Film Review: The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Voice talents of: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David
Directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker
Written by:Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards
Rated: G
Rating: 3 (out of five)

princess-and-the-frog-poster I haven’t thought much of Disney Animation for a long while.  I really had to think coming out of the theater about what movies they had released in the last decade.  Disney’s partnership with Pixar has far outweighed Disney’s solo releases.  Those that I could think of I didn’t particularly enjoy.  Whether it’s just my imagination or not, but Disney Animation Studios has had a losing streak for while.

Pixar has proved recently that family-friendly entertainment need not be without a touch of darkness to it.  Some of the best children’s story are themselves a little dark.  I think that it was this element that Disney’s most recent animated adventures have lacked.  (Granted, Lilo & Stitch had some darkness to it.)

The Princess and the Frog is a strong return to animation for Disney.  And it brings with it a very effective and dark new villain.

We all know the original story of the “The Frog Princess.”  Disney has changed things up by moving the familiar story to Prohibition-era New Orleans, and thereby introducing their first black Princess.  Wait, a Princess in 1920’s New Orleans?

Tiana is our hard-working heroine.  Her mother has worked as a talented seamstress to the rich upper crust of New Orleans for years, and her father worked incredibly long days to keep his family financially stable.  He passed along his dream of owning a beautiful restaurant to his daughter, who has carried on his dream after his passing.

The upper crust childhood friend of Tiana’s, Charlotte, has been pining after a Prince since she could say the word.  One day her dream seems like it’s about to come true.  A Prince from Maldonia, Prince Naveen, is visiting New Orleans and will be staying with Charlotte and her family.

Enter the scheming voodoo Shadow Man, Dr. Facilier.  Seeing an opportunity to swindle Charlotte’s family of their riches and take over the bustling port city, he begins working his magic by turning Naveen and, accidentally but also fortuitously, Tiana, into frogs.

Naveen and Tiana must then race to get themselves restored with the assistance of a great collection of supporting characters (Louis the trumpet playing Alligator, Ray the romantic firefly with his eye on the most beautiful firefly in the sky, and Mama Odie the ancient bayou-dwelling voodoo lady).

There isn’t an amazing new animation technique.  There aren’t immense visual landscapes.  There aren’t “ooh-aah” 3D effects.  This is classic animation, reminding us of Disney’s legacy as the king of animation.  This movie shows that someone at Disney still understands the art of hand-drawn animation, which most people in Hollywood dismissed years ago, and shows that it’s still as lovely as ever.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as magical as those previous films.  There’s something missing … it’s so close!  The soundtrack was sadly a little lacking (especially considering who wrote it!).  But I don’t think that’s the reason.  I don’t think Disney has lost their magic, but perhaps they should focus on something like The Princess and the Frog instead of making temporary teen sensations.  And yes, I’ll say it: maybe they were being overly cautious with the African-American characters, seeing as their last animated attempt is still notorious, 63-years later!

While this film proves that Disney hasn’t lost it, and that hand-drawn animation is still alive and kicking, it does fall short of being a true animated classic.


Film Review: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

(500) Days of Summer
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
Directed by: Marc Webb
Written by: Scott Newstadter and Michael H. Weber
Rated: PG-13
Rating: 5 (five out of five)500_days

I don’t like chick flicks.  Well, I usually don’t.  I will admit to liking one or two, here or there.  When Harry Met Sally comes to mind.  I’ve always found it annoying when a movie navigates it’s plot points with predictable ennui.  I understand why so many people find them appealing – the fairy-tale essence and the good, happy, romantic ending – and I appreciate that.  I just don’t like it myself.  My collection of movies is decidedly darker, and I don’t think that’s just because of my personality.  I’ve always looked towards art to reflect back to me what I see every day, and the art that does that I find attractive.

So I liked 500 Days of Summer (which is to be referred to without the e.e. cummings-like punctuation for the rest of this review).  It was different, and more a reflection of reality than most love stories these days.

The film is told in a series non-sequential flashbacks, going backwards and forwards through the character’s relationship.  Non-linear story telling is nothing new, but I think it’s the first time I’ve seen it applied to a love story – except, as the Narrator tells us, “This isn’t a love story.  It’s a story about love.”

Levitt plays Tom Hansen, someone who has almost been an observer to his own life.  He went to school to become an architect, but spends his days writing the insides of greeting cards.  Enter Summer (Deschanel), who has just moved to L.A. from Michigan and has landed herself a job as Tom’s boss’s assistant.  Tom is instantly in love.

