Monday, December 28, 2009

Nice and Naughties: The Top 10 Films of the Decade

Everyone seems to be doing it. Why can’t I? Let’s face it, lists are fun and they get people talking. It was pretty difficult for me to actually narrow this down to my favorite films of the first ten years of the 2000s. There were some really great films this decade (Into the Wild, yes!) and there were some pretty awful ones (Lady in the Waker, eck!) So without further ado I present my favorite films of the decade.

1-Erin Brockovich (2000)

“Bite my ass, Krispy Kreme!” – Erin Brockovich
No other movie moved me this decade than this brilliant true story of a woman on a mission. A single woman who just wants to provide for her children and yet she stumbles on a horrible environmental cover-up. This woman is Erin Brockovich and it’s a role that the always lovable Julia Roberts was born to play and won a deserving Academy Award. This film is filled to the brim with hilarious dialogue and a moving story of the little man verses the huge corporation. It’s the David vs. Goliath story for the 21st century and is my favorite movie of the decade.

2-Into the Wild (2007)
“If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.” – ‘Alexander Supertramp’
I had written back in 2007 that no other film that year had affected me the way that Into the Wild had. And it’s still true. I can’t really describe what was going through my mind when I finished watching this film for the first time. The story of Christopher McCandless’ transformation in the wandering “Alexander Supertramp” in an attempt to reject society’s silly rules and live amongst Mother Nature was such a brilliant piece of filmmaking from Sean Penn who treated Chris’ story as tragic and yet sympathetic and yet he’s not always the most likable character. Into the Wild is one of the most worthwhile cinematic experiences of my life.

3-Garden State (2004)
“Here comes the lipstick.” – Sam
I never saw Garden State in the theater. When it was released on DVD I took a chance and just bought it. I loved it so much I instantly watched it again. Somehow this movie spoke to me the same way it spoke to a lot of other people my age. It’s sort of this generation’s “The Graduate” as it tells the story of a young guy who doesn’t really know what do to with the rest of his life. As a failing actor living in California Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is a modern age Ben Braddock who is trying to find a way to fit into the world when he has to return home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Braff who also serves as writer and director displays quite a skill for sharp dialogue and a relatable story which involves a romance with Natalie Portman in one of the actress’ best performances.

4-Minority Report (2003)
“I'm sorry, John, but you're going to have to run again.” – Agatha
Steven Spielberg’s brilliant sci-fi crime story is about a futuristic society that has solved a way to prevent murder. Three “precogs” can see murders before they occur and Chief John Anderton leads a team of officers assigned to capture the criminals before they the strike. The system is “perfect” so to speak, until the system turns on Anderton himself. Tom Cruise gives a great performance as a man on the run and determined to clear his name. Spielberg is in top form (when isn’t he?) and delivers the goods. The effects, the music , the cinematography all conspire to form one of the best and most exciting genre films of the decade.

5-(500) Days of Summer (2009)
“Darling, I don't know how to tell you this, but... there's a Chinese family in our bathroom.” – Tom Hansen
I first saw (500) Days of Summer this past August and since then I’ve probably seen it like eight times. It’s my favorite film of this year and deservedly belongs on the list of the best of the decade. This is the cynical love story of our time. It’s this generation’s “Annie Hall.” Director Marc Webb employs super cool cinematic techniques to tell the not quite meant to be romance between Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). These two actors have never been better. You fall in love with this movie quicker than Tom falls in love with Summer. It’s funny, it’s sad and it’s a got a quirky soundtrack. Why are you reading this? Go watch this movie now!

6-Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2002)
“Silly Caucasian girl likes to play with Samurai swords.” – O-Ren Ishii
I have no explanation for why I like this movie so much. It doesn’t seem like a film that I should like. Samurai fights? Oh please it’s not my thing, but somehow Quentin Tarantino makes it all digestible. There’s lots of fighting and blood in this movie and it’s completely engrossing. While I enjoy vol. 2, this first chapter remains my favorite Tarantino film simply because it’s his most fast paced. His visual style is completely fascinating (love that tracking shot in the House of Blue Leaves) and he gets some terrific performances from his game cast led by the wonderful Uma Thurman in the role of a lifetime as a member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad hell bent on revenge after her team leaves her for dead.

7-In the Bedroom (2001)
“Do you wanna know why our son is dead? Do you really wanna know?” – Matt Fowler
In the Bedroom becomes more and more fascinating as it moves along. You never know where exactly the story is going which is pretty amazing considering there are not many characters. This was Todd Field’s directorial debut. You might remember his appearance in movies like Twister and Eyes Wide Shut and he makes a remarkable directing debut. I love actors who direct because they know how to direct actors. This is an engrossing character study about a family whose tragedy makes them completely unravel and the lengths they go through to overcome their grief. Top notch performances from the always reliable Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei highlight this must see film that was rightly nominated for five Academy Awards.

8-The Diving Bell & the Butterfly (2007)
“Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.” - Jean-Dominique Bauby
I remember seeing the trailers for The Diving Bell & the Butterfly and thinking it looked like some regular artsy foreign film. Yes it is an artsy foreign film, but it is so much more. It is a symphony or sights and sound that all culminate in one of the most emotionally satisfying and moving films of the decade. This is the true story of a man who was paralyzed due to a stroke which leaves him only the ability to blink his left eye. He had to learn how to communicate by blinking his eye. He couldn’t move or talk and yet he was able to write a memoir of his tragic experience. It’s a vastly depressing situation that is made beautifully moving from artist Julian Schnabel’s powerful and utterly original direction and Janusz Kaminksi’s brilliant and haunting cinematography. This is a stunning film you won’t soon forget.

9-Finding Nemo (2003)
“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” – Dory
Finding Nemo is still my all time favorite Pixar film, and maybe that’s just a little predictable since it seems to be a lot of people’s favorite, but I can’t hide my love for this outrageously funny deep sea adventure. Dory (voiced wonderfully by Ellen DeGeneres) the ditzy blue tang with short term memory loss is simply one of the funniest and most lovable animated characters in movie history. How believable is it that a clownfish would be able to find his lost son who was taken from the ocean and placed in a dentist’s fish tank which happens to be filled with a colorful array of silly fish characters? Not really, except that somehow it all works and that breathtaking underwater animation creates an ocean of striking colors that are gourmet food for the eyes. This is a wonderful piece of filmmaking that just happens to be about cartoon fish.

10-Mulholland Dr. (2001)
“It'll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.” – Betty Elms
Okay, I’m going to be honest. I have no clue what the heck is going on in this movie. And yet it’s profound and entertaining. Not a second of Mulholland Dr. is ever boring. I mean I get the general gist of what’s going on in David Lynch’s labyrinthine dream-like ode to the dark and crazy world known as Hollywood. Naomi Watts gives one of her best performances as a wide-eyed actress wannabe who movies to LA to pursue acting, but instead gets caught up in a whirlwind of crime and mistaken identities. There’s a moral to the story somewhere in here and while the film seems to not make sense you get the feeling that Lynch knows exactly what he’s doing and you’re sitting there watching an artist at work. This noir thriller is one of the most compelling and strange movies ever to come out of Hollywood.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Roman Numeral: New Musical “Nine” is By the Numbers

I don’t know anything about the Fellini film “8 1/2” except that it’s Italian, a “classic” and about filmmaking. I knew even less about the new musical version “Nine” which is based on the Broadway stage show which is in turn based on Fellini’s movie. Having said all that I was really looking forward to Rob Marshall’s musical extravaganza. That cast! Those sets! All that buzz! But when it all is said and done, “Nine” isn’t really that good. The songs are decent and the actors do well in their roles, but other than that I can only recommend the film to die hard “Nine” fans, (are there really that many of them? Why was this show even adapted to film?) and it's possible that even they will be disappointed.

The film stars old reliable Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido Contini (don’t worry he’s not from the Jersey Shore) a film director who is about to start work on a new film. Of course things aren’t so easy. He struggles to find inspiration but he just may find it from the many women in his life. There are only seven of them, not nine. We get Marion Cotillard as Guido’s wife. He’s cheating on her with Penelope Cruz. Nicole Kidman is the famous actress who’ll be starring in his film. Judi Dench is the costume designer. Kate Hudson is a Vogue writer. Fergie plays a prostitute. And screen siren Sophia Loren is his mother. The film takes place in 1960s Rome and it features some beautiful location photography.

