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Saturday, July 11, 2009

REVIEW - "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008)

Oscar bait. The quintessential trump card directors play to be loved by the ever so political Academy. James Cameron accomplished it with “Titanic,” Danny Boyle of course did it with “Slumdog Millionaire,” and David Fincher attempts it here. Now, I don’t want to immediately say that these are examples of directors “selling out.” Some would consider making films like “The Terminator” or “28 Days Later” a sell out. But, in a sense, these filmmakers are letting go of all their ingenious strengths in order to get a statue— What should you call it? Unfortunately, kissing up to the Oscar bigwigs doesn’t pay off for David Fincher. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is one of his weaker films.

The title character (played by Brad Pitt) is born with a ‘curious’ condition of aging backwards. He grows with his foster mother and enjoys a fruitful life of adventure aided by his glamor enchanted love interest, Daisy. (Cate Blanchette)

With a narration that becomes more distracting than helpful, Benjamin Button aspires to be that character we all want be— A man so curious about life he ends up traveling the world, volunteering for war, taking up peculiar jobs and hunting down the woman of his dreams. If this sounds familiar, it should. Forrest Gump did the exact same thing and with greater emotional success than "Benjamin Button." It’s not that Benjamin Button isn’t a strong lead, he’s simply too familiar. Fincher gives us the epic character like he’s based off a textbook. Such an approach damages a larger portion of the film's drama.

Although Benjamin’s cookie-cutter adventures tend to drag, the movie at least looks good while he’s doing it. The make-up effects aren’t the only exceptional visuals in the film. Sporting some beautiful, period appropriate architecture, from buildings to boats, “Benjamin Button” looks almost surreal in its accuracy. This adds a suitable hint of wonder behind the lead character’s condition. His changes are just as noticeable as the surroundings'.

While most of the movie rides on its brilliant shots, it doesn’t truly become interesting until Benjamin’s later years. Watching how his relationship unfolds with the aging Daisy becomes the story arc audiences are impatiently waiting for. Though his condition appropriately remains ambiguous, it doesn’t become of real interest until he watches himself age the opposite direction of Daisy. It’s simply a shame the movie takes so long to get to this point.

Because of the flimsy attention to each story arch, I’m not entirely convinced of Fincher’s investment in the film. With “Fight Club,” “Se7en” and “Zodiac” he ages his characters like a fine wine— Empowering them with a certain love that allows them to develop naturally and face their demons head on. Here, his characters feel like they’re being pushed to different areas just to keep the movie rolling. It’s as if Fincher forces Benjamin to age, stops him to tell a subplot, (that may or may not be interesting) and then rolls him again until the next speed bump.

This isn’t to say there aren’t bright moments. One of the better stories in the film is Benjamin’s relationship with Elizabeth Abbott. What begins as a harmful affair later pays the audience with a message of childlike hope. While the “follow your dreams” moral may sound cliché, it’s also an underused one in this day and age. (So perhaps its not that cliché.) Currently, world economy is at a terrible low, and countries are full of people unhappy with their jobs. Knowing this, I’m glad Fincher has it in him to tell people not to settle for anything they can grab and continue to dream big. Personally, I believe pushing to do what you love has to be one of the most admirable things a single person can accomplish. Making a movie based on this idea is ballsy only because so many might miss it. It’s become a foreign idea, but I applaud Fincher for pitching it.

There is no doubt in my mind Fincher has the talent to make a movie look good. The proof is all over "Benjamin Button." But if he’s going to go that far he should at least refrain from keeping his lead character restricted to a stereotype. The epic character doesn’t have to look like Forrest Gump. On the other hand a great director doesn’t have to own an Oscar either. I believe Spielberg was great long before he won an Oscar. Chris Nolan hasn’t even been nominated, but he has more talent than the creative energy of most directors combined. Fincher’s “sell out” to the Academy isn’t his greatest failing, but it’s a sign of needless desperation. Just make a good movie. Fewer and fewer Oscar flicks hit that bar these days.