He truly believes that Summer is The One, The Only One, from the very beginning.  After a few days and some helpful prodding from his friends, Summer and Tom end up together.  From the very start, Summer is very plain and disarmingly honest about what she wants – in her first real conversation with Tom, she tells him she doesn’t want a relationship.  Shortly afterward, she makes sure Tom understands that all she wants is to be friends.  Tom hears what he wants.  He hears “take it slow” and “see where it goes.”

Tom has long believed in fairy tales and he doesn’t see what’s in front of him.  He sees what the fairy tales have led him to believe and he thinks that Summer shares this.  But as the Narrator told us at the very beginning, “This isn’t a love story.  It’s a story about love.”

Deschanel is just perfect as Tom’s tantalizing object of obsession.  She sees Tom for exactly who he is and likes him for exactly that.  She’s smart, funny, beautiful, playful, and it’s Tom’s bad luck that he can’t help but fall in love with her.

Summer is a bit mysterious in this movie.  We’ve all been so trained by Hollywood’s clichéd romance movies that we expect she’ll change and see that Tom is It.  When she doesn’t, she becomes mysterious.  The film almost instantly leaves the love story arc and heads into unexplored waters.  We only see her through Tom’s eyes, and what he doesn’t understand, we don’t either.

The director borrows from other pieces of art to help display Tom’s feelings.  Glimpses of Fellini, Disney, and French post-modernism explain what’s going on inside without being literal about it.  There’s even a nod to When Harry Met Sally.

When you look back on a years worth of related events, especially that of a relationship, you tend not to see it exactly as it happened.  You see it in glimpses that aren’t chronological; you see references from movies, books, and TV; you see things not quite as they were, but as a heightened experience of what happened.  In other words, it plays out like 500 Days of Summer.

Which is why it’s a great film.

(As a side note, a few of my friends complained about the ending.  While I can understand their complaint with the very last scene, I completely disagree and thing that there was no more apropos an ending for this film than what was presented.  Even the name of the girl applied.)


Who is Jennifer Beckman?

Mini-reviews: The Happening, The Descent, Brick, and The Ruins

The Happening (2008)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel; Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: * (one star out of five)

Summary: The story begins with an outbreak in Central Park. Tourists, residents, people are making their way through the park when the wind picks up. Everyone freezes, and begins slowly backing up a handful of paces. Then they begin to kill themselves, by any means they can. At a building site in the city, construction workers begin to walk off the top floor of the building to their crushing deaths. In a school in the city, Elliot (Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo) are pulled from class to a teachers-only meeting where they told there is an “event” happening, most likely a terrorist attack using chemicals. Then everyone runs for their lives from the New England area, where the “event” appears to be spreading to less populated areas. It quickly becomes clear that it’s not terrorists.

Thoughts: A stunning failure. And by stunning, I don’t mean it looked pretty; it was absolutely awful. Which hurts me a little inside to say, as all of Shyamalan‘s previous movies had some redeeming quailty (I have not yet seen Lady in the Water, though). Beautiful cinematography was something I could rely on — not any more. The dialogue itself was written well; but the direction and the acting behind it were terrible. There were awkward pauses, but not awkward in a realistic way. The explanation for what was going on should be of no surprise to people at this point, but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say that the explanation is no twist, and it’s not scientifically plausible. Scientific reasoning is not something that I normally hold against films, but the way that the information was presented made it such that I found it hard to ignore the hard science behind it all. In a word: Skip it. Period.

The Descent (2005)
Starring: Shauna Macdonald, Natalie Mendoza; Directed by: Neil Marshall
Rating: ** (two out of five stars)

Summary: After Sarah’s (Macdonald) family is killed in a tragic car accident, her friends try to bring her life back to some semblance of normalcy. Juno (Mendoza) invites the group of friends out on a spelunking trip in a basic cave system. The friends then journey into the cave system, which immediately begins to crumble behind them, sealing the entrance. They must then find their way out and band together as well as they can. This is, however, a horror film: the requisite violence does ensue.

Thoughts: Ultimately, it was a disappointing movie. I honestly cannot say if it’s because I was expecting more or if the movie is just weak. I do not wish to spoil anything, but the first 50 or 60 minutes of a 100 minute movie are spent wandering the caves, with no real action. Had this been a movie about lost explorers, it would not have been that bad, though it could have done better. Unfortunately this is billed as a horror film, and supposedly a disturbing and bloody one at that. With what I thought was a reputation behind it, I expected the terror to begin much earlier in the film, but until about 40 minutes from the end, the only scene of anything ‘horror’ related is a severely broken shin. All that being said, once the Crawlers are encountered, the film succeeds. The darkness of the caves, the eerie glow of the flares and failing flashlights work in magically horrific ways. And the ending — what a terrific bummer of an ending. The ending works, and is by far the best of the movie. In a word: The horror fan in me has to recommend it for the last 40 minutes, but to the average viewer, I’d say skip over it in favor of other fare.

