May 30, 2009

I'm Down

It is slightly ridiculous. I mean, seriously Pixar. What sort of crazy, voodoo, satanic, witch doctor, cult do you follow that allows to release such great movies one after the other, without making the same movie again and again? WHAT IS YOUR SECRET? Before Up, you had only released nine movies, and all of them were fantastic, with only Cars being slightly lackluster. Now, with Up, you have released ten movies, and all of them are fantastic, with only Cars being slightly lackluster.
Up is the story of retired balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen, one of our fine country's senior citizens. He is leading a, somewhat, banal existence in his elder years. His loving tomboy of a wife, Ellie, has since passed on, seemingly taking all the joy and excitement from Carl's days. Though she may be dead, her spirit is constantly guiding Carl, making him urge for the adventure that he had dreamed of with her. So, under threat of eviction from his house, Carl takes a slightly unorthodox route in achieving said adventure. He ties thousands of helium balloons to his house and lifts off, steering his floating abode towards South America, the place where Elly had always wanted to go. Unfortunately for him, he is not alone. A tiny, rotund, Wilderness Explorer, Russell, has stowed away. Soon, they arrive in South America, where they have to contend with a giant bird, a crazy Kirk Douglas look alike, and a talking dog with a strange likeness for squirrels. Like all Pixar movies, the story is very simple and elegant, but pull aside the kiddie cover and you will find depth, emotion, and originality far surpassing that of other studios. 
In terms of voice acting, Pixar is always second none. A lot of that is thanks to ridiculous quality of the animation, but I don't think I need to talk about that. Everyone knows how friggin' good they are at making animated characters seem real. Especially Carl, voiced by Ed Asner, with his head as square shaped as his glasses. He seems like a jerk when you first see him, but get to know him, you see a man who has lost his way, but who is really a lovable guy. The same goes for Russell, voiced by Jordan Nagai. At first glance, he is the annoying pre-pubescent boy who is there as comic relief. Pull back the covers and you see he is almost just as damaged as Carl, dealing with abandonment issues of his own. On a different note, Christopher Plummer is deliciously villainous as the, probably insane, explorer that Carl admired as a child, and battles with as an adult.
There is one thing that makes Up stand out as good time at the movies. Every Pixar movie has one. In WALL-E, it was the irresistible love story between WALL-E and EVE. In Finding Nemo, it was Dory. In The Incredibles, it was the concept of superheroes being forced to retire. In Up, it is Dug, the talking dog. He steals the show in every scene he is in. Voiced by Bob Peterson, Dug is an idiot who finds that one nerve that makes us laugh and mercilessly attacks it. With lines like, "Hi there. My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you. My master is a good and smart man who made me this collar so that I may talk, because my master is smart. SQUIRREL!" or, "My pack is not following us. Boy, they are dumb.", it is hard to not at least crack smile. And good luck not chortling at him when he is forced to wear the "Cone of Shame". You'll see. 
Up is not the best movie that Pixar has created, however. It has its problems. The third act relies a little more on action then anything else, and the way some of the characters behave is suspect. But, at the end of the day, we all knew it was never going to trump WALL-E. It will take some bonafide master piece to derail that movie from my mind as the best animated feature ever created. Nevertheless, Pixar once again shows us how pathetic attempts by other filmmakers are to conjure up emotion in the audience. All you need is a good story, fleshed out characters, some neat visuals, a funny dog and your set. Up is not the best Pixar movie, but it is 10 million times better then almost all other animated movies from any other studio. You can't beat those odds.   A-  

May 24, 2009

I Machine, Red In Eyes and Itchy For Fight!!

