Sunday, July 5, 2009

Movies #59 - #61: Bolt, Doubt, Star Trek

It's been well over a month since the last of these capsule movie reviews, so let's get back into it and get this updated a bit, shall we?

#59 Bolt (2008)

Do they even know how to make bad animated movies anymore? I haven't seen a weak one in years, it seems. Reliably, all of the animated films coming out of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks are of top-notch quality...far superior to the average live-action movie. Disney's latest, Bolt, featuring the voice of John Travolta as a canine who thinks he actually possesses the super powers he's endowed with on a popular television show---which he perceives to be reality---is no exception and is a worthy addition to the recent canon of great animated movies. While the premise of keeping Bolt sequestered and unaware of the filming going on around him is both far-fetched (pun!) and more than a little cruel, it's a conceit which pays dividends once Bolt becomes lost in the real world and tries to find his way home. The formula, as with most of these animated movies, is nothing terribly original, but then why tinker with a formula that works so well as a blend of sweetness, humor, action and lessons about life? One of the best voices in Bolt is the character of Rhino, an enthusiastic hamster played by Mark Walton. Walton, principally a story artist for Disney, had been given the role as the stand-in voice during pre-animation, but his performance was so brilliant that they opted for him as the final voice rather than selecting a bigger name for the pivotal role. It's a good story and an even better decision. The behind-the-scenes featurette where they cleverly inform him he's been given the part by changing the script he's recording is a wonderful moment that captures someone's dream coming true. So, how good is Bolt? Good enough that the voices of Susie Essman and Miley Cyrus are tolerable. Yeah, I know, right?

#60 Doubt (2008)

Received somewhat coldly by several of my friends on whose film-going advice I often rely, Doubt exceeded my expectations principally on the strength of four magnificent performances, all of which were justifiably rewarded with Oscar nominations. Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman are given great material to work with and all of them are in top form in this play-turned-movie about the suspicious interaction between a priest (Hoffman) and a young altar boy. Streep shines in particular in a role which could easily have been one-note in the hands of a less capable actress. Indeed, based on the preview, I had already pigeon-holed her character as a shrill nun who is predictably unlikeable and unreasonable. Streep manages to make those expectations simultaneously true and false, a testimony to her status as the best actress of her generation. The story, based on John Patrick Shanley's play (who also does a capable job of directing), is brisk and compelling and successful at keeping the audience off-balance---especially with the introduction of the boy's mother as wonderfully played by Viola Davis. In some ways the film resembles David Mamet's Oleanna, at least in its intent. Shanley clearly wants the audience to leave the theatre wondering what really happened...who, if anyone, is guilty of well as the larger question of absolute belief in that which you cannot absolutely know. The biggest difference between the two films, however, is that in Oleanna the audience gets to see what happened (the plot revolves around an allegation of sexual harassment between a professor and his student) and yet, even after seeing the incident in question, different people will have different opinions as to what took place. In Doubt, the incident in question is simply hinted at, discussed in brief at the edges...making the issue a less interesting "did he or didn't he" sort of tale. Nonetheless, while Doubt may not be quite the thought provoker that Oleanna was, it's a perfect showcase for some of the best actors of our day.

#61 Star Trek (2009)

J.J. Abrams' relaunch of the Star Trek franchise is a qualified success...totally successful in reviving and evolving a stale property, but somewhat less successful in shaking off the predictable shackles of its supporting characters. The most significant thing about the new version is how skillful Abrams is at giving Star Trek a much needed epic quality. The opening sequence of the movie is a taut action sequence involving the heroic efforts of Kirk's father. For me, it was the absolute highlight and provides an uncharacteristic dose of emotion and empathy...something typically missing in Star Trek movies. Within ten minutes, Abrams has created a deeper understanding of who Kirk is and why...and he's not yet appeared on screen. The rest of the movie plays out a little like The Wizard of Oz with Kirk slowly but surely meeting the various characters who will occupy the crew of Enterprise. With the exception of Spock, and perhaps Sulu and Uhura, most of these side characters are awkwardly bad. It's downright painful seeing Karl Urban try to channel the same Bones as played by DeForest Kelley, and just as uncomfortable to hear Anton Yelchin saying "wessel" as the new Chekov. Simon Pegg fares slightly better as the new Scotty, but even his character feels forced and cartoony (not that the original Scotty didn't...but hey, I was hoping for some upgrades, ok?). Interestingly, one would have thought it harder to replace Shatner and Nimoy as Kirk and Spock, but Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are more than up to the task by eschewing mimicry of their well-known predecessors for a new identity which is both consistent with the original characters and yet decidedly different. It works...and that was really the biggest question going into the film. There were other things I could nitpick about (too many creatures, a disappointing final battle), but none of that diminishes the success of this relaunch. Abrams had a near impossible task---satisfying fans of the original cast while creating interest for new and future audiences---and he succeeds. I'm anxious for the next one.

Bolt 8/10

Doubt 8/10

Star Trek 8/10


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