Friday, June 29, 2012

Not Too Friendly

Some things just seem to work better on paper than they do in execution. At first glance, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World looks like what it aspires to be, a comedic disaster film in the vein of 2012 or Deep Impact but focusing more on the impending victims of this end-of-the-world event. Combined with the solid work of Steve Carell, whose mere presence in The Office, Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy Stupid Love and Date Night raised their comedic efforts tenfold, you could expect that this film would feature a ton of laughs, all the way to Armageddon. Or you could get the much different, far less satisfying movie seen here.

Screenwriter and debuting director Lorene Scafaria, who had previously penned the script for the averagely-reviewed Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, explores the idea of neighbors who had never before acknowledged the others' existence coming together in a time of impending doom. To that end, he pairs the mild-mannered, fatalistic Dodge Petersen (Carell) with the young, optimistic Penny Lockhart (Keira Knightley), as they travel together on one final quest before the end times. Dodge, whose wife has left him in the aftermath of humanity's final failed mission to divert the collision trajectory of an asteroid known as Matilda, is searching for a previous flame, the one that got away. He recruits the unlucky-in-love Penny for her car, claiming that he knows someone with a plane that can get her home to England to see her family one last time. The unlikely pair come upon different shades of humanity, people whose infinitely varied ways of dealing with the upcoming disaster can do nothing to stop the ticking clock of Matilda's arrival.

They're bored already by the premise.
Those interactions are the best thing Seeking has to offer, as exploring how people might react to a calamity of this size proves to be an able source of amusement. It doesn't hurt that Scafaria brought in a boatload of amazingly-talented performers to work these small roles, including Melanie Lynskey, Patton Oswalt, Martin Sheen and William Petersen. Especially entertaining are T.J. Miller and Gillian Jacobs as servers at "Friendzies" (think Friendly's) who have turned the family restaurant atmosphere into the scene of a drug-fueled orgy. Sadly, not everything is as good, with a scene featuring a military-trained group hoping to survive Matilda's impact by burrowing underground is neither funny nor important to the story overall. Most of these scenes also feel inconsequential, with the events occurring only with the explicit presence of the protagonists (an early-scene riot appears to have left no lasting damage when Dodge and Penny return to the area). With such a varying reactions, you would expect some sort of lasting impact. That doesn't happen until the end, and even then it does so in a most unspectacular fashion.

"Why yes, we ARE high! What was your first clue?
It doesn't help that Carell does little and less in this particular motion picture, a shame as he was my main reason for going to see this film. Not given a whole lot to do, Carell's job seems to be to react to each scene with the same sort of confused look in his eyes and a perpetual frown on his face. He's never given a chance to break out, and his role here is more for your pity than anything else. Relying on his more natural, easy-going charm, Carell plays the straight man in a world gone mad, and it doesn't help that you can see in his eyes a desire to play along that never comes to fruition. I haven't liked Knightley since her role in the very first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, so I wasn't expecting to enjoy her performance here. But lo and behold, she actually picks up where Carell left off and does her damndest to carry the whole thing on her back, and to her credit she mostly succeeds. Unlike the dour Dodge, Penny actually goes along with much of the silliness that pervades each scene, making her more sympathetic and in tune with the audience. It's her best performance in years, and while still not a GREAT one, it was certainly a nice surprise.

He'll have to settle for writing the Great American Letter.
Unfortunately, while there are plenty of nice ideas that Schafaria puts forth, Seeking is not the movie that decisively puts them all together in anything resembling a cohesive narrative, or even a decent use of a couple of hours. It's not BAD, but the idea that it could have been so much better is a lot to take. The movie never diverts hard to either hilarious spoof or romantic drama, and so the final product has not enough of either to keep afloat. The result is a jumble of decent scenes that somehow add up to less than the sum of their parts. For such a good-looking trailer to turn out as a merely "okay" movie is a little disappointing, but it could still prove somewhat worth your while, depending on your mood. If you decide to watch this, go see a matinee or wait until it's available to rent; whatever you do, don't bother paying full price for your ticket.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Home of the Brave

