, but I totally agree with all of those people who brag on the film constantly. It was fantastic. Undoubtedly, the funniest movie I’ve seen this year. For once in my life, I feel like I spent my money well.

It’s sort of like National Lampoon’s Vacation, only good. The characters are extremely well developed, and the events in the film (with the exception of one major one) all feel real. Group that with stellar performances by the entire cast, and you’ve got yourself an A+ movie. Greg Kinnear gives a great performance, like I’m sure you’ve heard elsewhere, if anyone has mentioned the movie, but for my money, Steve Carell and his character, Frank, that make the movie.

Frank is Proust scholar (you’ll learn a little more about that in the film) who gets dumped in a homosexual affair and loses his job. He then fails in an attempt at suicide. We watch him flip from carefree as though he knows he can’t fall any farther to upset and depressed as he’s constantly reminded of the event surrounding his suicide attempt. It’s something that you just can’t help but relate to.

That isn’t to say that the other actors were anything but great. Alan Arkin saves the first fifteen minutes of the picture with some rude outbursts while the characters are developing for the audience. Toni Collette plays a perfect middle class mother. Paul Dano adds a bit of believable teenage angst, not that mopey, black clothes “goth” trend that recent films have attempted to capture.

The film accomplished exactly what it set out to do. I commend its creators. I laughed when they wanted me to laugh, and felt a bit of remorse when tragedies befell the characters. The current talk about Little Miss Sunshine has it pegged for Best Picture at Sundance, which I don’t doubt one bit.

Little Miss Sunshine

Rating by Trevor Juenger: 4.5 stars
****1/2

Nacho Libre

Director: Jared Hess
Cast: Jack Black, Ana de la Reguera and Hector Jimenez
Runtime: 100 minutes
CARA Rating: PG for rough action, and crude humor including dialogue

Much like Jack Black’s character Ignacio, Nacho Libre is a movie who’s stupid sweetness is hard to ignore. It’s a fun, funny movie that is as quirky as Napoleon Dynamite and it captures Napoleon‘s sense of fun and simplicity while not trying to be something it’s not. Quite simply, it knows its audience, brings some laughs and ends. Nothing more, nothing less.

The plot is simple enough: Ignacio wants to be a Luchador (spanish wrestler) in order to provide a better life for the children in the orphanage. He partners with a street crook (Jimenez) to form an unlikely tag team. Hilarious hijinx ensue and an hour and a half later you walk out of the theater smiling.

Final Verdict: 3 Burritos out of 5. There’s nothing new here, but Black’s turn as Ignacio is still a fun one. In a summer of slam-bang action bonanzas, Nacho Libre is a fun movie for the whole family and is funny enough for older folks as well. If you want to head to the theater to watch an enjoyable, although somewhat forgettable, flick, check out Nacho Libre.

Nacho Libre

Rating by Mark Malafarina: 3.0 stars
***

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