Thursday, May 28, 2009

Angels and Demons

It is a nasty double-edged sword that is walked when converting a story from novel to film. On one side, you have the daunting task of fitting an enormous amount of material in a small window of time; on the other side, you have an audience full of people who have enjoyed the original novel and expect the same story in theatrical form. This can prove to be a perilous task, and director Ron Howard dropped the ball with Angels and Demons, just as he did with his earlier rendition of The Da Vinci Code. Characters were omitted, roles were swapped and stacked on top of one another, and certain parts of the storyline seemed to be simply forgotten.

Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back at it, trying to foil a secret, anti-Christian organization trying to force the heart of Christianity to its knees. As it turns out, the current pope has just died suddenly, four members of the college of cardinals, who so happen to be the favorites to take over, have been kidnapped, and a vile of highly unstable anti-matter has been stolen from CERN laboratories in Geneva and has been hidden somewhere inside the Vatican. All of these actions have been claimed by a group calling themselves The Illuminati; a secret society that has long hated the Catholic Church because of it's past persecutions of Galileo and other scientists of his time. Langdon, along with Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) who was deeply involved in the anti-matter research at CERN, has roughly five hours to not only find the explosive, but also to try and figure out an Illuminati scavenger hunt so that he can prevent the murder of the kidnapped cardinals.

Seems like a lot? Throw in the fact that although a cardinal is supposed to be murdered every hour on the hour starting at 8 pm, Langdon spends 5 minutes solving the clue leading to the next location and then the next 45-50 minutes struggling with a highly uncooperative commander of the Swiss Guard, the guardians of Vatican city, and then has to race across Rome in ten minutes. Everything happens so fast that the audience has a hard enough time trying to keep up, let alone wonder how Robert Langdon is able to figure everything out so quickly.

And yet, even though things are happening at breakneck speeds, the young Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) who is serving as pope in his wake has time to give a long-winded speech on the history of the Catholic Church and also to exhume the departed pontiff to discover evidence of poisoning. The time line just doesn't seem to mesh at a consistent rate, which is just another factor that leads to a distracting movie experience. Add on top of this a rapid explanation of not only advanced physics and chemical engineering, but also the complicated political rituals of the Catholic Church, and what you have is one shell-shocked audience, one that gives up on trying to keep up with the storyline and allows themselves to simply let the movie drag them along to the end.

One plus of the movie is that unlike its predecessor,
Angels and Demon did not provoke the ire of the Catholic Church. In fact, the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said it is a "harmless entertainment which hardly affects the genius and mystery of Christianity." And it not only portrays the current Catholic Church in a positive light, but it also provokes an interesting contrast between faith and agnosticism. Robert Langdon has a fascinating conversation in which the Camerlengo asks him if he believes in God to which Langdon replies that the existence of God is beyond his mind to determine. When asked about his heart, the professor replies that his heart is not worthy. Agnostics and believers alike can find truth in that statement.

Followers of the book will be able to enjoy the film, mainly because the novel is able to take the time and use the detail needed with the complex aspects of the story, not to mention keep the time line more consistent. And the movie is phenomenal when concerning theatrical elements. The production value is superb and Tom Hanks is an actor that really can do no wrong at this point. Overall, it is an entertaining film. But just like with
The Da Vinci Code, the storyline of Angels and Demons seemed to be nothing more than an afterthought, sloppily thrown together at the last second.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Star Trek

I seemed to have somehow bypassed the whole Star Trek phase. I have missed the original series with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (due to the fact that I wasn't born) and was too involved with cartoons and Nickelodeon to be concerned with The Next Generation. However, I have always yearned to experience Captain James T. Kirk yell, "Beam me up, Scotty!" and see Spock be the unemotional voice of reason in times of peril. Director J.J. Abrams must have read my mind, along with the minds of other wanna-be and current trekkies alike and came up with a brand new rendition of the U.S.S. Enterprise and its crew.

It doesn't take a die-hard fan to know that the
Star Trek franchise is one that has been recycled over and over, which is something that concerned me with the new remake. Would this movie be able to break new ground with these familiar characters, or would it be nothing more than a nostalgic flashback that simply regurgitated old material? The surprising result was a combination of the two. Familiar elements were used, but this was done so in a way that seemed new and invigorating.