As many of you know, I've finally thrown myself into the richly-detailed world of animated movies. I'd long considered the genre to be kiddie fare, only to realize of late that the BEST animated films can appeal to smart adults as well as their progeny. In the past year I've seen such great titles on the big screen, from Gore Verbinski's Rango to Aardman's Arthur Christmas and even The Adventures of Tintin, which was Steven Spielberg's best film in years. Monday marked a huge milestone for me however, bigger perhaps than actually witnessing what I considered to be the best film of 2011 (The Artist) win the Best Picture Oscar: I finally took a chance to see a Pixar film on the big screen. After catching and thoroughly enjoying classics like Toy Story, The Incredibles, Up and Wall-E in years long past their theatrical runs, Brave represents just the second time I've taken to see a title from the animation studio juggernaut in over a decade, since 2001's Monsters Inc.  

Brave certainly has a lot to live up to. In its history, Pixar has created not just some of the best animated films of all time, but indeed some of the most iconic MOVIES of the modern era. Sure, the film had its growing pains; original director Brenda Jackson, who had conceived and done much of the work on Brave and in fact based much of the story on her relationship with her daughter, was released by Pixar and parent company Disney for "creative differences." However, this is hardly an unprecedented occurrence. Jan Pinkava was released while making 2007's Ratatouille, and Toy Story 2 underwent a large number of controversies in production, stemming from differing opinions between Pixar and Disney. Both today are considered great films, with Toy Story 2 holding the domestic box office record for Pixar films until Toy Story 3 came out in 2010. So I don't worry if Chapman's dismissal clouds your hopes and expectations for Brave, as this is simply business as usual. As for the movie itself...

Stay in your seats; Mr. Anderson is about to tell a story.
In the wilds of what is ancient Scotland, four major clans come together in the spirit of tradition. The three lesser groups journey to the castle of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) of Clan DunBroch to present their first-born sons, in the hopes of currying favor and marrying their son to his daughter, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald). But Merida, despite the constant training and education by her mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in the ways of being a lady and a princess, has other ideas. A tomboy and fiercely independent, happier with a strong sword than a pretty dress, Merida defies tradition and strikes out on her own, hoping to find a way to change her fate. But when she finally gets her wish, it is like nothing she could have expected or wanted. Now, with war looming on the horizon, it may take everything she has to save both her waylaid fate and her father's kingdom.

"Go ahead, punk. Make my day."
If Brave feels somewhat familiar, it's because this film is Pixar's first attempt at a fairy tale, long a staple of the Disney machine. In fact, you could easily draw parallels to Disney's last animated adventure, Tangled, though that was almost more of a parody of a fairy tale than an actual retelling of the Rapunzel story. Brave's story is an original one, woven with magic, swords and arrows, curses and monsters. Still, the main reason you'll love Brave is the character of Merida, which is a good thing since the film rarely takes a break from following the determined teenager. The perfectly-built character exudes a lot of Game of Thrones' Arya Stark; strong-willed, she rejects the gentler demands of being a) a girl and b) a princess. As a character she's closer to her warrior father, who is gruff and strong, than her more delicate and intelligent mother. Kelly Macdonald's voice is perfect in creating Merida's mixture of enthusiasm and relative naivete, and while she is not really as multi-dimensional a character as you hope she'd be, she is more than enough to carry a film of this degree.

They're not the Addams Family, but they'll do.
I was also a huge fan of Emma Thompson as Queen Elinor. As the film is primarily about the relationship between Merida and Elinor, it's nice to see that Elinor is just simply her mother. She's not an evil, child-hating, Munchausen syndrome-suffering, supernaturally beautiful (or conversely, hideously deformed) step-mother, but just a plain old Mom, like yours or mine. She loves her children, wants what's best for them, and there is no malice in any single one of her actions. Yes, Elinor's overbearing nature and natural adherence to tradition is partly what sets this whole mess off, but it's refreshing for once to have a strong woman who is in fact being strong-willed and intelligent in her stance and not just being an obstinate bitch, which is what usually happens in Hollywood flicks.

