Review: HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA - Diane Ligman

Hotel Transylvania, directed by Cartoon Network’s beloved Genndy Tartakovsky, stars Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, and a gaggle of other well-known voices. It tells the story of a father, Sandler aka Dracula, coming to terms with his daughter Mavis, played by Selena Gomez, growing up. Dracula, after losing his wife Martha when Mavis was a baby, builds a hotel hidden away from the dangerous humans who took his love. It is to be a place free from fear where monsters from all over can come out of the shadows and enjoy a relaxing vacation.

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Review: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

Whit Stillman has returned to feature filmmaking after a 14 year absence with his latest movie Damsels in Distress. The reaction from those who were able to see the film upon its early release has ranged from bemused nostalgic welcoming to callous rebuffs from those immune to the charms of Stillman’s affectionate observations of the "urban haute bourgeoisie", dubbed UHBs in his classic first film Metropolitan. Times have changed but, maybe thankfully, Stillman’s characters don’t seem to have astutely noticed.

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Review: FOOTLOOSE - Diane Ligman

There have been a lot of remakes and when it was originally announced that Zac Effron was going to be filling the shoes of Kevin Bacon in the remake of Footloose it seemed liked they were going to Disney-fy one of MTV Generation’s first movies. Then director Craig Brewer was brought on board and Effron’s name quietly disappeared from the project. Instead a Justin Timberlake back up dancer, Kenny Wormald, took the helm as Ren McCormack, along with Dancing with the Star’s Julianne Hough stepping into the red cowboy boots of Ariel Moore, Dennis Quaid as her father Rev. Shaw Moore and Andie MacDowell as Mrs. Vi Moore.

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The Film is a Ghost: An Encounter With “General Orders No. 9”

The notion that General Orders No. 9 is a ghost was born from the necessity to communicate at once the mystery it preserves, the perspective it exhibits, and the polarized reactions it will continue to yield. For some, this equation reinforces their belief that the film is a transparent spook; they can see right through it. It has no factual evidence for its absurd claims, and those who confess to find meaning in it have only witnessed an imaginary projection within their own mind.

For others, they will encounter a ghost; it will be beautiful and haunting. And, even if they don't like what it says, it will speak to them. Their experience with the film will be impossible to fully communicate to others, but the spell has been cast.

General Orders director Robert Persons won't deny he's trying to cast a spell, but he's not quick to confirm what it is exactly. In our conversation he stressed the importance of mystery in General Orders. His devotion to the film's mystery was evident by the caution he took when speaking of it. At one point I – somewhat rudely – snickered at his fear that the film could be spoiled by talking about it too much. If you couldn't guess, it is not a film that relies heavily upon plot points, but after viewing the film I knew exactly what he meant.

Of course, mystery surrounds Persons as well. He grew up in the middle of Georgia, but never said exactly where. He's not a filmmaker that has moved up through the production ranks or put in his time networking within a film community. He's not a young film school graduate who writes a screenplay every 3 months and always has one in his back pocket. Nor is there a film collective who claims him as a member. He literally has appeared to us, seemingly from out of nowhere, film in hand. (In a poetic accident, my recording of our 199 minute conversation was not saved. Some details have been missed.

The spell Persons has cast is old and dead. That does not mean irrelevant or useless, it means the film speaks to us as a force from the past. Half of us were not alive to remember life before the Interstate was built. Many of us have never known someone who knew someone who was alive during the Civil War. Certainly it is difficult for any of us to imagine a time when Georgia was stretched all the way to the Mississippi, or when Native Americans traced the hoofprints of deer. Yet, these are the apparitions that come to us. They arrive in the form of a maps, skulls, sculpture or red die. They warn us about the things to come, and show us signs we don't quite understand. General Orders is a spirit, left behind in this world, unable to rest until these matters are resolved:

What should the new map look like? Which totem will watch over us?

Persons admits that some parts of General Orders are still a mystery to him. Some of the sequences are literally filmed accounts of dreams he stole to waking life. It is a film about his home, and while knowing more about him does not clarify the film, it does provide a map on how to approach it. Persons came at filmmaking in the same way filmmaking came to us: at the intersection of all other art forms. His background in painting, music, and especially poetry met when he discovered Virginia-Highland's “Movies Worth Seeing” video rental store. At this junction he lived off of a steady diet of transcendental cinema, devouring Herzog, Tarkovsky, Bresson, and Haneke (to name a few). So strong was the influence of these films that once the near 40 year old began work on General Orders, he no longer wanted to watch any movies until it was complete. Now, 11 years later, he admits, “I like these Apatow movies. I would watch those.”

