Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up In The Air Review

Up In The Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
Released in 2009

Some films need dazzling special effects to transport you to its world. Up In The Air does not because it takes place in our world. The joy and hilarity of everyday life is countered by the toil and crushing realization that each day is a step closer to the grave. Looming overhead all of this is the morose economic climate of today's world filled with unemployment and depression. No movie this year filled me with such distinct laughs or profound emotional awareness, often in a single scene.

The ironic thing was that I was ready to hate on this movie from the get-go. Jason Reitman, the director, has never been on my good side. Thank You For Smoking had its moments but Juno was one of the most overrated films of the decade. With the latter's case, however, I have come to conclude that all the blame rests on the swaying hips of Diablo Cody, who somehow won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for that movie and then churned out the abysmal Jennifer's Body. Reitman, on the other hand, is a pillar of talent, shown by his directing, writing (along with Sheldon Turner) and producing of Up In The Air. He will garner a sweep of awards during Oscar season and deservedly so.  After seeing this film I wondered why the hell he did not write Juno; underneath the grating dialogue was a sound tale that could have been even better.

Nonetheless, Up In The Air will hit close to home for many. It does not hide its recession-era setting:  job loss, financial troubles and even suicide are general themes. However, this film is a great comedy with romantic elements; labeling anything of this caliber a "romantic comedy" is a disservice. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a white collar man who fires people for a living. He spends 270 days of the year away from home, he does not have a wife nor ever wants one and has a secret desire to reach 10 million frequent flier miles, a feat that he would be the 7th in the world to reach. His conservative approach is foiled when the young Cornell grad Natalie Keener (performed by Anna Kendrick) proposes the idea of digitizing the firing work method through computers, making Bingham's job obsolete. She is supported by the boss (Jason Bateman in an unlikable character that you still love) but, to make things interesting, he has her tow along with Bingham to see if his method is still efficient. Along the way, he runs into Vera Farmiga's character, Alex Goran, who somehow is an exact replica of himself but, as she says, "with a vagina." They fall for each other but in their own, mutually detached way. Bingham finds marriage pointless, at least at the outset....

The acting is probably the best ensemble cast of the year, with George Clooney leading in his best performance yet. A confident, energetic man grows increasingly insecure as loneliness and age slowly pervade his core. He is able to fire people with a grace that he declares is better than anyone else yet cannot confront his estranged family. The two female leads in this film are also excellent, Kendrick and Farmiga. Anna Kendrick has been known from the Twilight films but she redeems herself in this fantastic role. She comes across as a spoiled brat at first but slowly loosens up as she realizes what is truly important in life. Meanwhile, Vera Farmiga, who was fantastic in The Departed, brings her sexy, seductive allure to yet another role, her finest yet. Alex is the same as Ryan in their "philosophy" of life. This thought process revolves around a certain obsession over "elite access" that their frequent flying compensates and an outright disdain for commitment. I dare not spoil any of the story but a few events in this film really hit you hard in the gut. I am not kidding when I felt a physical, internal reaction after a certain scene. That in itself is a feat of emotional storytelling.

Of course, Up In The Air is a comedy in a sense as well. There are many laughs to be had and they perfectly compensate some of the gloomier scenes. Danny McBride is the future brother-in-law for Ryan Bingham and he naturally exudes humor. Zach Galifianakis makes a cameo in the beginning as an example of an enraged employee who gets fired. His tantrums prove entertaining, if pathetic. The main characters themselves banter, stereotype and bicker, all of which prove hilarious. This is all comes down to the fact that this screenplay is of the highest caliber. Usually movies that are written well express it through their actors but this one is different:  you feel the greatness of the actor's performances as well as the supremacy of the script coexist, one from another. You will leave the theater thinking of the impact this film made on you in both its performances and its superb writing, an extremely rare achievement. The characters do not speak in elevated, unrealistic manners but in a plausible fashion, though we certainly wish we had the suaveness of Mr. Clooney in oratory. A touching, and somewhat biting, scene in which Bingham and Keener fire J.K. Simmons' character, Bob, shows the quality of all the aspects of this film at once. He shows pictures of his two children to the two and asks what can be done with them. Keener intervenes for she feels that she, a newbie at the time, can take on these tough situations. Bob tears her apart as she, not purposely, insults him. However, Bingham shows his expertise as he cools the situation off by encouraging Bob to follow his dreams, using plenty of amusing analogies all the way. The full effect is reserved for the film itself but even after recollecting the scene in my memory I recalled its brilliance. For Film Writing 101, there is no better current example to analyze than this film.

Up In The Air, as you can tell by now, is a superb film. The directing, acting and stellar screenplay all combine to create one of the funniest yet poignant cinematic experiences in recent memory. This film crept up and surprised me. It surprised me that I was regaled and hurt at the same time. It surprised me that Jason Reitman, a director I had no interest in before, created the movie for our current time. Hey, it surprised me that Sam Elliott appeared, in full mustachioed form, in an appealing cameo. But, most of all, it surprised me that Up In The Air's slow takeoff ascended to such a smooth, personal ride. I felt like I knew more about myself after watching this and, for that reason, I never wanted to touch ground.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar Review

Directed by James Cameron
Released in 2009

I will eschew hypotheticals and get straight to business: Avatar is an excellent film. It is a film of revolutionary special effects, beautiful art design and rousing action, all contained in a story that holds emotional weight even if it seems like a road we have all traveled before. With an enormous budget (reports stated it was half a billion while it really is less than $400 million with marketing, $240 without) and James Cameron at the helm, an inordinate amount of hype has been attached to this movie and, naturally, not everyone will be pleased. However, for those who are willing to take Avatar at face value for the well-made blockbuster that it is, they will find one of the best action films in recent memory and a great way to end this fecund decade of cinema.

The concept behind Avatar is very idealistic but, through some miracle, it was realized. After steering Titanic to countless box-office records that have yet to be broken and mountains of Academy Awards, James Cameron wanted to make the film of his dreams. It took him years to reach the point where technology could match his megalomaniac wishes but, by the last 2000s, computers "caught up" to Cameron's vision and brought forth the film that is here today. Filmed with new, specially-designed 3D cameras, actors interacted with green screens and a fraction of what is on the screen (at least on Pandora's surface). The human element of filming seems to have been reduced, but this is not the case, as emotion and soul are very much present. The Michael Bay approach is nowhere to be found, as James Cameron does his best to balance the glitzy, million dollar linings of his special effects with a human story. Thankfully, he succeeds.

