Thursday, 5 March 2015

The 5 Worst Blockbusters I Have Ever Seen

When it comes to worst movies lists, there always tend to be a lot of b-movies or something fairly obscure like that. People can read the list, chuckle at it, and remember that if they happen to bump into that movie by chance one day, they should avoid it at all costs. When it comes to small productions, there are any number of things that could go wrong, but they don't necessarily have the resources to correct the mistakes. Or the film makers are inept and that's why they are only making really low budget pictures. However, with blockbuster movies, there are certain expectations that should come with them. High profile producers invest millions and millions of dollars to get a movie that is marketable to a large audience and easy to enjoy. You would think that with an endless supply of money, nothing could go wrong. Oh, but I assure you that things certainly can. That is why I made this a separate list. You can't put a multimillion dollar picture against a tiny independent failure, it's just not fair. So, this is a chance to see movies that could have been, should have been, but very much weren't any good.

And let me clear this up. I'm not a movie snob. I like blockbuster films and think that they're a vital part of the movie industry. They're a great goal for indie filmmakers to reach for one day. When one walks away from a really entertaining big budget picture, you really get a great opportunity to discuss it with your friends and compare opinions. It can be a great thing. But other times you get...

#5 – National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

While it's difficult to imagine that Nicholas Cage could ever be in a bad movie, he does occasionally take a slight career stumble. I'm only joking, I don't know what the hell is wrong with his decision making abilities. At least this one makes sense because it's the second film in what I can only assume they were trying to make into a franchise. I never saw the first National Treasure, but that's mostly because it looked lame. It apparently was a hit so they tried to think of how to milk the idea a little more. But it's pretty clear that they really didn't have any reason whatsoever to make this movie.

It follows Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) as accusations are made to an ancestor of his, stating that his great grandfather helped kill Abraham Lincoln. So, for some reason that really gets Gates down so he goes to great lengths to clear his family's name, no matter how many laws they have to break or how many jumps in logic they have to make. They're off to find a legendary Native city of gold to prove that Gate's great-grandfather had nothing to do with Lincoln's assassination. Feel like you missed something there? Yeah, me too.

Not even the most skilled writers in the world could have made any sense of this lame brained, half-baked idea of a film. There is no logical sense between one event and another. And our “heroes” are not particularly noble people. Gates breaks into the white house and Buckingham Palace, kidnaps the president of the United States, and puts his companions lives at risk constantly because he wants to clear his family name? I'm sorry, but I don't care about his family name. No one watching the movie will care about his family name. Can't you guys come up with something that the audience can relate to? And why can't they even put together a story that makes sense? I, for the life of me, have no idea how finding a city of gold clears up his family name. Maybe an explanation is in the movie somewhere, but the whole thing is filled with Nick Cage muttering to himself about his endless knowledge of everything and putting together pieces of puzzles that Batman couldn't figure out. If you need long exposition for the audience to figure out what's going on, maybe your plot is too convoluted.

A stupid plot is not the only problem. It's also a surprisingly uneventful film. Someone must have known that because it seemed that at all times they were trying very hard to convince us otherwise. Exciting action music would be playing at the strangest times. I remember distinctly a scene where cars are driving from one place to another and orchestral-techno music was playing as if the T-1000 was chasing them. Alas, there was no T-1000 and... no anything. They were just cars driving. That's not exciting. That's every day life.

So, why did I watch this if I didn't even watch the first movie? Well, I think I wound up getting tricked into seeing this with a group of friends, but that's likely because they were going to great lengths to no longer be my friends. I really have no idea why I watched this movie, and I was thinking that the entire time it was playing.

#4 – Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

The first Night at the Museum was actually not a bad movie. It was a family film that had a simple concept and had a lot of fun with itself. But then it went and made a lot of money... you'll start to notice a trend as the list continues.

When our favourite ex-night guard, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) returns to the museum that the first movie was based around, he discovers that all of the characters and friends of his are being packed away to be put into storage elsewhere because they're updating the exhibit to holograms in place of the statues that come to life at night. Larry gets a phone call that the amulet that brought them to life was transported with them to where they were being stored, which is in non other than the Smithsonian. So, Larry goes there to help them out and... stuff.

One of the key problems with this movie was that it is entirely unnecessary. It feels like a movie with no purpose so at the end of it, I feel that I just watched nothing happen at all. That's strange because it's a movie that's so busy that you can't even really tell whats going on on screen. It's such a confusing mess because it was really clear that the production team wanted to make a movie that was bigger and better. It certainly was bigger, but that didn't mean it was better. It just made things more boring. Not even a charming performance from the amazing Amy Adams could do anything beyond distract us briefly.

They brought in a few talented actors actually and all of them were put to waste. Bill Hader was a one note joke. Hank Azaria was given the direction to do what he always does; You know, do voices and exaggerate. Robin Williams and Ricky Gervais were reduced to bit parts. Most of them would have been better without the script as much of the humour seemed forced and relied too much on thinking that if you talk a lot, that means you're saying funny things. Perhaps some improv would have been funnier.

But most of all, the problem was that the story was not very well thought out. One is left asking too many questions. For one: why does the Smithsonian have no security? Night at the Museum 2 is an unoriginal, unfunny, mess of a film and shows that sometimes Hollywood was lucky that they actually scored a hit the first time around.

#3 Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

The first Mission: Impossible was a pretty stylish action/mystery that featured a then-popular Tom Cruise bringing back to life an old franchise from the 60's. It was slick and smart and left audiences pretty pleased and me mostly happy, apart from a few issues here and there. But then the second one came out and completely changed everything that was good about the first film. It was no longer a spy film and it was no longer about an elite team going on missions, contributing their part in an intricate plan to save the world. Instead it was a Cruise showcase where he performed completely ridiculous stunts that served no purpose beyond showing that director John Woo hates the laws of physics.

