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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lion King


Title: The Lion King

Year of Release: 1994

Date Viewed: September 20th, 2011

MPAA Rating: G

It was hard not to be in a state of disbelief while walking along the carpet interior of the multiplex with a Lion King ticket in hand. Less than a week prior, the film was re-released to theaters sporting a new 3D look and once again claimed top honors at the weekend box office seventeen years after its first run of glory. I was there for it then too. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The success of The Lion King's 3D run came as a great surprise to many film followers including myself. It came at a time when 3D's drawing power was on a steep decline. Most cynics insist that the general public was tired of paying top dollar for an "inferior" screen format. I think it's because they were tired of paying top dollar period. Whatever the case may be, a large number of them made an exception to see The Lion King on the big screen again. Enough for the film to earn more than all the new films opening that weekend combined.

I remember spending a lot of time over the preceding weekend thinking long and hard about why the film is considered a modern classic. It had been too long ago to understand how it became such a huge box office hit in 1994. But there had to have been a reason why it continues to appear high on the favorites lists of the Walt Disney studio projects. I eventually came to conclude my own personal reasons for thinking fondly of it, but decided there was nothing definitive about them. That in turn reveals the true answer. The movie has something for everyone.

Since a musical number is what opens the film, allow me to discuss those first. We've got an establishment song: Circle of Life. Featuring the bellowing voice of South African musician Lebo M and the thundering percussion of composer Hans Zimmer, we're treated to a series of establishing shots of the African pride lands; home to its animal residents and royal family of lions. The newborn future king is being honored by a ceremony similar to the Christian tradition of baptism. Cue the finale and the title card. Feel your heartbeat. If there's no strong pulse, try removing the blindfold and ear plugs.

The second song is more bouncy and fun. The future king is naively professing his desire to lead the pride lands into the next era. But mostly just so he doesn't have to listen to parents anymore.

Because no Disney musical epic would be complete without one, the show-stealing villain number is there to trigger both chills and foot taps. Be Prepared is the title and the warning. Just how evil is this villain? The real-life persona he's most often compared to is Adolf Hitler.

Hakuna Matata is there purely for comic relief. It appears right after the dramatic turning point of the story. In other words, perfect timing. The lyrics are cheesy enough to risk embarrassment getting caught even humming it in public. A stress-free life like the song describes is mankind's universal wish. I suppose the trick is to keep reinforcing that dream until the mind is tricked into believing it as reality. It works on the main character but we soon learn some inner demons are too strong even for life's simplest philosophy. My third-grade teacher loved this song so much that she asked the class to write an essay detailing our ideal personal Hakuna Matata. This proved to be difficult for yours truly because a school assignment overrides any hope of realizing Hakuna Matata.

And then there's the love song; wisely converted from comical to mostly dramatic at the insistence of songwriter Elton John. The male demographic vote reduces it to least popular status but I'm apparently not manly enough to agree.

The plot should be vaguely familiar to anyone who survived university literature courses. The basic outline from William Shakespeare's Hamlet is borrowed with the story expanded by a prologue to set up how and why darkness has seized control of the land. The exiled future king Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick) is summoned back to his homeland by the ghost of his father and deceased ruler Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones.)

Never to be denied the chance to give guidance even in death, Mufasa makes it clear that the only way for Simba to fully cleanse the guilt of the past is to accept destiny and lead an uprising against his Uncle Scar (voice of Jeremy Irons): the wrongful heir to the throne. Simba's rebellion is essential not just for the liberation of the Pride Rock population but to preserve all the wisdom that his father passed down. Among the life lessons is the definition of bravery, respecting nature and the food chain, keeping power and responsibility in balance and understanding why nobody is nor should be immune to fear. As far as fictional wild animals go, one couldn't ask for a better role model than Mufasa.

What makes the villain so frightening is the ugly personality disguised under the ugly face. With brains even stronger than the brawn, Scar is the Cain to Mufasa's Abel. His sharply written dialogue themed with manipulation makes it hard not to feel some rage burning under the skin. I was eager to see him receive comeuppance long before any heroes realized the full reach of his corruption.

Need breaks from drama? The Lion King has it covered. Continuing the trend of the 90s (arguably Disney's golden age) the sideshow characters do everything from breaking the fourth wall to dissing their own production company to referencing pop culture. (Taxi Driver anyone?) Entertaining but startling and uneven when presented in the same film stock as a major character getting killed off at the start of act two.

For a film that was never intended to be screened in a three-dimensional format, the added effects created for the re-release are outstanding. The sunrise over Pride Rock never looked better. Zazu's flight to the top of the mountain never felt better. The action sequences were never more thrilling, especially the stampede scene. And the best moment tricked me into believing Scar was leaping directly toward me, leaving my defenseless 3D glasses to be disintegrated from the claws. There are more 3D conversions to come courtesy of the Walt Disney vault but there was a reason this film was chosen first.

Allow me to recap what The Lion King offers.

- Catchy and effective musical numbers and score
- Spiritual overtones
- Reimagining of a classic Shakespeare narrative
- Lovable heroes
- Frightening villains
- Valuable lessons of morality
- Credible voice work
- Sharp dialogue
- The "page turner" effect
- Breaking of the fourth wall
- Pop culture references
- James Earl "My voice is freakin amazing" Jones
- A shocking tearjerker
- Effective 3D effects (where applicable)

I like to think of the Lion King as a legendary traveling circus embarking on a big comeback tour. The metaphorical reason? Not every act appeals to everyone but there is something for everyone.

"And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life."

Rating: 8

Monday, December 19, 2011

Horrible Bosses


Title: Horrible Bosses

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: September 7th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

In his cynical book of advice for high school graduates, author Charles J. Sykes warned "If you think your teacher is tough, wait til' you get a boss."

Perhaps it's simply due to very good fortune but I cannot relate to that sentiment at all. Having so far been employed by four different companies, I have never worked under a supervisor or even a regional manager that came from Hell's gate like so many Generation X adults groomed me to expect. I think the real difference between a company leader and a teacher is that teaching jobs are more frequently a secondary career choice. It's rare but a treasurable thing to find a teacher who is motivated beyond the paycheck. Business leaders (the non-corrupt kind) take pride in creating/expanding jobs and/or ideas. The best leaders recognize the value in human labor and how the happiest workers are also usually the most productive ones.

