Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Oscar-Nominated Shorts Program

It's a little late, but I, for the first time, got to see the collection of shorts that got nominated for an Academy Award in the categories of Best Short Film, Animated and Best Short Film, Live Action thanks to them being shown in Wells Hall at MSU. Now that I've seen these small gems, I don't think I'll be able to go another Oscar season without attempting to see the nominated shorts. Unfortunately, it'll never happen before the actual ceremony airs. They truly are something to be seen even after the fact, and each deserve a 4-star rating in my book. I'm not going to necessarily review each one, but rather, attempt to provide the essence of each one and what they're about.


La Maison en Petits Cubes:

A poignant tale about a somber old man living in a dystopia literally drowning in its own past. It's a subtle reflection of our own world's current state, but thankfully, this isn't the film's only focus. We follow the old man on a journey as he dives into his past and literally dives into the remains of his now underwater homes. The film is accompanied by hauntingly beautiful music that fits the film's nostalgic mood.

Lavatory - Lovestory:

Simply illustrated in black and white, it's the story of a lonely woman with a good heart who only longs to be loved. And amidst her what would seem disgusting job of manning the outside of a lavatory where men flow in and out to take care of business, a quirky love story unfolds. It comes in the form of flowers being left for the woman at her booth, the flowers providing the only burst of color in the film. It's charming and adorable to behold.


A two-minute romp about the streets of Italy that is dazzling in its animation and color. It, too, involves a love story but between two very brave and committed octopuses.


This is the Pixar animated short that was shown before "WALL-E," and it contains the wonder, humor, and excitement we've all come to expect from Pixar. It's curious to note that this is what I believe to be the first entry in short films that has a United States origin.

This Way Up:

This macabre little nugget from the UK tells the story of two funeral home workers who need to transport a body in a coffin. Let's just say the journey is not an easy feat. It's full of dark humor and has an animated style that reminded me of Tim Burton.

Live Action:

Auf der Strecke (On the Line):

A 30-minute drama that really hits the core. A surveillance and security worker from a department store falls for a co-worker and constantly watches her on the security camera. It's more innocent than it sounds, however, and what unfolds is shocking in its realism and revelations. It packs a quick, heart-wrenching punch and ends on a perfectly ambiguous note.

Manon on the Asphault:

This beautiful entry from France is entirely a monologue of a woman who is about to die after getting into an accident while riding her back. Her personal reflection on her mother, friends, and boyfriend are humorous and deeply moving. It's a fascinating concept piece that works brilliantly.

New Boy:

This film shares the story of an exchange student new to a classroom and presents the sometimes unrealized hostility in modern day classrooms. The parallels and contrasts the film draws from the exchange student's experience from a small school back home in Africa and his newly introduced environment in Ireland are sometimes shocking, sometimes funny, and endlessly fascinating.

The Pig:

An elderly man checks into a hospital to get surgery on his rectum. As unpleasant as that sounds, he manages by finding refuge in admiring a painting of a pig on the wall. He turns this content-looking pig into his personal guardian angel and gets upset when the painting is removed. He recruits his daughter, not because he felt the need to tell her about his surgery, but rather, because she's a lawyer, and he figured she could help his case for getting the pig back. The result is something witty, smart, and socially aware.

Spielzeugland (Toyland):

A heart-breaking tale of a mother who's son has suddenly disappeared. It's Nazi Germany, and Jews are starting to be taken away to concentration camps, and as a result of such, two childhood friends are ripped away from each other. The film takes the global issue of the Holocaust and spins it into a stunningly personal tale of loss. It's also told through the perspective of childhood innocence, which deepens the effect. The concentration camps are given the title "Toyland" from the mothers who don't want to reveal the truth to uncorrupted minds.

