The Night Out: Avatar (2009), or Cameron’s Spectacle

20 12 2009

I currently have a wager set up with my boss. The wager is that within the time of one month, James Cameron’s Avatar will make $200 million domestically. I am not sure whether or not that is obtainable, as of this writing, but what I do know is that nobody has really talked about the movie much since the whisperings of James Cameron’s opus were started earlier this year. All I’ve heard is that the movie costs this much to make, the special effects are so amazing, the technical specs are blah-blah. But the bottom line is this; it’s not AMAZING unless it does its job and tells us a good story. The specs are just a way to tell the story, but if it isn’t very good, then the effects shouldn’t matter, but now we’ve gotten away from that into this area where effects trump any other aspect of a mainstream movie in the discussion. Avatar is a movie with truly amazing effects, and it really does have the potential to revolutionize the way people make CG effects. And luckily, the movie has enough archetypal strength to carry some genuine emotional power at times, because it’s honestly, on its own as a story, fairly derivative.

Avatar is essentially The Last Samurai with aliens. A wheelchair-bound Marine named Jake Sully, living in the extremely far off year of 2154, is given a chance to replace his twin brother, a scientist, on the far away world of Pandora where he was to research the alien life there, an alien race known as the Na’vi. He is given an Avatar, a creature made with Na’vi DNA that has mental uplinks so a human might control it via a VR interface, and is sent to help the human-Na’vi relations. The humans are on Pandora to mine a precious metal that is worth millions back on Earth, and while they don’t want to eradicate the Na’vi to get it, they’ll do what it takes to get what they want. But they’re trying the talking approach first, though it hasn’t produced results. So Jake is approached by one of the mercenaries contracted by the company mining the mineral with a simple proposition; infiltrate the Na’vi, learn their ways, gain their trust, and learn their defenses at the heart of the forest, and the mercenary will get him his legs back. Jake is torn between the Na’vi, a people he is learning to love and understand, and the ability to walk again, to be self-sufficient. As his Avatar gains more respect in the Na’vi tribe, and he falls more and more in love with the Chief’s daughter, the responsibility he has shouldered in the human world to bring war upon them becomes too much to bear. What will Jake decide to do about the home he has found light years away from his old world? Can he save his new-found people amongst the forest? Or are they doomed to make way for a strip mine?

Avatar’s stats are self-evident, and they have been propagated all over the internet. Let’s just say a LOT of work has gone into this film, and director James Cameron has spent a good chunk of his life making this come to life. I am very serious when I say that the special effects in this film represent a change in the course of how movies will look in the future. Nearly this entire movie is created from completely new CG concepts, and the realism for something so fantastic is really and truly remarkable. There are animals and plants and places that feel real, that breathe with a life of their own. It seems like the sky is the limit now, like anything could be possible all over again. The ceiling has been shattered again with living, kinetic CG characters that exist in an immersive world all their own, and many people will be spending many years trying to achieve what has been created here. There are flying creatures here called ikran (they look like pterodactyls but more alien) that had me rubbing my eyes in amazement from their sheer technical and aesthetic beauty. Hopefully, whoever is next, they will come up with something that is a little more robust and strikingly original from a story standpoint as well, rather than from just a visual standpoint.

Why do I say that? Well, because it’s not something you’ve never seen before. In fact, you’ve probably seen it quite a few times before. It’s 160 minutes of a man going native. That’s it. There’s a forest of cool shit walking around, but the main story is, verbatim, a mix of The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves dashed with a sprinkle of astro dust and shot in digital 3-D. The script is derived from archetypes as broad and as universal as Joseph Campbell’s wet dreams, not to mention the situations are completely and utterly stock. I won’t say that it’s terrible. The situations presented give us an almost reactionary response that we cannot avoid, and I could feel myself becoming attached to the Na’vi and their world a number of times. But not once did I really feel the characters, their plight, or any of the dramatic scenarios they set up. The only thing that I enjoyed was the emotional attachment the audience gains for the forest, the poignant remembrance of a life of freedom we have traded away for modern convenience, because at times I cannot help but feel that this world would be much simpler if we were closer to the bosom of the earth, even if it meant the end of modern life and the easy prosperity of men and their long-winded lives.

The acting is good, but it’s really not fair. No matter how cut Sam Worthington is, he can’t really hold a candle to how cool his Avatar looks. For what it’s worth, though, he is a damn fine up-and-comer, and I think his turn here as Jake was enjoyable. I especially love his strength in the face of his disability; what a trooper! Stephen Lang is the villainous mercenary trying to kill the rain forest and the Na’vi. He is unflinchingly evil here, and more than that he is uncaring and battle-hardened, which seems to be an irreversible condition in the face of all the carnage he causes. Sigourney Weaver throws Cameron a bone and gets in here as a scientist helping Jake realize his potential as an Avatar controller. She is a hard-ass, but Weaver adds a sweetness that comes out as she controls her own Avatar, a nice touch that adds to the experience. And Zoe Saldana, while never really acting, lends her voice to the Na’vi chief’s daughter, Jake’s love interest, who shows him the ways of her people. She has a lot of character that comes out in her strong but intensely feminine voice that really makes the character come to life. She has to speak another language a lot, and she also does a different voice than her speaking voice, which I L-O-V-E.

