Thursday, December 31, 2009

Precious ***

*** out of ****

The trailers for Precious make the film look like a cliche-ridden inner-city fable. Just goes to show you can't judge a movie based on its trailer. Precious is something unique. It's not the feel-good movie of the year, although you do walk away feeling a little better. It's also not a big downer of a movie like I was expecting it to be.
The title character Precious is an overweight teenager in Harlem in 1987. Her mother hates her and beats her at every opportunity, while her father sexually abuses her. She's pregnant with her second child- both from her father, she's almost illerate, and is so poor she has to steal fast food to survive. She uses her imagination to escape from her horrible existence, imagining herself as a celebrity with a hunky boyfriend, fans screaming for her autograph. After the school discovers she's pregnant, she is kicked out and transferred to an alternative school to help her get her GED. Her teacher is the lovely Ms. Rain, who makes her class keep a journal and write in it every day, forcing Precious to learn to read and write better. We see her slowly make progress in school and even make friends with the quirky girls in her class, even as things get worse and worse at home with her mother, a welfare whore. Eventually she gives birth to her baby, causing many things to change in her life and for the first time, she starts to think for herself.
Praise has to be given for the outstanding, almost-all-black cast, of which there are no slackers. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious (not only her first film role, her first professional acting role!) is completely convincing and heartrending. When we first meet her, she doesn't have much of a personality; she mostly just sits quietly and then talks tough when forced to talk. She gradually learns it's ok for her to be herself. Comedienne Mo'Nique makes a complete transformation for her role as Mary, Precious' mother, dirtying up her usual glamorous looks and letting loose endless diatribes towards her daughter about how stupid and worthless she is. Mariah Carey also makes herself memorable with just a few scenes. She plays a social worker Precious talks to occasionally. She also de-glamorizes herself; the scratchy voice is a nice touch, but seeing her character try to remain neutral and not get emotionally involved is where she establishes herself as a talented actress. Kudos also goes to the director Lee Daniels, who was willing to make very unusual casting decisions (it also includes The View host Sherri Shepherd and singer Lenny Kravitz), and for casting someone like Sidibe in a lead role, especially one that's gotten this much attention. Both Sidibe and Mo'Nique are Oscar-worthy; they force you to keep your eyes on the screen when you might want to look away.
Even though the film is very good, I find it hard to recommend it very strongly. It's one of those indie films that offers little entertainment value to the average moviegoer, one of those indie films that no one would see if it wasn't for the strong Oscar buzz, or the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval. At times the film is extremely unpleasant- which it needs to be in order for the viewer to understand the story. While everything is shown onscreen, luckily, nothing is explicit. There is also a gentle sense of humor beneath all the ugliness.For those who can stomach it, this is a grand story of a girl becoming a woman in a cruel world that has forgotten about her.
I would recommend this film to people who like gritty dramas, or whoever listens to Oscar buzz.

You can watch the trailer here:

Monday, December 28, 2009

Up in the Air ***1/2

Up in the Air
***1/2 out of ****

Finally, the movie we've been waiting for the whole season long: a purely enjoyable film about modern life, without any clear message shoved down your throat. Up in the Air (not to be confused with Pixar's Up) centers on Ryan Bingham, played to perfection by the marvelous George Clooney. Ryan is a compulsive traveler, on the road way more often than he is at home. His job is to go to companies and fire people when their bosses don't want to do it themselves. He's also a motivational speaker, using the metaphor of a backpack to illustrate how people need to avoid relationships and commitments. His job causes him to fly from one end of the country to another on a daily basis, rarely going home to Omaha. Despite his lack of friends, he loves his life and secretly hopes to reach ten million miles. The masterfully edited beginning sequences shows him going through the routines of checking in at the airport like one might wake up and prepare for work in the morning.
But his nomad existence is threatened by a young female up-and-comer at his company, Natalie, who proposes that they fire people via web conferences instead of traveling all the time. Ryan reluctantly takes Natalie on the road with him to show her that face-to-face downsizing is necessary because it allows the injured parties some dignity. Natalie is played by Anna Kendrick (Twilight) as an educated do-gooder who doesn't understand the way Ryan's world works.
A subplot involves Ryan meeting a sexy fellow traveler Alex, played by Vera Farmiga (The Departed) with a sparkle in her eye. The two begin a feisty yet gentle romance that neither wants to commit to.
Despite its slightly depressing- yet very relevant- plot, the film is ferociously funny, getting into the characters' minds and exposing how crazy they all are. Natalie provides the most laughs in the film, especially a scene where her boyfriend breaks up with her via text message and she gets very emotional in a hotel lobby. She also provides some of the most heartwrenching scenes in the movie, when she realizes exactly what her business entails- ending the careers of strangers. This film has truly made Kendrick a star. Watching Ryan's character resist change, and then finally accept that maybe he can change, is also a wonder to behold.
The superb cast also includes Jason Bateman as Ryan's boss, J.K. Simmons and Zach Galifianakis as unfortunate souls that Ryan fires, Melanie Lynskey as his soon-to-be-married sister, and Danny McBride as his sister's groom-to-be.
Writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno) has created something wonderful here: an immensely enjoyable film purely for adults, with the humor embedded in the dialogue and in plausible situations, instead of cinematic pies in the face that so many films resort to these days. It's a film that can make you laugh your head off and cry your eyes out, sometimes even in the same scene. It's part comedy, part drama, and ultimately, part tragedy. This is probably the definitive film of our times, with the economy in such bad shape as it is. Up in the Air will certainly plow its way through award season, and with good reason to.
I would recommend this film to fans of Clooney, comedy lovers, and anyone wanting to see a good non-franchise film this holiday season.

You can watch the trailer here:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar ****

**** out of ****

There are many words that can describe Avatar: Incredible. Sweeping. Exhilarating. Awesome. OMG. I'll choose just one: epic. Once again, James Cameron has redefined what an epic film can truly be. The writer/director of such instant classics as the first two Terminator movies, Aliens, and of course, Titanic, makes yet another sci-fi actioner that makes everyone in the world turn their heads. The story is at once complicated and yet surprisingly simple. The acting is always genuine, and the special effects are quite simply the biggest and best ever put on screen.
The story centers around Jake, played with an everyman charm by Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation), a wheelchair-bound paraplegic sent to the distant planet Pandora after his twin brother dies. Pandora has a wide array of animals both small and large, but the people on the planet are only concerned with a precious metal under the surface. It just so happens an intelligent species called the Na'vi- giant blue cat/lizard creatures about twice as big as humans- are living right over a large supply of the metal, so Jake's job is to go in and try to move them out. The catch is: he and several others are able to take over a specially harvested Na'vi body so they can walk among the natives. (They hook up to the bodies in some kind of advanced tanning bed- think The Matrix. They come back to their human bodies when their avatars fall asleep.) This means that Jake is able to walk and run again. He gets in with the tribe and is taught their ways by a fierce warrior princess, played wonderfully by Zoe Saldana. After becoming one of them, Jake realizes how wrong the humans are to try and move them. He has to do battle against the scarred, determined Colonel to save the tribe.
To create a real-looking alien species played by people, Cameron had to invent a new kind of motion-capture technology, similar to what Robert Zemeckis did for The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, except way better. Not only do the avatars capture the movements and emotions of the characters, they actually look and sound like the actors playing them! Seeing Sigourney Weaver as a tough scientist and a big blue creature is a real treat. The Na'vi and all the other animals, and the candy-colored planet itself for that matter, all looks incredibly real, and the film's intricate camerawork (and 3-D effects) puts the audience right there with the characters. It's easy to see why this film took 15 years to finish: it's so damn intricate.
In addition to the amazing special effects, this is an incredibly well-made film. The editing is masterful, letting you know in the first five minutes this is not just another hokey alien special effects film. The music is grand and aids in the emotions, the futuristic sets and props look authentic (even though it does look like they borrowed more than a couple ideas from Aliens), and the story is everything you'd want from an epic film like this- and everything you'd expect from a talented writer like Cameron. The plot may get predictable, but it's thrilling every step of the way. It offers real comparison to movies like Star Wars and Jurassic Park. The action and battle sequences are outstanding, as are the thrilling scenes earlier where Jake has to learn to fly on a giant winged creature.
Little-known actor Stephen Lang makes a wonderful villain as Colonel Quaritch, who kills with such a matter-of-factness like he's reading a report. The film also co-stars Michelle Rodriguez (TV's Lost) as a sexy pilot, Joel David Moore (Dodgeball) as a technician (he also gets his own avatar), and Giovanni Ribisi as the leader of the humans on the planet.
The film is really pretty flawless. If there's something to gripe about, it's the length. (Two hours and forty minutes.) As an epic film, it is fitting to be that long, but as a 3-D film, it does give one a headache after that long. (And of course I have only good things to say about the IMAX format. The giant screens, monster sound system, and vibrations under your feet really do elevate the film to an experience. See the film in this format if at all possible.) This naturally won't be as popular as Titanic (what would be?), but it truly is the movie event of the year and will definitely go down as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes sci-fi, fantasy, or action films, or anyone who wants to see a kick-ass movie this holiday season.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Invictus ***