Left to right; Moe, Larry and Curly.
The rest of the characters are no slouches, and while Billy Connelly slays as Merida's father King Fergus, and strong voices are offered by Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson, I often found the best roles in the film were played without a single sound. Chief among these are Merida's younger triplet brothers, who steal every scene with their mischevious antics. They make for a nice change from the dramatic story, though they are far from alone in that distinction. Coltrane's Lord Dingwalf has a silent partner of his own, a brutally strong warrior who doesn't speak a word, not because he can't, but because through even limited actions he doesn't have to. Even Merida's horse Angus has personality to spare, and the animation is so strong that Angus can look not like a cartoonish variant of a horse but the real deal, and still emote more than some big-time live actors.

Would you look at that... her hair is INCREDIBLE.
It's that attention to detail that makes Brave, like every Pixar film before it, absolutely gorgeous to behold. It's not just the lusciously-flowing locks of Merida that are deserving of your attentions, but also the great and bountiful vistas, which do a wonderful job of setting the stage for the story to come. This studio is no stranger to visual wonder - check out any of their films in the past decade and marvel at their accomplishments. With computers as complex as they are now, you have to wonder how images such as these will be rendered a decade from now, and in what detail. It's a shame though that Brave's visual opulence must make up for a cliched and simplistic story, one that doesn't quite pull as elegantly at your heartstrings as the best Pixar has had to offer. Perhaps this is why the studio wanted Chapman off the project, after similar fairy tales had failed to impress at the box office. I didn't think things were TOO bad, but I'm only seeing the final product, not what was there before.

These boots are made for walkin'...
That isn't to say that Brave is all beauty and no brains, just that it turns out to be SLIGHTLY more beauty than brains. It carries easily the weakest story Pixar has thrown out in a long time (I haven't seen either Cars films, so I'm not counting them) and while Brave is STILL the #4 movie of 2012, its final landing spot is disappointing in that I was sure it would be competing for #1. Brave remains a gorgeous, tender, and at times expertly told story, but on very rare occasions it manages to dredge up the absolute worst aspects of the Disney Princess genre. It's a small quibble, and doesn't detract from the enjoyability of the final product. But when one has been weaned on purified excellence, you can't help but feel let down when one great instance fails to live up to all the wonder you have previously beheld..

Monday, June 25, 2012

Movie Monday: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

This Movie Monday is for a film both Todd and I have been looking forward to since trailers first aired, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Based on the "What If?" historical novel by Seth Graham-Greene, this movie is the type of peanut butter/chocolate mix of historical drama and bloodthirsty monsters that looked to go well together. We both enjoyed ourselves, and while it's not Top 10 material, you might still enjoy it if you like violent films like Underworld, Night Watch or Wanted.

After his mother is murdered by a monster in the night, young Abraham Lincoln plots revenge, which opens his world to the knowledge that Vampires are real and fighting for power in the United States. Trained by a secretive Vampire hunter, he learns that the Vampires rule the south and use slavery as a means to obtain cheap food and labor. With this information, Lincoln's ascent to the Presidency is meant to not only end slavery, but break the Vampires' hold in the United States and send them away for good.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter stars Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Anthony Mackie, Jimi Simpson, and Marton Csokas. It is also produced by Bekmambetov and Tim Burton.

Click here to check out the whole review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, June 22, 2012

"Guaranteed" Fun

Let's be honest with ourselves: it's been a truly shitty year for movies. Here we are, halfway done with 2012, and there have honestly been only three, maybe four great movies released so far this year. Marvel's The Avengers, Cabin in the Woods, 21 Jump Street, and Moonrise Kingdom. That's it. The rest might have had some intriguing aspects or honestly good moments, but have gone on to be either disappointing or incomplete or just plain bad. Actually, there have been even fewer BAD movies than GREAT ones this year, as most of the movies I've seen have fallen into the dreaded 'Blah' category. It's as if Hollywood's continually typing monkeys have been bucking the odds, failing to even deliver any spectacularly awful experiences. As more and more films come out that fail to live up to even modest expectations, I sometimes find myself ambivalent at the prospect of going to the theater; I've had too many dour moments this year with movies I had fully expected to love. The Five Year Engagement should have been fun. Silent House should have been scary. Wrath of the Titans should have been exciting. How many disappointments do I have to endure before I actually get to something with legitimate MEAT?

