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Friday, March 2, 2012

Commentary: The "Bully" Controversy


"Boys will be boys."

"Kids are too soft these days."

"Sticks and stones...."

How about "Ignorance is bliss." The evolution of the schoolyard bully should be alarming to anyone with a close scope on reality. For those who don't have that, a documentary set for limited release this month titled "Bully" has the goal of bringing awareness to a widespread problem that has been ignored by too many for too long.

According to press reports, the film documents a year in the life of five different children who are targeted for physical and mental abuse by tyrannical bullies. The motives can vary anywhere from jealousy to prejudice to simple entertainment. By exposing how far some kids will go to humiliate their peers, the filmmakers hope to shine some light on the moments that are seldom witnessed by those with the power to prevent it. Today's typical bullying has gone beyond harmless hazing or building camaraderie as it's often dismissed to be. We're talking about kids that live with self-hatred so strong that the only way for them to suppress it is to inflict it upon others through physical and mental abuse. The result is an alarming portion of our youth that live in fear and self-doubt every day of their lives.

As someone who has dealt with a lot of psychological bullying through junior high school, I couldn't be more happier that this film has been made. It's far from the first time anyone has used film media to dissuade mean-spirited behavior. Within my own schools, there had been at least a dozen screened for class assemblies. The problem with those serials however was that they came from the after school special variety. Characters were constructed unrealistically because they were written by people who probably never witnessed actual relevant situations and therefore had to guess at the best ways to solve conflict. Some of these short films were so off-base that they ended up inviting further ridicule instead of sympathy for the victimized characters. Bully promises to be the first film to get these scenarios completely right because the footage is real as real as can be. Television personalities such as Dr. Phil McGraw and Anderson Cooper, both outspoken advocates against bullying, have voiced support for the project. It's a long overdue wake-up call and one that should be seen by as many kids and parents as possible. That's why the MPAA's rating verdict has caused such an uproar.

As of now, Bully has an "R" rating due to foul language. Several dozen "f-words" are reportedly audible. It only takes a few to earn that "R" rating; a rule that the MPAA has been consistent about for a long time. The frustration over this decision is both flawed and understandable. Opponents are asking how a film that is meant to be seen by young audiences could have a disclaimer attached that discourages and bars them from watching it? A contradictory practice? Michigan high school student Katy Butler certainly believes so. In protest of the rating, Katy launched an online petition to have it changed to a PG-13. It currently has over 165,000 signatures.

From victim to victim, my heart goes out to Katy. I love her enthusiasm and support for the film. And I love her passionate drive in spreading the word. That being clear, allow me to now explain why I will not sign her petition and why I believe Bully's R-rating is the best possible compromise.

Let's begin with a fact. The MPAA does not exist to tell people what is and isn't appropriate for them to watch. That is left for people to decide on their own. Its purpose is to keep track of words or imagery that is generally considered to be objectionable. The quantity and scale of those things are calculated into a rating that serves to warn people about the amount of objectionable material that's contained in the film. These guidelines help parents decide what films they are ready to expose their kids to. The recent add-on of more specific disclaimers have made that even easier. While it's true that the system isn't perfect nor does it accurately reflect every person's idea about what is objectionable, the MPAA has stayed consistent with how it has scored results; especially within the last twenty-five years. It's extremely rare for any film with more than a few f-words to get away with a PG-13 rating. Any film with identical content as Bully will receive the same treatment. Protesters are calling for an exception because they want this content to be seen by its target audience no matter how unpleasant it may be. It's necessary to be confronted by the ugly truth. A logical plea, but one that has a consequence that's too costly. If Bully is granted the exception, that opens the door for more. Other studios now have leverage to have their own film ratings reversed on grounds of inconsistency. If this occurs, it will lead to further confusion and worse mistrust of the system. A total reform might help, but I'd argue that we've come too far to have everything re-evaluated. And how can we be sure that a new system's terms can be universally agreed upon anyway? Bottom line: The MPAA needs to stay consistent and keep Bully's "R" rating for the sake of its own credibility.

Another fact that's being overlooked is that an R-rating does not necessarily prevent a minor from legally watching a film. By the official definition, a minor can be granted admission to an R-rated film as long as he/she is accompanied by an adult guardian. Because of Bully's commentary on the relationship between parents and tormented kids, it's actually ideal for a parent to watch this with his/her child for educational purposes. This instills mutual awareness of what can occur away from a so-called supervisor's watch and why trust between a parent and child is an invaluable weapon for combating the issue.

