Monday, December 14, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

Running Time: Just over and hour and a half

MPAA Rating: G

Post-Credits Scene: No

In 1989, Disney Studios saved animation as a film medium. “The Little Mermaid” ended years of sputtering ticket sales and critical flops and kicked off what would become known as the “Disney renaissance”. This ten-year era was marked by romantic stories of princes and princesses overcoming evil and often supernatural obstacles to find true love and attain their ‘happily ever after’. Now, ten years since the end of that time, Disney is once again attempting to weave a tale of love and magic based on a classic fairy tale in traditional 2D animation.

There is a significant difference between this particular princess and those that audiences have seen in past Disney films: work. Tiana is the daughter of a poor family in Jazz Era New Orleans. Her mother makes elaborate dresses for the wealthy family of Tiana’s best friend, Charlotte La Bouff, and Tiana’s father is a hard-working family man with a dream of someday opening his own restaurant. He teaches the value of hard work to Tiana, who takes both the lesson and his dream to heart. Local voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier schemes to take advantage of a foreign prince’s visit in order to steal the La Bouff fortune, turning both the prince and Tiana into frogs so as to keep them out of his way.

The dilemmas of the film return to much safer territory than the Disney/Pixar animated movies, which have been the more popular this decade. Whereas the latter films have dealt with death, abandonment, and deadbeat parents (to name only a few), The Princess and the Frog shies away from anything that might disturb a young viewer, whether they understand what is happening or not.

Before this begins to sound like this was a bad movie, let me clarify that it wasn’t. The Princess and the Frog was sweet, Randy Newman did an excellent job scoring the film, and Charlotte La Bouff made for great satire on the typical Disney princesses. It was, however, unoriginal. The movie Enchanted already played out the jokes about the spoiled, naïve princesses. The plot revolving around non-humans attempting to become human again was taken by Beauty and the Beast (each film even has a practically interchangeable song on the subject).

Even with that flaw, though, the movie is very entertaining and holds up well… until the final act. Somebody must have either run out of time or become incredibly lazy, because every problem that characters have and have spent the last hour and a half trying to resolve are instantly fixed through five minutes of straight deus ex machina. Nobody really learns a lesson; they just instantly change their behavior as all of their problems are taken care of for them. It has become apparent to me that the true magic and value of Disney has moved on into the Pixar era.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mini Review Set: 11/19/2009

Twilight: New Moon

Running Time: Just over two hours
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The starry-eyed sparkle fest that was "Twilight" is improved a dozen times over by the absence of its mopey lead vampire. This story follows protagonist Bella as she finds new love in the companionship of her old friend Jacob (who reveals himself to be yet another mythological monster) to replace her old flame (popsicle, to be accurate) Edward. The writing is as cheesy as ever, but the efforts of incoming director Chris Weitz make it work as well as possible. Fans of the series will be pleased and newcomers may enjoy the supernatural action much more than expected.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Running Time: Just under two hours
MPAA Rating: R

Claireece "Precious" Jones is a morbidly obese 16-year-old high school girl who lives in 1987 Harlem. She is illiterate, forced to labor over her abusive mother, and is pregnant with her second child as a result of being raped by her disgusting father. It's safe to say that this is not a feel-good movie. The story follows Precious's attempts to receive an education while caring for her children and finding love in a world that has shown her nothing but unconditional hatred. Saying that it is emotionally powerful would be an understatement, but sometimes the most shocking moments are transitioned into darkly humorous fantasies too quickly for any impact to be made on the audience. If you can handle such a dark tale, then "Precious" is a must-see for an engrossing look into a young girl’s search for hope in a hopeless world.

The Blind Side

Running Time: Just over two hours
MPAA Rating: PG-13

This part biography, part sports movie handles itself surprisingly well. Sandra Bullock pulls herself together nicely (after a series of critical flops) to play the compassionate adoptive mother of future football star Michael Oher. There are an excessive number of tearjerker moments relating to Oher’s poverty-stricken childhood, but they are done well enough to make you care about the characters rather than feeling like exploitive gimmicks. The plot revolves around an inspiring act of Christian charity that will work for audiences of all tastes; sports fans or not.


Running Time: Two hours and forty minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Many will argue that this movie delivers exactly what was promised in its advertising, but knowing that a movie will be bad does not excuse the fact. Special effect technology has improved since Roland Emmerich’s previous movies (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), but his writing has become steadily worse with each new entry into the disaster movie genre. If you’re looking for several hours of eye candy and don’t much care what the characters have to say or think, then this is the movie for you.

This Is It

Running Time: An hour and a half
MPAA Rating: PG

Michael Jackson’s swan song was caught on tape before his untimely death last June. This film is made up entirely of rehearsals from his preparation for the highly anticipated “This Is It” concert tour. The footage was caught using a variety of cameras with varying quality (it was never meant to be anything but posterity). While Jackson’s performances are up to standards, the necessary planning process often interrupts them, which, while potentially engaging to fans of Jackson or those with an interest in the production of live music, will be just plain boring to most people. This is a movie that would not have been made had it not been for the performer’s death, so my recommendation is to skip it unless you’re significantly drawn to his work.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Christmas Carol

Running Time: Just over an hour and a half

MPAA Rating: PG

Everybody knows the story of “A Christmas Carol”, or at least they think they do. A wealthy old miser named “Scrooge” is tormented by three Christmas spirits and a deceased associate in order to change his outlook on life for the better. The plot of Dickens’s classic novel has become iconic to today’s audience through years of other franchises adapting their characters into the plot. The quality of these retellings has had a fantastic range; from staying fairly true to the original (such as “Scrooge” in 1951 and the Oscar-winning animated version in 1971), to making silly updates (“The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”, both of which were also made by Disney), to complete bastardizations (“An American Carol”, “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”, and countless more). To say the least, the very point of the book has been lost over the years, and nobody in recent decades has thought to simply stay true to the original material until now.