**½ out of ****

Thursday, July 9, 2009

TRAILER - More "District 9" Hype

As if the previous trailer wasn't enough-- The new "District 9" trailer reveals more mystery involved in the flick, and that it may not be a straight up, fictional documentary. While I'm a little disappointed about the latter part, I'm still intrigued none-the-less. Take a gander:

Could "District 9" be the best summer film no one's heard about? Too soon to tell, but it looks good. August 14.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"District 9" The Summer Flick You Haven't Heard Of

Truthfully, I'm not sure what to think of "District 6," except I know the advertising has been poor. Everyone I mention it to tends to tilt their head and raise an eyebrow.

From an innovative standpoint it reminds me of "Cloverfield." But it's clearly more formal than that. The trailer tricks you in to thinking its a documentary on illegal immigrating, or supplying for third world comfort. The uncanny awe that it's actually aliens startled me. When I try to explain the intriguing premise to others, it's no wonder I get a chuckle. It's hard to explain the idea while giving what you've seen justice. Thus, I'm going to let the trailer do all the work for me.

"District 9," hits theaters August 14.

Monday, July 6, 2009

REVIEW - "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" (2009)

I want to begin this review with a perfectly understandable sense of acknowledgment. I know these movies are just supposed to be fun and light entertainment. There are actually very good movies that fit that bill and I wholly enjoy many of them. “Shoot’em Up,” “Versus,” “Live Free or Die Hard", and even Michael Bay’s very own “The Rock” are some great examples. So in an attempt to not sound like a film snob who can’t enjoy raw action blockbusters, let it be known, I understand what the point of “Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen” is. I really do. Michael Bay himself is clearly not trying to hide what it is. It just doesn’t work.

In this sequel, Sam (Shia LeBeouf) returns to help the Autobots stop the newly revived Megatron and Decepticon warlord, The Fallen. When the Decepticons plan to wipe out Earth’s sun, Sam travels with Bumblebee and crew to find the Matrix of Leadership, save Optimus and run through sixty explosions in slow motion every ten minutes.

The story doesn’t expand much beyond my condescending synopsis. It makes you wonder why the movie was two and a half hours long. I’m still trying to figure that out because I’ve never sat through a movie and been able to list off all the pieces that could have, or should have, been cut. Bay’s self-indulgent insistence on including scenes of dogs humping, Sam’s mother getting high and his roommate freaking out are only a few small examples of footage that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Even with such adjustments the movie would still be over bloated. Whole characters could have been chopped from the movie without any noticeable difference to the film’s plot. The African-American stereotyped twin robots tie with Jar-Jar Binks as the absolute worst CGI characters to prance on to the silver screen. Whether or not these characters are racist is an argument that gives this movie too much credit. Like much of the comedic elements they’re simply unbearable. I’m convinced Bay’s sense of humor resides in the head of a lobotomized eight-year-old boy.

As if the gratuitously terrible humor wasn’t enough to endure, LeBeouf’s character reaches a new romantic low with Megan Fox’s dolled up visage, dressed appropriate for shots that include her breasts bouncing in slow motion. Written more like a Spanish soap opera than a romantic squabble, the two mumble their lines at high speeds, perhaps trying to end the awkward interaction as soon as possible.

But lets break before I continue—Am I complaining about character development in a movie that has no desire to progress its characters? Indeed. Is pointing out a minor of many flaws involved with this movie an exercise in futility because the audience cares more about robots and explosions? Perhaps, but bear with me. The first movie moved swift and convincingly in transition from humans to transformers. In this film watching Sam and his human team of misfits feels like waiting for Christmas in January.

I’ve made it no secret that I can’t stand the overtly busy designs of these transformers. I’ll leave it at that, but it’s nice to know Bay at least traded his editing taste for some half-decent cinematography. For the first time I’m able to comprehend the action and appendages that are flowing from fist to blow between robots. Pity it’s too little to save any of the flash worth watching. Every explosion, every slow motion shot and every battle is ruined by the fact that there’s just too much of it. Bay has lost any comprehension of dramatic build up, allowing every explosive sequence to run together without any power. It is the singular driving force that drags “Revenge of the Fallen” down until you’re so tired of the action sequences it makes waiting for them even worse: Que the painfully boring scenes with Sam and his pack of idiots! (This is why characters matter.)

