Friday, April 30, 2010

Archive: "Hot Fuzz" (2007)

Just as "Shaun of the Dead" would make George A. Romero scoff whole-heartedly at himself, "Hot Fuzz" would make Michael Bay slap himself in the forehead. In many ways, the two movies are very similar; they're filmed in the same fast-paced, quick-moving fashion and are infused with the same type of ironic and sharp humor. These guys take what made "Shaun of the Dead" so great and original, and shove it all into an entirely different genre, and come up with the same result.

Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is the best cop in London with a higher arrest rate than any other officer. However impressive he may be, the heads of the police force see him as a threat to making the rest of the officers look bad. As a result, Angel is sent away from the big city and transferred to a sleepy village in the country, Sandford. The movie opens right away with the distinct taste of British humor; there are even notable cameos from big British actors like Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy. The entire first half of the movie plays out this way with clever and witty humor, slowly gaining momentum before it shifts into something completely different. And so, Sergeant Angel reluctantly arrives at Sandford and becomes frustrated as he realizes the biggest crime going on here is a swan on the loose.

Angel soon meets up with another local cop, Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who is envious of all Angel has done and wishes to do those things, thinking they're similar to what he sees in his favorite American action flicks. Eventually Butterman sits Angel down to some of these flicks such as "Bad Boys II." What is so funny about this is that later there's a scene that shows Angel and Butterman holding out guns as the camera swirls epically around them, just like in "Bad Boys II." Butterman is a fan of action movies not realizing that he's actually living one with Sergeant Angel by his side. This ironic humor that was also present in "Shaun of the Dead" is fully accounted for here, as well. As Angel observes the town of Sandford and witnesses horrific events, the townspeople don't realize what's right in front of them, just like the people in "Shaun of the Dead" failed to realize their neighbor was a zombie.

These horrific events include surprisingly graphic murders including gardening shears through the neck, decapitation, incineration, and even somebody's head getting bashed in with the top of a church steeple. The townspeople and especially the police department agree, though, that these were all accidents and should not be considered as connected murders. Meanwhile, Angel keeps seeing the same mysterious man show up at each crime scene, saying strangely foreshadowing phrases which are humorously obvious to the viewer, but everyone else is still oblivious. The police don't want to admit that there's something deadly going on in their village because the "Village of the Year" judging is right around the corner and everything must remain crime-free and perfect as it always has been.

When these murders start happening, that's when Angel's cop instincts go into overdrive. Recruiting Butterman along with him, he's determined that there's a dark secret hidden in this village and he's determined to discover what it is. Butterman and Angel are a comedic match made in heaven and work hilariously together. These two actors, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, are the same two guys who starred in "Shaun of the Dead," and it's great to see them back together again in a buddy flick. Frost plays the same bumbling idiot, but Pegg takes on a new role from the timid Shaun he played before. In whole, these two guys are the heart of the film; when the two of them go to the pub and for the first time Angel lets loose, that's when the movie shifts into its entirely new direction to become an explosive action movie.

The last 30 minutes of the movie are the most insanely entertaining of the entire movie and are worth the 2-hour running time. It officially turns into a full-blown action flick, squeezing in as many big-budget action movie clich├ęs as humanly possible. As the guns go blaring and the melodrama rises to an all-time maximum, viewers must keep in mind that the movie is most definitely not taking itself seriously. The genre is still being spoofed even when the action sequences are done this well. What makes this, along with Shaun of the Dead, so great is that it takes its subject seriously while also poking fun at it and actually functions as well as the genre it's parodying. Sure it's all meant to be fun and games, but the actual shootout sequences are the real deal here, too.

"Hot Fuzz" plays out almost like a double-feature with quirky, dry British humor and explosive action sequences. It's a parody on a genre we love as Americans, so it's even more tongue-in-cheek when this movie is coming from British filmmakers. These guys definitely know how to spoof something and have constructed a wildly clever comedy for the second time now. This is funny stuff.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Archive: "Inland Empire" (2006)

David Lynch is one of the most original, daring, controversial, and aggravating directors of our time. What makes his films so great, or at least the two I've seen and adored, is that in making movies, he is absolutely uncompromising. Lynch's latest film, "Inland Empire," may be his most self-indulgent piece of work yet. He has been passionately at work with this movie since he released "Eraserhead;" this is David Lynch's film, and yet again, he makes zero compromises. He takes control of the screen for an exasperating 3 hours, taking viewers on a long and elaborate journey that weaves in and out of itself. This is captivating stuff and only the type of thing capable of being dished out from David Lynch, a talented director who isn't afraid of taking risks.

"Inland Empire" is like "Mulholland Drive"'s evil step sister. Both films have similar themes including the darker side of Hollywood and the resulting mental breakdowns. Both movies are long, nonlinear narratives that play with your mind and your expectations on what's to come next. If you thought "Mulholland Drive" was a head-scratcher, this latest film proves you haven't yet seen what Lynch can do. Don't let this turn you off from seeing it, however, because if you made the effort for "Mulholland Drive" (as I did), then you already know whether or not you're the type of person who wants to see "Inland Empire." That's a good thing, too, because it's literally impossible to describe on paper.

The entire film was shot on a small digital camera, which gives the authentic look of an experimental film. Lynch falls in love with the look of this; everything looks blurred, smeary, and unevenly textured. He uses this technique to his advantage by making a lit-up strip of Hollywood Blvd. seem just as dark and ominous as a dimly lit passage. "Inland Empire" unfolds in a somewhat digital world to begin with. Everything is everywhere all at once with different realities colliding with one another as time and space become completely irrelevant. Events transpire from one parallel place to another and observers appear in multiple places at once. This is a digital dimension where nothing is at all what it seems. As one of the characters in the movie states, "I suppose if it was 9:45, I would think it is after midnight." Within "Inland Empire," no character knows if it's today or two days from now, or if tomorrow is any different than yesterday.

A woman actress named Nikki (Laura Dern) is hired to play the part of Sue Blue in a movie entitled "On High in Blue Tomorrows." It is directed by a man known as Kingsley (Jeremy Irons), and it co-stars an actor named Devon (Justin Theroux) as the character of Billy Side. Nikki and Devon discover that the script is a remake of a film that never got completed because both of the leads got murdered. Supposedly there is something wrong inside the story itself that causes this to happen, and we soon find out that the script and real life fuse together into one indistinguishable mix. An actual plot summary is laughable to attempt, and so, that is all I have. Something goes horribly wrong during the filming, and before we know it, we're sent off in multiple directions in a web of separate story lines and seemingly non-related sequences.

As the tag line in the poster states, the movie is about "A Woman in Trouble," plain and simple. The multiple story lines that unfold relate to each other in sometimes more obvious ways than others as their connections become either closer together or more spread apart. Why is there a Polish folk tale parallel to the main storyline? Why is there a surreal sitcom with large rabbits (one of which is voiced by Naomi Watts)? Both of these strange side plots have connections with each other and also amongst the core plot; the trouble is just figuring out exactly how. My advice is to just hang on and don't give up because it's all still very intriguing and intoxicating. It's a movie that takes place in a world of gangsters, gypsies, whores, and plenty of other unique characters. It includes the dreaded dark hallways, the dingy back alleyways, the steep stairwells, the illicit affair, the gun in a drawer, the bedroom sex scene, and other dramatic moments from either noir thrillers or soapy romances. There are cases of mistaken identity and persistent lapses in reality as the line between that and what's real is blurred to no end.

Yes, it's a long three hours, but it's a fully engrossing three hours, as well. The movie really could not be any shorter simply due to the number of perspectives there are and the way in which these are presented. At one point, it becomes a movie within a movie within a movie. Echoes of repeated dialogue permeate throughout each scene, along with different symbols and related images and locations that are constantly recurring. Individual scenes are repeated throughout the movie, presented in different levels of importance and magnification. The entire movie is an elaborate jigsaw puzzle with differently sized pieces fitting into the whole picture in their own way. These pieces work alone and are purposely devoid of any linking ties to create an intentionally disjointed experience. "Inland Empire" is filled with haunting images, hypnotic conversations, and other sequences that are deeply terrifying, bizarrely humorous, and overall exhilarating.

David Lynch has already campaigned for an Oscar nomination for Laura Dern, and with very good reason. She gives a towering performance that's sometimes mind-blowing in the intensity she has. She plays an utterly tormented actress; at one point she sees herself on a big screen acting out a scene she just rehearsed, but then that screen jumps to what she's doing right now as if she's still acting in the film. Another moment consists of her face distorting into some horrible clown face with blood dripping from the mouth, representing the mess she has become; it's any actress' worst nightmare. An Oscar nod for Laura Dern would actually be perfect not only for her, but it would also be the best and most reasonable way for "Inland Empire" to reach out to a more mainstream audience.

Now don't go thinking I understand "Inland Empire" because, just like everybody else, I don't. Just like "Mulholland Drive," this is the type of movie you see again and again because you literally have to. It drags you in and does not let go even once the credits roll. It expands and collapses within your mind while you're watching it, and even once it's over, you're still watching it; you replay everything back through your mind, trying to unravel the mystery. This is what makes David Lynch's films so rewarding. He doesn't simply hand you the solution you crave, but rather, he makes you work for it. Your best option is to make peace with the deliberate confusion and just enjoy the ride.

