Monday, October 19, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

It's a book with 40 pages and 10 sentences. Maurice Sendak wrote it in the 60's to a heavily mixed reception until it eventually became an established classic and a hallmark of childrens literature. Given the brevity of the material and the state of basically all film adaptations of storybook classics it's amazing that a workable 90 minute movie could be lifted from "Where the Wild Things Are." Lucky for us, Maurice Sendak isn't your normal kids author and Spike Jonze isn't your normal film director.

Aside from the animated version from the 70's (which clocked in at a staggering seven minutes) a full length feature seemed not only a generally bad idea, but seemingly implausible without the contrivances of "back story" and inflated, heavy handed thematics (Ron Howard's The Grinch comes to mind...) Then in steps independent visionary director, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation,) having struck up a genuine friendship with Maurice, took the project in an unexpected and daring direction. With Sendak's blessing to "do whatever you want with it," Jonze teamed up with author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and this year's indie hit Away We Go) to bring out the thematic importance of not only what the book is about, but what it truly means to those that have enjoyed it for generations.

As the story goes, Max, adorned in his wolf costume, is an unruly child that is sent to bed without any supper after causing more mischief than his mother is willing to deal with. Max creates a fantasy world in his bedroom and sails to the land of the "Wild Things" and becomes their king. All the elements of the book are prominently featured (even down the the opening, pre-credits sequence in which a rambunctious Max chases his pet dog with a fork.) The expansions on the material consist of exploring the reasoning for Max's behavior. What causes him to act out? Why does he feel the need to escape? What ARE the Wild Things, realistically and to Max? The film meets Max as a normal kid with an overactive imagination. His parents are divorced and his sister is too old to be his friend any more. This is a child dealing with feelings and emotions he doesn't even understand yet, let alone knows how to deal with on any real level. Therein, whether his trip to the land of the Wild Things is real or not, it's an internalization and a personal mirror for Max to work through his feelings.

Each of the Wild Things represents a piece of Max and at the same time, pieces of the opening 1o minutes are either revisited or presented in a new light during Max's visit. The lead creature, Carol (voiced amazingly by Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini) is the closest representation of Max, and ultimately becomes his best friend. Ira (Forrest Whitaker) plays to Max's creative side and his island partner, Judith (Catherine O'Hara) sometimes represents Max's feelings on his older sister. KW (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose) is the closest creature to representing the mother figure and the catalyst for many of the emotional squabbles. There are no heavy handed morals, or extensive speeches that come out and say all the lessons presented in the contained material, these are left for interpretation by the viewer.

Max Records, the breakout star as the aptly named Max, puts on the most genuine and honest performance of any child character ever seen on film. When I say Max is a genuine little kid, he IS a REAL little kid. He's not the wise-beyond-his-years, prodigal child that speaks like an adult that we see in every other kids movie. He thinks and speaks like a REAL little kid. He moves like a REAL little kid. His logic is mired in the trappings of a REAL kid's imagination and that's why it works so well. While some of the more intricate ideals in Where the Wild Things Are may not be apparent to some children, they should be able to at least relate to Max on a fairly personal level (given they've got the capacity for at least some imagination.) Catherine Keener makes a brief but notable appearance as Max's tired and exasperated mother. She does a wonderful job of evoking sympathy while standing in the way of Max's journey.

Where the Wild Things Are sets the bar pretty high for a family film. It doesn't talk down to the audience, but operates on the fact that while you may not know what you're feeling during or afterward, you genuinely felt something. It's there to let us know, it's ok to feel scared and sad sometimes, even if we don't know why or how to fix it. These are the things that make us human and these are the things we need to come to understand when it comes to growing up. And growing up is ok, but it's also ok to keep that inner child on standby because you should never have to take everything so seriously.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino likes to take his time between films. He'd originally announced the concept for Inglorious Bastards shortly after Jackie Brown (and the advent of the World Wide Web) though details were sparse, set to star then Tarantino favorite Michael Madsen and citing World War II and French Jewish Nazi Killers, the project was seemingly forgotten in the wake of the looming Kill Bill rumor mill. Now, 10 years later, Inglourious Basterds (misspelling intentional) finally sees the light of day.

The first thing to be aware of going in is that this is a Quentin Tarantino movie. There will be lots of dialog. Excessive amounts of it, actually, but this has always been Tarantino's strong suit. Each series of dialogs and monologues has such a specific tone and pace that the building tension is impossible to look away from. Not to mention that every payoff is exhiliratingly poignant (and inexcusably bad ass in only a way Quentin can sell it.) His structure is set up like a more deeply connected Pulp Fiction. Each act serving as a specific chapter (with chapter titles preceding each) that all collide into a beautifully chaotic final sequence that will get the vengeance blood pumping straight through your cerebral cortex.

Using his multiple narrative style, "Basterds" bounces from Lt. Aldo Raine and his band of merry nazi scalpers to the plight of a Jewish refugee operating an independent movie theater in German occupied France and ties them all together with a British top secret operation set on turning the tables of WWII. On the other side of the fence is S.S. Col. Hans Landa and Pvt. turned actor Frederick Zoller in their attempts to promote the Third Reich and defuse the Basterds proverbial death march.

Though the cast went through a roller coaster of changes up until filming began, Tarantino couldn't have assembled a better set of actors for his latest work. Leading the pack of "Basterds," as they're christened, is of course Brad Pitt. While Lt. Aldo Raine may not necessarily be the best performance of his career, it is definitely one of the most entertaining. His thick southern Tennessee accent provides hearty laughs in between nazi (pronounced crude, yet delightfully as "gnat see") killings. Eli Roth (Cabin Fever and Hostel director turned Tarantino protege) heads up second in command to the "Basterds" as Donnie Donowitz, aka "The Bear Jew," the most feared nazi killer of the lot (and for good reason, we see in detail.) Though the Basterds themselves only make up a mere 30% of the two plus hour film, the real stars of the film are Christophe Waltz as the menacingly lighthearted villain, Col. Hans Landa and the vengeful, Jewish refugee, Shoshanna Dreyfus played pitch perfectly by French actress Mélanie Laurent. Shoshanna, being the only surviving member of her slaughtered family carries a quiet rage and an inherent sense of melancholy. Landa on the other hand, is a truly terrifying villain. Not only does he outwardly love his job, but takes a certain pleasure in playing a game of verbal cat and mouse before going in for the kill (literally, most times.) Other notable players include The Office's writer/actor/favorite temp, BJ Novak, Mike Meyers in an unexpected cameo, Diane Kruger (National Treasure 1 and 2) as German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark and Til Schweiger's nazi killing psychopath, Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz.

Combining his affections for vintage exploitation films of the 60's and 70's and his pop sensibilities as a product of the 90's, Tarantino's latest sets his watermark to a new high. The quality of performance and narrative styling is easily on par with his latter day success, Pulp Fiction. Despite its almost 10 year gestation period, Inglourious Basterds was indeed worth the wait.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

District 9

Nobody saw it coming. A small scale internet teaser subtly reworked and released to theaters two months prior to wide release and no one had heard a thing (unless you were REALLY looking for it.) Even after the full on trailer hit screens with three weeks to go, no one knew quite what to expect. All they had was a name and a relatively disturbing alien interrogation. Luckily, that name happened to be Peter Jackson.

Peter Jackson requisitioned special effects man Neill Blomkamp to direct what was going to be the Halo movie. Having made a series of high quality, low budget Halo short films based on the popular X-Box video game series, it wasn't a surprise that Jackson saw promise in Blomkamp's early work. Unfortunately, the Halo financial negotiations fell through causing the project to derail rather quickly, though Jackson, being a man of his word still insisted that he produce a project with Neill. This project would become what was lauded as one of the best sci-fi pictures of the year, and it's not an incorrect assessment.

Based on Blomkamp's earlier short film, Alive in Joburg, District 9 exists as a proverbial genre-mash of epic proportions. Part documentary, part metamorphosis/body horror and part action film, it all serves as an alternate universe dissection of apartheid and racism in South Africa. Which isn't to say it's overtly "messagey," these undertones are noticable but never crammed down your throat. In the District 9 universe, an alien ship landed (though it remains hovering in the atmosphere) some 20 years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa. After finding starving and frightened bug-like creatures on board, they are given refuge in the slummy District 9, segregated from the human population and slangly referred to as "Prawns."

The story essentially follows Wikus Van Der Merwe, a dim executive who works for MNU (Multinational United,) a private military corporation in charge of relocating the increasing Prawn population to the even slummier District 10. Wikus is documented as he enters District 9 to have relocation papers signed off on by the interstellar residents. Wikus is inadvertently exposed to an alien toxin and suddenly becomes the expendable top secret project of the MNU.

