Monday, June 30, 2008


Written by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan
Directed by Timur Bekmanbetov
Starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Common and Morgan Freeman

Wesley Gibson: I’m finding it hard to care about anything these days. In fact, the only thing I care about is the fact that I can’t seem to care about anything.

I don’t usually say things like this but there’s just something about WANTED that brings out the boy in me so you’ll just have to indulge me. WANTED is awesome! Seriously. Awesome. Well, it’s awesome and also oddly preachy and condescending out of nowhere. And I guess if I’m being completely honest, it is also ludicrous. I mean, essentially, you’ve got this guy, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) and, unbeknownst to him, he is the son of one of the world’s greatest assassins. Apparently, the ability to hit a target in the most impossible of scenarios is passed on from one generation to the next. (See, I always thought it skipped a generation but I’m hardly an expert on the subject.) Meanwhile, what’s he doing with this gift? Nothing. He is sitting around, wasting his time as a number cruncher in a cramped little box, I mean, cubicle, while letting his supposed best bud get away with nailing his girl on the side. (I apologize if that was offensive to any female readers but WANTED really got my testosterone pumping.) Frankly, I don’t know how this wussy little pushover even managed to get a girlfriend but he can also shoot the wings off flies so his having a girl is pretty believable by comparison. By the way, shooting the wings off flies … awesome!

Really, what is the more ludicrous scenario here? Is it any more unbelievable that there is a thousand year old group of assassins out there who kill bad guys before they fulfill their bad guy destinies than the reality that a vast majority of humanity gives the bulk of their lives away to the bad guys every day, contributing to their own slow deaths? When you think about how many of us are giving up our dreams, our hopes and our control over our own lives, it’s a wonder more of us don’t get up and become killing machines. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I work in one of these lovely boxes. I swear, every day I’m there, it’s getting a little smaller. So yeah, my friends had to hold me down to stop me from standing and cheering loudly when Gibson grows a pair and tells his boss to stick it before slamming his ergonomic keyboard into his best friend’s face. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t want to tell everyone I work with (who hopefully never read my work) exactly what I think of them before breaking out into a musical number with full choreography announcing my departure.

Uh, sorry, my testosterone must have dipped there for a second. No problem though. Another screening of WANTED will fix that. Contemporary visual innovator, Timur Bekmambetov, crams so much manliness into his first Hollywood feature that men everywhere who see it will inevitably walk out with their hands firmly grabbing their crotches. They may even spit. Who knows? You’ve got colliding car chases, furious fistfights, enormous explosions and Angelina Jolie. The best part about all of this is that Bekmambetov ropes it all together with unpredictable ferocity. Sure there are unavoidable MATRIX inspired action scenes but once those are out of the way, the action always feels fresh and excitingly innovative. And while the stunts and scenarios are often shockingly brash, Jolie, as Gibson’s assassin mentor, is controlled and calculated, like a mechanical goddess. She appears to Gibson when he looks away for a second and for a while, it seems like he might be imagining her as a way out of his doldrums. Once she gets a few good punches in on him during training though, it becomes clear that she is definitely there to wake him up but his scars are most certainly not imagined.

WANTED is about wanting something from life, from yourself. It is about not giving in to the conformist existence so many of us fall into and choosing to walk a different path, a more exciting path. Now I don’t think it’s encouraging everyone to leave their desk jobs and kill people professionally. That has to run in your family, remember? There is no mistake though that Bekmambetov wants to wake you up. In fact, he gets a little aggressive on the subject in the film’s final scenes. This is the only thing that irked me about the entire experience. I had already had a blast the whole time that the energy itself was enough to get my blood boiling over the monotony of my weekday life. Up until then, it seemed as though he had sympathy for Gibson and the millions of us out there just like Gibson. But then, all of a sudden, he was pointing the finger directly at me and calling me a loser to my face. Still, maybe getting everyone angry is the only way to get anyone to actually do something about it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Written and Directed by Andrew Stanton
Voices by Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver
Also featuring Fred Willard

Advertisement Announcer: Too much garbage in your face? There’s plenty of space out in space.

