Thursday, September 24, 2009

District 9 - Review

During a major and suicidial mission towards the climax of the film, the main protagonist has to enter his former work offices to retrieve the MacGuffin. To get to the probable location where it is hidden, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has enter his pin number at multiple locked doors. Except for this possible plot hole, DISTRICT 9 is a very well made science fiction film and certainly one of the absolute best of the year.

Many detractors have voiced about whether or not this is a truly original work of fiction and have to try to compare it to previous films. Though they seem to forget that nothing produced today in the film industry can truly be new, they also neglect that this isn't an American or a Hollywood production. It is a South African film set in South Africa, and produced with only $30 million dollars. The film is richly in deep with the South African culture, language, and history and doesn't feel the need to fully address any outside audiences. Director and Co-Writer Neill Blomkamp has made an interesting take on the old apartheid system that still haunts the nation while also making a strong statement that human beings are the antagonists and are at risk of self-destruction.

The introduction starts off as a finely produced documentary on the back story of this "alien invasion." A giant alien craft has been hovering over Johannesburg for twenty years and has remained docile. The alien beings left alive in it were moved out and into a temporary relief camp. Due to some hostile interactions, their strange behavior to steal objects and ugly outside appearance, their relief area was turned into a regulated slum and prison. These aliens, dubbed "Prawns" by the discriminating human population, are now to be relocated to a new and segregated environment.

The human focus of the feature is the previously mentioned Wikus, who is the head of human-alien affairs and the leader of the eviction mission. The documentary film within the film shows him to be a well-hearted but dumb and offended citizen who wants to make the situation peaceful but also has some disdain for the Prawns. After coming into contact with the MacGuffin, a cylinder capable of powering up a hidden machine, he slowly is transformed into one of them to the horrors of his peers. This of course makes him valuable to his company's leaders and scientists since the Prawn's destructive hand-held weapons can only be fired by their DNA. By this time, the documentary is stopped except for a couple interjections and the film follows his escape and new relationship with a sharp-minded Prawn in the slums.

I could go on about the apartheid similarities but they are obvious to note and everyone has already done so. What many seem to forget is the military and weapon sub-plot; Wikus' company is also one of top manufacturers of weapon hardware and they and separate independent groups want to control these new resources of destruction. The viewer sees how everything has to experiment on to find the solution through the corporation while a Nigerian mob simply hordes it until their belief in a false voodoo will grant them the power. This constant craving of hardware and personal and financial gain keeps growing throughout the film and when it turns into a full on military war film at the end, it is rightly justified. Our obsession with the power of weaponry is another clear example of the problems of humanity.

Sharlto Copley certainly deserves an Academy award nomination or at least a Golden Globe for his performance. For a non-professional actor, he takes the script's complex characterization of Wikus and makes him the best example of a human being: striving to be optimistic and friendly with different cultures yet still selfish and lets his anger and sorrow overtake his thoughts. The rest of the unknown actors, at least to American audiences, are fine in their performances. The Prawns were done strictly in CG and at first they look a bit cheap but the narrative and cinematography eventually hides this fact. Blomkamp does well in creating a paranoid world with many different camera techniques and the action sequences are always thrilling and exciting.

On a final note, I'll address the controversy of the Nigerians. While I did take a note of some people being offended by them, these characters seem designed to be a destructive human environment to fully interact with the Prawns and they just happen to be Nigerian. The gang's greed of weaponry and religious aspirations are brought to make the film's story more organtic and shouldn't confuse audiences with actual Nigerians.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

WET - Review

Wet doesn't try to be anything more than an entertaining third-person shooter with a eccentric vibrancy throughout it. Artificial Mind and Movement have taken the exploitation films of the seventies and eighties, or simply Tarantino and Rodriguez's vision of the era in GRINDHOUSE, and created a bombastic yet repetitive action film-game. I called it a film-game instead of video game mainly due to it's overuse of the quick time events and cinemas that has been plaguing the industry for some time. These moments are fun but mainly to see than experience it through your actions.

