Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ep. 67: The Last Episode Ever?

Once again, the Front Row Center Podcast goes live tonight at 9PM (Eastern)!  Click here to visit our show page!



Tonight, we'll be tackling the many sordid issues surrounding James Cameron's Avatar.  We'll be offering up our own thoughts on the film, as well as discussing some of the ulterior readings of the film (of which there are definitely a few). 

Also tonight, we'll talk for a few minutes about Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, the Golden Globe nominees, this year's National Film Registry selections, and more.

Finally, we'll take some time to discuss the future of the show.  We may soon be switching to a new format, and whether that means leaving TalkShoe or staying on in another form remains to be seen. 

So if you'd like to discuss Avatar or Sherlock Holmes, or if you know anything about the technical side of podcasting, we'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Joe's Decade in Review: Genre Cinema All-Out Attack!



Like many others, this decade in cinema has been one of joyous highs and and dreadful lows.   While traditional fare continued on pretty much as it always had, the big-budget spectacle became a beast like no other.  Many of this decade's high-rollers were inexplicably critic-proof; no amount of negative press kept films like Transformers 2 from raking in all the money in the known universe.  Sure, some critical darlings have raked in the big bucks, but more than ever the gulf between the critic and the audience is distressingly wide. 

For better or worse, we soldier on into a new decade of cinematic surprises.  There will be inevitable excesses, as filmmakers like Matthew Vaughn, Quentin Tarantino and Rian Johnson will continue to deconstruct popular genres and blur the line between the sublime and the ridiculous.  There will be bigger and better explosions as the summer blockbuster train rolls on, so long as there's material to adapt and dollars to spend.  And there will be files; terabytes and terabytes of files.  Digital media will continue to change the way we watch movies, though it'll be a slow transition.

I could play Nostradamus from here to Doomsday, so for brevity's sake I'll leave you with these, a pair of lists.  First, my favorite movie from each year; not exactly a top ten.  I made an entire Top 100 list, and the ordering there is quite different (To see my full list, coming soon, visit my other blog here).  Then, five that I just absolutely hated.  Enjoy.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)  -  Joel and Ethan Coen have a knack for making the antiquated and mundane seem fresh and exciting, and their ode to The Odyssey (never read it, my ass) is among their most entertaining.  George Clooney is brilliant, as is the faded color palette and folksy soundtrack.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)  -  Wes Anderson's spent the past eight years trying to recreate the visual poetry of his third film, and for good reason; it's still his best.  The ensemble cast plays beautifully off one another, and the visual design is just a fantastic.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) - The whole thing is great, but if I had to pick one, it'd be The Two Towers.  There's a palpable sense of despair that the other two simply don't have, and even though Aragorn going over a cliff is the single most idiotic turn of the whole trilogy, Jackson makes up for it by having the battle at Helms Deep be one of the greatest things ever put to film.

Big Fish (2003)  -  Tim Burton's fanbase will tear me to shreds, but I don't care.  This is his best movie.  It's an ode to nostalgia, but an even bigger ode to storytelling, to embellishing the truth for the sake of entertainment.  It's probably the best film Terry Gilliam never made.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)  -  For a debut feature, Edgar Wright's zombie film is remarkably nimble in storytelling, and at the same time densely intricate in its construction.   That it's a sly comment on cultural complacency is really what sets it head and shoulders above every zombie film since (even Romero's).

Serenity (2005)  -  Almost five years on, the fanboyish fervor has worn off and I've been able to watch Serenity with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.  Yup, it's still the best space opera since The Empire Strikes Back, and every bit as inventive, goofy, and thrilling as you remember.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)  -  Another film about the intricacies of storytelling, this one more obsessed with the telling than what's being told.  Will Ferrell's performance is equal parts pathetic and charming, and it's the best he's ever been. This is one I'm sure won't wind up on many Best-Of lists, largely because most see it as a poor-man's Adaptation.

Ratatouille (2007)  -  Outside of Toy Story, which lives on it's own little pedestal, this is my pick for Pixar's best film.  In typical fashion, Brad Bird pushes his animators to the limit, telling a story that's as rich in plot as it is in beautifully rendered scenery.  Much like Remy's food, this is one to savor one little bit at a time.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008)  -  Here's another film about obsession over the mundane.  What starts as an examination of competitive video gaming slowly becomes nothing less than the best sports movie of the decade.  Think I'm crazy?  Watch it and see if you aren't cheering for Steve Weibe to kick Billy Mitchell's ass at Donkey Kong.

The Brothers Bloom (2009)  - Most of you never saw this, because it only played in a couple hundred theaters, so when it hits DVD (if it hasn't already), go find it.  Nine times out of ten, I hate caper movies, but Rian Johnson's goes so far out of his way to make this the Ulysses of caper films that it won me over in spite of myself.

And because I can't leave it at just ten: Unbreakable, Snatch, Road to Perdition, Oldboy, The Incredibles, Grizzly Man, Pan's Labyrinth, No Country For Old Men, Iron Man, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Now, five things I hated this decade...

...You know what?  Throw a rock at a horror film or sex comedy and I probably hated it.  Also: remake fever, Star Trek, Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction notwithstanding), vampires, Hancock, "____ Movie"s, any Part III that wasn't Star Wars, postmodern fantasy and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Good riddance.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Trent's Decade in Review: A Retrospective Spectacular!

Well, in a few days, for some of us (those not going from 2001 thru 2010, but instead from 2000 to 2009), the decade will end. I, for one am happy to see it go. Compared to the first decade and a half of my life, this last one sucked. I am really hoping for a better next ten years.

The last ten years in entertainment have been ones with vast changes of both good and bad potential. We've seen the oversaturation of reality TV, 24 hour news, and internet serials. We've seen a proliferation of remakes, video game adaptations, and comic book movies. The last ten years started off with a boom of independent film, which has all but died in the last two years with the economic downturn.

Herein are 50 of my favorite films from the past decade, with the first 25 being my absolute favorites. Other than that, there is no order to these movies in terms of how much I liked them. I feel that would be unfair.

1. Almost Famous (2000) - This is the only movie on this list that I consider one of my five all-time favorite films. It never gets boring, because it's all about character nuances. You actually feel as if you're hanging out with rock stars.

2. Spirited Away (2001) - This is, in my opinion, the best anime film created. It's a beautiful, odd story, and unlike quite a few anime, not too short.

3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - It's probably Wes Anderson's best movie. It's got so many characters, yet we end up knowing each one so well, and yet they still surprise us. Gotta love the quirkiness.

4. Lord of The Rings (2001-2003) - Probably the most astounding piece of film-making at LEAST since Star Wars, but in my opinion, this is better film-making.

5. Adaptation. (2002) - Charlie Kaufman's best script and Spike Jonze's best film.

6. The Eye. (2002) - This movie (the Chinese original), fits so much into this thriller that I was amazed. It's moving, haunting, frightening, and yes, a bit of romance is there as well. Seperates itself from all the other Asian horror films.

7. Master & Commander: The Far Side of The World (2003) - A seafaring movie that's full of historical accuracy and yet manages to have it's exciting parts. It's not about battles, but about life on a ship, and I like that about it. It's got great acting, music, and cinematography to boot.

8. Capturing The Friedmans (2003) - The most disturbing and provacative documentary I've ever seen. Just to see that back in the 80s, how they handled child sexual abuse cases was frightening. Moreso is the fact that even with this documentary, we don't know if the people involved were innocent or guilty of the abuse.

9. The Incredibles (2004) - My favorite Pixar movie of the past ten years. I know most prefer Nemo, Ratatouille or Wall-E, but this gets my vote because it just entertained me more. I connected better. Still, they're all great (except Cars).

10. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004) - Heartbreaking, funny, and a mindscrew at the same time. Everyone owes it to themselves to see this. Just don't expect to understand everything the first time through.

11. Serenity (2005) - Science fiction for the most part was not as good this decade, but this is one of the best ever made. Those that like this owe it to themselves to see TV series Firefly as well. It's very much a space western.

12. Batman Begins (2005) - I like this better than The Dark Knight. Sure, it's not as philosophical or epic, but it's more fun, and has a villain not seen in a Batman movie before. Also, less annoying hype and anti-hype.

13. Apocalypto (2006) - Also known as Mel Gibson's OTHER movie. Sorry guys, this is better than Passion of The Christ. Not much dialogue, but man what a chase. If only the Mayans had as many fans as Jesus this would have done better.

14. Casino Royale (2006) - This is probably the best Bond film made since The Spy Who Loved Me back in 1977. Daniel Craig is a great Bond, and the story was updated nicely for modern audiences.

15. The Departed (2006) - Martin Scorsese outdoes himself. This is the best mob movie ever made in my view. It also proves the phrase, "there's always a bigger fish"... or rat in this case.

16. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) - This Clint Eastwood directed film is better than it's counterpart Flags of Our Fathers by a long shot. It's from the Japanese point of view, and has more humanity, action, and even humor. One of Eastwood's best.

17. Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Guillermo Del Toro is one of the best dark fantasy directors out there, and this is his best. It's in spanish, but it's such a sad, depressing movie, and yet so beautiful.

18. Hot Fuzz (2007) - Most would probably put Shaun of The Dead instead, but this one's humor has stayed funny longer for me. It may not have as much social commentary, but it's easily at least as funny as Shaun, plus you get Timothy Dalton.

19. The Orphanage (2007) - Another movie all in Spanish, but this time it's a thriller. It's got some of the most haunting scenes in it, yet still it's sad. Think of a better version of The Others, and you get this.

20. Ratatouille (2007) - Pixar's other best movie of the decade. More for adults than kids this time.

21. Let The Right One In (2008) - A Swedish vampire movie that's both brutal and sweet.

22. Speed Racer (2008) - A lot of people hate it, but a lot love it too. I love it. It's just what a live action cartoon should be, and my god, the visuals!

23. Avatar (2009) - The move forward is special effects we've been waiting for, and it legitimizes 3D.

24. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - Another Wes Anderson film for the list. It's his first real kid friendly movie, though not just for kids. It's zany enough for kids, but is for everyone. Mr. Fox is fantastic.

25. Zombieland (2009) - It's like Little Miss Sunshine with zombies. Sound awesome? It is.

and the runners up....

26. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
27. High Fidelity (2000)
28. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
29. Devil's Backbone (2001)
30. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
31. Donnie Darko (2001)
32. Minority Report (2002)
33. 28 Days Later (2002)
34. Signs (2002)
35. Lost In Translation (2003)
36. Mystic River (2003)
37. Pirates of The Caribbean: Curse of The Black Pearl (2003)
38. Kill Bill (2003/2004)
39. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
40. Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
41. The Squid and The Whale (2005)
42. Thank You For Smoking (2005)
43. Tideland (2005)
44. Children of Men (2006)
45. Clerks II (2006)
46. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
47. Darjeeling Limited (2007)
48. Grindhouse (2007)
49. The Dark Knight (2008)
50. Gran Torino (2008)

I will not do a worst of list, because while this decade did have some clunkers, I try not to see movies I know will be horrible.

Rock on 2010! Ow!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Coming Soon: The Decade in Movies



The 2000s are coming to a close, and you know what that means...  Retrospectives aplenty!

Because we just have to keep up with the Joneses, each of us here at Front Row Center will be offering up our own thoughts about the past decade in movies.  The best of the best, the worst of the worst, all the stuff in the middle, and what it all means.

Some of us might do it in the form of a list, some might ramble in a number of paragraphs, others might even compose some free verse (unlikely, but then again stranger things have happened).

So have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, pleasant Festivus, or whatever holiday you celebrate, and come back soon and often.  Keep a weather eye on our humble little page.  Great things are afoot...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: Avatar



I don't need to tell you that James Cameron's latest film is a great movie, that it's already become a cultural touchstone akin to nearly every one of his other films.  It's a bygone conclusion that Avatar is a fantastic piece of cinema, but simply leaving it at that is meaningless.  At this point, the movie being anything less than stellar would be viewed as a failure on at least some level.  Thankfully, the reality is that Avatar is every bit the amazing movie-going experience that the months of hype have suggested. And then some.

The story is deceptively simple.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine whose been contracted to the alien planet of Pandora.  There, he's tasked with operating an avatar, an alien body engineered to be controlled by Jake's brain.  His mission is to infiltrate the native population, a race of animalistic, ten foot-tall humanoids called the Na'vi. There, his mission is to convince them to leave their home so that the human colonizers can mine the precious rock underneath.  Of course, over time Sully takes a shine to the Na'vi, particularly the chief's daughter, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

If this story sounds familiar, that's because it is.  Avatar is an amalgam of half a dozen other stories, and spins them all together into something wholly unique.  There are shades of Apocalypse Now, Dances with Wolves, The Matrix, and even the Pocahontas/John Smith story in Cameron's tale, and it's a testament to his talents as a storyteller that everything is integrated so seamlessly.  

Calling Avatar derivative is no great leap, but criticizing the film for it is to completely ignore the concept of the Monomyth, Joseph Campbell's term for the story that mankind has been retelling ever since the first cave painting. Every story is derivative of some earlier tale in some way, shape or form, and it's the storyteller's duty to pass such stories down through the ages.  I'm not simply saying "The Monomyth exists, therefore Avatar must be good."  What I'm saying is that the way Cameron distills other tales here, along with some of his own ideas, is inspired, and just because the premise evokes other stories is no basis for criticism.

If I have any criticisms at all it's that, believe it or not, the film feels a bit too short.  So much time is given to Sully's exploration of Pandora and the Na'vi culture, that when it comes time for the action to really get going, things become a little rushed.  There's still a good payoff at the end, but the climactic battle between the humans and the Na'vi feels about 10 minutes too short.  There can't possibly be material cut out of the film.  At 162 minutes, it's not like Cameron was worried about the film being too long.  What's there is fine; it's great even.  I guess I just wanted to see more...


Technically, however, Avatar is a film like no other.  CG technology has come a long way since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, and even further since the days of Tron.  The world that James Cameron creates is almost tangible in its construction.  The forests, the creatures, even the clouds, all of it comes to life through Cameron's lens, and the 3D technology really makes this world pop.  It took ten years and countless millions of dollars of development, but all that time and money definitely paid off.  Sure, there are moments where the visual effects feel a bit cartoonish, but none of it ever looks phony.  The depth of the jungles on Pandora is staggering, and the nighttime scenes are really where the 3D shines.

There really isn't a sour note to be found in this film.  The story, such as it is, sweeps you up in its eco-grandiosity (can I say that?)  Worthington and Saldana have a lot of chemistry together, and some truly great character moments shine through all the special effects.  Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang also turn in equally strong performances as Sully's science advisor and commanding officer (respectively).  The human element is solid in this film, but the focus is clearly on the Na'vi, and Cameron manages to cull some really unique performances through all the CG and motion-capture.

Only time will tell if Avatar is destined to become a classic, or if it will sag and age the way Titanic has begun to (go watch it again if you don't believe me).  For now, though, the film stands as one of the greatest technical achievements in a year littered with outstanding science fiction.  Whether time will favor Moon, District 9, or Avatar, what's clear is that James Cameron is one of Hollywood's last remaining sure things.


****1/2 (4.5 stars out of 5)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review: Princess and The Frog

All my hopes for hand-drawn 2-D animation hinges on this movie. How do I feel after seeing it? I kinda still have my fingers crossed. It's no secret that I loathe the new 3-D craze. Does every animated movie have to be shown in 3-d? According to movie studios, that's a big whoppin' "YES!". Personally, I think those studio bigwigs should be put out to pasture. However, at least Disney allowed a new 2-D hand-drawn animated film to come along with The Princess and The Frog.

The story is about Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress who longs to own a restaurant, as was her dead father's dream. She works two jobs to save up the money to buy a place, never having the time to do anything else. At the same time, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), is looking for a rich wife, as his parents have cut him off, and he refuses to work. When a Shadow Man (Keith David) hears this, he tricks the prince and his manservant into a deal. Little did they know that it included making the prince a frog and the manservant turning into the prince so that the Shadow Man could get rich off the prince's wishes. Well, Tiana ends up kissing the frog and turning into one herself, so the two frogs go on a wild journey through the bayous to look for an old-lady witch doctor to help them, meeting a few friends and randomly bursting out into song along the way. In Disney fashion, the movie includes a wishing star, an evil magic man, catchy songs, and a happy ending.

So what's wrong with that picture? Well, for one, the songs may be catchy, but they are not memorable. It's one of the same problems that I thought Enchanted had a few years ago. I do not remember the tune to one song in this movie, even though I saw it yesterday. I remember I liked most of them, but I don't remember the words or tunes anymore.

Also, the movie didn't feel Disney enough. As I watched the movie, I felt that it had more in common with the animated version of Anastasia that came out in the late nineties from 20th Century Fox than with Disney. Now, Anastasia was a animated movie TRYING to be a Disney movie. This is a Disney movie trying to be a Disney movie. The Disney of today is not the Disney of fifteen years ago. Today it's all about little girls and tweens. Those are Disney's primary audience outside of Pixar. Fifteen years ago, Disney was for the whole family. This movie is a microcosm of Disney's entire problem. The movie is so girly that I doubt boys will go for it. All the men in the story have large character flaws, whereas all the girls are good. It's almost sexist really. Well, I suppose that at least the princess didn't have to be rescued by the prince... Well, not entirely. Anyways, if Disney wants to make money, they need to go back to being for the whole family.... both genders. Disney Animation needs to look at Pixar for inspiration.

