Thursday, December 31, 2009

Che's T-shirt Revolts Against Bloating.

Che

Divided in two parts and clocking in at close to five hours, Steven Soderbergh' s bio-pic Che is nothing short of epic. The film is as much an ode to the life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara as it is a test of the viewers endurance. While Che was broken into two parts for the theatrical release, it was really meant to be viewed as one whole film.

The first part, dubbed The Argentine, is set in the latter half of the 1950's and looks at everything from the first meeting of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) and Fidel Castro (Demain Bichir) to the two men forming their own rebel army. Within a two year span the men note only mobilized a high functioning army but also received support from the civilian population as well. Che and Fidel surprised many by toppling the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had the backing of the United States of America.

The second part, The Guerrilla, is about Ernesto's struggles to bring his revolution through the rest of Latin America. Set in Bolivia in 1965, Guevara forms a small guerrilla army made up of Cubans and Bolivians in an attempt to overthrow the Bolivian military rule. As the years go on, Che's uphill battle is much more difficult this time around. Lack of supplies and fewer dedicated troops cause major road blocks for the movement. Not to mention that Bolivian army is supported by the United States, who have learned much from the events in Cuba.

Although it is meant to be viewed as one film, the picture has two vastly different tones that do not co-exist well with each other. The Argentine is by far the most interesting part of the whole production. While it is conventional in form, Soderbergh captures both the essence of Che's character and the massive scope of the Cuban revolution. If The Argentine had been the only film I would not hesitate to list it was one of, if not the best, films of the year. Everything works so well in this section. Benicio Del Toro gives one of the best performances of his career. Del Toro makes sure that Che's humanity is always at the forefront while still managing to convey the fierce, and calculating, warrior in the battlefields. Steven Soderbergh's skilled and confident direction, not to mention his wisely contained battle sequences, only help to elevate Benicio's performance even further. Despite its length, Che: The Argentine feels like a complete film. I actually liked it more than Walter Salles' film from a few years back, The Motorcycle Diaries. While that focussed on Ernesto as a doctor, this film provides insight into the Guevara as a whole (e.g. The man, the doctor, the warrior, etc).

By time you reach The Guerrilla half of the film, you are already full from the delicious meal The Argentine served. I understand the need to have the Bolivia elements as it provides a complete look at the path of Che's revolution quest. Unfortunately there is not too much that we really learn in this section. The first half already documented the struggles of trying to raise and army and keep them on course. We already say the lengths which the government armies will go to destroy the rebel/guerrilla groups. We also got a good understanding of how the local peasants are often the pawns in the middle. I guess the only difference in Che: The Guerrilla is that the odds were stacked against Ernesto from the start. Which is probably why Soderbergh opted for a more meditative pacing in this section. Sadly this decision hinders all the wonderful moments that The Argentine provided. What was once interesting and fast moving now becomes bloated and plodding. As the second half is essential to see the full scope of both Che and Soderbergh's visions, I cannot shower the film with the same praise I would have if the film had ended with just The Argentine. I still think Che should be seen for both its historical relevance and Benicio Del Toro's fantastic performance. It is just as same that the second half could not live up to its predecessor.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ten Years Older And Wrinkle Free

Over the last week I have been slowly been creating my best of the decade list for the folks at the EZ1 Productions message board. Nomination are being taking for not only the "Best Films of the Decade" but also a slew of other categories (e.g. Best Actor, Best Director, Most Overrated Film, etc.) The difficulty of having ten years worth of films to choose from is that my list keeps changing on a daily basis. For example, the list I submitted for the L.A.M.B. site a few weeks ago is slightly different to the one below. Regardless consider this my "official" selection of favourite films from the past decade.

