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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Movie Review: BRAVE

BRAVE
2012
PG


"If you had a chance to change your fate, would you?"
-- Princess Merida

Brave is a 2012 animated film directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews that serves as the thirteenth feature film for animation studio Pixar. The film tells a story set in feudal Scotland that centers around a young princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald). As a child, her father Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) gave her a bow and arrow as a gift, and it helped to instill a sense of adventure in her spirit. As she grows older, however, Merida's mother Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) tries to craft her into a lady worthy of being married off to one of the neighboring clans' first-born sons. Merida does not take kindly to this particular tradition, wanting only to be the master of her own fate. After a failed attempt at choosing her eligible suitor, Merida strikes out into the wilderness on her own, searching for the path that will lead her to a life of freedom from her overbearing mother. What Merida finds in those woods, however, may lead to a darkness unlike anything she could have ever imagined.

As with most of the people I know personally, I always eagerly await the next big Pixar production, and my anticipation for Brave was no different. I first saw the teaser trailer for the film sometime last year, and I was immediately blown away by the visual aspect of the film. Add the fact that Pixar was finally delving into the story of a female protagonist for the first time in its feature film history. It looked as though Pixar was going to rebound from its critical failure in Cars 2 (which I liked, if you may recall). Everything seemed set up for Brave to be an astounding success.

Then the initial reviews started to pour in. As of this moment, the film currently holds a seventy-three percent approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com, which is still considered a very good film. However, when you compare that to the rest of the Pixar canon, it seems a tad bit off-putting. I mean, the Toy Story films have received either perfect or near-perfect scores on the same website, and even some of the lesser Pixar ventures have fared better than that. Still, there's a many critics who have yet to see Brave, so maybe that's just the early viewers being a little too tough on the film. I mean, that makes sense, right? This particular critic says: Maybe.

Brave definitely offers quite a few things to enjoy. The first thing you're going to notice is just how beautifully-crafted the animators managed to make the visuals. In some ways, it's the most beautifully-animated Pixar film - and perhaps animated film overall - to date, and for that, it should be applauded. The work done with Merida, from her lifelike facial expressions to her wild curly hair, is utterly fantastic, and she may be the most realistic animated human character ever crafted. In addition, we're seeing quite a few beautiful locales that are so well-created that we may as well be seeing animated characters placed onto real-life camera shots. While I still think some of the visuals from 2008's WALL-E manage to take the cake, there's quite a bit to say about the work done here. Kudos, Pixar animators.

We're also getting a very strong vocal cast to bring forth these interesting characters. The meat of the character development belongs both to Merida and Elinor, and I personally thought that Macdonald and Thompson brought the best pieces to the film. The rest of the cast - which is mostly male, with one or two women popping up now and then - and they're all portrayed in an almost caricature-like fashion. So is it a coincidence that the Merida and Elinor are also the most realistic-looking and best-animated? I think not. It's a subtle hint to the viewer that we should be taking these women seriously while we can laugh at the men as they bumble about trying to bash each other's heads in. Still, the vocal work for the men proves entertaining. I'm a big fan of Billy Connolly's, and I thought he did well with his character. Also be on the listen for the likes of Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and the ever-present John Ratzenberger.

We also get a rather splendid musical score to accentuate the film. Patrick Doyle does well with crafting a score that's both adventurous and whimsical, and it fits the film to a tee. Interspersed with the orchestral segments are a number of songs that seemed, at least to me, a tad bit off-putting, but they still manage to capture and maintain the spirit of the film. Here's a snippet of the score for your listening pleasure:


And yet, despite all of this goodness, Brave does have a bit of a downfall, and it's not really where you'd expect it to happen. While Pixar has always been at the forefront of crafting beautifully-animated treats for their audiences, they've also been able to augment these visuals with astounding screenplays that manage to captivate and move their audiences towards whatever emotions they deem fit. Therein lies the problem with Brave. It almost feels as though we have an incomplete screenplay that doesn't necessarily punch home its message. While the story manages to be a good one, it definitely falls into predictability and rote rhetoric, and that's not something that audiences want to see, nor do they expect it from a studio like Pixar. It just didn't feel like the writers managed to figure out that one last emotional punch, and instead, we're left feeling almost a little bit empty. But it's empty in a good way, I suppose. There are still quite a few laughs to be had, and the story is easy to follow. Maybe we're all just so inundated with Pixar's brilliance that it's difficult to understand that the filmmakers are only human and we're going to hit a rocky patch eventually. It's just sad to see that it happened with a film that had so much promise.

All that being said, Brave was a solid film and definitely a step up from last year's Cars 2. Did it fail to meet everyone's expectations? Perhaps, but it's still head-and-shoulders over most animated fare being released out there nowadays. It's fantastic that Pixar finally took the leap and created a female-centric film, but I just think that they could've done Merida a little more justice than they did. If you're looking for a fanciful animated film like this that manages to impress on nearly every level, I strongly suggest taking a look at 2009's The Secret of Kells, which managed to blow me away. But Brave is still a great film that's worthy of your attention. Just don't expect it to leave a lasting mark in the way that Toy Story, WALL-E or Up did.


Movie Review Summary
Grade: B+
Should You See It? Yes

Happy Birthday, Nicole Kidman!