Even if Bully is stuck with its original rating, the film has already won in a way. Every documentary maker in the country would kill for the amount of exposure Bully is getting in the press right now. It will be seen by a great number of people which is the goal of any film of its kind. I look forward to writing a full review in the hopefully not too distant future.          

Friday, February 24, 2012

Commentary: 2012 Academy Awards (Predictions)


2012 marks the very first year that I have successfully managed to watch every film that's up for consideration in the Academy Awards Best Picture category. That means I am now fully prepared for fooling people into believing that I know what I'm talking about. Whether a personal favorite wins or loses, it's always fun to make a guessing game out of Hollywood's biggest night. So without further adieu, here are my predictions for the films and respective people that will win a naked golden man trophy.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Woody Allen's habit of turning down ceremony invitations had me wondering about The Academy possibly snubbing him out of thin-skinned retaliation. I could see that happening to young blood, but I think Allen has too much respect from his peers to have that happen to him. Midnight in Paris is a wonderful screenplay that deserves an award and I think it will get one with or without Allen's presence.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

I was impressed with Moneyball's success with adapting subject matter for a niche audience into a drama that outsiders can appreciate.

Visual Effects

Although I felt Rise of the Planet of the Apes was overrated in the visual effects department, it seems to have enough favoritism to make it the front runner. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 might give it a run for its money, but that's all it will amount to.

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing

These are actually two separate categories but the awards usually go to the same winner anyway. I'm going with Transformers: Dark of the Moon because the Academy loves loud stuff. (As you can see, I put a lot of thought into these answers.)

Music (Original Song)

"Life's a Happy Song" should be the real winner but Bret McKenzie's Oscar will be for the second best song from The Muppets. "Man or Muppet" for the win.

Music (Original Score)

This category always drives me crazy because The Academy usually chooses films that have almost no original score at all or ones that hint that the Academy doesn't understand the difference between "songs" and "scores". From what I understand, the voting process is open to all Academy members; even those who have never worked in the music department. So maybe I'm not far off. Having said that, if the projected winner (Ludovic Bource) takes the trophy, I won't be upset because the context of a silent movie makes his work challenging and successful results very noticeable.


The makeup award usually goes to movies that have weird looking creatures. There are plenty in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, right Potter fans? Throw me a hint here, people. I've got nothing.

Oops. Wrong movie.

Foreign Language Film

A Separation is the only foreign picture being talked about in the U.S. mainstream press. So it wins.

Film Editing

I project a close race between The Artist and Hugo with The Artist barely edging out.


It's rare for the director of the Best Picture Winner not to receive his reward.

Costume Design

Mark Bridges probably had some fun on this project. The Artist wins again.

Art Direction

I would give it to Hugo but something tells me The Artist has this one locked up.


If The Tree of Life doesn't win this, art is dead. Okay, maybe not dead. But it will definitely get its feelings hurt.

Animated Feature Film

With Pixar out of the running, this category has become interesting for the first time in a long time. I'm going with Rango because it's well respected by the critics and the masses.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Octavia Spencer because of her many memorable scenes in The Help. Melissa McCarthy is only there to help prolong the affirmative action campaign to get more females in comedic starring roles.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Jonah Hill isn't quite ready yet but I'm happy for his success nonetheless. I bet even he wasn't expecting this honor to come so soon. Max von Sydow was solid in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. But I think Christoper Plummer will win because the media is manipulating me into feeling foolish for choosing anyone else.

Actress in a Leading Role

Nothing against Viola Davis, but she clearly did not play a lead role. That will cost her come consideration. Meryl Streep has the biggest producer-backed campaign but she's being taking for granted at this point. I'm going against the odds by choosing Michelle Williams.

Actor in a Leading Role.

George Clooney's big night has finally arrived.

Best Picture

Everyone and their ancestors are choosing The Artist and so will I.

Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal will appear in a sketch opener where he occupies the worlds of all nine Best Picture nominees. This will be followed by a musical number monologue. He will then more or less disappear for the remainder of the night.

