Sunday, July 29, 2007

Blinded By the Light: While a Disappointment, “Sunshine” is Still a Dark Science Fiction Entry

It’s apparent that Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” succeeds much more splendidly if you’re mostly unaware of cinema’s long list of science fiction space entries. There’s “2001,” “Event Horizon,” “Alien” and many more from where that came from. “Sunshine” borrows heavily from all of those, but I think its purpose is that of homage rather than rip off. If you’re willing to look at “Sunshine” as if it could stand alone, it succeeds as a thrilling space saga that has some moments of wonder and moments of shock and lots of lots of bright light.

The movie Sunshine is kind of like the sun itself. You know it’s there and you know you really shouldn’t look and the longer you stare at it the more damaging it is. If you really look deep into this film, you’ll notice that there isn’t very much original material and you’re more likely to notice its flaws. The basic story revolves around a small space flight crew who has been sent on a mission of mercy. In the future the sun is dying and they must plant a bomb (Armageddon?) to “reignite” it otherwise all of life on earth would parish. The film focuses on the space crew characters rather than overly dramatic melodrama back on Earth. This particular mission is also the second mission to be sent out: the first mission failed in that they first crew was never heard from again. Perhaps a malevolent force is responsible?

The film stars a great cast of what I like to call “serious actors.” The film thankfully gives us serious people, not a bunch of idiotic oil drillers ala Armageddon. It’s easier to care about people who are taking their job seriously instead of silly goof-offs. These actors include Cillian Murphy who’s been a great talent since staring in Danny Boyle’s terrific apocalyptic zombie thriller “28 Days Later.” Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh is in charge of the spaceship’s greenhouse, which nurses all of their oxygen and edible plant life. Chris Evans (from Fantastic 4) gives a great performance as a fellow astronaut/scientist.

The film has three distinct acts, two of which succeed. We learn how these scientists live on the ship. We see how their ship holds a huge solar panel that blocks the sun’s powerful rays as they approach closer and closer to their goal. The effects here are very decent for a film that has a particular lower budget than average summer fare. With not nearly as half of the money as, say, “Transformers,” “Sunshine” packs some interesting visual punches. I really believed that these people were in space. Eventually they get a signal from the ship that was the first mission. Eventually going to investigate becomes an unwise move, as the film sets up its least effective act. While it provides some chills and overall dreadful atmosphere, it doesn’t really work because it has an overwhelming “been there done that” feel.

Frankly, the ends of most of Danny Boyle’s pictures are particularly disappointing. I have to admire him wanting to take a risk by going somewhere the audience doesn’t really expect but often times he gets a little silly. And the ending here is sort of a confusing mess that kind of kills everything we’ve seen before it.

Having said that there’s enough in Sunshine that I liked. Will some people find the material too weird? Sure. Will some people find it too much of a rehash? Of course. See “Sunshine” for yourself and make the call. GRADE: B

Friday, July 27, 2007

Yellow Tale: “The Simpsons Movie” is Definitely Worth Your D’oh

It only took eighteen years but the longest running animated sitcom family has finally leaped triumphantly to the multiplex for a subversive, hilarious time at the movies. Yes, we’re talking colorful 2-D animation with people of a yellow hue in the wonderful Simpsons Movie. I can remember some early memories of catching The Simpsons on Fox when I was a young thing. The Simpsons were all the rage and everyone had a T-shirt that said, “Don’t have a cow, man.” Flash forward 18 years and The Simpsons are still on although I’ve lost touch with them over the years. While I’m more a nostalgic Simpsons fan (only the first 10 seasons are really stupendous) everything you could ever want in a Simpsons full length feature is present here.

The Simpsons Movie trailer gave no real clues as to what the plot of the movie could be. There were so many random lines and scenes shown, that the plot just seemed incoherent. But now it’s completely in focus: basically Home screws up royally, the entire Springfield community wants him and his family dead, and he’s forced to take a long hard look at himself and find the courage to admit that he’s a true screw-up. Of course everyone’s favorite slacker father Homer J. Simpsons really means well, whether he’s ringing Bart by the neck or slacking off at his job at the power plant.

