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Monday, September 27, 2010


Title: Alien

Year of Release: 1979

Date Viewed: September 24th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

"In space, no one can hear you scream." Arguably one of the greatest movie taglines in history. After finally seeing the film for the first time last Friday, it's easy for me to see why this is grouped with Star Wars and Jaws as some of the most memorable films from the 1970s.

The movie begins with an impressive director's tour of the Nostromo spaceship, a mining cargo vehicle on its way back to Earth after a long voyage. The crew of seven human passengers awaken from hypersleep to investigate an SOS signal from an uninhabited planet. During a foot trek around the landing area, the crew discover another spaceship that appears to have been abandoned.

A deeper journey into the structure reveals an enormous colony of offspring eggs, none of which are familiar to human knowledge. One of the investigators gets too close to the curious matter and pays the price. A slimy living organism breaks out of an egg and attaches itself to the investigator's face, immobilizing him.

The crew retreats back to the ship and brings their fallen comrade aboard. After a failed attempt to remove the creature from his face, the problem seems to have fixed itself when the victim eventually wakes up without any evident damage or any memory of what had happened.

But all hopes for a return to normalcy are soon shattered. During a dinner time meal, the victim experiences a sharp pain coming from within his organs. It gradually gets worse until the unthinkable occurs. A small extraterrestrial being emerges from the victim's stomach and escapes into the maze-like corridors of the Nostromo. The crew divide themselves up in an attempt to execute the runaway creature, but the alien becomes full grown and is now a hostile menace with the capability of compromising the mission and the passenger's lives. Then the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game between alien and humans with only one team having the chance to survive.

Director Ridley Scott does not rush any of the plot to compromise for slow attention spans. The first six minutes of the film actually has no dialogue at all. Using numerous dolly shots, Scott enjoys thoroughly exploring the details of the spaceship world which looks more like a prison than a home. The camera usually stays at the same height level as its human characters so that nearly everything can be experienced from their perspective. The long shots of the ship's interior remind me of the experience of reading a novel. Establish the environment first and explore the characters later. Once both tasks are accomplished, the body of the story is at its strongest. I also had to wonder if Sam Raimi drew any inspiration here for his trademark 360 degree spin shot that he used for the Evil Dead trilogy.

All seven characters behave differently yet are not fully revealed in their personalities. It's the perfect amount for what the movie wants to achieve. We can be familiar with them just enough to care for them but not enough for us to predict them. It's one of the most difficult things to learn for a storyteller but magnificent when executed as perfectly as it is here.

The fun part about Alien is that the title character is rarely seen on screen. In most cases, it would make for a very boring thriller. But here the tension is allowed to build to its maximum level. The "less is more" philosophy is followed unconditionally in this film. This idea can be supported by the quiet subtle music score by Jerry Goldsmith. Most of the time it sounds like the same motif played on repeat. Maybe it is. It blends in so well that it's often unnoticeable. After spending as much time as these characters do in space, everything can appear to be the same.

Alien's most memorable scenes are delightfully over the top. It's not wrong to laugh while feeling scared at the same time. It's incredible how effective these shock scenes still are after existing for over thirty years.

On the other hand, there are some moments that didn't sit well with me. The acting is a bit stiff at times. Some plot twists are too B-movie for the film's quality. And whose bright idea was it to bring a cat onboard the ship? Was its presence really necessary for anything? I think the poor animal would have much preferred to stay in its litter box back home on Earth than get frantically carried around by an astronaut in peril.

I would also like to know how and why they convinced Sigourney Weaver to strip down to her underwear for no apparent reason near the end of the movie. Did Ridley Scott have to follow some sort of studio quota that demanded at least one half naked woman in their horror movie? I cannot fathom any other reason for its random placement.

Fortunately, all the things that need to make sense do so convincingly. Not bad for a movie about an alien living inside a human being. If there is any hope for a future classic alien film to rise above the others, it needs to follow this movie's guidelines. Stay plausible within your own universe and don't be afraid to have a little fun.

Rating: 8

Sunday, September 26, 2010


Title: [Rec]

Year of Release: 2007

Date Viewed: September 22nd, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

When The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, it was both a cinema milestone and a failed realization. The movie was successful in bringing mockumentary style point-of-view to mainstream cinema and earned a ton of box office revenue. But it didn't deliver enough effective thrills to earn itself classic (not even cult classic) status. Thus it stayed as an "I Love the 90s" pop culture icon and remembered only as nostalgia.

As a result of Blair Witch Project's financial success, many filmmakers kicked their imagination in gear and explored the untapped potential of POV movies. With the right kind of pacing and creativity, the format had the ability to immerse audiences in a new kind of terror. In 2007, one of the best Blair Witch imitators came out of Spain with the simple title [Rec], a reference to the familiar command button on video recorders. It doesn't try to copy Blair Witch as much as it picks up where it left off in the innovation department.

In [Rec], the story is seen through the viewpoint of two primary characters: Television news reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and camera operator Pablo (Pablo Rosso). The latter of the two is almost never on screen since his job is to capture all the action that we see.

