Sunday, April 6, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Film Review

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Somebody just turned the volume up to 11.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (CA: TWS) just grabbed THE AVENGERS and leapfrogged right past them to catapult himself right to the top of the super-hero movie pyramid. This is a fully realized synthesis of everything that has come before in the Marvel Comics Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly distilled into a taut action epic that never once loses sight of the character or... the world he exists in.
The tagline that has been tossed around with this movie is a classic comics tag: “Everything changes,” only this time it is true.

The first Cap film, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER served as both an origin story for Cap but also a prologue for THE AVENGERS film. CA: TWS explores Cap’s loss of innocence in a world where the villains are not so easy to identify as it was when they wore swastikas on their sleeves. Where IRON MAN 3 served as an epilogue to THE AVENGERS, it falls to a Captain America film to be the prologue once again for an AVENGERS film (the currently filming AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON). However, CA: TWS is also a true sequel picking up on story threads from the first Cap film.

This film is securely Cap’s film, but it strongly builds up his supporting cast without ever feeling like it takes away from Cap’s story. This is an ensemble film that revolves around Steve Rogers, man out of time and the world’s greatest soldier. In the first film, set mostly in the middle of World War 2, we saw Steve, an intrinsically good man, given the strength and power to accomplish great things and not become corrupted. A natural leader, he demonstrated that rare quality of charismatic and confident command with an intuitive sense of when “just following orders” was not a proper option. As a result, he earned the trust of everyone he came into contact with. His arch nemesis, The Red Skull, functioned as the contrasting distorted mirror version of Captain America demonstrating how the same power could absolutely corrupt someone who is already bad.
 

There were other character stories in the first film including Red Skull’s top scientist in his Hydra organization, Arnim Zola. You will remember that he was eventually captured by the Americans. Steve’s best friend from childhood, Bucky Barnes, was the only soldier in Cap’s “Howling Commandos” team to lose his life in the war when he fell to his death off a speeding train in the mountains. Steve’s guilt and pain was magnified as he was there with Bucky and was unable to save him when he fell. And then there’s “Agent Peggy Carter” who was/is Steve’s first and only love but his duties in the war kept preventing them from pursuing anything more than the purest of platonic love.
 
Without spoiling the movie, let me just say that CA: TWS follows through directly on those characters and their current impact on Steve and his personal journey. It also delivers incredibly effective and important journeys for Col. Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff (The Black Widow). Somehow, the writers and directors of this film also found time to introduce 2 major characters into the mix, Sam Wilson (The Falcon) and the mysterious assassin, The Winter Soldier. By doing this they combined two different eras of the Captain America comic books, the 1970s and the 2000s, into something new and original that knocked my socks off.

As a child, my introduction to the character of Captain America was during the phase in which the title of the book was actually “Captain America and The Falcon.” So I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the character of Sam Wilson. I was both excited to learn they were introducing him into the film but I was also slightly hesitant because I was afraid his character would bear little resemblance to the character as I remembered him. I should not have worried. The casting of the roundly likeable and earnestly charismatic Anthony Mackie is what sells it. They changed up a little bit of Sam’s personal background, but for the most part, this is the guy I already knew. It was like my first experience watching Chris Evans as Cap. I felt that I already knew him. It wasn’t someone performing, this was actually the Captain America I “knew” from my childhood. Sam is also a good man. He and Steve bond instantly with mutual respect and it completely makes sense that they are drawn together through the events of the film brought about by the appearance of The Winter Soldier in an incredible action sequence in Washington D.C.
 
Actually there are a couple of incredible car-based action sequences that are in and of themselves worth the price of admission. The action in this movie is ramped up, violent, and impressive. It weaves in and out of mass destruction-type action and personal combat expertly – very “BOURNE-like” in that way.
 

Part of why it is fitting to include The Falcon in this story is that the ‘70s era of Captain America comics, following the Watergate controversy and the fall of President Nixon, dealt with a loss of innocence in Steve as he had to face the inroads of corrupt government. This film deals solidly with issues of over-reaching government and the politics of the day – especially how far should the people allow their governments to go under the guise of “protecting” them? The film also solidly addresses the importance of the free flow of information. The themes explored in CA: TWS are strongly relevant and I believe that it will only increase in relevance as time passes.
 