The film keeps its source’s dialogue resolutely intact. While this may please literature aficionados, it will bore the life out of the children to whom the movie was marketed. The indecision about which it was made for is blaringly apparent among moments of cartoonish giddiness, disturbing scenes of rotted corpses, and cheap “jump” scares all interspersed with the original Victorian language. In fact, the only entertainment that the average child would get during the entire show comes from added sight gags or characters that give lines in exaggeratedly silly voices, gimmicks that will alienate anybody looking to enjoy the classic story.

The out of place children’s comedy shtick isn’t the only thing working against “A Christmas Carol”, however. Many problems arise from director Robert Zemeckis’s signature performance capture animation technique (a style that he used on “The Polar Express”, “Beowulf”, and the upcoming remake of “Yellow Submarine”). There is a phenomenon that affects this type of film known as “uncanny valley”, which happens when people recognize nonhuman beings (such as robots and CGI animations) that pretend to be human and, as a result, are repulsed. The characters in the movie are unable to produce any believable emotion which causes a complete disconnect with the audience and leaves the actors only their voices to convincingly portray their characters.

Much like the “Harry Potter” movies, an all-star cast is used to cover even minor roles. Of course, many of the stars in this film have at least two or three characters to their name, Jim Carrey topping the bill by playing all three ghosts as well as Ebenezer Scrooge. While this may seem to be a cool idea in theory, it is absolutely pointless and only deepens the problems that are already present. It must have been difficult enough for the actors to respond to lines that have been given days or weeks ago (the scattered voice acting shows with a fervor), but dialogue between them and themselves in another personality is extremely difficult and is not done very naturally or believably at all in this case.

“A Christmas Carol” was a very influential book in its time. It helped to solidify Dickens’s legacy and even had a remarkable impact on the modern concepts of charity and redemption at Christmastime. This movie, unfortunately, carries none of that weight and instead serves as an over-stylized attempt to cash in on the season. The dialogue is simply an afterthought that is used to make way for more visual gimmicks and 3D spectacles. The performance capture animation should have been done away with in favor of live-action, as the technology has shown no significant improvement from its previous uses. In the end, if you’d like to know the timeless story then pass on this film and hear the classic literature call “know me better, man!”

Friday, October 16, 2009

Paranormal Activity

Running Time: An hour and a half

MPAA Rating: R

Micah has just found out that Katie, his long-time girlfriend, is being haunted. She's been followed by a disturbing presence since she was young, and it appears to loathe anybody who gets too involved in her life. This happens to be a serious relationship hurdle for Micah to deal with, and he feels that he must do something to fix the situation. So, he decides that he'll attempt to catch the haunt on film.

There is a common theme in horror movies in which the main characters ignore advice that turns out to be vital to their survival. Micah and Katie are warned by a psychic in the beginning of the film that whatever force they are living with feeds and grows off of negative energy. All they must do to keep the being at bay is to ignore it and remain content with each other. Bringing a camera into the mix doesn’t help either of those things.

The movie incorporates a steady buildup, but is well worth its time for the lasting scare it provides. Having been made to look like uncovered footage, there are no musical cues or ominous tonalities. In avoiding most of the common horror mainstays, Paranormal Activity denies cheap scares and uses another method: to frighten the audience members by disturbing them at an ethereal level. Fear is induced through subtle, unnatural oddities rather than the more common “jump” moments in today’s thrillers. Because of this unique method, the film will affect many of its viewers differently.

Believers in actual demons, ghosts, ghouls and such may want to shy away in respect of the supernatural nature of the plot. While many people have reported having nightmares (if they were able to sleep at all) after seeing this movie, more fantastical claims of actual hauntings have also been made. Steven Spielberg is even said to have returned a home copy to the studio in a garbage bag after believing it to have permeated ghosts into his home.

Oren Peli has created a very inspired work from his own paranormal experiences, and the genuineness shows itself off in his writing and direction. The expected screams and ramblings of most characters in these types of situation are replaced with tears and arguments over responsibility for the events. Peli writes the characters into an inescapable situation, but it is their arrogance and pride that ultimately worsen it. Both of the main actors (who use their real names in the film) do a great job of emoting their fright without exaggerating it, lending visceral honesty to their reactions.

Even though a good amount of information surrounding the phenomenal situation in the film is revealed by the end, there is just enough mystery left keep it strange and terrifying. Those intent on getting sleep after seeing Paranormal Activity have been warned.

Actual Rating: PG-13 While anybody who happens to be afraid of supernatural forces is probably too young (at any age) to see this movie; there is no actual adult material in it beyond “foul” language.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Running Time: An hour and a half

MPAA Rating: PG

Max is angry. He is imaginative and rambunctious, but he has no control. He knows that, like the sun, one day his energy will run out and he'll fade away. These are difficult thoughts for a young boy who already has the dilemmas of his age to deal with. Many people learn to cope with life's troubles in their own way, and Max does so by becoming a wild thing.