Angela is a top contributor of a documentary series titled While You're Asleep. This week's assignment is to follow a day in the life of a group of firefighters. An uneventful routine day is suddenly broken up by a distress call from an apartment building. Angela follows the crew to the building and films their strange finding; an elderly haggard-looking woman with blood on her clothes. As the policeman cautiously approach her, the woman suddenly attacks the rescuers with superhuman aggression and tries to bite through their limbs. After subduing the crazed woman, the wounded fireman starts to exhibit aggressive behavior of his own and then starts biting new victims. As you can probably guess, this pattern repeats itself and it doesn't take long for the situation to get completely out of control.

To the utmost misfortune of Angela and her comrades, escape is impossible thanks to the biohazard branch of the military sealing off the building, trapping the infected and any potential victims inside. Their only hope is a health inspector sent in by the military to defuse the situation. But with more victims getting infected and fewer places to hide, it may be too late.

The viewpoint never switches away from Pablo's videocamera. There is only one instance of the movie cheating a little. When a victim is gunned down by a policeman, the film crew rewind the tape in disbelief in order to get another view of the horrific incident. The remainder of the movie plays straight on through with only a few moments of the camera getting switched on and off for various reasons.

The camera POV is often considered to be simply a gimmick used to disguise a stale story to look fresh. But what many critics overlook is how the concept prevents fancy camera tricks from manipulating the audience. Thus it inspires creativity. We are always in the shoes of Angela and Pablo. The monsters are never visible until the characters see them. Backstories are never explained until the characters learn them. And the scares are almost never telegraphed due to the unpredictable human behavior. It's a wild ride. Probably too wild if you are prone to motion sickness. To keep the gimmick on the realistic side, not every camera shot is set up perfectly and other situations are plain unwatchable. It may be frustrating to some but I believe it stays at a fair compromise.

Even though it's not a story driven film, the characters are given just enough exploration for us to care whether they live or die. They are flawed but not stupid. Too often audiences spend more time criticizing characters' incompetence, leaving little time for the atmosphere to take control of the emotions. And atmosphere is what [Rec] is all about. Claustrophobia is always a reliable element for horror.

The only cliches present are the welcome ones. The monsters often appear out of nowhere spontaneously, but it's not always easy to predict precisely when. Most every event will require guesswork and that's a sure sign of good horror film. And with a brisk seventy-six minute running time, the movie doesn't try to accomplish more than it needs to.

[Rec] was so popular in Spain that an American remake was immediately green-lighted. The U.S. version (re-titled Quarantine) used new actors but copied almost every sequence shot-for-shot from the original film. It has been almost eighteen months since I had watched Quarantine so objective memory fails to offer fair advice as to which version is superior. My hunch still recommends [Rec] because the villains seemed a little more frightening and the overall tone was a little extra dark.

As long as the POV filming technique has not worn out its welcome on you, [Rec] is worth hitting the [Play] button for.

Rating: 8

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Angels in the Outfield

Title: Angels in the Outfield

Year of Release: 1994

Date Viewed: September 21st, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

With the Major League Baseball post-season almost upon us, the time felt right to dig into my library of baseball themed movies and watch.....the only baseball themed movie in my library.

Angels in the Outfield is a reworking of a 1951 film by the same name. The story follows Roger Bomman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young boy living in a foster care center. His mother is no longer alive and his father is either uninterested or incapable of looking after him alone. When his father makes a surprise visit to the foster home, Roger is initially excited but soon dismayed to learn that he had officially been handed over to the state of California until new legal guardians can be assigned. He still desires to stay with his father and even asks him when it could be possible for them to be a family again. His father sarcastically replies, "I'd say when the Angels win the pennant."

The "Angels" he is referring to is Roger's beloved major league baseball team: the California (now Anaheim) Angels. The all-star break had just wrapped up and the team stands in last place in their division with an ongoing fifteen game losing streak. The players have no team chemistry, no promising stars and no hope for their future. The Angels' manager George Knox (Danny Glover) has all but given up on his team and still has a chip on his shoulder from his own playing career that was cut short.

Roger takes his father's promise to heart and prays to the heavens above for a miracle to help the Angels win some games. Maybe then his father would be willing to start all over and take him back.

Roger's prayers are answered in a way that nobody could have expected. Soon, real live angels that only Roger can see fly in from the skies to manipulate the results of the games. They add extra power to a player's bat. They lift an outfielder to help him make a diving catch. Sometimes they even pull a Jedi mind trick on the manager to help him control his temper. Most of these acts are not designed to directly impact the final results of the game. They are there to give every player a much needed confidence boost and to encourage George Knox to trust everyone's abilities.

Knox is bewildered at his team's newfound success. A chance meeting with Roger informs him that he is in the presence of a miracle. Convinced that Roger is his ticket to a winning season, he invites him to witness every game from the dugout so he can be there to relay advice from heaven's angels. With their help, the team with no hope is now back in the pennant race and on the verge of the biggest comeback in MLB history.

It would have been nice if the angels' assistance would have been subtle enough to stay within the confines of reality. Then we could have been allowed to speculate whether or not any miracles really were taking place. But since this is a 1990's Disney film, they needed to make efforts to appeal to the younger less mature audiences. The angels wear large white robes and have a near-blinding shine emulating from them. The lengths they take to help the ball players make such spectacular plays don't even need an instant replay to raise suspicion. It's amusing but far far from authentic.

