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.