It is safe to point out – without any fear of spoilage – that General Orders No. 9 bears no resemblance to The 40 Year Old Virgin. However, I believe Persons is as skilled at creating dense, psycho-geographical, visually stunning film poems as Apatow is at creating crude-but-smart, character driven, adult comedies. Still, there is more to be desired in Persons work. General Orders proves without a doubt that he has no trouble establishing tone, and he understands how to pace a film (a tip of the hat to producer/editor Phil Walker and composer Chris Hoke). No one can dispute the awards the film has received for cinematography. But even Persons surmised that he wants to make films that connect deeper with audiences than General Orders.

For my part, I felt that General Orders sometimes creates mystery by narrowly avoiding questions, thereby leaving some claims unsupported. But as we have learned from science and art, we are no danger running out of mysteries, and mystery is born out of discovery. I'm not willing to say here specifically what moments of the film felt unexplored, but I will say that the passages that concern the city felt intentionally naive. Perhaps that's a product of the narrator's anger, poetic license, my relationship to Atlanta or maybe the point is lost on me, but I have a feeling that anyone who has affection for city life will feel their affinity is under attack.

Still, I remain floored by his command over the material, his continuity of thought, the surprises along the way, the fear I felt during the city passages, and the beauty of Georgia that is invisible from I-75 to Tampa. It is a film that is in all ways refreshing. Fortunately it has been labeled a documentary because it reshapes our expectations of the form, and unfortunately because many will only see that it is not aligned with existing expectations. However, this subversion must continue.

During that awkward part of any interview where you have to ask “what's next?,” Mr. Persons shared with me his excitement that he's “been starting to get ideas lately.” This simple confession was very encouraging. I look forward to seeing more of his work, but I hope I don't have to wait another 11 years. Until then, I will see General Orders No. 9 at least several more times to see if the mystery will unravel.

I hear, that if you visit the old Cinefest Film Theater on the Georgia State campus this Friday and Saturday at 7pm you might see a ghost. (Full schedule of possible sightings below.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZRrhz1vMkY

SCHEDULE Friday 8/12 5:30 pm, 7:00 pm - Q&A AFTERWARDS Saturday 8/13 3:30 pm, 5:30 pm, 7:00 pm - LIVE MUSIC / Q&A Sunday 8/14 3:30 pm, 5:30 pm Monday through Friday 8/15-8/19 5:30pm, 7:00pm Saturday 8/20 3:30pm, 5:30pm, 7:00pm Sunday 8/21 3:30pm, 5:30pm, 7:00pm

 

 

 

ATLFF 2011: Snow On Tha Bluff - Guest Review

Snow On Tha Bluff is a raw and vivid, hybrid documentary/narrative film that cuts through the hype and mythology to deliver a clear-eyed, uncensored look at gangsta life—and death—in the inner city. Director/writer Damon Russell teams up with co-writer and lead actor Curtis Snow, a charismatic, self-described dope dealer and robbery boy, to tell a story based on Snow’s actual experiences in the Bluff, the violent, poverty-stricken neighborhood of Atlanta .

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Rebel ‘Deals’ a Potent Punch of Indie Reality

Rebel without a Deal tells the story of Vincent Rocca who shot his first movie in five days for 11K and nearly landed a multi-million dollar deal with National Lampoon. After the fallout from losing that deal, he recovered and released the movie through Warner Bros. where it went on to gross over a million dollars.  It reads as a filmmaker’s journal and showcases all the stages of indie movie dreams. The euphoria of making a movie highlight the camaraderie that gets established between people who are motivate to achieve a goal that they don’t fully understand at the outset. The frustration when it doesn’t all go like you plan. As well as the determined commitment that one must make when reality reveals its unglamorous face to the majority of indie filmmakers in the world…No Sundance, No Three Picture deal.

