Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kung Fu Panda

WORTH-IT: (Mark Osbourne/John Stevenson) Nominated for one of 2008's best Animated Films by the Academy, Kung Fu Panda epitomizes a good cartoon. In fact, it's a pretty apt warning as Jack Black opens the film with a warning to "Prepare for awesomeness." Complete with subtle morale and role models, the story is of a noodle-selling Panda bear named Po who dreams of Kung Fu fame but remains stuck in a career through questionable genetic default. Nervous to disappoint his bloodline and ultimately fail otherwise, Po second guesses himself all the way to being shut out of the celebration ceremony when the city's mystical overseer chooses the official Dragon Warrior (one who would know the deepest secrets of Kung Fu combat and be able to save their town from its arch enemy, Tai Lung). It gets predictable from here on out (assuming it wasn't up until then), but despite that, a genuine originality emerges from a story of a Panda who just wants to make friends and fight Kung Fu. Reaching deep within himself he finds a constant urge to make people laugh (thank you Jack Black) and make people proud. Count on characters played by Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Angelina Jolie and David Cross to bring their own personality to the plot and a classic like Jackie Chan makes it credible (I guess?). All in all nothing really matters in this film except it is a cute story with perfect humor and enough action to deem it a success. Icing on the cake is the brilliant animation, mixing Chinese artwork and stop-speed fight scenes to replicate the finest of Asian filmography in a kid's flick. I loved it. Impossible not to.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


MUST-SEE: (Zack Snyder) Again, I claim ignorance to the true character that is "superhero movies." I never read the comics--or in this case graphic novel (but I plan to!)--and I certainly didn't grow up watching the cartoons (not sure this is even relevant here). So honestly, the film is the blank canvas on which my mind develops an opinion--and in this case, an affinity--regarding the infamous Watchmen. To start, the film enlists a fascinating cast. No one makes this a must see simply due to their stardom. Sure, the cast have their credits, but Laurie Jupiter's resume (Malin Akerman) really only consists of 27 Dresses (not your usual ladder towards a superhero scene). Patrick Wilson, Night Owl 2 has starred in several independent successes, but again, nothing proving his ability to fight crime in a latex suit and night vision goggles (e.g. Little Children, Hard Candy). Little Children's Jackie Earle Hayley plays the film's most identifiable character, but is unrecognizable for 85% of the film due to his Rorschach's ink blot mask. Billy Crudup is blue-man Dr. Manhattan, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey's Anatomy, P.S. I Love You), Carla Gugino and Matthew Goode make up the rest of the cast. But they make it work, and they do it well. In retrospect, nothing seems better than to cast a bunch of nobodies in the genre industry to play rejects and retirees from the fictional industry. Genius. The story is fine-tuned with intelligent humor, realistic nonsense and just enough action to leave us wondering how the hell these nobodies learned to fight (but ultimately accepting it and enjoying the show). The Watchmen goes by in one colorless and mystifying swoop, yet it lingers on for what seems like infinite. It takes an approach that asks you to accept the surreal as a possibility and the impossible as reality. It won't color in the lines for you, but instead assumes you're okay with the stated conditions and dives right into the story. That done, it's a wild ride of action, mystery, camaraderie and politics all rolled into a comic book and slapped onscreen. It plays like a comic thanks to Rorschach's narration and lack of circular dialogue, but succeeds as a stand-alone (my own acceptance, proof of this). I've seen nothing like it and can't express more how different it is from anything within the genre: A refreshing take on a popular hobby. Give this a chance and no doubt, you'll be pleased. Blockbusters don't need Brad Pitt.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Rachel Getting Married