Today, we are celebrating the 45th birthday of Academy Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman. Originally a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, Kidman was born to Australian parents who soon moved back to Australia by the time she was four. As a child, she first loved ballet, but she also enjoyed elements of mime and drama. Acting soon became her refuge, and she spent many an hour in a dark theater practicing and perfecting her craft. While her professional film acting career began in the early 1980s, it really wasn't until her marriage to Tom Cruise in 1990 that Kidman truly burst onto the national scene. The two had two children together, but their marriage only lasted until 2001. Since then, Kidman has channeled her career toward three Oscar nominations - including one win - and she has become one of the most consistent actresses on the Hollywood scene. She re-married in 2006 to country music singer Keith Urban, with whom she also has two children. And now, here are some fun facts and accolades from Kidman's acting career:

Acting
First Film: Bush Christmas (1983)
Last Film: Trespass (2011)
Next Film: The Paperboy (2012)

Academy Awards
 Nominated: Best Actress, Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Won: Best Actress, The Hours (2002)
Nominated: Best Actress, Rabbit Hole (2010)

Over the years, I have managed to see ten of Kidman's films, and on average, her films have received a 'B-' grade. From those ten, I have created the following list of my five favorite of her performances:

5. Lady Sarah Ashley
Australia (2008)

*****

4. Grace Stewart
The Others (2001)

*****

3. Becca
Rabbit Hole (2010)

*****

2. Virginia Woolf
The Hours (2002)

*****

1. Satine
Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Once again, I'd like to wish Nicole Kidman a happy 45th birthday!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Favorite Film Fathers: A Father's Day Special

Today, we celebrate Father's Day. It's a day when all the dads out there should be allowed to sit back and relax. While we should always honor and respect and love our fathers, I suppose it's only fair that they receive a day all for themselves. That seems to be the American thing to do, I suppose. While you're all off celebrating your own fathers, I've crafted a list of my favorite cinematic dads. So, give it a view if you've got some time to kill, but just don't forget to call and tell your own dad that you love him.

To all the dads out there: Have a happy and safe Father's Day. You're all fantastic.

*****


25. Clark Griswold
Vacation (1983)
Portrayed by: Chevy Chase
As a man doing his best to keep his family's sanity together, Clark Griswold kicks off this list as one of my favorite movie dads of all time. When his family decides to take a cross-country road trip to visit Walley World, just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong. And although he might lose his cool time and again, Clark Griswold still manages to keep bringing the funny as well as a true sense of family bonding. Chevy Chase is pitch-perfect in the role, and he went on to portray the character on three other occasions over the years. But it all started with that little trip down to Walley World, and for that, we can all love him.

*****

24. Hal Fields
Beginners (2011)
Portrayed by: Christopher Plummer
A recent addition to the cinematic universe, Hal Fields might be one of the most complex fathers on the list. The on-screen father of Ewan McGregor, Hal Fields is a recent widower who comes out as a late-in-life homosexual before learning that he has a terminal illness. The film is told in flashbacks from McGregor's character, and we see Hal from his announcement as a gay man to the moment where his life expires. In the time between, we meet a fun-loving man who was always a little too hard on his son, and he's only now starting to realize it. It's a beautiful portrayal that ultimately earned Plummer an Academy Award, in case you were waiting for some extra merit.

*****

23. Jack Torrance
The Shining (1980)
Portrayed by: Jack Nicholson
Not all of the dad's on this list are going to be of the exemplary sort, and the first such addition is Jack Nicholson's maniacal father from The Shining. After taking a job watching a massive resort over the winter, Jack Torrance slowly tries to author a book he's been wanting to write for ages. However, the confines of the resort, where only he and his wife and son are staying, slowly starts to eat away at Jack's sanity, driving him into an eventual madness. It's a fantastic portrayal of crazy from the actor who may know it best, and although it might even prove a tad bit disturbing, Jack Torrance still proves to be one of the most memorable movie dads I've ever seen.

*****

22. Richard Hoover
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Portrayed by: Greg Kinnear
In this family-oriented dramatic comedy, parents Sheryl and Richard Hoover take a road trip to give their daughter Olive the chance to compete in a beauty pageant, despite the incredible amount of upheaval between them and their children in the first place. Greg Kinnear plays Richard, a man striving to be a motivational speaker and life coach, and for the majority of the film, he spends most of his time trying to work out a deal with his agent. At the end of the day, however, Richard finally comes over the the side of being a family man and is the first to stand behind Olive and cheer her during her pageant performance.

*****

21. Captain Teague
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
Portrayed by: Keith Richards
After Johnny Depp scored an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, we all began to hear that he based the character's personality around legendary Rolling Stones rocker Keith Richards. And so, when the third installment in the franchise finally rolled around, they managed to secure Richards to portray Cap'n Jack's father, and although it's only a small cameo appearance, it still adds quite a bit of sizzle to the Sparrow story. And seeing the two on-screen at the same time made for quite the atmosphere. Richards would go on to reprise the role in the following film, On Stranger Tides.

*****

20. Royal Tenenbaum
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Portrayed by: Gene Hackman
In a bit of wordplay, this character actually manages to steal the film's title as well. Gene Hackman plays a man who's slowly trying to pull his dysfunctional family together before he allegedly kicks the bucket. While it proves to be quite an endeavor, we learn to know and love the man who helped create such a chaotic atmosphere, even if his methods are a little bit shady. Although I can't quite say that he's the man who stands out in The Royal Tenenbaums, it'd be difficult not to argue that it is Hackman's character that provides the glue for all the insanity.

*****

19. Mr. O'Brien
The Tree of Life (2011)
Portrayed by: Brad Pitt
Another recent addition to the movie universe, Brad Pitt's portrayal of this intense father in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life managed to blow me away. O'Brien is an incredibly complex character, but he's one with which many can probably relate. Although we know that he loves his wife and his children, he also demands the utmost respect from all of them. If they do not manage to maintain that level of respect of authority, O'Brien is prone to lose his temper and take out his rage on his children. I said that not every father on this list would be the opportune dad, but there's something so beautifully courageous about Pitt's portrayal that I had to give it mention here.

*****

18. Bill Maplewood
Happiness (1998)
Portrayed by: Dylan Baker
Speaking of not-so-great fathers, I'd have to say that the Bill Maplewood character from Todd Solondz's Happiness will probably take the cake. I won't get into specifics, but he just might be the most vile cinematic father I've ever seen, and that's part of what makes him appealing. So is the context in which he's presented to the audience. Happiness is a black comedy that delves into some very taboo subjects, so be forewarned if you're going to give it a view. Maplewood proves to be a disgusting but likable man, but his merits as a father are somewhat lacking. Still, despite all his apparent flaws, he's still likable.