To be animated can mean a number of things. While it obviously refers to the artistic process in which still images are strewn together in sequences to appear as though they are moving, it can also mean to bring someone or something to life. Pixar Animation Studios are masters of both of these animated meanings and their genius lies in their seemingly effortless ability to accomplish both of these feats simultaneously. In the studio’s history, they have managed to make toys playful when no one else was looking, the plight of a bunch of ants seem monumental and rats in the kitchen somehow not only normal but entirely justifiable. Despite all of these milestones, Pixar has outdone themselves with their ninth feature, WALL•E. It might be unfair to suggest that no other company could accomplish this but there is certainly no other company that could have done as good a job. WALL•E is short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class and the character himself is a collapsible box with curiously wide eyes that gets around on tank treads and solar power. He may be made up of nothing but rusting metal and parts that need frequent replacing but he is also the most endearing, romantic dreamer that Pixar has ever crafted. You just want to squeeze the little guy. Trust me; the tetanus shot you’d need after that would be totally worth it.

WALL•E takes place about 700 or so years from now. Taking an abnormally critical stance on humanity’s penchant to waste without fear of consequence, three-time Pixar director, Andrew Stanton (A BUG’S LIFE, FINDING NEMO), paints the future earth as being uninhabitable. It seems that somewhere around the year 2100, there will be so much garbage on the planet that not only will we need to stack it as high as the highest skyscrapers but we will also need to vacate the planet until the mess is brought under control. Enter WALL•E. Hundreds of similar units will work over the next six or seven centuries on a job that was only meant to last five years. The humans who once fled have inevitably all passed on but their future generations continue to float through space on giant cruise ships, oblivious to their history and unaware of their present selves. After so much time has passed, humanity has succumbed to its laziest impulses. We no longer require the need to think for ourselves when we have a multi-conglomerate doing it for us or the need to walk from here to there when we have a “hoverchair” to bypass this menial task. Earth is practically a forgotten memory for all but it is still there. Despite being covered in smog and dust and despite also a failed mission to clean up the mess, one WALL•E unit remains to keep the pursuit of love, happiness and hope alive.

WALL•E is an unfortunate loner and even though his closest companion is loyal cockroach, he never loses faith. He presses on every day in his near impossible mission to make earth inhabitable again without discouragement and with a nagging sensation that there is more to life than this. Considering he isn’t actually alive, that’s pretty impressive. When another robot, EVE, arrives on earth to search for signs of sustainable life, WALL•E finally gets the chance to see and understand what that greater meaning might be. Aside from being an eco-friendly science fiction piece, WALL•E is also a moving romance that is unexpected and unmatched by most recent films featuring actual human beings. When WALL•E first sees EVE, he knows it is love at first sight. He proceeds to follow her around everywhere she goes, shyly inching closer towards her whenever he feels the moment might be right. He is like a teenager in love for the first time. He doesn’t know how to make his move, just that he always wants to be around her. There is no desperation born out of ages of loneliness, just a certainty in what is in the air. The courtship of WALL•E and EVE is so innocent and simple that it seems almost silly that we as humans should have such trouble getting it right.

WALL•E’s ride is pretty smooth, full of laughs, touching moments and inspired cinematography (under the meticulous guidance of contemporary visionary, Roger Deakins) but all of this is expected from the Pixar peeps. There is a misguided attempt to incorporate live-action into the mix that adds a slight level of confusion but can do nothing to take away from the deeply satisfying whole. It is quite an extensive journey and it rests on the shoulders of one little waste management robot. WALL•E is unforgettable. His curiosity is matched only by his appreciation for everything in life that humanity has left behind. He may be goofy and clumsy but he is always open to possibility and hope. He is more alive than I am most of the time and the bewilderment and awe that fill his optical devices opened my eyes to things I had stopped seeing altogether. How can so much yearning and wonder come from one little robot, let alone one that is not actually made of real metal but rather drawn that way? WALL•E is simply a marvel to behold and the pinnacle of Pixar’s progressive mission to redefine what it means to animate.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember
Directed by Peter Segal
Starring Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin and Terrence Stamp

Maxwell Smart: Yes, they are bad guys but that is what they do, not who they are.