The songs in “Nine” are pretty decent, but it seems to take a while to get to them. I assumed the film would begin with a fun, flashy music number but alas it does not. And it’s nearly 10 minutes in, before we get a so so song. All of the actors sing well, but Fergie’s “Be Italian” sequence is probably the stand out. Kate Hudson is pretty decent with her song “Cinema Italiano” which was written specifically for the movie. There’s nothing particularly “wrong” with the music but they lack the sense of fun of the songs in “Chicago.” That was a movie I knew nothing about going in as well and yet I was singing the songs after the movie ended.

And now, if you’ll let me, I’m going to bring out the “serious critic” in me. I think the fundamental problem with “Nine” lies within the nature of the musical numbers themselves and I have to sort of blame director Rob Marshall. He uses his “fantasy technique” which he employed so brilliantly in “Chicago.” In “Chicago” (and by the way it’s still one of if not the best movie musicals of the decade) Roxie Hart dreams of being a star. And therefore it makes sense that the musical numbers are all in her head. It’s a great way to ease the audience into the musical sequences since it really isn’t just characters breaking out into song. Marshall uses the same technique in “Nine” and yet it just doesn’t work. It just feels sloppy, repetitive and unoriginal. And it’s wholly unneeded. It feels like a flashy way to have cool editing and doesn’t serve the story.

I really can’t recommend “Nine” even though it’ll surely pick up an undeserving Best Picture nomination next month. I still don’t think this ten Best Picture thing is really the best idea. I just feel like this is a missed opportunity. It could have been a fantastic film that skewered the film industry and yet it really doesn’t have much to say. If you’re a fan of either stage version you’ll probably enjoy it. Or if you’re a fan of beautiful Italian locales be my guest. But out of all the movies with the number 9 in its title this year (“9,” “District 9”) this is definitely the one to avoid. GRADE: C-

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"The Road" Less Traveled: The Long Delayed Flick Should Have Stayed Delayed

“The Road” is the antithesis of recent end of the world dramas like “2012.” Now this is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because “The Road” is not about how the world ends or why, but what comes after and the desolate and depressing future that lies ahead. But at the same time, is anyone really surprised by what the world will be like after some unknown cataclysmic event happens? There is not society, no morals, no order. It’s dark, bleak and chaotic. And much like the movie “The Road” I’m sure it would be pretty boring at times.

This is my main conflict with “The Road” it paints an interesting idea of a unnamed man and son trying to live life in a wasteland of a world (which almost reminded me of “The Land Before Time” at parts) filled with people without morals or any sense of decency (aka cannibals), but watching two people just walk along a bleak landscape isn’t quite the rousing motion picture I was expecting. It’s sad because there are some terrific set ups for what could have been amazingly suspenseful sequences, and yet they fizzle rather quickly and before you know it there’s more walking.

The always reliable Viggo Mortensen gives a great performance as “man” who is trying to provide a livable life for his young son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). We get to see flashbacks (this structure sort of reminded me of “Lost” actually) of his life with his wife played by Charlize Theron. Theron’s character is seen all too briefly but I hear this is actually an expanded up role as compared to Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Man and son spend most of their time trying to get to the coast in hopes that there might be some sort of salvation. But they mostly try to find food and make haphazard forms of temporary shelter from the dying world.

I think however the most interesting characters in the film are actually the cannibals. I actually wish writer Joe Penhall gave them more screen time. Man and boy even come across a bunch of locked up, starved people in the basement of a rundown house. They have inadvertently entered the home of some cannibals. This should have been an exciting sequence, but alas man and boy get away with nary a scratch. I know this is sad, but true: I felt cheated that we didn’t actually get to see any actual cannibalism on screen. I mean I realize this isn’t a slasher movie, but I mean come on! These despicable human beings who live on other humans actually make more fascinating characters than the moralistic man and boy. The story definitely should have been from the cannibals perspective.

And another thing. I’m not sure I liked director John Hillcoat’s vision of this gloomy future. Just because this film takes place in a grungy, dirty, grey, ash-covers-the-sky world, doesn’t mean the cinematography has to be so “ugly.” A similar type movie like “Children of Men” takes place in a similar dystopian type future and yet its camera work is completely stellar. There was nothing particularly amazing about the camera in “The Road.” I felt a little disappointed by the visual aspect of the film.

I can really only recommend “The Road” for Viggo’s assured performance, but he’s really great in anything so that’s really only a mild praise. It seems like “The Road” wasn’t really sure what it wanted to be. It felt like it could have top notch intense sequences between the moral people and the immoral people, but everything sort of fell flat. There are some strong themes here (isolation, morality, etc) but we’ve seen them before. I can’t shake the feeling that the movie seems like an art house version of “I Am Legend” with cannibals taking the place of the “infected.” Some consider McCarthy’s “The Road” to be one of the best novels written this decade, and while I haven’t read it, maybe it just works better as words. Nothing on screen is as powerful as I’d have liked it to be. "The Road" isn't really a bad movie, it's just disappointing. GRADE: C


Friday, December 18, 2009

The Return of the King: James Cameron Achieves a Titanic Achievement with “Avatar”

“Avatar” is not “Smurfs in Space” as some naysayers would like to call it. It’s actually a very well orchestrated fantasy epic (with lots of flying and some magic) that James Cameron fans have been waiting for. Sure people will spot references to other movies including like “Pocahontas,” “Ferngully,” “The Matrix” and “Dances with Wolves” but “Avatar” blows those movies out of the water. Cameron manages to juggle top notch performances, wildly imaginative settings, relatable characters, and realist computer generated imagery into one big action adventure that is a grand achievement. Those who hate to see it happen will be shocked when it racks up a bunch of Academy Award nominations next month.

Finally we have a film that uses state of the motion capture technology that actually feels and looks like real people. The story takes place in the future on the distant planet Pandora (or is it a moon?) where a tribe of 10 foot tall, people-like aliens live in the forest like a long lost Native American tribe. These humanoids are called the Na’vi. Humans see them as the bad guys simply because they’re thought of as “savages.” The humans want to harvest the land since Earth is dying out and its up to a paraplegic marine to infiltrate the group and find out all he can about them.

The Na’vi are shown as CGI images courtsy of the booming motion capture technology that have been used in films ranging from “The Polar Express” to the “King Kong” remake. Real actors act out scenes with lots of dots all over their bodies and then super computer wizards turn their recorded performances into realist CGI creations. In the film, Pandora is home to a toxic gas so humans have invented a way to use “avatars” to live in this world. Na’vi DNA is mixed with human DNA to clone human/Na’vi hybrid bodies. And then the human can link up to the “avatar” body and live as if the avatar were their body. It’s actually a pretty neat concept Cameron has come up with.

Australian born Sam Worthington, who was last seen in this summer’s Terminator Salvation, plays Jake Sully a crippled marine who is brought to Pandora after his brother dies. He’s there to help a group of scientists learn more about the Na’vi people lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (a wonderful Sigourney Weaver). She sort becomes Jakes mentor has he first becomes used to his avatar body. He’s soon separately from his team and saved by a female member of the Na’vi tribe named Neytiri (Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana). Neytiri introduces Jake to her people including her leader father and mother. He soons learns all about the Na’vi and how they are a kind and peaceful race and not the savages that evil corporate leader Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) insists they are. I was actually surprised at how much I connected with the Neytiri character and I think much of it had to do with Zoe’s wonderful performance (while the Na’vi are CGI images the motion capture is simply astonishingly realistic).

For once I actually feel like I want to praise a film that uses more CGI than is probably necessary, but James Cameron uses it wonderfully throughout the entire film. He creates beautiful and vast landscapes and Pandora is a lush, green environment in which the Na’vi people are indebted to. Their “Tree of Souls" is practically their life force. Sure Cameron makes obvious environmental messages but those are important messages in a time when we need them most. I also enjoyed the emotional weight that was brought to the film by way of Cameron’s script. You still there for 160 minutes and becomes so emotionally invested I’d be surprised if you don’t get emotional at least once throughout the film. I mean this guy made “Titanic” after all. And every stunning image that Cameron comes up with matches beautifully with James Horner's majestic score.

