Friday, July 30, 2010

The trailer from this year's Comic-Con of Zack Snyder's latest film, "Sucker Punch," makes me really excited for spring 2011.

You can watch the official trailer here.

The movie looks absolutely absurd, sure, but it also looks extraordinarily visionary and elegant. The whole fantasy look to it is what really gets me. Snyder really is this generation's defining director of comic book flicks.

And yet, oddly enough, squeezed in between "Sucker Punch" and "Watchmen" is a children's fable, "Legend of the Guardians." I'm excited for this one, too, simply because those owls look so amazing. It could also be another actually good use of 3-D, a rarity these days.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"The Kids Are All Right" (2010)

This is more than just a love letter to gay marriage. It is a love letter to the modern family and to contemporary life with all of its hectic messiness. Lisa Cholodenko's film "The Kids Are All Right" stars a family that certainly could be called unconventional: a lesbian couple with two teenage kids who were conceived through the help of an anonymous sperm donor. This type of family, though, is not really so uncommon and goes through issues that are anything but unconventional. Here's a family that is so not out of the ordinary that writer and director Cholodenko ("High Art," "Laurel Canyon") and her co-writer, Stuart Blumberg, make it a point to show this family as unglamorous, routine and unexciting. Touching on the most basic thing like the vulnerability of any family unit, they are blurring the lines between specialized content and universal content with such sly precision that you don't even notice it is happening.

The premise places Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) in a gay marriage so nonchalantly that it practically erases any cultural or ideological contention over the issue there is in the real world. They live in a suburban area of southern California with their two kids, the 15-year-old Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and the 18-year-old Joni (Mia Wasikowska). They live in a spacious home and drive around a Volvo. Nic is a driven doctor who takes her career seriously and puts the same amount of concern toward her children which turns to constant worrying. She's not purposely smothering or controlling, but she can come off that way. Jules has been floating in between jobs but recently took an interest in starting a landscaping business. She may be a little flaky, but she's caring and free-spirited. They are comfortable and content with each other but sometimes burdened by parental responsibility, they on occasion become confused or frustrated by the other. As you can see, they are normal.

Their relationship is a tough one to describe simply because it feels so richly authentic and dynamic as you're watching it. The film's writing is so smart about all of its relationships that it is sexy, hilarious and heartwarming without ever overdoing any element for comedic or emotional effect; it just is. There are moments that are also refreshingly self-satirizing because, in considering that we're meant to be empathizing with these characters, they all have faults that are worth a little mockery.

As Nic, Annette Bening is remarkable. Tapping into who she already is gives her dramatic prowess in this role that cannot be matched. She is firm, intelligent, brash, emotionally expressive and always sipping on a glass of red wine. Julianne Moore plays Jules, and her performance is equally as perfect in slowly unveiling the character's imperfections. The two marvelous actresses almost effortlessly evoke a marriage that has taken the test of time again and again where they simply get each other with all of the hidden meanings, the cold silences and each other's comic timing of which they're so familiar. Paired together, both of these women deserve Oscar nominations.

The meat of the movie's plot comes from the children, Joni and Laser. Joni is heading off to college soon, meanwhile Laser is interested in getting in contact with their biological father, the sperm donor. The man's name is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), and he is far detached from any family scene in his life. He has a carefree attitude, rides a motorcycle and tends to an organic garden for his restaurant. His initial meeting with the kids sparks something in them, a desire to see him again. And so he enters into not only the kids' lives but Nic and Jules', too, and begins to unintentionally dismantle the family, the very one he helped to create. That's all you'll get from me because the joy is in watching how Paul's integration into the family unfolds.

"The Kids Are All Right" is the type of film that is easy to love, one that allows its actors to latch on to a good story and really dig in. Apart from Bening and Moore, the young Mia Wasikowska of this year's "Alice in Wonderland" and Mark Ruffalo deliver some exceptional scenes. And the film's very best scene comes from Bening's Nic who, during a small dinner with everyone, realizes something awful but keeps it buried deep within as all sounds around her go faint emphasizing her inner turmoil. The movie is full of astonishingly truthful insights such as this one, and it comes from watching these five people sort through the meaning of family ties. It is pure delight, but also something larger. Upon a close look, it is also strongly political, but for being such, it comes off as breezy as could be.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A repeat of the travesty in 2008 with "The Dark Knight" and the Oscars cannot happen this year. If you recall, Christopher Nolan's masterful Batman movie got snubbed for both Best Picture and Best Director while still garnering eight other nominations in lesser categories. Even worse, it got bumped out by "The Reader" in both instances.

