Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

With The Princess and the Frog Disney has returned to traditional 2D animation for the first time in half a decade- and it couldn't have come at a better time. During a market filled with a plethora of similarly styled 3D animated films, The Princess and the Frog is like a breath of fresh air. It's on par with the best of Disney's animated films in the 90's, and easily the best in the past decade. The animation race for the Oscars is going to be interesting this year, with this movie, Miyazaki's Ponyo, Coraline, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox (even though I haven't seen it yet) all contenders. I would not be surprised to see The Princess and the Frog as a front runner.

The movie re imagines the classic fairy tale, setting it in 1920's era New Orleans. We find Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress who dreams of opening her own restaurant. Simultaneously Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) from the fictitious country of Maldona is visiting the city in hopes of finding a rich woman to marry. Both of their plans are waylaid, however, when Naveen is turned into a frog by a voodoo witchdoctor (Keith David). Per the fairy tale, Tiana kisses the frog in hopes of turning him into a prince, but instead she turns into a frog. The rest of the movie is spent with them trying to return to their human form, and of course finding love along the way.

The music is stellar. It's not quite on par with earlier Disney canon, but Randy Newman's songs certainly stand on their own. The gospel and blues based musical numbers seem a little tacked on in places, like they included out of obligation instead of furthering the plot. This is forgivable, however, as the zydeco infused music is so darn fun. Complementing the music is a top notch voice cast. Anika Noni Rose gained notoriety with Dream Girls, and proved herself once again here. And Jim Cummings lends his versatile voice as a Cajun firefly, Ray.

On a whole, The Princess and the Frog is lighter than many of its predecessors. The heavy themes patricide as found in the Lion King, abuse in Beauty and the Beast, and a plethora of cultural conflict found in many movies are abandoned for simpler ideas. One of the fundamental themes of being true to yourself is summed up in one of the best songs- "Dig a Little Deeper". Even the villain of Dr. Facilliar is more goofy than threatening.

With the first black princess, and set in the early 20th century, racial and class differences are touched on briefly, but glossed over. As with most Disney movies, they play up accents and stereotypes, which still leaves a slightly bad taste in my mouth. Likewise, the idea that all you need is a man is tossed around, and never really refuted. Even though it's almost 2010, some of these archaic themes still hold a major role in these movies. Given the light hearted feel of the movie as a whole, these didn't weigh too heavily.

This was one of the movies I was most looking forward to, and it didn't disappoint. Having Ron Clemments and John Musker reboot Disney's 2D department was a wise decision, considering the pair brought us both The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. The Princess and the Frog is not only possibly the best animated movie of the year- it's one of the best movies period.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Roy Disney


Son of Disney co-founder Roy O. Disney died today at 79. He headed up Disney's animation division during its rebirth in the late 80's and 90's.

Here is an article about him.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is just another example in a long (and sure to continue) string of documentary styled horror movies. This movie came almost exactly a decade after The Blair Witch Project kicked off the whole idea. Yes, I know movies like Cannibal Holocaust were made long before that, but really Blair Witch was the first enormous one. Blair Witch begat movies like Rec and its remake Quarantine, as well as big budget derivations such as Cloverfield. None of this genre's offspring, including Paranormal Activity, have even come close to impact of 1999's original.

Paranormal Activity tells the simple story of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, a couple settling into a new house. It's been revealed that Katie has been haunted by a demonic force her entire life. This prompts Micah to buy several video cameras, and thus the movie is born. Like its predecessors, this movie is billed as "found footage." This footage (depending on in what country you see the movie) offers little more than things moving in the night, and a couple's relationship crumbling on camera.

This certainly had potential. Forgoing big scares in favor of a creepy realistic atmosphere, and genuine emotional tension could be a recipe for huge success. Unfortunately that emotional tension was not very genuine. A movie like this depends wholly on whether it can sell that this is actually happening to these people. If that doesn't work, the movie doesn't work. And unfortunately, it didn't work. At no point did I stop being aware that this is nothing but a movie.

This problem may be that this idea can no longer support an entire movie. Paranormal Activity had a slew of genuinely heart pounding moments. Drawn out shots of the couple sleeping, that culminate with nothing more that the movement in their bedroom door will leave you drenched with sweat. These shining moments are countered, however, with absurd shots like a Ouija board catching on fire.

Some of the more promising moments made for a great viral marketing campaign. This raises the question about why some of these movies have more compelling advertising than the movies themselves. The marketing for Quarantine was far better than the movie it was promoting. These film makers can take note of phenomena like this year's genuinely frightening "Slender Man" videos on youtube (search "MarbleHornets"). Short ambiguous clips can prove to be far scarier than an entire movie. Paranormal Activity was extremely close to being a good scary movie. It had tremendous potential, but ultimately tried to stretch its concept too far, which undermined what could have been a terrifying premise.


The Twilght Saga: New Moon

Now I'm aware that I'm not the target audience of a romantic vampire themed movie. However, I am a fan of Ann Rice based movies, and the show True Blood, so I do know that good work in this genre is possible. The second installment of the Twilight Saga is certainly not an example of one. I did not care for the first one. The acting was some of the most wooden I'd ever seen, and the characters all struck me as overly dramatic. Painfully so.

This movie starts where the first one left off, with Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampiric beau Edward Cullen (Edward Cullen). Him an his family leave town, and leave Bella heartbroken. She falls into a depression, and grows close to an old friend, Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who happens to be a werewolf. A love triangle ensues, some war between vampires and werewolves is revealed, and whole slew of melodrama and mediocre visual effects engulfs the rest of the movie.

The weaknesses of the first movie are amplified here. Apparently Stewart views acting as a simple combination of biting her lip, dead-eyed looks to the left of the camera, and the occasional furrowed brow. The others don't treat the craft much better. The absurdity of the first one is also exaggerated here. I just wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake vigorously, screaming that highschool is not the end of their lives. At least the vampires were several hundred years old, or something like that. but Bella, c'mon, is your highschool crush really worth turning into a vampire? It's overly dramatic concepts like this that make it impossible to take these movies seriously.

I don't think I can blame the actors completely for their lack of performance. Taylor Lautner was among the worst offenders in this movie. Half the movie was spent sans-shirt, a quarter was spent as a poor CG wolf, and the final quarter was spent looking confused. Yet when he hosted Saturday Night Live this past week, he was absolutely hilarious. There can only one explanation for this disconnect- a terrible script, or a terrible director (considering Chris Weitz's previous movie, Golden Compass, essentially killed a franchise before it got off the ground- even though I liked it). Both of which would account for a majority of this movie's problems.

Box offices don't lie, however. A $200 million opening weekend means they're doing something right, and pretty much have a mandate to finish up the series. This is certainly not my cup of tea, but apparently it appeals to some (which we can only partially attribute to a shirtless Taylor Lautner). The audience for this movie already knows they're the audience. If you had to read this to decide whether you want to see it, I guarantee you don't.


