Saturday, May 30, 2009

Up, Up, And Amazing!

4 out of 4

It's official now more than ever: Pixar is an unstoppable force in animation with a name that is synonymous with quality. It's as if this studio is incapable of creating a bad movie, although I did have my minor issues with "Cars." Nonetheless, the studio is on its tenth feature, and the momentum is all still there. The latest and first 3-D feature, "Up," may not be the transcendent masterpiece "WALL-E" was, but it's still a brilliantly high-flying adventure that acts as a buoyant hymn to the imagination. It's pure movie magic and proves once again that Pixar refuses to dumb anything down for the kids; this is excellent entertainment for all. The movie is directed by Pete Doctor who directed "Monster's, Inc.," wrote "Toy Story," and co-wrote "WALL-E." It's also co-directed by Bob Peterson who wrote "Finding Nemo." So, as you can see, this wondrous film has the best of the best in animation working behind it, and it shows.

"Up" begins with a love story that is of the sincerest you'll ever see on screen. As a young child, Carl Fredrickson (Edward Asner) idolizes an adventurer named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who he admiringly watches in newsreels. Muntz travels around in a gigantic blimp to faraway lands bringing back bones of animals unknown to man. His findings get labeled as fraudulent, though, which then leads him to banish himself to South America where he vows to stay until he can find the animal he claimed to have discovered and bring it back alive to prove himself. With such inspiration, Carl longs for similar adventures and soon comes to find a young girl who shares his passion. Her name is Ellie, and she and Carl grow up, fall in love, get married, make a quaint home together, and save loose change in a glass jug in hopes of saving up for the adventure they had always wanted. Their dream is Paradise Falls, but other life responsibilities get in the way. They never make it there, and Ellie passes away. This tear-jerking and heartfelt introduction plays out in a nearly silent montage that is absolute perfection.

We're then left to watch Carl's life without Ellie. He's held on to the house even though greedy, capitalistic development surrounds him. Upon being threatened to be sent to a retirement home, Carl comes up with a plan, one that literally sends the movie into flight. Just when he thought loneliness would overcome him, he's floating far away on to finally fulfill Ellie's dream of reaching Paradise Falls. With a massive and elaborately multi-colored bouquet of balloons, Carl lifts his house up and sets his compass to South America. Little does he know, however, that he has someone coming along for the ride. It's a bouncy, energetic boy scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is at first an unwelcome addition in the eyes of the disgruntled Carl, but he turns out to be entirely valuable not so much as an adventurer, but rather, as a friend.

Once landed on the massive plateau that Carl and Russell have to cross in order to reach Paradise Falls, they strap themselves to Carl's house with a garden hose and drag it around as if it's the bearer and also burden of dreams. Of what do those dreams consist? Companionship, and they end up finding it in the most miraculous place. It just so happens that both Russell and Carl are in search of that someone, and while Carl still speaks to Ellie as if she were still around, the truth is that she wants him to move on as much as he's not yet ready to let go.

Among the things this wonderfully odd couple comes across in South America is a dog named Dug who has been fashioned with a robotic collar that humorously allows him to speak. There's also a strange and exotic bird who Russell names Kevin. Russell becomes attached to these two unexpected visitors, and against Carl's pleas, they, too, come along for the trek. They also encounter an entire clan of talking dogs from which Dug came, and this clan eventually leads them to Carl's childhood hero, Muntz, and his fantastic blimp. And I've already said too much as the fun is in the journey and not knowing what happens next. It's fascinating to note that arguably the summer's biggest and boldest adventure has a 78-year-old man and an 8-year-old boy as its forefront heroes, and it couldn't be any more fitting with the wonderful message the movie has to share, and that is to celebrate life by simply living out your own adventure whatever that may be.

This is Pixar's first PG-rated feature since "The Incredibles," and although it's not nearly as violent as that, there are moments throughout the perilous journey that'll have you antsy and nervous with anticipation. It's a rousing and exhilarating fantasy that has meaning behind the swirling action that accumulates. We care about the outcome of these fully fleshed-out characters due to the way we've come to know them so well throughout their trek. It all adds up to an experience that is emotionally nostalgic and poetically touching. It's also one of the laugh-out-loud funniest Pixar pictures to date.