The movie adds some unique elements to the original Maurice Sendak storybook. Max's behavior is given a cause and his trip into the land of the wild things is given a purpose. Each of the creatures has a unique personality derived from Max’s experiences with people in his homeland. Carol (played by James Gandolfini), whose anarchic and misunderstood nature Max immediately identifies with, specifically seems to provide the boy a means for coming to terms with the father now missing from his life.

What really brings this film to life is the music. Written by Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), the songs provide a youthful vigor that complements the action on screen. It was built from scratch for the movie and great use within each context shows. Energetic tracks filled with wild instrumentation and playground yells lend credence to the playful scenes in the movie, and Karen O’s soft vocals fit in perfectly with the sentimental points.

Book purists won't be pleased to learn the extent of added material, of course, but may find comfort in the heavy involvement of the original author in the making of this film. Spike Jonze was specifically given the permission of the author, who had previously seen and highly regarded his work. Although this film does take much of the mystery and imagination out of the hands of the viewer, Sendak has given his personal approval of the interpretation after viewing the final product.

In the end, this movie wasn't quite what it could have been. It loses some of its steam toward the middle, when certain scenes feel as though they've been drawn out as long as possible to give the movie a bump to above the acceptable hour and a half mark. There are more shaky-cam running scenes in the film than an episode of "24", which could have easily become redundant and intolerable had it not been for the expressive and enthralling soundtrack. Fortunately, the movie manages to work as presented, and members of the audience may be inspired to search out the wild things within themselves once more.

The easily queasy should be warned; much of this movie is shot by handheld camera, leading to what has become known as the "shaky-cam" effect. This can work out of some viewers' favor, but shouldn't provide a problem for the majority of audience members.

Post-Credits Scene: No

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Running Time: An hour and 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Megan Fox is an evil, soulless succubus. In this movie she plays Jennifer, a relatively satirical version of herself as a high-school cheerleader turned satanic demon. Needless to say, the casting directors didn’t need to look for an actress with a lot of range. Jennifer’s body is sacrificed to the devil as a virgin (ahem) sacrifice by an indie band trying to gain fame and fortune. Plans go awry when the whole “virgin” part gets overlooked, and Jennifer becomes doomed to feed off of human flesh for eternity. She finds hormonal boys to be the easiest targets, and a string of murders begins to overtake the small town of Devil’s Kettle; the culprit unknown to anybody but Jennifer’s best friend: “Needy”.

The horror genre is satirized by one of its own here, a bit like the “Scream” movies of last decade. High school stereotypes are ever present; Goths and quarterbacks all try to date Jennifer, and all have their souls consumed indiscriminately, class memorials are interrupted by Jennifer’s unsubtle apathy, and sexual tension is paid off with one of the longest lesbian kissing scenes in mainstream movie history. The movie does follow the annoying trend of having college graduate-aged adults playing high school kids, but unlike other films that use this gimmick, Jennifer’s Body doesn’t drive that point home at every opportunity.

Diablo Cody wrote this movie, and the premise of a horror film written by the author of “Juno” shows very much. Quirky lines and obscure references are mainstays of Cody’s writing and are delivered in even the most dire of situations. I’d like to emphasize that last point as by “dire situations” I mean people will give off-the-wall comments even while missing half of their neck. The abundance of these quips tends to throw off the balance between horror and comedy in humor’s favor, and can leave those expecting a scary movie still wanting satisfaction.

The humor in the writing is fantastic, but many of the actors frequently and unfortunately misfire their lines. Some of the actors, such as Amanda Seyfried and Adam Brody are completely immune to this phenomenon, but others, especially Johnny Simmons, seem to flub every joke. It is one of the most terrible things that can happen to a comedy when an actor doesn’t understand what is funny about what they are saying. The problem could likely have been avoided with a little more discretion in the casting department.

The movie provides closure to the story, but the ending turns out somewhat clunky as a result. There were at least five times in the last five minutes when I was expecting the movie to cut to black and roll the credits, leaving space for a sequel. However, all loose ends are tied up and the show proves to be a standalone picture. Jennifer’s Body is much better than most scary movies that come out nowadays, and more original to boot. The fact that it works so well as comedy only sweetens the deal and, in the end, most of the audience will be left with a satisfying movie experience.

The Informant!

Running Time: An hour and 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Mark Whitacre is a man compelled by his vices. On top of hard work and a positive attitude, he extorts, lies, and steals to reach the top of the corporate ladder. The path to professional success seems to be laid out for him when he learns information that could incriminate the whole of his superiors at Archer Daniels Midland, leaving their management positions open for his taking. However, when the FBI becomes involved, Mark’s greedy and compulsive behavior threatens to destroy what was one of the most famous investigations of the 1990s and the largest corporate whistleblower case in history.

The Informant tries to pass itself off as a comedy, but most of the laughs stem from his narrated idle thoughts and the film’s oddly upbeat music selection. Without these playful additions, the movie could have been a pretty straightforward historical drama. “Historical” is used loosely, of course, but skewed and added details are to be expected from any movie that claims itself to be “based on a true story”.

The plot can become a bit muddled to the audience as we are as oblivious to what is fact or fib as the people onscreen. While sometimes confusing, it can often be amusing when the characters’ baffled and incredulous reactions to Mark’s behavior mirror our own.