The visual effects in District 9 are nothing short of amazing. Of the hundreds of Prawns that are featured prominently in the film, not a single one was created using makeup or animatronics (even for close ups) but rendered entirely digitally. The alien tech and weapons (which only function when used by Prawns due to DNA compatibility) is very reminiscent of the Halo series and even it's bitter rival PC series, Half Life. Other genre classic comparisons can be drawn from films like Enemy Mine, David Cronenberg's The Fly, Aliens and even more recent blockbusters like Iron Man (actually, I'm hoping IM director Jon Favreau was taking notes during the last act for next summers Iron Man 2.) Lead actor Sharlto Copley (at the time unknown, but now rumored to be cast in the upcoming A Team movie) completely sells this film. At first coming off ultimately unlikable, his path to redemption and sympathy is indeed a compelling one and wouldn't have translated were it not for his genuine performance. He appears to be an actor that gives 110% and may prove to be in high demand in years to come.

Despite having no Hollywood stars and a minimal budget (at least by Tinseltown standards) District 9 really comes out on top. Peter Jackson knows talent when he sees it and not only am I looking forward to more up and coming talents he may find, but any further projects by director Neill Blomkamp, whether it's the proposed sequel/prequel, Halo (if it gets off the ground) or any other original concept.

Monday, September 14, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Romantic comedies have been on a steady decline. Unless you're Judd Apatow, you're lucky to balance the gender ratio to a scant 30/70. Luckily movies like (500) Days of Summer come around to prove that you can maintain the footholds of a love story (or "not a love story" as it's advertised) without completely alienating the manlier of the theater-fill.

Summer tells the story from the male point of view, but conveys a tale that we've all been a part of. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, an architecture graduate that's settled for a job as a greeting card writer. Opposite him, Zooey Deschanel plays Summer Finn, the temp that he inexplicably falls for. The film flip-flops through the 500 day timeline that is the beginnings and endings of their togetherness. The feelings on both sides of the narrative (Tom's and Summer's) resonate with anyone who's ever been in or on the verge of a serious relationship.

Writer Scott Neustadter used two failed relationships as the template for Summer (both in story and character) and it's plainly obvious that this is a quasi-autobiographical account as soon as the opening, pre-credits titles fade their way onto the screen. The unconventional use of a non-linear timeline ensures that the roller coaster of Tom's emotions never becomes stale or uninteresting. Summer's wardrobe dressed her in a very nouveau-classic attire that recalls a modernized version of classic 50's era looks, coupled with some brilliant IKEA scenes creating the ideal marriage fantasy in Tom's mind. Each scene plays out to just the right length, neither cut too short or outstaying its welcome. Director Marc Webb, who boasts an astounding number of music video credits, transitions seamlessly into the world of feature length film. Though, music is clearly an integral part of the story and pace set to (500) Days. With a soundtrack laced with the now legendary tunes of The Smiths and more contemporary indie rock acts like Wolfmother and The Doves, Summer manages to steer clear of being too "hipster" by being utterly genuine in its execution.

The cast glides through the film with ease. Never once is anyone's performance unbelievable or insincere. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves yet again that this is the genre that he flourishes in, as the latter day Rob Gordon (of High Fidelity notoriety, Rob Fleming if you're going by the novel and really the only major difference is the shift from London to Chicago.) His previous endeavors as the down and out high school "private eye" Brendan in Rian Johnson's debut film, Brick and the mentally damaged patsy Chris Pratt in the underappreciated psychological heist picture, The Lookout reintroduced him as the familiar face (from 3rd Rock from the Sun, 10 Things I Hate About You) with an astounding range, but seeing a smile cross his face recalls that his comedic roots are still intact. Zooey Deschanel finally works her way out of the slump of her preceding films, The Happening and Yes Man, with a character with some... well, character.

Having wowed audiences at both Sundance and Cannes this year and seeing a decently expanded theatrical run, (500) Days of Summer should pose as the template for any and all future comedy projects that hope to exude some form of romantic sentimentality, whether that romance is long term or not. Thematically poignant and genuinely relatable and humorous, this is likely the best anti-romantic comedy since 2000's High Fidelity or at least the best representation of how romance has changed for the hipster generation.

True Blood, Season Two

Following the finale of season 2, I realized that, despite it's shortcomings (and Oh, there are many,) True Blood hasn't quite reached Heroes caliber Shark Jumping territory yet. However, for a show with a premise as compelling as this, I've found myself only compelled to change the channel due to the overwhelming sense of boredom I feel during at least 50% of each episode. If it weren't followed by a better show (Hung,) I may not have tuned in at all after the first 3 or 4 episodes of its sophomore season.

The plot lines are consistent, if not begrudgingly slow. This is an hour long show that would benefit greatly from a run-time reduction to a 30 minute drama. All that would be lost is extended scenes of Sookie and Bill cooing at each other. Though these doldrums are thankfully offset by the meat and potatoes of the second season arcs involving the Fellowship of the Sun (sadly concluding at the halfway point,) and the gradual moral degradation of the citizens of Bon Temps by the Maenad, Maryann.

Alan Ball knocked it out of the park with Six Feet Under, though I feel that he's either only partially invested in True Blood or is terribly misinterpreting the material. The real world gravity that gave SFU poignancy and grace comes across clumsily and silly in the supernatural realm of Bon Temps. The romance is utterly tepid, stagnant and uninteresting. You'd think that an oiled up Fabio graced the paperback covers of the source material. To its credit there are a fair amount of truly frightening scenes, mostly brought about by Maryann's brainwashed orgy-victims toward the latter half of the season.

The over-romanticizing of the Vampire seems to be the point in which the fan-base has flourished. Whatever happened to the ruthless, bloodthirsty, carnivorous and ultimately EVIL vampires of last century like Nosferatu, Chris Sarandon from Fright Night and the gangs from both Near Dark and The Lost Boys? We could trace this trend all the way back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, introducing the concept of tamable bloodsuckers, but even Angel/Angelus and Spike maintained a certain amount of viscera amid their broody heroism, or were at least several steps beyond one-dimensional. Bill Compton remains the chivilrous goody-goody (a hornier version of the despicable Twilight character, Edward Cullen *gag*) while Sookie Stackhouse reacts to him about as realistically as an oversexed teenager. Their relationship has no real weight, I don't believe for a second that either of them is actually in love with the other. Bill's affections for Sookie seem little more than an overly manipulative several-night-stand and Sookie buys completely into his act based solely on hormones and little else. Also, Anna Paquin's underwhelming performance creates an all around unlikable heroine (and all-around world's worst psychic) and if it weren't for supporting cast members (the likes of Eric Northman, Sam Merlotte and Lafayette Reynolds) the show would likely be a wash.

The world in itself is interesting enough without having to resort to trashy romance novel camp, hopefully the writing staff will realize this come season 3 next year. Needless to say, if there's nothing better on, I'll keep watching.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Funny People

Judd Apatow returns for his 3rd writer/directorial expedition into comedic humanity. The thing about his latest feature, Funny People, is that there is surprisingly little that's actually funny about it. The material is likely his darkest to date.

Coupling with his former roomate and friend, Apatow deconstructs Adam Sandler's 15 year ascent to Hollywood success through the persona of George Simmons. It's good to see that Sandler has a sense of humor and self awareness to the endless slew of cinematic terribleness he's been unleashing on the public since the early 00's. Basically, Simmons is informed that he has a rare blood disease (a fictional form of leukemia, we're told) that may very well take his life. On a gloomily nostalgic trip to a comedy club, he is introduced to Ira Wright (Apatow regular, Seth Rogen.) Simmons takes the budding comedian under his wing as his new joke writer and sort of legacy-holder while he undergoes an experimental treatment.

For the first hour and a half, Apatow has spun a truly honest tale of our own mortality and the disassociative effects of long term fame. Simmons is portrayed as an almost soulless being, every scrap of true humanity stripped away by a lifestyle that's become too easy, while Ira is struggling desperately to break in to the lifestyle that's broken down Simmons. However, this in depth dissection is interrupted by an all but unnecessary 3rd act involving a now married former flame of George's that really only serves as a showcase for Judd's admittedly adorable, though narratively irrelevant daughters. This segment meanders on for a bit too long and only manages to further de-humanize Simmons, making him even less relatable or even remotely likable.