They reduced the intellectual entertainment of the show and the first movie into an explosion movie. Mission: Impossible 2 became a lame brained action movie in no time flat. It was devoid of interesting characters, original plot, and logical story telling. Many praised the film for its entertaining action, but I only found it entertaining in an ironic way. I was amused that so many people looked at this movie and approved of the ideas. See, the action doesn't mean anything if there is nothing that we feel is at stake. If I wanted explosions I'm sure there are some montages I could watch on Youtube.

The story is unimaginably cliché. Get this... Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to save the world from a bad guy with a super virus! Oh no! That's it. Seriously. And I'm a believer that if you make a sequel, you should at least stick to the universe created by the first movie. John Woo's universe is not the same as Brian De Palma's first movie. The physics are different and even Ethan Hunt doesn't feel like the same character. And now, looking back, this one doesn't fit with any of the Mission: Impossible movies. When J.J. Abrams released the third film six years later, he made no mention of the events of this movie and returned to the spy team format of the first film, mixing it with some personal stakes for Hunt's character. And with Ghost Protocol being such a success, it really means that Mission: Impossible 2 is the black sheep of the family because of just how preposterous and incompetent it is.

#2 – Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Unlike most of the other films on this list, this was a blockbuster that was not a huge success at the box office, though I believe it made its money back. I quite enjoy the Aliens and the Predators and, unlike quite a few people, I don't even mind their first movie together. But fans were yelling about the first AVP, saying that it had no right to be a PG-13 movie if it's based on two franchises that come from R rated origins (I'm going by the American rating system here). So, sibling directors Colin and Greg Strause decided to take the approach that the R rating was what made the original movies so good. Thus they made a movie so filled with blood and violence that it completely loses the point of the violence in the first films.

After the events of the first AVP movie, an alien bursts from the chest of the dead hero Predator. It grows up and becomes a vicious killer in no time, finishing off the crew. The Predator ship crashes in a forest in Colorado and some facehuggers get loose and begin to spread the Aliens. A Predator on its home world gets the distress call from the crashing ship and it goes to Earth to track down the Aliens and kill them. You know, when I write it out, it really seems like it should have been a cool movie. I mean, why not? You have two of the most iconic movie monsters fighting it out, and in the mix is a super Alien/Predator hybrid that should have become iconic if this film turned out any good.

The normal problems of these kinds of movies are present. It's poorly written. Non of the characters are anything beyond cannon fodder for the various creatures to kill. It's not even particularly well made. The lighting is bad and the action is often difficult to follow. I mean, if an Alien Vs. Predator movie can't even have clear action, then what does it have? It's just cheap which is strange for the scale of production it was.

But what actually puts this so high on the list is just how utterly tasteless the movie is. An R rating is something that shouldn't be forced. 1986's Aliens was an R film at the time, but it was still restrained. It was just that the story required violence to be told, so that's how it was told. Same with the original Predator, though it had less restraint. This one is just shoved with so many graphic scenes that the Strause mother must have been ashamed of her boys. The first two victims of the movie are a boy and his father who are hunting in the woods. Or how about when the “PredAlien” finds its way into a hospital and not only takes a pit stop at the new born nursery, but also kills a pregnant woman and her unborn child. And unfortunately, yes, we see the opened womb and the small chest bursters within. It's tasteless and disgusting and everyone involved should be embarrassed. This movie is awful.

That's okay, the brothers Strause got their just desserts in the end. They went on to direct the Sci-fi flop Skyline, so we might never hear from them again.

#1 - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

The first Transformers movie was flawed, but actually kinda charming at times and was massively successful. Part of what made this Michael Bay Sci-Fi action movie work so well was that you got the feeling that Steven Speilberg, who functioned as producer, was a guiding hand in the creation of the movie. But when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen came around, I really got the feeling that Spielberg let the reigns go and Bay had his way, making a film that was so much bigger in scope, but so much smaller in sense.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf) has gone to college, but his brain has been imprinted with symbols that he can't get out of his mind. He starts to spazz out at school and then gets hunted by Decepticons because they want the information in his brain. Oh yeah, and they bring Megatron back to life. And Megatron wants to blow up the sun or something.

I can't understand why someone let this mess get released. Why didn't someone take a chainsaw to it in the editing room? There is a rumour that Michael Bay shot a lot of this film without a finished script in hand because of the writer's strike that year, which is why there are so many disjointed action sequences that seemingly have no connection to one another and are on completely different sides of the world. I don't believe this is true, just because I don't think that's how the movie industry works, but I can certainly see how people might have thought that. The story is a total mess.

The problems with the first movie are amplified. The characters are underdeveloped, except for Optimus Prime and Sam. Though Prime is dead through most of the film. The action is shaky, messy and difficult to follow, which is unforgivable for a movie that you watch for the action. But the worst thing of all about this movie is just how unrestrained it all is. It's over sexualized, tasteless, humourless, and completely devoid of tact. We get unnecessary shots of dogs having sex, a mini-robot humping Megan Fox's leg, a close up of a male thong, and even a robot fart. It's too juvenile for adults, but inappropriate for children. Oh yeah, and it's horribly racist too. The two Autobots called The Twins are the worst black stereotypes I've ever seen in a movie. They're like robotic blackface

I just shutter to think about the amount of money wasted on making that awful movie. And I also can't believe how much money was wasted on people watching that awful movie. What if the amount of cash that was put into making Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was put toward feeding some dying kids in Africa, or curing cancer or AIDS? Don't you think the world would be a much better place? Now. Michael Bay is just millions richer and was allowed to desecrate my childhood further by making the third movie, Dark of the Moon, which was an improvement, but still pretty obnoxious.