Odds are, you’ve already seen Avatar, so I don’t know why I’m reviewing it, honestly. Apparently it is the 7th highest grossing opening of all time as of today, and the numbers are only growing. But if you haven’t seen it yet, I’ll just say that you might not get what you’re expecting. It’s a decent movie that is jacked-up by the aesthetic. If the budget were quartered, I don’t think Avatar would be seeing the attention it’s receiving. But the numbers are what people are talking about nowadays, for good or bad, and this movie is certainly up there as far as that game goes. It’s a huge movie with what seems to be the future of CG as a bolster, and while that’s certainly nothing to snub one’s nose at, let’s not put this on more of a pedestal than it needs to be just because the price tag is more than we could afford in out lifetimes. I give Avatar 7 sprinkles of astro dust out of 10.

Tomorrow I promise to watch The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai! Until then!!!





The Night Out: Invictus (2009), or Nobody Knows Who Nelson Mandela Is?

13 12 2009

I find it increasingly alarming that nobody around my neck of the woods knows exactly who Nelson Mandela is. I don’t have a lot of heroes in my life, and over the years I become more and more suspicious of anyone who claims to do something for the greater good. But Nelson Mandela has always been a personal icon for international peace, equality, and, most importantly, forgiveness. His story is harrowing and meaningful, and an important one for us to learn and never forget. But it’s a story that is already fading from people’s hearts and minds, and I hope that today’s film, a spry little sports movie named Invictus brings his inspiring tale to new ears, and reminds everyone that not very long ago, people were still separated in society based on the color of their skin.

It is the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the year South Africa hosted it. But it is simultaneously about the life of Nelson Mandela, specifically from his inauguration in 1994 to the Rugby World Cup. When he first takes office, Mandela is swamped from the start with issues that require his immediate attention. Although apartheid is over, South Africa is not yet united, and that seems to be his first great hurdle, to unite the once-oppressive minority whites with the majority of black South Africans. While watching the national rugby team, the South African Springboks, Mandela decides that the way to unite the races is to ensure that the team goes to the World Cup Finals and wins. Considering that they’re a bunch of losers when the film starts, it seems like a daunting task, but Mandela has an idea of how to inspire them to victory. With a tough set of matches ahead of them, can the Springboks pull it together and come from dead last to make it to the Finals? Can Mandela unite a country torn apart by racial tensions? Can anybody tell me what a Springbok is?

Clint Eastwood takes a break from directing taut, heart-breaking dramas to make what might be the most inspiring movie of 2009. It just makes you feel GOOD. I just wanted to erase the racial tensions of my own country after I left the theater, but it’s always a little more difficult in America, you know. It’s a positively uplifting story about the power of one man to forgive and how that can affect a country, and how something as simple as rugby can bring people together from all walks of life. I detest sports, and even I was invested in this plucky underdog story. Eastwood touches on a lot of issues here, and through Mandela we travel across all walks of life to discover the sometimes startling fact that we’re really not all that different.

The production is middling but pleasant. All music in Invictus is surprisingly bland. The more I heard of it, the less I wanted there to be a soundtrack at all. There is hardly any good African music, which happens to be a soft spot for me, and a lot of the songs featured are message songs about peace that only serve to pile on to the peace-iness that is Nelson Mandela’s story. The direction is good, but often Eastwood sticks with a shot and goes with it for too long. I liked his more dynamic work in Flags of Our Fathers and Million Dollar Baby, where he was willing to take more risks with his camera. His straight-forward approach is not bad, by any means, but for an energetic rugby movie, I was not really all that jazzed, even during the sporting scenes.

I cannot stress enough how long I have wanted Nelson Mandela to be portrayed on the screen by Morgan Freeman. He looks and speaks just like the man, and while Freeman is slightly more daunting in stature, they seem perfect for each other in a cinematic sense. And while I was hoping Freeman would do a straight biopic of him, I will take this over nothing. This was Freeman’s role of a lifetime, and he nailed it! Every line was dripping with cultural and historical importance, and I doubt even Morgan Freeman knows how powerful his performance was. Matt Damon exceeds expectations as the captain of the rugby team, Francois Pienaar. He is a little bland, and rather off-putting at first with his prudish Afrikaner family, still does his best and succeeds in hitting some good emotional notes. He is not really that interesting, honestly, but you cannot really fault Damon for this; it seems to be a situation that the character, intrinsically, has not so many interesting things about him, so he just has to work with what he has, and for that I say kudos. A standout minor player is Tony Kgoroge, who plays Mandela’s head bodyguard. As the head of security, he is constantly plastered with a worrisome look on his face and a 24 hour grimace. He is on hgh alert as an actor, and I appreciated how natural he was at it. I look forward to seeing more from this young actor.

Invictus is something special to me because of its content, but on its own merits, it’s merely good. Greatness might have been achieved a great many other ways, by making it more about Mandela’s life and times, perhaps spending a bit more thought on the production, or having more exciting rugby scenes, but it’s far from mediocre. With excellent performances by everyone involved, a very inspiring and uplifting script, and a delightful appearance by the New Zealand All Blacks as the villains at the end, it does a good job for what it is. Anyone not very knowledgeable on Nelson Mandela, though, should watch this and learn a little something about one of the world’s finest living individuals. I give Invictus 8 Morgan Mandelas out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow I watch Dark City! Until then!