Well, we all knew it would come sometime. It was inevitable that the money guzzling powerhouse known as Hollywood would one day decide that one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises in history still had some steam in it, long after it had been put to sleep for good. So, that powerhouse decided to make Terminator 3. 6 years later they do it again. So now, we have Terminator Salvation, a great looking flick that is devoid of all humanity and subtlety. It is also quite possibly the loudest movie that will come out this summer, other then Transformers 2
So, after a title sequence that pays obvious homage to original, we meet Marcus Wright, a death row inmate who is given the chance to help a good cause by donating his organs when the big men upstairs decide to shuffle him loose the mortal coil, which he accepts, because he's one of those remorseful types, you know? Fast forward 15 years, and the world looks a little different. Machines, led by the computer program Skynet, have rained an ungodly amount of nukes on humanity, and the survivors of the fiery holocaust are fighting back. At the heart of this resistance stands John Connor, who has not yet risen to his destiny as the man who will one day lead humanity to victory against the metal menace. Lately he's been receiving a lot of jaw from his commanders, which is seriously ticking him off. Most of his efforts are on locating and protecting Kyle Reese, his father, who is actually younger then him, but goes back in time to fight off a Terminator sent to kill John's mother, and impregnates her there. It's a little weird. Watch the first one. Amid all the chaos, a new player emerges. It's, guess who, Marcus, who, we are meant to believe, has been comatose for the last decade and a half. As Connor and Marcus' paths cross, more carnage and explosions occur, all culminating in a massive confrontation at the Skynet HQ with a ridiculous cameo from a certain someone. In terms of story and characters, Salvation fails miserably. Like the last entry in the series, it relies more on action and bigger and bigger explosions to tell the story, rather then actually telling the story with, you know, talking. 
Christian Bale plays Connor. To be honest, I was actually really bored with his rendition of this human messiah. It's not that it's something we've seen in the character before, it's just that it's the exact same thing Bale has done in all of his recent movies. I want to see Bale play a smooth talking, slightly disturbed, extremely vain business man again like in American Psycho. Here, he plays Connor so gruff and agitated, you'd think he forgot to take off the bat ears. Sam Worthington, as Marcus, on the other hand, is very good. Worthington, an Australian brick layer, was largely unknown until, well, Friday, but now, with this and James Cameron's Avatar this winter, he is fast becoming a star. And Thank God, because he has the chops. Most of his dialogue is ridiculous and cheesy, but he handles it surprisingly well. In reality, this is Worthington's movie. Sure, Bale is listed as the main star, but Worthington's character gets the most screen time and goes through the biggest character arc, which is a good thing, because Marcus struggling to cope with an unfamiliar world is so much more interesting then Connor shouting a lot. There are really no other performances worth mentioning, except for Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese. He's fine, but I couldn't looking at him without think "What the hell is Chekov from Star Trek doing in this movie?" As with story, Salvation is weak in terms of acting. It is only saved by Worthington.
Now, apart from acting and story, Terminator Salvation is not the pile of garbage that we all thought it was going to be, and all that is thanks to action and special effects, which are top notch. Unlike most action directors, MCG (Now that's a name) is smart and relentless with his violence. Like Zach Snyder, he crafts meticulous, well shot, exciting, and very satisfying scenarios rather then shaking the camera or going the documentary approach on the whole thing. A lot of the action scenes are quite well done, especially the one from the trailer that has Kyle and Marcus in a truck running from machines that look like motorcycles. The opening sequence actually reminded me a little of Apocalypse Now, with helicopters dropping off soldiers and planes dropping napalm. As a plus, the explosions in this movie are awesome to behold, and there are a lot of them. In just the first 20 minutes you will see an air strike, a guided missile, various grenades, and nuclear warhead, all go up in flames. Let me reiterate, that's only the first 20 minutes. The rest of the special effects are quite good as well, especially the iconic terminators. In past movies, they've moved around like a 70 year old with arthritis, and, despite looking scary as hell, never seemed to pose much of a threat. Not the case here. Thanks to special effects wizardry, the T-800 in this movie is agile, swift, and dangerous. Actually, come to think of it, all the machines in this movie look ten times more dangerous and scary then in the others. The familiar ones, like the Hunter Killer and the regular terminator look so much better, and the new ones, like the Hydrobot or the hulking Harvester are welcome additions to the series. Not all the special effects are fantastic though. Yes, I'm going to give it away, but Arnold does make an appearance via CGI as a muscle clad terminator. He looked like a ken doll. It was a little off putting. 
Now, despite all the action in this movie being so damn exciting, a lot of it does nothing to further the plot. It is all just chaos. In the last three movies, there was a clear villain, something that needed to be killed. Here, it's a little harder to determine what the main villain is. Sure, the computer controlling the machines is the obvious target, but we never see it. And since there is not a single one terminator that is constantly harassing our heroes, a lot of the action goes nowhere. Thousands of men are dying all around you, but you never got a chance to know them, so all the attachment that was felt in T1 and T2 is completely lost. MCG directs his action very well, but, when it comes to crafting characters we care about, a story that is compelling, and getting acting that is up to the caliber of the stars, he is hopeless. 
Terminator Salvation is not the abomination that we all thought it would be. Indeed, it is actually surprisingly decent as an action movie, and will provide surefire entertainment for a solid two hours. However, if you are looking for a movie on par with T2, look elsewhere. The next installment in the Salvation series may come closer to being up to snuff with James Cameron's masterpiece, but, as it stands, it will have a long way to go. B-