Monday, February 20, 2012

[Rec] 2


Title: [Rec] 2

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: February 8th, 2012

MPAA Rating: R

In the spirit of a typical slasher villain, the horror genre will not die. You can mock it (the Scream franchise), kick it around (repackage the same stories and camera tricks) or just plain abuse it (countless amateur video productions) but it will always return so long as people enjoy having their personal sense of security scared away. The prime clients will search high and low for the next real shocker. My hat is off to them. The searches are often very long. A favorite stored quote from the years of servicing video store patrons originated from a conversation between one of the aforementioned horror aficionados and a co-worker. The common question "What's a good horror film you've seen lately?" was answered with the even more common "There are no good horror films." When someone says that, what he actually means is the system has failed to deliver anything fresh within a recent period of time. Horror gets away with a steady track of financial success by recycling the dependable methods. But for it to shine, innovation is mandatory: a rule that most other genres are lucky enough to elude without short-term repercussions.

At first glance, [Rec] 2 doesn't have much reason to offer something new. As a follow-up to a highly successful Spanish production that spawned an American remake and as a crowned grandeur to the ongoing "found footage" phenomenon, expectations are tied to familiarity. We want to see that formula work again. But the artists are a few steps ahead. The camera view, monsters and moments of panic all return. And there are new ideas presented here as a way of informing us that the [Rec] franchise is not just a one-gimmick ride. It's a chronicle that is destined to be remembered.

The big reason behind the series' initial attention is the unconventional approach to inducing scares. How often have we found ourselves waiting for trademark horror silence to be broken by loud noise? Or a long shot abruptly cutting away to something grotesque. [Rec] has that in scarcity but depends on psychological terror for bait. The film's "search procedure" narrative allows us to directly enter the viewpoint of the peril. Infected "monsters" appear in deep focus and stay within the frame for a considerable amount of time. It isn't always obvious when the threat is legit; a procedure that the film loves to exploit. Unless the "monster" is lurking in an adjacent room, we rarely lose awareness of the space the threat is occupying. The ones in deep focus don't stay that way for long. They thirst for blood and will swarm toward the camera because a living being is holding it. An effective merge of scientific and cinematic reasons for events.

[Rec] 2 begins almost immediately from where the previous film left off. With no surviving characters or cameras to continue the story, the perspective switches to a SWAT team's video camera. The officers are uninformed about the true story behind the quarantined apartment building. But the undercover clergyman that accompanies them understands everything; especially the importance of his role. One of the story's new spins that the previous film hinted at is revealed through this character's monologues. He explains that the infected apartment residents are now pawns of the Devil. They can be temporarily subdued by prayer, but a spreading outbreak is impossible to control unless an antidote is found; Its key ingredients are believed to reside within the blood of an early victim that lived in the apartment.

The sequel offers better chances for analyzing the infected behavior by the way that they're kept in the frame longer during attack scenes. Inspiration from The Exorcist is evident. The infected facial features are given an exaggeration makeover. They can imitate voices from living characters and behave rather comically when bound to furniture. Vomit scenes are thankfully absent.

Since the SWAT team has access to optimal monitoring equipment, the film switches between hand-held and headset camcorders. The latter presents a videogame-like style especially in scenes where the infected are attacking aggressively and the victim has to navigate through the labyrinth of apartment rooms to find safety. Another neat twist is the abrupt introduction of secondary characters. Some kids in the neighborhood pay the price for causing too much mischief by getting themselves trapped in the same apartment building. In a cleverly constructed sequence, the SWAT team's camera and the kids' camera intercept at the same storyline checkpoint. The film then detours into the kids' story and documents the events leading up to that encounter.

There's another twist that doesn't deserve to be spoiled. I'll just say that it ties all story angles in a way that's difficult to anticipate and it paves the way for future chapters. [Rec] 2 is a friendly reminder that not only do good horror films still get made but that the "found footage" gimmick that's currently losing steam in its reputation may not have even scratched the surface as far as how it can satisfy the thrill cravings.

