Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Up" Review

Pixar's track record continues to shine with the release of their newest movie "Up". While not as much of a masterpiece as last year's Wall-E, it still provides plenty of laughs and thoughtful storytelling that is above and beyond what would appear to be the reach of most studios.

"Up" is the story of 78-year-old Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) who has had a lifelong love of exploration and who never seemed to be able to get out there and do any real exploring. After marrying his childhood sweetheart, who shared this love of his, there was always something preventing the couple from going to Paradise Falls in South America, the one place they truly wanted to go. Illustrated in an incredibly moving montage at the start of the film, the audience is taken through the journey of their life together, including some surprisingly mature themes that will probably go over the head of smaller viewers but heartbreaking for those who have the ability to grasp the situation.

After the death of his wife and being forced out of his home by business development, Carl decides he has nothing to lose and uses thousands of balloons to lift his house upward and spend his remaining years in Paradise Falls. Meanwhile, young Wilderness Explorer Russell is looking for his final badge, the "Help the Elderly" badge, so he can become a Senior Explorer. Carl unfortunately wants nothing to do with him, yet through a series of circumstances, Russell becomes part of Carl's journey and through this exploration they begin to learn more about each other and discover what it means to truly live a full life.

The film excels more than anything else with the characters. Russell and Carl are so incredibly well written that each decision they make is one that can be understood. The progression of the characters moves along at a solid pace and when the moment of realization occurs for Carl, you really feel his epiphany with him, which is a testament to the great writing of the team at Pixar.

And there really is something for everyone in this movie. Goofy sight gags for the kids, deep meaningful themes for the adults, all in a PG movie.

The only real negative to the film was the fact that I didn't find myself buying Carl's willingness to deviate from his original plan. It seemed slightly forced in an attempt to create some sort of conflict, but upon watching it again, I suppose it's possible that it will be better understood why he decided to make the decision that he did.

From a technical perspective, this movie is again a masterpiece. The light from the balloons, the stylized character designs, and even the 3D effects all add to create a beautiful atmosphere that could be enjoyed even if you had no idea what was being said on screen. What's also incredible is how the 3D effects were not overwhelming at all, only serving to add literal depth to the movie, and never going for the cheap poke-in-the-eye gags. Some movies can really have the 3D as a distraction, but here it was clearly part of the storytelling and they made every attempt to not abuse that.

"Up" ultimately is a touching, unconventional story that succeeds on just about every level. Upon first viewing of the trailer last year, I wondered whether or not it would be viable to have an old man as a protagonist, but, as Pixar always does, they proved me wrong for even questioning it.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Terminator: Salvation Review

Numerous interviews with the director of "Terminator: Salvation", McG, have reeked of a deep insecurity about the project; a desperate need to tell the world "this movie is good, really! Look at all the people involved other than me! That will show you!" Yet, the movie succeeds in being an interesting fourth entry in the Terminator franchise and a relatively solid summer blockbuster, but not much else.

The movie begins with John Connor (Christian Bale) on a mission to take out a Skynet facility in 2018. Connor knows he is going to someday lead humanity to victory against Skynet, he just doesn't quite know when that is going to be. In the meantime, his pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) sits at home doing doctor things waiting for him to return. The mission somehow wakes up Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) from some sort of half-man/half-machine slumber. Frankly, describing the plot is partially an exercise in futility since it mostly involves the Resistance trying to defeat and run away from Skynet and Marcus discovering what he truly is.

Which leads to the main problem of this movie: the plot is essentially incomprehensible toward the end. The motivations of Skynet are strange at best and completely nonsensical at worst. Sure they make some good strategic moves from time to time, but when it comes to their ace in the hole, it seems like they did not think that one through at all, which I'll refrain from describing as to not spoil anything.

Connor also serves as some sort of section leader of the Resistance but has little say as a top decision maker. Which is fine, since this is relatively early in his Resistance career. The problem is that you never really see TRUE leadership from him. Sure, he has a little John Connor radio show where he talks to anyone who will listen about how Skynet will one day be defeated, but this isn't exactly leadership. That's not to say that Connor is incompetent. On the contrary he shows himself to be an excellent fighter and capable of making incredibly smart decisions. It would seem that he is working up to this point, and many already see him as a de facto leader on account of his radio addresses.

