Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review: Duplicity

Tony Gilroy’s first film, Michael Clayton, was a brilliant and absorbing tale of the corporate underworld, a stunning achievement for the first-time director that netted him Oscar nominations for both writing and directing in 2008. It was one of my favorite movies not just of that year, but of the last ten, perhaps even twenty years. So my expectations for Duplicity, his second movie, were justifiably high – a sense of optimism which, unfortunately, only set me up for disappointment. Whereas Clayton was sharp, savvy, and even beautiful at moments, Duplicity is clumsy, uncomfortable, and so outlandish at times that I can’t help but wonder whether the entire film is just a botched attempt at self-parody.

Duplicity opens promisingly enough. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are two spies who meet at a Fourth of July celebration in Dubai, spend the night together, and part on less than amicable terms. The next time we meet these characters, five years have passed. They’re now working for the CEO of a consumer product corporation (Tom Wilkinson) who’s out to destroy his rival (Paul Giamatti) once and for all. Or are they? The movie takes us back in time every few minutes to fill in the five-year gap and give us a clue (or two) as to what the two main characters are really up to. On paper it sounds like an interesting way to tell a story, and it is until about halfway through the film. That’s when the flashbacks start to get repetitive and, frankly, quite boring. In its second half, the main plot slows to a crawl as Duplicity lingers in the past for minute after tedious minute. One can only stand listening to Owen and Roberts wax poetic about their feelings and whether they can trust each other for so long before it gets hard to care if either one is ever telling the truth.

To step back for a moment, though, it’s worth noting that Gilroy’s first major misstep occurs before he even makes it back to the present for the first time. The film’s opening credit sequence, in which Wilkinson and Giamatti stand face-to-face and scream at each other in silent slow-motion, is almost embarrassing in its obviousness. It sets the stage thematically, I suppose, by setting up their rivalry before either one has even appeared in the story. But for a film that takes such pride in the complexity of its own narrative, this is a rather childish attempt at grabbing the viewer’s attention – not to mention that it makes the characters into one-dimensional caricatures from the onset. The scene grows nearly as tiresome as some of the later flashbacks after just a few seconds, and I’m still not sure whether the bewildered chuckles it drew from me were part of Gilroy’s intent or actually came at the director’s expense.

The movie falls flat stylistically as well. Gilroy’s shots are composed with immaculate symmetry – characters are rarely positioned outside the center of the frame, often in angular rooms with stark, blazing-white walls. The effect is certainly eye-catching, but more often than not it’s also mildly unsettling. Perhaps Gilroy was trying to be ironic by juxtaposing the story’s off-kilter characters with his perfectly balanced cinematography, but even if that’s the case, it just doesn’t work here. More than anything, looking at Duplicity for too long without blinking just made me feel like I was staring into a sanitarium.

In the end, neither the Owen/Roberts intrigue nor the Wilkinson/Giamatti subplot reach a particularly interesting resolution, and the flashbacks never amount to anything truly significant aside from a cheap twist in the film’s final moments. But it isn’t the plot that ultimately disappoints the most, even though it does command more than its fair share of logic-defying leaps of faith. Rather, Gilroy’s strange and unlikable characters are the film’s biggest letdown, especially after the finesse and nuance of Michael Clayton. Duplicity isn’t an outright “bad” film, per se, but in light of what it could have been given the capabilities of its cast and director, I can’t help but think the filmmakers just didn’t try that hard – and in an industry so hopelessly glutted with bland and intentionally brainless movies, such wastes of talent make for a particularly subversive brand of mediocrity.

Rating: ** (2 out of 4)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Charlie Sheen Will Be In Wall Street 2

I’ll admit, I was pretty down on the idea of a sequel to Wall Street when the idea first began floating around Hollywood a few years ago. There have been so many mediocre revivals of 1980s franchises recently, from Indiana Jones to Die Hard to Rambo, that a healthy dose of skepticism is certainly warranted. However, Wall Street 2 has actually grown on me a lot in the last few weeks. Just as the “greed is good” culture of its time made the original movie a compelling and well-timed success when it came out in 1987, I think our current social and economic climate will provide an excellent subject for Oliver Stone’s patented type of directorial scrutiny.

Even if that’s true, though, the biggest fear with any sequel made so long after the original is whether the same things that made it great in the first place will come together again to make something just as good. For quite a while, all we’ve really known about the Wall Street sequel was that it would center around what happens to Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) when he’s released from prison 20 years after the events of the first movie. But there was no word on the first movie’s main character, Bud Fox, who was played by Charlie Sheen.

Until now, that is. In a bit of news I just came across earlier this month, Sheen has apparently agreed to appear in the film, although from the sound of it his role will be a fairly small one. Still, his presence lends this project that last bit of legitimacy that I was looking for. As a fan of the original, I’m quite happy to see the sequel panning out so well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Thoughts on Disney Buying Marvel

In case you haven’t heard the biggest news in the entertainment industry yet, Disney purchased Marvel a few days ago for the sum of 4 billion dollars. This move came as a complete surprise, and speculation has been running rampant over what implications this could have for both companies.

Is the deal really a cause for worry? Maybe, maybe not. Some people seem to think that it could lead to the “Disneyfication” of Marvel’s movies and/or comics – a rather absurd proposal, if you think about it. Despite its clean-cut, family-friendly image, Disney has distributed the likes of Sin City, Pulp Fiction, and plenty of other violent or otherwise “mature” media through Miramax (which it also owns), so the issue isn’t one of what level of explicitness Disney will allow its new subsidiary to “get away with.” Besides, after the financial debacle that was last year’s Punisher: War Zone, Marvel swore off making R-rated films in the future anyway.

The real issue, I think, is one of creative control over Marvel’s franchises. I’m not too concerned for Marvel Publishing, which handles the publication of Marvel’s extensive line of comic books. Since Marvel’s rebound from bankruptcy in the late 1990s, its publishing arm has maintained an unprecedented level of creative autonomy (and critical acclaim) which I seriously doubt Disney would feel any need to dismantle. (As a brief side note, though, I do wonder whether this deal could lead to Marvel absorbing Boom! Studios, another comic book company which for the last year or so has been publishing a number of well-received comics based on Disney-owned franchises, including Toy Story and the Muppets.)

To dwell on publishing for just a moment longer, I think it’s important to remember that Marvel hasn’t merged with Disney – Marvel is now simply owned by Disney, and as such it will remain a mostly self-directed institution. So for those worried that Mickey Mouse will soon be joining the X-Men by corporate mandate, you have nothing to fear (although if fan art like this piece provides any indication, it might not be so bad!).

So with Marvel’s comic book universe fairly safe, in my opinion, my main concern in is over what will now happen to Marvel Studios. This is the independent production studio, owned by Marvel, which has so far brought us Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and which is currently producing next year’s Iron Man 2. Several more Marvel movies, including Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers, are also lined up for the studio.