Going in, I purposely didn't look at which films had won Oscars in order for me to predict and to view each film without bias. For Animated, I chose "La Maison en Petits Cubes" for the winner because it was the most meaningful of the bunch, and for Live Action, I thought the winner was "Spielzeugland (Toyland)" simply due to the popularity of the Holocaust theme this year. Turns out I was right on both accounts. My personal favorite for Animated lined up with what I picked to win, but for Live Action, my heart really stuck with "Manon on the Asphalt."

Friday, April 24, 2009

What Everyone Should Know!

The Electric Friendship Generator:

And how did the latest Harry Potter movie revert back to a PG rating after the previous two got elevated to PG-13? "Half-Blood Prince" is arguably the darkest book, and the movie looks equally so.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Seth Rogen Means Business

Observe and Report:
2 ½ out of 4

There are no likable characters in "Observe and Report." Not even the hero of the movie, Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), is likable. You can't root for him, but you can easily follow him around and watch to see what unpredictably brash thing he'll do next. He's a loose cannon and a man caught up in his own delusions. It's a brave performance for Seth Rogen as, even with this film, he's yet to choose a character he can't make his own. This certainly isn't the usual curly-headed, lovable teddy bear we've come to know. With freshly shaved-down hair, Rogen makes Ronnie out to be a much deeper and scarier character than could've been perceived. Ronnie is the head of security at Forest Ridge Mall who has a dream to one day become a real police officer who gets to carry a gun. The problem is he has bipolar disorder, and he's simmering at a boil and ready to spillover at any moment. His character has shades of Travis Bickler from "Taxi Driver," and it's no coincidence. There are subtle similarities here and yet this movie's labeled as a comedy. It's the most twisted, daring, sick, cynical, and darkest comedy we'll probably see released from a major studio this year.

Director Jody Hill, who directed last year's low-budget comedy "The Foot Fist Way," establishes a distinct tone to the whole ordeal, one that is oddly sad. It's like watching a horrific car accident unfold right before your eyes; it's sometimes hard to watch and yet you can never turn away. All of the actors supporting Rogen play their rather eccentric characters right on the brink of farce without ever crossing into that territory. They play out the absurdities of their characters without ever hinting at the fact that they're trying to be funny, which makes it even funnier in the most interesting and confusingly affecting way. Consider Anna Faris, who plays Brandi, the ditz blonde who works the makeup counter in the mall's department store. She plays Brandi as a purely shallow bitch, nothing more, and she's all the more hilarious for it. Celia Weston plays Ronnie's mother who is always in a drunken stupor with a satirical seriousness, and there's even a brief appearance of Hill's co-conspirator, Danny R. McBride, as a corner crack dealer.

When a crude flasher (Randy Gambill) runs amok in the mall and presents his dangling goods to Brandi, Ronnie takes it upon himself to protect the mall from this menace. What pisses Ronnie off the most is the fact that Brandi has been put in danger. He has lusty feelings for her and drags her to go out on a date with him, a date that ends in the most unsavory of ways. Hill pushes the limits way too far, but in the context of this movie, the disturbing aspect of it all fits right in. Enter hard-ass Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) who takes over the investigation of the flasher and openly mocks Ronnie. Big mistake. Ronnie's frightening delusions come directly to the forefront. He's assisted by his right-hand man, Dennis (Michael Peña), who is crazy weird, along with a reluctant recruit and a pair of Asian twins, which allows one of them to be totally expendable. And Ronnie never ceases from getting his free cup of coffee from a friendly barista (Collette Wolfe) who, completely unknowing to the self-absorbed Ronnie, has a crush on him. Her leg is broken, and she gets harassed by her cruel manager, and once Ronnie gets light of that, it first initiates his dangerous behavior.

Jody Hill doesn't shy away from filling "Observe and Report" with moments of unpleasantness. The 86-minute romp culminates into a shocking eruption of violence after a chase scene involving Ronnie and the flasher throughout the mall. Here's a movie so off-kilter that this surprisingly graphic ending is arguably the movie's funniest moment. Strange how that works.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Best Time Of Their Lives?