As it was the opening film at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "Up" certainly doesn't lack in artistry. There is some gorgeous imagery of the house strung to its bouquet of balloons as set against different shades whether it's a setting sun or a bright clear blue sky dotted with puffy, white clouds. The beautiful score by Michael Giacchino keeps things gliding along, too. And while the 3-D does make the scenery pop and does wonders for the look of the balloons, the fact is that the glasses are dark, which inevitably makes the bright color palette of the entire movie a lot darker, too. I'm glad to have seen it in 3-D, but I would like to see the movie again and in 2-D. It's not like I need that excuse to want to see it a second time, either, because I want to witness the loving sense of exploration all over again anyway. "Up" soars above as the best film so far this year, so let's just hand out the Oscar for Best Animated Film already.

Friday, May 29, 2009

In 3 Days, Christine Brown Is Going To Hell

Drag Me to Hell:
4 out of 4

After director Sam Raimi's disappointing "Spider-Man 3" he desperately needed something to redeem himself with. And so, he's returned to his origins of horror because before he hit Hollywood back in the 80s he made the slapstick, gross-out horror-comedy, "Evil Dead," and its sequel. It was a risky and bold move returning to that, but damn, it sure did turn out in his favor. The perfectly titled "Drag Me to Hell" is purposely campy, a delirious, freak-out horrorfest that delivers everything an audience could want in a terrifying, exciting, and oftentimes hilarious time at the movies. It's a throwback and Raimi definitely intends it to be viewed that way; just watch the Universal logo at the movie's start. He's pulling out his old tricks, but man do they work.

Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a loan officer at a bank who, while trying to impress her manager to acquire the assistant manager position, denies a decrepit old gypsy woman named Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) yet another extension on her loan. Poor choice. This one-eyed, rotten-looking woman places a demonic curse on Christine, a curse of which she will spend the rest of the movie desperately trying to rid herself. It's an ever-unfolding nightmare that never ceases to have shocking jump-out-at-you moments and even more than that. The ideal blend of comedy and terror comes into play during an initial brawl in a parking garage with Mrs. Ganush that'll have you clenching your armrest while at the same time howling with laughter. It's amazing what this movie does to you as your heart will be racing in your chest from the anticipation but all the while you'll be laughing, which creates a feeling of pure hysteria, and it's an absolute blast.

As much as acting usually doesn't play a part in horror films these days, Lohman is a good sport here and her performance works wonders. She is persistently shown in close-ups to show her face always at unease. Even before terrible things start happening to her, she looks entirely paranoid even about appearing impressive at her bank job. Even through all of the absurdity she gets tossed into, Lohman plays Christine completely straight and throws on a face that is perpetually perturbed. And glossed over that is her bunny-toothed, innocent appearance of looking slightly dazed as she sinks deeper and deeper into doing anything she can to dispose of her curse. Even Christine's boyfriend, try as he may, can't help Christine, and he is played by Justin Long who also pulls it off totally straight-faced.

The movie is perfectly crafted where even the smallest details of the story have a big significance and eventually tie into something important. It's a roller coaster ride full of gooey, slimy, dripping, grotesque, disgusting moments that come at full-speed and really push the PG-13 rating to its limit. In one scene there's a nosebleed that'll have you cringing and scoffing at the same time. And there's the fitting playfulness to everything that unfolds, a requirement in this genre. It allows itself to not be taken too seriously and leaves room for an abundance of tongue-in-cheek fun. Keep watch, especially, for the scene where even the adorable little kitty isn't safe anymore. This cuddly little animal shows up and inevitably creates an audience proclaiming "Awww," and then, just like that, all cuteness is stripped away. Would Christine, the animal lover, really go to such extremes?! As a way of the movie winking at the audience, why yes, yes she would. It's always great to come across a damned fine horror flick. "Drag Me to Hell" is one, and it is unlike any we've seen in years. Consider yourself redeemed, Sam Raimi.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Less Christian And More Arnold, Please