*** out of ****

Nothing like a Clint Eastwood movie in theatres to let you know awards season is in full swing.
Invictus stars the great Morgan Freeman as South African president Nelson Mandela, soon after he is elected and facing a country divided in two: the black and white people in the country see each other as enemies. Mandela uses the most popular sport in the country, rugby, to try and unite the country. The Springboks are currently a disgrace of a team and the blacks refuse to root for them. Mandela has the team captain Francois over for tea, and inspires him to inspire his own team to go and win the World Cup. Thus they start winning, making public appearances, and eventually go on to capture the country's hearts.
Freeman is utterly convincing as Mandela, getting his accent down pat and coming across as an incredibly decent person trying to do the best thing for the country that put him in jail for thirty years. Mandela works himself to exhaustion, although the film gives the idea that he was more interested in the rugby team than he was in actually leading the country. Matt Damon once again proves his acting chops as Francois, the team captain determined to make Mandela and South Africa proud. The supporting cast- almost all completely unknown- are also very good and faithful to their real-life counterparts. Eastwood's films are usually quiet and slow, but this is something very different. The rugby sequences catch the intensity and rough nature of the sport, and even during the other scenes, the characters keep the plot moving and the film watchable. (The film also follows Mandela's bodyguards, which include blacks and whites, as they try to protect him as he constantly exposes himself to threats. It's an unnecessary subplot but it does make the film more interesting.) While the ending is never in question- it's based on a true story, after all- the final match is frought with suspense so that the finale delivers the emotional goods.
Compared to other real-life sports dramas, this isn't particularly special, but it is meticulously well-made and its star power elevates it above average. The incredible musical score and impressive original songs definitely help. The film is entertaining, but what it really lacks is relevance to an American audience. Who knew Eastwood, the king of Westerns and sad, quiet dramas, would actually be good at making a rugby movie?
I would recommend this film to fans of sports movies, and fans of the stars.

You can watch the trailer here:

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Christmas Carol **1/2

A Christmas Carol
**1/2 out of ****

Yet another adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens story, and yet this is something unlike any other movie that's come before. Yes, it's animated, and yes, it's in 3-D, but that's only half of it. Robert Zemeckis returns to motion-capture animation once again, much improving upon the techniques used in The Polar Express and Beowulf. In Hollywood's current tradition of odd casting choices, he cast Jim Carrey not only as Scrooge at all stages of his life, but as all three ghosts. The motion-capture technique means that it's more than just a voice-over; his performance helped make the character's movements, also allowing for real emotion to appear on their faces. The technology is strange but it does allow more for actors to do in an animated movie. The film also features charming performances from Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, and Bob Hoskins. The characters only look vaguely like their actor counterparts. In most cases, the actors are unrecognizable.
The story is set in Victorian England, exactly as Dickens wrote it. The story is so famous everyone knows it, but it does feel like you're experiencing it for the first time. The camera sweeps through the streets and skies of London, everyone celebrating Christmas. Scrooge is revealed as a lonesome, greedy old man who shuns everybody, even his nephew, thinks only of money, and hates Christmas. His dead friend Marley appears as a ghost in his home, attached to heavy weights and chains, and warns him that he'll be haunted by three spirits. Then the spirits come and show him his life: the Ghost of Christmas Past is in the form of a candle and whispers to him, who takes him by the hand and flies him to places long gone; the Ghost of Christmas Present is a big, laughing Saint-Nick type who makes his living room floor invisible and allows him to see the city beneath it; and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears only as a shadow in the shape of a reaper, who points toward whatever it wants Scrooge to see. A subplot involving Scrooge's hardworking lackey Bob Cratchit and his ill son Tiny Tim also help bring about Scrooge's humanity.
Carrey is charming in all his roles and yet doesn't fall back to his stretchy-faced hissy fits that have defined his career for so long. It is a Disney movie, after all; there's no place for them. He is allowed just a few moments of light humor, but otherwise, he dives into the characters and actually manages a good English accent. The movie itself is extremely faithful to the source material, often using the original Dickens dialogue. This is its strength and ultimate weakness: making it into an epic animated movie and casting Carrey obviously means they're appealing to children, but the film's difficult dialogue means many kids will be confused or bored, until the ghosts show up, at which point they'll be scared. And they have cause to be: at times, the film is intense and definitely scary not only to kids. And it's not so faithful that it's not willing to put in a very awkward thrill sequence where a shrunk Scrooge runs from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and his horses through the dark London streets.
The film is pure eye candy, and thus thrilling to watch (especially in 3-D), and it's very charming to experience the story like this. What the film really lacks is entertainment value: it's so faithful that it actually moves slowly in the first half and none of the dialogue seems realistic. Carrey is good in his roles (although there's really no point in him playing so many parts, especially the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who never speaks and rarely even moves), but I feel like casting him in your movie and then restraining him seems to defeat the purpose. I feel the film would have been better if it had been a bit more of a comedy. Also, this film is the ultimate Christmas story. Why was it released in early November?
I would recommend this film to fans of the original Dickens story, and fans of animated movies.

You can watch the trailer here:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day ***

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day
*** out of ****

Fans rejoice: the sequel to the cult DVD hit is finally here, ten years after the original first came out. Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus return as vigilante brothers who believe they're on a mission from God, known to the Boston public as the Saints, as they built up a reputation for killing hardened criminals. They are living in self-exile in Ireland with their father (Billy Connolly) when they hear that a priest has been killed in Boston and the Saints have been framed for the murder. The Saints always cross their victim's arms and place pennies over their eyes, letting everyone know it was them. Thus they are spurred back to action and return to Boston to seek revenge. Along the way they join forces with a crazy Mexican named Romeo (Clifton Collins, Jr. in a wonderfully over-the-top performance) who idolizes the brothers and is desperate to kill somebody.
On the other side of the law, the police are trying to find out if the Saints are actually involved, and they get help from a sexy FBI agent, played by Julie Benz with a polite Southern drawl. In the same fashion as the crazy agent from the first movie, she assesses crime scenes with impeccable clarity and is hiding a secret.
The movie is filled with crude language and humor and lots of violence and blood, which is to be expected. It's pretty similar to the first movie, although builds on the humor in all the violence and tones down the racial slurs, combined with an awesome pounding rock soundtrack, ultimately making this the better film. (I was not a big fan of the first film.) Like the first film, some parts are told out of chronological order to let the viewer guess how some kills went down. Writer/director Troy Duffy manages to reunite almost the complete original cast for the sequel, which greatly helps in the film's success and appeal to fans. Even dearly departed Rocco returns for a funny spirtual cameo. No spoilers here, but there's also a couple surprise cameos at the end from big stars. Fans will notice the many winks to the original, and to other popular films.
I would recommend this film to fans of the original, and to anyone who likes dark comedy and violent cult films.

You can watch the trailer here:

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Paranormal Activity ***

Paranormal Activity
*** out of ****

You've all heard of this movie by now. You've probably heard many things about it. I'm here to tell you that everything you've heard is true.
Now playing nationwide just in time for Halloween, the film was demanded by enough people that it's now becoming a national phenomenon. The story is fairly simple: Katie and Micah are girlfriend and boyfriend that are living together in a nice big house. Their relationship is healthy and they are happy, except that there seems to be something in the house. At first they suspect a ghost, but soon are convinced it's actually a demon that's been following Katie around her whole life. Micah buys a video camera and much to the chagrin of his protesting girlfriend, starts filming themselves as much as possible, including a wide-shot of their bedroom all night while they sleep. Slowly but surely the camera starts to pick up strange unexplainable things happening, usually in the middle of the night. At first they're subtle: strange noises like bumps and footsteps, but then get more and more real, like lights turning on, phantom breezes, shadows, and footprints left in baby powder, until it ultimately stops playing around. While Katie is terrified of it, Micah refuses to be scared and actually eggs it on, hoping to catch more and more happenings on tape. They bring in a physic, who doesn't help them at all. They talk about different ways to get rid of it, but are ultimately powerless against it.
The film is about as indie as it gets: microscopic budget, no-name stars (although both newcomer leads, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, are very good), no music score, and practically no special effects. At least they don't look like special effects- I have to wonder how they pulled off some of the more complex tricks that this invisible spirit performs. The film makes every effort to make all the footage look real, including removing the studio logo and even the credits from the finished product. (And it is fake- don't fall for any rumors you may hear. This movie is NOT real or based on true events.) The reason this film has attracted so much attention is that it sucks you in and puts you in the room with these people. The scary events are that much more scarier because it feels so real. Even if you know something scary is coming, it's still enough to make your heart race and maybe to even make you scream. Personally, I left the theatre physically shaken, and I think a lot of other people did, too.
The film is not perfect, though. The handheld camerawork does get annoying and even dizzying at times because the handler is obviously not a professional cameraman. The film is slow to get going, and while some of the scares are worth the wait, a lot of the exposition is pretty boring. The film also gets kind of repetitive since the whole thing takes place in their house and because we never see the thing, we only hear it and see its effects on the real world. It tends to do a lot of the same things repeatedly.
Paranormal Activity will surely go down in history as one of the scariest movies ever made. While there is the obvious inspiration from The Blair Witch Project, the film offers serious comparison to movies like The Exorcist, Jaws, and Psycho. It's scary as hell. Don't watch this one alone!
I would recommend this film to horror junkies, and basically anyone looking for a good scare. Be warned that it may be too intense for the average moviegoer.