Top Ten Films 2000-2009


10) The Royal Tenenbaums


9) City of God


8) Old Boy


7) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


6) Amelie


5) Donnie Darko


4) The Dark Knight


3) In The Mood For Love


2) Y Tu Mama Tambien


1) There Will Be Blood


Honourable Mention: Hunger, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Brokeback Mountain, Volver, Mulholland Dr., Cache, The Devil's Backbone, Talk to Her, Lost In Translation, Before Sunset, Hero, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Spirited Away, In the Bedroom, Bowling For Columbine, Almost Famous, Up in the Air, Old School, Far From Heaven, Mystic River, The Incredibles, Ghost World, Children of Men, Dogville, Capturing the Friedmans, Encounters at the End of the World, Rachel Getting Married, Coraline, More Than A Game, Hard Candy, Dirty Pretty Things, Sweet Sixteen, Ratatouille, The Lives of Others, Let the Right One In, No Country for Old Men, United 93, Kill Bill vol. 1, Doubt, Milk, Memento, Wall-E, The Pianist, Million Dollar Baby, Match Point, X2, Spider-Man 2, Broken Flowers, A History of Violence, Maria Full of Grace, High Fidelity, I've Loved You So Long, Punch-Drunk Love, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Visitor, The Son's Room, Inglourious Basterds, Requiem for a Dream, Traffic, Wonder Boys, Dancer in the Dark, No Man's Land, Monsoon Wedding, The Magdalene Sisters, The Swimming Pool, Breach, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Wendy and Lucy, The Station Agent, 300, Gerry, Slumdog Millonaire, The Wrestler, The Constant Gardiner, About A Boy, Zodiac, Gosford Park, Little Children, Moulin Rouge, The Departed, 40 Year-old Virgin, Borat, Frailty.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Doctor’s Imaginary Medicine Easy To Swallow

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

More often than not when a great actor passes away their last works tend to be clunkers. The most famous example of this is Raul Julia who died just before Street Fighter was released. Marlon Brando had the misfortune to have his two final releases be the awful The Island of Dr. Moreau and the forgettable, The Score. Fortunately, through Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, one recently deceased actor was lucky enough to avoid this trend.

After making a bet with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) wins the gift of immortality. Several years later Mr. Nick and Dr. Parnassus make another bet that would ultimately save the life of Parnassus’ one true love. Unfortunately for Dr. Parnassus this bet comes at a grave price as he must give up his first born child, Valentina (Lily Cole), to Mr. Nick upon her 16th birthday. Now on the eve of Valentina’s sweet sixteen, Dr. Parnassus and Mr. Nick decide to make one more bet that may either save Valentina or damn her forever. The bet is simple, Dr. Parnassus must convert five souls through his mystical "imaginarium" travelling show before Mr. Nick converts five souls. Dr. Parnassus knows that the devil always has a trick up his sleeve; which is why Parnassus is intrigued when his troupe of performers randomly comes across Tony (Health Ledger). Is Tony a gift from above? Or is Dr. Parnassus about to take his riskiest bet yet?

It has been well documented that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus features Heath Ledger‘s final performance. It is also well known that Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law were asked to fill in for Health in certain scenes. What may come as a shock is how seamlessly Gilliam injects the three actors into the story. Since most of the non-imaginarium scenes were shot prior to Health’s death, Farrell and crew are only needed for the fantasy sequences. Once you see the film, and understand the limitless possibilities of the imaginarium, the change in actors will make perfect sense.

Director Terry Gilliam does a good job at keeping the film grounded in reality despite all of its fantastical moments. This film is far better than his last two pictures, The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, though not as strong as some of his earlier works. It is apparent that Gilliam really took time to ensure that the acting matched the level of the visuals. The two performances that deserver the most praise are the ones given by Christopher Plummer and Tom Waits. Sure Health is charming as ever, but it is Plummer and Wait who really make this film a treat. Waits in particular does a great job as the devil, you can see how easily a man like Dr. Parnassus could be swayed by his deceitful charm.

The one major flaw with the film is the imaginarium scenes with Farrell in the third act. I found the whole sequence from the children’s benefit gala up to the stairs chase scenes just went on far too long. The film really needed tighter editing towards the end. Still, despite the somber event that ultimately surrounded the filming, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an enjoyable ride that is a fitting final chapter to Health Ledger’s canon of work.


Monday, December 21, 2009

New 3D Avatar Come in Familiar Packaging

Avatar

In a future were Earth’s natural resources are scarce, humans must acquire resources from other planets. One planet in particular, Pandora, is has a wealth of resources that Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and his shareholders hope to make a hefty profit on. The problem is that Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, giant blue creatures that have a unique link to the planet. The humans eventually find a way to make their own Na’vi clones (known as Avatars) that are piloted by human brains. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine, is offered a chance to have his own Avatars so that he can provide assistance to Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) as she conducts her research on the planet. Through his travels Jake meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), one of the Na’vi who is not fond of outsiders. When word back gets to Selfridge and Colonel Miles Qauritch (Stephen Lang) that Jake has made contact with the Na’vi, the two men see this as an opportunity to broker a deal to acquire the resources they need. Yet if Jake is unable to successfully get the Na’vi to leave their land in time, Qauritch and his soldier are more expedite things by any means necessary.

