27 September 2010

Teenage Paparazzo (2010)

Adrian Grenier is best known as Vince, the lead character in Entourage and he knows something about the paparazzi. Teenage Paparazzo is Grenier's story about trying to understand the paparazzi through the eyes of one of them, who happens to be just 14 years old.

I have one word to describe this film: engrossing. I could not look away. It had all the best parts of a documentary (great hook, intriguing subject, good pacing) plus celebrities. Grenier manages to get the best of both worlds -- as an actor, he has easy access to other actors and celebrities -- he even uses Paris Hilton (who deosn't seem to mind) to show off how fast rumors are spun from the photos that are submitted to the tabloids. On the other hand, he buys a camera and spends some time running with the paparazzi, stalking other celebrities.

In addition to looking at the heart of the issue (who is buying the photos? who is consuming them? what's with our obsession?) through discussions with psychologists, historians and other experts, Grenier manages to portray paparazzi not as bottom-feeders but as people doing a job.

But this is not a movie about Grenier (something he actually seems to figure out along the way); it's about a boy, Austin Visschedyk, who is so invested in getting the shot that will pay off -- pushing, cursing, and always clicking -- it's easy to forget that he's just a kid. When his story breaks, he is thrust into the other side of the camera as a celebrity.

I have to wonder what path Visshedyk will ultimately follow, having had both a taste of celebrity and also of the adrenalin-fueled pace of the celebrity-stalker. I kinda hope he grows up to be an accountant but I suspect Hollywood has a pretty firm hold.


18 July 2010

It's All In Your Head. Everything May Be In Your Head

Inception is proof that an idea doesn’t need to be new to be original. The expertly crafted work from Christopher Nolan comes after decades of movies of a similar topic. Think of all of the big budget movies that have come out with the premise that all of reality is in our imagination.

The Manchurian Candidate - The pop-culture idea that the brain was an erector set came out of the Korean War. The Chinese attempted to use brainwashing to change its subjects. In the 1962 thriller, Frank Sinatra tried to find out how the Chinese messed with his head and the head of the titular character played by Lawrence Harvey.

The Matrix - The granddaddy headspace of the last decade or so was The Matrix. The Wachowski Brothers movie lent from Dark City, Terminator and other movies to weave a figurative matrix that does two things at the same time: it gives you a visual feast and a lot of philosophy to chew on.

Total Recall - The Schwarzenegger blockbuster Total Recall used “is this for real” as a massive plot device. The company, Recall, sells memories of vacations. When they go to imprint Arnie’s character, they discover that he’s living with an imprinted memory. So: is he a secret agent jarred into turmoil through the Recall process; or is he living out the ultimate fantasy vacation as a double agent on Mars.

Dreamscape - When I first heard of Inception I thought, “Oh man... Dreamscape...” and was worried that even Christopher Nolan could turn out a turkey. This movie from 1984 shares a lot of similarities to Inception. Dennis Quaid has the job of delving into people’s nightmares. Ironically, this movie about nightmares was eclipsed by the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie that came out that same year.

The Cell - Before Jennifer Lopez was a punchline she was in the imaginative and gripping movie, The Cell. Like Dreamscape and Inception, the characters in The Cell move into the dreaming minds of people. When they take a walk into the Serial Killer mind of Vincent D'Onofrio things get going.

Brainstorm - Like Inception, The Cell and others, Brainstorm hinges on the technology held inside of a super box. In The last movie to star Natalie Wood co-starred Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher as a trio of scientists who could record and replay what people experienced. The doodad in Inception became so much military surplus, but the government in Brainstorm wanted to take it over and make it into a torture device. Along the way they trapped the dying moments of the someone’s life and the tape becomes forbidden fruit.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carey’s characters was too many memories and he wants to pay to have some of them excised. Say good-bye to heart ache and loss-- deleted like bad photos. But then, what are we, if all of the sadness could get zapped out?