Sandler finally makes use of the talent most people had forgotten he actually has (last seen displayed in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love.) Seth Rogen shows more range than we've ever seen from him this time around. Paired with Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill as his fame-bound roommates, Rogen sells his morose ambition to a tee. Eric Bana (in an attempt to remind people that he was in something other than The Time Traveler's Wife this summer) goes out on a limb as the aussie husband to Leslie Mann (Apatow's real life wife and mother of his 2 soon-to-be starlet kids, playing the object of Simmons' misguided affections) and really hits some funny notes before anyone can notice that his scenes aren't very useful at all.

At the heart of Funny People is a good story. Unfortunately that good story is hidden inside the trappings of a self indulgent filmmaker that doesn't have anyone who's willing to tell him that a 35 minute tangent about an ex-fiance is a bad idea. The DVD will be worth the time, with the veritable goldmine of extras including uncut comedy performances, outtakes, alternate improvs and deleted material (I'd be surprised if there is any, the movie is so long as it is.) An unfortunate misfire for Apatow after the promise that Knocked Up showed, but even a not-so-great Judd Apatow movie is a pretty decent movie, overall.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Public Enemies

Michael Mann has had an overall impressive career. There have been the missteps along the way, like the over-inflated Ali and the nigh irrelevant revisiting of his 80's TV property Miami Vice, but movies like Heat, The Insider and Collateral maintain the balance. Now as the pioneer of the Digital Cinema age, Mann's Public Enemies ushers in the new era of filmic storytelling.

Enemies takes an interesting look at the life of John Dillinger. Instead of focusing on his rise to gangster infamy as the most renown bank robber this side of the Great Depression, we see the quieter portion of his downfall leading up to his assassination outside the Biograph Theater. Also interspersed through the tale is the birth of J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation through the machinations of G-Man Melvin Purvis.

The way Mann has utilized the digital video technology is definitely unconventional. There are a number of scenes with sparse lighting that gives the image a grainy appearance, which at first appears to be amateur but slips into an almost documentary feel at times. And yet, Mann still proves that no one can film a gun fight quite like he can. He displays some of the most sleek and dynamic camera moves of his career during the bank heist and prison break scenes.

Depp's portrayal of Dillinger is one of his most understated performances in quite some time. While his physical likeness isn't necessarily uncanny, his mannerisms and overall persona convey such a staggering amount of charisma he sells himself to the role in spades. Christian Bale finally edges his way out of his gruff, gravelly voiced typecast as Melvin Purvis, which couldn't be further from his roles as either Batman or John Connor. He constructs an interesting anti-villain, while we're set to rooting for Dillinger for the most part, Purvis' transcends the typical "lawman" archetype, making himself sympathetic and noble at the same time. Those performances aside, the show is all but stolen by recent Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. Playing Dillinger's girl, Billie Frechette, Cotillard refuses to fall victim to the award winner's follow up film curse (see: Halle Barry.) The strength her character exudes, despite the gender role trappings of the era, is undeniably powerful.

Michael Mann only graces the big screen every 3 years or so. Public Enemies proves yet again that it's worth the trip to the theater when it happens.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

And so, 2009 brings us the penultimate installment of the Harry Potter franchise. While the Half-Blood Prince may be one of the most loosely adapted of the novels thus far, it stands as one of the most emotionally resonant and significant films in the series.

If you stepped into the theater expecting a beat for beat interpretation of the 600+ page novel, I'm sorry to say, you are sorely mistaken. The laborious exposition and episodic structure of the book has been simplified to the core theme of the 6th installment's story, which is the blooming emotional maturity of the main characters. This comes out in the form of fleeting and slowly growing romances among the students, apt considering at this point they are 16 years old and at the peak of their volatile hormones. Apparently, wizard or not, the birds and the bees still apply in full force.

Mostly grown by now, the Potter kids finally put on their acting pants an do a markedly admirable job. The chemistry between Rupert Grint and Emma Watson is as genuine as it is heart-breaking. Daniel Radcliffe steps up his game and transcends the huffy-puffy adolescent of previous incarnations to achieve a true emotional depth(perhaps his stage presence in Equus helped nurture this game-changing feat.) Most impressive of the young cast this time around is Tom Felton as Harry's would-be advesary Draco Malfoy. As the beleaguered almost-villain the weight of his moral dilemma is etched into his face with true professionalism. Downplayed, but still omnipresent are the cadre of seasoned actors as the Hogwarts teachers. Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman hold steady for newcomer to the series Jim Broadbent as the new Potions teacher. His portrayal of Professor Slughorn carries a whimsically drunk, though inherently melancholy tone and is likely one of the most memorable one-off characters of the series.

Second time Potter director and series finisher David Yates also proves that, while this is essentially a childrens franchise, it's also an actual film as well. The visual effects, while frequent, take a back seat to the cinematography and shot composure creating a more immersive atmosphere than in previous installments. Unfortunately, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (who penned the impressive 5th film, The Order of the Phoenix) will remain a single chapter writer as series alum Steve Kloves re-assumes his post behind the keyboard. The adaptation is fair, but to his credit the relevance of the piece falls on the shoulders of Yates, who accomplishes it easily enough.

As the veritable "Empire Strikes Back" of the Potter catalog, The Half-Blood Prince is the opportune film to lead in the two part finale The Deathly Hallows, though we'll have to wait until winter 2010 and summer 2011, respectively.


After receiving a vast amount of critical acclaim at the Sundance and Cannes festivals, the Sam Rockwell powered one-man psychological sci-fi thriller show begins to worm its way into more theaters on its steadily expanding limited theatrical run. Directed by Duncan Jones, the real life son of Ziggy Stardust himself (David Bowie) Moon takes many of its cues from classic fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Solaris and Silent Running.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut finishing the last two weeks of his three year contract in an energy harvesting base on the far side of the moon. Kevin Spacey lends his voice to the robotic service assistant, GERTY, that mills about the station on a ceiling rail. His dulcet tones haunting the hollow compartments that Sam inhabits. As his contract end date approaches, his mental state begins to wane and he is involved in a moon rover accident following a hallucination. Sam awakens back in the station to find that there is another Sam Bell on the station who claims to be there on the same three-year contract.

Jones exploration into the nature of the human condition when faced with bleak and undeniable solitude is nothing short of mind blowing at times. The atmosphere is set perfectly in the cramped confines of the Sarang station's set design. The dim neon lights reassert the artificiality of Sam's surroundings. The choice to use miniatures instead of straight up CG adds a veritable amount of believability to the isolated locale of the moon's surface. The haunting score by Clint Mansell (best known for his work with Darren Aronofsky, namely Requiem for a Dream) seems to reverberates off the station walls, becoming a living attribute to Sam's plight.

Of course, it's impossible to leave the theater and not commend Rockwell for the daunting task of being the sole human character(s,) especially after the performance he's thrown together. While known for more eccentric characters like Billy the Kid from The Green Mile, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's two headed, partially retarded ambassador Zaphod Beeblebrox and most recently the sex-addicted con-artist, Victor Mancini the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's Choke, Rockwell employs a staggering range of emotion, especially when acting against only himself. It's almost convincing enough to assume that Rockwell has a true life twin to act off of, though it's all camera tricks and simplistic duplication effects.

Though a great deal of Moon's moral and ethical themes are unpleasant to ponder, what comes off the screen sticks with you. As a freshman effort from Duncan Jones, the end product is astounding to say the least. This is a director to keep an eye on in the coming years.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Rest in Peace, John Hughes

It's not surprising how affected I feel as I write that John Hughes has passed away. This is the man who essentially introduced me to comedy, let alone cinema.

If it weren't for Hughes, I may not be writing the way I am today (prose, comic, screenplay or critical essays) and he will always stand as an inspiration to myself and anyone else with a pen (or word processor) in hand.

Speaking for the past, present and future scribes of the world... We'll miss you, John.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Whatever Works

Woody Allen has been in the business so long, it seems he tried just about every genre. His latest venture, Whatever Works, is ultimately more of a throwback. Most likely since the script was penned back in the 70's. Aside from adjusting the socio-political references to be more modern and relevant the film works remarkably well.

Casting Larry David in the lead role as aging cynical genius, Boris Yelnikof is a veritable stroke of genius on Allen's part, and any fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm will agree. Utilizing an Annie Hall style 4th Wall Breaking Narration, David sets the tone for this sarcastic, delightfully misanthropic love story. Despite all his harsh criticisms on the state of human affairs in this day and age, that's what this movie ultimately is. A love story.

Following Boris' divorce and his failed (yet comedic) suicide attempt, he spends his days with a bum ankle, teaching chess to grade-school children (just as harshly as he'd teach adults, plus physical abuse to boot) and waxing intellectual with his diner buddies (including a criminally underused Michael McKean.) On the way home to his dingy NYC apartment he stumbles upon (or over, as it were) the homeless deep south runaway, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (played remarkably well by Evan Rachel Wood.) Surprisingly The two form a twisted sort of bond, but a bond nonetheless, before her bible-thumping parents (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr.) swoop in to rescue her, or so they think.