The player is Ruby Malone, a bounty-hunter/hitwoman who serves those who pay the most. After a far too extensive prologue where she gets back a transplant human heart, Ruby is hired by the rich recipient of it to rescue his drug-pushing son. Many fire fights, parkour, and double crosses later, she now goes after her recent employer simply for her own vengeance.

The plot is supposed to be a cliched spun from the action/woman revenge flicks but with tweaking to include Tarantino-like dialogue (more of his swearing and not his morality and meta conversations). The characters' lines are funny in its over-the-top manner but the creators also made sure to make Ruby likable and upbeat rather than making her the female version of Max Payne.

The levels have a similar layout: Reach a checkpoint, run and jump your way to the next, engage in an enemy spawning shoot-out, and repeat. The game breaks up some of the monotony with two very cool gun-fights on the highways, the mentioned quick time events, and special areas where the game goes hyper-violent with the same graphical look as Killer 7. The worst moments for myself were the pointless challenges you have to go through when a new weapon is acquired. While this constant re-use of the same structure is a bit discomforting, I enjoyed playing through them nonetheless. If you play this game in short spurts, the time spent with it will be better. To help advancement in it and re-playability, you can unlock and beef up Ruby with new moves and put on some special features to the gameplay after completing the game once around.

Audio wise, the game has it in spades. Ruby is played by television star Eliza Dushku, who is just right in bringing the aggressive attitude and sincerity of the character. Malcom McDowell plays another villain role and Alan Cummings is fine though I had a hard time spotting him. The music, however, is the highlight and best part overall. The developers picked and used a mixture of variety of rock music, ranging from punk to Mexican, and placed them in every ultra violent fighting area. It makes every fight different and exciting. Plus, the songs are a treat to listen to on their own.

Though it can't reach the same level as House of the Dead: Overkill, Wet does has some fun with the grindhouse film genre and maintains a enjoyable experience.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Guitar Hero 5 - Review

I haven't played a Guitar Hero game since the third one. I was a little annoyed with the excess attention at it and Rock Band and all the other crappy rip-offs being sent out. Since the third entry, I only have played the Rock Band games with the friends who were suckered in buying the entire band sets for them. They were fun but the change from guitar anthems and hard rock to a variety of different genres were worrying me. With Guitar Hero World Tour, the series went the same path and seemed from the sidelines to be losing its luster.

With Guitar Hero 5, Activision has made certainly the worst entry of the series. It is entirely forgettable and has nothing to make it stand out. Even the signature characters and surreal storylines for career mode are toned way down. The arenas look largely the same except with different promotional plugs to corporate products. And, more importantly, the music includes too many mellow and unknown acts to the average consumer.

The core gameplay is still the same, with the player hitting the frets and chords at the right time. However, everything around the game has changed and not for the better. All the songs are unlocked at the start, thus losing any achievement in advancing through the career. The currency system has been taken out so players have to win certain challenges for specific songs to get special features. It may help replayability, but players like myself who have none of the other instruments or can't get others to play will be annoyed with the inability to get them. The career mode for the guitar has been butchered for hardcore fans; Throughout my exploration in Medium difficulty (I can play higher but I simply don't care about being better or high scores), I never failed a song or had any difficulty with the songs except towards the very end. And, since the song list is terrible overall, my play experience had me wearing a dull face throughout.

Criticizing the song library does rely entirely on my personal opinion and everyone is entitled to theirs. However, even the diehard fans for certain artists will complain that they don't and shouldn't be in a Guitar Hero game. Why is Coldplay, Bob Dylan, and Beck in this? I like them and their songs included are good to listen but playing them loses their flavor and brilliance. Though there is some good old-school songs to play ranging from Wild Cherry, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy, the rest are songs are more recent fare and many have just came out last year. The few songs that I enjoyed playing over again weren't exactly masterpieces and came from bands with dumb names such as Attack! Attack! and Scars on Broadway. They are generic and have no real value, but they get the job done and fun to play. Even Rammenstein and Perfect Circle can't help the mediocrity in this installment.

