Friday, March 21, 2008

The Joy of Speck: “Horton Hears a Who!” is an Appealing Cartoon That Feels Fresh and New

While I didn’t really want to see this film I knew that I should, and wouldn’t you know I thought it was quite good. Jim Carrey voices Horton an elephant of some size, he does a great job he should get a prize. Steve Carell is the Mayer of Whoville a land full of Whos, they are all exciting people who won’t make you snooze. This world of Whos is the size of speck and all of sudden Horton hears it and says “What the heck?” Horton begins to communicate with the tiny little spot, all his jungle friends thinks he’s crazy and probably on pot. Horton’s main rivalry is found in Kangaroo voiced by Carol Burnett, and she wants the speck destroyed so she hires a vulture played by Will Arnett. So Horton must make sure this dot doesn’t get into the wrong hands, although that pesky Kangaroo has some nasty other plans. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, I’m sure this family friendly adventure will be a box office hit.

Phew! Pardon my rhymes but I felt that was only appropriate considering the film is based on the classic Dr. Seuss book “Horton Hears a Who!” I must say I was quite surprised to find the film rather enjoyable. The animation was colorful and eye-catching and the actors’ voice work was great. Horton was a little Jim Carrey “animated” in the way the actor is always practically bouncing off the walls, but it fit with the film’s fast pace (which included a bizarre anime spoof sequence). And Carol Burnett simply shines as Kangaroo who simply insists that a little speck couldn’t possibly contain an entire world of life. She gathers up nearly the entire jungle of animals and turns them against Horton, which sort of reminded me of “The Mist” in which Marcia Gay Harden’s religious freak character turns her followers against the non-religious folk.

As for Whoville, I’m sure most Seuss fans will be pleased that this place simply screams Dr. Seuss. I’m sure if the Doc were around today he would certainly approve. And if this movie proves one thing, it’s that Dr. Seuss movies can exist and be successful, but only in animated form. Films like “The Grinch” and “The Cat in the Hat” simply don’t work because Seuss’ creations belong in cartoon form. As the mayor of Whoville Steve Carrel is great. And Amy Poehler is enjoyable as his devoted but skeptical wife.

I was actually impressed at the level of suspense that is actually created. The entire jungle believes that Horton is crazy so they all want to take this speck, with they don’t believe could house life, and destroy it. This would naturally render everyone in Whoville completely and utterly dead. Horton must fight against the majority and stick up for what he knows is true. And that’s a strong theme to have in a supposed “kid flick” with a G rating. If anything, I felt the film sort of had too endings. The story seems to be coming to its close but then continues on, but it really never seems to drag so it’s not all bad ( I mean the movie’s less than 90 minutes anyways).

“Horton Hears a Who” is simply an enjoyable movie for all ages. It has bright and colorful animation and equally colorful and lovable characters (how about that wacky Katie, is she on crack or what??). Whether you have kids or not check out “Horton,” it’s a family flick that is stupendously fun. GRADE: B

Friday, March 14, 2008

Stayin’ Alive: “Funny Games” Dares the Audience to Be Revolted: How Charming!

Let’s get this out of the way first. I love this movie. I love everything about it. That doesn’t make me a repulsive human being. But it does make me human. I don’t love the movie because I enjoy watching people being tortured (although I admit that was me watching “Hostel” and it’s sequel in the theatre). I think that is what the film’s most avid critics are confused about I love this movie because of how it uses film to a) create a dialogue amongst viewers b) manipulates the audience who are seasoned to the clichés of cinema and c) how a remake can actually be just as well received as the original film. That being said, I do not recommend this movie to everyone. If you went to film school, or love seeing every type of movie, or aren’t easily offended then please check this out. If you only care about watching movies with your favorite pop star or boy wizard I advise you to stay away. In fact, be afraid, be very afraid.