The Night Out: The Princess And The Frog (2009), or Louisiana Is The Weirdest State

11 12 2009

I have never lived in Louisiana, but, as a lifelong neighbor, I see my fair share of Cajun zaniness occur. The people of Louisiana, especially New Orleans, emit a special aura, a social behavior that is completely unique to them. And it’s not in the way that Idahoans are unique, or the way that Virginians are unique; people from Louisiana, if they’re not well adjusted, then it’s like they’re from another world. They’re supremely loud, they often need a translator, and, depending if they lived near New Orleans or not, will go on until you cannot take it any more how cool New Orleans is. It’s always a hoot when you get one of THOSE people in a party, becuase, if you had never seen NOLA you would probably imagine it was made of candy and floats on a cloud of French perfume high above the earth. The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s first hand-drawn animated film since the mightily mediocre Home on the Range, is a return to form for the animation studio that forgot how to animate, and it takes place exclusively in the hyper-romanticized hyperbole of New Orleans that exists in the minds of writers and NOLA fetishists. It marks a new shift in priorites for the company by going back to basics, and while nothing in this painstakingly exquisite animation is basic, it is a graceful step in the right direction that I enjoyed more than I thought I would or could.

It all takes place in the shining city of NEW ORLEANS, where ponies fly on butterscotch wings, smiles are as plentiful as Homies figurines in the late 90s, and segregation is only alluded to in passing. Tiana has always had a dream of opening up her own restaurant. It has always been instilled in her byher hard-working parents that to get what you want in life, you have to work hard and try your best to get it, and that is exactly what she’s done. She works two jobs and saves up every single penny in the hopes of opening up that restaurant, and after getting an advance to make some legendary beignets for a friend’s party, she earns enough to buy the space she’s been saving up for. The party is for the arrival of a suitable princely bachelor from the Caribbean named Naveen, who is looking for a suitable Sugar Mama in the States. He finds one in Tiana’s rich friend Charlotte, but before he arrives, he is bamboozled by a Cajun voodoo man named Doctor Facilier, who tricks him into some voodoo magic that places Naveen and his aggravated British servant in his clutches. He transforms the butler and makes him look like the Prince, and he transforms the Prince into a talking frog (!) with voodoo, and seeks to use the greedy Brit as a way to get at Charlotte’s money. They keep Naveen in a jar to do more voodoo stuff on him later, but he escapes, and runs into Tiana at the party, who happens to be dressed like a princess. He frightens her, what with him being a talking frog, but he strikes a deal with her to kiss him, because, as legend has it, if you kiss a frog, he can turn into a prince. Well, she kisses him, all right, but the voodoo gets all complicated because she’s not a real princess, and she turns into a frog too!!! She is mortified, and they must flee the party in green slimy shame and disgust with each other. Together, despite their enmity towards each other, they must find a way to reverse the magic and become human again with the power of a mysterious voodoo woman named Mama Odie, who lives in the deepest part of the Bayou. They’ll find all sorts of creatures to help them upon their way, as all animals can talk to each other (duh!), but they must be wary of the voodoo man’s shadowy influence, because he will stop at nothing to retrieve the Prince for his own devices. Can Tiana and the Prince learn to like each other on this harrowing journey? Can the two become human before it’s too late? Or will they be swallowed up by the evil Bayou magic of Docter Facilier?

Whew! This is Disney the way it used to be; wholesome, pleasant, and enjoyable in healthy doses. The Princess and the Frog is not so much a return to grandeur for the studio (though it DID cost over $100 million to make!), but rather a reprisal of their recent history. The story is essentially the same as all the other Disney stories to come out of the past 30 years.Talking animals, spooky curses, and unexpected friendships are all par for the course, but it’s told in that old familiar way that Disney has apprently plum forgotten how to tell. Hand-drawn animation is special because it is something that cannot be duplicated. Computers are trying to create real life, or something very close; Disney animation is not looking for reality, but that candy-coated childlike world of imagination that just doesn’t jive well with the real world. The Princess and the Frog‘s animation isn’t realistic, but it is well-done for Disney standards, it is colorful, and it immerses us into the brilliant world of bright, jazzy NOLA.

The cast is amazing. The first Disney picture to be centered around African American characters (and one Caribbean guy) is acted with voices that really sell the wondrous story. Anika Noni Rose puts a little Southern sass into her role as Tiana, the hard working girl/frog who is thrust into adventure. Her character is pretty straight-laced, nothing too complicated, but her enthusiasm and her beautiful singing voice won me over. Bruno Campos is the Caribbean prince Naveen, and while NOT African American or Caribbean, I still liked the flair he added in his voice. I especially like that he DID a voice, and not just his speaking tone. And Keith David is fucking amazing as Doctor Facilier, or, as the characters call him, the Shadow Man. His voice, with a touch of Cajun flair, is perfect for the part. David’s voice in general is just phenomenal, and any time he lends his exceptionally deep and robust voice to anything, it is a joy to experience.

It’s not all great. The standard musical numbers, written by Disney pack-mule Randy Newman, are a little weak and forgettable. And some of the humor falls a little flat, to the point where even the kids in the theater did not laugh. But, for the most part, it’s solid. It’s a good start to what will hopefully be a trend toward more hand-drawn projects in the future. The voice acting is strong, with helpful additions from voice-acting veterans Jim Cummings and John Goodman, the animation is excellent, and the characters are interesting for a change. I enjoyed The Princess and the Frog, and if this is what the future of Disney is, I have a lot more hope than I did after I saw Cars. I give it 8 1/2 Homies figurines out of 10!

