Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Worst of 2008

It's that time of year. 2008 is over and it's time to take stock. What kind of movie year was 2008? For my money, I'd say it was a particularly great year for genre film. We haven't had a year this good for geek cinema since 2005. Sure, that's not too long, but name me two better years for sci-fi/comic films. Yeah, I thought so...

But I'm not here to ruminate on all the nuances of the year. I'm here to club the worst movies of the year. Now, this list is a bit skewed. I don't get paid to see every movie that comes out, so I still have to be picky about what I see, and I'm usually pretty good about knowing what I will and won't enjoy. So you won't be seeing movies like Disaster Movie, The Hottie and the Nottie, any number of awful horror remakes. Those are forgone conclusions. To that end, these are the five movies that I enjoyed the least. Some of these are truly terrible movies. Others are simply big disappointments. Let's get started...

Dishonorable Mention - Star Wars: The Clone Wars - A movie that I can't rightly even call a movie. Look at it for what it is: A 90 minute pilot for the Cartoon Network series, which I'm told is getting progessively better. Good, because this pilot is a terrible, terrible movie. Everything from the lazily painted backdrops to Ahsoka Tano to Jabba the Hutt's gay, New Orleanian uncle just reeks of Lucas and co. wringing the last drops of life from a once mighty franchise...

5. The Happening - Earth to Shyamalan: Plants. Are. Not. Scary. The only way to truly enjoy The Happening is to watch it as some kind of morbid comedy. Some of the death scenes are well staged, but in the context of the movie, they're laughable. However, watching Marky Mark try to negotiate with a houseplant (a plastic one at that) is pretty funny.

4. Hancock - For what the first act of this movie promised, the left turn it inevitably takes is so sharp that it could cut diamonds. The second half of the movie completely ruins any good will that the first half had built. It's a film that wants to be longer, darker, more satirical, and edgier than it is, and for some reason, it just isn't. If not for The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Hellboy II, Hancock might have single-handedly set superhero movies back ten years..

3. You Don't Mess with the Zohan - The first movie on this list featuring SNL alums, Zohan tries desperately hard to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be an action comedy of epic proportions, but it also wants to do what Sandler and Co. have always done (dick jokes and silly voices). The result is something that isn't at all as funny as it seems to think it is, and ends up being just embarassing for all involved.

2. 10,000 BC - Roland Emmerich's career of late is yielding one logical conclusion: He needs to get producer Dean Devlin back into the fold ASAP, because it's clear that he was the brains of the operation. 10,000 BC is a movie that's dumb as a brick, and hopes its audience doesn't notice. In two hours, we go from frozen tundra to rainforests to deserts and ultimately to pyramids. There's just a horrible lack of logic to this whole movie, and I'm STILL confused by what it was supposed to be doing. I have no idea.

1. Step Brothers - Even worse than You Don't Mess with the Zohan, I laughed maybe four times during Step Brothers. Moreso than any of the other movies on my list, Step Brothers was just embarassing to watch. Seeing two forty year old men act like a pair of eight year olds is just pathetic. Like I said in my original review, had the two men been in their 20s, it might have been acceptable. But Step Brothers as it is now is just terrible. Unfunny nonsense, and the worst comedy I've seen in years.

There you have it. Come back soon for two more lists. My top ten of 2008, and a list of ten that deserve more attention.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Spirit (2008)

Almost immediately, the vast majority of viewers have been dismissing The Spirit as worthless garbage without a second thought. That's just not fair. It's not a bad movie. Different? Sure. Bizarre and resembling little of Will Eisner's original comic? You betcha. The Spirit isn't so much Sin City-lite as it is Frank Miller applying his comic sensibilities to a medium that's still new to him. And in that respect, The Spirit simply suffers from a novice filmmaker's first turn behind the camera.

Denny Colt patrols the streets of Central City as The Spirit (Gabriel Macht), a sort of unkillable vigilante (think Batman in a suit and fedora, sans gadgets). His archnemesis, The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) is after a vase containing the blood of Hercules. In his way is Sand Seraf (Eva Mendes), a globe-trotting jewel thief who is after her own mysterious, mythical object. She's got her own history with The Spirit, and the movie spends plenty of time explaining it in a strange, mid-movie flashback.

Stylistically, the movie heavily resembles Sin City more than anything in Will Eisner's comics. Miller's playing with more or less the same style as Rodriguez' film. The only difference here is that it moves more like a comic. As The Spirit runs along power lines and hurls manhole covers at countless thugs that all look like Louis Lombardi, it all moves like a cartoon.

And really, that's all this movie is aspiring to. It's absolutely a cartoon, and Frank Miller is indulging (most of) his comic and cinematic desires. It's clear taht he's not taking this material seriously. Otherwise, Eva Mendes wouldn't have photocopied her ass, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johannson wouldn't have donned Nazi uniforms, and the blood of Hercules would never have figured in as a plot device.

There's no logical way to take this movie seriously, and it's for that reason that I'm pretty sure this movie is a comedy. Not a jokey comedy, mind you. But a Frank Miller comedy. See, Frank Miller loves film noir; enough, in fact, to be goofy and weird with it. Every time someone gives a ridiculous line delvery (or rather, says something totally ridiculous without a knowing wink), it's funny. It's supposed to be. I think it's a symptom of this movie being horribly mismarketed. People are going into this thinking it'll be a repeat of Sin City (which itself was really, really silly).

