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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Top 10: Foreign-Language Films

While Hollywood may dominate the worldwide box office with its constant stream of films, there has been many a brilliant piece of cinema that has been produced outside the United States. Most of the world's larger countries have strong and flourishing film industries, and although they can't quite compare with the strength of Hollywood, they still manage to produce a number of great flicks. I've only recently - as in the past few years - started to delve into the world of foreign-language film, but in that span, I've managed to see quite a few great flicks, so I figured I'd make this particular list to showcase them.

Below is a list of the top ten foreign-language films I have ever seen. Now, while it could be considered a foreign film, you're not going to see any films from English-speaking countries like Canada or England. Instead of taking films simply produced outside the United States - which would include classics like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West - I chose to stick with films that are predominantly not in English. I think that makes for a little bit more of an interesting selection.

With that, here's the list! I hope you enjoy it!

10. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Japanese: Letters from Iwo Jima

Released nearly simultaneously with its English-language sister film Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima manages to expand upon and outperform its predecessor by bringing a more emotional tale to the screen. Director Clint Eastwood does well to show the Japanese side of the lost battle, and it works in brilliant fashion, and the film benefits from a fantastic leading performance from Ken Watanabe.

9. Downfall (2005)
German: Der Untergang

Many people have seen snippets of this film, but they may not quite recognize it. There's an ongoing Internet video featuring a scene from Downfall in which the subtitled language is replaced for comedic purposes, but the scene comes from this particular picture, which documents Adolf Hitler's last days alive. It's an interesting character study about a man who's losing his grip on reality, and in a way, it's almost a tragic tale.

8. The Lives of Others (2007)
German: Das Leben der Anderen

Although I think The Lives of Others was an undeserved winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture - it went up against Pan's Labyrinth, for goodness sake - it still manages to be one of the better foreign films I've ever seen. Equal parts mystery and human drama, it manages to keep you completely invested with each character, regardless of whether you like them or not. Kudos to the cast and crew.

7. Cinema Paradiso (1990)
Italian: Nuovo Cinema Paradiso

This is a more recent watch for me, and I instantly fell in love with the story of an aging filmmaker reminiscing about his childhood introduction to the world of cinema. It's an epic tale of a boy's life and growth into a young man, and it manages to hit all the key emotions along the way. It's a film made for people who love film, so if you fall under that category, this one's definitely for you.

6. Amélie (2001)
French: Le fabeleux destin d'Amélie Poulain

I remember first hearing about this French film during my first year of college, and after hearing so many people talk about how much they love it, I had to give Amélie a try for myself. What I got was a splendidly delightful tale about a young woman with whom you can't possibly fall in love. Audrey Tautou gives a stellar performance, and the light-hearted and whimsical tone of the movie is sure to draw you in immediately.

5. Das Boot (1982)
German: Das Boot

I've long known of this movie's existence, but as you can see by my year-old review (linked above), it's only recently that I've been able to take in its greatness. Arguably one of the best war movies ever to film, Das Boot effectively manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere of submarine life, all while bringing forth an incredible story of men just trying to survive.

4. Amores perros (2001)
Spanish: Amores perros

I saw this film after seeing movies like 2005's Crash and 2006's Babel, when the "intersecting storyline" thing was a big deal. Four years earlier, Amores perros did the same, with arguably much better results. It's a gritty tale, and it's going to take you to some very deep places, but if you can stomach some of the violence, then you're going to be amazed by the final result.

3. Let the Right One In (2008)
Swedish: Låt den rätte komma in

What starts as a very strong look at an off-beat horror film turns into something magnificent and beautiful with the film's climactic scene, and ever since, Let the Right One In has stuck with me. The relationship between the two young leads' characters is heartbreaking, but it's the glue that keeps this film together. Although still a strong film, the 2010 English-language remake (Let Me In) just doesn't compare to this original Swedish masterpiece.

2. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Spanish: El laberinto del fauno

In 2006, Guillermo del Toro gave the world Pan's Labyrinth, one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, and one that made a run for the top spot on this list. Heralded as a fairy tale for adults, the film manages to bring a sense of wonder and dread all at once. Set against the backdrop of war, the story takes many a dark turn, and it's definitely not for the faint of heart, but I'll always hold this one dearly in my heart.

1. The 400 Blows (1959)
French: Les quatre cents coup

What can I say about this film other than its about as perfect as they come? It might be the truest "must-see" film I've ever managed to see, if only because I think every single person needs to see this masterpiece at some point in their life. I watched it at exactly the right time in my own life, and I think that was the reason the message seemed so clear to me. There isn't a person in the world that can't relate to the film's central character, and for that reason, I think that makes this a must-see for everyone.

And so, there's my list of the ten best foreign-language films I've ever seen. As with my other "top 10" lists, this one will be ever-changing, so keep your eye on it!

Monday, August 27, 2012



"I like to dissect girls. Did you know I'm utterly insane?"
-- Patrick Bateman

American Psycho is a 2000 satirical thriller directed by Mary Harron that serves as a film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel of the same name. It tells the story of a young Wall Street executive named Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) living the yuppie culture of the 1980s. Believing himself to be better than his peers, he delves into materialism and greed so that he can stay ahead of the curve, all while trying to "fit in." He admits that his emotionless lifestyle leaves him very bored, and that has led to a sort of nighttime blood-lust that's slowly creeping into his everyday activities. His homicidal desires reach a peak when a colleague named Paul Allen (Jared Leto) proves himself to be better-off than Bateman is, and in retaliation, Patrick crafts a plot to murder him. This experience only goes to further Bateman's string of psychotic episodes, leaving him in a state where he can't quite determine what's really and what's imagined.

My first interaction with American Psycho came with Bravo's television special "30 Even Scarier Movie Moments," which aired in October 2006 and served as a sequel to their original mini-series, "The 100 Scariest Movie Moments." The 2006 special included the scene where Bale's Bateman murders Leto's Paul Allen, and that little snippet of a scene managed to hook my interest. I soon hunted down the film and gave it a view, and I was instantly confused about what it all meant. It was quite a bit to take in, and over the years, I've managed to see the film on a few other occasions. And yet, even after this particular viewing, I don't quite know what's going on during American Psycho.

At its core, the film is truly a satire about the materialistic and greedy culture of the 1980s. We see a number of Wall Street businessmen doing their best to stay ahead of the curve their colleagues set, all the while delving into basic carnal needs to satisfy their lives' emptiness. Bateman does the same, but takes his methods of satisfaction to an entirely different level with his need for violence. For the first half of the film, all that seems fine and dandy. However, as soon as Bateman goes through with his plot against Allen, we see the strings of his sanity start to come a little bit loose. He's not sure exactly what's real in his life anymore, and by association, we as the audience aren't quite sure either. It all leads up to a very vague finale that's probably leaving the interpretation open and on the table. I can honestly say that three-quarters of the way through the film, I'm sure I know what's going on, but as soon as the final scene fades to the credits, my ideas have changed, and I'm not sure at all.