Tomorrow I watch Blood Diamond! Until then!!!





The Night Out: The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009), or Werewolves Give Me A Wetty

22 11 2009

Well, time doesn’t really fly when you’re writing reviews and watching movies every day. Sometimes it’s excruciatingly drawn out. But every now and then, things creep up on you that you weren’t exactly prepared for. Around 11 months ago, I wrote my first review on here, a sample to test out the format of what would one day be my writing style for this very site. The review was for Twilight, everyone’s favorite female-orgasm-inducing fantasy romance. I found it to be a little naive, a little poorly conceived, and overall a bit disappointing. But, at the end of that test review, I stated very plainly that I would give the next film a chance, because I felt the seeds that were sown in the first film had the potential to blossom into something approaching a solid franchise. Case closed, game over, see you next time, and sayonara were my thoughts on the matter, and I was content to wait for the next film without talking or thinking about it. I, however, was about the only person on the planet who wanted to wait for any more Twilight discussions. Next thing I know, the entire world is talking about this franchise non-stop, waiting with a slack jaw and throbbing genitals for more; all my entertainment magazines were gearing up for New Moon fever, every female around me was picking sides on which of the leading men were hotter, and even the bookstore I work at suddenly became a souvenir shop for any merchandise that tried to fit a picture of Robert Pattinson’s pained face on it.

It’s all been a bit much, and now, almost a year later, we get the sequel that everyone’s been waiting for, New Moon, the continuation of Bella and Edward’s awkward ETERNAL LOVE. Problem is, it feels like I just saw the damn original, and I honestly wasn’t up for another 90 minutes of questioning a love that was supposed to be forever. Up until the lights went down, I was honestly a little bummed out about seeing it, and probably looked like a bit of a Glum Gus to Bren. But as soon as I saw the first trailer attached to this mega-ultra-super blockbuster, it suddenly occurred to me that I needed to get with the program; I had an obligation to be objective, no matter how much I was loathe to be. I needed to just calm down and get to movie watching for the sake of any modicum of integrity I’ve garnered over the past 11 months. And it also hit me that I was hanging out on my day off with the girl of my dreams watching a movie in a nice, clean theater, so I really didn’t have a whole lot to complain about as far as my condition went. So, completely serious, what did I think of the movie, all bullshit aside? Well…

Okay, I really, really don’t want to have to set up this movie, because I think just about everyone on Earth as of this reading is aware of what Twilight is about; human girl in love with vampire guy, vampire guy in love but with misgivings about the nature of their unconventional relationship, other vampires and humans shake their heads trying to sort out their dumb, cow-eyed love for one another. Well, New Moon is the same thing, rinse and repeat, but adding werewolves into the list of people shaking their heads at Edward and Bella. Edward still has misgivings, which are made manifest after a mishap at Bella’s birthday party involving a hungry vampire and a, no joke, paper cut (!!!) causes Edward to leave Bella in order to keep his crazy vampire lifestyle from hurting her. Bella does what any normal person would do after getting dumped and completely shuts down for a few months. She is lost in a sea of immature emotions, and has nowhere to turn after Edward leaves. The only way she can even picture him is when she does something reckless, so she starts becoming an adrenaline junkie. Meanwhile, she also starts hanging out with Native American beefcake Jacob, her childhood friend, and a romance develops between the two of them that won’t go anywhere because Bella’s hung up on that damned vampire. So this keeps going back and forth for quite some time, with little interludes involving the vengeful vampire Victoria from the first film trying to kill Bella and Jacob protecting her with his obviously alluded-to lycanthropy, dancing a futile dance around their doomed love until news gets out that Edward is planning to kill himself in the most garish way possible after getting a false vision from his sister that Bella has died. Bella must travel to Italy to prevent this outlandish suicide, but will  will it be too late?

It’s really a trade-off. While it seems that the franchise has learned from a few of their previous mistakes, they seem proudly intent on keeping others like framed folk art on the wall. While I do applaud the series for making the incredibly brave speculation that maybe, just MAYBE Bella could have rushed too soon into something she wasn’t prepared for, as is exemplified by her immature handling of Edward’s departure, they’re not exactly condemning it, and they might just be all for it. Their relationship is shallow, baseless, and all-too stuffy and literary, especially for something that’s supposed to last forever, which makes it even more of a shame that childhood friend Jacob is even involved, because the kind of love they have is real and natural. Instead, he’s needlessly tangled up in this for the purpose of some half-hearted werewolf-vampire-human love triangle that is definitely isosceles in nature, ensuring that Jacob gets the tiny surface and is therefore doomed to being strung along the rest of the franchise.

And I’m not too sure I like the new vision of the saga. I think one of the things the original got right was the scope of the story. It really loses a lot of the romantic steam when it becomes bombastic and epic instead of the indie sensibility the first film maintained. This story doesn’t need to be Harry Potter and The Magical Vampire’s Chemically Unbalanced Bitch Girlfriend (coming soon); it just needs to be about people from two, and now three, different worlds and how they try to love one another in the tumult of their lives. Things get more complicated when they start to add more fight scenes and million-dollar special effects. Leave some of those out if you want it to be a more cohesive and streamlined experience; or add those, but maybe take away some of the ludicrous lingering ab shots that dot the landscape of this vampire romance from start to finish.

