Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Loan Gruffud, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis star in this unnecessary, yet inevitable sequel. The movie essentially follows the super hero quartet in their second outing to once again save the planet. This time the enemy is The Silver Surfer, who in reality is only an indentured servant to the real baddie- an immense, planet devouring force known as Galactus. Certainly has the makings of your typical super hero movie.

Besides the obvious super hero portion, the other story follows the impending wedding between Reed Richards (Gruffud), and Sue Storm (Alba). This character development is a moderately valiant effort, but unfortunately falls flat from the get go. Gruffud portrays the pre-occupied fiance by rote, with nearly no emotion. Alba seems to be questioning her choice of being in this movie much more than her character questions their upcoming message. Johnny Blaze (Evans), and Ben Grimm (Chiklis) fill out the rest of a the foursome. Blaze fulfills the arrogant role, while Grimm, despite being a human rock wall, is actually the deepest, most well developed character. He has the best lines, and the best scenes, but is also the most underused. It's as if Chiklis just decided to have fun with the role, while everyone else just looks at it as a rather hefty paycheck.

Tim Story is back directing the sequel, and does an ample job of it. The visual effects are the true feature of the movie, with the Silver Surfer being completely computer generated. Despite Laurence Fishbourne voicing the Silver Surfer, the character feels cold and dead, even when it's not supposed to be. Many of the action sequences are extremely dark and nearly impossible to follow. This means they were able to skimp a bit on the effects, even though they were the movie's only redeeming feature.

Honestly, I have never been a tremendous fan of the Fantastic Four. I enjoyed the comics, but felt they were always lacking something. The movie takes the hokey story lines, and absurd situations (even for super hero comics) and underlies them with a weak plot and even weaker acting, all while cushioning these weaknesses with moderately impressive, yet frequently phoned in visual effects. A third installment is also an inevitability- unfortunately.


Saturday, June 23, 2007


This is pure Steven King, from start to finish- and I mean that in a good way. This could be thought of as a more action oriented revision of the Shinning, all within one room. 1408 is kind of a one trick pony, but it does that trick very well, with its fair share of scares. I know that I have reviewed many scary movies, and I usually go soft on them. Don't get me wrong, this is not like most horror movies today- it's genuinely scary.

John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, an author who travels the country writing about the paranormal (all with titles "10 haunted..." various locations). He has been rather underwhelmed until he gets a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel warning him not to enter room 1408. Of course, he does. Despite insistent warnings from hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), Enslin is determined to spend the night. If you've seen any of the previews, you can guess what happens when he gets in the room.

Cusack delivers one of the best performances I have seen from him. This is essentially a one man show, and he aptly commands the performance. Gradually the room reveals his past as he is forced to deal with the tragedies he has been running from. Cusack crafts Enslin to be a deeply cynical, but equally emotional character. On occasion- especially during his interactions with Jackson, Cusack's charm that he is famous for comes sparkling through. I genuinely feel that he is one of the best actors out there today.

Unfortunately, most of the scary moments are hit on in the trailers, so there's not a whole lot new in the movie. Many of these spooky points are kind of cliches, and I wish it had more strictly followed Jackson and Cusack's character's testimonies- stating that there are no ghosts, just an evil room. There were those occasional moments where it seemed to rely on a crutch of specters, but to do an entire feature essentially in one room, I'll cut them a break. Best of all, after a few of the obligatory false endings, the actual end can truly be debated. I actually subscribe to several different equally valid interpretations.

1408 is true thriller, with a truly compelling back story for its protagonist. It's traditional Steven King, relying on claustrophobia and desperation, with the real horrors being tapped in the character's own mind. Cusack's performance is great, and Mikael Håfström's directing, though not stellar, is ample. He captures the tension of the movie, and keeps the small location from being boring. Most importantly of any thriller, it's scary.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Les Triplettes de Belleville

Les Triplettes de Belleville, or The Triplets of Belleville, is a French animation from 2003. It was first recommended to me by a close friend, and the recommendation was re-enforced several days later by an animation professor. After viewing it, I must say that I was not at all disappointed.

The story follows an elderly woman raising her orphaned grandson. When he was little she bought him a bike, and trained him to become a professional cycler. The makes takes off as he competes in the Tour De France, but is kidnapped along the course. His Grandmother and their dog- Bruno, take off on a journey to rescue him. Along the way they meet a trio of singers (the triplets mentioned in the title), who help them in their rescue attempt. The movie is both touching, and very funny.

The most obvious feature of the movie is the animation. Writer/Director Sylvain Chomet appears to be influenced heavily by early animators such as Windsor McCay, Ub Iwerks, and Emile Cohl (a poster of McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" is even displayed on the wall in one scene). As in Triplets, these animators were known for extreme exaggerations in movement and expression. Chomet continues in this style taking the movements out of the realms of physical ability, to heighten the expressiveness of the characters. Even the physical build of each character is greatly stylized- which mafia muscle appearing as square-shouldered bricks, and professional bicyclers as thin with bulging leg muscles. These caricatures create the style for the movie, and also add humor.

