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  • Be Kind Rewind

    Be Kind Rewind (2008)

    May 14, 2014

    This film was funny; this film was campy; this film showcased the wild acting talents of Jack Black... however, due to an over reliance of plot exposition and background history of certain characters, Be Kind Rewind was bogged down and did not have the spontaneity it needed to stand alongside cheap, campy 80s "junk" like Nick Moranis and Dave Thomas' "Strange Brew," (which also relied on cheap film techniques.) In turn, the film had some really weak plot devices to lead up to Jack Black and Mos Def's remaking of famous films. There should have been some funnier and more logical way to erase hundreds of VHS tapes than reverting to the getting-hit-by-lightning routine (which also begs the question: why didn't Jack Black erase the new VHS movies he and Mos Def had created?) Good performances from Danny Glover and Melanie Diaz.

  • Marmaduke

    Marmaduke (2010)

    April 27, 2014

    This is one of the better "talking dog" movies I've seen; it is certainly better than Cats & Dogs and its sequel. However, aspects of the plot and the "family before work" theme seems reused, and had been done better by many family films in the past couple decades. I was amazed by how well-trained many of the animals were; while its overreliance on CGI was unnecessary in some parts, many of the effects surprised me for a film this low-key.

  • The Sorcerer's Apprentice

    The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

    April 21, 2014

    I hate Jerry Bruckheimer. No, I mean, I REALLY hate Jerry Bruckheimer, so much that I cringe every time his moving logo of the lightning hitting the tree appears before opening credits. This film puts into play every negative aspect that bothered me with his previous films: twisting history and reality for the sake of more action, convoluted plots, unnecessary chase scenes, the sexist portrayal of women, the over-achieving heroism of men, and (worst of all,) the overly-commercialized cliff-hanger ending that sets up future cash-grabs.

    What made "Sorcerer's Apprentice" such a shame to watch was that I actually enjoyed it up to a point. That's right. Act 1 and a portion of Act 2 I actually ENJOYED. The beginning story set-up with the Wizards and the dragon ring and the Grimhold was interesting; there was clever dialogue and situations ("Are you crazy?!?" Nicholas Cage makes a gesture meaning: 'a little.'), and Jay Baruchel's awkwardness was hilarious. (This was the first time I had seen Baruchel in live-action; previously, I was familiar with the guy as simply the voice of Hiccup from "How To Train Your Dragon.") Even Nicholas Cage was entertaining as Merlin's heir Balthazar. However, after the pointless tie-in to Walt Disney's Fantasia involving Baruchel's failed attempt to clean the facility using the untested magic of anthropomorphic brooms and mops, "Sorcerer's Apprentice" spiraled into typical Bruckheimer fare. Explosions abound. Chase scenes ensue. The Grimhold gets tossed around like kids playing a game of hot potato. Women are A) sex objects B) unspeakable evils that must be squashed and/or C) a plot stall. In the end, boy gets girl. Balthazar dies but he doesn't die. Mankind is saved from womankind by cleverness and young guys filling their "old man's shoes." And, of course, there's the inevitable cliff-hanger. While I was not expecting refined drama and excellence from a summer film intended for mere entertainment, Disney should really try harder. With the financial disappointment of "Prince of Persia" and the laughable flop which was "The Lone Ranger," perhaps audiences are getting wiser by avoiding these poor-man-Spielberg movies.

  • Life of Pi

    Life of Pi (2012)

    April 18, 2014

    Life of Pi is one of those movies that is wonderful to watch, but would have seemed even more brilliant if I had not read the source material beforehand. As a lover of Yann Martel's unforgettable novel, I found this film adaption leaning too heavily on computer-generated spectacle intensifying the sinking ship, the rolling sea waves, and the initial cat-and-mouse encounters between Pi and Richard Parker. Thank goodness the quality of CG effects was brilliant, as otherwise this film would have felt like a cartoon. Rhythm & Hues, the late special effects studio in charge of the numerous simulated animals and environments produced some of their best work to date; I was truly convinced that Richard Parker was a living, breathing Bengal Tiger after Pi's throat. In turn, the colorful psychedelic sequences of color and light were also a wonder to behold, even though a certain night scene featuring glowing jellyfish and algae screamed "Let's cash in on Avatar's Pandora." Ang Lee did a fine job handling the narration, with the back-and-forth interplay from present to past; Martel's writing was too good to leave out, and the best of the novel's written passages were incorporated into Pi's retelling, down to the spot-on perfect final conversation he has with the two officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. This shocking revelation of the symbolic nature of the zoo animals was by far the best part of the film (and novel) and it ended the film in a satisfying and melancholy manner. As far as an emotional ride, Life of Pi scaled back the spiritual and emotional journey of Pi lost at sea; I never got the sense that the boy was stranded on sea for 230 days, as he looked and acted like he was lost for 2 or 3 months. My favorite part of the novel, which was the humorous three-way fight between the Christian, Hindu, and Muslim priests, was left absent. Even more frustrating is the absence of Pi's conversation with Richard Parker; this was a total, complete missed opportunity, as CG could have been used very well to create a talking Bengal tiger. Suraji Sharma, who played Pi, and Irrfan Khan, who portrayed Pi's adult-self, were very well acted and memorable. I wish I could say the same thing about Rafe Spall, whose overly-amazed interjections stuck out like a sore thumb.

