Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In Memory: Leslie Nielsen

Comedy spoof icon Leslie Nielsen died on Sunday at age 84 due to complications from pneumonia. He was surrounded by friends and family.

I can honestly say I never thought Leslie Nielsen was a great actor but I can pay Mr. Nielsen a compliment anyway, he was very good at what he did. No, he never won an Academy Award, he wasn't a top box-office draw, he didn't make the women swoon, like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, but he did something just as important. He entertained us. He made us laugh. And that is a great accomplishment. Whenever I was having a bad day due to an incident at work, an argument with a friend or girlfriend, a case of road rage, sitting down watching a Leslie Nielsen spoof was sure to put a smile on my face and ease the worries of the day.

Nielsen was one of those actors that seemed to have a great cross-over appeal. As much as I enjoyed watching his movies so did my grandfather. I remember numerous times watching "The Naked Gun" movies with him as we both laughed. Both younger and older movie fans could find something to laugh at watching any number of his movies.

What a great many younger fans may not know is Nielsen was actually a serious actor at one time. His best known performance in a serious movie may very well be in the now considered science-fiction classic, "Forbidden Planet" (1956) he also played the Captain in the 70s disaster movie "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972).

He got his start doing work mostly on television shows in the 50s and 60s including shows such as "Rawhide" (where Clint Eastwood got his start) and "Peyton Place", based on the great movie.

The turning point in Nielsen's career came in the 1980s when the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams offered a role to Nielsen in the disaster movie spoof, "Airplane!" (1980). A lot of people thought Nielsen stole the show and had some of the film's best lines. His "and don't call me shirley" line has probably been quoted by every person on the planet, including me.

From that time onward Nielsen had a close relationship with the Zuckers and their co-writers. He came to define the modern day spoof. Once upon a time Mel Brooks was seen as the king of the spoof with films like "Blazing Saddles" (1974), "Young Frankenstein" (1974) and "High Anxiety" (1977). But Nielsen gave him a run for his money. The two eventually worked together on Brooks' last film as director, "Dracula: Dead & Loving It" (1995). Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, in his "Scary Movie 3" (2003) review, called Nielsen "the Olivier of spoofs".

Unfortunately the spoof genre has went into a decline. The public seems to have lost interest in the genre with movies such as "Epic Movie" (2007), which I actually like despite popular opinion, "Disaster Movie" (2008) and "Dance Flik" (2009). Many feel the films no longer seem fresh and original. They are more corny than funny. Still I usually look forward to a good corny spoof.

Nielsen was married four times and had two children with his second wife, Alisande Ullman. His last wife was Barbaree Earl Nielsen, whom he married in 2001.

Here are my ratings for Leslie Nielsen movies.

1. How To Commit Marriage (1969) *** (out of ****)

2. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) *** (out of ****)

3. Airplane! (1980) *** (out of ****)

4. Nuts (1987) *** (out of ****)

5. The Naked Gun (1988) *** (out of ****)

6. Repossessed (1990) * 1\2 (out of ****)

7. The Naked Gun 2 1\2 (1991) *** (out of ****)

8. The Naked Gun 33 1\3 (1994) ** (out of ****)

9. Dracula: Dead & Loving It (1995) *** (out of ****)

10. Spy Hard (1996) ** (out of ****)

11. Wrongfully Accused (1998) ** (out of ****)

12. Scary Movie 3 (2003) * (out of ****)

13. Scary Movie 4 (2006) *** (out of ****)

14. Superhero Movie (2008) * (out of ****)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Film Review: A Bug's Life

"A Bug's Life" *** (out of ****)

Watching the Disney/Pixar CGI animated film "A Bug's Life" (1998) makes me realize just how impressive the Pixar track record is. Now that I have finally seen this film, I can proudly claim, I have seen all 11 feature films Pixar has released. And I've liked every single one of them.

"A Bug's Life" was Pixar's second feature film coming behind "Toy Story" (1995), the movie that revolutionize animated films. Sadly over the years "A Bug's Life", much like "Cars" (2006, which I have also reviewed) seems to have gotten the short end of the stick. These two films are generally considered Pixar's weakest films. They are the two lowest scoring films on imdb.com with the least amount of voters. Why has the public turned their back on these wonderful, highly entertaining family films?

As I sat and watched "A Bug's Life" I was amazed. I would even argue "A Bug's Life" was more ambitious than "Toy Story". "A Bug's Life" offered more possibilities for Pixar. It had greater scope. More attention to detail was shown here. Look and watch how much thought went into making the environment look real and to actually supply these various bugs with personalities. Look at the shapes of the leaves and rocks, the ripples in the water, the shadows of the ants. It is a technical marvel.

Back at its time of release "A Bug's Life" was in the middle of a small war which was starting to brew between Pixar and Dreamworks. "A Bug's Life" was released one month after Dreamworks had released their first CGI animated film "Antz" (1998). It has been suggested Dreamworks deliberately released the films so close together as to steal "A Bug's Life"s thunder. I have seen both films and would say overall "A Bug's Life" is the better of the two. Though "Antz" has its own charms. And you have to love Woody Allen's voice work.

"A Bug's Life" is a comedic version of Akira Kurosawa's epic masterpiece "Seven Samurai" (1954). Which wasn't anything new. "A Bug's Life" is also comparable to another comedic re-telling of Kurosawa's classic film, "Three Amigos" (1986) with Steve Martin and Chevy Chase. Here we follow Flik (Dave Foley) a wildly ambitious inventor. Flik is the outcast of the ant colony. He doesn't live by tradition. He sees the world differently. He believes the ants have to change with the times. But ants are simple insects. They don't want to be bothered with change and new ideas. They know their function in society. Their main job is to gather food for the grasshoppers, led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey), before the rain season. This puts pressure on the ants because by collecting food for the grasshoppers it takes away time for the ants to collect food for themselves. But there is always the threat of the grasshoppers stomping on the ants, which in turn keeps them in line. It is a power struggle.

As the ants, headed by their Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her two daughters, Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Dot (Hayden Panettiere), have finished their harvest for the grasshoppers, Flik causes a terrible accident when one of his latest inventions inadvertently knocks down the food supply causing it to fall in the river. Now what will the ants do when the grasshoppers come looking for their food? In order to make up for their lost time Flik suggest they get help. Why not track down warrior bugs to protect them from the grasshoppers so the ants never have to work for them again. Flik even volunteers to find these warriors himself. Flik thinks he has found the answer to his problems when he meets a gang of bugs; Slim (David Hyde-Pierce), Francis (Denise Leary) a masculine ladybug, Gypsy (Madeline Kahn), a gypsy moth, Rosie (Bonnie Hunt) a black widow spider (who has been married 12 times), Dim (Brad Garrett) a dung beetle and Manny (Jonathan Harris) a prying mantis. He hires them to protect the ant colony not realizing these bugs are circus performers who use to work for P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger).

"A Bug's Life" has a sweet message about community and believing in one's self. Because of all his failed inventions Flik soon believes he is a loser. Incapable of performing a good deed. Atta, who is preparing to take over the colony from her mother, is afraid she will never live up to others' expectations of her. And the ants must learn to stand up to the grasshoppers. If they stick together they can accomplish great things. I guess if there is anything wrong with "A Bug's Life" it is that I felt the heartfelt "lesson" scenes were too far spread out. And I questioned some of the voice work decisions. The choice of Dave Floey struck me as rather odd. Maybe David Hyde-Pierce would have been a better choice, especially given his reputation for playing Niles on the TV show "Frasier", who was himself insecure and timid. I did however like Julia Louise-Dreyfus. I wish she would do more voice over work. And what a pleasure to hear Phyllis Diller, whom I've always thought of has the female Bob Hope.