One of the primary reasons the academy expanded the Best Picture category from five nominations to 10 this past year was due to the outrage from this huge snub. So, here we are in 2010 with another wildly praised and acclaimed film from Christopher Nolan, "Inception." And the questioning begins: How does its Oscar chances look?

"Inception" will, without a doubt in my mind, get nominated for Best Picture. Within the 10 slots, it simply has to find its place in there. After snubbing "The Dark Knight," the academy would not dare do it again.

Best Director is tougher to say considering there are still only five slots. Nonetheless, I think we're looking at a well-deserved nomination for Christopher Nolan.

"Inception" also places its chances in a slew of other categories including Best Score thanks to Hans Zimmer's outstanding work and Best Original Screenplay for Nolan considering this film boasts one of the most insanely original premises to come along in a long time. Other potential nominations could come in the form of Editing, Sound Mixing and/or Sound Editing, Visual Effects, Art Direction and Cinematography.

This means a total of 10 possible (or even probable) nominations.

As for acting, "Inception" does not fare as well. Leonardo DiCaprio does some of his best work, sure, but the similarities to "Shutter Island" are hard to shrug off. It's also early in the year, and I have a sneaky suspicion that later male performances are going to trump this one.

I actually would consider Marion Cotillard and even Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page to have better chances at supporting nominations. But again, such is unlikely considering it's still early in the year in terms of Oscar-caliber performances.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"Inception" (2010)

"Inception" is the film that will finally give Christopher Nolan the Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director he has for so long deserved. Or at least it should be. This is a supremely intelligent work of art delving into the dreams of reality and the reality of dreams like no other movie in recent memory. And it comes from Nolan, one of the most talented storytellers working in cinema today, in the form of the biggest movie event of the summer. As a combination of "The Matrix," Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" and James Bond, the movie has the narrative puzzlement of "Memento" with the grand, epic scale of "The Dark Knight." Nolan dreams larger than life, and best of all, he succeeds.

Consider the feeling you get after jolting awake from an intense dream that feels all too real. That's how leaving "Inception" feels with your heart racing, head spinning and nerves jangled. Fitting, then, that the movie is about understanding dreams and the process of creating a reality within them. This concept opens up a labyrinth of possibilities, and Nolan navigates these possibilities with complete control through a screenplay that supposedly took him 10 years to complete. The film is impervious to spoilers because it's almost impossible to describe in words, and any details that might give anything away would not and elicit confusion instead.

If there's any movie out there that needs to be seen to be believed, this is it. With an ending so powerful prompting one of the most diverse audience reactions I've experienced, you will need to take a moment to set yourself back in the real world once the credits roll. There is no possible way to fully comprehend it upon a first viewing, but you can immediately appreciate its grandeur warranting multiple viewings. Prepare to have your mind twisted, turned inside out and then completely blown because this 148 minutes is more than worth the effort.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) describes how an idea is the most resilient parasite and that an idea planted in the mind is a seed that can grow to change the course of a life. He is a skilled professional hired by corporations to infiltrate the subconscious of others to steal their ideas, a practice known as extraction. Cobb, though, is hired by a wealthy corporate man, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to do just the opposite. The job requires Cobb to perform an experimental procedure called inception where he will plant an idea deep into the mind of a young billionaire, Robert Fischer Jr. (Cillian Murphy), an idea that will eradicate a corporation that rivals Saito's. All Cobb wants to do is to be able to go back home as a free man. After a terrible accident he was forced to remove himself from his family, but completing this job would allow him to return. It's a job he can't refuse and a job he vows will be his last.

A meeting with his father-in-law, Miles (Michael Caine), leads Cobb to discover his new architect for the job, Ariadne (Ellen Page), who is a smart and promising student and a genius when it comes to building and replicating spaces. As a test of her ability, Cobb has her sketch a maze in under a minute, but what Ariadne will sketch for the job is much more elaborate and fully realized. She must create a space within Fischer's dreams that is a deceptive maze, and this is all described to her by Cobb as they sit at an outdoor café in Paris. His discussion with her about fabricating environments within a dream while navigating and manipulating them is Nolan's way of teaching the audience how to follow along. In one of the film's most impressive sequences, the interior of a dream is introduced as the environment around Cobb and Ariadne starts dismantling itself and shattering all around them in a gorgeous slow motion effect. The cityscape lifts into the sky and literally folds onto itself.