We don't see any of those people in Horrible Bosses. It's a movie about exactly what the title promises. The sociopathic type of leaders who only care about the bottom line revenue. The type who take pleasure in exercising power purely for personal amusement. The type who enjoy breaking their employees' spirits. The type that everyone except me (*knocks on wood*) has experienced.

Three protagonists are stuck under the watchful eye of employers so nightmarish that it drives them into a breaking point territory that they never before considered; a plot to have them all murdered.

Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has possibly the slimiest and most sadistic boss in town; Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey.) Dave has spent eight years teasing a promotion endorsement for Nick but enjoys humiliating him too much to carry through with it. He forces him to work sixteen-hour days even during family emergencies and at one point berates him for arriving two minutes late to work. Nick wants to quit and find other work but realizes he'll never receive a positive recommendation from Dave. 

Dale Arbus (Charlie Day) is engaged to be married but operates under a female boss (Jennifer Aniston) who wants him for herself. Days are filled with sexual harassment and blackmail. Dale is stuck between a rock and a hard place because his status as a registered sex offender makes finding alternative employment ultra difficult.

Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) likes his job and his boss....until he dies of a sudden heart attack. The office building is now operated by the proprietor's son Bobby (Colin Farrell); a cocaine addict and all-around rude person. Kurt's job more or less remains the same but he can't help but worry about the longevity.

The plot outline could be ripe for a serious drama. A vehicle for exploring middle class dark fantasies. But as the self-aware script points out, that had already been done before in Strangers on a Train and Throw Momma from the Train. The situations are driven for laughs sourced from the protagonists repeatedly failing to get any quality plan off the ground. Short-sighted stupidity, cruel fate and sometimes even the bosses themselves roadblock any chance for a body count. Even the assassin for hire (Jamie Foxx) ends up falling short of his reputation.

With the exception of Jennifer Aniston, all the aforementioned actors are hired to perform the routines they're best known for. That's actually a high compliment for Aniston because she has finally found something worthwhile to do outside of the stale rom-com genre. I feel some guilt saying that because truthfully the role is less than flattering and could be viewed as a step backward for feminism. Hopefully it serves as the start of a trend of selecting more interesting projects instead of a new typecast.

Horrible Bosses' humor is the zany over-the-top kind that requires the viewer to be at least mildly crazy to appreciate. But if you're already willing to root for people that advocate murder, that shouldn't be a problem, especially if the villains seem capable of doing far worse. Kevin Spacey practically makes a living off playing unpredictable characters that makes you wonder when exactly their lives jumped the shark. This isn't to imply laziness but Dave Harken is a role that Spacey can probably do while sleepwalking. He's had enough practice. Yet his master timing is still able to provide more than a few memorable "Did he really just do that?" moments. Much of the contrasting lighter humor comes from television favorite Charlie Day, especially when the script calls for his character to erupt in full-blown panic mode; a skill that Day has mastered to perfection.

The next work shift following my viewing of the film, I brought it up in a conversation with my own boss who is probably even more down-to-Earth than I am. Although I had already thought highly of him, I made sure to communicate how much the film helped me appreciate his leadership and validate my belief that the world would probably be a better place if everyone followed his example. It was that conversation that helped me realize why my boss had such an easy-going personality. He had worked under some of those fabled Generation X sociopaths who gave business leaders that intimidating aura. Thus he understood why superiority complexes were pointless. I was afraid to ask how many of them were still alive.

Rating: 7

The Constant Gardener


Title: The Constant Gardener

Year of Release: 2005

Date Viewed: September 5th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

My viewing of The Constant Gardener felt like ordering a restaurant's specialty burger for the first time. The visible details promise a familiar experience even though the marketing claims a novel one awaits. But it's still something new and it's manufactured in capable hands, so why not try it? 

The Constant Gardener is an intriguing story sandwiched between two run-of-the-mill plot devices and wrapped in a disposable marketing label. Ralph Fiennes' photo-captured image on the DVD cover is typical of spy thrillers. Nothing to write home about yet. So let's look inside. The usual suspects are there. Unlikely romance. Disappearances. Murders. Conspiracies. All the reasons it attracted attention in the first place. Again nothing special but there remains the hunch that there's something worthwhile beyond the goal of passing time. At some point in the middle of things there is the subtle realization of a good decision.

The first eye-rolling plot device is how the lives of our two main protagonists twine into connection. Despite being a far distance from humorous territory, the movie borrows from the romantic comedy playbook. Guy and girl dislike each other at the first meeting. One makes a fool of him/herself. They're amused and before you know it are both in bed together. Apparently a bad first impression is the way to your soul mate's heart. But there's no overbearing interest about why they meet. The focus is on why they remained together even when one spirit goes missing. 

Ralph Fiennes plays a British diplomat named Justin Quayle who falls for a humanitarian for Kenya named Tessa and played by Rachel Weisz. They have pledged themselves to combat the plight of third world countries through their respective ways; the difference being Tessa prefers to be near the front and most perilous lines. It's the selflessness that makes her an admirable character and leads to the early screen revelation of her death. 

Despite the rocky road of their marriage, Justin is devastated by the loss and initially skeptical of the tragedy's meaningless circumstances. The discovery of a written letter confirms a deeper operation and quells suspicions of Tessa's romance only being a career power play. Thus begins a one-man quest for answers and justice. One that leads Justin to the same chaos that claimed Tessa's life and now threatens his own.

The Constant Gardener gets its name through the frequent use of plant imagery. Justin is shown tending to his garden much the same way Tessa treats her human patients; through gentle care and compassion. It's a stark contrast to the enemy she fights against; human experimentation on new corporate drugs. Inspired by real life similar controversies, the test subjects are the poor slum residents of African communities considered expendable by the companies that set up the process. Although it has the potential to help cure complex diseases such as tuberculosis, the ethics are called into question because of the manipulative or absent patient informed consent. Some experiments are carried out despite the strong projections of fatal results. The mindset is that it's acceptable for people with no promising future to have theirs snuffed out completely for the better good of science. A most heartbreaking moment forces Justin to treat an African resident as an expendable number for the sake of preserving his party's lives.