Oh yeah, I almost forgot something. For the hardcore Cap fans who maybe thought there was no way to ever incorporate “Batroc ze Leaper” (a mostly absurd French stereotype villain whose super-power is super-jumping) into the more grounded Cinematic Universe, well… worry no more.


 Bottom line is….GO SEE THIS MOVIE!

★★★★★ out of ★★★★★

#captainamericathewintersoldier #wintersoldier #captainamerica
 
 

Monday, March 31, 2014

TIM'S VERMEER Film Review

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TIM'S VERMEER

One of the best movies of the year! This movie tells the years-long story of San Antonio-based inventor, Tim Jenison and his attempt to prove his theory to explain how Dutch master painter, Johannes Vermeer (and perhaps other Dutch masters) was able to paint photo-realistically 150 years before the invention of photography.

Self-deprecating and humble, Tim, is a genius for sussing out something that has perplexed art historians since the early days of the cam...era. There are subtle distortions in perception that are captured only with a frozen image as captured through a camera lens that we cannot see with the naked eye. And yet, the technology of the time made it impossible for artists to have photo references to work from.

So how did Vermeer do it?

Art historians were already pretty settled on Vermeer's  reliance on some sort of optics, in the form of a "camera
obscura" but the limitations with that piece of technology coupled with the utter lack of any underlying drawing (as proved through x-rays of Vermeer's paintings) has consistently stumped the experts. And it appears to have taken a practical-minded inventor of digital video processing techniques (among many other clever creations) to do what scholars and artists could not deduce.

 Tim is not an "artist". He does not know how to paint at all. In fact, we see his first painting ever captured in this film using his rudimentary invention based on his theory. And it is astoundingly accurate and good. So, he sets out on an obsessive mission to replicate, down to the minutiae, the room and the setting that Vermeer used for his famous painting "The Music Lesson." This means we follow him through his research and recreation and then his painstaking painting process as this untrained and inexperienced painter produces a most amazing....well....original Vermeer by way of Tim.


Penn Jillette (friends with Tim and producer) narrates and guides the proceedings. This film, directed by Teller, is a masterpiece itself at revealing a centuries-hidden technique that was passed down in secret from Master to Apprentice much like the secrets of Magic and I am sure this is what attracted Penn and Teller to this project in the first place. By the end, the viewers should have not only an increased appreciation for the artistry of Vermeer, they should also have their entire notion of the line between technician and artist wholly skewered. 
 
Perhaps what makes an artist an artist isn't quite as limiting as we tend to want to make it. Even Tim himself doesn't perceive himself as an artist...but I can tell you his entire process to get to that finished work is a beautiful work of art itself as well as the final painting.
 
Tim Jenison is a master of his own unique and inventive approach to creation. In a way, he reminds me of a modern-day Leonardo and this film is a beautiful snapshot of his creative process.

★★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Sunday, March 30, 2014

SABOTAGE Film Review

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SABOTAGE

You know how we all wonder sometimes how Arnold Schwarzenegger can have been speaking English for more of his life than not and still can't shake his strong (and often marble-mouthed) accent? Well, likewise, you'd think that after decades and decades of acting that he might actually gain some ability to really...act.

Oh well.

No surprises here. Arnold still has charisma and screen presence plus there's some gravitas to his age now that makes him worth watching (...even in spite of his severe lack of acting skills). The filmmakers make the wise choice of surrounding Arnold with excellent actors, but that unfortunately signs a serious light on his inability to draw me into his character's emotional turmoil.

The movie is interesting and entertaining, but way over the top in brutality and grisly effects of pieces of bodies and internal organs and pools of blood. There's action films and then there's gross action films. This one falls in the category of extremely gross. It is also quite ludicrous. So, if you dig the gross and ludicrous taut action thrillers then you'll probably dig it.