In fact, the only subplot that does feel remotely authentic concerns the Angels' injured reserve pitcher Mel Clark, played by Tony Danza. He doesn't see eye to eye with George Knox, the man he believes destroyed his career by forcing him to play on painkillers. His throwing arm's best days are behind him. And even though he is medically cleared to compete again, Knox has no faith and refuses to place him on the active roster. He is forced to watch every game from the dugout, waiting and hoping to one day have a say in the final outcome. You can now probably guess what happens before the movie finishes.

Clark doesn't speak much during the movie and he doesn't need to. His legacy is the real spokesman. In fact, he is even asked one time by Roger's friend if he used to be Mel Clark. "Yeah. I used to be", he replies. He doesn't overestimate his worth but knows that he still has something to contribute. His eyes practically light up when he finally gets his chance to return to glory. And that's all the speaking that needs to be done. It's a great subtle performance by Danza and one that he never received proper credit for.

Roger's friend that I had mentioned in the previous paragraph is nicknamed J.P. and played by Milton Davis Jr. The reason I almost didn't bring him up is that he is mainly a useless character. His only purpose in the film was to act as the plot device that reveals the truth behind the Angels' sudden winning streak to the public and also to provide the movie with one of its catchphrases: "It could happen."

Once the truth is revealed, the movie's tone changes for the better and every character then finds themselves facing their own greatest challenge. I encountered my own challenge in trying to figure out why the team owner would fire the manager for using a divine intervention to win games. Like anyone would really care.

Religion is addressed but not preached toward anyone. The film's message is over-sentimental at times, but if you can forgive that it's a nice one to hear. Never lose hope even when things look their bleakest. An angel may not fly down to help you but great things can still happen if you believe in yourself. The Angels' learn that as a team and some learn that in their own personal way.

Angels in the Outfield is not a great movie nor is it for everyone. But I have a soft spot for feel-good dramas even if they act self-indulgent at times. Plus there are some genuinely funny moments that I had previously forgotten that were fun to rediscover. Also be on the lookout for actors in supporting roles before they made it to the A-list. It's a good film to keep handy for the next time your local ballgame gets rained out on.

If the angels depicted here ever decide to return to Earth and assist a new ailing baseball team, I'd like to suggest the Baltimore Orioles. Lord knows they could use the help.

Rating: 7

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jennifer's Body

Title: Jennifer's Body

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: September 17th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

If I was a paparazzi assigned to photograph Megan Fox, watching Jennifer's Body would make me a little uneasy about following her in the dark.

In this film, Fox plays high school hottie (What else?) Jennifer Check. Her longtime best friend is Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried), a less popular but well rounded student who splits her time between hanging out with Jennifer and wooing her sensitive boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons).

While enjoying their night out at a popular bar, a bizarre series of events start to unravel that change Jennifer and Needy's relationship. Without any observable cause, the building burns down while the patrons are still inside, killing many of them. Jennifer and Needy escape harm, but Jennifer is then immediately abducted by the bar's hired entertainment for that evening; a rock band called Low Shoulder. The band's members act oblivious to the tragic happening that had just occurred and invite the out-of-sorts Jennifer to spend the remainder of the evening with them in the dark woods. (What could possibly go wrong there?)

Just hours later, Jennifer returns to civilization and makes a surprise visit to Needy's house, coughing up unidentifiable liquids with her face looking like a bad Halloween makeup job. Needy is too stunned to call for medical services and can only watch as Jennifer eats several random items from the refrigerator before disappearing again.

The following day, the town is saddened by the loss of the students killed in the fire, except for Jennifer. Nope. She's upbeat and perky as if nothing had happened and shows no signs of illness. Maybe the night was all just a nightmare in Needy's mind.

But the town's nightmare is far from over. Each passing day, a new body (always a male) is found with the limbs and organs torn apart. And Jennifer's behavior grows more and more dark. Is she responsible or involved with these gruesome murders? And what really happened to her that fateful night of the fire? Needy is determined to discover the truth, even if it kills her.

Megan Fox has received more than her fair share of criticism concerning her acting ability. But I actually think she's pretty good here. It may have just been a result of being coached the right way, but I swear that the first time I saw Fox's full-fledged demon face stare straight into the camera, my heart started racing and I felt uneasy. A theory then occurred to me to help explain why this movie had below average box office returns. Fox's main fanbase consists of young adult and teenage males who enjoy drooling over her good looks. After watching this movie, the same fanbase will begin to have nightmares about her instead of pleasant dreams. Where's the motivation there?

Amanda Seyfried is quickly becoming one of my new favorite actresses. Whatever situation however ridiculous the plot approaches, she sells it like a true drama queen. Despite being written as one dimensionally as everyone else, she still manages to bring much needed realistic credibility to her character.

I'm sad to report though that the great casting cannot save the horrendous plot pacing and laughable dialog.

Ah yes, the dialog. The real star of the show. I give credit to screenwriter Diablo Cody for creating an interesting enough story premise and avoiding the stale cliches of horror movie character's speech patterns. But she is trying WAY too hard here. Her writing style is polluted with what I like to call "Cody-isms." These quips were first made famous in Juno; another movie written by Cody. They can appear in several different forms: a play on words, a pop culture reference, combining two random words to make a phrase or sometimes even inventing new words. No matter which way, they are very easy to spot. Here are some of my favorites:

- "I just got Aquamarine on DVD. It's about a girl who's like half sushi."