And the actors have stayed the same from the original; they’ve neither advanced or devolved, although when one considers that they really never took a break from filming this break-neck saga, maybe I shouldn’t expect them to. Kristen Stewart is Bella, the “main character” of this saga who has the “unenviable” task of choosing to live forever with a hot guy or live life as a human with a hot guy. Choices, choices. She has a distracting affectation that forces her to act with her mouth open, and it gets to be a problem when I’m expecting her to say something and it just ends up being her bottom lip taking a breather. Other than that, I don’t like her character, but she’s not bad as a young actress. Robert Pattinson is pretty much the same from before. Remember that time he got really emotional in the first and broke your heart? Oh, that’s right, I forgot; he never really emotes. Ever. Well, good thing he’s an actor, right? The most he does as Edward Cullen is look mildly annoyed with himself and everyone around him, though I probably would be if I was a vampire who was constantly doting on a human like Bella “I’ll String You Along As Long As It’s Convenient For Me” Swan. The real standout is Taylor Lautner, who plays the boy next door, Jacob. While I hate the guy personally (Bren is Team Jacob…), I don’t think he did half bad here. He was a real teenager here, which is striking when Kristen Stewart is trying to be an adult and Robert Pattinson is playing a guy born at the turn of the century. He even has a little bit of an arc, much to my surprise. If you’re going to watch this and pay as close attention to the acting as I had to as a critic, your best bet is to drown everyone out and focus on the lesser of three mediocrities.

I’m not doing New Moon any favors by reviewing it, I’m sure, and this review probably won’t be attracting any more people to the site considering who my readership consists of, so it’s a case of strange bedfellows, me reviewing this film. But, much like the romance between a vampire and a human, it just happened, so what can you do besides either go with it or bury the evidence? I would go so far as to say that this is a better movie than the original, but I don’t know what exactly it’s doing better. It’s marginally better looking, the soundtrack is better, and there’s a character here to root for, unlike the fatalistic first film, where everyhing was DESTINY. I don’t really like new director Chris Weitz’s vision for the franchise or what it means for the core story of the romance, and I really don’t like how both the characters and the people that portray them are ponies with but one trick between them. But I’d say it is a little better. I’ll bite one more time, and will probably watch the third one next year when it comes out, because I still think they can do something with this series. But from what I’ve heard of the later book installments, I’m not exactly what you’d call hopeful. As it stands, I give New Moon 4 1/2 isosceles love triangles out of 10.

Tomorrow I watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind! Until then!

And, for the curious ladies out there, if I had to pick between Jacob or Edward, I’d go Jacob all the way. But if I could choose any man in the saga, I would definitely go with Charlie, Bella’s dad. That’s right, I went there…





The Night Out: The Box (2009), or Who’s Got The Button?

15 11 2009

If you can be sure of anything in life, it’s that opinions vary. Most people will say that there is definitely a God, and that he has a plan for all of this crazy mess, while other people, namely me, will tell you that it’s a beautifully designed universe, but a universe designed by chance. Most people will say that celebrities are divinely gorgeous and genetically superior, while I find them to be dull and lusterless in the face of real women. I also think that Bjork is bad ass, but I’m pretty much alone on that in the US. Today, I think I stand alone again, specifically in the movie critiquing arena, as I just saw The Box, and while I thought it was pretty good, and feel like it’s a return to form for Richard “I’m Going To Blow My Career’s Brains Out” Kelly, I think most people will consider this strike 2 for him, effectively putting him on thin ice. What gets him is that he’s a broadly commercial director now who has a very peculiar way of progressing the story, and this agitates the sensibilities of most, giving most people the impression of artistic desperation. I don’t feel that this is a movie is a movie made by a desperate man; perhaps an unbalanced man, but certainly not at the level he was while making Southland Tales

So, this is based off of a Richard Matheson short story, and it asks a simple moral question that has far-reaching ramifications. A middle-class family in Virginia around the mid 70s is given a choice by a strange man with a horribly disfigured face. He stops by early one morning and drops a box off at their doorstep with a note that says he’ll return at 5 o’clock that day. Inside the box is another box, a black one with a big red button on it, concealed by a locked glass dome. When the man does return at 5, the wife, named Norma, answers the door to find the disfigured man, who offers her what he calls a “financial opportunity”; he hands her the key to the box, and tells her that two things will happen if she presses it; one, she will get $1 million in cash, and two, that someone, whom she doesn’t know, will die. He leaves, telling her that she has 24 hours, and that he will return tomorrow to pick it up whether she has pressed it or not. She tells her husband when he gets home, and the two deliberate all night as to whether or not they should do it. After a long night and day deciding on it, and factoring in their dire financial situation and the fact that upon examining the box they find no wires or electronics inside, they press it. At 5, the man comes to retrieve the box, and that’s where the film really begins, because the ramifications for pressing that button are more drastic and far-reaching than either of them could ever imagine. As soon as they receive the money they’re embroiled in a web that stretches into the farthest reaches of the imagination.

This is a little more complex than you’re led to believe in any of the trailers. I was honestly underwhelmed when I first heard about the idea, but after hearing more about it, it started growing on me. I wanted to know what the deal was with this button, and what I got was beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s unusually dense for a Richard Kelly movie, filled with haunting music, esoteric imagery, and a lot of references to Jean-Paul Sartre that is a bit literate for most, but I found it refreshing. In a way, it’s really his most obscure work yet, even more obscure than the dumb, loud Southland Tales. For something he’s touted as his commercial movie, I have the feeling that he might never have actually seen a commercial movie before, because this movie is quite weird, and more than a little off-putting for the old lady who was looking for The Transporter 4 starring a disfigured Frank Langella.