Now I do not mean to say that this is a bad movie. No, in fact I found it to be a good movie. It was entertaining, funny, and whimsical. It was great to see hand-drawn animation again. The story was also an interesting spin on a classic story, as Disney is famous for. The movie may not be another Cinderella, Aladdin, Lion King, or even a Dumbo, but it's not down there with Tarzan, Home On The Range, or Treasure Planet. In other words, it's not a classic nor a masterpiece, but it is a solid, entertaining, warm animated film.

The movie has also been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Animated Film. I feel that it has a good chance of winning, though I hope that Fantastic Mr. Fox or Up gets it.

I'd put this one on the same par as Peter Pan, Hercules, Alice In Wonderland, and Sword In The Stone. It's not for everyone, but it's another Disney animated film in a long line of them. Therefore, it's automatically remembered and loved by many.

*** 1/2 out of ***** (3 1/2 out of 5)

Review: Invictus


Everyone who listens to our podcast, knows me, or even reads here (so nobody), knows that I am a HUGE Clint Eastwood fan. I've seen most of what he's directed, and about half of what he's been in. That may not seem fan worthy, but please go look up how many movies the guy has directed or been in. It ain't a small number. With that in mind, let's take a look at his newest attempt at Oscar-bait, Invictus.

The film is about how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) , the newly elected and released from prison President of South Africa, attempts to bring his country together. After a few months of his country not improving the way he wanted it to, he decides that it's a lack of pride for the most part. He wants the official rugby team of the country to go for the World Cup. Now, this team has been doing terrible, but Mandela has faith in Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the team's Captain. He hopes that the world will see a new South Africa, and that the World Cup would bring the two different races of his country together.

People have been waiting for nearly two decades for Morgan Freeman to play Nelson Mandela, based purely on looks. I can now safely say that he does a bang-up job. He was nearly perfect in the role. Even Matt Damon was good, which I was weary about. After the eye-rolling performance that Leonardo DiCaprio did of a South African in Blood Diamond, I was relieved to see a better performance of an American doing the accent and, indeed, the whole role.

The movie did have a few negatives for me. By the end of the movie, it seemed to turn into a generic sports film a bit. I know it IS a sports movie, but one would expect more from Eastwood. His direction of the sport is confusing and without focus. (I hated writing that.) Also, at times the message seemed a bit on-the-nose. There's somewhat a bit of a melodrama vibe in this sport/politic biopic. Perhaps it was intended, but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way when the South African children's chorus started up whenever we were supposed to feel elated. It's fine in other types of movies, but I didn't feel it was really needed here.

Overall the movie was very good, but not one of Eastwood's best. Both of the movies he directed last year were better, in my opinion, mainly in regards to directoral style and story. The acting is better here, however. The movie has been nominated for three Golden Globes (Actor, Supporting Actor, and Director). I hope it wins at least one, preferably the first two.

*** 1/2 out of *****. (3 1/2 out of 5)

Review: Everybody's Fine


I realize that this review is a few weeks late, but so be it. I've been busy. I actually saw this movie almost two weeks ago now. The movie is about Frank Goode (Robert De Niro), and his attempt to go see all four of his children, since they all canceled on their promise to come visit him after his wife died. Now, the kids were all closer to their mother, as Frank was always one of those fathers that you just didn't tell negative news to. You could never live up to his expectations. Well, Frank goes by train to see his kids, against his doctor's orders due to his heart condition. His first visit is the son he was always worried about, who is an artist, but he's not at home. Whilst visiting the other kids (Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale), he notices that things are not as fine with his kids as he was led to believe, and that especially goes for the son that wasn't home. The other kids are hiding what is going on with him from Frank.

Now from that bad plot synopsis, the movie may sound shmaltzy, dull, and overdone. I'm sure quite a few people will say it is, actually. I, on the other hand, see this movie as a melodrama. We're supposed to get so worked up by the end of the movie that the tears start flowing. (It actually almost happened to me!) A lot of people don't like soundtracks and very obvious plot points pushing their emotion buttons. I, on the other hand, don't care, because that's what melodramas are supposed to do, and that's how they do it. It's how they've ALWAYS done it. Of course, it didn't help that the trailers made people think this was some sort of comedy...

De Niro may have been a bit miscast here, but you need a big star to get anything greenlit these days. I was fine with the choice, but I guess Alan Arkin could have done just as well. I don't think we needed the medium-grade stars we got for the grown-up kids either. It made them feel underused; especially Sam Rockwell, who's such a versatile actor, and always so underused.

I wish this movie had done better. It was a good melodrama, yet the highest it got box office-wise was #10. People would rather see Old Dogs I guess. I'm also gonna blame the fact that this is based on a well-liked Italian movie that came out a full nineteen years ago. If it had been sooner, perhaps it would have done better. Who knows.

The film has been nominated for one Golden Globe. (Best Song, I Want To Come Home) I would say find this on DVD or Blu when it comes out. It's worth seeing at least once.

*** 1/2 out of ***** (3 1/2 out of 5)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tonight! - Front Row Center Podcast, Ep. 65

Front Row Center is going live once again tonight, at 9PM (Eastern).  Click here to visit our show page.

This week's podcast promises to be an interesting one for a couple of reasons.

A) We have oh-so many things to discuss that we didn't get to cover last time.  These include the ginormous box-office take of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and...um...  Actually, that might've been it.

B) We've only got one movie to discuss this week.  Old Dogs.  That should be fun...

C) We've got other fun news tidbits to discuss this week, including the release of the Iron Man 2 teaser poster (hey, I didn't say it was big news), as well as the nominees for this year's Independent Spirit Awards.

In other words, we're probably just going to wing it tonight.  Those always make for the best episodes, I say!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Into The Vault: The Devil's Backbone



Before there was Pan's Labyrinth, before Hellboy I or II... before any talk of the Hobbit movies, there was simply a Mexican director who had made a cool Hollywood movie and one independent film called Cronos.

The movie is about an orphaned boy who is left at an underfunded orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The life there is pretty brutal, between the teasing, the violent handyman, the many secrets hidden by the other people, an unexploded bomb in the courtyard, and a creepy ghostly figure that shows up from time to time. We know from the beginning of the movie that a kid died in the orphanage, and that this is who the specter is of. The question is why is he haunting the place.

Yet the movie is not just about ghosts as a literal interpretation. A ghost, as the narrator eludes, is simply a secret. This movie is full of secrets too. Every single character seems to have one, and all the plots are brought together in the end. This was done to the same effect in Pan's Labyrinth, which was the spiritual sequel to this movie.

The movie does not have a set genre. It's not a horror movie, as the American DVD distributors like to make you think it is. At least it's not in the usual way. Horrible things happen in this movie. Yet the movie is also a western, a war movie, and a boy's adventure story. Del Toro even mentions in one of the commentaries that it's his "Mario Bava western." Mario Bava was an Italian director known for his stylish horror and giallo films, and Del Toro is a big fan. I love that this movie isn't set to a specific genre. It keeps you guessing, and sets up for some amazing left turns.

I think my favorite aspect of the movie is how there's a sense of somberness throughout the whole movie. No one is happy in this thing. The orphanage is in the middle of nowhere and is falling apart. It's a very creepy place, even in the daytime. The owner of the orphanage is despondent and is sleeping with the handyman out of self-pity. The handyman is sleeping with her to find where she keeps some gold, so he can steal it. At the same time, he also has a girlfriend who knows nothing of the affair. I'm still trying to get my head around how Guillermo Del Toro fit all of this stuff into one movie and ended up with it being fantastic!

It's a shame people don't know more about this film. It's a true work of art and just as good as Pan's Labyrinth. If you take out the fantasy elements of that movie, and replace it with gothic horror, you'd have a good idea of what to expect. It's ruthless, sad and very romantic (stylistically, not lovey-dovey) yet is not altogether a downer. There's some hope in there too. It's really a shame that this movie didn't get a surge of popularity with the release of the popular Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II. It truly is Del Toro's best film so far.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tonight! - Front Row Center Podcast, Ep. 64

I figure what with this whole blog here and everything, I might as well plug our biweekly podcast!

For those of you who don't know, we host a podcast every two weeks (or three, in this week's case) where we review the movie's we've seen, have some heated discussions about said movies, and even chatter on about recent movie news.  It's kind of an all-inclusive podcast, but we try to keep things current.

We record each podcast live on TalkShoe.com, and one of the perks is that you, the audience, can listen in live and talk to us in the chatroom during the show.  How awesome is that?  I mean, TalkShoe's been around for years, but I still think it's pretty cool...