The story involves a Special Ops DEA taskforce, the type that only could exist in a movie, led by Arnold's character, John Breacher. The taskforce is made up of 6 or 7 (I lost count of the mostly interchangeable actors) of the most loathsomely immoral and irredeemably unlikeable rat bastards you can imagine. Think, the Dirty Dozen, but without any of the charm or wit and a penchant for torture porn. There's some attempts at humanizing the characters, but it's really not enough. The "sabotage" of the title revolves around a flubbed attempt to secret away $10 million dollars from one of the team's drug busts. Instead, it appears that the members of the team are starting to get picked off one at a time by the drug cartel who thinks they stole from.

Logic gets twisted and then tossed out the window where it is then blasted into dust by a surface to air missile resulting in one of the more ludicrous (and again....grisly) car chases I've seen in awhile. There is really something disturbing about the level of fixation the director seemed to have for focusing his laser beam of attention onto the blood splatters, spews, and bodies. It's about as desensitized as the killing of the zombies in THE WALKING DEAD but I have a hard time in a film as serious as this one takes itself, not noticing the flippant manner in which lives are taken.

The resolution of the mystery of the money and the killing is no big surprise and the coda to the story is somewhat satisfying at least. That may be my favorite sequence of the film and my favorite acting by Arnold. Of course, I think he didn't say any lines during it, so there's that.

His acting coach might also want to talk to him about his cigars. At times, they were distracting to the point of caricature -- just like his ridiculously dark-colored hair Moe-cut on top his natural gray shaved cut.

I was entertained, and it's probably a decent flick for what it is, but I didn't particularly enjoy it.

★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Friday, March 28, 2014

NOAH Film Review

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NOAH

*Do not read if you don't want spoilers! This review is going to be full of them!*
**************************

 No matter who you are, please for the sake of sanity please leave your literalist Bibles at home if you choose to go see this movie. Otherwise, you ...will be driven as mad as Noah trying to find ways to reconcile the film with your Biblical flood narrative. This is a grand old myth that exists within many pre-historical mythological narratives and assigning the main characters the names and general lineage from the Biblical account is merely usage of the familiar in telling an archetypal epic. Ultimately, this film is a sci-fi epic exploring themes of faith, madness, obsession, redemption, forgiveness, and most of all....free-will, or our choices as humans and the consequences.

I know of no way to really discuss this movie without talking about specifics, so here come the spoilers. I'm very familiar with the Biblical tale and in my opinion that was an intruding detriment to my ability to get caught up in the story at first. I had to consciously tell myself to stop comparing what I was seeing to what I was familiar with. What helped me do that was changing my viewing paradigm. Instead of seeing the story of the Biblical "Noah," I chose to view it as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic set on another planet. Once I did that, then I settled in nicely. The cause of my unease had to do with this post-industrial society in which "fallen angels" had surrounded themselves with a cloak of "earth" so that they are walking around as 20-foot multi-armed rock monsters who interact with and attempt to help the humans. There's a bit of a nod to the Prometheus myth here as some of how they seem to help is providing mystical source material for humans to wield fire.

The story that director, Darren Aranofsky, is telling is a story much more personal than just the story, or myth, of the Ark. Just like MOBY DICK is on one hand a story about a Captain chasing a whale, it is even moreso a tale of obsession and madness -- this film is less a story about God's dissatisfaction with man and his dramatic method of cleaning up mankind's mess; it is a tale of obsession and madness. Noah becomes progressively more unhinged as the years go by and slips into a post-traumatic survivor's guilt-induced madness. He does not see himself as deserving of the gift of continued life given him by the Creator (they never call God anything other than "The Creator"). The evil and wickedness of man is driven home in disturbing ways as we see the debauchery and even cannibalistic lifestyle of Tubal-Cain's kingdom. Tubal-Cain represents the worst of mankind with his focus on self and manipulative treachery. He revels in his wickedness. Noah is tortured by his own human nature but driven by a desire to deny himself in service of others -- a self-less love. Yet, all he sees is his own wickedness and questions why the Creator would use him rather than destroy him.