The Spirit is a comedy in the same way that I'm pretty sure Spider-Man 3 is a comedy. It's more of a parody of the genre than an honest stab at it. But, as with Spider-Man 3, the problem is in the direction. Miller's not at all an experienced director, and he doesn't have the deftness of Sam Raimi or Robert Rodriguez. There are many shots and cuts that don't really work, and occasionally it's really hard to tell who is punching out who and where the body is flying. Some of the action just doesn't work. As for the script, the film plays out much in the same way that a comic book does. Whole passages of the film veer off into odd tangents, almost like that middle issue of a series that has little to do with the story. Of course, just because it's there doesn't mean it really works. It kinda doesn't.

But for all it's comic sensibilities, goofy sense of humor, and overall weirdness, The Spirit is not the cinematic abortion that many people might lead you to believe. On the contrary, it's one of the strangest films you're likely to see all year, and it's worth seeing simply for the sake of being different. It's odd and goofy enough to entertain, but definitely not the second coming of Sin City (though that film is apparently still in the works). It's fun. I enjoyed it, and I hope more people find something to like about it.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
so dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

If ever the meaning of Robert Frost's poem was lost on you, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be all the explanation you'll ever need. It's a film all about the impermanence of life, from the fleeting years of childhood to the brief hours of a love affair to the waning days of a life fully lived. As a reworking of F. Scott Fitzgerald's original short story, David Fincher's film is a marvel to behold, but upon closer inspection the story itself isn't the thrilling, life-affirming yarn we're led to believe it is.

As he narrates early on in the film, Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was born under 'unusual circumstances'. He was born as a baby with all the physical attributes of an elderly man on the verge of death. Every day, he gets a day younger while everyone around him gets a day older. This conceit alone is enough to drive the story forward, as we watch Benjamin have to cope at seemingly every turn with the fact that his condition is one that literally nobody else understands.

It can't be said that the idea isn't an interesting one to toy with. Early on, during Benjamin's 'younger' years, he is taken to a brothel by an eccentric tugboat captain (Jared Harris) who's under the impression that Benjamin is a 60 year old virgin. It's incidents like this that give the film any flavor at all, and as the story settles into it's primary groove, we are afforded fewer and fewer interesting facets of Benjamin's condition. Once it becomes clear that the story is going to follow the romance between Benjamin and his longtime friend Daisy (Cate Blanchett), it becomes much like any other romance.

And this turns out to be the film's downfall. In relying almost solely on the aging concept to drive the story, the film ends up playing the same note over and over again until it no longer has any need to. Two hours into the film, it becomes clear the direction the story is going to take, and the story struggles to keep the audience's attention, relying almost solely on Cate Blanchett's performance to carry the third act. This would've been acceptable had the third act not been a foregone conclusion alluded to constantly for the previous two hours. As it is, we know where the story is going, and there's simply not much joy to be found in watching Benjamin's life wind down just as so many before him have done.

Of course, none of this rests on David Fincher's direction. This is perhaps the best directed film of his career, from the opening studio credit to the final fade out, there's never a dull moment to be had (visually speaking). Fincher utilizes all sorts of camera tricks and filming techniques to show us a story seemingly without time. If not for the superb computer-generated de-aging effects on Brad Pitt, you'd swear this were a film out of another era. Plot and script issues aside, this film is breathtaking to watch.

I know it seems like I'm placing a lot of judgement on the script, but that's because it's really my only problem with Benjamin Button. Fincher's direction is spot-on, most (if not all) of the cast pull their weight admirably (especially the minor players), and it is a fascinating character study. But the main crux of the film just ultimately collapses under its own weight. If you're willing to accept that the film is a pretty big downer and that the script runs out of steam considerably short of the finish line, you'll find that Benjamin Button has a lot else to offer.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Is There a Santa Claus?

The following is reprinted from today's Greensboro News & Record, and likely many other papers nationwide.

In 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon wrote to the editor of The New York Sun asking if there were a Santa Claus.  What she had heard from her friends on this matter perplexed her.  She initially asked her father, and instead of answering her question himself, he suggested she write to the newspaper.  This is her letter -- and the response by Frank Church -- published in The Sun on Sept. 21, 1897.

Dear Editor:
I am 8 years old.  Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so."  Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia, your little friends are wrong.  They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.  They do not believe except what they see.  They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.

All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little.  In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to our life its highest beauty and joy.

Alas!  How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!  It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.  There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.  We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.  The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus?  You might as well not believe in fairies!  You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove?

Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.  The most real things in the world are those neither children nor men can see.

Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?  Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there.  Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders that are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, or even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.  Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view adn picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond.

Is it all real?  Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else as real and abiding.

No Santa Claus?  Thank God he lives, and he lives forever.  A thousand years from now, maybe 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the hearts of children.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Season's Greetings

I had some words to say about Christmas for today, but Orson Scott Card said them all in today's Rhinoceros Times.  So if you read that newspaper, I'll refer you there for my thoughts on Christmas.  The basic gist of it is this:  I wish everyone reading this a Merry Christmas; not out of religious reverence, but because Christmas is a national holiday.  If anything, I should probably be saying Merry American Christmas.

So whatever your holiday tradition, I hope you're enjoying yourself and the season.  And like they say: there's no tradition like a new tradition...

Okay, so it's a seventeen year old tradition. Whatever.

Happy Hanukkah, Happy Festivus, and Merry Christmas.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

I feel like I'm being thrown onto the defensive for a film that I really didn't think was that great, which is an odd position in which one might find themselves. The Day the Earth Stood Still isn't great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel like many critics are too quick to slam the movie simply for being a remake of the 1951 classic. Yes, this is a remake. Yes, the original was (and still is) a classic. But does that automatically make the remake a bad film? No. If that were the case, The Thing, The Fly, The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Dawn of the Dead would all be bad movies, and the truth is that all of these are at least solid films; some of them great.