Archive: "Spider-Man 3" (2007)

Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man 3" packs in a bit too much, giving it the feeling of simply being overstuffed. Two new villains are introduced, one of which is supposedly the actual killer of Peter Parker's uncle. The other man Spidey exacted his revenge on earlier was merely an accomplice. The other villain is hardly used and could've been put to much greater use, but more on that later. There's also a pesky new photojournalist, played by "That 70s Show"'s Topher Grace, who is trying to take Peter Parker's spot on the Daily Bugle. Meanwhile, the relationship between MJ and Peter Parker becomes a foe all in itself. Her Broadway career is failing while Parker's fame is taking off as he just keeps getting more recognition as Spider-Man, and so she feels detached from him. And remember Harry Osborn, son of the Green Goblin, who vowed to kill Spider-Man? Well, he's back, and conveniently got a nice bump on the head, causing a loss of short-term memory. And so, they're back to being friends until Harry starts remembering and becomes his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend-turned-foe-turned-friend yet again, and also the man who MJ finds solace in when Peter's off being a jerk; more on that later, as well.

So let's back up here. First, there's Flint Marko, played by a strangely tan and buff Thomas Haden Church. He's a convict on the run and is just trying to get money to cure his sick daughter, which is his justification for accidentally killing Uncle Ben. We're supposed to feel sympathy for his situation, especially during a most forcedly sentimental speech he gives to Peter for why he must forgive him. Yet how can we feel sympathy when he's flying around the cityscape as a disastrous cloud of sand? While on the run, Marko falls into a pit where scientists just so happen to be conducting a molecular fusion test, and he gets fused with the sand and becomes the Sandman. The other villain is this sticky, black goo that immediately finds its way into Peter's apartment, and eventually takes him completely over, donning Spidey with a new black suit. This ominously exciting new suit with seemingly extraordinary yet dangerous powers was supposed to be the highlight of the plot, right?

Wrong. I was expecting grand darkness, a layer of some intense character development on Spidey's part, allowing Peter Parker to learn from his thoughts of revenge. This is entirely not the case, and it isn't even all that clear why the black suit is so appealing. No new spider senses or other powers are demonstrated and yet Peter Parker still puts up with the horrible side-effect of an annoyingly aggressive attitude. Just when Peter is being a pompous, uncaring jerk to MJ, he slaps on this suit and completely transforms into even more of an asshole. Apparently a dark suit and black, slicked-forward hair represents the newfound darkness. Oh, and the rumors are true: There is a musical number, and yes, two instances where Kirsten Dunst sings. Sadly, though, it's Tobey Maguire who dances. He struts down the street as a clueless egotistical loser, pointing his fingers at disgusted women. To spite MJ who recently called it off with him, Peter goes on a date with a Spider-Man fan named Gwen (played by Bryce Dallas Howard finally in a role as a normal person) to a jazz club where MJ works as a singing waitress. Next thing we know, Peter is tearing up the place with his shameful dance moves, pelvic thrusts included.

So, instead of putting the vengeful black suit idea to good use, it's used to create the single-most embarrassing scene throughout the entire movie. You see, this black goo is actually the villain Venom; he only comes to full form when he's able to manifest himself into somebody else. His later host is the scrawny Topher Grace, which is an odd combination to say the least. Venom is actually a really cool villain, or at least he could be. Once the gooey Venom stops taking over Peter and becomes something really threatening, he's defeated almost immediately. He ultimately feels like an after-thought, with the tons of other side plots in the way; it's a real shame, too. The movie feels like a blatant attempt to make this the biggest and best installment yet, which ironically strips away what could've made it all the better.

I admired the first "Spider-Man" for its colorful presentation and lively, energetic feel. I thought "Spider-Man 2" was quite possibly not only the best sequel ever made, but also one of the best super hero movies ever made. It was beautifully structured, wonderfully acted, and had just the right balance of exciting action sequences and deep, heartfelt emotion with a hint of light-hearted humor on the side. There were likable characters fending off truly menacing villains without too heavy of plot getting in the way. "Spider-Man 3" includes surprisingly bland performances from good actors: Kirstin Dunst is whinier than ever and Tobey Maguire is boyishly arrogant, and neither of them was like that before. The emotions feel forced, but the humor is still there, except sometimes unintentionally so. And there being two villains doesn't compensate for the fact that they're both pretty lame. Lastly, there's just too much plot going on all at once, almost like Sam Raimi lost touch with the ideal simplicity of the first two films. Sometimes less is a whole lot better.

What haven’t changed from the previous two films are the dazzling action sequences. The special effects are absolutely eye-popping, except there aren't enough of them. Sluggish sequences link the gap between the brilliantly vibrant and fast-paced web-slinging or superhero brawling sequences. As a whole, it meanders through mostly uninteresting side plots, and nothing ever really adds up into anything truly satisfying come time for the conclusion. However that may be the case, I must say that "Spider-Man 3" is entirely watchable if not at least a little enjoyable. It only comes as a disappointment to me just because "Spider-Man 2" showed me what these movies are truly capable of; it was a fault on my expectations.

Archive: "Away From Her" (2007)

"Away From Her" is a movie about Alzheimer's disease and the test of love and loss that follows. This is a movie that knows just what it wants to be, sets out to get that done, and in doing so, gets everything right. It's gorgeously sentimental, quiet, resolute, and sincere; it takes a very personal issue and, just like any other fine film one could come across, presents it with an ideal sense of poetic beauty.

Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) have been married for decades. One can get the sense that their love is true and even in the way they silently cross-country ski together in snowy back-country. Their relationship is strong, lasting, and held together by a private language they both share, even through the complications they've had. They are both intellectual people and their deep connection to one another is obvious almost immediately; however, they are an aging couple and it appears that Fiona is the one taking the biggest hit.

One night, Grant witnesses his wife putting a frying pan in the freezer. He also notices that she has placed labels on all of the drawers. She even forgets the word "wine" even when she stares right at it. Then, Fiona goes skiing out by herself and forgets how to get back home. Grant picks her up on the side of the road, and that's when they realize that they both must face the truth about Fiona's memory loss. They gather up books on Alzheimer's, realizing that this sad fate may be that of Fiona. She doesn't want to have her husband go through with being her caretaker, forcing him to watch her progress towards dementia. And so, she decides that it's time to move into a nursing home. Grant doesn't approve of the idea, but he still reluctantly agrees for her to go.

Grant takes a tour of the nursing home she will be attending. He is shown around by a woman named Madeleine (Wendy Crewson), who doesn't appear to understand the struggle Grant is going through, as she gives off the vibe of simply being a salesperson, reminding Grant how the place has lots of natural lighting. A friendly nurse within the hospital ends up being the one who gives Grant the most advice and the most generosity throughout his visits to the nursing home. Grant worries about his wife's progression with Alzheimer's, but he remains painfully optimistic, thinking that maybe that's just the way his wife is as she gets older.

This remains true until after a 30-day period without any visits granted to his wife when Grant finally gets to see her for the first time; it is the longest absence they've had from each other throughout their 40-year marriage. The moment when she doesn't remember him and simply regards him as yet another visitor to the nursing home is devastatingly heart-shattering. Fiona becomes attached to a mute man in a wheelchair named Aubrey (Michael Murphy); her dedication has been shifted over to this man, and she cares to him in the same passionately intimate way she once cared for her husband, of whom she has now completely forgotten. She remembers the house they live in, though, and other things of her past; with that flicker of hope, Grant visits her everyday with each individual day bringing a different result, some more inspirational than others.

Julie Christie, who has been in films since the 60s, retains grace and beauty in a most nuanced and intelligent performance as a woman struggling with the loss of memory, hope, and love. Canadian actor Gorden Pinsent, too, excellently portrays a struggling husband trying to make sense of his wife's thoughts and actions. There's also the wife of Aubrey who Grant goes to visit for personal reasons in trying to make his wife feel better; her name is Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and although her first meeting with Grant is cold, they soon realize that they share a similar bond with their spouses being in the same state. This actress, Olympia Dukakis, who I have never heard of before now, gives a centered and convincing performance, as well.

"Away From Her" is a film that is unconventional and unafraid, and it admires the intricacies of relationships, especially those involving a long-lasting marriage. It's a believable portrait, capturing the confusion and sadness that comes along with the early stages of dementia. With this film, first-time director Sarah Polley, with a strong visual sense of atmosphere and mood, has crafted a compelling character study that sustains a subdued style of storytelling that nearly becomes a piece of art in its simplicity and poignancy.

Archive: "Shrek The Third" (2007)

Although obviously less superior to its predecessors, "Shrek the Third" succeeds in maintaining the infectious liveliness of the series. This third outing into the beloved animated franchise holds true to the bright, colorful world of Shrek even if its plot fails to hold as tight. It's certainly hard to match the creative genius behind the original along with the inventive cleverness of the sequel, but then again, nobody's really asking for that or even expecting that. And so, it's simply great enough just to see the world of Shrek reintroduced and brought to life yet again with the same upbeat, optimistic, and energetic feel of its predecessors, no matter what other minor downfalls this latest installment may have.

