Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Tops of 2010 - August

Both SCOTT PILGRIM and INCEPTION made big impressions on myself, and create a respectable trinity of summer films with TOY STORY 3. While I don't think this summer was as bad as last year's, it was largely a wash-out with many shocking moments.

SHUTTER ISLAND lands nowhere, given my mixed feelings on it. INCEPTION may have hurt it for myself considering the similar themes between them, but I can sum why I don't believe this statement. When I saw Marion Cotillard, I knew interesting things were going to happen. When I saw Michelle Williams, pretentious droll and underwhelming acting followed.

THE CRAZIES and THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT continue to haunt me.

Best Films

1. Toy Story 3

2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

3. Inception

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

5. The Secret of Kells

6. Kick-Ass

Worst Films

1. The Last Airbender

2. Knight and Day

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Farewell to At the Movies

This weekend was the last airing of one of the longest run television shows to showcase the power of film and film criticism.

It ended with a "Rent It" and a "Skip It" to THE EXPENDABLES.

The duo dubbed "The Revenge of the Nerds" never tried to out-do the legendary Siskel and Ebert pair. They simply wanted to talk and provoke the viewer into talking.

Michael Phillips said it best:

"Wherever and however we choose to experience them, the movies challenge and delight us, and for many of us, a lively passionate conversation about movies is one of the great pleasures in life. For those of us lucky enough to have those conversations for a living, this show has always meant more than we can properly express."

Thank you for the memories.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Expendables - Review

The air is seemingly filled with pure testosterone. It reaches inside of you and pinches your nerves for a sharp respond. You cackle with laughter and you mouth off exclamations. The steady flow of red corn syrup washes in many directions along with hunks of plastic and ground meat. You are experiencing and enjoying an action movie, and you are not caring about the bigger picture unless it has helicopters.

THE EXPENDABLES wants to achieve this familiar rush. It wants to be a rebirth of the people and places of the 1980's and 1990's actionsploitation while nodding with a tongue in cheek. If you enjoyed the film's company of actors that once lived in your old VCR's, a sense of homecoming and warmth will await you. But, the air is not the same and your feelings of lust and comfort become cold. THE EXPENDABLES is a mishandling of can't miss properties and exists as a mangled movie with brief highlights.

Sylvester Stallone directs and co-writes the film. He is the mastermind, the barker to bring a bunch of former and new action film stars into this fan-made dream circus. However, instead of a new showing of THE DIRTY DOZEN, he showcases RAMBO again, the two year old film that helped him back on track. THE EXPENDABLES doesn't have to have a truly original story but it shouldn't have to be something Stallone already did very recently and do it even worse. The plot hits the same notes; A old-timer says he'll help a courageous woman in a jungle environment, backs away afterwards, the woman is captured by the dictator of the land, and the old-timer goes on a killing spree.

The only difference is that a group of fellow guns-for-hire are shoe-horned in with barely any character development and a very muddled storyline involving the two villains bickering constantly is included. None of the Expendables are fleshed out beyond simple goofy dialogue exchanges such as height issues and cauliflower shaped ears. Stallone's character is ho-hum and usually flat while Jason Statham's has a very pointless subplot with a former girlfriend. I think this element was included to hide the homoerotic vibe between the two main leads, but considering that 80's and 90's films always had that integrated in the subtext makes it an odd move. The only two actors to get any real material and true interest is Mickey Rourke and Dolph Lundgren. They both have minor but enthralling roles as broken-down mercenaries with lingering issues with their mental state.

As for the villain's storyline, it is the opposite with too much attention given to it. Eric Roberts and David Zayas spend every scene complaining at each other about ethics and conduct. Their arguments creates an undeserved morality debate in what's supposed to be a cheesy action film. All of these gray areas being included in caused myself to question whether to cheer for the Expendables as they gun down the army. The cheering also is snuffed out by the unfocused direction of action scenes and the often dark blue lighting scheme. You do experience some breath-taking action choreography through the mess but it is still hard to decipher when the camera is too close for comfort.