Can “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” be entertaining? Oh, sure! I certainly enjoyed the scenes with Optimus Prime flipping out of an airplane and kicking ass. And I should at least mention the forest battle as a highlight. But the problem is you would have to fast forward through a great deal of trite to view anything worth watching. “Revenge of the Fallen” is simply too big for its own good; high on the idea that more is better and delivering it unapologetically. Aspiring to be a fun ride is fine. Aspiring to have no substance at all is dangerous.

½ out of ****

Sunday, July 5, 2009

REVIEW - "Terminator Salvation" (2009)

When James Cameron finished “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” I don’t think he envisioned two sequels and a television series to follow. However, he can blame no one but himself for leaving it wide open with the films’ final shot of an open road. While “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” disappointed fans by ignoring all the wonderful themes from the previous movie, “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” actually expanded on those themes in ways James Cameron could not have done in a two hour film. Now, director McG, under the stern eyes of Terminator fans everywhere, walks up to bat. What is his solution? What is his take? The final cut isn’t a classic, but it certainly feels fresh.

The year is 2018. Judgment day has come and gone. Now a lone wanderer awakes in the midst of a futuristic war. Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) only remembers being a death row inmate. His meeting with a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) pits him before the stern and paranoid John Connor (Christian Bale). Their meeting ignites a journey to the truth of Marcus’s existence and John’s rise to leadership.

There is no doubt that “Terminator Salvation” is a more action heavy flick than any of the previous films, and easily more explosive (literally) than the budget restricted “Sarah Connor Chronicles.” What it lacks is an innate attention to characters. Luckily, the majority of the film focuses on the one character that does develop: Sam Worthington’s performance as Marcus Wright is quite possibly the single most astounding thing about “Salvation.” Despite a wealth of spoilers in trailer ads, Marcus is still captivating. Furthermore, the ambiguity of his past makes him more immediately interesting—Adding tension between him and the many characters he meets.

While the young Kyle Reese and John Connor don’t see the same amount of progress, they are, nonetheless, intriguing to see in new roles. The warrior John Connor is seen for the first time by audiences, but he’s still more man than legend. That young brat in “Terminator 2” has grown quite distrusting and angry. Bale makes the character worth watching as audiences realize this is not the John Connor we’re used to. Yelchin, struggling as another iconic character in “Star Trek,” is very comfortable in Reese’s boots. Channeling the best parts of Michael Bein, Yelchin doesn’t go as far to imitate the original Kyle Reese, but perfectly embodies his evolution from boy to soldier.

The next “big” addition is Moon Bloodgood as Blaire Williams. It’s clear McG wanted a strong female presence in his film, but “Salvations’” resident bad-girl has more in common with Alice from “Resident Evil” than Sarah Connor. After her by-the-numbers roll as a useful plot device, she sinks in to the background left for audiences to forget she was even in the film.

Beyond watching Worthington and familiar characters, “Salvation” doesn’t offer a whole lot beyond its action sequences. This isn’t to say the explosions and chase scenes weren’t fantastic—Every action piece is far more memorable and jaw-dropping than another, rather over-bloated robot flick this summer. It is entirely fair to say that McG has created the action feast of the summer. 2009 won’t see another movie with this much well framed grit and grind. It carries the film well enough, but at the expense of what made the first two Terminator films so great.

While characters take a backseat to the bang-n-booms, so does common sense. Toward the films’ climax, Skynet claims to have created the perfect infiltrator from the dead. It makes me wonder why it doesn’t do this more often as there’s plenty of dead bodies lying around. Wouldn’t about a hundred of those models be more efficient than putting the T-800 in production? Plot holes like this scathe the movie like an infant on a stove. Another mild example is after Skynet identifies Kyle he is simply held apart from the rest of the prisoners. Theoretically, if Kyle dies John can’t exist. So lets skip the strange idea that Skynet somehow knows why Kyle is important and scratch our heads as to why he wasn’t executed immediately.

Despite these obvious shortcomings I have to applaud McG for trying to recover James Cameron’s themes left for dead in “Terminator 3.” Though it might seem silly to quote, “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,” in a world long since destroyed, it echoes the essence of hope left from the first sequel. Still, while “Salvation” struggles to relight the Terminator franchise, it’s primarily for those looking for an exceptional action romp. Otherwise, if you need more to chew on, stick to “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

**½ out of ****