Despite the abrasively negative disposition of the protagonist, Whatever Works has a very light heart at its core. Allen's return to the states after a bout of films across the pond gives the material a lived in feel. He truly is at home here. Though, it's very apparent that he has much more to say than what is expressed by the end of the film. An unfortunate side effect is the limiting scope of Begley, Jr's performance. His character arc is almost a footnote to the development and growth his fledgling big city newcomers make. All things considered, Whatever Works is a no nonsense, nonsensical, ugly yet cute look at fictional love in the real world, as only Woody Allen can spell it out.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Primer caught my eye when it was released quietly on DVD in 2004. I didn't read the premise on the back of the box and I didn't recognize either of the actors on the front cover. What pulled me in aside from the Sundance Grand Jury award was mostly the tagline. "What Happens if it Actually Works?" Intriguing to say the least. If WHAT actually works, I wondered? I took the 77 minute super-independent film home and my mind proceeded to implode in on itself.

As it turned out, Primer is about time-travel, though not in the easy to follow terms of, say, Back to the Future or The Terminator series. The two lead characters, Aaron (played by producer, writer and director Shane Carruth) and Abe (played by David Sullivan in a noteworthy performance) run a small time software business out of Aaron's garage. While attempting to produce a superconductor the two friends accidentally create a low grade, small scale time machine. The physics are a bit complex, but go something like so. This isn't a simple temporal jaunt, not as simple as flipping a switch or getting the Delorean up to 88 mph. One can only go backwards in time, and you are only able to go back as much time as you're willing to spend the real time in the machine, which is displayed as an aluminum lined makeshift coffin.

Once inside the machine, time moves in a loop from the point in time when it is turned on. If you turn the machine on at noon and set it for 6 hours, inside the machine once it reaches 6pm, time will move backwards to noon again. This is described as A-in, B-out. Therein, if one enters at the B point in time, after staying in the machine 6 hours they will emerge at the A point, having traveled 6 hours back in time. Confused yet? Good.

Needless to say, Aaron and Abe's first attempts to play the stock market need meticulous planning and preparation, ensuring that no outside interference will take place and the possibility of running into their future selves is out of the question.

The first 40 minutes or so is relatively easy to follow, aside from the technical physics laden dialog (Carruth refused to simplify the script for the sake of the audience, to better execute his vision) though shortly after the halfway point, the film turns on its ear and takes a sharp right into massively confusing territory. As the friends become more unwound by stress, lack of sleep (referenced by a line regarding "working 36 hour days") and the adverse affects of continued use of backward time travel, the trust between Abe and Aaron deteriorates. Their reality becomes unhinged as paradoxes begin to pile on top of each other. So many details are scattered about, conveyed through a hauntingly cryptic voice over from an answering machine message that at this point, the film demands your complete attention. Even then, it is likely some detail will be missed.

Through simple cinematography and a hauntingly simplistic score, the latter half of the film plays almost like a psychological film noir. Who's playing against who. What is really to be gained from all of this. What actually went wrong in the first place. The film almost demands multiple viewings to put it's abstract puzzle pieces together. Still, the final product may indeed be incomprehensible, which is to say, the human mind cannot yet comprehend the cataclysmic effects of time travel.

For a production budget of only $7000 the effectiveness of this film is astounding. No A-list stars or name recognition, extremely limited effects and a limited amount of locations. The story is what drives this film to success, whether it's understood by the viewer or not. It may take several days to untangle the knot it will make of your brain functions, but at a 77 minute run time the end result is well worth it.

For those still confused by my feeble attempt to explain the physics of Primer's time travel, here's a handy diagram:

Still can't read it? Click to ReBigulate!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

A lot of people try to put "critical reception" out of their minds when considering movies on which to spend their hard-earned dollars. Normally, I'd agree with this practice, but as a warning I will say that all the negative buzz you've heard about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is true. The problems with this film are as overwhelming and frequent as the ocean is deep, or in this case, as the robots are large and the blame can rest solely on the shoulders of actioneer/Hollywood pariah, Michael Bay.

Admittedly, the first Transformers despite its problems, was a relatively watchable film. Granted the action was a bit muddled due to Bourne-esque cinematography and the ending seemed to... well, not END, but it was far from the worst movie to come out in the summer of 2007. As of now, Transformers 2 stands as the worst theatrical movie I've seen in the summer of 2009.

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but based on the cartoon series and toy line from the 80's, Transformers is a story about otherworldly robots that have the ability to turn into various vehicles and mechanical devices on Earth. Both the predecessor and it's sequel are rated PG-13, understandable if the action violence contains more explosions than the cartoon series (or any other movie this summer, considering the helmer is Michael freakin' Bay.) However, overtly harsh language, super-sexual overtones, abstract drug references, abject racism, and hateful stereotypes have no place in the childrens target market, summer blockbuster giant robot movie.
It's surprising the MPAA didn't mark this an R, considering the hoops certain movies have to jump through just to reach any audience. The sexism is blatant as Megan Fox dolls herself up for the boyfriend she has no real interest in (action everyman-boy Shia LaBoeff returns as overactive protag Sam Witwicky) and does little else but act as errant screen-candy. Every female at the university is supermodel hot, yet drool at the feet of their astronomy professor (wasted talent epitomized in The Office's Rainn Wilson) who just degrades them further without their knowing. Sam's mother stupidly ingests some pot-brownies and acts like she's on crystal-meth ("but HEY she's a woman, what does she know? Right?" I assume was Bay's justification.)

By now you've most likely heard of the two Autobots, Skids and Mudflap (charming names, but that's just the tip of the iceberg) who are most commonly referred to as the Sambots or the Minstrel Twins. That's right, they've got googley eyes, giant robot lips, simian-like ears and what the hell, a GOLD TOOTH for good measure. They speak in broken street jive, the kind of which you've only heard in the movie Airplane, and basically beat on each other (you know, since they're "brothers.") But when fate calls on them to help Witwicky decode an ancient prophecy it turns out they CAN'T READ! Yes, it's THAT bad. There's also a miniature remote control truck Decepticon that is essentially a robotic Joe Pesci, slinging all our favorite Soprano-isms before he humps Megan Fox's leg, and I didn't just make that up. It happens. Spoiler alert.

The film creates its own logic rules, then immediately breaks them, such as Megan Fox's midday 30 second flight from LA to NYC and miraculously shows up while it's still light outside. There's a Decepticon that can disguise itself as a human, which begs the question, if they can do THIS then why bother with cars, trucks and other clunky machinery? Michael Bay has presented a level of cinematic self indulgence that transcends even the likes of George Lucas and M. Night Shayamalan. He aims to make things look cool in slow motion with no concern as to HOW or WHY. There's a story worth telling in there somewhere, it rears its head occasionally only to be submerged in a sea of nonsensical college humor and exploding mechanical debris. Whatever story-arc presented in the shooting draft of Star Trek scribes Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci has been warped, misinterpreted and overshadowed in the final product.

The sound effects are grating and trauma-inducing. The score sounds to have been lifted directly from either Armageddon or Bad Boys 2. Admittedly, the forest fight scene between Optimus Prime and something like 4 other Decepticons was pretty cool, which I was able to discern what was going on. Though this still makes the film 2 hours and 15 minutes too long for its own good. Perhaps what was missing this time around was the guiding hand of first installment producer Steven Spielberg to rein in the superfluous elements. With its opening weekend draw, a sequel is imminent, but as a final warning, this is what you get when you give a child with no supervision $2oo million to play with his toys on camera.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Hangover

The Hangover is possibly the best comedy to hit theaters in about two years. There I said it. To draw a comparison to this statement, the last movie to keep me as thoroughly engrossed and laughing consistently was Knocked Up. Skepticism was my first thought. When a movie is so widely acclaimed as this, especially a comedy about being blackout drunk, someone is wrong(examples of this phenomenon are Austin Powers and There's Something About Mary, both funny, but highly overrated.) Fortunately, the rule doesn't come close to applying to The Hangover.

Previously acclaimed for both Road Trip and Old School (we can ignore the missteps that were Starsky and Hutch and School for Scoundrels,) director Todd Philips has a knack for "it list" casting. Previously utilizing Seann William "Steve Stiffler" Scott, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, Philips now ushers in the next generation of comedic talent in Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper.

