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Monsters vs. Aliens is a good enough for a rental or a cheap matinée screening, but paying extra for the 3-D glasses isn't a good investment for such an adequate product.
1 April 2009
Animation is a wonderful medium that allows us to create worlds and creatures that would not be possible in the realm of live-action film-making. However, like in live-action, the most important aspect in animation is the story. No matter how fantastic your visuals will be or how funny and multi-generational your jokes are, if your script is not up to snuff, your film is going to be simply average. Featuring an all-star cast of talented film and television actors, Monsters vs. Aliens is similar to an amusement park ride. You have fun while on it, it all passes by very quickly and then you forget about it some moments later as you go on the next ride.

When a planet explodes and a meteorite enters the Earth's atmosphere, Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) comes in contact with it and soon she grows into a giant. Naturally, she is caught by the government and detained in a top-secret building with other monsters: a scientist who experienced a botched experiment to give people the live-span of cockroaches (Hugh Laurie), a gelatinous blob with no brain (Seth Rogen), a playboy fish-ape hybrid (Will Arnett) and finally, the chemically-altered Insectosaurus. When an alien leader Galaxaar (Rainn Wilson) attacks the planet, the President (Stephen Colbert) calls upon this group of monsters to help save the day.

Monsters vs. Aliens just feels like a fun excuse to show off some impressive visuals, but without a concrete story, it's hard to care for the main characters or their quest to save the world. Susan is quite under-developed and I didn't feel much emotion for her character in the same way I did for, say, Stitch (from another animated science-fiction comedy Lilo & Stitch) or last year's Wall-E. The best aspect of the film is B.O.B. Seth Rogen does a great job in the role and even when he's not saying anything or when the scene is not centered on him, the character's facial expressions are hilarious to watch. Stephen Colbert also does some funny work as the President of the United States (the role he was pretty much born to play). The rest of the actors do good jobs, but nothing quite impressive. Had a professional voice actor like Jim Cummings and Tress McNeille taken on those roles, they would have knocked them out of the park.

In any case, the film has enough good humour and well out-together action sequences that the audience will not be bored by it and Monsters vs. Aliens feels half as long as the advertised running time. However, some added character development would have helped the film from being just another run-of-the-mill DreamWorks animated comedy. While certainly better than the likes of Shark Tale or Madagascar, it doesn't reach the heights of their other comedies, most notably Shrek and Bee Movie. Monsters vs. Aliens is a good enough for a rental or a cheap matinée screening, but paying extra for the 3-D glasses isn't a good investment for such an adequate product.
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A fun romp through New York's night-time music scene.
6 September 2008
For years, teenagers have connected with one another through music and the discovery of new and different bands. Even though technology has allowed music to be more widespread and portable, there is still the thrill of late-night adventures seeking live performances from favourite bands. In Peter Sollett's Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, he brings this out on screen in a fun manner that shows you do not necessarily need crude humour or death-defying encounters to make a night out with friends an interesting and worth telling story. Throughout the film, the audience becomes more enriched by the characters and their ideas. Nick and Norah could have easily become a smug "teenagers rule over all" tale like this year's Charlie Bartlett, but is instead is a sweet romance between two individuals that most people can easily relate to.

Nick (Michael Cera) is the guitarist for a queercore band with his two friends Dev and Thom (Rafi Gavron and Aaron Yoo). He is currently grieving over the separation between his former girlfriend Tris (Alexis Dziena), but decides to join his friends for a performance out in New York City. In an act of desperation, he encounters Norah (Kat Dennings), who asks Nick to be his boyfriend for five minutes. After her drunken friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) runs off into the city, Nick and Norah along with his friends scour the city in search of her. Meanwhile, Tris is decides to go after Nick to find out if it truly is over between them.

One of the key successes of this film lies with the ensemble cast of talented young actors. Adults are barely featured in this film, as the teenage characters are given the overall spotlight here and Peter Sollett has hired some very good actors to play these parts. Michael Cera is still playing the awkward individual he has been doing since Arrested Development, but he still grows into the part well, as his character is not quite as nervous as previous roles. He proves to be likable and relatable in the part and his chemistry with the other actors comes off very well. Kat Dennings surpasses him, though, giving Norah a sarcastic wit and coming off as very easy to relate to. The way Nick and Norah progress throughout the film is handled very well by Cera and Dennings. Ari Graynor deserves some acclaim for her wacky, but still nuanced performance as Caroline. She is given the bulk of "stunts" in this film, particularly when sharing the screen with a piece of gum that ends up becoming a separate character by itself. Aaron Yoo, Rafi Gavron and Jonathan B Wright allow their best friend roles to become more than just simple stereotypes as they prove just as likable as the leads. Jay Baruchel also does a fine job in a small role that is definitely very far from the meek actor he played in last summer's Tropic Thunder.

Credit should also go to first-time screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, adapting the original source material by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. She writes a funny and intelligent script with well-developed characters who evolve effectively and realistically as the film goes on. She also does not go the Adventures in Babysitting route by showing New York after hours as a grungy underworld, instead opting for a more light-weight approach to the material. She understands the independent musical scene of the Big Apple and she portrays it effectively throughout the course of the film. Director Peter Sollett and Cinematographer Tom Richmond also do well in lighting the city and allowing it to breathe. Even though the large majority of Nick and Norah takes place at night, there is still plenty of light that shines through, particularly in showing the vast culture. Legendary locations like the New Jersey Turnpike, Times Square and Pennsylvania Station also make appearances to give the film an even more New York feel.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist simply wants to be a fun, breezy ride through New York's music scene and the audience is happy to go along with it. The characters are easy to relate to, the writing is intelligent and the direction is solid. Though there have been plenty of "one night in the city" films, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist manages to stay fresh and original and unique through its running time. Overall, this is definitely one to watch at the evening showing with the buddies.
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A funny, smart action comedy from Ben Stiller.
15 August 2008
Ben Stiller is a funny actor who manages to create likable characters, even when playing mousy, irritable types. This reviewer's reaction to Stiller's directing efforts, however, have been less than positive. The Cable Guy was an un-even film that, despite a couple of interesting moments, started to get much too ridiculous and creepy in the third act. Meanwhile, I found his 2001 "comedy" Zoolander, a riff on the male model industry, to be a complete disaster failing to release a signal laugh from me. With Tropic Thunder, he finally succeeds in making a film that is smart and gives talented actors some worthy material. While Tropic Thunder is nothing more than a fun summer diversion, there is still plenty to like about it, despite its occasional flaws. Unlike Zoolander, it does not take itself too seriously or nor does it spend more time on its visual style rather than its humour. Stiller intelligently relies on more than just a one-joke premise and actually manages to make the audience care for a bunch of whiny actors. As long as he doesn't butcher this rare success with a poor sequel, Stiller the director remains on my good graces.

Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a popular action star whose attempt at dramatic acting becomes such a massive failure, he decides to star in Vietnam war epic Tropic Thunder to get back on top again. Award-winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) is also hired to star in the film, but as a black character, leading him to have plastic surgery to make himself be the character even when the cameras aren't rolling. They are joined by Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a flatulence obsessed comedian with a strong heroin addiction, rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson) and aspiring young actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). After a disastrous day on set that infuriates the film's maverick producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides to shoot the whole film guerilla style in the real Vietnamese jungle. Not surprisingly, however, chaos ensures as the actors are mistaken for real soldiers and they finally have to put their wits to the test.

Due to his high-standing status in Hollywood, Ben Stiller has managed to procure some major actors for the film and except for one occasion, he does not rely on stunt casting as each actor does well in each part. Stiller himself is fine in the lead role, playing his usual self while still managing to poke fun at the typical action star. Jack Black manages to be his funniest here, not necessarily when parodying the obvious Eddie Murphy influence in Portnoy, but more in his random rants as a result of the lack of heroin. Brandon T Jackson and Jay Baruchel round out the troop by playing more the straight men in the house of wackos and intelligently not going too over-the-top. The stand-out in the cast is Robert Downey Jr, who parodies both the problems of extreme method acting and ethnic stereotyping that one might see in a film. Downey Jr does so well in the part of Lazarus, that once the character reverts back to his normal self, it comes as such as a shock due to how well he portrayed the African American soldier in the previous ninety minutes. Other actors would have completely gone wild with the character, yet Downey Jr is subtle enough that we start to forget that he was Tony Stark earlier this summer or Charlie Chaplin back in the early 1990's. Like his character, he truly disappears into the role.

Steve Coogan is a delight as the director trying to keep himself under his control and the funniest moment in Tropic Thunder involves him in a dark, but wonderfully comical way. Matthew McConaughey is also enjoyable to watch as Speedman's incredibly loyal agent. After a slump in poorly written roles, his work here becomes his funniest role since the aging hipster in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. If there is a disappointment in the cast, it's Tom Cruise as Grossman. Tom Cruise is a very talented actor, but Stiller gives him material that is designed more to be funny simply because it's Tom Cruise as a balding, fat wanna-be hip-hop dancer. What could have been an interesting take on the typical studio executive mogul is wasted away on stunt casting and lousy writing. The watch-ability of his scenes are elevated thankfully because of the presence of McConaughey and Bill Hader. While watching those scenes, I wanted the film to just get back to the jungle-deserted actors. The more action-oriented scenes also lack much humour, but the performances from the actors are enough to make up for it, particularly in one moment when Lazarus has a truly worthy revelation.

Yet, despite the lack of humour in the aforementioned scenes, there are enough funny scenes to make for it. The fake trailers that start before the film has even started are all well-handled and truly hilarious parodies of the previews of major action sequels and serious dramatic fare vying for awards gold. The way in which Iron Man and Spider-Man are put together is a pure comedic delight. Yet, the fake previews also work well in establishing who the characters are. Celebrity scandals, perfectly placed product placements, the questionability of the "true story" label and actors playing handicapped roles are also skewered with intelligent vigor and done in funny ways. Overall, Tropic Thunder is nothing more than a funny action comedy aimed at making people laugh and it certainly succeeds in that regard.
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Swing Vote (2008)
A well-cast and funny film that starts to take itself too seriously by the end.
10 August 2008
In every election year, the biggest topic of discussion comes over who is the most responsible to hold the position the President of the United States. Should the Commander-in-Chief be the aging war veteran or the new fellow pleading for change? Swing Vote does not try to answer this question and it certainly will not change who the public will vote for in the upcoming election. That is part of what makes the film almost work as it tries to not tag on a political statement and in a rarity for a Hollywood film about a presidential election, both candidates are portrayed equally. In Swing Vote, it is not about the political party, but rather the man who wants to run the country. In its heart, the film is simply a comedy about a beer-drinking New Mexican chap who is given the chance to actually make his vote count and not just be one in a million ballots. The film only start to falter when it forgets this and begins to take itself much too seriously.

Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) lives alone with his clever daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) in a small New Mexican town and trying to make ends meet, despite his major drinking problem and tendency to go fishing rather than work. When he falls asleep drunk in his car on election day, his daughter goes to the booth and votes for him. However, after a computer error, the vote is not counted and Bud is given ten days to re-vote: the catch being that his one vote which choose the American President for the next four years. Suddenly, the media starts to invade his small town and the two competing Presidents (played by Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper) along with their campaign managers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane, respectively) arrive to get Bud to vote their party. This causes much confusion as Bud becomes media-obsessed, the two candidates start changing their stances on issues to please Bud and Molly must get her father to make the right choice and not blow this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Swing Vote is a flawed film, but the film definitely succeeds in getting some good performances out of its cast of talented actors. Kevin Costner is his usual charming self, while also going for a more gruff and slightly head-in-the-clouds approach than previously shown in work like Bull Durham. While another actor might have made Bud too un-sympathetic, Costner succeeds in making us care for the character. Madeline Carroll is the starlet of the film, allowing Molly to be more charming than annoying as often plagues young actresses who play smart-aleck characters. She also manages to deliver the one truly emotional scene in which she stands up for her father. Nathan Lane is also a stand-out providing his usual perfect comedic timing and one particular dramatic moment that proves even moreso than he is one of the most talented actors of stage and screen. As for the rest of the cast, Kelsey Grammar and Dennis Hopper both appear to be having fun in their roles, while Stanley Tucci and Judge Reinhold are both criminally underused.