In fact, the true standout is Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) who, as a teenager, is able to keep his cool in difficult situations and inspire those around him with his confidence and poise. It makes perfect sense that he is the father of John Connor, since you can see the man he is growing into and the choices that he makes. Unfortunate then that Connor himself doesn't seem to have the same sort of ability.

Fortunately, all the actors in the movie give it their best and provide a real core upon which to build the rest of the film. Bale is consistent as always and really puts everything he has into the character of John Connor. Worthington spends much of the movie yelling insanely, but when he is given the opportunity to settle down for a moment, you can really see his charisma. His confusion about his nature is on full display and he plays it very well.

The action scenes are really the big draw to the movie though, since most of the movie is just nonstop action for the sake of action. On a sheer entertainment level, this is where the movie shines through. The Terminators look more real than ever given that most of the movie relies on practical effects and not on CGI, giving the battles more intensity than they otherwise would have. The CGI that IS there is not only effective, but complimentary to the practical action, creating an incredibly believable world that presents the engaging struggle between man and machine.

The problem is that most of the action adds nothing to the story. They're entertaining battles to be sure, but they're without purpose. They have such length but the plot developments only happen slightly before and slightly after each battle and even then these are only mildly interesting developments.

McG clearly set this up as the first part of a trilogy, but the movie ends so unceremoniously that I find myself completely unconcerned with what will happen next in the Terminator saga. I will still be first in line to see the next one, but it also isn't hotly anticipated.

When all is said and done, this is definitely a movie worth seeing in theatres, especially if you're a fan of the Terminator franchise. They make some cool callbacks without going over the top with it, and while much of the plot will leave you scratching your head, there's enough positive here to recommend it as a fun summer popcorn action picture.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Fighting" Review

Every so often a movie comes along that completely defies your expectations. Sometimes this happens in a positive way. Other times, not so much. Well, I'm happy to report that despite my incredibly low expectations for "Fighting", the end result was much worse than I honestly expected.

"Fighting" stars Channing Tatum as Shawn MacArthur, a street vendor of knock off goods in New York City. At least until he defends himself from some people trying to steal his stuff and Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) inexplicably sees an underground fighter in him. So when Shawn goes to confront Harvey, Harvey offers him the opportunity to fight, right there on the spot, and Shawn mindbogglingly accepts this offer from a man who coordinated a theft from him just hours earlier.

That's essentially all that you need to know about "Fighting." Despite the fact that the title of the movie is "Fighting", there's surprisingly little fighting in it. Nothing in the movie will surprise you in any way except for how paint-by-numbers it all is. Anyone who has seen a movie will be able to telegraph each plot point a mile away.

And of course, characterization isn't necessary when you are able to just glide through a plot of this nature. Nope, just stick a few characters with a few stereotypical "from the streets" backstories, and you have yourself a movie. And the acting isn't any better. Howard, who normally excels in his roles, seems to be channeling some sort of high functioning Rain Man in his speech patterns and Tatum just mumbles his lines probably hoping that you don't really hear anything he has to say since the writing is so atrocious.

Top it off with an incredibly hackneyed reluctant love interest, Zulay Valez (played by Zulay Henao, too lazy to even change the girl's first name) and there is pretty much nothing redeemable about this movie. And you really have to appreciate the way the line between persistence and stalking is drawn. Wait, it isn't? No, not at all. Shawn follows her around, waiting for her to show up in random places, buys her gifts within moments of getting her to agree to hang out with him and offers to pay for her apartment. (Maybe THAT'S where I'm going wrong in life. I'm not being stalkerish enough with women!)

Of course, this review wouldn't be worth much if I didn't mention the randomness. Between the guy who runs up and does a flip off the wall and a man dressed as a human taco who walks past the camera, there are plenty of "What the hell is that?" moments that permeate the entire movie. I don't know if the intent is to confuse you so you don't realize how terrible the movie itself is, but if that is the case, no, it didn't work.

