"Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." -Inception

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Movie Review: Brave

The 13th feature film of Pixar Animation Studios, Brave, should prove very lucky rather than unlucky as it means Pixar is back on track with its original content.  Apart from Monsters University next year, the studio is back to concentrating on new stories to tell instead of sequels and prequels as that's where their strength lies.

Brave is the story of Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) who really yearns to be her own person and not have to live up to the expectations of a perfect princess of her kingdom DunBroch and especially her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson).  Merida excels at archery and has her own views even though it may seem selfish or immature to others.  It takes a life-changing incident for her to realize that sometimes compromises must be made.

This is the first princess story that Pixar has tried to tell and they have deviated a bit away from the Disney model of princess stories.  There is no Prince here coming to save Merida, she has to figure out how fix things herself.  But Merida and her family have a strong bond that is prevalent in all Disney family films.  Previously titled, "The Bear and the Bow", the film was to be directed by Brenda Chapman who had worked as co-director on The Prince of Egypt.  But midway through, she left the project and was replaced by Mark Andrews.  She would have been one of the few lone female directors in animation.  Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2) beat her to it.

I could tell where Andrews had his influence on the film, there are bit more of action sequences in chasing the bear and a bit of infighting amongst the clans.  But I'm so glad that the core of the story and film remains the relationship between Merida and her mother.  It's the very best part of the film.  Queen Elinor discovers what her daughter is capable of and Merida discovers, as it has always been evident to the audience, that her mother wants what is best for her.  When a witch's spell dramatically changes Elinor, they are forced to actually communicate and listen to each other and work their way back to being a regular family again.

The bonding sequences between mother and daughter are both funny and touching.  When Merida thinks her mother is lost forever, a tear (or two!) managed to sneak out.  Thank heavens for the clunky 3D glasses to mask them.  The movie looks gorgeous.  It really is an extended tourism ad for Scotland.  The animals, the giant bear Mordu and Angus the horse, are extremely realistic and in Mordu's case, very scary.  From fur on the animals to Merida's hair which is insanely curly with sunset colors that pop onscreen.  Amazing hair and fur!

I liked the little nod to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli with the will o' the wisps which reminded me of the little spirits present in My Neighbor Totoro.  Her younger brothers Hamish, Harris and Hubert are triple terrors in the castle who bring a smile whenever they are onscreen.  I hope we'll be seeing them in a short again soon.

Which brings us to the short before the film, La Luna.  Nominated for the Best Animated Short this past February, La Luna, directed by Enrico Casarosa is beautifully told tale without much dialogue about the three generations who work together to take care of the moon.  Resident Pixar music director Michael Giacchino gives the score.  I love the idea of the short before the actual feature and I hope more studios besides Pixar pick up on it.  It's a great tradition.

Back to Brave, I think it's a worthy addition to the Pixar treasure trove.  I was extremely pleased to see so many boys also lining up to see what it being marketed as "Pixar's girl movie".   I don't think it really mattered to them.  So Princess Merida joins the rest of the Disney princesses and is the first princess to emerge out of Pixar but what audiences will take away is seeing Merida, the fearless and strong young woman who dares to believe in change.

PS: Stay tuned until the end for the lovely dedication to Steve Jobs and a post-credits scene.

Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell (co-director), Screenplay by Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi, Edited by Nicholas C. Smith, Music by Patrick Doyle.

Voice talents of: Billy Connolly (Fergus), Julie Waters (The Witch), Robbie Coltrane (Lord Dingwall), Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin/Young MacGuffin), Craig Ferguson (Lord Macintosh), Peigi Barker (Young Merida)


Watch the film on Redbox here:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ready, Set, Bow!

Princess Merida from Brave
The hottest weapon in Hollywood that's making an old school comeback through several big blockbusters is the simple bow and arrow.  Typically used for hunting, the origins of the bow and the arrow can be traced back to the Paleolithic age (10,000-9000 BCE) around what is now Germany.  Many civilizations have the archery weapons present in their tradition of storytelling told through generations.  But the emergence of guns as weaponry made them outdated and old-fashioned.  Now it has become more of a recreational activity and has been featured on and off in the Summer Olympics since 1900.

Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games
It is also making a comeback in the movies.  Look around and many of the heroes and more significantly, heroines of these films are archers.  Katniss Everdeen, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, Prince Arjun from the Mahabharata and in the Pixar film Brave opening today, Princess Merida are all picking up the bow and arrow to show their skills.  Before this, the most famous archer of them all was the legendary Robin Hood who had several Hollywood incarnations, animated and live-action.  The most famous Robin was, of course, Errol Flynn but we recently can recall Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe filling in those shoes as well.