The film takes its audience back to before James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) even set foot on the U.S.S. Enterprise, utilizing all of the same characters from the original series, only at a much earlier time in their lives. The crew responds to a distress call and finds themselves up against time-traveling Romulans, led by their captain Nero (Eric Bana). The inclusion of the time travel element in film always raises a red flag because so much can go wrong and make everything a chaotic mess. However, the concept works perfectly and helps to create fun aspects of the movie, such as the young Spock (Zachary Quinto) meeting his future self, played by none other than Leonard Nimoy himself.

The production value was absolutely amazing and was able to make the audience forget that this movie is based on defying reality. Black holes are not gateways to other dimensions and times. The accuracy of warp speed is obviously debatable. How is it possible that Scotty (Simon Pegg) can transport three different people from two separate places to one location and yet Kirk and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) are forced to parachute onto the Romulan drill in order to destroy it? But the fun and excitement comes from suspending that disbelief and embracing the fiction of the sci-fi genre. And of course, having Dr. Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) shouting, "Dammit man, I'm a doctor, not a physicist!" makes things enjoyable as well. The rest of the crew was filled out perfectly, with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) as the communications expert and Spock's secret love, and Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) ironically heading up the communications of the ship with his extremely thick Russian accent.

The thing that I was excited for the most was the doors that were opened for the franchise. This movie was a simple re-energized version of the original series, full of catch phrases and familiarities. But now that the new, younger characters have been established, perhaps the next movie will test the personalities of the crew instead of simply re-establishing them. Regardless, the
Star Trek remake was a fun and exciting experience with an excellent cast that would entertain the entire spectrum of Star Trek fans.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I Love You, Man

Heading into my umpteenth Judd Apatowesque film, I assumed that I knew what to expect: a fun, lighthearted story that hits a major obstacle that leaves the main character brokenhearted, only for everything to be conveniently fixed 15 minutes before the end of the show. Oh, and throw in as much raunchy and crude material as possible. And yes, these movies are starting to lose their appeal. But every time a new one appears, I feel myself being inexplicably drawn to the theater.

Fortunately, I Love You, Man was a little more lighthearted and not as crude, making it more enjoyable than a bunch of sex-innuendo. Friendless Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is pressed hard by his wife-to-be to find a 'BFF' to serve as his best man. However, Klaven's complete social ineptness makes every man-date a complete disaster, including a drinking game gone completely wrong. But after meeting Sydney Fife (Jason Segal), things seem to take a turn for the best. Several terrible nickname attempts and Rush jam sessions later, Klaven seems to have found his best man. But when Klaven's fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones) feels neglected from all the time the two guys spend together, it becomes a choice between two different partnerships. Moviegoers shouldn't fret, however, because it's quite obvious where the plot is going.

Rudd and Segal work terrific together. Despite a cookie cutter storyline, these two are so talented that they are able to remain hilarious and human at the same time. Segal seems to brighten up the screen no matter what he does. His portrayal of Sydney Fife depicts everything a guy would love to have in a friend, if not themselves. Rudd uses impeccable timing to make himself incredibly awkward, much to the delight of the audience. The best moments revolve around him trying unbelievably hard to appear loose and casual. Adding in a brilliant supporting cast doesn't hurt either. J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin, and Andy Samberg make up Klaven's family and Jon Favreau and Jamie Pressly serve as a scene stealing couple from hell.

Overall, this movie is simply funny, regardless of the predictable plot line. Yes, it does have its share of stupid gross-out jokes, which is a staple of any movie in this genre. But more importantly, the movie produces comedy in a wholesome way, in its observations, dialogue and physical behavior. Rudd and Segal were able to make their audience laugh from beginning to end, which is what comedies are for. It is the bromance to end all bromances. As Klaven said of having Fife as his best friend, "it's sweet, sweet hanging." The same goes for this movie.

Monday, March 9, 2009


As I watched the movie Taken, I found myself trying to shake the overwhelming sense of déjá vu. How many times have we seen a former CIA operative single-handedly take down a large and extremely immoral organization simply by brute force. And all along the way, the audience is forced to watch extremely unbelievable feats that even the most skilled agents could not pull off and then is expected to accept them as plausible.