*****

17. Dill
Easy A (2010)
Portrayed by: Stanley Tucci
Let's switch gears and offer up one of the fantastically comedic fathers I've ever met on-screen. Stanley Tucci brings to life a character so agreeably lovable that you'll wish he was your own dad (or you'll at least wish your dad was more like him). Teamed with an equally-brilliant Patricia Clarkson, Tucci's Dill manages to make you laugh and feel completely secure all at the same time. Add a little bit of attempted modern-day hipness, and you've got the makings of a dad with whom most people will probably relate. Emma Stone only wishes she really had it so lucky.

*****

16. Michael Sullivan
Road to Perdition (2002)
Portrayed by: Tom Hanks
After getting in a bit of trouble with his gang and his boss, bad guy Michael Sullivan grabs his son, and the two make their way to find safe haven from the men who are trying to kill them. It's an interesting portrayal by Tom Hanks, and it just might be the best of his career (which is saying quite a bit considering the career he's had). It's a subdued performance that oozes emotion, and although he's not necessarily the best guy or the best father, his undying love for his son is going to win you over and keep you invested in his and his son's personal safety. Truly a beautiful character crafted by Hanks.

*****

15. Ernie
Bart Got a Room (2009)
Portrayed by: William H. Macy
This is probably a film most people won't know, but if there's any reason to watch it, it's for William H. Macy's performance as the titular character's father. The film follows the story of Bart, a high school senior attempting to book a room for post-prom entertainment, but he's having a little trouble in terms of actually getting a date. And so, he goes to his recently-separated parents for advice, but his father is already out on the dating scene, so their conversations happen to drift towards his issues as well. It's a hilarious portrayal by Macy, and you'll definitely remember him once the film is over.

*****

14. Mufasa
The Lion King (1994)
Voiced by: James Earl Jones
No list of the best film fathers would be complete without mentioning the king of Pride Rock. Although we can see that Mufasa is a hard-nosed leader and a stickler for staying in line, his relationship with his son Simba proves to be too endearing to pass. In his short amount of screen-time, we see him pass on vast amounts of knowledge to his son, all of which will be crucial in his upbringing and learning about the world. His love for his son goes so far that Mufasa ultimately pays the greatest sacrifice in order to keep him safe. I'd say that's one pretty awesome dad right there.

*****

13. Vito Corleone
The Godfather (1972)
Portrayed by: Marlon Brando
Although most people will remember his as the "godfather," Vito Corleone was also a father, and a pretty decent one, in fact. He managed to bring his sons up in a dangerous world, and although he may have been the centerpiece around which danger revolved, Vito still does a decent job making sure his children are raised properly and are ready to take over the family business whenever his time may come. A brilliant performance by Marlon Brando, it just might seem a tad bit out of place here considering no one thinks of Vito as a father first and then the Godfather. Still, he is both, so his name warrants mention on this list.

*****

12. Giuseppe Conlon
In the Name of the Father (1993)
Portrayed by: Pete Postlethwaite
In the Name of the Father offers the real-life tale of Gerry Conlon, an Irish man who was wrongfully incarcerated for the a terrorist bombing. He and his father Giuseppe, as well as a two others, are known as the Guildford Four, and they each receive long-term imprisonment. Although this story focuses on Gerry (played very well by Daniel Day-Lewis), we get a very interesting - and important - character from the likes of Pete Postlethwaite. It's his character's ups and downs that give drive to Gerry, and that makes for an interesting dynamic between father and son. They're not always on the same page, and their love for one another is strained, but when it comes down to it, they still have an immense loyalty toward one another.

*****

11. Calvin Jarrett
Ordinary People (1980)
Portrayed by: Donald Sutherland
Ordinary People is an Academy Award-winning film based off the Judith Guest novel of the same name, and it's a story that I hold very dearly toward my heart. The relationships in the story between the son and his parents are very similar to mine, so I often have a difficult time watching the film. Now I'm not saying that Calvin Jarrett and my father are the same man, but there are definitely more similarities between him and my dad than other big-screen fathers. That's part of what makes him endearing to me. Others may not have the same reaction, but the Jarrett family will always be a very important family to me.

*****

10. George Bailey
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Portrayed by: James Stewart
Arguably one of the most iconic on-screen dads, George Bailey has raced into the hearts of millions over the years. We're always able to see his escapades come Christmastime, as It's a Wonderful Life is played on a near-constant loop. Still, there's quite a bit to like about a guy who continually puts everyone before himself. Sure, it gets him into a bit of trouble towards the end of the film, but his generous nature makes him not only a great father but also a fantastic human being. That's what makes George Bailey so likable.

*****

9. Mac MacGuff
Juno (2007)
Portrayed by: J.K. Simmons
One of the funniest dads I've ever seen grace the silver screen, Mac MacGuff sure has a handful with his daughter Juno. He's typically an easy-going guy, but he's a bit blind-sided by his daughter's announcement that she's pregnant. Despite his shock, however, he stands behind her and makes sure everything goes exactly to plan. At the same time, he manages to take some loving shots at his ever-expanding daughter, but we know that when it comes right down to it, Mac will always do whatever is best for Juno. That's the definition of love, in my opinion.

*****

8. Marlin
Finding Nemo (2003)
Voiced by: Albert Brooks
The second and final animated character to nab a spot on this list, you'd have a tough time making an argument against Marlin's inclusion. From the very outset of the film, he spends his every waking moment trying to make the ocean a safer place for his son Nemo. But when Nemo goes missing, Marlin throws out all his inhibitions and takes a cross-ocean journey to save his son. There's a level of dedication in this character that's unmatched, and he manages to be entertaining all the way throughout. Great job, Pixar, and great job Albert Brooks for giving Marlin life.