I can’t say that it’s all good. There are a few things I could have done without. Firstly, Norma, played by Cameron Diaz, has a ridiculous-looking disfigured foot, a handicap that neither looks real nor plays any huge factor in the film. It’s simply an oddity for the sake of being an oddity, and while one scene uses it for leverage (HA!), and other scenes make the slightest attempt at referencing it, it seems like a big thing for no payoff. Also, there are a few characters that deserved a little more screen time while others are given a full fucking set of scenes! I could have done without knowing too much about Arthur’s NASA boss who never really contributed much, but good luck trying to get an elusive character like Lucas Carnes on screen for more than a minute. I suppose it’s a preference thing, but I would have preferred to become immersed in the intricate story rather than see Norma’s sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner and reception. And every now and then you get this weird feeling that Richard Kelly, who also wrote this, doesn’t really interact with people, and doesn’t have an idea of how things sound. Some of his dialog is quite unwieldy, and it’s only amplified by the hushed tone of his conspiracy-theorizing style of conclusion-jumping.

The cast is where things get kind of hazy. James Marsden is good as Arthur, the devoted dad who works at NASA but could use a few extra bucks to help out with the bills and his child’s college education. He has a lot of nuances that help the character breathe; even though Marsden is chiseled from limestone, it appears, I still buy that he could have worked at NASA in the 70s. Cameron Diaz, however, is a problem here as Norma. The main problem being I can’t stand it when people use unnatural accents, and her being Southern is kind of a stretch for her Cali girl pallet. I think she could have lost it and not appeared to be a total outcast; not everyone in the South sounds like Sookie Stackhouse, you know. Frank Langella shines as the mysterious man known only as Arlington Steward, who delivers the box to them for unknown and perhaps unknowable purposes. He is a terrifying presence that exerts a particular will in the film that really shows his growth as an actor from an inferior incarnation of Dracula in the beginning of his career to a real power player. All of my favorite scenes feature him in them.

I like The Box. I might be the only one, but if you can put on your Senior Critic Helmets for a second when you watch it, ask yourself this simple question; why not? Why not let yourself get taken in by the massive web of story that has a philosophical weight behind it? Why not get behind the poor Lewis’s, who only wanted some money for their son’s college tuition? And why not enjoy a movie that has a fair cast, a good director, an excellent score, and an exceedingly good, if not slightly confusing story? If you have some answers to those questions that are valid enough to write down and don’t involve the words “Balls” and “Sucked”, let me know, because I have no reasons why not. So I’ll be the one with the oddball opinion and give The Box 8 noticeably bad Southern accents out of 10!

Tomorrow we get a little Amadeus action going on! Until then!





The Night Out: 2012 (2009), or Epic Fail

15 11 2009

Roland Emmerich likes the idea that the world is coming to an end. He’s certainly made enough movies about the idea. The weird thing is that he’s never really followed the cynical mainstream notion about what will undo humanity; global war. He always likes to think somewhat better of us, and places us in a situation that has grown entirely out of our ability to handle it rather than a situation that is entirely controlled by us. Because we can’t stop a hostile race of aliens from wanting to invade or the unforeseen effects of global warming, but we can stop war anytime we wanted to. It’s an unexpectedly optimistic take on humanity that he’s chosen. It’s not that there aren’t horrible people that populate his films, it’s just that their power only reaches so far and they can only do so much harm before the heroes overtake them. Today’s film is another where Emmerich takes the fate of mankind out of his own hands and sets him up with a series of such large natural disasters that humanity probably will not survive. It’s a slightly new spin on well-worn territory that’s trying to cash in on the most recent end-of-the-world movement, and it just confirms my long-standing belief that if you’ve seen one Roland Emmerich disaster film, you’ve seen them all.

So the world is ending, according to the data retrieved by the advanced scientists over at Chichen Itza Astronomical Research Facility about 1100 years ago. They accumulated with their highly accurate scientific machinery a wealth of important and terrifying discoveries, the most disturbing of which was that the best toilet paper available to them a millennium ago was a corn cob. But a close second place goes to the fact that an important astronomical event was to occur on December 21, 2012, something so important that they decided to stop their long count calender ON THAT DATE. Flash forward to 2009, where a group of real modern scientists discover that there will indeed be a huge even going down on 2012, but it’s probably the worst thing imaginable; a massive solar flare will bear down on the planet, causing the tectonic plates to shift dramatically and consequently starting enormous tsunamis all across the globe. It’s estimated the shift will be so dramatic that nobody is expected to survive. So the scientist, named Adrian Helmsley, has about 3 years to try and work with the world’s governments to try and save some semblance of humanity and monitor the earth’s seismic activity.

By the time 2012 actually arrives, only a few people in the world’s political administrations have been notified, and Helmsley feels like it’s time to get the word out. But the quakes are occurring more frequently than expected, and before Helmsley can really do anything, the disasters start happening all over the globe. It’s global chaos, with millions dead and more expected to die along the way as the plates shift dramatically and the earth falls out under everyone’s feet. He as well as the top scientists and officials in the American government are being shipped out of danger via Air Force One. A plan has been hatched to safeguard about 400,00 of the best, brightest, but mostly richest people, as well as Earth’s most precious flora, fauna, art, and cultural artifacts, in a secluded Chinese mountain range. Can they make it there in time? Will Helmsley’s heartless politician boss make the right decisions for humanity? Or will he have to take charge of his own destiny, and the destiny of perhaps the last shattered remnants of the world?