I have commented before on this blog that I felt Marvel Studios’ legal and financial independence gave it a level of creative control that we are never likely to see from DC, since it is owned by Time-Warner. Forming its own production studio was a major triumph for Marvel in that regard, which makes it a bit sad to see the company essentially “selling out” when it’s proven that it can be both financially and critically successful on its own.

I’m still somewhat optimistic, on the one hand, because Disney has done such an excellent job in its handling of Pixar, which has perhaps the single greatest track record of any production studio in history. But fundamentally, this deal is still about Disney making more money, and the difference between Pixar and Marvel is that Marvel has many more long-standing franchises that have the potential to be exploited, for lack of a better word. Disney will do whatever it feels it needs to in order to protect its own financial interests – and if this means, for example, forcing Marvel Studios to crank out a third Iron Man movie without the same care that was devoted to the first two movies, I have little doubt that Disney will do so. We’ve already seen this same scenario play itself out in Sony’s mishandling of the third film in the Spider-Man franchise, and with a fourth film on the way (and, supposedly, a fifth as well), the cycle seems almost inevitable.

Of course, the true effects of this deal probably won’t be felt for at least a few years. I imagine Marvel Studios will continue to operate as it is now through the completion of its current slate of films, at which point it will either close its doors or take its work in whatever direction Disney feels best. This might not end up being a bad thing at all – it’s not as if Disney doesn’t have an eye for great filmmaking. The point is simply that Disney will have a tremendous influence on what Marvel-based movies are made in the future, for better or for worse.

Friday, September 4, 2009

In Case You Were Wondering...

If you’ve visited this site recently, you may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. There are reasons for that – legitimate ones, in my opinion, although I’ll leave that decision up to you. The big one is that I really haven’t seen many movies this summer. My only trips to the theater in the last few months have been to see Public Enemies and Funny People on their opening weekends, and Inglourious Basterds this last weekend. I’ve only rented one movie that I can think of, and that was a few weeks ago now.

Why have I watched so few movies lately? The main reason is that I spent a large portion of this summer interning in a congressional office in Washington, D.C. It was a wonderful experience, and one that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I met a lot of wonderful people there, and I made a lot of valuable connections too. But it did take up a lot of my time and energy each day, and very rarely did I have two hours to sit through an entire movie – my free time came more often in 20 to 30 minute bursts, which I typically spent watching 30 Rock, a show I hadn’t seen before this summer (and which I highly recommend).

Since my return from the Capitol, I’ve been catching up with friends, trying to keep up with the first few days of classes, and doing a good deal of reading. (For those wondering, my graphic novel review blog is still in the works – in fact, the domain has already been created. I have a number of reviews written, but I want to make sure I have enough done in advance to prevent the same stop-and-go difficulties I’ve had with this blog.) Although I’ve watched a handful of movies since being back, my viewing time continues to be mainly concentrated on TV shows, predominantly 30 Rock and The Shield – which, now that I’ve begun watching the fourth season, has joined the ranks of The Sopranos and Lost as one of my all-time favorite shows.

As the new school semester starts, I foresee myself watching more movies than I have been in the recent past. This is thanks in part to a film class which promises to do an excellent job of filling in the gaps in my own knowledge of the history of film, especially in terms of international cinema, and also thanks to my own building desire to start writing about film on a regular basis again. However, I find my interest in new releases waning at the moment. This will probably change as we enter the last quarter of the year – typically the time when the year’s best movies are released – although I find myself irked by a few recent developments, namely the delay of Scorsese’s Shutter Island until February of next year.

My hope is that with this most recent return to the blogosphere, I’ll be able to maintain at least a semi-regular presence here. I’ve learned a lot about my own writing process and style (what works, and what needs improvement) through constructing these posts over the last few months (almost a year, actually!), and I hope to continue developing my own skills and entertaining people at the same time. There are a few things I’m really interested in trying out here, and I look forward to posting them and hearing your thoughts soon.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And Then There Were...Ten?

A few months ago, I thought the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had finally gotten its head out of the sand. Now, I’m not so sure. The Academy’s president made a rather surprising announcement today: for the first time in more than 60 years, next year’s Academy Awards will have 10 nominees for Best Picture instead of five. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009... Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going allow Academy voters to recognise and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.

Personally, I don’t think this makes a bit of sense. Even with five nominees, there always seems to be at least one that isn’t in the same league as the others. And with ten nominees, I don’t even want to think about how much garbage is going to be included. People will argue that there are “deserving” movies that don’t get nominated each year, but if you think about it, that’s kind of the point. If every good movie was nominated, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much to be a nominee.

Of course, I’m prepared to eat my words if this ends up working out for the best, and the Academy has proven me wrong before. But for now, I have my doubts – and if I see any Transformers posters with the words “For Your Consideration” on them come this fall, I swear there will be hell to pay.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Review: Drag Me To Hell

If all you know about Drag Me to Hell is what you’ve seen in previews, then it isn’t the kind of movie you think it is. Trailers and TV spots have done their best to make Sam Raimi’s return to the horror genre look like a mere Saw or Hostel clone, but in reality it has very little in common with those movies. While Raimi is best-known by many people today as the director of the Spider-Man films, his best work is undoubtedly the Evil Dead trilogy, which mixed low-budget (but entirely believable) scares with physical comedy to create an experience that was at once hilarious and horrifying. Raimi revives his own tradition with Drag Me to Hell, which is more than worthy as a spiritual successor to the director’s previous work.

Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a loan officer who evicts a creepy old woman from her home in order to curry favor with her boss. The woman’s response? She puts a curse on Christine, giving her three terrorizing days to live before demons will quite literally drag her down to Hell. With the support of her loving boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and a helpful fortune-teller (Dileep Rao), Christine sets out to stand against the forces that are after her and to avoid the fiery fate that lies ahead.

One of the movie’s biggest draws is how fully-developed these characters are. Lohman has never been a particularly notable actress, but her convincing portrayal of Christine should definitely cement her reputation among horror fans. Long’s performance is also surprisingly genuine, and you can’t help but feel for him as his character sticks with Christine despite his increasing skepticism towards her. Their relationship is the most endearing part of the film, making it tough (but still funny) to see it put through the wringer – for instance, when evil spirits sabotage Christine’s first meeting with Clay’s parents.

But the real stars of the movie are Raimi and his special effects team, who offer up plenty of sticky, oozing and frequently cartoonish frights. There’s fairly little actual blood, and it goes to show that excessive amounts of hyper-realistic gore aren’t what make a horror film worthwhile. Although Drag Me to Hell doesn’t rely on slapstick as much as Evil Dead and its sequels, it certainly pays homage to the series with its claustrophobic camera movements, creaky sound effects, and the occasional flying eyeball. The movie’s intermittent computer-generated effects aren’t nearly as convincing as Raimi’s signature low-budget techniques, but thankfully they’re not used all that often.