Rating: 8       

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation


Title: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation

Year of Release: 1997

Date Viewed: January 31st, 2012

MPAA Rating: PG-13

If there's one thing that Mortal Kombat: Annihilation does absolutely right (and that's not really an "if"), it's living up to the pace of action that videogame players associate with the Kombat franchise. There are fight scenes. Lots of them. But someone failed to inform the producers that the fights are supposed to serve a purpose. Underneath all the violence lies a rich backstory driven by passionate creativity from the game developers. The backstory had to take a backseat in order to make room for fast button mechanics. That means being kept buried from the public eyes save for the loyal fans who cared enough to find it. Obviously, none of those fans took part in the production of this follow-up to 1995's surprisingly fun Mortal Kombat film adaptation. The man largely responsible for the original film's critical praise, Paul W.S. Anderson, was replaced by Anderson's cinematographer whose resume suggests that he knows very well how to shoot a scene but not film a scene. Scenarios like this only reaffirm my thesis that major studios do not take videogames seriously. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is one from an abundance of cash grabs from a built-in audience that ultimately condescends those very people.

With the exception of Liu Kang (Robin Shou) and Kitana (Talisa Soto), all the surviving characters from the previous film have been re-casted. While I've never been one to write off sequels because of partial or total cast replacement, the absent faces are sorely missed here because of the actors' natural traits that I have grown to appreciate. Raiden's intimidating aura has been watered down (especially when he gets that infamous haircut). Sonya's feistiness is weaker and Cage's charisma is completely missing. To be clear, the new actors didn't hand in particularly bad performances. They simply held too many inconsistencies from the old gang to carry over adequate character continuity.

Turns out however that the revamped cast was the least of the film's problems. There are barely any traces of a coherent plot. The film opens with a brief recap of the previous movie's events and then resumes at the cliffhanger finale. A new menace is threatening Earthrealm even though the Mortal Kombat tournament victory was supposed to protect the human race's existence for another millennium. The reason behind this? "What can be closed can be opened again," says Raiden. That's about as deep as the story gets.

Sonya is sent to locate and team up with her military partner Jax without any explanation for why he was hanging out at a science lab in the middle of nowhere, how Sonja knew he was there, why he upgraded his body with artificial arms or why he's even important in the first place. Best to get settled with this idea because there's a tiring pattern of characters showing up for no apparent reason. Clearly someone in charge was afraid to go longer than five minutes without a fight scene. Hence why we're treated to watching random supporting characters arriving out of nowhere to fight the random hero in tune with the techno music soundtrack. It's assumed that everyone watching this movie has the attention span of a five year-old.

Judging Annihilation from a pure visual standpoint would yield the only passable scorecard. The fight scenes range from moderately amusing (Sub-Zero versus Smoke) to laughable (Battle of the Animalities) with a few unintentionally hilarious ones thrown in for good measure (Jax versus Motaro.) The only thing I was consistently impressed with was the set design which looked like it was directly inspired by the videogame's ingenious environments.

The dialogue is atrocious. The timing is even worse. At one point, Sub-Zero lectures Liu Kang about how dangerous it is to embark on the quest completely alone. He then immediately leaves him completely alone.

The build-up to Liu Kang's final battle with Shao Kahn includes this gem. "I want to fight Kahn but I don't know if I'm ready." We're left to only take him at his word thanks to the script's negligence to provide any non-expositional evidence to the character's fears and internal conflicts. Doing that required deleting some random nonsensical fight scenes. So that was obviously out of the question. It takes a certain talent to get someone like me to complain about over-dependency on action sequences considering how I'm probably one of the most generous bloggers that the summer blockbuster formula will ever see. 

The movie's tagline warns us to "Destroy All Expectations." Enough said.

Rating: 3

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Cove


Title: The Cove

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: January 25th, 2012

MPAA Rating: PG-13

On the evening of January 25th, 2012, Oakland University hosted a screening of the 2010 Academy Award winning documentary The Cove. The film's director, Louie Psihoyos, took the podium afterward to share stories and answer audience questions. An organized conversation between him and several of the university's Cinema Studies students took place earlier in the day. I was part of the privileged group that got to participate.

Five minutes prior to the event, Psihoyos and I happened to be using the same washroom. As I was drying my hands with a paper towel, his stalwart voice asked "Are you finished using that?" I turned around in surprise when I realized he was talking to me. It wasn't his presence that triggered the startle. I already knew he was there. The man's tall stature made him difficult to miss. It was about what he was pointing at. The water faucet I had used to wash my hands had been unintentionally left running. I quickly apologized, corrected the error and allowed Psihoyos to have a little chuckle at my expense. Situations like this would normally instigate annoyance. It wasn't a big deal and the witness could easily rectify a problem like that on his own instead of confronting the guilty. But I couldn't blame an environmentalist like Psihoyos for being a stickler for those sort of details. I call him an environmentalist instead of a director because that's what his real occupation is. He just happens to use film as a tool for advancing his missions.