*****

7. Daniel
Crash (2005)
Portrayed by: Michael Peña
In a film that's full of a number of big-time actors, it might be difficult to remember a small player like Michael Peña. In the end, each character offers some small tidbit of the final product, but for me, none is as memorable as locksmith Daniel. He portrays a character who's the most straight-forward and law-abiding in a entire film where everybody is a little bit crooked. But it's his relationship with his daughter that makes Daniel so memorable. He only has two scenes with her, but those prove to be the most powerful and heart-wrenching in the film. He's a great father, and that alone makes him a good man.

*****

6. Jack Byrnes
Meet the Parents (2000)
Portrayed by: Robert De Niro
Everyone knows how terrifying it can be to meet your significant other's parents, but Jack Byrnes takes that terror to a whole new level. As an ex-CIA counterintelligence officer, he's incredibly suspicious of his daughter's new beau (portrayed by Ben Stiller) and he puts him through the ringer in terms of trying to understand his plans. De Niro is pitch-perfect in the role, and he's the most memorable part of the Meet the Parents franchise which has now spanned three films. And through it all, De Niro has managed to be the most consistent character, offering a nice bit of comedy each and every time.

*****

5. Chris Gardner
The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Portrayed by: Will Smith
If you're looking for an emotional performance, you need not look past Will Smith's in The Pursuit of Happyness. He plays a down-on-his-luck salesman Chris Gardner who is just barely scraping by to keep he and his son (played by real-life son Jaden) from starving. Still, the two have to live on the streets until Chris can find a way to make enough money for the two to have a home. There are a few moments in the film where I'm sure most people will be choking back tears. It's an incredibly emotional tale of a man just trying to do everything he can to make sure his son is happy, but it's not an easy road to take.

*****

4. Guido Orefice
Life Is Beautiful (1998)
Portrayed by: Roberto Benigni
When you think about a movie about the Holocaust, you're probably thinking you'll be in for a deafeningly depressing film that's sure to draw a few tears. In the case of the Italian film La vita è bella, you'd only be half right. The finale is sure to leave you wanting to release all your emotions, but the film itself is more of a comedic drama. Roberto Benigni plays a Jewish man who's been taking to a concentration camp with his wife and young son. To avoid scaring his son, however, he tells him that the camp is a type of game that he must try to win. This plays for a number of comedic results, but at the end of the day, the audience and the characters cannot put aside the reality of where they are. It makes for a heart-wrenching finale, but the journey to that point crafts a beautiful father who only wants to keep his son safe from the injustices of the world.

*****

3. Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Portrayed by: David Prowse; Voiced by: James Earl Jones
It would be impossible to leave Darth Vader off this particular list. The only real issue with adding him was choosing which film from which I should cite him. I ultimately chose The Empire Strikes Back, reasoning that that was the film that dropped the "I am your father" bombshell. One of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history, it completely changed the entire dynamic of the Star Wars franchise, adding an almost Shakespearean element. The prequels have gone on to explain some of Darth Vader's backstory as Anakin Skywalker, but that moment when Luke learns of his patriarchal lineage is still one of the most shocking and most profound moments in film history. 

*****

2. Henry Jones, Sr.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Portrayed by: Sean Connery
When I think about movie dads, Sean Connery's portrayal of Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. is always one of the first to come to mind. It took three films, but Steven Spielberg and George Lucas finally gave Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones a father, and what a sight it is to behold. The interplay between the two men on-screen is so authentic that they may a well be real-life father and son. They seem to be cut from the same cloth, and it only makes for a more entertaining journey through their European escapades. Ford would go on to pull a similar performance in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but the chemistry between he and Shia LaBeouf just wasn't the same as the Ford/Connery chemistry.

*****

1. Atticus Finch
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Portrayed by: Gregory Peck
It would take a lot to top Sean Connery's Henry Jones, Sr., but if anybody could do it, it would be Atticus Finch. In a film adapted from one of the greatest American novels ever written, Gregory Peck manages to do everything just right. He's a father first, but he also has a very distinct set of morals and a knowing sense of right and wrong. He spends the entire film upholding justice, all the while trying instill his sense of morality into his children. He has his moments where he demands respect, but it's ultimately love that comes through it all, and that what makes him so great. It's not much of a stretch to say that Atticus is the perfect cinematic father, and I'll gladly take that stance any day.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Movie Review: ROCK OF AGES

ROCK OF AGES
2012
PG-13


"This place is about to become a sea of sweat, ear-shattering music and puke."
-- Dennis Dupree

Rock of Ages is a 2012 dramatic musical film directed by Adam Shankman that serves as a big-screen adaptation of the off-Broadway musical of the same name. The film opens in 1987 with Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) on a bus from her native Oklahoma to Los Angeles, where she hopes to find fame and fortune. Shortly after arriving, however, she's mugged and finds herself lost and nearly penniless. Enter young aspiring singer Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) who manages to get her a job at a popular nightclub called The Bourbon Room. The famed venue, however, has hit a recent string of financial troubles, and owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his partner Lonny (Russell Brand) are desperately trying to keep the Bourbon Room afloat all while dealing with the ultra-right-wing wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of the city mayor. In a bit of luck, they manage to book the final performance of a band called Arsenal, which is fronted by superstar rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). As the night of the massive performance draws near, however, relationships between each of the characters begin to strain, causing a massage amount of upheaval inside The Bourbon Room.

I would like to start by saying that, while I have long wanted to see Rock of Ages in its stage incarnation, I have never had the opportunity. Therefore, I went into the film version a little bit blind, seeing the storyline for the first time. All I knew entering the film was that it was all about rock 'n roll and that Tom Cruise was supposedly going to sing. And always being up for a bit of rock music, I figured I'd have a excellent time. Cue the "Bill & Ted" guitar riff.

Unfortunately, Rock of Ages is missing a few notes here and there. One of the biggest problems with the film is that we're getting a rather humdrum screenplay that's about as predictable as you can get. From the opening scene, we know exactly what direction the film is headed, and that takes a little bit away from the film. If the audience knows how the film's going to end, then what's the point of enjoying the ride? Sometimes the ride is enough to keep a viewer engaged, but if we're simply going off the storyline and the plot devices, then Rock of Ages is sinking, and sinking fast.