Side note: Whether I liked the film or not, a sequel is currently in the works, picking up exactly where this one left off. I love it when sequels pick up at the exact ending of the first (take Underworld and Underworld: Evolution). Unfortunately, the plot of The Descent 2 sounds ridiculous.

Brick (2005)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas; Directed by: Rian Johnson
Rating: *** (three stars out of five)

Summary: This is a hard one to summarize. Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is a loner in high school, a loner with a bit of a past. He receives a distressing phone call from his ex-girlfriend shortly after she’s supposedly gone missing. He tries to track her down, but arrives too late, discovering her dead body outside of town. Brendan enlists the help of a friend and enters the criminal underworld of his school, working his way up to the top of the felonious food chain to The Pin (Haas), the young ruler of the underage syndicate. Brendan tries to play both sides to swing the outcome the way he wants.

Thoughts: Extremely well made for a first endeavor; it’s a complicated film for a young auteur. The stylings behind it are strongly rooted in the classic film noir crime dramas: everything from the camera angles to the story to the deliverance of the dialogue mimic some of the greatest films Hollywood produced. The plot is somewhat convoluted at times simply because of that dialogue, but that is not a detriment to the story. I did feel that the film had a bit too much of a hint of amateurism and that drew away from the films final polish. The overall plot was ridiculous, if you stopped to think about, but that’s the beauty of setting such an intricate film noir in a high school — it is ludicrous. And it works surprisingly well. It could have been a much tighter film (see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and that would have made it brilliant. As it sits, it’s a fine first film for what could be a promising writer/director. In a word: Recommended viewing for those who love film noir.

The Ruins (2008)
Starring: Jonathan Tucker, Jena Malone; Directed by: Carter Smith
Rating: *** (three stars out of five)

Summary: A group of friends on vacation in Mexico are looking for one last adventure before they head home. At the hotel the meet a young German, Mathias (Joe Anderson), who tells the group of an uncharted, recently discovered Mayan pyramid. His brother, an archaeologist, is exploring the site, and he invites the group along with him to be among the first to see the pyramid in hundreds of years. When they arrive at the site, they are immediately surrounded by locals with guns and arrows who are yelling at them. The nearer the group gets to the temple, the louder the locals scream; at one point, one of Mathias’s friends tries to make peace and is immediately killed. The group retreats up to the top of the pyramid, only to discover no one from the archaeological team surviving — they are all wrapped in plants. Then things get worse.

Thoughts: I was dreading seeing this movie, and avoided it for a long time. The plot sounded absolutely ridiculous and some of the visuals shown in the trailers weren’t that enticing. In the last few days, I’ve seen some interesting headlines floating around about how this unassuming film got under the critic’s skin. I had to watch it and I’m glad I did. This movie gave me what I was hoping The Descent would. This film is not really horror, but it is definitely graphic. The horror aspects of the plot don’t kick in until near the end. Several scenes made me wince (the first death is timed perfectly to be unexpected). The ‘surgical’ scene involving the three males in particular made me grit my teeth. For being a movie about a five people trapped on top of a ruined Mayan pyramid, with creepy plant life and threatening natives surrounding them, this movie actually succeeded on a level I never imagined it would. The only downside is that the final few shots are extremely predictable while the rest of film is not. In a word: I never thought I’d say this, but I’d recommend this film. Check it out, it might surprise you.

Mini-reviews: Prince Caspian, 88 Minutes, and more

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Starring: Ben Barnes, William Moseley; Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Rating: ** 1/2 (two and a half stars out of five)

Summary: The Pevensie children are sent back to Narnia a mere year after returning back to war-time London. But more than one year has passed in Narnia — 1,299 more to be exact. There they find an exiled Prince (Barnes) who is struggling with his blood-thirsty uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) who has long been scheming to steal the throne from the royal family. Caspian and the Pevensies join forces to fight the Telmarines and restore the land to the Narnians who have long been prosecuted.

Thoughts: Not nearly as good as the book, and, unfortunately, not nearly as good as it’s prequel (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)). The filmmakers relied on action and violence rather than politlcal intrigue and plot. The story felt extremely thin for how long the film was. The effects were astounding, as was to be expected, but fantasy epics with grand special effects are somewhat cliche these days. Prince Caspian failed to find something to unique to pull it apart from the rest of them. This is even more unfortunate because they are planning to continue turning the books into movies (see here); a brilliant director is attached, so hopefully that’ll help. In a word: Long, with weak storytelling, but amazing special effects and action mean you shouldn’t ignore it.