The main mission being discussed that day was the topic outlined in The Cove: the campaign to end man's killing of dolphins, most notably the slaughter that takes place in Taiji Japan every September to March. In making this documentary, Psihoyos and a team of animal experts including former famed dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry infiltrated a fisherman's cove in Taiji where dolphins are routinely captured and sold to captivity or slaughtered for meat. The cove is hidden off the map and guarded by a group of fishermen that want to keep it that way.

Taiji is described like a place out of The Twilight Zone. Dolphins are artistically displayed on gift shop merchandise, sidewalks and welcome signs. One of O'Barry's many quip-worthy observations is that based on the town's image, it's easy to assume that the people who live here love dolphins. Oh, they do alright. But not in the way they want us to believe. Dolphin sales is a big money business. Trainers from all over the world travel to Taiji to select which of these animals will become the next attraction at their respective water parks. The rejected ones are left to die under inhumane methods. None are ever spared.

As always with documentaries, I approached this one with caution because of filmmakers' natural tendencies to present one-sided or manufactured realities. I was already aware of the long-running standoffs regarding what is morally or culturally acceptable to kill and consume. I don't support animal cruelty but do eat meat, which is reason enough for people like Psihoyos to think less of me. But what should be made clear to anyone who passes early judgment on a film like this is that the arguments are not as emotionally charged and black-and-white as detractors claim; Nor is it particularly complex like sceptics such as myself hypothesized. This is not a "Dolphins are cute and therefore shouldn't be harmed" public service announcement. It's about so much more importance; namely mankind's long term future becoming jeopardized by their own actions.

A common preconceived notion rejects the idea of any animal as food being off-limits. The revelation of dolphin slaughter is enough to stir curiosity just about anywhere because of how the meat doesn't fit into anyone's idea of a well-balanced diet. Yet cultures are also aware about how some differences in tradition are viewed as strange to those from the outside looking in. If there's no knee-jerk reaction, an inquirer might consider that there must be a reason for dolphins being eaten. After all, people in the Western Hemisphere eat cows and chicken without thinking anything of it. Maybe that's the way it is with dolphins in Japan. It's the sushi capital of the world after all. That's how the Taiji fishermen defend their practice. It's a cultural difference. Nothing more, nothing less. But a basic investigation snuffs out that theory.

Turns out that dolphin consumption is not a recognized part of Eastern tradition. Very few people in Japan were even aware that the slaughter was taking place mainly due to the country's strong censorship power over their media outlets. The public awareness has grown considerably following the release of this film. Most of the time, dolphin meat is not even correctly labeled and are riddled with such high quantities of mercury that you'd have to be insane, desperate or ignorant to even think of touching it.

So the lie is exposed. The companies behind the dolphin slaughter are not doing it for reasons related to culture or survival. But if that condition were to change, would it then become acceptable? No way, says Ric O'Barry. This man's story is fascinating enough to warrant its own separate documentary. Besides being one of the world's leading activists (his criminal record suggests that he might be the ultimate leader), his knowledge gained from years of close contact with dolphins relates insight into why they may have better use than being water park attractions and how they would be ultimately better left off in the wild. The ironic part about this thesis is that O'Barry was one of the pioneers of dolphin captivity and exhibition. His work on the popular Flipper television series helped build the public's fascination and the market for these water park shows which he has now grown to hate.

The Cove is a call to action and one that opts to aim at the emotional heartstrings to get that action rolling: a most necessary strategy in social issues like this no matter how many facts on paper are available. For their ace in the hole, Psihoyos and his team plant hidden cameras in the Taiji cove under the town's watchful radar in a sequence reminiscent of a Hollywood spy thriller. It's less cohesive than the aforementioned analogy but expected for an authentic operation that only has room for one take. The aftermath is a crowning achievement in the activists' cause as they finally succeed in exposing the slaughter footage that the perpetrators would have literally killed to have permanently kept out of the public eye.