Until the mid-way point, The Constant Gardener opts to rapidly jump forward and backward through the timeline. This is common and fitting for stories that deal with the loss of a loved one. But this movie almost completely stumbles from the gate because of the misguided efforts to appear fancy. Too much time is wasted trying to understand the narrative, resulting in the loss of opportunity to be enthralled by it. There is redemption in the thrilling second half that's dominated by Ralph Fiennes' gift for drawing sympathy to his characters.

The other run-of-the-mill plot device left to mention appears at the film's final moments. It's all too convenient, was probably taken from that same romantic comedy playbook and was most certainly there to serve the domestic audiences' desire for full closure. Let's just say the real story is far from over. But at the same time, like a mirror effect, there's an image of sheer beauty that can only come from the work of a professional artist. The tagline "Love. At Any Cost." is lived up to. For a good long moment, the movie's flaws can be easily forgotten and the conflicting emotions of heartbreak and hope are allowed to reach their prime. Like finding a true love, it's something worth waiting for.

Rating: 6

Friday, December 9, 2011



Title: Paul

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: September 3rd, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

It was around 6pm last Saturday. After a three hour session of clicking, typing and leaning my head into my hand in frustration, it was time for a snack break to recharge the brain batteries. It was a complex assignment yet the adrenaline was still running high. Homework is rarely ever this exciting but the college's film studies curriculum has brought many exceptions. As my mouth consumed the remaining pieces of dried mango, it occasionally stopped long enough to ramble about all the discoveries I had made within the past three hours. The assignment in question was a topic of my choosing: Film music composer James Horner's tendency to directly copy his own past material for use in future projects. My sister was the sole spectator; listening to me recall familiar tunes from movies of our youth. She wasn't even a quarter of the way amused as I was. Upon noticing this, I stopped, embarrassed.

"I'm such a geek," I confessed.

Then she replied with something I didn't expect. The exact words escape me but it was something along the lines of "That's okay. Being a fan of something is what makes you interesting."

And she was right. When you think about all the past and present friends that you've accumulated over the years, there's a good chance many of those friendships were spawned and are grouped by a shared interest. Celebrating that interest with someone that appreciates it as much as yourself is liberating. If the guest list is large enough, it becomes an event.

Today's movie is about two friends who live and are probably destined to die through their mutual love of science fiction. British comic-book fans Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) embark on a road trip adventure that begins as a celebration of extraterrestrial stories at San Diego's Comic-Con and finishes in their very own story at a Nevada desert. While touring locations relevant to alien urban legends, a road accident leads to a close encounter with a real alien being named Paul (voice of Seth Rogen).

On the run from government agents that formerly had him in custody, Paul asks his two new friends to help him reach a rendezvous destination so he can return to his home planet. It's like the final sequence in E.T. or the ALF series finale on a comedy acid trip. But don't expect very much sentimentality or even a lot of new ideas here. Expect references of past science fiction masterworks and the promotion of bad behavior. It won't make anyone proud but should please those who get a kick out of such genius lunacy.

It's clearly evident through here and their prior work that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who also penned the script) have a strong affection for the media that inspired their own. Like the 2008 cult flick Fanboys, Paul is both a celebration and a lampooning of culture populated by obsessive individuals. Unlike Fanboys, Paul doesn't settle for just one culture. Extremism from different angles are represented through characters. Besides the sci-fi geeks, there are stereotypical government agents dressed in suits and sunglasses that will make any sacrifices necessary to keep their world control into fruition.

Paul himself doesn't even behave like someone from another planet but rather as an immature former fraternity resident who lives to recapture the glory of the prime days; via overdoses of marijuana. Even in a voice-only assignment, Seth Rogen still manages to demonstrate again why he's so natural in those roles. (That's a compliment, just to be clear.)

The personification of extremism that seemed to draw the strongest critical response was the staunch creationist character named Ruth, played by the always sporty Kristen Wiig. When Ruth sees Paul for the first time, she loses her bearings and screams for her God to terminate the alien being, going as far as spontaneously dropping to her knees in prayer while singing Amazing Grace. The scene and the character are played over the top and purely for laughs but not without drawing the criticism from believers who condemned the film for having an unfair depiction of Christians. (The IMDB message board threads is full of heated discussions.) Many played the straw man card; a mostly valid claim, but one that doesn't hold up when stacked against the lineup of other far out archetypes. And if someone already agrees to view a film about an alien life form; something that's undocumented on any scientific chart and few religious ones, is it really unfair to ask the same person to suspend their remaining pre-conceived notions on how life came to be? Even most atheists don't believe in life outside our home planet so the controversy doesn't really have ground to stand on anyway.

Shortly before the climax, the movie takes a break from the one-liners and stoner humor to tie up a loose end concerning Paul's past. He got his name from a young girl who witnessed his fateful crash landing. Now an elderly woman, she exhibits depression over the long years of ridicule she had to face from people who didn't believe her story, until Paul shows up again in her life to liberate the despair away. Of all the film's references to pop culture's affect on its aficionados, this one is probably the most important because of how it speaks to the young adult in all of us. Life has a turning point that asks us to let go of the preferred reality that the mind creates and accept the real one. To grow up, so to speak. Those who were exposed to stories about chosen heroes or worlds of imagination during youth would dream of encountering a similar fantasy in their own life before accepting it as nothing more than just that; fantasy. That's why films such as E.T. have such a strong appeal to the youth because of how it stimulates those dreams. Adults now have Paul for times when they wish to revisit the nostalgia and this time with a chance to hear all the F-words that the parents warned against. The best of both worlds indeed.

Rating: 7

Sunday, November 20, 2011



Title: Hugo

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: November 16th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

Early Review

Martin Scorsese is my new hero. In a recent interview conducted by The Guardian, he replied to a question on why his newest film, Hugo, was shot in 3D.

"I've always liked 3D. I mean, we're sitting here in 3D. We are in 3D. We see in 3D. So why not?"