What I love most about Drag Me to Hell is that it’s both a breath of fresh air and a campy, nostalgic look back at what horror can and should be. There hasn’t been a horror movie quite like it since Evil Dead II, and there may not be another until after Raimi has finished with Spider-Man 4. I hope there will be, though, and that Drag Me to Hell proves popular enough among the legions of Saw and Hostel fans to warrant more films that cleverly blend horror and comedy. I’m tired of the gore-for-its-own-sake, torture-porn trash that rakes in the big money each and every Halloween – it’s time for us to return to the idea that horror can be scary, funny, and original at the same time, and Drag Me to Hell shows us that it’s possible.

Rating: ***½ (3.5 out of 4)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Good Lord, Why??

Honestly...what did the human race do to deserve this kind of punishment? And is it too late to redeem ourselves??

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review: Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married is a perfect example of the fact that sometimes, a movie is actually less than the sum of its parts. The story is absorbing, and some of the performances are very believable, but for me, there was just no escaping a feeling in the pit of my stomach that something about this movie was wrong.

The set-up is undoubtedly interesting. Kym (Anne Hathaway) has gotten out of rehab just in time to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and she returns to a home now filled with dozens of strangers all getting ready for the big day. At the heart of the hustle and bustle is her dad, played by a sincere and engaging Bill Irwin. The first to defend Kym as she and Rachel clash, he’s also deeply haunted (along with the rest of the family) by the consequences of Kym’s drug-induced actions years earlier.

Tensions eventually give way to a lot of screaming and crying, and even a bit of interfamily violence for good measure. No one can truly forgive Kym for her past, least of all herself, and her attention-seeking antics as the wedding draws nearer don’t help. The constant arguments are convincing, but they all play out in roughly the same way. What’s more, it’s hard to take anyone’s side for more than a few minutes because not a single character comes out unscathed.

Alone, that wouldn’t be a tremendous problem if the movie was a lot more focused. Director Jonathan Demme spends altogether too much time on the festivities of the occasion itself, and it’s here that the story really falls flat. Between rambling congratulatory speeches by characters we never see again to seemingly unending shots of people dancing the night away, at least half an hour could have easily been cut from the picture. Rachel’s future husband is so underdeveloped that it’s clear the wedding is only a plot device, so spending such a large portion of the movie on it is just silly. This is Kym’s story, and every scene spent on something else is an utter waste of time.

In the end, Rachel Getting Married is a lot like watching your family fight – while it’s fascinating at times and certainly commands your attention, it’s just not a very pleasant experience. I won’t deny that its portrayal of a family in crisis is realistic and well-acted, though, and if that had been the primary focus I might have enjoyed it slightly more. But the movie’s near-schizophrenic nature as it bounces back and forth between meaningless revelry and a family’s despair is quite off-putting, and it makes it extremely difficult to recommend.

Rating: **½ (2.5 out of 4)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sci-Fi Sundays #2 – The Giant Claw

The Giant Claw (1957) is a bit unique among the dozens of giant monster movies that were made in the 1950s. Its subject isn’t a spider, cockroach, or some other insect; its size isn’t attributable to the wayward effects of nuclear radiation. Nope, it’s a giant buzzard from space that’s come to Earth to terrorize mankind.

But first, the set-up: a lone test pilot spots a UFO that no one on the ground picks up on radar, which convinces his superiors that he’s gone crazy. It takes the disappearances of several other aircraft to convince everyone that something strange is going on, and that the test pilot may in fact be right. Although the mysterious shape that constantly appears in the sky is clearly the silhouette of a giant bird, every single person that sees it describes it as a “flying battleship.” This even includes the governments of foreign countries, who haven’t conferred with American military forces even in the slightest. Apparently, the fear of giant flying battleships is universal.

Their misconceptions aren’t helped by the fact that no one seems to know what the term “UFO” actually means. Each time a pilot radios back to base with the exclamation that he’s seen a UFO, the response is always “What is it?” or “Can you see what it is?” or something along those lines. Of course he can’t see what it is, you dimwits, or he would have just told you rather than saying he was unable to identify the flying object that he saw.

Figuring out what the UFO really is turns out to be a simple matter of setting up a hidden camera on a high-altitude balloon. Making things easier, the bird-monster looks right into the camera for half of the pictures. Speaking of which, the space buzzard is both one of the stupidest and one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on film. I would try to describe it to you, but words really can’t do it justice…so instead, I’ve posted a picture of it above. And if you think that looks ridiculous, then let me assure you, it’s even more absurd in motion.

What’s even funnier is seeing what the bird does to its victims. It’s always careful not to outright destroy the jet fighters that attack it (to no avail) throughout the movie. That way, it’s able to eat the parachuting pilots with a uniform crunch that sounds like a clip from a Pringles commercial. The reason that no one can harm the creature at first isn’t entirely obvious – as it turns out, it’s protected by an antimatter force field that can only be destroyed by a “focused meson emitter,” whatever that is. After they hit the bird with that, it’s a fairly easy matter of shooting the thing out of the sky.

As dumb as the movie sounds, parts of it are actually somewhat cleverly written. One scene has the main character and his love interest exchanging baseball jargon in a way that’s so overtly sexual I’m not sure how it got past the censors. There are a few similarly funny scenes, and while they’re not pure comedy gold, they don’t need to be. After all, that’s what giant space buzzards are for.

Movie Rating: ** (2 out of 4)
Entertainment value: ***½ (3.5 out of 4)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Pure Michigan Rules

If you watch much television, you’ve probably seen these “Pure Michigan” advertisements that have been running for a while now. If you haven’t, they’re basically a series of commercials put together by Travel Michigan to promote tourism in their state, with narration by Tim Allen. Here’s an example:

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the advertisements at all. In fact, they kind of make me want to spend some time in Michigan. I just wonder why they decided to go with the theme from The Cider House Rules – a movie that was actually set in Maine! It works surprisingly well, but it’s still a bit puzzling to me.

On a completely unrelated note, I thought some of you might be interested to know that I had two comic book reviews published on IGN this week. The first is a back-up review for Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers, and the other is the main review for Dark Reign: Young Avengers. Please leave a comment either here or on IGN, if you feel so moved!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sci-Fi Sundays #1 – Night of the Blood Beast

I love science fiction movies because even when you know the general premise of a sci-fi movie going into it, you never know exactly what you’ll get. There are common themes, sure, from robots to aliens to spaceships, but not in any other genre can you find such a wide variety of movies based on such a concentrated number of shared concepts. In each Sci-Fi Sundays post, I’ll talk about a different science fiction movie – old, new, good, or bad, but always interesting in its own way.