There is a tried and true story at the heart of Avatar and, while it will not win any Oscars for Screenplay, it serves as an inspiring tale of conflict, romance and betrayal. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a wheelchair-bound soldier who picks up on his deceased brother's mission as part of the Avatar program. This breakthrough of technology allows humans to embody an "avatar," in this case, a Na'vi mixed with human DNA. The Na'vi is the race of indigenous creatures to the planet Pandora, and they are blue and close to 10 feet tall. They all share a closer bond to nature than humans do, and that is where conflict arrives. The humans want an element called "unobtanium" (yep, a joke there) that lies clustered under the surface of Pandora's beautiful exterior. Jake loves this world who, as an Avatar, can walk and run unlike his human, crippled self.  He sees the world of Pandora as a place of opportunity that cannot be destroyed like the humans intend it to. To add to his conflicted feelings, Jake falls for a female Na'vi, Neytiri, voiced by the beautiful Zoe Saldana who made her first big-screen appearance in Star Trek earlier this year. The African (along with Native American, Mayan and every other race of people who were exploited for their land and labor) influence behind the tribes of Na'vi adds to their loving nature, as they cry when plants and animals are slayed. They also call upon their ancestors for spiritual guidance, shown by the trees that defy the laws of nature and hold ancient memories. Sure, some of the story has been done before but it is broke into a few parts with almost all of the action reserved for the end, allowing a period of focus on the fascinating natives. A touching, if predictable, ending wraps it all up effectively.

A point of interest in Avatar has been that it has box-office-breaching intentions while sticking with a cast devoid of any household names. For instance, Sigourney Weaver is the film's most known actress, though she lives up to her previous role in Aliens as a dominant female character. As the creator of the Avatar program, she is a certified genius but comes across as a hardass. Nonetheless,  she quickly warms up to Jake's gung-ho attitude and becomes his greatest human ally on his quest to save the planet. As Jake's enemy, Stephen Lang is brilliant as Colonel Quaritch, who will stop at nothing to carry through with his mission. His character is more of a homage to cheesy action stars of the 80s, shown by his constant one-liners, but is a very entertaining figure because his muscles match his determination. The dude doesn't settle for mere explosions to take him down and proves to be an (unintentionally) hilarious character. Michelle Rodriguez (Ana Lucia from Lost), Dileep Rao (Drag Me To Hell) and Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) all make appearances as well, and the latter especially personifies the arrogant, capitalistic mindset the film is trying to expose. The protagonist himself, Jake, is acted very well by Worthington, a surprise considering his generic appearance. Behind the "jarhead" attitude that he initially displays, a caring being emerges, and his conflict over which side to support proves to be the film's focal point. All in all, the cast of Avatar lacks heavyhitters but has some real talent.

Of course, the real draw for Avatar is its visuals. In 3D, filmed with ultra-advanced cameras and with huge sections of interaction that are only CGI, a certain amount of hype was rested on the special effects and what its technological advances mean for the future of cinema. To put it plainly, this is the best-looking film I have ever seen. The sprawling vistas of Pandora are insanely detailed and simply beautiful. Much of the credit can be attributed to the superb art design which creates original creatures that have qualities of animals we all know, but turn them into mesmerizing, sometimes frightening beasts. For instance, Jake encounters a creature that has the head of a hammerhead shark on top of the body of a Triceratops. The last time I saw creatures so alive and original in their composure, yet vaguely familiar, was Jurassic Park. Many parallels can be drawn to that film as well: there are problems with the story, yes, but the action and visuals more than make up for it to be an immensely entertaining experience. Even the blue, Na'vi creatures emote to a level of human capacity. That was a point of skepticism for many as to whether or not these computer-animated characters can be properly lifelike. Thankfully, Cameron does not pull a Robert Zemeckis on this one and actually creates characters that are insanely detailed and carry a lifelike aura to them. The Avatars all resemble the humans behind them, enhanced to a degree, making them younger and stronger than their human form. Even the Na'vi themselves slightly resemble their human actors, as Neytiri bares similarities to Zoe Saldana. The Uncanny Valley has finally been crossed and all filmmakers should seek guidance from James Cameron on how to create emotive digital characters in closeup.

The 3D effects in this also work surprisingly well. Beowulf and Up dabbled in the 3D medium with moderate success but Avatar is the first film to really excel in this format to the point that watching it in two dimensions is an inferior experience. In 3D, colors still run into the problem of being slightly drained out but the depth of field and clarity of objects is astonishing. There are no gimmicks such as shooting into the screen or reaching a hand out to the audience:  the 3D experience only lends to the experience. This format is not perfect of course; I had a few problems with it initially. In IMAX 3D with the gargantuan screen, my eyes took some time to adjust properly and a chase sequence near the beginning seemed disjointed in what was being focused and what was not. This occurred in dialogue sequences as well: the camera was focused but my eyes could only focus on one focal point of the screen at a time and not others which made these scenes seem somewhat stilted. Others may not have this problem but reports say that some have it worse. Nonetheless, everyone should adjust after some time and then witness the remarkable work Cameron and his technological designers put towards this movie. The visual effects are a shock to the system and, like the best drug, a side-effect is only natural.

Saying this, Avatar runs into some flaws, but their nature and severity are so minimal that anyone focusing on them as a hindrance for enjoyment really is not viewing this film properly. The heavy-handed, impossible-to-miss message of conservation is somewhat overbearing but, really, any film with a green message is alright to me as long as it has something to complement it. The clichéd story is also unoriginal, taking cues from The Last Samurai and Dances With Wolves, even Pocahontas too, as a man who comes closer to nature and assimilates with a native group. This, for some reason, has been a point of contention for some and it seems to me that they forgot what James Cameron's work has beenTerminator 2 is one of the best action movies of all time and what is about? A robot from the future saving two humans from another robot. Not exactly mind-blowing material there. Arguably the best sci-fi action film of the 80s, Aliens did not showcase the heights of original storytelling either; the name is "Aliens" for godsakes.  The point is: James Cameron is the master of cliché, and he does it so well. His directing of action scenes is still the classic approach of "bigger is better" and there is nothing wrong with that. Look to Avatar for a unique visual feast and action extravaganza. The complexity of Synecdoche, New York (a great, underlooked film by the way) is not going to be found here.

There are a few blatant flaws with this film that are present regardless of personal subjectivity. For one, the script is lacking. James Cameron believes he is a Renaissance man of sorts. He most certainly is, as he created, directed, produced, and was one of the leading technical advisers behind this entire project. However, he also wrote the script, a problem that can be traced back to the Star Wars prequels that George Lucas took full control of. The script is far from terrible; it actually services the movie quite well but Cameron, as a screenwriter, has seemed to have lost his edge that made Aliens so quotable. There is no memorable Bill Paxton character in Avatar, and Cameron would have made the best decision if he focused on the story while giving the dialogue credits to an acclaimed screenwriter instead. Thankfully, the cast is so talented that they make the script actually work. Only a nitpicker like me will have real problems with the screenplay and I was amazed by everything else that the complaint is minimal.