Dark City - In Dark City, they’ve taken the chemistry set approach and what we are, then use bad experiences and good memories to melange people. Aliens want to learn who we are by distilling us-- our personalities-- and recombining them like a massive extended compare contrast. Who are we if our memories were just ingredients off of a shelf?

Waking Life - To get into the surrealism of what is reality, there’s Waking Life. The movie was shot on video and then the scenes were re-done as animations. Director Richard Linklater takes the palette of the animations and adds an extra visual dimension to this long but fascinating rumination on what Waking Life actually is.

Dollhouse - On the small screen, Dollhouse started with a shallow premise that evolved into so much more. The short-lived series from Joss Whedon featured a “Dollhouse”-- a place that sold people programmed to be other people. The sinister potential of this concept came to fruition later in the series as it was revealed that the Dollhouse corporation was treating human consciousness like hard drives-- and you both copy, blank out, edit and shelve hard drives.

Christoper Nolan’s movie comes into a thicket of other movies that ask “What is real?” I like to think that all movies-- works of fiction-- are not real and the irony that they pose these questions is terrific.

Did I miss anything?

17 July 2010

Inception (2010)

Inception, like The Matrix and Waking Life, challenges the viewer's concept of reality. All three films do so by wrapping the philosophy inside a grenade of visual effects. The risk taken by these films is that viewers may not "get it" -- that they will walk away more frustrated than amazed. Of the three, The Matrix is still the benchmark for mass appeal but Inception should be a close second.

The definition of inception is "the beginning of something, a commencement or origin" and for the purposes of this film, it is the seed of an idea that can be planted deep in a person's subconscious through a shared dream state. To believe that this is possible, one must first accept the film's premise that dreams can be not only shared but also built, directed, and manipulated by others. Cobb (Leonardo Di Caprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon Levitt) work together with a carefully selected crew of chemists, architects and forgers to infiltrate minds and secure secrets for their clients. We learn that extracting information is much easier than planting an idea and that both activities are not only illegal but also very dangerous.

It's not the first film to illustrate the dangers of messing with people's minds -- both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich also explore this realm. While the crumbling memories of Eternal Sunshine are well-represented in Inception, I also think writer-director Christopher Nolan picked up on Malkovich's pride of self in building believable worlds for the dreamer.

Nolan wrote the first draft of the script about 8 years ago but has said that the idea grew from his own attempts (and apparent success) of lucid dreaming. Nolan's scripts frequently delve into the mind's corners, dragging the viewer into situations that seem just barely plausible. In lesser films I would be not so forgiving of the apparent lack of internal consistency afforded one key plot point, the kick. I won't discuss it here but for a great summary of my problem with it, check point #39 in "50 Things About Inception" by Adam Best (but be warned, the article is wall-to-wall spoilers).

My only other complaint is that I would have preferred to see better use of some of the supporting cast -- Levitt's Arthur is particularly strong as the straight man who just wants to go in and get the job done but is also able to adapt to Cobb's penchant for bending the rules. On the other hand, if Inception were to ever become a franchise, Nolan could easily develop a film around Arthur or almost any one of the other characters.

While there is grumbling across the net about the ending, I appreciated it, just as I don't mind following Nolan's breadcrumbs through a film. The breadcrumbs are what make Memento and his adaptation of The Prestige so much fun to watch again and again; once you know how each film ends, watching one from the beginning adds a new layer to your understanding. Inception is very similar in its structure and while I can't say I will rush to see it a second time in its first run, I am already looking forward to seeing Cobb and his crew again.

**** 1/2

P.S. If you've seen the film, or if you want a better idea of the world in which it takes place, check out Inception: the Cobol Job, a prequel in comic form.

27 May 2010

The Dark Side of Dancing.

Saturday Night Fever (1977), Fame (1980) and Flashdance (1983): three films about finding fame as entertainers shaped my teenage views of the industry -- or did they?