Woo! Road trip!
It turns out I only had to wait until Safety Not Guaranteed came to town. The film stars Aubrey Plaza as Darius, an emotionally reserved intern at Seattle Magazine, who has been depressed and withdrawn since the tragic death of her mother several years previously. The perennially-sarcastic Darius has been selected alongside gaming nerd intern Arnau (Karan Soni) to accompany columnist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) to a small Washington town, which was the origin of a mysterious, inspired classified ad...

"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."

The trail leads the trio to Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a retail employee who really seems to believe that he is building a machine to visit the past. For the story, Darius gets close to him and the pair bond over improvised shooting ranges and grand theft auto. While everybody else seems to think that Kenneth is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, Darius begins to believe that Kenneth is not as insane as they all seem to think... but what's crazier? That Kenneth believes he can go back in time? Or the idea that he might ACTUALLY be able to do it?

Yeah, because this location's not skeevy at all...
Believe it or not, that last question is not answered for the first 85 minutes of an 86-minute movie. From a storytelling aspect, this is quite the big deal, as the audience is constantly torn in wondering whether Kenneth can actually put together his machine or is simply nuts. In keeping this secret, director Colin Trevorrow (in his feature film debut) manages to infuse a typical character-driven film with a brilliantly understated science fiction premise. Trevorrow himself has referred to this particular style (in an interview with Open Letters Monthly's Lock Peterseim) as "low sci-fi", a growing sub-genre that looks to also include the upcoming Beasts of the Southern Wild. The genre works especially well with low-budget titles, and Safety Not Guaranteed is a perfect example of a film that doesn't do TOO much to betray its simple but powerful motivations.

When the orgy came into discussion, everybody became interested.
Those motivations include incredibly genuine characters that at first appear as mere caricatures before spawning lives of their own. Johnson is probably the best non-lead  a foul-mouthed, foul-minded writer using his story as a false front for reconnecting with an old flame. Soni takes the cliche of a lonely, awkward, over-achieving nerd and makes it one of the most honest performances of 2012. And yet they are almost window dressing for Plaza and Duplass, whose deeply rich personalities are the film's main course. Plaza of course plays to her angst-ridden, sarcastic strengths in the beginning, but really displays an openness and vulnerability that you've never seen in her work on Parks and Recreations and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Her Darius is such a damaged and introverted creature in the beginning, which is interesting enough, but the real strength of her performance is when she begins to trust Kenneth and open herself up to both him and us, revealing what we never would have guessed. Duplass is even better, easily straddling the line between misunderstood genius and dangerous lunatic. Everything in the character of Kenneth means something, from his awkwardness with the opposite sex to his seeming inability to use (or conscious decision to abstain from using) curse words. He's simultaneously every awkward guy you've met and something completely separate, all in one body. It's often the mix of Duplass' obtuseness with Plaza's sweet sarcasm that makes some of the movie's best scenes. The supporters do really get a chance to shine, but this film definitely belongs to Duplass and Plaza.

This is what Aubrey Plaza calls a smile.
After so many duds and disappointing debuts, it was nice to receive tangible value for my movie ticket this week. Safety Not Guaranteed might not have reached your local theater yet, but if you can get around to seeing it in the theater, this indie gem is well worth your time. As the #4 movie of 2012, it has attained a level of quality that few films this year have. Duplass especially is having a big year, from co-directing Jeff, Who Lives at Home and starring in the upcoming Your Sister's Sister and People Like Us. I'd love to make him the success story of 2012. So give this title a shot; this is so much more than a "can he or can't he" sci-fi tale, and the excellent characters succeed in drawing you in where very few recent titles have. A definite must-see.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Movie Monday: Rock of Ages

This weekend didn't offer much in the way of "great" entertainment, so Todd and I flipped a coin and saw Rock of Ages, the musical based on the Broadway show of the same name. We weren't sure what to expect, but we were certainly hoping that it couldn't be worse than attending That's My Boy.

In 1987 Los Angeles, two young singers trying to get their big breaks in Hollywood are Sherrie and Detroit-born Drew. Meeting by chance, the pair fall in love, but enter conflict when success shows itself on the horizon. Legendary rock band Arsenal is about to put on their final show before legendary rocker Stacee Jaxx embarks on his solo career, a concert that will save the Sunset Strip's iconic bar/showroom The Bourbon Room, and its embattered owner, from financial ruin. But The Bourbon Room, the Strip, and rock & roll finds itself under fire from religious conservatives, led by the mayor's wife, who seems to have a special grudge against the soon-to-be-solo Jaxx.