The book includes bonus conversations with director Kevin Smith who talks about his career as an indie phenom who seems all to relatable to many everyman filmmakers. This section alone will please devoted Kevin Smith fans who will find satifaction living vicariously through a filmmaker who got to live the dream and spend time with the round mound of crude indie comedy. Rocca even succeeds in gaining Smith's seal of approval on his first feature via a flattering quote for the DVD box.

The value of the book is its honesty, brutal at times. Rocca pulls no punches as he outlines battles with distributors and even cast and crew members that are ordinarily kept under wraps when the stories of movies being made are told.  The candor is invaluable to both amateurs as well as intermediate filmmakers who haven’t been through all the wars of distribution.

Those who think a movie that gets picked up by a major distributor has it made should take a peek at all the obstacles facing movies that distributors actually WANT. There’s also a lesson to be learned for those wondering why their movie hasn’t been picked up by even the local film festivals.

To say it’s a wake-up call might be too strong. Those who have been doing their homework the last couple years know how hard it is to get a movie seen. However, this book dives headfirst into a real-life case study that should be able to shine an instructive light on how one should approach independent filmmaking as a business and still keep their fingers crossed.

By the way, the film he made is called Kisses and Caroms and it was released in 2006. It is still available everywhere.

Review: HOW DO YOU KNOW

James Brooks makes the kind of Romantic Comedies that are not high concept. They never involve bounty hunters apprehending their exes as meet-cutes or journalists on a story who happen to fall in love. They usually involve people who would like to try and stay out of a relationship because they’ve got better things to worry about but wind up in them anyway. Such is the case in his latest film How Do You Know.

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Review: TRON: LEGACY

The original Tron has the distinction of being among the first three films I remember seeing in the theater as a kid and not coming away overly in love with. As a 9-year old I knew that for all the snazzy 1982 visuals it wasn't a great film. The other two were The Black Hole and Clash of the Titans.

Buoyed by their effects and respective mythologies, Tron and Titans went on to become cult classics, while The Black Hole has become a flick that's been mostly forgotten.

Time and home video has had away of being very kind to imperfect movies, especially imperfect movies with untapped potential. As a film set entirely in the world of computers Tron was loaded with it. Corporate espionage and intellectual property disputes*, sentient programs exhibiting--and some struggling with--free will, an underlying religious allegory, it's a movie that presaged concepts large, ala the internet, and small, aka avatars. With shows like Battlestar Galactica proving you can take a cult property rich with ideas and give it not only a new life, but a makeover that mines those ideas much deeper than most thought possible, an update of Tron wasn't a wholly bad idea.

Using the original as a jumping off point, Tron: Legacy picks up the story seven years later in 1989. After proving that his code was stolen by a rival, and consequently becoming CEO, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has elevated Encom to an unprecedented level of success. The company is not only the Microsoft of its universe, under his leadership it's also become the Apple of its time.

In secret, Flynn has been exploring and developing radical ideas like quantum teleportation and digital dna that he believes will revolutionize everything from medicine to religion. With his best friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) he's only shared vague snippets of what he's found. And with his son Sam, he's told him bedtime tales about a place called The Grid, a world he's created with the help of two programs named Tron and Clu. A place Flynn hopes to one day show Sam himself. However, the night he tells Sam about The Grid is the same night he disappears**.

Twenty years later, without a word about what happened to his father, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has grownup to despise the company his father built. Every year he pulls a major prank on Encom. His latest, breaking into the company's servers and releasing its new operating system to the internet just minutes before the official release and the company's simultaneous debut on the Tokyo stock exchange.

After being released from jail, Alan shows up to gently chide the now 27-year old Sam about his latest venture in undermining the very company that affords him the luxury of Ducati motorcycles and spectacular waterfront views of the city. And as Alan puts it, for someone who claims to have no interest in Encom, as much thought and planning that must go into his pranks, Sam has a funny way of showing that disinterest.

However, the real reason for Alan's visit is that he got a page--yes, on an honest to goodness pager--from the old arcade Flynn owned and has lain abandoned, and curiously powered and still full of videogames, for decades. Although sarcastically dismissive about a possible late in the game reunion with pops, Sam heads straight for the vacant building to investigate. And thus begins how Sam discovers that The Grid does indeed exist, and more importantly, where his father has been for the past two decades.