The latest incarnation of the three-dimensional picture era has been met with divisive reactions and controversy. Supporters are drawn in by the illusion of being closer to the onscreen images. And in some cases, they're a part of it. Critics find the format too distracting and have dismissed it as nothing more than a passing fad that scams the consumer into paying extra money. I belong in the former group although my opponents often have valid points about the format's flaws. But one of the few things that the arguers tend to agree upon is that the final result holds better quality when the setup or conversion process is in the hands of someone who possesses a genuine interest for 3D possibilities. So far, the titles for biggest triumphs probably belong to James Cameron's Avatar and Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol. But while those two individuals are better credited for technical breakthroughs than anything else, the entrance of Martin Scorsese into the foray should turn some heads because of his wider universal respect. It's amazing how a man like Scorsese who has seen and done it all in his respective profession can find a way to reinvent himself through his very first 3D effort and still live up to his already storied reputation. If you've been anticipating the next great 3D experience that's worth paying money for, the wait is over.

Adapted from Brian Selznick's children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the title character (played by Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan who lives inside the walls and other obscure interior of a train station in 1930s Paris. Hugo has the gift of fixing machines; a trait inherited from his father (Jude Law) who had died under mysterious circumstances. The last project his father had been working on was a strange-looking automaton armed with a calligraphy pen. By pilfering parts from a nearby merchant, Hugo gets closer and closer at repairing it back to working condition. It's the only remaining hope in understanding his past and destiny. There's a sentimental side to that mission too. Hugo cannot bare to see broken machines and at one moment he compares them to depressed human beings. Machines are broken once they cannot perform their intended purpose. People feel broken inside when they lose sight of their own purpose.

Hugo's source for mechanical parts is a toy salesman named Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley). After catching the boy red-handed, George takes possession of a notebook that details the construction plan for the automaton and burns it to dust. Or so we are led to believe. Georges' daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) takes a special interest in Hugo and secretly informs him that the notebook had not really been destroyed. Her father has ulterior motives behind keeping the item in captivity beyond petty revenge. Upon learning this, Hugo confronts the merchant again. He accepts a bargain where the deal is to perform labor work for Georges until enough wages have been earned to pay for the stolen items. In the meantime, Hugo and Isabelle's friendship blossoms thanks to their mutual interest in motion pictures. The puzzle pieces that connect all the characters with the automaton begin to fall into place but it could all be for nothing if the clumsy station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) succeeds in turning Hugo over to the city orphanage.

Until now, only James Cameron's Avatar has displayed live-action 3D visuals as crisp as what's offered here. It's not perfect; Some action sequences have the dreaded blur that induce migraines to the easily susceptible. And there's an awkward extreme close-up shot of the station inspector. But there's success where it counts most. The majestic aura of a clock tower's inner workings, the gorgeous view of the evening Paris skyline and the claustrophobic effect that children feel when surrounded by adults. The stationary wide views of Paris are my personal favorites. It's like looking at a work of art but with mobile people. Scorsese is eager to show off his new skills very early in the picture. There's a long breathtaking shot that moves from the exterior to the interior of the train station (the film's primary setting) before finishing at Hugo's favorite secret vantage point for observing the station's occupants. 3D is used as a tool, not as the main attraction. Hugo's climatic and daring escape by dangling from the hands of a clock (imitating Harold Lloyd's famous stunt in Safety Last) is exciting enough because of what's at stake in the plot. But how about the addition of a backdrop that's so incredible to look at that it might initiate some real vertigo? 

A more substance-oriented viewer might say "That's nice and all. But how does the narrative match up to the movie's look?" The answer is pretty darn well. This is not an experimental film. So expect to see the same level of care and attention that's given to the most prestigious projects that are submitted for Academy consideration. I doubt this movie will contend for many awards outside of outstanding visual effects. But that's more to do with its predictable nature than for any straight-up faults.

The film's marketing isn't completely honest. Isabelle quips out of context "It's Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped up into one." Eh, not quite. It's more like The Gold Bug, Oliver Twist and the pages of a film history book. That last ingredient is a terrific surprise and a delight to watch. A major character is revealed to have been one of cinema's earliest and most prolific directors before the dynamics of the business saw too many changes. This part had been inspired by a real life French director whose story ends a little less happily than how it's depicted in this picture. Some of this person's most famous films are recreated (in vintage 2D) with flattering montages. Other notable early films such as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station are paid homage to. The urban legend about the audiences in 1895 screaming and ducking for cover as the train moves toward the screen is filmed in appropriately humorous fashion. If that's all it took to terrify them, imagine their reaction to modern-day 3D.

Kids will enjoy Hugo because of the young characters' antics of finding and escaping trouble. Teens will be too awestruck by the technical achievements to realize that they're the wrong target audience (unless they're college freshmen studying film). But it's adults that will be rewarded with the most enjoyment from the film's breezy two-hour running time because the characters' struggle to find life's perfect philosophy will have the strongest connection to them. In one of the most dramatic scenes, a somber Georges Melies confides to his family how he ended up believing that happy endings only happen in the movies. The one I'm currently writing about reminds us why that statement is always moot because nobody's story is ever finished as long as the person is still breathing.

Rating: 8

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rear Window


Title: Rear Window

Year of Release: 1954

Date Viewed: September 2nd, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

Before we get to today's movie, I'd like to tell you about our family dog. He's a small poodle-bichan breed named Campbell. About the size of a typical stuffed animal. Loves people to death. If there are none around, he'll sit on top of the living room couch and stare out the window waiting for someone to return. And even when not alone, a lot of time is spent at that same lookout point surveying the neighborhood. He's doing it right now as a matter of fact. Any change in scenery whether it's a moving car or pedestrians is met with a bark that only Campbell thinks is intimidating. He's a living breathing security system that often works too well. Nobody knows the geographic details of the street better than Campbell and the human residents have lived here for seventeen years longer.

Bottom line: If any event no matter how insignificant were to occur in the neighborhood, Campbell will learn about it and learn about it first. Lately I've been drawn to a fun habit of relating my movies of choice to personal biographic parallels. Only when I began setting up this post did it occur to me that while my career as a neighborhood spy isn't interesting enough for the written word, Campbell is practically L.B. Jeffries reincarnated to the real world. This brings up the uncomfortable thought about a possible Lars Thorwald lurking within our midst.