Shrek (Mike Myers) seems to be having some sort of mid-life crisis in ogre form. With his frog-king father-in-law passed away, he is next in line to be king of Far, Far Away. Before the old man croaks, however, he provides Shrek with information on another possible heir to the throne. Shrek immediately jumps on this opportunity, as he is more reluctant than ever to be the next ruler of Far, Far Away. Meanwhile, Shrek also finds out that Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is pregnant, and he soon realizes that he's also reluctant to become a father. On top of all this, there's still Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) in the backdrop, gathering up all the villains he can find to scheme his way back to becoming king while finishing off Shrek for good. In all, things just aren't going very nicely for our favorite green ogre right now.

Our other favorite characters have made their return, as well, like the Gingerbread Man, the Three Pigs, the Wolf, Pinnochio, and more importantly, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). Seeing them all together again, and those fuzzy little dragon babies of Donkey's, too, is all just so enjoyable as ever. And how can I go on without mentioning the most darling addition to the Shrek family? The little ogre babies are the most adorable things I have ever seen in an animated movie. One scene in particular where Shrek and Fiona juggle around their three little dumplings ends the movie on a most perfectly fitting note.

Long before that point is reached, Shrek, Donkey, and Puss in Boots go on a quest in search of the potential heir to the throne who can take Shrek's place. The young lad is a supposedly geeky teenage loser named Arthur (Justin Timberlake), who they find at a Hogwarts-esque academy named Worcestershire, which is like a medieval high school. Cheerleaders bounce across the campus, teenage girls gossip, jocks from the jousting team boast, and they all do it with a hint of medieval language infused within. It's in this sense that the movie keeps strong with its pop-culture references and sly in-jokes such as this. Even Fiona and her mother, the Queen (Julie Andrews), band together with other classic fairy tale women like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in an attempt to stop Prince Charming's evil scheme. With this, the movie pokes fun at Disney, too, spoofing on its classic princesses; the scenes involving this princess squad of lovely ladies are some of the movie's best.

With the parameters of this hero-quest story lined up, the movie clips along at a fairly smooth pace with only temporary slow-downs throughout the journey. There is one enjoyable diversion in particular that involves a very confused and unreliable Merlin who helps Shrek and Artie on their journey. There's actually not so much going on in terms of the storyline itself, and so the real entertainment value comes out of the details within individual scenes and comical situations such as this. The movie glides along quickly to keep the kids consistently entertained and to not let the parents get bored too fast; just like the previous two films, there's something for anyone of all ages to enjoy here.

Visually, "Shrek the Third" is gorgeous; I honestly think this is one of the best looking animated films there is. The improvement upon the first one, and even the second, is revolutionary and truly shows how far we've come along in our special effects technology. It's simply stunning. Sure, this is a movie that basically exists because its predecessors did so well, but that's not to say that the makers aren't trying anymore. They're still putting in their very best efforts and, although losing a bit of steam along the way in comparison to the first two installments, are still dishing out the first great animated feature of the year.

Archive: "Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End" (2007)

This franchise is quite the tricky piece of work because "At World's End" concludes well enough to the point that this very well could be the last we'll be seeing of these pirates, but it is uncertain if this will actually be the case. Most likely not because there are still enough loose ends not tied up that could easily branch off into yet another adventure. And make sure to stay for the credits because there's a teaser at the end that hints even more at the possibility of a fourth. Personally, I think this latest movie ends the series sufficiently and provides an opportune time to hang up the old eye patch and finally put these pirates to rest once and for all. Jack Sparrow looks like he could use the break.

The crew we've all become so familiar with in the previous two films is back and this time around, we feel like we know exactly what they are thinking. This time everybody gets right down to business as they travel to literally the ends of the earth, covered in salt water, sweat, and grime. The triumphant return of Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa is fantastic as he tromps around with his trademark cackle. Keira Knightley as the lovely Elizabeth Swann transforms into a fierce woman, and there's a surprisingly large amount of her as she pretty much takes charge for a good portion of the movie even to the point of becoming king of the pirates. Then there's the frankly quite plain Orlando Bloom as William Turner who, luckily, doesn't actually have too much of a role until later on, which is a relief. Bill Nighy also returns as the tentacle-faced Davy Jones, who is still just as threatening, and even heartbreaking, as before. Chow Yun-Fat is also introduced as Sao Feng, another pirate leader in a strange Singapore.

And then there's of course Johnny Depp returning as Jack Sparrow, who got taken away, along with the Black Pearl, into the depths of Davy Jones' locker. In case one is not enough, there are multiple Jack Sparrows this time, in a sort of "Being John Malkovich" sense. The locker is a strange, desolate desert where Sparrow basically loses his mind, and ends up fighting with himself over a peanut. Even when Sparrow is saved from the locker by his faithful crew (now teamed up with Barbossa), the multiple Sparrows still make their return inside his screwed up mind. It's some crazy stuff, and all the more fitting to have a special cameo by Keith Richards (who already looks dead without any makeup on) as Jack Sparrow's father; we're not actually told that, but it's assumable enough. And so, Captain Jack is back with the rest of the crew, swinging his arms around, running like a girl, being as sexually confusing as ever, and all the more hysterical for it.

Sparrow, along with everybody else, gets caught up in different agendas of people with contrasting motives. Everybody has their own idea of what needs to be done, and each one of them has a moment of triumph, revelation, and resolve. This is definitely one swashbuckling flick that doesn't skimp on the plot lines; like "Dead Man's Chest," there's so much going on that it starts to veer off the course of logic. I only had a vague understanding of what the characters were even talking about half the time, but that's perfectly fine. There are too many pressing questions here to ever fault this blatant convolution: Will the sea goddess Calypso, once released from her human form, wreak havoc? Will Elizabeth and Will finally stop having so much tension and just exclaim their love to one another? What will happen to Davy Jones' broken heart? However can Will free his father-turned-barnacle from the clutches of the Flying Dutchman? And to think that's only the beginning of it.

It is confusing, but then again, what does it matter? It's hard to care when all the stuff is talked about in thick accents. What really matters is the action, the thrills, and those chuckle-worthy one-liners. After Will, Elizabeth, and Barbossa rescue Jack, they all team up to take down the ruthless Lord Cutler Beckett who has taken control of Davy Jones' Flying Dutchman. At a very colorful and diverse meeting with a group called the Nine Lords of the Brethren Court, all the pirate leaders around the world devise a way to take down Beckett and Davy Jones. This one scene shows the time put into this movie in terms of capturing the feel of a real pirate adventure; the costumes, the makeup, and the talk all fits. Standing amongst this crowd is Knightley, Depp, and Rush. These talented actors have put their best efforts into these films, and in doing so, they have created iconic pirate characters that will not be soon forgotten.

Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, the peak of this massively convoluted pirate epic does take a while to finally reach, but it is worth the wait. The exciting, sword-fighting climax brings back the exhilaration of the high-seas action in "The Curse of the Black Pearl." It's a swirl of torrential rains, clashing metal, and exploding cannons. This really great near-final quarter of the movie makes up for a sometimes slow first half. And even when the plot fails to deliver, you're too distracted by Johnny Depp's antics, the swashbuckling banter, and of course, the dazzling visuals and the explosive action sequences. Director Gore Verbinski has created one of the most amazing mixes of live-action and CGI animation. When a ship falls off the edge of a never-ending waterfall or literally rises up from the sea, or when human pirates are battling against half-sea-men, it's visually impressive and simply magnificent.

I walked out of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" not disappointed like I thought I might've been. What sets this one apart from "Dead Man's Chest" is that it actually ends. Sure it's a bit too long, but the length is almost necessary in order to make a massive final statement and to close the trilogy for good...provided it stays a trilogy. Nevertheless, even if there is another, I can have satisfaction in saying that at least it could end here. This is the first big blockbuster of the summer, and a worthy one at that. This is great stuff, and exactly the thing we need to kick off the summer movie season.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Archive: "Jindabyne" (2007)

"Jindabyne," titled for the lakeside city where the movie takes place, is based on the short story "So Much Water So Close to Home" by Raymond Carver, and Australian director Ray Lawrence has transformed the story into a movie that is uniquely Australian in its themes, ideas, and setting. The camera sweeps over the sometimes ominous landscape, full of flowing rivers, tall mountain peaks, and barren lands. The cinematography is quite beautiful, and so is the acting that comes along with the rest of the film.

Claire (Laura Linney) is an American wife of an Australian fisherman, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne); their troubles as a couple are surrounded by neighbors, friends, and family who also have troubles of their own. They both have the usual small-time jobs you would find in a small town like Jindabyne, Claire working as a clerk in a drugstore, and Stewart running a gas station. They have an unexplained patch of history in their marriage where Claire got ill and left because she wasn't able to care for their only son. Like many other aspects of their relationship, this is never really explained.