The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells was perhaps the single movie I was most looking forward to this year. And it did not disappoint. In a world dominated by painfully similar animated features, this movie out of Ireland brought a truly unique aesthetic, that excited me more than a half dozen Pixar films.

The Secret of Kells tells the mythical creation story of the Book of Kells. It follows Brendan (Evan McGuire), the young and mischievous nephew of Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) from the city of Kells. With an invasion of murderous vikings on the horizon, the town is visited by Brother Aiden (Mick Lally), an artist working on what would become the Book of Kells. Conflict ensues between Aiden and Cellach, with the Abbot wanting to focus on the wall he's building around the city, and the Brother wanting to work towards conserving knowledge in his books. Brendan is caught in the middle.

The story is rather thin. It's entertaining, but it's a little sporatic. Certain characters like Aisling (Christen Mooney), the faerie who lives in the forest outside of Kells, are not effectively used. The movie set her up very well, but she essentially disappeared about 3 quarters of the way through the movie. A few places where the pacing seemed to hit a standstill, like when Aisling is endowed with certain musical powers strictly to write them out of a corner, were the only minor issues I had with the movie.

Aesthetically, Secret of Kells is brilliant. The style reflects the illuminated manuscripts that are the focus of the films. The characters are designed beautifully, and the animation complements the style. Each frame of this film qualifies as a piece of art. The animation breathes a certain brilliance into the characters. Brother Aiden's cat for example, and the denizens of the abbey were wonderfully aniamted. And scenes with Aisling darting through the forest were inspired.

Movies like The Secret of Kells seem so new and refreshing in a world filled a barrage of formulaic animated movies. I hope this movie finds a wide audience, because it's easily one of the best animated movies in years.


Saturday, November 28, 2009


Roland Emmerich said he wanted to create the disaster movie to end all disaster movies. Here's hoping he's right. He may not make the best disaster movies, but the director who brought us Independence Day (which I actually loved), Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow, certainly makes the biggest ones. Given the genre you can't expect a brilliant movie, but you can experience a feast for the eyes. In this regard, and only this regard, 2012 delivers.

2012 exploits the theory that the world is going to end on December 21st 2012, coinciding with the end of a cycle in the Mayan long count calender. The movie actually makes a solid, albeit, absurd attempt at a scientific explanation for the end of the world. Increased solar activity is causing the core of the Earth to heat up, and essentially destroy everything. I guess this was the only idea they could think of that would result in Earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. When the movie opened in an underground neutrino detection lab, I got extremely excited. This ended up being the highlight of the movie for me.

The movie is long, nearly 3 hours, which enables story to follow essentially 2 plot lines. The primary one involves the Curtis family (led by John Cusack and Amanda Peet) as they trek their way across the globe, escaping Los Angeles as it falls into the sea, and Yellowstone, as a volcano destroys a majority of the country. The second story follows the politicians (including Danny Glover as president, and Oliver Platt and Chiwetel Ejiofor as science advisers) as they attempt to continue the human race. I don't want to give away the few plot developments in the movie, suffice it to say that these two stories obligingly come together in the unnecessarily drawn out climax.

The true star of the movie was the visual effects (certainly wasn't any of the characters). They looked spectacular, if a bit goofy at times. I didn't think Emmerich could top the snap freeze of New York in The Day After Tomorrow, but he managed to do it- many times over. The shots of a plane flying through toppling buildings as LA falls into the ocean, or of an RV outrunning a pyroclastic flow in Yellowstone, or of a global flood wiping out the Asian subcontinent are over the top.

There was no shortage if cringe worthy moments. The president staying behind as Washington is destroyed- seriously? Our intrepid band of heroes sneaking onto an ark that's supposed to save humanity? You've got to be kidding me. On the other hand, the goofy conspiracy theorist played by Woody Harrelson almost made going to the movie worth while.

In the end, this is really nothing more than a spectacle of visual effects. If you go into it expecting as much, you'll probably come away happy. If you expect anything more than that you'll be sorely disappointed (and after 3 hours sitting in a movie theater seat, just plain sore). If anything good comes out of this movie, it will be to make film makers think twice before making another disaster movie.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are is one of my favorite movies of the year thus far. It's an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's story of a misbehaving, over imaginative youth named Max. I had trouble picturing a book with only a hand full of sentences transferring well into a movie, but director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers pull it off. It probably didn't hurt that they were in constant contact with Sendak himself, who ultimately gave the final product his blessing.

The movie follows Max (Max Records) an over active kid driving his single mother crazy. After a brief introduction of the characters, including his love-hate relationship with his older sister and his mother, he runs away to an imaginary island where he comes across the titular Wild Things. After a fairly tense initial confrontation, he becomes their leader. His relationship with the Wild Things, in turn, closely resembles his relationship with his own family, in a well deserved role reversal.

Perhaps the most touching, and certainly the most important, relationship is between Max and Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) the biggest and most volatile of the Wild Things. Carol gives Max the ability to see himself from the outside, as well as a look into how his behavior affects those around him. For the first time, he is able to see things from his mother's point of view.

There's been some complaints bandied around about how this movie may be too scary for children. There may indeed be some validity to that. The relationship between Max and the various Wild Things hovers between touching and dramatically intense. Each one of the creatures embodies certain flaws and emotional dysfunction. Everybody feels these things, but it may be difficult for a children to wrap their heads around them- hence these traits personify themselves in each of Max's new found friends. I expect that the ability for children to relate to Max far outweighs any scary moments. In fact, while watching this movie I thought I was looking at myself at a younger age.

Aside from being an extremely touching story, Where The Wild Things Are is beautiful to look at. The island Max travels embodies the grand scope, that could only come from a vivid imagination. Yet somehow, he makes the seemingly boundless island feel intimate. This is also a prime example of how to effectively use computer visual effects. The Wild Things themselves were all done with actors in suits. Their faces, however, were CG. Honestly, I didn't know that before going into it, and would have never suspected a thing. The raw emotion conveyed by these creatures makes it feel like no effects were created at all.

My one quibble with this movie is in one minor departure from the book. In Sendak's original, Max is sent to his room, and creates the entire Wild Things universe in his room. In the movie he runs away from home, and despite still being clearly within his imagination, "travels" to the island. By forcing Max to leave his house, the movie blurs this line and diminishes the power of his imagination. This missed opportunity is the only thing that prevented Where The Wild Things Are from being a home-run.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Astro Boy

We go from one mediocre animated movie to one that borders on abysmal. I have a number of issues with this movie. I'm disappointed with both how it was done and what they turned the classic character into. Most important, however, the movie itself was simply poorly done. It was poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly directed.