Big budget movie studios calculate paying customers as fifteen dollar items in the seats, totaling the cost of an admission ticket with concessions. Activist filmmakers like Louie Psihoyos prefers to think of spectators as minds in the seats. That was his motivation for exposing The Cove to the world. One of the most memorable quotes from him in the film is the declaration that there is no middle ground between an activist and an inactivist. At the post-screening Q&A, I asked him what the precise difference was. His response included a reference to a popular philosophy that appropriately summed up his life's mission. "The only thing necessary for the triumpth of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Rating: 9

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Title: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: January 18th, 2012

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Is it possible that the modern blockbuster is being reinvented right before our eyes? That was the question I had asked myself mid-way through watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes: the first installment of an apparent reboot of the iconic science fiction franchise. At this point, the film carried itself almost exclusively on substance. A commentary on human nature using the species that are one step below on the evolutionary scale. Then the budget poured in. A long sequence of the rise itself in the form of an action setpiece at the Golden Gate Bridge. Then the unwelcome cliche arrived. The female love interest whom we barely know anything about steals a kiss from the likable male hero and then creates a diversion that helps him gain a temporary (and minor) upper hand. In due credit though, at least nobody pretended this person was anything more than a plot device.

I was disappointed to realize that the summer action film hadn't evolved as much as I was lead on to believe. But the same cannot be said for the featured apes who end up growing their intelligence level far greater than the human bystanders ever anticipated. The first of this kind is appropriately named Ceasar (performed by motion capture hall-of-famer Andy Serkis). Like the man who elevated Rome to an empire, this ape is born to lead an advanced species of his own kind to rule a new civilization. And in this case, eventually the entire world. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the first official attempt to explain how and why this all happened. The answer is unsettling because of how the original intentions were worthwhile and conducted with so little recklessness. The power that humans take for granted with their position as the most intelligent species on the planet becomes fragile once the apes obtain a comparable level of power. And as the movie's plot wishes to teach, no species is willing to settle for second best.

Caesar is originally a house pet to scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Motivated by his father's struggles with Alzheimer's disease, Will devotes his work to the construction of experimental drugs designed to grow new cells within brains. Caesar inherits an upgraded mind from his mother who was used as one of the earliest test subjects. He is different than other animals and learns enough to understand this fact by adulthood. The key idea is that the drugs never alter the animal patients' natural behavior. They remain as unpredictable as wild animals ever have been. But they grow to become more self aware of their strengths and gain a strong sense of injustice that's done to them by human "caretakers." The only crime these apes commit, at least initially, is simply behaving the way nature intended.

Living up to the lore of protective nature that both fiction and nonfiction attributed to apes, Caesar is imprisoned for defending Will's father from a mild threat that appeared potentially fatal in his eyes. Like what many of society's outcasts face, what should be a place for harmony and negative reinforcement is instead a mere storage facility overseen by beings not fit to run their own lives much less others. During the viewing, my mother commented how certain moments reminded her of The Green Mile. Even in early scenes the human characters behave less human than animals. When confronted over a decision to terminate remaining ape experimentation subjects, the company's head manager rationalizes the decision by explaining that although scientists are there to make history, he is there to make money. All subsequent appearances by this character showcase him staying one step behind in logic. Whoever wrote the script holds a lot of contempt towards business leaders.

The scientists working for Twentieth Century Fox bring the apes to life using computerized motion capture that's not quite state of the art. Realism is sacrificed in exchange for breathtaking tracking shots of the apes at play. Their gracefulness behind traveling through natural environments plus the superior brawn add credibility to the idea of apes one day overtaking humans as the dominant species. What gets hurt is the ability to suspend disbelief over their existence. The computer generated imagery stands out from the real world backdrop like black and white. To curb the distraction, imagine an alternative Earth dimension where apes look a little different than how we accept. It wouldn't even be too far-fetched to assume this story takes place on an entirely different planet altogether; especially considering that's what the author of the original Planet of the Apes novel had in mind.

But the social commentary belongs right here on Earth. The apes rise because they learn to understand human values and how to obtain them. The need to be independent. To have control over personal destiny. To hunt instead of being hunted. And the one that mankind has yet to fully acquire; the ability to defeat death. Popular culture's history insists that particular dream cannot be realized without challenging nature; the most dangerous practice of all. The people behind this film are not shy about showing their staunch belief in that philosophy. 