Technically speaking, Avatar is truly an amazing accomplishment! Keep in mind this is coming from a person who is not a fan of the recent 3D explosion in Hollywood. Director James Cameron has made a career out of being a head of his time in regards to special effects and this film is no different. The live action scenes are equally as mesmerizing as the animated portions. Best of all, the technology actually compliments the film instead of overshadowing it. This allows you to really immerse yourself into the world of Pandora and the characters that inhabit it. Regardless of whether it is the natural beauty of the planet, the human/Na’vi characters, or the epic battle sequences, Avatar keeps you hooked all the way to the end.

As exciting as the overall Avatar experience is, the one downside is that there are no real surprises from a story standpoint. If you have seen films such as Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai, just to name a few, then you have pretty much seen Avatar. As a result, there are never any moments of real tension in the film. When I think back to last year’s event film, The Dark Knight, I can recall at least seven scenes where I was literally on the edge of my seat. Even when I was sure I knew what was coming, the rug was still pulled out from under me (e.g. racing to save Rachel but finding Harvey instead, etc.). Avatar has no such moments, which makes the story feel like it was a “paint by numbers” project. You know exactly which characters will rise up for the side of good and which characters will only have their own interests in mind.

It also does not help that James Cameron had this story on the shelf for such a long time. Since Cameron had to wait for technology to catch up to his vision, he used snippets from the Avatar script in many of the other films he directed up to this point. Several of the elements that should “wow” the audience come off more as a reminder of Cameron’s extraordinary canon of work (e.g. The Abyss, Aliens, Titanic, etc,). While this is not necessarily a bad thing it does take away a bit of the newness from the whole production.

To James Cameron’s credit, he did manage to bring out genuine emotion out of this all too familiar tale. There are some scenes in Avatar that are clearly designed to pull at the heartstrings and they do just that. The pain and sorrow conveyed by the Na’vi in Avatar is far more gripping and real than a bulk of the movies released this year. Zoe Saldana and the rest of the cast who played the Na’vi did a great job of providing their characters with distinct personalities and emotions.

As far as “event” pictures go, Avatar is definitely a must see in 3D. While I think the film will hold up well in regular format, this is really a production that must be viewed in the director’s original vision. Despite the predictable plot, Avatar is a film that delivers on both and entertainment and technological front.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Remembering 2008 Before Reflecting on 2009

As the year is coming to a close many “Best of 2009” and “Best of the Decade” lists are popping up all over the place. While I will have my Best of the Decade list up in the next week or so, I usually do my “Best of [insert year]” at the end of January since several of the December limited releases do not go wide in Toronto until the New Year. Unfortunately I procrastinated on posting my "Best of 2008" in January and figured it would have been rather odd posting it during the summer. Now seems like the best time to finally get the list out of the way. Especially since I have been thinking a lot about last year’s strong crop of films in comparison to this year’s much weaker batch. So far 2008 is still the stronger of the two.

Best Films of 2008

10. Wendy and Lucy



9. Doubt



8. Milk



7. Wall-E



6. (Tie) I’ve Loved You So Long and Rachel Getting Married – Similar themes, great performances, and both are powerful films...but for different reasons.





5. The Visitor



4. The Wrestler – Second favourite film at TIFF ’08



3. Slumdog Millionaire – Favourite film at TIFF ‘08



2. Let the Right One In



1. The Dark Knight



Honorable Mentions: Man on Wire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Bank Job, Waltz With Bashir, Tropic Thunder, Iron Man, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, JCVD.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Conventional Education Passable But Not Stellar

An Education

The Golden Globes were announced yesterday which means we now must endure weeks of the “who got snubbed” debates. Personally I do not really care for the Golden Globes. I find they often tend to nominate the films/television shows that will ensure the biggest celebrity turnout for their telecast. Still, I cannot bash the Golden Globes as there are times when they do get their nominations and winners right. One film in particular this year, An Education, has been appearing on many critics' “top ten" lists for Best Pictures of the Year. Surprisingly it did not make the cut for the Globes. The film only received one nomination, Best Actress, for Carey Mulligan’s phenomenal work in the film. Some may consider this a huge snub but I actually think they made the right choice.