In this story, God never speaks directly or audibly. The Creator speaks through miraculous intervention; through dreams; through circumstance; through events others might see as coincidence. It's a very interesting way to approach it and is indicative of the struggles that even the most faithful have in trying to know the will of God when their God does not speak directly. In Noah's case, the frustrations build. Even the "Watchers" (the name given to the fallen angels) state outright that the Creator is silent "as always." But the key point to this is that were the Creator to speak directly then Noah's free will would not be an issue in play. He would just be following instructions and this is not the story that Aranofsky is telling. Aranofsky is telling the story of a prophet who is trying to interpret the Creator's intent through his own flawed perceptions. As a result, he understands some of the broad strokes of the Creator's plan: (1) man's wickedness has grown to such a degree that they are deserving of nothing but mass genocide, (2) the rest of Creation is undeserving of death and needs to be preserved, (3) Noah and family must build a sea-faring ark to save the animals. Noah misses the most important element in the equation, however, and that is the "why" it is him and his family that were chosen.

Most of us are familiar enough with the basic narrative to expect that it should be obvious that Noah and his family are the avenue to repopulate the planet afterwards. However, what if the only female of child-bearing age who makes it onto the ark happens to be barren? What is his purpose then? Why is Noah chosen if the end result is hopelessness? He has trusted the Creator to provide and yet all seems to be pointed to utter destruction of the human race.

And therein lies Noah's ultimate descent into madness and loss of faith even in the face of the miracle of the Creator's active hand in bringing all of this into being in the first place. There finally comes a moment where he faces the breaking point between blind obedience to a flawed understanding of God's will and love.

In the end, there are subtle hints throughout the film that this is not the primordial world we think it is but actually in the far, far future post-Apocalypse. In that sense, I immediately had a PLANET OF THE APES feeling about it. The twist in PoTA that this planet was actually Earth the whole time is like the twist of thinking this is pre-history when it might actually be post-history. The most explicit evidence is a retelling of sin and it's impact on man throughout "history" leading up to this moment and in the silhouette of man killing man we start with Cain killing Abel and then it moves through time in the silhouette eventually reaching modern day weapons. It's symbolic, but considering the context of wiping out mankind because of our wickedness but with the dangling hope of Noah's family providing a new beginning, it becomes a very important moment as those silhouettes would be projecting just a repeat of the same in the future and make the entire story pointless. To me, the movie becomes a tale of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In that, it is truly mythological and meaningful to our current state of being.

The effects are good and in some cases truly spectacular. Russell Crowe acts his ass off as Noah. His emotional journey could've been way overdone but Crowe gave him a real sense of truth and reality. I could feel him as he tipped over the edge of madness. Ray Winstone's Tubal-Cain was less nuanced and did go over the top a few times. The weakest member of the group was the actor playing Noah's son, Shem. But that weakness was less about his acting and more about his hair and beard. It was too well manicured and seemed out of place up against Noah's more natural hair growth. His brother, Ham, never really gets on board with Noah's mission and gets more and more estranged from him. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson do quite well with what they are needed to do as Noah's wife and his daughter-in-law respectively. Anthony Hopkins plays Noah's grandfather, Methusalah, and has a wonderful moment as the floods begin that made me tear up.

The more I reflect back on it the more I like it. It's a powerful film that resonates with me on a number of levels. If you're looking for a retelling of the Biblical flood narrative then I don't recommend this movie. If you're looking for a powerful science-fiction epic that addresses universal themes in an entertaining and creative way then get a bucket of popcorn and sit back for an interesting and engaging ride.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Thursday, March 27, 2014

BAD WORDS Film Review

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BAD WORDS

Jason Bateman's directorial debut is one of my favorite movies of the year so far. Unfortunately, there are very few people I would feel comfortable telling them to go see it. Bateman's character, Guy Trilby, is simply one of the more horrendously unredeemably awful human beings I've ever had the pleasure of laughing at.

It's a simple plot. A 40 year-old man competes in a national spelling bee and gets away with it because of a loophole in the rules that never ...stipulates age but merely that a competitor must not have graduated the 8th grade before a certain date. Well, as Mr. Trilby is more than happy to inform them...as a drop-out....he never graduated 8th grade at all, so he qualifies.