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel

    The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

    April 10, 2014

    Wes Anderson may have just created his masterpiece, which I had previously thought impossible, as his previous three efforts, "Moonrise Kingdom," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and "Darjeeling Limited" were a few of my favorite films of all times. This film is a joy to watch, as Anderson employs his signature centered camera shots, his painstakingly perfect color schemes looking like they had been ripped out of the pages of Vogue, and his innocent doll-house-like arrangements. While the overall weirdness of the story and the occasional violent scene prevents the film from being in the "total pure cinematic goodness" territory like "Moonrise Kingdom," the end result shows Anderson has reached new heights, as he took everything that made his films great and up'ed it up a notch.

    Like all of Anderson's films, this one weaves a deep symbolic truth about humanity alongside a comedy filled with fabulously-acted and fabulously-dressed characters. From the distinct purple Lobby Boy hat and straight mustache worn by Zero Moustafa to the birth mark shaped like Mexico on the flour-powdered face of Agatha, these bubbly, over-the-top people are all Andersonian. I wish I knew them all. This film succeeds more than his past efforts because the comedy and sense of danger is increased to a point of occasional slapstick, which hasn't been done on this level since his "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." The numerous scenes of people falling off mountain cliffs, prisoners crawling through sewers, angry men punching each other in the faces and tossing cats out the window, are all done as seriously as possible. The end result is completely hilarious. Complementing the funny parts in the same way salt adds flavor to a chocolate chip cookie, there are some really deep symbolic tie-ins with the historical situations that started World War I. The fictitious Grand Budapest Hotel, which sits on top a mountain in a fictitious European country is, in essence, Europe before 1914: peaceful, impressive, majestic, the place every rich person would visit. But now, it is a shabby place in ruins. Still functional, still grand in its own way, but no longer magical. This is apparent in the film's first (and last) moments when an old Gustave H, famed concierge of the hotel, sits depressed in his drabby orange-1960s-style carpeted lobby, unrecognized by many. And it is not just the hotel that symbolizes Europe before its fall. The surrounding landscape becomes a tumultuous maze of crime, murder, deceit, and confusion. Just like World War I, the plot gets so complicated, nobody knows what is going on by the end, and as a result, 30 people aim guns at each other in the hotel's great lobby and shoot at each other nonstop in the greatest gun show since the OK Coral. Some of the events leading up to the shootout include: the death of a rich lady (Tilda Swindon,) her complicated will, the true possession (and theft) of her famous painting "Boy With Apple," the lady's rich evil son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) who would stop at nothing to see Gustave H done away with, Willem Dafoe's J G Jopling, the hired assassin, and Agatha (Sairse Ronan) who aids in Gustave H's jailbreak through her talent of pastry-making. As mentioned before, the characters are very distinct, very unique, and I fell in love with all of them. I would like to have a posable collector's doll of each and every one to set on the mantelpiece. Gustave H is believable, despite his obsession with Romantic-era poetry and the impossible situations he is put through. (At one point in the film he is imprisoned, but escapes by digging through six feet of concrete from his cell using spoons, small pick-axes and hammers.) His lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, is just as likable. The unusually-large cast also sees the returns of Wes Anderson favorites like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban. The cost in casting all these A-star actors and actresses probably made up the majority of the film's budget. In short, I was impressed with The Grand Budapest Hotel for its sheer imagination, truthful historical undertones, pumped-up action/comedy, and the wonderful characters. If you love Wes Anderson, please watch "The Grand Budapest Hotel." If you don't know who Wes Anderson is, please watch "The Grand Budapest Hotel" because it's about time you learned.