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood
So, why the surge in archers?  It just boils down to timing.  The Hunger Games books have been out for years and the films that features all our protagonists have also been in the works for years.  It is extremely fortuitous that 2012 coinciding with the Summer Olympics puts the sport and bow and arrow in focus.  Not to mention the movies all released on top of each other and were huge blockbusters.

Clint Barton aka Hawkeye
The Avengers has made over a billion dollars worldwide and sits at #3 as the all time box office champ behind Avatar and Titanic.  The Hunger Games stayed atop the US box office for four straight weeks and made over $500 worldwide.  The sequel, Catching Fire, will release on November 22, 2013.  Brave too is poised to do the same from the first original content from Pixar since 2009.  The crew of Pixar actually went to the Scottish Highlands to research the authenticity in the scenes and some of the animators even took archery lessons to get it right.

Geena Davis
The sport will even welcome people who might not previously be inclined to it earlier.  Famously former actress and Oscar winner Geena Davis took up archery and even tried out for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  This year's archery event will take place at the famed Lord's Cricket grounds in London from July 27-August 3rd where 128 men and women from around the world will compete for medals.  Archers from South Korea, USA and Italy have usually excelled in the sport.

Prince Arjun from Arjun: The Warrior Prince
2012 might as well proclaim itself the year of the bow and arrow.  The past few months have show how well these films have hit the target at the box-office.  It's certainly not because of the weapon they use but how the skill and accuracy employed by the bow and arrow so defines these heroines and heroes.  It becomes their second skin.  It publicizes the sport of archery and gives us characters to root for and admire.  Not bad for the simple bow and arrow.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Movie Review: 21 Jump Street

The best thing about 21 Jump Street is that is unlike other sequels and reboots, it doesn't take itself too seriously and is far away from being a clone of the TV series it is supposed to be based on.   In fact, as Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) says early in the film, "We're reviving a canceled undercover project from the '80s and revamping it for modern times.  The people behind this lack creativity and they've run out of ideas, so what they do now is just recycle shit from the past and hope that nobody will notice".  That's stating the obvious.  The only thing that stays the same is the idea of police officers going to high school.

This film is surprisingly funny.  I had serious doubts about it initially but the film goes in with no expectations and doesn't stick to stereotypes and just makes fun of every character; it seems to do the trick.  Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are two guys who were never friends in high school as they were polar opposites.  This leads them to become friends while they train to become cops.  One has the smarts and one has the brawn and they help each other out.  Eventually, after they graduate out the police academy, they are assigned to park duty on bikes.  It's not as glamorous as they expected.  'Where are the car chases and explosions?', moans Jenko.

Even when they do get their first arrest, they let the most of the culprits get away and forget to read the one they've caught his Miranda rights.  Out goes the case.  Schmidt and Jenko are sentenced to 21 Jump Street (which happens to be a Korean church), headquarters for the undercover school unit.  They have to join high school to find out who has been dealing drugs that left a young kid (Johnny Simmons) dead.  Their undercover assignment pairs them as brothers Doug and Brad who infiltrate the cool kids and the nerds to find out who's making and dealing the drugs on school grounds and get the supplier.

As they mess up everything else in their careers, they forget their identities and Schmidt becomes part of the popular kids who do drama and care about the environment.  Jenko becomes a science nerd and has AP Chemistry which he pronounces as "App Chemistry".  They both begin to experience a high school experience much different from the first time around.  I liked that many characters pointed out how they looked too old to be in high school, especially Jenko by referring to him as a 40 year old.

Of course, with the partying and extra-curricular activities that become a part of their lives, they have to pay attention to the reason why they are in high school in the first place: to find the suppliers of the drugs.  And it all goes down at the prom.  Where else?  Schmidt and Jenko finally get that car chases and explosions that they were waiting all throughout the film for.

21 Jump Street was a pleasant surprise and trust me, I didn't think I would like a Channing Tatum film this much.  He seems to be picking his roles more carefully now and comedy seems a good fit for him.  His character in the film is so taken aback when he realizes the social hierarchy in high school has changed and now the popular and cool kids are the ones he used to pick on and even blames Glee for changing perceptions.   His friendship with the science geeks was unexpected.  He shows actual growth from a dimwit to a cop who knows what he's doing.