Rating: 7 

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Conspirator


Title: The Conspirator

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: September 26th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

With a title like The Conspirator, it's easy to prematurely conclude that whatever the depicted events at hand are, it would be explored through hypothetical angles. Oliver Stone has practically made a career out of that very practice. Robert Redford's previous directorial project Lions for Lambs validated his own ability to do the same. But with The Conspirator, Redford opts for a more business style of filmmaking. The infinite urban legends that have ever been hypothesized about the Abraham Lincoln assassination are dismissed entirely; instead favoring a strict fact-based account of the aftermath of Lincoln's death. Alternative angles only exist within the minds of the documented individuals who weigh the possible outcomes and consequences of their important actions. A virtually impossible task given the unique nature of the country's time period.

The suspected conspirator is Mary Surratt portrayed by Robin Wright. Her Confederate soldier son John (Johnny Simmons) is the top-ranking suspect of collaborators to John Wilkes Booth's fateful move. Now under national imprisonment and interrogation, her only hope of defense against the angry mob of the North is Civil War hero turned aspiring lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy). The normal courtroom dramas are bridged with Aiken's closed door conversations with Surratt and overseers of the justice department.

Like most situations of extreme despair, there needs be a lightning rod of blame. The prosecutors believe Surratt to be that very thing. The events lead us to question whether they are on the correct track or if the restless thirst for justice is clouding the judgment of legitimacy. Aiken grows skeptical as the case unfolds. The supporting dialogue is complemented by McAvoy's eyes and voice projection growing progressively louder and more desperate. It's natural enough but sometimes noticeably veers into "we're using this for the trailer" territory.

The Conspirator deserves credit for data authenticity but falls short of the optimal grade for mise-en-scene. I'm no historian, but the accuracy is sound as far as I've been able to tell. This is sure to please educators who prefer to add entertainment media into their curriculum's study material. But Redford's straightforward approach compromises the experience for style oriented viewers. Style is by no means everything. But it's fair to wish for more breakaways from a limited number of ideas. A common lighting motif is recognizable early. Interior settings are favored with only a single window allowing the minimum amount of illumination necessary for events to take place. It's an impressive setup that makes room for empathy. The prisoner is shut out from the world literally. The defense is left out of the truth loop. But it's way overdone and becomes irritating far ahead of the climax. The darkness itself isn't the problem. This is the nineteenth century after all. It's the result of lackluster set design.

Costume design is a hit-and-miss endeavour with the misses borderline laughable. Robin Wright has a natural look for the job and probably had a hard-working staff that maintained continuity with the haggard appearance. Justin Long on the other hand needed tweaks. He's a fine actor who I sense has yet to show his full range. But whoever gave him that outrageous mustache should consider submitting a resume to Studio 8H.

Every person decent at heart wants justice to prevail all times. We're inherently brought up to believe that any conviction is a sign of justice taking place. Unpopular acquittals are met with public outcries that shout over any reason-filled counterarguments even if the latter have stronger ground to stand on. The Conspirator is the latest in a long-standing tradition of films that serve to reinforce that unpleasant truth. Setting the conflict during a landmark period in American history keeps it somewhat immune from stale narratives. The technical faults and lack of artistic bravery bring the film down to a level that can be respected if not fully appreciated.

Rating: 5         

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Sandlot


Title: The Sandlot

Year of Release: 1993

Date Viewed: September 23rd, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

The Sandlot conjures up a lot of personal memories every time I watch it. Not all of them are good. Yet the film itself never seemed to become its own memory. The material just faded away for no apparent reason. It wasn't until the most recent viewing that I finally understood why. Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is too much of a relatable character. He's not exactly like me. I never had to move into a new neighborhood and leave my friends behind. In fact, I've lived in my current home since I was four. Nor have I ever had a stepfather. What struck the nerve was Smalls' main wish of simply fitting in somewhere. Belonging to a crowd that appreciated his presence and missed him when absent. Take it from me, it's not easy being the sole introvert in a pack even if the bond is genuine. It's probably no longer necessary, but those memories had to be repressed at the time in order to mentally proceed to the future. Let me clear though. The Sandlot is no somber tale. It's a story of joy with an ultra joyous conclusion. And we get to see something that everyone in a social circle wishes for: a friendship that lasts a long time.