What is grounded in reliable fact is the strength of the central performance from Christian Bale. While the film offers strong, albeit small, roles from familiar faces like Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, Reese Witherspoon, Chloë Sevigny and Willem Dafoe, this is really Bale's vehicle, and he's the one who demands all the attention. Even in the more mundane scenes, where we see Patrick going through his every morning routine, you can't help but be encapsulated by Bale's character. At times, he manages to show absolutely no emotion on his face, and given that's the character's biggest identifier, I have to say I'm always thoroughly impressed. As Bateman spirals into insanity, however, Bale becomes a little more over-the-top, but never so much that he becomes unbelievable. As strange as the character may seem today to today's audiences in 2012, Bale always makes Patrick Bateman believable.

At the end of the day, I'm not quite sure what the real drawing power of American Psycho proves to be. Bale's performance is enough to keep me watching, but I think it's the open-endedness of the ending that will keep bringing most viewers back. I've heard many a fan argue both sides of the spectrum, and I have my own ideas as well, but I'll refrain from going into detail about them here. From the outset, American Psycho was toted as a big deal: at its debut at Sundance in 2000, it was hailed as the "next Fight Club." And while I don't think it quite measures up to that 1999 masterpiece, I do think that, given enough time, American Psycho will be held with the same such clout and respect.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A-
Status: Must-See

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Movie Review: PREMIUM RUSH


"I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can't stop. Don't want to, either."
-- Wilee

Premium Rush is a 2012 action thriller directed by David Koepp that focuses on a group of bike messengers making a living on the fast-paced streets of New York City. We meet a young cyclist named Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a former law student, who uses his job as a bike messenger to supply him with an ample number of thrills in his life. His fellow messenger and girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) thinks he has a death wish with the way he rides, but Wilee simply thinks he lives for the rush. After losing out on one delivery, Wilee asks his boss to give him another route before the end of the day, and he luckily receives one last job from his friend Nima (Jamie Chung), who needs an envelope delivered to Chinatown by seven o'clock that night. After he picks up the envelope, however, Wilee is confronted by a mysterious man (Michael Shannon), who continually attempts to steal the envelope from him. As the clock continues to race toward his deadline, Wilee begins to piece together a much larger plot into which he has unwillingly been made a pawn.

When I first heard about this film, I was immediately drawn to it based solely on the fact that Gordon-Levitt would star. Arguably my favorite actor at the moment, I'll go out of my way to see any of his films, and seeing as Premium Rush is arguably the biggest release this weekend, there really wasn't much debate as to what I would be seeing. Although I wasn't really expecting it to be a brilliant film, I did hope that it would at least be entertaining, and the early, mostly-positive reviews helped quell any real fears I had going in.

What Premium Rush ultimately offers is a fast-paced, action-packed, end-of-the-summer thrill ride. The storyline doesn't necessarily offer much, although it does allow for a number of moderately emotional scenes and concepts, but at the end of the day, it's a basic and rote screenplay that doesn't truly offer anything utterly brilliant. What sets Premium Rush apart is the stylistic power of the direction and the cast itself.

Let's start with our actors, shall we? Now, I have to be honest and say that I do have a bit of a man crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and thus far in his film career, I have yet to see him do any wrong. He's managed to create so many different characters, and his Wilee in Premium Rush is no exception. This may be the most "badass" he's gone thus far in his career (although that's sure to be challenged by the soon-to-be-released Looper), and he plays the part perfectly. I also have to applaud Shannon, who is generally a hit-or-miss actor for me. While I thought Shannon was brilliant in the 2010 film The Runaways, I wasn't sold on his bit part in 2008's Revolutionary Road. With him, it always goes back and forth. At the start of Premium Rush, I wanted to hate his character. It seemed over-the-top and ridiculous, but as the film continued forth, I think it made a little more sense. By film's end, I truly thought he was a great antagonist for a picture like this. It worked well. The rest of the cast fills out quite nicely, but the best scenes come between Gordon-Levitt and Shannon. That's where the meat of this film lies.

But aside from all of that, what truly makes Premium Rush a success is its stylistic production. For starters, setting the story against the backdrop of New York City, one of the fastest-paced cities in the world, was a perfect decision. Having visited New York on a number of occasions, I know just how hustle-bustle those streets can get, and to see bicyclists moving even faster in order to make their deliveries seems incredible. The setting helps make the film seem like its moving even faster than it is, and that works in this film's favor. Because it's not offering a brilliant screenplay or Oscar-winning performances, it has to rely on its ability to grab hold of its viewer and its ability to keep that viewer engaged. And from the very start, Premium Rush does just that. Once it grabs hold, it never once takes it foot off the pedal, so to speak. And that rush of exhilaration is what makes it so darn good.

To sum things up, Premium Rush is the ideal type of end-of-the-summer cinema fare. It's not a film that's too deep to understand, but it's also not too dumb to make it unwatchable. The story is strong enough to keep you caring, but it's the direction and the action that's going to keep you entertained. So sit back, relax and grab a bucket of popcorn because this is one wild ride.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: B+
Status: Should See

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jaws: An Experience

Anybody who reads this page on a regular basis will surely know these two facts: Jaws is my hands-down favorite film of all time, and it's the film I consider to be the greatest ever created. Now, I've gone back and forth on that latter statement - Hitchcock's Psycho and Curtiz's Casablanca give it a run for its money - but the more I watch Jaws, the more I'm convinced that it deserves that top honor. I have grown up watching the film over and over again, and it's the one movie that, if caught on TV, I will drop what I'm doing to give it yet another view.

The one thing I've always wanted to do, however, was see the film on the big screen. Having been born thirteen years after the film's initial theatrical release, I never had many chances to do just that. I'd hear about screenings here and there, but they were always out of my locale and driving range, and so, I'd sadly sit back and think about what might have been. Seeing Jaws in a movie theater became one of my life's goals. There seemed something grand about the idea, and I wanted to have the chance to see the film as so many did back in 1975. My dad always used to recount tales to me about seeing Jaws during its initial theatrical run, and he would tell me about how terrifying it actually was. I simply had to have the experience for myself.

Along comes this little company called Cinemark who, in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of Universal Studios, has chosen to "re-release" a number of classic Universal films for one night only over the course of the next month or so, and they started tonight with Jaws. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance as soon as I saw that a theater only eight miles away would be playing it. I was so excited that I actually bought my ticket before realizing I had been scheduled to work at my outside job tonight, but I quickly scrambled to switch shifts around. Finally, I had the night free, my ticket bought, and my spirit jumping for joy. (Im)patiently, I waited the week until I had the chance to see the flick. That night was tonight.

Before I get into the specifics of my viewing experience, I want to talk a little about what the film means to me. As I previously stated, I grew up watching the film, and from an early age, I can remember being drawn to its simple story of man versus nature. Looking back, I can honestly say I didn't really understand the movie as a child and adolescent, nor do I remember the film as a whole. The only parts I remember were the ocean sequences where we saw Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) battling the massive shark one-on-one. I have no early recollections of the first half of the film where we delve into small town politics and a number of other themes and ideas. Rather, I just remember the film as being man versus shark, and for a young boy with an insatiable appetite for action and suspense, that was all I really needed.