 Jonah Hill, who literally dropped the weight of a whole another person before the film, is his usual funny persona that we've seen in previous films before.  But he's still adorably awkward in the action scenes which completely works for him.  Both Tatum and Hill were executive producers on the film.  The movie even includes cameos from a few of the original 21 Jump Street gang in Peter DeLuise, Holly Robinson Peete and Johnny Depp.  Yes, Johnny Depp!  His cameo is hilarious and unpredictable.  So, if you're looking for a foul-mouthed comedy that will make you laugh, look no further than 21 Jump Street.

Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Screenplay by Michael Bacall, Based on the TV series, '21 Jump Street' by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell, Cinematography by Barry Peterson, Edited by Joel Negron, Music by Mark Mothersbaugh.

Additional cast: Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, DeRay Davis, Ice Cube, Chris Parnell, Ellie Kemper, Jake M. Johnson, Dakota Johnson.


Recommended Links: Maleficent, The Wolf of Wall Street and more!

(Photo: Entertainment Weekly)
  • Entertainment Weekly has the first look and interview with Angelina Jolie as Maleficent in Disney's new feature film on the villain from Sleeping Beauty.   And the fairy tale trend continues.
  • Could there ever be a Pixar film featuring Marvel characters?  John Lasseter says he would be open to the idea if someone approached him with a concept.  Someone needs to approach him!  
  • Martin Scorsese's next film, The Wolf of Wall Street adds more names to its cast.  In addition to Scorsese regular, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, Jon Bernthal, Margot Robbie, Cristin Milioti (from Broadway's Once) and now Rob Reiner, who will play Leo's father, are all part of film due to release next year.  
  • DreamWorks announces yet another feature, Happy Smekday!, in a press release.  The good news, it features Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) as a lowly alien who has to go on the run with a teenage girl after he informs their mortal enemies that the aliens have chosen Earth as their hideout.  Oops!  The bad news, it also features Rihanna!  Happy Smekday! is based on the book by The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex and will release late 2014.
  • Link of the day: Have a look at the behind the scenes photos of some of the iconic movies in Hollywood history.  If you wondered how did they film that, they've got snapshot of how it actually looked on set.  My personal favorites were The Avengers, Inception and of course, Jurassic Park.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

I finally got around to watching The Artist as it releases on DVD.   When it was in theaters, I kept thinking I would catch it later choosing to watch The Descendants and War Horse instead.  Of course, everyone knows how the film was the big winner at this year's Academy Awards with wins in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Score and Best Costumes.  It became only the second silent film after Wings to win Best Picture.

How is it possible that a silent film to have so much success in this day and age?  That too in black and white!  Its success is a testament to the fact that good storytelling should always prevail.   The Artist is the story of George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a silent movie star with Kinograph Studios.  We see him in the opening sequences of a film-within-a-film escaping the clutches of some evil men with the help of his trusty dog, Jack (enacted by superdog Uggie), to save the damsel in distress.   Valentin seems to have it all on the surface.  Admiration of the people and the press, a successful career and a beautiful home.

While doing press for his new film, he has a chance encounter with a fan on the street when they bump into each other.  The fan is young Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who dreams of being an actress herself.  Her encounter with Valentin puts her on the front page of Variety with the headline asking, 'Who's that girl?' Both George and Peppy feel a strange connection to each other the first time they meet.  But she is just a lowly extra while he's the star of the film and also married.

But his marriage to his wife Doris (Penelope Miller) is unhappy as they barely communicate.  She sits around drawing funny mustaches and faces to his photos.  Meanwhile there a big change coming to the future of films.  Kinograph boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) shows George a sound test they're working on as silent film will move to the talkies.  George doesn't take this seriously enough and laughs at the test, walking out.

George doesn't realize how dire the situation will turn for him.  There is no more work for him as Kinograph Studios stops work on all silent films.  George is defiant, choosing instead to finance and direct his own ode to silent films, Tears of Love.  He puts in all his money which is never a good sign.  Meanwhile, as George's life and career turns downhill, Peppy's life is on the upswing.

In a lovely montage, we see how bit by bit, role by role, she puts in the hard work that gets to the top to become Kinograph's top billed stars.  Peppy deserves all her success but she hasn't forgotten George and the chemistry they shared.  They meet at the studios and we see the difference in their status now.  George is on the lower step, on his way out while Peppy is placed above him.

Slowly but surely, this begins to affect George.  He loses all his money in the stock market crash and has to hope his film is a success.  It isn't.  Sitting behind her at the restaurant, he overhears an interview given by the new talkies star, Peppy Miller, where she says the talkies are the future and old must make way for the new.  He gets up and tells Peppy, "I have made way for you."  Peppy is stunned and sorry that she hurt George and vows to make it up to him.