For all the bells and whistles (and lots and lots of money) that “Avatar” contains I really do believe it’s a moving and exhilarating film worth seeing. The 3D is pretty cool and yet I’m sure it will play just as well on regular 2D screens because the visuals alone are beautiful whatever dimension they’re in. James Cameron simply has done it again and I wouldn’t be surprised if he still insisted on referring to himself as King of the World. GRADE: A-

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thank You for Croaking: Disney Returns Gloriously to Form with “The Princess and the Frog”

Has it really been ten years since the last really great Disney (non-Pixar) animated film was released? Sure there have been some mild successes like “Lilo & Stitch” and “The Emperor’s New Groove” but the last classic was definitely 1999’s “Tarzan.” Yet even then it seemed like Disney just wasn’t quite on the creative kick it once was during its heyday of “Beauty & the Beast” and “The Lion King” or my personal favorite “The Little Mermaid.” Those who love these films will most likely squeal like a child for “The Princess and the Frog” a wonderful Broadway-style animated musical featuring jazzy Randy Newman songs and beautiful hand drawn 2D animation.

Loosley based on "The Frog Prince," this story takes place in 1920s New Orleans where we’re introduced to a poor Black waitress named Tiana (voiced beautifully by Anika Noni Rose). Like any Disney heroine she has a dream. Her dream is to open a fancy restaurant featuring her late father’s scrumptious gumbo recipe. Even her mother, who’s voiced by Oprah, can’t even give her the money to help fulfill her dream. Neither can her insatiable, yet lovable childhood friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) who acts like a princess but is not one. Luckily the dashing Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is in town looking for someone to marry. It turns out his rich parents have cut him off and he’s actually looking for a rich princess. He’s turned into a frog by the local bad guy/trademark Disney Villain Dr. Facilier’s (Keith David) voodoo spell and he needs to kiss a princess to turn back into human form. In a traditional mistaken identity story point Naveen thinks Tiana is a princess during a costume ball and entices her to kiss him. It doesn’t turn him human, but turns her into a frog. Then the two frogs start a wonderful “Wizard of Oz” type adventure featuring fantastic musical numbers to find Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who may be the only one who can help them.

“The Princess and the Frog” feels like all the great elements of traditional Disney films all thrown in for good measure and yet it still feels wholly original. Since most of the film is set in New Orleans’ French Quarter and the swampy bayous the score by Randy Newman is appropriately jazzy. I’ve never really thought of Randy Newman as a very original composer (all of his scores pretty much sound the same) but the actual songs he’s written for the film are all fun, catchy and entertaining. Even directors Ron Clements and John Musker who previously collaborated on movies like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” seem to find a comfort in what has come before and yet manage to make this story fun and timeless (and a surprisingly beautiful ode to The Big Easy). There are the standard fairy tale elements like wishing upon a star and Disney’s “single parent syndrome” but it all works and feels appropriately magical. And let’s not forget the funny sidekick characters who we get here as Louis the trumpeting alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) and Ray the love struck firefly (Jim Cummings) who is probably the most endearing sidekick Disney character since Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid.” And no great Disney movie would be a success without an appropriately entertaining and evil villain. Dr. Facilier and his Tim Burton-inspired “Shadow Man” are equally creepy and mesmerizing.

Hopefully “The Princess and the Frog” will be this generation’s “The Little Mermaid.” I don’t mean to compare them (I definitely don’t think it’s better, but it could definitely sit along side it) but it’s my fervent hope that this film will generate enough audience interest to think fondly of the old school style of feature animation that was so popular in the 90s. I’d like to think the recent live action/animation homage “Enchanted,” staring a wide-eyed Amy Adams, helped boost an interest in these types of films. These are movies that can be so universally loved whether you’re a child or an adult, male or female and a revival of classic animation is extremely well deserved and warranted. Can’t traditional animation co-exist with its CGI brethren? Only time will tell. GRADE: A-


Friday, December 04, 2009

Fired Up: “Up in the Air” is So Good It’s on an Entirely Different Plane

Get it? Up in the Air is so good it’s on an entirely different plane. Cause it’s about a guy who basically spends his entire year traveling on airplanes. And a plane is also defined as a “level surface.” You’re still with me right? So I’m getting a little off subject and I don’t really know why. I could start off this review and tell you to rush out now to see “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s wonderful follow up to his big hit “Juno” but I’m not going to. I’m not going to overly gush about this movie because I want you to see it with as little expectations as possible. Everything about this movie is really good. The acting is good, the story is good, the writing is good, the directing is good. It’s not earth shattering and it probably won’t change your life, but that’s entirely ok.

“Up in the Air” tells the story of Ryan Bingham (a George Clooney-type played by George Clooney) who works for a company who other companies hire to fire their employees. He’s a downsizer. He travels mostly by airplane and spends most of his life up in the air, in fancy hotels or classy airport lounges. He likes it this way. He’s not close with his two sisters, one of whom is about to be married. He has no real home. He does have a home, but spends less than a month there a year. He has a goal: to achieve 10 million in-flight miles. If he accomplishes it he’d be only the seventh person to do so. Its an elite club to be a member of, but what exactly is the cost?

Remember I said Ryan fires people. He, a complete stranger, will sit down one on one with an employee look them directly in the eye and tell him or her that their position has been eliminated and that they will no longer be working for their company. No one wants to get fired and the look of devastation on these peoples’ faces is mind numbingly depressing. Ryan is the hero of this story even though he’s technically one of the least likeable type of people. He’s chatty and easy going. His life is structured. He has routines. He knows what he’s doing and he’s good at it. He’s confident. That is until his company decides to change its plans and eliminate its employees from flying around the country and firing people in person. They’ve decided to cut costs and fire people over a webcam. Tough break for a guy who has no real home and is trying to get 10 million frequent flyer miles.

“Up in the Air," based on the novel by Walter Kirn, is written (and co-written by Sheldon Turner) and directed by Jason Reitman, who all showed his budding talent with “Thank You for Smoking” and then completely broke out into the mainstream with one of the best films of 2007: “Juno.” He even did an almost incredible feat: he was nominated for Best Director for directing a comedy. This guy is freaking talented. The film is hitting at the perfect time which makes it so relevant for the world we live in. If you hadn’t noticed, our economy is weak and people are losing their jobs left and right. Reitman dares us to sympathize with a character who is easily pretty dislikable. And then he introduces us to Natalie (a wonderful Anna Kendrick) who is a recent college grad who is in charge of transitioning Ryan and his co-workers in their new form of communication. She joins Ryan on the road to see the complete ins and outs of what he does best. She learns a lot along the way and she just might not be as cut out for the job as she thought. In fact, her character is probably the most identifiable. She’s completely confident at the beginning. Just look at the way she presents herself in her look and wardrobe. Watch her completely unravel as the film progresses. Reitman also introduces us to Alex (Vera Farmiga), a busy business woman who Ryan meets several times throughout his travels. They have romantic liaisons but Ryan doesn’t quite know her as well as he thinks he does.

“Up in the Air” is a classy, contemporary all around great film (and it’s funny too!) that features terrific performances, a top notch screenplay and assured and confident direction from Reitman. It’s sure to be a significant film when it comes to this year’s Oscar race. It really feels like one of the first films I’ve seen this year that feels like it can stand among the Oscar’s elite group of best picture contenders (although my heart still lies with the wonderful ‘500 Days of Summer’). Whether it gets nominated or not “Up in the Air” is highly recommended. GRADE: A

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fox Tale: Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is Quirky, Stylish and Fun

I wasn’t thrilled about “Fantastic Mr. Fox" when I first saw the trailer and sort of shrugged it off. Wes Anderson is an auteur, yes, but I’m not so sure I really get him. His film “The Royal Tenenbaums” is excellent, but it took a few viewings for me to really feel that way. I will say that I wouldn’t necessarily think that Mr. Anderson and a stop motion animated kid’s movie would work, but it strangely does. It’s definitely more for grown ups (although it’s certainly child-appropriate). I’m sure if I was ten pretty much everything would be over my head and I’d be bored to death. But as an adult I found “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to be pretty fantastic indeed.

If you’re at all curious about Fantastic Mr. Fox but you’re not quite sure if you’re game answer these two questions: are you a Wes Anderson fan? And are you a fan of all types of animation? If you answered yes to either of those questions then you’re bound to love this movie. I’m not even really sure if I’d answer yes to the second question, but there is something fun and eccentric enough about “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that makes it worth while. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, the film stars George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox, who is sly, cunning and charming. He used to make a living stealing farmers’ chickens but his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) insists that he pick a less dangerous career now that they have a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).

