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Friday, January 28, 2011

American Psycho

Title: American Psycho

Year of Release: 2000

Date Viewed: January 1st, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

There is nothing more complex than the human mind. It can be utilized. It can be manipulated. But we can never fully understand it, even when everything appears to be in control. American Psycho studies a person that knows himself inside out, but battles an ever growing sense of confusion. Within the brain lies an obsession. Exactly what it is mainly depends on the viewer.

Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a perfect human being based on society's definition. At twenty-seven years of age, Bateman is a graduate of Harvard University and now works for a prosperous Wall Street-based business. His personal net worth is staggering. Enough to own an apartment in New York City. He has strict discipline in optimizing personal health, with a rigid exercise routine and state of the art cleansers. He can charm his way into any woman's life and already has at least one potential marriage suitor. There is no product he can't acquire. No mission he can't accomplish. But there is one personality flaw. Bateman murders people during his free time.

This isn't a story about secret identities or Mister Hydes. Bateman symbolizes human greed and conceitedness in its darkest form. For a man who's seemingly untouchable, Bateman displays a lot of insecurity over his privileged position. He takes pride in his own perfection and has a seething hatred for anyone less fortunate (or in his eyes, less ambitious) than him. The rules of social etiquette do not apply. If you're ugly, Bateman will let you know. If you get him upset, prepare for a physical or verbal lashing. As far as Bateman is concerned, his life is the only one worth having. So it comes as no surprise when the murders start to happen. It's the result of the character's bitterness kicked into overdrive. Shocking but not unexpected.

Why is Bateman so angry? What is the criteria for selecting victims? The story does a genius job of moving the viewer through this dark bumpy ride. As the plot progressed, I found myself understanding the character a little more, and then starting over again after witnessing each incident of bizarre behavior. There are no shortage of clues but most are subtle. During a party scene for example, Bateman's fiancee greets party guests with a kiss and the words "Merry X-mas." I don't ever recall any real life instance of someone using "X-mas" except when they're too lazy to write out the word "Christmas." The unusual greeting meant something to me. And I sense there could be varying interpretations from person to person.

As per his standards, Christian Bale seems lost in his role. And dare say, he seemed like he was having a good time too. Inner sadism shines through. Not since A Clockwork Orange has there been graphic murder scenes depicted as simple extracurricular activity. Bateman doesn't sing Singing in the Rain, but he has the pleasure of giving a monologue on the rise of Huey Lewis with "It's Hip to be Square" playing on the background just before decapitating someone with an axe. Bateman admires Huey Lewis for his successful rise to commercial prosperity, all but dismissing his earlier and more inventive work. A perfect insight into the main character's top important values.

Is there a connection between materialism and sadism? Probably not a literal one, but American Psycho makes the case for a philosophical one. Bateman's victims seem to come from all across the demographic map. Most bare little to no threat to his security. Yet there never appears to be any end to the madness. The question is not about whether or not he is a serial killer. That answer is clear enough. It's about where the line is drawn, if it even exists. Bateman's character is a product of a world that teaches how success can only be measured by dollar signs. This theme takes good advantage of possibilities even though the movie is hurt by some finger pointing to blame. Until the movie's final scene, the story's time period is left unclear probably as a strategy to apply events to our own modern world. Although I don't consider myself a fan of the targeted administration, the idea of relating them to murderers rubbed me the wrong way.

To say American Psycho is ambiguous would be an understatement. Some of it is necessary to help convince that this movie's world doesn't follow normal rules. Perhaps it's an alternate but plausible dimension. The ambiguity goes overboard so much during the finale that many were tricked into believing a bait-and-switch had been pulled. The movie's director Mary Harron has confessed to this mistake, saying that the intention was to keep the audience thinking instead of feeling betrayed. For making a film as good as this, Harron can be easily forgiven. Besides, offering new perspectives into an already mind-bending film is very welcome.

Rating: 8

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Title: Zombieland

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: December 31st, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

A zombie's mission is to wipe out the entire human civilization. But that doesn't stop people from loving them and paying to see them on the big screen. The world's most popular Halloween costume is back in a familiar apocalyptic tale that turns out to be one of the hippest horror films in recent years. Move over Shaun of the Dead. You're about to get kicked to the curb.