The lead in this ensemble is actually Helms (The Office's rage-oholic Andy Bernard) as Stu, the resident pushover with the uber-controlling girlfriend. Cooper (departing from the role of "evil boyfriend" from Wedding Crashers) plays Phil, the fun loving friend that puts the "buddy" in "buddy-comedy." Then there's Zach Galifianakis as the bride-to-be's black sheep older brother, Alan. He's essentially the creepy guy that has very few friends because he's just so strange, but never really got a handle on how strange he really is because he didn't have any friends to tell him so. Justin Bartha (Riley Poole from both National Treasures) brings up the rear as the MIA groom. Throw in some guest appearances by Heather Graham (who is surprisingly not horrible in this, in the same way she wasn't horrible on Scrubs,) Mike Tyson (proving that he's still the champ, albiet a champ with a really weird facial tattoo,) Rob Riggle (regular Daily Show correspondent/loudmouth,) an small appearance by director Todd Philips himself and The Dan Band (previously seen at the wedding from Old School) and the absurdity abounds for at least 2 hours.

Putting a new twist on the classic "Bachelor Party in Vegas" gig, The Hangover blacks out all the drunken debaucherie from our "heroes" and we are left with the aftermath of a night that went wrong on so many levels. Missing tooth? Check. Tiger in bathroom? Check. Baby in the closet? Check. Zach Galifianakis without pants? Check. From this point out it's almost as if the movie doesn't stop to catch its breath until well after the credits have started rolling (you'll see what I mean) presenting a comedic momentum that's been unmatched in cinema for a long time. Most comedies either start strong and lose steam halfway through or keep the strength up but get caught up in the heavy handed moral tale at the core of the narrative. The Hangover manages to mix in the morality and message while keeping the funny at a constant peak level.

After some thought, this film sort of rounds out Todd Phillips' trilogy of successful comedies. A trilogy I will call, the Man/Boy Trilogy. They all include a similar set of characters enduring comedic circumstances.

Breckin Meyer/Luke Wilson/Ed Helms - Straight man, emotional lead.
Seann William Scott/Vince Vaughn/Bradley Cooper - Irrational shoulder angel to the straight man. Id.
D.J. Qualls/Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis - Oddball, uncomfortable comic relief.

All three films encompass some sort of brotherly bond among close friends. The films progress and mature in an almost Apatowian fashion (from 40 Year Old Virgin to Knocked Up to this year's Funny People.) Road Trip features immature college kids acting like immature college kids. Old School has adult men reliving their glory days as immature college kids and The Hangover follows up with adult men acting like immature adult men. Rumors of a sequel are already milling around the studio with Phillips possibly at the helm. If that's the case, I can only hope that it's as hilarious as its predecessor.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Year One

When you first hear about the bible era comedy from former Ghostbuster turned director Harold Ramis, you'd think it has the makings of a comedy goldmine. Conceived as a sort of Superbad meets History of the World Part I, I was hoping for laughs in the vein of Monty Python's Life of Brian. Unfortunately, Year One slides by as a merely passable parody of Roland Emmerich's prehistoric disasterpiece 10,000 B.C. which was funny enough on its own.

Jack Black and Michael Cera play opposing cavemen versions of their type-cast character models and the two bumbling cro-mags proceed to Mr. Magoo their way through the Genesis portions of the Old Testament. While the "greatest story ever told" is indeed overflowing with opportune parody, Year One takes the low road and equates everything down to genital and poop humor. Unfortunately, the laughs that aren't cheap aren't frequent enough to maintain interest for the duration of this film's 90 minutes. Also, it's painfully obvious that much of the adhesive humor was left on the cutting room floor to garner a PG-13 rating by the MPAA. Perhaps an unrated DVD will work better, but I wouldn't put money on it.

The guest stars shine a dim light on much of the latter half. Paul Rudd is criminally underused as Abel and David Cross's Cain quickly loses his charm after the inevitable fratricide occurs (spoiler alert?) Harold Ramis appears himself as Adam, but doesn't offer much beyond a cursory "Hey, look who it is!" Hank Azaria and Superbad's own McLovin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Yeah, I'm tired of the while McLovin shtik too...) show up as Abraham and Isaac and Oliver Platt arrives toward the beginning of the 3rd act to encompass the world's first gay joke.

It's not that Year One isn't kind of funny. Though, that's the problem. It's only KIND OF funny. Like so many Saturday Night Live skits, it begins strong and peters out somewhere in the middle of the second act. The cinematography is relatively stale, mostly consisting of close up shots making up the dialog, presumed to splice out R-rated quips or off color improvs. This is particularly upsetting considering Ramis has put out quality material, and fairly recently to boot. Not only was he responsible for the Bill Murray vehicle Groundhog Day, but 2005's overshadowed and under appreciated dark comedy The Ice Harvest with John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Platt and Randy Quaid. With those projects in mind, Year One just comes across as a lazy attempt at comedy.

At the end of the day, Year One is worth a rental. There are laughs to be had, but the pause button will come in very handy on this one. Though, in this economy ten bucks a ticket is just too much to see Jack Black eat poop and Michael Cera pee on himself.

Friday, June 19, 2009


The Pixar team has made a habit out consistency. I've pretty much loved every Pixar film I've seen (and I only missed out on one of them voluntarily) and UP is no exception. From Monster's Inc. director Pete Doctor and regular all around staffer Bob Peterson, Up is possibly their most emotionally charged, labor of love project to date.

Featuring the voice talents of Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer, Up chronicles the latter day adventure of Carl Fredricksen, a crotchety septuagenarian determined to fulfill his lifelong ambitions after the passing of his wife. It sounds sad, indeed, but Up refuses to wallow in it's own self pity in the face of its own tragedy and the lighthearted humor surfaces almost immediately following each tearjerking vignette (of which there are at least two.) When faced with the threat of assisted living, Carl hoists his home into the air on thousands of helium balloons, inadvertently taking with him the well intentioned, over achieving Wilderness Explorer, Russell, who is determined to achieve his "Assisting the Elderly" badge. What follows is a heartwarming adventure of self realization the likes of which only Pixar could communicate with the world.

The look and feel of the film is very throwback to adventure pictures from the 30's, which stylistically makes sense as these are the big screen adventures that fed the imagination of young Carl in the first frames of the film. The setting resonates with echoes of Skull Island from the 1933 version of King Kong and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (not the Jurassic Park sequel...) while the house traveling sequences feel reminiscent of the first scenes of 1939's The Wizard of Oz. The perils that ensue are truly edge of your seat adventures, so much so that the mere popping of a balloon is cringe worthy.

The character work in this film is amazing. Normally when there's a young sidekick in a children's movie they tend to almost demand the most attention through forced comedy. The "funny character" goes a bit over the top, begging for laughs. Russell never crosses this line. His naivety is genuine to his age and while he's a glaring contrast to Carl, their bonding becomes one of the most heartfelt character passages in recent filmic history. Dug the talking dog is handled similarly as well, to equal or better comedic effect. Asner's voice talent for Carl could not be more perfectly matched to the boxy cartoon visage inspired by a cross between Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau. His counterpart, Charles Muntz, voiced by Christopher Plummer is a kind of menacing cross between Vincent Price and Jack Palance.

While some of the themes may be heavy handed for young children, Up delivers in ways that only Pixar has been capable of for the past 14 years. The 3D aspect, while not as "in your face" as other recent releases (Monsters Vs. Aliens, Beowulf) assists in creating a more immersive experience. Mainly because it doesn't NEED to be 3D, but the fact that it is makes it that much more real. And while Pixar is still on top of its game, get ready for Toy Story 3 next summer.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

S. Darko - A Donnie Darko Tale

A shiver went down my spine when I first heard the news. Donnie Darko, the long standing cult classic from (at the time) first time director Richard Kelly was getting a sequel. Without Kelly's say so, blessing or even remote involvement. They say lightning doesn't strike twice, but the executives over at FOX don't believe that, so they took it upon themselves to MAKE lightning strike twice. The result is a Frankenstein monster of tragically banal proportions. The idea in itself to try to capitalize on the initially ill received cult classic is insulting enough, but to attempt such a feat with only one member of the original production (and a markedly minor character at that) is a recipe for disaster. As you would imagine, S. Darko is a complete and utter failure as both a film and a follow up.

Yielding lackluster reviews at Sundance and an even less impressive limited theatrical run, Donnie Darko, the brainchild of directorial newcomer Richard Kelly, found its audience quickly on DVD. A hardcore fanbase was built in the years following its release in 2001 and Kelly went on to other projects (namely the script for the flashy actioneer Domino and the critically reviled Southland Tales.)