Rock of Ages is directed by Hairspray's Adam Shankman and stars Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary J Blige, Malin Akerman, Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise. It also features music from Poison, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, REO Speedwagon, Journey, Foreigner, Def Leppard, and other eighties bands, and an original song by Porcelain Black.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Euro Trip

No matter how many many new animation studios pop up, and no matter how many 3D animated films are released each year, there are still only two studios that REALLY matter: Pixar and Dreamworks. Of the two, Pixar has had the most success and the higher quality of films, from their breakthrough Toy Story to an almost-yearly excellent releases like The Incredibles, Up and Wall-E. Dreamworks has had fewer successes. but successes they HAVE been. While Pixar probably rules the quality side, Dreamworks generally works on quantity, and with hits such as the Shrek series, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon popping up regularly, Dreamworks has made a name for itself as a conveyor of consistent - if second-tier - animation. That has been enough for audiences, families who keep turning out to see these motion pictures. This summer, Pixar and Dreamworks meet yet again with conflicting June releases. But while we will be waiting until the end of the month to take in Pixar's Brave, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted made its way to screens this past weekend. After a successful debut (beating the highly-touted Prometheus at the box office), it's focusing on cashing in before Brave can inevitably ruin the party.

"Okay, yes, Meet the Fockers was a bad movie! Can you ever forgive me?"
Not that there's much reason to compare Madagascar to Brave in any capacity other than the fact that they're both children's animated films. While Brave looks like a clever, lore-filled tale with a strong message and unique characters, Madagascar is just silly, full of slapstick and wisecracks. continuing the story from its predecessors, Madagascar 3 sees Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith) trying to escape their temporary African residence to return home to the Central Park Zoo in New York City. As they will need the help of the Penguins (who have absconded with the airship to Monte Carlo), the four find themselves trekking across Europe, joining the circus, and attempting to elude the pursuit of Monacan Animal Control Captain Chantel Dubois (Frances McDormand), who is looking to add the head of a certain lion to her wall of trophies.

Huh, apparently zebras do just fine without opposible thumbs.
It's the circus angle that actually makes this film as enjoyable as it is. Sure, you might like the main cast of Stiller and crew, but they really don't do anything that different from other films. Even the Penguins, who are the main reason to watch ANY Madagascar offerings, aren't major factors in the movie as a whole. Instead it's the circus and the theme and characters that go along with it that provide the greatest source of entertainment the film can muster, and a great change of pace from the city/wild dynamic that had been the basis of the first two films. The vocal talent brought in to play the new characters were also amazing, with Bryan Cranston and Jessica Chastain (Seriously, how long is she going to be able to keep this pace?) performing wonderfully as a circus tiger and jaguar, respectively, and even Martin Short provides a good amount of levity as Stefano, a sea lion. Their work, plus the story of Alex and crew reinvigorating a failing circus, really raises the film above the dime store plot it would have enjoyed otherwise. While the addition of McDormand as an evil Animal Control specialist is admirable, it doesn't quite work as much more than a mix of Louis Tully from Ghostbusters and a Great White Hunter. And no, that's not really a compliment.While the movie does its best to make her a dire threat, I couldn't help but simply be annoyed by her presence, as she lacked anything other than cartoon villainy.

The Penguins: were you REALLY thinking of anything else when you bought your ticket?
Still, the film does at least bring the funny on a regular basis. Despite it being odd to see THREE directors in charge of making any title, even an animated movie, there don't appear to be any jumbled messages or misguided side-stories resulting from such a combination that would screw with the pace of the movie. I do wonder why Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2, Monsters Vs. Aliens) was asked to join the proven duo of Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath, who had paired on the two previous Madagascar films, but in the end it's not important. While conflict is minimal and usually involves a single conversation to set things right, it's easy to criticize this when the subject I'm talking about is a movie geared towards children. It's not supposed to be complicated, and it never has to be, for that reason alone.