In the end, Avatar is a fantastic way to end this incredibly influential decade of cinema. It is colossal entertainment on a grand scale and a film that truly must be seen to be believed. Its release on home DVD and Bluray will most likely contain a fraction of the impact it had in a big theater, a perfect way to inject life into the shaky box-office market. Truly though, its solid story along with brisk action combine to create an epic on the scale of any film to release this decade alone. The technology behind it is massive and also combines with some neat, recent tricks like a camcorder-like zoom (also seen in Star Trek and District 9 this year) that makes all of this glorious CGI actually seem lifelike. The impact of Avatar on cinema has yet to be seen:  will 3D be the new standard? Is making a movie this large and expensive smart or even feasible in this economic time? Those questions have yet to be answered but, right now, end the decade on a high note and see one man's crazy vision become realized through the spectacular Avatar.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

Saturday, December 19, 2009

DVD/Bluray Roundup - Short & Quick Reviews

So, I have not gotten around to seeing a film in the theaters for sometime, though that will change this Sunday when I see the much-anticipated Avatar. A review will naturally follow and then you all can see whether or not it lived up to the hype. In the meanwhile, I have seen a few films through Netflix that are not heavyweights but worth mentioning. I am going informal with these reviews but, no worries, the trademark Zahos analysis style will return for the Avatar review.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard
Directed by Neal Brennan
Released in 2009

Sometimes a cheap, raunchy comedy is needed in a time of serious releases and The Goods fits the bill well. With a talented cast including Jeremy Piven, Ving Rhames, Rob Riggle, Kathryn Hahn, David Koechner, Ed Helms and the always lovable Ken Jeong, the actors alone guarantee this movie to be a fun, disposable comedy, regardless of a shoddy storyline. The story centers around a failing automobile dealership needing to make sales on Independence Day weekend and the help they enlist. This is, of course, Jeremy Piven and his crew who live and breathe car sales. There is a lot of fun to be had here as they tame the wild workers at the dealership including Charles Napier as a homophobic, deranged war vet. Kathryn Hahn, known from Stepbrothers, is entertaining in her attempts to seduce Rob Riggle's character who has a mental disability in that his mind is as advanced as an elementary school kid. It is sad, but hilarious. The Goods suffers from the typical, weak middle section flaw that is common in comedies of this sort but is a hoot in the end.

Final Verdict:
2.5 Stars Out of 5

Angels & Demons
Directed by Ron Howard
Released in 2009

Following in the footsteps of the simply terrible Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons has no where to go but up. It does in that regard but the amount is minimal. Tom Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor who seems to be the only source for solving the cases that Vatican City and the Roman Catholic Church can find. He is introduced by an extended scene of him swimming in the Harvard lap pool, approached by a Vatican official. Because everyone wants to see topless, 53-year old Tom Hanks, right? Nonetheless, a group of a bishops has been kidnapped after the pope's death, messing up the selection process and panicking the clergy. Langdon must find the bishops before it is too late and is joined by Ayelet Zurer, the pair of which displays absolutely no romantic chemistry whatsoever. Ewan McGregor is also here as the clergyman with close ties to the late Pope, seeking to avenge his death. All of this is combined in overly expensive shots, flat dialogue, bland exposition, nonsensical action, melodramatic chase scenes and a plot twist that makes so little impact because the connection with the characters is nonexistent. Some praised Angels & Demons as a great improvement over its predecessor. It is a success in that I did not walk out of the movie, though I am sure I feel asleep. I probably dreamed of a better movie during that time so my opinion is certainly slanted. If you want to properly watch Angels & Demons then do so on comfortable couch/bed and consider your snooze time as the best part.

Final Verdict:
1.5 Stars Out of 5

The Brothers Bloom
Directed by Rian Johnson
Released in 2008

A small, overlooked film, The Brothers Bloom is a carefree, enjoyable, if flawed little movie. Starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel Weisz, there is some great talent in the leading characters and they all play well off each other. The story is basically about a pair of brothers who are also professional con-artists and pull off big jobs with ease. They are joined by "Bang Bang," their Japanese sidekick played by Rinko Kikuchi of Babel fame. The whole style is very interesting but it fails to pull of a Wes Anderson balance between quirkiness and hilarity. There simply is not a lot that makes you laugh, though you might be mildly entertained. Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid from Harry Potter) is one of the brightest spots of the film as the drunken "Curator," though his screen time is sadly very short. The film holds up however, and is a fun time for those looking for something different.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Directed by 
Released in 2009

As a fan of Wolverine and the X-Men comics and movies, I thought X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be a fun, if fleeting, experience. It turns out, both of those expectations were way off as this was a terrible "blockbuster" that stayed long in my head in the form of a headache. On paper it works: take Wolverine, flesh out his origins story, throw action scenes in and end with where he is today. In execution, it fails miserably.

Before focusing on the man himself, it is worth noting the low grade of the characters surrounding the protagonist. The cult favorite Deadpool is played by none other than Ryan Reynolds, a presence with such little comic or acting quality that every line uttered was a disgrace to his character and the film that it was printed on. (yes, that one) thought he could act and plays "John Wraith," an original name that perfectly symbolizes the actor's innovation. In this case, nothing. There are other characters but they are all dreadful as the next and the group sections are a real trial to get through. Unfortunately, Wolverine himself is not much better. Hugh Jackman, buff in a rigorous exercise routine, shines physically but actually decreases in quality as Wolverine, with cheesy acting and a poor script to draw his actions from. Wolverine's brother, Sabretooth, is played by Liev Schreiber, an excellent actor in his own right, but unfortunately he is handed a script that makes him come across as stubborn and pestering. The batshit ending where the producers put all the money they had left, bought fancy special effects and set pieces, and threw it at a wall expecting it to stick is an offense to your mind and intelligence too. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not very much a disappointment in my mind for I had no expectations but it is a complete and utter failure.

Final Verdict:
1 Star Out of 5

Thankfully, I rewatched some good films, those that are not an assault to the integrity of cinema but a grace to it. They are the following, and all on Bluray:
  • Public Enemies - This gangster film about John Dillinger is a technical marvel as well as truly drawing piece of cinema. Johnny Depp excels as does Christian Bale, even if his part is very emotionless. The ever beautiful Marion Cotillard, one of my favorite actresses, shows her Oscar-worth and is wonderful as Johnny's damsel-in-distress. Keep an eye out for Stephen Lang too, the hard-pressed detective who steals every scene he is in. He has a great year with this, Men Who Stare At Goats and a big role in Avatar. A collection of fine actors and the directing finesse of Michael Mann combine to make a very good film. 4 Stars Out of 5
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Rewatching this movie was an interesting activity for me. I found it to still be one of the finest Potter films yet but I could not help but agree with some complaints that it was slow and rather plot-less. The book is similar but, as a film, that qualm really sticks out. No real action appears until the end and there are some sections that drag. However, character development is the focus of all these scenes, something I love. For those that love the Potter world and fiction, my original rating of 4.5/5 should still stand well. But for those who come to Half-Blood Prince and can't tell Ravenclaw from Hufflepuff then any other viewpoint rests well. 
  • Star Trek - Besides looking positively fantastic on Bluray, Star Trek is bound to be a sci-fi classic and is one of the best summer action movies of the decade. No other film in recent memory combined great action and special effects, a compelling, deep story and likable, hilarious characters as well as this. It really is a marvel in every way and a film that everyone, no matter if he or she likes the franchise or not, should see. 4.5 Stars Out of 5
  • Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino's mad masterpiece is a polarizing film in that some love it and others hate it. Some find the scenes to be dragged out too long and pointless while others have seen the light and know that it all contributes to the greater picture. I am part of the latter group and believe this film to be one of the finest of the decade. It is hilarious, insane, suspenseful, and, overall, brilliant as a fictional World War II saga. Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Hans Landa is the star of the show and will surely grab an Oscar nomination and hopefully a win for a performance that I would describe as a tour de force in acting. He speaks in 4 different languages with distinct motions and a fully realized character that was given great thought. He is shockingly good, as he is unknown by most American audiences, and the real soul of this film. With him, the rest of the cast and crew and Tarantino at the helm directing it all, a megalomaniac project that derived from Tarantino's dreams was realized into a work of genius. It will be remembered for years to come. 5 Stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox Review