The movie was directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. Lasseter directed "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" (1999) and Stanton directed "Finding Nemo" (2003) and "Wall-E" (2008). It went on to receive an Oscar nomination for its musical score which was done by Randy Newman and a Golden Globe nomination. Despite the movie's perceived disappointing reputation is was a box-office hit grossing more than 162 million, surpassing "Antz". Now that I have seen all the Pixar movies I wouldn't put this at the top of the list but it is still an enjoyable movie and tells its story with much heart, warmth and humor. It is a visual delight as well. "A Bug's Life" has lots of rewards for those willing to give the movie a second chance.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Film Review: Bee Movie

"Bee Movie" *** (out of ****)

Only Jerry Seinfeld could make us like and care about bees, even when they are suing humans!

If you think about this Dreamworks CGI animated film, conceived and co-written by Jerry Seinfeld, long enough it really asks us to accept a lot. Too much I'd say. More than any movie should. Yet, it might just work for the younger audience.

"Bee Movie" (2007) follows a bee colony and one bee in particular, Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld). Today is his graduation day. He is finally done with school. Now all of his hard work, school last three days, has finally paid off. Today he is a man (is that the right term?). Today he will start a job. A job which will last him the rest of his left, with never a day off. This terrifies Barry. They never told him this in school. The idea of only having one job for the rest of his life puts him in a panic. His entire life is planned. There is so much he wants to do, like leave the bee colony and explore the world around him. His best friend on the other hand, Adam (Matthew Broderick) simply wants to devote his life to making honey. Barry shouldn't think about such adventures.

This concept probably will connect more to any kid who has ever graduated college or any parent that can remember what life was like after college. Now you're an adult. You have your degree. And, if you're lucky, you will immediately find a job in your field. And you will work at that job, if you are lucky, for many, many years. But at such a young age, do you really know what you want to do for the rest of your life? Is it possible you may have made a mistake?

That is one of the messages buzzing around "Bee Movie". It is a message most animated films tell us. Follow your heart. Live out your dreams. Never settle. I suppose it is a good message for kids. But "Bee Movie" starts to complicate things.

Barry does leave the bee colony and embarks upon the human world. He has never had to deal with human interaction. What is the human world like? Barry is not to happy about constantly being attacked by people afraid of bees but he becomes even more furious when he finds out humans eat honey.

Honey is the world to a bee. It is all bees do. They devote their lives to making honey. But beekeepers actually take bees out of their natural habitat and steal the honey they produce. It is then sold and bees receive no compensation. What kind of scam is this! Barry decides it is time to teach the humans a lesson. So he sues the honey companies of America.

Much of the movie, at this point, actually works. A lot of it has to do with Seinfeld and his co-writers, Spike Feresten and Andy Robin, both of whom also worked on Jerry's television show and Barry Marder. Because of Seinfeld's involvement it gives the adults something to look forward to. And because Seinfeld is so talented and funny, the children will laugh too, even if they don't know who Seinfeld is.

Seinfeld, like most comics, actually has a funny voice. He has the ability to say normal things in a funny way. The pitch of his voice. The words he chooses to emphasize. The highs and lows of his voice all are funny. If you never paid much attention to Seinfeld's vocal rhythm before, hearing him voice an animated character, will make you take notice. His voice rather than his physical qualities are on display.

Where "Bee Movie" gets a little shaky is in its romantic sub-plot between Barry and a human, Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). Vanessa saves Barry's life after her husband, Ken (Patrick Warburton, whom shall always remain as Puddy to me) tries to kill him. Barry is grateful and feels an obligation to break one of the bee's laws, never speak to a human. For Barry it is love at first sight. For Vanessa, Barry's offers her something Ken doesn't. How can I possibly accept this? Maybe if it was a different animal. Maybe a dog, a big lovable dog, but how can a woman develop feelings for a bee? We just have to keep reminding ourselves this is a children's movie.

But soon the message of "Bee Movie" starts to change. All things serve a purpose. Nature is built on a law of order. There is a chain reaction. I felt this new message contradicts the previous message. "Bee Movie" is arguing both sides. At first it tells us to be individuals and follow our dreams and then tells us the importance of the social order of things. We all have a job we must do.

As in most animated movies there are a ton a voice cameos ranging from Ray Liotta (as himself) as a celebrity honey manufacturer, Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Richards, Larry Miller and Rip Torn.

A lot of the humor in "Bee Movie" comes from how many bee puns Seinfeld and the gang could think of. They sadly missed a golden opportunity by not having any Bee Gees songs on the soundtrack. Where is a parody of the opening sequence in "Saturday Night Fever" (1977)? We get a "The Graduate" (1967) reference, with Barry floating on a raft in a pool of honey while his parents (Kathy Bates and Barry Levinson) give him guidance. And my guess is children are too young to get the joke and probably have not seen that movie.

"Bee Movie" is fast and funny with a nice message for children and has enough adult references to keep the parents entertained. For the first 45-50 minutes it is quite engaging. A lot of credit has to be thrown Seinfeld's way for his very impressive voice work here and his ability to give both children and parents something to enjoy. "Bee Movie" is no masterpiece but it is nice and pleasant.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Film Review: Shrek

"Shrek" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

It was with some trepidation I revisited the world of "Shrek" (2001) and this giant ogre character.

I know "Shrek" has went on to become a family favorite and much to my surprise has actually been endured by children but I've just never quite been able to fall under the film's so-called charms. So much of the movie I find wildly inappropriate for children and feel the movie lacks the heart most enchanting family film possess.

But of course that was suppose to be the appeal of this Dreamworks CGI animated film. It was suppose to be an animated film which turned the fairy tale fantasy on its head. As we find an ogre named Shrek (Mike Myers) who finds one day his forest is filled with unwanted story book characters (the three little pigs, pinocchio, the three blind mice) by order of Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) ruler of the city of Duloc (which was meant to resemble a Disneyworld theme park).

Lord Farquaad desperately wants to become a king and turn Duloc into his kingdom but of course in order to do that he must marry a princess. A magic mirror (which resembles the one in "Snow White" ) in a dating game show fashion tells him of his options of eligible princesses. There is Cinderella, Snow White (whom despite living with seven men is not easy) and Princess Fiona. He chooses the one without a Disney copyright attached to it.

Since Shrek is not pleased with Farquaad's decision to rid Duloc of fairy tale characters and place them in his forest a deal is arranged. Princess Fiona lives in a castle which is guarded by a dragon. If Shrek and his side-kick, a talking Donkey (Eddie Murphy) can rescue the Princess, Farquaad will remove the fairy tale characters and give Shrek the peace he requires.

The concept of "Shrek" is to make a satire on the fairy tale genre while becoming one itself following the usual guidelines associated with one. The wicked ruler, the damsel in distress, the mean ogre...ect. But I just don't find "Shrek" to be as clever as it thinks it is.

There are a lot of adult jokes planted throughout the movie. Lord Farquaad is a very short ruler. When looking at the size of his castle, Shrek wonders if Farquaad is trying to compensate for something. Adults get the implication and children are going to wonder what does compensate mean. Another moment has Shrek reading a fairy tale and then suddenly ripping the page out and use it to wipe himself while in the bathroom. Some children will find this funny. Bathroom humor is usually a winner with children but with so many other highly entertaining kid films out there like "Toy Story" (1995) or "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) why watch this? Those movies are much more innocent and in my opinion, funnier.

"Shrek" wants to shock us for shock's sake. The idea is a cartoon with characters using semi-vulgar language would be funny. I recently attended a comedy improv show here in Chicago which centered on hand puppets cursing. It is the same concept. Take something innocent and turn it into something risque. That within itself should make it funny. But it doesn't always work.