It wasn't until my late adolescence and young adulthood that I started to view Jaws in a very different light. As it was always one of my personal favorite films, I always had a copy of it readily on hand for whenever I felt the need to give it another go. I started to see the brilliance of the film, and considering how difficult it was to bring it to life, I started to garner quite a bit of respect not only for the film as an entity but also for the cast and crew, helmed by a young Steven Spielberg. On the surface, the film presents a very simple storyline of man against beast, but with all of the politics behind the decision-making, there's so much more going on in the film than meets the eye. It's a brilliant film that almost didn't make it to the cutting room floor, but for whatever reason, Spielberg managed to pick up the pieces and bring it all together, making one of the most memorable and influential films in cinematic history.

Fast forward to today, and I'm getting myself ready to head out to the theater. I'm leaving extra early in order to alleviate any possible traffic or parking issues I might hit. Dressed in my light blue Amity Island shirt (compliments of my awesome girlfriend), I set out for the theater and made it there with plenty of time to spare. To create my full experience, I ordered both a large popcorn and a large soda so that I could fully enjoy the world's first-ever "blockbuster."

I have to admit to this: as the opening credits started to roll, I turned into a bit of a blubbering fool. After so many years of waiting and wondering whether I would ever have the chance to see Jaws in a movie theater, my wish was finally coming true, and I simply couldn't hold in my emotion. Surrounded by a nearly sold-out theater of equally-interested enthusiasts, I settled in for what would be the most fulfilling movie-going experience I have ever had.

From the very outset I could tell I was in for quite an evening. While seeing the film for the (note: estimation) one-hundredth time wasn't going to bring forth any real changes in my view of the film. What was really surprising, however, was the audience reaction. As I said, the theater was mostly-filled, with probably around two-hundred occupants (none of whom left during the film's entirety, by the way). It was the way the audience reacted to the film that made this evening such an enjoyable experience.

Now, back in 1975, Jaws scared the crap out of people. It kept people out of the ocean for years, to the point where you could go to the beach and see hundreds of people sitting along the shore, but none of them would dare venture into the water. By today's standards, Jaws really isn't the scariest of flicks, but there are a few moments of suspense and jump-out-of-your-seat thrills there for your enjoyment. And let me tell you: there was plenty a scream in the theater tonight. Another interesting point is that I'd forgotten just how funny the film is. The audience was roaring with laughter at all the right places, and that made for even more entertainment. But what really got to me was the reverence that the crowd showed to the final act, starting with Quint's monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Just before that point, we were laughing as he and Hooper compared tattoos, but as soon as Robert Shaw delved into the haunting story, the theater went silent. And from that point, the audience was hooked into the action, all the way to the finish. And yes, the film got a stirring round of applause as the final credits started to roll. It was utterly beautiful. I shed another tear or two as I, along with the rest of the audience, sat through the credits in their entirety.

I had always known that Jaws had an incredible amount of staying power, but tonight's screening proved to me just how strong that power is. People still love this film just as much as I do, and they're passing it onto their children and their children's children. I saw a number of families out tonight, and I couldn't be happier that the film is being introduced to today's generation. It's a film that needs to be seen by all, and I just hope that newer audiences will love it as much as I do. I know that it's definitely a bit dated, but it's still one of - if not "the" - greatest film ever put on the silver screen. I'm just so glad that I finally had the chance to see my favorite film in the grandest way possible. And as for the continuation of its staying power, Jaws need only look at one of its final lines, uttered by Dreyfuss's Hooper:
Keep kicking.


After the smash hit of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s, it was only a matter of time before director Peter Jackson brought The Hobbit to life as well. As one can imagine, Jackson has split the story into three separate films, the first of which - subtitled An Unexpected Journey - will be released this December. Here's the first, and still only, full-length trailer available for the film:

And now, for a few questions that came to mind after watching the trailer:

1. At the end of the day, The Hobbit trilogy is going to be compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy whether it likes it or not, so why not tackle that right now? How will this new "franchise" hold up in comparison to its predecessor?
When you take a look back at the accomplishments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it can seem a bit staggering. Combined, those three films won a total of seventeen Academy Awards and have earned over $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office. You can make the argument that The Lord of the Rings is the franchise of the 21st century, and you probably wouldn't have many naysayers. All that being said, how will The Hobbit fare in comparison? I think the hype leading up to this first film will bring plenty of people to the theaters, but the overall success of the continued franchise will rely on how well-made An Unexpected Journey proves to be.
2. Why is this new saga being released so long after The Lord of the Rings? Will that affect its popularity?
There are a number of reasons that Peter Jackson probably waited this long to bring The Hobbit to audiences, many of which probably deal with his work schedule. In the time between The Lord of the Rings and now, he directed both 2005's King Kong and 2009's The Lovely Bones, both of which were rather grand in stature. After spending so much time creating The Lord of the Rings, the guy probably needed a bit of a break. Seeing as The Hobbit has, like its predecessor, all been shot at once, Jackson ultimately just needed the time to take on such an endeavor.

Now, as to the question of whether or not the nine-year delay between The Return of the King and An Unexpected Journey will have any affect on this new film's popularity, I have a few mixed feelings. Normally, I'd want to say that it will have no bearing, and the recent buzz makes it seem as though there are quite a few people excited for this film. However, in a world where franchises like Spider-Man are being rebooted only five years after the previous installment, it's really hard to say how today's "younger" audience will take an epic feature like The Hobbit. Teens and young adults are sure to be a key demographic for The Hobbit, but these people were only pre-teens or younger when The Lord of the Rings was released. Who knows how they'll respond to a film like this. 
3. Why is Jackson crafting The Hobbit into a trilogy rather than the original plan of a two-parter?
To be honest, I'm still trying to figure this one out. When the announcement for a third Hobbit film was made, Jackson stated, "It has been an unexpected journey indeed, and in the words of Professor Tolkien himself, 'a tale that grew in the telling.'" He hopes that using three films will allow him to tell more of the story, but it's left a lot of people scratching their heads. From a pure standpoint of source material, we can see why a The Lord of the Rings trilogy made sense: it was already separated into three books with a combined page count of over 1500. The Hobbit, however, is a stand-alone story that tops out at 310 pages, making it shorter than any of the Lord of the Rings books individually. How can Jackson possibly craft two films, let alone three, out of such a small amount of material? This one has all the feel of a grab for more money, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. 
4. At least the film seems to have the same vibe as The Lord of the Rings, right?
From this lone trailer, I think we're seeing a lot of the same pieces we got from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I think that bodes well for the carry-over audience. At the end of the day, most fans of a franchise want to see something similar to what they've already loved, and The Hobbit presents a very strong possibility for such. The trailer seems to show a good mix of drama, comedy, adventure and action, all of which made The Lord of the Rings such a success. If The Hobbit can dial into that vibe, there's no limit to what success it may enjoy.
5. Doesn't it seem like there are a lot of characters bouncing around?
That was one of my first real issues with the trailer. We're introduced to a number of characters right from the start, and they come flying at you at a very rapid pace. While The Lord of the Rings had a slew of key central characters, it never really felt like there were too many. Everyone played their role, and it all balanced quite well. This trailer, however, makes it seem like there are a few too many new pieces entering the canon, and that may cause a bit of confusion for movie-goers. 
6. Is anyone from the cast of The Lord of the Rings returning for The Hobbit?
While a lot of the talk should be about the newer characters - namely, Martin Freeman as a younger Bilbo Baggins - many people are going to wonder which of their favorite characters will be making appearances this time around. Heavily featured in the trailer is Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf, so we can be sure to see plenty of him. Also noticeable are the returns of Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Andy Serkis as Gollum. And according to the cast list, we should be seeing appearances by Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood and Ian Holm. So we'll see how that goes, I suppose.