Also, we're not getting a ton of help from the cast, at least in terms of their acting. Despite the fact that the film holds an all-star cast, I couldn't really find anything terribly redeeming about the acting portion of the performances. Our film's leads - Hough and Boneta - are both a little too laughable from time to time, and they manage to chew the scenery just a little too much. Cruise is decent, but it's nowhere near his best on-screen role. And to be honest, it was a little bit strange seeing him portray sexual rock 'n roll god. He's never been an overt sex symbol during his career, and to have him try to bring that to the table at his current age just seems a little bit weird. We get a bit of nice interplay between Brand and Baldwin, who probably offer the film's best performances. And still, they're only serviceable. Even great actors like Paul Giamatti and Bryan Cranston can't bring this film any higher. Also be on the watch for decent bit pieces from Malin Akerman and Mary J. Blige, as well as cameos from Will Forte, Eli Roth and T.J. Miller.

Now, I only said that the acting portions of the cast's performances were a little lackluster. Where Rock of Ages does manage to excel is in its soundtrack, and each of the performers brings their A-game for that part of the film. I was thoroughly impressed with Hough and Boneta as our stars, and even Cruise manages to bust out a few songs relatively well. Brand, as you may already know, is a fantastic singer, and his bits are glorious indeed. Even Baldwin and Giamatti manage to sing a few lines here and there, and it works to a nice effect. However, the real glory I think belongs to Boneta, who proves to be - arguably - the best singer of the bunch, and he has some of the most opportunity to belt it out. He even manages to overshadow Hough, which is surprising considering she's also very good. Overall, the soundtrack is fantastic, and I thought that some of the song mash-ups worked relatively well.

At the end of the day, however, Rock of Ages simply isn't that great of a film. It has a shoddy screenplay and weak character development, and normally, that would be enough to doom any movie. However, with a stellar soundtrack like this one has, it's tough not to have fun with Rock of Ages. Anyone who's a fan of this particular genre of rock 'n roll is going to get caught up in the emotion of the songs, and that might lead a viewer to believe they're having an emotional connection with the film. I'd bet that won't be the case, seeing as if you take away the music, then this film's about as devoid of emotion as you can get. It's the music that proves to be the glue in the film, keeping it together just long enough to keep the audience entertained from start to finish.


Movie Review Summary
Grade: C
Should You Watch It? Maybe

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Happy Birthday, Chris Evans!

Today, we are celebrating the 31st birthday of actor Chris Evans. A native of Boston, Evans' acting career began at a young age as he performed in school productions and plays. After teachers noticed and commended him on his talent, he began to look upwards towards bigger and bigger roles. He interned at a casting agency and created relationships with a number of agents, one of whom would eventually sign him as a client. Evans was drawn to the screen rather than the stage, and he began to audition for television shows and feature films. Based on his talent and his good looks, it wasn't long until he managed to nab a role here and there. Despite working consistently through the early 2000s, it wasn't until the mid-2000s that Evans erupted into stardom, and it has only been recently that he has become a Hollywood superstar. Here's a look at some of the fun facts regarding Evans' acting career:

Acting
First Film: The Newcomers (2000)
Last Film: The Avengers (2012)
Next Film: The Iceman (2013)

Over the years, I have seen ten of Evans' films, and on average, they have received a 'C+' grade. From those ten, I have created the following list of my five favorite of Chris Evans' performances:

5. Johnny Storm
Fantastic Four (2005)

*****

4. Jake Wyler
Not Another Teen Movie (2001)

*****

3. Jensen
The Losers (2010)

*****

2. Lucas Lee
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

*****

1. Steve Rogers / Captain America

Once again, I would like to wish Chris Evans a happy 31st birthday!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Movie Review: SONG OF THE SOUTH

SONG OF THE SOUTH
1946
G


"Johnny didn't mean no harm. He was just tryin' to be like Br'er Rabbit."
-- Uncle Remus

Song of the South is a 1946 Disney film directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson that blends live action with traditional animation. It tells the story of a young boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) who thinks he's going on vacation to his grandmother's plantation. Once his family arrives, however, he learns that only he and his mother Sally (Ruth Warrick) are staying while his father (Erik Rolf) must return to Atlanta for work. Distraught by his father's sudden departure, Johnny decides to run away and make his way back home to Atlanta. As he tries to leave the plantation, however, he stumbles across an elderly African-American gentleman named Uncle Remus (James Baskett), who is known by all for his comical but enlightening tales. He begins to tell Johnny stories about a time long ago, when real folks and "critters" lived in harmony. Through these stories, Johnny starts to learn valuable life lessons, but his mother isn't terribly keen about Uncle Remus filling Johnny's head with these fanciful stories, beneficial as they may seem.

For years and years, Song of the South has been the seeming black mark on the face of Disney films. Although they've had their share of so-so films in the past, there has been nothing to measure up to the controversy surrounding this particular film. The negative publicity towards Song of the South has reached such an uproar that Disney has refused to release the film on any type of home viewing medium since the film was re-released in theaters in 1986. Since that time, it has been nearly impossible to find any copy of the film (although, sources have informed me that DVD copies of the film are available for purchase in England and Japan; I cannot, however, prove these rumors to be true). In today's day and age, most people's most direct contact with the Song of the South story matter comes from the log flume attraction Splash Mountain, located at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, and Tokyo Disneyland in Japan. For years, I've wanted to see Song of the South to see just how terribly controversial it might be, and today proved to be the opportunity I had always wanted. So let's talk about it, shall we?

The first thing I want to say is this: I loved Song of the South. While I have always been and will always be a bit of a Disney fanatic and shame-lacking apologist, I do have to admit I am a bit biased; however, I do have to say that the film proved to be both entertaining and visually beautiful. I will discuss my opinions about the controversial aspects of this film, but I want to talk about its merits first, if you don't mind.