Those who are worried that the movie can’t be as good as it’s first few seasons on TV need not fear. The writers, who are numerous, have come up with really funny gags, lines and situations. Each family member gets his or her time to shine. And like the TV show, the beginning scenes which seem to have nothing to do with anything will set the story’s plot in motion. Green Day performs for Springfield to raise awareness that their lake is the most polluted in the country. The townsfolk respond by throwing garbage at the band. Eventually the town is banned from polluting the lake until Homer decides to dump a silo full of his new pet pig’s droppings into it. This leads the EPA to quarantine the entire town. Meanwhile, little activist Lisa Simpson finds an Irish boyfriend. Bart begins to feel more loved by the Ned Flanders. And Marge is upset that Homer could be so ignorant and dimwitted to cause such a catastrophe.

So the Simpsons are on the run from the angry Springfield mob, while we the audience are on an odyssey of laughs, laughs and even more laughs. There is so much fun stuff here I can’t even describe it all. The film’s humor is a little dirtier since it’s not restrained by TV censors; which leads to the film’s biggest surprise laugh when Bart is “revealed” to the audience. Homer gives the finger and Marge curses, but it all fits along with their characters. There are sight gags galore like Home poking himself in the eye with a hammer and witty dialogue such as little Ralph Wiggum proclaiming “I like men now” after witnessing Bart’s full monty.

If you were a Simpsons fan or are still a Simpsons fan there is so much here to enjoy. And if you’ve never watched the show then there’s no better time to start. Every character is here blown up to live sized proportion with beautiful traditional animation. Like a perfectly frosted donut, “The Simpsons Movie” is a real treat. Mmm donut. GRADE: A-

Thursday, July 26, 2007

King of Queens: “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” Ain’t a Gay Old Time

Two straight men get married to reap the legal benefits. I do believe this was a good idea. I really. really do. It’s just that somewhere from log line to finished film something just went wrong. Terribly wrong. I’d buy this situation as a sitcom. But to call the film “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” a sitcom stretched to feature length would be an insult to television comedy. Kevin James is a funny guy. Adam Sandler used to be a funny guy. One of the writers wrote some Golden Girls episodes and two others wrote “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Jurassic Park III.” Well there ya have it folks.

Dennis Dugan is one of the most consistent directors in Hollywood. He makes piece of crap after piece of crap and yet he still finds work. He’s responsible for some of the worst comedies. But you know what? I find some of them actually funny. He started with Problem Child, hit it big with Happy Gilmore, reunited with Sandler in Big Daddy, and made the guilty pleasure baseball flick The Benchwarmers. But what he has made with “Chuck & Larry” is simply a bad movie. I’ll be honest I laughed a few times and I really did want to like it. It’s pretty bad, but still watchable.

The biggest insult is a movie that pours out crude humor only to give in to sentimentality at the end. I’m not buyin’ that crap. Either be mean-spirited and rude or be sappy and corny. Never never never mix the two together. You’ll end up looking like an idiot director who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow. And that’s what we get with “Chuck & Larry.” Sandler and Kevin James portray Brooklyn fireman. Sandler is an annoying lady’s man and James is a single father of two (his flamboyant son is a running gag in the movie). James finds out that if he were to get killed in the line of duty his children would be left to fend for themselves or something like that. But, according to plot point 1, if he were to enter into a domestic partnership with a man his “spouse” would be able to inherit all his money or something like that. Why this obvious straight man would consider faking a marriage with a man and not a woman is beyond me. And why Sandler as an annoying homophobe would go along with it is also still beyond me. And there you have the movie, in which these two guys must pretend to be married, while still making gay jokes and eventually becoming the butt of other peoples’ gay jokes.

I wouldn’t really say the film makes fun of gay stereotypes as much as it makes fun of how straight men perceive gay stereotypes. Obviously all gay men have sex 24/7, get excited to find lube at the grocery store and listen to Cher and watch “Brokeback Mountain” all the time. The only thing really insulting is how put together this movie is. The movie just kind of limps along with scenes that seemed to be thrown together at the last minute. The movie was obviously written as a list of jokes, which in turn were written into scenes, which in turn were put together to create a “movie.” And you just know a movie is in trouble when the best part about it is actress Jessica Biel who is decedent as a gay friendly lawyer who Sandler has the hots for.