Anyway, this week we'll be reviewing 2012, The Men Who Stare at Goats, A Christmas Carol, and The Box.  We'll also be doing a once-over on some of the most recent movie news.

If you'd like to join us, we'll be starting our show at 9PM (Eastern).  I'll try and post an update the day of the podcast from now on, just as a reminder.

Follow this link to our show page.

Monday, November 16, 2009

2012



People seem to be completely torn on the merits (or lack thereof) of Roland Emmerich's latest film, 2012.  There are those who say the film is simply a tragic miscalculation on the level of Transformers 2.  Their argument is, in a nutshell, that the film is completely devoid of merit, that there's nothing to enjoy, and that it's a complete waste of celluloid.  Then, there are the more level-headed viewers such as Roger Ebert and myself, who acknowledge that the film isn't without it's faults, but that there's so much spectacle on display that it's hard not to find something, anything, to enjoy here.

The film is a portmanteau of sorts of half a dozen other disaster films.  When scientists discover that solar radiation is heating up the Earth's core, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) takes it upon himself to enact a three-year plan to preserve humanity.  John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a virtually unknown author who acts as our everyman.  When it starts hitting the fan, Curtis and his family flee an earthquake in Los Angeles to Yellowstone National Park.  When Yellowstone explodes, they take a plane to Las Vegas, where they get a connecting flight to China, where the world's governments have been building giant arks in which to survive the coming tsunamis.

This is the plot in its simplest form.  I'm ignoring about three dozen other primary and secondary characters, as well as two or three big action sequences.  Not that they're not important, but...  Actually, parts of this movie are pretty unimportant.  The most damning thing I can say about 2012 is that this really is not a tight script.  Emmerich seems bound and determined to borrow wholesale scenes from The Poseidon Adventure, Volcano, Earthquake, and even his own The Day After Tomorrow.  If he wanted this to be the disaster flick to end all disaster flick, he definitely swung for the fences.  However, certain characters add little to the proceedings, such as Oliver Platt's chief science advisor, who acts as the film's de facto villain.  Being the antagonist isn't really the problem, but rather that his character arc fizzles out so thoroughly by film's end.

At 160 minutes, 2012 is definitely a long film with a relatively thin plot.  However, what the film lacks in narratve efficiency, it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle.  As stated above, there are at least six big action sequences in the film, and the best of these is easily the explosion of the Yellowstone caldera.  The resulting mushroom cloud and raining fireballs is definitely a sight to behold, and seeing John Cusack running for dear life is popcorn entertainment at its finest.  What sets this apart from obnoxious crap like Transformers 2 is that A) the action is easy to follow, and B) while it is dumb, it never attempts to insult its audience's intelligence.

And despite the relatively poor script, the cast acquits itself nicely.  Ejiofor and Cusack come off the best here, the former getting the bulk of the big hero speeches.  It seems sort of antithetical to cast an actor of John Cusack's calibur for a film that mostly just requires him to run away and look frightened, but 1408 proved the man can handle genre as well as he can handle drama.  Oscar-worthy it ain't, but he does his best with the material Emmerich tosses at him.  Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, and George Segal are among the dozens of other actors relegated to the film's sidelines, but make good use of their limited screen time (Harrelson in particular).

Somewhere in this preposterous soup are mixed in themes of morality, humanity, the preservation of culture and all that jazz.  It's almost standard issue for this kind of end-of-the-world flick, but its presence never gets overplayed.  We see the Mona Lisa being put into a vault and replaced with a reproduction, supposedly for safe keeping for after the end comes.  I understand why, but it's a theme which is brought up only once more, over two hours later.  It really only serves to pad the running time, and it's just not really necessary.

If you've made it this far, you've probably gathered that I'm giving this film a pass.  But why?  It's not a great piece of cinema, destined to win a dozen Oscars.  It's the popcorn flick in its purest of forms.  The spectacle has been amplified ten-fold, with every dollar of its $225 million budget on full display.  If you don't get a visceral thrill (or chill, your choice) watching the USS John F. Kennedy riding a tsunami wave into the White House, among other things, then you're clearly not the audience for this kind of movie, and you probably shouldn't be watching it in the first place.

The rest of us acknowledge that 2012 is an action flick from the master of the genre (faint praise though it may be) capitalizing on popular end-of-days myths, and we put down our $9 knowing full well what we're getting.  2012 delivers precisely what it advertises, and I enjoyed every moment of it.  Mind you, I enjoyed it on the basest of levels, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  If you ARE planning on seeing this, see it in theaters.  It might still be enjoyable on DVD, but to get the full effect, you really need to see it on the big screen.

3.5 / 5

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Box

People, I must say I am very, very surprised. A little movie that I thought would be woefully lacking ended up being one of my favorite movies of the year so far. The Box is actually a whole lot of preposterous fun.

The basic plot of the movie is thus. There's a couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with an adolescent son (Sam Oz Stone) in Richmond, VA in 1976 that has fallen into money trouble after the mother loses the tuition waver for her son to go to school, and dad doesn't get the promotion he was so betting on. Well, Frank Langella shows up at the door one day with a box contraption in his hands, a briefcase of money and a badly burned face. He tells the couple (well, the mother since Marsden isn't home at the time) that he has a proposal to make. They take the box, and if they push the button on it they will get 1 million dollars, tax free. Somewhere, someone they don't know will die. Don't push the button, and nothing will happen, and they don't get the money. (He gives them 100 bucks just for allowing him in though.) He tells them they have 24 hours to make a decision. To make a long story short, the button ends up being pushed, and the effects are larger than anything you could imagine.

The most interesting part for me was that the movie was set in Richmond. I didn't know this before I went to see it. I saw the movie while in Richmond too. It's evident they filmed it there, as what few landmarks they have are in the movie... at least the ones they had in 1976. That's another thing I liked. I love movies that are set in some recently past time. Movies set in the present are rendered uninteresting when everything can be solved using the internet or a cell phone. Richard Kelly has set a movie in the recent past before. Donnie Darko was set in the mid 1980s, and it gave that movie a feel that you couldn't have if it was set in the present. It made things more interesting. The same can be said here. I think setting a movie in the past like this throws the audience. Things are familiar, but at the same time very different. It can create an odd sense of mystery or dread, and I must say I have no idea why it does.

The film is much more complex than the trailer or plot summary would make one think. It's definitely a wild ride from start to finish. Does everything make sense? It seemed to for the most part, but I'm sure when I watch it again, I will notice a few plot holes. The movie is just under two hours, but had a rough cut of three hours. I think it'd be interesting to view that full cut one day, and I hope I can. I'm already willing to call this movie one of the best of the year, so I can't imagine the director's cut making me think otherwise.

I wasn't ready for the movie to be as creepy as it was, which I should have been, as I found Donnie Darko to be a bit creepy too. It's obvious that Kelly stole something from the '78 version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, because there are scenes where people in the film will just stare at the main characters or just randomly start to follow them with blank expressions. Now it may sound like I'm just gushing over this movie, but it did have it's faults. I couldn't connect with the main characters because they acted like they were having all this financial trouble, and were worried about how they would live their life. Sounds reasonable, considering the circumstances right? Not when you count that Marsden works for NASA, Diaz works for a private school, they live in a nice house in downtown Richmond (which is not cheap even in '76), and Marsden drives a nice Corvette. Heck, that's better than I'll probably EVER do. I just can't believe that, sorry.

The movie worked in a lot of philosophical ideas that were very interesting as well. John Paul Sartre is brought up quite a few times in the movie. I propose that anyone interested in philosophy go see this, as in that context it's perhaps even MORE interesting. I think this movie is better than both of Kelly's other films, (not a hard thing with Southland Tales), and I am eager to see where he goes from here.

Is the movie preposterous? Yes. But damned if it isn't interesting and fun as hell. I tell you, a movie hasn't had me as engrossed this year since Knowing, which had the same creepy mysterious feel as this. I heartily recommend this.

**** out of *****

Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Astro Boy



For what it's worth, I know next to nothing about the Astro Boy franchise. I've never read the manga, I've never seen the anime. I am, for all intents and purposes, an Astro Greenhorn. I wandered into this movie expecting very little. Imagi Studios' previous film, TMNT, was one of the most fun film experience I've had in recent years, and so I at least expected this film to be somewhat entertaining.  And for the most part, I got what I asked for. Astro Boy is a film that really doesn't have too much to offer, but what it lacks in diversity, it more than makes up for in good vibes and sheer spectacle.