  • The Wind Rises

    The Wind Rises (2014)

    April 04, 2014

    The world lamented when director Hayao Miyazaki revealed that The Wind Rises, (Kaze Tachinu,) was to be his last feature-length film. Over the decades, the man has produced some of the most memorable animated experiences, from the high-flying adventure Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the medieval epic Princess Mononoke, to the charming and cuddly My Neighbor Totoro. In comparison to these classics, The Wind Rises is, as much as it pains me to say it, far less memorable. Part of the problem may have to do with Miyazaki San's claim that he has "reached his limit" and is out of creative ideas; a second, and more plausible, reason is the source material. The Wind Rises is Studio Ghibli's first biographical film. Basically, this two hour animated film is the more-or-less truthful account of Jiro Horikoshi, Japanese aircraft designer who brought to life the infamous Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a war plane responsible for the deaths of thousands during World War II. You might be scratching your head by now: "why make a movie about this guy? That doesn't sound interesting." And the truth is, Jiro's life was not very interesting, though Miyazaki tried extremely hard to bring the wide-eyed wonder of Jiro's creative struggle and the devastation of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 to life. From the material he was given, Miyazaki succeeds. However, like many biopic films before, this film does not have a powerful story arc, and seemed more like a series of events, which is how true-stories often play out. Even more frustrating is Miyazaki's decision to incorporate his trademark nature-vs.-war message, (best seen in Princess Mononoke,) into The Wind Rises. The result was a weaker film with a conflicted message; one one hand, Jiro Horikoshi wanted to be the greatest aircraft designer of his age, but on the other hand, he was warned numerous times by his hallucinatory-mentor Caproni that airplanes, as beautiful as they may be, will eventually be used for war and bloodshed. Jiro's painstaking effort to make his architectural dream a reality seemed a bit unscrupulous and unwise. The film's tone was not particularly devastating or serious, and the actual war often referenced was never shown. I also had a big problem with Jiro himself as a character. Again, I hate to say this, as Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers, but the main character's actions, intentions, and personality was a bit... robotic. Even characters in the movie laughed when the man got married, as they thought that he loved airplanes so much he was going to marry one. Now, I did not mind the detailed technical descriptions of the planes, particularly the clever cross-section method Miyazaki used to show audiences the internal guts and framework of the vehicles; in many ways, this anime reminded me of The Right Stuff, which went in-depth into the creation of the X-1 and Mercury spacecrafts during the Space Race. The film, while being the highest-grossing title of 2013 in Japan, received harsh criticism from local critics for being un-Japanese and unpatriotic; all these claims are totally justifiable, as numerous characters repeatedly bash Japan for being backwards, simultaneously praising the technical achievements of the German Nazis. As an American, this kinda rubbed me the wrong way.

    Finally, the ending was a bit odd. I did like the airplane graveyard Jiro sees in a dream, where the wrecked frames of planes litter the once-beautiful meadow, and the memories of the planes go into the sky, very similar to that one unearthly sequence in Porco Rosso. However, I was put off when Jiro's wife ***spoiler*** dies in a very subtle manner. She does say a few farewell words but then she just... fades. (She did not go to heaven, but the planes did?!?) Planes are great, but they should not be viewed higher than fellow human beings. If Jiro felt any bit of remorse for his actions, they were not apparent to me. Like a robot, he was just doing what he was programmed to do: make beautiful airplanes. On the good side, The Wind Rises had some awesome animation, as typical with all Ghibli works. In fact, if airplanes are your thing, than this had THE best animation, outdoing the flying scenes in both Laputa and Porco Rosso; the level of skill and patience these artists put into recreating every nut and bolt on these historical flying machines was commendable. I also enjoyed the humanization of the machines, where engine sputters, piston explosions, and propeller hums seemed to be performed by human voices; this added a retro quality to the film because such sound effects were done by people in old movies. The dream sequences between Hiro and legendary Italian designer Caproni were brilliant, and these remained my favorite scenes in the entire film. They were whimsical, impossible to achieve in live action, and classic Hayao Oh-My-God-That's-Clever-Miyazaki. Overall, I give this film 3 out of 5 stars, as it is perhaps Hayao Miyazaki's weakest effort, but as a film it is pretty good, if a bit technical, and leans on the unemotional and technical. I am a bit worried how Studio Ghibli will fare without the master, and the fact that his last work was less than stellar. Hopefully, Hayao Miyazaki will still work in the studio to assist the upcoming rising anime stars Goro Miyazaki and Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