I think it's best to start with the technical aspects of this film. As one of the first major motion pictures to feature both live-action film and animation, Song of the South can easily be considered groundbreaking. Since this time, the use of both animation and live-action has been utilized on a number of occasions, ranging from tiny snippets here and there to films full-blown with the blend such as 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. However, I do have to say that, despite its old age and early technology, Song of the South provides some of the most seamless animation and live-action blending I've ever seen. On three separate occasions, we delve into a world of animation in which Uncle Remus often times enters himself, and this effect alone is worth praise. However, I was most blown away by the film's finale, in which a number of the animated characters come to life in the live-action sequences. It's so well-done that it'll have you believing they just shot it that way and happened to have some very colorful critters bouncing around on that sunny day. So, kudos to the animators who helped bring this film to life.

The film's screenplay also manages to offer quite a bit of delight. It's a simple tale about a boy struggling with the idea of an absent father, and in his stead, he finds a mentor and friend in Uncle Remus, who proceeds to tell him a number of fanciful stories that are meant both to entertain and to teach. Where the screenplay succeeds, however, is in taking these stories and bringing them into Johnny's everyday life. We as the audience see him learn and adapt his behavior based off these tales, and it's these parallels that bring the screenplay from a "good" one to a "great" one.

The acting in the film is also relatively good, considering the type of film we're receiving. Baskett is great as Uncle Remus, sticking with the character from start to finish (Fun Fact: Baskett also provides the vocal performance for the clever Br'er Fox in his stories). Driscoll is serviceable as our leading child actor, although I can see where some viewers might get a little annoyed by him. The rest of the cast fills out nicely, and it's nice to see Hattie McDaniel, even if she's in a limited role.

One of the best things about the film is the music. It's billed as a musical, so Song of the South has to deliver on that particular front, and it certainly does not disappoint. Now, everybody knows the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," but many won't know that it actually took home the Oscar statuette for Best Original Song in 1947. And fans of the Splash Mountain attractions will recognize songs like "How Do You Do?" and "Everybody's Got a Laughing Place." All in all, the soundtrack proves to be fantastic, and all the songs are catchy and are sure to put a smile on your face.

And now, for the controversy. Opponents of this film have often claimed that Song of the South portrays a prejudiced view of African-Americans. The film takes place in the South during a time when slavery was still legal, so it is safe to assume that each of the black actors in the film is, in fact, a slave on the plantation. At times, this can be difficult to remember because of the relationship between the white and the black characters. In nearly every other film that deals with the subject of slavery in the United States, we see a bigoted Caucasian family hatefully driving work from their African-American slaves, all the while standing high above them. Song of the South instead offers a tale where the two races seemingly stand on equal footing, with everyone generally getting along. And that's where some of the controversy has started. Even in 1946, when the film was first released, these ideas were brought to the forefront. One of the heads of the NAACP at the time wrote that the film "unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts." In addition, it has often been claimed that the performances by the black actors are incredibly stereotypical, and for this, the film has been often criticized.

I stand here now to tell you two things: first, I agree with all of the racial issues I have just mentioned, and second, I'm not sure any of it is really that much of a problem. While I can plainly see where the issues might arise, I think that all of this film's opponents are reaching a tad too far into their over-analysis of the film. Yes, there are definitely some stereotypes tossed around here and there, but I think the fact that Disney took the chance to put the African-American characters on equal footing with the white characters is quite a testament in and of itself. For a film to do that in the 1940s is entirely unheard of, and I think that Disney should be commended for the effort. Disney films have always tried to create ideal cinematic worlds, so why shouldn't one of their first major forays into the live-action genre do the same? There's never a sense of hatred or bigotry in the story's telling, so the fact that so many people read that into the story is a terrible notion. The fact that it's been done so much that Disney simply will not release the film is a tragedy.

At the end of the day, Song of the South is a beautifully-crafted film that proves to be entertaining and engaging. While the stigmas of the controversy are sure to swirl around this film until the end of time, I honestly don't think that it's as bad as all the critics make it out to be. I think there's a lot of fun to be had with this film, and if you can find yourself a copy, do yourself a favor and give it a view.


Movie Review Summary
Grade: B+
Should You Watch It? Yes

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Movie Review: VOLCANO

VOLCANO
1997
PG-13


"Lava? Right here in L.A.?"
-- Mike Roark

Volcano is a 1997 action film directed by Mick Jackson. On a regular day in Los Angeles, a moderate-sized earthquake entices Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones), the head of the city's Office of Emergency Management, to put his vacation time with his daughter Kelly (Gaby Hoffman) on hold so that he can investigate the ramifications. After a number of city workers are injured and killed in some of the sewer system, Mike elects to search the area himself, finding an incredibly high temperature level in some of the city's subterranean areas. He calls on a geologist named Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) for help, and she offers the theory that there could possibly be some sort of volcanic event occurring beneath the city streets. Miffed by the idea, Roark shrugs off the theory and goes about his business in finding a way to ensure everything is fixed properly. After a massive aftershock the following morning, however, Mike comes face to face with the start of a volcanic eruption as lava starts to burst out of the La Brea Tar Pits. Head to head against the deadliest crisis he has ever seen, Mike steps up to the challenge and leads the charge to stop the super-hot substance from destroying everything in its path.

I can distinctly recall seeing the trailer for Volcano in theaters as I waited to watch one of the Star Wars "Special Edition" re-releases in early 1997. As an eight-year-old living in Los Angeles County, the sight of a volcanic eruption in Downtown L.A. frightened me to no end, and I can remember closing my eyes and covering my ears at the preview playing before me. I soon forgot about the trailer as my film of choice began, but I'll always remember that initial feeling I had when I first heard about Volcano. Over the years, I have seen bits and pieces of the film, ranging from a few seconds on television to a clip here or there on the Internet. I've always had a desire to give it a view, despite the fact that it's been relatively panned by critics and audiences alike. Something about it entering my consciousness at such a young age has continued to draw me to it, and now that I've finally had the opportunity to give it a view, I figured I would share my thoughts on the flick.