So, that's my list. I can't even say that I wasted money on these movies because I'm pretty sure I watched the majority of them for free. But I still felt like my time was wasted and my brain was assaulted. I'm sure some of you disagree with my list and I'd like to hear why. Please comment and let me know. Also, are there any big movies that really disappointed you? I'd like to see your list of the worst blockbusters you've seen.

Thanks for reading! And in case you didn't read my list of the worst movies I've ever seen, check that out here.  

The Five Worst Movies I Have Ever Seen

Quite a few months ago, my brother Steve Ferguson wrote a list of the five worst movies he's ever seen. Now, I've seen a whole lot of bad movies in my time, probably more than the average person because most people are smart enough to stumble upon bad movies by accident. I tend to seek them out and make a fun habit out of mocking them. There are bad movies that work in a strange way because they're fun and cheesy. It can be great watching a film maker try so hard and fail... or try so hard to fail. But sometimes... sometimes the experience of watching a movie can just be so painful that you wish you did something way more productive with your time. I mean, why would you watch a movie that bad when the bathtub needs a good scrubbing?

This is my list of the most unbearable films that I sat through and really wish I didn't. I had seen a lot of the movies on Steve's list, but I'm choosing a whole different five because... well, there isn't that much more to say about BloodRayne 2 and I'd rather not remember that night. Besides, I have enough demons of my own to exorcise. So, here are the five worst movies I have ever seen.

#5. Scary Movie 2 (2001)

I can't even really remember what the actual story of this movie was. I don't even know if there really was anything cohesive that could be called a story. I remember a bunch of scenes parodying The Exorcist... because that's funny and in good taste!

The Wayans brothers are some of the worst film makers out there right now. They make films full of horrible, lowest common denominator humour that falls flat on its face at every punchline. They made the first Scary Movie, which was massively successful despite being absolutely terrible, and then they followed it up with this one which is completely unwatchable. Literally unwatchable. I never finished the movie. First, my friend, who will remain nameless, insisted that we watch it despite my pleading not to and then about half way through I told him that I was unwilling to finish it and we left it at that. Now you're going to say “Hey! That's not fair! You can't put this on the list because you didn't see it to the end!” Yeah, well shut it. I've sat through more hours crappy cinema than my fair share and I retain the right to leave a movie or two. Considering the garbage I've survived through, the fact that I refused to watch this speaks for itself. You see, making a bad horror movie isn't so bad because often it can be accidentally funny and still entertaining. But if you make a bad comedy, you've got nothing.

The Scary Movie films became a pretty big franchise after this, but thankfully the Wayans left them and the remaining films would only be mostly unbearable. I actually didn't hate Scary Movie 3. I didn't like it, but I could sit through it and even chuckle once or twice.

#4. The Real Cancun (2003)

Some of these movies are embarrassing to admit that I actually watched them. The Real Cancun not only is a really bad movie, but it actually brings me back to a shameful time of my life. I was a teenager and sometimes it feels like a long time ago. And sometimes it feels like it hasn't been nearly long enough. A friend of mine rented this one night because I was sleeping over at his place and we were looking for a movie with ample nudity in it because, like I said, we were teenagers. That being said, we don't nearly have as much to be ashamed of as the people who made this movie.

The Real Cancun is about a group of strangers who are brought to a resort in Cancun to get to know each other and party for Spring Break. Yippee. And that's about it. It's a long and boring film about people who are having more fun than anyone who was stupid enough to watch the movie. And you get to see guys who are clearly there trying their hardest to get laid and often failing. They aren't actors and as such, they lack the charisma and presence of actors. And they're not even really interesting people. They are people acting like they're cool because they want to have sex. No one is real, despite the title. Imagine that.

Is there nudity in it? Well, yes. Just one scene. There is a wet t-shirt contest which somehow turns into a strip show. And... even as teenagers it felt too pathetic to rewind the scene over and over again for bare breasts. It's just not worth it. We knew it then and I'll tell you now. The Real Cancun is a portrait of selfish, unintelligent people who have nothing better to do than get wasted, talk trash about one another, and fruitlessly pursue sexual encounters with the other trash talking, drunk, horny people around them. It's pathetic and I felt pathetic watching it.

You know, looking back, I think we fast forwarded through a good portion of the movie after realizing it wouldn't get better. Maybe we had some sense after all.

#3. Insecticidal (2005)

Where did I dig this obscure piece of garbage from? Well, back when video rental stores existed, they were the main source for finding obscure, low-budget, straight to DVD nonsense, just like Insecticidal. And sometimes curiosity got the best of me... I mean, how does one turn down the chance to see a cheesy b-film about a smart sorority girl who is experimenting on insects and accidentally turns them giant and man-eating? Happens to everyone, right? Sorority girls and giant insects! How could it go wrong?

There is always a way. Sometimes even when you're looking to laugh at how bad something is, you can be disappointed. This movie transcends being bad enough to laugh at and just wound up being unbearable to watch. It completely ruined an evening of laughter and mockery by just being so consistently boring and uneventful that you might as well watch the TV when it's off. At least kill the characters off in an amusing way or something. Have a sense of humour! When making a giant bug movie, make it a little fun!

And yes, the bugs were horrible CGI. I can't help but feel that this movie would have greatly been improved if they put together elaborate, but goofy insect costumes. That would have been worth watching and then we would have at least known that the director knew what kind of movie he was making. At least he went on to make the masterpiece Decoys 2: Alien Seduction. I'm just kidding, that was terrible too.