However, the critics who hate The Day the Earth Stood Still seem to truly hate it. It's not that bad. The basics of the film are largely intact. Scientists detect a large object on a collision course with Earth. Instead of colliding, as originally predicted, it lands in the middle of Central Park. Of the myriad scientists and military personnel sent to intercept and study the object, the first to make contact with it's inhabitant is Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). Once in military custody, the alien, who identifies himself as Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) and has taken on a human body, informs them of his intention. He represents an interplanetary council, and was sent to Earth to assess the human race's case for survival. It is for him to decide whether the human race is fit to continue. Klaatu is accompanied to Earth by a gargantuan robot that the US military names GORT (Genetically Organized Robotic Technology, or something equally ridiculous). While Dr. Benson and her adopted son Jacob (Jaden Smith) flee with Klaatu, the military tries its best to destroy GORT to no avail.

Yeah, a few things have changed, but the basic song remains the same, as it were. What the film ultimately gets dead-on right is the tone and visual aesthetic. There is a constant sense of foreboding looming over any given scene, and it adds a significant amount of weight to a script that doesn't seem to bother with subtelties. The designs of the orb spacecraft are intriguing, and are decidedly different from the alien designs that have come before. We've come a long way from flying saucers. Then there's GORT. The design team did a pretty good job of updating him without ruining his imposing nature. Rarely do fully CG creations come off successfully. GORT works wonderfully.

And say what you want about Keanu Reeves, but the man does alright for himself as Klaatu. He looks uncomfortable here, just like an alien who isn't used to a human body. His monotonous speech pattern is equally stilted and uneasy. Of course, I'm not sure how much of this is Keanu simply refusing to emote or what, but (at least for me), his performance worked. The same cannot be said of Jennifer Connelly. She's gorgeous, as always, but she looks equally lost in this film. The supporting players that come off best here are, undoubtedly, John Cleese and Kyle Chandler, who do well with their limited screentime.

What doesn't work so well? The script. For as much foreboding tone as the visual crew add to the film, it seems like they had to compensate for the script, which holds next to no dramatic tension. The emotional arc that Klaatu must travel through the course of the film is layed out through dialogue in such a way that we're basically given a roadmap to the film every 10-15 minutes. One scene in particular, one that takes place inside a McDonald's, might as well be counted as a spoiler, that's how on-the-nose the dialogue is. And for a film this rooted in classic science fiction, there are far too many tiny plot holes. Why would you leave an alien being, whose abilities are not known, alone in a room with a defenseless examiner?

I have an idea for what they perhaps should have done with this film. Instead of a straight remake of the original that merely updates the theme of nuclear annihilation to environmental destruction, why not make the film a sequel? The film could have been about the return of Klaatu, fifty-seven years after his first trip to Earth, to issue us his final ultimatum. In 1951, he gave us a choice: change our destructive ways or die. In 2008, we've replaced one global threat with another, and now that Klaatu is back, it's time to pay the piper. He sets the destruction of Earth into motion, and must be convinced otherwise at the zero hour. Would this not have worked? I think so. And it wouldn't have been at the risk of damaging the original. It would be sort of the extra-terrestrial equivalent of George A. Romero's zombie cycle. I think that could have worked...

Ultimately, however, The Day the Earth Stood Still is not the piece of cinematic garbage that many critics seem to think it is. Sure, it's not a classic by any means, but neither is it a contender for Worst Film of the Year. Had this script gone through maybe one more revision, the result might have been a tight, thematically sharp sci-fi parable. As it is, however, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a mildly engaging sci-fi yarn for those willing to lend an ear, two hours, and seven dollars.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Best Original Song List

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released their big list of 49 songs eligible for the Best Original Song Oscar today. 

You can see the whole list here.

There's really not much I can complain about here. I mean, it's every eligible song this year, and not their chosen short list. Most surprising to me is the fact that there were eleven songs in High School Musical 3. Seriously? Eleven? Geez...

If I had to make an educated guess as to what might make the cut...

"The Wrestler" - The Wrestler
"Down to Earth" - WALL-E
"Gran Torino" - Gran Torino
Something from High School Musical 3
Something else from High School Musical 3

And if I had to make an educated guess as to what might WIN...

Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler".  While I haven't seen the movie, I have seen
 the trailer 
and I have heard the song.  It's a very powerful little song, and one I could definitely see winning.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fourth Quarter Catch-Up

I know I promised a full scale review of Quantum of Solace, but for the sake of keeping things relevant and moving on this blog, I'm just going to include it with a series of quick reviews of films you may have missed in late October and November. Of the lot, Quantum of Solace is absolutely the best film. Just so you know.

Sex Drive - Sex Drive is a somewhat predictable film that successfully blends the road movie with the teen sex comedy (more often than not, anyway). While the plot itself occasionally feels undercooked, the filmmakers and the cast at least have the good sense to keep things interesting and keep them moving. The film ultimately falls apart at the end (as most of these tend to do), but the journey to get there is certainly a lot of fun. Goofy performances from Clark Duke, James Marsden and Seth Green give the film much of its energy. 3.5 (***1/2) stars out of five.

Max Payne - While the film nails the visual style of the video game, almost everything else feels wrong; the casting in particular. Mark Wahlberg is a serviceable Max, but Mila Kunis is not the actress needed to effectively portray Mona Sax. The main problem with the film is that it's not nearly as 'guns-a-blazing' as the games, and the detective story that replaces the wanton violence just seems thrown together to get us to the climax, where things finally start exploding. The Valkyr drug plot both works and fails, depending on which part you're considering, which is frustrating. Frustrating is the best word for this film. 3 (***) stars out of five.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno - Not nearly as successful as Kevin Smith's last film (Clerks II), Zack and Miri is full of great dialogue, as any Kevin Smith film is. However, the romance that evolves is on very shaky ground, as though the whole thing could collapse under its own weight at any moment. Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks are the two saving graces of the film, though, knowing just the right way to deliver Smith's sometimes long-winded dialogue. The highlight of the film comes early (heh), when Zack and Miri meet a gay porn star (Justin Long) at their ten-year high school reunion. 3.5 (***1/2) stars out of five.