The background story regarding "Shrek" is actually much more interesting than the movie itself. The film's producer and co-founder of Dreamworks, Jeffrey Katzenberg supposedly made this film as a sort of retribution against Disney and Michael Eisner. Eisner, according to Katzenberg would not offer him a promotion and forced him to give his resignation. It is believed the Lord Farquaad character is based on Eisner. And that is why there are so many direct Disney jibs and jabs in the movie.

I guess in the film's defense it did supply Dreamworks with a formula it would use on all of its following films. "Shrek" set the standard. Dreamworks is a little more edgier than Pixar (its main CGI rival). The characters in a Dreamworks movie have more sass to them. They have more street smarts. And these films are usually some kind of satire. "Kung Fu Panda" for example is a martial arts spoof, in a way.

Though I am completely aware I'm in a minority when it comes to "Shrek". The movie made millions at the box-office and inspired three sequels. The second one becoming one of the highest grossing animated movies of all time grossing a little less than a billion dollars. It was also turned into a Broadway musical, which I happened to see while on tour in Chicago. The show is surprisingly very entertaining. I'd even say it is better than the movie. If you want to see "Shrek" see it on stage.

The movie was even nominated for two Oscars, winning one for "Best Animated Feature" and being nominated for "Best Adapted Screenplay". And was even shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

The movie was directed by Andrew Adamson, who also directed "Shrek 2" (2004) and the first two "Chronicles of Narnia" movies. It was co-directed by Vicky Jenson, who would direct "Shark Tale" (2004) which I prefer.

Like most animated movies there is a message lurking around "Shrek", something about learning to be yourself and accepting who you are. Shrek isn't really a bad guy and isn't as ugly as he thinks he is. But I honestly feel there are much better, more heartfelt and kid friendlier animated films to see.

Film Review: Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

"Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

With the release of the final Harry Potter adventure in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (2010) I thought it would be interesting (for me at least) to go back to the beginning as we get ready to say our goodbyes to Harry and the gang.

The last time I saw "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001) was back in theatres. I hadn't seen the film since and forgot a great many things. I kind of lost my way with the series, after the third film I just stopped watching them. Not that I have anything against these films, it is just they got lost in the shuffle of other releases. I plan on going back and watching all of the films in the series.What amazed me on a second viewing of the film was simply how magical (no pun intended) it is.

Director, Chris Columbus, tells this story with a wide-eyed child's fascination. The movie moves at a high energy pace and is filled with wonderment and joy. This wizard world nearly explodes on-screen and captivates us. The movie has an almost spellbinding quality in the way these characters are introduced to us as we witness their special powers.

I'm sure much of these qualities were in J.K. Rowling's novels (which I'm sorry to say I've never read) but much credit has to be given to the film's screenwriter Steve Kloves because he is able to retain so much of what is magical to readers of the series onto the screen. That is not an easy feat. How often do book lovers complain when their favorite book is adapted to the screen? I'm willing to bet most readers would agree with me that Kloves has done a fine job adapting these books. There has not been a strong backlash against the films by devoted readers. That must mean something, right?

The film starts off with Prof. Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Prof. McGonagall (Maggie Smith) delivering baby Harry to the Dursley's, his aunt (Fiona Shaw) and uncle (Richard Griffiths). They have a child of their own, Dudley (Harry Melling). It is clear from this sequence (which I completely forgot) that Harry is not one of us. We learn something has happened to his parents and these wizards feel it is in Harry's best interest to lead a normal life and know nothing about his wizardly ways until he is old enough to understand.

At this point the film almost takes a Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist turn. Poor Harry (now played by Daniel Radcliffe) is neglected and treated unfairly by the Dursley's who lavish attention on their rotund son. In one sequence it is Dudley's birthday, the house is cluttered with presents. But young Dudley has a suspicious look in his eyes. He surveys the presents and angrily declares "how many presents are here?". His father, rather intimidated, cries "35". He assures Dudley he even counted them himself. But you see that is the same amount Dudley received the previous year. He demands there be more presents each year. The things kids have to put up with.

Of course when Harry's birthday comes around there is no celebration. Harry is the outcast of the family. He sleeps in a closet underneath the stairwell. But it doesn't matter because on this day young Harry will learn the truth when a messenger is sent, Rubeus (Robbie Coltrane), to tell Harry now is the time he must attend Hogwarts, a wizard academy.

Harry now learns he is a wizard and the true nature of his parents, whom he thought died in a car accident. He also learns who killed them, a evil wizard who still strikes fear in the residents of Hogwarts that they dare not say his name. He also, for the first time, makes friends; Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). Hermione is one of those know-it-all students but has a great talent for spells. Meanwhile Harry and Ron are still learning as they go along. With Ron almost serving as comic relief.

The interesting thing about the story is like a Charles Dickens novel, Harry is actually the least interesting character. All the surrounding characters are much more fascinating because they have mastered their skills. Harry's background is a mystery and hasn't yet become the great wizard others expect him to be. Even Hermione has more skills than Harry.

A large part of the charm for "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" is just to sit back and watch this world unfold. To merely witness all the special effects and dazzling creative talent which went into making this world seem real. From a visual standpoint "Harry Potter" is a knockout.

Since I am only able to judge the first three films, I've always felt if there is a downside to these beginning films it is that they were kind of weak on plot. "Harry Potter" does a very good job establishing who Harry is and introducing the other characters but after we get past all of the introductions not much happens. There is some story involving the sorcerer's stone and a belief one of the teachers, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) wants to kill Harry. But the movie almost glides over this part of the story as it mainly takes delights in showing us the goings on at Hogwarts. For instance there are pictures hanging on the walls in which the subjects actually move and change their positions. The stairwells are also constantly shifting. This helps give the building its own personality and become one of the characters in the story.

Chris Columbus is no stranger to directing mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, though I don't think he has ever directed something of this caliber. He was the man behind the first "Home Alone" (1990) and its sequel, "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" (1992). He also directed the Robin Williams comedy "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993) and the Julia Roberts tearjerker "Stepmom" (1998). I'm not exactly sure what made the studio think this guy would be a good choice for "Harry Potter" however, given his credits. But Columbus does live up to expectations.

Steve Kloves hasn't had much of a career outside of Harry Potter, he has written all of the following sequels in the series. Prior credits include "Wonder Boys" (2000) which is also a wonderful movie in a completely different way. And "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (1989).

If I pretend the other Harry Potter films don't exist yet, "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" suggest a wonderful adventure is ahead of us. Great secrets are going to be revealed about "the one who must be nameless", who killed Harry's parents. It also suggest Harry will become a strong and powerful wizard and learn much about about his true identity. Though, knowing what we know now, certain scenes have a nostalgic appeal to them.

I'm actually excited to go back and rewatch all of these movies. I can't wait to finally see all the dangers Harry, Hermione and Ron will face. What amazing possibilities lie ahead.

Of course upon its release "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone" received much critical praise and became a box-office smash. It was the top grossing film of 2001 taking in nearly 318 million dollars, surpassing the first "Lord of the Rings", that other great epic adventure. It even went on to win three Academy Award nominations (for music, costume design and art direction).

This is a wonderful, dazzling spectacular film that children are going to enjoy and most of the adults will to. I personally can't wait to continue watching these films. We're going to miss you Harry.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Film Review: Castle in the Sky

"Castle in the Sky" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

What a welcome treat it is to watch a Hayao Miyazaki animated film. The great Japanese animator is one of my favorite filmmakers. He is responsible for my late interest in animation and the man behind two of my all time favorite animated films; "Spirited Away" (2002) and "Howl's Moving Castle" (2005). "Castle in the Sky" (1986, though released in the U.S. on DVD in 2003) is one of the great master's best works.