88 Minutes
Starring: Al Pacino, Leelee Sobieski; Directed by: Jon Avnet
Rating: * 1/2 (one and a half stars out of five)

Summary: Jack Gramm (Pacino) is a top dog forensic psychologist. A man he recently sent to death-row is finally coming up on the big day and he’s maintained his innocence since he was caught. On this day, the final day of the murderer’s life, Gramm receives an incredibly threatening phone call telling him he has a mere 88 minutes to live. At first he blows it off as yet another side effect of his job. It’s immediately clear that the threats are real, though, and he begins an 80 minute long chase to save his life and find who’s conspiring against him (who he automatically knows is related to the murderer). And (what a surprise) 88 minutes has personal meaning to Gramm …

Thoughts: Way too cliche, predictable, and ultimately boring to be that good. I love watching Pacino on screen, and even a cliche’d murder mystery can be entertaining. This movie took itself way too seriously to accomplish much entertainment at all. Your list of possible suspects is immediately limited to three, only two of which are at all probable considering how strongly the script tries to implicate one early on. When you finally reach the end, you wonder why you even cared in the first place; the end is both predictable and utterly ridiculous. The best part is that the from the moment Gramm finds he has 88 minutes to live, that’s the remaining runtime — usually movie don’t stick to their own timelines, so I enjoyed that part. In a word: Predictable and thorougly unoriginal mystery.

Shoot ‘Em Up
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti; Directed by: Michael Davis
Rating *** (three out of five stars)

Summary: Mr. Smith (Owen) is awaiting a bus when a pregnant lady runs by, followed by some thugs with guns who are obviously trying to kill her. Smith, ultimately a do-gooder, throws his food aside and saves her, the baby (which he delivers), and kills a bunch of guys. Then Hertz (Giamatti) shows up — the man in charge, who continually comes up with new ways to find (and kill) Smith. Smith in the meantime dodges these attempts and enlists the help of a lactating prostitute to help him care for the baby. To add to the plot, it does have a conspiracy going on … but that’s not really important.

Thoughts: A ton of fun. Fun, inventive violence that looks good; fun performances by Owen (who sort of relives his Sin City days) and Giamatti. The Subplot (ie, the reason why they want to kill the baby) is utter lunacy, but it is only there to further the violence. And I’m OK with that. Between this and Smokin’ Aces, I’d pick this. There’s not much to else to say, other than it worked wonderfully for what it was and what it wanted to be. In a word: It accomplished what it set out to do: great, strong violence with a great cast.

Smokin’ Aces
Starring: Jeremy Piven, Ryan Reynolds; Directed by: Joe Carnahan
Rating: ** (two out of five stars)

Summary: Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Piven) is a stage performer turned mafioso in Vegas. Then he turns FBI informant. And then he gets a $1 million bounty put on his head by his former Mafia boss. Several different people decide their going to try to get the bounty, including neo-Nazi’s, a nameless/faceless professional assassin, and other horrible, nasty people. Of course, the FBI is trying to prevent the assassination, and they have other interests for wanting to bring down this Mafia family.

Thoughts: Great action but not much else. I take that back; it has some good dialogue too. But after violence and some good dialogue, it doesn’t have much else. The ‘twist’ at the end is incredibly predictable if you accidentally think about the movie (as I did). The pace is quick and direct, and the violence just as it should be: way over the top. I couldn’t rightfully give it a top rating, as it’s just eye-candy, but it was definitely good eye-candy. In a word: Great, bloody, explosive violence; some good dialogue; nothing else.

Review: The Strangers (2008)

The Strangers (2008)
Starring: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Written by: Bryan Bertino
Rated: R
Rating: 1/2 (half star out of five)

A young couple who are having temporary relationship issues return home after a friends wedding. They are then terrorized by three people in masks, who haunt their every turn until the ending we pretty much saw coming before we bought the tickets.

To quote Roger Ebert in his review of this movie: “What a waste of a perfectly good first act! And what a maddening, nihilistic, infuriating ending!” He then describes how he read an interview with the director who said it was his first directorial job ever. This prompted Ebert to bump his review up 1/2 a star because he felt the director at least had the “chops” to make a movie. I disagree.

There was nothing original about this movie; there was nothing that I hadn’t seen before in another film that did it one-hundred times better. I hate to say it, but I was bored. First, let me pick apart the bulk of the film.

Funny Games (the original in 1997, not the remake) was brilliant, in my opinion. Daring, original, and truly frightening. Except for the quirky twist during the climax, the film was startlingly realistic — there were no scenes of people behind you with a knife one second and the next they are gone. If those bad guys were behind you with a knife, you were going down.