Fantastic Mr. Fox:
Directed by Wes Anderson
Released in 2009

Animation has always carried a stigma of only catering to a juvenile audience. From Saturday morning cartoons to Disney feature films, younger children seem to always be the only group of people meant to watch animated movies or TV shows. This thought process has changed, especially over the past 15 years, with the most consistent movie developer in the business, Pixar, and crude shows like South Park and Family Guy. It is very rare, however, to see a veteran of live-action cinema forgo flesh and blood and instead opt for a full-length animated film. In stop-motion, clay animation no less. Wes Anderson took the risk and it paid off with Fantastic Mr. Fox, one of the best films of the year that stands as great, mature entertainment while still being a fun time for the younger crowd.

Anderson, known for his films with plots centered around dysfunctional families, takes his trademark style and brings it to stop-motion animation. His quirks and acting regulars such as Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are all here yet he does not rest on his laurels for he innovates on a formula some were calling stale. There are no slow-motion, drawn-out scenes (or two, or three...) but everything that worked with him is still in place and improved upon. Fantastic Mr. Fox is Mr. Anderson's funniest movie yet, blending humorous character appearances with quality dialogue. For example, when trying to communicate with a lone wolf in the distance and after exhausting his skill in English and Latin (he names many animals in the film by their scientific name), Mr. Fox asks a wolf something in French and explains, "I'm asking him if he thinks he's in for a hard winter." This is the most accessible Anderson film yet, and anyone who does not typically like his work will appreciate this film while fans will downright adore it.

Based off the Roald Dahl children's book of the same name, the story takes liberties with the source material which is no concern, especially considering Fantastic Mr. Fox is by no means a sacred, lofty title. The general premise is that Mr. Fox steals chickens, ducks, turkey, and hard cider from the three wealthy farmers of the area with his wife, Mrs. Fox, but then vows to stop when they barely escape a close encounter. Being the "wild animal" he is, he betrays this promise years later and starts stealing again, much to his wife and the farmers' dismay. The farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, put all their effort to capturing the fox and hold the family under siege while the animals work out a solution. It is a simple story and provides a very satisfying, uplifting conclusion.

The cast gives the characters human behavior behind each manufactured figure. George Clooney offers his smooth voice as the title character while Meryl Streep plays his wife. The two Oscar-winning actors have great chemistry as Mr. Fox serves as the adventurous type while his wife just wants to settle down in a life of safety. Their son, Ash, voiced by Jason Schwartzman, is the best character as he constantly scowls like a typical hormonal teenager while secretly wanting attention from his parents. The subject for Ash's jealousy is in his cousin Kristofferson who lives with the Fox family for awhile. He is everything that Ash is except better in some way: a better athlete, student, fighter, lover, etc. Played by Eric Chase Anderson, brother of Wes, Kristofferson is suave and likable: it is no wonder that only Ash has any problem with him. The legendary Bill Murray plays Badger, a lawyer, and Owen Wilson makes a short appearance as the coach giving the "simple" guidelines on how to play "Whackbat," the imaginary, head-spinning sport of the creatures. Willem Dafoe is sly as the dirty, dancing rat and Wallace Wolodarsky, another Anderson staple, plays the clueless, loyal assistant to Mr. Fox, Kylie. Finally, Michael Gambon, Dumbledore himself, lends his recognizable voice as the film's primary antagonist, Bean. The cast is well-rounded and excellent overall, with the old and new in Anderson's world united for his best creation yet.

As stellar as the voice talent is, the art style is where this film really shines. With figures from the U.K.-based puppet company Mackinnon and Saunders, everything has an organic look that gives each figure emotional weight while still preserving the rustic charm and humor that they all have. The fur on each of the puppet's faces rustle and quiver during close-ups while remaining static in others. Obviously, attention to such minute detail was not going to be paid to each, distant shot but this gives the film its welcome, quirky feel. A storybook aura definitely pervades the whole movie, with hand-drawn murals serving for most of the bucolic backdrops. Shots range from zoomed-in captures of facial expressions to scrolling, detached pans of the animals cavorting. This truly is an innovative, original film in many aspects and its direction and cinematography are the leading reasons why. A great soundtrack also accompanies the action with a few tracks by the Beach Boys as well as superb use of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" in a key scene. If there is a reason why Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the best films of the year, then it is certainly its style and new approach to animation.

Like any great film, there is a message lying underneath. The correlation between humans and animals (we are all animals, technically, after all) serves as a concealed foundation for most of the action. The debonair Mr. Fox is as sophisticated as James Bond yet engulfs his food like the vicious creature he is. On the contrary, the three rich farmers rake in huge profits yet commit literally their entire lives to bringing down a measly fox while Bean's disgustingly ugly son shoves his face with food and watches the events unfold on TV. There is a look into the human psyche in this film, funnily enough, that is not only pro-nature but showcasing the stupidity in some and brilliance in others. Anyone can be a Mr. Fox if they know what matters most in their life, even if it takes a near-death experience to reveal it. Further reinforcing this human-animal comparison point is the constant switching of titles in each scene, sometimes listing how much time has passed in "fox years" opposite human years. Action moves faster in the fox world (about 2 human years equals 12 fox ones) and this motivates the animals to get the most out of their life instead of eating 12 chickens a day like fat old Boggis.

Fantastic Mr. Fox lives to its namesake and is truly fantastic. The stellar voice acting and art style combine to create a unique experience that is one of the better comedies of year while still being animated. Any age group will enjoy this film, though different ages will obviously get different experiences. Children will be fascinated by its looks and like the characters while the older set will laugh at most of the jokes and appreciate the care that has been placed on every detail. This film also has one of the best censored scripts ever, with every curse word replaced with "cuss." It seems gimmicky at first but its abundance makes it friendly for the younger crowd while giving enough hints to know what the animals are really saying. And if there is anything that this film is trying to get across, it is that we are all wild animals in the end.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Road Review

The Road:
Directed by John Hillcoat
Released in 2009

The world is in ruins. Once-lively cities are now wastelands. Forests are no more than burnt twigs and dead leaves. Almost the entire human race is extinct. And we do not know why.

Such is the general premise of The Road. An apocalypse, of human or natural origin is not known, completely ravages the world yet brings together two survivors: a father and son. In a world where the sun has ceased to rise, a young boy faces a tough life full of struggle, death and mystery. In The Road, directed by John Hillcoat, this boy is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a relative newcomer to cinema who shines as the pure, unscathed soul in a world of pain. His fiercely protective father, played by the consistently excellent Viggo Mortensen, does not hide the world's state in front of his son's eyes but will kill anyone who tries to harm him. This relationship is the foundation for this entire film and what could have been a disastrous, boring two hours of cinema is elevated as one of the best films of 2009 because of the superb acting and excellent source material by Cormac McCarthy.