At only 8, I was not old enough to see Saturday Night Fever in the theatre so all I knew of it at that age was from the soundtrack and the many pop-culture references to Tony's (John Travolta) famous dance sequence on the disco floor. To me, it was all about the dance competition; it wasn't until years later that I saw the full movie and got to see just how crappy the rest of Tony's life was.

Again, with Fame, I'm not sure I saw the film in the theatre but I did watch the TV show, at least in its early years (did it really run until 1987?). I know that I eventually saw the film on Pay-TV (Superchannel, likely) and/or VHS. Unlike the TV show, the film included nudity, swearing, and even drug use, highlighting the inner-city side of the students' lives.

Flashdance I definitely saw in the theatre and I watched it over and over through my teens and early 20s on VHS. I was willing to overlook that the dancing was done by a body double and that the movie started the trends of torn sweatshirts and leg-warmers simply because Alex taught me how to take off a bra without removing my shirt.

More important though, was what the movies taught me: if you work hard enough, you can be an entertainer. There was never a question of luck, or money, just hard work and determination, oh, and making the "right" choices (don't do topless lap-dances, come back and work at the skeezy artsy dance house!) -- your basic American Dream scenario.

Unfortunately, it the characters lives are actually all pretty dark and miserable. They are surrounded by suicides, teen pregnancies, crappy day jobs and estranged parents. The films even look filtered and muted -- while this was typical of the era (a more realistic view of the world in contrast to Technicolor), in comparison to today's hyper-color-corrected and digitally enhanced films they just seem that much more gritty and depressing.

Perhaps I succeeded in distilling these films down to their dance sequences through listening totheir soundtracks; eventually, the scenes in between just faded away. Seeing each of them recently, I kind of wish I'd let those sleeping dogs lie.

I still recommend all of these films -- maybe even as a triple bill over a weekend -- but be prepared for the bumpy ride before you get to the inevitable happy ending of each one.

05 May 2010

Date Night (2010)

Tina Fey and Steve Carell are such an obvious comedic pairing it's almost a shame that this is their debut. Almost. The two of them are good enough comedians to be able to elevate this rather average mistaken-identity action-comedy beyond simply "watchable" to "amusing."

Date Night takes average people out of the suburbs and drops them into the middle of an unlikely evening of excitement in the big city -- think of After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting, even Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. The mistaken identity plot line isn't particularly fresh either -- think of North By Northwest, The Big Lebowski, and countless others -- but Fey and Carell have a genuine screen chemistry and make the most of a thin script.

All they want is a nice dinner in Manhattan; what they get is a not-quite-madcap dash throughout New York City, complete with gunfire and car-chases. Unlike couples in so many romantic comedies the Fosters are happily married and, while they might be in a rut, they seem to genuinely enjoy each other's company and support each other. They work together to get out of the mess they are in -- from finding unlikely help in Manhattan to the saw-it-coming-down-Main-street showdown at the climax.

Date Night is not a long movie. Clocking in at only 88 minutes, the movie doesn't have too much time to drag. Throughout, there are plenty of laughs that run the spectrum from knee-slapping guffaws to uncomfortable chuckles and while most are care of lines delivered by Fey and Carell, other actors get to shine, too. I doubt that Date Night will find a place in the rom-com cannon but it's a decent date flick, worth the admission price.

If you go, be sure to stay through the credits; two of my biggest laughs were at the out-takes.


12 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Disney's latest version of Alice in Wonderland, helmed by Tim Burton is every bit as weird and whimsical as you might expect. The first thing you need to know is that it is not a remake of the childhood classic. Instead, it picks up the characters thirteen years later, when Alice is all but grown up and facing an arranged marriage. It's an interesting way to approach the material and the characters without destroying something so dear to many people.