Set in the early 1960's, sixteen year-old Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan)lives with her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) in the London suburb of Twickenham. Her father, Jack (Molina), wants nothing more than to see his daughter attend Oxford. Though Jenny is a gifted student, her marks in Latin may hinder her chances of being accepted at the prestigious school. While heading home one day Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming man more than twice her age. David exposes Jenny to an exciting world that she that she only dreamed about. As Jenny and David become closer, Jenny is forced to question what is the true value of an education?

As coming-of-age tales go, An Education is a rather enjoyable film but far from great. Sure it was nice to see a film like this from a young woman’s perspective that did not involve “magical fitting pants” or a big “prom” scene at the end. The reason this film works well at the level it does is partly because of the era it is set in. Since there were limited options for women at the time, it makes it a little easier to believe that Jenny’s parents would be charmed by this man who is more than twice her age. It also allows for many of the characters to observe what is happening without really speaking up against it.

While I did like the film it must be noted that An Education is rather light on substance. Which is rather odd, especially considering the subject matter that is in the film. The problem is An Education never bothers to give us any real insight into David at all. Sure we see how he gets his money, but you never really see what makes him truly tick. The final arc offers a little snippet but it only serves as a launch point for the all too sweet ending. As a result Sarsgaard is not given much to work with and provides the weakest performance in the whole picture. Peter Sarsgaard is a great actor who usually nails his roles. Yet he only seems to hit one-note, "creepy man-child", through this entire picture. After a while I found myself being more interested in the possible relationship between Jenny and David’s friend, Danny (Dominic Cooper). Come to think of it, I would have preferred if Sarsgaard and Cooper had actually switched roles. Cooper exuded far more charisma in his minor role than Sarsgaard did in the whole picture. Frankly the majority of the cast outshines Sarsgaard in the film.

Carey Mulligan and Alfred Molina are definitely the main reasons that the film kept me interested as long as it did. Mulligan carries the entire film on her back and is nearly flawless will doing so. She provides a refreshing and realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a teenage girl. Although the picture is set in the 1960’s she truly makes her character timeless. Molina is great as Jenny’s father as he hits all the right comedic and dramatic notes. The thing I like about Molina’s work here is that he truly understands his characters motives. Jack only wants the best for his daughter but his ambitions for her success blind him to the reality of the situation. Take away Mulligan and Molina and An Education is really much ado about nothing. While the film is not as deep as it appears to be, An Education is still worth seeing if nothing else for the performances.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Job Security Not the Only Thing Up in the Air These Days

Up in the Air


A film that ask us to care not only about those who are being laid off but also the people doing the firing as well? Clearly this is a joke right? These were some of thoughts going through my head during the first twenty minutes of Jason Reitman's latest work, Up in the Air. I will fully admit that my early bias towards this film was due to the fact that it seemed to be making light of a subject matter that hit home personally for me. A mere two weeks prior to seeing Up in the Air, the company I work for had the tough task of cutting a lot of jobs. Not the best way to usher in the Christmas season to say the least. Though I was fortunate enough to survive the round of layoffs many people, including some good friends, were let go. It was a decision that greatly impacted those who were laid off, those who remained, and those that had the extremely tough task of deciding to let go people go. So what does this have to do with Up in the Air? Everything and nothing depending on your own perspective.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizer who spends most of his days firing people on behalf of companies too frightened to do it themselves. Ryan's work as a downsizer has him constantly travelling and living out of a suitcase for the majority of the year. While others may find this unbearable, Ryan relishes in it as he views it as the ultimate form of freedom. Yet the emergence of a young hotshot, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), threatens to permanently ground Ryan's highflying lifestyle. Natalie has created a business model that would allow the firm he works for to fire people via video conferencing. After witnessing people's reactions to being laid off first hand, Ryan believes that a face-to-face human element is needed to facilitate things smoothly. Especially if it is in the form of fake compassion, which Ryan has practically made an art-form. Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman) believes that Natalie's idea will save the company millions in travel expenses but decides to have Ryan take her out into the field as an experiment. This does not sit well with Ryan whose freewheeling traveling ways has now become rather cramped. To further complicate things, Ryan meets a fellow frequent flyer, Alex (Vera Farmiga), who might cause him to redefine all the things he considers important in life.