But the downward spiral continues for George.  His wife leaves him and kicks him out of that beautiful home.  He is left with Jack and his valet/butler/driver Clifton (James Cromwell), both who can't see their master and friend suffering like this.  He begins to drink daily to drown his sorrows and fires Clifton who he can't afford to pay anymore.  In a fit of disgust and rage mixed with a lot of alcohol, he burns all his reels of his films right in his living room.  But fear not, as heroic dog Jack saves the day and his master.

When Peppy finds out about George's accident, she transfers him to her house where they reunite uneasily after all these years.  It is there that he learns that she has been his guardian angel all along always looking out for him.  He can't handle this and runs away.  At this point, I was hoping George would swallow his massive pride and look at the one good thing in his life.  Thankfully he does, but not before he hits rock bottom and steps away.  Dujardin enacts that last scene very well.

And finally, because of Peppy and her determination, she and George get their happy ending and we are briefly introduced to the world of sound before we say goodbye.  The Artist is charming and sweet tale that shows the price of changing technology can take a toll on people especially someone like George who defined himself as a silent film star.  But he too has to change with the times.

Michel Hazanavicius and his team have made a strong and solid film that changed all their careers.  The Artist is a film you'll be recommending to people.

Written and Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, Cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman, Edited by Michel Hazanavicius and Anne-Sophie Bion, Music by Ludovic Bource.

Additional cast: Missi Pyle, Beth Grant, Ed Lauter, Malcolm McDowell.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Movie Review: Mirror Mirror

Fairy tales never get old no matter what century it is.  At their core is a story which we never tire of hearing generation to generation.  Every couple of years, there seems to be a resurgence of them.  Cinderella had a popularity surge a few years back with Ever After, Ella Enchanted and A Cinderella Story and now it's Snow White's turn.  First there were the TV movies, the very well-received TV show Once Upon a Time now on air, and two Hollywood films on Snow White released within a few months of each other.

Mirror Mirror had the first advantage of an earlier release though it could not be more different in tone and presentation from its rival Snow White and the Huntsman.  Starting with the title which doesn't include Snow White's name, Mirror Mirror deals mostly with the Queen in the story and her tenous relationship with her step-daughter.  The Queen (Julia Roberts) starts off by telling us 'This is her story, not hers'.  That's what she thinks but we all know that won't be true by the end of the film.

The story of how the Queen comes to power is told with some clever and beautiful animation in the beginning but while the film is funny at times and looks gorgeous onscreen, it doesn't have that extra spark that was present in the opening sequence.  Snow White (Lily Collins) is hidden away from the kingdom by the Queen saying she's not quite all there.  Snow White is the actual heir and leader of the kingdom but the evil Queen makes sure she never gets her right.  She suppresses everyone and collects taxes from the already poor people of the kingdom for her own extravagant and frivolous purposes.

This status quo continues until Snow White's 18th birthday when she ventures out into the kingdom for the first time to find the state of the people in the kingdom.  She comes upon Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) and his traveling companion who have been robbed and tied up by the seven dwarfs who surprised the pair on stilts.  He insists they were 'giants'.  Yeah, sure!  The Prince and Snow are instantly attracted to each other but they go their separate ways unaware that they will meet again.

The dwarfs their victims of their clothes too so the Prince has to present himself before the Queen only in his pants.  After a wonderful exchange, The Queen comes to realize that the Prince is the answer to all her problems.  He comes from a prosperous kingdom and marrying him can take care of her financial troubles and he certainly is easy on the eyes.  At the ball thrown in his honor, the Prince meets Snow White again and is surprised to know that she lives in the castle.  Snow White is discovered at the dance and taken away by the guards, the Queen orders her minion Brighton (Nathan Lane) to kill her by delivering her to the Beast in the woods.

But as the story dictates, Snow White will be spared.  She is told to run by Brighton and comes upon the seven dwarfs home and after much debate, they let her stay at home.  From there on is the leadup to the big clashup between the Queen and Snow White.  It was really easy to guess the big reveal at the end but the screenplay has some funny dialogues especially coming from Julia Roberts.  When the mirror taunts her for having wrinkles, she retorts, "They're not wrinkles, they're crinkles!"