Night of the Blood Beast is a 1958 B-movie about what happens when the first man in space unwittingly brings an alien creature back home with him. The action begins during the opening credits, as images of a crude-looking, hand-drawn spaceship “fly” through “space.” The reason I use quotation marks is that I’m not wholly convinced the astronaut ever left Earth’s atmosphere, seeing as his ship was surrounded by clouds. Of course, never having been to outer space myself, I guess I can’t say for sure that the filmmakers are completely wrong. Maybe they have been to space, or just know something that neither I nor anyone else with a rudimentary knowledge of physics or outer space does.

It isn’t long before tragedy befalls the space vessel. From what I could gather, the astronaut, John, had digestive issues while a smoke machine malfunctioned in the background – never a good combination. Anyhow, John’s little episode sends the ship to a fiery crash (at least, I assume it was fiery, since it happens offscreen) in a mountainous region near Cape Canaveral. The filmmakers again show how much smarter they are than me, this time in terms of geography. Silly me, thinking there are no mountains in Florida!

Scientists from the nearby research base find the ship, which is still perfectly intact other than a small hole in the side (the smoke machine still seems to be on the fritz, though). Peering through the hole, the scientists see John’s body – also in one piece, surprisingly enough; John apparently took lessons from Indiana Jones on how to survive falling thousands of feet in a small metal box. Even though he shows absolutely no signs of life, the scientists take him back to base and decide to put him on a table in the lab and stand around watching his lifeless body anyway.

Unfortunately for the scientists, some guy in a cheap Halloween costume - I mean, an alien - has hitched a ride back to Earth with John and his ship. Once everyone has gone to sleep, it sneaks into the base and eats half of the lead scientist’s head. Why half? I’m not sure, to be honest; maybe he got full, or perhaps he just realized that human beings don’t taste very good. Conveniently, the other scientists only realize what has happened after the alien is gone, and shortly thereafter, John decides to stop playing possum and begins to walk and talk again. He reveals that he’s pregnant with the alien’s babies, which doesn’t seem to bother anyone else too much. In fact, the others seem relatively bored by this revelation. Perhaps John has cried wolf about this sort of thing before.

Not one for subtlety, I guess, the alien takes this opportunity to just sort of barge into the room and stand in the doorway, at which point it’s predictably shot at. Bullets have no effect on its Swamp-Thing-meets-Black-Lagoon hide, but one of the researchers scares it off by chucking a lamp at it and setting the place on fire. Luckily, pillows prove just as good as flame retardant when it comes to putting out a fire.

Apparently forgetting that the alien ate half of another guy’s head, John insists to the others that the alien means well and that everyone should just give it a chance. They eventually hunt it down to a cave, where it tells John (in the voice of the scientist it killed!) that it belongs to a dying race which needs humans to give birth to alien babies in order to continue to survive. John, finally realizing that he’s been used, stabs himself with a rock and dies while the others shoot the alien to death with flare guns.

So as you’ve likely concluded by the sarcasm throughout this synopsis, Night of the Blood Beast is both an absolutely terrible and an incredibly funny movie. I can’t imagine either of those qualities were intended by the filmmakers (including Roger Corman, who executive-produced), but regardless, credit really must be given where it’s due. My favorite part comes at the very end, when the scientists walk away from the remains of John and the alien and basically pat themselves on the back for a job well done. They seem to have forgotten that John’s alien babies are due to be born at any moment, and that an alien invasion can’t be too far behind after that. Oh, well – if John is any indication, the human race is so gullible that it might actually deserve to be wiped out of existence.

Of course, most of the film’s comedy comes from the fact that the creature the scientists are so terrified of looks like a Power Rangers villain reject. If only it had had more time on screen, this movie would have been perfect for just sitting around and ripping on with friends. Even after adjusting for inflation, my guess is that Blood Beast couldn’t have cost more than a hundred dollars to make – fifty for the alien costume, and another fifty for the actors to sort out amongst themselves in a steel cage match set against the mythical mountains of Florida. Come to think of it, that might not be such a bad idea for a sequel.

Movie Rating: ½ (0.5 out of 4)
Entertainment value: **½ (2.5 out of 4)

New Post! New Look!

Sorry to take so much time off since my last update – I’ve been really, really busy. So busy, in fact, that I’ve watched a grand total of two or three movies since my last post. But with the spring school semester over, I finally have a bit of time on my hands again, and I thought I’d make the most of it by getting back onto the blog scene and making a few changes to the site:

1. As you’ve probably already noticed, the site has a slightly different background and layout. I was tired of it being practically identical to so many other blogs on the web, although I may still fiddle around with it a bit. Question to everyone reading this: do you like the current look, or would you rather see something that fills an entire widescreen monitor?

2. I won’t be doing a Movie of the Week anymore. As much as I like the idea, after a while it just became impractical for me to be able to do one every single week…kind of a self-defeating point for something called “Movie of the Week.” But don’t worry – I have more interesting things planned, which I think will eventually make this site a bit different from your average movie news/reviews blog. I hope you guys will like ‘em.

3. I’ll still be doing reviews of newer (i.e. released in the last year or so) movies that I happen to watch. I’m still working my way through a lot of 2008 releases, so you may see reviews for the ones that I get from Netflix. And as long as I’m on that topic…

4. Reviews of Star Trek and Wolverine are coming…just as soon as I see them. I’m dying to check them out, but like I said, I’ve been quite busy. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch at least one of them early this week.

5. This one’s a bit unrelated to the others – but as I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, I’m a big fan of not just movies, but comic books and graphic novels as well. I’ve set up another blog for reviews of graphic novels; I haven’t had the chance to post in it yet, but the first post should go up in the next day or two. I’ll try to post two or three reviews there per week, so feel free to check it out if you’re interested. It should be pretty accessible, so don’t be afraid to give it a look even if you don’t know much about comic books and graphic novels.

Well, I think that’s about it for now. Feel free to post any feedback in the comments section, and I’ll see you for another update later today!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Movie of the Week – Raging Bull

Sorry for not posting this on Monday. It’s been kind of a busy week for me, but everything should be back to normal now.

As one of director Martin Scorsese’s best films, it seems surprising today that Raging Bull (1980) was initially met with mixed reviews, and that a poor marketing campaign caused it to fail at the box office. In fact, it’s taken quite a while for it to truly gain the recognition it deserves. It was nearly a decade before critics began to really view it as a modern classic, and almost two more before the American Film Institute finally named it the fourth greatest American film of all time in 2007. In many ways, Raging Bull represents the first and, to this day, most definitive realization of director Martin Scorsese’s creative potential and cinematic vision.

The story follows the life of Jake La Motta, a real-life boxer and former middleweight champion portrayed in the movie by Robert De Niro. The role earned him his second Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. His transformation from a taut, muscular boxer in La Motta’s early days to an overweight, pathetic has-been as he gets older is mesmerizing, to say the least. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an actor in any other movie devote himself to his craft as physically as De Niro does in Raging Bull.