If Up in the Air had come out in another year, where it did not hit so close to home, there is a good chance I may not have loved it as much as I do. This is not to say that it is not a good film in its own right. It is just that, if I was not getting married in a few months myself, I would have probably found the wedding subplot unnecessary. The film really tries to cover a lot of different topics, maybe too many, in a rather short amount of time. Still, I must give credit to director Jason Reitman for keeping all the threads tightly woven. It is tough to make light of job loss in a way that will get the audience both laughing and reflecting. Yet this is exactly what the film achieves.

Ryan is a compelling character because his cutting cynical views on our unrealistic need for things (i.e. home, job, marriage, etc.) at times rings very true. Ryan views not being tied down to people and places as the ultimate freedom. Yet the freedom that Ryan enjoys so much is far more constricting than he knows. Ryan actually embodies everything that he normally preaches against in his "backpack" seminars. Instead of aspiring to have a family or owning material possessions such as a house, Ryan craves becoming one of only seven people in the world to achieve the highest frequent flyer miles status. He may not be able to tell you about what is going on in his siblings lives but he can rattle off all the best eateries and car rental places in every city. He keeps hotel room keys like a badge of honour.

The thing I liked about the way Reitman displays Ryan's many contradictions is how subtle it is at first. It only gradually show itself through several small, but key, moments with both Alex and Natalie. Speaking of Alex and Natalie, it must be noted that Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick give exceptional performances in this film. I would even go as far as saying that they literally steal the movie right out of Clooney's hands. Yes Clooney's work in Up in the Air is on par with his best performances in films such as Michael Clayton and Three Kings. Yet it is Farmiga and Kendrick that really make this picture shine.

On the surface Vera Farmiga's Alex is merely the female that might actually be able crack Ryan's cold exterior. As the film progresses we see that Vera's role is far more interesting, and complicated, than just the typical love interest. Farmiga gives the film such weight without ever having to overplay the role. There are so many subtle nuances in her performance that is really fascinating to watch. The same argument can be made for Kendrick who, despite having the flashier role, keeps her character grounded as she runs the gambit of emotions. Kendrick is required to be the shark, the comic relief, the conscience, and the hope in the picture. Natalie has the book smarts but her ambition blinds her to the fact that she is not the female Ryan. She is the person in your office who knows nothing about your day to day work, yet has all these great ideas to make your work easier. You hate her at first but eventually get to understand her and, dare I say, care about her on a certain level.

As I mentioned above, Up in the Air really connected with me as everything mentioned in this film hit extremely close to home on a personal level. It is a film that not only asks us to question what we want out life? But, more importantly, who do we want in the seat beside us while we are on this ongoing trip that life provides us. I did find that the film really struggled at times to reach the hopefully ending. If it was up to me, I would have ended the picture with the night shot of Ryan sitting on his bed looking aimlessly out of the hotel window after a key scene, which I will not spoil here, is revealed. Also in any other year I probably would have cut some of the stuff with the wedding as well. Who knows? Maybe I will reflect on this film again in a few years and see if I am still fond of the film. Yet as it stands today, Up in the Air connected with me in a way few other films have this year. Definitely one of the better films of this year.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Zombie Offers Land Discounts For the Brainy

Zombieland

One of the hazards with being a movie lover is that you often end up watching more films than you really should. After a while you see the same themes being played out over and over that you start to judge certain films harsher than others. I remember getting into a debate with someone over my thoughts about the movie G.I. Joe. During the discussion the person remarked that I was "being too critical" to which I responded "we are all critical, how else do you know if you like something or not?" Needless to say this took the debate to a whole other philosophical level. I knew what the person was trying to get at though. Basically he was saying that I was unable to simply sit back and enjoy a movie as pure mindless entertainment. Which I completely disagree with; I think we all, film buff or not, have a personal gauge for what films we find pleasing or not. How else would we find ourselves in discussions on the merits of G.I. Joe?