Like most zombie flicks, the cause of the apocalypse is virtually ignored. We immediately meet the young reluctant hero and narrator known as Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg). Before the world ended, Columbus had been a nerdy loner, avoiding contact with people that resembled zombies in his eyes. Now that they actually are zombies, Columbus is beginning to miss people. As a square follower of society's rules, Columbus uses his own set of rules for living in Zombieland; the place formerly known as Earth. These rules are like the ten commandments of survival. Exercise often. Shoot a zombie twice for good measure. (Also known as the double tap.) Travel light. And his most important rule; Don't be a hero.

Inevitably, Columbus encounters a fellow human survivor known as Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). Unlike Columbus, Tallahassee has a motive for staying alive beyond the fear of death. He is obsessed with finding a fresh Twinkie before they all go stale. (Yes, they do have expiration dates.) Columbus decides that he can live with Tallahassee's eccentric behavior if it means having a tough guy around to watch his back. On the flip side, the other survivors they meet are unwilling to trust anyone. Young sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) are just as strongly self trained with their wits as they are with guns. These two characters are also the most dangerous, as we see them manipulate the two older male protagonists into handing over their weapons and resources before they realize what hit them. Despite the rough early impression, the group ends up joining forces to help each person's chance in finding what they long for. Whether it's locating a lost family member or a sugary treat, there is safety in numbers when living in Zombieland.

It's harder than it looks to create good chemistry between two actors. Creating chemistry amongst a group of four is the ultimate trick. Zombieland succeeds in doing this. And a good thing too since the movie would have fallen apart otherwise. Zombieland's story doesn't bring any new twists or ideas to the zombie horror formula. So it's only mission was to concentrate on making every moment as fun as possible. The zombie kills are amusing and the characters' reactions to every situation feel fresh even when they aren't. It's a treat for novice horror fans, zombie veterans and fans of a certain A-list movie star who appears as himself in an unnecessary yet shamelessly entertaining subplot.

For zombie purists (whatever that could mean), they may be let down by the monsters' characteristics. Borrowing a page from 28 Days Later's playbook, the undead foes move at a fast pace as if they are always running to the endzone. Beyond that, it's your usual appetite for brains and groaning sounds. There is no precise timeline defined for how long the apocalypse has been going on. The human characters (especially Tallahassee) appear to have been fighting zombies for so long that they appear a little desensitized to their situation. So you can't expect very much horror when the characters don't feel it often. They're more concerned about boredom than getting eaten alive. The movie can be considered a comedic homage to familiar scenarios or a straight up comedy that happens to take place in a zombie infested world. Either would be correct.

The only chance of audience boredom is if one of two mistakes are made. Either you're in the mood for something serious, or you're expecting to see an innovative product. Zombieland is neither. But I didn't mind in the least. The movie is meant to be fun, and any attempt to heighten the drama or introduce a novel concept would have taken away from the experience.

Columbus writes a new rule inspired by Tallahassee's personality. "Enjoy the little things." That's probably good advice for anyone making the decision to watch this film. Smile at the moment when Columbus realizes that some rules are made to be broken. Laugh at all of Woody Harrelson's one-liners. Cheer when a zombie gets his head blown off in a way you wouldn't expect. Enjoy Zombieland before it's forgotten.

Rating: 8

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Title: Kick-Ass

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: December 27th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

Every year, we seem to get a new movie that sets out to redefine the superhero genre. This is one that actually succeeds.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is the realistic version of Peter Parker. He's young, has a generic personality and desires justice. Nobody cares about him. Not even the audience is given a reason to care about him until his alter ego is created, an identity inspired from Dave's lifelong obsession with comic books. (Aren't we all?)

The name: Kick-Ass.

The Costume: Green and yellow colored wetsuit.

The Mission: Fight crime and protect the innocent.

The Skills: Um, let me get back to you on that.