Watching a Miyazaki film is so radically different from the animated films we get in America by Pixar and Dreamworks. There are no talking donkeys, toys, fishes or any other wild animals here. Just people. The characters in a Miyazaki film are not the wise-cracking sassy figures we find in American animation. They don't make pop culture references and sexual innuendos which go over children's heads. And best of all Miyazaki doesn't make CGI animated films. His animation is hand drawn.

Since I've been watching quite a few Pixar and Dreamworks movies I noticed Miyazaki's movies, particularly "Castle in the Sky" seem to move slower. The pace is much different here, more relaxed. You can also say that about live action foreign films when compared to American movies. The rhythm is different. Same goes for animated films too I guess. This is despite the fact "Castle in the Sky" is actually an adventure story.

"Castle in the Sky" starts off with a thrilling heist sequences. A gang of thugs, led by a mother, (voiced in the American version by Cloris Leachman) and her sons, hijack a military plane which has a young princess, Sheeta (Anna Paquin) on board. The thugs want to kidnap her because of a special necklace she wears. It is also because of that necklace the military has her in their custody along with a secret agent, Col. Muska (Mark Hamill). Sheeta manages to escape by jumping out of the plane. It seems certain the young princess has fallen to her death but then the magical powers of the necklace is revealed. It shields Sheeta from danger as it softens her blow by making her float in the air and gently land. She falls into the arms of a miner's assistant, Pazu (James Van Der Beek). Once the princess lands in this small mining town so does the gang of thugs and Col. Muska.

Pazu quickly figures out all of these people are after Sheeta (whom he doesn't know is a princess yet) and concludes it must be because of the necklace. Now Pazu has decided to act as Sheeta's guardian. There are quite a few exciting chase scenes planted throughout the movie. But Miyazaki also finds ways to inject humor into the story. But it is not the kind of vulgar humor of "Shrek" (2001) which feels inappropriate. In this movie the humor stems from the character's personalities and the situations in which they find themselves.

There is also room for a serious message. Miyazaki is something of an environmentalist. Each one of his brilliant films has a message about humans relationship to the Earth and their destruction of nature. "Castle in the Sky", which was Miyazaki's third film, is no different. But it can also be read as a warning of the industrial age. The movie takes place around the early 1900s. Technology within itself is not bad but when bad people want to use technology for power they hurt the land. A civilization must be fueled by love and kindness, not only for nature but for mankind as well, not power.

You see the necklace which Sheeta wears is believed to have come from a mythical floating island in the sky called Laputa. The people who lived on the island where said to have developed advance technology which would make them able to rule the world below. It is that power the thugs and Col. Muska are after.

Many times after I watch a Miyazaki movie I often feel his films are really more so for adults. Miyazaki makes very complex films. They have serious messages and he treats his stories in a very mature way. Because there is animation and young characters and action this may please some of the younger viewers but is it adults who will fully comprehend the movie's motives.

I suppose this has to do with a cultural difference in the way we Americans view animation and the way it is viewed in Japan. Animation is big business in Japan. But it is not just for children. Some of Miyzaki's movies are among the highest grossing in Japan. In Japan they also make sexually explicit animated movies. Animation clearly serves more than one purpose. Great stories can be told through animation. Just because a movie is animated that does not mean the film has to play down to its audience. It doesn't have to avoid making meaningful statements.

"Castle in the Sky" is an intelligent movie. A movie which deserves to be taken seriously. Hayao Miyazaki's first movie was "Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro" (1979) it is the only movie among all of his feature films which doesn't exactly fit in with the rest. It is a good story, also involving thieves, but doesn't make Miyazaki's usual commentaries. He really came into his own with "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" (1984, which I have reviewed) and continued down a similar path with this film. In some ways I actually prefer "Castle in the Sky". This movie is more magical. I take more delight in the characters. It is also, in my opinion, more kid friendly.

Because of all the CGI animated films I have been watching lately I forgot how special hand drawn animation is. I wish there were more American animated films done this way still. There is something charming about it. It takes great artistry to do it. It is beautiful to look at it. Many times I am more amazed looking at a Miyazaki movie than any special effects in today's movies.

"Castle in the Sky" is a wonderful adventure movie with an important social message. That message might go over the head's of children but there is still a lot for them to enjoy. The movie may also be a bit long for them. It clocks in at two hours. So maybe you should show this to slightly older children. Still the movie feels epic. It would make a wonderful introduction into Miyazaki's work. This is a real achievement. One of Miyazaki's best films.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Film Review: Hereafter

"Hereafter" **** (out of ****)

What happens after we die? It is a question a lot of us would like to know the answer to. Not to reveal too much about myself but death has always been a big subject for me. The concept was brought to my attention at a very young age and has left an emotional scar which has stood with me til today. That was only part of the reason I wanted to see Clint Eastwood's latest masterpiece "Here-after" (2010).

"Hereafter" follows three separate people. People who do not know one another. There is an American psychic, George Loneage (Matt Damon). He claims to have the genuine ability to be able to contact the dead after a medical illness as a child, which allowed him to get "visions". Then there is a French journalist, Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) who is on vacation in Hong Kong when a tsunami hits. She claims she died and was brought back to life. Upon her return to France her life is not the same. She is no longer able to go about her job. Finally we have twin brothers Macus and Jason (Frankie & George McLaren). Jason dies in a terrible accident leaving Macus unable to function without his brother.

The movie is clearly about death and how we cope with it. Two of these characters question whether or not there is a hereafter. They ask the big questions. What happens after we die?

Actually "Hereafter" has something in common with another movie released this year (get ready for it) Woody Allen's "You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger" (2010). Both movies are about people looking to connect with someone or something. They are about people so desperate and alone they turn to religion or psychics to answer life's big questions. Even in Allen's film one of the characters turns to a psychic. Allen's film focuses on love and of course Eastwood centers on death.

So where does "Hereafter" side on the issue? Does it support the belief in an after life or not? The movie, correctly in my opinion, never answers that question. George is presented as having a unique gift but does he really? The first time we meet George is when his brother, Billy (Jay Mohr) brings one of his business clients to him, after revealing George's secret. You see George was once famous but turned away from the business. He feels his visions are a curse not a talent. George doesn't want to spend his life with the dead. However the main question, after that first meeting with the client is, does George have any true insights or does he merely supply closure for these damages souls? Through most of "Hereafter" I would say George is the real deal, but, there is a moment at the end of the picture when he meets one of the other main characters. He does not offer good news and for a moment we suspect the next words out of his mouth are not that of a spirit but instead his own as he tries to offer comfort.

"Hereafter" doesn't seem to be Eastwood's kind of movie. It is a movie which relies a lot on emotion. Plus, I've never known Eastwood to be interested in this subject. Last year when Eastwood released "Invictus" (2009) which was also with Matt Damon, my main criticism was the film needed more heart. It wasn't sentimental enough. I thought a better director for that project might have been Ron Howard, who is well known for making effective sentimental, uplifting films such as "Cinderella Man" (2005) and "A Beautiful Mind" (2001). But "Hereafter" has all the emotion "Invictus" lacked.

The main strength of "Hereafter" I feel is the self-reflective mood the film puts you in. The film has a meditative quality. When the movie was over I didn't want to immediately leave. I wanted to sit and ponder what I had just seen. What was the movie really saying? How can I apply lessons learned here to my own life?