As a story about a rogue program wanting to crossover into the physical world, Tron: Legacy isn't a train wreck. And unlike its predecessor it's at times a bit more involving. Especially in a few of the action scenes. The filmmakers have taken advantage of the advances in special effects to amp up the lightcycles and to take them out of moving in two dimensions into three, making for some dazzling set pieces. The disc games, unfortunately, aren't quite as well thought out though and never really become all that thrilling.

Overall, Legacy has a few glaring plot holes and a jumble of underdeveloped motivations. Why lure someone into The Grid if you're not going to post someone where they can see when said someone arrives? Or, why put that same someone in dangerous potentially life-ending scenarios if that someone's presence is meant to be a "game changer"? Why introduce the concept of genocide, only to relegate it to mere exposition, and for its consequences to not have any active*** influence on the story? And if you can't get out of The Grid, how can you communicate with anyone outside of The Grid****?

Even more so than Tron, Tron: Legacy is overflowing with unexplored concepts that could have expanded the mythos in a myriad of directions. The film's major flaw is that it's really Flynn's story that has the most meat on it, not Sam's.

As a man who first loses his son to create a new digital frontier and then loses that world when he's betrayed by one of his own creations. As a man who has watched his breakthrough discoveries become the key to possibly destroying a world he hasn't seen in twenty years, Flynn is a tragic hero whose journey is instantly more intriguing than that of a 27-year old whose adventure starts only because he happened to unintentionally stumble down a digital rabbit hole. Plus, as it's demonstrated in the last half of the film, building a story around Flynn's inability to bring order back to the very universe he's created, even though he has god like mastery over The Grid, could have elevated Legacy from being a standard sci-fi action flick into a epic quest for redemption.

The film's second major flaw is in featuring some of the most underwhelming secondary characters to grace a big budget action film in quite sometime.

Rinzler, a dual disc wielding grid warrior, is meant to be a badass. Yet he gets not enough to do, and instead, the filmmakers decide that giving an inordinate amount of screentime to a sniveling suckup is a better way to go--hello, if you're going to make Rinzler your Darth Vader, he shouldn't be playing guard dog.

Olivia Wilde's Quorra, the young woman who consistently saves Sam's ass, isn't entirely irrelevant to the overall proceedings. And considering she's lived her entire life on The Grid, Quorra's wide-eyed innocence and naivety are in and of themselves not bad traits. However, it's getting pretty tiresome watching the girls ably illustrate their ability to kickass in action flicks, yet to only do that in service of the boys at every turn. It's most disappointing when you realize that Sam's only real claim is that Encom, and by extension The Grid, are his by birthright, not by anything he's actually done. In fact, if you consider Quorra's backstory, you'll realize that of everyone in the picture, as someone who has lost as much, if not more than Flynn, she not only should be more driven than Sam, she has more right to The Grid than he does.

Lest you think I'm only here to beat up on this film, let me point out a few more things that do standout. Bridges as Flynn is a highlight. His Flynn is not only fun to watch, he capably makes lines like "it's bio-digital jazz man" seem natural and in context logical. Some of the production design, such as Flynn's home Off Grid pops. And Michael Sheen as night club owner Castor, brings a campy maniacal energy.

As a film, Tron: Legacy isn't a total embarrassment. And compared to several other big budget, effects heavy releases of the last few years it's one of the more coherently told and even better acted flicks. As the continuation of a franchise it doesn't build on the original in any significant fashion, and much as it was with the first go round, nor do the filmmakers do enough to make all the proceedings add up to anything more than a so-so story, decently told.

* Most won't remember, but early in the life of the PC there were some real questions about how to legally, and ethically, treat copyright and intellectual property when programs could be easily copied and several programmers could bring differing levels of contributions to one project. Sounds a bit familiar doesn't it?

**Isn't that how it always happens in films? it's a wonder anyone would gamble telling other folks about the fantastical realms they visit, lest they also become metaphorical fodder for milk cartons.

***I know someone will argue that it does have some bearing on the story, however, go back and watch the film. It's just a lazy way to make a character more important, and setup possibilities for a sequel, without actually giving that character much to do.