The reason Kick-Ass is created: Sheer boredom. Dave is tired of leading a boring life. He can't stand the fact that nobody (especially females) seems to notice him. And he finds it ironic that life never seems to change even when it does. So Kick-Ass is born and then irony finally happens. He gets his ass kicked.

But someone is there to show him the way. Turns out he's not the only Joe Schmo superhero in town. Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his eleven year old daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) are the real rulers of the streets. The pair have a personal vendetta against the organization responsible for most of the street crime. Kick-Ass is taken under their wing so he can realize his potential and to grow the team's dominance in making their enemies tremble in fear.....before getting their brains splattered.

What makes this different than other superhero movies? Find any plot synopsis. Then replace the word "superhero" with "vigilante." There's your answer. These characters have no real superpowers nor do they have access to a lot of things gangsters can't find. They simply have enough gumption to take the law into their own hands when nobody else does. So they are superheroes only in their own minds. If one reads enough newspapers, it can be clearly seen why this scenario is very plausible.

Before sitting down to watch this film, I had been bombarded by other movie review sites with comments about the over the top violence. Some even complained. It was enough to ignite some personal fear. Violence itself doesn't scare me. I was more nervous by the idea that the violence would be the only thing remembered, a fear confirmed by the time the movie's third act rolled around. It's normally a sign of no inspiration or creativity. Kick-Ass is far from being uncreative, but there was a leftover void that needed to be filled. Perhaps it was the lack of real world applications, a common misgiving I have with certain college courses. The main idea felt very real. The rest belonged in an alternate dimension where the ridiculous is accepted as typical. (I.E.: Any David Zucker film.)

To be more positive, there are plenty of amusing moments that come from this dimension. In one chapter, Kick-Ass is mistaken to be homosexual. This results in the first time that his dream girl expresses interest in a friendship. So close to getting laid yet so far. Comic fans would probably be entertained by Nicolas Cage's antics. He looks like television's Batman but does not act like him. Remember the Caped Crusader's "no killing" rule? Big Daddy basically says "screw that."

Kick-Ass is moderately entertaining, yet in the end I didn't really have enough affection for the movie to vow for a second viewing. Is it fair to criticize a movie for provoking thoughts but not as many as it should? Let me think about that for a while.

Rating: 6

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Little Fockers

Title: Little Fockers

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: December 27th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

The Fockers are back! Just when those Fockers appeared to have called it quits, they come back like a real Focker would. I'm telling you, those Fockers won't go away. The last time I let these Fockers into my life, they left an impact. Whenever I stub my toe on the stairway, yelling "Focker!" made it all better, because the name Focker means winner. Remind yourself you're a winner. Go get em, Fockers!

Is the joke getting tired yet? If you answered "no", this movie might be perfect for you. This isn't just a sequel that doesn't live up to its predecessors. This is a lazy cash-in that doesn't deserve sympathy points for trying. But I'll give points to Dustin Hoffman for trying to sneak his way out of it.

Taking place about six years after the previous movie left off, not a whole lot has changed for the Byrne family or the Focker family. That is until Jack Byrne (Robert De Niro) suffers an unexpected heart attack. He survives, but the incident is enough to get him to evaluate the future of his legacy. Jack makes a secret phone call to his son-in-law Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and appoints him as the new head of the family, or as he calls it, "The GodFocker." This joke is immediately repeated twice just to make sure everyone has a chance to laugh.

On top of receiving this new burden, Greg is contemplating a new job offer; becoming the spokesperson for a new male-enhancement drug named Sustengo. Non-spoiler alert: In the movies, Viagra never works the way it's supposed to. The proposal promises Greg a nice pay increase but will risk embarrassment. Sure enough, he gets both. When Jack notices Greg hiding a supply of the drug in his closet, he once again places Greg on Circle of Trust probation. Suspicion arises higher when Greg is followed to a rendezvous point with his new employer; an attractive young woman named Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba.) This leads Jack into an investigation into possible adultery, armed with Google product placement at his side.

Pop Quiz: Guess where the title Little Fockers comes from. Time's up. I don't see an answer on your paper. You guessed right. It was a trick question. The title doesn't mean anything!