I barely even want to mention the fighting itself. There are four fights, all lasting fewer than 5 minutes. A movie called "Fighting" put less than 20 minutes of fights in the whole movie, yet somehow was able to stretch the running time to 1 hour and 45 minutes. And filled that with what? Story? No. None to be had here. Completely unacceptable.

"Fighting" has the distinct privelage of being one of the worst movies I've seen in the theater in a long time and would not recommend the movie to anyone. Anyone at all. Seriously. Don't go see it.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Adventureland Review

Every so often a movie comes along that completely blows away every expectation that you could have had for it. And despite the fact that many of the trailers make it out to be a run of the mill goofy summer job comedy, "Adventureland" has so much heart and realism to it that I'm still thinking about it.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college in Pennsylvania during 1987 and is planning on pursuing a postgraduate degree at Columbia in New York after a summer traveling through Europe. Unfortunately, the initial plan involving his parents helping him along on this journey had been scrapped after his father gets demoted and they no longer have the financial means to support this. This leads to James getting a job at the summer carnival "Adventureland" where he plans to save up money to afford a place in New York in the fall. It is here that he meets an incredible cast of characters, the most important of whom is Em Lewin (Kristin Stewart) who, despite seeming like she walks around perennially stoned in real life, is incredibly fantastic and alluring here, faults and all.

What is most surprising about this movie is how at the core, "Adventureland" is not really about the comedy. Sure, the movie is hilarious and there are plenty of laughs to be had from start to finish, but every laugh is earned. Even the cheap kicked-in-the-nuts gags are realistic because everyone knows a guy like that, a guy who is just so completely immature that only these childish moments give him entertainment. Even Ryan Reynolds, who normally is king of over the top, turns in a subtle performance as adulterous musician Mike Connell.

Every character has flaws and makes dumb mistakes, mistakes that every day people make. Whether it be trusting someone you shouldn't with a huge secret or knowing that you're about to make a mistake and you do it anyway, these are things that happen to real people and none of it comes across as forced. Writer/Director Greg Motolla (who directed "Superbad") places every character in such a specific position that the audience can truly feel for them. Some of the decisions are misguided or outright wrong, but you never feel as if the characters who make even the worst decisions are bad people.

Other films would have taken the fact James is a virgin in his early 20s and hammered that home, making the loss of his virginity the driving focus of the movie, but it's not. His virginity is just one element of his character. Sure, that's a background focus of his, and he still is a male, but it never overwhelms the plot. In fact, it only becomes an issue when he himself brings it up, showing that many of the things we think are holding us back are just parts of who we are, things that should be neither celebrated nor condemned. Even the wackier characters such as managers Bobby and Paulette (SNL's Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) are handled in a very regular way.

There's also more story than what's just on the surface. Peripheral characters too have their own life issues that are only alluded to but never really explored, yet they don't have to be. They appear to exist to provide our main characters with a more fully realized back story.

The soundtrack is also fantastic, with many excellent songs from the 1980s, most of which are poignant and not used for kitsch. All too often 80s movies focus on the over-the-top outfits and tacky songs, but those were just two elements of that era. This movie never takes that route and in fact can't think of one self-referential 80s joke that was made.

If there's one complaint to be had is that the pacing is a little odd near the beginning of the movie before it settles into a very natural progression. Towards the start, I could really feel the scene changes and this was slightly jarring. While I don't feel that any significant differences were made between the start and finish, I was brought fully into the characters' world and each step towards that end became more natural.

This is a movie about growing up, changing, and just dealing with life and the unexpected things it throws at you. Sometimes it's awesome, sometimes it sucks, but that's just the way life is. In the end, "Adventureland", despite its reality as a hilarious film in its own right, is an incredibly nuanced movie that deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible. A completely heartfelt surprise.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Love You, Man Review

Comedy is a very difficult thing to pull off. The balance between story and comedy is one that seems to be even harder to achieve than some of the most complicated dramas. The problem lies in the fact that comedy is often times so much more subjective than more dramatic elements. Yet, "I Love You, Man" pulls off quite an intricate balance between story and comedy despite the fact that the two often times do not quite work together.

After Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) proposes to his girlfriend Zooey (Rashida Jones), the realization occurs that he has no best man and no real guy friends in general. So after hearing his new fiance and her friends making fun of him, he begins a quest to find a best man to call his own. After a few mishaps, he finally seems to find a friend in Sydney Fife (Jason Segel) and the resulting relationship begins to cause a few problems with his home life.

What is most interesting is the way in which the movie follows some of the normal romantic comedy conventions, yet applies them to a completely platonic friendship and it seems to work. While this has surely been done before, director John Hamburg ("Along Came Polly") and stars Rudd and Segel are able to keep you interested and laughing. Interestingly, much of the humor seems to exist in its own reality, separate from the needs of the story. Lately many movies under the Apatow brand name have the humor stem from the story situations themselves, "I Love You, Man" seems to break off into tangents at certain points providing plenty of laughter, but a slight disconnect from the story itself. This is certainly not a bad thing, as the two work together so effortlessly that it doesn't create any problems, but given that the story is serviceable on its own, it was an interesting dynamic to experience.

Rudd is absolutely hilarious as the nervous Peter, and some of the funniest moments happen when he literally talks gibberish in an attempt to sound cool. Many of these situations led to a brief moment of silence in the theater everyone tries to figure out what he just said, but the way in which it happens resulted in fits of laughter from just about everyone. And hopefully nobody spoils for you a completely random moment that occurs during a drinking scene near the beginning with Peter, which was possibly the most laugh out loud moment I've had in the theater in a long time. But regardless, the entire cast is excellent from Segel's laid back Sydney to Rashida Jones' Zooey, they all offer something great.

If there's one complaint to be had the movie slows up on a lot of the comedy toward the end, which seems to be the case in a lot of comedies. In an attempt to bring the story to its necessary conclusion, more focus is put on story than on laughter. But as the Catalina Wine Mixer taught us in last year's "Step Brothers", sometimes the crowning moment of the story can offer up plenty of laughs all on its own. The movie certainly picks up in the last few minutes, but there's a period of about 15-20 minutes that barely a chuckle was heard. And I like to chuckle.

I cannot seem to stress enough how excellent many of the comedies have been of the last couple of years. And "I Love You, Man" is no exception. Again it's a movie that has an R-rating and embraces that without being too raunchy or over the top. It's been a few months since a solid comedy has been released, but this is definitely one to see if you're looking for some great comedy. (No offense, Paul Blart. But let's be honest. You just weren't that funny.)


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Knowing Review

Every so often a movie comes along that you feel if handled correctly, it can be something truly excellent and original. There seem to be signs that "Knowing" could have entered that realm, but in the end it is ultimately a movie with interesting ideas that, unfortunately, are not presented well. Without giving anything away, the uncompromising ending seems to be the foundation upon which the entire movie was built, but less attention was paid to the two hours preceding it.

"Knowing" stars Nicolas Cage as John Koestler, an astrophysicist at MIT (who apparently gives broad lectures that literally involve him defining the term "randomness", so it must not be that hard a school after all) whose son is the recipient of a message from his school's time capsule. The message, written 50 years earlier by a 3rd grader named Lucinda, ends up documenting every major disaster from the planet's history in a series of numbers. This leads John on a trail to attempt to stop the upcoming disasters listed on the paper.

Director Alex Proyas ("I, Robot", "Dark City") attempts to ground the movie in a type of reality, attempting to explain the occurances as a matter of science, but this ultimately rings hollow. Again, if the awareness of an event is achieved, then so does the ability to stop it. But I digress, as the movie is not trying to make that point. In fact, the movie does not seem to make much of a point at all, save for the peculiar ending. Instead, what is shown up on screen is essentially a mystery-thriller in which John makes every effort to prevent these future disasters. The problem with this is that there is essentially nothing he can do about them, giving the entire chase a pointless undercurrent. The action elements are rather impressive and are easily the most entertaining parts of the movie. This unfortunately should be some of the least impressive stuff in a movie that is primarily supposed to be science fiction.