You can watch the trailer here:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Zombieland ***

*** out of ****

Finally, a zombie movie for the whole family. Ha, not really, but it's close.
Zombieland is one of a few movies that shows how funny zombies really are, even in their natural environment- dark, scary places. The world has been overrun by zombies and there are only a few people left. A group of four such people are traveling across the country in hopes of finding something or somebody safe. Jesse Eisenberg plays pretty much the exact same character he played in Adventureland, the insecure virgin. But where his Adventureland character lost credibility and became boring, his Zombieland character prevails and turns these insecurities into strengths. See, he has a running list of strict rules for surviving in the United States of Zombieland: keep your cardio up, always check the backseat, and beware of dead-end bathrooms, a feeding ground for the undead. He hitchhikes with a redneck badass with a shaved head in the form of Woody Harrelson (The People Vs. Larry Flynt). This guy has no rules and kills zombies just for fun. They meet up with two con artist sisters, played by the gorgeous Emma Stone (Superbad) and the spunky Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine). After being tricked by the girls- twice- they finally join forces with them to survive. A splendid amusement-park finale gives the title its true meaning.
The film is filled with not only gut-wrenching gore and killings, but with plenty of crude physical comedy and pop-culture references. ("What's the best thing about Zombieland?" "No more Facebook status updates!") While the emotional part of the story falls short, it makes up for it with its laugh-a-minute style that never gets old. (Of course, the movie's less than an hour and a half long. It's hard for anything to get old in that time.) Bill Murray has a funny cameo- as himself, of course- but frankly, it could've been funnier. And- wouldn't you believe it- the film actually manages a few real scares.
Zombieland is not wacky enough- and too self-serious- to be a parody. It is exactly what it is, a zombie comedy/horror film that's more concerned with its characters than the flesh-eating villains, and sacrifies suspense for violence and laughs. It's not for every taste, but for anyone with a slightly sick sense of humor, this is definitely your dish.
I would recommend this movie to horror fans and anyone who likes dark comedies.

You can watch the trailer here:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Toy Story/Toy Story 2 3-D **** (Double Feature Rerelease)

Toy Story 3-D
***1/2 out of ****

Toy Story 2 3-D
**** out of ****

Overall: **** out of ****

What more is there to say about the Toy Story movies? The classic films are getting a limited two-week rerelease exclusively in a 3-D double feature. This is obviously a very expensive publicity stunt to promote the upcoming Toy Story 3 (out in June), but who cares? It means we get to see two of the greatest animated films ever made on the big screen again, and in a new format that makes it feel like you're seeing them for the first time.
The first Toy Story (one of my favorite movies) is practically the definition of instant classic: an idea so universal and wonderful you can't help but think, why didn't anyone think of that before? The boys at Pixar just got there first. The toys in Andy's room come alive whenever he's not there. Woody the cowboy doll is his favorite, until he gets a cool new Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday, and Woody gets forgotten. An accident makes Woody and Buzz get separated from Andy and are forced to work together to get back home. The casting of Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz are inspired and perfect. This was the first fully computer-animated feature film, so obviously features some amazing animation, but the real wonder lies in its unforgettable characters and humor. Who could forget Mr. Potato Head, Hamm the piggy bank, Rex the wimpy dinosaur, the loyal Slinky dog, or those cute little green aliens? It's also amazing how the film has stuff for both kids and adults: the young ones won't catch the many pop culture references or more subtle adult jokes. (I'm thinking of Potato Head's perfect silent "kissass" joke.)
And as it turns out, Toy Story 2 is even better. This film adds great thrills and emotion to the mix. After Woody's arm is ripped, he is stolen by a greedy toy collector (a splendid voice performance by Wayne Knight) and it's up to Buzz and the gang to get him back. The problem is, it turns out Woody is a valuable collector's item. He meets the rest of his set- the excitable cowgirl Jessie, the adorable horse Bullseye, and the wise Prospector. They're being set to go to a toy museum in Tokyo, and Woody is slowly convinced to go with them. The film has a wonderful emotional high point at Jessie's flashback sequence with the Oscar-nominated song "When She Loved Me." The animation is even better, and the film is even funnier. The pop culture references are staggering: kids will love the A Bug's Life merchandise sprinkled throughout, and adults will see the nods to films like Jurassic Park and Rear Window. (Strangely, the faux bloopers at the end provide some of the biggest laughs in the whole film.)
The 3-D is, for the most part, pretty subtle, giving the viewer a chance to peer into the world rather than for the characters to jump out, although there is the occasional right-in-your-face effect. The effects are wonderful, especially for two films that weren't even originally made for that format. They take the films (dare I say it?) to infinity- and beyond. The big question is, are they worth paying for in the theatre if you've already seen them, which most young people in this country probably have? My answer is, if you love these films for what they really are, then yes. They are absolutely worth your money because seeing them at home cannot compare to the experience of seeing them on the big screen. After all, this is also an opportunity for kids who weren't around when the films first came out to see them for the first time. Plus, they are two movies for the price of one.
I would recommend these films to anyone who likes animated movies, especially Pixar. If you've seen them before, these films do not dull with repeat viewings.

You can watch the double-feature trailer here:
You can also watch the original Toy Story trailer here:
You can also watch the original Toy Story 2 trailer here:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Surrogates ***

*** out of ****

Surrogates is your typical summer movie, only released in the fall. The basis for the plot is a bit like The Matrix: in the future, people live out their lives through robots they call surrogates that they control and send out into the real world. Surrogates have become so widespread and so universally used that it is now considered unsafe to go outside in the flesh. Bruce Willis returns to action films as an FBI agent trying to solve the homicide of the son of the man who invented surrogacy. His character dislikes surrogates but uses one anyway. In his investigation, he discovers a new weapon that destroys surrogates and kills the people attached to them. After his own surrogate is destroyed, he is forced to finish the case with his real body.
The movie itself is exactly what you'd expect: a big, dumb sci-fi movie that tries to be relevant but ultimately is just entertaining. However, there is one piece of genius in the film. People can make their surrogates look like whatever they want, and most people choose a younger version of themselves. While the "human" Willis is aging and bald as he is in real life, the "robot" Willis is a much younger version of himself with blonde hair! The fact that part of the movie has him looking better than he has in years is half the fun for fans of the star.
I would recommend this movie to fans of Willis, and of sci-fi/action movies that don't require a lot of thinking.

You can watch the trailer here:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Informant! **1/2

The Informant!
**1/2 out of ****

Another early Oscar contender is kind of a long shot: a mid-budget, non-independent comedy about corporate crime. This is the typical comedy built for intelligent older people (although the advertisements try to market it to younger viewers), which typically falls short on laughs on many occasions.
The Informant! stars the usually buff and good-looking Matt Damon as an office drone in the early 90's who gets sucked into alliance with the FBI after he admits to his bosses conducting price fixing operations with their competitors. The film is filled with his narration, clever random thoughts on everything from TV show ideas to polar bears' noses. These thoughts rarely have anything to do with what's going on onscreen, so they provide the majority of the laughs in the movie. He wears a wire for them and digs up dirt on all his coworkers. Once the FBI move in and make their investigation known, things get complicated. Scott Bakula (TV's Enterprise) and Joel McHale (TV's The Soup) are both good as FBI agents working with Damon, as well as Melanie Lynskey as his ever-supportive wife, but all these good actors feel wasted in roles that are simply unfunny.
Damon is the real jewel here; his transformative performance (complete with extra weight, glasses, and moustache) is completely believable. His character is a complete bonehead, and as we find out, not a reliable narrator. Most of the laughs come from his performance, because sadly, the script cannot generate many by itself.
The Informant! is a strictly OK movie, a comedy that isn't all that funny but does have its endearing moments. While it may be remembered for it's star's wonderful performance, the film itself is simply not exciting enough to earn the exclamation point in its title.