While the film’s boxing scenes are predictably (although not by any means uninterestingly) brutal, the most unsettling violence occurs outside of the ring. In fact, La Motta might even be more violent in his everyday life than he is as a professional fighter. His own insecurities lead to constant fights with his family, and his rages can materialize out of nowhere in less than a moment’s notice. In one scene, convinced that his steak has been overcooked, he suddenly explodes and overturns the kitchen table; in another, he smashes down his own bathroom door in order to get at his wife (Cathy Moriarty). His paranoia about her fidelity eventually alienates him from his brother (Joe Pesci) as well, bringing the strongest and most important relationship in his life to an end.

Even as he becomes more violent at home, though, La Motta begins to lose his edge in the ring. He doesn’t put up much of a fight at all in his final bout, losing the middleweight title to longtime rival Sugar Ray Robinson. La Motta’s life after boxing is mildly horrifying to watch – having gained considerable weight, he operates a sleazy nightclub and tours the country as a painfully unfunny stand-up comedian. Perhaps saddest of all, he continues to view himself as the fighter and celebrity that he once was.

All of Scorsese’s signature directing techniques are here, from his constantly, often imperceptibly, moving camera to his use of popular music in the soundtrack. Shot in black and white, though, Raging Bull is unique to much of Scorsese’s work in its wholehearted devotion to the time period in which it takes place. However, that doesn’t stop him from placing color in a few places that contribute to the film’s meaning.

The main title, for instance – as you can see in the theatrical poster above – fills the frame with bold, blood-red letters when it appears at the beginning of the movie, instantly communicating to the audience that the story about to begin is one that will be characterized by both violence and anger. And while it is both of these things, what ultimately elevates Raging Bull to a higher cinematic level is not just the interesting nature of La Motta’s story, but the exceptional nuance that Scorsese and De Niro inflect upon the character along the way.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Marvel Release Dates Pushed Back

Well, this is sort of a bummer. It seems we're going to have to wait a while longer for Marvel's Thor and Avengers movies, as they've been pushed back a year each:

Not mentioned in that list is that Spider-Man 4 is also slated for May 2011. In other words, there are three Marvel movies scheduled for three consecutive months in 2011, and just one scheduled for 2010.

I guess it's probably a good thing that the movies were pushed back, seeing as we haven't heard anything definitive yet about any of them aside from Iron Man 2. I just worry that if one of the 2011 releases isn't that great, the others will get lumped in with its bad press. Still, at least Marvel is keeping their timeframe on the realistic side, and I hope the movies will turn out for the better as a result.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Movie of the Week - A Boy and His Dog

It’s been a while since the last “Movie of the Week,” but starting this week I’ll do my best to bring back the tradition and talk about a new (old) movie each Sunday or Monday.

A Boy and His Dog (1974) is a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie based on a short story by Harlan Ellison. Future Miami Vice star Don Johnson plays Vic, an 18-year-old boy who is able to communicate telepathically with his dog, Blood (voiced by Ted McIntire). The story follows the two as they scavenge the last nuclear war-ravaged vestiges of civilization for food, drink, and (in Vic’s case) women.

Vic is a crude, immoral, and misogynistic character, and his behavior ranges from the absurd to the downright deplorable. Living as he is, in such a lawless, tenuous world, perhaps we can’t expect much better of him. Nevertheless, it’s hard to sympathize with such a base persona by himself, so we need Blood and the way he so pointedly antagonizes Vic in order to balance things out. The movie works extremely well when they’re together, with Blood as the wise yet misanthropic teacher and Vic as his ambivalent young student. Their constant verbal sparring, while quite funny at times, also drives their characters forward and establishes the truly desolate nature of the world they live in.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the movie falls apart a bit in the final act, with the two main characters separated while Vic chases an attractive woman down a hatch and into her subterranean community. Vic’s hormones blind him to the obviousness of the trap the people there have set for him – when they say they need someone to impregnate their women (their men have become sterile), Vic volunteers under the false assumption that he will get to have sex with all of them. Without Blood to play off of his impulsiveness, though, the plot languishes in scenes where Vic is held the community’s unwilling captive. It doesn’t help that director L.Q. Jones goes too far with the underground culture’s bizarre nature, unnecessarily applying all of its inhabitants with clown make-up. The people are deprave enough without this touch, and I honestly think they would have been scarier had they been more normal-looking.

Even if some parts of it are a bit off-putting, though, it really is interesting the way the movie hints at a larger universe in which these characters play only a small part. One early scene has Vic and Blood attempting to hide from the “screamers,” whose presence is indicated by an eerie green glow and a series of high-pitched, ghastly shrieks. We never actually see the screamers, but they work well as a sort of unseen horror – perhaps even better than if Jones had actually found it appropriate (or in his budget) to show them to us.

But what really makes A Boy and His Dog worth seeing, despite the weakness of part of the story, is its brilliant ending. Without giving anything away, this is the sort of ending you secretly hope for and yet don’t think is actually possible – and when it does play out that way, the payoff is perfectly fantastic. This is easily one of the best endings I have ever seen in any movie, and it bears watching if only for that reason.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Do Not Watch the Watchmen

The title is a bit cliché, but I wanted something that would grab people’s attention. As you’ve probably guessed, this post is all about why you shouldn’t see the Watchmen movie that opens this week. There are a whole host of reasons why this movie never should have been made, and I’ll try to go through all of them.

First of all, just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, Watchmen is a twelve-issue 1986-87 comic book series written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons. It’s about a group of former superheroes who are being killed off in a world where costumed vigilantism has been made illegal. It’s widely considered to be one of the best and most influential comic stories of all time, and it’s been collected into a graphic novel which has been in print for over two decades.

A movie adaptation of Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300), comes out on Friday, and for reasons that I really can’t understand, some people are just foaming at the mouth for it. I love the book, but the movie looks like a complete disaster in every way imaginable. It’s more than just that, though – the movie, in a lot of ways, represents everything I dislike about the film industry and certain segments of the movie-going public.

The fundamental difference between Watchmen and comic books like Spider-Man or Batman is that you can always tell new stories about those characters – even ones that might be a better fit for the big screen than for a comic book. But with Watchmen, there is only one story, and it’s already been told. Any retelling of that story can only dilute it, especially if it’s in a medium other than comics.

Brian K. Vaughan (the writer of such popular comic books as Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, as well as one of the writers on TV’s Lost) puts it extremely well: “I’ll go see it [Watchmen] if it doesn’t feel like a betrayal of what Alan Moore wants. But it’s like making a stage play of Citizen Kane. I guess it could be OK, but why? The medium is the message.”

It’s an excellent point. Personally, I’m fed up with the mentality that film is the ultimate art form, and that any story told well in another medium should automatically be made into a movie. I love movies (enough to have started a whole blog about them!), but to assume that every story worth telling has to be told in audiovisual form is arrogant, presumptuous, and entirely disrespectful to the original creators of that story. Speaking of which, perhaps now would be a good time to mention that Alan Moore refuses to have anything to do with the film (and, in fact, says he has no intention of even seeing it).