The movie drags on a bit around the epilogue, but is, overall, enjoyable. It is a must-see for people who either followed the case or read the book from which this movie was adapted, but those who don’t fall into either of those categories will find that the world will go on just the same if The Informant is skipped over.

Actual Rating: PG-13

There is no violence, no sex, no drugs, not even any rock & roll. This movie caught an R rating from the MPAA simply because it used “the f-word” a few more times than what is allotted to a PG-13 movie.


Running Time: An hour and a half

MPAA Rating: PG-13

What do you do after years of independent work on a heartfelt short film wins you prestigious awards and international popularity? Monetize it, of course! Exploit every cent out of your creation by adding an hour of explosions and unnecessary characters, cheesy one-liners for the kids, and slapping a famous director’s name on the final product. At least that seems to be the thought process of writer/director Shane Acker in his extended remake of the 2005 film.

The story follows a group of sentient ragdolls ("steampunks") surviving robot attacks in a post-apocalyptic alternate-universe world war 2-ish era. Film can be a helluva drug, people. After being given life by a man trying to encapsulate the spirit of the human race by dividing his soul into nine dolls, they avoid going on the stereotypical killing spree that seems to happen in every other “bring weird stuff to life using voodoo” film. Instead, they focus their efforts on trying to survive against the maniacal, mechanical beings that have already wiped out humanity.

The film's most egregious offense is that it feels like it was written by a Hot Topic focus group. Is it really possible to be a social outcast if every other living thing on the planet is as well? Leadership and military figures are demonized with a harsh emphasis on religion. The overbearing self-declared leader of the group dresses like a pope and operates from a church while apathetically dismissing attempts to save steampunk lives.

Most characters in the film show all the depth of a kiddie pool and only serve to move the plot along. The lack of real emotion conveyed by the puppets tends to cause indifference to the casualties of war. Parts that made the original "9" special are copied and pasted into this, but lose much of their impact because of the extra baggage.

9 falls short of it's potential by being a longer adaptation of the original, rather than an artistic expansion. It poses as a Tim Burton movie by following the trends that Burton created. To save your time and money, the wise choice here is to just watch the original.

Actual Rating: PG
Anybody who has seen a PG-13 rated movie this decade will understand that an unmarked body and mild, offscreen violence can hardly be considered traumatizing in comparison.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Final Destination

Running Time: An hour and twenty minutes

MPAA Rating: R

What would you do if you could foresee death? Would you accept the inevitable? Hide from it? Pull a complicated theory on “how to cheat death” out of nowhere and watch how miserably it fails? Our hero and seer, Nick, chooses the latter method after predicting a violent incident at an afternoon car race. Since sensationalist journalism apparently doesn’t exist in the Final Destination universe, nobody has heard of eerily similar survivors’ experiences involving plane, coaster train, and automobile accidents. I suppose a crowd avoiding their demise by dissipating at any mention of somebody’s “vision” wouldn’t make for enthralling horror, but neither does saving a few people to be killed off one by one in the same manner as every other film in the series.

Unlike the other movies, the main premonition of an accident and its subsequent fulfillment are rushed through like the opening of a television show. There is no suspense or ominous buildup, just explosions, death, and déjà vu to precede the opening credits and to let the audience know how little innovation they’ll be witnessing in the next hour. Each character even blatantly rips-off their persona from somebody in the first three films, and not very well at that.

Fans of the series may enjoy this installment in the same way Saw fans like watching a new version of the same movie every year. There are more guts, deaths, and some gimmicky 3D shots to distract from the lack of coherent storytelling or character development, but pulling further away from the plot that made the first movie interesting just leaves viewers with a sense of unfulfillment.

In many ways, The Final Destination is just a sub-par rehash of its predecessors, which is a shame considering the potential of the series. Real-life events involving people dying shortly after surviving other dangers have come to be known as “Final Destination stories” and the movie could have used the depth gained by having slightly more realistic scenarios. This is supposedly the last film in the series that gets worse with each new addition, though anybody who follows the scary movie genre has heard that before. Nothing was explained or added in this movie, so one can only hope that the eventual reboot or sequel will try a bit harder to capture the originality that made the series popular in the first place.

Actual Rating: NC-17 Nobody is going to win a parent of the year award by letting their kids watch somebody be disemboweled in a pool, but letting them see a mother de-brained by a rock in front of her children is just disturbing. There are fewer cut-away shots than in the first three movies, and even some prolonged views of organ heaps. Oh, and there are boobs, because those are obviously the worst things your kids could see in a movie.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Running Time: Just under three hours

MPAA Rating: R

The Inglourious Basterds (as spelled the “Tarantino Way”) are a small group of American soldiers who hate Nazis. Yes, I know that everybody hates Nazis, but believe me when I say that this group really, really hates them. So much so that they dedicate themselves to being as unspeakably cruel and inhumane to German soldiers as those soldiers are to Jews and other groups. Scalping, branding, and torture are not out of bounds for these men in their attempt to terrorize monsters. An unrelated Jewish woman, whose family has been murdered by the infamous “Jew Hunter”, seeks revenge while operating a small movie theater in France. Both parties see incredible opportunity when all major players in the Third Reich (including Adolf Hitler) make plans to attend a screening at that theater.

Those who are expecting an action-packed war movie filled with fights and battle scenes may be disappointed. Director Quentin Tarantino is well known to add long dialogue scenes for character development and, considering this to be his magnum opus, he makes full use of that reputation. Scenes of murder and mayhem are few and far between, so the more ADHD in the audience may want to catch a final screening of Transformers 2 to fill up their extra three hours.