I could continue this tirade on the other songs, but I will end it discussing in some length on two: Rush's "The Spirit of Radio" and Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do?". Both are live pieces, which simply don't work in musical video games and both go way too long. "Do You Feel..." was my most hated song in this game; It is a good song to listen to but the game ruins any fun to be had with it. After a strong opening, the player will simply have to wait for a very long time until playing a brief section and then wait some more. And since the live song is so long, you'll just stand there begging for any note to come down. Rush's song is the last to play to beat the campaign and its the worst to have as the finale. While the previous games had classic and hard songs to get through like "Freebird", "The Spirit of Radio" is simply a boring chore with so much pretentiousness. And, after this anti-climax, the song playing over the credits is a bummer to play as well. Dragonforce it isn't.

As for my comment on the inclusion of Kurt Cobain? I don't really care or have any negative thoughts about it. How come people aren't complaining that I can have Johnny Cash sing a Blink-182 song or have Carlos Santana play the drums? People are just making a hissy fit out of nothing. At least with its inclusion, Cobain and his music can reach younger listeners much larger than radio or MTV. Shouldn't you complain that the singer from Garbage is in it for no real purpose?

Though the game wasn't the worst of this year and I had some fun with some songs, the imbalance of taste and frustration with changes made Guitar Hero 5 a lame addition. This is stricly a rent through and through. Oh, and the box art is the laziest I have seen for a big release.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ponyo - Review

When I was reading about 2008's Year in Japanese Film, I saw a lot of backlash against Hayao Miyazaki's latest and probably last animated feature, PONYO. Many professional reviewers were saying that the master of anime had lost his touch with modern audiences and has made his worst film of his distinguished career. After viewing it, PONYO is certainly one of the most entertaining films of the year but does has the director re-using many of his old tropes.

The title is the name of the main character, the special fish daughter of Fujimoto, who is basically Poseidon, and the Goddess of Mercy. She sneaks away from her father's magical submarine one day to explore the human world and arrives at a small Japanese fishing town. After getting caught in a pickle jar, she is saved by the five-year old Sosuke and becomes his pet and best friend. However, her interactions with the human world and her later transformation into a human entity creates an imbalance of the Earth that could cause a global disaster.

That is really all the plot you need to know because the rest of this film is largely plot and care free. This film is a breathtaking exploration of spiritual innocence. The conflict is kept to a minimum and none of the older characters look or talk down to the children and to the spiritual world. So, you and children can share the same smile across your face and lose yourself into Miyazaki's sprawling story and animation.

The animation is certainly the most experimental of Miyazaki. The majority of background artwork and exteriors are water colored or have an impressionist style. Though an interesting aesthetic, it causes the cels to stand way too out. For the foreground animation, it varies in each and every scene. The characters are simply designed but the magical creatures and waves of water are given tons of detail. The most crowning moment is during the appearances of The Goddess of Mercy, who is richly animated. This film was done entirely by hand and it's sad that something like this is not done more often today.

The voice cast for Miyazaki's films as supervised by the Disney elite have always been given the right touch. PONYO is no exception; The actors selected fit their roles and bring more delight to the picture. The stand out is Tina Fey, who voices Sosuke's hardworking mother. The character is the only supporting player to get the most spotlight and Fey delivers on all accounts. Fey's performance shows especially during a key scene where Sosuke's mother has to make a important moral decision and needs to tell it to her son carefully.

The only problems I had with this film involves some recycling of earlier themes and designs that Miyazaki has used in previous films. The most odd ball out is a short environmentalist message in the first half. Miyazaki made an entire film about perserving the Earth (PRINCESS MONONOKE), so he doesn't need to repeat it and it has no importance to the plot. Other jarring errors are the similar character designs to previous Miyazaki creations. Fujimoto looks like a more dressed-up Howl and an elderly woman named Toki has the same body structure and clothes of Sophie, both of who are from HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE.

Despite some questionable inclusions, PONYO is a film that is a real treat to see with a crowd and especially on the big screen. Having this beautiful world sparled all over a large canvas is a rare treat to have.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

At The Movies, w/ Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott - Review

With Ben and Ben out the door, fans of At The Movies can be happy with the show again starting this weekend. While it still lacks the charm of Roger Ebert and can never return to the glory days with Gene Siskel, At the Movies with Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott from the New York Times went to a good slow start.