THE EXPENDABLES is pretty much perfect only when it is going to be released for DVD. It has some excitement and entertainment to behold, but it just isn't worthwhile to see in theaters. You know there is a problem when most of the violence is with throwing knives instead of guns and the blood is done in post production. Still, the much talked about sequence where Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger haze each other is a worthwhile experience. The film is simply a bittersweet reunion but at least there is some good memories being recalled.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - Review

I had previously in a review talked about the current market of book adaptation movies. Instead of puttting more salt in the wound with my opinion of the literature world, I want to discuss my philosophy on the adaptation process. When a book, regardless if it's a novella or a graphic novel, becomes a feature length film, there needs to be a democractic structure to both the original work and the vision of the director and/or, very sadly, the studio's. If you stay too close to the word, you simply make it stale and smug to normal audiences and only please the hardcore fanbase. If you have your own way, you can cause much derision with the established fans and annoy the casual viewers.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is a very good example of the stable relationship. With the kinetic film auteurship of Edgar Wright and the off-beat action/melodrama comics by Bryan Lee O'Malley, the film is a vibrant, hyper-fast comedic tour-de-force that's true to the source while also dotting the "i"'s and fixing the errors. However, like that long hyperbole, the film is over-the-top the entire two hours and may cause some to crash hard and become bitter.

Set in the mythical land of Toronto, Canada, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a broke 23-year-old who juggles his failed job life with his failing music career in a indie rock band with his friends. The only promising note also has some bad taste among his peers, and he starts dating a 17-year-old high school student (Ellen Wong). But Scott's life becomes more exciting and less depressing with the arrival of a new girl named Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He now has to deal with breaking up with one while also coming face to face with the seven ex's of the other.

I purposely left out mentioning all of the video game humor, raucous rock music, and explosive action fights that fills and breaks the brim of this film because at its heart it is a tale about young adult life today. It even looks back at fondness to the "brat pack" films; The movie literally ends the same the way as a mixture of PRETTY IN PINK and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL. Edgar Wright, along with co-writer Michael Bacall, has made a major action picture that comments on the lifestyles of my current generation. Instead of dealing with our own emotions and past misjudgments, we feel that we need to show-off our guitar skills at playing the theme to Final Fantasy II or tell the history of Pac-Man. The love and devotion to simple entertainment is our excuse to remain human shells and become morally unhappy.

I think that's enough with the serious discussion of the film, especially since SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is very idiosyncratic. The film's humor is split into the two usual categories of Edgar Wright films: dry, cynical wit and hammy in-on-the-joke slapstick. The young adult protagonists are saddled with the obvious distinction of cynicism, with Alison Pill as the female drummer Kim as the main spotlight for it. The seven evil ex's of Ramona certainly showcase the latter, with Chris Evans and Brandon Routh being the main highlights. Overall, the cast is very good in their roles though Michael Cera is a little hit-or-miss at times despite being the perfect representation of Scott. The best acting is displayed by Kieran Culkin, as Scott's gay roommate, and most definitely by Ellen Wong as the 17-year-old girlfriend Knives Chau. Wong really brings the true heart to the proceedings and the melodramatic moments.

As for the extra eccentric humor touches, such as the videogame references and subtitling, I thoroughly enjoyed them and relish seeing them in high-profile films. I do like Wright's on-the-nose witticism, such as having the continue screen of a video game as a metaphor for a relationship. It also works with the music of the movie; smugness has never come out more from a character with the inclusion of the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb." Other than simply the comedy aspect, Wright does a great job with the blocking of scenes and mise en scene. There are a lot of in-jokes and creative decisions that make a fight scene or a romantic talk even more magical.

As stated already, the circus-like behavior of SCOTT PILGRIM will leave some viewers to lose focus and become enraged. There is a lot of things being thrown out at your eyes and ears, thus guaranteeing this film to be successful when it hits DVD as with Wright's other films. Even with all of the jolly times I had with the film, I felt that the fights just came way too close to each other, especially at the end. The biggest error not to be corrected from the comics was the decision to include the idea of Subspace. The brief scenes where it is mentioned are so out-of-nowhere even for its own identity as an absurd film. It didn't make much sense in the books and it is even more distracting on the big screen.

Regardless of implementing the kitchen sink method of filmmaking, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is an entertaining and enlighting film to help close out the summer release schedule. It is one of the few comic book movies to not hold on to the source too tight, unlike WATCHMEN, and simply try to play the field as well. It is great, it is odd, and it may even cause you to think about your life.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire - Review

The book adaptation in the Hollywood industry this year has been cluttered with the suffocating pretentiousness of romantic bores. Filled with angst-filled whiny male teenagers and idiotic hollow women, the viewing public has been subjugated by the beautiful side of depression. Film is an escape medium, but why should anyone want to escape to a Northwestern town to meet up with a pack of ultimately psychotic and/or brain-fried pretty people with problems?