At the end of the day, none of us can truly be sure as to what's going to happen in The Hobbit, and we can't know for sure just what kind of an impact it will have. Although I wasn't a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I do find the films entertaining, and I understand their impact and presence on the cinematic landscape. For that reason, I am excited for, and am eagerly awaiting, the release of The Hobbit this holiday season.

The Hobbit is currently slated for a December 14, 2012 release here in the United States.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Movie Review: JOHN CARTER


"When I saw you, I believed it was a sign that something new can come into this world."
-- Tars Tarkas

John Carter is a 2012 science-fiction action film directed by Andrew Stanton that serves as his first major directorial foray into the realm of live-action cinema. Based off the first novel from Edgar Rice Borrough's Barsoom series, the film tells the story of Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who finds himself mysteriously transported to an unknown world called Barsoom. Upon his arrival, he is captured by a race of strange creatures known as the Tharks, led by a creature called Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe). After proving his warrior merit, Tars Tarkas admits John into his tribe and claims that he will help the Tharks defeat their enemies. Never one to fight for a cause, Carter tries to back out of the duty but is swayed after saving a young woman named Dejah Thoris (voiced by Lynn Collins). She explains to John that Barsoom is what he knows to be Mars, and that her world is slowly dying. The constant struggle between her home city of Helium and the enemy city of Zodanga has brought the world to its breaking point, and she believes that John is the man who can make a change. Although he initially avoids the fight, John finally decides to battle for the good of Barsoom.

When Disney prepared to release John Carter, they had expected it to be their next big franchise. With a $250 million budget and an accomplished director at the helm, who was to say that it wouldn't be a smash hit? Still, in the months prior to its release, I don't recall seeing many trailers for the film, and I don't think it really got as much publicity as it needed. Added to the mixed reviews it received from the critical community, and John Carter simply did not perform at the box office. Ultimately, the film barely made back all the money it cost to make, and it finally settled for a tiny $30 million profit. Still, I had every desire to see the film but never had the chance to do so while it played in theaters. And so, to RedBox I went.

The first thing you're going to notice about John Carter is that it's mildly confusing. Now, I've seen plenty of movies with screenplays that make little to no sense, and this one definitely doesn't rank amongst those dregs. However, from the very get-go, you're going to be scratching your head wondering exactly what's going on. We get the basic idea: a man is transported to Mars, where he is captured and all that jazz, but there's little things going on in between that make for a little bit of confusion. It's almost as though we're feeling the same confusion that the John Carter character must be feeling upon his transport, and if that was Stanton's aim, then kudos to him. As the film continues along, however, it ultimately falls into a rote action flick that becomes very predictable very, very quickly. The breath of imagination quickly leaves the film, and I was left wondering how the man who wrote and directed both Finding Nemo and WALL-E could bring forth something so pedestrian.

One thing I did like about the film's storyline, however, was the parallels between the Barsoomian people's war and the American Civil War in which Carter himself fought. We're seeing two opposing cities (a la the North and the South) do battle against one another while a more rudimentary culture (a la the Native Americans) stands by and watches from the side. In that sense, the film does bring something rather interesting, but it serves more as a basis for Stanton's entire concept than as a plot point itself.

The cast in the film does a serviceable job throughout, but I wasn't really overly impressed by anyone in particualr. Kitsch, whose biggest claim to fame is his role on TV's "Friday Night Lights," does well with the role, but it doesn't seem like there was a lot to go with. He has the necessary physique for the action sequences, but with only a small bit of intelligent dialogue, there really wasn't much for him to do. Collins falls into the same category, bringing out the character but not bringing anything overly fantastic. We do get some nice vocal performances from the likes of Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church (in a small bit), as well as some slightly stronger live-action roles from the likes of Mark Strong and Dominic West. And there's even some very small roles from people like Ciarán Hinds, Bryan Cranston and Daryl Sabara, but they're here and gone relatively quickly.

The one thing that John Carter does have going for it is its special effects which are sure to dazzle. Although I'm not quite sure it's anything truly spectacular, I'm sure seeing this Barsoomian world on the big screen was quite a sight to behold. After the visual brilliance of a film like WALL-E, I'm glad to see that Stanton didn't lose sight of his visual performance, even if the rest of the film doesn't quite measure up.

At the end of the day, John Carter is a relatively uneven action film that falls into standard cliché very quickly. Still, there's enough to keep you engaged throughout the film, even if you're going to be a tad bit confused from time to time. Viewers beware: this one runs a bit longer than two hours, and the film starts to overstay its welcome around the ninety-minute mark.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: C-
Status: Don't Need to See

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Top 10: Documentaries

For this week's installment into the 'Top 10' canon, I'm taking a look at some of the best documentary features I've ever seen. Documentaries have a special ability to give their audiences a view at a real subject in the real world, and the best ones will still prove to be just as entertaining - and often times more informative - as their scripted counterparts.

My days of watching documentaries are relatively small as I've only recently (as in, the past few years) gotten into the habit of giving them a view. At the current moment, that will be reflected in this particular list. You'll notice that most of the inclusions are recent pictures, but that shouldn't deter you from giving any of them a view. And as with my other 'Top 10' lists, this one will be ever-changing based off the new films I see.

And so, without any further delay, here's a look at the top ten documentaries I have ever seen:

10. Zombie Girl: The Movie (2009)

Over the years, the making of a number of films has been chronicled through documentary features, but I'm not quite sure that any has taken on the task of displaying the directorial debut of a twelve-year-old girl. When Emily Hagins started working on her zombie flick, Pathogen, a crew of documentarians took interest and gave the world an insight into the making of her first feature-length venture. What results is an honest look at the world of independent filmmaking, and it's going to make you root for Hagins from start to finish.

9. Cropsey (2010)

Billed as a documentary that delves into the concepts of urban mythology, Cropsey ultimately proves to be a blend of the documentary, courtroom and horror genres. By taking the real-life events of missing children cases in Staten Island, filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman create an always-engaging piece that's going to leave you wondering. It's going to haunt you for a while, and I think that was the film's intention all along.

8. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Speaking of films that are going to stay with you... Dear Zachary is one of the most emotionally exhausting films you are ever going to see. It tells the tragic story of one man's attempt to create a film for the infant son of his late best friend, who was murdered in cold blood. Although you always know it's a documentary, Dear Zachary is edited in a way that it almost seems like a dramatic thriller. What makes it so emotionally responsive is the fact that it is a true story. I'd dare anyone to try and watch this without shedding a tear or two.

7. Waking Sleeping Beauty (2010)

Many of my readers will know that I'm a bit of a Disney fanatic, and when given the opportunity to watch a documentary about Disney, you'll be sure I'll jump right in. Add the fact that this particular gem follows the brilliance of the Disney Animation "renaissance" period, which created films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and you've got yourself the makings of something that everyone in my generation is going to love and enjoy.

6. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

I've never been much of a video gamer, but I do tend to enjoy your classic arcade games. The King of Kong showcases a number of hardcore gamers attempting to stamp their name in the record books as the best of the original "Donkey Kong" arcade game. What makes this film so engaging is the fact that, despite it being a documentary, we're given a clear protagonist and antagonist. We know who we want to cheer for and who we want to root against, and that makes it all the more entertaining and emotionally powerful.

5. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

One of the first documentaries I ever watched based off its critical merit, Exit Through the Gift Shop took me into a world I knew nothing about and made me care about it immensely. It tells a very interesting story about one man's dream to become one with the street artists around the world, and he manages to do so, even if it means bringing the art down to his own level. With a finale that's going to evoke a number of emotions, this one's definitely one to keep your eye on.

4. The People vs. George Lucas (2010)

Any fan of Star Wars is going to want to take a look at this particular endeavor. It managed to capture my own personal feelings about George Lucas and his take on the original films in comparison to the more recent prequel trilogy. We're seeing a very strong love-hate relationship from fans in relation to Lucas, and I think that these emotions carry quite well throughout the film. Once again, if you love Star Wars and you haven't seen The People vs. George Lucas, do yourself a favor and watch it right now.

3. Jesus Camp (2006)

Although this film was released in 2006, it took me a few years before I actually sat down and gave it a view. Having spent nearly eight years working with the teenage youth program at my own church, I was shocked to see just how differently some organizations and religions take their camps. Of all the films on this particular list, Jesus Camp might be one of the most horrific. It's going to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, but I think that's just what the filmmakers intended. It's a hard watch, but in a way, it might be a necessary one.

2. The Bridge (2006)

When I re-watched this film last night, it spurred me to create this particular list. The subject of suicide is generally taboo and often times off-limits, but The Bridge handles it with the grace and respect it rightfully deserves. It's not an easy film to watch - you're going to see snippets of jumpers plunging to their deaths - but if you can stomach that, then the stories from family and friends should shed a lot of light on the emotions that people face when suicide enters their lives.

1. The Cove (2009)

Arguably the most angering and emotional documentary I've ever seen, The Cove details the story of a rag-tag group of activists attempting to shut down the dolphin slaughters in Taiji, Japan. To do this, they covertly set up a number of cameras in the cove where the slaughter takes place in order to show the world the atrocities that occur each year. All animal lovers beware: you see the slaughter in full, and that was the film's desire all along. The images may be horrifying, but they may be the only way to pull people into action in order to stop this annual act.

And that concludes my 'Top 10' list of the best documentaries I've ever seen. I hope you enjoyed it! Check back next Tuesday for the next list!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Movie Review: THE BRIDGE


"I don't know why people kill themselves. And yet, it's a small step to empathize... to say... well, because I think we all experience moments of despair."
-- Caroline Pressley

The Bridge is a 2006 documentary directed by Eric Steel that offers a rare insight into the taboo subject of suicide. In 2004, Steel and his crew set up a number of cameras around the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California in order to capture victims of suicide jumping to their deaths. After gaining over ten thousand hours of footage, the crew learned they had caught twenty-three of the reported twenty-four suicides that took place over the course of the year. In the aftermath, Steel and his fellow filmmakers chose to interview the family and friends of the victims in order to gain insight into both the minds of the deceased as well as their own perspectives on the tragic situation. 

Those of you who have been reading my reviews for quite some time may remember my original review of this film nearly two years ago. I had mixed feelings about the film, but ultimately found it to be a hauntingly brilliant look at the thoughts and emotions that come forth at the hands of a suicide. After watching it tonight for the second time, I am reaffirmed in my stance, and I continue to think that The Bridge is one of the greatest - as well as one of the bravest - documentaries ever brought to the silver screen.

I don't think I can get away with saying that yesterday's tragic death of director Tony Scott helped influence my decision to give this film another go-around. Since then, I've heard a lot of people, including some of my readers, question why Scott would choose to take his own life. I've made it no secret that I myself have struggled with depression and mental illness in the past, I can understand just how low a person needs to be to consider this option. Still, it can be mind-boggling for an individual who has never reached that level of despair. 

That's why I think The Bridge is both so beautiful and so important. Through the numerous interviews with family and friends - as well as one with a jump survivor - we as the audience experience the full range of imaginable emotions tied to losing a loved one to suicide. From anger to guilt to acceptance, each interviewee offers another piece of the puzzle. And yet, at the end of the day, the film does not offer any answers, but it never truly sets out to give them.

The Bridge is not a film you're going to enjoy. It's a heart-wrenching look at a very real subject, and it's definitely not for the faint of heart. However, I think the stories it tells are vital to raising awareness for problems such as mental illness. There's so many people in the world who don't understand the concept of depression, and sometimes, it takes a drastic measure for someone to start to think about it. That's not the way the world should be. When I first watched the film in 2010, my closest friend watched it simultaneously from about five hundred miles away, and after finishing the film, we had a chance to discuss it at length. In my previous review, I brought up a number of her comments, and I'd like to bring one back in this review, as I think it sums up my thoughts on the film perfectly: 
I don't think you're supposed to like [The Bridge], but I do think it was beautifully and tastefully done. As beautiful and as tasteful as you can get with suicide, at least.
I don't think I could agree more.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A
Status: Must-See

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Movie Review: PARANORMAN


"Can't you be like other kids your age?"
-- Perry Babcock

ParaNorman is a 2012 animated film directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell that serves as the latest piece of stop-motion animation to hit the silver screen. The film tells the story of a young boy named Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who has the ability to see and speak to the dead. As one can imagine, no one in his small town - including his family - truly believes his seemingly outrageous stories, and as a result, Norman has become a bit of an outcast among his peers. One day, however, his equally-outcast uncle Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman) tells Norman that a 300-year-old witch's curse is about to destroy the town, and the boy is the only one who can prevent it from happening. Initially pushing the idea aside, a string of eerie visions leads Norman to believe his uncle. With the (reluctant) help of his only friend Neil (voiced by Tucker Albrizzi), his sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), Neil's brother Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck) and a local bully named Alvin (voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Norman sets out to save the town from the evil about to come upon it.

As many of my readers will know, I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of August 17, 2012 for the two major films being released. Some of you may have seen my quick review of The Expendables 2 on the affiliated Facebook page yesterday, and now I've had the chance to see ParaNorman, for which I was more excited. Always a fan of stop-motion animation, the concepts behind this particular film seemed incredibly attractive, and I've almost been counting down the days until I could see just what directors Butler and Fell could bring forth.