The L.B. 'Jeff' Jeffries of the cinematic world is played by screen legend James Stewart. As an on-location journalist, Jeff has taken many dangerous risks to snap the pictures he needs to illustrate the media's top stories. But one day his guardian angels failed to protect him from a race car that veered offtrack into Jeff's leg, breaking it and rendering him temporarily immobile. There are no more assignments for the time being but the investigative instincts burn stronger than ever. Now stuck in a New York apartment and wheelchair, Jeff spends his days looking outside the rear window observing the day-to-night routines of his many neighbors. There's a desperate need to find something worthwhile to study. Something to take a curiosity in. Something to report on.

Jeff thinks that day has finally come when he notices that the wife of a couple that lives across the courtyard no longer resides in her respective apartment. Nobody had actually seen her depart but the husband that goes by the name Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) raises suspicion by transporting a heavy tote case outside. And then a saw. Then a crate.

Jeff witnesses all of this activity through the aid of a specially-made telephoto lens while Thorwald is completely oblivious to the condition that he's being watched. Fearing possible foul play, Jeff contacts a detective colleague (Wendell Corey) to explain what transpired but he's dismissive of the scenario. However, the room's other two frequent visitors have more reason to believe in the cover-up operation because of their own experiences of using Jeff's viewing tools. Grace Kelly plays the socialite love interest named Lisa Fremont. She's persistent to win permanent affection from Jeff even though he's too demoralized to believe in it. Stella (Thelma Ritter) is the know-it-all therapist, caretaker and primary source of comic relief. She has so many shining moments that one could easily mistake this film as a comedy from only watching the first act.

The odd thing about Rear Window is how the film holds up as one of the true classic thrillers from Hollywood's golden age yet there are very few scenes that are actually exciting in the traditional sense of the word. So what makes the film so interesting to watch? Part of it can be attributed to director Alfred Hitchcock's peculiar reliance on the POV camera angle to explore glimpses of Jeff's mind. There's a shot of Jeff positioning his observation point. Then a shot of exactly what he sees. Then a cut back to Jeff. Then back to the location of interest. Nothing unusual here. Let's move on the next spot. Repeat once or twice. Hold on a second. Let's go back to the previous room. Something there didn't seem right.

This is related to another intriguing directorial idea: the careful attention to detail of the location at hand. The action never leaves Jeff's rear window view, so much time is spent relating to the character's tedious observations. Every minor character publicly displays a piece of their story (and never closes their shades evidently). It's like watching an action figure playset come to life. There's a music composer brainstorming with a piano, an exercise enthusiast who loves to work out in her underwear and a dog that's allowed to roam the courtyard at its leisurely pace. (What could possibly go wrong there?) Jeff observes all these people in the hopes of catching something extraordinary or at least noteworthy. And we are meant to do the same thing while wondering why we're sitting on the couch watching this in the first place. But it's a fun feeling of wonder.

The film is consistent with its most important rule. Even though we don't share the exact same set of eyes as Jeff, the character POV is never broken. The only audible conversations are the ones that Jeff is participating in. The rest are up to speculation. Until the climatic scene, there is never a clear indication of whether Thorwald is guilty or not. The hero protagonist could be right on the money with his conclusion. And with the frantic nature of time, the chance for justice could be slipping away. Or perhaps the burning need for a story has made him his own victim. It's scary how often paranoia trumps over reason. This strong understanding of human psychology is one of many reasons why Hitchcock was considered to be the master of suspense.

Campbell is still staring out that window. I wonder what he learned.

Rating: 8 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Commentary: Terry Herald versus David Arnold


October 10th, 2011

With a small notebook and a cup of vending machine coffee in my hands, I entered 205 Varner Hall at the Oakland University campus and took my usual spot four rows back center. My brain hates early morning classes but what helps cope is that it's a course that I hold genuine interest for; a rare thing I'll admit. Professor Terry Herald teaches the history of music that is written for the movies and I'm one of his current students.

My friends didn't believe me at first when I explained that my instructor was a full-time musician who taught music history as a side job. In their minds, the only full-time musicians that exist in the world are notable ones like John Williams and Danny Elfman who often spend entire days composing new material and later receiving studio payment for it. Professor Herald is actually not far off from that. He has written original music for several independent films and television projects. When not employed by a studio, he can often be seen conducting orchestras for various events in Michigan and probably elsewhere too.

Along with the usual movie clips followed by the professor's commentary, all students were scheduled today to receive the results of our second critique paper. At various points throughout the semester, we are assigned to research two movies with original music scores and report our findings in the form of a critique. My paper dealt with two films that contain emotional monologues spoken by heroic characters; James Horner's score for Braveheart and David Arnold's score for Independence Day. In the document, I praised both composers for their ability to convey ideas of location, emotion and deep meaning into their work. The ID4 score in particular held some sentimental value because the end credits theme stayed in my mind for a long time ever since I first saw the film back in 1996. It's a splendid patriotic tune that doubles as a world anthem. Fitting since the film explored the idea of the Fourth of July becoming more than just an American holiday but one for the entire planet. There was a time when I couldn't even hear the words "Independence Day" without being reminded of that terrific theme.

Professor Herald was chatting with some of the other students as he often does when they arrive early. Noticing my entrance, he wrapped up his conversation and addressed me. I expected to hear some early feedback on the assignment but wasn't prepared for the oncoming bombshell.

"Ian..." he began with a proud smile. "I sued David Arnold and Twentieth Century Fox for plagiarizing my work. We reached an out-of-court settlement."

My reaction was comparable to a deer staring at the headlights of a speeding car. But it wasn't a total surprise either. At our very first class meeting, Professor Herald took some time to introduce himself to his students and demonstrate some of his original work not unlike the film music composers we would be studying every week. In 1991, he wrote music for a public television documentary titled "Air Force One: The Planes and the Presidents." After explaining the process of creating and evolving the main theme, the final result was demonstrated before us. You can see and hear it for yourself below.