Of course you can’t keep a good fox down and he insists on infiltrating three farmers’ farms. He enlists his friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and Badger (Billy Murray) to help him. Meanwhile Mr. Fox’s nephew comes to stay with the family while his father is sick. Ash, a pretty socially awkward and strange young fox, clashes instantly with his more outgoing and athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). Ash and Kristofferson’s awkward and sometimes hilarious exchanges were probably my favorite aspect of the film. Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with “The Squid & the Whale” helmer Noah Baumbach, certainly knows family tension well (hello, what do you think The Royal Tenenbaums was about?) and makes them wonderfully entertaining supporting characters.

The animation is bizarre yet beautiful. I can’t help but say that the film’s look isn’t quite as polished as one might assume an animated film released in 2009 would look. There is no obviously computer trickery here. This looks like it could have easily been made right after the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer holiday special. That is the nostalgic look Anderson goes for and I think that’s pretty cool. What the film lacks in slickness it makes up for in utter fascinating detail (love those cotton ball-as-smoke explosions). I’d like to see this make the short list for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars and I believe it has a good shot.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” proves that even auteurs who are known for making quirky films for adults can make equally quirky films for children. This applies to Spike Jonze as well who made the even better “Where the Wild Things Are.” I’m not so sure I would necessarily recommend “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to all the families out there with little children, but those who enjoy film and the unusual movies that come out of some of the strangest minds working in Hollywood today would be doing themselves a favor by checking out “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” GRADE: B

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Twilight Zone: Things Get Hairy (and Lamer) in “New Moon”

I was genuinely surprised by last year’s unexpected vampire hit “Twilight.” It was corny and cheesy but just entertaining enough to pass as an amusing time waster. Obviously since the fans are more rabid than a skunk in the daytime the next chapter was inevitable and it comes in the form of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” which focuses on Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) frustrations after her vampire lover Edward (Robert Pattinson) leaves town and her budding friendship with a childhood friend/slab of tween beefcake known as Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). It turns out (spoiler) Jacob is a werewolf and his arch nemesis is obviously the vampire. Luckily they have a peace treaty. So this brings up an interesting love triangle. Or at least, it should be interesting. It isn’t.

I realize I’m not quite Twilight’s target audience, but as someone who found the first movie entertaining, I was pretty disappointed by this installment. There were ups and downs, but not enough good moments to smooth over the many speed bumps along the way. Of course I’m an optimistic person, so let’s start with the positives. Lautner, who has been drawing so much attention because of his literal transformation into a real life iron man, is actually pretty charming in the role of Jacob. He didn’t get much to do in the first film except be introduced and he gets to do much more here. Of course there is such thing as too much of a good thing. By focusing too much on Jacob we loose screen time with other characters. I was fascinated by the Cullen “family,” a clan of vampires who have formed a tight nit group who don’t drink the blood of humans. They’re hardly anywhere to be found because they leave the rainy town of Forks, Washington to start a new life somewhere else. I realize this movie’s focus is supposed to be Bella’s friendship with Jacob, but as nice a kid as Jacob is, his storyline with Bella is boring and dull. Unless you’re a squealing 12 year old girl, you’ll probably be checking your watch several times.

Actually now that I think of it, the film definitely has much more downsides. I never really understood Jacob’s relationship with his “tribe members” who also turn into lame CGI werewolves. If this chapter is supposed to be all about them it fails to really take you into this world of werewolves the way the first film took you into the world of vampires. You don’t learn much about them. I’m sure the book is more descriptive, but there are actually some people out there like me who haven’t read these books. I mostly blame screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg who focuses way too much on Bella’s angst and not on other characters. We get it, Edward is the man of her dreams, she feels like she can die without him, I got that right away, move on already. Also, "Twilight" ended strangely with the red headed vampire Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre) poised to get vengeance and this film doesn’t quite know how to fit her in. Lame attempt.

It turns out that when Bella is in dangerous situations she can see Edward. So she spends most of the film driving motorcycles and jumping off cliffs. Jacob keeps saving her and she hardly even thanks him, because he’s no Edward of course. It turns out a slight miscommunication leads to Edward thinking Bella is dead and so he goes to the Volturi which is a group of vampire leaders in Italy. Here we get Michael Sheen and even Dakota Fanning hamming it up as pale bloodsuckers. Edward wants to reveal himself as a vampire and therefore wants to sacrifice himself to the Volturi. Or something like that. There is some interesting stuff here but by this point I’ve pretty much stopped caring.

I’m not so sure having a new director helped or hurt the film, but Chris Weitz is competent enough and adds some interesting flourishes. He makes time fly by in a pretty cool shot in which Bella stares out the window while the camera tracks around her in what seems to be an unbroken take. I thought maybe a male director would make the film not as “mushy” and “corny” but Mr. Weitz is just as cheesy as Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke. Something so fascinating to me is the objectification of the male body which seems odd coming from a male director who’s married to a woman and even has a child. Obviously he didn’t have complete creative control.

I think one of the biggest problems with New Moon (and Twilight actually) is how the film seems to be filled with sexuality and yet there’s never any sex; there’s hardly any kissing. The whole movie is an annoying tease really. I realize its Mormon origins and the fact that chastity is such a dominate theme (heck Bella even uses Virgin Airlines to travel to Italy) and I realize that the target audience is young impressionable girls. But how can you flaunt these good looking guys and gals on screen and do absolutely nothing with them? It just seems like a waste (Speaking of a waste, Anna Kendrick, who is so good in the upcoming ‘Up in the Air’ is so much better here as Bella’s girlfriend than anyone else in the film, I think she should get her own spin-off). In conclusion, fans will definitely be satisfied and all others will most likely be bored. GRADE: The movie itself: C-, the movie with screaming little girls C+ Overall Grade: C

PS – Having seen the film on opening night, the experience of ‘New Moon’ was hands down more entertaining than actually watching the film, therefore I have altered my grade accordingly.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It’s a Hard Knock Life: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is the Must See Movie of the Oscar Season

Finally this year we have a hyped movie that is worth all of the hype. “Precious Based on the Novel ‘Push’ Sapphire” (yes that’s the actual title) is a film that was made for little money and was not made to just win awards. This little indie darling which wowed audiences earlier this year at Sundance with what seemed liked a guaranteed Oscar nomination for comedian Mo’Nique has officially been given full on Award Season buzz. If this little movie doesn’t get nominated for Best Picture I would be surprised and I would be offended. This is a little film that deserves to be seen and if its Oscar buzz is one reason for people to see it then so be it. Of course “presenters” Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey help as well.

“Precious” is the story of Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidibe, more on her later) an overweight Black teenager living in Harlem in 1987. She’s sixteen and she can barely read, heck she can hardly speak. She’s pregnant with her second child after being raped by her own dad both times. She lives with her abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique) in the type of sad little apartment one usually sees in Harlem. Basically her life sucks. Of course this is a movie presented by Oprah so we know things can only get better for Precious, who is a character we identify with and sympathize with not only because we feel bad for her but because of Sidibe’s terrific and natural performance and Lee Daniel’s brilliant direction.

Going in to “Precious” I was prepared for a tiny, gritty little drama with shaky camerawork and raw performances. That’s sort of correct, but the way the film is made really just blew my mind. Daniel’s directorial flourishes are just absolutely amazing. We’re given an inside glimpse into Precious’ fantasy world which makes sense since her real life is a living hell and because she’s such an introverted person she can only escape by going inside herself. Daniels works this out with interesting cinematic trickery like in one scene in which Precious looks in the mirror and imagines herself as a pretty white girl. Or what about her fantasy of marrying her math teacher and living together in Westchester. And then there is Precious imagining life with her nasty mother as a black and white Italian drama complete with subtitles. When Precious escapes to her fantasy world we’re given lots of bold colors and bright lights; it certainly is a welcome contrast to her painful and dark home life.

Precious is given the opportunity to go to a special needs school where she can get the education that she deserves. Here she meets other teenage girls who have troubled lives as well. She can finally be among friends and not people who push her around or make her life feel worthless. We’re introduced to Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), Precious’ new caring teacher who is a large source of warmth for her. These scenes offer a glimpse of hope that Precious isn’t going to slip through the cracks but rather make her life even just a little bit better.