Along with the actors, one of the best aspect of the film comes in how it does not lean politically all the way to the right or to the left, providing a more neutral approach while still managing to satirise both sides. In the end, it is the campaign managers who are squandered the most rather than the candidates, who are portrayed in a fair manner. The Republican and Democratic labels are also not hammered into the ground, as the film shows that Bud is voting for the person rather than the political party. The way the film takes a look at the media's spin doctor approach as well as presidential candidates "flip-flopping" to win votes is done in a funny way as well. When Swing Vote stays firmly in the comedy arena, it proves to be a genuine winner. However, there is a shift in the second act where it starts to take itself too seriously and begins to forget that it is a comedic Frank Capra-esquire fantasy and it certainly lacks the subtlety of Capra's finest. In addition, subplots are added that do not add much to the story and questions are left un-answered. Where are the vice-presidential candidates and why are they never mentioned? Why spend so much money on television advertisements for only one person? Ultimately, Swing Vote is a fantasy and while it starts to drag in the final act, it still manages to at least provide a great cast with some topical material.
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A great feature-length film version of a classic animated series.
2 August 2008
It is in the opinion of this reviewer that the best time to be a child was in the 1990's, a period when cartoons were not heavily censored and talented and creative minds were responsible for some of the best family entertainment to hit the air-waves. The best producers of Saturday morning animation were at Warner Brothers Television, who experienced a major Golden Age with the dream-team of Steven Spielberg, Tom Ruegger and Paul Dini. Along with serious and dark series like Batman, they also revived zany, outlandish cartoons made famous by the Looney Tunes. Animaniacs was the biggest hitter with its dark adult humour and homages to the celluloid of yesteryear and today, but Tiny Toon Adventures was equally popular by re-inventing the Looney Tunes for a new generation, while still keeping that crazy cartoon violence and intelligent comedy that can hold onto any age group, no matter how old. Even when the Tiny Toons were stretched to a feature-length with How I Spent My Vacation, it did not feel like a longer episode of the television series, a curse that so often plagues other feature-length adaptations of popular animated shows.

The Tiny Toon Gang are young off-springs of the classic cartoon characters who made audiences laugh back in the 1940's and 1950's and are currently learning cartoon comedy to "earn their Toon Degree." Summer Vacation has started and each character has their own idea of what to do. Buster Bunny (Charles Adler) and Babs Bunny (Tress MacNeille) start a water gun fight which ultimately leads to Acme Acres getting flooded and them both sailing down the Mississippi. Plucky Duck (Joe Alaskey) joins Hamton Pig (Don Messick) on a cross-country car trip to the Happiest Theme Park in the World, but Hamton's family proves to be more difficult than he imagined. Meanwhile, in other stories scattered throughout, Elmyra Duff (Cree Summer) tries to find a cat to hug and squeeze, Fifi Le Fume (Kath Soucie) attempts to go out on a date with her favourite skunk star and Shirley the Loon (Gail Matthius) goes to the cinema with a loud-mouth Fowlmouth (Rob Paulen).

While the premise sounds thin for a feature-length film, the many directors and screenwriters make all the stories work well together. The best of these is Plucky's unfortunate road trip, which utilises a golden comedic opportunity very well: feeling pity for somebody, while also laughing at their predicament. Plucky's annoyed reaction to all the bad things that happen to him are a perfect blend of script and animation, all in the confines of a small car stuffed with pork. Elmyra's story definitely ranks second just to see how a little, almost innocent girl can cause fear into so many jungle animals. The aforementioned cartoon violence definitely comes to the fore-front with Buster and Babs' story, which makes us smile not only due to the hilarity of the outcomes, but also nostalgically, since Ruegger and company would probably not be allowed to show half of what they do in that segment. Practically half of that segment plays as a parody and homage to Deliverance, including a clever twist on the dueling banjos scene, featuring the unforgettable Tiny Toon Adventures theme song.

Part of the universal appeal of the Tiny Toons is that the humour proves to be very intelligent as it targets subjects with a ferocity that proves that it does not at all deserve the title of "children's fare" that people seem to slap it with. An entire segment featuring Fowlmouth's poor etiquette at the cinema pokes fun at yappers in a note-perfect way, along with an additional jab at Lucasfilm's THX logo. That scene is done so perfectly that it should be featured before every cinema showing. There are also a couple of moments that poke fun at Disney World, cinematic plot holes and even Warner's legal department. The fact that today's cartoons are bland and un-creative makes those intelligent moments even more treasuring as there probably will not be another animated series that will come close.

After watching How I Spent My Vacation for the first time in many years, I can say with all certainty that they do not make cartoons quite like they used to. With the ongoing censorship that today's family entertainment receive, one wonders whether anything like this will ever be made again. This review is not only a recommendation of a truly smart film, but also a plea for Spielberg, Ruegger and Dini to team up again and bring forth a magical creation to our minds once again. Lord knows that the children of the twenty-first century is in need for something with the intelligence of Tiny Toon Adventures. This is not a simple cash-grab, it is a wonderful film with full of spirit, madcap mayhem and hilarity.
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The embarrassment of the Batman legacy.
31 July 2008
Never have the complexities of a slowly developing icon vanished as quickly as in Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin. The Caped Crusader created by Bob Kane and whose popularity was resurrected by Tim Burton and later by Christopher Nolan, has had one major and notable setback and this film is that. Batman & Robin is nothing more than an advertisement for toys, even so far as to having one character actually explaining what her action figure will have in the box. This gigantic mess of a production is also responsible in an accomplishment that makes one question whether the word "Batman" should even be in the title: it's boring. If a piece of popcorn entertainment actually manages to make your eyes drowsy, despite the massive amount of colourful imagery on screen, then it is not doing its job. As an action film, Batman & Robin is a massive failure and as a comic book film, it's even worse, insulting the intelligence of the audience in the process.

Already off the bat, Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzeneggar) is introduced as the main villain in this piece with his plan to steal enough diamonds so as to save his beloved wife, who is suffering from a fatal disease. Down in South America, scientist Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) discovers that her boss has been using her plant-related research to create massive machine men for ruthless world leaders. In response to Isley threatening to report him to the authorities, he kills her with chemicals. However, instead she turns into the evil Poison Ivy, a plant-obsessed woman bent on a plan of world domination that's not made one-hundred percent. Not that the audience cares at this point, anyway. Meanwhile, it is up to Batman (George Clooney) and Robin (Chris O'Donnell) to save Gotham from being both frozen over and turn into a garden of poisonous flowers. Trusted butler Alfred (Michael Dough) is also dying and his niece (Alicia Silverstone) comes to visit and sure enough becomes Batgirl.

As evidenced by the plot summary above, one of the main problems with Batman & Robin storywise is that screenwriter Akiva Goldsman is not able to balance all of those major characters enough to probably develop them. The poorly written script is particularly helped by the horribly cheesy lines that litter the production, especially with Mr Freeze whom every line seems to be a bad pun related to coldness. Goldsman also attempts to have us sympathyse with Freeze in how much he cares for his wife. Unfortunately, what could have been touching actually feels like a weak attempt at making the audience care for such an irritating character. If anybody in Batman & Robin is more annoying than Freeze, than it's the titular sidekick. All of his dialogue mostly consists of moaning about how Bruce Wayne is hogging the spotlight and stopping Robin from trying to get hold of the villains. The fact that the usually sensible Alfred takes Robin's sense makes this script even more illogical, considering Wayne's reasons for pulling Robin back are perfectly understandable.

Of course, the script isn't helped much by Schumacher's poorly done direction. The fact that the opening shots of the film feature close-ups on Batman and Robin's rear-end and glued-on nipples is not a good sign of things to come. He gives so much attention to the over-stylised sets and poorly rendered special effects, that the actors are left to wollow and stand around in the background, while the stuntmen do the more "difficult" work. George Clooney's usual Cary Grant-like charm is lost here and the few times in the film that Wayne thinks about his parent's death, he just looks like he is thinking about what to eat for breakfast. Chris O'Donnell was passable in Batman Forever, but in this film, he is just flat and he does nothing to make us care about his character. Schwarzneggar is also un-helped by his material and everything that made him a frightening Terminator seems to have disappeared in his portrayal of Freeze. Watching his performance here, it is not surprising as to why he decided to enter politics. Michael Gough, who was rather solid in the previous films is given an elevated part here, but his performance is so hammy that we unfortunately watch as Bruce Wayne's best friend wilters away, which should not be the effect.

The only actor in the whole film who actually comes out well is Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Unlike Clooney or Schwarzneggar, she understands the cartoonish feel out of the whole production and is appropriately hammy. Despite the embarrassing script she's given, she manages to make Poison Ivy a compelling and interesting villain. Every time Thurman appears on screen, the film gets considerably less painful to watch as she proves to be very entertaining. In fact, if Ivy was made the main villain and Freeze was taken out, the final result would have been much more watchable, though as proved by what was released, the film would still have been a lost cause. Nonetheless, Thurman gives an incredibly well done performance that is quite possibly the only memorable aspect of Batman & Robin. Unfortunately, despite Thurman's best efforts, even she is not enough to recommend this completely poorly done two-hour cheese-fest drivel and the bane of both Joel Schumacher's career and the entire Batman legacy.
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Speed Racer (2008)
Pure visually impressive entertainment all the way! Go Speed Racer Go.
29 July 2008
The transition that an animated series takes from being a Saturday morning cartoon towards turning into a cinematic live-action feature is most always a rocky one. Horrible efforts like Mr. Magoo and The Flintstones in Viva Las Vegas have left fans of those beloved 1960's characters with anger, this reviewer included. With Speed Racer, Andy and Larry Wachowski have succeeded in creating a big-screen version of a cult cartoon series worthy of being called an adaptation. The clichéd plot of the film is saved by interesting and funny characters, fun-filled action sequences and some of the most kinetic and fascinating visual effects work put on film. The former directors of The Matrix, a film which I personally dread, understand that they are essentially making a big-budget cartoon with live actors and do not take themselves seriously. And therein lies the fun that Speed Racer holds.

Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) loves racing and throughout his whole live has wanted to be like his late brother, driving towards world records and the Grand Prix trophy. Even though the race tracks of his futuristic wonderland is filled with booby traps and other dangers, his family supports him. His father (John Goodman) is an independent race car maker, while his younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt), mother appropriately named Mom (Susan Sarandon) and long-time girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) cheer at the sidelines. He also has a pet monkey called Chim-Chim, who provided some of the film's funniest moments. After a very successful race, Speed is given the chance to join a much bigger company lead by the usual smug, stereotypical British villain (Roger Allam). However, after a shocking revelation that racing is fixed, Speed teams up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) and the trouble-arousing Taejo (Rain) to save the sport he holds so dearly to his heart.

The main focus of Speed Racer is entertainment and at that, it does a terrific job of pulling the audience in. The visual effects are incredibly well done and quite possibly some of the best ever brought to the film. The entire feature is one giant kaleidoscope of images springing towards the audience, almost giving it a 3-D feel. The Wachowski Brothers go for the opposite route of, say, Tim Burton and create a vibrant and colourful world that feels like diving inside a giant pool of Skittles. Many will accuse the filmmakers of trying to go for a video game approach for Speed Racer, but in the case of a film whose main theme is racing, it's appropriate. Not even the great minds at Pixar made a racing car film as exciting as this one and it will be especially hard to watch Formula 1 Racers driving around the curbs without thinking of the spectacular scenes that the Wachowskis have built. The Wachowskis have also in the process not only created something worthy of being called a Speed Racer adaptation, but a big-screen version of Super Mario Kart as well. The imaginations of those two are out of this world and they even trump the Nintendo people in race car weaponry.