"It's just a model!"
In all, Madagascar 3 was a decent time spent at the theaters. Like last year's Kung Fu Panda 2, it's a fun diversion without much in the way of deep plot or complicated storytelling. Still, it's actually funnier than both of Dreamworks' titles from last year (the other being Puss in Boots), especially for the children who make up the vast majority of the audience. Even with the addition of Chris Rock's quickly-annoying "Afro Circus" song, this is still a fine movie for the kids, and one even adults can get into once the circus story hits. Still, you might want to save your money for Brave, which promises to be the better of the two, and comes out in just a couple of weeks. But if you have money to burn and need to beat the heat, you can certainly do a lot worse than this fun ride. It's no How to Train Your Dragon, but it's firmly on the right side of Dreamworks' quality average, and that's certainly not a bad thing.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Movie Monday: Prometheus

On this Movie Monday, we look at what is one of the most anticipated films of 2012. Can Prometheus possibly live up to the hype it's been getting since the trailers first aired?

When archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover evidence that life on Earth was manufactured by a race of alien "Engineers", the powerful Weyland Corporation funds an expedition to what they believe to be the Engineer's home, a distant moon known only as LV-233. When their ship arrives, however, they find only a lifeless planetoid and an abandoned installation as the only signs of their previous tenants. While exploring the ruins, the team inadvertently makes a discovery that is not only the greatest find in the history of mankind, but on that could lead to its extinction should it ever return to Earth.

Prometheus is directed by Ridley Scott and also stars Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron, Rafe Spall and Sean Harris.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Beast of Burden

AARGH! I am so sick of the current inability of Hollywood to actually engage in competition and earn its box office dollars. With many films sporting excessively large budgets, studios are so scared of rival films biting into their bottom line that they will do anything within their power to prevent such a threat from occurring, often shifting their own films to less occupied release dates. Occasionally you will see a pair of new releases on the same day, but more often than not they appeal to widely diverse demographics (such as this weekend's pairing of the R-rated sci-fi thriller Prometheus and animated family film Madagascar 3). In the past month, there has been barely more than one single major release per weekend, and that can make things difficult for someone who posts his movie musings here three time a week. I was looking at the few remaining titles out there I haven't seen, but religious war film For Greater Glory and stoner comedy High School barely get more than minor shrugs from me; I'm no more interested in reviewing them than most of you are in seeing them, so why should either of us waste our time?

So I decided to take a Netflix Streaming day. Yes, I know many of you have cancelled your subscriptions because there really isn't all that much left on there that's any good. It's also disappointing when the service actually has cool, big-deal movies available, only to remove them a short time later. Still, you can find some nice gems if you go digging, and that's where I found The Iron Giant yesterday. Despite the growth of 3D animation that began with 1995's Toy Story, classic 2D animation was still the norm in 1999, when Warner Bros released The Iron Giant with weak marketing on its way to an even weaker box office run. Despite its early failings, it was quite the critically-acclaimed film, and has become a monumental success from DVD sales. It's also one of those films that people you know will highly recommend if you haven't seen it, and when I did finally see it on Netflix, I figured that I had nothing to lose, and pressed the "play" button.

Set in 1957 at the height of America's fears of the Red Menace, Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) is a smart, impressionable child whose only desire is a pet, and therefore friend, all his own. After several failed attempts (to the annoyance of his single mother, played by Jennifer Aniston), Hogarth finally gets his wish, though in no way that he expected. Something from space has crash-landed near his sleepy Maine town, and when it turns out to be a giant, metal-eating and amnesiac robot, Hogarth becomes his first and best friend. But the world isn't ready for the Iron Giant, and when the military learns about the beast from paranoid government agent Kent Mansley (Christopher McDonald), they come in full force to put down this monster from places unknown.

I don't know any other way to say this: I loved The Iron Giant. I loved the needling at just how paranoid of Communism and Soviet Russia we as a society had become in the post-WWII era. I loved the sci-fi and horror influences included that were a huge part of pop culture at the time. I loved the acting, from great talents such as Aniston, McDonald, Harry Connick Jr and John Mahoney. I even liked the relatively annoying Hogarth after a while. And I ABSOLUTELY loved the character of the Iron Giant, who was sparsely voiced by a then-up-and-coming Vin Diesel. The character of the Giant displayed a brilliantly childlike naivete, and that in essence set the stage for his remarkable personality, from his adoration of comic book hero Superman to his distress of the death of a deer at the hands of hunters. His growth is the growth of the film, and director Brad Bird's ability to create something so alien and still infuse it with the necessary humanity to make him sympathetic to the audience is a sight to behold.