- "You're jello, Chip. You're lime green jello and you can't even admit it to yourself."

- "Nice hardware, Ace."

- "The whole country got a huge tragedy boner over Devil's Kettle."

- "Freak-tarded."

- "I'm a hard-***** Ford-tough Mama bear."

And Cody is also a big fan of adding the words "and sh**" to certain sentences. Stereotypical high school talk. I wonder if that's how she speaks in real life too. Maybe during a table read, the producers decided to take a break and she said "I'm heading over to McDonalds to buy some hamburgers and sh**. You want anything?"

Or how about when she's telling a story about the night before. "So I met this guy at a bar. We were talking politics and sh**."

Or how about when she's explaining her troubles to the car dealer. "When I switched gears to reverse, it starts making noise and sh** and I'm like whatever so I tried to call you but I couldn't find your number and sh**."

Oh, and I almost forgot about the moment when Chip compared Needy to soy sauce because of how sweet she is. As someone who has never dated, I realize I am not in any position to give advice on the effectiveness of pick-up lines. But I would still like to strongly discourage my fellow males from ever trying that one.

This Russell Stover assortment of quips (my own Cody-ism) goes on for a long stretch of time before we finally get to see some thrills. But by the time these money moments are due up, I felt so embarrassed for the movie that it became hard to take anything seriously. I am not against blending horror and comedy elements. Sam Raimi and Joe Dante are both great at utilizing the best of both worlds into a coherent fun story. Where Jennifer's Body goes wrong is making the humor virtually irrelevant to what we are supposed to care about. The only way the formula works is if humor can turn a key scene into a different direction than what we anticipate, keeping the experience fresh. The movie thinks it's being fresh by referencing topical pop culture when in reality it's as stale as six week bread. (Another Cody-ism. That one was by accident. Ugh. I need to regroup.)

Do any scare scenes work? When the movie finished, I did notice myself sprinting upstairs a little faster than usual after turning off the basement lights. So I guess that has to count for something. Other scenes are set up unintentionally hilarious. Evidently, Devil's Kettle High School requires a long walk through a desolate field to reach the front door. Either that or our hero decided to take the scenic route for exercise purposes. "Who cares if the town has been plagued by a serial killer? I need to burn some calories!"

Megan Fox has shown some potential to be more than a pretty face actress here. But it will never be realized if she continues to accept roles that only construct new ways to show off her cleavage. Amanda Seyfried seems immune from a bad performance regardless of the material. And while Diablo Cody may have a shiny Oscar statue sitting on her shelf of accomplishments, it's clear that she still has much left to prove if she wants to be remembered as anything other than a flash in the pan.

Rating: 4

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Michael Jackson's This is It

Title: Michael Jackson's This is It

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: September 9th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

Time now to review the movie that was never meant to be seen. Originally intended for archival purposes for the late artist's personal library, Michael Jackson's This is It was released to theaters last year and the fans couldn't have been happier.

Jackson was getting prepped for arguably his biggest career comeback with plans to launch a live tour of himself performing some of his biggest hits on stage. The show was titled "This is It" to signify that this would be his last hurrah and probably to convince fans that all the stops were being pulled to make the event truly special. And the timing seemed perfect. Despite being acquitted of all charges, Jackson's recent child molestation trial still left a large stain on his already damaged media image. After waiting an appropriate amount of time for some of the smoke to clear, Jackson was ready to remind the world why he became an icon in the first place before retiring for good on a high note.

But it was not to be. Michael Jackson died unexpectedly in 2009 for reasons that are still being investigated as of this writing. All the months of scheduling, rehearsals and promotion had gone to waste....until someone decided to release the rehearsal footage to the general public.

Jackson's hardcore fans were thrilled to have one last opportunity to see their hero on stage doing what he does best. The more casual fans such as myself had mixed feelings about the ordeal. First there was the cynicism. We live in a society where people prey on taking advantage of a situation to earn money. Even the deceased are not exempt sometimes. My initial thought was that the film would be nothing more than a cash grab at the expense of Jackson's loyal fans. After some deeper thinking and learning further details on the project, I asked myself "What would Michael have wanted?" Whether you admired the man or not, he was born to entertain and he deserved a grand send-off. Would he have approved of using this rough footage as his final gift to the world of pop culture? After finally watching This is It for myself, the answer couldn't be more obvious.

There is no live audience to be seen here. The only witnesses to the This is It rehearsal sessions were Jackson's crew of back-up singers, dancers and stage effect technicians. Most of what is seen is through the eyes of the show's primary director Kenny Ortega who is also credited as the director of this film. There are a few reality television-esque interviews with the crew but most of the film is candid fly-on-the-wall footage of Jackson's team practicing and often improvising their way to perfection. Jackson himself is surprisingly serious at times, contradicting his playful fun-loving image that is usually associated with him. He doesn't take any of this time for granted. Every day presents a new challenge. And there is always room for improvement. What motivates a man like Jackson to become such a perfectionist? According to his own words, everything is done through love. L-O-V-E.

And love is something that Jackson takes pride in passing around. Even though he is the only billed star, he does not take anyone on his crew for granted. In fact, he is not satisfied until everyone on his team is utilized to their full potential. A fine example is Jackson's reluctance to carry on with a dance number until his guitarist got the notes the way he wanted. The music freezes in place while Michael encourages her to play louder. "This is your moment to shine," he tells her.