You can watch the trailer here:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inglourious Basterds ***

Inglourious Basterds
*** out of ****

When you go to see a Quentin Tarantino movie, you know you're in for something unusual. Inglourious Basterds is an unusual film even for him.
Tarantino takes his usual violent dialogue-filled formula- divided into chapters like literature- and sets it during World War II, in Nazi-occupied France. The plot of the film is far too complicated to explain here, but here is a brief overview: There is a vicious Nazi colonel, Hans Landa, looking for Jews in hiding throughout France. There is an 8-man squadron of Jewish-American soldiers who are dropped into France behind enemy lines and brutally kill all the Nazis they find. There is a violent Tennessee hick, Lt. Aldo Raine, who collects scalps leading this squadron. There is a young Jewish woman in Paris who escaped from Col. Landa four years earlier when he killed her entire family. She runs a movie theatre and is being romantically pursued by a young Nazi soldier who just happens to be a war hero to the Third Reich. There is a plan to kill Hitler and all his top officers that involves the American squadron, Landa, a French actress/British double agent, the young Jewish woman, and the theatre she owns. And that's not even half of the whole plot.
The film is extremely talky for a war film, but luckily, it's all patented Tarantino dialogue, which makes it almost addictive to listen to. (The film is heavily subtitled, but even this doesn't dull the words' flavor.) It is, of course, extremely violent, but much of the violence is done in a quick, comical, almost fantastical fashion. Because the film has only select moments of a musical score, Tarantino uses it quite effectively to bring the tension level up to almost unbearable heights at many points in the movie. But the thing that surprised me most was how funny the film was, the fact that all the violence is meant to be hilarious, a kind of guilty pleasure in watching men in Nazi uniforms get the crap beaten out of them. The bloody massacre climax is reminiscent of the prom scene in Carrie, although the rest of the film feels like a bizarre kind of Western.
While promotions for the film would have you believe Brad Pitt (as Raine, in a wonderful Southern drawl) is the lead, the film is truly an ensemble with many leads, several of them unknown foreign actors. Christoph Waltz is already getting Oscar buzz as Landa, full of polite chatter and a wide grin, embedded with the kind of calm that makes people uneasy. French actress Melanie Laurent is impressive as the revenge-driven Jewish woman. Eli Roth and The Office's B. J. Novak are member's of Pitt's battalion (the German army gives them each nicknames, with the group being dubbed the Bastards). In the film's strangest and most superfluous scene, Mike Myers appears as a British general laying out the plan to a soldier he's sending to the Bastards. His outrageous accent makes the whole scene seem like an old Saturday Night Live skit without any jokes. Fans of Tarantino will love the appearance of both Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel in uncredited voice cameos. As is usual with casts assembled by Tarantino, there are no slackers and everyone is brilliant in their roles, no matter how small. (Why didn't he cast himself in a small role, as usual?)
Ultimately, I could say that the film is too long, but it really isn't. Even though the film is infused with long periods of just people talking, the audience never seems to get bored. And these quiet periods make the violence that erupts all that more shocking and funny. The film- and Tarantino himself- is an odd sort of genius, a sick war thriller/comedy that fully delivers for those who have the stomach for it. It's natural to say that the film is not for every taste- all of his films are that way- but this one actually opens up to skeptics a lot more than his previous films do, making it one of his best works. (Pulp Fiction is the obvious exception.)
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes violent war films, black comedies, and- it goes without saying- fans of Quentin Tarantino. And Brad Pitt.

You can watch the trailer here:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

2010 Oscars: 10 Best Picture Nominees

2010 Oscars: 10 Best Picture Nominees

Obviously by now this is old news. For those of you who haven't heard, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a couple of months ago that for next year's Academy Awards, there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture, instead of the usual five. Ten films was the norm back in the '30s and '40s; one year even had 12 nominees. This is massive news that has sparked a lot of controversy about the Academy's reasons for doing this. I wanted to throw my opinion out there, and some of you may be surprised: I think it's a good idea.
Let me start with my theory as to why the Academy did this. Clearly it was no easy decision to make: the Best Picture Oscar is a massive award that elevates the careers of everyone involved in the production and is remembered for decades afterward. Some would argue that a film with that award will never be forgotten. But viewership for the Academy Awards telecast has been steadily declining in the past few years, and ABC was giving them grief that they had to raise their ratings or they might pull the plug. They decided the best way to get people to watch was if popular films- that the average moviegoer has likely seen- are nominated. The Academy made some profound mistakes in the nominations last year, especially in the Best Picture category. The Dark Knight turned out to be the second-largest film of all time, and was universally hailed as the greatest comic book movie of all time. Despite Heath Ledger's eventual posthumous win for Best Supporting Actor, the film failed to get nominated for any other major award: namely, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director- Christopher Nolan, and the coveted Best Picture. WALL-E was also hailed as one of the best films of the year, was a huge hit, and is considered an instant classic, and not just among animated movies. But the Academy has a long bias against "cartoons" and naturally did not nominate it for the top prize. (It did win for Best Animated Feature and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.) I think that if they had implemented the 10-nominee rule last year, both The Dark Knight and WALL-E would have been nominated for Best Picture. Sadly, they got viciously booted out by traditional (and lower-quality) fare like The Reader and Frost/Nixon.
I see the usual 5-nominee list as a basic formula: there are usually four dramas and one comedy, the latter usually an indie. The average moviegoer has heard of two or three of the nominees, and has seen one. Only one or two of the nominees are considered hits at the box office, but all are loved by critics. Doesn't exactly sound exciting, huh? Being nominated for Best Picture will usually boost the box office gross of the films, but not by much. People won't go see a film they don't want to see just because it's nominated.
The new 10-nominee rule will change this formula, and I think for the better. It's possible the old formula will stay true: that eight of the films will be dramas and two will be indie comedies, that the average moviegoer has only heard of four or five of the nominees, and only three or four didn't flop at the box office. I don't think this will happen, and I'll get back to this later. I think that the move to ten nominees is a serious push to get more commercial films nominated. The new formula will be something like this: five will be dramas, two will be indie comedies, two will be action films, and one will be animated. (I do not have an official prediction at this time. Ask me again in January.)
Already two films have come out this summer that I think will take the place of would-be nominees The Dark Knight and WALL-E: Star Trek and Up. Star Trek will surely be an uphill battle: it's an epic sci-fi film directed mainly to teenagers and young adults, but was almost universally hailed by critics as a superb action film with heart and humor in addition to its eye-popping special effects. Big-time director J.J. Abrams will propel the film through awards season, but first it has to jump through a lot of hurdles. Up, as expected, is being hailed as another Pixar masterpiece and will surely be campaigning heavily this awards season. Only one animated film has been nominated for Best Picture before (Beauty and the Beast), and giving another "cartoon" a shot at Hollywood's top prize would surely boost ratings.

Another potential long-shot is Avatar, another sci-fi epic coming out in December that is headlined by James Cameron and is already a shoo-in for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. The prescence of Cameron at the helm and the fact that the film is a surefire hit will help propel the film through awards season, but the Academy has a thing against genre films (basically, anything that's not clear-cut dramas).
Like I said before, I think having ten nominees is a good thing. I think it will give some worthy films a shot at the award that otherwise wouldn't even have been considered and will increase viewership astronomically. Now, I also think that this plan could backfire: that the Academy simply use the five extra slots to nominate more dramatic crap that no one cares about except for the all-powerful critics. This would be very unfortunate, but I think that this is unlikely because it would nullify the whole point of the new rule.
Finally, let me address one of the chief arguments against this move: that it is simply a publicity stunt to nominate movies that have made a lot of money. First of all, so what if it's a publicity stunt? The Academy is kind of dying; it needs a boost. These naysayers also don't seem to understand that hundreds of eligible films are submitted to the Academy every year, and they have to sift through all the muck to get to the best ones. Being in the top 10 is still a great achievement and nothing to be scoffed at. The Academy won't nominate Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for Best Picture just because it made an obscene amount of money; it still needs to be a quality film.
And, the final argument that they seem to forget is the simple truth that the end result is still exactly the same: as usual, there will be only one winner for Best Picture. Whether that eventual winner is a popular film that many people have seen and love, or whether it's a piece of crap arthouse project is entirely in the Academy's hands and will be decided exactly as it always has been.
Nothing can change that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