Now, you might wonder why a grown man would want to demean himself and relentlessly heckle and bully these young children publicly like this. Well, that answer is the "McGuffin" of this movie. It doesn't really matter what the answer is; there is no excuse for his abhorrent behavior. But we do, at least, get an answer.

He really does conduct himself like what you would imagine someone with no conscience might, but the truth is he is acting out because of pain. And the grounding of the movie, that makes the viewer able to tolerate him even at his worst, is the unlikely friendship between him and 10 year-old Chaitanya Chopra, played by Rohan Chand. They are gold together with onscreen chemistry and comic timing plus a sense that they really do care about each other. Chand's exuberantly naïve performance matches Batman's sociopathic detachment. So many parents, however, are going to be so horrified by the graphic language and the manner in which Trilby treats Chopra that they may not be able to appreciate the subtleties here.

I suspect that many parents of little kids are going to have a hard time enjoying this movie because of Trilby's offensive language and outright emotional bullying. However, I thought the movie was hilariously in bad taste but with an overall goodness to it in the end without getting into sappy after-school-special type of shit.

And the fact that I could get through a quick review of BAD WORDS with only letting one minor bad word slip is nothing short of a miracle.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★

Sunday, March 23, 2014

DIVERGENT Film Review

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DIVERGENT

Loved this movie! It's smart, compelling, well-acted, well-directed, well-paced, and the special effects and action are top-notch. It hit all my sweet spots. In this far-off future, some sort of devastation has hit the world and cut off the remnants of societies from each other. In the setting of DIVERGENT, the city of Chicago, with it's dried out husk of Lake Michigan, is home to ...a self-sufficient society surrounded by an enormous fence purportedly for protection. There is a more sinister implication that it may be more of a containment than a protection.

In this society, their world is separated into 5 factions:

(1) ABNEGATION: This faction values selflessness. In MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) terms, it's probably ISFJ.
(2) DAUNTLESS: This faction values bravery. In MBTI terms, it's probably ESTP.
(3) ERUDITE: This faction values knowledge and logic. In MBTI terms, it's probably INTP.
(4) CANDOR: This faction values honesty and is prone to black and white concrete thinking. In MBTI terms, it's probably ESTJ.
(5) AMITY: This faction values kindness and peace with a willingness to compromise. In MBTI terms, it's probably ESFP.

The poverty-stricken homeless are the forgotten people...the "Factionless," or those who have failed to achieve within their factions and are cast out.

When citizens turn 16 they are required to take an aptitude test to tell them which faction they are genetically predisposed towards. In the end, they do allow each individual to "choose" their faction, but there is clearly pressure from the government and the social peerage not to veer from the results of the test. In rare occasions there our outliers, or "divergents", who have inconclusive results -- they cannot be "typed" into a single faction. The heroine of the story is Tris, who is raised in Abnegation but turns out to be a Divergent (typed as Agnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless) but she has to hide these results or be shunned or possibly worse. She chooses Dauntless because she has always admired them for what appears to be thrills and adventure that she has never experienced before.

There is a lot more going on than she realizes and we track along with her as she moves through the stages of weakness to strength to truth and understanding. She also finds a deep connection with Four (Tobias) who is one of the Dauntless trainers. I'm tempted (in MBTI terms) to type Tris as an ENFJ and Four as an INFJ, which would fit within the percentages of types to the general population.

Basically, this movie tackles the topic of societal controls trying to drive out the outliers (Divergents) who challenge the mass beliefs and authoritarian structures. It is very telling that there is not a faction committed to philosophy or spirituality or self-expression. The society of DIVERGENT is one where all 5 factions are separated not just by type but also segregated into different areas and homogenous clothing styles specific to each faction. The authority gives lip service to the freedom of the individuals to "choose" their path but the system is set up for failure by individualists.

There are some basic visual and stylistic similarities to THE HUNGER GAMES, but I'm going to want to set anyone on the fence about it straight and that is that this is very different. THE HUNGER GAMES deals more directly with the malevolent political manipulations of government and the twisted justifications we make, as humans, for self-indulgence and violence. This story is more about our need to tribalize ourselves and subsume the individual. This is not really about politics but about human nature. The forced separation into factions is driven home with the repeated mantra of "Faction before blood."