My immediate reaction was "Wow. This sounds a lot like Independence Day." Now play the next clip (from the ID4 score) at the 6:32 mark. What do you think?

There are probably many more examples that can be found with deeper digging, but that's the most obvious familiarity. According to Professor Herald, the temp track and at least five melodies were directly lifted from the Air Force One documentary without permission.

I didn't bring those reactionary thoughts to my teacher's attention because coincidences in sound and structure happen everywhere in film scoring. There's even a chapter in our assigned textbook "Film Music and Everything Else" that covers the topic of originality. Author Charles Bernstein points out that all composers have the same eight notes to play with and that can make the quest for originality torturous. Yet lawsuits accounting for cases of accused plagiarism remain seldom. Kind of amazing when all things are considered.

Since small talk with the teacher after class had become a habit, I had originally planned to joke that he probably could have easily written Independence Day and made a fortune. If I had only known how close to reality that was, some embarrassment could have been saved. If all the learned details of the controversy are true, that means I had complimented a composer that my teacher had good reason to feel animosity towards. Fortunately though, Professor Herald is a good natured man and didn't hold it against me. I was still awarded a perfect score on that critique paper. Just to be safe, I asked if there were any other lawsuits I should know about before writing future assignments. Then we shared a good laugh.

The extent of the merit behind the David Arnold lawsuit will be pondered in my brain for many years to come. For now though, I can enjoy the amusing knowledge that the original Independence Day composer is my newest friend.

Monday, October 24, 2011

World Trade Center


Title: World Trade Center

Year of Release: 2006

Date Viewed: September 1st, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

"And the rockets red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there"

Until September 11th of 2001, The Star Spangled Banner (United States national anthem) was simply a routine for most Americans. It's traditionally performed before every organized sporting event. And some schools instruct our youth to recite both that and the Pledge of Allegiance before every school day as a way of paying respect to the country's founders. But the song and especially those italicized lyrics hit home on a personal level like never before following the surprise suicide attacks by a group of religious extremists that took the lives of nearly three thousand civilians. The motives are still debated except for the ultimate goal which was to paralyze the country into fear and despair. That didn't happen. After the initial wave of shock and confusion, Americans from all cultures and backgrounds set aside their partisan differences to mourn the loss of their fellow citizens and encourage each other to stay optimistic for the future. There was a felling of unity that many had never experienced before. The country's spirit was still alive. The flag was still there.

A movie based on the September 11th events was inevitable. But when news of upcoming major Hollywood projects hit the media machine, there was a lot of protest and skepticism. Many believed it to be too soon and insensitive to financially capitalize on a national tragedy. There were also some concerned questions about how the subject matter would be handled. Will it be a political rally? Will it follow the Titanic/Pearl Harbor formula? Will it be a conspiracy theory? The announcement of Oliver Stone signing on to direct a project titled "World Trade Center" gave legitimacy to that last question. But if the skeptics knew exactly what Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff had in mind, there wouldn't have been much of an issue at all because the message is a vital one in that special spirit of unity that gradually (and unfortunately) became lost again over time.

Part of what made the tragedy so memorable was how there was never a reason to anticipate it. The movie follows the fact-based accounts of two Port Authority police officers. Their September 11th morning started the same way as all others. With a routine. The opening shot is a darkened bedroom illuminated only by a digital alarm clock; the first thing most everyone sees every morning.

The two police heroes follow a typical routine of showering in the morning, driving to work ahead of rush hour dawn and checking in for assigned duties. Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) has a lot to look forward to in life. His law enforcement career shows promise and a new daughter is months away from joining the family. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) is a veteran Sergeant with the more impressive resume and the more stressful home life. In recent years, he's been falling out of touch with his wife and children.

The ordinary day turns into an unforgettably dark event when two hijacked commercial airplanes crash into the two World Trade Center towers. McLoughlin leads a group of police volunteers in an attempt to rescue trapped civilians inside one of the buildings. But before they could even make their initial ascent, the two buildings crumble to the ground and kill most everyone within its destruction radius. McLoughlin and Jimeno are the only surviving members of their squad but are trapped and injured underneath the rubble. Nobody outside of their claustrophobic prison knows if they are alive or dead.

Stone's film begins as a view from the outside looking in. He doesn't even bother to recreate the fatal plane crash because the realization of danger is more powerful than actually witnessing it. All we ever see of the crash is a passing shadow. Just as how the real events unfolded, there is first rampant fear and confusion. The officers depicted in the picture learn all their information from phone calls of family members watching the early aftermath on television; still not knowing who was behind it and why. It's not until McLoughlin and Jimeno fall victim to the wreckage when the movie shifts to the inside looking out. Now begins a film solely about the victims and the grieving families. With the exception of a brief audio clip of President George W. Bush addressing the nation, there is no mention of terrorism or politics. The trapped policemen have nothing to do except struggle to stay awake while waiting and hoping for a rescue team to hear their painful cries for help.

To balance out monotony, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal deliver heartbreaking performances as the officers' wives. They eagerly anticipate the phone call that will confirm their husbands' fate but fear the undesired outcome. Being spontaneously thrown into this psychological pit of despair can cause one to lose a clear sense of the world around him/her. The actions of Jimeno's wife can seem irrational or even comical when seen out of context but are so true to life for anyone that can vividly remember their last experience of trauma. It's the basis for psychological horror but the filmmakers are able to grow it into something more meaningful; like a clearer understanding of what's truly important in life. Whatever falling out McLoughlin had with his wife doesn't hold a candle to the possibility of them never seeing each other again. What could seem as the end of the world yesterday is now meaningless in the present.

I often see fellow bloggers comment that movies like this won't have the same effect on people who live outside North America. I can't entirely agree because it depends on what kind of effect they're referring to. World Trade Center is sure to bring back the butterflies that lurked in the stomachs of everyone who watched the events unfold through the media outlets. For those who cannot fully relate to that scarring experience, there still remains the universal messages of doing what's right and never losing hope even when the light seems unreachable. The world witnessed the best and worst of mankind on September 11th, 2001. This movie is a celebration of the best.