However, Speed Racer doesn't become a well done film on the excitement level alone. The Racer family never comes across as snotty and the audience generally cares for them, even annoying little Spritle. Emile Hirsch does fine work as Speed and while the character is still relatively cardboard, he gives a good enough performance that we still root for him. Christina Ricci is a long way from Wednesday Addams providing the most anime-like portrayal in the film as Trixie. John Goodman is especially fun in the role of Pops and Matthew Fox's appropriately flat work as Racer X adds to the character's mystery. The only poor performance in the film comes from Stephen Colbert's arch-rival and Korean pop sensation Rain as Taejo, who is lively as the furniture that appears in the scenes with him. The best performance from the film, however, does not even comes from a human being as chimpanzees Willy and Kenzie prove to be a very engaging bunch as the mischievous Chim-Chim.

The other major positive of the film comes from Michael Giacchino's usual brilliant score. As proved by The Incredibles, he can write some really great action scores and Speed Racer is not exception. However, the main theme song from the television series will probably still in viewer's heads more and it is quite a lively tune indeed. Speed Racer is a film that should be best viewed in the cinema to get the true cinematic experience of it all, but on a good enough television set, it can hopefully provide a fun enough experience for the whole family. Despite its length of over two hours, the time flies by and the film proves to be incredibly engaging and it feels like the 1980's has nudged its way nicely to the 21st century.
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WALL·E (2008)
Quite possibly one of the most beautiful love stories and most visually animated film ever.
29 July 2008
The average person's appreciation for animated features have grown immensely in the past seventy years since the release of Walt Disney's groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, they still retain the unfortunate tendency of being referred to as a "children's film." Even the most mature works from directors like Brad Bird and Hayao Miyasaki have falling into this degrading trapping. Hopefully, Andrew Stanton's follow-up to the magical Finding Nemo will dispel any idea that animation is simply made for a young audience. Wall-E is a masterpiece of epic proportion combining the talents of Andrew Stanton, the skill of Pixar's animation team and a story that feels like a collaboration between master filmmakers Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick. What Stanton has created with Wall-E is not simply a motion picture, it's an experience and a story that will live as long as Homer's The Odyssey, William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Wall-E will transcend generations and become beloved for its love story, its cautionary tale of the future and incredibly charming and relatable characters.

At the start of Wall-E, The Planet Earth has been abandoned for seven hundred years as the humans await for it to be cleaned up and livable again. However, one robot is left to clean up the rubble and left-behind rubbish, a unit called Wall-E. For some many years, he has been doing the same task over and over again, accompanied only by a little cockroach. In those seven-hundred years, he has developed a personality and a curiosity for collecting various old objects. The one thing he longs for, though, is another robot to hold hands with. One day, a giant space craft lands and out of it comes a shiny new robot named Eve. Wall-E is immediately smitten with Eve and as she starts to get know him, Eve starts to grow fond of the little trash compactor. After Eve takes off again into space, Wall-E follows his dream girl-bot into space and truth about the human race is revealed.

That is what happens in the first thirty minutes of the film, which is completely devoid of any human dialogue whatsoever. Wall-E and Eve communicate only in speaks and whistles, created by renowned sound designer Ben Burtt, most notably known for doing the beeps on R2-D2 from Star Wars. However, while George Lucas's creation may simply be a tin can on wheels, Stanton and Burtt have created two likable personalities with Wall-E and Eve, whose love story is the main reason for the film's success. I can say, without a doubt, that Wall-E is quite possibly the most touching and beautiful love story ever told. We feel for these characters and care for them, so whenever they're in mortal danger, we're always worried whether they will survive. I will even admit I was almost teary-eyed while watching this film. That is how powerful Wall-E is as a motion picture. The film is also very funny and touching at the same time, giving off a very Chaplin-esquire quality. The whole film definitely gives off a very City Lights vibe and I would not be surprised if Stanton was heavily influenced by that masterpiece. The most beautiful scene of the film in which Wall-E and Eve "dance" in space together is one that will be hard to top in any lifetime by any film released after now. The score by Thomas Newman is so incredibly superb that it almost feels like a separate character in the film and adds to how powerful the whole piece is.

The social commentary is also effective and definitely makes you think more than any so-called "intellectual Sundance release." I would not be surprised if (at the rate people are going) Earth does end up looking the way it does in the film. China itself is already slowly heading in that direction. The humans in the film are made to look like large and cartoon-like, so as to resemble babies. What the film is saying is that humans are evolving backwards, rather than forwards. Everything needs to be done for us, much like a mother caring for her newborn and in this case, the robots are the mothers (as shown by the robot teacher in the baby school). There already are robotic vacuum cleaners where you just need to press the button and that is it. The Pixar animators and storytellers have not gone on auto-drive for Wall-E, but are putting themselves in control in where the story leads and thus why the film succeeds more than hypocritical schlock like Pokemon: The First Movie and Alvin and the Chipmunks posing as family entertainment these days. When the humans realise they must do something, they start to wake up from their bedtime naps and walk much like how babies take their first steps. I wouldn't say Wall-E is being manipulative or offensive as the film is putting a mirror up to the people, so that they understand that they do need to change their habits quickly. This film is teaching people a lesson and giving people something that your average toy advertisement will not.

The Pixar team has pulled out all the stops and in effect have created their greatest achievement yet. Stanton succeeds because he puts story and characters before all else, while still providing some breathtaking animation and terrific entertainment in the process. And it is films like Wall-E that prove even more that animation is capable of anything: any genre, any emotion, any laugh.
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The most mature, most thought-provoking and best Batman film to date.
21 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Throughout the almost seventy years, Bob Kane's superhero Batman has existed, he has taken on many different forms. He has been an overly comical figure as played by Adam West and George Clooney as well as a brooding neurotic as taken on by Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer. The first filmmaker and actor to truly delve deeply into Batman and his altar ego Bruce Wayne beyond the Batmobile and suit are Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. While their first collaboration Batman Begins was a passable entry in the film series and a nice jolt of energy after the embarrassingly awful film that was Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, The Dark Knight brings Batman to a whole new respect, blowing previous entries out of the water. The Dark Knight takes the mythology of Batman and Bruce Wayne and truly looks deep into what makes a hero. As Aaron Eckhart's character District Attorney Harvey Dent says early in the film, "You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

Those walking into The Dark Knight expecting to see some heart-bumping action sequences will certainly have that delivered to them, but this isn't the happy, "everything works out in the end" type story that Iron Man, Indiana Jones and Speed Racer all had earlier this summer. Director/co-writer Nolan is not afraid to go down a path similar to Shakespeare's tragedies of old. The comical glee that Burton and Schumacher's entries brought forth in the 1990's have vanished in favour of a one hundred percent bleak Gotham City where nobody is safe from harm. Throughout the entire film, there's a sense of danger looming over each important character and an un-certainty that they will truly have a joyful comic book ending. The Joker is a devilish fiend that uses every scare tactic in the book and whose use of tricking the authorities and Batman bring to mind the serial killer in David Fincher's Se7en. Every single death trap is planned far in advance and he not only tricked the character, but the audience as well. His history is not given and his terrorist attacks are not for any cause but his own enjoyment. He is menacing and evil and not charming in the least. He is not a likable foe, but somebody who nobody would want to cross on the street. Nolan builds the complexities of the character so perfectly, that we are constantly guessing what he is up to.

In the acting department, everybody succeeds in being truly excellent in bringing their newly introduced characters and old friends to the screen. Christian Bale has officially surpassed Michael Keaton as the best Batman/Bruce Wayne as he gives both personalities a different feel. Unlike somebody like Superman, one understands why people do not recognise Batman as Bruce Wayne. In any scenes featuring Batman, one starts to forget that he is also that billionaire playboy. The gruff Batman voice has received some criticism, but it proofs in making the character intimidating and shows he is not somebody to cross. Heath Ledger disappears into the role of the Joker perfectly and proves to be very scary in his role. The character is extremely cunning throughout the whole film and Ledger's performance allows the audience to believe it. Never before has Ledger given such a tremendous performance and watching the "In Memory" credit pop up at the end of the film will bring anybody back to reality that like James Dean and River Phoenix, he left the world much too early. Aaron Eckhart also does equally superb work as Harvey Dent and his transformation into Two-Face is treated incredibly well. Maggie Gyllenhaal is an appropriate replacement for Katie Holmes and her death is definitely emotional as unlike with Holmes, we understand why Bale and Dent care so much about her. It's also why Dent turning psychotic is more than just his face getting scarred. It is done with so many depth and I respect Nolan even more for it. Gary Oldman also has a fine turn as Commissioner James Gordon, intelligently taking away the flashiness that he usually gives off on film. Veteran actors Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman give off fine work as usual as Wayne's two mentors, who trust him to do the right thing.

The action is incredibly well done. It's not just "punches and explosions" like some film snobs love to call it, because every possible serious set-piece is put to use. The moment when Batman goes from the Batmobile to the Batpod was when I said to myself "This is an terrific film." The theme of how much good one can do is done well without beating anybody over the head. And when Batman decides to take the fall of Dent's bad-doing, he becomes more than just a man in a bat costume. He is a human being who cares about others and understands that people look up to him not because of the cool gadgets and vehicles and fights, but because he is a hero and somebody who just wants the world to be a safer place. That's more than you can say about any politician. He also understands that everybody needs somebody to look up to. Great men like Dent should be remembered for all the good they for the people, not the few bad moments that they ended their life with. It's a poignant massage and further proof that Nolan has crafted a mature superhero film that is so much more than a flying mouse chasing after a violent clown. The Batman series has become a serious franchise and now "Wham!", "Pow!" and "Holy Shark Repellent, Batman!" will be the farthest things from peoples' minds when Bob Kane's classic superhero is brought up.
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Indiana Jones is back and he can still pack a punch.
28 May 2008
The Indiana Jones films have always been about fun, danger and low-budget epic-ness. Nineteen years after The Last Crusade, Harrison Ford has once again donned the fedora and while he is able to afford a senior discount this time around, he can still pack a punch. Along with Ford, director Steven Spielberg, executive producer George Lucas and composer John Williams also return. And while The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't the masterwork that Raiders of the Lost Ark is, it's still an entertaining time at the cinema.

The Indiana Jones flicks have always been known as much for their performances as it has for its action scenes. Harrison Ford slips back into the fedora and leather jacket comfortably, though he is now older and wiser. Along with Han Solo and Rick Deckard, Indiana Jones is his most iconic character and he plays him with the same amount of rough-ness as he did in the 1980's. Returning for the first time since Raiders of the Lost Ark is Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, proving even further that of all the love interests in the other films, she is the only one who comes close to matching whits with Indy (as shown when he tells her "they all had the same problem, they weren't you"). The addition of rising star Shia La Beouf as greaser Mutt Williams is a smart one. He gives a great performance, keeping down-to-earth and not going over-the-top, delivering his lines well. He also makes what could have been an annoying character very likable. The stand-out of the film is Cate Blanchett, who puts on a faux Russian accent for her role as the evil Communist agent who is also pursuing the Crystal Skull in the title. She helps make the villain an evil one would not want to cross with. The only character who doesn't fit is Sam Winstone's Mac, who just feels like an unnecessary way to give him a sidekick more his age.

In regards to action, Steven Spielberg's direction in those scenes is the usual great work he's been delivering since Duel way back in 1971. The final hour is especially exciting, with half of it consisting of a car chase through the Amazon, ending in the most lethal ants ever seen on screen. Despite some geographical mistakes, it's hard not to be on the edge of the seat, while watching it. The classic Ben Burtt sound effects are also in place to make these sequences even more worthy of being in an Indiana Jones film. The score by John Williams is also perfect as usual, from the timeless "Raiders March" to the new themes written for this film, it shows that he is still the master of film scores.