District 9 **1/2

District 9
**1/2 out of ****

District 9 has the distinction of being one of the most unique alien invasion movies in history. It's produced by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and jump-starts the career of newbie director Neill Blomkamp, who was supposed to make the Halo movie. The film (not to be confused with 9, the animated postapocalyptic film about rag dolls coming to life, out next month; and definitely not with Nine, the musical with Daniel Day-Lewis, out in December) opens as a sort of very complex, very serious episode of The Office, as a fake documentary chronicling an alien ship coming to Earth and hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. It combines interviews, amateur-style video from helicopters and on the ground, and even news footage (all fake, of course) to lay out the story of how humans made an inglorious First Contact with the aliens in the ship and were then forced to house and take care of them. The aliens, which humans call Prawns, did not come to destory humanity, but they're not friendly either. They riot, steal, and kill people, causing huge rallies to get them to leave. They are also strangely obsessed with cat food, one of the more inspired parts of the story. They are confined to a ghetto called District 9, which eventually turns into a slum, full of pollution and crime. The public says they're too close to the humans, so a corporation called MNU sets up District 10 and decides to evict all the aliens.
Enter our main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, who looks sort of like a geeky Ethan Hawke. He is promoted in MNU and is in charge of evicting all the aliens. Lucky for him, he speaks their gargled, clicky language fluently. While pillaging the home of one alien, Wikus finds a cylinder with alien fluid inside and accidentally sprays himself with it. This makes him very sick and slowly turns him into a Prawn, making him very valuable to his company and the government. MNU has been studying the Prawns' weapons, which are much more advanced but only work for the Prawns themselves. After they try to kill him, he goes on the run and becomes a fugitive. He hides out in District 9 and befriends the alien that owned the cylinder. Together they hatch a plan to get it back and fix Wikus.
While the film does make good use of the fake-documentary style, it does not last. It switches back and forth between being a mockumentary and being just a sci-fi movie with handheld, shaky camerawork. The format is comparable to Cloverfield. While it all serves to make the story seem more real, you find yourself thinking to the cameraman, Can't you be still for one second? It can make one dizzy watching the film.
The film's big success lies in its visual effects, which are absolutely astounding and look incredibly real. This is specifically referring to the Prawns themselves, which interact with humans to great extent. The omnipresent mothership hovering over the city also looks very real, almost like a plane getting caught in the background of the shot. And the film is very lucky that the special effects are so good, because so many other elements fall short. There are several flaws in the writing. While the original concept of the story is ingenius, several plot points are cheesy and the film ultimately leaves the viewer with many questions. It's also pretty predictable once the conflict is established. The dialogue in particular is very poor in some scenes. The bad guys' lines when they're considering killing Wikus, which convey the film's humanitarian message, are about as subtle as a jackhammer.
The film is also incredibly gory, surprising given the documentary-style footage which dots much of the finished product. It's easy to see why Blomkamp was considered to make Halo; much of the film feels like a very detailed, very violent third-person video game. This will disgust many viewers, especially queasy audience members. (Fans of Jackson's early work know that he loves this kind of stuff.) The film also moves surprisingly slowly, even during its frenetic action scenes, which makes the film seem much longer than it actually is.
For all its faults, District 9 is a good summer film, entertaining and dazzling, and much more original than anything that's come out so far this year. One would only hope for a better story from a film so brilliantly conceived.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes gory sci-fi and action films, and anyone looking for something unusual.

You can watch the trailer here:
You can also watch Alive in Joburg, the short film that was expanded into this feature-length production, here:

Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People ***

Funny People
*** out of ****

Funny People marks the long-awaited return of Judd Apatow to the director's chair, for yet another outrageous and crude comedy for both sexes. For this one, Adam Sandler heads the impressive cast as what must be one of his most difficult and personal characters to date. Sandler plays George Simmons, clearly a fictional version of himself, a stand-up comedian who became very rich and famous doing a string of unfunny movies. In public he is constantly being recognized and having his picture taken. His house is filled with posters of fake films that look eerily real. The film also takes advantage of old home movies of Sandler, using them to represent George's past, blurring the line between reality and fiction. Early in the film he learns from his doctor that he has a rare inoperable blood disease and starts on a large dosage of experimental medications. Apatow regular Seth Rogen plays Ira, a young newly-fit comedian that happens to be performing in the same comedy club that Simmons is at one night. Simmons bombs, and Ira swoops in and steals the crowd by making fun of the defamed star. Simmons contacts Ira and asks him to be his assistant and write jokes for him. Ira says yes and is swept up into the life of stardom almost immediately. At first he is a starstruck yes man doing whatever odd job George tells him to do. But soon he recognizes Simmons as the lost soul he is, a man whose life has been ruined by celebrity, quick to anger and selfish. George tells Ira he is dying, placing this enormous burden on his back. After some pushing from Ira, he decides to tell some friends, including ex-flame Laura, played by Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann. Later in the movie, the doctors tell George the medication might have actually worked and he may not be dying after all, and he rekindles his love for Laura. Him and Ira drive up to her family's house for an extended stay, but it becomes complicated when her husband Clarke arrives home early.
The very funny Jonah Hill plays Ira's roommate Leo, a competitive comedian who is making more money than him. Jason Schwartzman (who also contributed to the dull musical score) plays the third roommate Mark who recently found fame by landing the lead in a television sitcom. Eric Bana is fearless as Clarke, bringing his native Australian accent to the role and ending up being one of the most memorable parts of the movie. Apatow's real-life daughters Maude and Iris charm the audience as Clarke and Laura's kids. Several famous people have cameos as themselves, including Andy Dick, Norm McDonald, Sarah Silverman, Eminem, and my personal favorite, Ray Romano.
The film is everything you'd expect from Apatow: filled with crude insights on modern issues, but with a heart underneath it all. And very, very funny. The film does have one near-fatal flaw, though: at two hours and twenty-six minutes, it is way too long, especially for a comedy. It definitely needed a trim. The film also switches tones quickly about midway through, when George and Ira go to Laura's house, and it feels almost like a different film. If it had been shorter, this effect would have been less severe. It's not as good as Apatow's previous hits The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, which promotions for the movie would have you think are very similar, but they have the same amount of raunchy jokes and relevance.
I would recommend this film to all fans of comedy, and fans of Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen.

You can watch the trailer here (lots of the jokes in the trailer have changed or were simply dumped for the final film):

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Hurt Locker ****

The Hurt Locker
**** out of ****

Note: This post contains mild spoilers.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my first four-star review since I started this blog. And I can almost guarantee that no one who reads this has seen this movie yet, and less than half of you have even heard of it. The Hurt Locker is an indie movie that audiences can smell a mile away, the kind that the trailers try to sell to them by using blurbs in the trailer like "a really great movie" and such because the footage can't sell itself. It's the kind of movie that regular moviegoers point their noses up at and professional critics have orgasms for, the kind of movie that gets dozens of four-star reviews but in actuality flops at the box office and is generally considered an artsy piece of crap. Well, this is the indie movie for the general population- one that reaches the critics and the audience. (It should be noted that the film isn't really an indie at all; it's produced by Summit Entertainment, a new company that is currently earning bank by making the Twilight movies; it's just getting an indie release, meaning it's playing nowhere for now.)
The film opens with a quote that says, in so many words, that "war is a drug." We see what it means by that: the main character is nothing if not addicted to the thrill he gets from being in a war, from being an inch from death and having the skills necessary to stop his own death. The place is Baghdad, Iraq. The time is 2004. Anyone who doesn't know what's going on then should smack themselves right now. The film follows three Americans in the Army whose job is to find bombs and disarm them. At the beginning, the group is led by a Sergeant Thompson, played by Guy Pearce. A disarming goes badly and he dies. His replacement is Staff Sergeant James, a forty-year-old Army man with the discipline of a third-grader. He doesn't take his job seriously in the slightest, probably because he's defused hundreds of bombs and is the best at what he does. His partner is Sergeant Sanborn, a black man that isn't used to James' work tactics and who clashes with him from the very first day. The youngest member of their group is Specialist Eldridge, who talks to a counsellor and seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, especially after Thompson's death. When the three of them get news of a possible IED, as they call it, they strap their leader up in an explosive suit that makes him look like an astronaut and he goes to try and disarm it.
The first half of the film follows them on a few of these expeditions and the storyline seems rather loose, making the audience wonder where the film is going. The guys talk together, swap stories, they drink and beat each other up. It's not until the second half where we see the point of the film is to portray war as it actually is. They say war is 99% waiting around and 1% sheer terror. This film reflects that perfectly (if the percentages are slightly skewed). It has much more suspense than it does actual combat and shoot-outs. You find yourself gripping the chair, expecting something to happen like in a horror film, and nothing does happen. But just as you're sure nothing will happen, something does, scaring the crap out of you. Just like actual war. The characters are just like real soldiers: these guys aren't heroes, they're just guys in the desert with guns.
The casting is strangley perfect: they cast little-known actors in the leads and big names in small parts to reverse the Hollywood perception of war films, and allowing you to focus on the situation at hand. James is played by Jeremy Renner, who you'll recognize from TV's The Unusuals. Renner plays James as a cocky smartass who's constantly cracking jokes, yet turns it off immediately when there's danger around, because that adrenaline rush is his heroine, and he can't miss a single second of it. Through the course of the film, we see him lose his cool for the first time. Sanborn is played with intensity by Anthony Mackie (Million Dollar Baby, Notorious). While he's a person the audience inherently trusts, he drives one of the most uncomfortable scenes, where he contemplates killing James and making it look like an accident. Brian Geraghty (Bobby, The Guardian) plays the scared kid Eldridge, giving the film a sensitive side. He drives the film's most emotional scene. Ralph Fiennes appears briefly as a soldier they meet in the middle of nowhere, right before being caught in a shoot-out. Lost's Evangeline Lilly has a small part as James' ex-wife back in America, at the end of the movie.
As far as war films go, this one's pretty low-key as it concentrates more on suspense than action. The handheld camerawork makes it all seem more real, but there are a few very cinematic slow-mo shots. Honestly though, the movie is so funny, so gripping, and so addicting to watch that I can't find any serious flaws with it. Even people who don't like war films would be sucked in, although the pervasive language of the soldiers might alienate some viewers. It's without a doubt one of the best films of the year, and- I'm serious- definitely in the top 10 best war films ever made. It's an early Oscar contender, and will surely find its way into the Best Picture race.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes war movies, and suspenseful thrillers.