They assemble a team to begin the infiltration process which includes Cobb's close associate, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a disguise master named Eames (Tom Hardy) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) whose concoction of a sedative will allow the participants to stay asleep during their extensive inception. You see, they eventually dive into four levels of dreaming which means the plot is at one point simultaneously dealing with five layers of reality. You heard that right. Five layers. Yet it never becomes muddled or too disorienting--of course it has to be disorienting at least a little bit--as it progresses with a forward momentum that reaches the breaking point of intensity. It is accented with a pounding and brassy musical score by Hans Zimmer echoing that of "The Dark Knight."

Physics and time are altered as they descend deeper into the layers. Seconds in the first layer of a dream are minutes in the following layer which then descend to what could be hours, days or even weeks. This allows for visual flourishes that are downright awe-inspiring in many instances. When a van carrying our heroes tumbles down an incline, this places the second layer Arthur in the midst of a gunfire showdown in a rotating hotel hallway. When this same van gets launched off the edge of a bridge, gravity in this second layer ceases to be.

The special effects have a mind-bending effect not only in looking great but also in making sense with the circumstances of the dreams. Scenes from the movie's trailers which seemed illogical make wondrous sense once in context such as sceneries tilting and shifting right before your eyes, a freight train barreling down a busy street and crumbling buildings in a dilapidated state of limbo, the result of death in a dream while under Yusuf's strong sedative.

All of the performances in "Inception" are superb. Leo DiCaprio is impressive carrying a brooding weight with his role of Cobb who, unbeknown to his colleagues, has performed inception once before with devastating results. Marion Cotillard is fantastic as always playing Cobb's tender yet sorrowfully vicious wife, Mal, who perpetually invades whatever dream Cobb occupies because guilt from his past keeps her locked in his subconscious like a prisoner. Cotillard's presence has a saddening love that lingers in the scenes between Mal and Cobb.

As Ellen Page's first adult role, she fits in seamlessly, and I can't help but hope this is the start of a new trend for her because it's refreshing to witness. Also notable is Joseph Gordon-Levitt whose shining moment arrives when he solely wrestles with a batch of floating sleeping bodies.

The brilliance of "Inception" is the way it fits huge metaphysical ambition reflecting one's own sense of a dreamscape into an action Hollywood blockbuster structure without one hiccup. It makes the chase sequences and other conventions of the action genre feel like something wholly original all over again. With "The Dark Knight," Nolan reinvented the superhero movie. I think now he may have just reinvented, well, the standards of explosive commercial entertainment. He said his film is what Hollywood blockbusters should all strive to be. I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" (2010)

Actress Noomi Rapace returns in the lead role of Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl Who Played with Fire," the sequel to "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" based off the novels by Stieg Larsson. Lisbeth still has the dragon tattoo covering her back but now her hair has grown out and she no longer wears a spiked choker, but she remains living in complete isolation from others hacking into computers to find out any outside information. In the second movie starring her we learn a little more about why she lives the way she does. She has a past where she indeed played with fire, dousing her father in gasoline after he abused Lisbeth's mother. She was labeled as socially incompetent as a child by cruel men, and her motivation for vengeance is still fueled by men's violence against women. This is still greatly Rapace's movie whose eerie beauty combined with her nearly feral intensity makes Lisbeth Salander into a character who, even more so here than in the first film, keeps us watching.

The sequel comes from a new set of filmmakers than the last, written by Jonas Frykberg and directed by Daniel Alfredson. The results, however, are more or less the same. This one does feel slightly less polished than its predecessor, though, and the cinematography has less room to breathe due to so much plot trying to be stuffed, which results in a much flatter look than before.

Lisbeth has just returned to Stockholm after having escaped abroad at the conclusion of the previous film. Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and the team at Millenium have just hired a young journalist who's working on a story that reveals a sex trafficking ring with the assistance from research done by his girlfriend who just published her thesis on the topic. Mikael later finds the two journalists shot and killed in their apartment, and Lisbeth is soon after framed for the murders. It is then a fight for Lisbeth's life as she and Blomkvist each try to prove her innocence and find the real killers.

It sounds simple enough, but there is a large supporting cast that gets confusing to follow. Characters who were present before make a return such as Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and the absolutely foul Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) whose previous encounter with Lisbeth was anything but pleasant. New faces include a detective named Bublanski (Johan Kylen) along with Lisbeth's occasional lover, Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi). Lisbeth and Miriam share a rather questionably evocative sex scene together. Then there's the villain who cannot feel pain, a hulking blond man (Mikael Spreitz) who looks like he fell out of the latest Bond film and accidentally found his way into Larsson's cynical world.