Terminator Salvation:
1 ½ out of 4

I had an issue with "Terminator Salvation" even before it hit theaters, and that was with it being muted down to a PG-13 rating unlike its three other R-rated predecessors. The only reason for such a move was certainly to draw in more viewers and make more money, and it's a move that never should've happened. The material is dark enough anyway to merit the R-rating, and it perhaps could've given it the potential to be more riveting than it turned out. Even with copious amounts of large, fiery explosions, this latest installment in the revered sci-fi series is quite a bore. The other issue I had was the director behind it all, McG, who doesn't have a very impressive resume to begin with: "Charlie's Angels," "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," and "We Are Marshall." Maybe we could've seen something if it were put in more capable hands. As it stands, this movie can't stand up to what it's attempting to deliver and thinks it is a much greater movie than it really is.

Christian Bale plays John Connor, the prophesied one who is the head of the last remnants of human civilization on Earth, the resistance, and is supposed to be the leader of mankind. Bale does a good Batman, a real good one. As for playing John Connor, too, well he brings the same style to the part but here it works to a much lesser degree. For being the character who knows the defining difference between human and machine, he's a pretty soulless person himself. He spends most of his time on the screen yelling and scowling. John Connor worked as more of an icon in the previous films because now in flesh and blood, he's shockingly flat. I found myself preoccupied wondering just what exactly Connor's lover, Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), sees in him. Thank goodness, then, for Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) who turns out to be the real hero, the man who was once a criminal but then turned into something inhuman. The question of humanity really gets tossed into play with his character because, although essentially machine, he acts more human than Connor. And even though Marcus is the machine for which we're supposed to have feelings, sometimes it's even hard to do that. Turns out the most sympathetic character of them all is a strong, sweet-hearted woman named Blair (Moon Bloodgood), the one who decides to assist Marcus in the first place while everyone else questioned his motives.

This fourth entry returns with another time-traveling plot, except this time it stays rooted in one time period, that being the year 2018. Judgment Day has happened, and Skynet's machines are on a rampage to destroy all human existence. The movie focuses entirely on John Connor's job of locating his teenage father, Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), and sending him back to 1984 (and consequently, the first movie) so he can save Sarah Connor, John's mother, so that Kyle will become John's father. Complicated, yes, but it's all breezed over and watered down so that "Terminator" newcomers can jump right on in. I think McG is considering this his warm-up as I'm sure he's got plenty more in store.

The movie is highly desaturated of color to the point where some scenes look as if they're entirely in gray scale, and although it creates an apocalyptic feel to everything, it's also just downright ugly. It certainly makes the explosions pop throughout each chase sequence, and good thing, too, since the movie is basically one, extended chase sequence. There are lots of different kinds of Terminators out there to kill, too. Along with the standard ones shaped as humans, there are motorcycle ones, little flying ones, big flying ones, massive and towering ones, and even underwater ones that look like eels made of scrap pieces out of a junkyard. It's all action all the time as the entire jumbled mess of chaos and crunching metal becomes essentially a futuristic war film, a mean, bitter, angry, blundering war film. And for what plot development there is, it's all padded with trite, clichéd dialogue. This certainly isn't the "Terminator" I remember. Gone are the hints of humor. Gone is the touch of tenderness. Gone is the fun.

McG's "Terminator Salvation" has two saving graces: 1) The awesome rising young star Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese, and 2) the cameo by a digitally recreated Arnold Schwarzenegger in all of his naked glory returning to his original role, which got the audience at my screening in a frenzy. The latter is definitely the film's shining moment among an otherwise bleak and disappointing venture.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rome Is Gonna Blow!

Angels & Demons:
3 out of 4

In my review of 2006's "The Da Vinci Code," I remarked that it was painfully lukewarm, a novel-to-screen adaptation that fell flat on its face. It lacked any spark, excitement, or anything relating to that of emotion. Thank goodness, then, that director Ron Howard learned his lesson in time for his adaptation of "Angels & Demons," the novel that Dan Brown actually wrote before "The Da Vinci Code." As a movie, it's marketed to be a sequel to the 2006 dud, and rightfully so because it's relievedly better than its predecessor. Howard ditches the leadenness and pumps this sequel with hectic energy, letting the 140-minute running time zip by surprisingly fast. And as added bonuses, Tom Hanks ditched his awful hairstyle of previously, and there's no more Audrey Tautou being awkward and out of her element.