The only highlight in Stewart's year is going on a big, annual fishing trip with three other buddies at some river deep in a remote national park. While there, they stumble across the dead body of an Aboriginal woman. The immediate response of the group of men is never shown or understood, and they decide to not let this be an interruption to their fishing trip and that they'll take care of it once they get home. Once they tell the police about it, however, they, and the public of the small town, can't understand how the men could've continued to fish there. The last person to find out is Stewart's husband, Claire, which puts a strain on her understanding of her husband's actions.

The movie presents Claire's side of the argument with the most clarity; she returns back to the subject over and over again, pressing her husband further on the issue. It's an attempt to get a grip on the matter, to find out if she's living with a heartless man, and to find some way to make amends with the entire ordeal. This performance is left in the very capable hands of Laura Linney, who is the powerful center of this tale of lost morality. It's best to keep your eye on her very emotional and taut performance because it's by far the most admirable factor among the rest of the film's sometimes slow-moving and unfocused feel.

This best feature, along with the other central performances, gets somewhat lost in the murk of other extraneous elements of the plot. The filmmakers seem to have a lot to say about race, religion, abortion, mental illness, middle age, and community life. The fact that the woman in the water is Aboriginal brings up the race factor and the question of whether or not the men would've acted quicker had she been white. The movie gets weighed down by these extra factors, which all seem heavy-handed.

Also interesting to note is that the movie sometimes even feels like a thriller. There is always the murderer of the young woman lurking about, and there are plenty of scenes that lend themselves to make the viewers believe that something bad is going to happen. Also something to note is that although meant to be a character study, some of the most important aspects of these characters are left not fleshed-out.

"Jindabyne" is an intelligent, finely observant, and haunting portrait of a small town torn apart by the rage that surrounds a tragedy. It's a peculiar film; one that is very bleak, quiet, and in this subdued tone, tells a fractured story about humanity and the occasional struggle in finding it. And the movie's ending, too, is just a wry enough of a conclusion that brings everything full circle with just the right amount of karma.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Archive: "Knocked Up" (2007)

The guy who brought us "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" is back again, this time tackling pregnancy. Writer-director Judd Apatow is the master of comedy with his latest outing, "Knocked Up," a nearly flawless movie that even surpasses Apatow's previous work. With the same mix of sentimentality and raunchiness, we are given an era-defining comedy that is current, genuine, and downright hilarious. It's really something you have to see to believe. This is hands-down the best comedy of the year, and also one of the best movies of the year.

The premise is simple: A shlub hooks up with a successful woman in a bar, they have some drunken sex, the woman gets pregnant, and the shlub does the best he can to help out. This slacker is a guy named Ben (Seth Rogen) who is unemployed, sits around with his stoner buddies, smokes pot, and really has no intention of doing much else. The woman is a career-oriented beauty named Alison (Katherine Heigl) who just got a big promotion at her interviewing job at the E! studio. To celebrate, she goes to a bar and that's when the hook-up happens. Ben and Alison have their little fling, have an awkward conversation over breakfast the next morning, and never really hear from each other again. That is, until eight weeks later.

What's so darling is that these two are not right for each other in every sense. And yet, their growing relationship has a sincere sweetness to it that is undeniable. They are not romantic and are not living some planned-out life together, and you can see the ending to their story from the start, but every single scene getting there is worth it. A sex scene, for example, where Ben nearly faints because he can't stand the idea that his penis might be poking the baby in the face is gut-bustingly hilarious and ridiculous.

Seth Rogen--who acted alongside Steve Carell in "Virgin"--lights up the screen with his infectious down-to-earth demeanor. He cracks crude one-liners like they're nothing, and he's fresh, funny, good-spirited, and self-deprecating. Katherine Heigl from "Grey's Anatomy" is just as lovely here, bringing the same widespread emotions she presents on television. She's hormonal, enraged, and also sympathetic and kind. The two of these actors together makes for great chemistry.

Throughout the movie, we also get quality doses of Alison's married sister, Debbie (Leslie Mann), and her restless husband, Pete (Paul Rudd). Here are two other actors with spot-on comic timing. Their characters in the movie don't exactly provide something for Alison and Ben to necessarily look up to. Their marriage is, as Pete describes, an unfunny version of "Everybody Loves Raymond" that lasts forever, and it provides an example of the behavioral observation that Apatow uses as his comedic fodder. There are lengthy scenes of not only them, but also Ben and Alison, simply arguing with each other. It feels real and like actual arguments because neither side really wins; that's life. The F-word goes flying every other word, and it's totally acceptable because it's used tastefully even in excess. Apatow's trademark mix of the profane and the sentimental is what makes all of the characters, even all of Ben's slacker buddies, feel like real people.

So yeah, Judd Apatow really knows what's up. He knows how to make it feel real, current, and knows how to deliver the laughs. There are even numerous cameos including one from E!'s very own Ryan Seacrest, who dishes out a hysterical tyrant with words you thought you would never hear him say. Many other pop culture references are abound, too, including humorous references to "Spider-Man 3," and even a bash at "Lost"'s Matthew Fox where Ben says something about him we've all already been thinking.

There are boobs, there are the geeks who love the boobs, but there are also the owners of the boobs who have a cry together and try to get into clubs. And then there are the pregnancy tests, the gynecologists, the baby books, and, yes, even a crowning shot. It's all there and accounted for, and somehow ingeniously blended together into one perfect comedy gem. It's in this way that I guess you could call this a romantic comedy for both sexes. It's raunchy enough for the guys and also heartwarming enough for the ladies. But, that's like calling this just one great date movie, and that's not all what "Knocked Up" is. It's a comedy for everyone and a movie about life and the crap life can toss at us and how to deal with the crap and grow from it, and learn from it, and simply mature as adults the very best anybody can.

It's this stuff that makes "Knocked Up" such a breath of fresh air. It's a comedy with a big heart that's in the right place, and it always knows when to be profane and when to be sweet. Everything here is delivered with such sincerity and cheer that you can't help but smile and, of course, laugh your ass off the entire time. It is great fun, it made me happy, and I loved every minute of it.

Archive: "Hostel: Part II" (2007)

Writer-director Eli Roth is back, reprising the premise of his surprise 2005 hit "Hostel," which I despised passionately. "Part II" opens up with the survivor from the first chapter, minus two fingers, retelling his nightmare story of the hostel. He believes he's still in trouble for getting away from the tattooed clan of foreign killers who run this whole, sick ordeal; if you don't recall, it's an organization where people kill other people for pure entertainment. Well, it turns out he was right and we soon discover him sitting at the kitchen table with a bloody stump on his shoulders as a nice treat for the cat to lick.

Setting the mood nicely, we're then introduced to a group of American art students studying in Rome. There's nice Beth, nerdy Laura, and nasty Whitney. These three ladies get offered by a beautiful foreign woman to go to some luxurious spa, but little do they know, they're being dragged to the same lethal hostel the group of guys did last time around. Looks like the Slovak Republic is yet again the last place you'll want to go over spring break. (Keep that in mind, targeted teen audience.) Obviously Europe is the new, hip place to take advantage of the latest tourist trend: Mutilating and torturing innocent people for your own leisure. Yes, Eli Roth means for it to be a satire on our capitalistic and materialistic way of life; we get it already.

The clients' side of the story is provided, too, as we follow two men who are paying big bucks to partake in the torturing. A humorously sick scene occurs when we watch as people all around the globe are sending in their bids on the young group of American women. This man wins the auction by interrupting his game of golf to text in his bid, and once triumphant, he believes that this single day will benefit him and his buddy for the rest of their lives. He'll now have some kind of macho aura about him now that he's killed a person.

I went into this movie expecting the worst, so I was rather relieved to see how campy the violence actually was in comparison to the first. Let's take these few scenes for example: One of the vacationing girls is hung naked upside down, only to be sliced with a scythe by a woman client lying naked in a tub ready for a literal blood bath; one of the men clients is taunting his young lady with a buzz saw, only to have it accidentally go into her face; a penis is shown getting chopped off, and a dog eats it; and lastly, the movie ends with the last surviving woman exacting her revenge on the beautiful foreigner by slicing her head clear off with an ax. In some ways, it becomes totally absurd and laughable which, in my opinion, makes it more tolerable than "Hostel," which was downright, straight-faced awful.

Presented once again by Quentin Tarantino, "Hostel: Part II" is in some twisted way, though I hate to say it, a step in the right direction for Eli Roth. It's a very, minuscule step, however, because this movie is still soulless, pure torture, and there has yet to be one genuine scare produced. Is this really what horror movies have become? Roth isn't completely hopeless because he shows possibility in an ominous build-up scene at a creepy, foreign festival. Besides, I still liked his trailer from "Grindhouse," and you can't forget "Cabin Fever." With these flickers of potential, I'm ready to see Mr. Roth attempt something different and finally close this hostel forever.