The film also has a beautiful look and very strong performances. In the Matt Damon character is seems to get everyday life just right. We can feel George's pain. He is a man who just wants to lead a normal life. He eventually starts to take cooking classes in the hopes of meeting new people. He meets Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard). Their scenes together feel sincere. It is so rare to find that level of honesty in a screenplay. They flirt and talk in a realistic way. But their romance is short lived. But we don't blame anyone. It had to be. Even that rings true.

Cecile De France and Frankie McLaren are effective as well. Each wants to believe in something greater. Marie is constantly looked down upon whenever she brings up the issue. Her lover, Didier (Thierry Neuvic) explains to her after we die there is nothing. And she should stop thinking about such foolishness. That's a French liberal for you. No belief in God or a hereafter. But Marie is kind of the soul of the film. She researches the subject. She wants to learn more about people with near death experiences. She knows what happened to her and no one can tell her otherwise.

There are some cynical moments though. When Marcus seeks to find answers he turns to psychics, none of whom are able to contact the dead. After a while poor Marcus lies to them and tells them their readings are correct. They are presented as nothing more than frauds, feeding on people's pain and suffering. In these moments we can tell Marcus' heart and spirit are crushed. He will never be able to communicate with his brother again. At these moments we just want to reach out and grab him and tell him it will all be okay. At least I did (what can I say I'm a soft touch).

But those moments are balanced by George. So what is true?

I also thought of "Good Will Hunting" (1997), the movie that made Matt Damon famous, while watching this. His brother consistently tells him because of his gift he has a duty to use it and provide a service to those in need. If you remember in "Good Will Hunting" Damon was a math genius who was told with his gift he too had an obligation to society. He should not deny the world his gift.

Unfortunately "Hereafter" is dividing audiences and the public. The movie has only grossed close to 30 million. A lot of this has to do with a truly lousy PR campaign. The studio made a serious mistake in the way they promoted this movie. Look at the film's poster. You'd think it was another "Sixth Sense" (1999). Yes, Matt Damon sees dead people but this movie has a completely different tone and addresses the material in a profoundly different way than that movie. But that is how the studio tried to sell this movie. Why? Why couldn't they simply let Eastwood be Eastwood? The man has an amazing track record. He has made some of his strongest films to date in these past few years; "Mystic River" (2003), "Million Dollar Baby" (2004), "Changeling" (2008) and his ambitious Iwo Jima films. Why not merely promote it as a Clint Eastwood film. You'd be surprised at how many people would show up for that alone.

I should also point out the film was written by Peter Morgan. A very talented writer who normally writes more political films. He wrote the made for TV movie, "The Special Relationship" (2010) about Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. He also wrote "The Queen" (2006) and "Frost/Nixon" (2008). Naturally "Hereafter" has nothing in common with those movies but at least it showcases Morgan's diversity as a writer.

I hope more people seek "Hereafter" out. Now that it is almost the end of November and December is coming we can expect a lot of holiday themed movies and usually this is the time the studio's release their Oscar contenders. I hope "Hereafter" doesn't get lost in the shuffle. See it. Enjoy it. This is one of the year's best films!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Film Review: Cars

"Cars" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Walking into Pixar's "Cars" (2006) I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. I hadn't seen the movie before but its reputation precedes it. It is considered, along with "A Bug's Life" (1998), to be one of Pixar's "lesser" films. A good effort, but, not an instant family classic in the same league as "Toy Story" (1995), "Finding Nemo" (2003) or "Wall-E" (2008). But, not surprisingly, for me, I disagree with the majority.

"Cars" had a lot going against it, I initially thought. Mostly because of the film's reputation. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis correctly pointed out the world inhabited here is absent of living creatures. There are no humans. The cars drive themselves. This seems to have disturbed Ms. Dargis a great deal. And I too thought this might create a problem. Am I honestly going to care about these vehicles? Then there was the issue of the film's running time. "Cars" clocks in at just under two hours. Pretty long I thought for an animated children's film. Are kids really going to sit patiently that long in one spot? Not my niece and nephew (!).

But that's why it's important not to judge a movie based on preconceived notions. "Cars" is a stunner. A perfectly constructed movie. If it was a live action film, I might dismiss it as predictable. It doesn't have a very original plot. We've seen this story before. Outsider city slicker meets small town folks and learns to embrace small town values. Frank Capra did something similar in "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" (1937). Though with Pixar at the helm, I somehow found the movie fresh and heartwarming. Near the end of the second act, start of the third, I actually came to care about these little cars. They had won me over. Each has a distinct personality.

The star of "Cars" is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) a rookie in the world of race car driving. The movie opens up with him racing for the Piston Cup. He is one of the favorites to win the race. Though he has some competition. There is the racing legend, The King (Richard Petty, who is actually considered the king of car racing), in his last race, and the permanent runner up, Chick (Michael Keaton). One of these three men are going to win the race. But the unexpected happens. A three way tie. Now, a tie breaker race is going to happen in L.A.

These opening moments reveal McQueen's personality. He is the cliche hot shot rookie. He can do everything by himself. He even calls himself a one man show and has no pit crew. He doesn't need it. He is a great showman and lives to be in front of the camera. He devours all the attention he is getting, especially from the young pretty female cars. He likes life in the fast lane and doesn't want others to slow him down. But we also learn McQueen has no friends. No one to share his glory with.

Mack (John Ratzenberger), McQueen's trailer, is suppose to take McQueen to California, but at McQueen's insistence, he must make the drive in one night. This is too much for Mack, who is very tired. Without revealing too much, McQueen finds himself without Mack in a small town called Radiator Springs, in Carburetor County.

Radiator Springs is a near ghost town. It has been taken off the map when Route 66 was built, the famed highway. There is a tire shop, run by the Italian car Luigi (Tony Shalhoub, re-doing his old "Wings" shtick), a gas station run by Flo (Jennifer Lewis), an organic fuel shop operated by a 60s stoner car, Fillmore (George Carlin, going back to his stoner Weatherman days), the town's judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and Sally (Bonnie Hunt) who owns the town's only hotel. They haven't had customers in years. But at least they have each other. They are a small knit community not impressed by big city life. They don't even know who Lightning McQueen is.

And now poor McQueen is stuck with these cars. Naturally at first he doesn't like it and desperately wants to leave. But soon he comes to know the story of each of these cars and finds each of them has something to offer.

Besides an appreciation for small town values there is also a message about the commericalization of America. We are always in a hurry to get nowhere. How many times have you seen a car race towards a red light? "Cars" yearns for the simple life. A time when people (or cars) took their time and enjoyed the view. When we found the beauty in the simple things in life. When we lived in a world where we actually knew our neighbor's name.

It is a sweet message but as some critics have pointed out, who is Disney to give us this message. They are a giant corporation which has only contributed to the problem. Maybe. But would you want Pixar to make a movie with the opposite message? Even if they are being hypocrites, it is a good message for kids.

The more animated films I am watching and starting to catch on to the Pixar/Dreamworks war, the more I see the difference between the two. Before I never really paid attention to which studio was releasing these animated films. They all looked the same to me. But now I see, Pixar makes much more innocent movies. Their characters are sweet and naive. They don't really inhabit our world but that's okay. I wouldn't want them to. They might get corrupted. Dreamworks characters have a little more sass. They know of our world and give us a wink. The characters in "Cars" are no different. They are simple and want to lead simple lives.

As is the case with most animated films though, we get pop culture references and plenty of voice cameos. This is usually thrown in for the adults. Here we have Bob Costas playing a sports announcer Bob Cutlass. Race car champs Darrell Waltrip (Darrell Cartrip) and Mario Andretti. Anyone who listens to NPR will notice the "Car Talk" host; Tom and Ray Magliozzi. And there is Jay Leno, who has a reputation as a car guy as well as the permanent "Tonight Show" host.

