Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inception: Does For Dreams What Jaws Did For Oceans

Inception Poster

Christopher Nolan has been directing some of my favorite movies of the 2000s. I loved Memento, even the second time. I've been reading comics since 1991, so I was extremely glad for what he's done to the Batman franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The Prestige was the best supernatural mystery featuring magicians I saw that year (and yes, that includes The Illusionist). I even liked Insomnia, even though he didn't write it. This year, he blew everything away with Inception.

It feels like M.C. Escher had a baby with Philip K. Dick, and this baby was raised by Danny Ocean. Part sci-fi, part magical realism, part caper, and all awesome. After seeing it twice, I feel like I get it enough where I can write about it and it won't be utter gibberish.

The first time I saw Inception it was the weekend after it opened, and the theater was packed. Normally, I hate sitting within the first 20-30 rows of a theater (I know, I'm a stickler), but I sat in the 4th row with my fiancee and we watched it anyway. The second time was just this past weekend, it was less packed, but I still wasn't able to get my optimum seat. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed both viewings, regardless.

I studied film in college, so I'm very much of the mindset that movies are best when they're engaging as well as thought-provoking. Nolan is able to balance a totally insane plot in a rational way. He explains certain things (some critics have said too much), but it's necessary. The viewer would have virtually no way to keep up with the story without the explanations. In reality, very little of the history of their technology is explained; they just explain how it works once you're in the dream.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself. To fully talk about the movie, especially to those who may ot have seen it, I should explain a little about what's going on. In the world of Inception, a technology exists that lets people share dreams. This leads to an illegal practice of sharing dreams to extract secret information; essentially, master thieves called extractors steal secrets right from your head. The plot follows Cobb (DiCaprio) and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt), two talented thieves, an expert Extractor and an ingenious Architect. Cobb is plagued by his past, and Arthur is just looking towards the next job. When an opportunity arises that Cobb can't pass up, he must organize a group of dreamers: An architect even better than Cobb (Ellen Page); a forger that can assume identities of others in dreams (Tom Hardy); a chemist to design the perfect sedative to create all the dream levels they need (Dileep Rao); their client (Ken Watanabe); and their unwilling subject (Cillian Murphy). Cobb's secrets come out of his subconscious with a vengeance as the team tries to pull off the perfect heist in reverse: Inception. Planting an idea in a subjects mind is more difficult than removing information, and they must face dangers and dream levels they haven't seen before to complete the job.

About 75% of this movie features visual effects and tricks that I literally have no idea how Nolan did. As per usual, he doesn't use a 2nd Unit, and does it all himself with his director of photography Wally Pfister. Featuring a deep, intense, and ambient soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, the whole team does a phenomenal job of bringing the viewer into the world of the film, and of the dream. Visually stunning, outrageous, and ground-breaking, you almost can't believe what you're seeing, but it's completely fascinating.

It's been awhile since I've seen a movie this actively thought-provoking, and that sparked such real, actual discussion. There's a lot of great actors giving fantastic performances. The visual effects aren't all clogged with 3D and too much computer generated work. There's an entire set of scenes where Joseph Gordon-Levitt fights and runs around in a hallway that's constantly shifting (and sometimes losing) gravity. The way the dreams work are all carefully thought-out and actually does make sense (in a weird, dream-like sort of way).

I highly recommend going to check out this movie. Not only is it greatly entertaining, but it's a master stroke from Christopher Nolan. It's a culmination of all that he's done so far, and pushed way beyond what we've seen him do. The theater experience is worth it, and I'll probably be buying this movie on Blu-Ray when it comes out.

Inception gets four crazy spinning hallways that should make the Wachowskis tremble in embarrassment out of five, or four crazy-manipulated dream-level mazes that feature endless staircases and other physical paradoxes out of five.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Carriers: Like A Zombie Movie, but With Sick People


Article first published as http://blogcritics.org/video/article/movie-review-carriers-like-a-zombie/'>Movie Review: Carriers - Like A Zombie Movie, But With Sick People on Blogcritics.

In 2009, brothers Álex and David Pastor released a horror thriller film named Carriers. It follows the exploits of two brothers and their girlfriends as they navigate a wasteland of America. A deadly virus has swept the globe, killing nearly everyone. The survivors have learned to distrust virtually everyone they encounter, trying to avoid infection at any cost.

I've found that it's very difficult to do a post-apocalyptic movie well. The Pastors pull it off pretty well, though. They utilize a lot of desert scenery, and it features a very sparse cast. Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Lou Taylor Pucci (The Chumscrubber) are brothers Brian and Danny Green. Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) is Bobby, Brian's girlfriend. Emily VanCamp (The Ring Two) is Danny's friend Kate. Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) has a cameo as Frank, a father whose daughter is infected, and runs across Danny, Brian and the girls.