Oh wait, there are some young kids in this movie. And their last name happens to be Focker. Maybe that's it. Eh, who cares? Wouldn't you rather see the same recycled plot lines from the other two movies instead of a new direction with new characters?

Seriously though, it can't be said that potential wasn't here. Imagine what it would have been like to grow up with Greg and Jack as your mentors. That would make for some interesting stories. Or how about discovering which of Greg and Jack's traits are inherited by the young ones? A sixty second scene teases this idea. But in the end, all the children are written the same and they take a backseat to the no longer interesting adults.

Some characters should have been left out entirely. Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand reprise their roles as Greg's parents but add nothing to the table. Hoffman only appears in three nonsensical scenes while Streisand's only job is to tell stories of her fictional son's early sexual experiences. Again, nothing new here. But guess who gets an expanded role? Owen Wilson shows up in a movie that already has way too many characters and rides his "I have a crush on Greg's wife" routine way past the point of wearing out its welcome; about thirty seconds in.

The producers must have realized that nothing was working out the way they had hoped. So they injected the finale with a last ditch effort to win the only formal award it had a remote chance of winning: The "Best Fight" MTV movie award. The tension between Greg and Jack becomes so high that only a bare fist brawl could settle it. Always being a sucker for comical fight scenes, I credit this moment as one of the few highlights stuck treading in a pool full of stale ideas.

Rating: 3

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Title: The Muppet Christmas Carol

Year of Release: 1992

Date Viewed: December 25th, 2010

MPAA Rating: G

Last month was the first time that I had diagnosed myself with Christmas burnout. It was inevitable. I blame commercialism and the media hype machine. November 1st is the first calendar date where Christmas themed music is played nonstop on radio airwaves. You can't go to any public place without hearing the 378,368,487th cover of Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Houses are decorated in bright colors. Elf and A Christmas Story are aired on basic cable television almost every day. Store employees and customers become grouchy. Everyone forgets how to obey the rules of the road. These are all the signs of the holiday season and they do not go away until December 31st. That's two months of Christmas. One-sixth or seventeen percent of the year. Crazy, isn't it?

When November 1st came around, my usual reaction of excitement was replaced by bewilderment. "Didn't we just do this last week?" Nobody wants to be the Grinch when everyone else is having fun. But for the first time, Christmas no longer felt special to me. It felt too common. I was tired of unpacking decorations and setting up the trees. I was tired of watching Ebenezer Scrooge become a better person every year. I was tired of hearing Schroeder's piano solo. Yet I went along with it because it's the social polite thing to do.

And then came my annual viewing of The Muppet Christmas Carol. Despite everything I had just complained about, this movie managed to help me forget all that frustration and love Christmas once again. At least for eighty minutes.

This was the first Muppets theatrical film produced since their godfather Jim Henson passed away. This set the bar very high. The project needed to accomplish two things. It had to create a new yet loyal take on Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" novel and pay a proper tribute to Jim Henson's legendary career. Writer Jerry Juhl and director Brian Henson went above and beyond the call of duty here. The Muppet Christmas Carol offers the best of two worlds. The finest character study set during the Christmas season and a sideshow of humor that only the creativity of Jim Henson's company could provide. The only sad part is after this movie's release, neither Juhl nor Henson were involved in anything that matched this level of quality.

By sheer fate, Henson's Muppet universe seemed tailor made for Dickens' tale. Most of the characters didn't have to change their personality for the sake of the story. Kermit the Frog as mild mannered Bob Cratchit and Fozzi Bear as good-natured Fezziwig (renamed Fozziwig) were natural fits. Other characters had to be rethought a little. The normally frightening Jacob Marley is turned comical by Statler and his partner-in-crime Waldorf. And The Great Gonzo (as Charles Dickens) serves as our charismatic narrator.

But this Muppets fare is no farce. Brian Henson treats Dickens' work with the utmost respect and stays true to the necessary dramatic themes. The power of greed, true family values and redemption are still the focus point. It even had to turn dark when it had to. After a steady hybrid of drama and comedy, the movie turns completely serious during the final act. At this point, Gonzo breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience, "You're on your own, folks. We'll meet you at the finale."