#2. Die You Zombie Bastards! (2005)

This is one of those cases where I really should have done more homework before renting and watching a movie, especially with friends. You shouldn't be fooled by the catchy title. You know you've really stumbled across something really horrendous when about 20 minutes in you start to get too embarrassed to continue. My b-movie nights can be a bit of a gamble sometimes, but very rarely do we get a movie bad enough that we unanimously agree to stop watching.

But what makes Die Your Zombie Bastards! so bad was not that it was boring, like Insecticidal, but rather that it was so mean spirited and depraved. They were trying to have fun with it, but with every frame it became more and more clear that the film makers are so unbelievably juvenile that the movie couldn't even appeal to their mother. It's just a continuous stream of penis jokes and... no, that's about it. It's immature, insulting, and entirely inept. From a film making standpoint, it's incompetent. The story is paper thin, pointless, and they can't even focus on it. Half the time, I didn't really know what was going on, but I didn't feel overly compelled to try and catch up. It takes a strange amount of time on several gag segments, which serve no purpose and are simply not funny. And you know what? There aren't even really any actual zombies in it. Yeah, there are some ugly creatures, but no zombies that I am familiar with.

This is the cinematic equivalent of a stranger pulling his penis out of his pants and asking you to touch it before snickering and running away. If you watch this movie you are a victim and should report it to the proper authorities. And most of all, don't blame yourself. We'll find these guys and make them pay.

I would also like to take this opportunity to formally apologize to those friends of mine who I unknowingly subjected to this. I hope you'll all forgive me and I promise I will look more into movies for b-movie night and not be lured by a catchy title. I'm not joking. I really honestly feel horrible about it.

#1. The Master of Disguise (2002)

Dana Carvey, Garth from Wayne's World, doing countless impressions and taking on creative characters? Well, that sounds like it could be tons of fun! Carvey plays Pistachio, a young waiter who, when his parents are kidnapped, learns he has the ability to disguise himself as anyone because... otherwise you wouldn't have a premise for the movie. And so he goes to find them by disguising himself? You know, I was going to say that the idea had some potential, but I'm not actually certain that it does. It actually seems like a pretty shallow concept for a movie. The Master of Disguise is such a legendary bad movie and bomb that Dana Carvey pretty much never worked again. And the director never made anything again, but would only serve as a production designer to countless Adam Sandler films. Eh, it's a living.

So, since at this point you know what this list is, I'm pretty much telling you that the movie is just as bad as everyone says it is. If you haven't seen it for yourself, count yourself lucky. I'm having a tough time explaining what it is that makes The Master of Disguise the kind of train wreck that most filmmakers have only had nightmares about. I think when it comes down to it, it's just unbelievably stupid. It looks, sounds, and feels just completely moronic. Their example of a punchline is when the villain laughs he farts. Oh Brent Spiner... you could do so much better. Or there is a scene where Pistachio infiltrates a turtle club, whatever that is. And there is a misunderstanding and so he dresses up like, get this, a turtle! Oh! Hahahahaha! Get it? Yeah, I don't really either. And then there is the most bizarre moment in that very scene where he bites someone's nose clean off and then spits it back on their face. Apparently that can happen without any sort of horrific consequence. Though, come to think of it, if he bit the guy's nose and it squirted out blood like the Penguin did in Batman Returns, then this might have made it into my five favourite movies list, just for the complete shock that would be. Alas, we can only dream.

As it is, we are just left with a movie that is so void of laughs and any form of entertainment that it's considered one of the less humane ways of executing prisoners in Texas.

And that is my list of the worst movies I've ever seen. It was a tough call for some of them and I could probably do another 5 in the future. For now, please share with me the worst movies you have ever seen. I'd love to hear about them and the pain they caused you.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Young Adult (2011)

A few years ago in 2007, an independent comedy about a pregnant high school student hit the screens and took everyone by surprise. The film was called Juno and looked like one of those charming low-key comedies that finds a niche audience and comes and goes from theatres pretty fast. That wasn't what happened though. It connected with audiences in a big way and went on to gross $231 million and even earn a few Oscar nominations, winning Best Original Screenplay. Juno was a huge hit and was made for very little money so director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody would go on to make some more movies with no worries. Reitman followed it up with another critically acclaimed movie that he co-wrote called Up In The Air, which also got a few Oscar nods including Best Actor for George Clooney. Diablo Cody went on to write the Megan Fox lead bomb Jennifer's Body. Cody and Reitman are now reunited and have made the film Young Adult, which doesn't focus on teens at all, but rather a generation up.

Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is returning to her home town. She is currently a best selling young adult fiction writer, but with her series' popularity fleeting, she finds herself seeking something else in life. She fully intends to meet up with her old high school flame, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) and win his heart again. There is one problem with her plan though. Buddy is married and has a brand new baby. Yes, Mavis is aware of these issues and yes, she is going for it anyway. She also makes an unlikely friend in Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who had a locker beside her's in high school, but they were of very different crowds. Now they can connect on the one thing they have in common; they can't seem to let go of high school.

Juno was such a big hit because it really connected with a teenaged audience. Young people could understand the characters and relate to their circumstances, or at the very least, see a bit of themselves in the characters and be grateful that they weren't pregnant themselves. Young Adults is also an extremely relatable movie, but I suspect that mainstream audiences will not like it as much for that very reason. The thing is that Mavis Gary is not a particularly loveable protagonist, but she heavily represents aspects of our society. I think a lot of people will see some of themselves in her... and not like it at all. I did and it was a bit uncomfortable. Charlize Theron's performance was a frenzied balancing act of being detestable, but sympathetic. It's mesmerizing, but very challenging, not just for Theron, but the viewer as well. We're with her every step of the way, for better or for worse.

