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 RenĂ© 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...

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


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 (and after picking up a couple more writers), Front Row Center has decided to move back to our blog here.  Nothing against, 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 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!