As a shining example of the crew pulling out all the stops, I have to make mention of how impressed I was with the new live action film footage that was created specifically for the This is It tour. Serving as an introduction to Jackson's 1988 hit Smooth Criminal, a video is played over the gigantic background screen featuring Jackson interacting with a series of vintage black-and-white gangster flicks before breaking the fourth fall and making a triumphant escape to the arena stage. For the 1982 hit Thriller, the audience is meant to wear 3-D glasses as they watch a series of undead zombies staggering towards the crowd.

Jackson often seems lost in his own world on stage. At one point, he catches himself singing a chorus note for too long. A spontaneous ad-lib. He apologizes and reminds everyone that he should mostly just talk though the lyrics and save his voice for the tour. His dancers respond with a round of applause and encourage him to just be himself.

The movie cannot fairly be classified as a concert film for two main reasons. The first reason is there is no live audience. The second reason is that almost all the numbers are paused at some point so Jackson can voice a concern or ask questions. This may be disappointing for those that want to be lost in a pure music experience.

Another disappointment is the absence of information related to the show's development. Ortega opted to present this film without addressing the aftermath. There are no fast forward interviews with people talking about these events in the past tense. It's a noble concept and it's nice to forget for a while that the person we are watching is no longer living. However, it comes at the cost of the film's overall presentation. It's intentionally produced as an incomplete film and will forever remain an incomplete film.

As much fun as it is to watch Jackson's natural charisma on the grand stage, it's haunting to picture the what-could-have-been. This is It was shaping up to be the ultimate concert experience. To say that it's a shame that the vision would never be seen in its true light is an understatement. Having said that, it is still a great privilege to be invited into the making of a legendary show. The existence of this project allows Jackson to go out the way he would have wanted: entertaining his fans. A fitting finale for the King of Pop.

Rating: 7

The Ghost Writer

Title: The Ghost Writer

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: September 2nd, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Watching a film like The Ghost Writer is a lot like the writing process itself. The idea is fascinating at first. Then we "zone in" as the story world becomes our world. Then we're not sure what to make of it as the conclusion draws near. We ask ourselves "Where is this heading?". And finally when the project is complete, we look back and admire the handiwork.

The mastermind responsible for this most satisfying thriller is famed director Roman Polanski, once again bringing the pages of a novel to the big screen. Working directly with the original book's author Robert Harris, Polanski tells a story from the point-of-view of the ghost writer himself. He is never identified by name. He is always introduced or introduces himself as "The Ghost." Clearly an homage to the many real ghost writers paid to tell stories only to have their name forgotten.

The ghost is played by Ewan McGregor and his assignment; former famed British Prime Minister Adam Lang, is played by Pierce Brosnan. Thank goodness neither actor was required to fake an accent because these two have a lot to say over the course of this story.

For the ghost, it appears to be a golden opportunity for his career. The life of Adam Lang is his most topical subject yet. As fate would have it, the original writer assigned to publish Lang's memoirs died tragically in an accident before the interviews could be completed. By the time this new ghost arrives to pick up where he left off, Lang is under investigation for committing war crimes in cahoots with the Central Intelligence Agency.

What starts out as a routine biography outline becomes anything but routine once the ghost starts to closely examine the findings of his predecessor. Lang's confessions of his upbringing and his initial interest of the political world are not always consistent with his colleagues' or family's stories. Other things appear to be too convenient to be true. The possibility that the original writer's death was no accident begins to seem plausible. Perhaps more information was uncovered than he had been searching for. As the ghost drifts into his own investigations, his reason for suspicion gradually increases until he reaches the point where he believes his own life may be in danger.

Polanski uses smart lighting to help set the tone for this mystery story. Virtually every scene is outlined by dark weather shadows or limited indoor electricity. The characters are never trapped in the dark but are always on the verge of venturing into the unknown. A perfect visual parallel to the ghost's world.

Even more impressive is Polanski taking full advantage of the 2:35:1 dimensions to fully illustrate his vision. For most scenes, the view is not quite far enough to be an establishing shot but just close enough so we always know exactly what kind of surroundings the characters are confined in and where their exit opportunities are located. Not a single shooting location is wasted regardless of its significance to the story. Movies like these are the reason why I will never watch anything other than the widescreen format again. The crowd that waits to see this film on HBO will have no idea what they are missing.

Despite having a story that's eerily familiar, Polanski and Harris always manage to find a way to keep things interesting. The filmmakers are wise to limit action/suspense scenes for when they count the most; when you least expect them. It keeps the audience biting their nails even when nothing special is occurring. They are taught early on to anticipate anything at any moment.

While the character of Adam Lang is fictional, Robert Harris' novel was inspired by the controversy surrounding real-life Prime Minister Tony Blair and his suspected crimes. Since the story is all about corruption taking place in a realistic world, this makes The Ghost Writer just as topical as it is thrilling. The paranoid conspiracy theorists that seem to dominate today's talk radio will eat this up with joy.

Roman Polanski continues to impress me with every project that finds its way into my DVD player. The Ghost Writer is one of the best of its kind and one of the year's best. Don't wait for cable. See it now.