Bird also did a wonderful job recreating what it meant to live in small-town American during the fifties. In the tiny port of Rockwell, Maine, everything is small business and local industry. The rest of the world feels so far away, through the vast forests and over the mighty ocean. Yet schools show "educational" videos telling children to hide under their desks during nuclear attack, and bunkers for the people to hide in are in town. Fandom of science fiction is at an apex, and children dream what it would be like to see an alien creature or to possess powers like their favorite superhero. Last year's Super 8 had a very similar feel, but while it captured the small town life well enough, it didn't quite do enough on the Sci-fi side of things to make as much of an impact for me. Bird proves here - in one of his early films no less - that he has ample talent for a future in film directing, which he would prove was no fluke in future animated works The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and last year's live-action debut Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

The Iron Giant is a truly heartfelt, inspiring tale of what it means to define oneself and to have a soul, steered fantastically by Bird, his animators and his talented cast. Sure, some of the characters are a little cliched, and perhaps the film does a little too much parody for its own good, but that is entirely forgiven when Diesel's giant metal man defies his destructive nature and saves the day, proving himself the hero he could always be. And that's the real meaning of this excellent film; no matter what our nature, we can always be the good guy, can always do the best we can. Only we define who we are. And that's what makes The Iron Giant so great, and so worth watching.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kingdom Come

When it comes to Wes Anderson (no relation) films, there are two kinds of people: those who think his are the best movies ever, and everyone else.

Okay, that's an oversimplification. It certainly does seem though that those who love the works of the independent director do so with every fiber of their being. How many people like that have you known over the years? These are the ones who stand aghast that you have not seen The Royal Tenenbaums, and hold Rushmore as an unheralded classic. They insist that Anderson's 1996 feature film debut Bottle Rocket is his best, and that The Fantastic Mr. Fox was a better animated movie than Up in 2009. They've even seen The Darjeeling Limited, which I dare you to admit you even KNEW was a real thing. Anderson's deadpan style of humor and narrative criss-crossing are well known to his fans, but as he trends away from the style of most modern comedies, many don't get on board, making Anderson's a cult fandom at best. His latest hit theaters this past week, and Moonrise Kingdom certainly looked like an interesting movie-going option. The only one of his films that I've seen before was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and while I hoped that Moonrise would at least be better than that, I honestly had no idea into what I was getting.

"Wes Anderson needs YOU."
The year is 1965, on a small island in New England. Two twelve year olds have packed up and left their unhappy homes, determined to make a life together. Orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) recently left a letter of resignation to the Boy Scouts of America, and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is leaving a family whose issues she cannot stand. As they attempt to flee and begin anew, a search is orchestrated by the island's Sheriff, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), Scout Master Randy Wright (Edward Norton), and Suzy's parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Little does anyone know that a monster hurricane is on its way, and none of the island's inhabitants will be safe, let alone two runaways in the wild.

Now THAT'S a story they'll tell the kids someday...
It's difficult to describe exactly what I liked about seeing Moonrise Kingdom, mostly because the damn thing's so quirky it defies explanation. Anderson infuses several themes - including abandonment, infidelity, family infighting, anger issues, and intolerance - into the screenplay he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, and the result is not the illiterate mishmash you would get from lesser directors, but a cohesive, multi-staged narrative that properly builds the film's story from perfect beginning to poignant ending. One Anderson staple is to have his characters display little, if any, emotion, and while that might not be very realistic overall, it's an interesting allegory on how we censor ourselves around others, even in moments of distress and frustration. Moonrise Kingdom is smart most of the time, and silly only when it absolutely needs to be, creating a dynamic that pushes it far ahead of where Life Aquatic could reach.