Harvard professor and symbolist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back and gets recruited by a representative of the Catholic Church to help a crisis occurring at the Vatican. No hard feelings about basically debauching their entire belief system in Langdon's last outing. The Pope has died, and the College of Cardinals has been gathered in order to choose the Pope's successor. The problem is that the preferati, the favorites to be elected, have all been kidnapped, and behind it all is a very old, secret society, the Illuminati, that is seeking revenge on the Catholic Church from the days when it used to persecute thinkers of science. Earlier, a gorgeous and capable scientist named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) was working with something called anti-matter, a substance that does very special stuff and has something to do with the moment of creation, or something really epic like that. Anyway, it got stolen from the lab and is now being used alongside the Illuminati threats. Each kidnapped preferati will each be executed individually at 8, 9, 10, and 11 p.m. And then at midnight, the capsule containing the anti-matter will run out of battery and blow all of the Vatican to smithereens.

Got all that? Great. OK, so, what does all of this have to do with Robert Langdon? Well, he has knowledge of Illuminati symbols that leads him and his team on a wild goose chase through Rome looking for certain clues, statues, symbols, anything, that could lead to the next location. Langdon has uncanny luck as he's never wrong, never misses a step, and spews out his knowledge so fast that we as an audience barely have time to catch it. We just have to take his word for it that he's right. Turns out he is 100% of the time. Perfect. Potential sexual tension between Langdon and Vittoria? No time for it. All she can do is nod, agree, follow him around, and translate some Latin. Howard has taken the laborious movements of "The Da Vinci Code" and kicked it into breakneck speed, which is what makes this sequel work.

Langford gets assistance from the faithful Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), the short-fused Swiss Guard commander (Stellan Skarsgård), and the head Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), all of whom hold expressions that shift to make it unclear at times whether they're good, bad, or who the hell knows, maybe both. All of these supporting characters are meant to lead the audience astray as to knowing which side is the most morally sound one to choose.

The twists are bountiful, especially at the movie's climax, to get the full feeling of being an over-exploded, self-serious blockbuster, which it entirely is. It's totally preposterous, too, but it might as well be. Ron Howard knows this, and he keeps it cruising right along with an effectively pounding score from Hans Zimmer. The production values are through the roof, and there are some splendid sequences including a nerve-racking escape out of the Vatican archives from a sealed-off library after the oxygen supply has been cut off. Oh, and there's something to be said about the commingling of science and religion. "Angels & Demons" glosses over that, however, and doesn't make any bold statements on the matter because, really, why bother?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

He Found His Loophole

Last night's season finale of "Lost" proves without a shadow of a doubt that it is the very best television has to offer right now. Anybody who disagrees just hasn't been following it close enough. Yes, it's a confusing show, but if you're keeping up with it, the rewards it provides in entertainment are well worth the effort.

The show's fifth season came to an almost shockingly too perfect close last night as the bomb indeed went off, flashing a white light across the screen that faded into the show's title card, this time switching it's usual white letters against a black background to the opposite. It's a signal that a drastic shift has occurred, and something big is about to come.

The final season arrives in January 2010, and many questions still remain to be answered. Will the bomb going off really reverse everything and make them never land on the island in the first place? Somehow, I don't think it will turn out to be as simple as that because if this show has proven anything about it's storytelling, it's that nothing is ever that simple.

This season had the tagline, "Destiny Calls," and the final season fittingly has the tagline, as shown in the very brief promo, "Destiny Found."