Without giving too much away, this movie owes as much to The Matrix as it does to the Lewis Carroll's original works. Alice is convinced she is in a dream for most of the adventure and spends most of her time trying to wake up. However, as in the Matrix, the characters are split as to whether she is the right Alice (i.e. The One) or whether the White Rabbit (like Morpheus) has fetched the wrong one; only The Alice will be able to help them defeat their foe. The caterpillar here plays the role of the Oracle and the Mad Hatter and other tea party guests are much like the group of rebels on board the Nebuchadnezzar. Like the Matrix there is also a climatic battle scene that uses the lion's share of the special effects budget.

The look of the film is typical of Tim Burton, full of twisted trees, characters with exaggerated features, and the feeling of a world that extends well beyond the edges of the screen (even without 3D technology -- we did not see the 3D print so I can't comment on how well the technology was applied. ). Burton also used colour very deliberately, with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) as twin centres of attention and Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in her trademark blue standing out against the rest of Wonderland's muted hues. As an example, here is a comparison of Tweedledum and Tweedledee from the famous John Tenniel drawings, the 1951 Disney Animated version and the Tim Burton version, played by Matt Lucas (which I think was brilliant casting):

The film does take some odd turns -- most peculiar is the funderwhacking that is mentioned so many times that the viewer knows it will play out before the credits roll. Unfortunately when it appears, it's like a rancid walnut in a mouthful of mixed nuts and it really should have been left on the cutting room floor (it's as out of place as the jitterbug sequence that was wisely cut from The Wizard of Oz).

In the end, this version of Alice in Wonderland is principally 100 minutes of eye candy; my 9 year old said it best, "You know how there are some movies where, once they start, you can't take your eyes off the screen? This one was like that." It's not going to pay off big with a great plot or even memorable performances (though some are at least interesting, many of the cast were given little with which they could work) but if you see it on the big screen, you're likely to feel like you got your money's worth.

*** 1/2

Related media:

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14 February 2010

Collapse (2009)

Michael Ruppert is a man who has been preaching about the downfall of civilization for a couple of decades and he might be right. The collapse of the title is civilization as we know it -- but it's not global destruction from nuclear fallout, a global weather event, or alien attacks. The collapse Ruppert has predicted is what happens when oil runs out. The scary part is thinking about everything else that oil is used to produce -- not just the fuel to run our cars, but tires, toothbrushes, fertilizers and much more. Ruppert believes that once oil is no longer affordable, society will begin to crumble.

As often happens with documentaries, Chris Smith had not set out to direct this particular film. He was researching another issue for which Ruppert was a source but, as it says on the opening frame, Ruppert had other things to talk about.

For the majority of the film, the camera focuses on Ruppert as he talks, smokes, and laughs at the interviewer's "rookie" questions. Stock footage is used to move the story along as Ruppert goes from credible to crazy and back again.

At one point, Ruppert talks about the kind of people you find on the Titanic when told it is sinking: the type who have no clue (deer in the headlights), the type who know and are willing to do what is necessary to survive (the builders) and those who think that the messenger has no clue (the non-believers). He suggested that the builders would get busy putting together the life boats and getting the heck out of there. What he failed to mention was the subset of non-believers (or just as likely, among the deer in the headlights crowd) who, on seeing the solution, would simply take the life boats, using force as needed.

Ultimately, on the credible-crazy scale I would award him credible, though I would like to back it up by researching some of his claims myself.


Visit the official website or view the trailer:

16 January 2010

In the End...

Sometimes the best part of a movie is the ending but when reviewing movies it's not a good thing when you give that away. So, here, in no particular order and spoiler-free are seven movies that I think are better because of their endings:

The Italian Job (1969) -- Michael Caine leads a crew of Brits through the streets of Turin to pull off a heist during the World Cup celebrations. Don't be hoodwinked into renting the re-make; it's a pale imitation that lacks all the imagination and cool of the original.

Shallow Grave (1994) -- Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox are roommates who share a very dark sense of humour. When they find a dead body and a lot of money their friendship may be at risk. This film is very dark, and more than a little violent but also very funny.