Rating: 9

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mortal Kombat


Title: Mortal Kombat

Year of Release: 1995

Date Viewed: August 14th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Mortal Kombat was a landmark arcade game of the 1990s because it was the game that every kid enjoyed playing even though they weren't supposed to be playing it at all. As an adult in his mid-twenties, I've seen enough movies to have my personal tastes become at least moderately sophisticated. In other words, artistic films are equally appealing as those that are made for cheap thrills. I'm an aspiring film studies student who has many unwatched classics yet to be appreciated. Yet when the chance to upgrade my knowledge came around, I opted for a DVD that I had no business watching. The movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat; a favorite from adolescence that I had the pleasure of watching roughly a dozen times before. It has no innovative direction, no timeless wisdom and plenty of cheap thrills. But sometimes guilty pleasures are so fun that there is no room for regrets. That's why the arcade was so popular to begin with.

In the Kombat universe, inhabited worlds are divided into realms with Earth being only one of several. The elder gods that control these realms cannot legally cross over to others unless their native warriors defeat their enemies ten consecutive times in a once-a-century martial arts tournament called Mortal Kombat. Having lost their previous nine endeavours, Earth is now in jeopardy of Outworld invasion. 

The final hope in preserving humanity lies with three mortals who are initially oblivious to their true importance. They enter the Mortal Kombat tournament for personal reasons. Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) is a Special Forces officer on the trail of wanted criminal and murderer Kano (Trevor Goddard). Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is a Hollywood action movie star frustrated by press rumors that he uses a stuntman and special effects for his fight scenes. And Liu Kang (Robin Shou) is a former Shaolin Monk out to avenge his brother's death at the hands of sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.) Earthrealm's guardian Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert) takes a special interest in the three warriors because he senses one of them will be the swing factor in determining Earth's fate. The group journeys to an Outworld island that's literally off the map where they will face nightmarish foes that no one had ever lived to tell about.

The Mortal Kombat franchise had been conceived as an homage to the 1973 martial arts epic Enter the Dragon. The story of warriors gathering at an island for a deadly tournament is very similar to that film. The character of Liu Kang was modeled from the late Bruce Lee. But the true appeal behind the game was the creative thought that went into each character design and the fast-paced ruthless fighting style. The finishing moves were especially brutal and unlike anything that had been seen in mainstream videogames before. For better and for worse, it got people's attention.

The intelligence of videogame fanatics is often underestimated. Rarely is very much serious thought put into movie adaptations of popular games because studios assume flashy fireworks across the screen is all that's needed to please the target audience. The reality of modern games is that the stories are often strong enough to appeal to folks that never even picked up a controller in their life. The Kombat universe was wide enough to invite future expansion (which it certainly did) and stimulate the imagination. Those who pay money to see videogame movies want to see them live up to the visionary quality of the original idea. Fortunately for Kombat fans, screenwriter Kevin Droney and director Paul W.S. Anderson understood this. Unfortunately for them, the ultraviolent finishing moves known as "fatalities" had to be watered down in order to satisfy the PG-13 rating; a guideline probably set in place to draw more teens into the theater. So if the gamer crowd couldn't get a film that looked like Mortal Kombat, they'll have to settle for one that feels like it. Anderson's crew made sure that the fight scenes had impact and that every strike felt important. It's a fine line between fancy kung fu showboating and hard-hitting ferocity. Everything that could be wished for a Kombat movie except the gore.

The casting of Robin Shou was a huge help in reaching that high bar. As an actor, he plays his hero role confidently without the overdramatic mannerisms of Bruce Lee. As a real-life martial arts master, he assisted in some of the fight choreography and carried a good load of the important action sequences. The stunt work is effective enough to hide the lack of experience from Shou's co-stars. But it still remains clear in the final cut that Linden Ashby and Bridgette Wilson were in an inferior league, and as a result, some of their moves looked stiff and awkward. To Ashby's credit though, he hangs tough to participate in the movie's second best fight scene.

The script is very true to the game, but some of the dialogue is questionable. It's odd how the film exhibits confidence in knowing what its audience wants to see yet remains so self-conscious about making sure everyone can follow along. Every time a new character enters the story, there's usually someone there to immediately identify him/her by name. There's no need to spoon feed like this and it's especially annoying to those already familiar with the franchise. Other than that, brains don't really need to be checked at the door, unless you're somehow expecting something realistic from a tale about gods, sorcerers and ten thousand year-old princesses. Mortal Kombat is far from a flawless victory but earns a solid three-round knockout.

Rating: 7

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The King's Speech


Title: The King's Speech

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: August 13th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

My name and presence is announced to everyone in the room. All eyes are now looking in my direction. I swallow and take a deep breath before walking to the designated standing area. Everything is silent. My professor and fellow students wait patiently to hear the speech's content. The act of breathing is for once a conscious action. The heart is pounding. I clear my throat and take a quick glance at the note card that has handwritten cues on the topics to be covered. It's no use. I've already forgotten how to begin the speech and there is nothing else except my nervous brain to depend on. All those hours of practicing didn't prepare me for being placed on the spot for the most crucial time for a crucial graded assignment for a crucial semester. That was a typical week in my college speech communication course. Nothing else is needed to explain why I had to re-take it twice to receive a passing grade.

Most polls on phobias report that public speaking is a person's strongest fear. Death usually comes in second place. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy. So does that mean speeches are a fate worse than death? All those "kill me now" moments in class sure made it seem that way. Yet as agonizing as that experience was, I had it easy compared to King George VI (played here by Colin Firth), who lived with a speaking disorder all his life while his career depended on communication with an entire country he represented. The opening scene in The King's Speech captures all the fear and general overwhelm one feels when forced to be center of attention to a large crowd. Twenty classmates is bad enough. How about trying a filled Wembley Stadium?

The future King's public address at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition is a disaster. Stammering all around and long pauses between simple words. It sounds like a child attempting to read a book for the first time. This wont do for anyone, much less a public figure. So the King's advisers and especially his devoted wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) persuade him to seek treatment in a recluse setting under the tutoring of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Some of the seminars include unorthodox exercises and Logue's personality keeps things erratic. But it's only right for an exceptional situation to be given a novel answer. After all, it's the stuff movies are made of.