This film is like most Zombie movies, in that the survivors are eking out a simple and stressful existence in the ruined world, avoiding others, locking their doors, and protecting themselves from infection. In a nod to the youth and gallows humor of these people, they often decorate their masks with faces, designs, teeth, etc. They also run across an abandoned hotel and golf course, and there's a great montage of them golfing, driving around in golf carts, drinking, and playing in sand traps. Their reverie is cut short by their discovery of the pool, which is deeply infected with a dead body.

They run across a few survivors, but they're all openly hostile to our main characters. Plot-wise, Carriers is a little bit thin. Essentially, Brian and Danny want to go back to some beach they remembered from their childhood. The girls are basically along for the ride. Much of the story focuses on Brian and Danny and their relationship; as brothers, they share a unique dynamic in how they deal with conflict. Brian is the de facto leader, but when things start falling apart, and people in their group start getting infected, he may not be quite capable of handling things.

Overall, Carriers is an entertaining but somewhat predictable horror film. It does have some genuine chills, especially when they encounter a deranged scientist experimenting on children to find a "cure." The cliché'd message about family and the journey being more than the destination gets a little hackneyed, but overall, it's enjoyable for its genre.

I give it two demon-masked twenty-somethings poking at dead bodies in pools with sticks out of five, or two predictable but entertaining endings out of five.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World: 8-Bit Awesomesauce

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

So I kind of dropped the ball during ComicCon weekend by only blogging about Kick-Ass, and leaving my review of Iron Man 2 in the gutter. But, friends and neighbors, I was able to attend an advanced screening of Edgar Wright's upcoming film based on Bryan Lee O'Malley's mini-series Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, so I hope that makes up for it. Today's the day the soundtrack and original score albums come out for SPvsTW, so it's only fitting that I get to it today. Scott Pilgrim hits theaters this Friday, August 13th.

Scott Pilgrim is a slacker. He's in a band but they kind of suck. He's dating a high schooler but they barely hold hands. He owns approximately two things in his apartment and shares a bed with his cool gay roommate Wallace because he can't afford a bed. He has no job, no goals, no hope. But then he meets Ramona Flowers, a rollerblading American bad-ass hipster babe. You'd think things would only get less complicated from there. But, holy crap, it turns out he has to defeat her seven evil exes in combat in order to earn the right to date her. You'd think this would be too much for a girl Scott just met, but you have severely underestimated how much more interesting his life is now.

The comic book series is six volumes long, and the movie is less than two hours. That being said, they manage to do an extremely good job condensing the plot and action. Things that are left out aren't exactly "unnecessary," but they aren't missed much in the movie. Many of the scenes, shots, lines, and especially costumes are lifted directly from the comic itself. Luckily, Volume 6 had come out just a week or so before we saw the film, so we were able to complete the series before checking out the movie. The film version is different, and has a fairly different climax, but at their core the two are very similar.

Directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, & Spaced), SPvsTW is a fanboy homage to comics, video games, pop culture, and romance wrapped in purposefully dated references, sounds, and even computers (Scott uses AOL, for Pete's sake). The music is hip and has an "indie" feel, and the score is sweeping and hardcore at the same time (Nigel Godrich is a genius). At its core, it stars Michael Cera as Scott Pilgrim, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona, Kieran Culkin as Wallace Wells, Mark Webber as Stephen Stills... Well, why don't I just point you to The Database page? There are far too many good people in this movie to list them all. With the exception of Ramona, the casting was perfection. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was good, and she's a capable actress. However, I just didn't buy her as Ramona, and felt the casting may have been wrong (though I don't know who could have played her instead). I had my doubts about Michael Cera at first, but I was on board right away once I saw him in action.

The fight scenes were brutal, engaging, entertaining, and very much under the influence of video games. There were some great cameos (wait until you see who they get to play the Vegan Police), and fans of the series should be very satisfied. If you've never read the comics, you'll still enjoy this movie, as long as you enjoy twenty-something romances, kicking rock bands, epic bass battles, and sword duels. The actual violence is minimal: When evil exes are defeated, they explode into coins. Some of the exes don't get enough attention (I didn't like how small the Katayanagi twins were in the film, though their battle was epic), and Scott's own evil ex Envy (amazingly played by Brie Larson) was severely downplayed.

The only real negative to the film was the condensed timeline; the comic series takes place over a series of months, but the movie takes place over what seems to be a week or less. This unfortunately lead to more of a "love triangle" between Ramona and Scott's high-schooler girlfriend Knives (though she's brilliant, played by Ellen Wong), which I didn't feel was a match to the tone of the book. It worked for the film, though, and it wasn't totally random.