Maxwell Smart is the kind of guy who can see the big picture. His mammoth 600+ page reports demonstrate his great attention to detail; the post-it notes he leaves for himself throughout his home show his dedication to living an orderly existence; and though he has little skill in social scenarios, his big heart gives him solid insight into where those around him are coming from. Max, as he is known to most, is also ambitious. In the last few years, he has gone from dramatically overweight fact checker to fit potential secret agent at supposedly defunct undercover spy agency, CONTROL. Yet still, he carries himself as though he were invisible. All of this makes Steve Carrell the perfect man to play the television icon in the first film incarnation of GET SMART. His humble likeability is always endearing and his dry delivery is as sharp as ever but even his dumbfounded obliviousness is not enough to save GET SMART from its trite pandering to the masses.

Essentially, GET SMART could have been a lot smarter. It also could have used a little more effort and originality. The irony of the Maxwell Smart character is that he really is a bright guy. He is both book smart and emotionally intelligent. He possesses attributes that give him the potential to be an amazing agent but his smarts rarely make it past his clumsy, awkward exterior, leaving the impression on most around him that he is basically useless. And though parts of this duality are present in Carrell’s performance, veteran television writing team, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, rely on some very simple conventions to guarantee laughs. We’ve got jokes about carb consumption and presidents who read to schoolchildren when there are more important matters to attend to. There are intimidating giants that are really sensitive souls and overweight women who show off the dance moves they never get to seeing as how no one ever asks them to dance. As if that weren’t enough fuel for formulaic fun, we’ve even got The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) walking into walls while flashing us his toothy greatness.

As simple as the whole story is, director Peter Segal puts so little effort into telling it that it’s often easy to forget that a story is actually happening. Pieced together, it goes a little something like CONTROL has been compromised and brand new agent, Max and his freshly reconstructed partner, Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), must infiltrate arch nemesis bad guy group, KAOS, as they are the only agents left who could do so without being recognized. KAOS intends to blow up the world if they don’t get an obscene amount of money and CONTROL seems to be the only group that believes they exist. So Max and 99 gallivant through Moscow to ensure the world remains safely intact. Something funny and exciting happens to them over here and then something more or less amusing happens to them over there. Still, though the action does not always tie together well enough to avoid disorientation, Carrell and Hathaway’s scenes are always welcome considering their quick and infectious chemistry. It is exciting to see Hathaway keep up with Carrell and the film moves so much faster when they’re on screen together compared with when Segal subjects us to a handful of supporting players (excluding Johnson and Alan Arkin, who is delightful as the chief) whose scenes stall the pace and kill the laughs.

When Carrell is awkward and uncomfortable, the results are hilarious. When the movie he’s in tries to mirror that same delicately achieved vibe, it is just sloppy and unwieldy. Sadly, he ends up in these movies far more often than he should. GET SMART comes together entirely on Carrell’s shoulders with no help whatsoever from the people who are supposed to be steering the whole thing. And while he keeps the laughs coming as hard as he can, even Steve can only do so much. In order for GET SMART to have filled out the spots Carrell couldn’t reach, it should have heeded the advice that was right there all along in the title itself.


Written by Aaron Abrams and Martin Guero
Directed by Martin Guero
Starring Aaron Abrams, Kristen Booth, Carly Pope, Josh Cooke and Sonja Bennett

Kris: Sometimes it’s something; sometimes it’s meaningful. Sometimes it’s caressing and fingers intertwined, whispering little secrets in ears. But sometimes a fuck is just a fuck.