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is at odds when his daughter pleads to for his permission for a European vacation with her good friend. In a "sort of retirement" Mills is trying to reconnect with his 17 year old daughter and it seems that signing off on this trip would be the best place to start. But he doubts this decision. After all that he has seen during his time spent in Afghanistan (and apparently everywhere else), Mills doesn't believe that a trip like this would be safe for two young girls. Of course, he is right and the two girls manage to get themselves kidnapped within the first several hours of their trip. Mills' daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) manages to get one call off to her father before she is taken away. From this garbled conversation, which Mills recorded and sent to one of his CIA buddies, not only was it "possible" to determine the dialect of the kidnappers, but also the name of the head kidnapper, what they are going to do with the girls after the kidnapping, and how long before these girls will never be found again. Yawn.

After making it over to France, Mills is able to pick up on the trail of the kidnappers, using Sherlockesque intellect, and kill several of them at a time á la Jason Bourne. If only real life CIA agents had these skills, we would never have to worry about finding a missing terrorist again. However, despite the ridiculousness of the film itself, it actually is a very well made ridiculous film. Liam Neeson is able to emit an anger so focused that I found myself worried for whoever found themselves in his path. And every action scene was so fast paced that I found myself on the edge of my seat, excited for what was going to happen next, even though I realized later that I already knew.

Absurd storyline aside, Liam Neeson's performance is what makes this movie, which is something that this skilled actor is able to do - bringing credibility to where you least expect it. Excluding Neeson, however, and I found myself watching a Bourne-less Jason Bourne action flick, or perhaps the latest Jason Stathem movie in which the lead character has only 24 hours to live unless he finds the villains who stole his heart. If only I had realized the irony of the
Crank 2 preview that played before my feature film.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Wrestler

The critics of wrestling write off the profession, claiming that it is fake and scripted and therefore doesn't have any merit whatsoever. And while it is true that professional wrestling matches are scripted, this fact does not mask the toll that the profession takes on those that partake, both physically and mentally.

The Wrestler tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) 20 years after his glory days, hanging on to what used to be with his battered hands and the use of a hypodermic needle. Outside the ring, his only possessions are a trailer home he can barely afford, a fledgling romance with a stripper (Marissa Tomei), and a failing relationship with his daughter that he cannot mend. However, when the shot of a comeback comes along, hope glimmers in his personal life as well.

Rourke is able to, through his moving, 'Contender'-like performance, capture the humanity and the anguish of The Ram and magically captivate his audience. Right beside him, Tomei plays the exact same character in a different costume and is able to match Rourke step for step in her own stunning performance. Both are dealing with aging within their profession, both are dealing with their own separate child issues, and both are looking for companionship. It is amazing to see these two on screen with one another.

Adding to the overall experience is the fabulous directing by Darren Aronofsky. The constant over-the-shoulder shots of The Ram bring to mind the wrestler's walk from the dressing to the ring to face his next battle. However, these walks aren't to the ring, but rather to another area of Robinson's post-wrestling life where he must face a new battle, whether that be starting a new job as a deli clerk or trying to get let into his trailer after being locked out for not paying his rent on time. Aronofsky's directing, teamed with Rourke's acting, is able to capture the tormenting struggle of adjusting to a new life outside the ring.

This is definitely not your typical "feel-good" film. The potential for happy endings is rare to find and just when you think that things are going to end up all right, the tide changes just as fast as it does in the ring. Sadness and anguish dominate this movie, but they do so in a way that simply grabs hold on an audience and doesn't let go. I cared for The Ram as much as have with any other character and
The Wrestler, with all of its individual elements, is simply amazing in telling his touching tale of grief, heartache, and loneliness.

Being that the Academy Awards are over, my film hindsight is perfect. And even though I have yet to see
Milk, and that Sean Penn probably did do a phenomenal job to earn him the Oscar, The Wrestler deserved to be nominated for best picture, and the night should have belonged to Mickey Rourke. His performance, along with that of Marissa Tomei, was absolutely breathtaking in a film that is arguably the best of 2008.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Liveblogging the 2009 Oscars

Here is my first attempt at liveblogging. Hopefully everything goes smoothly. If you wish, submit comments and join in with the liveblogging. And here is my NY Times Oscar ballot.