Watching this movie is reminiscent of reading a novel. Plot development moves along at a snail’s pace, but is very interesting when making strides. There is a copious amount of subtitle reading to be done, so essentially the viewer is reading a book without having to imagine the descriptions themselves. This would be well and good in moderation, but as it is in excess it just makes for an egregiously long film.

Expectations of a gung-ho shoot ‘em up are paralleled in the Nazi propaganda film that the members of the German army attend. Clips of a famous sniper-turned-actor killing American soldiers serve to taunt the thrill seekers in the real audience with the inverse what could have been a Brad Pitt no-holds-barred action movie. In fact, especially for being the principle character in advertising campaigns, Pitt and the other basterds get very little screen time. A more accurate main character based on screen time would be Colonel Hans Landa, the despicable and accurately titled “Jew Hunter” of the SS who is the root cause of most of the film’s plot points.

Since the movie is almost completely fictitious and because most characters reveal themselves to be fluent English-speakers, I really don’t understand why there needed to be so many subtitled scenes. They significantly hinder the film’s viewability. One cannot even take notice of the acting on screen while racing to read translation blocks in the time before the next one pops up. There are also plenty of inconsequential scenes that could have been cut to keep the movie at a reasonable length. It is somewhat pointless to have 15 minutes of character development when 2 are spent on moving the plot forward and 1 is spent killing everybody we just spent our time learning about. The final act may justify all of the parts that drag, though. For a brief time the action lovers get their inglourious heroes and Nazi-killing is the name of the game. It may take a select type of viewer to thoroughly enjoy the movie up to that point, however.

Actual Rating: The bounteous level of gruesome violence combined with the fact that this movie tosses in nearly every other movie rating vice in the industry for good measure definitely warrants this one an NC-17. The gory scenes are comparable to Eli Roth’s “torture-porn” Hostel movies and are definitely not suitable for young viewers.

World's Greatest Dad

Running Time: Just over an hour and a half

MPAA Rating: R

Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) is not the world’s greatest dad. That’s not to say he doesn’t try, but he finds himself going miles into nowhere by attending to his son’s every whim and absorbing every insult. Williams plays a high school poetry teacher (déjà vu) and father who is used and abused by everyone from his colleagues to his unpopular, perverted child (played by Daryl Sabara of Spy Kids fame). When his son’s perversion leads to untimely tragedy, Williams’ character decides to distort the truth in order to preserve the family’s dignity. However, his good intentions are quickly corrupted into exploitation of the mess and the entire community turns on its head as a result.

The plot seems to have some inspiration from scandals such as that surrounding the book “A Million Little Pieces”, a supposed autobiography of James Frey which was found to be fraudulent. In both that case and this movie, a fabrication is used to help people at the emotional expense of those who know the truth of the matter. The liars must decide whether the result justifies their deception, and must face the fact that the truth will always come around eventually.

Writer/Director Bobcat Goldthwait does a great job of creating and balancing comedy within a tragedy. The exploitation of a tragedy is exaggerated in a believable way, and spot-on performances by the actors make the satire work marvelously. Robin Williams' performance is especially commendable. While he is no stranger to dramatic roles, it can be difficult for most actors to pull together the best of comedy and drama at the same time, which he does fantastically.

The film gives a great message of redemption and facing harsh realities up front rather than blowing lies out of proportion. There aren’t many “Aesop’s Fables” lessons tucked into adult-themed movies, but this movie fits that description more than any other I’ve seen in a while. After a hardship, life goes on, a lesson is learned, people are brought together, and many who are involved are better off for it. Others, however, can only help themselves and leave others to suffer. As Lance Clayton so aptly puts it “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone”.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

District 9

Running time: Just under two hours

MPAA Rating: R

What would happen if aliens came to Earth? Would they destroy national monuments? Use humans as hosts for their eggs? Exterminate us to make use of our planet? Many movies have skipped the “if” and gone straight to the “how” regarding extraterrestrial invasions. District 9 asks us the question: would the aliens be the soulless monsters, or would we?

The movie is based on a short film that the director, Neill Blomkamp, directed in 2005 titled “Alive in Joburg”. As did its source material, District 9 details the failing relations between humans and “prawns” (a derogatory term that likens them to bottom-feeders). After becoming stranded on Earth in Johannesburg, South Africa, the one million lost creatures are met with initial curiosity and aid. This dissolves over the next two decades as governments and enterprises become more and more interested in the species’ biology and weapons technology and less and less about their well-being. The main plot begins as the aliens are set to be evicted from their homes in the ghetto “district 9” into concentration camps at “district 10” when a man dealing eviction notices unwittingly sets a significant course-change into the future of both groups.

This is some of the most original science fiction to come to film in quite a long time. Recycled movie universes from decades past, such as Star Trek and Terminator, have ruled over the genre at the box office so far this year. Unlike those examples, District 9 is not necessarily action-based. While present, action scenes exist in this movie because they are a necessary part of the storyline, and not the other way around.

District 9 doesn’t try to explain everything to the audience. The characters’ ability to speak each others’ languages and issues regarding the transfer of DNA are not given lengthy explanation, but are left to the viewer’s imagination. The numerous themes in the film are handled well by the director and, perhaps taking a cue from the film’s producer, Peter Jackson, the movie leaves us with only the first part of an epic struggle.