The Prestige (2006) -- Michael Caine again, here with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in a tale about two rival magicians. Before I saw this film, someone told me to pay close attention to a certain scene because it would reveal the ending. I paid attention and still gasped as the ending played out screen.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997) -- Campbell Scott and Steve Martin headline this clever con film. Maybe my favourite David Mamet film, the script is filled with sharp dialog and plot twists right to the last lines.

Knowing (2009) -- Strange things start to happen after a time capsule is opened; Nicholas Cage leads. Probably the cheeziest movie on this list but I really appreciated the follow-through.

War of the Roses (1989) -- When Michael Douglas and and Kathleen Turner decide to get a divorce, it gets ugly, fast. Another black comedy, the details in the final scene paint it even darker.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) -- Matt Damon finds that he is skilled in impersonation while on a trip to Italy to retrieve a playboy living in luxury. At once dreamlike and creepy, this film will stick in your mind.

09 January 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

All Flint Lockwood (voiced by Bill Hader) wants to be is a great inventor. Unfortunately, he lives in Swallow Falls which is known only as the world's biggest supplier of canned sardines. After years of failure, he finally finds success with a machine that can turn water into food -- what could go wrong?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is inspired by a bestselling picture book by Ron and Judi Barrett that tells the story of a scientist trying to solve world hunger. Similar problems evolve in both the book and the film, though, and lead to a similar conclusion.

Like many animated films, Cloudy includes some sight gags and dialogue that is aimed at the parents in the audience but for the most part this film is perfectly suited to young kids. The characters are miles away from the uncanny valley with oversize heads, big eyes, and wild hair. They live in a crayon-hued world that follows the rules of cartoons rather than physics.

The voice work is top notch, having borrowed half the current cast of Saturday Night Live and thrown in Bruce Campbell, Mister T, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris, and Al Roker just for kicks.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is not Oscar-worthy animation but it's not a bad way to spend 90 minutes with the kids.

*** ½

08 January 2010

Daybreakers (2009)

What happens when the population has adapted to the vampire lifestyle but starts to run out of humans? If you are the CEO of Bromley Marks, you offer a supply of human blood while researching a synthetic alternative. Of course, Charles Bromley's (Sam Neill) blood bank clearly has its own agenda and isn't about to let its star researcher Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) alter it. In the meantime, the army has been re-deployed to hunt humans and blood-starved vampires are mutating into something much more frightening.

Unlike similar films -- think of The Matrix, Blade, Underworld, and Zombieland -- that take some time to pull the audience aside and explain "how we got into this mess," Daybreakers skips all of that. It skips a few other key points too, leaving it wide open for sequels, prequels, spinoffs and whatever else might make a future buck.

Daybreakers connects some interesting dots. For example, there are a lot of smokers among the vampires -- I guess if you're already dead, lung cancer is not an issue -- and coffee, the universal lubricant of the white collar worker, is being served with 20% blood. Chrysler got some product placement, too, with cars modified for "daylight driving systems" -- a series of shields, cameras and heads-up displays -- one of several tech and infrastructure modifications for our future vampire selves.

Overall, I appreciated the world the filmmakers built but it lacked some basic aspects of, well, humanity. I know who we were supposed to cheer for but somewhere in the midst of a car chase that belonged in a different screenplay I lost interest. The characters had little to offer me in the way of emotion -- even (maybe especially) the human characters. There's also a subplot with Bromley that works only as a plot device to shove the story forward, however awkwardly.

In fact, awkward may be the best word to describe this film -- a little bit like a gawky teen who has grown faster than he's matured, Daybreakers features some great ideas and inventive special effects and makeup work, but it sends mixed-messages with its inconsistency. I suspect the Spierig brothers have a great film in them but Daybreakers isn't it.

I will give it top marks in one department: Daybreakers delivers on its promise of sparkle-free vampires.