A little history is in order at this point. Astro Boy began its life as a Japanese manga in the 50's, then quickly expanded into a television show in the 60's, possibly the first anime. It also went through several more iterations over the following decades. I hate to be one of those fanboys complaining about how something is updated and doesn't follow the old way (especially because I'm not an Astro Boy fan), but my first issue is that they did the movie with 3D aimation. I understand that things need to be updated, but that simply removes it too far from its roots. Astro Boy had potential to bring the manga aesthetic to the screen, but instead ended up looking like just another generic 3D movie. In addition to the watering down of the aesthetic, they watered it down thematically. Traditionally, Astro Boy is pretty dark. I mean for crying out loud, the title character is a robot made by a grieving scientist after his son died. Though this remains the same for the movie, it's somehow lost all of its edge. The dark themes are watered down by a very happy-go-lucky aesthetic.

Astro Boy doesn't stop at butchering a classic character. The acting is awful. I never thought there could be anything more rigid than Nicholas Cage as an actor, but I was wrong. Nicholas Cage as a voice actor is even worse. Nathan Lane as Ham Egg, the impoverished robot tinkerer that takes Astro in as part of his family, is one of the few shining spots in acting. But still, he was never anything but Nathan Lane just playing Ham Egg. I never got lost in any of the characters. Perhaps the truely funny moments came with the Robot Liberation Front, a band of 3 inept robots trying to start a revolution. During these scenes the comedic timing was spot on, and I would have sworn these actors were channeling the likes of John Cleese or Michael Palin. Sadly, these moments were rarities.

This may be a little more harsh than this movie deserves. It wasn't necessarily bad. I can see it appealing to kids who may identify with Astro Boy. Themes of fitting in are prevalent, and may ring true with certain age groups. The movie touches on everything from class and generational differences, to whether robots can feel like humans (clearly embodying that idea of fitting in). Perhaps the reason I found this movie so poor is that it was a missed opportunity. It could have been something special, but instead is just another generic, sterile, 3D movie. A re imaging of a classic manga character should not have been reduced to this.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

If I ever read the book that Sony's new animated movie was based on, I don't remember it. Essentially, it tells the story of Chewandswallow, a delightful little town in which the clouds rain food. The movie delves into the origin story of this community, and how its peculiar weather patterns came to be. It's a cute story, and has some potential for fun visuals (seriously. Raining food? That could be deliciously wacky). Unfortunately, though, this movie is indicative of what I see as a problem in the animation industry. Any charm or uniqueness is sacrificed for a safe bet, and 3D.

Naturally, this movie was indeed in 3D, though I did not see it as such. As usual, this proves to be a good litmus test on the directing of a movie. If it holds up without having to rely on cheap 3D tricks, they've done a good job. Unfortunately, Phil Lord and Chris Miller seemed to use the technology as a bit of a crutch. I appreciated the apocalyptic imagery of food raining from the sky, but there's only so many times you can see burgers falling past the camera before it gets old. There's very little in the movie besides what was presented in the trailers.

The story centers on Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a dud of an inventor who wants nothing more than to make his father (James Caan) proud of him. Despite his machine to (unwittingly) make it rain food, their relationship remains strained. Naturally things have to go awry when the mayor (Bruce Campbell) of the economically depressed town takes over control of the machine. Throw in a struggling reporter/love interest (Anna Faris) and you have a recipe for an extremely generic movie.

One of the movie's biggest flaws (at least from the perspective of an animation student) is the inconsistency in style. Some of the characters, especially the police officer voiced by Mr. T, feature incredible quick and snappy animation. Whereas other characters are much more subtle and realistic. Both are completely valid, but they don't belong together.

In addition to the animation issues, the story had some pretty severe pacing problems. It started out quite funny and moved along pleasantly. However, the middle dragged terribly, and by the time the speedy third act came together, it was just too late. In fact, when they confront the machine head on, the movie becomes so rapid fire and absurd that it feels almost like a completely different movie.

There were some funny moments in the movie. Andy Samberg's role as Baby Brent, a former child star and spokesperson for the town made me laugh, and the relationship between Flint and Sam Sparks (the reporter) was endearing and even a little identifiable. The main problems with the movie were just consistency, both in style and in the story itself.


Saturday, October 3, 2009


This was one of the 20 movies I was most looking forward to the rest of the year- and I was a little disappointed. Actually, make that considerably disappointed. I think Surrogates has a very compelling idea that would make a great science fiction story. Unfortunately the movie itself just does not live up to the potential of the idea.

Surrogates takes place in the near future, and most people are living their lives through robotic proxies. This eliminates any sort of risk involved in your daily life. Of course, by extension, it also eliminates your ability to truly experience life. As the movie opens we're introduced to a murder. For the first time, a person is killed while operating their surrogate. This means that using surrogates is no longer a sure fire safe way to experience life. Bruce Willis stars as Tom Greer, a detective investigating this first homicide in a decade.

I think this is a great concept. It explores themes of what happens to people when they're physically cut off from the world. This naturally leads to an emotional distance. The movie touches on these themes- but just barely. Instead it focuses on Bruce Willis doing what Bruce Willis does best- kick some ass. Now normally I'd be okay with a movie centering on him trying to infiltrate an anti-surrogate sect living on a reservation in the heart of New York City. In fact, I'd probably downright enjoy it. But not when an idea has as much potential as Surrogates.

The anti-aging effects in this movie creating a younger Bruce Willis surrogate are awful. They make the young Patrick Stewart in Wolverine look amazing. But I was drawn in this time. The surrogates are supposed to be stiff and unnatural. I would almost swear they did it intentionally, and it added to the unsettling nature of a robot doppelganger. The stiff appearance, that's okay, but there's no excuse for equally stiff dialog.

Surrogates wasn't necessarily a bad movie. It had some interesting parts, before devolving into superhuman chase scenes. And the cast wasn't bad. I always enjoy Bruce Willis, and Rosamund Pike (his foil and wife). And I always enjoy James Cromwell, even if the motivation for his character as the creator of surrogate technology was severely stretched. The problem with this movie is simply that it fell far short of what it could have been. In a way, that's more disappointing than if it had just been bad.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Oh my. This movie is just bad. Jennifer's Body is Diablo Cody's follow-up script to her Oscar winning Juno (which despite which I assume I gave a glowing review to, was highly overrated). This time she ventures into the teen-horror-comedy genre. Megan Fox stars as Jennifer a possessed cheerleader who starts killing her male classmates. Starring along side her is Amanda Seyfried as Needy, her slightly dorky "all she needs to do to be hot is take off her glasses" stereotype.

Just looking at the trailers you can tell the target audience. Seriously, Megan Fox in a horror movie with lesbian undertones. Who do you think wants to see this movie? On the subject of Megan Fox- she's simply terrible. At least Seyfried can act. It's a terrible role, but she's able to make it work. Fox on the other hand, is downright awful. It worked fine in Transformers because the real stars were the robots. And it could work here, because she's supposed to be a sexy husk of a person. But instead of looking alluring, she just looks confused.