The Millennium Trilogy, widely known here in the States as "The Girl" series, has been one of the better outlets for reading entertainment and later film adaptions. It goes beyond the simple "woe is life" that popular literature has given us during these economic and social troubling times and actually does something to combat it. The characters of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist pursue, poke, and then persecute the irredeemables to achieve a definition of peace to the world. Moral discussions aside, especially since the works deal with it often, the series has been a treat to behold and read. This is further helped with the Swedish film adaptations that have been released this year.

The first film, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, was an excellent mystery thriller helped by great direction and the ecstatic acting skills of Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth. Sadly, the next installment doesn't reach the same high standards. THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE does continue to be a fantastic showcase Ms. Rapace, and also Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist, but the sheer misdirection and plot structure are a detriment to the further blossoming franchise.

After the events of the first film, Lisbeth and Blomkvist went their separate ways and into their new lives. Blomkvist's reputation is restored and he's still keeping his magazine, Millennium, afloat with news on the elite. A young journalist comes aboard after submitting a work-in-progress expose on prostitution and human trafficking in Sweden and its connections to a hidden mob. Meanwhile, Lisbeth, who is living free on her own terms, has an odd flashback dream about the horrors bestowed upon by her legal guardian in the first film. She returns back to Sweden, threatens him again, and primarily incriminates herself after he has been killed. When the journalist and his girlfriend are also murdered, Blomkvist decides to repay the favor to Lisbeth for clearing his name and desperately tries to find the perpetrators responsible.

Despite an interesting reversal of the first film's proceedings with Blomkvist now helping Lisbeth and the further exploration of Lisbeth's past, the film is just too bogged down with bad plot contrivances and characters that don't matter as much as they should. Several police figures are brought in but you never feel any real threat from them. They also are seen as incompetent hanger-ons to Blomkvist as they simple wait for the next clue discovery. Though Blomvist is still our surrogate to information, Lisbeth is always a mile ahead waiting for the endgame. She is the only one truly able to have control in the proceedings and figure out the puzzle pieces. Unfortunately, the puzzle is simply a lame duck with only a medium sense of surprise.

Meanwhile, Daniel Alfredson has taken over the duties as director and loses a true mysterious quality to the film. Scenes are often bathed and enraptured with the color of orange. It may be a blatant call to the title and the bitter anger that human beings build up constantly to eventually be unleashed, but that's a shoe-horned excuse. Except for one vibrant sequence where a house is engulfed with flames, the constant abuse of orange is stupidly ugly. There are times where Alfredson does pull off some great suspense and pure horror moments, but you need to sit through some tedious television-like framing to experience them.

The only absolute saving grace to the film is still the character of Lisbeth Salander and Noomi Rapace's acting. She richly deserves her popularity with readers and fans as the new female redeemer of action. Ms. Rapace is believable as a purely dangerous individual and is exquisite at emotional scenes. Her reaction shots and facial movements show off more depth and intrigue into her psyche than any Hollywood actress might be able to do once the remake starts filming. Michael Nyqvist continues to do well with Blomkvist, and Micke Spreitz is entertaining as a burly giant thug that is actually smarter than he seems.

In the first film, you were enthralled but waiting patiently for when the two protagonists meet up and solve the mystery together. With THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, the creators try to do remake it again but has the mystery solved by one before the other and holds off the eventual reunion until the very end. This terrible mistiming is also hampered by the abrupt ending that thinks it's a cliffhanger. This is surely a big disappointment, as Noomi Rapace is seemingly the only diamond in this murkily rough movie. Unlike the first entry, you might want to wait for the Hollywood-made remake.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Inception - Review

There is an early character development scene where Leonardo DiCaprio forcibly stresses to Ellen Page that she needs to make a well-crafted maze that takes two minutes to be created but can't be easily solved in one minute. A fitting touch of recognition from Christopher Nolan. In very obvious ways, INCEPTION, a dream film project he developed for nearly a decade, can't be deciphered in just two and a half hours. This is a mental exam of the viewer and, more importantly, of the boundaries of cinematic complexity.

The film tasks you to keep up with its jargon, lingo and technobabble but also presents pure realistic action to cease excessive stimulation. The scenarios are constantly evolving and volatile with personified antibodies and yet, individual pain and suffering is conveyed with requisite acting. The filmgoer would have to ask his or herself an important question: Do you need to have the last will and testament read to you after seeing this movie or do you relish the memories evoked from this entity like a toy pinwheel?

To enter reality again and end further romanticization, INCEPTION is a very excellent film, nearly a masterpiece, but its tough puzzle-like structure and ideas will cause some derision. The viewing public may all be able to enter and find the cheese easily, but only some can leave the labyrinth vibrant with excitement. The rest of the pack will either feel very bloated and belittled by the experience.