The second strongest parallel is Smalls' fondness for baseball. For me, it's been an on-again off-again interest. But like Smalls, it was the first sport I had hands-on experience with. I didn't have the best field awareness and some of the more technical rules baffled the brain. I was however lucky enough to make some fluke catches and knock a few balls out of the park. And by "out of the park" I mean ground balls that traveled far enough so that the outfielders didn't have enough time to throw them back to home plate. 

Even the worst kids that showed up for those no-cut leagues were two categories ahead of Scotty Smalls. This poor kid was born without an athletic bone in his body and doesn't even know how to catch or throw anything. Living in the same neighborhood is Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez (Mike Vitar): Small's polar opposite. Rodriguez was born to be a baseball player. Major League bound. He has mastered all the field positions and can do everything from base stealing to home run swatting. He even has the ability to hit a ball at any specific point on the field at will. Instead of honing skills with an organized league, he prefers to spend the days at a local rundown sandlot with his gang of fellow misfits. The sandlot is their home away from home. Smalls' first day there is an understated disaster. But Rodriguez selflessly takes him under his wing anyway and actually manages to turn him into a competent ball player. With that, the Sandlot gang comes full circle and a memorable era begins.

I already began talking about memories without even realizing how crucial they are to the movie's heart. For anyone who valued fun in sports over competition, The Sandlot is a walk down memory lane. Even the narrative is point-of-view narration Wonder Years style; of Smalls looking back at a fun era from his youth. The Sandlot gang loves baseball but lives for each other.

It might also remind of a time when the term "political correctness" had no meaning. For a film released in 1993, it's surprising to see what the scriptwriters were able to get away with. Case in point the scene where the more privileged kids of the neighborhood pick a fight with the Sandlot gang. A few childish insults later and one of them suddenly drops a verbal bomb that instigates an unavoidable challenge.

"You play ball like a girl!", he screams.

Oh snap. You can criticize a guy's hitting ability, question his intelligence or imply poor personal hygiene. But never dare compare him to the opposite sex. That's going too far. Speaking of which, I wonder if that thought crossed any of the producers' minds upon realization that a scene called for the characters to experiment with chewing tobacco. (Don't worry, parents. The way it's depicted won't encourage your kids to try it out for themselves.)

In a condensed outline, The Sandlot is a series of random misadventures that occur over the course of a summer season. The final incident is the most dramatic. As a way of staving off the depricating teases from his mates, one of the kids blasts a home run over the outfield wall; a big no-no because beyond the outfield fence lies the The Beast: a demonic dog that swallows anyone and anything that's unfortunate enough to enter its lair. Therefore a home run ball instantly ends the game. Smalls makes the fateful mistake of replacing the game ball with one that belongs to his stepfather. His uneducated baseball mind doesn't realize that is was autographed by the legendary Babe Ruth until after that too enters the Beast's lair. Now with no choice but to retrieve the lost ball before it's permanently digested, the gang invents various gadgets and innovates plain objects into spy equipment in attempts to thwart the Beast and preserve the ball's irreplaceable value. Ever hear the saying that everything is bigger when you're a kid? The film uses that idea as a literal antagonist for the young heroes to battle with. In actuality, the Beast is only a slightly above-average sized English Mastiff that lives under the guardianship of a mild-mannered retiree. A far cry from the oversized monster living under an evil master as the Sandlot legend warned. (The montage behind that story is stand-out amusing.) But the film wisely refrains from insulting anyone's intelligence. Using just the right amount of camera tricks and digital manipulation, the illusion of the Beast's evil aura is kept alive until the crisis is averted. Children might feel some sensations of horror during this sequence while adults are bound to laugh it off and reminisce about how much fun it was being a kid. My only criticism is that the idea is played out a little longer than needed.

The Sandlot is about the childhood era that a person either wished for or once had but now longs to revisit. A liking for baseball certainly enhances enjoyment but is not required because just about any activity can be substituted in its place and the theme would stay equally strong. It's a film worth revisiting even if the initial memory doesn't last for whatever reason. I doubt I'll have that problem again because now there's a Sandlot memory trigger sitting in my room: a Willie Mays autographed baseball passed down from my grandfather. Mays' prime was long before my time yet he is still one of the most talked about players among those who follow the sport. Rather than speculate an explanation, I'll reference a quote from the scene where Rodriguez dreams of a conversation he's having with The Great Bambino. 

"Heroes get remembered. But legends never die."

Rating: 8