One of the few characters not represented by a Muppet is Ebenezer Scrooge himself, with Michael Caine in the role. Caine's strategy appeared to be not portraying Scrooge as a heartless monster, but rather as a hurt soul. As the opening number suggests, "Look closely and there must be a sweet man inside." His actions are still as appalling as ever, yet there's a hint of sadness behind his face that made me wish better for him instead of the worst. There is a history of Scrooge actors overcompensating to act evil. Caine's performance is different because he mostly lets the actions speak for themselves. And besides, there are only so many ways to wear an angry face.

The musical numbers are written by longtime Henson contributor Paul Williams. They vary in tone depending on the chapter of the story. The most serious number "When Love is Gone" was deleted from the theatrical cut because it was deemed too somber for a Muppets film, a sentiment I agree with. However, it came at a cost. Instead of providing Scrooge's love interest, Belle, with a written background, her history was summed up in a musical number instead. A mistake. When the number was cut, the character ended up baring very little relevance to the story. A vital part of Ebenezer Scrooge's path to redemption is supposed to be his realization of past mistakes. Sacrificing the theme of lost love was a real shame, especially since the movie did such an exceptional job with the other ones. (The number was re-inserted into the movie for the pan-and-scan VHS release.)

When the topic of Christmas movies arise in conversation, The Muppet Christmas Carol is almost never talked about, probably because it's not aired on television very often. It's an overlooked classic and Brian Henson's best work since his father's passing. Various other crossover movies involving the Muppets and classic works of literature would come in the future. The filmmakers, however, lost sight of what made the Charles Dickens' project so charming. The lesson that should have been learned was: There is room for noisy slapstick humor, but it needs to stay in the back seat so that the original story can drive us home peacefully.

Rating: 8

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Title: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: December 8th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

I once knew a kid in junior high school that was the complete opposite of me. He looked hip, acted hip, and had a ton of energy every day. The only problem was that he tried to please too many people and ended up looking foolish. If this movie had existed in the year 2000, I would have nicknamed this guy Scott Pilgrim.

The character of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is just a typical Hollywood twenty-something dork. He plays guitar for a band (there's your first game reference), lives with a weird roommate, and of course he can't get a girl. At least not the ones he really wants. But this is no American Pie movie. (Thank goodness for that.) This is the story of a kid fighting for both his dream and his life.

It all starts when Scott falls for the colorful clothes wearing Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She's the girl of his dreams and now Scott will do anything to win her heart. That means trying to shake off his clinging current girlfriend Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). And it also means being forced to duel seven of Ramona's crazy exes (most of them guys) one by one.

If you think the previous sentence makes the movie sound silly, that's because it does. You won't find one-dimensional stories like this anywhere except for videogames. Guess what though? The story already knows that. That's why the movie intentionally presents everything in the style of a videogame using real people against a digitized backdrop.

To make this concept work, there are certain rules for consistency that need to be followed and things that need to be avoided. As someone who has played more than his fair share of videogames over time. I feel qualified to judge. I have documented all of the movie's hits and misses and will now present you with the results.

Successfully Followed Rules for Creating a Videogame World.

- Animate your opening title screen to mimic old-school game title screens. Preferably with 8-bit sound bytes.

- Begin each fight scene with a "Vs." graphic between the participants. Finish each scene with a "KO" graphic.

- Each enemy must be tougher to defeat than the previous one.

- Certain action movements should be accompanied by a text label. Slam! Thwack! Pow! Think Batman.

- Keep things colorful. Don't just stick to one pattern of shade.

- Fight locations don't have to be realistic. But it's good to choose places with nearly unlimited potential.

- Upon defeat, enemies should drop lots of coins on the ground for the hero to collect. General rule for videogames: Coins are your friend.

- Use a fast-paced soundtrack. Fighting should never be staged to the sounds of Beethoven or Mozart.

- Give each character special attacks that do lots of damage.

- Everyone deserves a second chance. If the character dies, allow him to use an extra life.

- Reference Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution. They deserve recognition for all those quarters you fed to them.