ALMOST: (Jonathan Demme) When Anne Hathaway was nominated for an Oscar, I choked on the words and gave it my damnedest to think of how an ugly duckling turned Princess of Genovia turned NY magazine bitch turned rodeo slut could have managed a role that let her develop something enough to call her own and deservedly claim that nom. Yes, she has conquered quite a long list of varying personalities, some extremely memorable; yet none have left a lasting impression of character. She is beautiful and she is talented, and I truly believe she is on her way, but alas I still haven't come to forgiveness terms with the Academy for this. A flagrant script not quite ready for the screen, it seems, leaves Hathaway struggling to find an identity. Kim is a recovering addict, mentally disturbed and coping with the fact that she is an outcast amongst her family. And what brings everyone back together like a good old fashioned cant-find-an-ethnic-tradition-to-go-with wedding(in this case, her sister, Rachel)? This film is heavily based in dialogue, but a real-time rehearsal dinner re-enactment is not why we see movies. Neither is an hour-long ceremony completely filled with dancing and speeches. We would grasp the same point in 5 minutes. Nothing correlates. Story lines are left hanging. Characters are in and out. One might compare the chaos with the aftermath of recovery, but in this situation we are left disconnected, disengaged and utterly unmoved by the emotion that clearly eats away at this dear Kim. I 100% believe Hathaway has potential after seeing her delve into a real person for once. She has fury, she has attitude and she is unique. Yet, this script left her poorly prepared to let it all hang out via her potential. Even in the most intense of scenes I remained untouched and instead burdened by the continually increasing tally of unfinished scenes each new story brought me. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to ever comes to terms with the warble that is Rachel Getting Married. I would call it Festival-quality, but also wouldn't question its forgettable-ness. The end credits were a relief and although I look forward to Hathaway's next plot I keep remembering Bride Wars came after Rachel... so is there any hope?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Synechdoche, NY

WORTH-IT: (Charlie Kaufman) A plethora of good acting and bad karma, Kaufman's writing and directing the candy shop of a story, Synecdoche, NY is everything you ever expected of Kaufman, just more pitiful. It is meant only for his truest fans. Philip Seymour-Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, the depression-wrought playwright recently given a grant to produce the play of a lifetime. Except he fears his lifetime is shortly ending, using this chance to prove his self-worth. Thus begins a 30+ year production of a title-less onslaught of the woes and heartache within each person in NYC Cotard calls his play. Cotard aims to reveal a starring role and leading story amongst each of his characters, along the way uncovering painful truths about himself. Kaufman spares no unspoken in his script, touching on everything from green poop to suicide to narcissistic hypochondria. Grimy personalities merge with unique stories, equalizing a world of otherwise opposing icons of Michelle Williams' starlet Claire Keen and Catherine Keener's hippie mom, Adele Lack. Kaufman forces ugly truths of stardom to emerge out of previously adored characters and tragic sacrifices. It's messed up. But, it's actually Kaufman exposing the world for what it hides (according to him). Suck it up as he drags your emotion and sensibility through an infinitely burning house and an endless-acreage warehouse for over 30 years, through numerous deaths, through reality and back, to the very bottom of the pit where Hoffman's character sits, left to see himself, isolated in the things in life that confuse, hurt, and surprise. Nothing makes sense until the end--and it's even questionable then--but the common thread holding it all together regains strength here, making everything add up, clear up and look a more and more like a reflection. Expect Kaufman's usual hyperbole, but look for his literal nudge.