RockNRolla - Guy Ritchie's latest bears more in common with Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch than his more recent films. It's a fittingly odd crime caper with a decent McGuffin. Tom Wilkinson plays an effective crime boss. He's no Brick Top, but he gets the job done. Equally fun to watch are Gerard Butler and Thandie Newton, who play off each other in some interesting ways. Ritchie wants this to be the first in a trilogy; a trilogy that might never come to pass, as it tanked horribly at the box office. And that's too bad, because this was quite the fun little caper. 3.5 (***1/2) stars out of five.

Role Models - Role Models is perhaps the funniest comedy of 2008, based solely on the strengths of Paul Rudd's and Bobb'e Thompson's line deliveries. Also, the fact that the film utilizes LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) as a major plot point, and does so effectively, makes the film that much stranger and more successful. Well, to me, anyway. Seann William Scott isn't afforded much time for his own B-plot, but it's not the central crux of the film, so it's not a total loss. If you're a fan of KISS or KISS jokes, you'll probably get a good kick out of Role Models. 4 (****) stars out of five.

Quantum of Solace - A lot's been made about how Quantum of Solace is disappointing when compared to Casino Royale. I have to respectfully disagree. In hiring director Marc Forster, a man known more for his artistic merit rather than action filmmaking, the producers manage to inject some subtlety into what is essentially a revenge story. Daniel Craig once again tears it up as Bond, and he's matched by Olga Kurylenko, whose character has similar demons to battle. Ultimately, the film is a more erratic one than Casino Royale, but when viewed as Part II to that story, Quantum of Solace works wonderfully. 4.5 (****1/2) stars out of five.

Bolt - If you've ever seen Toy Story or The Incredible Journey, then you know every single beat that Bolt has to offer. Now, of course, that's a little over-exaggerated, but it's mostly true. John Travolta voices a dog who believes he has superpowers, and must cross the United States to reunite with his owner (Miley Cyrus). Along the way, he learns that he might not be as super as he thought. See? It's both those stories I mentioned above. But that doesn't mean it's bad. On the contrary, the 3D animation looks remarkably good. Not PIXAR quality, but close. There are some glaringly huge plot holes, but other than some internal inconsistancies, the movie does alright for itself. Kids will love it, at any rate. 3 (***) stars out of five.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Låt den rätte komma in (2008)

Most people know my stance on vampire films. If you don't, here's a quick recap: Most of them are crap, more often than not because they either over-exaggerate the lore (Queen of the Damned) or ignore it entirely (Blade: Trinity). The best vampire films respect the tradition of the creature, and the Swedish film Let the Right One In is one of very few vampire films that deals with the monster in a very human way, while telling a startlingly realistic love story.

Oskar's life is not a pleasant one for a 12 year-old. He's scrawny, he's ruthlessly picked on at school, and his parents are divorced. He quickly strikes up a friendship with Eli (Lina Leandersson), an odd girl who just moved in next door. It's not long before we learn what's wrong with Eli. She's a vampire, and her father (or caretaker, we're not told which) has to murder and bleed random individuals so that she can feed undetected. This doesn't deter Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) much, and the two quickly become the closest of friends.

So what do I find so fascinating about this film? Well, like I said above, it does two things absolutely right. One: it treats the classic vampire with the utmost care. The title itself is a reference to the notion that one has to invite a vampire in before it will enter, something most films or stories ignore out of convenience. Here, we even get to see what happens when Eli enters a room uninvited. Two: the film doesn't waste time over-explaining to us how things work. We know what vampires can do and we don't need to be told all over again. Once it's revealed that Eli is a vampire, she begins acting accordingly. When she feeds, she's ravenous. She's sneaky, agile, and ruthless. But the film never oversells the fact. Eli's final, gruesome attack is completely implied, and it's all the more terrifying for it.

And that's one thing that makes Let the Right One In stand out. Narratively, we learn as much implied information as we learn onscreen. For instance, it's never explicitly stated that Eli's caretaker is actually her father. He certainly could be, but if he's not, that speaks volumes about Eli's power over him. Also, it's implied that Oskar's mother is worried sick over her son's supposed violent outbursts. It's never explicitly dealt with, but if you want to entertain the notion, there's plenty to ponder.

Equally as important here is the relationship between Eli and Oskar. The friendship develops naturally, but soon grows into something considerably more complicated and meaningful. Eli warns Oskar that they shouldn't be friends, but against her better judgement he eventually wins her over. Just like so much of this film, their relationship grows quietly, one act of kindness after another. Absent is any of the melodrama that typically accompanies adolescent love stories. Anyone who's ever been 12 knows Oskar's situation, and the film mines those memories to surprising effect. It sort of makes Oskar into a Mary Sue, but the difference is in the fact that the character's life is already so terrible, that no one in their right mind would see it as wish fulfillment.

Ultimately, however, this is still a horror film. Each of Eli's kills are jarring and hard to watch, which is as much a result of subtle visual effects and sound design as it is the sight of a girl jumping and feeding on a grown man's neck. There's a scene involving a pack of cats that's still stuck in my head. It's just... unsettling... But anyway, while the film may not be the most effective horror film of the year in terms of scares, it's definitely the most creative and subtle. Let the Right One In is one of the best horror films of the decade, and it's a real shame that it's getting the Hollywood remake treatment already.