“Funny Games,” which is a remake of the 1997 Austrian film of the same name is about an upper class family that is the unfortunate victim of a brutal home invasion in their lake house. Two preppy young lads (who insist on being polite and mannerly) take the family hostage and force them to play torturous mind games in which they bet that the three family members (a couple and their young son) will be dead by morning. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth (both likable) are the couple and Devon Gearhart is the child. Bradley Corbet and Michael Pitt (both disturbing) are the psychos. This is a shot for shot remake of the Austrian version and the same director (Michael Haneke) has returned. They are pretty much the exact same film. What you get in the first film is what you get in the remake. And this is fine by me because this film will reach a wider audience than the original, although due to its subject matter, I doubt it will hardly make a dent at the box office. And you know, that’s ok because I would be seriously disturbed if this movie actually made more than 20 million dollars.

What’s so great about Funny Games, a film that is extremely stylized, is it’s a prime example of the director being in complete and utter control. He makes choices that you wont see in other films including one character who actually addresses the audience. He knows we are watching a film and Haneke plays with that. These poor people are not the only ones being played with. Haneke teases us and tortures us the viewers as well. Maybe not physically, but he knows what we should expect and he goes against that. He cuts away from the violence, forcing us to hear it instead. He also employs some extremely long takes, at which some viewers just may decide they've had enough. He even goes as far as rewinding the film and causing a major plot development (which the audience would want) to be avoided. He wants the audience to be shocked and he succeeds, and I admire him for it. In fact, the film is so stylized in its brutality and psychological abuse that it’s almost lyric and so vulgar as to be nearly comical. But at the same time he creates unbelievable tension in the viewer. Your heart will pound and you’ll sit motionless in your seat for very longs stretches. And then there will be points when you look at your watch waiting, practically begging for SOMETHING to happen.

This is a film that facilitates and requires discussion afterwards. In fact, a total stranger asked me how I felt about the film. When I told the guy that I enjoyed the film, although I had pretty much watched the exact same thing two days prior, he was surprised to A) find out it was a remake and B) that I loved it. He enjoyed it as well. He enjoyed it not on the same level as one would enjoy say “Ratatouille” but on another level completely. It’s a fun movie to talk about, dissect and criticize and the director almost dares you to enjoy it. He wants you to feel dirty and vile if you even remotely find it entertaining. (since he is ultimately commenting on violence being a sick form of entertainment) But watching people be physically and mentally abused isn’t something that should be fun, but he insists that’s why we go to the movies in the first place: to experience something you can’t experience in your real, mundane life. That’s why pornography exists. That’s why prositution exists. That’s why the entire Internet was created! It's sad but true.

This is probably one of the best remakes simply because it actually makes it available to an American audience. The acting, writing and direction are pretty much equal, except we don’t have to keep reading all the time! This sort of makes an argument about how a remake can actually be a good thing. If a foreign director makes a movie in another country where no American has seen it, why not remake it with American actors? The original Funny Games is not a popular movie like “Psycho,” so a shot for shot remake almost makes sense. He’s not remaking his own film because it was bad, he simply wants to show it off to a new wave of people. And is wanting your film to be seen really such a bad thing? And the film was pretty much perfect as it was so there’s no need to change anything. Because this film was made with American money doesn’t make the ending different. Unlike the similar film The Vanishing. The director took his own disturbing film and made it with American actors and completely changed this own vision to fit the generic taste of the Hollywood audience. Nothing is more disturbing than that. I’m glad Haneke stuck with his original script because it wouldn’t work if it had a happy ending. This is not a happy movie. I would compare it to the likes of Hard Candy (because it’s what you don’t see that’s scary) or Natural Born Killers (because that was also a violent movie that was about violence) and even A Clockwork Orange (which still disturbs viewers nearly forty years later). Kubrick made movies to provoke and disturb and when his movie came out everyone thought it was repulsive and now it’s a classic.