Rating: 9

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Death at a Funeral

Title: Death at a Funeral

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: August 25th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

It's no secret that Hollywood has been on a remaking frenzy as of late. Why waste precious time developing original ideas when you can just borrow existing ones and make money faster? Sometimes the results turn out surprisingly splendid. Other times, the results make one question why anyone had bothered in the first place. These remakes can often go unnoticed since many of them are inspired from foreign pictures that are outside the radar of American mainstream audiences or an attempt to reintroduce an idea that had been forgotten long ago. Death at a Funeral does not fit with either of those categories. Technically, the original was a foreign film; produced in Great Britain. So since there obviously couldn't be many language translation problems, the studio cannot fall back on the "Americans don't like reading subtitles" excuse to justify its existence. Nor is it a new spin on an old classic, unless you think three years is long enough for it to be called one.

So for both of those reasons, it's safe to consider the 2010 edition of Death at a Funeral as one of the most questionable remakes in recent years which is saying quite a bit. The jury is out on whether this can be labeled as a faithful remake or simply a lazy one. Either way, it worked for me.

With equal screen time given to so many actors, I'm not sure if it's fair to list who the main characters are. So we'll start with the first character seen and probably the most sympathetic one. Chris Rock plays Aaron, a mild-mannered novice writer who is hired to deliver the eulogy at his father's funeral. His family is as dysfunctional as they come and only seem to reunite after one of them passes away. He is constantly at odds with his younger brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence), who never misses a chance to flaunt his successful writing career and first-class plane tickets. Aaron also has to deal with an impatient reverend (Keith David), the always grouchy Uncle Russell (Danny Glover) and his sex-deprived wife Michelle (Regina Hall). The best he can hope for is this funeral to blow over as smoothly and quickly as possible. But that's far from easy when there is a mysterious stranger (Peter Dinklage reprising his role from the 2007 film) holding a secret that could permanently damper the image of Aaron's father; or when a hallucinogenic drug gets loose amongst the guests with increasingly chaotic results.

As funny as this movie is, there are many moments that seem stiff and awkward. I'm not so sure if it's so much to do with uninspired humor as it is with humor translation problems. It reminds me of a story from Jimmy Carter's presidency. He once delivered a speech scattered with jokes in front of a Japanese crowd. His audience responded favorably each time on cue. Carter was so impressed with his interpreter's work that he asked him how he had managed to translate the humor so well. The interpreter shrugged and admitted that he had actually just told the crowd to laugh at all the funny parts.

Moral of the story: It's really not the movie's fault that some jokes don't work. Humor's cultural origin can have a big impact on how an audience responds to it. British humor can often be too dry for American audiences to get into and some moments in Death at a Funeral suffer as a result, even with a cast that is as far from British as you could ask for.

Having said all that, I still believe there is enough material here that is funny in any culture, so long as the individual has the stomach for it and has the ability to swallow their own pride for a little while. Some of the best gags I'm too shy to recreate in detail here much less to someone I know. It might be best to skip the popcorn for this one.

The movie is at its most dull during the first thirty minutes where a series of cleverly disguised set-up events are presented as complete jokes. Case in point; an early scene where James Marsden's character Oscar consumes a dose of Valium which is actually the hallucinogenic drug I had mentioned earlier. As you can predict, Oscar starts behaving irrationally and eventually causes a huge stir during one of the movie's most memorable scenes. The first time you see Oscar stumble over his words and feet, you think the joke is over. Then his crazed behavior gets worse with each following plot point leading to gradually bigger laughs. There are at least two other sub-plots with big payoffs at the finale.

The plot itself really hasn't changed at all from its British counterpart. Aside from some character conversations that were obviously rewritten for a new audience, any other revisions are minor at best. Its British roots are evident during most scenes. Any other movie with a cast lineup like this would need a real clever story to keep up with its inevitable fast-paced wackiness. That's not to say Death at a Funeral isn't fun. It simply understands itself to not go overboard with its pacing and to trust the story in driving in the laughs instead of depending entirely on the actors' delivery.

Anyone who says that they love the British film and hate the American one is really only kidding themselves. For my money, each version is equally fun. And any shortcomings that came from translation problems and whatnot are made up for in other elements. One can fairly criticize the movie for not presenting an original story or for not offering enough laughs to satisfy expectations. But it is not fair to say that it wasn't faithful to the original film or that they didn't try.

I gave the original movie a six and I cannot find a reason to rate this one higher or lower.

Rating: 6

Monday, September 6, 2010


Title: Memento

Year of Release: 2000

Date Viewed: August 26th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

The main character of Memento suffers from an untreatable case of storage failure. For anyone fortunate enough to view and appreciate this one-of-a-kind thriller, the movie is anything but forgettable.

Guy Pearce stars as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance claims investigator. His life is turned upside down after an attacker murders his wife and leaves him for dead. From that point on, Leonard devotes his life to revenge and vows to never stop his search for the killer until one or both of them is dead. There is only one problem affecting his search and it's a big one. The incident gave Leonard serious brain damage and now he is unable to form new memories. Everything that took place before the incident is still intact. But his short-term memory only lasts for ten minutes or so before it's all erased from his mind.

To keep track of where he stands with the investigation, Leonard relies on countless hand-written notes and photographs so he has something to help explain why is in a certain location and why. The most important clues such as the killer's physical characteristics are tattooed on his body so they cannot be lost.