Director Martin Guero knows that the title of his first film, YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING, is brash enough to grab anyone’s attention. It could be misconstrued as a title meant to entice lonely, older men to weekend matinees but in an effort to dissuade these “gentlemen”, I will tell you the people in question here aren’t that young. These particular people are all in their mid to late 20’s, all relatively white and all essentially straight. This does not bode well for this self-professed modern exploration of what it means to be a player in their prime in today’s supposedly kinky sexual playing field. Still, you can feel Guero smiling from behind the camera, content with himself for telling it like it is. Only Guero’s idea of today’s sexual experience is so steeped in convention that it is anything but provocative.

To make his film even less reverent, Guero divides his young people into perfectly constructed boxes. These particular groupings are so well established in the public’s vernacular that Guero doesn’t need to spend any time establishing any actual history in his characters. Who has time for the human touch though when you’re talking about humans touching? A couple, two friends, two exes, two people on their first date and two roommates all find themselves in the throws of passion, or at least the throws of pastime, on one very busy night in one undisclosed city. Now, I’m warning you. The following may be too shocking to handle. The couple, well they have gotten bored with their sex life and now barely have any sex at all. The people on their first date are saying a bunch of things just to get into each other’s pants. Even the friends are hesitant that if they were to have sex, it might somehow change the friendship they have relied on platonically for years. By reducing his characters to such tired clichés, Guero has crafted a hollow exploration of caricature rather than an actual character study.

Who knew that sex could have such a giant impact on people and relationships? Oh, right, everyone knew that already. Sex is the ultimate complicating factor and the definitive line that only occasionally warrants crossing. Should friends cross it? Should exes? How about strangers? No matter who you are, both alone and together, before you cross it, you will be changed once you do, no matter how many lies you tell yourself to con your mind into making a supposedly sound decision. You take that step, leave the planet for a while if you’re lucky and land on your feet if you’re even luckier still, a changed person for having taken the risk. Simply put, sex is big. YOUNG PEOPLE FUCKING however, is nowhere near as monumental as that and you’ll forget it by the time the condom is off.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo

Elliot Moore: Plastic. I’m talking to a plastic plant. I’m still doing it.

Something the supposed contemporary auteur, M. Night Shyamalan, has never been quite good at is getting directly to the point. He usually likes to keep us guessing the whole way through and by the time the expected twist tries to catch us off guard, we are either completely floored or entirely annoyed. In his latest offering, THE HAPPENING, he finally learns how to get straight to the punch but that, as it turns out, is just as problematic as keeping us in suspense. Shyamalan seems as if he has been somewhat humbled by his recent difficulties finding an audience but from the moment his name appears ominously in the credits as the man who does everything (writing, producing and directing), his presence looms over the premise with an air of obnoxious knowing.

THE HAPPENING first hits Central Park and we are given no time to breathe before the scenario turns apocalyptic. People stop in their tracks, repeat random phrases and find interesting or perhaps just easily accessible manners in which to kill themselves. No one knows what’s happening, except for Shyamalan, who appears to be reveling in the delirium from the rustling trees above. The affliction spreads and the mystery is at first certainly engrossing. Whatever intensity the scenario creates though is unnervingly undone by the cast’s delightfully laughable attempt at keeping it classical. Mark Wahlberg as enthusiastic hopeful, Elliot Moore, leads his wife and best friend (Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo) toward safety, despite having no idea where that is. His naïve optimism is cute when it should be compelling but he can hardly be blamed for what is clearly Shyamalan’s overall approach.

The classical style and contemporary reality ultimately clash and it becomes clear that Shyamalan’s biggest obstacle is Shyamalan himself. His bigger ideas are solid but muddled by the little ideas he throws in to keep things interesting. Naturally, the tragic events are initially assessed to be terrorist attacks. Shyamalan paints America as a panic stricken populace that know who to blame when they cannot explain what is happening. They don’t even question the possibility of it being a more organic threat until too much damage has been done. This is in itself heavy enough to sustain intrigue while making smooth criticism of the American government as shepherd and its people as sheep, but when you meet the people he is criticizing, they are so futile, prattling on when they should be in crisis mode, you wish they would just breathe in the bloody toxins already and die. The promise of a more satisfying film always seems just out of reach and a little help behind the scenes, primarily in the writing department, would help Shyamalan find the focus he so desperately needs.

