November 28, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox - 2009

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe

"Everyone's different, him especially...but there's something kind of fantastic about that, isn't there?" Part talking-animal movie and part heist flick, the sixth feature from auteur (and personal idol) Wes Anderson tells the tale of the titular character (Clooney) who returns to his old life of chicken and cider thievery after promising his wife such behavior would end upon finding out she was pregnant.

Truth be told, I was a little worried about this film. Could the normally R-rated, live-action Anderson's style and quality translate to a PG stop-motion film? Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. There's loads of swearing in the film, but instead of anything inappropriate for little ears, they use the word "cuss" itself ("Are you cussing with me," etc). And despite the arguably hands-off directorial approach that Anderson took on the film (acting out the scenes himself in Paris and sending the video to his American animators), his attention to detail still rings through. Shockingly, the adult casting choices for child characters work well, and the animation itself has improved by leaps and bounds in the 50 years since the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials we all know and love. Above all else, Anderson and Baumbach were able to write a script encompassing Roald Dahl's original story, yet also including additional elements in the film's first and third acts to enhance the end product. This movie was a heartwarming, remarkable feat. Calling it "fantastic" might even be an understatement.

November 27, 2009

Pieces of April - 2003

Director: Peter Hedges
Writer: Peter Hedges
Starring: Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson

"Once, there was this day... this one day when... everyone realized they needed each other." April (Holmes) and her new boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke), outcasts in every sense of the word, experience Murphy's Law firsthand when preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, including a cancer-ridden mother (Clarkson) and dementia-suffering grandmother.

A lot of big Hollywood stars like to do a small indie picture every so often, to maintain the belief that they haven't sold out entirely yet; for Katie Holmes, this is that film. However, this is her best performance to date (although one scene when she's calling out recipes during sex is a little odd, though that's not her fault entirely). What the movie lacks in budget (shot for either 100 or $300,000), it more than makes up for in warmth and depth. If nothing else, it serves as a great reminder that no matter how awkward or horrible your family gatherings might be, someone's probably having a worse one at the same time.

November 26, 2009

Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

Director: Troy Duffy
Writer: Troy Duffy
Starring: Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flannery, Billy Connolly, Clifton Collins Jr., Julie Benz

Eight years after the events of the first film, a Boston priest is murdered in a church, and pennies are placed over his eyes. The MacManus clan has been in hiding in Ireland after their massive gunplay from years prior, but someone clearly trying to frame them brings about their return to the States.

RottenTomatoes, the great critic aggregator site, had this to say: "This sequel to the cult favorite The Boondock Saints is more of the same -- unoriginal, absurd, violent, over-the-top, and occasionally mean-spirited." If you liked the first movie AT ALL, though, you know that's exactly what it's supposed to be. All your favorites from the first one (except Willem Dafoe) are back and better than ever, and the new characters aren't too bad either, although Clarice Starling is the only Southern lady FBI agent I'll ever need to know. Forget what the critics say for a change (but make sure you can appreciate the first one beforehand), because this isn't a movie for them. It's a no-holds-barred, star-studded event that exists specifically for fans of the original.

One last thing: I did have a couple issues with the film, but they were overshadowed by the incredible ending. I'll say little for fear of spoilers, but I will make one comment, to Mr. Michael Bay: THIS is a good cliffhanger.

November 22, 2009

Paranormal Activity - 2009

Director: Oren Peli
Writer: Oren Peli
Starring: Katherine Featherston, Micah Sloat

A couple moves into a home and gets plagued by unexplained goings-on for three weeks.

That's pretty much the whole movie. Honestly, I don't know how it's done as well (critically or box officewise) as it has so far. The premise isn't exactly original (think Blair Witch Project but in a house, minus shakycam), and I didn't consider it scary at all (although the rest of the theater seemed to disagree). Maybe it's just my personal disdain for movies billed as actually having taken place even though they're COMPLETELY FICTIONAL, I don't know. Yet somehow, this $15,000 film has made $105 million so far, and a sequel was announced last month. I will applaud one thing, though: the performance of Micah Sloat. "I promised not to buy a Ouija board. I borrowed one." His character's disbelief in the demonic presence and slight antagonism towards his girlfriend shines through as the most believable aspect of the film.