The film begins with a nicely-stylized vision of the future, Metro City an island of technology floating high above the junkyard known as Earth.  The city's president (Donald Sutherland) initiates a test of his newest weapon, the Peacekeeper. In a first-act twist that can only be described as completely depressing, the head scientist's son Toby (Freddie Highmore) gets caught in the Peacekeeper's path and is promptly vaporized. Out of despair, the scientist (Nicolas Cage) builds a robotic replica of his son out of dud missles and hair folicles. Powered by a mysterious blue energy called Positive Energy (Negative energy is red, make of that what you will), the robot (henceforth known as Astro) awakens with no memory of his recent, gruesome death.

The bulk of the film follows Astro as he casts himself out of Metro City and into the wilderness. Out there, he meets a series of strange characters, including a comically inept band of communist robots (seriously, they have posters of Lenin and Trotsky in their hideout).  Astro also meets a group of kids who took a wrong turn on their way to Neverland and Geppeto's maniacal little brother.  Here, he learns the value of family and compassion and all the things that they usually try to teach kids in films like this.

The film borrows themes and plot points from Frankenstein, the writings of Immanuel Kant and René Descartes, Iron Man, The Matrix, and several other sources that I'm almost positive I missed. I appreciate that the filmmakers didn't shove references to any of the above down my throat, instead allowing me to identify them at my own leisure. What's more, I like that they introduced philosophical ideas like "I think, therefore I am" in a kids movie like this.  With the film's underlying message that knowledge and learning is a virtue, it's at least sending kids the right message about learning.

While the film is relatively by-the-numbers, I nevertheless had a fun time watching some above-average animation of robots fighting robots. That's really all I asked for anyway.  Chances are slim that this film will garner a sequel (given it's paltry $7 mil box office take), but I'd like to see more of this universe.

***1/2 (3.5 out of 5)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Into the Vault: Godzilla Final Wars




In his 55 year history, Godzilla has appeared in no less than 28 feature films (not counting the Roland Emmerich film).  Out of those 28 films, the general consensus is that the original, Gojira, is still the best of the bunch.  So why wouldn't I nominate that film for inclusion?  The simple answer is that it doesn't fit the spirit of The Vault.  Gojira is more at home on a list of the most influential or popular films of all time.  The Vault is more about great films that, for whatever reason, are underappreciated.  Who doesn't know/love/appreciate the first Godzilla film?

Thus, I present to you Godzilla: Final Wars.

The most recent in Toho's Godzilla canon can best be described as a loving tribute to all things science fiction.  On top of being a kaiju monster flick, Final Wars features aliens, mutant soldiers, spaceships, airships, lasers, zombie mutant soldiers (not flesh eaters), asteroids, explosions, wire-fu, CGI, rubber monster suits, UFC champion Don Frye, and more!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  So what's the story here?  To put it simply, monster attacks have broken out all over the planet, and a race of aliens arrives on Earth to vanquish the monsters.  Soon thereafter, humans and aliens have created an alliance between the two worlds.  Soon thereafter, the aliens proceed to re-release the monsters, newly brainwashed, to wreak havoc the world over.  It's up to an elite force of mutant soldiers (specifically engineered to battle monsters) and the most badass of American generals to stop the monsters and the aliens at all costs.  Their plan: release Godzilla from hibernation to...well...destroy all monsters..

Yes, it is silly.  Yes, it is ridiculous.  And yes, it borders on incoherent.  But I posit that Godzilla: Final Wars is a love letter to the last fifty years of action cinema, and director Ryuhei Kitamura set out to make the zaniest, most entertaining action film he possibly could.  There's wire-fu fistfights that directly pay homage to The Matrix.  Fighter jets fly into alien motherships a la Return of the Jedi.  Hell, the aliens are referred to as X-Men.  This is all on purpose, and it's not being done as parody.  As much as this is film is an homage to Godzilla's legacy, it's also the kind of over-the-top action flick that they just don't seem to make anymore.

Of course, this is first and foremost a creature feature.  No less than fifteen monsters make appearances in Final Wars, and several others are shown during the closing credits.  Some of Toho's most famous creations, as well as a few that haven't been seen in decades, turn up for one more battle.  Even the American Godzilla (referred to here as simply 'Zilla') makes an appearance, and it's easily one of the best scenes in the entire film.  These monster battles are as goofy and charming as they've ever been, but true to Toho's Millennium series of films, the battles in this film feature some pretty stellar effects work.

In the end, you may prefer other Godzilla films to Final Wars, but you can't deny this film's go-for-broke attitude.  It's so infectiously entertaining that I say it's a shame more people don't know about and absolutely adore Godzilla: Final Wars.  If this truly is to be the last Godzilla film (though probably not), I can't think of a better way to go out than on top of a pile of defeated monsters.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: Where The Wild Things Are

...and that's the expression that parents and some critics thought would be on the kids' faces whilst watching this film. I went to a showing of the film that was positively brimming with kids with their parents. No kid left the theater crying, but they weren't positively elated either. To be honest, I didn't have either of those reactions either.

This movie was originally supposed to be released last year, but after some test screenings involving kids running out of the theater or some such rumpus, Warner Bros had director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) reshoot some things. After a huge marketing blitz starting back in July or so, the movie has finally come out. It cost $80 million dollars to make, not to mention the amount of money they have spent on marketing the thing. Was it worth it?

Let's get this out front. I'm very glad this movie was made. It was one of my favorite books as a kindergartener/first grader. To have this and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs released in the same year as movies should have made this year fantastic for me. Well, Chance of Meatballs just stole the name of the book, not the full plot. Where The Wild Things Are went the other way. It took the minimal plot of the book and ran with it. The book was about a boy sent to bed without dinner. In his room, whilst pouting, the kid dreamed up this imaginary land where he became king of the wild things until he got homesick. The movie sticks to that, but instead of going to his room, Max (Max Records) runs away from home due to his mom (Katherine Keener) bringing home a guy (Mark Ruffalo). No one seems to understand him, so he goes and becomes king of group of emo creatures... How...fun?

This movie has thus far been a love it or hate it movie with viewers. Most of the hate comes from people who are made simply for that fact that hipsters like the movie and other people do as well. For evidence of this, simply go to the movie's message board on IMDB. On the other hand, a lot of people are praising it, and giving it the best review possible. These people are mainly hipsters and fans of the original book who were predisposed to give the movie a glowing recommendation. Now, sure, some people of both persuasions do have their points, I'm sure. I just haven't seen any.

I thought the movie was good. I didn't think it was great. In fact, it's my least favorite Spike Jonze movie so far. He's only done three of them. His cinematography here just isn't up to par with the beauty of Being John Malkovich (the chase scene through Malkovich's mind) and not to the zaniness of Adaptation (the birth of the world sequence). Now I do understand he had to keep this somewhat kid friendly and understandable... but at the expense of experimentation? Not to say the movie isn't experimental at all. In fact, I sat there wondering what the kids would think of the first 20 minutes of the movie. The first twenty minutes is Max going through many many emotions throughout a lonely day at home. It's not quite montage, the camera work is eratic, and it's kinda confusing. It was a brilliant 20 minutes of acting from Max Records, but also a great emotional journey though. It's pretty telling when a snow fort being trampled and going from laughing to crying in under five seconds almost brings a tear to your eye. It's hard to bring an audience reaction like that from a few seconds of film.

The constant changing and rawness of emotions throughout the whole movie is also the film's downfall. It leaves you just DRAINED after the movie. You have nothing left. This perhaps explains the sheer silence after the movie was over. No one said it sucked, no one said they loved it. People just left. Even the little kids were silent.

As to the potential scariness of the film, all I have to say is over-analyzed. I saw nothing in this film that would scare a child over 7 or 8. The movie is PG, which means that should be about the starting age to watch the movie with a parent without the parent having seen it first, I suppose. There are far scarier PG films out there. Anyone seen Return To Oz? Now THAT will give an eight year old nightmares... I know from personal experience. Now for a little soapbox moment... Parents, just chill okay? Kids can handle things more than you think. I saw Jurassic Park for my eighth birthday. It didn't negatively affect me, and this is miles more tame than that movie.

The movie was about what I thought it would be. It featured great acting from Max Records, who should have a promising career from here out. It was a heartfelt adaptation of the book, sticking to theme, plot, and feel. It was a bit too long, and a bit too heady for the average viewer. It seemed to be tailor made to hipsters, the Hot Topic shoppers, and film critics. It was a very good adaptation... One of the best I've seen of a book, but it was not the second coming of the mythical Film Genie either. We all still wait for that.

***1/2 out of *****, and that ain't bad.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Zombieland

Alright, to kick off our triumphant return to Blogspot, I shall review what is so far, I believe, the best movie of the year. (Not that it had to try very hard.) That movie is...

Zombieland! What's so great about just another zombie comedy? Zombies getting dismembered by theme park rides, the search for the last Twinkie, it's a road trip, it's better than anything else out. Yeah, I'm sure there are tons more reasons for different people too. I wasn't honestly expecting the movie to be that great when I went in to see it. I had not looked at critical reviews, had not listened to what my friends had thought... I just went. By God am I glad I did too! Quick rundown? Sure, why not...