The Dark Knight

MUST-SEE: (Christopher Nolan) As a Batman newcomer, my first impression is that The Dark Knight is my favorite Batman ever. So, of course that comes with a grain of salt, but it's true. Never before (in any movie really) has such an intelligently detailed plot been truly spotlighted by its brilliant performance of a cast in such a way that the tremendous special effects and digitography are almost moot. Fortunately, this film acquires just this perfection--a spectacular mix of good writing, acting, filming and editing--a movie-maker's dream, and a film-watcher's Heaven. Christian Bale reprises his role at Bruce Wayne poignantly and salty. He shows us the dark side of Batman while remaining an infinite fan favorite. Maggie Gyllenhaal (thankfully) takes over the role of Rachel Dawes, juicing up the flat female role, giving her spunk and flair. And Heath Ledger truly shines, in what is with no question his best role ever-played. Tossing any past Joker in the can, Ledger's character is deeply disturbed, yet frighteningly enlightened, his clown-esque persona a nightmare mixed with far out hallucination. He creates a recipe for madness amongst Gotham City and automatically serves as The Dark Knight's central player. Even Aaron Eckhart (playing a barely conceived Two-Face) makes his name known as the public figure, Harvey Dent. The summation is extraordinary. The picture is beyond entertaining, and quickly The Dark Knight has earned both an unforgettable reputation and the classification of a watch-it-over-and-over-again movie. A true blockbuster with absolute beyond-Hollywood credentials.

Seven Pounds

WORTH-IT: (Gabriele Muccino) Bravo! Will Smith for continually landing roles in movies that require limited transition from characters past. Seven Pounds is Happyness reincarnated and out to right his life of wrong. Take our main character, playing once again, a man at the end of his wits--this time mentally, rather than fiscally. For the duration of the film, we witness him make heartfelt (and hard) decisions to better his reputation by the end. It's sad--but heartening. The story takes us through seven strangers' stories, and what Smith's character is doing to help their current life situation. From tax breaks to bone marrow transplants, he draws no line to service. Smith fits the role, as always, creating a deeply disturbed man who is at the same time inspiring. The story cuts deep, whether you let it or not, showing us true romance, sacrifice and friendship all rolled into a sad for of unconditional love. There isn't much else I can say about the plot without giving away a pertinent revelation, but I will say to the credit of the film, that while Smith does portray similar characters with similar situations, this one stands on its own. It creates a deep impactful morale within the audience, causing viewers to question and re-question intrinsic features of the story. Each character is convincing (including Rosario Dawson and Woody Harrelson as two of Smith's do-good targets). I won't say you'll leave feeling good, but by the end you feel full--full of emotion and satisfaction from a story told exceptionally well.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Duchess

WORTH-IT: (Saul Dib) In 1774, 17-year-old Georgiana Spencer (Kiera Knightley) giddily agreed to marry the older, distinguished Duke of Devonshire (an unsettling Ralph Fiennes). Unlike many girls, whisked away by arranged marriages, she entered this union flattered and with big dreams. Unfortunately, the Duke shared, or cared for, none of those dreams, performing the marital duty and speaking none, proving this relationship would be nothing beyond an expected male heir. Heartbroken and frustrated, Georgiana, "G," refocuses her energy, becoming the fashion icon of her time, what was the very height of Britain's Georgian era, one rich with pop culture, decadence and political revolution. And The Duchess is complete with all the fantastic glitter that comes with these period pieces, winning an Oscar for costumes and matching all expectations for a 18th Century starlet. Dressed to the T, G finds her superfluous joy in gambling, partying and socializing, but ultimately cannot recover from the heartbreak she continually encounters. The Duke brings an illegitimate child for her to raise, he sleeps with a multitude of other women, and when after 6 years she had not managed to produce a male heir, they head to Bath for a "healing" vacation. Here, she meets Lady Elizabeth Foster, played subtly and heartily by Hayley Atwell, who shortly becomes G's best friend and confidant--encouraging her to live life sexually empowered, opening herself up for real love with a young rising politician, and old friend of G's, Charles Grey (the highly adorable Dominic Cooper). She helps capture a political fan base for him, at the same time capturing his heart, and vice versa. Knightley and Cooper maintain an unmatched chemistry, one reflecting innocent romance, true companionship and a beautiful love story. The Duchess isn't a happy ending or a flowery romance though; It is imprisonment, heavy expectations and the high price of a life-long contract. Although loved by everyone in England for her convivial aires and iconic lifestyle, behind closed doors she is a tragic soul and a wasted personality. Knightley captures utter heartbreak on her face, pulling an audience into her character's despair without question or persuasion at the slightest strain of her smile or within the smoky glare she can, on command, exude. The film at barest is light, although filled with heavy emotion and tragic hardship. It comes in the shadow of both Elizabeth and Marie Antoinette, but G's story is not one to be ignored, and competes just as fiercely.