So why does "Cars" have such a bad rep? On imdb.com the movie has the second lowest rating of any Pixar film, 7.8, and the least amount of voters. "A Bug's Life" has the lowest. Yet the movie won the Golden Globe for "Best Animated Film", it won the National Board of Review award for "Best Animated Feature" and received two Oscar nominations. One for "Best Animated Feature" and "Best Music", the score was done by "Toy Story" composer Randy Newman. And it was a box-office hit. So what happened?

You even have John Lasseter directing it. As far as I'm concerned he is the face of Pixar. He directed the first two "Toy Story" movies as well as "A Bug's Life".

For me "Cars" is a sweet, engaging story of lost America. It is a fitting story even in our current economic times. Jobs are leaving this country. Businesses are closing down. Towns are empty. Maybe people should give "Cars" a second look. They probably will however as Pixar has plans for a sequel coming out next year.

"Cars" is good, decent family entertainment, with a message. It has characters the kids are going to like but they are profound enough that the adults will take notice too. I wouldn't say it is Pixar's best, but, I'd say it is in a class with my personal favorites; "Toy Story 2" (1999), "Finding Nemo" and "Up" (2009).

Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon

"How To Train Your Dragon" *** (out of ****)

"How To Train Your Dragon" (2010), one of the latest Dreamworks CGI animated films, is a major improvement from the studio's last film, "Monsters vs Aliens" (2009).

"How To Train Your Dragon" continues in Dreamworks decision to release all of their films theatrically in 3-D. A decision which began with "Monsters vs Aliens". First, I'd like to say a word about this. I personally find this to be a mistake on Dreamworks part. I'm of the opinion 3-D is merely a theatrical gimmick. You have to remember the majority of people are going to see this film in 2-D. I saw this movie on DVD and it was in 2-D. If this movie plays on television it will be shown in 2-D. Ten years from now if someone were to watch this film they will most likely see it in 2-D. It is my guess, but, I think 3-D is just a current fade. What will Dreamworks do once people lose interest in 3-D? It just feels like Dreamworks is trying to cash in on a popular trend. That within itself is fine. My question is, do these films need to be told in 3-D? Does the technology further develop the story?

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, lets focus on the story. For the most part I would say "How To Train Your Dragon" is solid entertainment. It is one of Dreamworks better films. Not quite as good as "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) or "Megamind" (2010) but among their quality. "How To Train Your Dragon" has some wonderful visuals.

The story, which was based on a novel written by Cressida Cowell, follows a young Viking boy, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). Hiccup lives in a village to finds itself constantly under attack by dragons. It is Hiccups great ambition to one day go out alongside his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) and fight those mean nasty dragons. Hiccup wants to live up to the traditions of his family and become a great Viking.

However, Hiccup doesn't have the brute strength of his father, or his boss, master cobber Gobber (Craig Ferguson). He is presented as being accident prone. Someone who creates weapons to kill dragons which never seem to work. Will he ever be able to kill a dragon?

Besides that Hiccup has the same problems most pre-teen boys have. He is at that awkward stage where he is starting to notice girls but has a hard time talking to them. How on Earth is he going to impress Astrid (America Ferrera), a young girl who has more strength than him? She actually fights dragons.

Beneath all of this is a story of a young boy seeking his father's acceptance. He wants to make his father proud of him. Then there is a commentary on how people should learn to live together. The Vikings kill the dragons but they don't understand their "enemy". Everything they think they know about them is wrong. Their fears are based on preconceived notions. If we learn to get past out fears of the "other" and find out who they are we will find we have nothing to fear.

Pretty serious message for an animated movie, right? Though there's nothing wrong with that. Animation doesn't have to avoid making serious points. It doesn't have to be filled with slapstick comedy and sly pop culture references. Think about animated films like "Princess Mononoke" (1999) or "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988). That is not to say "How To Train Your Dragon" is anywhere near as complex as those films.

I didn't find "How To Train Your Dragon" to be particularly funny. But again, that is okay. I also thought there were too many fight scenes which go on too long. I would have preferred more sentimental, emotional scenes. It also ends on a rather dark note for its lead character, which honestly caught me by surprise.

You see, Hiccup eventually befriends one of these dreaded dragons, whom he names Toothless. And as they become friends Hiccups learns some secrets about the dragons. Part of me actually wishes the dragon would talk. It would make it more of a complete character.

Still one has to admire the look of "How To Train Your Dragon". Pay close attention to the details of the village. I love the scenes when the Viking are out in the sea. Notice the waves of the oceans. They constant motion as the waters goes back and forth. Notice Hiccup's hair blowing in the wind as he flies on Toothless' back. The way the fog appears out in the distance. It all really helps create the proper atmosphere.

"How To Train Your Dragon" was directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. They both worked on the Disney animated film "Lilo & Stitch" (2002). DeBlois also worked as a writer on another Disney film, "Mulan" (1998) while Sanders worked on the stories for a number of Disney classics including "Beauty & the Beast" (1991), "Aladdin" (1992) and "The Lion King" (1994). Both men also wrote the screenplay along with the help of William Davies. A rather odd choice. Almost all of the films Mr. Davies wrote were live action movies. His previous screenplays include "Twins" (1988) and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot" (1992). Two of my least favorite movies and may explain why I didn't find this film to be funny.

There has been a pretty strong positive reaction towards the film. On the website rottentomatoes.com, a site which collects critical reaction to films, the movie scored a 98%. Out of 156 reviews, 153 were positive. There is talk the movie is a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination in the "Best Animated Film" category. And the public seems to have enjoyed the movie, helping it gross more than 200 million dollars in the U.S. alone.

None of this really matters in the end in relation to the quality of the movie. But "How To Train Your Dragon" is well made and worth watching. There are a lot of little pleasure in the movie that I think both adults and children can enjoy. A very positive step for Dreamworks, which is sometimes accused of making animated films which lack a heart.

Here is an interesting story I found concerning this year's Oscar race in the animated category.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Film Review: Monsters vs Aliens

"Monsters vs Aliens" ** (out of ****)

After watching the wonderful Dreamworks animated film "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) I was greatly looking forward to seeing "Monsters vs Aliens" (2009), another CGI animated film given to us by Dreamworks. How on Earth could the same studio give us both movies?

For years I use to feel animation was a waste of my time. The concepts would be too childish to hold my attention. I need a live action movie with some good acting, intelligent writing and crisp directing. What I don't need is to see talking animals make pop culture references. Well, at least "Monsters vs Aliens" avoids that. There are no talking animals, well, except for a talking cockroach.

But animation is big business. These movies make hundreds of millions of dollars for studios. "Monsters vs Aliens" pulled in (domestically) close to 200 million. My guess is families are so starved for decent entertainment they will take a chance on anything. When you place all of your chips on the table sometimes you'll get lucky and find a "Toy Story" (1995), "Finding Nemo" (2003) or "Kung Fu Panda" in the shuffle. But other times you'll have to sit through something like "Monsters vs Aliens".

To be fair "Monsters vs Aliens" has a pretty decent set-up. Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) is about the marry the man of her dreams or so she thinks, a weatherman, Derek Dietl (Paul Rudd). She has plans to move to Paris where hopefully Derek will find a job as a top anchorman and they will live happily ever after. Unfortunately just before Susan walks down the alter a meteorite hits her turning her into the 50ft Woman.

The government kidnaps her and takes her to a secret lab which has been in operation for more than 50 years. You see, in the name of national security our government has been lying to us (go figure!). For years the existence of monsters has been denied but all the while the government has been collecting them. The operation has been headed by General W.R. Monger (get it? War monger. Voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) for 50 years. Susan is his latest find.