Tackling themes like this could easily result in a convoluted and dull film with a lot of over-preachy didactic messaging. The film is structured just right with never a dull moment and quite thought-provoking. If I wasn't worried about over-spoiling I could probably go on all night about it.

★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Trio of Reviews: MUPPETS...MOST WANTED, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, and VERONICA MARS

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MUPPETS: MOST WANTED

Back to old-school Muppet movies and that's....okay. Mostly it's okay because of the musical input of Bret McKenzie (of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS) for the songs. The previous MUPPETS movie was a true "meta" film focusing on reintroducing the Muppets to relevancy in the modern day with a clever parallel storyline with the Muppets themselves attempting to reenter the public scene relying on nostalgia to fuel their move into the future. This movie is not q...uite as clever in that sense. It just picks up the baton from the final scene of that movie and jumps right into another Muppets adventure that fits within the same pattern as THE MUPPET MOVIE, THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, and THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTEN.

This is not a bad thing, but it is a slight step back in terms of that higher sense the previous movie had about exploring universal themes of self-identity and self-worth. This one is simply going for laughs and it delivers. It's funny. It's enjoyable. It's clever. Tons of gags throughout but the best bits involve a musical theater performance by the celebrity inmates at a Siberian gulag and the comedy gold interplay between Ty Burrell and Sam Eagle.

Ty plays a French detective with Interpol and Sam is CIA. They team up to track down the Muppets because they believe they are involved in a series of heists throughout Europe. Every moment between these two is totally hilarious and the highlight of the entire movie is their "Interrogation Song". Funniest thing I've seen in a long time and worth the price of admission.

I wish the movie was laugh-out-loud hilarious all the way through, but it isn't. It's enjoyable but I wasn't always laughing. The previous film didn't have me laughing all the way through either, but as I said it had some higher themes it was exploring that gave it a little more depth. But I'm not going to complain because it was still fun and the celebrity cameo choices were positively inspired at times and wholly unpredictable.

Fun for the whole family. Enjoy.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
 
 
 
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Such a strange movie. It's typical Wes Anderson in that exists in a super-stylized fairytale land divorced from reality but it tells an oddly compelling story.

It time jumps backwards then moves forward with the story of Gustave H., the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the early part of the 20th century. The story is being told to a modern writer by an aged former lobby boy who worked as a boy for Gustave.

The story involves the spread ...of fascism in Europe, the theft of a Renaissance painting, a battle for an inheritance, and framing an innocent man for a murder. Along the way, the quirkiness of the characters takes center stage as Wes Anderson and his repertoire of favorite actors pop in and out to fill in roles where needed.

Ralph Fiennes makes the movie bearable. F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law are also compelling but their bookend parts are too small to be very relevant. Fiennes plays Gustave and he creates a character who I love without reservation. He is so smart and worldly wise but he hides it behind a façade of a narcissistic fop -- which he is anything but. In this, he reminds me of the Scarlet Pimpernel a bit. Watching the subtleties of his performance is what makes this film worth seeing. Adrian Brody and Willem Dafoe are ridiculous caricatures and Tony Revolori plays young Zero as flat as a first year middle-school theater student in his first play. Without Fiennes' fully realized performance the entire film would have fallen apart.

I know Wes Anderson films can be polarizing for some and there's almost this hipster-esque attitude with some of his fans as if they feel like they are part of a special little clique of specials who "get" it and everyone else is just too square. I guess there's always that possibility but I think I'm pretty hip to Anderson's approach and I think I "get" it, but whereas I thought last year's MOONRISE KINGDOM was excellent from start to finish, this one is a lot more miss than hit and Fiennes is who carries the entire film.

For the record, those of you who are self-appointed members of that Wes Anderson "clique", can you do me a favor in the future? Can you stop being so vocal in the theater and over-laughing at things that are chuckle-inducing at the most? That would be great. Also, if you could stop over-laughing everytime George Clooney, Bob Balaban, or whoever the next cameo appearance is shows up on screen? Yeah. That'd be great too.

Thanks.

★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★