What Young Adult addresses, even in its title it seems, is the idea of our young generation being unable to grow up. Matt is a fascinating character played very well by Patton Oswalt, who is gaining a lot of credibility in my books these days. At the end of his high school years, he was attacked by a group of teens and beaten to the point where he is still unable to walk properly. He is physically handicapped because of this event. He never really moved on beyond that point in his life, and while I can't really claim to understand what kind of trauma an event like that would induce, it really doesn't look like he put up much of a fight in life. It is implied that he was very complacent about it all.

Mavis is a very different story. She moved out of the town and went onto become a writer and become the envy of everyone she left behind. Yet, she returns trying to find fulfilment in her past. She hasn't progressed any more than Matt has, despite her life taking a completely different turn. Young Adult challenges our definition of success, suggesting that perhaps it's not actions, a location or even career paths that can properly define who you are, but that there is something more significant in our culture that is lacking. It doesn't try to force an answer upon us, but takes a long hard look at some subjects of this disease. Our generation is certainly very nostalgic, which isn't inherently wrong, but it can sometimes keep one from looking forward in life.

Canada born Jason Reitman is proving himself to be one of the finest young directors of our time. He is a master of understatement, extracting great work out of his actors and finding simple stories that have a lot to say through very real characters battling with relatable problems. He finds the humanity in the art of film, balancing humour and emotion, coming out with a genuinely good product. Young Adult is his fourth feature film and all of his strengths as a director are present and accounted for. He maintains a fair bit of tension in scenes because there are so many questions unanswered. He allows us to wonder and doubt, revealing specific bits of information only when they need to be revealed. It's quite well done, especially for a dialogue driven film. So, of course, credit should be given to Diablo Cody as well. It's great to see that she isn't a one trick pony and could speak to more than one age group.

Young Adult isn't a feel good love story, but rather a comedic tragedy and telling tale of our time. I don't mean to scare you away from it, because, while it is kind of a difficult film to process, most of my musings came as an after thought. While watching the film, I was entertained. I laughed and got invested in the story as it came. The truths of this movie unravel slowly, which is great because it gives us some time to enjoy it first.

4.5 Stars

Belleville Rendez-vous (The Triplets of Belleville) (2003)

There is so much emphasis these days on computer animated films that I think we sometimes forget that the old school 2D animation is just as legitimate an art form and still has a lot to offer the film medium. The problem is that these days, it's just not as marketable as it used to be. Pixar and Dreamworks changed the game last decade and the masses just weren't coming out to see 2D films, at least not the extend that they were coming to see their 3D animated counterparts. So, this leaves traditional animation a chance to take it to the fringe. The Triplets of Belleville was a co-production between a number of film companies in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Canada, making it an achievement on an international level, though writer and director Sylvain Chomet is French.

It follows Madame Souza, an old lady who is raising her grandson Champion. She can't help but notice that the young Champion is unhappy, so she tries to cheer him up by buying him a puppy named Bruno. Champion goes on being depressed, but finally Souza finds out his passion. He loves bikes. So, she buys him one and right away he is overjoyed. Fast forward to a number of years later and Champion is now a professional cyclist and Souza is his coach. He enters the Tour de France and during the competition, Champion and two other cyclists are taken away by a two mysterious men in suits and are taken to America. Souza hasn't given up though. She and Bruno are tracking them down and will bring him back home again.

The Triplets of Belleville is so bizarre a film that I really didn't enjoy it at first. Something about the whole art style and tone of the film is so out of the ordinary that it's a bit off putting. But I went in having no idea what to expect. But what started off as discomfort soon became a charmed admiration for the bold, artistic storytelling that this film provided. It just took a brief period of adjustment.

The look of the movie is so unusual; the character designs are exaggerated to the point of hilarity and there is a strange twist to the laws of physics that wouldn't work outside of an animated world. But the events of the film itself are outlandish enough that not only does it warrant such a strange visual style, but I would say that the two are vital to one another. It's clear that Sylvain Chomet had a bizarre vision and took the needed time to flesh it out.

Another thing that makes this movie unique is that it's almost a silent movie. It has a full array of sound effects and a music score, but the dialogue is pretty sparse. There are a few select moments with talking, but for the most part they tell the story visually which adds to the strange tone established by the action. The lack of dialogue actually really adds to the affect of the film overall. It allows the audience to focus on the art and enjoy all of the expression that shines through it. I think every so often we need to be reminded that film is a visual medium and often we equate good and bad writing by the quality of the dialogue. That can be a good indicator, but I think we forget that creating the story is part of the writing process and to write a script devoid of dialogue is a monumental challenge. Similarly, translating that script into a visual medium, the director's job, can be very challenging also. Never mind the fact that it's animated. I have no idea how to direct animation. Wasn't my field, but I'd love to try one day.

The characters are strange and quirky, but in such a way that it's almost realistic. It's a strange balance they have. You see some of their quirks and it's so strange that you can't believe it's true, but when you think about it more, it is just strange enough that it could just be an exaggerated truth. Perhaps Chomet did know an old lady or two who captured frogs to eat? I bet he knew a dog who barked at every single train that ran by its house. It's very compelling to see truth in such a strange fairy tale. Even if everything is fabricated, it is still a story told with such confidence and conviction that you accept what you see. As I did, I really started to have a lot of fun with it.