Another big part of my problem with Watchmen boils down to some basic issues I have with the increasingly mainstream nature of comics. Comic books are more in vogue now than they have been probably since the 1960s, and it has a lot to do with the excellent quality of so many recent superhero movies. But while it’s nice that one of my favorite hobbies doesn’t get me as many awkward glances as it used to (I’ve been reading comics on a regular basis since I was in the seventh grade), I find myself incredibly annoyed that so many people are reading comics these days just because it’s the “cool” thing to do.

The people I’m talking about aren’t the ones who are legitimately interested in learning about the medium – people like that are always welcome – but rather the ones who say, “I’m going to read Watchmen and V for Vendetta so people will be impressed by me” and who refer to comics only as “graphic novels” because they think it makes them sound more refined. Newsflash, guy (or girl): the comic books you’re reading aren’t “niche,” they’re as mainstream as it gets. Hell, Time Magazine listed Watchmen as one of its top 100 American novels a couple of years back. It’s good that you’re reading some truly great stories, but doing so doesn’t make you “cultured” or “well-rounded.” It’s a lot like bragging about having seen Star Wars or The Godfather.

Unfortunately, these are the sort of people for whom the Watchmen movie was tailor-made. They’re the people who think film is the only legitimate art form, that Chuck Palahniuk is “deep,” and that Watchmen is the next Dark Knight. Most importantly, they’re the people who didn’t get Watchmen when they read it. Because as anyone who appreciates the comic and has done even the slightest research on the movie knows, the changes director Zack Snyder has made for the movie – specifically, in the ending – completely undermine the entire thrust of the story.

I know a lot of people reading this probably haven’t read Watchmen, so I’m not going to spoil exactly what Snyder changed. The point, though, is that a significant part of Alan Moore’s ending in the book is wild, bizarre and comes out of left field in a way that it has to in order for the plot to work. But more than that, the way Snyder has changed the ending not only creates a plot hole big enough for you to drive a truck through, it eliminates something essential to the overall tone of the story.

Many people, including Moore himself, have made the argument that the true ending of Watchmen is “unfilmable,” and that the average movie-going audience wouldn’t be very receptive to it. They’re probably right. But the solution is easier than you might think: just don’t make a movie based on Watchmen. I really can’t say it enough – just because a story is good doesn’t mean it has to be made into a movie. In the case of Watchmen, the greatness of the original story arises from things inherent to its being a comic book. Everything from Rorschach’s mask to the nature of Dr. Manhattan’s powers just works in a way that can’t be replicated, much less improved upon, in another medium.

Even if all you’re looking for is a mindless action flick, the Watchmen movie is still a failure. Every trailer and video clip that’s been released has reveled in its own slow-mo, music-video-style editing, but it’s all old hat at this point. It’s the exact same style Snyder used in 300, minus the decapitations – so if you’re really a fan of that kind of stylized action, you would do better to just rent that movie. At least in 300, the technique sort of works; it’s a movie that puts style over substance and succeeds because, honestly, its substance isn’t anything special. But in the case of Watchmen, a story that actually does have some meat to it, that kind of action can only detract from the rest of the experience. If Moore and Gibbons didn’t need slow motion action scenes to tell their story, why should we need them to enjoy the story now?

I hope by this point that I’ve gotten my point across without sounding like a raving lunatic. The fact is that even in the best-case scenario, the Watchmen movie can’t ever be more than an inferior version of the graphic novel. And why settle for inferiority when you don’t have to – especially when the more likely scenario is that the movie will just be flat-out bad? Please, for your own sake, do not see Watchmen. You’ll be wasting your time and money, and if you haven’t read the book you’ll be denying yourself a truly wonderful experience.

And just in case all of that isn’t enough to convince you, let me sweeten the pot a little. If, say, twenty people go to the comments section of this post and honestly pledge not to see the movie, I’ll choose one of them randomly and buy him or her a copy of the Watchmen book. (If you get chosen and you already have the book, I’ll get you something you don’t have.) So that’s it…comment away!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Good and Bad News for Green Lantern

First, the bad news: 19 year-old Anton Yelchin (pictured above right) is rumored to be in consideration for the lead part in WB's Green Lantern movie, which is scheduled to come out in 2010. Now, I don't have anything against the kid, but the fact is that he's just that: a kid.

Yelchin is kind of on the rise right now, with major roles in both Star Trek and Terminator Salvation later this year, so I can see why the studios might be buzzing around him. I just can't understand why they would be interested in him for this movie. Hal Jordan is supposed to be a fearless test pilot, not a guy fresh out of high school. Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) is directing, though, so hopefully with his recent blockbuster success he'll have enough clout to be able to convince Warner Bros. not to force someone inappropriate for the role into the movie.

Second, the good news: today Warner Home Video officially announced the straight-to-video animated movie Green Lantern: First Flight. The quality of DC's recent animated DVD movies has been quite high, and Green Lantern is my favorite DC character after Batman, so I find this news pretty exciting. What makes First Flight even more interesting is that it's being produced by Bruce Timm (the man behind the excellent Batman: The Animated Series) and it has a great voice cast, which includes, of all people, Michael Madsen. While this may not have much effect on the production of the live-action movie, it's good to know that someone somewhere is giving Hal the treatment he deserves.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mel Gibson Returns!

Oh, how I have missed Mel Gibson. His last starring role was in Signs, which came out almost seven years ago now. He's finally returning to the big screen this year though, and he looks to be taking on the role of one of America's greatest pop icons in The Colonel. Take a look at this new trailer:

Looks pretty good, huh?

All right, so if you've watched the video then you know this trailer is just a joke. It premiered on Jimmy Kimmel's show after the Oscars on Sunday night (which explains why a lot of people haven't seen it).

I wasn't kidding about missing Mel, though. The man is one of my favorite actors and I'm really looking forward to Edge of Darkness, the police drama he'll be starring in later this year.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thoughts on the 81st Annual Academy Awards

I’ve been pretty down on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for quite a while now. I’ve even made several posts to that effect on this blog. But I have to admit, I was surprised by how well the Oscars turned out this year. The nomination/award system may not be perfect, but watching the ceremony on Sunday night made me realize that it’s not nearly as broken as I thought it was either. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good right now about the way the awards went as well as the state of the Academy Awards in general.

The show itself was definitely better than it has been in the past several years, and Hugh Jackman did a great job as host. His
opening number was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while, and set the tone for what ended up being a really good night. I could have done with one or two less song and dance performances, but putting the band on the stage and having the nominees introduced by a panel of former award winners were both excellent touches and more than made up for any of the show’s other shortcomings.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t have liked a handful of things to work out differently, though. While I can get behind Slumdog Millionaire’s win for Best Picture, I was a bit disappointed that two of my favorite movies from 2008 didn’t at least get nominated. The exclusion most obvious to a lot of people was The Dark Knight. Even if they didn’t feel it was the best movie of the year, there are a lot of people who would certainly consider it as being one of the top five.