The action, set only a few years into the future considering the child was born before the apocalypse, is offset by a few flashbacks to a supposedly better time. Charlize Theron is the mother who cannot bear the life and world she lives in as the atrophy of her marriage comes to attest. The tragic turn of events in their relationship sets the father and son off into the world, alone. They seek to go to the sea, most likely because it always carries a symbolic hope that the land does not. Most of the survivors have resorted to theft, murder or cannibalism, the latter shown during a haunting visit to a house's cellar. With only two bullets and a revolver to defend themselves with, the man and boy, never given a name, decide to flee most of their dangerous encounters rather than combat them. The boy consistently asks his father, "Are we the good guys?" met with the usual response "Of course we are." However, as later events show including a heartbreaking encounter with a poor thief, their moral compass starts to point astray in a land with no laws or predetermined consequences.

There is a bare minimum of supporting characters in this tale, though each one is extremely memorable in one way or another. Guy Pearce, with a facade far away from Memento, is the base for the film's powerful, closing scene. Michael K. Williams is the aforementioned thief who becomes the subject for the father's fury. His disheveled look and emotional pleading provide a compelling character who serves as a turning point for the man and boy's journey. None of these characters, however, compare to the impact the old man makes in his memorable 9 minutes of screen time. Robert Duvall, almost unrecognizable under layers of dirt, worn skin and glossy cataracts, is the "Old Man" the pair comes across and spends a night with. In a rather humorless film, he provides a few lines of comic relief yet also some of the deepest, most philosophical dialogue of the film. When asked by the father if he ever thinks of dying, he responds, "It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these." A line like that sits alongside Colonel Kilgore's famous napalm speech in that you laugh at it yet choke on its resonance. His past is mysterious as well considering he cries after seeing the young boy in front of him, an angel in his eyes, and had a son whose fate he is too tortured to reveal.  Duvall's short appearance makes the movie and enlightens everything around him.

What is around him is bleak and depressing, though beautifully poetic in a way. With cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, known for countless foreign films as well as the recent Twilight film (huh?), a vision of torn-apart America is realized. Gray and brown are the film's primary colors and the brighter, pre-destruction world is a real counter to what exists in their current environment. A captivating score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis does not overstay its welcome, a worry in a story of such raw, coarse melancholy. While No Country For Old Men, the fantastic, other McCarthy adaptation, brilliantly implemented almost no orchestration whatsoever, The Road uses it to its advantage by incorporating a light layer of it during many of the scenes. 

The Road is a bleak, depressing film. One of the first shots of Viggo Mortensen's character as he is sleeping almost looks like a zombie, with mouth ajar and hollow eyes. The life from him is draining and he seems to exist merely as a shell of what he used to be. There is also a common theme of suicide that pervades the whole film. In an opening conversation between father and son, he teaches his child how to properly commit suicide with a revolver, a necessity for anyone being sought out by cannibals it seems. However, there is an uplifting nature to this film. The father has a purpose in life, to protect and care for his boy, that continually motivates him to push forward. Moments of childlike wonder pop up as well, such as the son drinking a can of Coke that has retained its fizz. Ultimately, The Road is austere in its nature yet optimistic in its message that there is always something to be fighting for, that blue sea to reach. 

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats Review

The Men Who Stare At Goats
Directed by Grant Heslov
Released in 2009

"The Men Who Stare At Goats: A Film By The Coen Brothers."

That is actually not true, like many parts of the film, but it might as well be. This movie has as much Coen Brothers quirkiness and humor as The Big Lebowski. It can be very uneven at parts but, in the end, The Men Who Stare At Goats is an enjoyable ride.

Based off a book by Jon Ronson and directed by Grant Heslov (a producer and writer of Good Night, Good Luck), The Men Who Stare At Goats is a strangely named film about the story of  Bob Wilton, played by Ewan McGregor, an Ann Arbor journalist who, after being dumped by his girlfriend, is seeking for reckless adventure. He finds it in Kuwait when he meets Lyn Cassady, George Clooney in a mix between his nutty Burn After Reading character and the chill Danny Ocean from the Ocean's series. Bob heard of Lyn back in the States when he interviewed a supposed "super soldier" who had psychic powers. He mentioned Lyn as being the best of the best, someone able to stop a goat's heart from beating by merely staring at it. When Bob and Lyn go into Iraq on a joint effort, they run into kidnappers, a Coen's staple, and must escape. Flashbacks are also shown in between the current day action, such as a hippie Lyn Cassady receiving training from Bill Django, basically an aged version of The Dude played by Jeff Bridges. The similarities between this character and The Dude in The Big Lebowski are the main reason why this movie seems so akin to a Coens film, though the general vibe it has definitely attributes to this. More plot and events develop as the movie progresses, but, much like the state of many of the character throughout the film, it all seems to be under the influence of questionable substances.

Kevin Spacey makes an all-too-short appearance as Larry Hooper, a soldier with a grudge against Lyn and Bill. His deadpan delivery is a bright spot of the film and the ratty moustache he wears also ends up being one of the film's best jokes. The title of the film can be seen as a joke in itself as well. The psychic powers are never fully revealed or shown besides a few questionable occurrences. There is no denying that the title really draws in the passerby though. Kudos to the marketing team then. The movie also claims some of the events to be true without asserting any proof. Some people have been bothered by this but I find it humorous as well as drawing yet another parallel to the Coen Brothers. Their masterwork Fargo starts with the line "THIS IS A TRUE STORY," even when the entire story was a fabrication of Joel and Ethan's mind. The Middle Eastern setting makes The Men Who Stare At Goats a more debatable story, though it is almost certainly false. 

When looking at The Men Who Stare At Goats from the bigger picture, it does not leave the brightest impression. The story was jumbled and the characters never were fully-developed. However, the fun in this film lies in the minute-to-minute scenes. Kevin Spacey giving Clooney a "death palm" and George's hilarious reaction to are where the film finds its strengths. The Dude (I cannot call him anything else), old and overweight, with a ripped open shirt flying a helicopter while on LSD is priceless in itself. McGregor's narration can be a bit bland at times but his final scene is a good parody, or realization, of the film's events. I certainly recommend any Coen Brothers fan to see The Men Who Stare At Goats. Some may be left flabbergasted but that is the point. It was a wild acid trip while it lasted: you may not remember all of it but you can recall it being a fun ride. 

Final Verdict: 
3 Stars Out of 5

With The Beatles....In 2009

“By reinterpreting an essential symbol of one generation in the medium and technology of another, The Beatles: Rock Band provides a transformative entertainment experience. In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made."

Seth Schiesel, the New York Times video game critic, declared this upon the release of The Beatles: Rock Band on September 9, 2009. In the field of journalism, this type of statement is viewed as hyperbole. And it is. However, Schiesel makes a somewhat valid point here about the importance of this new release. By blending icons of two generations (Beatles for old; video games for current), The Beatles: Rock Band is a far more important release for both music and video games than the fifth Guitar Hero or another Rock Band featuring LEGOs (yes, there is one).