THE HAPPENING is passably suspenseful, occasionally intriguing but mostly ineffective. It feels contrived, as though Shyamalan were trying too hard to win back our graces, doing so in such a false fashion. Perched comfortably at his pulpit, he preaches about protecting the environment but without ever communicating any actual passion for it. Consequently, the pet cause feels more functional than it does pertinent. And all the while, you can feel him looking down at you, disappointed that we don’t get his genius when what he really should be doing is looking inward to see that perhaps he is just not communicating as clearly as he could. Then he might be able to see that we want to love him; he’s just making it too hard to do so.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Written by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger
Directed by Mark Osborne & John Stevenson
Voices by Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu and David Cross

Shifu: We don’t wash our pits in the sacred pool of tears.

Fortune cookie wisdom is imparted throughout the colorful KUNG FU PANDA. Some of it makes no sense out of context but it all amounts to some very simple, very basic advice about believing in the warrior within. “There are no accidents,” claims the coolest of Zen master turtles after a panda drops from the sky at just the right moment to be deemed the next Dragon Warrior. There are especially no accidents when no risk is taken. That panda is of course the panda from the title and from the moment this lazy emotional eater is “discovered” as the warrior that will go on to save the kingdom, you know exactly how the entire thing will play out. Po (voiced by an increasingly subtle Jack Black) will drown in doubt while he trains for something he doesn’t believe himself capable of; the other animals will badger him into giving up; but eventually, he will find his inner kung fu master and save the day. Subsequently and expectedly, reviewers will call it out for its lack of originality. That’s how it goes.

So it isn’t so original. No big deal. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in style and humour. Relatively new directors, Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have created a multihued ancient China that moves with stealth precision between enchantment and explosive energy. Its inhabitants are geese and rabbits that live their lives in the shadow of lore. As long as all is peaceful, then they can blissfully enjoy their noodle soups in the town square and if anything should happen to collapse that peace, then they have the kung fu specialized Furious Five – a tiger, a monkey, a crane, a snake and oddly enough, a mantis – to protect them from whatever evil lurks. No one member of the community has more faith in these five than Po. His idolatry of these heroes extends to numerous posters on his walls and action figures by his bed. Black plays Po as the hardcore geek that hides his enthusiasm and secret desire to be a part of it all in fear of being ridiculed for wanting the impossible. Po is that unfortunate fat kid from school that wants to hang with all the cool kids, hates that he’s stuck working at the local fast food joint after school and knows that there’s nothing he can do about it. Wait; was I that kid? Is that why I love him?

KUNG FU PANDA is overloaded with voice talent. Any scene with Po is usually hilarious as I guess Black knows what it’s like to be the unlikely guy hanging with the in crowd. However, when he isn’t in the picture, the delivery from the majority of the A-list cast is often bland and purely functional. Po, and his kung fu trainer, Shifu (a frustrated and disgruntled, yet still minutely optimistic Dustin Hoffman) trade quips with fervor and weight and make for much giddiness. The Furious Five, not so much. Considering they’re voiced by actors as varied as Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and Seth Rogen, you would think they would provide for plenty of conflicting antics but they end up reduced to nothing more than another obstacle for Po to overcome. I’m no kung fu expert but I’m pretty sure gossiping and bad mouthing members of the team when they aren’t there (and sometimes even when they’re right in front of them) is not part of the package. Our heroes aren’t always what we hope they will be when we finally find ourselves face to face with them but these five could have certainly been truer to their furious form if some element of development had been given to them.