4.5 (****1/2) stars out of five.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

With each passing film, Danny Boyle becomes more and more one of my favorite directors. I know, I said the same thing about Guillermo del Toro in my review of Hellboy II, but I'm saying it again for different reasons. Sure, Boyle's visual style is one of the things I love about his films, but with films like Trainspotting, Millions, and now Slumdog Millionaire, his films offer the viewer a window to a world they might otherwise have never considered.

Before, his films showed us a slightly skewed vision of the UK. His latest, Slumdog Millionaire, shows us a side of India that the news simply cannot provide. The plot itself is deceptively simple. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an 18 year-old tea runner goes on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? With each passing question, the film flashes back to an event from Jamal's childhood that explains why he knows each given answer. Through these series of flashbacks, we see the story of Jamal's life, escaping the slums of Mumbai with his brother Salim and a girl named Latika, and we see each of them climb the social ladder, and the perils along the way.

There's certainly more to it than that, but explaining any more would spoil just how ingenious the storytelling at work here is. Imagine if Citizen Kane had been about Charles Foster Kane at the age of 18, and you get an idea of the kind of multiple plots at work here. And in some ways, it's a little more complex. Of course, the film never gets bogged down in complicated cross-cutting or confusing sequences. The first five minutes or so are a little disorienting, but once you get into the flow of the story, everything makes perfect sense. It's a credit to Boyle and editor Chris Dickens that the segmented story flows as well as it does. Slumdog is a marvel of narrative storytelling, but that's not the only trick up its sleeve.

The other crucial element that the film gets absolutely right is in its casting. Each of the three main characters (Jamal, Salim, and Latika) are portrayed by three different actors. We see them as children, as adolescents, and finally as young adults. Each character's three actors do very well for their parts. But, of course, the lion's share of the praise has to go to Dev Patel, who plays Jamal as he appears on the game show. His understated, honest performance makes Jamal just that much more likable.

There are few films this year with the kind of amazing narrative drive that Slumdog Millionaire presents. And while the film at times seems bound and determined to get from point A to point B at all costs, it never forgets to keep the viewer in the loop. Boyle's film is one that not only embraces global phenomena, but also displays a keen eye for local Indian flavors. Jamal's journey is a fascinating one, and one that proves to be one of the most inspirational of the decade. I can't recommend this film strongly enough, and hope it gets its due come Oscar-time. Make no mistake, this is one of the very best of the year.

4.5 (****1/2) out of five.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher: War Zone is not a good movie. However, Punisher: War Zone IS a good Punisher movie. There were certain elements about Jonathan Hensleigh's 2004 film that I enjoyed (particularly Thomas Jane as Frank Castle), but it's mostly a forgettable film. And the less said about the 1989 Dolph Lundgren film, the better. But I feel like there's actually something to be said for this film. It's not great cinema, but it's actually fairly successful, considering the film's pedigree.

Rather than a sequel, this is the third time out for Marvel's own dark knight. We already know how Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) lost his wife and children at the hands of gangsters. He's spent the six years since that day out to stop crime at all costs. After Castle kills an undercover cop during a raid on mob boss Billy Russoti (Dominic West), he makes it his duty to protect that cop's wife and daughter from Russoti and his goons.

It's a pretty basic plot, but one that Punisher comics have been dealing in for years. Ultimately, Punisher: War Zone is a painfully familiar revenge thriller, but what makes the film at all interesting is the fact that it's definitely a comic book film. The violence and gore (and there's a lot of it) is over the top to the point that it's cartoonish, hilariously so. For every gut-wrenching kill, there's one that can't be anything but a joke. At the same time, it's no more violent than anything found in the comics. Which is a good thing, since War Zone is about as close to a Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon comic as any film will probably ever get. Vibrant, colorful backdrops, deep blacks and wild explosions. Everything a typical Ennis/Dillon comic offers is on display here. And it looks great.

The other thing the movie thankfully gets right is in recasting the Punisher himself. While I do wish Thomas Jane had returned for this film, Ray Stevenson does an admirable job of filling his shoes. While he's not necessarily a better actor, he's not bad. Plus, he looks more like the character than Thomas Jane ever did. At the same time, Dominic West is a lot of fun to watch as Jigsaw, Russoti after a particularly gruesome run-in with the Punisher. Jigsaw and his gang are the most outlandish things in this film, almost single-handedly elevating the film's goofiness to the level of Batman Forever or Spawn.

Ultimately, that's my final thought on the film. Punisher: War Zone hearkens back to the action films of the mid-to-late 1990s, and is good at what it does. The thing is, the movie is too bi-polar for its own good. There are scenes when it's too mean-spirited, then scenes when it's just too silly (Jigsaw gives a hilariously rousing speech in front of the American flag). If you're into The Punisher, or Marvel Comic films in general, you'll probably get a kick out of Punisher: War Zone. If The Punisher isn't your thing, then you won't get anything out of this movie.

3 stars (***) out of five.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Blu Christmas

I've made the decision.  This is the Christmas that I hope to jump on the Blu-Ray bandwagon.  Now, in the two years that it's been around, I've made it known just how pointless I find the whole hi-definition craze.  As far as I'm concerned, HD/Blu-Ray looks marginally better than standard definition, and that's it.  No need for me to make the upgrade unless I could go whole-hog and get a huge TV with 7.1 Surround Sound.  I've maintained the conspiracy theory that since hi-def popped onto the scene, the film and TV industries have been bringing the quality of standard definition significantly down instead of making HD significantly better.

No matter what direction the quality goes, HD and digital is the wave of the future, and I'd better get on the bandwagon sooner or later.  And with Blu-Ray finally becoming affordable (not to mention titles like Speed Racer and Wall-E finally on DVD), I figure now's the time.  If anything, it'll be a good excuse to upgrade my TV setup.