The other monsters are B.O.B (Seth Rogen, who also lent his voice to "Kung Fu Panda") a version of the Blob, Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) a scientist who devised a machine to give humans the survival instincts of a cockroach but accidentally turned himself into one. I can only imagine this was inspired by "The Fly" (1958). And The Missing Link (Will Arnet).

What exactly does the government plan on doing with them? Why keep them for 50 years? In the name of national security why didn't they just kill them? But there I go, thinking like an adult when I'm watching a movie called "Monsters vs Aliens". What's wrong with me? I should know full well, you don't ask these kind of logical questions.

Soon America finds itself under attack by a space alien, Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson). Even after President Hathaway (Stephen Colbert) tries to make friends with it (by playing the "Beverly Hills Cop" theme song on an electric keyboard) the alien still attacks. The military is not capable of destroying it. What to do? Why of course. Send the monsters to fight it.

What I dislike about this movie is for one thing, quite frankly it isn't that funny. I don't know what children are going to be laughing at. Maybe they will find the B.O.B character funny. He is said to have no brain and can absorb everything. They may think his antics are funny. But there is not much here for adults. I also thought some of the language was out of place here dealing with marital infidelity and words such as "jerk" peppered into the screenplay. Then again, this is the same studio which gave us "Shrek" (2001) which I also thought was inappropriate for children.

The other disappointing element of the movie is the characters lack personality. Nothing really makes them memorable. The animators did not make use of the actors lending their voices by incorporating their screen persona's into their characters. There is a great cast here but for what? So Reese Witherspoon provides the voice of Susan. They can have gotten Jane Doe. What's the difference? What does Witherspoon add to the character another actress couldn't?

The adults who watch this may catch some of the pop references. A war room conference will make us think of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). George C. Scott's character seems to have been the main inspiration for the Gen. Monger character. We will also catch the references to 50s science-fiction movies like "Attack of the 50 Foot Woman", "The Blob" and "The Fly". And you might take pleasure in hearing Stephen Colbert and Amy Poehler (the voice of the space ship).

"Monsters vs Aliens" was co-directed by Rob Letterman, who directed "Shark Tale" (2004) and the upcoming version of "Gulliver's Travels" (2010) and Conrad Vernon, the man behind "Shrek 2" (2004). The script was written by Maya Forbes, who actually wrote "The Larry Sanders Show" and Wallace Wolodarsky, who has worked on "The Simpsons". So what the heck happened here? How did the film go so off course?

"Monsters vs Aliens" has a good premise but does almost nothing with it. It needed to take more time establishing the set-up and delaying the big fight. We get two big fight scenes. After the first big battle the movie runs out of interesting ideas. It also needed more character development. And for the life of me I can't figure out the moral of the story. Is it women should be independent? Don't judge a book (or monster) by its cover? Or simply monsters are better than aliens?

Dreamworks doesn't have the long list of animated classics Pixar does. I think many times Pixar films are over-hyped. But they generally tell well developed stories. Pixar movies seem a little more polished to me. Dreamworks is a little rough around the edges. It reminds me of the old days in Hollywood during the studio system and the musicals of the 1930s. MGM was much more classy and sophisticated. Warner Brothers on the other hand had a more "common folk" touch. That's how I feel about Pixar (MGM) and Dreamworks (Warner Brothers). "Monsters vs Aliens" is a movie I doubt will become an enduring family favorite. This is a giant step backwards for them. Luckily "Megamind" (2010) is a much, much better movie.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Film Review: Kung Fu Panda

"Kung Fu Panda" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Just when I said no animated film is able to impress me visually, I see "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) the Dreamworks CGI animated film, and I'm completely blown away. When will I learn?

Merely looking at "Kung Fu Panda" gives me pleasure. Even if I shut the volume off and just sat and stared at it. What beautiful colors and attention to detail. "Kung Fu Panda" doesn't know it is an animated film. It thinks it is directed by Akira Kurosawa. It believes it is an actual martial arts movie.

How fitting given this is the story of a panda, Po (Jack Black, who was also a voice in another Dreamworks animated film, "Shark Tale" (2004), which is also worth watching) who dreams of becoming a great warrior. Unfortunately Po doesn't look much like a warrior. He is slow and over weight. He lacks the discipline to be a great fighter. Instead, according to his father, Mr. Ping (James Hong) his life is all planned out for him. Mr. Ping runs a noodle shop and it is his hope Po will take over the family business. But that is not what is in Po's heart.

Word strikes this small Chinese village that a menacing fighter, Tai Lung (Ian McShane) has escaped from prison. Now two legendary masters; Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) and Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) seeks to find the Dragon Warrior, the great savior who will protect the village from Tai Lung. Shifu believes one of his five students; Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) or Viper (Lucy Liu) would make a worthy candidate. But Oogway says it is another. Through a terrific misunderstanding and sheer coincidence, Po finds he is the chosen one. And now it is up to Shifu to train him. But Shifu doubts his talents.

"Kung Fu Panda" then becomes a nice story about how even though we may not look like a hero we all have the ability inside us to do great things. We must believe in ourselves. Only then can we achieve great things. I admit this is not the most original message in the world, but, hey, it is an animated film about a panda that learns martial arts. What were you expecting? Trust me, this is more than enough to keep the kids entertained. And, I must admit keep the adults entertained too (I'm one of them).

"Kung Fu Panda" actually does something I kind of embarrassed to admit. It kept me in suspense. I was genuinely excited to see what would happen to Po and all the characters. I don't think the movie quite reaches the level of dramatic depths "Up" (2009) or "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988) does but "Kung Fu Panda" simply tells a good story. And that's nothing to sneeze at. The movie is funny, charming and on occasion enduring and tender. Maybe it could have used more sentiment but overall, the movie is quite effective.

The voice work here is very good. Jack Black is one of those actors I really don't care much for in live action films but here he won me over. His screen persona really comes through here and he seems like a natural choice to lend his voice to this character. He has some funny lines. And a couple of memorable catchphrases. I use to hear my niece say lines from the movie not knowing, until now, where she heard them.

I also like Dustin Hoffman. Though perhaps not ones first choice to play a Chinese martial arts master, Hoffman's voice does work. His character reminds me of a master Yoda type. They are about the same height too.

The film was directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson. Osborne has directed a few episodes of the animated series "SpongeBob Squarepants" and worked with "Weird" Al Yankovic. Stevenson has worked as a storyboard artist on a few animated films including "Madagascar" (2005). The script was written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. They have worked on another Dreamworks film "Monsters vs Aliens" (2009) and the series "King of the Hill".

"Kung Fu Panda" was also a critical success. It was nominated for an Oscar in the best animated feature film category but lost to Pixar's "Wall.E" (2008). It also received a Golden Globe nomination. The film grossed more than 200 million dollars and as one can expect with those kind of numbers a sequel is going to be released next year.

Given the animated war going on between Dreamworks and Pixar, most people would give the edge to Pixar. They are critical darlings. Film critics see Pixar's films as the only legitimate animated films worth celebrating. The only ones they feel comfortable placing on their "top ten" list. But "Kung Fu Panda" is something Dreamworks should be proud of. It matches Pixar's artistic level. It is dazzling to look at. A real achievement. This is one of those special animated films the entire family can enjoy (as cliche as that sounds).

Friday, November 12, 2010

Film Review: Planet 51

"Planet 51" ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Planet 51" (2009) is an interesting sci-fi family film with a twist. The world created here is not unlike our own, say 50 years ago. Doo-wop music plays on the soundtrack, girls wear mini shirts, guys drive convertibles. But, the twist is it is not planet Earth. We are on another planet occupied by green creatures. For some reason their planet is the equivalent of 1950s America. And we (the humans) are the dreaded space invaders.