Since much of the movie’s appeal stems from the mystery surrounding the main story arc, I won’t spoil anything here. What I can say is that what this movie does, it does well and it is inevitably bound to become a sci-fi franchise of epic proportions. See district 9 with a sense of curiosity, but be prepared; the dark side of human nature runs deep in this movie. If you can’t handle seeing E.T. suffering unspeakable cruelty and fighting back, you may want to see “Aliens in the Attic” for some feel-goods instead.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

Running Time: An hour and a half

MPAA Rating: R

Seeing a movie called “The Goods”, audience members must invariably expect to, at some point, be delivered “the goods” whatever they may be. Something has been promised by the title. Maybe “the goods” are laughter, storylines, or even just interesting characters. Whatever they are, this film, just like the sleazy car salesmen it depicts, does not at any point deliver “the goods”.

The plot (and I use that term loosely here) is about a team of elite, auto-trading mercenaries who are called in to save a family-owned dealership from bankruptcy. Each character is rationed one additional issue that they must deal with during the course of the movie, leading to one of the worst attempts to create a story for the sole purpose of adding more vulgar jokes since the forgettable Observe & Report.

The film’s writers are new to working on the silver screen and television, and it definitely shows. The jokes take a rapid-fire approach, tossing as many at you as time will allow, but a vast majority of them fall flat. The movie also borrows the ideology of earlier movies, such as Step-Brothers, that “more vulgarity equals more hilarity”. Will Ferrell even makes a cameo in one of only a few interesting scenes in the whole movie. Fortunately for moviegoers and their wallets, he has posted that specific scene on his website.

The ensemble cast is made up of some of the best screen comedians alive today, so it is incredibly unfortunate that their talents are wasted on a garbage script. There are a couple of actors who manage to work through this problem, however. Charles Napier plays a disgruntled patriot who, often hilariously, vents his frustration with how society has changed and openly shares his less-than-P.C. opinions of customers and co-workers. Ed Helms, the increasingly popular actor of The Office and The Hangover fame, entertainingly plays the film’s antagonist: a clumsy boy band leader who gets everything he wants courtesy of his successful father.

The Goods tries to be funny by unleashing a slew of politically incorrect jokes at the viewer. A female pedophile, a man intent on cheating on his wife with another (reluctant) male, and even a self-described hate crime are not nearly as humorous as the writers seem to have thought they would be, or even as funny as they could have been. The standard has been set by movies like “The Hangover”, and now it is time for comedies to go beyond crude humor by itself. Entertainment and quality are traits that every movie must have if they want to stay on the screenings list for more than the first week. The Goods simply does not deliver its namesake.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra

Running Time: 2 Hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13

“G.I. Joe” is based on the cartoon of the same title that evolved from the classic military action figure of the 1960’s. The name is no longer that of an individual soldier, but of an elite military squadron similar to America’s Delta Force. It takes the “best of the best” soldiers from various military factions and uses them in the world’s most critical missions. Their assignment in this film is to safely transport weaponized nanobots which, of course, quickly goes awry when enemy schemes unfold.

Not much can be said about the quality of this movie. It very closely follows the path of its predecessors, the Transformers movies, and panders to a base audience whim: explosions and one-liners with little to no story arc. I could understand if somebody didn’t regret paying money to see it. After all, the movie stays consistent by waiting no more than 90 seconds to blow up something new. However, the type of person who would actually said this movie was “good” probably wouldn’t sit through Citizen Kane if you paid them to. There are far too many clichés in the film to list here. At one point in the movie, encouraged by the fact that I had seen many of the situations in previous action flicks, I was compelled to predict every detail of what happened before it occurred. I was correct in every case.

The basic theme of the movie is “oh, look how awesome the military is!” which is to be expected, I suppose, considering that that has been the point of G.I. Joe since its origin. There is only one other, very subtle message that I noticed toward the beginning of the film. That is when, in one short line, the man who is selling the nanobots missiles to government officials states that the machines were developed on the premise that they would be used to cure cancer. He then demonstrates how great they are at destroying things and the corruption and militarization of science meant to be used for the good of mankind is never mentioned again.

The characters are as lifeless as the plastic figures they are representing. The black soldier gives somewhat stereotypical comic-relief and anybody with an accent is a bad guy. Many characters constantly show themselves to be entirely incompetent, so it is beyond me how they make it into the military’s Ivy League squad. For soldiers who are trained to protect civilians, they sure do a bad job of it. In a scene where the team attempts to protect a national monument, I lost count of how many civilians would most likely have died because of their tactics. Even with the scores of gruesome deaths in the film, the only person who is truly apologetic in the end is the casting director.

For being subtitled “Rise of the Cobra”, the two minutes spent explaining the Cobra Commander’s origin story seems very unfulfilling. The movie is what many people have assumed that it is: a fun way to waste two hours of your life. In the end, nobody is changed, nothing is learned, and some lucky pyrotechnician has brought home the paycheck of a lifetime. G.I. Joe sums itself up rather accurately in its choice of end credits music (“Boom Boom Pow” by The Black Eyed Peas): this is for people who want to stop thinking for a while, and just enjoy the flash.