So the first question becomes: Blu-Ray player or Playstation 3?  Well, all the games that interest me on the PS3 are also available for the XBox 350, so what's the point in getting yet another gaming console?  Also, now that we're in the holiday season, players are available for as cheap as $130.  That's not bad.  Hundreds cheaper than a PS3.

Next comes the DVD selection.  Is having a Blu-Ray player enough to make me toss out my DVD collection and start all over?  Hell no.  I've spent too long building my collection to just start all over again.  And since Blu-Ray is backwards compatible, there's no need to throw standard DVDs out anyway.  Plus, as far as I'm concerned, there are really only certain movies that I'd want on Blu-Ray anyway.

Which brings me to my big issue in considering Blu-Ray.  Not every movie truly needs to be in high definition to be fully experienced.  Top of the line definition and sound clarity won't make a good line delivery sound any better.  1080i won't make an expertly lit and photographed scene play any better.  There's only so much that high-definition will do for a film.  My point is, the only films that truly benefit from Blu-Ray are action films, animation, space operas, basically anything that relies on CG (or practical) special effects.  

What would I want on Blu-Ray?  Iron Man, Wall-E, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Terminator 2, The Road Warrior, The Fifth Element... You get the idea.  The spectacles.  

What wouldn't I want on Blu-Ray?  The Departed, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Coming to America, Christmas Vacation... You get the idea.  The dramas and comedies.

Prime example: Burn After Reading.  There is nothing in that film that I feel truly warrants high definition to truly be enjoyed.  Higher definition isn't going to make Chad any funnier than he already is.  So I'll spare myself the extra $10 and pick this one up on standard DVD.

It'll be a game of pick and choose.  That is, of course, if I wake Christmas morning to a shiny new Blu-Ray player under the tree...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


So, I realize that my posting has been pretty erratic of late. As I've said many times over: school and life get in the way. Especially now, what with final projects all colliding to make me lose massive amounts of sleep. I'm sorry. I have to wonder just how many times I can say that before people start tuning me out all together.

But I won't have that. So starting December, not only am I going to impose a monthly schedule for myself, but I'm also going to start changing up what I write about, because I realize that for the past few months, all I ever talk about is movies. And it's not called "Movie Junkie Loudmouth", now is it?

Anyway... Here's the way I want my monthly schedule to look:

Sunday nights: Movie reviews from the preceding weekend. If I didn't get out to the theater, I can at least still ruminate on the weekend's selection.

Every other Wednesday night: I'll offer my thoughts on a pertinent pop culture topic. This might include the state of MPAA/ESRB ratings, current cultural touchstones, the future of the gaming/literature/film/TV/music industries, etc. I'll try to change things up so as to not talk about movies ALL the time.

Friday Nights: If I have anything to review aside from movies, this is when I'll post those.

Right there, that's a guaranteed 10 posts per month. In between, I plan on posting any interesting links or news articles I happen across on the web. That sounds fair, don't you think?

Also, I realize I have a back catalog of movies I need to be reviewing, and I think I'll probably just do a series of mini reviews, akin to what I ended up doing over the summer. Or who knows, I might surprise you and review each of them in full. At the very least, know that a full review of Quantum of Solace IS on the way. I'm still working on that one.

Please stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Open Letter to DVD Publishers


In an era where we can download movies off iTunes and Netflix with incredible ease, why on Earth do we need a physical disc that's essentially the same movie in a different format? I'll be the first to admit that I'd much rather have a physical copy of a movie rather than just downloading it out of the ether. But beyond the actual movie that I'm already paying for, why charge me more for a second copy of the same movie within the same damn packaging? If I wanted two copies of the movie, I'd just buy the movie twice. I just don't understand it. Sure, it's a legal means of ripping a digital copy to my computer or iPod, but even then, I don't need that. I've never once actually used this extra disc.

Digital is the next home movie format, as much as I hate to admit it. It's happening. That's fine. Look, I'm not against the digital copy as a feature. What I'm against is giving us a whole extra disc with nothing but the digital copy of the film. The special edition of Wall-E is marketed as a "3-disc set". Sure, there are two discs of the movie and special features. But then there's the third disc which is nothing but the digital copy. Why do I need that? Why couldn't the third disc be more features AND the digital copy? It's not like there isn't a precedent. My copies of Rambo and Live Free or Die Hard have digital copies as a special feature on disc 2, but there are other features on that disc. See? It can be done. I guess in the old days of digital copies, nobody realized that they could put the digital copy on a separate disc and charge us extra for a "special edition". It's price gouging at its most obvious.

Particularly with Wall-E, the inclusion of a third disc for the digital copy seems totally hypocritical. When your movie is all about being eco-friendly and urging us to stop being so wasteful, isn't it sort of counter-productive to then give us a third disc that we didn't need in the first place? With digital movie libraries growing every day, why couldn't Disney just pack in a user-code and let us download a digital copy directly from the Disney/PIXAR server at our convenience? Would that be so difficult? It's a waste of silicon to manufacture a third disc that will only be used once, if at all.

Speaking of which, what do you do with your digital copy disc once you've got the film on your hard drive? Presumably, you can only download the movie once (I don't know, I haven't bothered trying). Great, the disc is useless. Now what do you do with it? Personally, I say we collect all our Digital Copy discs and go skeet shooting.

Digital Copy discs. We don't need them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Greetings once again folks. School, life, other things got in the way the last week or so, and I apologize for not finishing out my Halloween month right. If it's any consolation, I did actually watch movies during those days. Once my courseload gets a bit calmer (working on a paper as we speak), I'll be back to give you all the skinny on some of the movies I've seen lately. When I return, you'll get reviews of: Sex Drive; Max Payne; RockNRolla; Zack & Miri Make a Porno.