The script certainly has Diablo Cody all over it. From gems like "it has to be true, it's on the Wikipedia," to "Move on dot org" (in which Jennifer is telling Needy to get past the fact they were almost killed in a fire). If you want to bring trendy catch phrases into your script to show off the hipness of your characters, fine, it worked or Juno. But don't call it "The Wikipedia." It just makes high schoolers look even more vapid than intended. I know these are little quibbles, but if you're going to build your whole trademark around quick witty dialog, you better make it a lot tighter than that.

It had a relatively small budget (most of which probably went to their troublesome star) so I have little doubt it'll turn a pretty profit. Though it did have a mediocre opening weekend- so here's hoping movie going audiences aren't being drawn in by this movie's one trick.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Patrick Swayze


Here's a pretty decent obituary about him.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


You generally don't associate post apocalyptic wasteland with animation (yes, Wall-e did it) but 9 takes that idea to a new extreme. The human race has been wiped out and all that remains is a small band of rag doll-esque heroes and the robot responsible for destroying humanity. This is certainly not a children's movie (that should be evident from the presence of Timur Bekmambetov as producer), but it doesn't feature anything that would inappropriate for children- just some intense action.

The movie opens with the title character "9" awakening for the first time. He quickly comes across and is befriended by "2" (all the characters are just numbers), and is almost immediately thrust into the conflict between the survivors and the machines. The film moves at a rapid clip, and in no time the action is in full swing. This results in little character development up front. Fortunately this comes throughout the movie in the short bits between action sequences.

Clearly the best aspect of the movie is the animation, and the all around visual aesthetic. Shane Acker captured the wasteland of the crumbling ruins of society perfectly. There was not a shot lacking the requisite filth and dust. Every detail seemed painstakingly created. You could see Tim Burton's hand at work in some of the robotic villains, including one disturbing doll faced snake creature. These particular moments seem to be the ones making this not a kid friendly movie.

The film could be taken as cautionary tale about our dependence on technology; or on the importance of the human soul; or even a simple tale of redemption both for "9" and the cantankerous de-facto leader "1". Honestly, I don't think any of these themes are all that strong, and it seems they're simply a way to stitch together well directed action sequences. In the end, 9 simply boils down to a feature length video game cinematic.


Also, here's shane Acker's original short. Almost every part of this showed up again in some way in the movie- and the style remained almost exact. The short gives you a really good idea of the movie.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Final Destination

Well they've certainly got their formula down. One teen has a premonition about an overly elaborate and drawn disaster, saves his or her friends, and subsequently spends the rest of the movie trying avoid death. The first movie actually introduced this as an interesting a novel concept (though it was poorly executed). The second one, though bad, featured a spectacular car accident scene that still looks great. The third brought a sense of humor and lightened the series a bit. Now the fourth installment just went through the paces. Though none of the movies were good (or even mediocre), it should come as little surprise that this was the worst.

This time Nick O'Bannon (Bobby Campo) and a few of his friends are at a NASCAR race. He witnesses a horrific crash that kills everyone in his section- in his mind. After making a scene he convinces his friends to leave, and by extension a few others follow. Of course, the accident occurs, and now they have to avoid increasingly complex traps set by death.

I'm not outright dismissing this movie. Naturally it's not supposed to be an Oscar contender. The few things that made its predecessors palletable are all but absent here. In the previous movies, the accident caused the survivors to band together and try to protect each other. This time except for the four main characters, there's almost no interaction between the survivors. This means there's absolutely no development of these characters. In the first movies as well, the death scenes were indeed elaborate, but at least they led somewhere. In this movie, however, these buildups lead nowhere. Drawn out and complex traps end up being for naught. Granted, this ends up blindsiding you, but more importantly it leaves you asking "what was the point of that?" And the few times the payoff is as intended, it is so absurd as to put even the most outlandish deaths in the earlier movies to shame.

This is the shortest movie of the franchise, clocking in at under an hour and a half. Clearly they sacrificed even the most remote character development to keep this trim running length. I did not have the privilege of seeing this in 3D, but I bet I picked out most if not all of the instances this effect was used. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a movie that relied so heavily on objects flying at the screen.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia is an absolutely delightful close to the Summer. Amy Adams stars as Julie Powel, a skilled amateur cook lacking something that can't be fulfilled through her cubicle job. She finds an outlet through Julia Child. Julie gives herself one year to cook every recipe in Julia's "Mastering the art of French Cooking" and blog about it. 500 and some recipes in one year. Meanwhile, the movie features the parallel, and more compelling, story of Julia Child as she's writing the book.

Despite some certainly dramatic moments, the movie maintains a decidedly lighthearted tone through most of it. I don't think there was a single scene with Julia Child (played brilliantly by Meryl Streep) that didn't elicit a smile on my face. Her infectious positive, even when things didn't go her way (and this was a lot) was astounding. I'm hoping for an Oscar nomination for her role. Amy Adams seemed to hold her own pretty well as Julia Child's modern counterpart. She wasn't as effective as Meryl Streep, but then again, who is?

The movie switches between Child trying to get her book made, and Powel trying to get her blog made. They both faced completely different, yet somehow linked trials. Both were lost in a way, not sure what they wanted, and both found salvation through cooking (Julia as a profession, Julie as a hobby). The similarities also carried into their tasks. Julie finds herself overwhelmed by the momentous task, whereas Julia had trouble keeping it as small as it was. The major difference between the two was that Julie's endeavor started to drive a wedge between her and her husband (Chris Messina) whereas Julia and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci with yet another amazing performance) never let anything get between them. It's almost certain that his presence played a major role in her never gloomy attitude.

They both found themselves in a situation many can relate to. Though Julie had her identity crisis about 20 years younger than Julia's, and dealt with it in a very public forum. Of course the food was center stage for both of them. Though Julie often found it more obligation and bane than salvation (the scene when she tries to make an aspic for example). But what was possibly even more important than just the food, was the process- the exploration.

The part with Julie got off to a but of a slow start. Whereas Julia seemed to fall naturally into her quest for french cuisine, Julie's motives seemed a little forced. The first twenty minutes or so are filled with very expository conversations. The inciting argument that drove her into the block was painfully obvious. It stopped just short of her husband saying "I dare you." Julie took this off the cuff remark seriously and the seeds that would eventually grow into her book were sown. This is a very minor, quibble, however, and the rest of the movie makes up for it. Besides these few forced moments, this is one of the most charming films I've seen in some time.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Top 20 movies for the rest of the year

I figured it's time to post the top movies I'm looking forward to for the rest of the year. These are in no particular order (mostly in order that they're coming out)

Taking Woodstock

I know this one is already out, but I haven't seen it yet, so it's leading off my list.

This looks like a fairly standard romantic comedy (except that it actually looks funny). I'm a big fan of Jason Bateman, and think that he makes a really good underdog romantic lead. Add to that a supporting cast of Mila Kunis, Kristin Wiig, and Ben Affleck, who is always so much better as a supporting actor, and I think we'll have a winner.

There's never a shortage of zombie-esque movies. Carriers looks much better than the overly, albeit intentional, cheesy Zombieland which comes out around the same time. Carriers plays up the isolation and the forced mobility that made movies like 28 Days later so good. Carriers may end up being terrible, but I hope it'll at least be scary.