I have to start by talking about the stop-motion animation. Being such a big fan of the medium, I have to say that I was utterly blown away by just what ParaNorman had to offer. I've seen plenty of great pieces of work from past stop-motion films, but ParaNorman seems to take this one to a new level. I can't quite put my finger on exactly what makes this film stand apart, but I do think that there are little nuances here and there that just make this world seem just a bit more real. There were times that I was left open-mouthed by the beauty of the film, and for that alone, it needs to be applauded.

Luckily for the audience, we're also getting a stellar screenplay that brings a off-beat type of charm to the film. From the very outset, we learn of Norman's spectacular ability see and communicate with those who have passed on. At the same time, we also learn of the struggle Norman must face as a result of his gift, and it immediately gave me the opportunity to relate to the character. From there, we jump right into the action, learning of the witch's curse and Norman's ability to stop it. We meet a number of wonderfully fleshed-out characters who help or hinder Norman along the way. At the same time, we're listening to a perfectly-scripted set of dialogue for each individual character, each of whom brings a little bit more to the overall scheme. And at the end of the day, the film manages to bring itself full circle, touching on the concepts of bullying and evil in the real world. It's a truly well-done piece of work by director Butler, who also penned the script.

While we're on the subject of the characters, I have to say that the vocal cast did a splendid job in bringing these characters to life. Smit-McPhee is great in the central role, and it's easy to fall in love with the character from the very start. I thought Albrizzi and Kendrick offered two of the better roles in the film, and I think Mintz-Plasse deserves a lot of credit as well. Also be on the listen for Leslie Mann and Jeff Garlin as Norman's parents; each of them does quite well with their respective roles.

Where ParaNorman truly succeeds is in its tone and its blending of genre. As an animated film, a film-goer will most likely assume it's going to be a comedy that's branded for children. That's not entirely the case with this particular film. Like past stop-motion ventures like 2005's Corpse Bride and 2009's Coraline, there's a bit of darkness revolving around ParaNorman. While there is quite a bit of comedy - both in dialogue and in slapstick form - throughout the film, we also have a bit of horror and suspense for the avid horror fans. There were a few moments where the tenseness of the film truly felt palpable, and I don't think I've ever had that feeling in an animated film before. I have to give a lot of credit to the entire cast and crew for bringing forth a film that pushes the boundaries of the animation genre. Parents should just beware that this one might not be for the very little ones.

At the end of the day, ParaNorman is a great film that deserves to be mentioned as one of the better stop-motion ventures in cinematic history. As I read some other critical reviews of the film, I stumbled across this particular snippet from Washington Post writer Sean O'Connell, and I thought I'd share:
[ParaNorman is] A colorfully macabre stop-motion animation comedy that embraces the sociopolitical allegories of George A. Romero's zombie pictures and reworks them into a feature-length episode of "Scooby-Doo."
Needless to say, I couldn't agree more, and that's what makes this film so darn enjoyable.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A-
Status: Should See

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Trailer Breakdown: RED DAWN

One of the latest trailers to hit the Internet is the first for the upcoming remake, Red Dawn, which is directed by Dan Bradley and stars Chris Hemsworth. As I usually do with these trailer breakdowns, I'll be bringing up some questions concerning the film just after the trailer. To start, take a glance at this first look of the new film:

And now, for a few questions that came to mind while watching the trailer:

1. To start, what is Red Dawn?
As I previously stated, Red Dawn is an upcoming action flick that serves as a remake of the 1984 film of the same name. This film will center on an apparent invasion from the North Korean army that lands in a small, nondescript American town. An on-leave Marine (Hemsworth) visiting home gets caught in the middle of the attack, and he leads a rag-tag group of survivors in a strike against the enemy. This follows the basic plot and concept of the original film, with the key difference being that the foe in the 1984 venture was the Soviet Union, not the North Koreans. 

2. How will this film hold up against the original film?
The original Red Dawn film holds the illustrious status of being the first film released in the United States to achieve the newly-created PG-13 rating. It earned this rating after being considered, at the time, to be the most violent film ever made according to the Guinness Book of World Records, which states it holds a rate of 2.23 violent acts per minute. Made on a very modest budget of $4.2 million, the film managed to return nearly $40 million at the box office, making it a financial, if not critical, success. Considering the nature of the storyline, critics were divided on the film, which currently holds a fifty-three percent approval rating on Still, there are some pretty lofty goals in there for this new Red Dawn to achieve, but will it be able to stand up next to its predecessor?

3. Considering the state of today's political society, how will this film be met by critics and audiences?
In recent years, the threat of a North Korean attack on the United States has always been on the back-burner with the news, and in light of the North Korean's recent misfire with their missile testing, I wonder whether this film's release is timely or not. In a way, the film is taking the idea of a possible attack and bringing it to life, following it through by showing that a small group of young Americans can take down an entire section of enemy army. I have a feeling that the film will be met by heavy resistance from the critical community, but there should be factions of audiences that will probably fall in love with the concept.

4. Plot Issue: This trailer makes it seem as though the North Korean army has a personal vendetta against the main family. Why would they?
The trailer clearly shows Hemsworth's character's father (seemingly) being murdered by a Korean military leader in execution style. The scene then jumps immediately to Hemsworth uttering, "They messed with the wrong family." I have a bit of an issue with this: Why would an army bent on taking over an entire country waste their time with one individual family? I'm sure the film will concoct some way to make it all make sense, but based off the trailer, it already seems a little bit silly. Still, it could easily make for a more emotional piece, but I can't see any way that this subplot won't be a cheap attempt at drawing that emotion from the viewer. 

5. Where does this film place Chris Hemsworth on the Hollywood scene? 
To answer this question, I'd like to take a look at Hemsworth's brief filmography. He made a memorable appearance in 2009's Star Trek, but it wasn't until his starring role in 2011's Thor that he became a household name. That name only grew with the release of The Avengers and Snow White and the Huntsman, both action films that showcased his ability to be an action star. If Red Dawn manages to be a success, it should solidify Hemsworth's status as the next big thing in action, and with sequels to Thor and Snow White and the Huntsman already in the works, he shouldn't have a problem continuing that particular vein of success.

6. How will the rest of the cast play out?
We're actually getting some relatively big names in this particular venture, and it should be a cast that performs well. Most prominent are the inclusions of Josh Hutcherson - fresh of the success of The Hunger Games - and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, but we're also going to see the likes of Josh Peck and Adrianne Palicki. In an action movie, acting sometimes gets shoved off to the wayside, but here's to hoping that this cast can bring something of value to the screen.

7. How will first-time director Dan Bradley handle the film?
After making a bit of a name for himself as a stunt coordinator, Bradley had the opportunity to go behind the camera with Red Dawn, making this his first directorial effort. I've seen many a first-time director make a quality film, but there's plenty more who have failed miserably. Given the type of film, I'd be a little worried that this first venture might be a bit underwhelming, but with his background in stunts, I'd say that the visual effects and stunt work should be top-notch.