Archive: "Severance" (2007)

"The company is making cutbacks." This British slasher-comedy is cleverly entitled "Severance," a pun on the office term severance pay, and that's not the only thing that happens to be clever about this movie. Director Chris Smith keeps the laughs and the thrills coming with this hybrid mix of office humor and chilling scares. Although working nine to five may be a real killer, what's even more deadly is going on a team-building trip out in Hungary. Once again, it appears that Eastern Europe is the last place anybody will want to go. Seven employees of an international defense weapons company called Palisade are treated to a weekend away at a newly opened luxury spa, but things go terribly wrong when the coach leaves them and they're left in the mountainous wilderness.

In this group there's the supposed leader of the group, Richard; the babe everybody wants, Maggie; the laid-back guy who does shrooms, Steve; the guy nobody likes, Gordon; the snobby guy who wishes he was in charge, Harris; the stereotypical black guy, Billy; and the somewhat nerdy but nice woman, Jill. The characters are pretty cardboard-cut, but the point of the movie isn't to have any deep character development; they're simply fleshed-out enough to the point that you actually care about them, laugh with them, and get nervous for them. What's especially nice about these characters is that they're not the usual horror movie bunch that always goes in the wrong place to get killed. These people make choices any other person would make, and the circumstances surrounding them just happen to get them killed, not their own stupidity.

After the coach drives off, the group wanders around and ends up a dingy lodge instead of the luxurious spa they were expecting. There is a group of ex-military Russians vowing to kill every Palisade employee who comes through this area. The actual back story is unclear due to the different perspectives from everybody, but what's important is that somebody's out to get them. And so, each member of the group gets picked off in increasingly grisly ways. There's a lot of building-up to this killing, which is good, because then there's actually some suspense and terror instead of just gore. And besides, there really isn't that much gore, which proves that a good slasher flick doesn't have to be all about that. This movie is more frightening than anything like "Hostel: Part II."

The humor that is tossed in between all of the slaughter is well-earned, too. One scene in particular involves Harris talking about how the guillotine is not a quick way to die because the head still thinks for minutes after it's been chopped off. Jill, who he is telling this, thinks he's ridiculous. Next thing we know, Harris gets his head chopped off by the killer, feeling his own head roll away and then watching his bloody stump lie on the ground. He smirks with his now decapitated head knowing that he was right. Another scene involves a misguided rocket launcher, which is downright absurd and hilarious.

"Severance" is a successful crossover film that manages to be both very funny and very scary without ever stooping to that of a satire. I enjoyed this movie not only because it's smart (with a subtle link to the war in Iraq), but also because I've become exhausted with what horror movies have become recently. It's nice to see one back in the classic slasher style, and one that's actually good, too. It's not self-serious either thanks to the fusion of dark comedy. I prefer my horror with a hint of wit, and this clever British import delivers the goods in a harsh but lively style.

Archive: "Fantasic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer" (2007)

Like the first one, "Fantastic Four" still remains a movie that fries your brain with its mind-numbing silliness, and in that way, it's passably enjoyable. Although the same errors exist, they are much less apparent in "Silver Surfer" due to the several things that this one gets right. Less time is focused on the origins of the dynamic group, and an actually threatening villain is introduced. 2005's Dr. Doom wasn't all that threatening back then. Still far from any descriptor nearing "fantastic," this sequel is a small step up from the first film. At this rate, perhaps by the fourth or fifth installment it can reach the level of fantastic, but then again, probably not; it doesn't seem like these superheroes have that kind of potential to begin with.

The movie doesn't waste any time, and as the movie opens, we're shown a bay in Japan solidifying and Egypt having an unusually wintry climate. This is from a mysterious silver streak that shoots across the sky. Although it's a headline on the news, the main story is about Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman tying the knot. They're calling it the wedding of the century and it's a nice hit on our celebrity-obsessed public. The wedding has been postponed numerous times now due to, well, having to save the world. The foursome's newest threat is this ominous silver streak now dubbed "silver surfer" after Johnny Storm follows it for a more detailed description.

After scientific observation and pressure from some shockingly mean U.S. military leaders, the group begins to unravel the mystery of this Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne). Whenever this creature flies to a planet, eight days later the planet dies. And so, in melodramatic seriousness, the Surfer explains that he has been flying from planet to planet under control of something called Galactus. The crisis is really kicked up a notch from last time now that the fate of the entire earth is in the balance. It's a good thing that Johnny Storm received an adverse effect from coming in contact with the Surfer, and now whenever he touches any of his pals, he gathers their powers. This isn't merely just a distraction from the thick-headed plot, but actually a key element; more on that later.

The Silver Surfer is actually a pretty neat villain, except I liked him better when I knew less about him; he's more threatening before his ridiculously absurd origin is revealed. Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) makes a return this time, too, causing more chaos, as he pretends to be helpful, but of course, has plans of his own. Once the action starts picking up, the plot gets pretty obnoxious. The special effects, however, are a big improvement with quite a few sequences that are pretty cool to look at. Overall, it is just big, loud, dumb comic book stuff, but we already knew that coming in.

Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) are all getting along better this time. They're not doing anything new with their superpowers: Reed is still the stretchy Mr. Fantastic, Sue still can vanish and make force fields, Johnny is still the self-explanatory Human Torch, and Ben is still the rock solid Thing. Aside from some occasional quipping back and forth, they're done bickering, and not only have come to better terms with each other, but also themselves. The actors playing these superheroes seem more comfortable, as well; that is, aside from Alba who still seems completely out of sorts. For the most part, it seems as if this time everybody is done trying to convince us of the crap we're watching, and are finally just letting us go with the flow.

The first "Fantastic Four" plodded along with its running time of just over 2 hours. It felt too long, so it's a good thing this one barely touches the 90-minute mark, making for a much more stream-lined experience. The PG-rating, as well, doesn't subtract anything away from the experience aside from a few careful word choices. There are still plenty of suggestive one-liners and quick innuendos to scoff at. The rating is just there to help broaden the targeted audience because I doubt anybody only over 13 was thoroughly enjoying the first one to begin with.

Archive: "A Mighty Heart" (2007)

This is the story of Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who, in 2002, was researching a story on a man named Richard Reid. The investigation drew him and his wife, Mariane Pearl, to the crowded city of Karachi, Pakistan. One night, Daniel went for an interview from an elusive source and told his wife he may be home late for dinner. He never returns. Amongst the bustling streets of this city, terrorists surfaced and took Daniel hostage. They held him prisoner until one day a horrifying video was released showing footage of Daniel's beheading. This is the story of the desperate struggle to find Mariane's husband before the awful truth is revealed. This film, "A Mighty Heart," is based on the memoir written by Mariane Pearl entitled "A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband Danny Pearl."

Angelina Jolie plays the role of Mariane Pearl and proves once and for all that she is a brilliant actress. She convincingly portrays the real-life woman not only with her physical appearance (she is nearly unrecognizable with her curly hair and dark skin), but also with her emotions and reactions. It's unfair to call her performance simply Oscar bait; yes, depicting a real-life person always helps, but it's not her fault that the Academy tends to look towards that. It's a tough role because she has to play a real person and not a movie star interpretation of a real person, and with that, she does Mariane Pearl proud. She plunges into the role and makes it who she is; her unique look and French accent of course helps with this. Whether she's demonstrating heroic self-conviction or wailing in the dark corner of a room, she is damn good.

The movie is faithful and committed to the facts but also doesn't rely too heavily on them. The search for Danny Pearl is a convoluted mess with countless investigators, friends, family, and suspects getting involved. There's the friend whose apartment is where most of the investigation roots from; the Pakistan security official who knows his way around the city; and the American agent who wishes he could be helping out more. With plenty of other people abound, the movie's fast-paced, choppy fashion makes it quite difficult to follow at times. I see this as a good thing, though. There's no need to understand exactly everything because it should not ever reach the point where the faces, places, and names actually matter. They are like a setting within all of the emotional turmoil. We know about as much (or in this case, as little) as Mariane and can comprehend about as much as she can. We feel flustered just like her, and that's exactly the point.

It's a sign of great talent when the audience can be kept enthralled even when the ending is already known. There's still plenty of snags along the way that keep it interesting including lies, gossip, and rumors about Danny Pearl's motivations and his work. Here is a thriller that depends on this type of frustration and confusion. We get lost in the story, sometimes even literally, and we feel the sense of urgency throughout. The movie is also somewhat of a political piece, but luckily, it doesn't elevate anything to that of exploitation to ensure it's rightfully placed emotional impact. We don't hear too much about the kidnapping terrorists and we don't ever witness the beheading video because they are like a separate entity never to be truly revealed.

Through it all, Mariane Pearl is the heartbeat and core of the film. She is the voice of dignity, hope, and strength, holding the fabric of everything together. When we witness her speak to CNN interviewers, we understand how her mind works. When asked how she is coping with her husband's death, she goes on to explain that in the same period of time, countless other journalists under the same circumstances were killed and that her situation is just one of many. Like that single response, she is reserved and calculates her every action. She is a courageous woman in the face of this tragedy in her life, and she stays strong and firm. Most endearing are the words she states once the search for her husband subsides; they are beautifully spoken.