May 8, 2009

That Was A Close One!

Whew! I was getting worried there for a second. I mean, after Wolverine kicked off summer, I couldn't help but be a little apprehensive. But, I'm not going to rant about that festival of mediocrity again. No, I am relieved; relieved that summer is once again looking to be the most exciting movie season of the year. All that is thanks to Star Trek. Thanks to some snazzy direction, pitch perfect acting, mind blowing special effects and a plot that offers enough for both die hard fans and new comers alike, Star Trek is the real beginning to the summer season and the best movie I have seen so far this year. Now, sing it with. Bum bu-bummmm. Bum bum bu-bum bummmmmm. Bu-BUMMMMMM!!
Trek grabs your attention right away with one of the best opening sequences I have ever seen. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, but it actually made me choke up. I swear, I thought I shed a tear. That's a good sign. It concerns the Federation Starship U.S.S. Kelvin as it engages a massive Romulan ship, the Narada. It ultimately meets its demise, but not before the acting captain of the Kelvin, George Kirk, can get most of the crew, including his, in-the-middle-of-giving-birth, wife, to safety. The baby that is born grows up to be James Tiberius Kirk, a hot headed and cynical man. He enlists in Starfleet, and the rest is history. He meets and befriends Leonard "Bones" McCoy and Montgomery Scott, hits on Nyota Uhura, and immediately conjures up contempt for the half human, half vulcan, Spock. And that's only the first 30 minutes. Soon, all these characters and more are whisked away on the U.S.S. Enterprise in order to combat the man responsible for the death of Kirk's father. That man is Nero, a vengeful Romulan from the future with a plan that will cause untold destruction around the galaxy. As an origin story, Star Trek serves nicely. It sets up the characters that we all know, but leaves enough ambiguity so that we will continue to see them grow in the next installment of the series. 
A cast of, largely, unknowns comprises the cast of Star Trek. Chris Pine plays Kirk. I though Pine was most memorable as one of the Neo-Nazi Tremor Brothers in Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces a few years back. Since then, he kinda disappeared. Now, he is in the limelight, and thank God, because he's brilliant. It was the easiest trap a man could fall into. Take a role so revered by the masses, and mimic it. But Pine does not fall into that trap. Instead he adds a much needed charisma and charm to a character that, I'll be honest, annoyed the hell out of me in the old movies. Take that, Shatner! He is confident in the role, and it shows. Zachary Quinto, of Heroes fame, plays Spock. I am so glad that the studio did not go with Adrian Brody or someone more famous to play the role, because Quinto is the only one who could have done it. Not only does he look like Leonard Nimoy, but he has nailed the nonchalant, quiet, level headed personality of the character, as well as counter acting it with fiery undertones. That's what made the character of Spock so interesting. He's a cross breed, half emotional human, half unfeeling vulcan, and his coming to terms with that fact was one of the best aspects of the original series. Quinto masterfully stays true to that idea. He's the best thing about the movie, to be honest. Karl Urban plays McCoy. It's great to see Urban in a legitimate, event film again. After his awesome performance in The Lord of the Rings, he seemed to decide that B-grade action movies like Doom and Pathfinder were the way to go. It's a pleasure to have him remind us, that yes, he can act. Zoe Saldana plays Uhura. I always thought Uhura on the original series was a walking boredom dispenser. I hated her. Saldana on the other hand, brings a sexiness and ferocity to the character that Nichelle Nichols seriously lacked. Simon Pegg plays Scott. He's hysterical. He comes in with about 45 minutes left to go in the film, and makes the most of every second. A bit of scene stealer, to be sure. John Cho (there are a lot of cast members worth talking about here) plays helmsman Hikaru Sulu. He doesn't have much to do, but, like Pegg, he makes the most of it. Plus, he gets to engage in an awesome sword fight on top of massive drill (more on that later). An unrecognizable Eric Bana plays the villainous Nero.  