So Jessie Eisenberg of Adventureland fame, (two amusement park movies in a year for him. Hmmm.) is one of the last survivors of the zombie apocalypse it seems. He's done so well by strictly adhering to a set of rules he's devised ranging from making sure a zombie is dead by killing it twice (the double tap), to fastening your seatbelt. He finds out he's not alone when along comes Woody Harrelson playing... well... Woody Harrelson really. They end up traveling together, with Woody searching for Twinkies and Eisenberg trying to get to Columbus. They meet two girls played by Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin, who, to put it mildly, are a bit apprehensive of the guys. The girls are trying to get to an amusement park, where they think there are no zombies. Along the way they get to know each other better.

Yeah, the plot is pretty much a zombie version of National Lampoon's Vacation if you think about it. Four people who don't get along very well go cross country to find a theme park that's disappointing once they get there.
"Sorry folks, the park's closed. The zombie out front should have told ya."

Now, the movie isn't a great cinematic achievement or anything like that. It won't change the face of cinema. (Although, sadly, I think it has officially killed the zombie film as a horror movie.) If it had come out before Shaun of the Dead, then maybe, but it didn't. Speaking of Shaun of The Dead, I think this movie is more mainstream, more fun and punchier than that one. Shaun was more lip service to fanboys of Spaced and horror films. This is just plain old disgusting fun. No great revelations or classic movie homages here. Instead we have heavy metal meets Adventureland meets Dawn of The Dead (remake) meets Bonnie and Clyde. Those won't go together normally, but they do here.

The movie is the most fun movie of the year, so you all should go see it... NOW! I'm even going to go see it a second time. But don't forget to fasten your seatbelt (rule # 4), check the back seat (rule #31), and... go to the bathroom BEFORE you go see it because you need to beware the bathrooms (rule #3).


***** out of *****. Fan-bloody-tastic!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Moving Back In!

After an interesting summer playing with all the toys over at Webs.com (and after picking up a couple more writers), Front Row Center has decided to move back to our blog here.  Nothing against Webs.com, but maintaining the site got to be kind of a chore, and with time at a premium these days, simplicity is king.
So over the next couple weeks, you'll be seeing new reviews, articles, and all kinds of fun stuff.  We'll even be porting over as many of the blog posts from our Webs.com site as we can, so if you're new to Front Row Center, you can catch up on everything you missed at our other site.

If you ARE new to Front Row Center, then welcome!  We're looking forward to informing and entertaining you about the big, wacky world of movies!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: Surrogates



There's a certain kind of excitement that washes over me whenever I read about a sci-fi movie which deals in a particularly heady subject.  For me, good, well thought out sci-fi is one of the best things in the world.  The worlds they present, the questions they pose, the conversations they spark; well-made science fiction can get my friends and I to argue and discuss and think about life's smallest issues as well as its grandest controversies.  At the same time, there's a certain kind of disappointment when a film with such promise squanders all of its potential.  Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates is just such a film.

The film presents a near-future in which 99 percent of the world's population (think on THAT one for a few minutes) operate robotic avatars from the safety of their own homes.  The robots look like flawless humans; physically superior versions of our fragile, ugly selves.  When the son of the surrogates' inventor is murdered through his surrogate, detective Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is called on to find the killer.  Have I killed your interest yet?  Because this is precisely where I started tuning out.  Such a fantastic concept is given a backseat to a standard, run-of-the-mill murder mystery.

This wouldn't be such a big problem if the murder mystery weren't so completely labyrinthine.  In any other movie, it would be fairly straightforward.  With the presence of surrogates that anyone can swap out at any time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track which person is controlling which robot.  And then when you throw in red herrings and other typical murder mystery cliches, it all makes Surrogates more complicated than it needs to be, and less interesting than it ought to be.  Add to this the fact that the because movie isn't even 90 minutes long, there's little time for the movie to settle into any kind of rhythm, let alone explain itself clearly.

For what it's worth, the practical and CG effects for the actual surrogates is pretty top-notch.  In his robot form, Bruce Willis looks younger than he has in decades, which admittedly was the point, but it's offset by a hairpiece that's pretty laughable.  Other actors and their robo-selves come off better though (Rosamund Pike in particular), and on a purely basic level, the concept works.

Surrogates probably would've played better during the summer months where audiences might have been more willing to shut their brains off and enjoy the ride.    As it stands, the movie washes over you and seems to dare you to try and analyze it.  Instead, it squanders its massive potential in favor of exploring territory that was already effectively mined in I, Robot.  It's not really a bad film, but it could have been so much more.  In some ways, I think that makes Surrogates even worse.

2 ( sadsad ) stars out of five.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: G.I. JOE - The Rise of Cobra



Simply for reference, I'm going to link you to my review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, because these are essentially the same movie.

Almost every complaint that I leveled at Transformers 2 can reasonably be applied to G.I. JOE - The Rise of Cobra.  It's loud, it's flashy, it's grade-A stupidity, and there are too many plot threads going on at once.  However, these two films differ on two key elements: Stephen Sommers' G.I. JOE at least attempts to make something resembling sense, and it never forgets to include that most crucial of summer blockbuster elements.  Fun.

The Rise of Cobra is a simple enough story.  US soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are attached to a unit transporting a case of biomechanical warheads.  The unit is attacked by super-armed terrorists Anna (Sienna Miller) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), who are then thwarted by G.I JOE, an international super squad.  Duke and Ripcord tag along back to the G.I. JOE base, where they're integrated into the team.  From there, it becomes a long episode of the cartoon, complete with the Cobra terrorists stealing the warheads, attacking Paris, and G.I. JOE striking back.

In between the obligatory plot points, we're shown a lot of cool gadgets, no end of villainous posturing (by Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of all people), and several good gags along the way.  It should be noted that G.I. JOE is by no means a good film.  There's no question that it's exactly the same kind of lowest-common-denominator filmmaking that made Transformers 2 such a ridiculously huge hit a month ago.  As the lead actor, Channing Tatum sucks all the energy out of any scene he's in which, as it turns out, is most of them.  To balance him out, though, is a mostly well-chosen cast of Joes and Cobras to keep the film moving.  In fact, the amazing thing about the movie is how Tatum is the only one underplaying his role, when all around him are actors hamming it up.  It's almost as though Stephen Sommers forgot to tell him he was starring in a live-action cartoon.

Walking in, I had a pretty solid idea of what I was in for.  I knew I was sort of in for a repeat of Transformers 2.  For the first five minutes or so, that's what I got.  There was even a certain point early on where I completely zoned out and started thinking about something else entirely.  Thankfully, once the action started, I was surprised at how easy most of it was to follow.  While still chaotic and generally silly, there was never any confusion about what was going on.  Then I got to know the characters, and I was pleased to see that the film isn't nearly as far removed from the 1980s cartoon as I was expecting. 

Of course, for every interesting turn, there are a couple that are completely unnecessary.  The car chase through Paris is fun, but drags on for far too long.  Just about every major character has a character-building flashback (Storm Shadow has at least three), which give us details that were alluded to more fluently in previous scenes.  These scenes seem engineered to keep the less astute viewers up to speed, but to the keen eye they just feel tedious.

I suppose that I enjoyed G.I. JOE at all stems from the fact that my expectation was very, very low.  Of course, my expectation for Transformers 2 was equally low, if not lower, and I ended up hating that film.  So where's the disconnect?  Perhaps it's the fact that this film isn't nearly as in-your-face obnoxious.  Perhaps it's because there are no mind-bogglingly stupid gaps in logic (not that it's air-tight or anything). 

For whatever reason, I actually had a good time with G.I. JOE - The Rise of Cobra.  Granted, this isn't the kind of film I'll be revisiting any time soon, but for what it is, it's exactly the kind of fun that this summer has been sorely missing.  If you don't expect too much out of the film, it's surprisingly fun.  I realize that's faint praise, but that's exactly the kind of film this is.  Light, fun, and not too awful.

I'm giving this one 3  stars ( unsureunsureunsure ) out of five.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In Defense of Exorcist II: The Heretic

I’m not here to claim that John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is a great movie that should be canonized, but I am here to try and help out a movie that undeservedly gets thrown on lists of “the worst films ever!” The movie definitely has its problems, but the biggest problem with it isn’t even intrinsic to this film itself: John Boorman created a sequel to The Exorcist that isn’t really a horror movie. It’s more like science-fantasy cum suspense, which I will get into later. Boorman had not been a fan of the first film; he turned down an offer to direct it on the grounds that he was raising two daughters and didn’t want to do a film focused around the sadistic torture of a young girl. As such, when he saw a script treatment for a proposed sequel that was more about internal spiritual conflict, Boorman was eager to make a film that was decidedly more positive. The end result was far from what audiences wanted, and Boorman himself became more of a heretic than any of the characters in his film.