4 out of 4

"Aventureland" may not be the follow-up to "Superbad" fans were waiting for, but nonetheless, it's just as amazing and even more sincere and insightful. This latest feature from writer-director Greg Mottola is less funny and less of a raunchy teen comedy than some may be at first expecting. It's a coming-of-age romance that's not laugh-out-loud funny but rather funny in terms of its wit, subtleties, and observations. Here, the humor grows organically. It appears Mottola has been given more directorial freedom here without the name Judd Apatow slapped somewhere under production. The movie pays great attention to detail in recreating the feel and aura of the 80s, and in that respect, the movie is also lovingly nostalgic.

It's 1987 in Pittsburgh, and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is fresh out of college and doesn't have enough money to attend Columbia graduate school like he planned. And so, to fill up the months over the summer, the only job he can land himself is one at a run-down amusement park called Adventureland. James comes across other twenty-somethings who are in a similar predicament as him, including Joel (Martin Starr) who majored in something obscure and literary, basically uselessness, just like James. Their majors technically qualify each of them to have a legitimate career, but the bitter reality is that there are no quick jobs involving writing travelogues like Charles Dickens or analyzing Russian literature. Joel could be considered a straight-up nerd, but he cleverly negates that by announcing his own lack of coolness by smoking a pipe.

There's also the hottie of the park, a rides worker named Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) whose style is a replica of an 80s Madonna, and she is wanted by every guy working at Adventureland as if they're all genetically required to picture her naked. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play the park's married managers who hire James on the spot. They make a hilarious comedic turn, especially Hader, whose character is dimwitted but doesn't have any problem scolding somebody for not depositing trash in the clown's mouth or scaring off a crazed guest with a baseball bat. He supplies James with one keyword of advice for when he runs the games: "Nobody ever wins a big ass panda." For the most part, James finds himself sitting back doing absolutely nothing at various game booths listening to "Rock Me, Amadeus" a nauseating number of times on repeat. A visit from the park's mechanic, Connell (Ryan Reynolds), acts as a breath of fresh air even if his cool guy, rock star attitude is hiding not only his wedding ring but some unseen vulnerability, as well.

Em (Kristen Stewart) captures the attention of James and they start to get to know each other and begin dating, kind of. The movie primarily focuses on this developing relationship between the two of them, and, as conventional as that may sound, Mottola captures this essence of teenage love in the most fresh and honest way possible. The way their relationship unfolds is wonderfully intelligent as these two characters turn out to be a whole lot smarter than people may give them credit. They're both flawed and are good at hiding what bothers them most. Em has a whole slew of family issues back home along with another secret she's hiding, and James is a little too sincere and has an overreaching desperation that is both a flaw and a winning feature. What makes their connection all the better is the top notch acting from Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. Last seen in "Twilight," Stewart has a sharp-edged, pale beauty to her look. She does much deeper work here than her previous outings and proves to be a promising young actress. Eisenberg proved himself in "The Squid and the Whale," and plays James with a fittingly slumped and awkward demeanor.

This is a surprisingly quiet movie, one that is more charming and touching as it goes along. It's also full of beautiful compositions with the orange glaze of lights from the amusement park rides drifting in and out of the scenes. There are details in not only recapturing the 80s but also in capturing the feelings and moods of being stuck in the strange limbo between school and the real world. The amusement park Adventureland not only works as the movie's title but also as a greater irony. There is zero adventure to be had at this Adventureland as most of the workers are rarely ever seen genuinely happy to be there, and similarly, what's meant to be the most adventurous part of life just coming out of college turns out to be just the opposite for these characters. The movie presents not only the absurdity of frying up stale corn dogs for resale but also the absurdity in all of its characters' situations through realistic dialogue that is clever but not too clever (à la "Juno"). These carnival workers hold a common ground in a collective stash of joints and in simply passing the time by hanging around waiting for something to happen. And likewise, there's an uncertainty between Em and James in figuring out whether they're a summer fling or something more. "Adventureland" brilliantly presents insolubility through a summer of longing and desire.