Where The Strangers fails is it’s attempt to scare the audience instead of it’s on-screen victims. While getting a movie-goers pulse pounding is important, theres a certain sweat that grows when you know what you’re witnessing before you is real, it’s possible. This one wasn’t. While some shots were simply creepy (namely the first time we see the masked male when our “heroine” is in the kitchen), they quickly loose their appeal. There’s one scene where Liv Tyler is crawling on the ground and for a split-second, there’s a menacing figure with a knife behind her, then it’s gone — and Tyler doesn’t even see it. It’s a scare for us, not for the character, which renders the scare pointless.

I wanted to say that the beginning of the film was good, with some decent building of suspense and drama. Unfortunately, the filmmakers had to ruin it with a terrible voice-over and awful, just plain awful, captions telling us this story is supposedly “based on true events.” Had the filmmakers started the the movie with Tyler and Speedman driving home from the wedding, the first act would have been fantastic (hence Ebert’s comments).

I never expected the end of it to be anything less than mediocre at best. Instead, they went for three or four cheap, cop-out moments that either make the audience scream or go “Oh, how dumb.” Most said the latter.

The only scares this movie has to offer are a few creepy moments at the beginning, and then a bunch of extremely loud crashing noises that would make anyone jump in their seats. And, as horror fans know, those don’t count as true scares. It’s mediocre at best, terrible at it’s worst. Boring overall.

Mini-reviews: AVPR, Astronaut Farmer, Fracture

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
Starring: Steven Pasquale, John Ortiz; Directed by: Colin and Greg Strause
Rating: 1/2 (half star out of five)

Summary: When an Alien managed to destroy a group of Predators, including impregnating one with a little gut-busting baddy, the ‘head’ Predator on the hunt seeks revenge. They meet in a small town in the US, whose residents range from a do-good sheriff, an ex-con, his brother and the girl he likes, and a bunch of other people who die. Carnage ensues as the Predator hunts down the Alien, destroying humans who get in the way.

Thoughts: Boring. The original AVP, which was only PG-13, was much better than this one. With an R-rating, one would assume the extra gore would bring a new level to the story … but no. Disappointingly, no one makes any use of the alien-predator hybrid that is being hunted. When the Alien face-hugger implants the Predator, the damned thing that bursts from it’s chest cavity is a hybrid between both species. How cool of a creature could that be? Unfortunately no one seemed to realize this had potential and it was much to the films detriment. In a word: Utter disappointment.

The Astronaut Farmer
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen; Directed by: Michael Polish
Rating: ** (two stars out of five)

Summary: Charles Farmer has a dream to be an astronaut. So he builds a rocket in his barn with the plan to orbit once around the earth then plummet back down into his backyard, all safely. His son has been working with him and training to man the command center as his father orbits. His family, though in debt and in foreclosure, endlessly support Farmer, stressful as it is. As does the town, at one point even buying advertising on the rocket itself (a la NASCAR). And then he tries to buy 10,000 gallons of fuel. In comes the FBI worried he’s building a WMD. In comes a regulatory board which does all it can to ground Farmer. But they can stop a Dream? (Dream is the name of the rocket).

Thoughts: Not as touching as it should have been, and the lack of any scientific explanations will likely turn of most people. Where he got his equipment, his physics and math skills, and, most importantly, the knowledge to build a rocket with it’s complicated engine, structural design, and ‘advanced’ electronics (‘advanced’ is something of an understatement as the technology in Dream itself harkens to the Gemini-era). The end is also choppy. So why give it two stars instead of one? It was original — what a fantastic idea! I was sold on it when I first saw a trailer, even though I knew it wouldn’t be quite as good as I wanted. In a word: Great idea that falls extremely short on execution.

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Anthony Hopkins; Directed by: Gregory Hoblit
Rating: ** (two stars out of five)

Summary: Ted Crawford is an artist who has discovered his wife is cheating on him with a police officer. So he shoots her in the face and cleans up the murder scene. When the cops arrive, the man she was messing around with is the head detective; Crawford confesses to him. Enter Willy Beachum, a top-notch young lawyer for the prosecution. Can he play Crawford’s game? Or will someone get away with murder?

Thoughts: Just plain average. Both Gosling and Hopkins give good performances, but there isn’t much to any of the characters for these two great actors to truly build anything upon. The actual details of the case and the plan that Crawford has to get off are incredibly predictable. So, once again, why two stars instead of one? Because Gosling and Hopkins were good, and the direction actually wasn’t bad. It was the script that was lacking, not the overall film. In a word: Predictable yet somehow well made.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: David Koepp
Rated: PG-13
Rating: **** (four stars out of five)

Indy’s back. And in full flavor. I completely enjoyed myself, but I cannot say the same for everyone else in the theater.