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" carries a whole lot more suspense than the last along with quite a bit more blood. It backs down, however, on the social commentary while trying to flesh out all the narrative details making for a much more convoluted film than perhaps necessary. And, inevitably, being a middle piece to a trilogy it struggles to stand alone unlike the first feature. This one is obviously preparing for what will probably be an impressive conclusion, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," which has its U.S. release this October.

The chemistry between the leads played by Rapace and Michael Nyqvist remains miraculously strong and compelling even when they share only one scene together; they are otherwise connected only by cyberspace. The rumor mill keeps churning out who may be playing Lisbeth and Blomkvist in Fincher's U.S. remake of "Dragon Tattoo" with sights now set on Daniel Craig and Carey Mulligan. Let's hope they're ready to fill some big shoes.

My review of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Toy Story 3" (2010)

Let me begin by saying that "Toy Story 3" does not, by any means, need to be seen in the 3-D format because this is, like all Pixar features, a movie that succeeds in the simplest form of popular entertainment with emotionally engaging storytelling. No extra visual flourishes required. Traditional 2-D works just fine as it did with last year's "Up" and leaves the vibrant array of colors just as vibrant as they're meant to be.

This is a story spanning back to 1995's "Toy Story" and 1999's "Toy Story 2," and the third installment of the series is fittingly more mature as it has grown up with not only the Pixar team but the viewers of the original "Toy Story." Fifteen years later, we're all older now, and yet watching the bond and interaction between these seemingly inanimate hunks of plastic is still just as engaging as it was and now even more so because of what the filmmakers, led by director Lee Unkrich (co-director of "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story 2"), have achieved in terms of evoking a rich sense of nostalgia. Not only does "Toy Story 3" meet all expectations set by the previous installments, it exceeds them tremendously by completing perhaps one of the best trilogies ever made.

This is Pixar's masterpiece. It's even better than "Ratatouille," "Up" and even better than what I previously hailed as their masterpiece, "WALL-E." The reason it soars above all others is because it is so humbled. While entirely playful and fun, it's almost nonchalantly cutting into something much deeper than what it appears, a feeling that does not so much strike you as it does arise naturally.

The movie's opening is a tease as we watch Woody (Tom Hanks), Jesse (Joan Cusack) and their faithful horse Bullseye chase after the evil Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris) with the help of Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). It's a western setting, a runaway train, not a child's bedroom like we're used to, and it's a little startling to see at first. Then enters the giant spacecraft modeled after Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and a giant form of Rex (Wallace Shawn) when things get a little crazy. Soon we realize we're watching the inside of a childhood imagination, and not just any child but Andy. You see, however, it's an old recording because Andy is 17-years-old and now preparing to head off to college. Such a beginning is motivated with a salute to making believe and sets the stage for the theme of the entire "Toy Story" franchise as it comes full circle.

The gang worries about never being played with again and their consequential fate as Andy moves out. Will he take them with him, will they be stowed away in the attic or, worst of all, will they be put in a garbage bag for trash? Woody tries to get everyone's hopes up while knowing quite well that Andy has moved on from his old, childhood things. His mom influences him to sort out his belongings leaving Woody to be put in the box marked for college while the others get put in a bag for the attic. Andy's mom mistakes the bag for trash, though, sending Woody's pals to the curb. After a narrow escape, the reunited gang winds up at a local daycare center as a batch of donated toys. In just this sequence alone, a situation is presented that anyone can relate with, parents, teens and children alike.

They arrive at the seemingly pleasant Sunnyside Daycare, and the toys there are led by a pink teddy bear who smells of strawberries, Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty), one of those characters who is just a little too cordial upon first greeting. He's actually a morally misconstrued monster, and the gang gets stuck being played with by toddlers who are anything but playful. From here it turns into an all-out prison break movie, and it really is just as good as any live-action adventure movie out there. The dark underbelly of something more sinister throughout their escape is no accident. And while part thriller and part horror, best of all it's laugh-out-loud hilarious and easily Pixar's funniest movie to date. When Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets a Michael Keaton-voiced Ken is comedic gold on its own accord.

Visually it is not only stellar in its animation but also great to look at in terms of the way it is shot. Lighting, shading and angles are all taken into great consideration and looks like, yes, any of the best live-action cinematography out there right now.

"Toy Story 3" boasts the most impeccable timing and pacing as the 103-minute running time just whizzes by, and I actually found myself wanting it to last longer. The credits may leave audiences on a silly note, the film's final frame before is a beautifully sentimental tear-jerker. Here is a movie so brilliant about generational ties, loyalty, friendship, growing up, letting go and holding on to what matters most that you'll be amazed at how easily they bring it all together. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more perfectly satisfying movie not only this summer but this entire year.