Remember I mentioned that Precious lives with her abusive mother? Well I don’t think abusive is even strong enough a word. While Mary can easily be seen as just the bad guy, writer Geoffrey Fletcher and Daniels do an interesting thing. They let the audience go the entire film convincing us that she’s just an evil villain. And then at the end of the film we’re given a glimpse into why Mary is the way she is. Does it make her more sympathetic? Not quite, but it makes her human and that’s ok. Because to think of her as just a villain is wrong, she’s a fully developed character that is unlikable yes, but provides such interesting stark drama throughout the film that you become simply glued to the screen. Mo’Nique is terrific in this difficult and controversial role because there’s a fine line between acting and overacting maybe some will see it as promoting racial stereotypes. But I have to say stereotype or not, there are a lot of bad mothers out there. Some are black and some are white, but the color isn’t important. (This film doesnt stereotype any more than The Godfather stereotypes Italian people or Slumdog Millionaire stereotypes Indian people). When you see her carrying her Down Syndrome grandchild as if she were just a bag of potatoes it’s heartbreaking, disturbing, infuriating. There’s a lot of emotions right there. I think Mo’Nique just hits all the right notes. As does Sidibe, who as a newcomer shows such amazing promise. She makes Precious come alive with her introverted and indelible performance. Heck even pop stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz are good here in small but effect roles.

“Precious” is just a wonderful film all around. There are some disturbing elements which may turn off some people, but the outcome is worth it. You can call it this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire” if you want. It’s a small, culturally aware movie with entertaining mass appeal. It’s not just a movie you watch, it’s a movie you experience. GRADE: A

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Armageddon Adventure: “2012” is the Disaster Movie to End All Disaster Movies

You have to remember that “2012” is a supercharged total destruction disaster movie. The dialogue is not going to be very good. The acting will be adequate. The plot will have holes. The characters won’t be too memorable. And you probably will have to slap your head a few times. There’s nothing in “2012” that says, wow this is one of the best movies ever made, so having said that I was surprised at how actually fun, intense and spectacular everything in “2012” really was. Of course it borrows heavily from almost every other disaster and action movie you’ve seen before. Think “Armageddon” meets “The Poseidon Adventure” times “Earthquake” and “Independence Day” plus “The Day After Tomorrow” add a dash of “Titanic” and “Twister” etc and you can pretty much guess what’s in store for you. However, I want to say that in terms of the spectacle you witness on screen, “2012” certainly blows them all out of the water. Of course there’s not a tornado or alien in sight, but I’ll let it slide just this once.

By now you’ve probably seen the trailer that shows John Cusack driving a limo with his family in the back while a wave of annihilation occurs just behind them. That two minute clip (it is much longer in the movie, but you get the idea) pretty much sums up what you’re in for in “2012.” It’s the money shot scene in a film full of money shot scenes. They should have just called the flick “Money Shot: The Movie!” I’m sure you’ve also heard by now that supposedly in 2012 the world is going to end. The Mayans predicted a long time ago before any of us were around and there are still some people who believe it. Roland Emmerich perhaps? So the film asks the question, what if it were true? What if the world were coming to an end? We’ve been asked this question a lot, mostly in the movies I named above. Of course this movie doesn’t cheat the way movie like Armageddon did. Come on, how many of us just wanted to see that asteroid the size of Texas hit earth and end all humanity, which would have included all Michael Bay movies? “2012” does wimp out and goes for total obliteration.

I guess I feel obligated to talk about more than just the destruction (plot? What plot?) you’ll see if you plan on going to see this 2.5 hour film, that surprisingly didn’t feel that long. Who is it that we get to watch as the earth crumbles behind them? We get John Cusack who plays Jackson Curtis a writer who works as a limo driver to a rotund Russian billionaire and is bratty twin sons. Jackon is divorced from Kate (Amanda Peet) who is remarried to Gordon (Tom McCarthy). Jackson and Kate share two children: Noah and Lilly. Meanwhile, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a scientist who is predicting the world will be coming to an end. He works for President Wilson (Danny Glover) and he just might fall in love with First Daughter Laura (Thandie Newton). Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) fulfills the plot’s necessary “villain” role aka evil government guy and Woody Harrelson is the wacky conspiracy theorist who lives in the woods who correctly predicts when the world’s gonna end.

I don’t really feel like I have to get into much more than what I’ve already said. If you enjoy these types of movies you’ll most likely enjoy this one too. I wasn’t necessarily too surprised at what happened (surprise! the dog lives!), but it was a pretty intense ride. This is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen. So empty your wallets already and remember even if you don’t end up liking it, it won’t be the end of the world. Bonus points for ‘America Idol’ runner up Adam Lambert’s rousing end credits anthem. GRADE: B


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Disarm and a Leg: Jeremy Renner Learns to Love the Bomb in “The Hurt Locker”

“The Hurt Locker’s” official defines its title as this: In Iraq, it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions as sending you to “the hurt locker.” Whatever that means. I guess I didn’t get a lot of what was going on in “The Hurt Locker” the season’s critically acclaimed and potential Oscar contender. The film is gritty and does make you feel like you are a part of the bomb squad in Bagdad, but other than that I’m not so sure I enjoyed myself. Maybe you’re not supposed to enjoy yourself. I’m not sure anyone should enjoy being at war. Of course that is until we’re introduced to Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) who seems to be obsessed with Iraq War active duty. He’s a bomb disarming expert and gets off on dismantling bombs.

While I overall, didn’t quite love “The Hurt Locker” I’m going to emphasis its positive qualities. The movie is undoubtedly well directed. First of all, you’d never imagine a woman was behind the camera, but low and behold Kathryn Bigelow can make “guy movies” just as well as guys. With all those explosions you’d think Michael Bay was around somewhere, but luckily he is not. I don’t want to seem too impressed just because a female could direct such a gritty, shaky war action film but rather that woman would direct such a film. While there are female directors out there, they seem too preoccupied with chick flicks or romances and other sappy stuff, here there’s none of that. In fact besides Kate from “Lost” there’s nary a female character in sight. Hopefully Bigelow will join her male comrades in the Best Director category next year.

The acting in “The Hurt Locker” also ranks high up there. It’s possible Jeremy Renner could see his name on Oscar ballots come March. His character is pretty interesting in that he really only knows how to operate in stressful situations. Once his tour of duty is over he ends up going back to Iraq because diffusing bombs is all he really knows how to do. His relationship with a young Iraqi boy is pretty touching and it adds some emotional weight to a film that is mostly shootings and explosions. Although I'm not quite sure I get a later plot development that involves whether the boy has been killed or not.

And that’s where the film just leaves me feeling a little hollow. The film does a great job of making you feel like you’re there (mostly thanks to DP Barry Ackroyd who also made you feel like you were aboard a highjacked airplane in “United 93”). But plot wise, I’m not so sure I cared very much about what was going on. Don get me wrong, some of the bomb disarming sequences were pretty tense, but other than those scenes I can’t really say I was all that involved. And scripter Mark Boal literally introduces us to characters and then kills them off before you get a chance to remember their name. If you blink you might miss Ralph Fiennes or Guy Pearce. Oops spoiler alert!

I’m not saying “The Hurt Locker” is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, it just wasn’t my thing. In fact, watching it I sort of had the same reaction to last year’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” Afterwards, I was simply unmoved. Of course I’ve grown to like that film a lot more and I’m sure in time I will appreciate “The Hurt Locker.” Just not today. GRADE: C+


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Forest Hump: Beautiful and Disturbing, “Antichrist” is Not For All Tastes

The opening sequence of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” is shot in beautiful, stark black and white. It’s shot in slow motion. There is no dialogue and we only hear a piece from Handel’s ‘Rinaldo.’ A man and woman are having graphic intercourse. If you’re not sure they’re actually doing it maybe the close up of penetration will ease your mind. Meanwhile the couple’s young son crawls out of his crib and falls from an opened window to his death, just as mommy is having the orgasm to end all orgasms. Distraught over their guilt, the couple retreat to a lonely cabin in the woods where they proceed to mount each other to help heal their grief. The woman is outright loony and man, a psychologist of sorts, is trying to help her. In the meantime they have strange occurrences with falling acorns, talking animals, and graphic genital mutilation. I’ll pretty much see any type of movie which includes weird art house flicks that feature graphic sexual violence. Hopefully that doesn’t say anything too negative about me. I’ll just call it open-minded.