In fact, when I originally saw the list of nominees a few months ago, I’ll admit that I was a bit annoyed. I had hoped the last two Best Picture wins, for The Departed and No Country for Old Men – two films that are a far cry from the more “traditional” movies the Academy typically likes to give the award – wouldn’t just be anomalies in the larger scheme of Oscar history, and were indicative of a more progressive mentality on the Academy’s part. With The Dark Knight not even being nominated, we can see a clear shift away from the kind of darker, edgier movies the Academy has celebrated for the last few years.

As I’ve come to realize, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering that the Best Picture award still went to a pretty nontraditional movie. If it had gone to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – a movie I really enjoyed, but one that by its very nature plays much better to a conservative audience than Slumdog – it would have marked a step backward for the Academy. The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes to me that the Oscars aren’t necessarily meant to give the Best Picture award to the most objectively good movie each year. Rather, the movie that wins is the one that best encapsulates the spirit of our society at a certain point in time. In an era of increasing hope and the real possibility of change, Slumdog Millionaire is that movie much more so than The Dark Knight.

So while TDK’s exclusion is understandable on some level, there is one film that I think really should have been included: WALL-E. I had hoped, perhaps naively, that this would be the year the Academy finally recognized that well-done animated movies aren’t just good children’s movies – they’re good movies that happen to be suitable for children to watch.

What bothers me most about its omission from the ballot is that if there were any year that an animated movie actually had a solid chance of being nominated for Best Picture, it was this year. Many people (myself included) thought Ratatouille should have been nominated last year, and with WALL-E being just as well-received by critics this year, it would have been the perfect opportunity for the Academy to change its outlook.

To its credit, Disney tried to play ball with the other studios and mounted a fairly large Best Picture campaign for WALL-E. Still, this basically underscores my main problem with the way the Academy Awards work. Over the past few years, nominee lists have been for the most part determined by which studios are able to run the most effective advertising campaigns. Film companies spend millions of dollars on “For Your Consideration” advertisements in magazines like Variety, sometimes managing to muscle their way into getting nominations for movies that aren’t really deserving of the recognition (such as Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Tropic Thunder).

Perhaps this is a minor quibble on my part, though, since all of the films that ended up being nominated for Best Picture (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire) are good movies in their own right. Whereas in each of the last few years it’s always seemed as though one or two movies nominated for Best Picture weren’t really very good, I think all of this year’s nominees were deserving of recognition. The fact that we’re even able to debate what other movies should have been nominated is a good sign, because it means there were more than just five truly great movies to come out in 2008. That’s something I don’t think we’ve been able to say for a number of years now, and it makes me think that the film world is on more of an upswing than I would have thought just a few months ago.

Overall, I think this year’s Academy Awards are as good an indication as any that we’re entering into a more exciting and adventurous time for movies. Slumdog’s win is significant in that it’s a movie belonging neither to the “old school” of filmmaking the Academy has traditionally honored, nor to the “new school” of dark, gritty films along the lines of The Departed or The Dark Knight. The Academy’s choice of something so unique as its Best Picture means that we’ll likely see more risk-taking on the part of the major studios in the coming years.

In other words, executives will be more likely to give their directors a level of creative control that hasn’t been seen in quite a while, in the hopes that the final product will turn out that much better for it (and thus make more money). The result could be an era of filmmaking as fresh and creative as the 1970s, when independents like Scorsese and Coppola were given the freedom to put just about whatever they wanted on the big screen.

Of course, this is all just speculation on my part. What did you think of the Oscars? Were the awards given to the movies that were most deserving, or do you think your favorites got snubbed? Check out the list of winners
HERE, and post your thoughts in the comment section!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

New Movie Trailers!

I know it's been a while since my last update, but I was hoping you would forgive me if I posted some cool new movie trailers.

Edit: Strangely enough, these videos don't seem to want to play in their correct aspect ratios on this page. I would recommend just clicking directly on the video and watching it in a different window, at least until I can figure out a way to make them display correctly.

Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's new WWII film coming out later this year. As a huge Tarantino fan myself, I think this movie has the serious potential to return him to the level of greatness he entertained early in his career. Take a look for yourself, and be on the lookout for B.J. Novak of The Office as well as the notorious Eli Roth, best known as the director of the Hostel movies.

Funny People is the third movie by director Judd Apatow, and this trailer was just released on Friday. I thought his second movie, Knocked Up, was a big step back from The 40 Year Old Virgin, although it still had its great comedic moments. Funny People, on the other hand, looks like it could be the perfect blend of comedy and seriousness. I'm especially looking forward to seeing Sandler in a role less mindlessly goofy than the ones we've seen him in recently, and closer to his dramatic work in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me (both great movies you should seek out if you haven't seen them).

The first Night at the Museum was a surprisingly fun and well-made movie, with a universal appeal not too far removed from the National Treasure series. With seemingly the entire cast of the first movie returning for the sequel, along with a few new interesting cast members thrown into the mix, I think Battle of the Smithsonian could be just as good. I'll admit that the amount of computer animation in this trailer seems a bit excessive, but as long as it's all in good fun I doubt it'll be too much of a problem.

Well, that's all for right now, but check back soon for my thoughts on the Oscars before they're handed out on Sunday night. Enjoy the weekend!

Monday, January 19, 2009

August Rush Review

Perhaps better known as “that movie the Academy nominated last year for Best Song that wasn’t Once or Enchanted,” August Rush actually had a lot of people talking about it in the weeks before its release last year. By the time it came out, though, it had all but completely disappeared from everyone’s radar, and it was only recently that I remembered it had even come out at all. It was with a fair amount of skepticism that I finally sat down to watch it.

The movie follows an orphan named Evan (Freddie Highmore) who, convinced that his parents are still alive, runs away from his stifling orphanage to New York City to find them. The sounds of everyday life are music to him – literally – which he takes as a sign that his parents are trying to find him as well. The reality, as we see in scenes featuring Evan’s mother and father (played by Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers), is that neither one knows of Evan’s existence. If that seems a little hard to believe, then let me assure you that it’s actually explained pretty well.

Long story short, mom and dad have gone on to lead very different lives from the music-oriented ones of their youth (mom was a concert cellist, and dad was in a rock band). The movie does an effective job of associating this departure from their dreams with the emotional burdens they both carry. Their scenes are laden with the regret and nostalgia that comes with the feeling that true love has slipped away forever, but they stop short of ever becoming too sentimental.

Robin Williams plays “Wizard,” a strange man who runs a sort of commune for child street performers and who, after finding Evan, takes the boy under his wing. Despite a lack of musical training, Evan is able to pick up and play the guitar like a pro. People flock to see him perform, and Wizard (in a Mrs. Doubtfire-inspired moment) gives him a unique stage name: August Rush. But while the music itself is exciting, this part of the movie introduces the story’s most problematic aspect.