This film is poles apart from Tarsem Singh's last film Immortals but it contains his trademarks of incredible detailed and visually stunning costumes (designed by the late Eiko Ishioka who has done all of Singh's films) and sets.  I'd be very surprised if it doesn't get nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume.  The real disappointment in the film is the character development for the female characters.  The Queen hates Snow White but she's not quite that evil, you know, evil with a capital E.  Snow White is timid all throughout the film and gets some spark in the last sequence, it's a little too late.  And the characters all speak as though they are from the 21st century who think they're in period piece.

Julia Roberts seemed to having a lot of fun with character who lost her English accent on and off in the film but it never seemed as if she posed a threat to Snow White.  Lily Collins looks the part but its Armie Hammer really throws himself into the role showing he can do comedy well too.  His transformation into puppy love for the Queen was truly amusing to watch. 

Mirror Mirror ends with a rollicking and fun Bollywood style end credits song by Lily Collins, 'I Believe in Love'.  The film begins and ends with strong sequences, the middle and the actual meat of the film needed more work.  Watch the film for its strong production values and stay for the bubbly, fun song at the end. 

Directed by Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, Screenplay by Jason Keller and Marc Klein, Based on the story by the Brothers Grimm, Cinematography by Brendan Galvin, Edited by Robert Duffy, Nick Moore, Dean Zimmerman, Music by Alan Menken and Costume Design by Eiko Ishioka.

Additional cast: Sean Bean, Mare Winningham, Jordan Prentice, Mark Povinelli, Joe Gnoffo, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark


Movie Review: Big Miracle

Once in a while, it's good to watch a movie like Big Miracle.  Inspired by the true story of the very real Operation Breakthrough on the rescue of three California gray whales trapped within the ice near the North Pole, the film is not ground-breaking cinema nor is it something that everybody will be talking about.  Yet I look upon it as a slice of history in a time when there were no smartphones and no internet and yet this narrative became "the" story that moved the whole world no matter what language they spoke.

Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) is a reporter up in Barrow, Alaska in 1988 who's just waiting for his big break.  There's not a lot that goes on in Barrow, the opening of the Mexican restaurant Amigos is big news for the town.  He's hoping a story can get to the lower 48 reporting for the main channels.  One day, Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), a young Inupiat boy who Adam mentors asks him to catch his cousin on the snowmobile for a story.  Since Adam had promised, he agrees.  While on the ice away from town, he catches on tape water being sprayed in the air from the ice.  They go to investigate and find whales surfacing to the water through a small hole trying to breathe.

After confirming that there are three whales trapped under the ice, two parents and their baby, the locals assess that there must around 5 miles of solid ice until the whales can reach the ocean.  They must to do something to help them otherwise they will perish.  Adam puts together his report on camera and sends it to the channel in Anchorage.  From there, the story gets picked up by NBC on Tom Brokaw's nightly show and everyone across America takes notice, especially Adam's ex-girlfriend Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) who just happens to be an environmentalist and Greenpeace activist.

Rachel starts off the campaign to save the whales by appealing to the Governor of Alaska, any companies who could have equipment to break the ice for the whales to swim out.  One such company owner is J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) who has won a grant to drill in Arctic ice for oil and owns a barge that go through the ice.  Mrs. McGraw (Kathy Baker) cleverly manipulates her husband to give his barge for the whale rescue effort.  Colonel Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney) of the National Guard and his men will use their powerful helicopters to drag the barge to Barrow.

Meanwhile, over in Barrow, journalists from all over the country descend to cover the piece which has nationwide interest even from President Ronald Reagan himself.  While everyone waits for the barge to break the ice, things begin to go downhill for the whale rescue.  The small hole, no matter how many times is made bigger, begins to ice over by the freezing temperatures.  The baby whale, affectionately nicknamed Bamm-Bamm, finds it hard to sustain breathing and has cuts all over his face.  His parents, called Fred and Wilma, try their best to keep him alive.

There is good news and bad news as couple of home entrepreneurs bring over their de-icing machines to help the effort and meanwhile the barge gets stuck in an ice pothole.  There might be no whale rescue after all.  The journalist who come from all over the world, including Channel 7 news reporter Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), aren't that emotionally invested in the story like Adam, Rachel, Nathan, the Inupiat people and the town of Barrow.  They start creating little holes in the ice leading up to the ocean so the whales can resurface.

And when things begin to look extremely dire, as this has become a national and international crisis, a decision is made to bring in Soviet ice-breaker ship which many are opposed to.  People put aside their differences for the whales.  Of course, in a movie such as this, there is a semi-happy ending as two of the whales manage to swim out.  The rescue effort is deemed a success and the humans all go home happy and feel as though they've achieved something.