The King's Speech follows the deadline structure but doesn't share the traits typically found in this type of narrative. Great Britain is on the verge of declaring war against Germany and the rising Axis Powers. For the sake of national rally and to defy the enemy, its leader needed to act like one. And speak like one. And learn to do it fast. It's not a race against time so much as it's a race against loss of momentum, both politically and militaristic. History will have to wait to learn about Lionel Logue's role in serving his country. King George has bouts of resistance from his teachings but the country can't afford to wait for results much longer.

I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded reviewer. But there were a few pre-conceived issues about this movie that were tough for me to shake off even after completion. And that also explains why I was late to the party in watching this award-winning film. The story is basic enough to be summarized in three sentences and the plot doesn't have enough layers for a drama to draw upon. And the idea that leaders and politicians will inevitably suffer a loss of support because of poor public speaking is something I have misgivings with; both in moral and factual analysis. I'll admit that there's probably an underlying reason why George H.W. Bush was the U.S. President while Dan Quayle was the understudy. As I'm typing this, President Obama is revealing his new jobs plan to Congress in a national broadcast. The confidence in his words is so emotionally stimulating that I almost overlooked how all of his speeches are basically the same. But anyway, it always makes more sense to judge someone by actions over talk. It's especially true in period pieces such as this where public figures were not as easily accessible as they are today.

Although the movie's construction process is pretty much flawless and the result is smooth enough to win respect from film scholars, the end result feels too reserved for something that won so many prestigious awards. One might think I'm holding it to an unfair higher standard but I swear this isn't the case. It might have actually been that "safe" feeling that swung the votes to its favor. Beyond that, the film has a lot of fine technical achievements to be proud of. Every set design has as much given care and attention as that crucial opening scene. The characters are very likable even through their most incompetent moments. (The classic belief that those who don't want help won't get help is the secondary theme.) And the movie is smart in understanding how timing is more important to comic relief than abundance. As we watch poor King George angrily pace around Logue's office and shout obscenities to calm the frustration, it's hard not to laugh and remember that familiar piece of therapy that soothed our souls since an early age. If at first you don't succeed, try try again. Then take Logue's advice and shout your favorite curse word. Then try again.

Rating: 6 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Great Mouse Detective


Title: The Great Mouse Detective

Year of Release: 1986

Date Viewed: July 23rd, 2011

MPAA Rating: G

"I only hope we never lose sight of one thing. That it was all started with a mouse."

- Walt Disney

In the past few weeks, sales of mouse traps have increased at the department store I'm employed at. The surge occurred right around the time of my viewing of The Great Mouse Detective; Disney's adaptation of Eve Titus and Paul Galdone's children's book Basil of Baker Street. Just a funny coincidence I'm sure. But for the conspiracy enthusiasts, here's some food for thought. Perhaps the Disney animators were trying to warn us of a coming rodent apocalypse through the subtle guise of a kid's detective story. Consider for a moment that the movie is scientifically accurate. That means for every human that resides in a living space, there is a mouse counterpart hiding somewhere within the interior, imitating the lifestyle of the larger being. If you're a chef, there's a creature that makes his own specialty dishes using the food that spills off your table. If you're an accountant, something is auditing your grocery receipts as we speak. As for what could reside in my home, there's probably a mouse sitting in our attic somewhere typing movie reviews on a smart phone while munching on gummy soda bottles.

The title character is the mouse counterpart to the one and only Sherlock Holmes. Basil of Baker Street's (voice of Barrie Ingham) reputation of crime-fighting case-solving exploits reaches every corner of underground London. His most fateful mission begins when a scary yet clumsy bat creature kidnaps a local toymaker, orphaning his young daughter Olivia (voice of Susanne Pollatschek). The somber opening is quickly counterbalanced with Henry Mancini's catchy and uplifting music, reassuring us that a fun ride awaits.

Following a fortunate meeting with off-duty military doctor David Dawson (voice of Val Bettin), the pair inquires Basil to help them reunite Olivia with her father. Basil is an eccentric personality and barely even acknowledges his clients' presence on the first meeting. But he devotes himself to the case upon realizing that it's masterminded by his hated nemesis Professor Ratigan (voice of the legendary Vincent Price); the city's biggest crime boss. This villain doesn't act all that intimidating, but those who make the mistake of underestimating him or point out that he's a rat will end up as food for his pet rancor cat. Ratigan is not the most inspired villain created from the Disney studios but that doesn't stop Vincent Price from having the time of his life. Someone with that level of talent can transit charisma without any layover. Price owns this show like a tycoon.

Even for something conceived to be Sherlock Holmes-lite, the plot is disappointingly too straight forward. The "clues" don't really add up to anything since the heroes end up locating most important things by accident anyway. Basil's genius can only be appreciated in a single scene which also happens to be one of the best. He and Dawson are stuck in the most unnecessarily elaborate death trap. Basil considers each possible component for weaknesses all while trying to fight back his depressed mind. At the last possible moment, he supports one of my favorite personal thesis' which states that sometimes the hardest problems have the easiest solutions.

Today's youth may overlook the fact that The Great Mouse Detective was a technical leap forward for animated films. While the majority of the illustrations result from traditional hand-drawn two dimensional pictures, the best sequences could stand beside those of the twenty-first century. How did they do it? ("It's elementary, my dear Dawson.") By using a computer generated background, it became possible to sequence events like how live-action directors could shoot things from multiple angles. The technique helps bridge the gap that we the audience have from observing the animated subjects within their own line of sight. The final clock tower chase is a masterpiece because of how credibly lifelike the setting becomes.

The music fare is far lower in quantity that what was typical in 1980s animation. The World's Greatest Criminal Mind is a simple and fitting anthem for Ratigan. I'd love to visit a dueling piano bar that plays that song for a spirited crowd, if any such wonderful venue exists. Let Me Be Good To You is an out of place tune for an out of place scene. The movie ends with a brief number titled Goodbye So Soon which pretty much sums up my reaction to this seventy-four minute long treat. I enjoyed what I've seen, but would an encore be too much trouble?

Rating: 6