Since the rights to Darko belonged solely to FOX, the sequel was greenlit from right under Kelly and he adamantly proclaimed to have no involvement in any aspect of it's production. Chris Fisher wound up directing the script by Nathan Atkins, both of whom have a relatively small and unimpressive catalog of previous work. The only returning character is Samantha Darko (hence the title, played unimpressively by original actress Daveigh Chase) whose role in the original was so slight you have to wonder what kind of premise could've been fashioned from following up with her character six years later. Samantha and her friend Corey are on a road trip from Virginia to California for a reason that is never really explained. Their car breaks down and they are taxied to a small unassuming town in the middle of the desert to get it fixed. What follows is a barrage of shamelessly heisted images and scenes from the first film, redistributed into the new setting to make what barely passes for watchable. None of what happens ever remotely makes any sense. Each character is a haphazard clone of an archetype from the previous installment and carries neither weight or significance.

The reason why Donnie Darko worked the way it did is because, for starters, it was an original concept and a relatively new approach to untapped ideas (tangent universes, time-travel, mental instability and ghostly intervention.) Also, each piece of the puzzle that unravels is specifically placed to create the larger narrative, connecting the story together. S. Darko seems to have been laid out on an almost identical structure with each new piece and character plugged in with the hopes that it will cohere into some kind of relatable story, which ultimately never happens. While the characters in DD had an instictive suspicion that something terribly wrong was happening, the characters in SD are given one line of dialog to create a miniscule and uninteresting back story and then are left alone for the remainder of the film. Possibly the worst scene translation from the original is the awakening realization sequence. In DD, each of the characters we've followed in the month-long journey to the course correction of the Darko timeline has some sort of spiritual or moral subconscious reaction. This would lead you to believe that what happens after the credits roll will be significantly different than the events that took place. By the end of SD, none of the characters are any better off or more informed than they were when the whole incident started. Not to mention the doomsday countdown in SD is significantly shorter (4 days, instead of an entire month) leaving very little time for our heroine (?) to come to terms with the sacrifice she may have to make.

S. Darko is utterly forgetable and inherently avoidable. There is literally no reason to watch it if you've seen Donnie Darko and if you haven't, S. Darko is not the place to start. New audience or not, some movies just don't need a sequel.


It's fun to watch a director grow. One of the most promising filmic evolutions in modern cinema has been that of Brad Anderson. Not familiar with the name? It's not surprising as his three most notable feature films barely scraped by on a limited theatrical release (which is both astonishing and tragic, considering that material.) Even from Session 9 to The Machinist, his craft improved dramatically. After contributing two films to some TV projects (Masters of Horror and Fear Itself) he went on to direct several key episodes of Fringe (including the season 1 finale) and eventually wound up as a producer on the show. In the middle of all this, he somehow found the time to make the brilliantly understated thriller, Transsiberian.

Starring Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson and Ben Kingsley, Transsiberian is a testament to suspense. Brad Anderson has achieved levels of the genre that were previously only reachable by Alfred Hitchcock himself. The suspense is paramount in this picture, throughout. It achieves the highest levels of tension without ever resorting to excessive gore like the similarly themed Hostel films. The twists in the narrative are all organic and never feel trite or contrived. The onset of fear in the characters is entirely natural and believable so much so that the audience never doubts the choices made out of necessity of the situation. Anderson has become skillfully proficient in removing the "comfort zone" for an audience, which is integral when tackling the thriller genre. In Session 9, the setting of the dilapidated, dark and crumbling closed down mental institution did the trick, as did Christian Bale's emaciated figure in his follow up, The Machinist. Trannsiberian transcends his previous efforts by removing not one, but multiple comfort zones. Stripping them away from the protagonists, one by one until complete and utter hopelessness is imminent.

Though the true thematic core of Trannsiberian is honesty and truth. It's about the lies we tell our loved ones and the lies we tell ourselves just to get by from day to day. Emily Mortimer sells this idea almost perfectly. As an audience, we understand and sympathize with her need to lie, not out of spite or cruelty, but self preservation as she is the constant victim of circumstance as well as her own past personal demons. Woody Harrelson plays the supportive husband with a hint of a passive aggressive hero complex (manifested in the form of semi-altruistic Christianity,) a departure from most of the roles he's taken recently, but he executes it with style and ease. Ben Kingsley adds yet another nationality to his ever expanding repertoire as the Russian detective that's sniffing about the traveling couple (so far we've seen Kingsley chameleonize to Hindu, Middle Eastern, Brooklyn and Slavic to scratch the surface of his talent.) Also some markedly admirable performances by Eduardo Noriega (last year's lackluster Vantage Point and Abre Los Ojos, the Spanish original upon which the Cameron Crowe film Vanilla Sky is based) and up-and-comer Kate Mara (most notably seen in 24's fifth season) as the mysteriously friendly yet sketchy couple.

Trannsiberian is possibly the best thriller in the past five years. With Anderson's new and increased duties on Fringe (as he will be returning as producer for the 22 episode second season in the fall,) I hope he still finds the time to put together more theatrical work. Each of his projects to date has been exponentially better than the last and each one markedly different in vision and scope. As long as he remains out of the eye of the major studios, where creative tinkering is at its worst, we can look forward to more top of the line material from Brad Anderson.

Terminator: Salvation

My love affair with Terminator began with the second installment. It hit theaters when I was about 10 or 11 and had not been permitted to see the first one (for obvious reasons, I was 4 when it hit theaters.) Taunted by the coming attractions, magazine covers boasting top of the line special effects and a theater run that outdid everything else that summer, I absolutely had to see it. Luckily, conceding to my pleas, my father took me to see T2 on my birthday that year. And so, Terminator became the summer fling that I always fondly remembered, by constantly forgot about.

Terminator: Salvation comes to us from questionable Hollywood director, Joseph McGinty Nichol (AKA McG.) I have trouble taking anyone seriously whose preferred nomenclature is not only a single name (i.e. Madonna, Cher, Seal,) but an abbreviation at that (see also: DMX.) This is also the person who gave us not one, but two Charlies Angels movies.

That being said, the movie looks good. The effects are top notch. The setting is dim, gritty and dark. Everything needed to create the Terminator experience that follows where the last Terminator experience left off is in the right place. However, the plot doesn't really make much sense.

We've jumped ahead 15 years since we last saw John Connor in Rise of the Machines (then played by the underappreciated Nick Stahl,) who has hence become a Batman-voiced soldier in the human resistance as well as a shadow-messiah to a select few that still believe he will redeem mankind from the clutches of the oppressive cybernetic organisms that bombed us halfway to hell and back in 2003. Problem is, the machines have an ace up their circuits. They're gunning for Connor's future/past father Kyle Reese (now only a teenager, played by Star Trek's Anton Yelchin in what might be the movie's best performance.)

Now, time travel is a tricky plot device and this is where the narrative gets sloppy. Given what we know from the past films, Future John Connor sends back an adult Kyle Reese (from the age difference, I'll say about 15 years after T:Salvation) to protect his mother Sarah in 1984. Reese and Sarah get cozy while hiding out and produce a baby John embryo. Reese dies at the hands of the first Arnold Terminator and Sarah destroys it. Lead in to T2. The only people with the knowledge of John Connor's paradoxical father is John himself (who I believe doesn't know him by name yet,) Sarah and the Good Arnold Terminator(GAT for short.) GAT is melted in the molten steel (as is the T-1000, who probably didn't have this information anyways, but for the sake of loose ends...) Assuming that the original Terminator somehow knew that Kyle and Sarah had shacked up and produced John, the chip that stored said information was also dissolved by Edward Furlong John Connor. Sarah Connor dies of leukemia somewhere between T2 and T3 leaving the John as the sole guardian of his familial secret.

History lesson over. Now, somehow all the machines in this post-apocalyptic world know who birthed John Connor and are gunning to have him erased from history (instead of just killing him like normal human-killing robots.) Added to the mix is unknown fugitive Marcus Wright (played by Sam Worthington who I've seen in absolutely nothing, but will be in James Cameron's crazy-future-scifi-epic Avatar) who, if you've seen any previews for this movie, is all or mostly robot. All this makes for about 2 full hours of chase scenes, shoot-outs, screaming matches and explosions. Everything you need for a summer blockbuster, though, as absurd as the plot to Terminator:Salvation is I can guarantee that it's going to be better than Transformers 2:Revenge of the Fallen.