  • The Dark Knight Rises

    The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

    February 09, 2014

    *spoilers* The final installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is, to put it bluntly, a half-baked effort. While the script had plenty of unexpected twists and turns, it never reaches the height of perfection, which is Heath Ledger's creepy and smart dialogue that filled the previous installment, The Dark Knight. Tom Hardy's portrayal of Bane, I'm afraid to say, cannot fill the Joker's enormous shoes, and while the guy's unsettlingly smooth voice and unlawful actions are clever, he comes off as a second-rate villain; Bane's plot to keep control through mass hysteria by placing the fate of the entire city in the hands of paranoid civilians is a rip-off of a memorable sequence from the last film. I felt that so much more could have been done, creatively speaking, to cap off Nolan's visionary portrayal of the Caped Crusader. As a positive note, I did get a smirk out of the whole political aspect of the film, particularly Gotham's war between the 1% and the deprived 99. Overthrowing the police force, the justice system, and, basically, anybody with cash lining their expensive pockets, is a clever metaphor to Occupy Wall Street, which occurred during the time of this film's shooting. In turn, Gary Oldman continues to impress as Commissioner Gordon.
    Apart from recycled story elements and a villain that cannot match its predecessor, I must point out another element about Dark Knight Rises which let me down: Catwoman. Now, the classic, jewel-thief character did not bother me, per se; in fact, Anne Hathaway seemed born to play the part. What bothered me was that the character's potential was greatly reduced to 1960'ish 'meow' jokes, fake-looking leg props kicking bad guys in the faces, and countless shots of Hathaway's leather-clad behind perched atop a speeding motorbike. It becomes very clear towards the final minutes of the film that Catwoman's primary function in this film is to persuade female viewers that Nolan is not sexist when Marion Cotillard's Miranda, the strongest female character in the film, suddenly replaces Bane as the true villain in an unexpected (and highly illogical) plot twist. I detest when superhero/action films attempt to gain viewer's sympathy by delving into the villains' tear-ridden past; Dark Knight Rises is no exception. We learn all about Bane's struggles and how darkness (both literal and figurative) and brutal imprisonment led to his ultimate despicable nature. I'm sorry, but I found the whole flashback sequence pointless, especially after the fact that Bane had murdered an army of people; at this stage in the film I did not CARE how he became evil. The final problem I had with Dark Knight Rises is the ending. While the origins of Robin are revealed, it makes me wonder how Batman is going to return (especially with the knowledge that both director Nolan and Christian Bale will not be returning in 2016's Batman vs. Superman.) To sum up Dark Knight Rises, I was let down, partly because several new characters were undeveloped, and partly because the film could not compare to its superior installment. (Oh, Heath Ledger, why, oh why did you have to die?!?)

  • Spice World

    Spice World (1998)

    January 26, 2014

    This frolicking British flick is colorfully insane every second of the way; this can clearly be seen from the impossibly-campy antics experienced by the Spice Girls between traveling tours to the girls' signature over-the-top costumes. The movie pokes fun at the girls' struggles with celebrity fame, media morons trying too hard to cash in on their brand and, of course, those malicious men who would love nothing more than to see the musical quintet dead in the eyes of the public. Borrowing more than a page from The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, Spice World highlights the girls' best songs in strategic, and sometimes unexpected, locations; for example, their legendary "Wannabe" is sung impromptu at a local pub with a boom-box serving as the only musical backdrop. Like the Beatles' films, many numbers take place during concerts or recording sessions; however, unlike the Beatles, who performed glued to their instruments, Geri, Melanie G, Melanie C, Emma, and Victoria provide high-flying choreography in addition to their vocal talents. The ending song "Spice Up Your Life" demonstrates exactly why the girls were so popular. This sequence will make you want to get up and dance.

    The film truly encompassed the decade of the 90's: the obsession of retro furniture (just take a look at the interior of that traveling, double-decker bus!), platform boots so high they could reach the stratosphere, healthy amounts of "girl power," and 'anything-goes' fashion ("could somebody please tell me exactly what the dress code is here?" one character remarks). The Spice Girls could have created a convoluted and overly-absorbing piece of cinematic self-promotion, (ie, the Monkees' film "Head,") but they have, instead, gone the more fun and carefree route by placing themselves in comic and embarrassing story-lite situations filled with fun, flair, and secret agents bottle-feeding baby piglets. My favorite sequence in when the girls are put through military training; each of the Spices don a green, unflattering camouflaged army outfit, except for Posh, who still retains her fashionable flash in a short, tight, army-patterned dress. It is silly to watch, sure, but I appreciate how the girls stay true to their public on-stage personas.