The more this movie sits with me, the more my enthusiasm for it grows. It's a refreshing change of pace from the normal animated fare that goes through cinemas these days. It's a chance to see a unique and twisted vision from an artist who clearly cares about his work and isn't afraid to have fun. The Triplets of Belleville got a fair bit of recognition from critics when it came out and also was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Finding Nemo. So it goes. It certainly goes to show that there is still room in this world for 2D animation and as long as there are creative minds like this behind the pencils, I will gladly support it.

5 Stars

The Muppets (2011)

Where have the Muppets been? Seems that after a good run in the 90's with three feature film as well as a second TV show called Muppets Tonight, they suddenly dropped off the face of the planet. They had a couple of made for TV films, but they hardly made a splash. One day however, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, the creative minds behind Forgetting Sarah Marshall, pitched an idea to revive the Muppets to Disney and that became this movie. Simply titled The Muppets, this film was a chance for the characters to be on the big screen again for the first time in 12 years.

It starts with two brothers, Walter and Gary (Jason Segel), who grew up together watching The Muppet Show. Walter is a puppet who doesn't quite feel a sense of belonging as... well, he's a puppet. Gary is human. This isn't really explained, but that's fine. They are now fully grown up... well, Gary is and is going to celebrate his ten year anniversary to his long time sweetheart Mary (Amy Adams). They are going to take a trip to Los Angeles, but Gary invites Walter along so they can visit the old Muppet theatre. However, as they get there, Walter learns about Tex Richmond (Chris Cooper), an oil tychoon's evil plan to destroy the old theatre for the oil that's underneath it. So, Walter, Gary, and Mary go off to find Kermit and the other disbanded Muppets to earn enough money to get their old theatre back.

With so much riding on this film, it had to be done well and capture that original Muppets spirit. And the good news is that it is extremely successful. The Muppets have always been pretty much aware that they are just puppet characters on TV or film, and this story is no exception. It's often self referential, inserting numerous lines about how it is just a movie. But it goes much deeper than that. The whole story is in many ways very self reflective on the Muppets and where society is at the moment. They are out of touch with modern society, but that's society's bad, not theirs.

There is a dark truth revealed in this film (through satire, of course). Entertainment isn't what it used to be. Everything is so much darker and dirtier these days. Maybe kids really do need the Muppets. They, and this movie, provide a very sweet and wholesome storytelling and that seems rare these days. But it's not like they talk down to their audience, in fact, just the opposite. The humour is quite smart and genuine. Both kids and parents will walk away quite happy from this one.

The Muppets plays heavily off of nostalgia. It makes us miss those good old days when The Muppets were TV staples and a reliable source of entertainment. It makes us miss the ingenuity of the performers and the loveable personalities of the characters they created. In a lot of ways, this movie resembles Toy Story 3. The story is entirely different, but it moves in similar ways. First, it establishes that things have changed and the relationship you had with the Muppets isn't what it used to be. And just as it seems that you can recapture that old feeling, they are put into situations where their well being is in jeopardy and the audience can only watch as their childhood is potentially destroyed before their very eyes. Of course, it can be seen as a manipulation game, but to some degree all movies are manipulative. If they aren't, they're not doing their job. And it wouldn't even work at all if we didn't already love these characters. It's just further proof that they haven't lost their relevance and can still connect with a modern audience.

While many people who grew up with the Muppets are most familiar with the characters from the 70's, I was a child of the 90's and we had a different set of regular characters. Rather, the set was expanded. Some of these 90's characters were all but ignored in this film, which is somewhat understandable, but unfortunate. I was really hoping for at least a little bit from Rizzo the Rat, who was a big player in the three 90's Muppet films and had a good double act with Gonzo. Also, Clifford was missing, who was best known for being the host character in the Muppets Tonight TV show. I liked this character, but can understand a little more as to why he wasn't included. I think he just wasn't that popular.

There are numerous cameos from celebrities, some are quite entertaining. Watch for Dave Grohl. That one is my favorite. Jason Segel, despite most of his films being geared more toward an adult audience, fits in very well with the Muppets and gives them the much needed spotlight in the film. While he did co-write it, it's clear that he put the well being of the Muppets first. You can tell that the script was a love letter to these characters because he's enjoying every minute he shares with them. It's great to see an actor have so much fun on screen. Amy Adams is also wonderful, but she always is. She makes movies better just by being there. And also, it's great to see Chris Cooper take such a light character. Yes, he's the bad guy, but it's played for laughs a lot of the time. I especially like his song number, even if it is kind of pointless. I won't ruin it for you.

The Muppets, as far as I know, has performed decently well at the box office which is good because I think that the continuation of the franchise was dependent on how well it did. And I hope it continues to do well because it's one of the best times I've had at the movies all year. Granted, 2011 has been kind of a lackluster year for cinema, so that isn't saying too much. But still, if you love the Muppets and you haven't seen this film, I would encourage you to watch it and enjoy two hours with a few old friends. If you aren't too familiar with the Muppets... I'm actually not sure if this movie will work for you. I guess you'll have to check it out and let me know.

5 Stars

The Vow (2012)

Yes, I saw The Vow. You know, sometimes I'm a sucker for romantic movies, but only when they're done well. But really, I saw this movie for two reasons: One, I wanted to review something new. I still feel like I'm play December catch up with a lot of the movies that are out, but I'd like to see what stuff is currently topping the box office and share my thoughts on that. Two, I love me some Rachel McAdams. She is some home grown Canadian talent that I can really support. The fact that she's easy on the eyes, so to speak, isn't even really all of it. She is just naturally charming and steals whatever scene she's in... most of the time anyway. I guess I was also mildly interested in The Vow's story as well. It's a loose retelling of a real couple's story where after a car accident Paige (Rachel McAdams) loses the memory of the last few years, including the memory of her husband Leo (Channing Tatum). He is still devoted to her and wants to win her love back, but the last thing she remembers is being engaged to her now ex-fiance Jeremy (Scott Speedman). Plus her family is stepping in to reconnect with her after a falling out that they had that she can't remember and they're being decidedly silent about. And none of these parties really want to give Leo, the outsider, his chance.