Unsuccessfully Followed Rules for Creating a Videogame World

- The main character should not have many people to confide in. Limit his friends.

- Use no more than three camera angles for a single scene. When's the last time you played a videogame that switched perspectives that frequently, other than the most recent Resident Evil title?

- Never interrupt a fight to progress the story. But it is okay for the characters to exchange a little smack talk between rounds.

- Stay consistent with your fights. If it's a tag team match, make it that way at the start. Don't change your mind later.

- A damsel in distress should stay that way. For example, only Mario should be allowed to defeat Bowser. No help from Princess Peach.

- Zoom in on the cool stuff. Don't pan out when a character is in the midst of performing a mind-blowing feat.

- Reference the "Continue?" screen.

Since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World originated as a graphic novel, the producers felt obligated to stay loyal to those roots. Usually a welcome idea, but here it presents a problem. Rules for graphic novels are different and much more lenient than videogame style. A mistake was made into thinking that rules no longer applied if both styles were integrated. As a result, the movie has an identity crisis.

It's great fun to look at, which may be enough for the target crowd. A lot of geek devotion went into the making of this project. That's why my criticism cannot entirely override my admiration. The moments that hit the bullseye placed a smile on my face. The smile left every time the story's ridiculous pacing became obvious. We don't need to see long drawn out monologues from every villain, especially if they're about to kick the bucket soon. We don't need a phony philosophical lesson on romance, especially when it doesn't make sense. Movie, how about just trying to be yourself instead of acting like that kid from junior high? After all, you must have known that what you had to offer wasn't going to appeal to everyone anyway.

At least you followed the coin rule. For that, I award a 1-up.

Rating: 5

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Title: Moon

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: December 2nd, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

Outer space is a quiet place. Especially if you're working there all alone.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole human employee for Lunar Industries, leading supplier of Earth's energy. He has spent the last three years of his life harvesting energy from Earth's moon and sending it to the planet. He has had no human contact save for a few indirect messages from his wife and child back home. Sam's only readily available companion is a highly advanced robot named GERTY (voice of Kevin Spacey), whose only role is to preserve Sam's life. This is a movie about limitations, in case you haven't caught on to that yet. Even the movie's budget is true to that theme.

Sam's three year labor contract is almost set to expire. It appears to be perfect timing. His physical health is starting to deteriorate and hallucinations are affecting his emotional health.

Sam's routine life has turned into a game of deciphering the real from the absurd; adjectives more closely connected than he could have ever expected. An accident during a harvest session causes him to lose consciousness then wake up bruised and fatigued in his quarters. GERTY's mobility is limited to the interior of the station, so only a human could have saved his life. Sure enough, Sam soon comes face to face with his rescuer. Another Sam Bell. Is this a hallucination or has Sam been somehow cloned and for what purpose?

Isolated as far away from home as humanly possible, Sam grows more and more desperate to return to civilization. The movie explores human reaction to being powerless and abandoned. Even now that Sam finally has some human contact, no satisfaction comes with it. Living with a clone is practically the same as living alone.

With loneliness comes fear. And with fear comes paranoia. Sam eventually finds himself reluctant to trust GERTY, his employer and even himself. As a viewer, I found myself unable to trust what my own eyes were seeing. That's often the fault of a movie being manipulative. But Moon plays fair. There are enough clear cut situations to follow what is going on and just enough ambiguity to draw your own conclusions. It wouldn't hurt to watch this film more than once.

Moon's biggest flaw may be that a little too much is given away too soon. Although it remains a nail-biting tale up to the very end, the results may have been even more satisfying if the story had been just a little more patient.

The mechanical character GERTY is similar to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a little artificial personality thrown in. Although GERTY is a machine made to carry out orders, his programming can be manipulated well enough for it to be mistaken for compassion. Unlike HAL, GERTY's mission is to keep his human companions alive by any necessary means. To make this character work, GERTY's voice had to remain monotone and hold a permanent concern at the same time. Easier said than done. Thank goodness the charisma of Kevin Spacey was available to save the day.