The film nicely incorporates actual news footage from that era with reports and press conferences by President Reagan, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings.  There's even footage the sportscaster at the Anchorage news station, Sarah Heath sporting serious 80s hair, later known to the world as Sarah Palin.  Sportscaster? Who knew!

Maintaining its earnestness throughout, the film shows how if everyone comes together to put aside their differences and do something out of goodness of your heart, what a difference it can make.  Maybe that's why this story captured the imagination of a nation and later the world.  Sometimes after all the depressing and cynical things we see in our daily lives and on televisions, it's nice sit back to watch a story like this.  The aptly named Big Miracle is truly moving!

Directed by Ken Kwapis, Screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, Based on the book "Freeing the Whales" by Tom Rose, Cinematography by John Bailey, Editing by Cara Silverman, Music by Cliff Eidelman.

Additional cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, Vinessa Shaw, John Pingayak, James LeGros, Rob Riggle


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter

I wanted to like this film so very much.  Andrew Stanton is a favorite amongst the Pixar directors as his two previous films Finding Nemo and Wall-E rank high in my all-time best-loved movies.  The genre and story of John Carter is something I would naturally seek out, space and fantasy are one of the better combinations if explored well.  And I don't need to say more on Taylor Kitsch aka Tim Riggins (Texas Forever!).  Unfortunately, all these combinations could not come together to make the film a satisfying experience.

The box-office failure of John Carter and the subsequent fallout of power at top of Disney is well-documented and everyone has a opinion of the film but I wanted to watch it despite the negative press and form my own ideas about the film.  I'm glad I did because there are certain things to admire in the film but its execution fell through someway along the way.  

The movie primarily takes places on the planet we know as Mars but called by its inhabitants as Barsoom.  When we are first introduced to Barsoom as there is a kind of civil war taking place with the leader of Zodanga, Sab Than (Dominic West), in an air battle with the last resisting city of Barsoom, Helium.  Suddenly three bald men in robes materialize out of thin air.  The evident leader, Matai Shang (Mark Strong) promises Sab Than a weapon that harnesses a power blue ray that demolishes anything in its path as long he does what Matai Shang tells him to.  Sab Than agrees.

Back on Earth in 1881 Virginia, or Jasoom as the people of Barsoom call it, a strange man is following John Carter (Taylor Kitsch).  As he tries to throw him off, John stops to send a telegram to his nephew Ned (Daryl Sabara) telling him to come meet him at once.  When Ned steps off the train platform, John's butler sadly informs him that his uncle is no more.  Ned is shocked.  John's lawyer reads him the terms of his will where everything is left to him including his uncle's private diary.

Ned begins to read to find out what his uncle was up to and figure out what could have lead to his sudden and mysterious death.  John starts, through his journals, to tell Ned about his unbelievable adventure that started when he was in the Arizona territory looking for a cave filled with gold.  He is stopped in his quest by Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) who wants him to join them fight the Apaches.  He resists and is thrown in jail.  This was a funny sequences where John does not absolutely give up trying to escape, he even jumps out the window.  This tells us something important about our hero.

While escaping (again!), John is caught between the Apaches and Colonel Powell and his men.  A fight ensues and he aids the badly injured Colonel Powell to hide near some caves.  The Apaches think it a bad omen and run away.  John thinks this might be his cave he's looking for and goes in.  A bald man in a robe appears (who we now know as a Thern) and tries to kill him but John surprises him and shoots him instead.  Before he dies, he utters a few words and is clutching an ornate medallion.

John seizes that medallion and is transported to Barsoom.  Disoriented, he tries to get his bearings and he discovers he has superhuman abilities in jumping.  Some of the alien species of Barsoom known as Tharks capture him and take him as a prize.  Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), is impressed with Carter and his abilities; the rest of the tribe is not.  Another Thark, Sola (Samantha Morton) is commanded to look after him.

While he's with the Tharks, Sab Than and his army tries to capture the missing princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) who has run away rather than marry Sab Than and unite Barsoom so he doesn't destroy her city.  John sees this and rescues Dejah.  Now the Therns know about John and how he managed to transform himself to Barsoom.  But Dejah also recognizes John's potential, like Tars Tarkas, and wants to recruit him to fight for Helium.  But John is done fighting for wars and causes anymore, he just wants to get back home.