We begin with the standard Paramount mountain fade into something else — this time it’s a prairie dog mound. Elvis begins playing and we meet the Army, driving in the Nevada desert, just outside “Hangar 51” (you make the connection). After a small skirmish, it’s revealed the men aren’t US Army, but Soviets, lead by the icy villianess Irina Spalko (Blanchett). Out of the trunk of one of the cars comes Indy and his pal Mac (Winstone).

Spalko is a psychic, or wants to be, but since she can’t coax Indy into doing her bidding with mental powers alone, the guns alongside her help. They then search for a box, about the size of a coffin, in a warehouse of boxes that will be familiar to fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Fortunately for everyone involved, the box is highly magnetized and therefore pretty easy to find.

This sparks the main adventure, details of which I will not expose here. It’s easy enough to find the spoilers on the internet. I will say that most of the rumors you have undoubtedly heard are true — all but a meager few of the ones I had read early on were false. I will say this: Had George Lucas’ originally proposed title of “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars” stayed the title, I’m not sure I’d have seen it.

Indiana Jones is definitely back, but in a different way. Age doesn’t matter much in this film, except for comedic effect. The age is played up, almost too much at times, but never once did I look at Indiana Jones and think to myself that he’s too old for this shit. To me, Indy has always been a bit of an anti-hero — gruff, tough, and not too much of a gentleman. His work seemed to go under the radar, unacknowledged beyond academia. To Crystal Skull‘s detriment, he’s hyped as an incredible hero. If anyone uttered the phrase “war hero” again, I was going to be upset.

Why try to make an icon iconic? He’s already an icon! All three of the previous films were also cheesy — they didn’t take themselves all that seriously, and that’s a significant reason that they are great films. There are moments throughout Crystal Skull where you get the impression that the filmmakers were too conscious about making it cheesy and tried too hard to not cross that line. Unfortunately, there were times that they did, most notably in the climax with Spalko.

Does any of that actually detract from the film? I don’t think so. I think it lives up to it’s lead character and more. The whole experience got me thinking (and my thoughts are likely to become another blog entry). Was I expecting too much? Or was I too sold on the originals? Definitely not to the latter — Raiders of the Lost Ark is, and always will be, as fantastic as the first time I saw it. Last Crusade will never be boring, and, while it’s not as good as the other two that bookend it, Temple of Doom is still an amazing adventure yarn. I think that because I know the previous three films so well that Crystal Skull was almost certainly set to disappoint. The fact that it wasn’t nearly as disappointing as I had feared says a lot.

My only true disappointment with the movie is that there is likely to never be another after it. The original plan in the 1980’s was to create five (yes, five) Indiana Jones films. Four are now complete, and new star/character has been tapped to possibly continue the series (Mutt Williams, played by LaBeouf). Sean Connery as Indy’s father was timeless. I want to see a fifth film with Indy playing that role to Mutt’s novice adventurer.

I don’t want to be done with Indiana Jones yet, and this film didn’t help that. That is why it’s worthy of the title and a great movie.

Review: Diary of the Dead (2007)

Diary Of The Dead (2007)
Starring: Joshua Close, Scott Wentworth, Michelle Morgan
Directed by: George Romero
Written by: George Romero
Rated: R
Rating: **** (four stars out of five)

Romero revolutionized horror films with his classic (I’d say timeless) Dead trilogy: Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Dawn Of The Dead (1978), and Day Of The Dead (1985). The trilogy chronicled mankind’s attempt to survive a never-ending onslaught of slow-moving, flesh-eating, brain-loving zombies. Needless to say, the movies are bloody and full of fantastic scenes of gore, but they also contain a significant amount of social commentary, but this review isn’t about that. In 2005, Romero brought us Land Of The Dead, which failed to meet the expectations of most fans, mine included. Thus, while I love Romero, when I heard a new Dead movie was to be coming out, I was extremely hesitant.

Fortunately, I loved it.

Taking a page from the modern filmmaking cliche of using handheld cameras for a first-person POV, Romero has crafted a fine zombie flick. While Cloverfield (2008) failed with it’s nauseating over-use of the handheld style, Diary avoids that same pitfall by mixing in static security camera footage and stable news shots in with the first-person perspective. It’s put together extremely well as far as that goes — my only complaint with the technique was that the editor use the “blip” effect way too often, streaking snowy lines across the screen for some effect that missed. Anyone who’s shot in HD knows that the digital cameras don’t “blip” like that.

The premise is all to simple: A group of college filmmakers at the University of Pittsburgh and their sophisticated, alcoholic professor, document the arrival of the undead as they attempt to travel to ones family home. Simple, but enough to throw in some zombies. Deb (Morgan) is concerned about her parent’s well-being and they begin driving towards Scranton, PA, in their friends RV. The characterizations are obvious, from the unbeliever to the softy-who-can-kill-when-needed.