She sees you!
The cast does a great job of telling that tale, and not just those actors like Murray and Jason Schwartzman, who have worked on films with Anderson in the past. Murray is of course amazing as usual, managing to play the practical father figure who occasionally allows signs of his mental depression and anger issues to pass his screen, making for one of his best performances in years. In fact, this might his best work since the excellent Lost in Translation. Bruce Willis and Frances McDormand are also impressive in their Wes Anderson debuts, with Willis actually playing it somewhat subtle as the island's Sheriff, who is also having an affair with McDormand. As for the actress, how McDormand hasn't appeared in one of Anderson's films before now is a mystery; seeing as she is all-around wonderful, delivering each line (whether normally or through Laura Bishop's trademark megaphone) perfectly. Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton round out the cast; Norton plays the squeaky clean Scout Master with the level of talent we are all used to from him, while Swinton is positively delicious as the woman considered so reprehensibly wrong that she doesn't have a name, referred to only as "Social Services".

All we need is a butcher, a baker and a candle-stick maker.
It's the preteen stars Gilman and Hayward who make the biggest impact, however. While their introductions are perhaps a bit slow, they quickly become the center of the whole film, and Anderson wisely uses them to their fullest abilities without stretching them too thin. These are their first appearances in movies, after all, and from their performances as outcast lovers, I'd be shocked if either failed to make it work with real Hollywood careers sometime in the future, should they so desire. As the our heroes, their story of finding their first love is spectacularly told, and the acting of the two kids helps properly convey their attraction, their similarities and their differences. Their outward fight against those that would keep them apart is the same as the struggle of new lovers to discover common ground and compromise, all while learning new things about the other. While Anderson does his best to make the supporting characters stand out, it is these two who are rightfully the heart and soul of Moonrise Kingdom. You could argue that twelve year olds have no real clue what love is, but this movie just wouldn't be the same without their innocence to carry it.

Because kids running off to get married is totally cool.
Obviously I can't really compare this to the best of Wes Anderson's films; I've only seen the one, and Life Aquatic has nothing that Moonrise Kingdom does not easily overpass on its way to becoming the year's #4 Film. Anderson takes a deft hand to what can be best described as the most artistic movie so far in 2012, and he is helped both by his amazing screenplay and the excellent acting of all involved. I honestly wasn't sure what I was getting into when I went to see this, but if it comes to a theater near you, do yourself a favor and check it out. It may not be for everyone, but it is a film everyone should try, just for the sake of seeing something different.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Movie Monday: Snow White and the Huntsman

It's the first weekend in June, and after a dull May (minus The Avengers, of course!) I'm ready to see if this summer has anything left in the tank that doesn't reek of desperation and lowest common denominator.

Snow White and the Huntsman is the second adaptation of the Grimm Fairy Tale we all grew up learning. After Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) marries and then murders her way to become the ruler of the realm, she rules with an iron fist, draining the life from the land and the vitality of young women to keep her own features fair and beautiful. When her captive stepdaughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart) threatens to surpass her own beauty, Ravenna decides to consume her heart, therefore living forever. Before she can do this, Snow White manages to escape, and with the help of allies threatens to end the evil reign of her cruel stepmother.

Snow White and the Huntsman is directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Theron, Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Toby Jones.

Click here for the full review at Open Letters Monthly.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Nucwear Wessells

(Update: The post is now up! Check out the link at the bottom for the full review! And thanks for your patience!)

Sorry! Today was SUPPOSED to be the delayed Movie Monday post for Open Letters Monthly, but we ran into a bit of a hiccup. The review for Chernobyl Diaries was posted last night, but an unfortunate site editing accident pushed it right back out again. Things should be all right after midnight, and tomorrow I'll post the link to the site, but in the meantime here's the setup for the film. I'll see you tomorrow!

When a group of young twenty-somethings decide to visit the ruins of the Chernobyl Power Plant and the nearby abandoned town of Pripyat, they think that this will be an adventure they tell their children someday. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a fun trip has turned out to be anything but. Something is hunting these tourists; something hiding in the darkness that will rend them limb from limb, unless these hapless visitors can find a way to escape. Produced by Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli and directed by Bradley Parker, Chernobyl Diaries stars Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelley, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Nathan Phillips, and Ingrid Bolse Berdal.

Check out the full review by clicking here.