8. At the end of the day, will Red Dawn just be another dumb, big-budget action remake?
This is always going to be the biggest question for a film like this. Remakes are always going to be taken with a grain of salt, and while it can be done, it's tough to make a quality remake. People are going to remember the source material in a nostalgic way, so to top an original film, a remake has to be something truly spectacular. Will Red Dawn be able to do just that? My money's on no, but I've been wrong before. 

Red Dawn will hit theaters in the United States on November 21, 2012.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Movie Review: THE PLEDGE


"I made a promise, Eric. You're old enough to remember when that meant something."
-- Jerry Black

The Pledge is a 2001 dramatic film directed by Sean Penn that centers around one man's obsession with solving a murder mystery. On the day of his retirement, Detective Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) tags along on a call for the rape and murder of a young girl. It falls into his hands to tell the girl's parents of the tragedy, and to give them assurance and peace of mind, he promises to bring the culprit to justice. The police soon find their prime suspect, but Jerry doesn't believe this man to be the true perpetrator. Still, he lets bygones be bygones and starts on his retirement, ultimately settling in a small Nevada town. He starts a relationship with a young waitress named Lori (Robin Wright) and her daughter, and though his life is moving forward, he can never shake the case from his mind. It continues to gnaw at him until a string of events occur that cause him to look into the case once again.

I first heard about The Pledge after reading about it in Leonard Maltin's book, 151 Movies You've Never Seen. I started to see it listed on NetFlix's Instant Watch, and I was ultimately drawn to the film by its loaded cast. What I couldn't really know was just what type of film I'd be getting myself into.

The film's screenplay is a slow but delicate piece that manages to keep the viewer engaged despite its plodding pace. In the first part of the film, things seem to move quickly, but as soon as Jerry makes his move to retirement, everything slows down to a crawl. It's only in the film's seemingly anti-climactic finale that the speed kicks up again, but we're left scratching our heads as the credits start to roll. However, the pacing seems to work within the constructs of the film. The manic start and end satisfy the need for a bit of action, but the slow-moving pieces in between help give us a sense of Jerry's character. At the same time, we can see him formulating a plan for catching this mysterious monster, and it all helps work toward the effectiveness of the finale. I previously stated that the ending seemed a tad bit anti-climactic, but that's only true to the untrained eye. The Pledge's story actually offers a completely devastating and depressing conclusion, giving a somewhat satisfying finish to the entire endeavor.

Bolstering the solid screenplay is the fantastic work of the cast, which is essentially a who's-who of big-time Hollywood stars. Nicholson is the film's centerpiece, and he provides one of the better roles of his career, bringing a slew of emotions to the Jerry character. His work with the conclusion helps bring the brilliance of the film as a whole, and simply have to applaud the three-time Oscar winner. Wright also manages to bring forth a great turn in her supporting role, and I also thought the young Pauline Roberts did a splendid job as well. Also be on the watch for a number of great small or cameo appearances from the likes of Aaron Eckhart, Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Clarkson, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Helen Mirren and Tom Noonan.

Where The Pledge most succeeds, however, is in the atmosphere it creates. Penn does a great job in crafting a realistic world where we can believe everything that's happening. As time continues to pass and another meeting with our mysterious killer looms on the horizon, the film slowly gains this very disgusting feeling, almost as though you know what's going to happen but still don't want it to come across the screen. There was a number of moments where I was sure I knew the direction the film was headed but was surreptitiously proven wrong. You just get this knot in your stomach as the film progresses, and you can only hope that, by the film's end, it will have gone away. What makes this film stand apart, however, is that it doesn't take that knot away. Instead, it gives you something to chew on and ponder well after you've finished watching. I think Maltin put it best in his book when he said the following:
The Pledge is the kind of movie that stays with you, precisely because it poses as many questions as it answers - and because Jack Nicholson makes such a lasting impression.
The combination of a stellar screenplay, a superb cast and an eerie atmosphere makes The Pledge one of the better movies I've seen of late. Kudos to Mr. Penn on this one. 

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A-
Status: Should See

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Top 10: Stop-Motion Animation

For my inaugural 'Top 10 Tuesday' post, I took a little bit of inspiration from this week's upcoming new release, ParaNorman. The film, which tells the story of a young boy who can see the dead, utilizes the art of stop-motion animation to bring its characters and its world to life. And so, in honor of its opening, I thought it'd be fun to take a look at what I think are the top ten films featuring stop-motion animation.

The art of stop-motion animation is arguably one of the most difficult and tiresome, but when done correctly, it can breed brilliant results. The animators who work with stop-motion toll for years on end to craft one feature film, and it turns into a labor of love for most. To find a spot on this list, a film has to have used stop-motion animation in some significant form. Most of the films currently featured are animated films that utilized the technology throughout their run-time, but there are a couple inclusions to the list that simply use the art in very prominent fashion.

And so, without any further delay, here is my list of the ten best films featuring stop-motion animation.

10. The Lost World (1925)

In the early years of stop-motion animation, there were many films that attempted the art, and some attempts even proved successful. However, The Lost World was one of the first films truly to strike gold with the technique, bringing prehistoric beasts to life right there on the silver screen. Nearly ninety years later, I'm sure many a stop-motion animator still looks back at what these filmmakers were able to do with their clay creatures way back in the 1920s, and even if it's just for that particular facet, The Lost World is definitely worth a watch.

9. James and the Giant Peach (1996)

Although not entirely an animated film, James and the Giant Peach still uses quite a bit of the stop-motion technique to bring Roald Dahl's beautiful story to life. This was Henry Selick's first foray into directing after his feature film debut, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and while he couldn't quite strike the same brilliant chord, he still managed to bring a lively and colorful story to the screen, and he had the animation to back it up.

8. Corpse Bride (2005)

Even though Tim Burton's name is often on these darkly comedic stop-motion animated films, Corpse Bride is actually one of the only ones he's actually helped direct. He and co-director Mike Johnson managed to craft an eerily creepy atmosphere, all while maintaining that light-hearted story that's been the centerpiece for so many of his tales. It's not the best foray in the genre, but it still proves to be entirely entertaining.

7. ParaNorman (2012)

The most recent addition to this particular list proves to be the film that inspired me to create it. After seeing ParaNorman earlier today (you can see my review here), I have to say that the utterly stunning use of stop-motion animation, combined with a wonderfully macabre screenplay and storyline, all add up to craft one heck of a film. Parents beware, however: this animated feature, like Coraline and Corpse Bride, might not necessarily be directly geared for the little ones.

6. Coraline (2009)

Out of all the straight-up animated films on this list, Coraline is the only one I don't necessarily consider a comedy. It's a little too dark for that particular classification, but something about that darkness is what makes it so attractive. Henry Selick worked wonders with the stop-motion here, crafting an immersible, albeit a tad bit trippy, world for his audience to enter. The final product is something rather beautiful.

5. Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

Next to A Charlie Brown Christmas, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more endearing Christmas special, and I think Rudolph definitely deserves a spot on this particular list. Although the animation isn't necessarily the best the world has ever seen, it mixes with a great story and simply proves to be quite the entertaining venture. It's been playing ever year since its initial run, and that has to say quite a bit, right?