This is Shane Acker's feature length debut. After directing a short of the same name, Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton gave him the opportunity to turn it into a feature. There's no shortage of animated movies rounding out the year (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Planet 51, Princess and the Frog) but this seems to be the only serious one, and the only post-apocolyptic animation I can recall since Heavy Metal.

No Impact Man
This seems to be a fairly interesting documentary on a family's attempts to minimize their carbon footprint, and the struggles that follow. If anything, it may just show how futile this attempt really is.

The Informant
This seems like a very funny case of the wrong man for the wrong job. The Informant is a corporate dark comedy that seems to be in the same vein as last year's Burn After Reading. And Matt Damon as a lovable goof? Sound good to me.

In a very plausible future, people are able to live their lives through a robotic proxy, while staying in the comfort of their own home. But then people start dieing while hooked up to their surrogates, and Bruce Willis must actually go out in the world to figure out what's going on.

A Serious Man
I don't know what this movie is about, other than a perennial loser's life spiraling out of control. But the fact that it's from the Cohen Brothers nearly guarantees a winner.

Whip It

In general I've become sick of the quirky indie film. I had no interest in 500 Days of Summer or Paper Hearts. Whip It, however, looks like it transcends the quirky quicksand (despite staring Ellen Page) and looks like it will be genuinely entertaining.

The Invention of Lying
This one may be entertaining or awful. Ricky Gervais is one funny guy, but doesn't have a very good record in film. Hopefully this will be better than Ghost Town.

Good Hair
This is one of two documentaries on my list. Hosted by Chris Rock, this study in the history and stigma of African American hair seems genuinely compelling. And judging from the trailer, despite some serious undertones, it does not take itself too seriously. With Chris Rock leading it, it promises to be very funny.

The Road
I did not particularly like Cormack McCarthy's book, but i think the bleak post-apocalyptic future will lend itself to a beautiful movie. My concern is that the movie appears to reveal more about what happened before the story begins than the book. It always worried me when a movie takes liberties like this.

Where the Wild Things Are
I have no idea how they can turn a children's book with more than 10 sentences into a feature length movie. If anyone can, Spike Jonze can. What I've seen of it looks absolutely wonderful.

New York, I love You

This is the sequel (sort of) to Paris, je t'aime, which I believe I gave a 5 to. This time the movie is series of short films about New York. The movie doesn't have the same caliber of directors found in the original one, and it lacks the presence of any director who is associated with New York. No Scorsese, no Woody Allen, no Spike Lee. The only person really holding that tradition is Allen Hughs. I hope this will lead to a New generation of New York directors (despite the inclusion of Brett Ratner).

Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson's new story of what happens after a girl is murdered looks exquisit, and thrilling at parts. I never read the book, but this is near the top of the list for movies I'm looking forward to.

Directed by Mira Nair (who also contributes a segment to New York, I Love You), this Amerlia Earhart biopic features Hilary Swank in the starring role.

The Fourth Kind
"based on true events" is always both a draw and a caution. Like many of the movies on this list, this one is a wildcard. It could either be fantastically scary (which the trailer makes it look) or a complete dud. Here's hoping for fantastically scary.

The Boat that Rocked
This looks like one of the funniest movies on the list. It follows the story of a pirate radio station transmitting of a boat in 1960's. With a cast led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, and Kenneth Branagh, this one can't lose.

The Princess and the Frog
Finally Disney is returning to 2D. This movie adds a cajun feel and decidedly original twist on this classic fairy tale. I'm hoping that this movie does well, because we are in desperate need of a return to classic animation.

Sherlock Holmes
This isn't quite the dignified Hound of Baskervilles Sherlock Holmes, but I think Robert Downy Jr. can bring the famous detective in the new century.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

This movie is atrocious. But honestly, that doesn't come as any surprise. It had some potential- a great cast (and I mean really great) and a concept that could lend itself to some very funny situations. Unfortunately the film makers doesn't utilize any of these assets, and instead they churn out a criminally unfunny movie.

The Goods is about a band of mercenary car salesmen who travel around the country trying to save struggling dealers. The movie opens on failing Selleck Motors as Don Ready (Jeremy Piven) and his crew come in revitalize the company before it's foreclosed on. Car lots can involve very funny situations- one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes took place at a car dealership. The Goods, instead of including well timed observational humor, focuses on profanity, sexual innuendo, and situations that rival our least favorite parody movies (Including comparing the auto lot to a riot and a battlefield).

Piven tried to capture that sleazy, yet somehow charming jerk. This applies both to moving cars, and his infatuation with the dealer owner's daughter (Jordana Spiro). Aaron Eckhart mastered this role in Thank You For Smoking, whereas Piven just you with a bad taste. This applies to most of the other characters, too, from Ving Rhames' stiff dialog, to Rob Riggle's man-child. The only person immune to this is Ed Helms, who I think is one of the funniest people working today.

Of course the best selling point is the cast. That's what sold me. Ving Rhames, Ed Helms, Tony Hale, Rob Riggle, David Koechner, and even a small but great cameo by Kristen Schaal. And this is just a small sampling of a wonderful ensemble cast. The movie falls well short of the sum of its parts (it's more like the difference of its parts). It suffers the same fate as last year's Step Brothers. Great comedic leads given a terrible script. The dialog is stilted, and as I previously mentioned, it focuses way too much on profanity. This really isn't much of surprise with a fairly green director (Neal Brennan) and writers. Brennan, the most experienced of the team made his break directing Chapelle's Show. When charged with a feature, however, he just can't keep it going. Even though it's produced by funnyman Will Ferrel, the best that comes out is his small cameo in one scene.

The Goods is one of the least funny movies of the year. A great cast is reduced to walking through stilted dialog like their reading it for the first time. Don't waste your time on The Goods.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds is pure Quentin Tarantino. This movie is exactly what you probably expect. Despite taking its name from a 1978 WWII movie, it bares a much closer resemblance to The Dirty Dozen. Boiling this movie down to one central idea is not difficult. Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, who leads a small band on a covert mission to kill as many nazis as possible. And in true Tarantino fashion, they do so as brutally as possible. Everything culminates in two separate assassination plots.

The movie certainly pays homage to the old Westerns, with a group of rough and tumble vigilantes taking matters into their own hands- a la The Wild Bunch. Though Inglourious Basterds forewent the initial character development found in The Dirty Dozen, and jumped straight into the action. In reality, we never do find anything out about most of the characters, keeping us fairly detached from the "Basterds" themselves. This seems to be a Tarantino trademark (I don't think I've ever really cared about any of his characters). This lack of development doesn't really bother me, as the characters are so outlandish, they're essentially caricatures.