What an amazing show.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Beloved Enterprise Is Reborn

Star Trek:
4 out of 4

I may not be a follower of "Star Trek," but that didn't make any less excited about director J.J. Abrams' ("Lost," "Mission: Impossible III") reinvention of the adored intergalactic franchise. I don't know about "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," but it'd be safe to say that this movie has officially kicked off the summer movie season right into warp speed. The original space opera of the 1960s TV show gets the reinvigoration it desperately needed after a countless number of series spin-offs (a total of six) and movies (a total of ten) that created a drawn-out, downward spiral in popularity and praise. So now, here comes Abrams to kick everything off to a fresh start all over again. This "Star Trek" isn't simply for the diehard Trekkies to get their fix; on its own accord, this is pure moviegoing bliss as we're transported to an alternate universe that is irresistibly fun. It's a sci-fi fantasy that fantastically mixes the nostalgic with the fresh, opening up the possibility to take this once fatigued franchise, now newly reinvented, in bold directions.

We're presented Capt. James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) as a rebellious young boy who grows to being a bar-brawling punk to a Starfleet Academy cadet, and then ultimately to becoming captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise. He has a rough attractiveness and a carefree bad boy demeanor that at first gets him into trouble but rewards him in the end. His surefire cockiness shines through when he beats a simulation created by the seemingly level-headed, half-human/half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto). These two butt heads immediately as Spock is purely driven by logic suppressing all emotion while Kirk is hotheaded and just the opposite. Consider the sexy communications officer, Uhura (Zoë Saldana), who turns away from Kirk's flirtatious advances and falls in love with Spock. The kisses they share together show Spock as a conflicted soul who not only has to hide his sensuality but every other emotion, as well. Quinto gets beneath Spock's calm exterior showing the turmoil brewing inside. His delivery of the infamous phrase, "Live long and prosper," hints at a deeper meaning.

From its lyrical beginning sequence before the title even graces the screen to its explosive conclusion, the movie is exhilarating. A great supporting cast anchors all of the necessary dramatic entrances of familiar characters on board the Enterprise, and even if you're like me, a first introduction to this cleverly cast team is equally as exciting as being reintroduced. Bruce Greenwood plays Captain Pike, Karl Urban plays the head medical officer, Bones, Anton Yelchin lets his Russian side out to play the know-it-all Chekov, and John Cho (as known from "Harold and Kumar") plays helmsman Sulu alongside Chekov. It's comical to watch as Sulu's first attempt to kick the spacecraft into warp speed fails miserably. The scene-stealer, though, is Simon Pegg who is expertly cast as the genius engineer, Scotty, and he provides ample ammunition for the movie's cheeky humor. And the catch phrases such as, "Beam me up, Scotty!" and "I'm giving it all she's got!" are accounted for, too, which act as little treats for those faithful fans.

Eric Bana does an admirable job playing the sinister Nero, who is a revengeful Romulan seeking retribution for the destruction of his homeland planet. He kidnaps Captain Pike, and the film's plot goes on to revolve around this dangerous rescue mission that is reminiscent of the sad fate faced by Kirk's father. There is also a time traveling, alternate reality twist to the plot, which not only creates a storyline that is more dense, elaborate, and thought-provoking than one may first expect, but it also provides an ideal outlet to bring in the man who originally played Spock, Leonard Nimoy.

J.J. Abrams goes for pure spectacle with his "Star Trek," and it works. The special effects are swirling and majestic alongside some shockingly gorgeous cinematography. Just watch what Abrams does to three free-falling bodies in space or how he orchestrates Kirk's frightening encounter with a giant beast that resembles the monster from "Cloverfield." Abrams tends to indulge himself throughout, which is not unlike him to do anyway, but it never detracts from the overall experience. There's even a nod to "Lost" if you notice the font of the subtitles announcing new locations. He also brings in composer Michael Giacchino who provides an excellent musical score and rightfully holds off on the original theme until the end credits, which acts as a fitting triumphant finish. Abrams, along with his writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, have created a prequel without all of the baggage of a prequel. Things slow down when necessary but keep moving with fantastic action sequences that flash across the screen like a series of perfectly choreographed somersaults. This is a summer popcorn flick done absolutely right.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Bring On The Summer Blockbusters

So, I'm fully aware that this year's summer movie season has officially begun yesterday with the release of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." As much as I would have liked to partake in seeing this, I will not fully commence the summer movie viewing until next Friday with the release of "Star Trek." The reason? Well, it's a little thing we like to call finals.