In area of special effects, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is hit-or-miss. The film has more computer-generated effects than an Indiana Jones film should have and Spielberg's idea to use CG prairie dogs instead of real ones is an odd choice. However, when it comes to practical model effects, the film delivers and the matte painting background also work well in having that old-time style. The film's homage to 1950's science-fiction films also add some fun to the proceedings and despite the idea of aliens in an Indiana Jones film seeming odd, it works.

Overall, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull stands with Speed Racer as the most entertaining film of the year, showing that you can't put an old hero down and that an 80's action star can work in the 21st century. With both John McClane and Indiana Jones returning with flying colours, all that's left now are the Ghostbusters.
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Juno (2007)
Despite the massive popular success that Juno has deservedly received, it is still a small film with a big message at heart.
14 May 2008
While the teen comedy genre has been littered with the fine works of directors like John Hughes and Paul Weitz, most entries are poorly written and acted affairs that fail to capture the world of teenagers. With Juno, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody have managed to create a realistic portrayal of teenage life without being dreary or overly artsy. The intent of Juno is to tell the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who deals with a responsibility "way beyond her maturity level" and the people around her who care. The filmmakers succeed in not only creating the most realistic teenage comedy ever produced, but also in bringing characters who the audience trusts and knows. Juno is down-to-earth and grounded in reality, never over-the-top and intelligent enough to not rely on cheap gags to gain laughs. The naturalist feel of the actor's performances also gives the film a sense of being there with the characters as they charm the audience with their whimsy. Juno is bold and smart and is always entertaining and comfortable.

Juno McGuff (Ellen Page) has found out she is pregnant with the child of her on-again, off-again boyfriend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera). After choosing against aborting the infant, she chooses to give it to a young couple, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner). That's a gist of it, but what makes the simple plot so winning is the material provided to the ensemble cast, who works with some of the freshest dialogue ever afforded to a teenage film since Alexander Payne's Election. Diablo Cody does not rely on the quirky to make her screenplay succeed, because the characters feel so real and while the dialogue to some may seem odd, it is able to realistically show the vocabulary that teenagers speak every day to their peers. The subtlety of Jason Reitman's direction adds to the scope of reality by not over-doing it and allowing the characters to speak for themselves. Reitman is intelligent to not let the environment take over and he commands control of the production. Even the clothes worn by Juno and her friends reflect themselves. Juno's baggy trousers and loose clothings represent her independent and free mind as well as the gap between child and adult-hood. Paulie's running uniform signifies his attempts at running free like Juno, while Leah (Olivia Thirlby), Juno's best friend, tends more towards Uggs and other commercial clothes, showing how she attempts to blend in with the crowd rather than be herself. Even Mark Loring starts to evolve into more juvenile clothes as he gets closer to Juno. It is this attention to detail that makes Reitman's direction succeed with ease.

The performances from the ensemble all serve as excellent portraits of Diablo Cody's characters, managing to bring the right amount of warmth to each part. Ellen Page is the stand-out, shining in every scene and showing that there is a little bit of Juno in all of us. She has spunk, heart and plenty of humour making her one of the best written and acted young female roles to ever grace the screen. The chemistry with Michael Cera adds even more to the power of the character. Michael Cera is known mostly for playing meek, awkward characters, but in Juno, he goes even beyond his role as George Michael Bluth on the comedic masterwork Arrested Development. Cera plays Paulie with both strength and courage, making him a great companion for Juno and a scene where he confronts her is pure genius on the part of both Cera and Cody. Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman are equally as good, helping in making their character's conflicts and differences un-forced. As Mark evolved throughout the film, so does Bateman who develops the character in key with Cody's writing.

The only aspect of the film where Reitman and Cody depart from reality is actually a smart choice. Nowhere in the film is a character shown talking on a cellular telephone, the opposite of today's world where every single teenager appears to be talking into their hand. The absence of such a device expands on the theme of innocence that Juno displays. In an age where teenagers are trying to grow up too quickly, Juno is given the ultimate test of female adulthood by carrying an un-born child in her pouch. In yielding this responsibility and promising to give it to a loving couple, she grows as a character into realising that she is still a child herself and decides to wait a while before she grows up. The touching and poignant final scene, a guitar duet between Juno and Paulie, shows that she needs to hold onto her youth just a little longer before it disappears like track runners rushing to the finish line. Despite the massive popular success that Juno has deservedly received, it is still a small film with a big message at heart.
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Brazil (1985)
Brazil is an entertaining fantasy that tells as much about modern society as it was in 1985.
16 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The title of Terry Gilliam's Brazil promises exotic landscapes, beautiful scenery and danceable music, yet Gilliam provides an opposite experience, thus we feel a connection with the main character, Sam Lowry. Brazil is nothing like the country and part of the reason it is named thus is because of the desirable nature of many who want to go the South American nation. Gilliam is intelligent in giving Brazil a dark claustrophobic look as this is not a light story, but one filled with conflicts that Lowry must overcome in order to find his dream girl and leave his paperwork-obsessed world forever. More obvious is the use of the famous Ary Barroso song used in the film's soundtrack. Considered an un-official national anthem of the country, the jumpy tune is the lightest aspect of Brazil, which works in contrast to the so-called utopia society. Thus, the audience plays into Gilliam's hand of wanting Lowry to escape. He intelligently withholds, but unlike Universal's ill-tempered boss, we're smart enough to realise just how necessary this is. Brazil's inability to go to the "Bright Side of Life" is part of why it is such a marvelous piece of work.

The chaos in Brazil begins when the ultimate attempt at perfection leads to a little typo. This tiny mistake leads to an innocent father getting arrested, a neighbour trying to get him out of the government's hold and a lowly government worker chasing after her. Terry Gilliam, an American who spent years in Great Britain with the Monty Python comedy troupe, uses his use of images and subtle nods to poke fun at the bureaucrats who rely on paperwork to try to keep everything ship-shape. There is also a sense of secrecy in the proceedings, particularly in Michael Palin's character, Jack. Throughout the film, we share Lowry's perspective that Jack is a good man, yet once his true job description is revealed, the audience is just as surprised as Lowry is. Part of this is not only through Palin's double-edged performance, but Jonathan Pryce's work as well. Pryce takes on the role of Lowry almost similar to how the most famous American everyman would have. From his stammering dialogue to the wardrobe, there's a hint of James Stewart coming from his performance. There's an honest appearance to him that sets him apart from the dark world around him as well as the humour around him. When he was with Monty Python, Gilliam's comedy writing was mostly used for his animated shorts, but with Brazil, he became in command with most of the screenplay, creating a very humorous world. This makes the commentary on the dystopia of Brazil have a rather fun angle to it as well. The pains of ordering a simple stake, the quest for the perfect face and the government's obsession with paper-work are taken on through not only serious prodding, but humorous pokes as well.

Terry Gilliam, like Tim Burton, has always a director with visual flair. Even when his films are less than average, his visual prowess allows them to be slightly more enjoyable. It is not surprising that his best film would feature some of his most accomplished visual look to date. From the look of the high-rises to the coldness of the government buildings to the duct-filled apartments, Brazil features some of the most stunning art direction seen in any film. Brazil was largely inspired by George Orwell's 1984, yet Gilliam creates a world that the author probably never imagined. The sets in the film were probably even more influenced by the work of Georges Méliès than the writings of Orwell. Gilliam's animation style may be considered third-rate, but his visual effects are anything but. They are so well done that it is hard to figure out whether they were done on computers, stop-motion or puppetry. In fact, the realism of the special effects allows the viewer to be whisked easier into Lowry's dreams.

Along with Pryce and Palin, the rest of the cast succeeds in domineering their characters very well and understand that's Lowry's story. This class of highly accomplished actors know not to go over-board and bring the right level of humour and terror to their roles. Robert De Niro has a small, but important role that further alters Lowry's quest. Along with Lowry, he's the hero of the story and the calmness of De Niro combines well with the quick-witted work ethics of the character. Bob Hoskins takes on a more menacing role than he is known for, yet his sinister and almost scary tone creates Lowry's most memorable obstacle. And then there's Kim Greist, the main object of desire. What could have been a stereotypical female lead, Greist turns into a three-dimensional character that is the most cunning of the whole film. In fact, one wonders just how much she matches Lowry's dream girl. While, in that film, he does to save her and she cannot seem to get out of a situation, the real Jill is actually able to fend for herself in the tough world outside and is a more brave personality than Lowry. In the dreaded "Love Conquers All" version of Brazil, Lowry has a happy ending with Jill. Yet, it is a more open ending than the Director's Cut, because their relationship could turn tired as Lowry might realise that she is not how he pictured her. It brings to mind whether humming to "Brazil" is more satisfying, which makes Sid Sheinberg's mind seem even more warped.

In the end, Terry Gilliam's preferred vision to the best edition of Brazil and it certainly is a marvelous adventure. The humour and the social commentary, mixed with one of the most electrifying casts seen in a science-fiction comedy to date. Visually impressed and featured one of the greatest songs ever produced, Brazil is an entertaining fantasy that tells as much about modern society as it was in 1985.
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The embarrassment that is the Super Mario Bros. film
22 December 2007
"Wasted opportunity" is the phrase that instantly comes to mind, when one thinks of the immense failure of the Super Mario Bros. film adaptation of the classic video game. One of the most popular games on the Nintendo console, The Super Mario Brothers series is a fun way to pass a couple of hours. The story of the game is simple: a plumber must save the Princess from the evil overlord of her kingdom. Granted, it's not a particularly intellectual plot, but it's one that has been used very successfully many times before, from Robin Hood to Star Wars. With a talented screenwriter and some good direction, a Super Mario movie could have been a fun romp for children, teenagers and adults as well. Unfortunately, the film hoisted upon fans in 1993 was far from a good film. Super Mario Bros. is a gigantic piece of rubbish that is not deserving of the title given to it. The fact that it was produced by the man responsible for The Killing Fields and starred a talented group of award-winning actors makes this more embarrassing for not only them, but also us having to watch them make a fool of themselves.

The plot of Super Mario Bros. is such an incoherent mess, it's as if they took the three drafts of the screenwriters and just mixed them up into one big pile. Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo) are two brothers (or are they father and son, as the film isn't particularly clear on that) who run a plumbing business, which isn't exactly the most successful. One day, Luigi meets Daisy (Samantha Mathis), an archaeologist and he falls in love with her. When she is kidnapped by the henchmen of the evil King Koopa (Dennis Hopper), Mario and Luigi go off to save her. They land in a mysterious big city hidden underneath New York City, populated by dinosaurs that have evolved into human beings. Soon, they find out that Koopa wants the rock around Daisy's neck so that he can go up to the surface and rule over the Big Apple. Now, it's up to the Super Mario Brothers to save the day.

To start off, the biggest problem with Super Mario Bros. is the fact it is absolutely nothing like the video game. The plot of the game, while simplistic, still works. The story that the film brings forth throws everything away and substitutes it for the ridiculous mess described in the previous paragraph. In fact, the only things that the film has in common with the game are the character names and the title. An adaptation does not necessarily have to be faithful to the source material, but taking away what made the original story work will certainly make the final version smell like feces, for both fans and general filmgoers. The screenplay is filled with jokes that aren't funny, action scenes that are just boring and characters with minimal character development. When a 16-bit video game excels better in all of the above listed aspects, there is definitely something wrong with the film version.

The film also fails on a visual level. Super Mario Bros. is a dark film that while marketed for children, it definitely does not feel like it was intended for them. The sets are particularly disappointed, seeing as they could have saved the film. A Manhattan version of the Mushroom Kingdom sounds like a promising idea, but the filmmakers once again ruin the opportunity to bring something good to the proceedings. Super Mario Bros. looks as if they stole the set from Blade Runner and sneezed all over it. It's enough that they practically copy the style, but they essentially rip out what made that film look sleek. If Rick Deckard showed up in that city, he would have had a heart attack at what the set designers had done. The special effects also fall into the category of "poor." What makes that aspect of the film really bad is that despite being a Hollywood film on a big budget, the effects look like those of B-movies from the 1960's.