Actual Rating: This is an extremely violent movie. Dozens of unnamed soldiers and civilians die onscreen, women are brutally killed, children bloody each other up and one 10 year old murders an old man with a sword. To top all of that off, the director seems to have a fetish for people being stabbed through their eye. While the movie is obviously aimed at kids and young teens, the content is definitely not suitable for younger viewers. The amount of graphic, unpunished death most egregiously earns this movie an “R” rating. However, thanks to modern day standards, no movie gets that kind of rating unless it does something REALLY bad (like saying a naughty word or showing a nipple).

I’ll be making a case for my views on the hierarchy of “offensive material” in opposition to the MPAA’s in an essay that I will post on this blog.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Julie & Julia

Running Time: 2 Hours

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Julie & Julia may seem a bit bland in theory. To the many people who are unaware of Julia Child, the plot of a woman following every recipe in a cook book may sound almost unwatchable. However, the people who do see this movie will not find that they’ve spent $8 on a big-screened Food Network special. In case you are unaware, Julia Child was an exceptionally upbeat and talented chef most popular from the 1960s to the 1990s and the author of the famous “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Julie Powell is a modern day government worker who, strapped for ideas to make a blog, makes the ambitious decision to prepare every dish in that book and write to the world about her experience.

Meryl Streep gives a very definitive air of life to Child, who often brought out the best in people she met. This wonderful performance is not solitary in the movie, though. Every character is unique and well thought-out by the actor who plays them. Motivations are ever-present, showing how people follow their passions even in the hardest of times.

Julie Powell starts her blog with no credibility or claim to fame. She works in a low-profile office job and begins her writing career by sending letters of her progress into the abyss that is the internet. She is initially met with some harsh criticism from her mother and husband, who both fail to see the point in her conquest. Julie is also skeptical of her ability to complete the task at times, most humorously while contemplating whether she can bring herself to boil live lobsters while “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads plays ominously in the background.

Julia Child is shown in her pre-“French Chef” days starting with the famous sole meunière dinner that inspired her to begin cooking. She does this with focused determination (rather than natural talent) as is exemplified in her reaction to failure while chopping an onion for the first time. The repentant action is shown when her husband comes home to find a mountain of the tear-inducing vegetables on the kitchen table after Child spends a night practicing her technique.

The similarities in the experiences of these two women are made blatant throughout the film. Child is caught in the height of McCarthyism while Powell deals with life post-9/11, one writes a book while the other writes a blog, and each uses hard work and dedication to open their doorway to fame.

Julie & Julia requires no previous knowledge of its content to be enjoyable, and may even leave the viewer with a desire to fulfill their own projects. It is innovative in being the first movie to be based on a person’s blog, and it successfully balances Julie’s story with Julia’s biography. This is a good movie with good themes, great characters and a fantastic sense of humor. To anybody looking for inspirations for their own ambitions, I couldn’t recommend this movie highly enough.

Actual Rating: This one is a bit tricky when you compare it to some that pass with a PG-13 these days. There is plenty of sex, but none of it is distasteful or vulgar. Swearing is minimal and the film does make use of its one allocated “F-word”. The only violence present is in a Saturday Night Live clip when Dan Aykroyd, playing in a skit as Julia Child, cuts his thumb whilst cooking, sending a spray of “blood” around the kitchen as he humorously tries to continue with the show. In the end, it must be left up to the maturity of the viewer. If a child could find this interesting and not feel inclined to repeat the language, I wouldn't hesitate to grant this a PG rating. If not, I'm sure "Gerbil Force" tickets are still available.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Funny People

Running Time: Two and a half hours

MPAA Rating: R

I’m sure that there are going to be many people who will expect a movie that is called “Funny people”, is written and directed by Judd Apatow, and stars a couple of the most well known comedians of the past two generations to be just like the audacious comedies we’ve seen in the past from these entertainers. However, people who are expecting another Knocked Up or Forgetting Sarah Marshall may be disappointed as this film is the very essence of what has come to be known as a “dramedy”. In it, Adam Sandler essentially plays himself in an alternate universe as a semiretired comedian and well-known movie star. This seems to be working out well for him until a wrench is tossed into the works in the form of a malignant disease. Faced with his own mortality, the star takes on a younger comedian (Seth Rogen) as his assistant and companion.

Viewers shouldn’t expect “My Sister’s Keeper 2” or anything like that. The disease is used to set the plot into motion, not to be the plot itself. In fact, there are very few movie clichés present to take note of. One thing that is notable in the movie is that it sacrifices many opportunities to get cheap laughs from the audience at the expense of its realism. Much of the humor feels like it was improvised by the stars themselves, which gives them genuine and unique parts that could not have been copied by any other actors.

Sandler is (obviously) a natural in his part, and Rogen manages to make up for the travesty of “Observe and Report” earlier this year through this film. The real-life chemistry between the two people carrying similar careers in different times adds a lot of depth to their relationship and helps us get through some of the more dramatic moments in the film. Every actor in the movie gets their time to shine, and not one of them disappoints. A celebrity cameo-ridden scene in a popular bar puts this point to the test when we get memorable showings from Norm Macdonald, Ray Romano, and Eminem (just to name a few).

If you are looking for a true-to-life comedy and don’t mind some tear-jerking along the way, then the two and a half hours should definitely be worth your time and money. If you are looking for a stoner flick with some heart, then you might want to stick with your tried and true Apatow collection at home. This movie was made for an audience that wants to care about the characters in it and is willing to take the time to let that happen. The film begins with a distinct change in the lives of the characters and leaves them in the end to seek out redemption and happiness from life, letting the audience decide the successfulness of the funny peoples’ endeavors for themselves.

