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

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Zombieland Review

Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Released in 2009

Zombieland does not reinvent the wheel. A hybrid of a zombie and romantic comedy, Zombieland takes a lot of influence from films before it such as Shaun of the Dead and even the similarly titled (as well the career launch pad for one of this film's leading actors) Adventureland. However, it works because of its execution. The cast - with a pleasant surprise - fit with one another in a practically flawless manner, and the comedy and action are very well-balanced.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a kid on his own with a certain set of rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse. His OCD mentality is restricting but effective, as he has survived longer than most on Earth. He eventually runs into Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson, whose gun-ho approach strictly conflicts with his reserved attitude. Nonetheless, they join forces to survive until they run into the sly sisters, Wichitaw (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Their uncertain motives put the two males down often, but Columbus knows he has an attraction for the older sister (Stone) and she does too. The chemistry between the two is very good and similar to the Eisenberg-Kristen Stewart relationship from Adventureland. From me, that is a compliment. Emma Stone, more commonly known as "Jules" from Superbad, is in a similar role here but brings her own sexy charm and back-stabbing attitude to make it a fun role. Abigail Breslin is in her best role since Little Miss Sunshine as a tough girl despite her small appearance. The real star of the show here, however, is Woody Harrelson. An underrated actor in many regards, Woody constantly brings a rough, humorous approach to almost all of his roles and this one is one of his finest. Tallahassee directly contrasts Columbus's conservative approach and that really highlights his talents. He will casually, yet brutally, take down a zombie, laugh at rednecks' obsession for guns, grow furious at a Hostess truck for lacking his ultimate treat, Twinkies, and even grow emotional when his real reason for roaming the wastes of the US are revealed. This film has shined the much-deserved spotlight on Woody's career again, and the commercial and critical success this movie is experiencing can only foretell good things for his long-running career. Overall, the casting in this film is spot-on and its finest aspect.

However, the joy and carnage this film conveys through its story and action are also very notable. The film starts out as a typical zombie comedy, with countless undead killing helpless humans while Columbus's narration explains what they did wrong and how he avoids their mistakes. The opening is actually pretty brutal, with plenty of appendages either decaying or being eaten, and the huge bursts of blood are not for the faint at heart. The credits sequence, played to Metallica's epic "For Whom The Bell Tolls", is similar to Watchmen's as it contains many slow-motion scenes of carnage while still conveying a pseudo "history" of the zombie events (more like a collage of action honestly). Once the romantic interests are introduced, however, this film takes a long break from zombie action all together and focuses mainly on its comedic laurels. To some, this may seem like an unwelcome approach but I found it a perfectly fine way of mixing the movie up. The film's conclusion contains plenty of action so it ends up being very balanced. In around the middle of Zombieland, there is a certain cameo whose identity I will not reveal, but he (a hint at least) ended up being my favorite part of the film. He is a universally-loved actor anyway, and seeing him again is a pleasure for practically anyone who will being seeing a movie called "Zombieland."

All in all, Zombieland takes lemons and makes damn fine lemonade. You may have tasted some of it before, whether it be in the consistency or tartness, but it brings back good memories and is the perfect cure for thirst on a hot day. In this case, the hot day is the current slough of movies that really make this film stand out. Even without these limitations, Zombieland is an excellent zombie film and one of the year's better comedies. Its careful borrowing of older ideas end up working because of the stellar execution in almost every regard. The acting, action, dialogue, comedy, all works. And I am more than satisfied with that.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Up Review

Another archived post, yes.

Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Released in 2009

The mere fact that I did not move one muscle while watching Up must speak to its quality. From the beautiful opening to the optimistic end, I was entranced in Pixar's latest masterpiece.

The reason that many accolades are already being placed on this film is most likely due to its wonderfully done, sad and fascinating opening. We meet a young Carl Fredricksen, absorbed in the world of adventure, and sharing many of the same traits with an energetic young girl, Ellie. Very talkative and animated for her age, she contrasts to the taciturn Carl, but their thirst for adventure leads with the two being together for many years to come, shown in a, I dare say it, perfect, silent montage. Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) ends up being a widower through a tragic turn of events and is living his life alone. Forced to evacuate his home and surrender his dignity to a retirement villa, he ties balloons to his house and sets off to the adventure that never was, Paradise Falls in South America. His trip, of course, is interrupted by a determined Wilderness Explorer, Russell, who happens to be a stowaway for the trip. What follows is the typical Pixar magic.
The two goofballs of the adventure, Doug the dog and Kevin the...bird, are discovered and get involved in adventure the two have, undoubtedly getting them into trouble. Carl also finds his childhood idol in a new light, a tad different emotionally and mentally than he was years before. I don't want to give away too much because there are many surprises to be had and the suspense doesn't let up until the very end.

It is also worth mentioning that the Pixar short film that lead into the main feature was also excellent, as usual. Entitled "Partly Cloudy", the short was silent but still packed with emotion and humor, similar to the opening of the main feature or Wall-E. I may say that the short film is the best that I have seen them ever do, which is no short praise considering classics such as "For The Birds".

All in all, you would be hard-pressed to find a better movie this year that is not Up. Pixar continues its streak of perfection with this masterpiece and I may even call it the best Pixar movie to date, if not for the fact that Wall-E still comes to my mind whenever this thought comes into my head. Nonetheless, Up is a 10 out of 10 and a natural progression for a studio designed for perfection.