Overall, I was really excited I got to see the film in an advanced screening. I've never been able to go to one before, so that definitely was a bonus. I might actually want to go see it again when it comes out, but I may not. It's definitely on my list of DVDs to pick up (or BluRays, if I have a player by then). It's fun, cute, quirky, hip, and wacky. It has action, video games, rock bands, Japanese twins, and Jason Schwartzman as a sword-wielding jerk villain! It has basically everything that you need in a movie.

I give Scott Pilgrim vs. the World three and a half three-second songs by Crash and the Boys (literally) out of five, or three and a half giant hammers being pulled out of handbags out of five.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kick-Ass: 'Nuff Said, Am I Right?


In honor of San Diego Comic Con going on this week, today and tomorrow will feature two comic book movie themed blogs! Rejoice, ye nerds, and bask in the glory of my nerd-reviews!

Are you basking?

First off, it's one of the most outrageous, violent, ridiculous, and most awesome comic book movies in a long time: Kick-Ass. Based on a series of comics by legendary creators Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita, Jr., Kick Ass is a tale of a young man who dreams of becoming a superhero. After minimal training, and in a home-made costume, Dave Lizewski is critically injured while attempting to stop a mugging. Stabbed and left for dead, he's taken to the hospital. When he recovers, he suffers from nerve damage. Still spurred by his near-insane need to help people and function as a superhero, he goes back on the streets. His actions attract the attention of the mob and other costumed vigilantes. How can a high-school kid with no superpowers stand up to the entire mob? Well, when he's got a gun-toting, knife-throwing 12-year old girl with him, he may have a chance.

Directed by relative newcomer Matthew Vaughan, Kick-Ass stars Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski/Kick Ass, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Red Mist/Chris D'Amico, Nicolas Cage as Damon Macready/Big Daddy, Marc Strong as Frank D'Amico, and Chloe Moretz as Mindy Macready/Hit Girl. It's a pretty interesting cast of actors for a comic book movie, and surprisingly, Nicolas Cage is not only tolerable, he's actually pretty good. I'm not really familiar with Aaron Johnson, but I guess he plays a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, which looks good, too. Chloe Moretz really steals the show, though; she's been in a few things, but she is absolutely malicious and terrifying here.

This film also features one of the better soundtracks out there. It features a few great songs by The Prodigy, and a few good updates of crazy songs for Hit Girl's scenes: Banana Splits by the Dickies, and Bad Reputation by the Hit Girls. I especially like the sort of theme song to the movie, Stand Up by the Prodigy. I normally don't get into film soundtracks, but this one was especially good.

I took my lady to this crazy movie, and surprisingly, she didn't hate it. Essentially, it's not the kind of movie she'd want to go see on her own, but she liked it once she got there. It was funny, interesting, unpredictable, and shockingly violent. A dude gets his leg cut off! Seriously, it's wicked.

It's a fairly standard action movie as far as direction goes; the costumes were amazing, though. Everything looked like it could have been made at home, with household crap, but it also had that slick, Dark Knight kind of look to it, as well. The characters were interesting, and Kick-Ass was a surprisingly ineffective hero, and didn't do a whole lot of ass-kicking. Hit-Girl was the actual bad-ass one, and her dad Big Daddy is crazy brutal. Imagine Batman with a moustache, a shotgun, and a huge grin, and that's almost as intense as Big Daddy was. Red Mist is fantastic, as well; it's basically McLovin' in a costume, driving a fancy car around. I don't want to give any spoilers, but Red Mist has his own reasons for becoming a superhero, and his own agenda.

In some ways, I think the film is moderately realistic. Hear me out, don't just laugh. It's essentially supposed to be our world; a world where people read comics, and there are no superheroes. Nobody turns into Batman; nobody has utility belts full of awesome gadgets. Kick Ass is a kid in a repurposed wet-suit and Doc Marten boots, with two lead pipes strapped to his back. Big Daddy is an ex-cop who trained his daughter to be a killing machine; they both use guns and knives and their crazy fists as weapons. Red Mist does nothing at all, really. They don't go around saving kittens from trees, but they don't battle intergalactic invasions, or giant robots, or supervillains. They fight muggers, gang-bangers. Dave fights High School; imagine that nerd who gets wedgies all the time started working out, threw on some tights, and beat up petty bad guys on weekends.

Overall, it's an extremely entertaining movie. It has little value other than that, but that's by no means a bad thing. It's wacky, insane, violent, full of actually decent action, great nerdy characters, great nerdy comic-book discussions, and things you didn't know you wanted to see until you saw it. For instance, I had no idea I wanted to watch Marc Strong punch a little girl square in the face until I saw it.

I give Vaughan's Kick-Ass three weird, creepy, and sort of amazing performances by Nicolas Cage as a gun-toting maniac ex-cop superhero out of five, or three incredibly amazing scenes featuring a tiny 12-year old in a superhero costume running around shooting, stabbing, maiming, killing, and generally messing up dozens of angry, hulking mobsters out of five.

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