I couldn't understand why this title was decided. Does it represent the year the movie takes place, 1951? Or is it a reference to Area 51, the supposed military base where alien spacecraft exist? And why are they trapped in the 50s? They also speak English and are surprised to find out people on Earth do too.

"Planet 51" has a nice look to it but I've come to notice pretty much all of today's animated movies look the same. What is so different about this movie and say "Shrek" (2001)? With the technology "Toy Story" (1995) introduced each studio has tried to duplicate the same look. So visually nothing really strikes me anymore. "Planet 51" has your standard animated look. But what separates it is the feel one gets from the time period created.

Our hero is Lem (voiced by Justin Long). Lem is a science teacher who teaches his students space is 500 miles wide. On his planet he is pretty educated. But Lem is one of the bashful, shy, guy next door types that has a crush on the neighborhood beauty, Neera (Jessica Biel). If only he can muster up enough courage to ask her out on a date.

As fate would have it, Lem never gets the opportunity to ask his dream girl out. You see, an alien spacecraft has landed on his family's yard, causing wide spread fear. Does the alien want to take over their planet? Will it turn everyone into zombies?

The "alien" is really Captain Charles T. Baker (pro wrestler Dwayne Johnson) an astronaut. Once he becomes public enemy number one Charles needs a place to hide. And his only hope is Lem and his friends like Skiff (Seann William Scott), a sci-fi movie junkie who thinks Charles wants to eat their brains for dinner.

Charles needs to find a way to sneak back onto his ship so he can head back home. But the planet's military, headed by General Grawl (Gary Oldman) have barricaded the space ship and have called for the help of Professor Kipple (John Cleese) who wants to run experiments on the alien's brain.

"Planet 51", which was directed by Jorge Blanco and co-directed by Javier Abad and Marcos Martinez, is quite political. It can be interpreted many different ways and be seen as having several different political agendas. However, the underlying theme here seems to be tolerance of the "other". We all need to learn to get along. It is a big world out there and there is room for everyone.

Since a majority of the production crew seems to be Hispanic it is not a crazy idea to assume the movie is about illegal aliens. Everyone is afraid of Charles because he is different and don't know what his intentions are but, once they realize he is friendly they learn to accept him. Isn't that what the open border crowd says? Illegal aliens aren't drug dealers or violent. They are merely here looking for jobs and a better life. They mean us no harm. They come in peace.

One of the more interesting characters is Glar (Alan Marriott). He is presented as a possible rival for Neera's affection but is also a man (?) ahead of his time. He is the cliche liberal stoner. He has developed a new concept called "protesting" which he has persuaded Neera to do in support of the alien. He also warns her "the times, they are a different", echoing the immortal words of Bob Dylan, well, almost.

Despite "Planet 51"s good nature and important social message I ultimately don't think the movie is going to please its target audience very much. There are too many references to things they don't know about. The 1950s, Area 51, Bob Dylan, the hippie movement. And worst of all, I didn't find the movie particularly funny. It doesn't have that cross-over appeal the best animated films have like "Finding Nemo" (2003), "Toy Story 2" (1999) or the recent "Megamind" (2010) where both adults and children can laugh at it. There also aren't any memorable characters. A child is going to be more interested in Buzz Lightyear and Shrek than Lem.

"Planet 51" isn't a bad movie. It has some entertaining moments. Though in the end, the kids are going to want to watch something else instead.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Film Review: Megamind

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Although I try to review as many different genres as I possibly can there are a few I have not devoted as much time to as I should. One of those genres is animated films. In fact, animation is one of my weakest points in cinema. I know about the history of live actions films; the Lumiere Brothers in Paris, the early films of Georges Melies and the importance of D.W. Griffith and how "Birth of A Nation" (1915, which I have reviewed) changed cinema. But animation. I couldn't tell you much about its history.

What was the first animated short? I have no clue. All I know is Mickey Mouse made his debut in 1928 in Walt Disney's short "Steamboat Willie". The first animated feature film was also given to us by Disney, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937) and I know "Toy Story" (1995) changed modern animation as we know it. But that about does it.

Outside of a few Pixar films and the work of Hayao Miyazaki I rarely watch animated films. It is big business though for Hollywood. There is a lot of money in making family films. And a lot of them have managed to find there way into our pop culture. Recently I saw the Broadway adaptation of "Shrek" based on the extremely popular "Shrek" series of films.

But as I've gotten older for some reason I've been watching more and more animated films. And this all leads us to "Megamind" (2010). The latest animated work from Dreamworks.

It's hard out there for a super villain, isn't it? Think about it. All day planing out ways to take over the world. Always getting beaten by the hero. Landing in jail. Where's the appreciation of all of their hard work? People always boo them, cheering on the hero. Hoping for the villain to fail. What about the villain's side of the story?

That is basically what "Megamind" is. It is the story of a super villain, the supreme evil genius Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell).

Megamind, since a child, has wondered, what is his place on this planet. What was his fate. How does he fit in? What is he good at. Like any young person (what exactly is Megamind) he flounders through life attempting to fit in. He gets picked on in school. He's different. And all the kids seem to love Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt).

Metro Man is everything Megamind isn't. He's popular, good looking, and good. He is out to save the day. To fight evil and protect the fair city of Metro City.

Their rivalry started as school children when Megamind and Metro Man attended the same school. Megamind became jealous of Metro Man's popularity and decided the one thing he was good at was being bad. But Megamind wouldn't just settle on being bad. He was going to go all the way and thus the birth of a super villain.

Walking into "Megamind" I wasn't exactly sure what to expect but for some reason I really wanted to see this. And I'm glad I did. "Megamind" is one of the most enjoyable times I had at the theatre. The film is a pure delight from beginning to end. A very pleasurable, light diversion. Judging from the audience response, it is also something the kids are going to enjoy. The kids I saw this movie with couldn't stop laughing.

But like most animated films there is a lesson to be learned here. Some of those lessons are the battle of good and evil within us. We are only as good (or bad) as the decisions we make in life. We all have the ability to do good. It is possible to change who we are. And there is a love story mixed in here which tells us, the love of a good woman can change any man or thing (I still don't know what Megamind is).

The love interest is given to us by ace reporter Roxanne Ritchi (voiced by Tina Fey). She is thought to be the love interest of Metro Man. But in actuality is the love interest of all the major male characters including her cameraman Hal (voiced by Johah Hill) who has not been so subtle in revealing his feelings towards her.

The idea of giving us a movie told from the villain's point of view apparently has already been done this year, "Despicable Me" (2010) was the animated film which beat "Megamind". I must admit I have not seen that movie so I cannot compare which film does a better job with this material. But, I'd like to believe there is room for both films to be enjoyed.

I really enjoyed the voice by Ferrell. I'm not usually a fan of his goofy live action comedies but he has some funny lines in this movie. It allows him to go into different accents and gives him a lot of room for comedy. I wouldn't be surprised if Ferrell is asked to do more of these type of films. He is a giant kid himself and I bet had a pretty good time voicing this character.

I did have some questions about Metro Man though. Without revealing too much, is he really as good as he seems? Metro Man seems a bit too arrogant in my opinion. He gloats too much about his accomplishments. Is that what a superhero is suppose to do?

Throughout this month I plan on celebrating the animated film. I'll be coming back to this genre. For now "Megamind" is well worth seeing. It is a real joy and if you have kids I'm going to bet they will enjoy it too. But, even if you don't have children, the adults and older teenagers are going to get a kick out of this. And that's the mark of a good movie.

Note: "Megamind" is being marketed as a 3-D movie. I saw the movie in standard 2-D.