The point is there are some movies that I liked for no other reason than I had a blast watching it. It just happens that what I often consider enjoyable fluff others are not too fond and vice versa. One example this in 2009 is the movie vengeance flick, Taken. There is no deep statement being made, no scorching acting performances, etc. Taken is simply two hours of watching Liam Neeson physically going to town on a bunch of really evil dudes. I know many panned the film but I cannot deny that I had a great time watching it and will probably add it to my DVD collection at some point. Another film that falls into that same "guilty pleasure" category for me is Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland.

After a tainted hamburger sets off a series of events that turns the bulk of the world population into zombies, society is reduced to nothing more than a survival of the fittest mentality. Luckily, Columbus (Jessie Eisenberg) has come up with a series of strict rules which believes are key to ensuring longevity during the zombie epidemic. Along his travels Columbus encounters Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a man who cares more about killing zombies in creative ways than he does about following anything resembling structure. The two unlikely drifters decide to team up but soon find out that working together has its equal share of advantages and problems. One of the problems comes in the forms of siblings Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Brislen). Not only does the arrival of these sisters threaten to hinder Columbus and Tallahassee's budding friendship, but it also may cost the men their lives.

Zombieland may not be as strong a film as fellow zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead but it was funny nonetheless. This is one of the few films I have seen in recent years where I actually would not mind seeing a sequel made. Normally I am against unnecessary sequels, or prequels for that matter, but Zombieland’s brisk pacing really left me wanting more. Plus, Columbus' list of rules can easily be expanded if they were to make a future installment. The thing I really enjoyed about the various rules was how practical, and simple, they all were. Part of the fun of this movie is picturing how you would cope in that situation. At first the seat belt rule seems silly but, once you see it in practice, you quickly realize how brilliant it actually is.

Sure I found the whole amusement park finale extremely far fetch, but I was having so much fun up until that point that I was willing to let it slide. If you really think about it, Zombieland is nothing more than witty pop culture references and creative zombie deaths. Yet that was enough to keep me both engaged and laughing. I will not try and give a highbrow spin on the movie because it is not deep at all, although it tries to be at one point. The whole no man is his on island theme regarding family worked much better in the films such as About a Boy. Regardless, Zombieland was a true guilty pleasure for me and I look forward a trip back sometime soon.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Normal Activity On Par With Average

Paranormal Activity


I purposely held out on seeing Paranormal Activity when it first hit theatres because the hype was so loud that I knew I would go into the film wanting to disprove it. Clearly I want to be subjective with every film I see but it is rather tough when people are rampantly claiming it is the scariest movie of all time. I mean did they not see Bride Wars? That movie was easily one of the scariest movies of 2009. Still, I have to give the marketing team for Paranormal credit. Having a trailer that consists of nothing more than showing how people reacted to the movie is pretty ingenious for a horror flick.

The premise of Oren Peli's film is deceptively simple, Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Micah (Micah Sloat) finally get settled in their home when strange things start occurring. The couple is repeatedly awoken on various nights by strange noises and Katie claims that she senses the presence of someone else in their room on certain nights . Micah is sceptical of Katie's paranormal theory and decides to document everything that occurs on video. Micah believes that everything can be explained rationally but, as the couple is increasingly terrorized, the couple must ultimately question both their beliefs and their sanity.

Now did avoiding Paranormal Activity for a lengthy period of time help to bring my usual unbiased ways back to normal? To a great extent, yes. Sure there was that occasional bug buzzing in my ear questioning the validity of the praises in certain scenes. Yet I was still able to appreciate the film for what it was, a fun psychological romp that offers a few brief creepy moments. The actors did a good job making the story believable, which helped to hold my interest for the majority of the film. The reason I think the majority of the film works is because it aims to violate one of our most sacred place...our homes. Most of us have been raised to believe that home is the one place we should feel safe from the horrors of the outside world. Once our home is violated there is truly no secure barriers left. This is why every creak, and every door slamming, is amplified to great effect in the movie.