And of course the movie tries to shove a sappy message down our throats about tolerance, accepting who you are, and letting people live their lives the way they want. All the while they want us to laugh at the stereotypes being flashed across the screen. This movie works like a vegetarian slaughterhouse film with Burger King product placement. It just seems wrong. I still do believe this could have been a good movie. I really, really do. The film isn’t a total loss: it has a pretty decent soundtrack. Well at least that’s something! GRADE: C-

Friday, July 20, 2007

Wide & Prejudice: “Hairspray” is a Big Fat Fun Musical Comedy

The movie musical “Hairspray” is probably the tamest John Waters has ever been. And that’s most likely because he didn’t write or direct this version. Instead, this fantastically enjoyable film is based on his cult flick from 1988 starring a pudgy Ricki Lake who dreams of fame in the form of dancing on a local dance show in Baltimore circa 1962. This upbeat musical is also based on the equally upbeat Broadway show that won numerous Tony Awards back in 2002. With original songs from composer Marc Shaiman, this version of “Hairspray” is every bit as enjoyable as live theatre and it’ll have you taping your toes ‘til Tuesday.

Everything that director Adam Shankman could have squeezed into frame is utterly enjoyable from start to finish. I liked the colors, the spirit, the costumes and the set. The film takes place in good old 1960s Baltimore. After singing about rats in the street and the local flasher (John Waters in a perfect cameo) Tracey Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) hitches a ride to school on a garbage truck. She and her friend Penny (the comical Amanda Bynes) watch The Corny Collins Show everyday after school. It’s an American Bandstand-type local dance show that stars the local hunk of their dreams Link Larkin (Zac Efron of the bafflingly popular “High School Musical”). Of course, it’s only the local white teens who get to shimmy and shake everyday on the show, except for once a week during “Negro Day” in which the Black community gets its share of grooving. Mean lady manager Velma Von Tussle (a magnificently wicked Michelle Pfeiffer) rules the roost and insists that integrations shall never occur. After all, these are (gasp) colored people! And did I mention John Travolta plays Tracy’s mother. Her big fat geek mother.

The film has a high camp value without ever really going overboard (this isn’t “Rocky Horror” after all). Newcomer Nikki Blonsky as teenage dreamer Tracey was, at first, little too perky for my taste, but she is a great talent and she definitely carries the movie with its cheery beat and important message about tolerance, the importance of change and being proud of who you are. It carries a message, but doesn’t really cram it down our throats. If we can be singing along and taping our toes and receive a little social commentary, what’s wrong with that?

The movie is so extremely lively that it feels as if you’re watching the play. You really don’t feel very disconnected from the story as you do in other movie musical adaptations like “Rent” or “The Producers.” “Rent” was too serious to be fun and “The Producers” was too silly to be taken seriously. “Hairspray” seems just right. And even if you don’t know the music going in, you’ll be singing the songs on your way out. Travolta does a good job of making us believe he’s a woman. While the make-up job isn’t exactly flawless, he has the acting chops and enough good dialogue (thank you screenwriter Leslie “Mrs. Doubtfire” Dixon) to let us forget that there’s a man behind the mask. On the other hand, Travolta in drag seems kind of gimmicky so I wouldn’t recommend seeing this movie just because he’s in a fat suit. We’ve all seen “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Toosie.” This isn’t the king of drag queen movies by any means, but it has solid energy and a fun beat that will have you smiling even after the credits roll.

I actually found myself believing that Edna and Tracy are mother and daughter dancing and shimming to Marc “Everyone has AIDS” Shaiman’s catchy and funny tunes. The supporting cast is also terrific. Pfeiffer is great as the racist TV manager. I love her in evil roles (“I’m Catwoman hear me roar!”) and here she really gets to shine. It’s fun to be able to hate her. James Marsden has a surprisingly good turn as the host of The Corny Collins Show. I’m actually a big fan of Amanda Bynes, and I’m probably the only one who finds her film “She’s the Man” utterly entertaining. She has good comic timing and makes a good friend to Tracy. And let’s not forget Christopher Walken as Edna’s faithful husband. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Walken and Travolta in a fat suit dancing together. Queen Latifah belts out some great tunes, as does Elijah Kelley as Penny’s forbidden love interest (thanks to conservative mommy Allison Janney, as indispensable as ever).