4. King Kong (1933)

Eight years after the release of The Lost World, movie watchers around the world got the chance to see the next stage of stop-motion animation with the release of King Kong. Cited by many a director as the movie that launched them towards their current profession, the almost-eighty-year-old movie still manages to impress to this day. The animation is utterly astounding, and to think it was crafted so long ago is a little hard to believe.

3. Mary and Max (2009)

If you haven't heard about this particular Australian import, I won't really be surprised. My sister initially recommended the film to me, and after watching it, I have to say it's one of my personal favorite animated films. It's relatively simple stop-motion animation, but it brings forth some incredibly interesting and endearing characters, both of whom are impossible not to love. It's definitely worth a watch, if you have the time.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

One of the most recent additions to this list, Fantastic Mr. Fox was quite a revelation when it hit theaters in 2009. It was director Wes Anderson's first foray into animation, and his use of stop-motion was a little bit different than anything that had been done before. The attention to detail in the animation is impressive, and he managed to bring his trademark sense of off-beat humor to the classic Roald Dahl story. I might even go as far as to say that it's Anderson's best film, but I'm sure I'll have naysayers on that one. Still, it's quite an impressive feat for a first attempt at the genre.

1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

It's been nearly twenty years since Nightmare first hit theaters, and it still manages to be the stop-motion standard. What other film has garnered a continued re-release each holiday season? I can't think of any off the top of my head, and yet, The Nightmare Before Christmas still manages to be an audience favorite. It blends brilliantly-choreographed stop-motion animation with a brilliantly-beautiful story chalk full of fantastic musical numbers. This film offers something for nearly every film-goer, and I think that's what's given it such a staying power.

I hope you all enjoyed this first attempt at a 'Top 10' list, and I also hope you liked the endeavor into the art of stop-motion animation. Be sure to check out this week's ParaNorman, and also be on the watch for Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, which is slated for an October release.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Movie Review: JAWS


"Come on into the water!"
-- Chrissie Watkins

Jaws is a 1975 action thriller directed by Steven Spielberg that has become one of the most beloved films in American cinema history. When the half-eaten remains of a young girl are washed onto a beach in Amity Island, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) attempts to close the beaches just before the Fourth of July holiday. He is immediately met with resistance from some of the town's political leaders, including Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who tries to explain to Brody that Amity's very livelihood is reliant on the income it will receive over the holiday weekend. Reluctantly, Brody allows the beaches to remain open, only to see a young boy killed by the same shark in broad daylight. The town goes into a panic, and through another series of attacks, the police chief is able to convince Vaughn that outside help is necessary to defeat the beast. He enlists the help of a young scientist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from the Oceanographic Institute as well as a local grizzled shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) to captain their vessel. The rag-tag trio sets out onto the horizon in search of the massive shark that has terrorized the entire community.

I chose to write about Jaws as my first "Must-See Monday" post for a few reasons. First, I thought the timing with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week was too good an opportunity to pass. Secondly, I have never held back my personal love for this particular film. I have always commended it both for its cinematic integrity as well as its social relevance and its importance to film history as a whole. It is easily my favorite film, and it's one that I can watch over and over and still find entertaining from start to finish.

There's a number of facets working together in this film that elevate it to such a lofty standing in my book. For starters, we have a fantastic screenplay that delves into more than the casual viewer will realize. The film is based off Peter Benchley's 1973 novel of the same name, but as with many book-to-film adaptations, the two have very stark differences. What's unique in this particular example, however, is that the film version of Jaws is the only movie I have ever seen that I believe surpasses its source novel. Now don't get me wrong: I have read and own the novel on a number of occasions, and I think it is a fantastic literary endeavor. However, there are a number of storylines in the book that cause it to get weighed down just a tad, and I think the film's writers were able to get to the meat of the story and stick to that throughout.

What the audience gets is a tense thriller that works in two "acts," so to speak. In the first act, Brody has two key antagonists: the shark, and the politicians trying to keep him from protecting the community. While the main continuous strain comes from the mayor and his cronies, and we only see the film's true terror surface now and then, we as the audience know who the true villain is. Once the politicians reach a breaking point, the film shifts into the second act, where things become a bit more clear-cut. Now, we have man versus shark, and it's this struggle that proves to be the most memorable as well as the most effective.

Through the first act, we get to good sense as to the characteristics of each individual on-screen. While the story moves along at a relatively steady pace, we have the opportunity to learn the good and the bad of each character. Character development isn't necessarily something that most people are going to talk about when it comes to this movie, but I think a lot has to be said both for the screenplay as well as the stellar cast who manages to bring forth spot-on performances. The trio of Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss proves to be one of the most enigmatic groupings of characters I've ever seen on-screen at one time, and they all manage to play off each other well. I do have to say that this might be Robert Shaw's greatest film role, and his monologue about the U.S.S. Indianapolis is easily one of the most haunting scenes ever devoted to celluloid. Add a slew of great smaller performances (i.e., Hamilton and Lorraine Gary), and you've got quite a cast.

At the end of the day, however, the film's best character has to be the shark itself, and yet, we as the audience don't actually see it until about halfway through the film. Spielberg had a hell of a time getting this movie made, and a huge part of the problem was the mechanical shark they wanted to use to bring the menace to life. As most film fans will know, the shark barely ever worked properly, so a number of other methods were crafted in order to keep the filming process in the works. There's a very clever use of sleight of hand throughout the film. Spielberg used tricky camera shots that allowed for the idea of the presence of the shark without there ever being a shark anywhere on-screen. In the first few attacks, we never actually see the shark, but the violence of the attacks may make the viewer think back and remember the shark anyway. The fact that we don't actually see the shark only makes the film all the more terrifying, and it always keeps the audience questioning when it will strike next.

Once the film reaches its second act, we see the mechanical shark do its work. By today's standards, it doesn't look like much, but back in 1975, the fact that they got this massive machine to work at all is utterly impressive. It benefits from the sleight-of-hand build-up it receives, and it makes it a little more believable as time goes by. In addition to the aforementioned techniques, some live stock footage of a real great white is used towards the end of the film, if only to give perspective as to just how large it was supposed to be.

The final piece that brought the shark to life was, in fact, the film's legendary cinematic score, brought forth by the brilliant John Williams. In the time where we do not see the shark, the ever-present sound of a tuba lets us know that something is coming, and in a way, the score makes for a character all its own. It's menacing and terrifying all at the same time, and there's a reason that it has remained such a classic score all these years later. Give it a listen here, if you'd like:

At the end of the day, however, there isn't much I can say about Jaws than has already been said by countless others. It is one of the defining films not only of the 1970s but also of cinematic history as a whole. I would challenge anyone to find a film that has had as much social impact as this venture, and even then, less than a handful could be named. The fact that even thirty-seven years later, Jaws is still entirely entertaining only helps prove that this is one of the greatest films of all time. It will always hold a special place in my heart.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: A+
Status: Must-See