The buddy dynamic is there but needs some time to develop more. A.O. Scott seemed a little intimidated now that he has a recurring host duty instead of being a guest again. However, his review of THE BURNING PLAIN was the best review of the show, mocking the presumed pretentiousness throughout the film. It was a weird television moment, as I wondering why he started off saying, "Kim Basinger plays the mother" before anything else. Michael Phillips is still fine, as he came into his own during his stay with Richard Roeper during Ebert's medical absence. The only major complaint toward them relates to their seating; Phillips is more similar to Ebert in screen style and mannerisms, so the fact he sat to the left is a bit off.

The set is still perplexing, as the attention went to the blue background instead of the chair and table, which looked like something from a public access show. Though, I must admit that the previous golden look is thankfully gone as the critics of this new show aren't happy Hollywood lap-dogs.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Inglourious Basterds - Review

It may be a bit pretentious to start the review by stating this: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is probably my generation's NAKED LUNCH. Quentin Tarantino's latest film has joined next to that film along with Cronenberg's other infamous creation CRASH as a movie that gave myself quite a debate to have. It has some great elements but the full scope of his vision prevents the film from being placed up there with the rest of his films.

The film's biggest problem that has been addressed often is the purely bait-and-switch advertisements for it. The ads set it up as a violent action film like the KILL BILL films with a tongue ripping through the cheek. However, the actual film has a ton of scenes where the dialogue is the bullets being fired. Unfortunately, the lines are more like a chain gun and not a sniper rifle. In other words, there is so much talking that the suspense built for certain scenes is nearly or completely gone by the end. Tarantino's words may be great but it shouldn't have so much attention to itself to suspend the flow of the story. Also, the Basterds aren't really the main characters or given the full spotlight. A more accurate film title would be "Triumph of the Film."

The main story of the film involves a young Jewish woman (Melanie Laurent) on the run after her family has been killed while hiding in rural France from the Nazis. She barely escapes from the grasp of the infamous Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who has been given the fortunate/unfortunate title of "The Jew Hunter." After a couple of years, the woman, revealed to be named Shosanna, is seen operating a film theater. She gains an annoying fan from a German soldier who later is shown to be a war hero. He has just finished a feature film of his exploits with Joseph Goebbels and wants to have the film premiere at her venue. With these recent developments, Shosanna decides to create an elaborate plan to take down the Nazi empire with the help of film.

The importance of film and entertainment during World War II has not been featured or discussed a lot in war films. Tarantino makes a great point with this inclusion, complete with giving the film-within-the-film a Eisenstein-esque style. The climax creates a truly shocking and very disturbing image as film is used a weapon to consume lives and transforms into a violent ghost of memory.

With just that idea, I should have adored this film but the rest of it doesn't work so well. The best example for its problems is the Basterds themselves. Tarantino doesn't give his usual rich characterization to the eight-man group, letting only a couple of them some back story. And when they do get it, these characters then are killed off in their next scenes. He simply tells us this group is vicious and hard to kill but skips over their year-long exploits to show them die horribly. I wished there was more time with them but since the writer/director doesn't want to, I also gave them a lack of attention. Other problems: The editing has a lot of jump cuts which works except for a major character's death and the weird footnotes and titles in the frames of the film turned me off.

The acting is obviously supposed to be over-the-top. While everyone does a fine job with their roles, the most noteworthy one is Christoph Waltz. After winning the Best Actor award at Cannes earlier, he has been the most talked about part of this film and it shows. He redefines the smiling Nazi role and makes Hans Landa appear to be the most sadistically happy of them all. In one such scene, where he sits next to a grown-up Shosanna in a restaurant, Waltz makes waiting for cream to be placed on a strudel to be very scary. Along with his constant switches between four different languages, Waltz has given one of the best of the year and deserves an Oscar nomination.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS wouldn't be Tarantino's most controversial film of all time but it will be his most controversial to discuss. Unfortunately, the specialness of Tarantino didn't work fully for me this time.