But first, a short history. Practically every human being on the planet with an ear for popular music is aware of The Beatles. From their Liverpool days to the final rooftop concert they performed in London, The Beatles defined a generation and remain one of the most influential acts on the planet. John, Paul, George and Ringo created immortal albums such as Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul that remain ingrained into the public consciousness today. Thus, this Rock Band release is significant in its ability to bring The Beatles’ music to those who may not be that acquainted with their music already.

Nonetheless, the only thing people want to know is whether or not the game lives up to the hype or not. To an extent, it certainly does. The tried and true Rock Band formula is brought here with little change to the fundamental structure but many tweaks to the aesthetic style. The game is bright and organic, unlike many of the dark, dimly lit venues from Rock Band 2. The most famous venues of the Beatles’ career serve as backdrops for the songs, including the Cavern Club in Liverpool, Shea Stadium and Budokan. Once the Beatles moved past touring and fully divulged their creative element, they settled at Studio 2 in Abbey Road, which is where most of The Beatles: Rock Band takes place at. Here, each song starts in their expansive studio then transforms into a “dreamscape” based off the song that is being played. For instance, “Yellow Submarine” will feature nautical scenery such as huge waves and, of course, a yellow submarine. All of the songs at Abbey Road have an individual scene and while some of them are drab (“Getting Better” is merely flashing lights and Sgt. Pepper garb), the dreamscapes really set this experience apart from any other music game out there and really make this game a loving tribute to the band that brought so much to the world.

Furthermore, the set list is stellar even if it misses some key tracks. All points of their career are
touched upon, starting with “I Saw Her Standing There” and ending with, well, “The End.” “Dear Prudence” is a blast to play on any instrument, with difficult hammer-ons for guitar, a steady groove for bass, complex fills for drums and a soulful vocal part. Speaking of vocals, there is an innovative (and somewhat overdue) addition brought to this game: 3-part harmonies. As any Beatles fan knows, much of the magic behind their songs lies in the layered harmonies between John, Paul and George. For this game, three different microphones can be plugged in for different participants to attempt to harmonize with one another. It is not easy to do but it is very satisfying when the chorus of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is mastered with a group of people. While vocals are obviously tough merely because of the voices behind the songs, the rest of the difficulty on the instruments are a considerable knock down from other Rock Band/Guitar Hero games. The Beatles were not the technical masters of their instruments like Eric Clapton and Keith Moon of the day even if they still rank up there with the best. The creativity they had was unequivocal and, thus, why their songs were so captivating. I was able to 5-star nearly every song on Expert Bass or Hard/Expert Guitar, something I am rarely able to do in other games. However, the drums actually remain very challenging, possibly dispelling the naysayers of Ringo’s ability. “I Wanna Be Your Man,” from the early album Meet The Beatles, is shockingly hard, with an erratic beat and intricate rhythm that is laughably difficult. The note patterns on the whole are not as tough as other games but arrive at a good middle ground to cater to newcomers as well as veterans, leaving both parties satisfied in the end.

It is disappointing that such tracks as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Hey Jude” are unexplainably absent from the game as well, but they will most likely appear down the road in the form of downloadable content. The full albums of Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul are planned to release before the year is over, and Abbey Road already came out with songs like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Oh! Darling.” Even with the missing songs, the library included in the game is varied and fun to play, which ultimately means the most in this case.

The Beatles: Rock Band is obviously a labor of love from the folks behind it at Harmonix. Every aspect of this game feels more polished and refined then other music games that have come before it. The fact that this game was made is still somewhat shocking considering Apple Corps, the Beatles’ studio, and their strict protection of the band’s name. They obviously oversaw many of the stages of production, making sure this was not slighting the band in any sense. Apparently they demanded more wind to be added to the final rooftop concert, seeking to capture that chilly day accurately. However, the history in the game is certainly a sugarcoated one, with nary a mention of the forces behind their breakup. Any fan knows those details though, and this game really serves as a tribute to why they were so great in the first place.

Of course, there are many out there who could care less about The Beatles: Rock Band but still eagerly awaited September 9th. That reason is because the remasters of The Beatles’ catalog was released on this day as well. Available in two different sets, stereo and mono, The Beatles’ catalog finally received the upgrade it has severely needed.

To those unaware, the 1987 CD versions of The Beatles’ music were released haphazardly in stereo, without much care or attention to detail. Fans for over 20 years have been seeking better forms of their music, found, of course, on vinyl. However, with the new release of these CDs, the LPs may not be the superior alternative anymore. I got an early holiday gift in the form of the mono box set and observed some of the differences between the remasters and the 1987 CDs.

Please Please Me, The Beatles’ debut, features a number of classic tracks but they usually were flat or lacking in energy. This is different with the remasters, with “Twist and Shout” being a great example. John, who recorded this song at the end of a daylong session, barely has any vocal cords left, giving it its famous, raw sound. The detail is fleshed out with this remaster, making it sound much more authentic and close to the original recording. One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Taxman,” was a rather shoddy track previously but is given new life with this facelift. The bass and drums are cranked up and sound drastically different. Some songs even change pitch or tempo, such as “She’s Leaving Home.” Raised a half step and sped up, Paul’s singing sounds more confident and less shaky than before. Listening to these songs on my PS3 hooked to a nice sound system, I really was impressed by the quality and overall vigor the songs captured. Even without a nice sound system, these songs are great on headphones or boomboxes because of the one-channel sound that mono is defined by. Truthfully, most of the changes are small but, overall, they create a new set of recordings that is really greater than the sum of its parts. Mono sounds very different from stereo and my time with the latter has been restricted to online samplings so I cannot properly gauge its quality. However, mono is the biggest jump from the 1987 set so this box set is probably the best way to buy the remasters considering that they are unavailable for individual purchase.

It is not often that a nearly 50-year-old act is given the spotlight in today’s fast-moving society, but The Beatles aren't your average band. As the top-selling band of all time, there was not much more ground that they needed to cover to gain more recognition or acclaim. However, they are now the feature of the best music game to date, one that is appealing to many who have been unaware of most of their work, as well as serving the ultimate fan service to the millions of loyal fans in the form of the new, remastered box sets. Even after the death of George and John, their influence remains strong. There will never be an act that can rival their impact again, but the fact that we can celebrate their work together, decades later, benefits all of us.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

This Is It and Paranormal Activity Reviews

There have been two movies as of late that have gotten a lot of attention for one reason or another. One is a tribute to the King of Pop, the one and only Michael Jackson, while the other has been declared the "scariest movie ever made." I found that only one of these two actually lived up to the hype. However, since they are shorter and, while not undermining the artistic merit of either of these films, less deep productions, I decided to write shorter reviews for both of them.

This Is It
Love him or hate him, but Michael Jackson was one of a kind. From his roots in Gary, Indiana, where he started the Jackson 5 with the rest of his family to the days of Thriller and Off The Wall and until his tragic, confused death, no other individual ever made such an impact on pop music as MJ. As a tribute to his legacy, This Is It seems like a money-grabbing attempt at the countless legions of fans who want to see what Michael's final days were like. However, much to my surprise, this movie turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable and perhaps the best tribute that could be made.