The movie plays up the ‘60s iconography greatly, not only with period costumes and the hairdos, but the political climate as well. We’re talking segregation! Like seriously, there’s a rope separating the Black dancers from the white dancers. Come on! They act as if the Black dancers are Al-Qaeda or something. Frankly the Black students have better moves than their Caucasian counterparts. It’s like “Pleasantville” with racism! “Hairspray” is just fun fun fun. It kind of has the quirky vibe of the 80s musical “Little Shop of Horrors” without the macabre humor. It was amusing and the songs are upbeat, catchy and tuneful (and witty for that matter). I can’t wait for “Serial Mom: The Musical.” GRADE: A-

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Aye Robot: “Transformers” is a Blast, But it Won’t Transform Contempt for Michael Bay

There are several things you should expect in a Michael Bay film, lots of cuts, slick cinematography, lots of military personnel and complete disregard for public property. I mean seriously how many buildings has this guy destroyed in his entire filmography? Michael Bay is a visionary director no doubt and he has his own “style” but he’s constantly ripping himself off. I mean how many of the shots in his latest film “Transformers” were exact replicas from his earlier films? I’m surprised he didn’t just use the same footage from “Pearl Harbor” and erase Ben Affleck. One thing that this film didn’t have which I loved was the absence of uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. If anyone is guilty of over-producing it’s that guy. Oh God that guy irks me. Unfortunately we get so many trademark Michael Bay-isms it’s enough to give you a headache from the constant combat and shaky cameras. But, yes, Michael Bay certainly knows how to make an entertaining popcorn movie, if not a particularly memorable one.

The plot here is pretty simple even if you’ve never seen the show. The Transformers are alien robots who can shape shift into metallic objects from anything to automobiles to cd players. There are the good ones (Autobots) and the bad ones (Deceptacons) and they’re both after some kind of cube that is supposedly so powerful that it the Deceptacons want to use it to take over the universe. But to us, it’s just the McGuffin and we don’t really care. We just want to see these robots transform before our eyes and kick each others’ asses.

We can directly compare this film with the 2005 blockbuster “War of the Worlds” and 1998’s “Independence Day.” All are similar in concept and execution, but these two films have something that Michael Bay never does: completely memorable moments. Spielberg’s films, for instance, always certain scenes that stick out: such as the first tripod attack, the ferry attack and the basement attack (in “Worlds”). It’s been a few days since I saw “Transformers” and I can’t really pick out a completely memorable action sequence. That’s because it’s all just action, nothing too special, although he’s completely competent as a director, but what’s exciting to him, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s exciting to me or the rest of the audience. And who could forget the White House or Empire State Buildings blowing up in “Independence Day” no one who saw that film has since forgotten those scenes.

Having said that “Transformers” really is a fun movie and it does have memorable aspects such as rising star Shia LeBeouf, who is as charming as ever. Seriously, there is no stopping this kid. They kid is so charming that he instantly raises it to another level. I mean you could have all the computer effects in the world and it wouldn’t come close to creating the lasting appeal that this actor makes. He imports his charming “Disturbia” teenage angst character and lets him out of the house finally. He adds some humanity to the robotic proceedings and it’s easy for the audience to identify with him. Of course it wouldn’t be a Michael Bay movie without lovey dovey romance stuff, but thankfully that’s mostly a sidenote here. We get Lindsay Lohan look-a-like Megan Fox to fill in. This midriff revealing auto mechanic whiz could give Mona Lisa Vito a run for her money.

The only major flaw is that the film takes a little while to get fully going, (including annoying cross cutting between Shia’s storyline and that of military men surviving an attack in the Middle East) once the good robots are all introduced, there is lots of chatty fun banter between the robots that is just simply wonderful. The film is written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, who were responsible for “The Island,” which I enjoyed even though it completely bombed (bad marketing if you ask me). They have given the robots equally corny and funny lines of dialogue and even have them attempting to hide in the backyard from Shia’s parents. They find having to hide out annoying and one of them comically suggests that he “take them [the parents] out.” But not only does it take a while to get going, Michael Bay also doesn’t really know when to quit. That last action sequence goes on pretty much forever.