"A Mighty Heart" is directed by British director Michael Winterbottom, who films the movie in a docudrama style with zero Hollywood frills attached. It's effectively made, is as jolting as it is heart-wrenching, and is held together almost entirely by, yes, I'll say it, Angelina Jolie's Oscar-caliber performance. It's an important film that brings attention to this most devastating of tragedies; it's a worthy movie on this very tragic and sensitive subject and is approached with great sincerity and respect.

Archive: "Paprika" (2007)

Satoshi Kon ("Tokyo Godfathers," "Millennium Actress") is another feature-length anime movie director, not to be confused with Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle"). Although I had only been familiar with Miyazaki, now that I've seen the total head trip that is "Paprika," I'm more interested than ever. With a tag line that states "This is your brain on anime," you have to know what you're getting yourself into. My best advice is to surrender all that you know and dive into this delusional and bizarre adventure; the rush you get will be worth your effort.

I admit that for some portions of the movie I was pretty baffled as to what exactly was going on, but I was no more confused here than while watching the third "Pirates" movie. And frankly, "Paprika" is half the length and twice the excitement. The thickly plotted story hinges on a futuristic device called the DC Mini that allows psychiatrists to tap into the dreams of their patients. This dream machine shows enormous potential, but also presents obvious dangers with its power. Three workers from the psychiatric institution get involved with the suspicious disappearance of several of the DC Mini devices. There's the main woman in charge, Dr. Atsuko Chiba; her genius colleague, Dr. Kosaku Tokita, who invented the missing gadget and also happens to be an enormously obese slob; and lastly, the midget, toad-eyed Dr. Torataro Shima, otherwise just known as the Chief.

Involved in the mess is also a man named Toshimi Konakawa. The movie opens with his dream where perspectives are bent and things transform right before our eyes with scenery changes that blend from one to the other. He's at a circus, but then falls into the setting of a suspense film, and then a romantic film, followed by a Tarzan flick. His recurring nightmare involves his supposed hatred of movies; he is a past movie director haunted by his incomplete film where he eventually sees himself shooting his other self in the back. The connections to his actual life point out that there's not much difference between the movies and our reality. This satisfying side plot alone brings up just one of the many poignant questions about where fantasy ends and reality begins. Konakawa even visits a website that sucks him in right before his eyes, which brings up how virtual the reality of the internet is.

The search for the DC Minis includes Konakawa cracking the mystery of his own dream, while Dr. Chiba engulfs herself into even more dreams with a spunky, red-headed sprite named Paprika. This sexy sidekick who sprouts wings, along with plenty of other transformations, is actually Chiba's alter-ego who is the main indicator of whether or not she's in a dream. Soon, however, there comes a point in which Chiba is no longer in a dream, and yet, Paprika is right there by her. As the dream invading intensifies, soon all of the different dreams start bleeding into one another and then eventually into reality itself. It's truly mind-bending stuff and becomes quite a bit overwhelming, too, especially when you're trying to take everything in and read subtitles at the same time.

The movie is stunning and a real sight to see. It's visually intoxicating with a rich blend of 3-D backgrounds and traditional animation. The dreamscape backdrop that takes up a large portion of the movie is absolutely captivating and enchanting. One main aspect of the dreams is a massive parade lead by a team of inanimate objects like refrigerators and other appliances. Further back in the line are frogs playing the trumpet, dancing dolls, random things on stilts, and hundreds of other various living and non-living things sporadically darting around to catch your eye. No matter how lost you may be in the plot, there's always something to look at and keep you entertained.

Unlike Miyazaki's latest works, Kon's piece is definitely not intended for children, hence it's R rating. This is animation for the mature crowd, which is really refreshing. This is purely adult anime and very intelligent stuff at that. While addressing many questions about our perception on reality and the dangers of science, the movie is intensely provocative, ecstatically fresh, and intricately made. "Paprika" could not be any more aesthetically pleasing.

Archive: "1408" (2007)

Just watching "1408," you know this is the stuff of Stephen King. It's a nightmarishly wicked premise that is executed very effectively and adapts well to the screen from King's original short story. This movie could very well have gone horribly wrong, but luckily, this is one of the best film adaptations of something from Stephen King in recent memory. (Remember "Secret Window"?) The best part about this horror movie is that it's actually pretty scary. Don't let the PG-13 rating fool you; just because there aren't buckets of gore dumped onto the screen, there are genuine frights here. This is one that's definitely worth your time checking into.

Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a horror novelist having a rough time. His latest book about the top ten haunted hotels is barely successful, and he just keeps hunting for better and scarier locations to write about. He's careless and disgruntled, and his cynicism is shown in his writing. While at an uncrowned book signing, a teenage girl approaches him with his very first novel entitled "The Long Road Home," which was before he began writing horror novels. It's a glimpse of how troubled Enslin is, but we are soon to find out that his troubles are really just beginning.

Tired of going to supposed haunted houses that turn out to be jokes, Enslin simply can't pass up the challenge of room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in New York. In its hundred years of existence, 56 people have died in that one single room. Once at the hotel, Enslin is confronted by the hotel manager, Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who warns him repeatedly to change his mind about staying in the room and attempts to bribe him into leaving. When he flatly states, "This is a fucking evil room," you'll not only get chills because of the tone in which he says it, but also in the fact that Sam Jackson just got done dropping another f-bomb. Even so, Enslin is persistent and insists on staying the night.

Following that, the rest of the movie is essentially a lot of John Cusack spending some quality time in the creepy room where his character gets a taste of his own medicine. Cusack basically has to hold his own for a large portion of the running-time, and he does a surprisingly good job of it. I don't particularly like the guy, but when it comes to looking totally frazzled and talking to yourself in a freaky hotel room, he fits the bill perfectly. Not only that, but he brings his welcome smartass attitude that makes Enslin's cynicism totally palpable.

While in the room, Enslin is haunted primarily by his own memories of his young daughter's sad death, an incident which broke apart him and his wife. There are also translucent visions of the past victims from the room, and a ton of other hellish things occurring throughout Enslin's stay. What's most unsettling about this part of the movie is that we're not sure whether or not what Enslin is experiencing is his own plunge into insanity. There's an artfully sustained feeling of dread and suspense in the atmosphere that gets to us just as it's getting to the man we're watching. I could say plenty more about the occurrences in room 1408, but I won't because the thrill comes from the sheer unpredictability of what is to come next.

There's even a glimpse into a potential cop-out ending that has enough twists and switchbacks to keep your mind racing. The real ending, however, is one that isn't frustrating, and yet isn't very clear-cut, either. It's satisfying enough but also leaves enough loose ends to be up for interpretation. In terms of chilling excitement and genuine creepiness, "1408" is a notch above any other current horror fare in theaters recently.

Archive: "Live Free Or Die Hard" (2007)

This is the type of movie you walk out of ready to punch or kick something not because you're angry at it, but just because you're so pumped up. "Live Free or Die Hard" brings back the style of action summer blockbusters of the 1990s and invigorates it with a new updated look.

This is a timely action flick that is blatantly modern to fit our post-9/11 nation. The plot involves super techno-terrorist hackers who infiltrate the U.S. infrastructure; this group is led by a disgruntled ex-government worker named Thomas Gabriel who is out for revenge. The government disapproved of his new security ideas, and now he is showing them how flawed the system really is. Helped by his girlfriend/crazy Asian lady, Mai, and a whole team of elite hackers, Gabriel plans to start off by stealing ideas from the smartest hackers out there and then killing them all. This surprisingly powerful room of people working on the plan can gain access to anywhere and destroy everything by just a few strokes of the keyboard. This modernized plot attacks two fears of Americans today: 1) terrorism itself, and 2) the possibility that our reliability on computers can totally screw us over.

Luckily for America, John McClane enters the equation just in time to prevent everything from being blown to hell. At first he is simply ordered to protect the life of a hacker under attack named Matt Farrell, but then things get stickier and soon they must fight to stay alive together. McClane openly admits he doesn't know a thing about computers, nor does he care to know. What he lacks there, though, he completely makes up for in knowing how to kick some ass. He's played by Bruce Willis, who is returning more than 10 years later since the last "Die Hard." He's like a battered and bruised bulldog, still tough as nails. Wielding only two hand guns and his trusty fists, Willis plugs along as McCane up against his most advanced enemy, while still cracking frequently humorous one-liners along the way. It really is a crowd-pleaser to see Willis at it again, looking balder than ever and still ready for action.

Matt Farrell is played by Justin Long, otherwise known as the Mac commercial guy, who's surprisingly not as annoying as I thought he would be. He has a large role in the film as a big-time hacker and computer junkie who McClane eventually ends up needing along the way in order to understand the "fire sale" that's supposedly being performed on the nation. Now, my question is what kind of processors are running all of this high-tech software on these computers seen in almost every scene? Let me tell you, it isn't being done on a Mac, and so it's pretty ironic watching the Mac guy perform all of his hacking tricks on these computers.