To be fair, there probably isn't a ton that I can say now, fifteen years after the fact, that's going to cause any sort of revelation about this film and its place in cinematic history. It's your typical disaster flick, with a so-so story about survival and heroism, and the character development is forced yet still underdeveloped. Essentially, we're just getting the reactions of characters to the events surrounding them, but there isn't anything terribly in-depth about the film at all. It's a shallow movie that doesn't force you to think, and some of the scenarios are downright outlandish. It forces emotion on its viewers through a string of "heroic" acts - always shot in slow motion, by the way - that serve as the only true feeling within the film itself. I can't say that this film ever truly deserved to be considered a "quality" flick, but who knows, right?

The cast proves to be decent, but it's not as though anyone is truly stepping up to the plate to stand above the rest. Jones and Heche as serviceable in the leading roles, and the aforementioned Hoffman is okay in her limited amount of screen-time. Don Cheadle, one of my personal favorite actors, manages to shine just a little bit brighter whenever he's on-screen, and his presence alone makes this one worth watching for me personally. We get a decent bit from Jacqueline Kim as a selfless surgeon trying to help the injured, and we even get a bit performance from Keith David, so that's nice, I guess.

Also, I do have to say that I'm not quite sure how to critique the film's special effects. At times, the computer-generated lava flow seems to look very realistic, but at other times, it's so blatantly apparent that it's been crafted by through CGI. The sign of strong computer-generated effects is the inability for the viewer to distinguish between the effect and the real world, and at times, Volcano succeeds in doing just that. It just isn't consistent throughout the entire film. There are a few moments where you simply have to laugh at the shoddy effects and take it for what it is. At a time when films were creating realistic-looking dinosaurs for Jurassic Park or brilliant effects for Titanic, it's hard to explain how Volcano managed to drop the ball.

And still, despite everything I've just said, there's something endearingly entertaining about the film that stems from its simplicity. From the start of the film, we can hear the engine revving in the background, and as soon as it steps on the pedal, the film never lets off and never allows the viewer a moment to look away. Sure, there are going to be moments where you'll laugh at something over-the-top and ridiculous, but you're going to be honed in on the movie as it progresses forward, laughable as it may be. It's a selfless film that holds no delusions of grandeur; rather, it simply offers what it has and does its very best to keep us engaged until the final credits role. In that simple task, I think Volcano is a triumphant success, and although it's nowhere near the most intriguing of the disaster films, I have to say that it's definitely one of the most entertaining.


Movie Review Summary
Grade: D+
Should You Watch It? Maybe

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Happy Birthday, James Newton Howard!

Today, we are celebrating the 61st birthday of Oscar-nominated composer James Newton Howard. A Los Angeles native, Howard attended the University of Southern California's music school, but he dropped out so that he could tour with Elton John. From there, Howard turned to composing and creating music for film and television, and he's been doing that ever since. Interestingly enough, Howard never actually conducts his own music; rather, he simply crafts and composes it then allows other conductors to take the helm in bringing the score to life. In his career, he has scored over one hundred films, and he continues to go strong to this day. In recent years, he has established an ongoing relationship with director M. Night Shyamalan, for whom Howard has scored a number of films. In his personal life, Howard has been married twice: first to Rosanna Arquette for just over a year, and then to Sophie Howard, with whom he has been married since 1992 and with whom he has had two children. And now, here's a few fun facts and accolades that Howard has earned throughout his career:

Composing
First Film: Head Office (1985)
Last Film: Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
Next Film: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

Academy Awards
Nominated: Best Original Score, The Princes of Tides (1991)
Nominated: Best Original Score, The Fugitive (1993)
Nominated: Best Original Song, Junior (1994)
Nominated: Best Original Song, One Fine Day (1996)
Nominated: Best Original Score, My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)
Nominated: Best Original Score, The Village (2004)
Nominated: Best Original Score, Michael Clayton (2007)
Nominated: Best Original Score, Defiance (2008)

Over the years, I have managed to see thirty-one films with Howard's scores, and on average, those films have received a 'B-' grade. From those thirty-one, I have created the following list of my five favorite of his scores:

5. Defiance
2008

*****

4. The Sixth Sense
1999

*****

3. Waterworld
1995

*****

2. Batman Begins
(with Hans Zimmer)
2005

*****

1. King Kong
2005

Once again, I'd like to wish James Newton Howard a happy 61st birthday!

Movie Review: PROMETHEUS

PROMETHEUS
2012
R


"Big things have small beginnings."
-- David

Prometheus is a 2012 sci-fi horror film directed by Ridley Scott that serves as a quasi-prequel to Scott's 1979 film, Alien. After archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a string of clues to the origin of human life on Earth, they enlist the help of the Weyland Corporation to make their way to a distant planet where they believe they will find the alien species that created humanity. Once there, they find the remains of what looks to be an old colony, but as they continue to explore the caves, they start to realize that there may be a menace amongst them that's more powerful and more terrifying than they could have ever imagined.

Those of you who follow my blog will know just how excited I have been for the release of Prometheus. As a huge fan of Scott's original Alien, I waited (im)patiently for his return to the franchise after thirty-three years. And for most of the film, I have to say that I was filled with an awkward giddiness that kept me engaged from start to finish. It's only in the time after the movie ended that I've started to realize that Prometheus wasn't all it's cracked up to be.

The first major issue with the film is its place as a "quasi-prequel" to 1979's Alien. In recent months, Scott had claimed that while the film would not directly precede the events of Alien, it would take place within the same cinematic universe and would explore the mythologies behind the creatures and events he created within that universe. And so, I was prepared for a film similar to Alien but not necessarily connected to it in any way, shape or form. Where the film goes wrong is in its execution of this idea. Rather than steering clear of the Alien storyline, Prometheus acts as though it's going to answer all the questions left resonating by its predecessor. It has all the pieces to do so, but it's only in the final act that it becomes clear that the situations aren't exactly the same. In a way, the film hypes up the story as a direct prequel but then ungraciously reminds the viewer that it isn't by taking the story in a different direction right at the end. Perhaps I was just put off by this idea, but it took me out of the film and made for a bit of a disappointment.