The thing that worked for me about T4 was that it had echoes of previous installments scattered throughout. Every scene seemed like an updated or more futuristic version of an iconic moment in any one of it's three predecessors (and that's not including the recycled lines like "Come with me if you want to live.") Christian Bale functions as John Connor, but never really sells it. Honestly if he'd pulled more from his character in Reign of Fire it would've been better, though he is rather upstaged by Sam Worthington. As stated before, Anton Yelchin is probably the best actor in the film, easily. If the franchise takes off (despite mostly negative reviews) he'll be the one to make it worth the time. Bryce Dallas Howard is plainly underused, as is Moon Bloodgood, whose scenes border on significance but never really reach it. Common had absolutely no place in this film whatsoever. His lines (mostly delivered in ADR {Additional Dialogue Recording} while he's out of frame) are laughable and cheap.

While Terminator:Salvation didn't turn out to be the reinvigorating installment to the franchise they'd hoped for (in comparison to the staggering success of the Star Trek reboot,) we can only hope that McG and company (with new writers next go-round, let's hope) take a note from the page of George Lucas and make an attempt to fix the mistakes presented in this chapter. If not, we could see another proposed trilogy fall flat on it's face with Matrix-like proportions.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Dollhouse - Season One

WARNING: This season recap/assessment will contain some major spoilers for the entirety of Dollhouse's 12 Episode run.

It was late in the throes of the 2007-2008 WGA/AMPTP Strike that sci-fi guru Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity) announced that he would be reteaming with BtVS alum Eliza Dushku to create a new series for broadcast television. On the outside this sounds like a brilliant prospect, however there was a catch. He'd be helming the project on FOX, the same network that gave Firefly a snowball's chance in hell when it premiered back in 2002. Despite the bad vibes on the initial outset of the project, it seemed Whedon had another ace up his sleeve. While the strike was going full steam, an independent internet exclusive project was conceived with friends, series alums and family. That project was Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog, which evidently blew the top off of the internet when it premiered in mid July.

Then the bad news started to filter in, sometime in early fall. The internet promos for the show had just started to pop up on FOX's website when it was revealed that FOX was not a fan of the pilot episode Whedon had produced for the series. The episode, entitled "Echo," was ultimately scrapped (though I've read a draft of the original script and cannot wait to see it and the yet unaired 13th episode "Epitaph One" on the full season DVD that's due out this July) and key elements were cannibalized and put to use in the newly structured early season episodes. This is about when the "Save Dollhouse" campaigns started up. A full 6 months before the new pilot episode (now entitled "Ghost") hit the airwaves. Another punch to the gut arrived when it was announced that the series would air on Friday nights at 9pm. Otherwise known as the "Death Slot" in TV terms.

So the bloggers blogged and the nay-sayers continued to nay-say and the premiere date approached rapidly. February 13th (yes, Friday the 13th, ominous) arrived and "Ghost" premiered. I'll have to say, it was better than a great deal of other television shows on the air at the time and DID contain a fair amount of Whedonism to it, but it also had the stink of network intervention all over it. The first five episodes really only held a handful of series mythology about them though they did assist in laying the groundwork for the final seven episodes where it became blatantly obvious that Whedon regained full control of his pet-project.

The premise for Dollhouse is not simple and is honestly a little off-putting at first glance. The Dollhouse is an underground organization that commissions "volunteers" to have their memories completely erased so that they can be uploaded with a new set of memories and skill-sets to carry out "engagements" with high paying clients. Between "engagements" the "Actives," as they're referred to, exist in the Dollhouse's facility as blank slates. They have no emotion and no personality whatsoever. Eliza Dushku plays Echo (all the Actives are named after the NATO military alphabet, other regularly featured actives include Sierra, Victor and November,) who starts off the series in the early stages of her 5 year contract with the Dollhouse. Within the first 5 episodes (which played like "engagement of the week" television) it becomes clear that Echo is somehow maintaining small bits of each downloaded personality. Along with Echo's glitching brain is FBI agent Paul Ballard who is determined to expose the Dollhouse despite not having anyone even believe it exists, let alone help him bring it down. There's also the resident Dollhouse Boogeyman, otherwise known as the rogue Active named Alpha, who murdered several Actives and Staffers before he was supposedly "killed." Though he manages to shake things up early in the season from behind the scenes before making his grand re-entrance at season's end.

The season seemed to make a full U-turn at episode six, "Man on the Street," which was written by Joss Whedon himself. It shook up the previous format of "engagement of the week" and focused more on Ballard's solo-investigation of the Dollhouse and explored the morally gray organization that IS The Dollhouse. Who pays for this service and ultimately WHY they pay for it. It was also revealed this episode (after a killer fight between an imprinted Echo and Paul Ballard) that there was a mole in the Dollhouse willing to help Paul, as long as he doesn't get himself killed sticking his nose too far where it doesn't belong.

From this episode forward, we were delivered heavy doses of mythology, character development and ultimately, Alpha's return (played by Whedon's Firefly alum, Alan Tudyk.) The theme for the season (and possibly the series, should it get renewed or not... fingers crossed) is, are the memories that make us up all that we are? Are our minds and bodies one or separate? Should one lose the other are we not still the same person, or just the empty shell of that person? In short, the existence of the soul, or the ultimate act of self-realization. Based on the chilling final moments of the 12th episode (entitled "Omega,") the human spirit will overcome the obstacles that are placed in front of it, despite that which makes up the person being forcefully taken away.

Unfortunately from the outset, Dollhouse found itself in a ratings spiral. It's live audience dwindled as the weeks progressed (though the Nielsen rating system is so outdated, it pains me to think that it's still being used successfully) though it's DVR/TiVo bump and hits on Hulu have been substantial enough to point out a niche audience that's developed. The initial lead in my dying-on-its-feet series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles didn't seem to do Dollhouse any favors and after that ended as abruptly as it began, the death-rattle episodes of canceled series Prison Break seemed to eradicate any carry-over viewers that might've been. FOX announces their 2009-2010 schedule on May 18th and the odds are stacked against Joss Whedon and company. Through a small miracle, there may yet be another season of Dollhouse (the first season is available for pre-order on, releasing on July 28th) and the crew is remaining hopeful.

UPDATE 5-16-09: While FOX will unveil this on 5-18, Dollhouse has been picked up for 13 more episodes in the fall. Welcome, Season 2!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Star Trek

I'll start this off by listing some things I know about Star Trek. Chekov pronounces the word "missile" like "wessel." Vulcans have pointy ears. Klingons are bad (except for Worf.) Tribbles are all fur. The Next Generation was pretty good for a long time. Enterprise was not. In short. I really know next to nothing about Star Trek in it's 40-some odd year existence in pop-culture, enough to get the in-jokes on Futurama, but that's about it. The thing is, I've never really felt compelled to get to know Star Trek. It's the kid in school that you knew you had things in common with, but the nagging feeling that there was enough contrast in your shared commonality to disuade from actually gearing up a conversation. And it never gave me a reason to BE compelled.

That is, until it was announced that the series was to be rebooted by none other than Geek-Media Guru, J.J. Abrams.

I've been a fan of Abrams' work since just before the second season of Lost hit the airwaves. Hell, I even enjoyed Mission: Impossible III (despite the presence of a certain Scientologist that will remain named Tom Cruise,) but taking on a property that I'd had no prior relationship with seemed intriguing. Re-teaming with his Alias alums and current Fringe show-runners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who were also responsible for the disastrous Transformers movie at the hands of pompous actioneer Michael Bay,) and casting relative unknowns in the lead roles, the new Trek seemed to be a mixed bag before any actual footage was even released. My skepticism was proven wrong at the release of the first trailer and again after seeing the film in it's entirety. This movie is awesome. Plain and simple and I'll go as far as to say that it's better than The Wrath of Khan, and THAT's saying something.

Now, this is far from both your typical Star Trek film and franchise reboot (Batman Begins, Casino Royale to name the good ones.) The script functions in a way that allows us to see the beginnings of James T. Kirk's command of Starship Enterprise without overwriting the tales that preceded when William Shatner was still sporting the mustard yellow StarFleet Captain's tunic. Which is to say, it doesn't steamroll the canon of the original series (television or film.) The core plot essentially involves the formation of the classic enterprise crew through the vengeful machinations of Romulan enemy, Nero (played by a nearly unrecognizable, Eric Bana.) Each crew member is given their character defining moment, with more emphasis on Kirk and Spock (naturally, as they are the focal point of the series with vastly deeper motivations in this new chapter.)