The expressive animation is important, because there's not a single line of discernible dialogue spoken through the entire movie. There is background noise, such as on the TV and radio, but it is all in French with no subtitles. This is very difficult to attempt, making a feature length movie with no dialogue, but it is pulled of very well. The animation is so rich and expressive, that you don't miss anything. The characters are so animated that you know exactly what they're thinking at any given moment, even without them uttering a word.

Music also plays an important role The Triplets of the name are performers. They not only sing, but use found objects as percussion in some very catchy numbers. Also featured is an animated Glenn Gould, and caricatures of Django Reinhart, Fred Astaire, and Josephine Baker. Music is an underlying force in the plot, and acts as a unifier between characters.

If you can't tell, I really enjoyed this movie. The animation was superb, and offered a seamless blend between traditional hand-drawn and 3D computer animation. The movie was rather short, topping out at around an hour and fifteen minutes. The last scene, however, still seemed to drag on slightly too long. It closed with a car chase that was not terribly exciting, and rather long. Up until that point I was engrossed through the entire thing, and I can't complain too much about one little scene. I guarantee this is unlike any animated movie you have seen.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Angels in America

Angels in America was a six hour mini-series produced by HBO several years ago. Adapted by Tony Kushner from his early nineties play of the same name, "Angels" is a deep and meandering parable about falling from grace and redemption, revealed through several stories of New Yorkers affected by the 1980s AIDS crisis. This work is powerful, if a little convoluted, off the wall, and even a bit preachy.

The cast is wonderful, with Emma Thomson and Meryl Streep both playing several characters (one of which is an elderly Rabbi). Al Pacino lends his talents to legendary sleazy lawyer Roy Cohn. Jeffrey Wright, Mary Louise-Parker, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, and Patrick Wilson fill out the stellar cast. There are three primary story lines, yet they are all intertwined, with characters associating in unexpected ways.

Prior Walter (Kirk, is dying of AIDS, and his partner Louis (Shenkman), has to struggle with his love for Prior, but his inability to handle sickness. Meanwhile, Joe Pitt (Wilson), who is a devout republican Mormon lawyer is wrestling with his own sexuality, at the expense of his wife, Harper (Parker) who has become a Valium addict- experiencing constant hallucinations, and his mother (Streep) who just cannot understand homosexuality. During all of this, Cohn, who is trying to recruit Pitt for his agenda, is secretly dying of AIDS. In one of my favorite scenes, Cohn rants to his doctor (played by James Cromwell) about homosexuality not describing sexual preference, but instead describing a lack of clout.

All of these stories are interwoven as Louis and Pitt meet to try to find themselves and run from their sins, while Jeffrey Wright (who plays Belize, a friend of Prior and Cohn's nurse; also playing one of Harper's imaginary friends), provides not only connective tissue between the stories, but also an external criticism of everything that's going on. He is one of the few genuinely sane people in the series.

Oh, did I forget to mention the Angels? You can't have a series called Angels in America without there being angels can you? During all of this, angels are in a way guiding interactions between the characters. Harper and Prior meet each other in mutual drug induced hallucinations, while Cohn has many hilarious run-ins with Ethel Rosenberg (again played by Streep). By far, Prior has the most interaction with an angel (Thomson), actually communicating with her. Without giving to much away, it turns out that the angels themselves even have their own motives for using the characters.

There are many ways this movie could be interpreted. The angels may be real, or they may be simply a manifestation of drugs and disease. Whichever case may be true, it doesn't matter. The end result is the same either way (though this end meaning can also be up for debate). Perhaps the polarizing of society is tearing apart heaven itself, leaving an absence of God- or maybe it's a story about inevitability, and how nothing can slow progression and change, good or bad- or maybe it's simply a story about redemption and absolving of sins. It's probably a combination of all of the above.

The movie is beautifully shot, with light and color playing major roles in character and plot. It goes from scenes with a sweeping scope, to other scenes that seem to be taking directly from the stage. Regrettably, however, some of the visual effects did leave some to be desired. It's divided up into two parts with three chapters each. I watched it in two three hour sittings, which seemed to be how director, Mike Nichols intended it. It sounds terribly long, but it's really not.

There are only a few complaints I had with the movie. Some of the over the top parts were almost laughably outlandish. A scene where Justin Kirk and Emma Thomson wrestle made me cringe, while some other of the slow dialog heavy scenes seemed repetitive and dragged on and on. Many of these sequences were a bit convoluted and cryptic, almost bordering on being preachy. These scenes, however, were few and far between. Generally speaking, the series was fantastic, with each character being interesting alone, and even more interesting with their interactions. This is a wonderfully crafted series and well worth the six hours to watch it.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

100 Essential Movies

This is my list of 100 essential movies to watch this summer (or as long as it takes). These aren't necessarily the all time best, just 100 movies I think everyone should see. Many of them most of you probably already have seen.