Finally, the final aspect of Super Mario Bros. that could have saved it also fails. Bob Hoskins puts on the same accent he did for his character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Unfortunately, the superb work he brought to the screen in that film doesn't surface here. He just looks bored, wanting to leave the set immediately so he can go to the bank and cash his paycheque. I think I even saw one scene where he breaks character and glances at his watch. John Leguizamo doesn't fare much better as he's given the film's most banal and uninteresting character as well as dialogue. Through most of the film, he's just staring off into space. The same goes for Samantha Mathis, who is just dull. The actor in the film I feel the most sorry for is Dennis Hopper, though. Not only is the "comedic" material he is provided with not that funny, he also hams it to the max in his performance. He puts on different voices from a Baltimore accent to a Donald Trump impression and all seem to fail badly. You haven't seen the Easy Rider star until you watch him gleefully say "Monkey!" like a five year old. Or better yet, don't! Roger Ebert has taken on some recent controversy for publicly stating that video games are not art. This isn't a discussion I want to get into the middle of right now, but comparing the joys of pressing those colourful buttons to the horrific experience of watching this film, I have to side with the game enthusiasts on this one.
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Like its heroine, Beauty and the Beast steps out of the comfort zone and thus it succeeds magically in taking people off into their hearts and children within.
17 December 2007
It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but when this age-old phrase is converted to modern times, it translates to "the desktop is mightier than the pencil." There's no denying that the computer has become a tool used across the world, whether for political reasons, or for business or especially for educational purposes. Computers have also been adopted by the film industry to give their works of art a shinier feel and along with the visual effects wizards, the filmmakers who use these electronic devices the most are the animators. After a while, it was uncertain whether the cel-based animation used to create such classics like The Little Mermaid and Pinocchio would be completely dropped in favour of the quicker and slicker style. While studios like DreamWorks may have given up on them, the folks at the world's pioneering animation studio are still behind the pencil-and-paper animation that has enchanted families for generations. Looking back at one of their essential works, Beauty and the Beast brings back memories of not only nostalgia, but also warmth. Quite possibly the greatest love story ever told, this "tale as old as time" has always been told by bringing pen to paper. From its candle-lit beginnings by a French writer many years ago to the Disney animators who brought joys to people of all ages, Beauty and the Beast has always touched the heart.

The main part of what makes Beauty and the Beast such a brilliant film is the fact that the relationship between the two title characters doesn't feel artificial or one-dimensional, even though they're drawn on paper. Unlike other famous fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast feels quite realistic in its definition of love. The story breaks all conventions by not going the "love at first sight" route and letting the romance progress at a reasonable pace. Belle also proves to be the most interesting Disney heroine, as she doesn't fit the norm of typical princesses like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Unlike the aforementioned characters, Belle is not bland, but actually as a personality. She defines individuality and seeks to do more than just marry a prince. Her annoyance at Gaston is not only humorous, but also shows that her ideas of romance don't consist of "a rustic hunting lodge... my latest kill roasting on the fire... and my little wife, massaging my feet... while the little ones play on the floor with the dogs... we'll have six or seven," as Gaston puts it. The Beast is also a rather stubborn, but loving personality. Despite his tough exterior is a nice person at heart which Belle begins to realise the more into the relationship they enter.

Adding to the brilliance of the chemistry between Beauty and the Beast are the songs from Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Although both did terrific work on The Little Mermaid and their cult musical Little Shop of Horrors, the music in Beauty and the Beast stands as their best. The title theme song is quite possibly one of the most romantic songs ever written, combining beautiful lyrics with a very memorable melody. This song enhances the film's famous ballroom scene to ever impressive heights, already helped by the breathtaking animation in the sequence. "Beauty and the Beast" was not written as just a way to sell soundtracks and win Oscars. It adds another dimension to the characters as they continue to fall deeply in love with each other. It is both moving and deep. The other songs provided by the team also contribute wonderfully to the film, from a show-stopping Broadway number called "Be Our Guest" to the very funny ode to "Gaston." They're bursting with energy and humour made even more poignant by the fact they would feature the last lyrics written by Ashman (who had also already contributed some work to Aladdin). It's a brilliant way to end his career and the end credits homage him perfectly: "To our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman (1950-1991)"

Probably one of the most important ingredients that make Beauty and the Beast such a success is the startling animation. The animators at Disney did a terrific job at making everything absolutely perfect, from the character designs to the sets. Each character has their feel, whether comedic or dramatic, and the animators allow them to breath, seamlessly combining the actor's voice to the moving drawings. The sets are also worthy of mention, particularly the look of the Beast's castle. The Gothic castle is drawn and painted beautifully from top to behind, so much so you're forgetting you're watching an animated film. The film is bright and colourful, but also dark and dreary when necessary. As mentioned before, the ballroom sequence combines Menken and Ashman's music with the animation flawlessly, giving a completely magical feel to it. When computers are brought into the scene, it seams in perfectly, not feeling distracted in the least. Beauty and the Beast most certainly stands as Disney animation at its finest.

Some of the best animated films in the world have come from the Walt Disney studios and Beauty and the Beast is deservedly one of their crown jewels. At the film's release, it was honoured with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, a rare feat for an animated film. It proves that like its heroine, Beauty and the Beast steps out of the comfort zone and thus it succeeds magically in taking people off into their hearts and children within.
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Stanley Kubrick left behind a treasury of classics and Eyes Wide Shut most certainly ranks among his best.
12 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Stanley Kubrick began his career as a teenage photographer and finished it as a maverick filmmaker. The transition from a young Brooklyn kid to one of the greatest directors in the history of film is an impressive one and rather evident in plenty of his films. Kubrick always knew how to frame a shot, ever since he began taking pictures as a boy. In each of his films, the camera was placed perfectly, creating superb picture after picture. Kubrick was not just a filmmaker, he was an artist. Many years from now, his films will be looked at the same way the paint strokes of Goya or the music of Mozart are analysed today. To cap off his incredibly consistent career, the reclusive Kubrick made his first film in twelve years and one of his best. Eyes Wide Shut is a film that is hard to classify into one genre, as its unique cinematic experience brings something different never experienced before. Kubrick would continually re-invent film with such masterpieces like Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and most importantly 2001: A Space Odyssey, his magnum opus. Eyes Wide Shut may unfortunately be Kubrick's final film, but thankfully he left the world with a bang and not a whimper.

Like all of Stanley Kubrick's films, Eyes Wide Shut is a piece of work that gets better with multiple viewings and more is noticed with each look. Not surprisingly, there is still plenty left un-explained and like a detective story, the viewer has to unravel clues much like the main protagonist does. Yet, before Harford turns into Sherlock Holmes, he represents a modern version of Odysseus from Homer's The Odyssey. Throughout the film, he is confronted by individuals wishing to give him sexual pleasure, yet he avoids them much like Odysseus and his encounter with the sirens. Similar to that character, turning down the various characters turned out to be fortunate for him. During his dreamy walk through New York, Harford encounters a prostitute who he kisses but eventually does not sleep with. The next morning, he finds out that she is HIV-positive. His decision to not have sex with her turns out to be a good one as he does not receive the deadly disease. He also turns down the offer of a patient of his and despite his sexuality being questioned by a group of rowdy teenagers (thus leading to the encounter with the prostitute), he still does not cheat on his wife. Her words may have caused jealousy, yet he actually ends up being a more noble character than Alice. With Harford as his main protagonist, Kubrick actually brought upon a rare personality that for him was un-explored. Harford has his flaws, but he is actually the most sane character of the film and the least demonic. Tom Cruise's performance also helps the audience be with the character as goes on his journey. He gives life to Harford and fleshes him out into a human being with feelings and emotions. Cruise is an accomplished actor and he hits the right keys, not going over-the-top and not being too drone-like. It is a subtle performance from one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Stanley Kubrick would always give his female leads as much as heart-ache as his lead male actors. Most of the time he managed to bring forth a great performance as evidenced by Marisa Berenson in Barry Lyndon and Sue Lyon in Lolita. In the case of Shelley Duvall in The Shining, there was the opposite effect. Thankfully, Nicole Kidman's work in Eyes Wide Shut proves to be an outstanding performance, bringing forth a character whose dark side is shown even when she's just glancing towards the camera (a frequent Kubrick trademark). Her character is not on screen as much as Cruise is, but when she does show up on camera, she excels. Most of Alice's dialogue consists of monologues, each showing the character's rough edges easily. Kidman perfectly brings layer upon layer on the character. Even in Harford's frequent fantasies, there is something sinister and careless told about her. The most fascinating scene of Kidman's comes when she is high on drugs and reveals her sensual theories to her husband. The combination of Cruise and Kidman starts the scene, but she soon takes over silencing not just Harford but the viewer as well.

Another possibly sinister character with something to hide is done very well with Sydney Pollack. As soon as he is shown in a bathroom with an over-dosed and naked girl, the audience knows that this man has a couple of skeletons in his closet. When he reveals to Harford some information regarding both the cult and the naked girl, both Harford and the viewer aren't quite sure whether to trust him or not. It's not just the screenplay that leads us to believe this, but Pollack's performance as well. That final scene either produces plenty of information or makes people more confused about the past two hours than they were before. He says the whole orgy cult was done to scare Harford, yet why would they go through all the trouble to do all that? Harford is suspicious and so are we.

Kubrick only follows that sequence up with a final confrontation between Bill and Alice. In these culminating scenes, Alice states that "only as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, can ever be the whole truth." All of this goes back to the film's title. Are Harford's eyes wide shut? Or could it be Alice or even the pianist? How about Sydney Pollack's character? For all we know, it could even be Kubrick himself as the director certainly did work in mysterious ways. It is rumoured that long-gone rapper Tupac hinted in his songs about his eventual death. Could it be that Kubrick wanted to give us one last hint about him in this film? Maybe.
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Bee Movie (2007)
A funny and clever effort from Jerry Seinfeld
12 December 2007
There's something about animated insects that seems to attract popular big-city comedians for some reason. New York's Woody Allen lent his familiar voice to Antz with slightly embarrassing results. A couple of months later, Mark Foley, from Toronto's "Kids in the Hall" troupe, played the lead in Pixar's A Bug's Life, succeeding rather well. However, unlike Allen and Foley, both of whom were hired after story completion, DreamWorks' Bee Movie was sitcom star Jerry Seinfeld's project from the very beginning. The film features his usual charm and wit and as is able to succeed without going through the "off-colour adult humour" route that seem to be plague modern animated productions.

Like other animated films about talking bugs, Bee Movie portrays its title heroes as human-like, showing a close-up at the hive and comparing the two different species rather comically. Bees are shown as using honey for hygiene, flying as the equivalent of running and graduating university in a grand total of three days. Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld), however, is less than enthralled about having the same job for the rest of his life, despite the excitement of his best friend Adam (Matthew Broderick). Barry decides to fly out of the hive and explore the outside world. After being saved by a human florist (Renee Zellweger), he befriends her and soon finds out that humans have been eating honey for decades. In response, Barry sues the human race and the honey factories are shut down. Unfortunately, things don't become as cheery as Barry had planned.

To put it simply, Barry is essentially Jerry Seinfeld in bee form. He constantly tells jokes wondering the reason for certain things and he plays off other characters very well. Zellweger gives an almost Elaine Benes vibe in her performance as the florist and this leads to some humorous moments between her and Barry, creating a relationship almost akin to that of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. The other actors do rather well, too. Matthew Broderick once again plays the straight man and voice-of-reason with a calm feel, while John Goodman puts on a humorous Sourthern accent for his role as an insect-hating lawyer. Seinfeld also rounds up celebrity cameos from Ray Liotta (who is able to lampoon himself with a little help from the animators), Larry King and Sting. Chris Rock also provides the film's funniest line as a blood-starved mosquito.