It actually isn't a bad idea for a romantic movie. It's an unusual obstacle that a couple would face and lends itself well to uncertainty and tension, which is what a movie should have. Also, you can see why a studio would back such a story because there is a market for these kinds of movies, particularly after the success of The Notebook in 2004, which also starred McAdams interestingly enough. I don't imagine that's a coincidence. Plus, they released the movie out just before Valentines Day so of course, it was a hit.

But was it actually good? Well, if you talk to its target audience, which of course is primarily women, the answer is yes. I'll say this, it knows its market and it gives them the product they desire. Me? Well, I've seen worse. It seems to be made well enough and the performances are pretty good; even Channing Tatum isn't that bad. I just didn't really feel like the movie was emotionally eventful as the story demanded out of it. Perhaps they felt that it would be too risky to let the film be uncomfortable? But the situation is uncomfortable! She doesn't know who her husband is and she has to rediscover her life. That should be heartbreaking and we only get glimpses of that struggle. It's not the actors fault, the script didn't demand it.

My issue is that everyone is just too well intentioned, so much so that I never really had a doubt of how it was going to turn out. The characters talk about how the problem is such a big deal, but I rarely felt like it really was. I know that maybe it wouldn't have been as marketable, but it probably should have been a little more gritty. As it is, everyone is just trying their best to be understanding and forgiving and it just doesn't seem very real. Relationships under the best of circumstances are complex and difficult and often people say and do things that really hurt the other person. All in all, Leo and Paige are pretty squeaky clean. They're cute, but they're not people. The exception is a surprisingly slimy Sam Neil who plays Paige's father. And even then, I don't think that they used the character and the talented actor behind him to their fullest.

McAdams works well and is probably underused. She gets a few moments to really act, but for the most part she just seems to coast through the movie, but that's not really her fault. She does the best she can with a script and direction that allow her to be confused or surprised, but never as overwhelmed as I imagine she should have been. I think I preferred her nastier turn that she took in Midnight In Paris last year. That was a good opportunity for her to do something different because we already knew that she had 'likeable' all figured out. Channing Tatum is not amazing, though I don't necessarily dislike him as an actor. He's easy to pick on because he's very pretty and a lot of female movie goers seem to appreciate him solely for this. I do know that he can act well when he is given the right material. He does a good enough job in this movie, but you can tell that he was selected for the role primarily to be the eye candy for the ladies in the audience.

I don't think that The Vow is a horrible film, as I said, but it could have been a lot more than it is. On the upside though, they play The Cure's “Pictures of You” in the end credits so that puts it a little higher in my books. I imagine that the actual story between the real life couple is more interesting than this movie. It says on the poster that it is “inspired by true events” which could mean anything. I would doubt it if the real situation looked like anything you see on screen. After all, real life is a lot more dirty than this movie lets itself get.

2 Stars

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Guard (2011)

It's good to catch a film that's a little different again. Sometimes checking out independent cinema can bite, (read: Meek's Cutoff) but it can be a lot of fun to see low budget film making at work. And this one is great because it's foreign also! I think this is supposed to give me movie critic bonus points, right? The Guard is the most successful Irish independent movie in terms of box office numbers, beating out 2006's The Wind that Shakes the Barley. I don't often see Irish films making it all the way out here in Canada, but I'm glad for it this time.

Brendan Gleeson plays Boyle, a morally questionable Irish police officer who comes across a murder scene with a lot of unanswered questions. Some light starts to shine one what's going on when FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) comes to the small Irish community in search of a group of four internationally infamous drug smugglers. Boyle recognizes one of them to be the murder victim and so him and Everett have to work together and have some cultural misunderstandings. Hurray!

The Guard is reminiscent of another dark comedy from the UK starring Brendan Gleeson: 2008's In Bruges, which I fell in love with when it came out in theatres a few years ago. The two stories are completely different, but there is a similar tone between them. They're both a little rough around the edges, laced heavily with profanity and featuring characters that are likeable despite not being very wholesome. In fact, Boyle is far more likeable than he has any right to be and much credit has to go to Gleeson for inserting as much charisma into the part as he did. It is an interesting character portrait we are given as Boyle does ultimately believe in true justice, but also seems bored enough with life that he's willing to bend a lot of rules for his own pleasures.

In Bruges and The Guard are also similar in that they both have a sharp and potent script. After reading more into it, it is no wonder that the tone and the wit are similar between the two films as The Guard is written and directed by John Michael McDonagh who is the brother of In Bruges' writer and director Martin McDonagh. Martin also serves as an executive producer. It's clear that they share not only a love for Brendan Gleeson, but a similar sense of humour. I know what that's like, I have brothers of my own.

The comparisons end there though because I really do feel like The Guard has an identity of its own. The story takes a lot of turns, moves at a healthy pace, taking the needed time to get to know the unique characters and situations they're in. While it is a bit gritty and dark, for the most part it continues to feel like a comedy and dodges emotional sentimentality despite a few opportunities to wander into that territory. Ad thankfully, it is actually funny. There aren't many jokes that feel forced in, but most just come naturally with the characters and how they interact. That seems to be funny enough!