This caricature is embodied most straightforwardly in Brad Pitt's character. The leader of the bastards brings his thick Tennessee drawl to everything (especially when he tries to pass himself off as Italian). The rest of his band (including Eli Roth, BJ Novak, and Omar Doom) offer up similar if more subtle (except Roth's foul mouthed, baseball bat wielding behemoth) performances. In reality, the only real nuanced role was that of Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish woman in France who witnessed the deaths of her entire family. It just so happens that she has a completely unrelated assassination plot, at the same exact time and place as the bastards'.

Tarantino makes his love of film known. He bends genres almost beyond the breaking point. Despite being rooted in the spaghetti westerns (with the obligatory "Once Upon a Time..." moniker) a scene dealing with a British operative and his commanding officer discussing the nuances of German cinema (yes, that is actually relevant to the story) would make Peter Sellers and George C. Scott proud. And during the effeminate interactions between Hitler, and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels I could almost see Mel Brooks' hand at work. Not to mention the over-the-top German Corporal Lada, serving as an equally absurd counterpoint to Pitt's character. Tarantino's love of film embodies itself in all aspects of this movie. Many of the characters derive their names from directors, and assassination plots are intricately tied to- what else- the cinema. I must say, though, at some points it was a little unsettling sitting in a movie theater while watching the movie theater scenes.

Tarantino brings his trademark conversational wit full force here. The best scenes involve nothing more than people sitting around a table. The tension is palpable even though most of the dialog was in German or French. He manages to ratchet up the suspense of one party hiding something, and the other party closing in that secret. The shame is that all of these wonderful aspects of the movie don't mesh very well. This makes the film lack the cohesion that made some of his other movies so good. Inglourious Basterds isn't a bad movie by any means, it just doesn't rise any higher than an ample director's love letter to his favorite genres.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Alive in Joburg

Here's the short that District 9 was based on. It was directed by Neill Blomkamp, and after Peter Jackson saw it, he recruited Blomkamp to direct the ill fated Halo movie. When that fell through, District 9 grew out of its ashes. If you haven't seen the actual movie yet, don't worry, this doesn't give anything away. Totally different plot, just the same overall situation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

District 9

District 9 will doubtlessly be one of the big movies of the summer. The movie tries to shoot for the stars, to create an effects heavy sci-fi classic with something important to say. And it comes pretty close. Unfortunately this incredibly promising movie does disappoint a little, and doesn't quite live up to its potential.

In case you haven't been inundated with the trailers for District 9, the basic premise is that a giant alien craft had come to rest of Johannesburg 20 years ago. The aliens inside were brought down to Earth, and after attempts to integrate, were sealed off in a slum. There are essentially two different movies here. The first is a wonderful documentary style history of the topic, and an incredibly tense visit into the slum. The cameras follow Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), as he serves eviction notices to the alien residents, starting a relocation effort. Director Neill Blomkamp helms this portion of the movie perfectly. The rest of District 9, however, is nothing more than a fugitive movie, which devolves even further in the third act to an ultra violent shootout.

There's no shortage of political commentary here. Science Fiction lends itself so well in this area. It lets the creators postulate on "what if" scenarios, and more often than not- go the dark route. District 9 is no exception. There is the obvious apartheid symbolism (Blomkamp grew up in South Africa). But even further than that, it focuses on refugee treatment, and even touches on the military industrial complex. The movie goes places I wouldn't have thought to, but after seeing it, I can only think "of course." I imagine District 9 hit the reactions the government would have to these aliens right on the head.

Perhaps even more fundamental than the political commentary is the commentary on human (and I guess non-human) nature. Without getting into the specifics because I don't want to reveal much of the movie- themes of trust and self-preservation are at the forefront of District 9.

The movie looks great. With a budget of $30 million it looks better than movies with a budget $130 million. Each alien is unique, with its individual visual personality. And the images of this giant ship hovering over the slums of Johannesburg are haunting. The ending act, however, takes things a little too far. I felt parts were graphic, just for the sake of being graphic. How many times can blood splatter on the camera?

Despite the movie weakening towards the end, District 9 is still an overall strong movie. It's thrilling, actually has a message, and really will keep you on the edge of your seat.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Gake no ue no Ponyo

So the independent summer train keeps rolling on. First it was Hurt Locker, then Moon, and now Ponyo (even though it's been out in Japan for a year). Ponyo demonstrates one of Miyazaki's skills, creating children. Ponyo is easily the cutest thing he's put on screen since 1989's My Neighbor Totoro. The visual aesthetic is, of course, beautiful, and the animation is great. Unfortunately the narrative suffers a bit, which prevents his movie from being among his best.

Ponyo is in the same vein as The Little Mermaid, about a fish (Ponyo) wanting to become a human. Along with this simple and human tale, Miyazaki throws in some epic repercussions. In essence the entire world hangs in a balance because of the decisions of one fish. This lead to some absolutely breathtaking scenes, but the scope of this otherwise intimate story was a tad too much.

On the other end is Sosuke, the little boy who is the adoration of Ponyo. Some of the best scenes are between him, Ponyo, and Sosuke's mother- who is just trying to cope with the concept of this fish who's magically turned into a girl (I must say she takes it very well). There were a number of scenes reminiscent of the Little Mermaid, with learning how to eat with utensils.

An interesting trait that is found in similar Miyazaki films (Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service) is the absence of a true antagonistic force. In Ponyo there is really no villain- even characters that seem a little bad really aren't. In cases like these, circumstance or nature are really the opposing forces. I have no problem with these, he used that force very effectively in other movies. But with the scope of the destruction of the planet in balance here, it seems there should a more conscious force behind the conflict.

Narrative problems aside, the movie was beautiful. Miyazaki's movies always seem like they're paintings in motion, and Ponyo takes this even a step further. In a genuinely exciting scene, Sosuke and his mother are trying to outrun a raging sea, with giant waves that resemble actual fish as they crash over the winding road leading to their house. All the while Ponyo running along along the surface of the water.

Though this isn't in the upper echelon of Miyazaki's cannon, that doesn't say much. Ponyo is certainly weak when it comes to the narrative (it has its fair share of holes that are solved by simply ignoring them). Despite its problems, Ponyo is still a beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable animation. Finally, even though this doesn't have anything to do with the movie itself- I really wish these movies would shown in Japanese with subtitles. I am absolutely tired of dubbed over films.


Friday, August 14, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

If you're fan a fan of G.I. Joe- either the series or the comics, you'll hate this movie. Neither characters nor plot stay true to the original universe. If you're not a fan of G.I. Joe- there's really no reason for you to see this movie. It's a sorry excuse for a Summer blockbuster (though blockbuster it is indeed). After rising to action prominence with The Mummy and its sequel, Stephen Sommers piloted this movie- his first one after the abysmal Van Helsing. Clearly G.I. Joe will not help that reputation.