You can watch the trailer here:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ***1/2

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
***1/2 out of ****

Surely to be the biggest movie of the summer, the sixth Harry Potter film is finally out, after an eight-month delay that infuriated millions of fans worldwide. Well, now they can finally rest easy because not only has the film been released, it's everything they would hope for and more. Of course, some fans aren't so happy about the way the film turned out, but more on that later.
Everyone planning on seeing this movie has undoubtedly already read the book and is familiar with the plot, but here it is anyway: our favorite characters Harry, Ron, and Hermione return to Hogwarts for their sixth year of magical education, where they encounter difficulties not only with their studies but with Voldemort's dark forces on the move. A new character, Professor Slughorn, comes to Hogwarts to teach Potions and immediately becomes fascinated by Harry. Harry finds an old Potions textbook with the instructions scratched out, rewritten, and with random text scribbled in the margins. With this improved text, Harry moves to the front of the class. The book claims to be the property of the Half-Blood Prince, whoever that may be. (If you ask me, this subplot is not important enough to be part of the title.) Romance brews around every corner. Harry discovers he has feelings for Ron's sister Ginny, while Ron and Hermione realize their feelings for each other. But another girl, Lavender, is crazy for Ron (go figure), complicating things. Another subplot involves- fans rejoice!- the glorious return of Quidditch, which was cruelly cut out of the last film. Ron joins the team as the Keeper (basically the goalie) and there is a very impressive match sequence that lightens the mood. Dumbledore recruits Harry to retrieve a memory from Slughorn that is vital to their quest to defeat the Dark Lord. Draco Malfoy has been ordered by Voldemort himself to do something- and Professor Snape has taken a vow to help and protect him in doing it. The plot is thick, like the book and the rest of the films, but most everyone familiar with the literature can follow it.
The cast is absolutely superb. The three leads- Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione improve on their acting skills as they age, giving their beloved characters depth, humor, and a soul. Tom Felton is surprising as Malfoy; the character has changed, he's more malicious and yet more torn than ever. We actually see him cry in this film. Felton has truly embodied the character. Evanna Lynch returns as the wispy Luna Lovegood, once again providing comic relief. I had my doubts, but now I believe she is perfectly cast. The adult actors, mostly secondary characters, are also pitch perfect. They are led by Dumbledore, grandly played by Michael Gambon in the movie that will define his career. Alan Rickman gets much more screen time as Snape, and Maggie Smith is still grandmotherly yet fierce as Professor McGonagall. Jim Broadbent plays Slughorn as very funny but somewhat creepy, seemingly more interested in fame than education. Sadly, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid only appears in a couple of scenes. Newcomer Hero Fiennes-Tiffin becomes an instant star with just one scene, where he plays an 11-year-old Tom Riddle in a memory where Dumbledore meets him for the first time in an orphanage. His portrayal of a Damien-esque creepy kid is one of the best parts of the film. (Sadly, Ralph Fiennes does not appear as the adult Lord Voldemort.)
David Yates returns as director, but strangely, this film feels differently than the last one. The film is injected with several awkward pauses, mostly for comedic effect, but I was surprised at the number of unintentional awkward pauses, breaks between dialogue that just seem unnatural. For another thing, its rating has moved back down to PG, when the last two films were PG-13. I was afraid this would mean the film was more tame. Well, it is more tame than the last couple of films, but in many ways, it is much more mature. The rating is due to the fact that the film mostly focuses on the humor of classes and young romance, and leaves the fantasy action stuff for the last quarter of the film. There are simply less exciting moments in this film, but that's the way it was in the book as well. There are probably too many sexual innuendos for a PG film, but it's all in good taste. And of course, the film ends with such a devastating cataclysmic event that it changes Harry's world forever, and leaves the viewer thirsty for the next installment.
While the Half-Blood Prince isn't the best in the series (I give the Order of the Phoenix that honor), it delivers an exceptionally well-made summer film, complete with humor, thrills, and amazing special effects that don't overwhelm the story. Hardcore fans of the books- of which there are many- may be disappointed with the amount of stuff taken out, modified, and added. A good example is the first five minutes, of which I'm pretty sure none of the material originated from the novel. While it's true the book is better- it's nearly impossible to make the movies better- this movie is still very aware of the book and owes it a great deal. Movies and books are two totally different mediums; scenes in literature that aren't very cinematic should be changed for the benefit of the film.
I would recommend this film to all fans of the books and movies, and fans of fantasy in general. If you have not seen all of the previous films, it is unlikely you will understand the plot.

You can watch the trailer here:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bruno ***

*** out of ****

I don't think there's ever been an entertainer quite like Sacha Baron Cohen. Search around the world, look through the history books; has anyone devoted so much to a role before? This man will do anything- literally, anything- for a laugh. I would bet he would be willing to die in a role if it was funny enough.
Sacha Baron Cohen, who most people know from Borat, returns in Bruno, a film very much like its predecessor. The plot is completely unimportant, but here it is in a nutshell: Bruno is the flamboyantly gay host of a popular Austrian fashion TV show, until he screws up big in public and gets fired, and he decides to move to Los Angeles to become a huge star. He takes his assistant Lutz along with him (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten, who is also unusually devoted to his role) and after failing to become an actor, attempts to make a show interviewing celebrities. After many failures, including losing his adopted African baby (named O.J.- not kidding), he decides to convert to heterosexuality. Of course, they probably made this story up as they went along.
Like Borat, this film is very unusual bordering on experimental film: a semi-faux documentary with just a handful of actors interacting with real people, with only the cameras and film crew around to give away that it's all a giant hoax. The film plays out like several episodes of Punk'd, if that show was rated X. Meant to expose homophobia and prejudice in people, it succeeds more at just being very funny, and ultimately isn't very deep or discussion-starting. Most people are very much aware of the cameras in the room and are very polite and accepting. It's the people who are not polite who cause the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film. And yes, the film is very funny, although it does have many cringe-inducing moments and excessive sexual humor. A gay sex montage early on is so cartoonishly offensive that it may inspire some people to leave. Not every joke hits home (his thick Austrian accent is sometimes distracting from what he's actually saying), but Baron Cohen proves he has no fear and will stoop to any level for a laugh.
He does manage to dupe some celebrities, very surprising indeed since he himself has become a celebrity since the success of Borat. He manages to punk Harrison Ford, Paula Abdul, and most notably, Ron Paul, who he tries to seduce into making a sex tape. (It doesn't go so well.) There are some wildly histerical and inspired moments, including Bruno interviewing the head of a known terrorist group begging the man to kidnap him, Bruno and Lutz chained together in leather and dildos crossing paths with a God Hates Fags group holding signs, and running into a focus group meeting that has just condemned his new show pilot and then dancing for them.
Bruno is every bit as funny as Borat, although it goes a lot farther in terms of crude behavior. It's not quite accurate to say the film goes over the top sometimes; the film never goes below the top. For this reason, the film could only be found funny by a select group of people, who are open-minded and have an intense love for comedy. Everyone else will probably not get the humor, and find it disgusting. But regardless of whether you like the movie or not, you have to admire Baron Cohen for losing himself completely in the part, never dropping character for a millisecond, even if he's in danger of being physically hurt. (The camera guys are also brave; they get thrashed more than once.) He definitely deserves an Oscar for acting- try putting Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, or any great actor in these situations and see if they keep a straight face, and can produce jokes as outrageous as he does as often as he does. Sacha Baron Cohen is a visionary; it's just he's an extremist, and refuses to make films that appeal to the more mainstream audience.
I would recommend this film to everyone who liked Borat or is familiar with Baron Cohen's comedy, and people who like reality prank shows.

You can watch the trailer here:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Enemies ***