The second issue is the screenplay itself. While the story proves to be inventive, and it does manage to channel some familiar plot pieces from previous Alien films, it doesn't seem as though the situations are interconnected or plausible. We go from one scene to the next, but we're never quite sure why anyone is doing any particular thing at any given time. I suppose the real issue is that we're never given a clear sense of any character motivation. In past Alien films - especially in the original flick - we always had a great sense of character development. We knew who was doing what, and why they wanted to do it. In Prometheus, however, these things prove to be a bit clouded. Our two archaeologists seem straight-forward enough: they want to learn the origins of human life. But it's some of the ancillary characters who act in strange and peculiar ways, and there really isn't a reason given for some of their actions. And aside from Michael Fassbender's David (an android), we never really get to know any of the characters on an intimate level. Maybe that was the idea, and the joke. Let's make the audience know the most about the only non-human character on board the ship. My biggest issue with the screenplay, however, is that it tried to force emotion onto the audience in blatant and over-the-top ways. Because we couldn't establish any real connection to the characters, it seemed as though tiny plot pieces were added here and there to make us feel some sort of emotion to a given character from time to time. Unfortunately, these moments just seemed gimmicky and proved annoying after a while.

What's sad about all this is that the screenplay actually spoils some rather fine attributes about the film. For starters, I thought the special effects were incredibly well-done, and although they're nothing ground-breaking, it definitely looks realistic, and for that, Prometheus should be applauded. We're also getting a slew of decent performances from the cast. Rapace is good as our apparent lead, although I know she's capable of stronger work (see: 2010's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Fassbender offers the best performance in the film, bringing forth an android that is both the most and least human-like in the franchise. That's quite a feat considering we've gotten some great android performances in past films in the franchise from the likes of Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen. I also thought that Charlize Theron and Idris Elba played their parts well, but both were a tad bit under-utilized, in my opinion. Also be on the watch for a fine supporting performance from Guy Pearce, who you may not recognize under all his makeup.

Still, despite everything I've just said, I have a strong desire to return to the theaters to give this one another chance. Part of me thinks that the only reason I'm so put-off by the film is because it hyped itself up to be a direct prequel then left even more questions unanswered. It's almost as though Scott wanted to leave this film open-ended for a potential sequel, and I can see where they might have the possibility. I suppose we'll have to wait and see about that, but I very well may give this one another view, and should I do so, my thoughts and opinions could very well change drastically. But as it currently stands, I'd go into this one a little wary because, despite all the issues I have with its "quasi-prequel" status, there are still a few negative aspects that simply cannot be overlooked.


Movie Review Summary
Grade: B-
Should You See It? Maybe

Happy Birthday, Natalie Portman!

Today, we are celebrating the 31st birthday of actress Natalie Portman. Born Natalie Hershlag in Jerusalem, her family soon moved to the United States and ultimately settled in New York, where she still currently resides. Although she succeeded academically, Portman managed to nab a few film roles as a teenager that started her on her acting journey. It wasn't until her role as Queen Amidala in the Star Wars prequels that she hit superstardom, and those performances helped open a number of doors for her continuing career. At the same time, however, Portman attended Harvard University and graduated with a degree in psychology. In 2009, Portman started to date her Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied. The two have since been married and have a son. Here's a few fun facts and accolades awarded to Natalie Portman throughout her acting career:

Acting
First Film: Léon: The Professional (1994)
Last Film: Thor (2011)
Next Film: Lawless (2013)

Academy Awards
Nominated: Best Supporting Actress, Closer (2004)
Won: Best Actress, Black Swan (2010)

Over the years, I've managed to see twelve of Portman's films, and on average, her films have received a 'B' grade. From these twelve, I have created the following list of my five favorite of her performances: 

5. Grace Cahill
Brothers (2009)

*****

4. Evey
V for Vendetta (2006)

*****

3. Sara
Cold Mountain (2003)

*****

2. Sam
Garden State (2004)

*****

1. Nina Sayers
Black Swan (2010)

Once again, I would like to wish Natalie Portman a happy 31st birthday!

Happy Birthday, Johnny Depp!

Today, I am happy to celebrate the 49th birthday of Oscar-nominated actor Johnny Depp. A native of Kentucky, Depp has spent his career making a name as one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. Originally, he aspired to be a rock musician, but after nabbing a leading role in the television show "21 Jump Street," he shifted his aspirations to the silver screen. Over the years, Depp has formed a very close relationship with director Tim Burton, and he has appeared in seven of Burton's films. It is this relationship for which he is most known, but Depp has managed to wow audiences and critics on a number of other occasions as well. His superstardom skyrocketed with his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He based the character off Keith Richards, a member of the Rolling Stones, and one could say that Depp finally got the opportunity to be a rock star, if only for a little while. Depp's performance as Jack Sparrow has opened a number of doors for his career, and he has only continued to grown in popularity ever since. Here's a look at some of the fun facts and accolades that Depp has earned throughout his career:

Acting
First Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Last Film: Dark Shadows (2012)
Next Film: The Lone Ranger (2013)

Academy Awards
Nominated: Best Actor, Finding Neverland (2004)
Nominated: Best Actor, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2009)

Over the years, I've managed to see twenty of Depp's films, and on average, his films have received a 'B+' grade. From these twenty, I have created the following list of my five favorite of his performances: 

5. John Dillinger
Public Enemies (2009)

*****

4. Edward Scissorhands

*****

3. Sir James Matthew Barrie
Finding Neverland (2004)

*****

2. Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

*****

1. Captain Jack Sparrow
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Once again, I would like to wish Johnny Depp a happy 49th birthday!