The movie is sort of an origin story both for the Cobra (essentially G.I. Joe's legion of Doom) and Duke (Channing Tatum) perhaps the most well known G.I. Joe. The M.A.R.S corporation has created a nanotech weapon, capable of propagating itself and eating through all metal on an unstoppable rampage. Clearly not a good idea. But he manages to sell some of the weapons to NATO, so Duke and his intrepid partner, Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are charged with transporting them. Of course, they're intercepted by the Cobra, led by The Baroness (Sienna Miller)- Duke's old fiancee. Ripcord, Duke, and the weapons are rescued by the Joes, and after an obligatory montage, the duo join the elite force- none too soon. Because, of course, the Cobra are back.

Now this movie is naturally nothing more than a barrage of visual effects, with a loosely constructed plot to showcase them in the best possible way. The problem with this is that the movie doesn't do a very good job of setting up this effects heavy universe- so when the phenomenal action sequences do appear, they seem out of place. I mean seriously, accelerator suits? I imagine th story session that came up with this idea went something like "hey, let's do a car chase, except on foot!" Don't get me wrong, it looks cool, but they used it so sparingly that it doesn't make much sense. Really this movie is no more absurd than Transformers. But the reason Transformers worked is that they set up the world to be like this- whereas G.I. Joe just through these elements into a world that's pretty much supposed to be ours.

There are a lot of characters in this movie, both good guys and bad guys. And it seems they wanted to explore the back stories to all of them (of course none of them meshing with the comic or cartoon). The result is a cursory introduction, including poorly constructed relationships, mind control devices, and end of movie twists in place for the sole purpose of allowing for a sequel.

G.I. Joe does deliver on the effects, and for $170 million it certainly should. Unfortunately there's really no point to them. This poorly constructed movie I'm sure has left many disappointed.


Monday, August 10, 2009


Moon is the best sci-fi thriller of the past several years. In fact, you might have to go much further back to find a comparable film. This is a difficult one to review without giving too much away. So forgive me for being vague, but I don't want to tell anything that's not given away in the trailer. Suffice it to say that Duncan Jones in his feature length debut throws a fair share of curve balls at you.

In the future we are harvesting clean burning H3 from the surface of the Moon. This mostly automated operation still requires a crew of one. We find Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) a few weeks from the end of his three year contract. As can be expected from anyone spending 3 years alone on the Moon with your only companion being a computer (even though it's voiced by Kevin Spacey), Bell is losing his marbles. He's been talking to himself for years, and is starting to see things. A wrench is really thrown into the works when he goes out and finds a wreck. Inside the vehicle is...well...himself. This is as far as I can go without giving too much away. But I guarantee that whatever you're thinking right now, is wrong.

It would be a disservice to say that this movie has a twist ending. It has a twist, but it happens halfway through. Moon then proceeds to do what almost no movie like it does- takes that twist and actually develops it. It quickly wears off as being twist, and proceeds to be simply an intriguing plot. There are far too few movies that turn your expectations on their head like this.

There are essentially two character- Sam Bell, and GERTY (the computer). It takes a true acting powerhouse to carry a movie solo. John Cusack managed to do it a few years ago in 1408, and though I haven't seen it (I know, I'm ashamed) Tom Hanks allegedly did the same in Castaway. I'm putting Rockwell among those ranks. He's been around for quite a while, and despite some amazing roles (Frost/Nixon, Choke) he doesn't seem to resonate as a true leading man. I seriously hope he gets more notoriety than he has from his already deserving career, because he turns out a brilliant performance in Moon. This is, of course, matched by Spacey's GERTY who seems to be channeling Hal 9000. GERTY made me realize for the first time, how emotive a simple smiley or frownie face can actually be.

Moon is simply a wonderful piece of work. For (what I'm assuming) was a fairly low budget, it looks pretty good. Jones returned to sci-fi roots by using mostly practical models for set pieces and Moonscapes. I'm glad, because the few CG elements really did not look very good. In a movie with so much claustrophobia, despite being sci-fi, does not require visual extravagance. Jones balances this perfectly, not attempting more than he could, and executing what he did perfectly. Moon is a fascinating, and at parts, a heartbreaking, sci-fi thriller. Don't be fooled by the trailer. It makes it seem like an action movie. In reality it's purely about the character development- exactly as it should be.


Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is one of the best films of the year, and quite possibly the best narratives dealing with the Iraq war thus far. It follows a division of bomb defusing technicians in Baghdad- quite possibly the most dangerous job in the war. Paraphrasing one of the main characters- if you see them coming, run the other way. The movie delves deeply into psyche of these soldiers, what it takes for them to do what they have to do.

The movie essentially opens with Sergent William James (Jeremy Renner) joining Bravo Company. To put things diplomatically, he is slightly unstable. Whether this is a result or a cause of repeated tours in Afghanistan and Iraq is up for debate. The ending sheds some light on this, but still raises more questions. Regardless, his disregard for protocol puts him at odds with one of his partners- Sergent JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Rounding out the team is Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), the least seasoned of the group, having difficulty cutting his teeth in actual combat. The movie follows the day to day challenges the soldiers face, and what they do to cope.

The dynamic between the three of these actors is what really brings Hurt Locker to life. They're all relative unknowns, and when you throw them in this environment, they really don't seem like actors. Even the few big stars in the film- Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and David Morse- I didn't recognize. Granted they had small roles. The upshot, though, is that they all just seemed like soldiers.

Kathryn Bigelow shot this movie to look almost like a documentary. The cameras are among the action- shaky, but not too shaky. Instead of the intentionally disorienting direction of movies like the Bourne series, Hurt Locker gives the impression of someone actually trying to keep the camera stable amidst the action. This adds a tremendous amount of realism to the movie.

The Hurt Locker balances extremely tense moments- whether they're disarming loads of explosives or pinned down by a sniper in the open desert- with scenes of the soldiers in their spare time- playing soccer, and just getting drunk. Despite this contrast, you never forget that they're still in a war torn country. Scenes late in the movie bring these two worlds crashing together, and even when they're away from the battlefield, these soldiers are still affected by it.

The closing of the movie left a little to be desired. The style changed drastically, and it left the timeline a little ambiguous (though I'm a part of the campy that thinks everything is actually linear). It leaves you unsure about some important events. But this was a very small part of the movie. For the record, I don't know what Hurt Locker means. I've heard several different ideas, all seeming equally probable. If anyone knows definitively, let me know.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

John Hughes

John Hughes 1950-2009

The legendary comedic director died today at 59. He helmed some of my favorites including Uncle Buck, Ferris Bueller, Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, and my very first R rated movie- Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Add to these his writing credits on the Vacation series, Home Alone movies, and The Great Outdoors, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone ranked higher on any comedy list.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Orphan is a pretty successful scary movie. There are some genuinely suspenseful moments, a genuinely unsettling story, and something completely missing from most modern horror movies- a twist ending that's neither contrived or obvious. Now this isn't an entirely original movie. It bares a striking resemblance to The Good Son, which in turn bares a striking resemblance to The Bad Seed, and about a dozen other movies. This just shows that there are no new stories. Instead what's important is what new ideas are brought to these stories. In this regard, Orphan handles itself well.

