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.