But Spacey's work was only half of what was needed to hold this "fighting against the limits" movie together. The rest was in Sam Rockwell's hands. Practically a one man show, Rockwell successfully wins over audience sympathy without overacting. Even though he only plays one character, the Sam clones needed to be different in order to represent their respective states of mind. The healthier version acts confident and refreshed. The weaker version seems like he could fall over at any moment. Immersing himself into the character was not an option for Rockwell, because his character was intentionally inconsistent.

Moon turned out to be one of the nicest surprises of the past year. The non-reputable distributor was probably what robbed the movie from deserved mainstream glory. Science Fiction fans will not want to miss this one. It's also a great film for devotees of thinking thrillers; the kind that probably won't leave a headache in the morning.

Rating: 8

Monday, January 3, 2011

Shinjuku Incident

Title: Shinjuku Incident

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: November 29th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

Jackie Chan sends a message to his fans in the opening scene of Shinjuku Incident. A young woman is being stalked by a group of street thugs. Chan's character hears her cry for help. If this were the 1980s, he would have done what audiences expected of him. His character would rush to the aid of a victim in peril, like a superhero who sees the call signal. The evildoer will be subdued quickly and smoothly. The distressed victim will give thanks to her rescuer. If it's a female, a kiss on the cheek will be most likely included.

But this is the twenty-first century; an era where Chan is trying to leave behind his good samaritan image created from his famed Police Story series. The camera cuts over to Chan, who looks over his shoulder as soon as he hears the victim plea for mercy. Right on cue, he quickly selects a course of action.....running and hiding.

Chan has been surprising audiences all through his career. Usually those surprises come in the form of death-defying stunts and unpredictable action sequences. At the age of 56, Chan still has ways to keep his followers wondering what he will do next. In this case, it's an unexpected character trait. Someone who looks out for only himself.

A character like Steelhead (Chan) has no choice but to do just that to survive. Steelhead is one of many illegal Chinese immigrants earning a living in Japan. A true-to-life tale that may have difficulty finding audience appreciation. Especially since Chan's dependable Hong Kong revenue had to be sacrificed due to the graphic nature of some key scenes.

Steelhead's underground clique of illegal workers have one of their jobs compromised by the Japanese authorities. Steelhead narrowly escapes, but not before reluctantly saving the life of a detective, a rare deterrence from his normal "run and hide" lifestyle.

But as he would later learn, running and hiding does not always work. Especially if you're dealing with the Yakuza. A run-in with the brutal Mafia gang leaves many of his comrades crippled apart, if they're lucky enough to live. Steelhead is able to find conditional sanctuary from the gang by accepting a mission that will lead to an assassination. Further cover is given by the detective whose life was saved, now working to repay the debt. With enough power to keep both his immigrant and mafia comrades content, things fall apart when the two groups fall into deadly conflict. As events spiral out of control, Steelhead realizes, perhaps too late, that he is way over his head.

Whatever formula you may have calculated from watching Jackie Chan movies, be prepared to throw it all away. There are no elaborate fight scenes, no slapstick comedy and no outtake montage. This is pure drama at its grittiest. While it's not the first time Chan has dived into serious roles, this may be the first time he has set out to completely re-invent himself. Are his fans ready for it? The true ones ought to be by now. Chan doesn't just change because of the times. He does it for personal satisfaction.

Despite some very strong performances and some interesting twists, the story doesn't tear at the heartstrings the way it should. Dark material does not cover for the lack of character empathy. I'm not sure if cultural backdrops have anything to do with it since illegal immigration is certainly not exclusive to a single region.

In an interview included with the DVD extras, Chan expressed wishes to be remembered as a dramatic actor on the same level as the greats; ala Robert De Niro. Only time will tell if he can succeed. It's clear that his Drunken Master days are over. What remains to be seen is if the movies' quality can match the actor's efforts.

A challenge can be defined as this: Evolving yourself from a no-name stuntman to a comedic martial arts master and finishing as an icon of drama. Any person's odds of accomplishing all three are slim. But Chan has been overcoming odds all his life. What's to stop him now?

Rating: 6