There's many I'm sure I missed, seeing as I created this list in an hour while sitting here. With that in mind, I would appreciate suggestions for essential movies that I should see. Just post them as responses here, and post as many movies as you want. Ayway, here's my list.

1. 12 Angry Men
2. Adaptation
3. Amadeus
4. Amistad
5. American Psycho
6. American Splendor
7. Angels in America
8. Apocalypse Now!
9. A Simple Plan
10. Before Sunrise
11. Bonnie and Clyde
12. Breakfast at Tiffanies
13. Brick
14. Bringing up Baby
15. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
16. Bullitt
17. Casablanca
18. Caveman's Valentine, The
29. Chicken Run
20. Children of Men
21. Chinatown
22. Clockwork Orange
23. Confederate States of America, The
24. Conspiracy Theory
25. Constant Gardener, The
26. Cool Hand Luke
27. Closer
28. Cruise, The
29. Day the Earth Stood Still, The
30. Deer Hunter, The
31. DiG!
32. Diner
33. Dog Day Afternoon
34. Donnie Darko
35. Dreamers, The
36. Election
37. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
38. Exorcist, The
39. Fantasia
40. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
41. Fight Club
42. Finding Nemo
43. Five Easy Pieces
44. French Connection, The
45. Four Rooms
46. Full Metal Jacket
47. Game, The
48. Glory
49. Godfather, The
50. Goodbye Lenin
51. Groundhog Day
52. Hard Candy
53. Harold and Maude
54. Igby Goes Down
55. King Kong (1933)
56. L.A. Story
57. Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The
58. Lola Rennt
59. Lost in Translation
60. Manhattan
61. Man Who Wasn't There, The
62. Maria Full of Grace
63. MASH
64. Mean Girls
65. Memento
66. Network
67. Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozer)
68. Oldboy
69. On the Waterfront
70. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
71. Pi
72. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
73. Prestige, The
74. Pursuit of Happyness, The
75. Punch Drunk Love
76. Radio Days
77. Rear Window
78. Roman Holiday
79. Royal Tenenbaums, The
80. Shawshank Redemption, The
81. Shaun of the Dead
82. Shine
83. Shining, The
84. Smokey and the Bandit
85. Sophie Scholl- Die Letzen Tage
86. Spirited Away
87. Strangers on a Train
88. Swingers
89. Taxi Driver
90. Thing, The
91. This is Spinal Tap
92. Truman Show, The
93. Twelve Monkeys
94. Usual Suspects, The
95. Vanishing Point
96. What About Bob?
97. What Dreams May Come
98. What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
99. Wordplay
100. Working Man's Death

Hope you enjoy, and remember to post your suggestions for me to see.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Hostel: Part II

I had the "privilege" of seeing an advanced copy of Hostel II. If you haven't seen the first movie, don't worry. Chances are you already know what it was about, and it's summed up rather well in the first five minutes anyway. As for Hostel II, I can only assume that it's a rehashing of Hostel I, just with different characters.

The movie follows Beth (Lauren German), Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), three students studying abroad in Slovakia. They embody three stereotypical personalities: Beth is of course the required responsible hero, Whitney is the depraved sex fiend, and Lorna is the naive emotional basket-case. All three of them are equally obnoxious.

As most of you probably know, the meat of the movie is about a hostel that is actually a front for a bizarre club of wealthy people who kill others for sport. The proprietors of the hostel lure backpackers in, and people pay large sums of money to torture them. When the first movie came out, this was shocking, and terrifying. By now it's been done, and the concept doesn't have the same shock value. Instead of simply trying to surprise the audience, Eli Roth takes another approach.

Hostel II was not nearly as gruesome as the first one- which is a damn good thing. I had trouble watching much of the first installment. This time he took a twist and followed some of the people on the other end- the ones paying for the service. Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi) are two businessmen who are partaking in the "activities". One has done it before, and the other is a reluctant participant (though he's more hesitant about getting the required tattoo, than killing anyone). It was interesting to see him wrestle with his moral objections (despite how absurd the situation is).

Despite not being as intense as the first one, there are still some significantly flinch worthy scenes here. Not for the weak stomached. There was one fantastic scene, however, which featured people bidding on the three main characters from all over the world. This was a genuinely interesting commentary not only on the power of money, but also of the globalism of today's economy. The movie wasn't as bad as I had been anticipating. I still wish that Roth had just gone ahead and made the full movie out his Grindhouse trailer, "Thanksgiving". I've never been much a fan of Roth, but I might be starting to turn around on him.