Thursday, September 24, 2009

Great animation makes '9' a must see

“9” is an extraordinary piece of animation that is simply outstanding to behold. There are certainly things to nitpick, but when seemingly every week there is another remake or sequel, it is a relief to see something unique.

Director Shane Acker has expanded his Oscar nominated 10-minute short of the same name to feature length with the help of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted”). The dialogue-less short can easily be found on YouTube and is worth checking out. It is interesting to see how the kernel of an idea was more completely flesh out, even if not all the extra meat is necessary.

The film is set in a world that has been destroyed in a battle between man and machine. All life has been eliminated except for nine rag dolls created by the same inventor who made the first machine that set the world to its destruction.

As the movie opens we meet 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), the newest and final doll to be created. He quickly meets up with the others and discovers them to be an assortment of new friends and foes.

The world that Acker has created and the struggle between these surprising sympathetic and emotive dolls and the animal-like machines is so compelling in itself that it overcomes the less-than-amazing screenplay that Pamela Pettler (“Monster House,” “Corpse Bride”) has written.

The arc of the story is fine. It is just that that in padding a 10-minute short to 80 minutes there’s a lot of clich├ęs thrown into kill time. The dolls are more archetypes than full-fledge characters and the dialogue they are given hardly original.

The short was fine without dialogue and it would’ve been a bold move to go wordless for the feature length version, but also would’ve made the film a tough sell.

Credit though to an excellent voice cast that includes Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover and Martin Landau. Everyone involved gives lively voice performance that truly breath life into these characters in spite of the limitations of the script.

Although the screenplay hits familiar notes, the visuals and style of the film is enthralling. The computer animation here is truly amazing and makes the film absolutely worth seeing, especially on a big screen.

The look blends imagery that recalls the war torn ghettos of War World II with a bizarre hybrid of Soviet and Nazi iconography. It is post-apocalyptic world as we’ve seen in film before and yet at the same time something that feels new.

Once the stage is set, the film is almost non-stop action with brief interludes for the audience to catch their breath. The action sequences are impeccably well executed. There’s a certain amount of grace and genuine ingenuity to these scenes which are both clever and thrilling.

There are little moments and ideas that also raise the film above the ordinary. The way one of the dolls uses a magnet to magnetize parts of his head and give himself a high is a small detail that certainly doesn’t further the story, but helps more fully realize Acker’s world.

This may be an animated feature, but it isn’t kid stuff. The film is rated PG-13 and for good reason. For older children, “9” is fine, but the dark tone and monstrous machines will scare younger viewers.

10 more alternative songs for your Halloween party

Last year I provided a list of less-than-obvious music selections for Halloween gatherings. Well another year, equals another list.

“Black Widow” – Alice Cooper (1975)
What would Halloween be without a little Alice Cooper? There are obvious choices, but this being an alternative list, I’ve gone with this track from “Welcome to My Nightmare” if only because it features a guest appearance by B-horror movie maestro Vincent Price, seven years before making a similar cameo on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

“Planet Claire” – The B-52s (1979)
Best known for their late 1980s hit “Love Shack,” The B-52’s built their career on singing about off-the-wall subject matters. This song combines a driving “Peter Gunn”-esque riff with an atmosphere that recalls 1950s creature features. The scant lyrics include such quirky lines as: “Planet Claire has pink air/All the trees are red/No one ever dies there/No one has a head.”

“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” – David Bowie (1980))
Despite being the title track of an album this song isn’t as well known as other Bowie title tracks such as “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance” or “Ziggy Stardust,” but it is a prime example of Bowie’s chameleon-like ability to hop genres. The song has a distinctly heavier sound than typically associated with Bowie and appropriately dark lyrics given the title.

“Ghost Town” – The Specials (1981)
English ska group wrote this song about the sociopolitical environment of England under Margaret Thatcher, which, depending on who you talk to, is just as relevant a topic for Halloween as Dracula, ghouls and goblins. Even if you are unaware of the song’s subtext, the eerie, horn-driven atmosphere seals the deal.