Nicolas Cage again plays pretty much the same eccentric character that he always plays, which is not always a bad thing when he is given the right material. Unfortunately all the script requires him to do here is run from one place to the next and scream at people, offering little in the way of character. Sure there's a little subplot regarding his dead wife and his cemented belief in randomness, but it carries such little weight that the entire subplot just seems to serve mostly as filler for the character. The rest of the cast is adequate, but are given so little to do that it seems pointless to even mention them indvidually.

The film was not a complete waste of time, as it was certainly an engaging way to spend two hours and does present a few ideas that can make you think a little bit. But these are ideas that can be brought up without spending two hours watching a movie to allow you to reach that point. If only the movie had a little bit more focus on the science fiction aspect of the movie and less on the running around, it could have been one to remember. So while a mildly entertaining movie on its own merits, there is not much to recommend here and I certainly have no problem giving away the ending to you if you just want to save yourself the time and ask me straight away.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gran Torino Review

When looking at Clint Eastwood's cinematic pedigree, one sees a bit of a recurring character. The Dirty Harry, take-no-prisoners, out for vengeance character. Which, to be honest, was what I was expecting coming into "Gran Torino". Interestingly enough, this character, while on the surface appeared to be similar to all those other characters, was much more subtle than all those movies that came before this. If you're looking for "Gran Torino" to be in the same vein as those other movies, you will almost certainly be disappointed. But if you can keep an open mind about what you're witnessing, then the movie can be a thought-provoking film with dynamic characters in its own right.

The movie follows Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) as he moves on from the death of his wife shortly before the movie begins. He is completely disconnected from his two boys and their families, a family that comes across as spoiled and ungrateful, despite Walt's overtly bitter attitude towards life in general. In the meantime, a Hmong family moves in next door and the young son Thao (Bee Vang) is recruited by the local Hmong gang to steal Walt's titular Gran Torino.

Walt does not take too kindly to this behavior and also happens to be one of the most racist men I have ever seen on film. Yet Eastwood plays it with such humor and lightheartedness that it becomes difficult to be offended. He seems to make it clear that he's less racist and more concerned about hating everybody. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see a Youtube video at some point that is a compilation of all of his derogatory terms as he runs the gamut of every racist word for an Asian one could think of.

In the meantime, Walt is pursued by Father Janovich (Christopher Carley) who made a promise to Walt's passed wife that he would get Walt to go to confession, something Walt has absolutely no interest in doing. Yet confession does not seem to be what Walt needs and as he comes to realize what his life currently is, what he has, and the reality of the world around him, he begins to transform into something else. Only in the final surprising minutes do we see what that specifically is.

Eastwood again turns in a solid directorial effort that keeps the movie moving at a brisk pace. The way he conveys the different aspects of Walt's life and his inability to change with the times is nothing short of engaging. And Eastwood is clearly the most competent actor out of the entire bunch. With the exception of Walt's immediate and extended family, the acting was little more than mediocre and sometimes downright atrocious. Countless times I was taken out of the movie by an odd line delivery or the perception that the actor was just reading from a script instead of truly feeling his or her lines. The worst offenders are Father Janovich and Thao's sister, Sue (Ahney Her). I'm sure that it's very difficult to stay in the same league as someone of Eastwood's calibur but their quality was certainly not up to par.

Also surprisingly, the movie was absolutely hilarious. Walt's "I don't care" attitude led to some very funny and often times rather poignant moments and it's possible that without that humor, the movie would have suffered quite a bit. It made him more than a grumpy old man and more of a man a person could relate to.

I must be clear again: this is no Dirty Harry. In fact, one could argue that it is in fact the opposite of Dirty Harry. But even so, it exists as an excellent film that is a huge leap back to form for Eastwood whose "Changeling" from this past fall had the tendency to linger and seemed to have difficulty presenting a nuanced portrait of that story. This is a thought-provoking movie that has the power to stay with you well after you leave the theatre whose only real fault was a lack of quality acting.

And the fact that Clint Eastwood sings a song over the credits. Why he thought that was a good idea is anyone's guess.

Grade: B