I haven’t seen any of Dutch director Las von Trier’s other movies, but I do know that he was one of the pioneers in the Dogme 95 film movement in the early 1990s. so you know right away that when you see one of his films you’re not exactly going to get a broad Hollywood treatment. “Antichrist” is being described mostly as an art house “torture porn” horror movie that is sort of true since it contains overtly graphic shots that seem to be there just to cause shock. I want to call this a horror film mostly because I believe von Trier is trying to frighten the viewer with stark and potent images, which he does pretty well. Supposedly a few people fainted during screenings at the Cannes Film Festival. I didn’t faint during the movie, but I will say that if you’re not expecting graphic images, you’re in for either a treat or complete and utter repugnance.

It seems the general consensus is that the film is all about “man” and “woman.” The film only has two actors Willem Dafoe credited as He and Charlotte Gainsbourg credited as She. After the beautifully and purposely shot opening sequence which is known as the “prologue,” the couple retreat to Eden a summer cabin in the middle of the woods. She is rattled with guilt, understandably since she saw her son walking around while she was in ecstasy. He wants to “cure” her guilt and depression instead of working through it like normal people do. Meanwhile strange things start happening and by the end of the movie She will drill a hole through His leg and a lock on a dead weight and she will do something very painful to herself. Oh and did I mention the talking animals.

This is movie is weird with a capital W, but it’s also strangely fascinating. It’s a movie you can’t simply take your eyes off of even when the graphic violence (this flick is unrated if you were curious) is almost painful to watch. Ok it really isn’t mostly because I’m completely desensitized to cinema violence. I still don’t get how someone could faint watching this, but I digress. I don’t really “get” what von Trier is trying to say, but there are many many interpretations floating around the web. Most complain that the film is misogynistic which is a completely valid argument. While Gainsbourg’s character is just a tad irrational, (and the ridiculousness that her husband is trying to “cure” her grief) her performance is extremely heart wrenching, not to mention physically and emotionally demanding.

I have to give credit to von Trier for making a complete bizarre film that is simply too interesting to ignore. I may not really get it, but I enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s really a movie you should enjoy, but I also liked “Funny Games” so there. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea (apparently so because there were only the two of us in the entire theater). If “Antichrist” is playing on one of the nineteen screens near you, and you have the courage to check it out, please do. But if you faint, don’t say I didn’t warn you. GRADE: B

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Curious Case of Button, Button: Director Richard Kelly Continues to Think Outside “The Box”

If you go and see "The Box" make sure you’re prepared to see the weirdest movie you’re likely to see. (Of course, if you go see "Antichrist" then it’ll probably be the second weirdest movie you’re likely to see). Director Richard Kelly who continues to make offbeat (read: strange) sci-fi-type movies. I wasn’t so much a fan of his cult classic "Donnie Darko" but a lot of people are. I didn’t’ have the pleasure (fortunately? Unfortunately?) of seeing his "Southland Tales" so I can’t very well comment on that flick. And that brings us to "The Box" a strange mix of mystery thriller and science fiction. Some of it works some of it doesn’t. And believe me, if you don’t really know what you’re getting into, you might as well walk out of the theater before you walk in. Wait, huh?

"The Box" is really loosely based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson. That story, while very short, presents the reader with a fascinating moral dilemma. A strange man offers a married couple an interesting opportunity. He gives them a button. If they push the button two things will happen. They will receive $50,000 and someone they don’t know will die. The wife and husband are in financial woes. The husband doesn’t want to do it and the wife does. Eventually the woman pushes the button only to find out that her husband was just killed in a car accident. After she gets $50,000 from her husband’s life insurance policy the man who delivered the button insists that the woman never truly knew her husband.

Richard Matheson does deliver a more interesting moral story in just a few pages, but Kelly does manage to create a film that is simply fascinating from start to finish. The film begins normally as we’re introduced to Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden). The film takes place in 1976 and Kelly gets the time period perfectly (love that retro wallpaper). They’re awoken early in the morning by a knock at the door. A box is at their doorstep. Inside is a button. Later in the day a strange man named Mr. Steward with a nasty facial disfigurement comes to the door and explains the button to Norma. Like the original source if Norma pushes the button she’ll receive a million dollars and someone who she doesn’t know will die. Since the film differs greatly from the story, I will tell you that Arthur does not die (of course that assumes that she pushes the button).

Most people will find the first half the film to be enjoyable. Kelly gives the film a terrific look. There’s a glow to most scenes which I found beautiful. The performances are realistic and the button situation is utterly fascinating. I found a particular characterization pretty interesting. Norma is missing several toes on one of her feet from a freak accident when she was younger. Arthur works for NASA and is working on a special prosthesis to prevent her from limping. But in true Richard Kelly fashion he introduces us to utter weirdness before he even attempts to let us know what’s going on. The physical disfigurements reminded me of David Cronenberg. And the strange things that happen to the main characters is right out of a David Lynch movie. If you admire either of those two filmmakers you’re bound to find something to enjoy in the box.

Overall I enjoyed watching "The Box." Of course what starts out as an interesting yet simple story turns sort of convoluted and preposterous (I’m sure Kelly himself doesn’t quite understand what’s going on). However, I never found the movie to be boring. I enjoyed the weirdness. I enjoyed the performances. And I really enjoyed the Bernard Herrmann inspired score by members of the band Arcade Fire and musician Owen Pallett. If you’re not used to seeing "weird" movies that present you with strange characters and an even stranger mystery, then you should step outside of the box and see this bizarre flick. GRADE: B


Thursday, November 05, 2009

Monster Bash: Spike Jonze Captures the Innocence of Childhood in “Where the Wild Things Are”

“Where the Wild Things Are” is director Spike Jonze’s first film since he made the brilliant Adaptation. back in 2002 and only his third overall feature. Few film directors have established such a wonderful cinematic style in such few films. Jonze makes a family appropriate film made for adults about a lonely yet wild boy who wanders off to a place where he imagines he’s the ruler of land of hairy beasts. The beasts don’t eat him but rather the king of land. This isn’t the first time this year we’ve gotten a family-friendly story about a young child with a strong imagination. You can make comparisons to the stop-motion flick “Coraline” which itself was a sort of reworking of an Alice in Wonderland type story. It featured a lot of imagination but little emotional payoff. “Where the Wild Things Are” delivers both in spades.

One thing we can notice about “Where the Wild Things Are” right off the bat is how it’s told pretty much exclusively from a child’s point of view. The shakey camera is more than to invoke possible nausea from those who are prone to that sort of thing, but rather to reflect the rambunctious personality of our main character Max (wonderfully played by Max Records who for some reason seems like he could be Ellen Page’s younger brother). We open with him in his wolf costume roughhousing with his dog. Look at how Jonze never really places his camera much higher than Max. We get lots of low angles. We’re always looking up. And see how all the adult characters are credited as Mom (Catherine Keener) and the Boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) and the Teacher (Steve Mouzakis).

Max is a lonely little boy who feels left out especially when his sister’s friends crush the snow fort he spent so much time building. In one of his animalistic tantrums he bites his mother and runs off where he gets into a boat and sails off to find adventure. He soon comes across a group of monsters the “wild things” of the title whom he befriends. The group is made up of a few very distinct personalities. We get Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Douglas (Chris Cooper), Alexander (Paul Dano), The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.) and KW (Lauren Ambrose). It’s actually pretty fascinating how well cast these voice actors are. They nail their characters perfectly. The beasts look to be the traditional “guy in a suit” style with a fascinating combo of animatronics and CGI. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop did an awesome job as always.