We all use notes to help ourselves remember things from time to time. But can you imagine living in a world where those notes command your entire life? As a character is wise enough to point out, if your laundry list is mixed up with your grocery list, you could end up eating your underwear.

So the question dependable can notes really be if you can't even remember writing them? They certainly come in handy when studying for an exam. And having physical proof or facts is always a preferred method over eyewitness testimony. But even those tools can be prone to storage failure. How can Leonard possibly know for sure who to trust or what is real? Is the written word the way to go or is visual memory underrated?

To help the audience understand Leonard's daily confusion, most of the story is told in backwards chronological order. You'll be watching each scene not knowing how it is set up just as Leonard doesn't know why he is sitting someplace. And then each following scene will explain how the previous one came to exist. Confused already? Welcome to the club. Memento will challenge you. Take my advice though. Don't let the movie win. If you give up on it, you will miss out on one of the darkest, most beautiful and most thought-provoking tales that would make many contemporary authors envious of the Nolan brothers' creativity.

I was about to subtract a point for Memento's attention to detail before realizing that I was the one that should've been penalized. One thing that had bothered me throughout every viewing of the movie was the illogical reasoning behind why Leonard could even be aware that he has a condition. If his troubles started as soon as the fateful blow to the head occurred, he would logically have to re-learn the fact that he has short-term memory loss. As far as his mind is concerned, everything has happened immediately after the fateful attack. How could knowledge of the condition be retained in his mind but nothing else? Well, it turns out that there are times when even logic cannot be trusted. (Have I mentioned this movie has the power to make you paranoid? No? I knew I should have wrote that down.) Upon further research, I learned that for most real-life patients that suffer from short-term memory loss, they in fact ARE aware that something is wrong. As one quoted (paraphrasing), "it's like waking up from a dream. You know something had happened but you cannot recall what it was." Quite a disturbing thought. Be ready for more of them. Kudos to director Christopher Nolan and writer Jonathan Nolan for doing a better job at background homework than yours truly.

Just as Chris Nolan would later demonstrate again with Inception, the psychology behind the subject at hand is staggeringly brilliant. Things like taken-for-granted memories and trust is explored in ways most would never consider.

Since storytelling appears to be his gift, I sometimes wish Nolan would only write for the big budget pictures so he wouldn't have to bite off more than he could chew by directing them too. Memento reminds me why his visual skills are better than I give him credit for. (I should have wrote that one down too. Silly me.) Flashback sequences are shot in a color scheme where colors are practically non-existant but it's not all that noticeable. Kind of like waking up from a dream. Hmmm. And the opening sequence is memorable in itself for setting the tone in the most perfect imaginable. I don't think Nolan's inspiration has ever been stronger than the year this movie was released.

If you have never seen Memento before, be sure to give yourself plenty of aftermath time. It's impossible to fall asleep immediately after it ends because your mind will have plenty of questions that need immediate answers. The best part is that it's so much fun to come up with theories and explanations for why events unfolded the way they did. As I said before, Memento will challenge you and the film accepts no responsibility for providing the answers to you. But as Chris Nolan as stated in various interviews, the answers are all there if you look closely enough. Perhaps taking notes would be a good idea for this unique viewing experience. Or is it?

Rating: 10

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Extraordinary Measures

Title: Extraordinary Measures

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: August 25th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

Time to get serious again. That's probably what went through the minds of both of Extraordinary Measures' male stars as they prepared for their roles. Coming off the heels of their respective fantasy adventure films, Inkheart and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, actors Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford return to the dramatic arts portraying real life medical heroes John Crowley (Fraser) and Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford).

Businessman Crowley and his wife Aileen (Keri Russell) are the parents of two adorable children who both suffer from the same disease; a muscle damaging condition known as Pompe (pronounced pom-pay). After one of them nearly dies, Crowley decides that he can no longer live wondering if his children will see tomorrow. Desperate for hope, he locates eccentric research scientist Robert Stonehill who claims to have a lead for a possible enzyme treatment that can save the lives of Crowley's children.

With budget issues as the forefront problem, the Crowleys are able to raise enough money from sympathetic parties by creating the first Pompe awareness foundation. Now with enough resources in hand and an unknown time limit, Crowley and Stonehill are left to compromise with venture capitalists in an effort to get the enzyme treatment approved and in the right hands. But this determined team soon realize that they may be their own worst enemies. Crowley's struggles with focusing on his day job and Stonehill's inability to get along with anyone may halt the progress to the point where they defeat themselves.

There is something about Fraser's onscreen personality that makes him such a likable hero. Even when he is not called upon to act goofy, he brings the right amount of awkwardness to every role so that we can watch him as a human instead of an actor. I don't think it's something you can teach. He just has it. That's why he is such a great choice for the role of John Crowley. It's easy to watch him with sympathy and a little comic relief.

Ford's portrayal of Stonehill is more of a no-nonsense performance. His comic relief comes from his frustration of dealing with the general public. When the conflict rises too high, Ford explodes into a ranting rage with a red face and a loud voice. Unfortunately, I'm not sure this humor is always intentional. Ford is great when he plays his angry role in a calm sadistic manner. When he screams at the top of his lungs, it's hard to take him seriously. I blame this on bad direction rather than an error for Ford. His acting weaknesses should have been covered up better.