Yours truly,


Actual Rating: This one definitely earns its “R” rating with plenty of crude language and a few sex scenes for good measure.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: An hour and a half

Let me start off by clarifying the title of this movie. “(500) Days of Summer” does not, in fact, refer to skipping over Spring, Winter and Autumn for a little over a year. Actually, it refers to a woman named “Summer” (played by Zooey Deschanel, the girl from “Elf”) and the 500 days that she spends in the life of Tom (played by the guy in “10 Things I Hate About You” who wasn’t Heath Ledger). The film’s narrator describes the movie in the beginning as “a story of boy-meets-girl, but not a love story”. This is because, as the audience quickly learns, Tom gets dumped from his seemingly perfect relationship. This seems at first like it will be a surprising plot twist, until we learn that Tom was warned by Summer up front about the impossibility of a relationship. The rest of the movie is an examination of how all of this went down and how Tom comes out from it.

With the summary out of the way, I’d like to point out that this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to my dream film of 90 minutes closed in on Zooey Deschanel’s eyes. This movie makes it especially easy to slip into an infatuation for the gorgeous and quirky actress because we see the movie through the mind’s eye of Tom. As such, everything we see about Summer is perfect. Her timing, sense of humor and devious behavior all add up to create an entirely unblemished entity of a woman. Only a few times in the film does the audience get to see what Tom cannot, that Summer is a human being who must come to terms with her own issues as well.

Seeing a movie set in how a character views things, rather than how they literally are, is definitely a unique and interesting experience. Life may at one moment turn into a musical-esque dance to Hall and Oates’s “You Make My Dreams Come True” to an entire city turning into nothing more than a stenciled picture erasing itself with the main character’s hopes and ambitions. This culminates in a scene showing the drastically different expectations Tom has for a party where he will see Summer and the reality of the event shown side-by-side in real time onscreen.

(500) Days of Summer has a very real feel to it. This movie was made for the ‘Tom’s of the world; people who have had failed relationships or infatuations and survived to talk about them. It shows everything from the happy times to the weeks spent in bed with nothing but twinkies and liquor. The movie gives the audience something that they might not see in other movies however, and that is the fact that a person can better themselves from a bad experience if they choose to do so. It shows that hardship may not always lead to the desired ending, but can be just as worthwhile in a world of surprises. That, in my opinion, makes this one of the most relevant movies that you can possibly see. Definitely take advantage of that.

Much Love,


Actual Rating: The MPAA got it right this time with a PG-13 rating. There are words and some implied sexuality, neither of which is going to break the stride of anybody who’s ever walked through a high school hallway.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Running time: 2.5 hours
MPAA rating: PG

Going into this film, my greatest fear was that it would only serve as a very long advertisement for the final two of the series. Rumors had even passed around the web that the extremely notable ending had been cut for use as the opening of the Deathly Hallows. As I’m sure that Warner Bros. would be none too pleased with me revealing what is or isn’t in the movie, I do have one thing to say: it is the single most powerful ending in the series thus far.

From the moment the movie begins in the rubble and shock of The Order of the Phoenix’s final battle, a deep emphasis is placed on the paternal relationship that Dumbledore holds for Harry. This is reflected throughout the last half of the movie as well. What may be considered my biggest issue with the plot is what happens in the time betwixt these ruminations of human emotion. Anybody who has read the book will be expecting long-standing infatuations to make themselves known, but they all seem to come on much too strongly and with fervor to boot. The only blatant sign of the amorous feelings a certain Ron and Hermione share in the previous films is a bit of spontaneous hand-holding. In this one, she seems about ready to try the “avada kedavra” herself when he makes eyes at another woman.

With that out of the way, I’d like to move on to one of the most significant plot lines of the film: the struggle of Draco Malfoy. The only reference that I can think of for his character is Rolf from “The Sound of Music”. Both are essentially normal youth who are called upon by dark forces to commit unspeakable evil. At first, Draco seems to be rather proud of his undisclosed assignment, going so far as to subtly brag to his friends about it aboard the Hogwarts Express. Seen alone, however, he is still a very human child who struggles in quiet contemplation of the task before him. This brings the viewer an empathy for him that has not been easily felt in previous acts. This is contrasted by the very evil and manipulative youth of Lord Voldemort himself, shown through flashback memories and played by the nephew of the adult Dark Lord’s actor.

As it stands in my categorization of the series, The Half-Blood Prince comes only second to The Prisoner of Azkaban, which stands with the highest quality of the bunch. You’ll hardly realize the time that has passed when the credits roll, and it will hopefully become apparent why the Deathly Hallows had to be split into two films. The characters that remain in the end leave us with the harsh sting of reality, and the hope aided by loved-ones for the future.

As I’ve come to realize, from my experience and presumably that of many others, the MPAA are a bunch of twits who could rate a movie more accurately by rolling a die. Therefore, I’ll be posting my own view on the film’s rating in each of my reviews. A much more correct rating for this movie would be PG-13, as many images and scenes are terrifying in a traumatized-for-life sort of way, and should not be viewed by the children of parents who dislike spending their nights watching their kids’ closets for signs of monsters. Otherwise, enjoy the midnight shrieking due to images of undead sea-creatures and possessed girls floating in mid-air.

Much Love,

P.S. As this is my first full review of a movie, I don’t expect it to be great. With that said, I would greatly appreciate your feedback, questions, corrections, requests, etc.
Thank you!