Mr. DiCaprio plays as Cobb, a highly intelligent and daring man who operates a special kind of black ops for corporation intelligence. He is an "extractor", someone who can enter into the dreams of the white-collar elite and steal the deep secrets they hide. A former victim turned client (Ken Watanabe) wants him to do the bold task of entering a fellow rival (Cillian Murphy) and "intercept" his future business endeavors. Cobb is backed-up with a suave, not motley, crew tasked with other duties to maintain the dream trips. His right-hand man Arthur, well played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is the overall leader of the group and of the mission. The Architect (Ellen Page) crafts the dream's worldly order without endangering the others or causing the dreamer to be self-aware. The Forger, a scene-stealing Tom Hardy, models after and replaces important people in the dreamer's mind. The final participant, and most important, is the Chemist (Dileep Rao), who has to create the adequate dosing needed to maintain the fantastic voyage. He is also stressed to make such a strong dosage that the crew can create dreams within dreams to preserve the balancing act of dream and "dream reality."

That final statement is the main concept and also the main problem. You often need to focus on the constant cross-cuts between the separate levels of the dream reality. Switching over to each level often is a hard task to keep up with and causes some disillusionment to some. But when you have a zero-gravity hallway fight and a perfect representation of the haunted memories we keep, it sure is easy to be distracted and be entertained and enriched. Nolan and his crew made sure to achieve a great visualization of dream logic and action choreography.

I could go on but the film needs your own personal experience to figure out and decipher the mental puzzles. There is so many things I am skipping over for trival, such as the in-joke use of the "Million Dollar Dream" wrestling maneuver, and spoiler-ridden purposes, such as the elements of Marion Cotillard's character and the much discussed ending. INCEPTION is certainly the most original Hollywood film this year to play the field for the public and create a helpful on-going discussion of the power of cinema. Whether you see it as pretentious or a masterpiece, you can at least feel happy that you experienced a challenge to your psyche and your mental capabilities.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Salt - Review

Angelina Jolie is a beautiful woman. Angelina Jolie is in a relationship with Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie has a lot of children. Angelina Jolie is a UN ambassador. Angelina is a beautiful woman.

Angelina Jolie, more importantly, is a capable and distinguished actress. This statement often has been neglected to be mentioned by the psychotic acronym-named paparazzi parasites. She is one of the few actress who is very believable both in drama and action films. She really is the only Hollywood action actress seemingly left at this point, as the female gender seemingly only exists now as walk-ons and hand-holders to boyhood power creations, i.e. the Gemma Artertons.

SALT is an entertaining B-film that pulls on the reins of the Jason Bourne films but doesn't simply become Jane Bourne. It may feel and look like a copy and paste job, which it is largely, but it implements some amazing action chases and goofy old-fashioned political fears to be a treat to viewers. Also, Angelina Jolie is a woman with great acting skills to hold the picture together. And she is beautiful.

CIA Agent Evelyn Salt walks out one morning, away from her quirky spider-obsessed husband and loving dog. She enters work only to give chase due to the supposed testimony of a Russian defector. He has framed her as a sleeper agent who has been assigned to kill the Russian President. Instead of going on two fronts, one to follow the escaping Salt and one to follow the defector who escapes after killing two CIA agents, federal agents Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) only decide to follow Salt, since she's more of a risk. I simply guess that cause this plot hole expands more when the defector turns out to be the head of the spy infiltration operation. Salt leads them and the viewers throughout a cavalcade of espionage, hostile takeovers, make-shift weapons, and a peculiar rehashing of Cold War paranoia and propoganda.

The film is well-crafted, despite the plot holes and odd moments, and does have some spectacular action scenes. The thrilling car chases have been highlighted in the trailers but the finale at a certain landmark takes the spotlight. Director Phillip Noyce does a good job with several suspenseful scenes involving the question of Salt's true loyalty. However, the lingering effects of the Jason Bourne trilogy still reside in the frame.

The acting of three leads are entertaining with the majority going to Jolie. She does work the mysterious nature of Salt well throughout the film, keeping the kinetic energy to see what happens next. You experience many sides of Salt, including one part in male drag, but despite an conclusive statement at the end, it is still hard to believe it considering the range of emotions Jolie has exhibited throughout the film to fool everyone.

SALT is a good summer popcorn flick and pulls off some exceptional stunts before becoming ridiculous. Other than the Bourne references, it is also an entertaining callback to early 90's action with the Jack Ryan films and THE FUGITIVE before the arrival of Michael Bay.