Bee Movie also proves to be a rather winning social commentary on the legal system and how suing shouldn't necessarily be the answer to everything. There are also some funny jokes on inter-racial marriage and airport regulations. That's for the adults. For the younglings, this film is funny for them as well, mixing colourful animation with some physical comedy and roller-coaster-ride sequences. Harry Gregson-Williams' bouncy score also adds to the charisma and fun of the production. Insect biologists will probably cry fowl regarding the film's inaccuracies, like how it shows both male and female bees making honey (although, like the human world, both genders are probably equal in the workplace) as well as forgetting the fact that only female mosquitoes suck blood. However, the film is so entertaining and so funny, that these can be overlooked. Overall, Seinfeld has made Bee Movie just as intelligent and funny as even Pixar's productions.
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Has a message which Parker and Stone manage to successfully swing it in along with a bunch of side-splitting funny sight gags, musical numbers and flatulence humour.
8 December 2007
In the twenty-first century, it appears the world has become more and more cowardly and thus entertainment has attempted to be more about being "politically incorrect" than providing worthwhile, honest entertainment. The biggest insult as of date has been the editing of the cartoons of yester-year, due to the smoking and racial depictions that were seen in those masterpieces. Animated series today lack the daring of those programmes and thus children are introduced to juvenile feel-goodery rather than the comic violence provided by the Looney Tunes. Even Sesame Street's Cookie Monster has been put on a diet, due to angry letters from parent's groups. The only cartoon out there that is not afraid to be blunt, satirical and downright naughty is South Park, the crudely animated adventures of four boys in a Colorado mountain town. Each week, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone bring forth what can be referred to as a warped, politically-charged and happily vulgar version of Peanuts. Yet, looking beyond the construction paper animation and constant swearing, South Park proves to be a witty and funny blend of intelligent, take-no-prisoners humour and even some heart and sweetness thrown in as well. The feature film version of the animated series, appropriately and comically titled Bigger, Longer & Uncut, has a message which Parker and Stone manage to successfully swing it in along with a bunch of side-splitting funny sight gags, musical numbers and flatulence humour.

Free from the restraints of television, Parker and Stone are free to enter possibilities that have not been explored before in the series. Yet, they oddly decide to keep it low-key by centering on the four main boys. Kyle and Stan are the straight men and the eight-year-old altar egos of Matt and Trey. Simply put, they may be vulgar and the comments spewing out of their mouths may not be the most friendly, but they're likable and the characters the audience is most able to relate. Even the bigoted slimeball that is Cartman has a sweet side to him, as he is all for the fight against censorship. In a situation almost akin to A Clockwork Orange, once he has been forced to no longer swear, the audience is waiting for him to get his beloved powers back. And finally, there's Kenny the un-sung hero of the story. While his death is used by the parents as a way to exploit their cause, Kenny attempts to stop the war once he learns of Hussein's intentions. The South Park gang have been around for a decade now and yet it's this film that's them at their all-time best.

Plenty of what makes the film more than just a longer episode of the series is the way in which Trey Parker and Broadway composer Marc Shaiman turn Bigger, Longer & Uncut into a Disney-style musical. The songs are clever and creative and best of all, they help move the plot along and do not feel like they're just adding to the running time. The opening number "Mountain Town", a parody of Beauty and the Beast's beginning, fools the audience into believing that they're about to watch a feel-good family comedy by giving it a tone different from what appears after those first four minutes. After that, the music goes in all sorts of directions. The audience is treated to a profane and flatulence filled homage to Oklahoma!, a march declaring the evils of America's neighbour to the north, a song of admiration towards a figure skater and finally, a combination of the film's best tunes done in the style of Les Miserables. There is even a love ballad played during the end credits, spoofing the typical melodramatic songs that Oscar usually awards (and South Park would, not surprisingly, lose to). Parker understands the musical genre perfectly, as previously evidenced in his student film Cannibal! The Musical and Bigger, Longer & Uncut stands as one of the best the art of cinema has offered.

One of the most notable aspects of South Park, along with the humour, is the political satire. In Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Parker and Stone go up against their biggest enemy since going on the air: humourless parent's groups. Along with Stan and Kyle, the two foul-mouthed Colorodians are also represented by the two foul-mouthed Canadians Terrance and Philip. The two characters are not necessarily a parody of South Park, but more-so how easily offended parents view South Park: a badly animated cartoon filled with low brow toilet humour consisting of flatulence jokes and swear words. It may have all of those things, but if people judge it without actually watching it, it's hard to get behind them. If they actually view it, they will find that South Park is satirical and not after all targets, but only those who deserve it. If they actually become offended by what they see, at least they are shown as less intolerant due to actually giving it a chance. Another aspect of parent's groups that Bigger, Longer & Uncut so wonderfully shows is its ability to blame others for their own mistakes. South Park is not intended for children, yet they still manage to find a way to watch it. Instead of blaming Parker and Stone, they should sit down, switch off the television and talk to their children. Sending angry letters to networks and studios that don't read them or waging war with a country which is just providing innocent entertainment isn't going to do any good. Instead, these people are actually giving Parker and Stone more publicity and more targets to make fun of.

Then again, if it weren't for the parent's groups, there wouldn't be this marvelous film. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are the two most brave comedians in the television and film business and their magnum opus is the delightful, but meaningful Bigger, Longer & Uncut. This is not just an animated comedy. It's a musical, a message film and an attack on judgmental adults everywhere.
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The Producers (2005)
The Producers is like a time capsule from the former golden age of musicals.
6 December 2007
When numerous incarnations of a famous story are created, it's easy for one version to get lost in the shuffle. For Mel Brooks's mega-phenomenon, The Producers, it appeared that the musical film version is that unfortunate casualty. Originally a film made in 1968 and starring Zero Mostel, The Producers was later adapted into an incredibly successful Broadway musical. For the film version based on his play, Brooks elected to assign Susan Stroman the directing job, just as he had done on stage. What was most often criticised about the film was that all Stroman had done was film the stage show. Yet, that is more a compliment than a complaint. The Broadway version of The Producers is one of the funniest and most refreshing stage musicals to date, bringing together some excellent and memorable songs, entertaining dance numbers and some witty lines that only Mel Brooks could write. The film version keeps all of the wonderfulness intact and thus the film succeeds incredibly well in producing not only the best film musical of this still young decade, but also one of the best musicals ever put to celluloid.

The style which Stroman and Brooks chose to make The Producers suits it perfectly, as it pays homage to the classical musicals like Singin' in the Rain and My Fair Lady, instead of opting for the quick-cutting MTV approach that musicals have adopted in recent years. Thus, the result is a bright and breezily shot musical utilising the old school lighting techniques and most of all Stroman's choreography to great effect. From old lady walkers in "Along Came Bialy" to the absolutely bombastic campy style of "Springtime for Hitler", the dance steps are superb and the viewer is able to watch every step without interruption. Each number is set up perfectly, not running too long and providing the film's most entertaining moments. Of course, the written dialogue provided by Mel Brooks and collaborator Thomas Meehan is as sharp and witty as what was seen in the original film. The actors say their lines with the most perfect comedic timing imaginable, naturally causing fits of laughter in the viewer.The humour ranges from slapstick routines to both obscure and well-known Broadway reference. Littered throughout, as well, are background gags like the posters seen in Max's office and an extra doing something silly behind the main actors. Naturally, the satire is also kept firmly in place, with Brooks and Stroman going after their usual targets: critical theatre patrons, boring accountants and of course, Adolf Hitler and his "hotsy, totsy Nazis."

The material and music is already perfect, so of course, they don't change it. However, critics have complained that the actors are over-the-top on the screen, thus producing a lot of mugging. Yet, that is the only possible way to perform Mel Brooks material as its scripts were practically made for mugging for the camera's attention. Naturally, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are the stars of the film and hence they deserve the bulk of the credit for bringing their jokes completely to life. Nathan Lane is tremendous, invoking exactly what got him the Tony Award for the performance. Even though, Max is a slightly vindictive fellow, the audience can't help but feel sorry for him. Matthew Broderick also brings a certain heart to the film as Leo Bloom, going for a different approach than Gene Wilder. His Leo is a poor schmuck, who despite his panic attacks, views the world slightly more optimistically, with eyes and expressions full of wonderment and desire. Putting Lane and Broderick together was a stroke of genius on the part of Mel Brooks, as they both shine and as shown in one of the final songs, "Til Him", their chemistry is one of a kind. Somewhere out there, Zero Mostel is smiling down and blessing these two actors.

Broderick also has plenty of romantic chemistry with Uma Thurman, who sports a very funny mock Swedish accent in a part where she is able to stretch her pipes incredibly well. She also hits the dance floor in ways not even seen in her famous scene in Pulp Fiction with "When You Got Got It, Flaunt It", one of the film's best musical numbers. Showing that when given the right material, he can give out a gem of a performance, Will Ferrell's portrayal of Franz Liebkind is far and away his work to date. Ever the improviser, Ferrell intelligently respects the Brooks material, while still giving the crazy kraut his own feel. Ferrell appears to be more comfortable in this role than he ever was playing an anchorman and a race-car driver. He may have failed there, but in The Producers, he succeeds. Finally, returning from the Broadway production are Gary Beach and Roger Bart, who while they make their character completely flamboyant to the max, they still prove to be respectable and embody their characters perfectly. When Beach takes the stage in his Hitler get-up for the film's incredible ten-minute triumph known as "Springtime for Hitler", he especially shines giving the right ounce of offensiveness and, as De Bris promises earlier in the film, keeps it gay.

The most under-appreciated film of the new millennium, Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks add the right amount of hilarity, heart, silliness and bad taste to make a film as classy as the works of Gene Kelly or Busby Berkeley. Although, I'm sure Berkeley never had his dancers take the form of a Swazitka.
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Match Point (2005)
A different type of Woody Allen film.
2 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
For many years, Woody Allen shot his films in New York, showing neurotic characters discussing that they "would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member", quoting the old Groucho Marx quote. With Match Point, the clarinet-playing, Marx-quoting Allen moved to a totally different city: London, England. And thus, there is a change of pace from nervous, neurotic individuals to confident people looking to climb the social ladder. As typically happens when an American filmmaker puts his lens on Britain, audiences are treated to the upper-crust of English society and for Match Point, it works. Match Point also lacks the feel of a Woody Allen film, which makes it even more fascinating as he allows the actors to work on their terms, reading his written lines with enough of their own feel. And particularly what sets this film apart from previous Woody fare is the darkness of the production. While he has tackled dark films before with the Bergman-inspired Interiors and Crimes and Misdeamenors (which this film borrows heavily from), never has he attempted to make a psychological thriller. Match Point isn't like, say, The Silence of the Lambs, but it does have a suspenseful feel lurking around it.

Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a tennis instructor who wants to go higher up in society and he gets his chance when he is introduced to Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a member of an upper-crust family. Immediately, Chris starts to make his way, slowly becoming a member of the family by falling for Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and attending the family's house in the country. In the meantime, he also meets Tom's girlfriend, a struggling actress from Colorado called Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). He becomes sexually attracted to Nola and the two of them have a short affair. Chris marries Chloe and Nola moves back to America, but as soon as she returns to England, the affair starts once again. Chris is soon forced to continually lie to keep his affair as secret as possible and not be thrown out of his new job and perks that the Hewetts have given him. Now, he decides to end the affair the only way he can think of: murder.