This Is It's premise is simple:  take the footage of Michael's rehearsals for his planned reunion tour which was filmed all just weeks, days or mere hours before his death, and add some interviews and stylish editing to top it off. Honestly though, it works. The movie can be labeled a concert film considering that about 75% of the on-screen action is singing or dancing but it keeps you engaged throughout with great pacing and effects. 

The music is the star here, and it does not disappoint. MJ sings most of the songs with an energy that strictly contradicts his supposed sickly state of the time, considering he hits most of the high notes with relative ease. Basically all of his classics are here, with "Beat It", "Billie Jean", "Human Nature", "Thriller", "Wanna Be Startin Something" and many more. For songs such as "Thriller", filmed sequences in graveyards were filmed to be used as a backdrop for the concert action. We see the filming process and the intricacies involved, though obviously most of the detail will probably be included in the Ultra Super Collector's Edition of the film which is bound to be released.  The "Smooth Criminal" scene is fantastic, blending scenes from Humphrey Bogart's film Gilda with the, well, smooth criminal that is MJ. At the end, or even in the middle, of some songs Michael will stop to note something he wants changed or improved upon. He was always a perfectionist and this film truly shows how he wanted everything to be just right for his final shows. 

There is no look at Michael's troubled life or death in this film whatsoever. It is all about the music, and the lives he touched throughout his life. Interviews with backup dancers and musicians all gush over what Michael brought to their lives and the effect he made on them.  The director, Kenny Ortega, obviously saw the greatness in Michael as well and worked hard to make this concert be the best it could be. Unfortunately, it never happened. After watching this rehearsal footage you can only wonder what could have been. Seriously, this would have been one of the most elaborate, and probably best, tours ever done if it could have followed through. But, in the end, we are left with this tribute alone, and it achieves its job and then some by reminding us all of Michael Jackson's legacy in a positive, loving light.

Final Verdict:
4 out of 5 Stars

Paranormal Activity
Well, there is not much to say about this film besides the fact that I was disappointed. I do not know why I even anticipated much, though the claim that this was the "scariest movie ever made" definitely enticed me into seeing it. However, I never was genuinely scared or really spooked. I was interested in it, but not in a very attached way.

Basically, Paranormal Activity is the story of a couple in Los Angeles who experience various "hauntings" in their bedroom at night. The boyfriend installs a camera and documents everything Blair Witch-style, as the whole movie is in the handicam format. I am not an advocate of that type of filmmaking (Cloverfield was not a big hit for me) but, in this case, it does work to some extent. With the lack of any real special effects and the bare bones budget of $15,000, Paranormal Activity is taking the raw approach and an acknowledged, cheap camera can get the job done. Once the movie gets going (there are no opening titles or credits), it becomes very formulaic. A night passes by and we see the strange footage of things that happened. Micah (the boyfriend) and Katie (the...girlfriend) observe the footage and freak out. It is quite a bore for the first half or so as nothing really occurs of much significance besides an extremely cheesy appearance by an actor playing an expert at psychological and spiritual affairs like the ones the two are experiencing. I will not spoil anything else that happens in this film but I will say that I never was scared in a way that I anticipated. This seems to be a trend too; only the really, really sensitive will be genuinely freaked out by this. The ending is a bit of a disappointment too. Too anticlimactic, gimmicky and cliched to leave a good impression.

Overall, Paranormal Activity is a movie that really benefits from our current forms of communication (Facebook, Twitter, etc), because it has been making rounds on the Internet and claiming the spoils with a near $90 million domestic gross as of this writing. This may be the most profitable movie ever made in the long run. Still, Paranormal Activity is a shallow film that will be all the buzz now but never thought of again a few months down the line. It may be worth seeing it to just experience it, but the experience really is nothing special.

Final Verdict:
2.5 Stars Out of 5 

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are Review

Where The Wild Things Are:
Directed by Spike Jonze
Released in 2009

"Well, that was underwhelming." That was the first thought I had when I left the theater after seeing Where The Wild Things Are. The movie lacked focus, it did not pack the punch of emotion like I expected it to and the ending seemed abrupt. I was ready to cast the film aside and call it a disappointment. That was until I gave it some time to sit, to digest. The greatness of some films is not always apparent from the initial impressions; upon leaving Inglourious Basterds I knew I had seen a mad masterpiece but I didn't appreciate the perfection that is Dr. Strangelove until a second viewing. Where The Wild Things Are is no exception; beneath the cuddly, kid movie surface lies a film that is one of the deepest and emotional tales I have seen in years.

Initially, let me explain the general premise to the uninitiated:  Where The Wild Things Are is based off the beloved children's book by Maurice Sendak, released in 1963 and featured in the childhood of millions of American children since. The book is only 10 sentences long and, thus, hard to adapt to a full-length feature film. However, screenwriters Spike Jonze (also the director) and Dave Eggers take the overall premise of the picture book as well as the aesthetic look and make something entirely their own. This film is dark. Children may be fooled into believing that the playful creatures that are featured in the trailer only serve as one-dimensional playful objects but that is a false assumption. They occasionally look very frightening, act violently and behave in such intemperate ways that may even cause nightmares among the youth. Still, if a child has an open mind and a knack for analysis (I want to meet this kid), he or she will thoroughly enjoy this film.

In terms of plot, Where The Wild Things Are is the story about Max, played by the aptly named Max Records, who lives an imaginative yet lonely life at home. His sister has miserable friends who tear down his ice sculptures and she only looks on with mild disapproval, not acting or even being apologetic. Max's mom, with the ever reliable Catherine Keener at the helm, is a caricature of a mother that sadly exists in the real world but would make any mother, despite some similarities with this character, cringe. She is a divorcee or single mom from unknown circumstances, though it is fairly sure that the father walked out on the family early on. During a date with a man played by Mark Ruffalo (featured for maybe 40 seconds of screen time), she ignores Max despite his incessant pleads for attention. This culminates to Max embarrassing himself and his mother in front of this "date," much to mom's chagrin, and Max fleeing his house without looking back. All the while, he is dressed up in a wolf suit. Looking for liberation, he finds a sailboat and takes it to a faraway island where he encounters the Wild Things. They are about to eat him when he reveals to them his "magical powers" that are so powerful that he could make "people's heads explode." Clearly a manufactured lie, this excuse is bought by the creatures and they crown him king. From then on, the plot is not the focus.

The problem I had with the film upon conclusion was how it just meandered along, with no general concrete plot beneath it all. Max and the Wild Things have fun by engaging in a "Rumpus" or having a "dirt clod" fight, all featuring breaking stuff or throwing things in some way. There are scenes between these events such as the building of a large fort "where only the things you want to happen, would happen." There is never any sense of progression; the film's approach is very freewheeling and loose. However, this is revealed to not be the film's true value or even necessity.