“Lullaby” – The Cure (1989)
The Cure was a band known for gloomy and moody lyrics even on more musically cheery songs like “Boys Don’t Cry.” “Lullaby” is a song full of cryptic imagery. With lyrics like: “It’s much too late to get away or turn on the light/the spiderman is having you for dinner tonight” this is probably not the best song to lull a child to sleep with.

“Zombie” – The Cranberries (1994)
OK, so this song isn’t literally about the living dead, but the Irish group uses the concept of zombies as a metaphor in a song about the conflict between England and Northern Ireland. Lead singer Dolores O'Riordan’s haunting, anger-filled vocal is a perfect compliment to the song’s grungy sound.

“Walking With a Ghost” - Tegan and Sara (2004)
The song, which was covered in fine form by The White Stripes, is two verses repeated over and over again with a driving guitar and synth riff. It is simple, direct and repetitive, but damned if it isn’t more infectious than that virus from “28 Days Later.”

“Fire Coming Out of a Monkey’s Head” – Gorilaz (2005)
Buried deep on the second half of the Gorilaz’ second album, this is a brilliant spoken word parable delivered by Dennis Hooper over ominous beats. It is a story of an innocent, sheltered village invaded by greedy, destructive “shadowy figures.” It is the most resonating track of a great album.

“Monster” – The Automatic (2007)
In the spring of 2007 this song about the monster that is drug use from the Welsh band The Automatic was all over indie and alternative radio stations. As quickly as the song and band appeared they disappeared, but with its inordinately catchy chorus of “What’s that coming over the hill, is it a monster?” the song is perfect Halloween fodder.

“Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” – Tracy Morgan (2007)
Tracy Jordan, Tracy Morgan’s alter ego on NBC’s hilarious comedy “30 Rock,” scored a novelty hit (at least in the universe of the show) with this goofy song about, as the chorus states it, “boys becoming men, men becoming wolves.” Funny for Jews and goys alike.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Have I seen you somewhere before?: Hollywood's love affair with remakes

For years now Hollywood has become synonymous with unoriginality and as a place bereft of new ideas. This is perhaps an unfair generalization, but with a glut of new remakes on the docket, Hollywood is certainly making it difficult to prove otherwise.

Actually to be fair they are no longer called remakes. Hollywood has put the re- prefix in front of other words to disguise the fact that they are merely exploiting a familiar title. Now they are reboots, reimaginings and reworkings. But in most cases it is simply recycling.

It isn’t all bad. This summer we saw a rebooted “Star Trek” that was exciting, funny and emotionally satisfying. Of course this summer also had the dire “Land of the Lost” and limp redo of the obscure 1970s thriller “The Taking of Pelham 123.”

Over the next year an impressively or depressingly (depending on your outlook) long list of remakes will be released or put into production. This list includes some promising projects like director Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchette as his Robin and Marion, writer/director Guy Ritchie’s revisionist take on “Sherlock Holmes” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and
Watson and director Joe Johnston’s “The Wolfman” with Benico Del Toro.

Other upcoming remakes are “Predator,” “The Blob,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Fame,” “Footloose,” "Dune," “The Clash of the Titans,” “Excalibur,” “Red Dawn,” a comedic take on “Gulliver’s Travels,” “A Christmas Carol” and Steven Spielberg’s “Harvey.” Even the 2007 British comedy “Death at a Funeral” is getting the remake treatment by Neil LaBute, a brilliant playwright whose remake of “The Wicker Man” was an unintentionally hilarious disaster.

Why so many remakes? Two words: name recognition. As Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times recently noted “when film audiences go to the multiplex, beset by economic woes and uncertainty about the future, they want fun, familiarity and frivolity.”

Familiar titles come with instant identification of the film’s themes, characters, genre, tone and general plot. It is easier for the people with the money in Hollywood to risk millions of dollars on a movie with a built-in audience.

While most recent remakes, particularly those of horror titles, have been nothing more than shameless money grabs, the idea of a remake in of itself is not a terrible one, after all even Shakespeare did his fair share of remakes. When done well a remake can be another important word with the re- prefix: a reinvention.