His more of a brooding, sinister villain then a flashy, talkative one. Be that as it may, he is spectacular. I almost found myself on his side as the movie reached it's climax. That takes skill. Universally, all the performances are great. If there is one that is inferior to the others, it's Anton Yelchin's Pavel Chekov. It's not his performance, so much his incredibly forced Russian accent that made this one stick out as annoying and a bit unnecessary. Supporting performances include Bruce Greenwood as soon to be Admiral Christopher Pike, Jennifer Morrison as Kirk's mother, and Ben Cross as Spock's father Sarek. Blink, and you'll miss Winona Ryder as Spock's human mother. There is also a, more-then-cameo, appearance by the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who plays... well, Spock, but from the future. You'll see. 
Thanks to some incredibly sophisticated direction from J.J. Abrams, Star Trek is finally accessible to the general public. Instead of the usual ham handed messages and preachy space politico jabber, we get a fun, well acted, well thought out, summer blockbuster. But, unlike most summer blockbusters, 'cough' Wolverine 'cough', Abrams does not sacrifice character for action. In fact, it's the other way around. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of action to be had. But this is a character driven movie at heart, which is a relief. I'm not a "Trekkie", as the group is referred to as, but I appreciate the original series for it's emphasis on character development over action, and I commend Abrams for staying true to that. At the heart of it all, is the budding relationship between Kirk and Spock. Their friendship was the center piece of the original series, and their rivalry is the center piece here. I'm getting goose bumps just talking about it. 
Now, I've been raving about characters and acting and story for the past three paragraphs, something most summer movie going peoples tend to despise. So, on to the action, and it is spectacular. Put it to you this way. If 2001 had explosions and phaser fire lighting up the screen, it would have looked exactly like Star Trek. The subtlety of the effects is amazing, and a rarity in movies of this nature. The visuals are haunting and beautiful. The beauty of the effects carries over to the interior shots of the ship as well. In a world dominated by sleekness and Apple products, it would seem not even the U.S.S. Enterprise is above cashing in on the look. Everything is so shiny and clean looking, you would think Spock is some sort of OCD freak. Thanks to shininess of everything, this movie has lens flares up the ass. But, again, it's a nice touch that adds a sort of documentary feel to the film, along with extended use of handheld cameras. It also doesn't hurt that the explosions and pyrotechnics are awesome. And good luck not feeling a burst of excitement during the sensational space jump sequence that leads into the aforementioned sword fight. 
I'm forgetting that Wolverine even exists. Yeah, screw you, Jackman! Star Trek is the real beginning to summer. And what a beginning it is. I foresee incredible profit that will be made on behalf of this movie, and wonderful potential for the practically guaranteed sequel to come. So, if you're looking for something fun to do in the coming weeks, buy a ticket, and boldly go where no Star Trek movie has gone before!!
I'm not a "Trekkie"; I swear! 