The problem I had with the Paranormal Activity is that I felt it ran far longer than the material could sustain. There are only so many times a character can say "what was that?" or "Did you hear that?" without providing some sort of payoff. After a while a swinging chandelier and doors moving ever so slightly just do not cut it anymore. Also, there comes a point in the middle act when a very important secret is revealed in regards to events possibly having occurred before. Yet the characters continue to operate as if this information was never given. Sure they make reference to it every now and then but the characters never evolve the way they should have after hearing this information. Instead Peli keeps his characters repeating the same notes over and over. I think the movie would have been much stronger if we saw how the revelation put a far greater strain on the relationship. This would also allow the ending to be far more disturbing than it currently is.

Is Paranormal Activity the scariest film of all time? No. To be honest, I just did not think that Paranormal Activity was all that frightening to begin with I can probably list a dozen or so films that scared me more than this. I will say that I did enjoy the film more than I thought I would. It was far better than My Bloody Valentine 3D and some of the other gore centric horror movies to come out this year. Though if I had to make a list of great horror movies Paranormal Activity would not even make my top twenty.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Enemies Make Feud Public

Public Enemies

The story of Robin Hood has always been appealing on tale. The idea of someone taking from the wealthy and giving to the poor does have a nice ring to it, especially in this current economy. Yet is it way he swoops in and steals the money? Or is Robin Hood himself that makes the tale interesting? These questions crossed my mind while watching Michael Mann's Public Enemies.

Set during the fourth year of the Great Depression, crime is on the rise and notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is making a mockery of the law. Fed up with Dillinger's antics, the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), assigns agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to lead a task force to bring John Dillinger to justice once and for all. Purvis soon realizes that capturing Dillinger will be much harder than both he and Hoover had ever expected it to be. Dillinger shows no signs of slowing down nor does he have any weaknesses. Of course this may all change after he meets the Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).

Though he kept everything he stole Dillinger was still viewed as the Robin Hood of his time. Dillinger became a symbol for those suffering through the Great Depression . Yet the Depression merely serves as a backdrop for the film as Mann is more interested in the various ways Dillinger robbed banks and broke of jail. While these moments were very entertaining to watch, by time the film ended, I could not help but wonder how much did I actually learn about any of the parties involved? Clearly John Dillinger was a charismatic criminal who had the intelligence needed to get away with what he did. Yet after the jail break scene, and the scene were the cops pass him in the car, you have to question whether Dillinger truly was a genius? Or were the cops just really dumb?

Since Mann opts not to delve too deep into his characters we only get glimpses of what makes the characters tick. This is most evident when you look at Bale's Melvin Purvis, who really gets short changed in this picture. Purvis is clearly way over his head when he is promoted but we rarely see how the pursuit affects him emotionally. This ultimately diminishes the impact of what happens to him at the end of the film. Also, Mann does not provide Bale room to truly showcase his range. Purvis is a rather one-note character throughout the entire film. Despite Purvis' many errors and his inner turmoil, Mann portrays him mainly as the hard stoic agent. Bale would have been much more interesting in the film had he been able to show more of the cracks within Purvis' wall.

Aside the limitations set on Bale , the majority of the cast does a decent job of breathing life into their characters. Depp and Cotillard are the standouts in the picture as there scenes together offer a nice break from the standard cops and robber stuff. Despite the lack of depth, Mann does create a film that is, if nothing else, fairly entertaining. All the trademark Mann element's are there: the handheld video shots, the elaborate shootout sequences etc. Although Public Enemies is not as spectacular as I hoped it would be, it was entertaining enough for a mild recommendation.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

3D Valentine Card Still Bloody Boring

My Bloody Valentine 3D

Over the last few weeks I have slowly been catching up on some of the horror flicks that have come out this year. Two movies in particular, Paranormal Activity and My Bloody Valentine 3D, have exceeded expectations at the box-office but for vastly different reasons. Today I will focus on the latter and leave Paranormal for another day.

James Cameron’s much anticipated film, Avatar, is suppose to be the picture that finally legitimize the 3D movie industry. Yet I would argue that My Bloody Valentine 3D is reason enough why the 3D revolution should end. Sitting just behind The Final Destination as the second highest grossing non-family oriented 3D movie to be released this year, My Bloody Valentine proudly displays everything that is wrong with both modern horror films and 3D movies in general.