Public Enemies
*** out of ****

The Oscar race seems to be starting early this year. A summer film rarely gets remembered when it comes time to vote for the best in Hollywood, but something tells me voters will remember this film.
Michael Mann has crafted an intelligent period crime drama that features stellar performances from the entire cast. The year is 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression. (At least that's when the movie opens; it's unclear how much time has passed by the end.) The script focuses on two main characters: John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber; and Melvin Purvis, the famous FBI agent hunting Dillinger. The cat-and-mouse game is seen from both angles and the triumphs and mistakes of these two intelligent men are supremely entertaining. Johnny Depp makes another career-defining performance as Dillinger, a private man that doesn't let people in easily, and so we learn very little about him. We know that he's very suave and loves being a celebrity. He's violent but doesn't kill people unless he feels he has to. Christian Bale (another actor having a very good summer; see: Terminator: Salvation) plays Purvis, a man who seems to have no private life at all: he has devoted his entire life to catching and killing John Dillinger.
The movie opens with Dillinger breaking his gang out of prison and then going on the run. Purvis is promoted to the head of the Chicago police and starts his Dillinger investigation. The gang continues robbing banks and eluding the police. Eventually Dillinger is captured, arrested, and sent to prison, where he escapes after about ten minutes and gets away with as much charisma and cool as James Bond. Purvis seems to take this personally and intensifies the investigation, resulting in multiple deaths. The movie's long ending chronicles Dillinger's death, (spoiler here if you don't know your history) in which he is betrayed by a friend and shot after walking out of a movie. Interestingly, the movie was a Clark Gable gangster flick, which the filmmakers clunkily try to put into the plot and help bring the film to a close. The dialogue is also noteworthy here. All of the 30's jargon makes sense and sounds accurate, and Depp always has the best lines. My personal favorite, used brilliantly in the trailer: "We're too good for 'em. They ain't tough enough, smart enough, or fast enough. I can hit any bank I want, anytime. They got to be at every bank, all the time." Another line destined to be a classic: "What's the score?" See the movie to find out why.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Billie Frechette, played by the regal Marion Cotillard. Dillinger meets Billie by chance and quickly and easily sweeps her off her feet and makes her his girl. Despite what you'd think, Billie is not stupid or slutty, just a country girl looking for adventure, and finding it in this real-life Robin Hood. All three leads- Depp, Bale, and Cotillard- deserve Oscar nominations for thier portrayals of real-life people in this unsettling time. It's already pretty much guaranteed its win for Best Costume Design.
Other stars appear in smaller parts, and they each serve their purpose. Billy Crudup (of recent Watchmen fame) plays J. Edgar Hoover, who is desperate to catch Dillinger to defend his reputation. David Wenham (Faramir in The Lord of the Rings movies) plays one of Dillinger's gang members who he springs from jail. Channing Tatum has a small but cool role as Pretty Boy Floyd, a criminal on the run who Purvis kills early on. Lost's Emilie de Ravin has a painfully small part as a woman Dillinger kidnaps from a bank heist and uses as cover so the cops won't shoot him.
There seems to be some hate out there for this film, and I think I can pinpoint the reason why: the trailer advertises it as a complex action thriller, and while it does have plenty of shoot-outs, prison escapes, and bank heist sequences, it is predominantly a character-driven drama. The handheld camerawork gives the audience a fly-on-the-wall feeling as if you were riding in the same car with these people. It also rarely uses a musical score to make the action seem more real, and sometimes this backfires: although the film moves along very quickly for its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the lack of music seems to make some scenes drag. Some audience members also seem to be turned off by the fact that we don't get to know these characters very well, but I think that's intentional; these people lived in the public spotlight, and so we see what they showed to the public.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes crime films, noir films, Johnny Depp, or Michael Mann.

You can watch the trailer here:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen **1/2

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
**1/2 out of ****

Oh, Michael Bay, you crack me up. You make these movies, thinking they're the biggest and most epic things in the world, and they're really just little films that look like they're made by children. The only difference is, your childish films cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. (And, I'll admit, have Oscar-worthy special effects. Which is hardly a saving grace.)
This sequel to the 2007 smash hit is pretty much the same as the first, just with a slightly different storyline. It starts out with Sam (the still-charming Shia LaBeouf) going off to college away from his hottie girlfriend Mikaela (the still-dull Megan Fox). If that sounds like a slightly interesting story, don't worry. He doesn't stay there long. The film quickly takes him away from college and instead chooses to put him in the middle of big action sequences that are much more interesting than boring ol' classes. The plot involves a robot stalking Sam, naturally in the disguise of a hot girl, and then them all going to Egypt to find some ancient key to stop an invading Decepticon inexplicably named the Fallen. All the important characters return, including the soldiers now fighting alongside the Autobots, Sam's wacky parents, neither of which can get a clue, and in a rare stroke of genius, Agent Simmons, former head of the now-debunked Sector 7. Bringing back John Turturro for the second half of the film is a welcome surprise and brings actual comic relief. A notable new character is Leo, Sam's new roommate, who is a pathetic coward and never opens his mouth without something stupid coming out. (I read the part was originally offered to Jonah Hill. I can easily imagine that.) All the robots are back, including Optimus Prime and Megatron- back from the dead- and even some new Autobot sidekicks. Two such sidekicks are incredibly annoying (and slightly offensive) twins named Wheelie and Skids, constantly fighting Autobots who have way too much screen time and bring nothing whatsoever to the film. They're both voiced by Tom Kenny, who also does Spongebob Squarepants, and you can tell it's him.
The film's main flaw is that it often drifts off into silliness, ignoring the story, the characters, and the running time in favor of sex jokes, drug jokes, and even robot testicle jokes. It's all incredibly childish and unnecessary, especially for an action movie that tries to be as big a deal as this one does. Also, the film goes on way too long, and could've done with a trim. Despite it dragging on way past the point where the audience has lost interest, it ends very suddenly, without wrapping anything up, leaving the audience slightly confused (assuming, of course, they were paying attention, which most people probably were not). LeBeouf's real-life hand injury is poorly written into the film and then just ignored, leaving the audience to wonder where they got the time to put such a big, bulky cast on his wrist.
Rainn Wilson has an amusing cameo as Sam's astronomy professor. (The late Bernie Mac had a similar such cameo in the first film.) Sam has a mental breakdown in his class, the result of touching a shard of the All Spark. Scenes like this remind us of how good an actor LaBeouf really is, and that he belongs in much better movies than these.
Most people see the film just for the giant robot fight scenes, in which the film has plenty of and delivers with pizzazz and headache-inducing camera pans. The film is watchable because of these lengthy fight scenes, which are really the whole point of making a movie like this. The potty jokes are put in between the fight scenes because the filmmakers can't think of anything else to entertain us with. Of course, there is the sweeping musical score and the awesome rock soundtrack, including an original song by Linkin Park. The band also contributed to the score; as an avid fan, I was thrilled.
Revenge of the Fallen is the perfect example of what a summer film has become: a giant mess of a movie with huge action scenes, eye-popping special effects, very little heart, and stupid dialogue with lines like "Let's roll." It also made an obscene amount of money, proving that audiences just don't care. These kinds of movies are said to be critic-proof, which means that whoever reads this review will either see the movie anyway or continue to love it despite my harsh words. Which, frankly, is the way it should be.
I would recommend this film to anyone who liked the first film, and people who like big, dumb action movies.

You can watch the trailer here:

Year One **

Year One
** out of ****

The trailer gives away pretty much everything from Year One. As with many comedies nowadays, the previews for the film give away the funniest parts of the movie and leave little else for you to feast on. Despite there being a joke every five seconds or so, the film doesn't rack up many laughs, but honestly, what more did you expect?
The premise of the film is putting characters who act like modern people in prehistoric times. Hence, the presence of Jack Black as loser caveman hunter Zed and Michael Cera as loser caveman gatherer Oh. The opening of the film establishes that these guys are losers who can't get women or even dinner, and are quickly kicked out of the tribe. They go over the mountains, farther than any caveman's ever traveled before, and have many adventures based on stories ripped from the Bible. The inane plot involves Cane murdering his brother Abel (a humorous scene with David Cross as villain and Paul Rudd as victim); trying to save their crushes from slavery; meeting Abraham, played with unfunny gusto by Hank Azaria, who wants to cut off their foreskins; and ultimately trying to dethrone an evil king, played by Xander Berkeley. There's a couple gross-out scenes involving rubbing body oil on a fat man, urine, and- what else- sex. Even the prescence of funny performers Oliver Platt as a High Priest and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (forever McLovin) as Abraham's son Isaac can't liven the mood much, and only add scarce laughs to the proceedings. Worst of all, Black hogs the screen so much that Cera seems kind of an afterthought, too shy and quiet to say very much around Black's rantings and ravings and wild arm-waving.
Year One is typical summer fare, no heart at all, but it does offer minimal entertainment, which is exactly what the people who see the movie demand.
I would recommend this film to fans of Black and anyone who got a kick out of the trailer.

You can watch the trailer here:

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Up ***1/2

***1/2 out of ****

Pixar is at the top of the world. Still.
Up is Pixar's tenth feature film, a major landmark, and its first feature film in 3-D, which all of the future films from the company are set to be in this format. Up has both the imagination of Toy Story and the touching emotion of Finding Nemo, making this one of their better films.
It opens with a young boy dreaming of adventure and meeting a strange girl that he will later marry. A long, wordless montage sequence chronicling their lives together is probably the most touching thing I've ever seen in an animated movie. After his beloved wife Ellie's death, our hero Carl (voiced by a perfect Ed Asner) is left alone, an old man with nothing to do with his life except stay in his house and bicker at the outside world. After circumstances force him out of his home, he ties thousands of balloons to his house and turns it into a giant blimp of sorts, lifting it off the ground and away from society. However, an annoying little boy named Russell accidentally tags along, forcing Carl to claim responsibility for him. Their destination is South America, specifically a place called Paradise Falls, that Carl and Ellie always wanted to go to but never could because of the daily strain of life. They get there but get separated from the house, forcing them to walk on the ground, towing their floating house by the garden hose. They encounter a strange giant bird and several talking dogs (Dug being the best and the funniest of them), and an old man, Charles Muntz (voiced by a sinister Christopher Plummer), who was Carl's childhood hero. Muntz went to South America in self-exile searching for the rare bird that just happens to be following Carl and Russell around. Muntz is so desperate to get his hands on it that he's willing to kill whoever stands in his way.
The film is filled with harrowing (and at times violent) adventure, and the usual hilarity that marks all of Pixar's work. But there's a heart underneath it all that unifies it and keeps it from going off course. Adult viewers will love to hear the usual cameo appearance of John Ratzenberger, the only actor to have a role in all ten films. Many will want to see the film in 3-D, but honestly, it's probably not worth the extra money. Much of the 3-D effects are subtle, although they do add to the amazing animation that has become standard in Hollywood. Instead of things popping out of the screen, we see depth and peer into the world, like through a window. There is probably little difference between the 2-D and 3-D versions.
I would recommend this film to all but the smallest children, and anyone who likes animated movies.