But today, I want to tell you to get out there and vote! You've got the opportunity, especially in the battleground states, to swing this election!

No matter what you believe America needs right now, just get out there and cast your vote!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

October 26th: Slither (2006)

You know what's awesome? Slither is awesome. It's a great homage to '80s horror movies like The Blob and Night of the Creeps; James Gunn's writing and direction is very funny; Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry, they're all hilarious in the movie. It's a real shame that the movie bombed as badly as it did, because true horror-comedies are few and far between these days, and movies like this and Shaun of the Dead just prove how great the genre can be when handled properly.

A couple years ago, a professor of mine referred to Slither as "an insightful commentary on the state of modern marriage." I'm not sure how 'insightful' the movie really is, but he's got a good point. If not for the weird relationship between Grant Grant (Rooker) and Starla Grant (Banks), the movie would only be half as interesting as it is.

The other thing worth noting about Slither is how incredibly funny the whole thing is. The DVD commentary with Gunn and Fillion is great, as are a lot to the behind-the-scenes features. The deleted "Meat Filing" scene really has to be seen to be believed.

So to sum it all up, go check out Slither. It's disgustingly gory, with some really great makeup effects, but if you can get over that, there's really a lot to love about the comedy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

October 24th: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

I've had four years to think about this, and I think I'm well within my rights to say so, so I'm going to say it. I firmly believe Shaun of the Dead is one of the best movies ever made. Not just one of the best comedies, horror films, parodies, or zombie films. It's all of those too. But there's much more to Shaun of the Dead than any of those four things.

All the best zombie films have some sort of allegorical target in mind. In Dawn of the Dead it was the consumer culture. In 28 Days/Weeks Later, it was military intervention during times of crisis. With Shaun of the Dead, it's the entire notion of desensitization. Shaun is completely absorbed by his own little microcosm that he doesn't even notice the zombie epidemic until one wanders in through his front door. The rest of the movie is about Shaun's journey out of the Platonic cave. Call me crazy, but I definitely see it. The movie also deals in binaries; in other words the movie tossing out dualities and repeated lines and incidents like they were candy, which also keeps with the notion of breaking Shaun out of his stupor.

(Few people I know realize that Shaun and Ed are singing a Grandmaster Flash song in this scene. And badly.)

Having said that, on a purely visceral level Shaun of the Dead is incredibly emotional. Sure, it plays as a romantic comedy, but it really is more of a horror film. The fact that the characters are so well-rounded through the movie's humor only makes the film's key death scenes exponentially more poignant. I'm not gonna lie. I still shed a tear when Shaun and Liz ultimately abandon Ed in the basement of the Winchester.

I got to see Shaun of the Dead opening day in theaters. Then, I wasn't entirely sure what I'd seen. Plus, I was still getting into the whole zombie genre; didn't yet know all the ins and outs like I do now. After repeat viewings, and with much respect to George A. Romero's Dead series (more on those to come...), I've decided that Shaun of the Dead is the best. It's gory, it's emotional, it's stylish, and it's hilarious. Shaun of the Dead is everything I could possibly want in a movie, let along a horror movie.

(Something I didn't notice until just tonight: The guy in the yellow hat is none other than Tyres from Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright's TV series Spaced.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

October 22nd: The Monster Squad (1987)

Here's another movie that I came to way late in the game. Just about a year ago, actually. Of course, I can remember being very little (4 or 5), and my older cousin (8 or 9) telling me all about this really cool monster movie where they blow up the wolfman with a stick of dynamite. It took me 17 years to see what the hell he was talking about, but I finally did, and I gotta say, I really liked it, even at the age of 21.

Basically, Count Dracula enlists The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein's monster , and the Gillman into helping him find an amulet that will help him take over the world. The only ones who can stop them? Yup. The Monster Squad: a group of kids who know everything there is to know about classic monster movies.

I'd like to take this opportunity and nominate The Monster Squad for "Geekiest Movie Ever Made". The way the kids banter and argue about monsters may not seem revolutionary or anything today, but it's exactly the way MY friends and I talked about this kind of stuff as kids. I remember it vividly. The movie plays like a weird sister story to The Goonies. It's silly, but it's equally kickass and just plain fun.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

City of Ember (2008)

City of Ember is tanking hard and fast at the box office. Not that it's really any surprise, because it's really difficult to figure out who exactly the audience for this movie was. In simplest terms, City of Ember is a sort of post-apocalyptic tale for kids and young teens with a retro, 1950s sci-fi aesthetic and themes about learning to help yourself rather than put your faith in a troubled world. Even when worded like this, City of Ember seems like kind of a hard sell. And it is.

The movie opens and we learn a few vague details about the end of the world. We don't know exactly what ended the world, but we do know that a team of scientists designed an underground city that would serve as the incubator for mankind while the Earth spent the next 200 years recovering. The key to returning to the surface was locked in a safe and entrusted to the city's mayor, who passed the box to the next mayor, and the next, until eventually the box becomes lost to time. After 200 years, the power generators are beginning to fail and the city as a whole is beginning to break down. Enter Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), two teenagers starting their first day as pipe worker and city messenger, respectively. Doon thinks he knows how to fix the city's generators, but at every turn his dad (Tim Robbins) and mentor (Martin Landau) tell him to just mind his own business. Lina discovers the previously mentioned safe in her grandmother's closet, and it's not long before she and Doon decide to flee the city before it inevitably goes dark forever.

What the movie lacks in character development it more than makes up for in an intriguing story and some fantastic production design. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) does a great job of establishing a world where Art Deco was the last thing society knew before everything went to Hell. If you've ever played the video game Bioshock, you know what to expect from City of Ember's visual style.