Evan’s near-instantaneous ability to play and understand music is nothing short of ridiculous, and his proficiency with all things musical only gets more unrealistic as the story goes on. At one point, still without any formal training, he reads and writes pages upon pages of sheet music without a hitch. August Rush tries to explain itself by portraying Evan as a musical prodigy in the story’s latter half (even going so far as to have the boy enroll in Juilliard), but it never quite dispels the feeling that something about Evan’s talents is a bit off.

As for the song that got the Academy’s notice, it’s good but I actually enjoyed many of the other songs in August Rush a lot more. The music that closes the film is particularly moving, and I imagine its instrumental nature is what kept it from garnering as much attention.

The movie sort of beats the audience over the head with its message – music is the universal language that brings people together – and in doing so it casts a number of smaller plot points by the wayside. I was particularly disappointed that a subplot involving Terrence Howard’s character, a well-intentioned man from Child Services looking for Evan, was never fully resolved. The movie also never explains how Evan manages to attend such a prestigious school without revealing his true identity or even being recognized by anyone (the Howard character places “Missing” posters with Evan’s face on them all over the city).

But August Rush doesn’t do these things intentionally, and in the end the movie feels more like a labor of love than a two-hour cliché manufactured by the studio system. It comes off as over-earnest rather than overbearing, and as a result the flaws in its story can be at least partially forgiven. At the same time, though, I can’t help but wish its makers had applied that extra layer of polish to make it into something truly great. As it stands, August Rush is good, wholesome entertainment that does just enough right to make up for its shortcomings. While it probably won’t be remembered for much more than having a great soundtrack, it does tug at the heartstrings enough to make watching it a worthwhile experience.

Rating: ***

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jackie Chan Just Ruined My Day

This news is about a week old, but somehow it's slipped past me until today. Back in November I made a post about a remake of The Karate Kid, which had been retooled as a vehicle for Jaden Smith (Will Smith's son) called The Kung Fu Kid. At the end of that post I wondered who would play Mr. Miyagi in the new film, and today I got my (unfortunate) answer, courtesy of

Jaden Smith has found himself a mentor. Jackie Chan will take on Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi role in Sony Pictures' remake of The Karate Kid. The movie stars 10-year old Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), who is the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, and will be directed by Harold Zwart (The Pink Panther 2).

Talk about a one-two punch. Not only is Jackie Chan set to defile the legendary Pat Morita, but this movie is being made by the director of the sequel to the poster child for remakes gone horribly wrong? When I first heard about it I was prepared to approach The Kung Fu Kid with cautious optimism, but now all I can feel is a vague sort of disgust.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Circuit City Is No More

As most everyone knows by now, Circuit City has come out unsuccessful in a long financial struggle brought about by the country's economic downturn. The chain will be liquidating its assets (stores, merchandise, etc.) starting immediately. Its website has already been shut down, and 34,000 employees will soon be left out in the cold.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that adding such a significant number of people to the ranks of America's unemployed isn't a good thing. In terms of the state of America's economy, Circuit City's closing is just one more tragedy in the ongoing catastrophe that is this country's economy. But I think it's also worth taking a look at the situation as it relates to the home entertainment business, as well as to the electronics business in general – in other words, how it relates to us, the customers.

To start off, some people will see prices lowered at their local Circuit City stores. Don't expect anything major, though. Federal law mandates that Circuit City give its employees 60 days notice of their termination, which they just did today, so they can't sell off all of their merchandise immediately. For that reason, I doubt prices will be slashed very much. Of course, that's up to the individual liquidator for each store, so every store will probably be a little different.

But what I find a lot more interesting than what's happening at Circuit City stores until the end of March is what will happen to everyone else once CC is gone. My prediction is that in the short term, we're going to see higher prices at Best Buy and other electronics retailers (like Target and Walmart). That's not to say that Best Buy will raise its prices – it's just going to be less likely to discount its merchandise from MSRP for a while. And why shouldn't it? With its biggest competitor gone, there's little reason to cater the particularly discriminating customer.

But while the death of Circuit City may seem like a victory for the likes of Best Buy, I don't think it will take long for brick and mortar electronics stores to finally realize that their true competition has never been with each other – it's been with the Internet. For months now, has routinely matched (and often beaten) Best Buy's weekly advertised prices and there is no way that Best Buy can continue selling cheaper electronics like DVDs, Blu-ray discs, and video games for MSRP once it's recognized Amazon as its main competition. So in the long run, this could actually turn out well, with Best Buy lowering its prices from time to time in order to compete with online retailers.

I'm not an economist in the least, but as someone who has followed the business of these two companies (and watched their advertisements each week) for years now, I've come to be able to notice the ebb and flow of prices in the home entertainment market. The past few weeks have been devoid of any deep discounts from Best Buy, Circuit City, and even Amazon, which is actually a bit uncharacteristic of retailers immediately after holidays. I guess the bubble was bound to burst sooner or later. Without any reason to spend more at Circuit City than the value of any soon-to-be-useless gift cards one might have lying around, there just hasn't been a compelling reason to shop there...and unfortunately, there won't ever be one again at this point. That's how business works, though, and we can only trust that Best Buy and other retailers will try to learn some important lessons from this situation. Here's hoping that in the long term, they'll amount to something both profitable and sustainable.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Worst Box Art Ever?

I find so many interesting things just browsing through new DVD releases each week. Today I found what may very well be the worst box art for a movie that I've ever seen. Take a look (click on the image to make it bigger)...

I'd never even heard of My Best Friend's Girl before I saw this box art, so I can't say anything about the quality of the movie itself, but I'll be damned if that's not one ugly-looking picture. When will the studios learn that you can't just photoshop the actors' heads onto their bodies and call it a day?

This seriously looks like something a 10-year old would do as a practical joke on his friends. And not just any practical joke, but a practical joke that isn't even very funny. "Hey guys look, I just pasted your heads onto people doing silly things, LOLZ!" See? Not funny. Not funny at all.

...Okay, so maybe it's a little funny.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year's Update

I just got back last night from a week-long trip to Florida with my family, which was a lot of fun. Spending New Year's in Disney World was a really neat experience, and I'd love to do it again someday when I have kids of my own.

So although I don't have much in the way of movie-related material to post at the moment, I just wanted to pop in and let everyone know that I'm still alive and that I haven't forgotten about this blog. In fact, I was able to watch a ton of movies before I left on vacation, and I plan to post reviews of all of them soon.

My posts will probably become less sparse when I return to school next week, since I'll be separated from the 46" HDTV and Blu-ray player that my parents have at home. It's getting harder and harder to imagine going back to the small SDTV I have in my apartment, so I may have to get an HDTV for myself before too long. I already have about a dozen Blu-ray discs, so a BD player should follow not too long after that.

Anyway, I hope everyone had a great holiday season and is looking forward to 2009 as much as I am. Come back soon!