    The upside and downside of Spice World is that its humor succeeds only half the time. While I believe taking the "campiness" out of the film would have been a major mistake, I also believe the film would have been much stronger as a whole if many jokes had been taken farther, instead of being cut halfway before reaching their humorous pinnacles. One such example is towards the end of the film when the British police stop the girls from reaching their concert at Albert Hall; Baby Spice approaches the officers with a pouty-puff display of innocence. Then... the scene cuts, and the girls (somehow) arrive unscathed to their concert a couple minutes later. If Baby Spice had gone farther in her pleas, (or if Ginger Spice had interfered by whacking the cops across their kissers,) I would have been more satisfied.

    But despite the half-hearted attempt at many jokes, the far-fetched nature of the story disguised everything that did not work. I am annoyed by critics (both professional and amateur,) who give Spice World one star out of five. One star? Really? My personal rule-of-thumb is that one shouldn't call a film "cheesy and all-over-the-place" in a condescending manner if the film's intent was to present the world as being, well, cheesy and all-over-the-place. (Extra points to the alien encounter scene.) In all honest, I enjoyed the groovy and rockin' Spice World; while it did not ascend to the heights of A Hard Day's Night or Help, it is on-par with Herman's Hermits' musical comedies of the 60's.

  • Treasure Island

    Treasure Island (1950)

    January 20, 2014

    Still Disney's best pirate movie.

  • Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki)

    Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (The Wolf Childre... (2012)

    January 18, 2014

    Be scared, Studio Ghibli, be very scared. Director Mamoru Hosoda has demonstrated with this impressive anime that he, and his newly-formed Studio Chizu, is on the way to becoming an international household name. The amount of creativity, visual detail, and originality add up to a masterful artistic work that has every right to sit on the DVD shelf alongside past Japanese classics as Spirited Away and Akira. With this being Hosoda's fourth feature-length film, the man is just getting warmed up; I have a positive happy feeling that the best is yet to come.

    Originally released in 2012, the same year as Studio Ghibli's sweet-but-safe From Up On Poppy Hill, Wolf Children is, contrastingly bolder, more daring, more memorable, and has more emotional oomph in its first act than Poppy Hill has in its entirety. The original storyline was written and conceived by Hosoda as a parallel between real-life parenthood and the seemingly supernatural bond between parents and children. Hana, a young mother who singularly raises two half-human half-canine pups from the last remaining wolf man, endures the same emotional trauma as any overworked, overstressed contemporary mother; she is a very relatable character to both men and women. The film also deals with bigotry, stereotypes, following one's individual path, and growing up; all these aspects are crafted so well, I never felt for an instant that I was re-watching some recycled product about tolerance and love. The themes were disguised extremely well behind a beautiful backdrop and an enthralling, intriguing concept. Hollywood should watch this movie and take notes; it will help them. The emotions in this film are genuine. Several sequences, including the death of the wolf man and the school fight between Yuke and the schoolboy were the most memorable. There were plenty of humorous sequences too, such as Ame and Yuki's terrorization of the stuffy urban apartment, as well as Yuke's collection of animal bones and live snakes, as part of a failed attempt to fit in with other children. As with Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars, Hosoda knows how to balance comedy with drama; this film shows that his decision-making process has become all-the-more refined. The contrasting life directions both children ultimately take is also unexpected and praiseworthy.

    A few problems I had with the plot, however, prevents me from giving the film a full 5-star rating. For starters, what would society and townspeople think of Hana as a considerate mother after they learn about Ame's disappearance at the end? She can't very well explain: "hey, it's ok, he was a WOLF." A second problem with the film is the aforementioned scene when Yuki nearly slices the ear off a fellow classmate. He mistakenly thought a wolf had caused the harm... yet, I found myself asking: "how can you NOT notice what just happened? Can you not see the girl with the pointy ears and wolfish face standing there in front of you?" In addition, this film did not balance the theme of past vs. present as well as previous films. For example, Girl Who Leapt Through Time dealt with the idea that one can mess up his or her life by meddling with the past; Summer Wars blended traditional feudal-age Japanese warfare with the cyber era. With Wolf Children, Hosoda went for a more traditional look and feel, as all the visual images dealt with the natural world and agriculture; (I even learned quite a bit on how to plant potatoes!) There were very few scenes that smashed the old with the new in clever ways, my favorite being the image of the wolf man's driver's license sitting on a shelf in a place of honor. Traditional anime would have settled with the stereotypical motif of an old-faded-photo-in-a-frame motif. These plot holes are few, fortunately, and are overshadowed by the emotional, original narrative.

    In short, Mamoru Hosoda, who was once employed by legendary Studio Ghibli, but 'let go' due to creative differences, looks like he may very well become Japan's next anime master. Wolf Children is his third and most impressive work to date. Very soon, Studio Chizu may eclipse the house of Hayao Miyazaki.

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