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