You can watch the trailer here:

Also, arrive early and catch Pixar's new short film Partly Cloudy, an ingenious delight about storks delivering babies and the clouds that magically create them, which is just further proof of Pixar's reign over the animated film industry.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Angels & Demons ***

Angels & Demons
*** out of ****

Who would have thought that a Harvard symbologist would have such a cool life? Robert Langdon returns (with a better haircut) as the next Indiana Jones-wannabe, played to perfection by the brilliant Tom Hanks. Angels & Demons is the sequel to the 2006 smash hit The Da Vinci Code, even though the book was a prequel. (Practically no knowledge of the first movie is needed to understand this movie, although you still may not understand it if you have seen the first one.) Ron Howard is a quality director who has made a summer popcorn movie. The result: a very intelligent dumb movie.
After the Pope's death, four cardinals are kidnapped and will be publicly executed at 8, 9, 10, and 11:00 at various places in the Vatican. At midnight, Vatican City will be destroyed by an antimatter bomb. It appears an ancient scientific cult called the Illuminati is behind the attack, seeking revenge for a centuries-old murder of four of its members. Naturally, the Vatican police call Robert Langdon to help them, you know, because Dr. Jones wasn't available. They also enlist the help of a physicist who helped create the antimatter, the beautiful Dr. Vetra, because there are practically no other women in the movie. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the Camerlengo (the Pope's replacement while they are choosing a new one). Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas has a breakthrough performance as the trigger-happy assassin, as scary as he is deadly. The plot has them all zig-zagging around the Vatican several times, making the film feel slightly restrained despite the epic way Howard shoots the scenery. Hans Zimmer's score is overactive but beautiful and haunting. The plot is kind of predictable, but the end has multiple twists and shocks that will make you re-think the whole movie once it's done.
I would say this film is more exciting than The Da Vinci Code, but not as good a film. It's obviously fictitious, but slightly more relevant, as a main theme of the film is the coexistence of science and religion in this world, made most memorable by a monologue McGregor makes to all the cardinals. The film is all about history, but is a breathless action film that tries to make history look much more exciting. Langdon is always searching for something in history in order to solve a very immediate crisis, a strange formula for a film.
Despite all its obvious flaws, the film is made with grandeur and pizzazz, it's very watchable, and there's just no beating Hanks' acting. But be aware: it is rated PG-13 but really pushes the boundaries. There is lots of blood and violence that would be extreme for children or queasy viewers.
I would recommend this film to everyone who liked The Da Vinci Code, fans of the Dan Brown novels, and people who like intelligent thrillers.

You can watch the trailer here:

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lost: Season 5

Lost: Season 5

Note: This will NOT be a spoiler-free post.

By now, everyone who watches the TV show Lost has seen the season 5 finale, so I am free to talk about it without anyone telling me I spoiled the show for them. If you haven't seen the finale, please see the opening disclaimer.
In short, season 5 was not their best season. (I give season 1 that honor, the only season to win the Emmy for Best Drama Series.) Turning into territory that will begin to wrap up the show, you'd think that they would answer a lot of questions and bring the whole mystery into perspective. Wrong. This season actually introduced more questions than it answered, making watching it week-to-week very frustrating. The episode where the Oceanic Six got on the plane was particularly frustrating to me because NOTHING was explained, it just all conveniently came together, and explanations just came later. Precious screen time was devoted to answering these questions that we did not care about, ("What lies in the shadow of the statue?" we care?) when we would rather see more story and more of our characters.
Last season left off with revealing how the Oceanic Six got off the island, with the boat blowing up with Jin (supposedly) still on board. It also reveals that Locke is the one in the coffin in the future, meaning somehow he will die. Jack is convinced that they must all return to the island. This season starts off only moments later, with Jack teaming up with Ben to find everyone, leading Kate to leave Aaron behind and everyone getting on the plane one way or another. Back on the island, Locke, Sawyer, Juliet, Daniel, Miles, Charlotte, and the rest of the survivors are experiencing flashes that transport them through time at random- forwards and backwards. Sawyer even witnesses Claire giving birth to Aaron. After- surprise!- Jin being found alive, Charlotte's death, and Rousseau's team landing on the island, they are reunited and Locke uses the wheel to leave. After that, they find out they are in the 1970's and they join the Dharma Initiative. Sawyer- who is being referred to more and more as James- takes on the alias LaFleur and leads the security force. Daniel leaves the island in the sub. Flash forward three years, and Locke ends up in the read world (he traveled through both time and space) and finds everyone who left, excluding Sun but including Walt, and unsuccessfully tries to convince them all to come back. Ben finds him and kills him after he gets vital information- the whereabouts of Eloise Hawking, Daniel's mother- and makes it look like suicide. The Oceanic Six return to the island with Locke in a coffin, but Jack, Kate, Sayid, and Hurley vanish and travel back to the 70's to rejoin Sawyer's group. Sun, Ben, and the now-resurrected Locke stay in the present with the new plane crash survivors. Daniel returns to the island and attempts to stop 'the incident,' a legendary Dharma happening that will kill lots of people. He intends to use an H-bomb to do this. He is killed by his younger mother, and Jack takes his place, believing it will change the course of time and reverse everything that's happened. Complications ensue, and Juliet sets off the bomb at ground zero, apparently killing herself instantly. In the present, Locke finds the myserious Jacob, who we see for the first time, and forces Ben to kill him. But, the people outside- in a reveal that copies and mocks the reveal at the end of the fourth season- show everyone Locke's body that was found in the plane, in the coffin. So, either the Locke that's walking around is a phony, or he got a new body. That's where the confusing season ends.
Let's start with the characters, which the producers of the show love to mistreat. Charlotte is killed fairly early on. Not one tear shed. Why? Because no one cared about her. She's one of the very few main characters that never got her own flashback episode. (Libby was another such unfortunate soul.) We never knew anything about her, and the fact that she hadn't been on the show that long made her death just a plot point rather than an emotional moment. Second, where the hell was Claire? Last season, she wandered off into the jungle to follow her dead father and left her baby on a rock. Sounds like something she would do. And she was in maybe one scene this season, just in a flashback. The producers have said they'll bring her back next season and explain what's been going on. Bullshit! They played the same game with Michael, who disappeared for season 3 and reappeared hastily in season 4 only to die a few episodes later. In that instance, his story was not worth the wait of a year, and I don't think Claire's story will be worth that wait either- they needed to explain it immediately, and they didn't. She's an important character and her absense is strongly felt. (Don't even get me started on Walt- the producers practically cut him out of the show after season 1, and he was one of the most interesting characters. Now the actor is too old to go back and film scenes from what happened to him while he was gone.) I like the new side of Sawyer- he did a lot of maturing this season and is a much better leader than Jack ever was- but I hate the Sawyer/Juliet romance. They are complete opposites, and barely interacted before this season. Totally contrived. Also, the one thing most audience members were waiting for never happened: the Sun/Jin reunion. Alas, after the finale, they are no closer to being reunited than they were at the beginning of the season. Even something that was given to the audience turned out to be a disappointment: we finally see Jacob but learn nothing about him, except that like Richard, he doesn't age and has seen the castaways at different points in their lives prior to the island. So, he's the leader and he sought them all out. Why? And why did they cast a young man with blonde hair to play him? He looks like he belongs on a biker gang, not the leader of this magical island. And then he's promptly killed off. How anti-climactic.
The finale was so muddled (and had so little action) that it really doesn't leave much for the final season. I'm a big fan of the show, but honestly, after that, do I really care what happens next? It seems obvious that Daniel was right- whatever happened, happened- and with the dropping of the H-bomb, they just caused the incident instead of preventing it. How did none of the characters see that coming? Most of the audience must have guessed it.
Still, with all its faults and audience-losing techniques, Lost is still great television. Witness: any scene with Hurley is bound to be the best scene in the episode. My personal favorite: when he is caught writing the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back with improvements. ("Face it, the Ewoks suck, dude.") Its continued use of the cliffhanger ending makes the show addicting, and when it does have an action sequence, it's worth the wait. This season focused more on sci-fi and mythology than it did on characters or action, but the show's strengths still shine through its murky weaknesses.
Season 6- the final season- starts in January. Be sure to tune in, or you'll be lost in the crowd.