The story follows a married couple, Kate and John Coleman (Vera Fermiga and Peter Sarsgaard), just after the stillbirth of what would have been their third child. After this tragedy, they decide to adopt. Probably a poor decision considering Kate wrestling with this recent trauma and dealing with her demons of prior alcoholism (which nearly resulted in the death of their second child- daughter, Max). These problems are exacerbated when they adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who can nicely be described as odd.

It quickly becomes apparent that Esther is more than odd, when accidents begin to follow her around. This drives a wedge between John (who only sees the disingenuous overly enthusiastic Esther) and Kate (who sees the real Esther). And caught in the middle are Max and their oldest child, Daniel. They are intimidated, and even threatened by Esther, but are powerless to do anything as Esther gets more and more audacious while keeping John eating out of her hand.

What makes this movie good is besides depending on shocking scares (though it has its fair share of those, too), it relies heavily on Kate dealing with her own demons, blaming herself both for the stillbirth and Max's near death. The acting captures these emotions for the most part. Fermiga is powerful, Fuhrman is disturbing (I'm hoping this doesn't get her typecast), and Aryana Engineer who plays the hearing impaired Max is absolutely adorable. Really the weak parts were Sarsgaard, who I generally love, and Jimmy Bennett who plays Daniel. They both seemed to just go through the motions, and Sarsgaard especially came across as simply not being there. I don't blame them, though. The parts themselves were simply poor.

I frequently find myself disappointed by horror movies. Maybe one out of ten ends up being worth my time (and that is a very generous ratio). Orphan is that one. It's not stellar but it's a decent thriller.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tron Legacy

I know I'm a little late posting this. But this is the most exciting thing for me to come out of ComicCon.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Hormones are on the loose at Hogwarts. Oh, and so is the Dark Lord. Those two concepts pretty well summarize the latest Harry Potter endeavor. Now as with the others, I haven't read the book, so can't compare the movie to the text, but given its two and a half hour run time, I'm sure they kept as much in the movie as they could. David Yates returns to helm his second movie in the franchise, and The Half Blood Prince continues the dark path set out in the previous installment.

Voldemort is back (even though he's actually been back for two movies now) and everything effectively has hit the fan. His army, known as Death Eaters has been striking those that would oppose them in what I suppose could be described as guerrilla warfare. With each attempt they are getting closer and closer to Hogwarts. And of course, once again, it's up to Harry Potter to step up. Professor Dumbledore continues to predict an ever more dire situation, and gets Harry ever more in over his head. Even more than in the past, it's become imperative to question who they can trust, and that number is dwindling.

But there's a major distraction getting in the way of him from saving the world- girls. Love triangles abound as our student wizards are blossoming into adults (or something like that). I understand this is an important part of character development, but it brought this fantasy romp dangerously close to teenage drama. The New Moon trailer that preceded the movie gave me enough of that. This resulted in no few awkward scenes of students quarreling with uncomfortable professors looking on. I'm sure they were thinking the same thing I was.

The Half Blood Prince did deliver what I expect from a Harry Potter movie. The visuals not only looked gorgeous, but were very unique. This franchise has adopted abstract literacy in the form of beautiful transitions creating a look of the uncanny. Actual liquid extract of memory, mixing like ink water to reveal those flashbacks was a creative and stunning approach to a simple scene transition. But in an even more conventional sense, everything about this movie looks great.

Like I said before, this installment has continued the series down a dark direction. You can tell just from the trailers featuring the horror movie-esque creatures swarming out an underground lake. I've had this rant before (probably with the previous Harry Potter movie even) that movies seeming to have a very young target audience are getting more and more intense. These movies suffer from this, Transformers suffered from it, and others do as well. The Half Blood Prince is the first movie since the 3rd one to get a PG rating, which I think was given out a little easily. There are some genuinely unsettling moments in this movie. And there are multiple scenes when the characters act drunk or even stoned (seriously).

Half Blood Prince was fun. It was a visual feast, and despite being dark in nature, had probably more funny moments than any of the other ones. There were multiple times when the audience laughed uproariously (including myself). It just suffers a little from bringing too much of that teenage drama to play. A little bit is fine and even necessary, but c'mon, the world is at stake, who cares who Ron is going out with.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I was not a big fan of Borat, but I was able to at least see the comedic mastery at work. Sacha Baron Cohen pulled off such a pervasive blurring the line between reality and illusion that he seemed to be channeling Andy Kauffman. Borat was a little outrageous for me at parts, but I was able to understand how funny the uncomfortable moments could be. This time out, Cohen continues his quest of bringing out the worst in everyone he sees be embodying his third major alternate ego- Bruno- a flamboyantly homosexual Austrian.

Essentially the movie loosely follows Bruno's attempts to become a star after being disgraced as a fashion reporter at Milan. He travels to Hollywood to try acting (including one very funny scene featuring him as an extra), to try pushing his own pilot, to try charity, and just about any celebrity stunt he can come up with.

There are some moments in the movie (a few) that are uproariously funny. The funniest moments, however, are not because of his persona, but the parts when he has to do as little as possible to drag responses from his interviewees. The highlight was a slightly disturbing casting call for babies, in which the stage parents said they would agree to put their babies through virtually anything. This had nothing to do with the Bruno character, but instead was strictly about the audacity these people had. That's where the movie shone.

Unfortunately, most of the movie consisted of Cohen acting ever more outrageous to elicit reactions from people. Unlike Borat, which is comparably tame, Bruno had to go far and beyond what almost any individual could put up with- then paint the naïfs he interviews as homophobes. I'd venture to say they're more phobic of his annoying antics.

He continues to blur the lines between genuine reactions and stage. There was one hilarious scene in which he brings his adopted African baby featured prominently in the trailers on to a talk show. I appreciated this as it lampooned the talk show culture and used the absurdities normally found on these shows against it. Unfortunately the credibility begins to unravel as the particular show he was on was canceled 13 years ago. Whether it was wholly staged with the audience being in on it or not, i don't know. But the simple fact that two different actors played his adopted baby, makes this movie feel like it's trying a whole lot harder than Borat.

I'm not sure what Cohen is trying to say with this movie. The antisemitism that defined Borat had a comedic irony considering Cohen's orthodox Jewish upbringing. Bruno's character, is a further departure from Cohen himself. His flamboyant actions almost pale in comparison to the obnoxiously phony Austrian accent. If he's trying to point out the rottenness in all of us, I found myself feeling for those he came into contact with- including a pitiable Ron Paul who was suckered into an interview that would have made anyone walk out.

Borat had that sort of effortless comedic timing. He was awfully offensive, but you were able to (sort of) dismiss it as ignorant innocence. The "He's not from around here- their customs are different" mentality really went a long way in that movie. And despite his detestable behavior, he was endearing in a way. Bruno, on the other hand, is simply annoying. I feel that it's not his flamboyant persona that actually gets to people, but it's his abrasive aggressiveness. This visible effort to get a reaction turned off not only his interviewees, but it turned me off as well.