****Curious since communication between programs and users is an integral part of the original film.

Review: TRUE GRIT

Remakes have always been a tricky minefield. You can stumble on magic and get An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake of Love Affair (1939), that surpasses the original--no small feat since Love Affair is still a damn good film. Or as the Coen Brothers have discovered themselves with their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers, even with a two-time Oscar winner in the lead, you can create a leaden movie that's not a wholly terrible film, just a boring one, with some questionable character choices*.

Even with that on their resume, there was little doubt that in the hands of the Brothers Coen, a True Grit redo wasn't insurmountable.  While the 1969 version is one of John Wayne's better known flicks, and is the film that finally won The Duke an Academy Award, the film is far from perfect.

As the story of a young 14-year old girl seeking revenge for the senseless murder of her father in the 1870's, the 1969 True Grit is at heart a film probably released 10 years past its prime--which is ironic since the novel was released in 1968. The first half of the film, before the action moves out of the town and into Choctaw territory, feels long and drawn out. For a revenge tale, Henry Hathaway's direction is often too lite rendering some of the  humor a tad more campy than probably intended. And although released during the height of the modern day Women's Movement, Mattie's dogged determination and intelligence is at times treated with the cinematic equivalent of a pat on the head.

It truly is John Wayne's performances as Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn that elevates True Grit into a minor classic. (Although I enjoyed Kim Darby's Mattie Ross to a degree, overall I think Hathaway did her a disservice. I couldn't help think that I was watching a Western version of Disney's 1977 live-action Candleshoe...and I while like Candleshoe, as a contrast with True Grit's underlying ruminations about justice and revenge, that's not a good thing).

How different is the Coen Brothers take on True Grit? For those who freakout about remakes, they may be elated--or disappointed, it's always hard to tell with those folks--to learn that a good 90  percent of the 2010 version is identical to it's progenitor.

As perusal for the Brothers, they've punched up the dialogue with colloquialisms and an idiosyncratic logic that exudes an impeccable sense of place and custom. Few characters use language to poke, prod and provoke each other as they can in a Coen Brother's film. Mattie potently and skillfully wields words with such proficiency, she capably handles men three times her senior and twice her size. They also pull off the neat trick of establishing both Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf's toughness, while simultaneously revealing that no amount of machismo--although LaBoeuf is clearly the more sensitive of the two--can hide when words have cut them deep.

The greatest, at times subtle, distinction in the two films lies in how the Coen's approached the story, namely adhering more closely to the novel and telling the story entirely from Mattie's point of view. It's a choice that makes all the difference as iconic scenes, such as when Cogburn and LaBoeuf try to leave Mattie behind and she defiantly crosses the river on horseback, achieve a level of resonance and power not found in the original. And to be fair, they play out much differently between the two films, however the disciplined focus on Mattie in the Coen's version, injects the scenes at the dugout and most of the third act with a taught tension that makes everything hum with energy.

For Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld they had a difficult task at hand, stepping into roles that have stood for four decades.

Bridges's Cogburn is more than a curmudgeon, he's an SOB who isn't above kicking kids, not once, not twice, but three times. It's a performance that's just plain fun to watch. Yet, the real praise should go to Steinfeld whose Mattie has a tenacity derived more from her intelligence and maturity than an innate stubbornness. It's a shame that since the 1970s, roles like this have become rarer and rarer for young actresses. Hopefully Steinfeld won't see her career stall as did for Darby.

As for Matt Damon it's a bit easier. Glen Cambell's turn at LaBeouf is serviceable at best. That's not to downplay what Damon does, because in partnership with the Coen's they've created a character who's dogged adherence to the life as a Texas Ranger and sincerity makes it easy to see the character featured in his own story**.

After three decades and fifteen films, there are elements you can expect in nearly every Coen project. Yet, here, their noted use of irony is essentially absent. As old school film fans, their love of classic Hollywood genres, especially of noir and screwball, is usually evident in every frame. And although this is a western, they rarely insert anything that yells "hey this is a Western, remember those." Some may argue the point, however, this is arguably the first played for straight Coen flick. As a result, there are moments in TRUE GRIT that are like seeing your Dad cry. You get flashes--especially in the last 15 minutes--of emotions rarely a part of the Coen Brothers playbook.

*We're looking at you Gawain MacSam aka Marlon Wayans.