Oh, and there’s a really stupid and useless story that’s tacked on here about a limo driver/ former author who is trying to get his family, including his two kids, his ex-wife, and her boyfriend, to safety and somehow makes it from LA all the way to the secluded mountain hideaway in China, narrowly dodging natural disasters along the way. And that’s supposed to be the MAIN STORY LINE! Boring. No thank you.

This is a two and a half hour long movie. Two and a half hours of worn-down material that I saw in 1996 and in 2004. 2012 is the third in a series of disaster movies that Emmerich has helmed, the first being Independence Day and the second being The Day After Tomorrow. Did you feel like the setup to those two were similar? Well, it’s deja vu all over again, because this is more of the same! You have the effects of the disasters shown in painful, excruciating detail, you see the human cost from the highest station in the land all the way to some old Jazz singers on a boat, and, best of all, you get the inane social commentary/humor moments from the sassier characters! Are you pumped yet?

The main draw is supposed to be the effects, I suppose. 2012 is the 2nd most expensive movie of all time before adjusting for inflation. And PARTS OF IT show that off with some amazing CG. I’ll say that 50% of the time, I’m impressed by the effects. There are a lot of neat things they do with lava and volcanoes as the plates shift that really immersed me in the landscape. The exquisite detail in the tsunamis are also hard to ignore, and the awesome force of nature is unleashed in their terrible scenes of destruction. But other scenes, like near the beginning with the cracks in the roads and the initial destruction of LA, are actually pretty weak. I did not believe it for a second. They seemingly put more time and effort into certain scenes, and while those certain scenes look awesome, it makes for a very uneven experience, and I would have liked a more complete and smooth CG experience.

The “star” of this movie is John Cusack, but the hero of this movie is Chitwetel Ejiofor, who plays Dr. Helmsley. Much like his other two disaster movies, Emmerich breaks the story down into a story we care about, and a story we could have done without. I REALLY did not care about John Cusack’s implausible around-the-world journey to get his family and his family’s new dad (!) out of the way of the destruction. I mean, Cusack isn’t even going out of his range on this one, and somehow he gets more screen time than the guy who’s trying to save the human race just because his name is easier to say! Hell, I can’t even remember his character’s name, and they say it probably a thousand times! Not that it matters, since he’s basically John Cusack playing John Cusack in a John Cusack film. What a crock of shit! Ejiofor is seriously good, though, and one of the only reasons to watch this. Other big names pop in for this easy payday, and let me just do a quick run-down for each of them:

Danny Glover plays the President here. Neither here nor there, a pretty tepid disaster President. He had one touching scene after the disaster hit, though, while Bill Pullman in Independence Day had zero, so kudos!

Amanda Peet is John Cusack’s ex wife. She looks pretty good here, which I assume was her reason for being cast, and her character is pretty cookie-cutter, so nothing really to say, except that she needed to be a little more independent; I would have liked to see HER fly a plane.

Thandie Newton is similarly banal as the President’s daughter. Her performance has about the same Ph level as water; there’s no flavor, not even a bitter bite. I think she’s immensely talented, and I did not relish watching her in this movie. But it’s better than Norbit

And Woody Harrelson shines in a cameo bit as Charlie, an oddball right-wing conspiracy theorist who is actually right on the money. His crazy is kind of infectious, and he’s definitely playing to type in the best sort of way. I can imagine Woody being like this off the set.

There’s really nothing new with 2012. If you like the idea of the world coming to an end, you like cool and innovative special effects, or find natural disasters fascinating (like Bren does), this might not be a total waste of your time. But it will definitely be at least a partial waste of time because the movie is two and a half hours long! Just don’t come in expecting anything new, because apparently the Roland Emmerich Idea Bucket (the patented R.E.I.B.) has officially been emptied, so now he’s cribbing from his own films and making bizarre and possibly self-plagiarizing hybrids of them. I’m not a fan, but I guess you didn’t expect me to be, considering I called Independence Day “a charcoal briquette that you painstakingly watch as it slowly burns its own appeal away into the atmosphere”. I honestly should have just copied and pasted that review, but hindsight is 20-20, and this is only 2012 (HA!!!). Anyway, I give 2012 4 John Cusacks as John Cusack out of 10.

Keep an eye out for my second review of the day! Until then!





The Night Out: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampires Assistant (2009), or No, That’s Bullshit

24 10 2009

John C. Reilly is my guy. Anything that guy does is pure gold for me. Whether it’s the pointed drama of Hard Eight or the unrivaled insanity of Step Brothers, he just has such a range of emotions. Recently, he’s been hitting the comedy films, and I’ve yet to see him in anything over the past 5 years that has been anything approaching serious, but if you go back to the late 90s and early 00s, you’ll see he has a lot to offer as a serious performer. The character he plays in today’s film, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, is a step in that serious direction, falling somewhere between serious vampire and tongue-in-cheek pastiche. It’s a better film than I thought it would be, but only because of Reilly’s uncanny ability to make anything impeccably entertaining.