Still, despite its unevenness and seemingly simple approach, KUNG FU PANDA is great wisdom wrapped in even greater fun and often breathtaking animation. Sometimes the simplest of lessons are the ones that are hardest to learn. (Now I’m a fortune cookie.) Perhaps the subtlest lesson the film passes on is to relinquish your control over the destiny of your own life. Po never thought he would find himself surrounded by his heroes, getting the chance to realize his life long dream of becoming a kung fu master but here he is suddenly. Master Shifu never thought he would be training such a useless lump but here his is as well. It is only when each character let go of their egos and expectations that they saw how to make their situation work. Shedding your own expectation for KUNG FU PANDA to be something more than what it really is will allow for the good times intended to be had and an unexpected tranquility to seep into your mind.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Written by Martin Crimp & Francois Ozon
Directed by Francois Ozon
Starring Romola Garai, Sam Neill, Lucy Russell, Michael Fassbender

Angel Deverell: I quite like Shakespeare except when he's trying to be funny.

A group of girls march in succession toward their daily lesson, both their step and their outfits similar in fashion, until one girl breaks from the mold and finds herself at the gates of paradise, forced to gaze from afar. The girl is Angel, the title character from French director, Francois Ozon’s first venture into English-language film. Don’t let the name fool you though; there is nothing remotely angelic about her. She is spoiled, loud and delusional – everything you want in a heroine you’re supposed to root for and just the kind of person you want to see get everything they desire. Right?

Angel is a writer, not a very good writer but people love her. She refuses to live in the real world in favor of the perfect illusion she believes she has crafted for herself. It all raises many questions about success and talent, sanity and vanity, but no matter how wickedly she is played by Romola Garai, the woman is too wretched to inspire sympathy in the viewer and Ozon does nothing to help.

Ozon’s past efforts range in form from ridiculous and satirical to contemplative and tragic. His transition into the realm of period drama is daring considering the smaller size of his previous works but he juggles the elements well. In fact, he balances back and forth between the elaborate costumes, grandiose sets and exaggerated performances so well that it all feels rather plain. Considering how allergic Angel was to the mundane, I don’t think she would have been very pleased with this. And trust me, you wouldn't like her mad.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Written and Directed by Bryan Bertino
Starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman

Kristen McKay: Why are you doing this to us?
Masked Stranger: Because you were home.

Before writer/director, Bryan Bertino’s debut film, THE STRANGERS commences, a peculiar voice narrates the text that appears on the screen. Apparently, there have been over 1.4 million violent crimes investigated by the FBI. It isn’t clear whether James Hoyt and Kristen McKay’s story is inspired by one particular real event - whether these two individuals that we are about to watch be mentally and physically tormented for hours in fact existed in real life, or whether this story is just an amalgamation of many horrifically tragic experiences all smashed into one for dramatic effect. Either way, the vague implication that this may have actually taken place is essentially unnecessary as the situation these two innocents find themselves in would have been frightening one way or the other.

I don’t remember the last time I saw a “scary” movie. I tend to avoid them as I don’t need anything else in my life to disrupt my sleep and it has also been my experience that the majority of these films are rushed efforts that rely on quick and easy startles to satisfy the crowd. Though some of these expected thrills give THE STRANGERS some of its more jumpy moments, it is the underlying randomness of the events that keep the uneasy tone lingering long after its close. Having returned home from a disappointing and potentially devastating evening, troubled couple, Hoyt & McKay (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) realize that they don’t know each other as well as they thought they did. The strangers sharing a bed in the secluded Hoyt summer home needn’t fear each other though as much as the strangers lurking in the surrounding woods. Finding themselves in a position that would drive anyone to panic, the two go between the offensive and the defensive, as well as inside and outside the home. Just like the fright flicks I remember, these two make decisions that seem utterly ridiculous while I sit safely watching from afar, which only drives my panic higher and my hands tighter over my eyes.

It is Bertino’s subtle and oddly gentle style that makes THE STRANGERS such an effective experience. Strange sounds seem to be coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once while the sinister trio of masked tormentors ominously appear from and disappear into the shadows at random intervals. They don’t know when or from where the next scream will come from and that is the last thing you need when you think you’re in the safety of your own home. By attacking the audience’s basest of fears, Bertino has simplified the genre. He has crafted a thriller that isn’t bogged down in explaining the face of evil or concerned with upping the gore factor. Subsequently, there’s a lot more time left over to just scare the crap out of everyone.