I Love You, Man Review

Older  post but posted for archiving purposes

I Love You, Man:
Directed by John Hamburg
Released in 2009

I was surprised to hear that Judd Apatow had no direct connection to this film in one bit. Then I was relieved. While I love all that Apatow has made and done for the 21st century comedy scene, it is great to see his "disciples" move past his guidance and do things by themselves. As a result, I Love You, Man is a perfect example of the stars taking charge and starting their own scene.

I Love You, Man is about the story a man named Peter (Paul Rudd). Peter has no friends, well, male friends at least. He has always been the lady's man but never developed a close bond to a male. He realizes this needs to change when he has no best man for his wedding. So, Peter goes on a quest to find a "bromance" with someone who he can see eye-to-eye with. There are a bunch of funny scenes with him finding that "special someone," with the predictable situation when one of his targets turns out to be gay and is looking for more than a friendship. However, Peter finally finds Sydney Fife (Jason Segal), a dude that he instantly clicks with. What results are the various, amusing situations they get into as well as the usual conflict and *spoiler alert* make-up they have at the end. If there is any real con about this film, it is that it is very, very predictable. Thankfully, the movie is funny enough to keep you entertained for its reasonable duration.

Paul Rudd and Jason Segal are the perfect duo. Paul plays the awkward, desperate-to-please friend while Jason fits in with the laid-back, forgiving mold his character possesses. Andy Samberg appears as Peter's gay brother and JK Simmons and Jane Curtin are Peter's very amusing parents. There is also a scene with an Apatow, Paul Rudd-regular: Joe Lo Truglio. You probably don't recognize his name but he is an instantly recognizable character. He played Lonnie, a minor character whose voice cracked every time he spoke. These scenes were hilarious and he was my favorite part of the film, no small praise.

So, I Love You, Man is a very funny movie. It follows the regular formula we all know but that is fine when there is great talent behind each of the characters.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

Thursday, October 1, 2009

District 9 Review

Older post but posted for archiving purposes
District 9:
Directed by Neil Blomkamp
Released in 2009

I remember it clearly: It was the summer of 2006 and a relatively unknown director, Neil Blomkamp, was chosen to direct a movie based off of Halo, the revolutionary first-person shooter video game. Even at that time, I was unsure if I wanted a Halo movie to come out. After all, movie-video game adaptations have had a history of being egregiously bad, with basically no exceptions. I was relieved to hear that the project was scrapped because of financial problems, with the producers asking for a budget of over $200 million. Basically, Neill Blomkamp and Peter Jackson, a producer, said "screw this" and made a film called District 9, a lower budget sci-fi film based off of Blomkamp's short film, Alive in Joburg about alien refugees in Johannesburg, South Africa. Now, three years later, the film is released and, rest assured, it is a million times better than anything with the name "Halo" in the title would have been.

District 9, with its subject matter of extraterrestrials, is, ironically, very human. It is about the story of a gargantuan Alien mothership that stalls above Johannesburg. From here, aliens are given a home in the city below and are segregated into a separate section of the city, District 9. District 9 is basically a slum, in the nicest description, and all the aliens live in shanty houses and poor conditions. These aliens, called "Prawns" by many humans, look like a crustacean-cephalopod creature and make various moaning and clicking sounds to communicate with one another. They vary in intelligence and ferocity but they are all united by one purpose: they want to go home. Even with their repulsive appearance, the aliens have a very human heart and do not appreciate being treated like the bottom-feeders the humans believe they are. This story relates very closely to the real-life segregation that occurred in Johannesburg many years ago.

The film follows the story of Wikus Van De Merwe, played by a newcomer to American cinema, Sharlto Copley. He starts as a relatively annoying, forgettable character but evolves to be much, much more. He is assigned to be in charge of the forced relocation of the alien denizens of District 9 and starts his raid on the village with plenty of armed soldiers behind him. This introduction is very well-made using mostly handheld cameras in a documentary style fashion. Most aliens view the humans in contempt and respond in a violent fashion, prompting the humans to fight back. Many of these encounters are actually very sad and show the barbarity that humans can display. However, during a raid on a house with the intelligent, caring alien called Christopher Johnson, Wikus is infected with an alien compound and starts to experience a metamorphosis. I will refrain from revealing the rest of the story because it is worth experiencing firsthand.

Copley's performance in this film is fascinating and an amazing debut to start on. He makes the viewer feel his pain in addition to seeing it and delivers a performance akin to Jeff Goldblum's in The Fly. His transformation is very grotesque and not for the faint at heart, with blood, black vomit and decaying appendages by the plenty. He also develops a bond with Christopher Johnson and this proves to be one of the film's greatest strengths. For once, he finds himself united with these "alien" species and exiled by the humans.

The special effects in the film are also spectacular. With only a budget of $30 million, it made me think if the extravagant, $200 million + films truly put their budget to good use because this film accomplished these admirable and beautiful feats of technology with a fraction of the money. All the aliens are given great detail that properly conveys their features and emotions, and the omnipresent mothership is a wonder to behold. It is also amusing that the final action scene involving an alien mech suit is better than any scene Transformers 2 had whatsoever. It just goes to show that soul truly is a critical aspect in any film.

Overall, District 9 is one of the best movies of the summer and a must-see for anyone seeking an original adventure. The movie starts out strong with its documentary style approach and then improves as it becomes an emotional, graphic human tale. The ending is also very touching and beautiful. It resonated with me long after I left the theater and affirmed the film's artistic merit. Go make like a cat and pounce on this experience. 
Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars out of 5