Gran Torino

Gran Torino tells the story of an aging Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) who is forced to confront his tainted past after the death of his wife and the influx of the Hmong community into his neighborhood. Kowalski is a mean, Pabst Blue Ribbon chugging racist who wants nothing to do with his new neighbors, or anyone else for that matter. It's obvious that Kowalski carries around a tremendous amount of emotional baggage, and it appears that repressing those thoughts is a full time job.

Kowalski slings racial slurs so often that the cultural shock wears off within the first half hour of the movie, making these offensive remarks more and more comical as the film progresses. But as he becomes more and more involved with the neighboring Hmong family, the more he realizes that he has more in common with the "gooks" than with his own remaining family. It is for this reason why he helps the shy and quiet neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) to get a job and help him to "become a man." Or why he rescues Thao's older sister (Ahney Her) from a harassing gang of black thugs. But even as he shows his softer side, Walt maintains his reputation by calling his friends "zipper head" and "dragon lady." But these slurs have nearly evolved into simple terms of endearment.

Gran Torino tells the story of the opening of minds to the different people around you. But because you see it through the eyes of a once cantankerous old man, the story is lifted to a whole new level. Walt does not make excuses for the way he views different races and he refers to them through the use of slurs throughout the entirety of the film. But because he doesn't apologize for who he is and of the continued usage of racial insults, when he does come to the realization of his common humanity with his neighbors, it makes it seem real and not something scripted to leave the audience with a sappy feel-good story.

Eastwood shows off his versatility once again, directing himself in his own movie, and doing one hell of a job. He even receives a singing credit for the song that plays during the end credits and it is truly a real shame that this movie didn't receive any attention from the Academy. Regardless, through his traditional toughness, Clint is able to touch the heart of his audience with a fabulous film, one racial slur at a time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Destiny and fate are themes that are commonly used throughout many films from every genre. But it can be argued that these films have never captivated an audience as much as this film is able to.

Told in a series of flashbacks, Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, an orphan boy who grew up in the slums of India with his brother. The movie opens with Jamal being interrogated after being accused of cheating on the Indian version of the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" It seems that it is hard to believe that a boy from the slums could not make it all the way to the final question on his knowledge alone. But Malik insists that he knew all the answers and by watching his recorded performance, explains how each question he received was specifically tied to a memory from his turmoil filled childhood.

Throughout these flashbacks, there is a juxtaposition between the glitz and glamour of the game show and the world that Jamal grew up in, and some of the horrific things that a third world orphan may encounter. The horrific shots of an impoverished India border on unbelievable, with kids living in garbage dumps and outhouses that are simply a hole that opens up into the marsh below. Contrasted against the flashy game show set makes these images even more unreal. But from these slums rises a hero that anyone can cheer for. Using only his wits, Jamal is able to survive trial after trial to find himself not only staring a fortune in the face, but the love of his life as well. Not bad for someone who was probably expected never to make it out of the slums in the first place.

Every aspect of this film is tremendous, from the brilliant acting of young Dev Patel and the rest of the cast, to the seamless editing of a beautiful story. And while director Danny Boyle flirts with the line of pushing the envelope too far in order to depict the harsh realities of a chai wallah slumdog, it does not take away from this fantastic rags-to-riches love story. In short, it is a phenomenal film that lives up to all of its hype, and then surprises its audience by surpassing it ten-fold. And come Oscar night,
Slumdog will not stop at meeting, and exceeding, everyone's expectations.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a movie that, through its wonderfully beautiful storytelling, left me more than slightly confused. It tells the story of a man (Brad Pitt) who was born as an 80 year old and physically aged backwards. He has the unfortunate task of watching all those around him who resemble him physically whither and die while he does just the opposite. And while it was clear that the overall theme was to show that there are certain things that can simply transcend time and to live life to the fullest, I couldn't help but be overcome with an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness.