Where The Wild Things Are's weapon is symbolism. It wields it often and with the grace of a poet.  A second viewing of the film may be mandatory to truly appreciate the detail and effort that went into it. The Wild Things are comprised of seven different creatures:  humble, loving Ira (Forest Whittaker), the mute and menacing Bull (Michael Berry Jr.), Judith, the pessimistic and rebellious one (an excellent Catherine O'Hara), the sympathetic yet plainly pathetic goat creature Alexander (Paul Dano), the consistently loyal Douglas (Chris Cooper), the affectionate and motherly figure KW (Lauren Ambrose) and, last but not least, the leading figure, Carol (James Gandolfini). These different creatures all represent a different aspect of Max's mind, thus showing the multiple personalities he has. He finds Carol to be the closest like him, accepting him without hesitation from the start. Max also sees the worst of himself in Carol, shown by the hostility between them near the end. Carol goes on anger tantrums, tearing apart their houses which reminds Max of his similar situations at home when he wrecked his own house. This bond proves to be the film's strongest point, as evidenced by the bittersweet conclusion. When Max sails back home, Carol runs to him in an emotionally devastated state, finally cognizant of the harm his ignorance has caused. He is unable to embrace Max for one last time but emits a howl of such shaky sentimental stature that only tears or ignorant laughs from the audience will result. As Max sails into the sunset, Carol gets a last look at the boy who revealed the best and worst in him. The analogy here is how Max's father recklessly abandoned his family but did not realize his mistake until it was too late. The father misses his family dearly now, just as Carol's tears show, but will never be able to partake in that final endearment. Upon realizing this revelation, I was torn. Not in a long time has a film hit me with such an emotional blow.

Truly, the film can be endlessly perused and analyzed for small details that carry significance. And they are there. Watch KW's introduction of the mysterious Bob and Terry and try not to think about the mother's date with that special individual or even the sister's unworthy friends. Better yet, Carol goes on a tantrum and reacts violently against Douglas who spouts the best line of the film regarding his "favorite arm." That, again, relates to Max's real world and Carol's pathetic excuses only make Max realize how immature he has become. The final salute to childhood will strike a chord with the high school crowd as shown by my thoughts. We are stuck in the middle between child and adult, not knowing when it is safe to set sail for the life of responsibility that lies ahead. But, shown by Max's journey, we all have the bravery to take that leap of faith. Clearly, there is no doubt that symbolism is this film's source of significance and emotion. Anyone who ponders the events of the screen will ultimately gain much satisfaction from realizing what was behind the cuddly exterior.

But what an exterior it is. Shot entirely in live action, Where The Wild Things Are takes an innovative approach at CGI through its natural blend of fantastical creatures in a real world. The Wild Things were filmed in costume with a static face; this was later changed when the voice talent was added and the faces emoted digital yet very lifelike feelings. They contain a stunning level of detail and emotional range that captures the nuances of every happy, sad or anger-filled moment. Complementing this triumph in imagery is the beautiful cinematography. Filmed in Australia, Where The Wild Things Are takes place on a wonderful island with great variety shown by the lush forests yet stark deserts adjacent to each other. While logically impossible (this is a fantasy story after all), this antithesis in environment only amplifies the beauty of everything else.

In the end, Where The Wild Things Are is a unique, fascinating film. Never before have I had such a 180° turnaround on a film from utter disappointment to unhinged love. The characters, and the true meaning that lies beneath them all, are fully developed even when they may seem shallow initially. The absolutely stunning visual work only helps the film's cause in the end as well, portraying the film's message about childhood even more effectively. I am not disappointed by Where The Wild Things Are:  I love it. Maybe my irrational dismissal of the film without truly comprehending what I saw suggests I have some growing up to do myself.

Final Verdict:
4.5/5 Stars

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Drag Me To Hell Review

Drag Me To Hell:
Directed by Sam Raimi
Released in 2009

For a movie that is poking fun at the current horror movie genre, Drag Me To Hell ends up being one of the best horror movies in recent memory. Its mix of campy violence, witty humor and genuine scares make Drag Me To Hell an entertaining, compelling film.

The overall premise is simple: Christine, played by Alison Lohman with a full committal to her role, is living a nice life until Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) comes along. This old, gypsy woman requests Christine for an extension on her mortgage. Christine decides to deny the mortgage in hopes of a promotion but Ganush, in her fury, casts a dark spell upon the poor girl, the curse of the Lamia. The Lamia stalks its victims for three days until finally bringing them down to eternal hell. Christine has no plans of eternal suffering and goes to great lengths to rid her of the curse. The film is brilliantly paced and just moves; this film will hook you from the beginning and not let go until the end. And what a finale; I could not have imagined a better way to end this movie and it combines equal parts humor and pure terror to leave the viewer shocked as well as satiated.

In a horror movie like this one, acting is not a field where this film will usually, or even necessarily have to, excel in. However, Drag Me To Hell has an excellent lineup lead by the lead actress, Alison Lohman. As an innocent girl with a (literal) hellish burden put upon her, she performs her part with a great mix of typical horror film naivety, pure terror and pissed-off badassery. Lohman even goes to disgusting lengths such as swallowing maggots in her full dedication to her role. Christine's boyfriend is played by Justin Long and is just what you would expect from him. He doesn't really believe his girlfriend's struggles and has bigot parents to boot. This role is not new for him but Justin Long is a likable actor and he fits the role with ease. As well, Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush is excellent without a doubt. Her makeup transforms her into a menacing, demented gypsy who haunts Christine at every turn. There is even an extended fight scene that involves her brawling with young Lohman. Clearly, Mrs. Raver put a lot of effort into her role. Another prevalent actor in this film is Dileep Rao who plays Rham Jas, the seer who can see Christine's troubles. He is a likable character who only has limited screen time but ends up being one of the few, real good guys in the film. Basically, the acting is better than expected and a big part of why this film is better than most horror films this decade.

However, what really sets Drag Me To Hell apart is its style. There is a certain campiness to it that was clearly the brainchild of Sam Raimi, the director, looking back to his early days of Evil Dead. The violence, especially for a PG-13 film, is shocking yet somewhat hilarious. At one point, Christine spouts blood from her nose like a fountain, with people around her viewing it as a minor distraction. Clearly, the violence is meant to amuse, not repulse. That being said, there are various forms of blood and bile liquid flowing throughout. Furthermore, its self-deprecating look at the horror genre actually lends it an advantage. Many situations are full of the typical cliches such as a dead flashlight, shadows under a door, or closet jump scares. It works though; this could be attributed to its excellent directing or driving pacing. It never plods along at a slow pace. Countering this humor and convention is real horror. There were many times throughout the film where I was actually creeped out by its Lamia spirit or Mrs. Ganush, even if I may have laughed at them afterward. All in all, it is very interesting how Drag Me To Hell blends comedy, parody and horror all into one creation that seems original as much as they may have been done before.

To sum up, Drag Me To Hell is a fun, wild film. It keeps you hooked, regaled and even spooked throughout with no time to breathe. Add in the surprisingly good acting and one of the best endings I have seen in recent memory and you've got one of the finest horror films of the decade. 

Final Verdict:
4 Out of 5 Stars