So what, then, is it about this movie that makes it so different? The first film was essentially about a spiritual conflict as well. However, it is the approach of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty as compared to that of Boorman in which the key is found. Friedkin and Blatty relish in making the spiritual conflict as physical as possible with the demon and priest relentlessly duking it out through the body of Regan MacNeil. On the other hand, Boorman moves the spiritual conflict primarily inside the character of Father Philip Lamont.

Granted, the demon is found still to be lurking inside of Regan, waiting to wreak more havoc, but the conflict is never really racked upon her body. Instead, it is done telepathically and mentally amongst Father Lamont, Regan, and the demon. There is also an additional manner of spiritual conflict in this film, as Regan has been seeing a therapist who uses cutting edge technology to try and help her after what she dealt with all those years before (she’s in high school in this film). Whereas the priest is willing to incorporate a device that allows telepathic communication into his spiritual world, the therapist is highly reluctant to allow any spirituality into her science. Overall, I would say the greatest difference between the first and second Exorcist films is the maturity of the directors. Friedkin wanted to make his film as grotesque as he could (not that I have anything against gore in films whatsoever), whereas Boorman wanted to make his film more of a meditation on metaphysical spirituality. This huge gap in tone inevitably created the audience backlash that has it ranked as one of the worst films ever.

Of course, other problems in the film didn’t help its case at all. For one, the aforementioned device that allows telepathy between its two users is never really explained. Granted, in horror and fantasy films it is commonplace for weird things to work a particular way on the simple grounds that they are fantastic, but this device is introduced with a name that screams “science!” but is given no explanation whatsoever as to its scientific basis. Heck, it didn’t need to be good science in any way explaining how it works, but any explanation would have made it seem more like a device that was the result of research rather than magic. On top of this is Linda Blair’s acting, which isn’t particularly bad, but I would have to say she is the weakest among the main characters. I understand the desire to cast her again as Regan MacNeil, but the film could have been just that much better if a casting call had been put out to find someone of the same caliber as the other leads in the film, which includes Richard Burton (Lamont) and James Earl Jones. The other big sticking point for me in this film was why Sharon, Regan’s caretaker, lit herself on fire near the end of the film. I got it that she must be giving up on hope and this was meant to foil Lamont’s tenacity against the demon, but I still didn’t really understand why she was giving up. If there had been more set up towards her despair at possibly losing Regan again, I would have understood, but she seemed stable up until that scene.

That all said, I still stand by the fact that this is a good film, just not a great one, and if you can get past its weaker parts and the fact that it is incredibly unlike the first film, you should be able to find an interesting study of man’s spiritual relationship with good, evil, mankind, and science. I can understand why the film made fans of the first film so incredibly angry, as it is more of an anti-sequel due to Boorman’s reservations about the first. But when it comes to the worst films ever made, I find it impossible to include a film such as this, in which a talented director set out with specific, intelligent intentions of discourse. Such a list I could understand including, say, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which is nothing but a self-aggrandizing schlockfest and poor attempt by a self-righteous hack to make his own version of James Cameron’s seminal Titanic. But in no way is Exorcist II offensive to the cinematic palate as truly terrible films are, and as such people should perhaps reevaluate on what conditions they judge a film terrible, other than it not meeting expectations of a franchise or genre.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Blu-Ray Review: Hot Fuzz



Officially, Edgar Wright's brilliant Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz aren't slated to hit Blu-Ray shelves in the US until late September.  Best Buy, however, has released the two a full month early.  Days ago, I scoured the internet looking for any kind of review, but all I could find were useless user reviews on Amazon.com.  Thanks, guys, I know all about the movie itself.  What about the features?  The digital transfer?  THAT is what I'm here to give you today.

If you're not familiar with Hot Fuzz, you're missing out on one of the best comedies of the decade, and one of the most well-executed parodies ever made.  It's your basic fish-out-of-water plot.  Nicolas Angel (Simon Pegg) is a London supercop who's so good at his job that the higher-ups transfer him to a small village to keep him from putting everyone out of a job.  From the moment he arrives in Sanford, Angel begins investigating a series of murders with his new partner (Nick Frost), and the two end up arresting or killing half the town.

The plot itself is deceptively simple, but the devil is in the details.  The movie flirts with half a dozen film genres, and pulls off each one with ease.  It's a buddy comedy, it's a slasher flick, it's a murder mystery, it's an over-the-top action movie, etc.  Of course, if the movie is parodying anything in particuler, it's the Tony Scott/Michael Bay-style action flick.  Edgar Wright admittedly loves movies like Bad Boys II, and that love is apparent in every scene.  Just like with Shaun of the Dead, it's to Wright's credit that Hot Fuzz is just as good a cop movie as it is a comedy. 

This is a film that works infinitely better on DVD than it did in theaters.  On the big screen, you're simply overwhelmed by the ridiculous spectacle of it all.  At home, you can take full advantage of the pause and rewind functions to catch jokes you might have missed or watch your favorites again.  What I love about Hot Fuzz is that with each viewing, I either catch a visual gag I missed the last time, or a whole series of one-liners and references that hadn't occurred to me until now.

So how's the blu-ray?  In a word, great.  The film already has that desaturated, high contrast cop-movie feel to it, and the 1080p transfer really looks crisp, bringing out the occasional flourish of color quite nicely.  I can't say it's a reference quality transfer, as the difference between this and the standard DVD isn't too noticeable.  But considering Hot Fuzz didn't have much of a budget (about $13 million) anyway, this is as good as it's ever going to look.

Then there are the features.  Every single special feature from the 3-disc standard DVD is present here.  No less than five audio commentaries, production diaries, trailers, deleted scenes, outtakes, storyboards, interviews, it's all here.  Even Edgar Wright's hilarious student film Dead Right is included, with it's own commentary no less.  Also, as is the custom with blu-ray discs, there are some interesting "U-Control" features as well.  At $20, If you've somehow held out this long on Hot Fuzz, you'll definitely be getting your money's worth and then some with this blu-ray.  I can only assume the Shaun of the Dead blu-ray received equal treatment, and I sincerely hope it did, because this disc is exceptionally put together.

THE MOVIE: 8/10  -  Hot Fuzz is equally hilarious and thrilling, and proves Edgar Wright to be the Quentin Tarantino of comedies.  Wright knows his action movies inside and out, and directs Hot Fuzz like he's been doing it for decades.  Truly great parodies are few and far between.  This is Wright's second great parody in a row.

THE BLU-RAY: 9/10  -  Not quite reference grade, but definitely a step up from the standard DVD.

THE FEATURES: 10/10  -  Three discs worth of special features are all crammed onto this one disc.  Some might argue that the number of features detracts from the quality of the film transfer, but if that's the case I definitely can't tell. 

OVERALL:  9/10  -  This is easily one of the best values for your blu-ray dollar.  And if you're upgrading from your standard DVD, this'll give you a little extra room on your shelf.  A hilarious, well-produced movie and a well-spring of features, all for a decent price.  How can you beat that?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: District 9



 There are two types of science fiction.  Soft sci-fi and hard sci-fi.  Soft sci-fi is the kind of science fiction that's more about the action and spectacle of seeing things go boom, or take a sci-fi concept to tell an otherwise contemporary story.  It may take place in a futuristic or science-fictional setting, but there's little real science in it.  Think Transformers or The Time Traveler's Wife.  By contrast, hard sci-fi deals more closely with scientific concepts in telling its story.  Gattaca, Blade Runner, 2001, all of these would be considered hard sci-fi.  Very rarely will you find a movie or book that can blend the hard and soft without diluting the whole thing.  District 9 is the rare film that manages to do just that. 

28 years ago, an alien spacecraft entered Earth's atmosphere and came to rest hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa.  Deciding to be the first ones to make contact, human military units cut their way into the ship and discovered a plethora of worker aliens on the brink of death.  The aliens are removed from the ship and placed into temporary housing in a new district of Johannesburg.  District 9.  Present day, MNU (think United Way meets FEMA) employee Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is tasked with evicting all the aliens and relocating them to new, supposedly more efficient housing (District 10).

Needless to say, things don't go smoothly for Wikus.  Almost immediatly, he's infected with a mysterious alien fluid, and his body is confiscated by MNU for testing.  What began as a sort of faux-documentary soon becomes something more streamlined, as we follow Wikus' struggle to escape MNU, survive as a fugitive, and unravel the secret of District 9.  I'm only giving you the basics, and saying any more would ruin one of a hundred surprises that District 9 has up its sleeve. 