**I'd even go far to say they've taken bits of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and amped up his more respectable virtues and intelligence.

Review: TANGLED

Being the 50th animated feature in the Mouse House's storied and unmatched run should be pressure enough. However, coming after the very good yet only partially satisfying The Princess and the Frog, the first film in Disney's revived and refocused animated unit under Pixar's John Lasseter, the expectations for Tangled were never going to be higher.

Would Tangled finally be the film that would recapture the magic that resulted in films like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King? Or would it would be a sign that maybe Disney, even under Lasseter, was a long way from its former glory days?

Featuring possibly Disney's most relatable Princess, one of the strongest cast of secondary Disney characters in years, and the studios most naunced villain, Tangled is definitely the former.

In this re-imaging of the classic German fairytale, Rapunzel's mother the queen, while pregnant with Rapunzel, falls deathly ill and only a legendary flower that grew from a drop of sunlight can save her. However, this same plant has been keeping the elderly Gothel eternally young. Unfortunately for Gothel, it's hard to hide even a single magical flower when an entire kingdom is searching for it.

Reduced to an elixer and given to the queen, the plant's powers are transfered to Rapunzel, resulting in a golden mane of hair that can never be cut lest she loses the ability to heal others forever. Unwilling to give up her own personal fountain of youth, Gothel kidnaps the baby Rapunzel, and as it is in the original fairytale, hides her in a tower.  And for 17 years the child grows up believing that Gothel is her real mother.

On the verge of her 18th year, having never been outside, having never even set foot on terra firma, all Rapunzel wants to do is to see the strange, beautiful floating lights that appear in the sky every year on her birthday. Unbeknownst to Rapunzel, those lights are the kingdom mourning her disappearance.

But Mother Gothel, as she's now known, has convinced the young girl that the outside world is so dangerous, full of thugs with "sharp teeth" as Mother Gothel describes it, Rapunzel reluctantly resigns herself to a obeying her "Mother" and will remain in the tower. That is until the thief Flynn Rider appears.

With the strategic use of a frying pan and leveraging Flynn's overwhelming desire to get back the crown he's stolen, and Rapunzel has hidden, the young girl convinces the rogue to be her guide. He's to take her and Pascal, her pet chameleon, to see the lights with the goal of returning home long before Mother Gothel realizes she ever left.

From keeping Rapunzel dependent on her, to telling Rapunzel that she's getting chubby, Mother Gothel really is one bad mama. Channeling Mommie Dearest, her emotional manipulation of Rapunzel catapults Mother Gothel into the top 5 of all time cruel and truly evil Disney Villains.

When Rapunzel schizophrenically alternates between exhilaration at being outside for the first time and guilt for disobeying her mother, it's a humorous moment that even children from happy homes will recognize. Anyone who has broken a few of their parents rules to get just a little taste of freedom will flashback to the first time they made their own "escape".

As Rapunzel, Mandy Moore not only exudes quite a bit of vulnerability and strength, she creates a character that girls at six, twelve and eighteen will be able to identify with. A rare feat.

Although he's been upgraded to a full fledged spy for the past two seasons on NBC's Chuck, Zachery Levi isn't exactly the name that comes to mind when you use the word suave. If his Flynn Ryder is an indication of what he can do, than Levi seriously needs to consider finding a few more properties that allow him to better showcase his full range of leading man chops.

And Mother Gothel? Like Moore, Donna Murphy creates a character who not only could exist, she unfortunately does for too many. Murphy's rendering of Mother Gothel results in a vain, egotistical, self-absorbed woman. Yet you always sense she genuinely has some affection for the child she's been exploiting for her own means. Because of Murphy you understand how and why Rapunzel could be so conflicted. It's a shame that voice actors aren't nominated for Best Supporting Actress, because Murphy definitely deserves a nod.

Where Tangled really shines though, involves two characters who have no voice actors. Pascal and Maximus. Disney's secondary characters have always been one its strongest points over the last 70 years. They've left just as much of an impression on the movies they were in as the main characters, and at times, more so. Wisely, Pascal is used to punctuate jokes and isn't a joke himself, and as a foil for Flynn, Maximus, a palace guard horse who shares the same intense tenacity and sense of purpose Tommy Lee Jones's Marshall demonstrated in The Fugitive, adds a sense of fun that using a human wouldn't have.