A good or even great remake justifies its existence by, if not bettering the original, at least finding something new in the material. That new could be the way an actor approaches a character, a significant updating of the subject matter, flair in the direction or writing or any number of other components.

Take a film like Jonathan Demme’s version of the 1962 Frank Sinatra vehicle “The Manchurian Candidate.” The 2004 update by no means bests the classic original, but the ways in which the Cold War era themes are reconfigured for our time are compelling and surprisingly relevant.

The 1990s saw a very different kind of reinvention in the form of an unexpectedly fruitful trend of reworking classic material into a teen film. Jane Austin’s “Emma” became “Clueless,” Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” became “10 Things I Hate About You,” Shakespeare’s “Othello” became “O” and “Les Liaisons dangereuses” became “Cruel Intentions.”

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert often said that if you’re going to remake a movie, why not take a bad movie and make it better? Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11” is a prime example of just that. While the rat pack original from 1960 wasn’t awful, Soberbergh and his cast took the basic parts of the original and improved upon it with seemingly effortless style.

Going back even further some film classics are actually remakes. John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart was actually the third version of the Dashiell Hammett story made within a decade. Huston’s went down as the classic.

The delightful 1940 screwball comedy “His Girl Friday” starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell was a remake of 1931’s “The Front Page” which wasn’t a romantic comedy at all - in fact the two leads were male.

The Westerns “The Magnificent Seven” and “A Fist Full of Dollars” took their inspiration from the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo the Bodyguard.”

The point is, as much as the cynic in me would like to dismiss this latest crop of remakes, the remake is a long standing and often worthy tradition. The only question that remains is in the coming months are we going to be stuck with lame carbon copies or inspired reinventions?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The verdict's in: Judge's 'Extract' delivers

“Extract” — “Beavis and Butthead” and “King of the Hill” creator Mike Judge’s latest film — is a box office dud, but given his track recorded that is almost an audience seal of approval.

Judge’s first live action film, “Office Space,” was also a box office failure but has since developed a loyal following as one of the better comedies of the last decade. His second film, "Idiocracy," was barely released theatrically, but has developed some cult cred.

It is hard to say if “Extract” is destined for a similar second life on DVD. “Extract” returns to the work place setting of “Office Space,” although this time the location is a bit more obscure: an artificial flavoring factory.

The perspective has also shifted from the disillusioned cubicle dwellers of “Office Space” to the boss, in the case of “Extract,” the hands-on small business owner Joel (Jason Bateman, “Juno,” “Hancock.”)

“Office Space” struck a cord by giving a voice to disenfranchised office workers who could smile and nod at the all too familiar scenarios. Of course there was also the vicarious pleasure of watching the characters take a bat to a malfunctioning copier.

“Extract” doesn’t quite resonate the same way, but it is still often a very funny film. The plot centers on an escalating series of complications involving a sultry con-artist (Mila Kunis, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), a dim-witted gigolo (Dustin Milligan) and a Rube Goldberg-esque accident that robs one of Bateman’s employee’s (Clifton Collins Jr.) of his manhood.

Dating back to “Beavis and Butthead,” Judge has relished skewering the idiocy of (some) Americans, but he has always done it with an undercurrent of social commentary even if it is a deeply buried one.

Of his three live action films, “Extract” is probably his most straightforward comedy with the least to say. There is a theme of whether a small business owner should sell out or continue to fight the good fight. And given the state of economy, perhaps just broaching that subject is saying enough.

Bateman, who doesn’t look or seem like an inherently funny person, has an uncanny way of underplaying everything. His deadpan reaction to the craziness around him creates a nice comic tension and helps hold the film together.

But it’s the supporting characters who are the most fun and keep the film interesting. Ben Affleck is very funny as a bartender whose advice to everything is to take some sort of drug. His character is a firm believer of the healing power of Xanax. He even uses it for headaches.

It became fashionable to bash Affleck after a series of ill-advised career moves, but he is back on track having reinvented himself as a reliable supporting player in a series of strong performance in “Hollywoodland,” “State of Play” and now “Extract.”