District 9 had something of a checkered production.  Early on, director Neil Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were in the planning phases of a Halo movie.  When the studios refused to give them the budget they wanted, Jackson gave Blomkamp considerably less money ($30 million) and carte blanche to make whatever he wanted.  The result, District 9, is adapted from Blomkamp's original short film "Alive in Joburg".  You can see the Halo influences in the film.  A lot of the vehicles and weapons used in the film were clearly meant to be Spartan assault rifles and Warthogs.  Not that that's important to enjoying the film, but it's something interesting to notice.

Now, earlier I said that District 9 blends the hard sci-fi and the soft sci-fi remarkably well.  Yes, there are high-minded concepts like bioengineering, apartheid, war crimes, weapon smuggling, etc.  There are some really tough issues to deal with in District 9, but they're not overbearing.  If you don't feel like contemplating alien apartheid, there are plenty of well-executed action sequences to keep you occupied.  And not only are they well-executed, but the effects work is remarkably convincing for such a small budget.  The aliens (derisively referred to as 'prawns') occasionally look too plasticy, but they never stick out like sore, alien thumbs. 

But perhaps the single greatest thing about District 9 is its central character, Wikus.  Wikus' journey is not an easy one to watch, but Blomkamp knows exactly when to make us fear for him, when to cry for him and when to cheer for him.  And trust me, you WILL be cheering for Wikus before the end.  But perhaps even more surprising than the human story is the alien story.  Wikus meets up with an alien engineer named Christopher Johnson.  Christopher and his Earth-born son have a plan for getting the mothership back online, and they form a tentative partnership with Wikus.  While Wikus' story is predictably grim, Christopher's story goes to some fairly dark places of its own.

Overall, District 9 is a complete tour-de-force of sci-fi storytelling.  It's completely engaging, fascinating, terrifying, and even a little heartbreaking.  I'm not even sure what I can compare this movie to, and I think that's going to be my ultimate praise.  This is a wholly original work that any fan of science fiction owes it to themselves to see at least once.

5 ( lollollollollol ) stars out of five.  Seriously.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Defense of the Avatar Trailer

If today's internet buzz was any indication, Avatar Day (tomorrow) is going to be insane.

Let me back up for a moment.  Today, Fox released the first official trailer for James Cameron's latest sci-fi epic, AvatarYou can watch the trailer in all its 1080p glory over at Apple.com.  Go on, I'll wait.

Done?  Ok, let's continue.

Already, the internet is all atwitter over what to think of this behemoth.  Seriously, Twitter just exploded this morning.  The reason for my posting here today is because all the buzz over this thing is decidedly not good.  People are complaining that the CG looks plasticy and fake.  There's no sense of story; there's only one line of dialogue; it looks like 10,000 BC meets Aliens.  From the established movie bloggers, the primary complaint seems to be that the sense of scope is completely missing from the 25 minutes of footage that all the Twilight fans got to see at the San Diego Comic Con.

So let me say this as clearly as I can.  THIS IS A TEASER.  For all intents and purposes, it doesn't make too much sense for James Cameron, Fox, et al to reveal everything as early as August.  What is it about the concept of a teaser that people just don't understand?  A full trailer will probably hit some time in October, and that's going to be the one to scrutinize. 

The other issue is the CG element.  Complaints that Cameron's 10+ years of research and development were all for naught seem a bit overzealous, don't you think?  From those who were actually at Comic Con, the CG does indeed look gorgeous.  This is a film clearly meant to be experienced on the big screen, so why nitpick it on a 14 inch computer monitor?

Sure, the average joe moviegoer probably isn't going to be able to make heads or tails of this trailer beyond "Some guy puts his brain into an alien and flies around and does stuff.  And he's blue."  Going online and actually looking up the plot synopsis or (God forbid) waiting for the full trailer will reveal much more about the nature of the film, and I honestly hope the moviegoing public will show that kind of enthusiasm for this film.  Say what you want about the teaser, but it shows far too much promise for the general public to poo-poo it right away.

I guess my plea, if there must be one, is for you the viewer to keep an open mind about Avatar.  There is a very good chance that James Cameron WILL blow your mind, but you need to be willing to take that journey.  Chances are, if you haven't seen the teaser by now, you'll be seeing it in front of Inglourious Basterds this weekend.  An initial hatred of this teaser is only the first step in your ultimate disappointment.  A better trailer will come, trust me.  For my part, the clarity of the CG is secondary if the story is one worth telling.  I can't wait to see what else Avatar has up its sleeve.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Ponyo

Ponyo may not be the greatest Hayao Miyazaki film of all time, but this is very possibly the best film for kids the director has delivered. Many children’s films in America try to rope in parental appreciation as well by including more risqué jokes that will go over their children’s heads (I’m looking at you and your ilk, Shrek). This film keeps the humor sweet and simple, but crafted well enough that children and adults will enjoy it alike. Just look at the scene where five-year-old Sosuke and his mother communicate with his dad, a ship captain, via morse code and lanterns across the water, culminating in a short spousal argument blinked back and forth. Who can’t find some amusement in that?

While Ponyo lacks the epic scope of his most recent efforts Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, Miyazaki successfully adds some of the weight of those films to his formula for charming, deceptively simple children’s movies such as Kiki’s Delivery Service and the seminal My Neighbor Totoro. Whereas those two films focused primarily on the familial and social interactions of their young protagonists, this film gives equal weight to the conflict of man versus nature, as well as giving more focus to the adult relationships in the film. Miyazaki’s films have long been known for their pro-environment themes, which are never subtle but are rarely heavy-handed, more of just matter-of-fact, and it’s nice to see him include it in this film by showing how pollution contributes to throwing nature out-of-balance (the moon is almost crashing into the Earth). In fact, this balance wouldn’t be anywhere near as thrown off as it gets in the film if it weren’t for the magical goldfish Ponyo getting tossed into a glass jar by a fishing net, which then washes ashore, allowing Sosuke to find her and subsequently introduce her to the world of humans. The environmental message is simple enough for anyone to understand (pollution is bad and can destroy the world by throwing nature out of whack), but it never proselytizes, which would be to the loss of the charming story.

Another pleasant thematic change in this film as compared to his previous films for kids is the inclusion of the father who can’t bear to let his daughter ago. Ponyo’s father is at first adamantly against her becoming part of the human world, but upon seeing the joy it has brought her and at the behest of her mother he comes to understand that it’s not so bad to let his daughter go live her life the way which makes her happiest. Of course, that message might not be as obvious to the younger kids in the audience, but it’s a nice showcase of the difficulties of maturation that can at least bolster the notion that a child growing up is inevitable and okay on both sides of the generational gap.

Visually you can’t really ask for more out of an animated film than what Miyazaki brings to the plate in Ponyo. Whereas the foreground is more or less in his traditional style, the backgrounds have been rendered to look as though they were fashioned with crayon, colored pencil, and pastel. And considering this film was done in two dimensions by hand, they very well could have been crafted with these media. Even with the distinct smoothness of the foreground up against the softer impressionism in back, never do the two seem at odds with each other, but somehow seem to belong as parts of the same whole. By far this film is one of the best arguments to come out in the past few years to keep 2D animation alive. Disney may be going back to 2Danimation with The Princess and the Frog, but there really seems like there’s no way they could bring the level of brilliance and artistry that Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli present here, so I’m glad to have seen such a great argument here for other artists not to abandon it.

While the visuals definitely take the cake as the best part ofthis film all around, the soundtrack isn’t too shabby either. Granted, since I saw the American release I didn’t get to hear the original Japanese tracks, but Miyazaki has a sweet deal cut with Disney so the American dub for his films is never lacking. For instance, this film has Liam Neeson asPonyo’s father, as well as Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Sosuke’s parents, to name a few. And yeah, Disney did rope in MileyCyrus’s little sister Noah to voice Ponyo, and the youngest Jonas sibling, Frankie, to voice Sosuke, but they’re kids voicing kids and their director got them to do the job just fine. Plus, with John Lasseter as an executive producer and Skywalker Sound working on the American release, it’s no wonder the American soundtrack is just fine. As for the music, the score is highly European in style and didn’t seem evocative of anything Japanese. In fact, some portions reminded me of Wagner’s works, which doesn’t surprise me at all since after a little internet sleuthing I turned up that the film was in part inspired by Wagner’s Die Walküre (for example, Ponyo was named Brünnhilde until Sosuke renamed her).

I would definitely recommend this film to people of all ages and walks of life, unless of course you absolutely can’t stand animation or movies without sex, drugs, and/or violence. But for everyone else, this is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt, and dazzling films to hit cinemas in a while, and it would be a shame to pass it up. And if you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you can always just pretend this is a sequel to Taken since his daughter goes missing in this one as well.