The plot is merely a backdrop for the incredible action sequences to sprout from the circumstances. At one point in the movie, Farrell exclaims to McClane, "You just killed that helicopter with a car!" That he did and thought absolutely nothing of it. Of course moments like this are going to be scattered throughout this summer action flick because what's a summer action flick anyway without insanely unbelievable scenarios? The most memorable and excellent sequence involves a fight to the death in an elevator shaft. Another sequence involves a jet shooting at a semi McClane is driving, ultimately destroying an entire highway. This sequence earns its spot even in spite of its sheer absurdity because the rest of the movie plays it so old school.

Through plenty of non-stop, in-your-face explosions, gunfire, and extraordinary stunts, there also comes the ending to it all. The ending, without trying to give too much away, takes a classic climactic moment, and then turns it on its head, transforming it into the most unexpectedly subdued, low-tech ending imaginable. It's not at all underwhelming, does McClane perfect justice, is awesomely cool, and is entirely fitting to the movie, too.

"Live Free or Die Hard" is a welcome surprise to the summer movie list, and it's successful because it brings back a classic character who we thought had long retired back in the 1990s. But here he is, roused to action because he just happens to be the go-to guy, and we're happily prepared to go along for the ride. It's good stuff, great fun, one of the season's better sequels, and may be one of the biggest hits out now. In a summer ruled by ghost pirates and silver surfers, it's great to see a bare-knuckle hero in a throwback to a seriously satisfying action flick romp.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Edinburgh Film Festival

Coming this summer to A Place for Reviews is coverage of the 2010 Edinburgh Film Festival. The reason for this? I'm studying abroad with the MSU program Film in Britain, and attending this prestigious film festival is the big finish to the trip. Stay tuned during the final weeks in June for daily coverage of the festival along with a slew of new reviews for upcoming movies and world premieres.

Are you as excited as I am?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Archive: "Ratatouille" (2007)

With "Ratatouille" Pixar is back in top form and director Brad Bird ("The Incredibles") is the animation genius working in Hollywood right now. If you've been wondering where all the genuinely good cartoons have been, it's because this director has been working diligently on this one. This is arguably Pixar's best creation yet, and it's not only the best animated film of the year but also ranks among the greatest animated films in recent memory.

Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a rat who lives in the countryside of France with his father and clan of rats. Remy has been raised by these garbage-eaters, but he strives for human food and delicacies. In his meantime, he sneaks into a nearby old woman's house where he can take in the aromas, flavors, and textures of all different kinds of foods. Remy admires a famous chef on TV named Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), who insists in his cookbook that "Anyone Can Cook." Remy discovers that the chef Gusteau has actually died and that his restaurant is failing. Soon, though, in the figment of his own imagination, Remy attains his own personal floating Gusteau ghost that acts as his conscious during his new journey.

After a horrible incident that sends Remy down into the depths of the sewers and separates him from his rat clan, that's when his new adventure begins. Just as "Finding Nemo" brought the undersea world to life in a vast array of colors, sights, and sounds, this film does the exact same thing to the Paris landscape and the inside of a restaurant kitchen. Remy ends up conveniently stumbling across Gusteau's very own restaurant where he first witnesses newcomer Linguini (Lou Romano) stepping in. This poor klutz of a guy is only here to get a job as a garbage boy just because his now dead mother knew Gusteau. Soon enough, however, basically by mere coincidence, Linguini and Remy team up because Linguini realizes that this little rodent had snuck into the kitchen and concocted the soup that Linguini had gotten credit for.

Linguini has no idea about cooking but Remy sure does, and this unlikely duo works out a plan where Remy sits underneath Linguini's hat, amusingly tugging at his hair like a puppeteer controlling his actions, eventually making him the most celebrated chef in Paris. What works about their partnership is that it's not like Remy can speak to Linguini, and yet the little rat can still understand his human friend. Remy's facial expressions, glances, hand motions, and shrugs are perfectly understandable and keep the separation between the rat and the human perspectives, both of which are presented. Remy does eventually meet back up with his rat family and he ends up needing their help, which leads to a dozen of these rodents swarming into the kitchen, a scene that is fittingly icky and hard to look past. The film acknowledges this, however, and further clarifies that rats still don't really belong in the kitchen.

Linguini has other help in the kitchen aside from the furry creature under his hat. There's his mentor, Colette (Janeane Garofalo), a tough and passionate chef who holds her own as the only woman in the entire restaurant. She unwittingly becomes the competition of inspiration against Remy, and she also unknowingly becomes the love interest of Linguini. There's also the head chef, Skinner (Ian Holm), who was given the position after Gusteau's death; he sets himself out to discover just what exactly Linguini's secret is. He also wants Gusteau's restaurant to himself to promote his horrible line of frozen foods. Lastly, there's the absolutely terrifying Anton Ego (veteran Peter O'Toole), whose bad review could shatter the future of Gusteau's restaurant forever.

The film's grand climax is where the movie gets its title. It involves Remy preparing a rustic meal made up of common vegetables, which is to go out to the horrid Anton Ego for review. Faced with such a dish of ratatouille, the critic goes against his own will to find the right words to describe it. This ending moment is so touching and unexpectedly moving because it is so unpredictable and organically brought about. The resolutions are fitting because Remy's original moral struggle of choosing between family and personal ambitions is handled with perfect subtlety. There's a lesson at the end, yes, but it's never blatantly mentioned and isn't at all too heavy-handed.

Pixar always has been at the top of the CGI list with its own dazzlingly unique look, and "Ratatouille" is no exception. This is a masterpiece in animation as there is great attention to detail throughout with plenty of visual flourishes to admire. From the rats' matted fur to the bustle inside the kitchen, it's all handled with great care and precision. Two chase sequences in particular, one in the kitchen and the other in the sewer, are beautiful thrills to behold. Everything here is as imaginatively rendered as Remy's greatest culinary dish. All of the action is also orchestrated to a score by composer Michael Giacchino, who also did the score for "The Incredibles," which flows smoothly and fits the mood wonderfully.

Although G-rated, this is unlike many other animated movies out there. It avoids annoying sidekicks, pop culture references, and big name voice acting; instead, it goes with honestly good storytelling and memorable characters, all of which could easily go up against any live action movie. Pixar has yet again defined the way in which we watch animated films. No longer can these be called movies just for kids because there is something for everybody. Just as entertaining as it may be for children, it's by far even more enjoyable, hilarious, compelling, and heartwarming for the older crowd. Brad Bird had better make room for some more Oscar gold because "Ratatouille" is an instant classic.

Archive: "Transformers" (2007)

Well, believe the hype because Michael Bay has officially created this year's definitive summer blockbuster. Based on the line of Hasbro toys and the TV show from the 80s, "Transformers" is a movie that perfectly contains everything you would expect to see in a summer blockbuster: the straightforward story, the likable humor, the flawless special effects, and to top it all of, there's giant robots kicking the crap out of each other. Yes, Michael Bay sucks sometimes, but whether you like him or not, you have to admit that this is the movie he was born to make. This is a director that certainly knows how to blow stuff up and make it look good, and "Transformers" provides endless opportunities to show off that talent of his.

There are two robotic races in an intergalactic battle that has brought them to Earth. The bad guys are the Decepticons and the good guys are the Autobots. Both races are in search of a mysterious device called The Cube, and it's the duty of the Autobots to keep the Decepticons from retrieving it. (It's absolutely hilarious how many times some triumphant phrase involving The Cube is uttered.) A map to the location of The Cube is encrypted on some artifact that happens to be in the possession of young Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a somewhat nerdy but still pretty cool student whose ancestor made some remarkable discovery long ago in the Arctic Circle. In possession of his great grandfather's artifact, Sam ultimately holds the key to mankind's survival, provided he hasn't sold it on eBay already.

Sam Witwicky and his dad go to a car dealership and pick up an ominous banged-up yellow Chevy Camaro. Hoping that this new car will boost his chances with the ladies, Sam courageously offers a ride home to a babe named Mikaela (Megan Fox). After Mikaela asks if she even knows him, Sam casually states that they've been in school forever and that he's in four of her classes right now. Next thing he knows, the Camaro begins playing tunes that fit the mood, and when Mikaela insults the Camaro, it kicks both her and Sam out only to quickly return as a shiny new model. This is definitely no ordinary ride.

That's because it's actually an Autobot named Bumblebee; Sam and Mikaela are soon confronted by the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, and they learn about their sudden duty to save the world. When the other Autobots gather, there's a humorous moment as these massive robots attempt to hide themselves in Sam's backyard, realizing that transforming into their respective GM vehicles isn't hidden enough. (And yes, there is indeed a point where the film seriously feels like an extended GM commercial.) It's here where the already thoroughly entertaining teen comedy stuff segues into the robust robot action. Along with the teens, there are other sets of characters getting involved in the robot bustle, as well.

As some subtle political satire, there's the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) in charge of military operations while the president does nothing and requests for some ding-dongs. There's a group of military members led by Sgt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sgt. Epps (Tyrese Gibson) who survive an attack in the Middle East. There's also a group of hackers led by a surprisingly attractive woman who seems to be totally right on everything. Lastly, there's a shadowy government agency called Sector Seven who have been hiding the existence of the Transformers from the rest of the government. All of these details, however, are only the dressing to the core good guys vs. bad guys plot element, which allows for a flimsy story not to get in the way of all the action. The balance between the story lines is a bit awkward, so it's a good thing that everything converges for the big climactic finish.