Set in a small town mining community, Tom Hanninger (Jensen Ackles) and his girlfriend Sarah (Jamie King), along with pals Axel (Kerr Smith) and Irene (Betsy Rue), attend a Valentine’s Day party at the infamous Tunnel No. 5 section of the local mine. A few weeks prior to the party, Tunnel No. 5 was the site of a horrendous accident in which 6 miners were trapped underground for six days. As coincidence would have it, Tom's careless mistake while on the job is what actually led to the mine collapsing in the first place. When the miners are eventually found only one, Harry Warden (Richard John Walters), is still alive. It seems that, for reasons no one knows, Harry snapped while trapped underground and killed all of his co-workers. Through a series of nonsensical events Harry ends up in a coma and is hospitalized. Or so the town thinks.... Harry magically awakes in times for Valentine's Day and goes on a killing spree unlike anything the town has ever seen before. Flash forward 10 years, with Harry supposedly dead, and the body count start to pile up again. Has Harry Wardern comeback from the dead to finish what he started? Was he even dead to begin with? More importantly, can the killer be stopped before it is too late?

2009 has been the year of the 3D movie and, to be frank, the madness needs to stop. My Bloody Valentine only helps to prove that the 3D explosion is nothing more than a gimmicky cash cow for Hollywood. The whole movie is basically a series of set ups to provide the director, Patrick Lussier, opportunities to throw objects at the screen. There is nothing remotely authentic or interesting about the whole production.

My Bloody Valentine 3D even fails in comparison to the other horror remakes, such as Friday the 13th, released this year. At least Friday the 13thremake knew how to balance both the campiness and the gore of the slasher genre. When My Bloody Valentine is not focusing on the 3D silliness it seems to be rather lost as to what to do next. As a result, Lussier ups the gore to ridiculous and uninspiring levels every chance he gets. Also, to fill the nudity requirement, Lussier has Besty Rue walk around nude in a scene that was clearly designed with 13 year-old boys in mind. Yet even Rue's ample physic cannot distract us from how awful the movie is. The acting is horrible, and not in the so bad it is good way, and the plotting is pedestrian. Worst of all My Bloody Valentine does not have a single good scare in the entire picture. Maybe Avatar will ultimately change my mind about the whole 3D movie experience but, as it stands, I think Hollywood should finally put a nail in the 3D coffin.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

“One of these days Alice, straight to the Moon!...To the Moon, Alice!”

Moon

It has been three years since Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) last saw his wife (Dominque McElligott) and daughter. Working hard inside a space station planted on the moon, Sam is in desperate need of human interaction. Besides the non-responsive plants he takes care of, the only other thing Sam has to talk to is the main computer intelligence system known as Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Sam only has two weeks left on his contract before he can finally get back to normal life on earth. Unfortunately disaster strikes when Sam gets into an accident on the surface of the moon while on a routine mission. When Sam wakes up back at the Lunar Industries station where he works, he is eager to find out what caused the accident. Against Gerty's wishes he ventures back out to the accident site. Sam makes a startling discovery that will have him to questioning what the three years in space has done to his sanity.

Although the trailers already give far too much away about the film, I will try to avoid providing any further spoilers. I will say that director Duncan Jones crafts a film that surprisingly achieves a lot through the use of restraint. Unlike Richard Kelly’s The Box, Moon is a cerebral science fiction film that is more concerned with keeping up psychological suspense than it is with having "cool" moments. It is the type of film that methodically unpeels its layers while avoiding many of the trappings of modern science fiction films.

The success of Moon is partially due to the performance of Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is required to fill two pairs of shoes in the film and does a great job of keeping them both unique. By providing both characters with distinct personalities and characteristics it allows the audience to identify with them on several levels. Sam Rockwell’s stellar performance also helps to enhance the eerie feel of the first half of the film. Neither Sam Bell nor the audience is quite sure what to believe in the beginning. Is Sam going crazy? Are there sinister forces at play?

While I did find Moon to be one of the more enjoyable science fiction films I have seen in recent years, I must admit that the second half lagged a bit for me. As questions are answered and plans are set in place I found myself losing interest in how the final moments would play out. I think I just came to terms with everything well before Jones was ready to let the audience go. The unsettling first half and the reluctant bonding moments are what really keep this film going. The whole countdown to the outsiders was just not as compelling as the director tried to make it. Regardless of my qualms with the second half, Moon is still satisfactory film that is both entertaining and at times thought provoking.