Basically, we’re taken to the land of Anytown, USA, where we meet Darren, a young man in high school who has made it his drive in life to take the path of least resistance. He gets good grades, does what his parents tell him to do, and just has a nominal existence in general. His best friend, Steve, is a little wilder though, with an unstable family past and a slightly more exciting outlook on life. One day the two are walking to class when a weird car rushes by, dropping a flyer to them for a freak show called Cirque du Freak. It sounds like fun, so straight-laced Darren sneaks out the night of the show to go with Steve. What they find is a vivid world of magical circus performers. There’s the man who can eat anything, the woman who can regenerate her own limbs, the boy with snake skin. The real stand-out performer though is a man who one of the boys recognizes as a vampire, named Larten Crepsley. He does a strange act with a one-of-a-kind giant spider that captures both of their imaginations.

When the show ends, Darren, who is revealed to be in love with spiders, concocts a plan to steal the giant spider and take it home for, I dunno, bug stuff. But before he can, Crepsley returns to the dressing room where he kept the spider and entertains two guests. One of them is Gavner, a vampire like himself, and the other is Steve, who busts in and demands in a frenzy for Crepsley to change him into a vampire. Crepsley chides him for bursting in, but tests him to see if he has what it takes to be like him, a test that Steve fails (he tells him his blood is “bad”, although I don’t know what that means). Steve is crestfallen and angered, and he vows vengeance on Crepsley. Crepsley scoffs at the idea, and sends him packing. Darren sees the whole thing before running off with the spider, and confronts Steve about it the next day at school. It all culminates when the giant spider escapes Darren’s bag at school (??) and bites Steve, who wants to kill the spider. He falls into a coma, and it seems there’s nothing to be done. But Darren knows that Crepsley must have an antidote, so he risks the vampire’s wrath to save his friend.

And Crepsley does indeed have an antidote, but the price for it is high; he is to become Crepsley’s assistant, a half-vampire who can do things for him in the daylight that a full vampire couldn’t. For this, he must live with Crepsley in the Cirque du Freak, fake his death to his family and friends, and learn the ways of the vampire. A steep tax, but Darren agrees for the sake of his friend, and he is thrust into a world he never even imagined; a world of magic, intrigue, passion, and murder that will change his outlook on life forever.

WHEW! This is the beginning of another hopeful franchise, so there is a LOT of back-story to tell. What you really need to know is that there’s a kid who has to do stuff for a vampire and learn the ways of the night, like a vampire Star Wars, or the even more relatable idea of a tub of margarine running errands for a stick of Land O’ Lakes. This is your standard first episode film; there’s lots of exposition, lots of explaining, and lots of characters that will (hopefully) become more useful in later installments. It was marketed as a young adult film, a dark and edgy flick for the PG-13 crowd, but it has an attitude that skips most of the niceties and goes for the jugular, something I like in these humdrum first installments. There is definitely a sense of urgency, something in the hearts and minds of the characters that makes all this somehow breezier than I expected it to be. It still could have used a little autonomy, a little reassurance that what we just watched wasn’t a primer for a future, better movie, but it still had its moments.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t respond to teen actors very well. They besmirch my mind and dull my sense of what is good and decent. There’s really not much they can do about it either, other than NOT act like pretty-boy wallpaper. Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson are Darren and Steve, and they surely had no real chance of not annoying me, but at least they didn’t act too obnoxiously, with the whole “teens are smarter than adults” angle that puts holes in my cerebellum whenever I hear that squiggly line of thought.

It’s all about Reilly anyway. Reilly plays Crepsley with a mix of Dr. Caligari, John C. Reilly, and Robert Mitchum that I can’t stop thinking about. I don’t know how serious he was during the filming of this, but he gives off some signals every now and then that this might all be some huge joke that I wasn’t aware of. He IS serious, for the most part, though, and he lends a lot to all the many long exposition scenes that wouldn’t have been there with anyone else helming the character. And with lines like, “Your lips say ‘no’, but your beard says ‘yes'” in the film, you might as weill sign me up for any future installments. All the other adult actors make what amount to cameo appearances, and they could have all been aliens or sock puppets for all I cared. Ken Watanabe plays an abnormally large guy who grimaces a lot; no big loss there. Willem Dafoe plays Gavner, a character that is somewhere between John Waters and Walt Disney that I’m not too comfortable with, let alone interested in. Selma Hayek is a bearded lay. ‘Nuff said. One standout though was Michael Cerveris, who plays Mr. Tiny, a mysterious character we’ll learn about more in some other movie. He’s really freaky, and when you’re dealing with a movie like this, that’s a great characteristic to have.

There are some good effects here, a few key moments on the score, and some sequences that really work. Billy Wilder would have already called this a good one by now, in his book. CdF:TVA is a good first installment to a saga that probably has some legs to it. Only time will tell whether this one will get a sequel greenlighted, but if it was up to me, today, I would give it a thumbs-up, provided the sequel actually advanced the plot in some way and didn’t keep adding more and more exposition to the pile. And the condition that I could play wall-ball with John C. Reilly. It’s not for your younger kids, but if you have any mid to older teens who need to get out of the gouse for 100 minutes while you fuck your spouse, this is the movie that wouldn’t bore them, out of all the new releases. I give this movie 7 1/2 future installments out of 10. Give it a shot if you trust me enough!

Tomorrow is another day, and another movie! I’ll be sure to surprise you guys with something good!