It’s interesting how Max stumbles upon these creatures and we, like him, don’t quite know what their deal is. Are they mean? Are they nice? Where do they come from? We quickly learn they’re mostly friendly although a few of them had expressed interest in eating little Max. Having read the children’s book way back in second grade, I was pretty sure that wasn’t happening. There seems to be some tension amongst the group mostly between Carol and KW. We get to learn their story and even Max learns that everyone has problems whether you’re human or a wild animal living in the woods. Yeah we get a “message” that has a lot to do with family but Jonze (who co-wrote with Away We Go scribe Dave Eggers) doesn’t force any sappy message down our throats. And a lot of time the creatures expressive faces tell us all we need to know.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a beautiful film and made me yearn to be a child again. It achieves an intimacy yet it feels large than life. It’s punctuated with wonderful songs provided by Karen Orzolek and composer Carter Burwell’s great score which accompany the film’s gorgeous photography. It’s got Jonze’s trademark weirdness and those adults who enjoyed “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” are sure to get something out of Spike’s third go round. GRADE: B+

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Make Room for Daddy: “The Stepfather” Remake is a Competent Enough Thriller

“The Stepfather” is not a very original movie. Of course it doesn’t help that it’s based on a little-seen 1987 thriller of the same name about a murderous man (played superbly by Lost’s Terry O’Quinn) who seeks out widows and divorcees and is willing to kill in order to form the “perfect family” (The movie was based on mass murderer John List who killed his entire family and fled and wasn't caught until eighteen years later). The first film was a product of it’s time. The Regan Era was in full swing. Things were more conservative and there was this ideal family life that many people strived for. And here came this little suspense flick about a guy who goes around killing his own family when they don’t live up to his perfect standards of living. Times have changed a lot in twenty two years and while divorce rates are at an all time high and the idea of “marriage” is being questioned everyday, I’m not sure this new “Stepfather” has much to say. But it is a fun little movie that is breezy, easily digestible and fun.

We’re introduced to a bearded man who appears to be changing his physical appearance in front of the bathroom mirror. He takes a shower, puts on a suit goes down stairs and makes himself some breakfast and walks out the front door with his luggage. Oh and there is a murdered woman and children laying on the floor. This guy, now known as David Harris (Dylan Walsh from TV’s “Nip/Tuck”) makes a move on divorcee Susan Harding (Sela Ward). Susan has three kids and has had a rocky divorce. Six months later she’s in love with David and they’re engaged to be married. Susan’s oldest and troublemaker son Michael (Penn Badgley from TV’s “Gossip Girl’) who has returned from his stint at a military school is a little suspicious of his mom’s new love interest. Of course David seems like the ideal father. He loves his wife and her kids and can’t wait to be a truly close family. Except for the fact that his a murdering psychopath.

Most of the film’s suspense comes from David’s attempts to make sure no one finds out his real identity. Everyone seems suspicious including a noisy cat lady neighbor, Susan’s ex-husband and even her own sister, whom David works for at her real estate business. When he refuses to give her his personal information for payroll, he up and quits because he says that the job’s not suited to him. The crazy cat lady tries to warn Susan because she thinks he looks like a guy she saw on America’s Most Wanted. Let’s just say she ends up at the bottom of her basement steps.

Anyone who’s iffy about seeing this movie because of its PG-13 rating should be told that while the film doesn’t really feature much graphic violence (and neither did the original R-rated film, save for a few bloody moments) it does have some brutal moments that are surely inappropriate for 13 year olds. I still think that it seems crazy to rate any movie that features a serial murder PG-13, but I realize the dreaded R rating vastly limits the film’s audience. I wouldn’t call this a “watered down” version of the original the way the recent and dreadful “Prom Night” was. That film was directed by Nelson McCormick who also helmed this new film. McCormick makes writer J.S. Cardone’s script work for the most part, but it’s riddled with things you’ve seen before and characters do things because the script says they should and not because someone would do them in real life.

Like the original “stepfather” the film’s main draw is in its lead performance. I enjoyed seeing Walsh breakout from his role as Sean McNamara on Nip/Tuck. He plays nice really well and he plays psychotic really well. It was a fun Jekyll and Hyde-type performance that was probably better than a film like this really deserves. He was charming when he needed to be and creepy when he needed to be. Good job.

There are much better films than “The Stepfather” and yet there are much worse films. I think this falls somewhere in the middle. Anyone who’s seen the first film (which was finally released for the first time on DVD on October 19th) should check that out watch this new one if they’re intrigued. If you want to be really scared at the movies you should see “Paranormal Activity” but if you want something lighter but still fun, do daddy proud and see “The Stepfather.” GRADE: B


Friday, October 16, 2009

In the Bedroom: If You Don’t Want to Be Scared Don’t See “Paranormal Activity”

“Paranormal Activity” is a hyped movie that is actually worth being hyped. I’m going to be honest and say that I seriously had trouble sleeping the night after seeing this movie. Every time I woke up during the night it was difficult to fall back to sleep. There are so many stark and disturbing images in “Paranormal Activity” they’re most likely going to stay with you for days. I’m sure by now you’ve seen all the ads for this movie which have been touting that you should DEMAND IT to be shown in your local multiplex. It’s a cheaply (it cost $11,000) yet expertly made horror flick with an unusual marketing strategy. Paramount who bought the distribution rights said if the film’s website reached one million demands it would release the film nationwide. It was a marketing ploy that was unique, pretentious and dare I say ingenious.

“Paranormal Activity” is really scary. It’s being compared mostly to “the Blair Witch Project” because it’s shot by the actors with Hi-Def video cameras in a low budget, cinéma vérité style. You know what that means? Shaky cinematography that will most likely make those who puked during “Blair Witch” do the same here. Of course there have been plenty of films like it since the 1999 horror phenom ("Cloverfield," "Quarantine"), so we should all be used to this type of film by now. Also, this new film doesn’t tout the movie as being based on any true story and doesn’t dupe you into thinking it’s real. That was Blair Witch’s trick. There are no credits in “Paranormal Activity.” Not even end credits. It’s a bizarre move that works for this film.

So what the heck is this must see flick all about anyways? We’re introduced to a young couple. There’s Micah (Micha Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) who have been together for about three years and have just moved into a nice, modern-looking home. It’s not a creepy place at all. They’ve been noticing some strange disturbances in the house and therefore Micah makes the decision to buy a fancy camera to try to capture any paranormal activity. Like I said the film is the footage that is shot mostly by Micah and some instances Katie. It turns out Katie has had paranormal incidents happen to her throughout her life and that whatever it is roaming their house at night is after her. They invite a psychic over (Mark Fredrichs) who deals with ghosts but isn’t prepared for what he believes is a demonic presence in the home. Katie is scared and gets more scared as the film goes on. Micah, being the typical alpha male, feels the need to protect Katie. That’s all fine and dandy, but you certainly don’t want to piss off a demon.

The film builds and builds and builds. It piles dread on top of dread. It’s claustrophobic (the movie never leaves the house) and creepy. The film alternates between what I call the “daytime scenes” in which Micah and Katie discuss the goings on and we seem them interact as a couple in distress, and the “nighttime scenes” in which we see footage of Micah and Katie sleeping. Micah has set up a tripod and set his camera to record in night vision throughout the night. These are where the film really grabs a hold of you. Each evening something stranger and more disturbing happens, which I refuse to describe for you. Let’s just say things start to escalate tremendously as the film progresses. I believe this couple as real people. The acting is as good as a film like this requires. They seem like real people. They do things real people would do. They do smart things and they do really stupid things.

I said the film was made for about $11,000. There are no real special effects, which is surprising because the film does show much than “Blair Witch” project and yet it remains totally believable and realistic and that’s why the film is so powerful. According to imdb fourteen people worked on the film (not including the handful of actors who appear in the movie). The director Oren Peli also produced, wrote and edited the film. There is no music; the film’s scary sound design is the score. You will see images that will stay in your head for a while.

“Paranormal Activity” is a haunting film that is a guaranteed fright. I’d be lying if I said at least one part literally made me jump out of my seat. And I’m not talking about the hairy spider that makes a brief cameo. This is an innovative and smart film that deserves to be seen, if you dare. GRADE: A-


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Price is Right: Michael Moore’s At It Again with “Capitalism: A Love Story”

I’m going to get this out of the way right now. My knowledge of capitalism is limited to that when I go to Best Buy to buy movies that is capitalism. You see I was a Communications major in college and instead of being productive and taking, oh I don’t know, a useful class like Economy I was busy taking The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. Not that you can’t learn a lot from the movies. And that brings me to what this review is about. Everyone’s (and by everyone I mean liberals) favorite muckraker Michael Moore’s latest film is about how capitalism in our American society is evil and how it benefits the rich (ie corporations) and negatively affects the poor (ie Hurricane Katrina victims). Say what you want about Moore he makes entertaining movies.

Of course taking his side always makes his movies more entertaining. And since I’m mostly on his side. (I wouldn’t call myself a Michael Moore fanatic by any means, but I find the information in his films to be interesting and of importance, although I know that it’s not always 100% the truth). I enjoyed “Capitalism A Love Story” mostly because he uses lots of vintage film clips, memorable music scores and oodles of stock footage. The opening credits of the film show various bank robbers caught on security cameras. Its pretty cool that he can make a statement so quickly without saying a word. I gather that he’s going to proclaim capitalism as an evil thing that makes people resort to robbery as a means of minimalist survival. I think I’m right.