The Decepticons and the Autobots do talk, but they're mostly just yelling things about destroying or saving humanity, respectively. There are also plenty of puns on "transforming" and being "more than meets the eye," but aside from that, the sole responsibility of infusing the entire film with a sense of personality rests in the hands of Shia LaBeouf. Just as he did in the hit "Disturbia," this young actor does an admirable job of injecting his own hip and fresh personality into the movie. This infectious vibe of his puts us in the mood and holds our attention long before the towering Transformers even grace the screen.

The Transformers themselves are a thrill to watch. They flip and twirl in mid-air, changing right before our eyes; their movements are ingeniously animated, especially the scorpion-like Decepticon encountered early on. They all move and shift with such grace and smoothness, and you can see the hubcaps, the windshields, and all the other parts they're made up of if you look closely. The camera swirls around these massive mechanical creations as they battle it out in the middle of a busy city street, smashing everything that gets in their way. The amount of CGI used is astronomical, but it's not an excess; it's simply an epic extravaganza.

"Transformers" works because it's so obnoxiously absurd. It's a lot of fun that acknowledges in almost every single scene how ridiculous it is, and then not only accepts that, but also makes it a priority. The action is over the top, but it truly ought to be, or else it would not be nearly as fun. Since the movie falters when it's not in full motion, it's a great thing that it's so extraordinary when the action kicks up. Whether you're a 12-year-old fanboy or not, this movie will temporarily transform you into one. The real transformation here, though, is that from a modest line of toys to the most explosively exciting summer movie of the year, which was promised from the start. Although I'm not entirely sure how, Michael Bay has pulled it off.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (2010)

Lisbeth Salander, played expertly by Noomi Rapace, is a 24-year-old genius computer hacker whose dragon tattoo covering the expanse of her back is actually the least interesting aspect of her. Her body is thin and covered with various other tattoos and piercings. She is muscular and curiously bisexual. She has short, jet black hair and dresses in all black, punk-like clothing with tight jeans and thick boots. She is also damaged from a violent and abusive background and seeks resolve from participating in the uncovering of a 40-year-old mystery rooted in bizarre violence against women. She is hard-hitting yet sympathetic, a conundrum and an endlessly compelling one. Watching Rapace's breakout performance here reminded me of watching Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds" where nobody knows about this actor until they hit the masses with something like this. It's truly a gift watching her be the centerpiece of the Swedish film, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which will, in due time, become its own phenomenon.

The movie is based on the novel written by the Swedish novelist, Stieg Larsson, who tragically died in 2004 before he was able to witness the renowned success of his work. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev, this film adaptation of Larsson's first novel has already become the highest grossing European film of 2009 and the highest grossing Swedish film of all time, and both for excellent reason. It is a stylish, tense and complex thriller that dwells almost exclusively on the sadism and perversity of modern society, which is what gave the book, and consequently the film even more so, its intense, graphic and deeply disturbing undertones. It's understandable then why the original title of the novel was "Men Who Hate Women" because there is a focus on horrific behavior committed by vile men. An extended rape scene seriously cuts to the core. And while the plot is of a traditional thriller layout with montages of investigation and searching, the process becomes much more about the people involved and the dark atmospheric mood.

A journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) writes for the magazine Millenium, and he published a scalding investigative piece that has him sentenced for time in prison from a libel charge. He has six months of freedom before then, however, and he gets approached by an elderly man named Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) because he needs the help of a resourceful, intelligent reporter. Vanger gives Blomkvist the task of digging up a 40-year-old case about the disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet Vanger, who vanished off the island on a day when it was cut off from the mainland. This leaves members of the extensive Vanger family as the only suspects as they all inhabit the gloomy island of Hedeby together as if feeding off each other's rumored tendencies of corruption and greed. Henrik Vanger doesn't care for much of his family, especially his three brothers who had links to Nazism.

Salander gets involved in the case because she is the one who researched Blomkvist, and she hacks into his computer amidst his investigation. Needless to say, when they finally do collaborate as a team, she's already up to speed on all the details. Their journey in searching the history of the Vanger family leads them to meet an array of interesting characters with connections that start off simple and only get more involved and with every step of the way. Salander and Blomkvist have such an individually compelling chemistry that the mystery almost serves as merely a backdrop. These aren't the usual characters you'd find in your everyday action thriller. They are characters we want to learn more about even outside the context of the genre.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" feels like a three course meal, but clocking in at just over 2-1/2 hours, it feels about half that length. The density and texture of the novel is maintained as everything unfolds drenched in chilling details. It's the most richly satisfying film I've seen this year, and quite arguably the best film so far this year. And with two more adaptations of Larsson's remaining novels coming to America this summer, "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," that's something to look forward to because it gives us another chance to see these talented Swedish actors at work. The inevitable Hollywood remake in the works is rumored to star Kristen Stewart and be directed by David Fincher. In the meantime, do yourself a favor, and don't let subtitles scare you away.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Kick-Ass" (2010)

"Kick-Ass" earns its name by being exactly that: kick ass. But that's too easy. It is audacious, wild, relentless, questionably amoral and shameless with its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Adapted from the 2008 comic book by Mark Millar ("Wanted"), this is an adaptation that wants to feels like it's still a comic book. It's also a superhero movie, but one that riffs on other superheroes and turns the genre right on its head. This third feature from director Matthew Vaughn ("Layer Cake," "Stardust") plays off the formulas of the genre in dangerous ways, but in breaking away from convention Vaughn greatly succeeds thanks to an extremely risky but ultimately winning combination of innocence and splattering gore. And while the movie's title comes from the average teen who just wants to be a superhero, Dave (Aaron Johnson), the main attraction is the 11-year-old girl dishing out Tarantino-inspired styles of hyper violence.

Her name is Hit Girl, and she is like a miniature version of Uma Thurman's Bride from "Kill Bill." The point of controversy comes from the fact that this bite-sized avenger delivers the bulk of the movie's over-the-top violence as she plows through countless number of bad guys exterminating them in a fast-paced, insanely energetic fashion. It's close to impossible to be offended by all this, however, because of the absurd and hilarious delivery. Each violent showcase of Hit Girl is accompanied by a clever soundtrack and is purposely preposterous. Sporting a purple wig and a potty mouth, she is played by Chloe Grace Moretz of "(500) Days of Summer," and her startling performance will be remembered for years to come. She rightfully steals the movie and is the most badass female superhero we may have ever seen.

Dave wonders why someone hasn't tried to be a superhero earlier. Tired of his boring high school life, he buys a green and yellow-trimmed scuba suit off eBay to serve as his superhero costume. Even though he doesn't have any super powers, he goes out and tries to bust up some car hijackers. Like what would happen to any other ordinary teen wearing a silly costume, things don't go as planned. Still, though, carrying his pair of batons he gives it another go, and his exploits get recorded and uploaded to YouTube. Before he knows it, he is the next Internet sensation, and the masked hero associated with the name Kick-Ass becomes a legend. What makes Kick-Ass so endearing is that the movie never makes it easy for him, but it never mocks him either. The movie is remarkably embedded in reality as an honest and raunchy teen comedy like "Superbad" as Dave really just wants to get the attention of a gorgeous girl named Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) who thinks he is her gay best friend.

The initial plight of Dave is only the beginning of a plot that twists and turns into irreverence and cannot be described without giving too much away. There's an unruly mob boss (Mark Strong) who doesn't bother to keep his business separate from his family. This brings his nerdy son into the picture, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse of "Superbad" and "Role Models," who eventually dons the alter-ego of Red Mist. Mintz-Plasse's goofy demeanor and misplaced self-confidence, which he presents as a norm, fits well here. None of the characters have super powers, and so villains and heroes go head to head with guns, knives and real weapons. This is a twisted, distorted and fun-house mirror image of the world we live in.

Like Hit Girl, her father who taught her everything, Big Daddy, is a key player. He is played by Nicholas Cage in a role that presents his uniquely weird side, the only side of Cage we truly enjoy. His costume resembles a more haphazard version of Batman, and while suited up he talks in a rendition of Adam West's Batman from TV. As an ex-cop turned vigilante out for revenge and justice, Cage is oftentimes quite funny, and only he could fire a bullet into the chest of a small girl and make it acceptable to laugh at.

While "Kick-Ass" serves effortlessly as a fanboy's wet dream in satiating the delights of comic book lore, be sure to take a closer look. Vaughn and his writers have something on their mind, so don't let its slick exterior fool you into thinking there's not something more. It is sheer entertainment, there's no doubting that; it's a purely cinematic sensory attack that will confuse and infuriate some. But it's also a look at the viral power of the internet – Kick-Ass and Red Mist keep in contact with each other and their fans through Myspace – and youth culture. "Kick-Ass" is really smart in how it presents itself with dark comedy and scathing irony. Such intelligence behind a project allows something as seemingly irresponsible as this to exist.