The short story, originally written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was intended to be a comic farce. Instead, it was presented as a romantic fantasy, which was where the confusion started. As a 70-something old man, Button falls in love with a beautiful little girl, Daisy, who matches his age mentally. As time progress, Benjamin gets younger and Daisy gets older and, in doing so, their paths cross several times. It isn't until Daisy reaches adulthood (Cate Blanchett) that this love is acted upon. Being a hopeless romantic, I first viewed this as the high point of the entire movie. But during the lovemaking scene, I couldn't help but wonder if the two were thinking of each other as when they first met, as a young girl and an old man. The thought was a little unsettling, to say the least.

The longer
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button went on, the more I started to realize that while trying to create a sense of timeless romance, the film gave me nothing but sadness. Every relationship that Button has is fleeting and futile, due to his circumstances. All around him, his loved ones are passing away and he is forced to watch not only this, but also see himself as seemingly exempt from this process. And it is this that makes the romance between Button and Daisy extremely hard to believe.

This movie will undoubtedly get Oscar attention. The film itself is well made and the acting, along with Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, and Elias Koteas, is simply superb and it wouldn't be surprising if Brad Pitt walked away with the best actor. But it was the storytelling that helped make this film. The screenplay shares the same author with
Forrest Gump in Eric Roth and it is evident that he uses similar outlines. But even good storytelling couldn't mask the feeling of isolation that the movie left as it finished, making this a film that is incredibly easy to admire, but difficult to love. But maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


I cannot recall a movie that centered around one simple emotion and yet was able to address so many different controversial topics and do so with amazing success. Set in 1964, when there was much confusion and hesitation with the changing times, Doubt addresses, but never resolves, issues of race, authority, religion, and morality.

St. Nicolas is a Catholic school in the Bronx and is headed by Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who is, from my Lutheran point of view, the typical Catholic nun. Strict, hard to please, and quick to discipline, nothing stands in her way. Until the appointment of the new priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, with his unorthodox approach to Catholicism, has found himself in an undeclared war with the strict Sister. However due to Catholic hierarchy, she finds herself powerless to do anything.

Father Flynn, with his cigarette smoking, long fingernails, and fondness for sugar, is set against the nuns, especially Sister Aloysius, who seems hell bent on removing any trace of the modern world from her school, including ballpoint pens, hair barrettes, and "Frosty the Snowman," claiming it is merely a song celebrating witchcraft. Similarity, the innocent Sister James (Amy Adams), who finds herself under the command of Aloysius, displays a knowledge of the outside world as it is observed through her bedroom window.

The central situation revolves around one particular student at the school, who happens to be the only African-American pupil in enrollment by the name of Donald Miller (Joseph Foster III). Father Flynn takes an apparent interest in the boy, which is assumed to be simply because of his isolated and unique situation. However, when Sister James notices that Flynn summons the boy to the rectory alone. This is deemed inappropriate and upon the mentioning of this event to the principal, Aloysius decides that now is the time to take action against this progressive cancer that has taken hold of her school.

However, despite the introduction of this sketchy situation, the movie isn't about the possible sexual abuse of a student. Rather, it is about the title word,
Doubt, in a world of certainty. Oblivious to the fact that she has no solid evidence to support her claim, Aloysius is certain that Flynn is guilty. So certain, in fact, that she ignores the alibi of the priest, as well as the changing of opinion of Sister James in believing that she was mistaken in her suspicions. Flynn, on the other hand, knows that a scandal will tarnish him for life and is just as determined to prove his innocence.

Thrown into the mix is Donald's mother (Viola Davis), who is confronted with the situation during a private meeting with Aloysius. However, her biggest fear is that her son will be expelled, not the other events that Aloysius is certain of. What is remarkable is that in this short 10-minute scene, Davis is able to stand toe to toe with one of the greatest actresses of this generation and it is this confrontation that generates terrifying power.

Doubt. Not only the title of the opening sermon in the film, as well as the title of the film itself, but it is also the basis of the entire movie. During the 1960's, doubt was entering the church, as well as the United States, especially after the assassination of President Kennedy. This doubt in the church is what fueled the confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius, between old and new, traditional and progressive, certainty and dubiousness. And when all is said and done, and the audience is still left doubting, there isn't a feeling of annoyance from being deprived of a concrete ending. Rather, one is left to sit in quiet contemplation, trying to remove all doubt for themselves.