The worst case of unoriginality is Jason Creed (Close), who is the man behind the camera for much of the 95 minute runtime. He inability to empathize and his refusal to set the camera down is painful to listen to at times. However, this is Romero throwing in his subtext again. This film is partially about our numbness to things and the way that numbness grows. While Creed is unoriginal and largely boring, his character does, admittedly, serve a purpose.

There have been few horror films recently to bring any new witticisms or frights to the screen. Most of the garbage put out today just recycles the well-known jumps, scares, and gross-out effects, and (subtext aside) we have become numb to them. Thank God for Romero and his touch of dark originality. There are some unique scenes in this movie, and one or two that I will remember for a long time. Everyone knows at this point that destroying a zombie’s brain is the only way to take it down (would it then the un-undead?). Most movies stick with bats, guns, and sharp things to achieve this. Romero had the audacity to ask “What about highly concentrated acid?” And most movies stay away from children zombies, let alone watching them get brutally re-killed. Again, thank you, George Romero, for saying “to hell with that tradition.” My favorite scene is with Samuel — I will not ruin it, but Samuel has a fine introduction and a glorious finish.

I recommend this film, whole-heartedly, to the horror lovers of the world. Is it perfect? Nah. Is it somewhat heavy-handed? Yep. Is it still worth watching? Yes! The unique scenes that Diary bring to the screen are worth it alone.

Oscar Results

Thoughts: It appears I’m not showing myself to be worth my salt at picking the Oscar winners. I am truly surprised by both Actress categories, and especially by the Editing award. And I couldn’t rise above the 60%. Ironically I scored the ‘reverse’ of what I wanted — 58% instead of 85%.

Note: I inadvertantly forgot to include Cinematography in my predictions. My prediction was for Atonement, which, unfortunately, lost tonight.

My Score: 11 of 19 (58%)

Best Achievement in Costume Design: CORRECT!
Best Animated Feature Film of the Year: CORRECT!
Best Achievement in Makeup: CORRECT!
Best Achievement in Visual Effects: NOPE … The Golden Compass
Best Achievement in Art Direction: NOPE … Sweeney Todd
Best Achievement by an Actor in a Supporting Role: CORRECT!
Best Achievement by an Actress in a Supporting Role: NOPE … Tilda Swinton
Best Writing, Screenplay Best on Material Previously Produced or Published: CORRECT!
Best Achievement in Sound Editing: NOPE … The Bourne Ultimatum
Best Achievement in Sound: NOPE … The Bourne Ultimatum
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: NOPE … Marion Cotillard
Best Achievement in Editing: NOPE … The Bourne Ultimatum
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song: CORRECT!
Best Achievement in Cinematography: NOPE … There Will Be Blood
Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score: CORRECT!
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen: CORRECT!
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: CORRECT!
Best Achievement in Directing: CORRECT!
Best Motion Picture of the Year: CORRECT!

Oscar Predictions

After much thought and pointless delay, here are my official Oscar predictions. Posted a mere three days before big event, no less. These are, unfortuanately, not the same predictions I entered against Roger Ebert and his predictions. Without further ado, here they are.

Best Motion Picture of the Year:
Prediction: No Country For Old Men.
Why? It’s the most perfectly made movie. It’s the strongest contender. It’s the definite winner. As with another category a little further down the page, my heart is screaming for a different film. I want Juno to win, oh do I want it to win. It’s my personal Best Picture, my favorite of the year, but when predicting who will win, I must choose No Country. This isn’t picking who I want to win.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year:
Prediction: Ratatouille.
Why? I don’t think there’s a chance it will lose. The animation is phenomonal. The writing is great. It’s a touching film, which is surprising to some considering it’s about rats. I truly don’t think there’s a chance anything else will win. I could not be more confident about this prediction, and I’m more confident about this category than any other. As a side note, the official listings has this category near the “bottom”, but I’m bumping it to top because I think it’s just as important as “Best Picture”. I’m also making a subtle statement. Though it wouldn’t have won, it should have been up in the larger “Best Picture” category.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:
Prediction: Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood).
Why? Does anyone doubt it? I want Clooney to win it, but I don’t think there’s anyone whose performance was even close to the caliber of Day-Lewis’s. The ironic part here is that it is one of his weakest performances — it is so close to his nominated performance in Gangs of New York that it’s disappointing. The accent is even similar. Still, it’s a brilliantly constructed character and performance and is the one to beat.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:
Prediction: Julie Christie (Away From Her).
Why? Both for the quality of her work in Away From Her, and as a recognition of sorts for her career. My heart really is screaming “Ellen Page!” but I know her chances are slim. To spit the dialogue of Juno out and make it sound effortless and real is definitely not as easy as it looked.