The journey of how he decides to pledge himself to fight for Barsoom and for Dejah makes the latter part of the film as John gets a renewed purpose in life.  There is so much going on the film and you really have to pay attention or you'll be lost.  I think this was the problem with what went wrong, it was just too much information.  The film picked up speed towards the end but it was too late.  The casting was also a problem for me, I felt the chemistry amongst the cast was just not there.  I thought Taylor Kitsch looked too young to play John Carter but apparently the actual character of John Carter of Mars written by Edgar Rice Burroughs never ages and looks forever young.

2012 marks a hundred years since the characters and settings of Burroughs' work have existed.  It's been that long since many people especially Disney have tried to bring the story to screen.  After so long, it deserved a better presentation.  Like I said at the beginning, I really want to like the movie but it just could not come together for me.  The film has amazing presentation of the sets and highly believable visual effects and motion capture but that doesn't disguise the fact that the story never manages to connect.  This being the live-action debut of Andrew Stanton and the fact he's worked as screenwriter on so many Pixar features is astonishing that more focus wasn't given to make the script stronger.

If you really want to explore the story and find out more about John Carter of Mars, I'd suggest you refer to Burrough's original stories.  That's certainly what I'll be doing.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, Based on the story "A Princess of Mars' by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Cinematography by Daniel Mindel, Editing by Eric Zumbrunnen, Music by Michael Giacchino.

Additional cast: Thomas Haden Church, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Polly Walker

Rating:  (a extra star only for the VFX)

Friday, June 15, 2012

My Top 5 Female Pixar characters

One week to go before the release of Brave and its very own princess film apart from Disney and the first female lead.  Which doesn't mean they haven't had strong female characters in their films before.  Brave will only be the first film where the female character gets most screen time.  So, before Princess Merida's debut, let's have a look at my top female Pixar characters (this includes fishes and robots!).

5. Jessie (from Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3): After the tremendous popularity of Toy Story, it was time to involve some more characters including a new yodeling cowgirl named Jessie to the gang of Andy's room.  Jessie is awkward and insecure yet fiercely loyal.  All those qualities you need in a good toy friend and her backstory, oh my, you're definitely going to cry yourselves a river!  This cowgirl will definitely be there for you.

4. Collette (from Ratatouille): A fellow chef to Linguini at Chef Gusteau's kitchen, she at first doesn't know what to make of the novice she has to tutor but they come to mutually admire one another and eventually fall in love.  Voiced by Janeane Garfalo, Colette is a no-nonsense career woman and strong in her beliefs but she does come around to Gusteau's formula of 'Anyone can cook' even a rat.

3. Dory (from Finding Nemo): Oh, Dory, you had me at 'P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney'.  A Pacific Regal Blue Tang (voiced by a perfectly cast Ellen DeGeneres) with a short-term memory loss problem, Dory helps her new friend Marlin find his lost son, Nemo, all the way to Sydney.  Her heart-breaking speech to Marlin at towards the end of the film gets me every time.  You definitely want someone like her in your corner if you're facing vegetarian sharks, jellyfish or laid-back turtles in the land under.

2. EVE (from Wall-E): The object of Wall-E's affection, EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) is no shrinking violent.  She can very much handle herself, thank you!  EVE was inspired by the Apple school of design including iPod designer Jonathan Ives who approved of her design.  EVE, even in her robot form, very much female with curves and sleekness as she saves the day and her man.

1.  Edna (from The Incredibles):  All the female characters of Pixar have nothing on Edna who, if she had her way, darling, would rule the world if she wasn't so busy designing those super-chic superhero costumes.  Hilariously voiced by director Brad Bird himself, Edna is a joy onscreen.  Part therapist, part mother hen to the Supers she designs for, she has a vision that will make you believe.

Honorable mentions

  • Sally Carrera (from Cars) - a pragmatic Porsche who sees right through Lighting McQueen and voiced by the equally pragmatic Bonnie Hunt.  I wanted more of her presence in the sequel.

  • Ellie (from Up) - We don't get to hear or see much from Ellie after that devastating sequence on the Fredericksons life and marriage but little Ellie first adorably extends the hand of friendship to Carl by sharing their love adventure and exploration and saying, "You don't talk much...I like you!"  We wish we had more time with you.  

Rise of the Guardians: New Character Posters

Now that Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted is already out in theaters, it's time for DreamWorks to showcase their other animated feature releasing this year.  It's the new character posters for Rise of the Guardians, recently unveiled by Entertainment Weekly.  Here's a look at the characters who are ready to save the world!

This ain't no drum-playing, cuddly Hop-like Easter Bunny, this one's come prepared! Love that the eggs are pre-loaded as weapons.  Good thing since Wolverine Hugh Jackman voices the character.

Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) flies without wings! 

The Sandman sure has an interesting hairstyle.

Previously, we only got a glimpse of the 'Naughty' and 'Nice' tattoos.  But this time, we get the full Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin) intimidation stare down.

The Tooth Fairy (voiced by Isla Fisher) is definitely more bird-like.  No fluffy dresses or wands here!

Every story needs a villain and Pitch (voiced by Jude Law) aka the Boogeyman is this film's thorn in the side.

Rise of the Guardians releases this Thanksgiving.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Movie Review: Intouchables

Intouchables is the story of two men from completely different backgrounds and tastes who by the end of the film know each other as well as they know themselves.  It really is the feel-good French film of the year. 

Driss (Omar Sy) is driving his friend Philippe (Francois Cluzet) at night through the streets of Paris.  He glances behind at a police car and wagers Philippe that he can lose them for a 100 euros.  Philippe challenges him and they are off.  Speeding away, he almost makes until a van stops abruptly in front of them and the police angrily approach them.  But Driss is unfazed.  He turns the situation around and says that they were on their way to the ER as Philippe, being quadriplegic, is having a fit. He's not really having a fit but Philippe plays along as now the bet is up to 200 euros that they will get a police escort to the hospital.  They do.  Thus we are introduced to the unlikely friendship of Philippe and Driss.

It all begins with a call for a job.  In the flashback, we are shown that Phillippe is a wealthy man who is injured in paragliding accident and is paralyzed from the neck down.  He therefore needs someone to constantly take care of him.  He has a line of qualified yet stuffy prospective candidates all lining his hall waiting for their turn at an interview.  Driss is the odd man out and grows impatient waiting.  He bursts into the room holding interviews and demands that his paper be signed so he can be on his way.

He needs the signature to show he tried and get his welfare benefits.  There is something about his attitude and personality that impresses Philippe and he calls him back the next day.  Driss is surprised to learn that he's on a trial to see if he can last as Philippe's caregiver and he comes to learn more about Philippe's condition.  It's timely that he accepts Philippe's offer as he thrown out of his own home for being irresponsible and wayward by his mom.

As Driss learns all that goes in the care of a quadriplegic, Philippe comes to know more about his new employee and his spontaneity.  There are number of amusing moments.  Driss is dismayed to know he has to help Philippe were blood pressure stockings to stimulate his legs while Philippe is so used to be taken around in his wheelchair accessible van that he's surprised when Driss insists on the Maserati to go out.  Both of them teach each other something new and give their perspectives on it.  Philippe introduces Driss to classical music and opera while Driss puts on some Earth, Wind and Fire for him, music to dance to. Driss can't understand the abstract art that Philippe spends thousands of euros on and decides to paint his own which everyone agrees is impressive for a beginner.

They begin to have an effect on each other lives as they open up on their past.  Philippe is grieving for his late wife who died of cancer and thinks his disability is his way of suffering as she did.  His adopted daughter Elisa is a typical sullen teenager who Driss sorts out and helps her with her boyfriend troubles.  Philippe also writes letters to a woman named Elenore in Dunkirk.  Driss pushes the relationship along and insists that they talk on the phone and eventually meet up.  Meanwhile, Driss opens ups about his life and how he's actually adopted by his aunt and uncle and feels responsible to look out for his younger cousins.  Despite his criminal record of robbery, he does have good intentions at heart but can't see things through.

Eventually, they do move on as Driss has to go back to go take care of his family and get another job and Philippe hires one of those qualified candidates from the beginning of the film.  But it's not the same.  As Philippe rightly points out towards the middle of the film, Driss treats Philippe without pity and often times forgets that he can't just pick a phone or do many normal things.  Philippe appreciates this.

At the end of the film, we are back to the hospital and Driss and Philippe set off on a drive again towards the sea.  There's a lovely and sweet ending which I won't spoil but I was left with a smile on my face.  In fact, there were many instances where I laughed or smiled.  It's easy to see why this film became the second most watched film ever in France and won Omar Sy the Cesar Award for Best Actor.  His performance is infectious and without any artifice.  Cluzet is terrific as well, alternating through despair at his situation and secret smile at Driss' antics.  The film is based on the documentary made in 2004, A la vie, a la mort on the friendship of  Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou who are shown in the end credits.  This will join the list of my favorite French films.

Written and Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, Cinematography by Mathieu Vadepied, Edited by Dorian Rigal-Ansous, Music by Ludovico Einaudi

Additional cast: Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet

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