As mentioned before, Woody Allen's films portray their protagonists as neurotic beings, worried that they've done the wrong thing. With Match Point, there is a 180 degree turn with the character of Chris, a confidant who does not feel guilty in the least for cheating on his wife and once he murders, he does not sweat a brow even when being interrogated by the police. Throughout the film, he lies his way out of possible punishment, not because he is necessarily a good liar but because of pure luck. This is unlike the game of tennis, which requires both skill and luck. Chris may be skilled at tennis, but not murder, as he "committed the murder, just begging to be caught." In another twist on tennis, Chris 'serves' a piece of evidence, but it fails to land on the other side and into the river. Yet, by pure luck, somebody else finds it and is soon framed by somebody who never even met him.

Chris's sex life with Chloe wilts throughout the course of the film as he spends more and more time with Nola, who he has a bigger attraction for, yet doesn't divorce Chloe to his own greediness. He will lose the fancy car, driver and apartment if he does so and if lying is the only way to keep himself wealthy, so be it. This is all effectively portrayed in the performance by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who embeds Chris with two sides. With the Hewetts, he is the good boy being as un-offensive as possible, so to be admitted into the family circle. With Nola, his darker side creeps out and he keeps going back for more. These differences are also played out very well with Emily Mortimer playing Chloe as innocent and apologetic and Scarlett Johansson injecting Nola with sexual tension and constantly over-bearing Chris. Chris believes his affair is something small, but Nola thinks differently. Johansson's scene where she catches Chris on a fib (the only person in the film to hundred percent do so) and pronounces him as a "liar" has been criticised by some circles. However, the scene and dialogue within do work because of the tiredness growing in the character.

Woody Allen's transition from New York to London worked perfectly as he made his best film in many years. Even those who complain that "he doesn't make funny movies anymore" will like Match Point. Those who don't like him at all will also be surprised as it feels more like a Jonathan Demme production rather than a film from the director of Annie Hall. A fascinating entry in his filmography, Match Point is certainly a film that while it would not have you on the edge of your seat, it will make you sit thoughtfully without complaining about bad service and small portions.
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Pinocchio (1940)
The most enchanting and magical of all the Disney films.
21 November 2007
For seventy years, people of all demographics have been entertained and enchanted by the animated features brought out by the Disney studios. In an era when most animated films lack imagination and spirit, it's always nice to watch an earlier Disney film, whether it be one of their old classics or the works released during the early 90's renaissance. Most film historians claim that Snow White and Fantasia are the best films to come out of the beginning years and while I agree they are certainly historically important, they don't quite give me the joy provided by 1940's Pinocchio. Adapted from the Italian story, Disney may have changed things plenty during the writing progress, but the result is a magical and unforgettable experience that proves to not only be a fun romp, but also one of the best cautionary tales brought to the screen.

The story is, of course, familiar to everyone. A kindly, old woodcarver named Gepetto builds his own "little wooden boy" and soon enough the puppet is brought to life. However, before he can become a real boy, Pinocchio must prove himself worthy and with Jiminy Cricket as his conscious, he goes out into the real world, full of crooks and criminals. Naturally, Pinocchio the ever youthful puppet, lands into plenty of trouble, first becoming an actor for a scary marionette master and then being turned into a donkey. The audience, especially the young children watching, are absolutely enthralled by the whole production, but also scared by what is shown on screen. Unlike today's cartoons, that try to be as "friendly" as possible, Walt Disney wanted his films to leave an impact and Pinocchio certainly fits into that category. While the film enchants, it also provide plenty of frightening moments as well.

Quite possibly the scariest scene in the film is when on Pleasure Island, troublesome boys are transformed into donkeys and sent to the salt-mines. Pinocchio can quite possibly be called the greatest anti-cigar film ever made, just for the fact that it doesn't say that smoking is bad, it shows it (although, ironically, Disney himself was a massive smoker)! Another scene that really gets to young audiences is the part in which Pinocchio begins to lie up a storm and his nose grows, even producing a nest with birds at the end. It's enough to make children squirm in their seats and have them afraid to tell a lie again. One of the reasons these scenes are so successful in leading people to the right decision is the fact that Pinocchio is not just a little wooden boy, he represents the child in every one of us: naive and ready to set out into the world, but not fully aware of the dangers awaiting us.

Along with the donkey-transformation and nose-growing scenes, the most memorable aspect of Pinocchio is the music. "When You Wish Upon a Star" is Disney's anthem for a reason. It's not only beautiful, but also brings about what we all want: to wish for a better world, one without evil puppet masters, children taking bad habits and devilish foxes bringing people to the dark side. Finally, the most touching scene comes in the end, when Pinocchio seems like he might die, but his bravery to save Gepetto finally allows him to become a real boy. Even remembering that scene leads one to smile as it's not only Gepetto and Pinocchio's wish that is fulfilled, but ours as well. Everybody loves a happy ending and Pinocchio features the best of them all. Not only is it the best film made by Disney, but it's also their most optimistic. And that's why Pinocchio is such a classic.
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A disturbing, yet poignant film that only Kubrick could of directed.
16 November 2007
Stanley Kubrick was a filmmaker who continually tried to both shock and amaze his audience, but most importantly he wanted people to come back again and again to unlock the layers of secrets hidden beneath his films. Plenty has been told regarding the impact of his A Clockwork Orange upon its original release, yet even looking at the film in it's own terms, it's easy to see why it's regarded as such a masterpiece. Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess's equally brilliant book rather faithfully, but still giving the film his own mark. His films have been criticised for being cold and heartless, yet it's almost necessary for A Clockwork Orange to be filmed in such a style. Kubrick portrays his near-future as bleak and lacking the Utopian feel that most science-fiction writers were predicting. Reading the headlines in today's newspaper, the futuristic world depicted in A Clockwork Orange has unfortunately come true. This goes both for the portrayal of youthful aggression as well as the government's attempts to rid the world of it.

Teenage violence at its worst is personified in the lead character of A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). Alex is a parent's worst nightmare: He is cruel, violent, cold-blooded, but filled with intelligence, which he unfortunately does not put to better use. Alex romps around town with his gang of "droogs", raping and hurting innocent individuals just for the fun of it. One of the most disturbing (of many) sequences in the film is the scene in which is rapes a writer's wife while dancing and skipping along to "Singin' in the Rain." A seemingly innocent song about love is used in a means completely the opposite of its original intention, thus why it's such a disturbing part of the film. What's even worse is Alex knows that what he is doing is wrong, but his lack of conscience causes him to not care what society thinks of him and his ideas of fun. Kubrick's uncanny ability to seemingly combine beautiful classical music to a montage of horrifying comes into play in A Clockwork Orange, with Alex's admiration towards the works of "Ludwig van." Beethoven Ninth Symphony is turned from a wonderful piece of music to something particularly saddening as we learn how much this sadistic rapist obsesses over it and "As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!" These so-called "lovely pictures" which contain such R-rated material as rape, violence and blood pouring out of Alex's fangs would probably scare Beethoven due to the way Kubrick so perfectly edits the images together.

Yet, there comes an interesting turn-around when Alex is arrested and sent to prison. Soon afterwards, the tone of the film completely changes as Alex begins to play nice and the film becomes far less disturbing and chaotic than the first act was. Alex wants to get back out into the world as quickly as possible and when he hears of a technique that will help him do so, he jumps to the chance. He is soon put in the Ludovico Technique, involving him being strapped to a chair, his eyes made un-shutable and forced to watch horrible acts of violence on a cinema screen. When Alex's beloved Ninth Symphony begins playing over images of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, it is then that the effects take hold. Even Alex of all people realises that he is an amateur compared to the atrocities the Nazis performed during the Holocaust. This leads to an effect more cruel than the Technique's creators possibly imagined: Not only is Alex drained of violence, but also of his love of fabulous music. Maybe Beethoven heaves a sigh of relief, but us the viewer is oddly starting to feel sorry for Alex. He may be unable to commit violent acts, but he is also unable to choose whether he wants to or not.

Stanley Kubrick launches on these themes perfectly as only he can. Other filmmakers would probably none too subtly through these into the viewer's face, but not Kubrick. Like many of his other films, he allows to slowly tear apart the film throughout multiple viewings and even let us interpret the film's views ourselves without him interfering. He just sits, stroking his beard and thinking "yes, that seems about right. What else do you have to say regarding the film?" Malcolm McDowell's performance also brings us into Alex's world, carefully pronouncing each word that Burgess created for his book so as not to make any mistake. Each subsequent viewing, we learn a new meaning for "nadsat" and see that it is more than just the way Alex communicates, but also a part of his rebellion against the world he tolerates so much of. Stanley Kubrick not only created a masterpiece worthy of plenty of conversation, but also a look at our world currently operates and ways we can resolve these problems without the need of brainwashing techniques.
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The Departed (2006)
The Departed: An ode to the great William Shakespeare
5 August 2007
Warning: Spoilers
For years, William Shakespeare has been regarded as the greatest writer in history and his works have been studied, analysed and influential ever since his quill first touched a sheet of paper. He had the ability to take familiar stories and turn them into something triumphant. He managed to enthrall audiences with his witty and fascinating dialogue and tales of star-crossed lovers and brave Moors, among others. This year, The Departed was honoured with the Academy Award for Best Picture and many that considered a triumph for Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest modern filmmakers still standing strong since he first came to prominence in the 1970's. However, I would not be surprised if Shakespeare was watching from above and applauding the win along with everyone else in the Kodak Theatre. After all, if he was a screenwriter in Hollywood, The Departed would certainly be a work of art he would produce.

Unlike the typical action film that Hollywood likes to churn out every week or so, The Departed has actually an intelligent and well thought out plot that one needs to think in order to make sense of it all. Not surprisingly, this is due to it being heavily inspired by not only the Bard but also the Chinese film Infernal Affairs. Billy Costigan is a mole for the police who has been placed in the middle of the Irish Mafia of Boston, headed by the ruthless Frank Costello. Costello himself has placed an informant of his own in the police sector, Colin Sullivan trusted by the gangster since the boy's youth. Tensions run even higher when both learn of a mole on either side and with guns ablaze, the plan is to get them sniffed out. As the film's 152 minute running time comes to a close, identities are revealed, lives are lost and Scorsese adds another triumphant production to his filmography.

Martin Scorsese, deservedly so receives the bulk of acclaim for The Departed as his eye for detail and clever camera-work is enough to make any film of his the heart of a film school course. Despite this being an American remake of an already great foreign production, Scorsese allows it to stand on its own and even surpass its inspiration. His talented ensemble of actors are also intelligent enough not to ham it up as they bring their characters to life easily. Leonardo DiCaprio sheds his pretty boy image, playing Costigan as the rebel who much like his actor wants people to forget his history and just see him for who he currently is. Matt Damon disappears into Sullivan and much like DiCaprio, plays a man leading a double life but not certain which one to choose. Jack Nicholson, always known for playing evil yet lovable villains portrays Costello as the ultimate of evil and a man you're cheering against and not for. However, the actor who gives the most enjoyable performance is Mark Wahlberg who plays a character who isn't even in the original. The film's writer William Monahan gives him some of the film's best lines and he delivers them with a sharp tongue. Wahlberg allows his f-words to be the most fun to listen to since the Canadian sung tune from South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut.

As the film proceeds at its surprisingly fast pace, the film gets more and more exciting and us, the viewers, get more immersed and fascinated in the story. And then the last half-hour comes along and each character meets their demise, we're reminded of the triumphant finale Shakespeare wrote for Hamlet, his magnum opus. Each character, good and evil, dies and the audience laughs, not because it's ridiculous but because it's done in such a light tone. We gasp as blood gushes from their brains but even on the second viewing, when I knew a character's death was arriving, I couldn't wait for them to happen. I'm not a sick individual but it's so much fun watching one right after the other dropping down on the ground. And as Sullivan falls to the ground in the film's final scene and we watch a rat scurry on his window sill, we look back and want to see that last half hour again. Just for the fun of it.
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Knocked Up (2007)
Very funny and very sweet as well!
26 July 2007
Judd Apatow's first film took the simple idea of a 40 year old virgin and expanded it into a sweet and funny tale that was more than just a one-joke movie. His second film Knocked Up takes a more realistic route by showing what would happen if a one-night stand actually made somebody pregnant. Yet, like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Apatow knocks it out of the park, proving that he could rival Mel Brooks as the best living comedic filmmaker in North America. What pushes this film above the typical R-rated sex comedy is the fact that Apatow spends just as much time creating a believable script as he does bringing the audience to uncontrollable laughter. He also fills the screen with likable actors, who bring plenty of charisma to Knocked Up. Without them, it certainly wouldn't have been the same film.

Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is an unemployed slacker, who just enjoys smoking marijuana and developing a website on film pornography. Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) has just been promoted by E! News to be an on-air anchorwoman and to celebrate, she goes to a night club with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann). There, she gets drunk and meets Ben and they both go home and sleep together. After parting ways the following morning, Allison calls Ben a couple of weeks later to announce that she is pregnant with his child. Deciding against having an abortion, the two bachelors try to get to know each other and sure enough (as this is a Hollywood film), the two grow very close. Meanwhile, there is a subplot involving Debbie and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd), who is beginning to get bored of his marriage and soon forms a bond with Ben. As mentioned before, this is a Hollywood film, but doesn't completely follow the typical format of an American romantic comedy and that is where the film succeeds above similar films.

Judd Apatow, much like he did with The 40 Year Old Virgin, pushes the limits of his "R" rating and goes all the way, showing absolutely everything. Not only are there the usual breast shots and profanity-laced rants heard in R-rated sex comedies, but also hundreds of uses of drugs (smoked in ways I have never seen before), vomiting and "doggie-style." There is even a pregnancy scene that shows that you don't need $250 million to create realistic special effects. Yet, among the crude scenes, there are also those sweet moments which Apatow manages to keep from getting over-long and sappy. The scenes between Rogen and Heigl certainly display Apatow's ability to write great romantic dialogue, but this is surprisingly proved even more so in the parts where Rogen and Rudd converse. The more time that Ben spends with Pete, the more it dawns on him what the future will be like for him when he and Allison have a family. Even though it is not shown on screen, we can tell through all of the subtle gestures that Ben thinks he will be as boring and lifeless as Pete has become.

This, of course, leads to why the film is such a major success: the performances. Apatow does not cast any devilishly handsome fellows in the roles and the actors he chooses are natural and manage to slide in their parts easily. Seth Rogen is not a De Niro or a Nicholson and nor does he need to be. He gives Ben a likable persona and even after two hours, we're still not tired of him. Ben is thrust into a situation that many people go through and Rogen doesn't play the part as over the top. He is crude and vulgar when he needs to be and he is sweet and charming when necessary. Katherine Heigl is a good match-up with Rogen, as she allows us to believe she actually is pregnant and not an actress in a fat suit. The character changes throughout the film, due to hormones and cravings, and Heigl plays it very well. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd give ample support as the film's only married couple and they're both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

For me, the comic delights of the film are the four actors playing Ben's best friends. All of them most likely playing themselves, Apatow doesn't overdo them and they don't enter the scene when un-needed. They are the tasty side dish to Rogen and Heigl's steak. Harold Ramis, Steve Carell, Ryan Seacrest and James Franco drop in as well for some very funny cameo appearances. Their scenes are short so they don't overstay their welcomes. Apatow gives them a rant and they're on their way. Knocked Up is one of those rare modern American comedies that manages to be both side-splitting and heart-breaking and without using the aide of humongous visual effects and is certainly worth the price of admission.
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Troll 2 (1990)
Unintentional comedy is the only thing that will help you get through this crummy backyard production.
18 July 2007
Recent studies have shown that the average person's intelligence is going down, thanks to so-called "contributions to society" like American Idol, Michael Bay movies and unhealthy ingredients in foods. It has been started that intelligence started to downgrade around the time the new millennium started. After watching Troll 2, I believe this trend started ten years earlier, when a schlock Italian director was hired to direct this absolutely atrocious film, if you can call it a "film." Everything about Troll 2 reeks of stupidity, from the cast to the script to the score and even the costumes. Ed Wood, notoriously named the worst director of all-time, wouldn't touch this film with a twenty-foot yard stick. Even the infamous Uwe Boll would call this one a stinker. Yet, along with the stupidity, there are still plenty of laughs to be had. Troll 2 is such a ridiculous film that it's very hard to watch it with a straight face. While cringing at the horrible celluloid you're watching, you might find yourself giggling as well. However, that's the only thing that will help you get through this crummy backyard production.

The plot of Troll 2, which I managed to find past the badness, centers around Joshua Waits, a young boy who constantly having conversations with his dead grandfather's ghost. Meanwhile, His sister, Holly, is having problems with his boyfriend, Scotty, the "good for nothing playboy son of the Coopers." She wants him to spend more time with her and to forget about his friends. The plot starts to begin when the father decides to take the family on a vacation to the small town of Nilbog, but once on arrival, Joshua becomes suspicious of the other townsfolk. Scotty and his friends also head to Nilbog, where he hopes in finding Holly and they want to score with some local girls. The residents of Nilbog appear to be very kind to the Waits, constantly trying to feed them oddly coloured vegetables and milk with "Vitamin D!" Yet, Joshua and his grandfather knowing that the Nilbog citizens are in fact goblins in disguise, swoop in at the oddly right moments to stop them. Scotty's friends, meanwhile, are turned into "man plants" by the leader of the Nilbog goblins, a witch who likes to annunciate every single syllable.

The plot synopsis above does not do justice to how bad and laugh-inducing Troll 2 is. Claudio Fragasso, who at the time of making this had a limited knowledge of the English language, wrote and directed this with little care for story, characters, interesting settings and making the audience believe that what they are seeing is real. The goblins are made with what look like Halloween masks that probably made up about two dollars of the budget and pillowcases full of hay. Sequences where characters ooze disgusting slime and turn into flat, green pancakes are especially embarrassing, due to the obviously bad editing and ridiculous nature of it. The score is also downright poor and laughable. Techno music was quite popular at the time of this film's release, but that's because they had style. Here, the composer just hits random notes on the keyboard. The script is the worst aspect of Troll 2, as it features the worst dialogue I have heard in any major motion picture and the story is extremely silly and badly fabricated. Eating bologna sandwiches kills goblins? Apparently so. Because they're vegetarians, they must turn humans into plants to eat them? I guess they have no idea how to plant their own vegetables in Nilbog. And don't even get me started on that out of left-field ending. It looks like the screenplay never passed the first draft page or Fragasso never even showed it to script readers.

The people involved I feel the most sorry for are the actors. Maybe they're very good and could have had some great careers in Hollywood, starring alongside Morgan Freeman and Tom Cruise. However, any evidence of that is not displayed in Troll 2. Michael Stephenson gives quite possibly the worst performance by a child star I have ever seen, yelling and screeching and crying "Grandpa!" so many times I lost count after bad line delivery #1270. George Hardy, a practicing dentist, plays the father with as little emotion as possible, with every single expression looking exactly the same. Margo Prey, the mother, provides the difficult cast of being even more bland. Connie Young's performance as Holly is monotone and thus makes her character more uncaring and annoying that she already is. If she auditioned for her high school's school play, the drama teacher would cross her name off the list after about two minutes. Robert Ormsbry, is just as cringe inducing, playing Scotty the homophobic boyfriend (although he is oddly enough shown in one scene, sharing a bed butt-naked with one of his buddies). Darren Ewing gives probably Troll 2's most infamous acting job as Arnold, who provides a reaction shot that provides more laughs than screams.

Finally, Deborah Reed attempts to shoot for Oscar gold with her performance as the evil leader of the goblins. She apparently finds it necessary to pronounce every vowel and in so doing so, extends what should be a short sixty-minute feature to a bloated and long ninety-minutes. Thankfully, Fragasso didn't give her a Paul Thomas Anderson-esquire monologue. Otherwise, Troll 2 would have yet another hour of running time. Despite the awfulness of Troll 2, the images of its unintentional hilarity are still stuck in my brain. However, unlike a classic horror film like The Exorcist which I highly appreciate, Troll 2 is only around and in circulation so myself and other people can make fun of it.
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"Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." - Talmud
16 July 2007
The medium of film can be used to present both fact and fiction, with realistic portrayals of historical events littered in the multiplex among the fantasy adventures. Steven Spielberg is renowned for his special effects-laden blockbusters, but even more so for his World War II epics that are meant more to inform and remember rather than to entertain. His most accomplished film is Schindler's List, based on the true story of a man who saved over a thousand Jews from extermination. Those renting the DVD just to have a fun time would be best to look elsewhere. Those who are looking to view a perfect take on a very depressing time in European history will find it in Schindler's List. This is not Oscar bait, like so many people claim it to be. This is a upsetting and heart-wrenching motion picture that is sure to bring some people to tears. With an excellent cast, a beautiful score and harrowing camera-work, Schindler's List succeeds on so many levels.

Set in Poland during World War II, the film centers on Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a member of the Nazi Party who wishes to open a pots and pans factory in Krakow. Due to Jewish workers being much cheaper than Poles, he hires an accountant called Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) to help roll up Jews to work in the factory. Soon, more and more of them are hired and while Schindler originally saved the Jews for profit, now he wants to save them from being gassed in the concentration camps. Meanwhile, Schindler meets Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a Nazi soldier who takes pleasure in shooting Jews. However, he also has a relationship with Helen Hirsch (Embeth Davidtz), a Jewish woman who is sometimes abused, but also sometimes loved by Goeth. These two stories are also connected with those of the prisoners in the Ghettos and concentration camps, who are hired and saved by Schindler.

The images of Schindler's List are very depressing and upsetting, but it could not have worked any other way. Spielberg portrays Nazi-occupied Poland accurately and thus, it's quite possibly one of the saddest films ever made. It's not an easy film to watch, but it should certainly be mandatory viewing. Schindler's List is not just a movie, it's a call for an end to prejudice. The Holocaust was one of the most horrific events of the twentieth century and it is perfectly filmed by director of photography Janusz Kaminski. The majority of the film is in black-and-white, a very intelligent decision on Spielberg's part, which actually makes the film look more realistic than if it was entirely in colour. Many scenes, including one involving a jammed gun, make us stop and think that maybe we shouldn't take things for granted. Steven Zaillian's screenplay is tight and manages to portray these real-life people very well with excellent dialogue. In addition, John Williams' score adds even more heartbreak to this tremendous film.

Yet, it is the actors who truly sell the film. Liam Neeson shows plenty of range as a man, who starts off as greedy and only looking for profit and then slowly changes into a hero. Schindler is a man who wants to make money, but also wants to save lives and Neeson perfectly shows a man who can't have his cake and eat it, too. Ben Kingsley gives very subtle work as Stern, a man who is in two worlds: that of the ghettos and concentration camps and then working alongside a man who can save his fellow Jews. While Schindler is giving him instructions, we see that Stern is secretly pulling the strings as much as he can. Finally, Ralph Fiennes truly shows that he is one of Britain's finest young actors with his role as the ruthless Goeth. We see in his eyes a man who is not "just following orders" like some Nazis were at the time, but really somebody who does believe a lot in Der Führer's evil ideas. Fiennes portrays his love for Hirsch very well, showing him at a crossroads. On the one hand, he hates Jews and believes them to be scum, but on the other, he has a deep admiration for Helen. Yet, he feels he must show his meaner side to the follow soldiers. Fiennes not only shows an evil man, but a man truly in love as well.

Steven Spielberg is the master behind this brilliant production and everything about it is composed so well. He proved with this film that he has the ability to direct serious, dramatic films and this is the film that most people will view him upon. It is the story of triumph and how if you try, you can help save the world and lead to the end of racism and violence. After all, as the Talmud says, "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." This quote can be applied to people of all religions, not just those who Oskar Schindler saved years ago. That is what Schindler's List is most of all about: the fight against bigotry and injustice.
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