November 7, 2009

Theater ettiquette

People have been seeing movies for over a century now. As a society, we should be past this. Unfortunately, we're not, so I'm writing these words.

  • Candy and bottled beverages: open all containers BEFORE the lights go down, so the people around you aren't bothered by the noise.
  • Light talking in the pauses between previews is acceptable, as long as it's hushed and only in the ear of your neighbor.
  • Unless you're laughing, crying, or gasping in shock, I don't want to hear ANY NOISE that isn't coming from the screen until the credits begin to roll.
Understood? You have the elderly woman sitting next to me earlier this evening to thank for all this, by the way. After setting her phone to "vibrate" before the previews, she proceeded to answer it TWICE during the film, the latter of which was on speakerphone. This is why we don't let the old folk have technology.*

Oh, and Men Who Stare at Goats was okay. Don't pay more than matinee price. Performances were good, nice dialogue (I was proud of the audience for not laughing during a torture joke, which is apparently based in reality), but the lone two special effects looked awful.

*Just kidding.

The Box - 2009

Director: Richard Kelly
Writers: Richard Kelly & Richard Matheson
Starring: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella

In this film, adapted from a short story called "Button, Button," a mysterious man (Langella) visits a financially ailing couple (Diaz & Marsden) with an offer: push a button and receive $1,000,000, but only after causing the death of a stranger. This is quite a bit of money for 1976 (when the film takes place), so it's quite an offer to a woman who needs to pay tuition and a man who just got denied his dream job. Naturally skeptical, they go so far as to take the (apparently empty) button apart before inevitably pressing it. The man returns, hands over the money, and takes the button from whence he came.

That's the bare bones of the first 45 minutes to an hour of the film, and it's easy to see how that would have worked as a Twilight Zone episode. But this is a Richard Kelly movie, as was Donnie Darko, so it's not going to be that simple.

Caveats: the Southern accents affected by the Virginian family around which the film revolves fade in and out for Marsden and his son, while Diaz's becomes annoying before too long. Several bloody noses and four missing toes make a couple scenes hard to watch. Above all else, the conversation about "what it means to truly know someone" can be spotted from a mile away, and is outright painful to sit through--thankfully, it doesn't last long.

I don't want to say much more (aside from the fact that the movie tips its hand about halfway through), because it'll just be spoilers on top of spoilers, but I'll leave you with this: in the typical Kelly fashion, this movie raises about 25 questions, and you're lucky to have four of them answered. If you really like his other films, you'll like this one. If not, avoid at all costs.

November 2, 2009

Good Hair - 2009

Director: Jeff Stilson
Writers: Lance Crouther, Paul Marchand, Chris Rock, Chuck Sklar, & Jeff Stilson
Starring: Chris Rock

Chris Rock's five-year-old daughter came home from school one day in tears, asking "Daddy, why don't I have good hair?" To figure out where she would have gotten that idea, Rock embarks on a worldwide trip to learn the ins and outs of African-American hair culture.

Several segments of the film (too much time, in my opinion) is spent at the Bronner Brothers Hair Battle, held "where all black decisions are made--Atlanta," according to Rock. These segments follow four hairstylists as they prepare and (eventually) compete. Two major aspects of African-American hair culture are also discussed: weaves (which the average woman will spend thousands of dollars on) and relaxer (sodium hydroxide, a straightening agent), the latter of which made me feel like a stupid white boy for thinking some African-Americans had straight hair naturally. The movie is a cavalcade of stars, with everyone from Ice-T to Maya Angelou and Al Sharpton to Salt-N-Pepa. In terms of being educational and entertaining, the movie definitely succeeds.

But does it fulfill its promise? By the end, the only answer I had was "[weaves and relaxer, while unnatural] are now a part of African-American culture, and it's always been that way." Also, the rest of the non-white audience walked out 40 minutes into my showing, so the film may be failing with what I'd imagine to be its target demographic. I also noticed the MPAA seems to be loosening its grip: this PG-13 film used both the N-word and F-word twice, respectively; usually, films barely get a single use of the F-word before they're bumped up to an R rating.