Tropic Thunder

MUST-SEE: (Ben Stiller) I have to warn you that this review might be filled with many superlatives. First off, it is the best spoof on an action film I have ever seen. Secondly, it is the best construction of a cast I have seen in a comedy film in a long time. And, it is the funniest movie for a movie-lover out there right now. Take a most unique way of creating a plot, a group of ego-rich actors forced to really play their characters in a director's effort to dissipate diva attitudes. Combine that with the most unforgettable characters, Robert Downey Jr. as a white Australian playing a black man, a gay-yet homophobic-black rapper who "loves the P****" and his energy drink, Booty Juice, a one-hit wonder and struggling drug addict Jack Black, and a Will Smith-gone blockbuster-less turned Sylvester Stallone as Rocky the Millionth Ben Stiller. Whew. It gets better. Living up to all spoof expectations it delivers subtle blows to movies across the board and touches on personalities off-screen to include punches at stereotypical Hollywood personalities (great cameos by Matthew McConaughey as the personally attached Agent and Tom Cruise as the egg-head Film Exec). I can't say much more that wouldn't spoil this story for you, but I can encourage you by saying that this movie is about the characters, thus about people gathered on screen that complement each other in a way unmatched by any other. Stiller directs his ass off in a no-holds barred real-life role play. As the characters' whining begins, so does the fun, sending the group on a treasure hunt to the end of the script. Tropic Thunder is a mass of brilliant writing, unforgettable "action" and constant comedy, a worthy film evidenced by the nod for Downey Jr.'s race/self-confused Kirk Lazarus, and lastly, like any good comedy, deep beneath the laughter, a truly believable story erupts. Nah... But you'll be laughing too hard to care. Use this as an escape from the deep-rooted films too common during these Oscar months. It won't disappoint.


MUST-SEE: (Gus Van Sant) I label this film out of habit. It is a must-see movie. But know this movie is not for everyone and not everyone will agree with that classification. Even as historical and enlightening, Milk illustrates a side of life still not accepted by all, and by others still hated upon. That said, if men lovin' on other men offends you, skip this one--skip out on a colorful part of history and skip one of the year's most well-made, most fun movies of the year. Starring Sean Penn as California politician and gay rights activist, Harvey Milk, Milk is the story of one man's fight for rights in the San Francisco Castro District (and ultimately the state). As a newcomer to the West Coast, Milk is impossible to ignore and even harder to hate. Even for Josh Brolin's City Supervisor Dan White, a strict conservative, who is smitten with Milk's extraordinary personality and political attitude. Bare-boned, this film is a documentary of the series of events leading up the assassination of Milk and the city's mayor, George Moscone. But full-on, Milk is a historical montage, an incredible mesh of actual clips and fictional re-enactments. It tells a true story in a unique, personal way--a way never before associated with politics. It helps an audience sympathize with a universal desire for happiness. It breaks down the formalities of law and makes life's lessons meaningful and ultimately, inspiring. Penn plays a powerful Harvey Milk, embodying the man from appearance to accent to body language. But props to an overall accurate casting job. Each character is remarkably comparable to the real-life campaign members, and they got lucky to land such similarities with actors like James Franco and Emile Hirsch, rising to the task in ways that make us continue to seek more out of them. An all-star cast with a fabulous story and creative film-making makes Milk impossible to pass up. To say it's heart-warming seems morbid, but the love within that 128 minutes does nothing short of play your heartstrings. Settle your offenses for two hours and relive a history from a fresh vantage point. Bravo Van Sant and film editors. This is a truly unique story forever branded in reputation.