One of the things that the movie doesn't delve into as much as it maybe could have is the notion of autonomy and making decisions for oneself instead of letting groupthink dictate your actions. As Doon and Lina begin putting the pieces of Ember's history together, their snooping is met with nothing but denial from the city's mayor (Bill Murray) and his second in command (Toby Jones). There's also an odd thread dealing with what might as well be called the city's religion, and their annual day of singing praises to the builders of the city. The film doesn't delve into this concept very far, but then again, given the target audience, it would have either gone over kids' heads or sparked backlash among religious groups.

As the film is, though, it sort of plays like The Village for the younger crowd. It's not as dense as The Village, but City of Ember does deal in some of the same themes. As I stated before, the character development doesn't exactly mesh the way it maybe ought to, but the characters are at least simple enough that they don't take long to get to know. So overall, City of Ember is a beautifully shot film with some really great ideas behind it, but maybe a little light on the execution.

3.5 stars (***1/2) out of five.

Monday, October 20, 2008

October 20th: The Blob (1988)

These days, the rule for horror films is generally that remakes are almost uniformly terrible. But in the '80s, decent remakes were the rule rather than the exception. The Thing. The Fly. The Blob. As far as '50s sci-fi/horror goes, the original version of The Blob was fun and offbeat, if not necessarily scary. However, Chuck Russell's remake is gory, frightening, and even kind of funny in its own bizarre way.

After a mysterious meteorite falls on the outskirts of Arborville, Colorado, people start dying as a gelatinous blob from within the meteorite begins eating the residents alive. The police are immediately suspicious of Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon), a loner teen who always seems to be on the wrong side of things. Flagg soon acquits himself when he and fellow escapee Meg (Shawnee Smith) discover a team of military scientists in biohazard suits inspecting the meteorite. Turns out the blob evolved out of a biological weapon being developed to fight the Russians. Flagg and Meg then must race back to town to inform everyone before A) the blob kills everyone in town and B) the military rope off the town and let the blob do its business.

What's immediately apparent about The Blob is that it subscribes to the same school of horror as films like Gremlins, The Monster Squad, and the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Play fast and loose with the genre, have fun with the conventions, offer some unique kills/gore/effects, and for God's sake, scare us a little! The Blob does just that. The first two or three kills are very unexpected, and nearly all of them are unexpectedly violent. Chuck Russell definitely knows what he's doing with visual effects here, and any unconvincing shots are simply badly aged rather than poorly executed.

Where the film tends to wobble is in the cast. Nobody is truly bad here, but Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith didn't win any awards for this film for a reason. Art LaFleur has a fun bit part as Meg's pharmacist father, and Jeffrey DeMunn appears here in his first of many films based on Frank Darabont scripts (see also: The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Mist).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film (and by no means a spoiler, because the film is pretty open about the fact) is the fact that the blob is a military weapon gone horribly wrong. Back in 1988, the Cold War was by no means over, and the idea of inventing new weaponry to fight the Russians was still a viable plot device. In the film, they state that the blob originated as a sort of biological weapon, but in the coldness of space, it evolved into the gelatinous blob in question. It's still a bit too sci-fi to ever be considered feasible, but it's a fun idea to think about.

Ultimately, The Blob is a lot of fun if you like your horror slightly goofy while still gory and disgusting. That fits me to a T.

4 stars (****) out of five.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

October 19th: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Watching Shadow of the Vampire, I'm not entirely sure who this movie is for. As a budding film scholar, I personally found the movie to be a fascinating take on the filming of F.W. Murnau's landmark film Nosferatu (1922). So the biographical aspects of the movie appealed to me, but that isn't necessarily the only way to watch the movie. It works as a biopic (though certainly taking a more fictional bent in the portrayal of Max Schreck), it works as a fun twist on the vampire genre, and it works as a drama about Murnau doing whatever it takes to make his film.

F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) takes his film crew into Czechoslovakia to shoot his legendary, unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula", Nosferatu. The only hitch is the fact that Murnau's vampire, method actor Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe) takes the role more seriously than the cast and crew are prepared to deal with. As crew members become sick, disappear, or drop dead, those remaining begin to wonder if Schreck is, in fact an actor, and not actually a vampire.

What is immediately apparent with Shadow of the Vampire is that the filmmakers are keenly aware of the traditions and techniques of the silent film era. The film itself is steeped in camera tricks, black/white photography, iris flourishes, and other cinematic devices typical of the silent era. The film looks the part, and they pull it off well. So right off, one of the key components is well in place. Also, the two leads are fantastic. While Dafoe occasionally veers dangerously close to caricature, but we've always known he could play creepy, and he does it like a pro here. From frightening glances to a voice that's like nails on a chalkboard, Dafoe makes Schreck believable, someone to truly be frightened of. However, it's John Malkovich that threatens to walk away with the film. He plays F. W. Murnau as obsessive about his work, almost Faustian in the way he bargains with Schreck to do his job. As things get bleaker and bleaker, Murnau turns almost as dark as Schreck. It's a more subtle performance, but I think all the more powerful for it.

As stated before, I don't know to what audience Shadow of the Vampire plays best to. It certainly works as a dark tale of obsessive filmmaking. To that end, it almost feels like King Kong, swapping a vampire for a giant ape. It totally works as a vampire film. Schreck's ultimate seduction of Murnau being the film's big horror hook. The film does both of these well, and can be enjoyed either way.

I'm trying hard to think of anything wrong with this film, and I simply can't. I know it's not perfect, but I'd dare say it's one of the quintessential vampire films ever made. It takes the concept back to its roots (almost literally). This is a vampire that feels much less like an Anne Rice character and more like the Count written of by Bram Stoker. As such, Shadow of the Vampire is definitely one to check out.

4.5 stars (****1/2) out of five.