The movie does a nice enough job setting up the Crowley's story and each family member's personality. There is a good chance much of it was fictionalized since the real children were only approximately four years old when they received treatment whereas in the movie they were around nine years old. It's typical "based on a true story" fallback. Take it or leave it.

The real heart of the movie should have been the excitement factor leading up to the discovery of the cure. A good portion of the audience will be robbed of this key emotion because of how it's presented. Instead of adapting the struggles for a general audience, the characters talk science or cite legal obstacles that get in the way of the treatment's production. If you're reasonably in touch with laws that make the world go round, you'll probably be able to follow it well enough. If you're not, it might be a challenge. It was not a wrong move to make the film smart and be taken seriously. It is however a bad move to distract the audience by having them think too much when they could be soaking in each important moment.

Andrea Guerra's musical score is quite moving, never being too quiet or too loud to compete with the onscreen events for attention. At the end though, something strange happens. It turns unexpectedly corny. So much that I half-expected the live studio audience from Full House to chime in with the long "Awwwww." The tone was right but it somehow sounded so wrong.

Extraordinary Measures is a film that doesn't make as much of a lasting impression as it should. And it's such a shame because the Crowley family deserve so much credit for what they've gone through and the doors that have been opened for other families. I don't want to turn anyone away from the film. Much of it is well done. You might like it. I just don't have enough confidence to stamp my seal of approval that reads "guaranteed for enjoyment" on the DVD cover.

How I wish I actually had one of those stamps for real.

Rating: 6

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

Title: Hot Tub Time Machine

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: August 13th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

When I said that I enjoy watching time travel movies, I wasn't kidding. How else can I explain my motivations to rent something as sleazy and shameless as Hot Tub Time Machine, the latest raunchy comedy that came from over three full years of "can you top this?" humor. Time Machine doesn't top anything and may have actually set the bar too high for itself at one point. Luckily, it has a premise that saves this array of jokes some mediocrity land and some may even find it all-out hilarious.

Like most time-travel films, we start in the present day and meet our oddly matched crew of main characters. Nick (Craig Robinson), Lou (Rob Corddry), Adam (John Cusack) and his nephew Jacob (Clark Duke). All four are feeling blue so Adam decides that it's the perfect time to revisit the days of his youth and return to a location of nostalgia; Kodiak Valley Ski Resort. He invites his pals along for a wild weekend to boost their morale. The place isn't what it used to be and the town is mainly in shambles. But it's okay because they have enough beer to have fun anyway.

Then something strange occurs after the crew passes out from overdrinking in the resort hot tub. They wake to find themselves in the same place but in a whole different winter. It's 1986 and the resort is back to its prime era of loud parties and a wide variety of booze. Best of all, everyone's youth has returned. Although they still see each other as their present day counterparts, their peers see them in their 1986 appearance. All except for Jacob because he hasn't been born yet. His appearance remains the same. Time travel fanatics, please save your questions. I know it doesn't make sense. And no, the movie never explains it.

With another chance to score with the ladies that they passed on over two decades ago, the possibilities for improving the future seem endless. However, the eccentric hot tub repairman (Chevy Chase) warns them that altering events would be too risky. It's best to simply repeat what had already taken place in the timeline they had already experienced. But with how boring their present lives are, what do they have to lose?

The movie starts off on a roll and doesn't seem like it will ever slow down, but it does. After a rapid-fire opening half hour of nonstop wit and killer punchlines, the script takes a sudden nosedive in cleverness. Thankfully, it still has enough inspiration to keep it fun for the remaining sixty minutes. Expect insane behavior from characters and mostly self-aware plot holes. The movie only cares about being fun so you should go into it ready to have fun.

Speaking of fun, I can't think of any other film in recent memory that promotes binge drinking as much as this one does. Roughly every three minutes you will see a character hold a shot of whiskey in their hand or clanking beers with a group of pals. Excessive blood alcohol levels or hangovers don't seem to exist in this universe. In every follow-up scene, said character is as sober as nothing ever happened. If deliberate continuity errors isn't your thing, avoid this one at all costs. It will feel like a slap in the face.

I kind of wish that the humor wasn't so lowbrow because I believe it's becoming an overdone pattern in modern comedies. You don't need private part jokes to be funny although it sometimes helps. But I guess as long as its funny I shouldn't really complain too much. After all, I know from experience how hard it is to write comedy.

The writers must have had fun this one given how many 1980s culture references that were available to work off of. The movie successfully avoids the dreadful formula of movies like Kickin it Old Skool where they cram in as many references as possible to substitute for real humor. They are instead used as a backdrop here. And as seen in the video above, it also provides an effective montage of sorts for when the boys' new surroundings figuratively kicks them in the teeth. The other fun factor is leaving some punchlines open for improvisation. It's not lazy screenwriting but merely the open-ended kind.

There is also an amusing running gag involving the hotel doorman Phil played by time travel alumni Crispin Glover. He has one of his arms missing in the present but it remains intact in the 80s. The boys watch Phil's every reckless move hoping that they can witness the gruesome incident where the arm becomes dismembered. But they keep getting disappointed every time the arm is saved just in time.

Hot Tub Time Machine does things right by understanding why they are wrong. And then they throw the logic out the window in favor of insanity. It will probably take an equal amount of insanity to find this one amusing which won't be hard if you have enough beer. Cheers!

Rating: 7