The casting was impressive, pulling in relatively unknown actors with fairly impressive resumes to boot. Newcomer Chris Pine delivers an angstier version of Kirk, as a "wrong side of the tracks" kid who makes good in the Star Fleet, whether they'd like him to or not. Heroes alum Zachary Quinto is a dead ringer for Spock with his silly bowl haircut and upturned eyebrows (which was funny in light of his typical "Sylar" uni-brow.) Zoe Saldana takes on Uhura who manages to transcend the title of lowly "communications officer." Anton Yelchin is a young Pavel Chekov, complete with silly accent, and Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame) returns to the arms of an Abrams project (we last say them together on M:I3) as Montgomery "Scotty" Scott and John Cho (Harold of Harold and Kumar) plays a pretty convincing Sulu (and not just because he's Asian... However, my favorite character in the ensemble was Karl Urban's Leonard "Bones" McCoy. While not as crotchety as DeForest Kelley, Urban gives "Bones" an air of hypochondrial pragmatism, which makes for a certain type of cynical comic relief at times.

One of the major detractors from the original series for me had always been the static space battle sequences that always took place on the bridge of the Enterprise. Kirk shouts "Fire the proton torpedoes," everyone stares, someone shouts out "Incoming," the entire room shakes and a few people fall down. Granted, this format of space action is still present in the new Trek, but the way it's written, blocked and directed it seems much more dire and immersive than it was in previous incarnations. The inner layout of the Enterprise is still as confusing as ever, though as large a scale vessel as it's supposed to be, I'm not sure the navigability is of the highest priority. Turn right at the red corridor and enter the big double sliding doors to get to the bridge. Done. Next scene.

Beaming technology is given a slightly more advanced explanation or at least a more technical approach beyond the traditional "Beam me up, Scotty" as well as an updated special effects treatment. There's also a fair amount of off-ship action too, and Abrams has both the scope and the budget to make it look nothing short of awesome (the skydiving and atmospheric platform fight come to mind.) Last but not least, Nero's Romulan ship design was unrequited amounts of awesome.

I truly hope this paves the way for more chapters in this new era of Star Trek and if J.J. and company are involved, even better. There's a shortage of decent "Space Sci-Fi" out there these days and it makes me feel good to see someone do it right for a change (I'm NOT looking at you, George Lucas!) And before you step onto the Starship's Molecular Transporter, you might want to re-think that red shirt you're wearing...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Wrestler

Though Darren Aronofsky's career hasn't been that of commercial successes, his short but powerful resume has mustered a hefty amount of critical acclaim. Beginning with the quirky math-thriller Pi and his painfully honest adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr's novel Requiem for a Dream. After a long and troubled production on his 3rd film, the fantasy parable The Fountain, which was ultimately panned by critics, Aronofsky stepped back to the small scale character drama The Wrestler featuring the comeback of former Hollywood heartthrob turned hulking behemoth, Mickey Rourke.

Adorned with flowing blond locks and about 35 extra pounds of muscle-mass, Rourke re-emerges on the big screen (small screen if you missed the theatrical release like me) as the washed up pro-wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson. We only get a glimpse of his former glory in the opening credits, awash with main event posters set to the various over-enthusiastic announcers and Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head" (which also doubles as The Ram's entrance music in later scenes,) but any pro-wrestler that has his own action figure (sadly displayed on the dash of his beat up van) and Nintendo Game representation was a big deal in his glory days.

Aronofsky's work is no stranger to personal tragedy and "The Ram" is no exception. Immediately following the credits we're greeted with a "20 Years Later" title matched with a shot of Rourke sitting in a locker room with his back to us. And the sadness begins. The tale of Randy "The Ram" Robinson is that of a man who never created a coping mechanism for the real world, having spent the majority of his adult life in the pro-wrestling circuit (so we're led to believe) in front of the camera as an entertainer. In essense, he's a horse put out to pasture with no intention of dying on someone elses terms. Trying desperately to hang on to who he once was by partaking in small circuit matches and conventions on the weekends, a day job is seemingly out of the question. Though maintaining said lifestyle (heavy training, enhancement drugs, booze and strippers) without the benefit of the big WWE bucks presents a challange in and of itself. And then his heart gives out.

A large portion of the film (including the first 10 minutes of so before we even see Randy's face) is shot handheld, following behind the character. It wasn't until a key moment that I realized exactly what the purpose was. Having seen a handful of WWE shows on television, the camera will follow a given opponent through the green-rooms and back hallways on their way to a match. This aspect of Randy's former lifestyle was seamlessly applied to his everyday life, adding more weight to the tragic narrative that is The Ballad of Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

Of course all the "Resurrection of Mickey Rourke" talk is completely true. Since he re-emerged from his bare-knuckle boxing days looking less Rocky Balboa more Rocky Dennis, he's knocked out a few roles here and there (the most memorable being the oafish hard-luck Marv from Sin City, less so was his hard-ass mercenary from Domino) but nothing with the dramatic weight that he displays in The Wrestler. It's one thing to be able to spout one-liners and act thuggish, but it's another kind of talent to make an audience feel sympathy for someone who, at the end of the day, really deserves none. Marisa Tomei reins in a performance infinitely more deserving of the Oscar she claimed back in '93 (granted the competition was tighter this year) and Evan Rachel Wood pulls off some of the most heart-wrenching verbal fights I've seen onscreen in recent years (granted I haven't seen Revolutionary Road yet.) Stepping the realism up a few more notches are the actual indie-circuit wrestlers that make up "The Ram's" opponents throughout the story, some of the stunts (staples, barbed wire, hidden razors for impromptu bleeding in the ring) I am still not certain were "effects" or not.

After seeing this (and subsequently seeing it performed live not long ago,) I think it's an outright travesty that Bruce Springsteen's song of the same title as the film wasn't even nominated for an award by the Academy this year. I mean, I'm glad Slumdog Millionaire swept the way it did, but this song is nothing short of epic. And it's The Boss. I mean, come on.

Darren Aronofsky has proven himself to be not just a good filmmaker, but an exceptional one. In a way, I almost prefer that he maintains his footing on the edge of the mainstream industry, shepherding in new talent the likes of Rian Johnson (Brick and the upcoming Brothers Bloom) and Brad Anderson (The Machinist and Transiberian.) With four wildly diverse films under his belt, I'm eagerly anticipating whatever comes next in Mr. Aronofsky's expanding resume.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crank: High Voltage


Ok. Since the movie in question is hands down the most ridiculous thing I've seen onscreen since Shoot 'Em Up (and Crank 1 before that,) I'm going to dispense with the formalities and make this review as crass as the movie itself. Also... Spoiler Warning. Just putting it out there.

Holy shit! You knew after seeing the end of Crank that somehow, some way they'd bring back errant bad ass, Jason Statham, for a follow up, and boy did they ever deliver. The answer? Robot Heart. That's right. They gave Chev fuckin' Chelios a goddamn robot heart.

Now the premise of Crank was that his bloodstream was toxified with an agent that required him to maintain a constant release of adrenaline. This made for all kinds of absurd behavior, ranging from racial slurs in a gang bar to coke snorting all the way to sex in public. This time, with said robot heart dependent on an electrical charge every... let's say five minutes (as it were in the movie, at least) this allows for even more absurd behavior, ranging from (but not limited to) jumper-cables on the nipple and tongue (see complementary poster above...) tazers, car cigarette lighters and yet another foray into PDA.

So far, the Crank series is the stupidest set of movies I'm not afraid to admit I absolutely love. It's probably because the movie is operating on a level of self-awareness that most actioneers should be striving for (take notes Michael Bay...) Crank 2 doesn't just wink at the camera, it laughs at it and outright gives it the finger (literally.) Most of what goes on in Crank 2 happens, quite simply, because it can. Godzilla homage? Sure. Genital mutilation? Why not.

Predecessor alums Amy Smart, Dwight Yoakam and Efren Ramirez return for the craziness (and honestly, who wouldn't?) while adding some new (yet familiar) faces including Clifton Collins Jr. (Capote,) Corey Haim (rehab), and Bai Ling (who is eccentric enough as it is, when added to the Crank recipe, is all but unbearably obnoxious.) Not to mention a slew of pseudo-celebrity cameos (David Carradine, Geri Halliwell and Lloyd Kaufman among others) that you'll likely not even notice unless you scour the page.

Though, for me, one of the higher points of praise for Crank: High Voltage was the score by none other than alternative-noise rock-savant, Mike Patton. Less influenced by his tenure in Faith No More and more by projects like Mr. Bungle and his solo material, the accompanying soundtrack compliments the frenetic attitude the film sets out on within the first 10 seconds. What ensues is the audible equivilent of a schizophrenic's crack nightmare that takes place at a circus freakshow from hell. You'll know what I'm talking about when you hear it.

Crank: High Voltage is not to be taken seriously. It exists simply because it can and succeeds at pushing the envelope as far as it can go, and then gives it one last shove off the cliff (or out of the plane, if we're taking the first film into consideration.)