If Tangled has a few faults it's largest would be the lackluster songs.

The strongest of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's efforts is possibly Mother Knows Best. Beyond that, one would be hard pressed to pull out any memorable lyrics, or find many hum worthy passages.  Fortuitously aiding them though, is some of the most expressive animation and well thought out comic staging you can bring to an animated feature. It's classic Disney that helps bring songs like When Will My Life Begin and I've Got a Dream, complete with dancing singing Thugs--although none seem to have sharp teeth, vividly alive.

One might be able to find a few more things to nitpick with. However, Tangled is most definitely a true return to form for a studio that has arguably created more classic animated films than any other studio on the planet...at least till Pixar releases it's own 50th animated film.

Review: NIGHT CATCHES US

There are few organizations more identified as the embodiment of The Black Power movement of the 1960's and 1970's than The Black Panthers. Although the group went beyond the political, pushing for economic justice as well as cultural and community development, the standard image in the minds of most is dozens of stoic young black men and women in berets and leather jackets holding AK-47's. Five decades later this image illicits pride, and even a longing for those days to return, in some. For others it conjures up all manner of negative emotions ranging from confusion to disgust to anger.

It's into this space comes Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us.

Set in the mid 1970s, just as Jimmy Carter has been elected president, Hamilton's debut centers around Marcus (Anthony Mackie). A former member of the Philadelphia Panther Party, Marcus left town years earlier after rumors started circulating that he had turned police informant. Home to bury his father, Marcus has come home to a neighborhood that feels betrayed, abandoned, and after his sudden disappearance, convinced of his guilt.

Although nearly everyone in the neighborhood, from Marcus's brother to the current head of the Philadelphia Panthers, Jamie Hector as 'Doright' Miller, is either cold or outright hostile towards him, Marcus has at least one friend left in Patricia (Kerry Washington).

A former Panther herself, and the mother to a young daughter, Patricia lives a life halfway between the revolutionary she was and the lawyer she's now become.  Refusing to totally abandon her old life, she runs a version of the Panthers' children's breakfast program on her own dime. Her advocacy is a point of contention between Patricia and her live in boyfriend, a lawyer who works for the city, and believes she should focus on her own family first.

Although Marcus will neither confirm or deny if he was the informant--his own barely contained anger doesn't help his cause--most find Patricia's willingness to welcome Marcus back troubling, as whoever the informant was, they were directly responsible for her husband being slain by the cops.

Refreshingly, Hamilton doesn't concern herself too much with answering the question of who the informant was. Instead she focuses her energies in critiquing the disconnect between the promise of the Panther Party of the 60s and the reality of Philadelphia a decade later.

Like a ghost town, with few people walking the streets, Hamilton and her production team create a neighborhood in economic decline, a decline that would plague urban neighborhoods for decades.

In Patricia, Hamilton presages the conflict that arose between the African American middle class that started taking advantage of new opportunities open to them in a post Civil Rights America, and those African Americans that felt left behind and ignored.

And in Patricia's cousin Jimmy, a young man enamored with the militant side of the Panthers, Hamilton touches on how much of the Panthers' message of community and economic improvement became the least remembered elements of it's legacy.  A point further reiterated by Doright who seems more concerned with living in the Panthers' past and focused on revenge than dealing with his neighborhood's ever declining present.

If there's a weakness in the overall story, it would be that as a character driven portrait of a neighborhood, Night doesn't contain much dramatic drive. Hamilton tries to utilize Jimmy's constant battling with a racist Philadelphia cop as a narrative spine, however the climax of that arc does more to undercut the subtle and delicate world she's created than add any believable tension. And it doesn't help that both Jimmy and the cop are one note characters who seem only to exist to antagonize each other.

Still, Night's end point feels not only emotionally logical, never resorting to drawing any firm conclusions, it reinforces that while movements may come to an end, the issues and complex questions they bring to light rarely do.

Reviewed at the 2010 Sidewalk Moving Picture Film Festival

Paranormal Activity

To say I was looking forward to Paranormal Activity 2 would be an understatement. Thought sequels rarely are better than the first, I would take a weaker version of the first Paranormal over the current strain of horror movies that seem closer to watching a creative snuff film than actually being scary.

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