The usual Michael Moore antics are firmly in place. As the film progresses he shows how the corporations received so much bailout money to help the ailing economy and yet these people in high up positions used the money to give their executives bonuses. We’d like our money back please. Moore storms the various banks’ headquarters in New York City where he’s confronted by security guards (who are probably only making minimum wage anyways). Moore uses humor to make a lot of his points and that’s a good thing. Humor is something that makes us human and if we can laugh at a serious situation maybe more people would be willing to listen. I mean his last film, Sicko, which dealt with the health care crisis in this country was one of his funniest films and yet it had touching moments that brought tears to your eyes. The same thing here.

Moore interviews many people. There are people whose homes were pretty much stolen away from them by their banks because they couldn’t afford their mortgage payments. I am not a homeowner but I know that foreclosure is not a word you want to hear. He even talks about how major companies take out life insurance policies on its employees so that when they die, the company makes thousands or even millions of dollars. (Don’t believe me? Go to http://www.deadpeasants.biz/) That’s messed up if you ask me. Moore gives us the ins and outs of capitalism and how it has changed throughout US history. It seemed to be working just fine after World War II and he basically blames Ronald Regan for everything that has happened economically through today. At least he has confidence that our new president Barack Obama will help out and bring the necessary changes to our failing financial system.

“Capitalism: A Love Story” is a funny film and it’s a sad film. And I would call it an important film. I don’t care what side of the political fence you are on or whether you can for Michael Moore’s silly tricks. This guy is a filmmaker first and foremost and continues to makes some of the most interesting and entertaining documentaries out there. Love him or hate him Moore is never boring. “Capitalism” doesn’t come close to reaching the power and importance of his masterpiece “Bowling for Columbine” but it’s a relevant film that dares to ask the tough questions. Help stimulate the economy and see it. GRADE: B

Monday, October 05, 2009

Liar Liar: Ricky Gervais Can’t Handle the Truth in “The Invention of Lying”

“The Invention of Lying” is probably one of the more intelligent and socially aware comedies you’re likely to see this year. The film takes place in a world where no one has developed the ability to tell a lie. Everything anyone says is the truth. There is no modesty or flattery. People can’t even make up stories, which means that when you go to a movie in this world, you end up watching a lecture about some fragment of history. People are completely blunt in this world. If a woman thinks a man is ugly she tell him to his face. If a man thinks a woman is fat he’ll tell her to her face. Of course, for Mark Bellison (a Ricky Gervais-type character played by Ricky Gervais) this is not the ideal way to live and one day he figures out that if he says something that is not true, anyone will believe it.

The film opens up as Mark is meeting Anna (Jennifer Garner, who’s wonderful here) for a blind date. She’s frank with him and says it took her a while to open the front door because she was, uh, playing with herself. She also says that she’s not really into Mark and thinks he’s not attractive and that he’s fat. Later on at the dinner table she talks to her mother on the phone and says that she won’t be sleeping with Mark after dinner. She says she has no interest in him romantically because she needs an attractive man with good genes to have children with. Pretty blunt right?

The next day at work Mark’s secretary (Tina Fey) informs him that he’s going to get fired. Mark works for Lecture Films where he “writes movies” about historical events. Of course he gets the boring century of the 1300s where not much exciting happened. His jerk co-worker Brad played by a perfectly cast Rob Lowe frankly says how much Mark’s movies suck. And on top of it, it turns out Mark does get fired. And now he wont have money for rent, so his landlord says if he doesn’t give him $800 for rent, he’ll be thrown out.

Mark goes to the bank to withdraw all that he has left from his savings account, which is only $300. The teller informs him that their computers are down and that if he knows how much is in his account she’ll just give him the money. Somewhere in his brain synapses start firing and he blurts out $800. The computers come right back up and even though it says there’s only $300 in his account the teller takes his lie for the truth and hands over all the dough. Mark instantly sees this as the opportunity of a lifetime and even tests his new invention by telling a complete stranger on the street that if she doesn’t have sex with him right away the world is going to end.

“The Invention of Lying,” which was co-written and co-directed by Gervais and Matthew Robinson, is one of those high concept comedies that start off as silly and funny and actually end up being pretty profound and intelligent. And in fact they make a pretty bold statement in the film because in this world of the truth, there is no religion. When Mark’s mother is sick in the hospital, the nurses and doctors overhear him telling her that if she dies there’s a wonderful world waiting for her and the next day Mark becomes a Jesus-like figure where pretty much the entire human race wants to know what happens after you die. A scene, in which he reveals ten truths told to him by some guy in the sky, is played wonderfully. It’s something you just have to see.
“The Invention of Lying” is a smart comedy that is funny and pretty profound. It has a lot to say without ever sounding preachy and it has romantic elements without ever being cheesy and it has funny scenes without ever seeming desperate for a laugh. Gervais was tailor-made for this role and if you’re a big fan of his you’d be doing yourself a favor by seeing this film. And that’s the truth. GRADE: B+

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Brain Food: “Zombieland” is a Smart and Amusing Zombie Comedy

Let’s get the comparisons out of the way first. “Zombieland” can easily be written off as a dumbed-down, pop culture savvy reworking of England’s “Shaun of the Dead.” “Shaun of the Dead” worked so well because it was really able to find a great tone between horror and comedy and saw the comical potential when it came to zombies. “zombieland” while yes technically a comedy with zombies, is nothing like “Shaun of the Dead” in style or execution. It finds its own groove and it is clever and humorous and a complete joy to sit through (as joyous as a movie with gory zombie violence can be).

“Zombieland” takes place, I believe, in the present day world. A horrible virus has broken out which turns people into scary, ravaging beasts in search of human flesh. And like all zombie mythology, if you’re bitten you’ll become one as well. Most of the human population has died off and the world is pretty much a vast wasteland. There are abandoned vehicles and homes all over. Grocery stores are empty except for the random food items not claimed by survivors.

We’re introduced to Columbus (played by always reliably awkward Jesse Eisneberg) who’s a young college student from Ohio. He’s never really been too close with his family, but after the outbreak started he decided to travel back home to see whether his parents are zombie-free. So he’s on the road all by himself and he’s created a set of rules for surviving in Zombieland. One rule for instance, is cardio. You must be fit and quick as it’s the slow, obese people who were wiped out first. Another rules is to beware of bathrooms, because the zombies always seem to attack when you’re most vulnerable. He makes a new rule when he meets up with roughneck Tallahassee (a wonderful Woody Harrelson). He’s from Florida (If you haven’t figured out by now, the characters refer to themselves as the place where they’re from, pretty ingenious). Tallahassee, while reluctant to team up with this young geeky kid, teaches him how to enjoy the little things in life (ie: Twinkies).

These two guys soon meet up with a pair of equally tough sisters played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin. These girls are hard asses and though Tallahasse and Columbus for a loop when they con them into stealing their vehicle and weapons. The weapons consist of the likes of hedge clippers and pickaxes and baseball bats. Eventually this strange foursome bands together in the hopes of riding out the zombie epidemic and trying desperately to survive. Part of this plan includes holding up in a mansion owned by a celebrity of which I will not name (just go to imdb, you cheater). This sequence contains probably one of the best cameos of recent memory and not just because of who this person is, but how writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick handle it.

And this brings me to the fact that these two writers, who haven’t really done too much and first time feature director Ruben Fleischer have crafted a remarkable enjoyable and smart movie. This is a flick that finds just the right tone. It’s scary when it needs to be scary and funny when it needs to be funny. It even has some heart. Will the viriginal Columbus core with Emma Stone’s Wichita? You’ll have to see it to find out. And like all well-made comedies, it has its brain right where it should be. This is not a movie you have to turn your mind off to enjoy. Look at the way Fleischer incorporates Columbus survival rules into the film. It’s well done and hilarious.

“Zombieland” was an extremely pleasant surprise. It comes just at the perfect moment in time. In this day and age with the state of things politically and economically, it’s great to just get away. But it’s even better to escape into an “escapist” movie that isn’t just dumb. It’s smart and entertaining. Zombieland is a kick-ass ride. GRADE: A-