If Michael Bay’s point was to make a fun live action cartoon, then he has succeeded with “Transformers.” Of course I’ve never seen the original cartoon from the 80s (I know shame on me) so I can’t really compare them, but I think he has successfully transformed this 80s icon into the 21st century with style, wit and entertaining action (lots of action). GRADE: B+

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Cook, the Chef, a Rat and His Brother: Pixar and Disney Concoct a Savory Delicacy called “Ratatouille”

Geez, Paris is certainly having the best summer ever. “Paris, je t'aime” was an ode to the powers of love in Paris. Michael Moore's "Sicko" painted a portrait of the healthcare industry by exploring how France’s national healthcare is superior to the USA’s. And now we have a sweet animated film about a rat with a taste for great food set in Paris, France. Yes, you read that correctly. This movie is about a rat who loves gourmet food so much he dreams of being a great chef. This is a premise only Pixar could pull off with such delight and enthusiasm that while watching it, nothing else in the world will seem to matter. It’s a truly delicious treat.

Pixar has first taken the cardinal rule of CGI animation and tossed it out like a bad piece of cheese: making non-stop, clever pop-culture references. This film relies on intelligent writing and good storytelling instead of useless wisecracks. Also, instead of setting this film in 2007, they set it anytime. This is a movie that can be viewed 50 years from now and it’ll still be just as timeless. We get a real story with real characters that are extremely lovable. This is in the vein of the early Disney classics. It’s the first Pixar film that feels like it was meant to stand the test of time.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) the rat is a cute little rodent who lives somewhere in France with his entire rat infested colony. He argues with his brother who insists that eating garbage is a nice way of living. Not only is the animation of these rats amazing but they’re also just wonderful characters that you want to take home with you. We open the film learning about Remy’s wanting to explore outside the colony; he dreams of being more than just a rat scrounging for garbage to eat. Then he’s suddenly separated from his family and he winds up in Paris which is the home of his favorite (deceased) chef’s restaurant: Gusteau's. There he ends up meeting the goofy and lonely Linguini (a human, voiced by Lou Romano) who has just been hired as the new garbage boy. This is a top tier restaurant and we get our evil villain sous-chef, Skinner (Ian Holm) who is supposed to be next in line after Gusteau’s death. But it turns out that Linguini may have an even closer connection to Gusteau.

Then we get scenes in which Remy is able to help Linguini become a great chef in the kitchen much to the other kitchen workers’ jealousy including Colette (voiced wonderfully by Janeane Garofalo). The scenes in which this young man and rat form a quick bond are priceless and charming. Their banter is witty and Remy's ablity to conrtol Linguing under his chef's hat (by pulling on his hair) is so witty it's beyond believable. The animation here is simply stunning and it never takes away from the fun storyline. The simulated camera movements are technically proficient and create a sense of fluidity that’s nearly indescribable. The voice work is top-notch and having a few no-names with the stars definitely works in its favor.

I was never a really big fan of “The Incredibles,” but it was a good film. Writer/director Brad Bird is obviously a tremendous talent in that he obviously had a vision that ended up being a cinematic masterpiece. He manages to make the basic premise of “rats in a kitchen” into a hard-warming, intellectual film that pushes computer animation the farthest it’s ever gone. There are no gimmicks; no need to release the film in 3D. This is true American filmmaking that just so happens to tell a story set in Paris. And there aren’t too many chefs in the kitchen like on most animated films; Bird is the solo credited writer.

Another aspect worth mentioning was the way they were able to turn a food critic (voiced menacingly by Peter O’Toole) into a full fledged character with obvious jabs at critics in general who get pleasure in writing negative reviews (it is fun after all). There is pleasure in watching someone else crash and burn and I enjoyed this little poke at criticism in general. (Much more than Lady and the Water’s horrific attempt at criticizing critics last summer)

This is a movie that kids will love; there’s plenty of fun mischief and colorful characters. And adults will love it even more. Even if you don’t like rodents or cooking much, you will find lots to enjoy. I like whipping up food in the kitchen and I’ve never found rats to be particularly creepy so I was overwhelmed with joy after watching “Ratatouille.” This is almost guaranteed to win at next year’s Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature, unless “The Simpsons Movie” ends up being the next “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Speaking of which there are so many nods here to other classic Disney animation. We get a hero who longs to be somewhere else (The Little Mermaid). Someone who pretends to be something he’s not (Aladdin). A non sappy portrait of family values (The Lion King). And not to mention cute talking critters (take your pick). And let’s not forget that Remy suffers from Disney’s single-parent syndrome. See, this is destined to be a classic. Do yourself a favor and savor the sweet taste of Disney and Pixar’s latest gem. GRADE: A