There’s also nice supporting work from J.K. Simmons (“Juno,” “Burn After Reading”) and Kristen Wiig (“Saturday Night Live”). Both actors have a way of popping into a movie for one or two scenes and stealing the show.

The film’s best character is an obnoxious neighbor played by David Koechner (“Anchorman”). Koechner nails that kind of person who seems to come out of nowhere to talk your ear off about nothing no matter how much of a hurry you are in. A final confrontation with this character is the film’s biggest and most unexpected laugh and one of the funniest moments of any film this year.

“Extract” is a low-key comedy punctuated with several laugh-out-loud moments and a plot that isn’t easy to predict. Things are tidied up a bit too neatly toward the end, but overall this is an enjoyable little comedy.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A lovely 'summer' movie

If “(500) Days of Summer” had to be given a label it would be romantic comedy, but that doesn’t really fit and implies all sorts of things that the film is not. Romantic comedies have a clear formula and expectations, but as the film’s narrator notes early on: “This is a story of boy meets girl. But you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

“(500) Days of Summer” is funny and it is romantic, but it is more thoughtful and realistic about relationships than the average assembly-line romantic comedy. The film shows both the highs and lows of being in a relationship. It will warm your heart, but it may also break it a little along the way.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star as Tom and Summer. Tom falls for Summer almost instantly. Summer does not feel the same way about Tom. Tom believes in love. Summer does not. She does like Tom, though, and for all intents and purposes they become a couple even though Summer continues to claim she doesn’t want or need a boyfriend.

Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel may not be household names, but they should be familiar faces. Deschanel is the quirky actress who has brought her unique approach to such films as “Almost Famous,” “Elf” and “Yes Man.”

She has an innate likability that is crucial to this role as Summer does things that are unlikable. Deschanel makes it easy, though, to see why someone could fall for her even with her faults. As an on-screen couple, Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt are both charming and believable.

Gordon-Levitt got his start as a child actor appearing most notably in “Angels in the Outfield” before landing one of the leads in the TV show “3rd Rock from the Sun.” In the years following the cancellation of “3rd Rock,” he focused on developing his dramatic chops giving solid, brooding performances in such films as “Brick” and “The Lookout.”

It is nice to see Gordon-Levitt hasn’t lost his touch for comedy. Oh, he gets to brood when he is spurned by Summer, but he also has many funny scenes including a fantasy dance number that represents his sheer joy the night after he first has sex with Summer.

There’s also a very funny scene set at an Ikea with Tom and Summer running around all the store’s various home displays and pretending at being a couple. This scene represents their whole relationship because for Summer she was always playing at it. The problem is, for Tom it was real.

The film shuffles the order of the relationship with a counter appearing to indicate what day of the relationship we are seeing. This means a scene showing the early gleeful stages of the relationship is placed in direct contrast with a more painful scene from later in the relationship.

This approach may sound off-putting but it works, allowing the film to emulate the experience of looking back over a relationship. Memory doesn’t follow the rules of chronology and neither does this film.

In terms of structure, the movie calls to mind Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” Both films recall a relationship told out of order, use fantasy elements and experiment with film form.

“Annie Hall” had an animated sequence and characters from the present walking around in memories. “(500) Days of Summer” has the aforementioned dance number and Tom imagining himself in Ingmar Bergman films.

Where “Annie Hall” has a subtitled sequence revealing what characters were really saying instead of what they were actually saying, “(500) Days of Summer” has a split screen scene that shows the expectations of an event next to the reality.

These unreal moments don’t distract for the realistic approach the film has toward relationships. The dialogue by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is sharp and witty and approximates what real human beings might say.

First-time feature director Mark Webb gets the tone just right while effectively juggling the fantasy elements of the script. His touch is light, but not too fluffy. He allows the dark elements of the relationship to seep in, but doesn’t let them sink the film.

“(500) Days of Summer” is far more imaginative and genuine than the summer’s other romantic comedy fare such as “The Proposal” or “The Ugly Truth.” If you enjoyed those films, but thought they were lacking something more, you’ll find what was missing here.