May 1, 2009


Well, it has started. May 1st is upon us, my friends, and that means one thing. The Summer Movie Season has officially begun! The last few summers have been surprisingly good, with smart, well executed action flicks, gut busting comedies, and some rather thoughtful dramas. The first movie of the season usually sets the stage for what's to follow. Last year, we had Iron Man to kick things off, and we all remember how great last summer was in terms of movies. Indeed, four of my top ten for 2008 came out in that season. This year, we have X-Men Origins: Wolverine to lead the charge. Looks like this summer is gonna suck. 
Origins tells the 'gasp' origin story of everyone's favorite comic book social reject, James Logan, aka, Wolverine, aka, the man with the big friggin' metal knives coming out of his knuckles. Apparently, Logan has been around for a while, and never aged a day. He's fought in the Civil War, WWI and II, and Vietnam. The dude's tenacious, to say the least. With him at all times, is his brother, Victor Creed, aka, (for you non X-Men nerds out there) Sabretooth. When these two bros are recruited by the slimy Colonel William Stryker to be part of a "special" team with "special" privileges, things start to blow up in their faces. Soon, Logan and Creed are going at each other's throats, while Stryker's allegiances are never quite clear until the end. The film expands on some stuff only hinted at in the first three X-Men movies, as well as introducing a slew of new mutants who are just there to blow crap up or set up new "origin" movies. The plot is standard revenge stuff, with a few predictable twists thrown in. Boring stuff, really.
Hugh Jackman extends the claws again in the role that made him famous. He's really the best thing in this movie. He has honed the grunt and roar of Wolverine to the point of perfection. All his uttered lines, while poorly written, are solid gold in his extremely masculine hands. Granted, it's the same schtick that he did in the last three movies. However, he was really good in those, so it's forgivable. Liev Schreiber plays Creed. I don't really know what to say about him. Schreiber is suited to the psychopath role; he played more or less the same role in Defiance, albeit, he was a good guy in that. Sure, he fits the bill, but he overplays it to an alarming level. If he had a mustache, he would twirl it. Danny Huston plays Stryker. This performance is not up to Huston's usual standards, but, it's passable. It will make you wish for Brian Cox, though. The other characters, while playing massive parts in the advertising campaign for this film, are barely in this, with the exception of Taylor Kitsch's Remy LeBeau/Gambit. With the amount of press he's getting, you'd think Ryan Reynolds' Wade Wilson/Deadpool would get a good chunk of screen time. WRONG! He comes in, cracks a few jokes, engineers one sinfully short action scene, and then leaves until the very end, and even then, he's and unrecognizable mute. Other performers include in his big screen debut as John Wraith, Kevin Durand as the horrendously fat Fred J. Dukes/Blob (more on that later) and Lynn Collins as Kayla Silverfox. Sure, they're all put up an admirable effort, but you will long for the likes of Ian McKellan, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, and Ellen Page. 
The studio really messed up with the casting of director on this one. Gavin Hood is a fine director; Tsotsi is one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years. But, he has no flair for action, and has no idea what to do with the comic book source material that he is dealing with. He is making a movie for the fans, make no mistake. But, while Zach Snyder made a comic book movie for the fans by staying ridiculously faithful to the source material, Hood goes about it by jam packing the screen with character after character, but not giving them enough time to make an impression. He also floods the screen with action scene after action scene, but they are all stilted, explosion filled, borefests. Well, that's not true. The last one, a three way duel between Wolverine, Creed, and Deadpool, is nicely executed. The same cannot be said for the rest of them. It's getting annoying that studios want to 'legitimize' their action movies by hiring award winning directors to work them. These directors have no idea how to shoot an action scene, so they compensate with overuse of the special effects. I can only imagine what could have been accomplished if Christopher Nolan or Ang Lee was directing. 
However, the biggest problem I have with this movie is that it sometimes stoops so low to get a laugh or thrill out of the audience. For example, Kevin Durand's character goes through a remorseful period over the things he did in the past, and started eating to make himself forget. As says, "We all got our coping mechanisms." Later in the movie, we see that he has gotten disgustingly fat. Hood plays this off as a light, comedic thing, as does Jackman, who cracks a few jokes. NO! That's not funny. That's not funny in the slightest. That type of humor really bothers me. The director is practically asking us to laugh at someone's hardships. It's despicable.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine starts off summer on a lackluster note. Sure, it offers some thrills and great eye candy, but, these days, that's no longer enough. I'm not going to start judging this season until I see Star Trek next week, but, if it's anything like Wolverine, this summer will incredibly lackluster compared to the last few. Oh well.