Best Achievement by an Actor in a Supporting Role:
Prediction: Javier Bardem (No Country For Old Men).
Why? I am a horror and thriller fan, but no character I can think of is as creepy yet frighteningly realistic as Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. My heart goes out to Tom Wilkinson for his powerful performance, but I truly don’t think he’s the Academy’s pick.

Best Achievement by an Actress in a Supporting Role:
Prediction: Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There).
Why? I admit to not seeing all the films for which these actresses are nominated, specifically Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone. I always want to root for the youngest of the bunch, especially when they are truly young, but I think the honor for Saoirse Ronan is simply being nominated. Blanchett’s performance as Bob Dylan is so amazingly well done I can’t imagine this award going to anyone else.

Best Achievement in Directing:
Prediction: The Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men).
Why? The direction of No Country was perfect, impeccable, flawless, and countless other synonyms for the same thing: masterful. I think Julian Schnabel and P.T. Anderson are very strong candidates here, but I think they are more than a few laps behind the Coens this time.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen:
Prediction: Juno.
Why? I love, love, love Ratatouille. It’s brilliant writing. But Juno is quick, smart, and, most importantly, impeccably structured. Forget the fact that Diablo Cody is now one of my few MySpace friends, I think she’s the one to beat.

Best Writing, Screenplay Best on Material Previously Produced or Published:
Prediction: No Country For Old Men.
Why? I have not read either novel, but Atonement is a strong contender here as well. Blood is only loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!”. We may see a surprise victory here by The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which seemed impossibly hard to adapt.

Well, the big ones are out of the way and I’m very confident in my choices. There are few, and they are noted above, where I have some doubt, but I’m sticking to my guns with my picks. Now for the rest of the awards — those that aren’t as big, but just as important, in the film world.

Best Achievement in Editing:
Prediction: No Country For Old Men.
Why? The pacing is perfect. Perfect. The editing is absolutely flawless. If there is a runner up, it could only be Blood, but I don’t think it even comes close the Coen Brothers masterpiece.

Best Achievement in Art Direction:
Prediction: Atonement.
Why? There is a significant change I’m wrong, but I have to place my vote with Atonement. I think that There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Tood are incredibly strong contenders, and I think it’s very likely that Blood will take it, making it my runner up.

Best Achievement in Costume Design:
Prediction: Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
Why? Why would it be any of the other nominees? Atonement may have set a new trend with Kiera Knightley’sbeautiful green dress in the movies pivotal love scene, but what can stand up against sumptuous Elizabethan gowns?

Best Achievement in Makeup:
Prediction: La Môme (La Vie En Rose).
Why? Up against a bad Eddie Murphy comedy and Pirates? One is an Eddie Murphy comedy, the other is significantly CG. I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about the makeup in La Vie En Rose, and though I’ve not seen it yet, it’s my official pick.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score:
Prediction: Atonement.
Why? The music simply drove this film forward. The score was amazing in this film. Hands down, my pick.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song:
Prediction: “Falling Slowly” from Once.
Why? I have not seen this film but have only heard good things. I have heard negative things about the music in August Rush, however. The other three nominees are all from Enchanted. I loved Enchanted, but I didn’t find any of the songs Oscar worthy. Mathematical odds are definitely for the reimagined fairy tale, though.

Best Achievement in Sound:
Prediction: Ratatouille.
Why? No Country For Old Men as the runner up. There is a subtle difference between “Sound” and “Sound Editing”, but they are indeed two very different things. It’s the difference between how sound was used and how it was placed into the film. I think that this animated film takes the statue here.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing:
Prediction: There Will Be Blood.
Why? As dark as this film was, it would have been nothing without the sound. My runner up is Ratatouille, but I think Blood is the clear victor here, even over the brilliantly edited masterpiece No Country For Old Men.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects:
Prediction: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
Why? Though it was longer than it needed be, and not as entertaining as it’s two precessors, the effects were seemless and amazing. Davey Jones alone was a visual feast. Transformers had extremely complicated effects, but they weren’t noticeable and obviously CG. The bears in The Golden Compass were brilliantly executed, but I think my overall disappointment in that film is pushing me away from it.

Best Short Film, Live Action; Best Short Film, Animated; Best Documentary, Short Subject; Best Documentary, Features; Best Foreign Language Film:
Prediction: These are the only categories I will not be make any predictions in simply because I have not seen a single nominee. In previous years, I was actively participating in the East Lansing Film Festival and Film Society and was able to see most, if not all, of these. This year, however, I’m at a loss.

This Sunday, this will be one of thousands of sites with updated lists of winners as they are announced, only this site is only one of hundreds (as opposed to thousands) that will be comparing the announced winner with the predictions made here. I think I get an 85% right.