So that raises the question? Am I a psychopath for actually enjoying this movie? No. I didn’t enjoy this movie to point where I was applauding the deaths of people in the way you would in say, a “Friday the 13th” movie, I enjoyed this movie simply because it was so weird and different from the movies that it’s commenting on. If you’re the one who watches every “Saw” movie and nothing else, then you’ll hate this. If you don’t see every “Saw” movie and only see whatever Julia Roberts makes, then you’ll hate this. But if you like watching ALL kinds of movies disturbing or not and nothing really offends you, then you’ll enjoy this. Because to like this movie isn’t to like what goes on in the story but how the plot is affected by the director’s sleight of hand. It plays with movie conventions and flips them around. It’s not afraid to cause such a wide range of emotions in the viewer and it’s not afraid to manipulate the audience in a way that actually may make them walk out of the theatre. (In fact Haneke himself has said that if you stay to watch the whole thing, you have failed “the test” but if you walk out disgusted you “pass.”) If you’re willing to sit through more of a moral exercise than an actual motion picture, you will have a lot to gain from (and a lot to talk about) watching “Funny Games.” GRADE: A-

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Emotion Picture: “Be Kind Rewind” is a Kind & Enjoyable Fable

“Be Kind Rewind” is the kind of movie made for people who love movies. If you’re the type who goes to the theatre once a year to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, steer clear. But if you’re the type who can play movie trivia games and quote your favorite lines and spend most of your time going to, renting or watching movies, then Be Kind Rewind was just made for you. And I found it particularly enjoyable. Jack Black isn’t one of my favorite actors, but he’s finding roles that suit him without making him irritating. Wild directing auteur Michel Gondry who made the fantastically bizarre Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, finds a comfort level here in “Rewind” which shows his loves of movies and characters who love movies as well.

The story takes place in an urban area of New Jersey. A local video store called Be Kind Rewind has probably 50 VHS tapes in stock to rent. The rentals cost a whole dollar. The store is straight out of “Little Shop of Horrors” (without the horrors of course). Much like Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop, it’s a wonder how the business is still in operation. Especially with West Coast Video (think Blockbuster) in serious competition just a stone throw away. And then actually rent out DVDs and have more than one copy of a movie. Be Kind Rewind owner Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) goes on a mission to uncover West Coast Video’s secrets and puts his number one employee (his only employee?) Mike (Mos Def ) in charge. Meanwhile, Mike’s friend Jerry (Jack Black), gets electrocuted and ends up being magnetized. And what happened when you run a magnet over a VHS tape? Erasure.

Before they know it, ever tape in the store has been erased and Mike is placed in a scary predicament. When his boss returns he’ll not only be out of a job, but the store will no doubt be “relocated” due to a new development willing to buy out and move the rundown rental place to another location. So in a moment of desperation, when number one customer Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow) wants to rent ‘Ghostbusters,’ they decide to shoot their own version (with the help of a local stranger Alma played by Melonie Diaz who is very good and natural) and pass it off as the real movie. Their logic? Well if she’s never seen the movie, how would she ever know the difference? Uh, maybe because she’s human and can see and hear. If you can buy the premise, you’ll be golden. What begins is a phenomenon. The customers are actually enjoying watching their favorite movies being “Sweded” the name given to the Be Kind Rewind staff’s version of the movies. Jerry is signing autographs and business has never been better. They reenact everything from “2001 A Space Odyssey” to “The Lion King.”

What is so enjoyable about the film is that it takes a standard plot; low-income business must face adversity in the form of corporate conglomerates and puts a fresh new spin on it thanks to the wild and creative imagination of one Michel Gondry. Some people are insisting the film is to “weird” to be liked but I never really found anything to weird about it. It’s different yes, but nothing wildly “out there.” The acting is good and the creative ways they go about shooting the films is beyond genius. If anything, what they do stretches character credibility. You’ll be asking, could these people really come up with that? But beyond that it’s fun to see where the film goes and how it gets there. And surprisingly the film has a lot of heart and is very good-natured.

The whole film has a fable vibe to it without really seeming too whimsical. The shots are simple but imaginative and you can see the amount of heart that was put into the film. This is a small little film that was made for people who love movies. It may not stand the test of time and you even forget it exists years down the line, but it’s a movie that’s worth seeking out because it feels like a film made just for you. GRADE: B+