Credit should also be given to Don Cheadle who makes the movie better because he's Don Cheadle. I certainly wouldn't say that this part was a stretch or a challenge for him as an actor, but I do find him naturally charismatic and able to contrast Boyle's unpredictable personality with a calm pool of sanity. Everett serves as a just character we can relate to, where Boyle is an anomaly.

While I don't recommend this for everyone, some of the subject matter might be a bit much for some tastes, I do think that it will charm others. It's a dark, quirky, comedy done in a way that is very Irish. It doesn't hide its heritage and its better off for it. It lacks a good polish, but the simple, bare-knuckle film making style does set it apart from most of the other movies out there now.

4 Stars

The Descendants (2011)

One of the titles that keeps appearing this award season is The Descendants, which I knew very little about before I went to see it. I hadn't even seen the trailer or read the plot synopsis. All I knew was that it came with a lot of buzz, particularly surrounding George Clooney's performance, where he is a top contender for the Oscar gold. What I enjoy about going into a movie blind is that I get to be surprised by everything that happens. I get to experience the events as the characters do.

It follows Matt King (George Clooney), a lawyer who lives in Honolulu, whose family owns a 25,000 acres strip of land in Kauai, which is untouched by the public. He is the sole trustee of the piece of land and his family and he need to make a decision as to if they should sell the land and who to because the trust will expire in seven years. But Matt is now going through some personal troubles as his wife is in a boating accident which puts her into a coma.

The film is an exploration of the false notion of perfection. The movie is a tale of heartbreak and broken families, but takes place on a part of the world that is considered by many to be a paradise. Matt King has the illusion of a normal family, a wife and two children, but underneath that there are lies and hurting also. It paints him as a normal man, though he is wealthy, intelligent and handsome. It doesn't take long before the movie shatters our idea of what a dream life is and shows much of it to be a burden rather than a goal. It's about the inescapable fact that all of us are human and will experience pain in our lives. Interesting how a movie about there being no such thing as perfection and success is actually a comedy at heart. I guess it is true that there is a fine line between tragedy and comedy.

Director Alexander Payne has a talent for delving into the deeper emotions of his characters, while still maintaining a relatively light tone in his films. I saw his film About Schmidt a few years ago and wasn't too into it when I thought it was a comedy. However, once I realized that it was a light, yet tragic, character portrait, I began to appreciate it more. The Descendants feels more sure footed, both having a better grip on the emotional pains of Matt King and a firm grasp on the comedy of the situations. He allows for all the characters to have real personalities, no matter how small their part. Certain people are crucial to the movie and may only have one scene, but that doesn't make that one scene of theirs without opportunity to shine as an actor. Matthew Lillard , for example, has a very small role in the movie, but it's the most realistic performance I've seen of his.

George Clooney is as good as they say, and I would call this his best performance I've seen. I thought he was quite good in Up In The Air, but I think in The Descendants he has a greater emotional landscape to work with. We get a chance to see him really perform. I know a lot of people criticize Clooney for never really breaking from his normal persona, but I think that we forget that you don't need to be an outlandish character actor to give strong performances. All we really needed from him in this movie was reality and that's what we got. Not everyone can do what Johnny Depp does, and not everyone should. Though... Clooney certainly did have a twitchy change of face in Burn After Reading, but that's neither here nor there.

Often if characters get stuck with the title of comic relief, that is how you define them and they kind of lose their chance for any sort of depth. This isn't so much the case in The Descendants. We're given a character by the name of Sid, whose very presence at times comes across as a punchline. Thankfully, Payne knows to treat Sid better than that and acknowledge that he is a character too. As we watch the movie, we find that there is more to him than the shallow person that we were quick to judge when he first enters Matt King's life.

I enjoyed The Descendants thoroughly because of how it seems so unambitious, yet achieves so much just by having a good head on its shoulders. It knows how to balance humour and heart and believes that the story is worth telling because it's a human one. And that's where the meat of the story is and why audiences will connect with the movie. Despite the location being exotic and beautiful beyond reality, the people in the movie are grounded and relatable, allowing us to share in Matt King's pain, but also in the moments in between where he and his family connect. And I think that's one of the gifts that film provides for us. They started off as strangers, but by the end I felt like they were friends.

4.5 Stars

The Artist (2011)

If The Artist does just one thing right, it captures the look and feel of a classic silent movie from the 1920's. This is clever on a number of levels because the film takes place at the end of the silent era and explores the changes of cinema at that time. It followed George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), one of the biggest silent film stars in Hollywood. In an encounter with a young actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), he unknowingly starts off acting her career. However, not long after that, a big step in cinema is being made. Movies are becoming talkies. George doesn't believe that this trend with catch on, but Peppy steps up to the challenge and signs up with a studio set on making her a star. Mr. Valentin however leaves the studio and goes to finance his own silent movie, putting everything of his on the line.

I think this movie connected with me in a way that I didn't really understand until after a little bit of reflection. The movie's theme is "out with the old, in with the new." George is a loveable protagonist, even if his ego is a bit too large for his own good. Big changes are intimidating, especially for those who are the best at what they do currently, and the idea of becoming obsolete can be unbearable to many. The audience knows that talking picture will forever change cinema because it's common place now, but George wants to fight it. I think a lot of people will at least understand where he is coming from. He sees what he does as a timeless art form, while others see it as archaic. Isn't it interesting how the style of this film is novelty to the point where there is Oscar buzz over Dujardin's performance? Dujardin is validating his character's opinion by showing the world that it takes skill to perform in that way, now that it is no longer common place. The Artist is strangely self fulfilling.

Back on the subject of how I connected with the movie, I feel that, while The Artist is about a very specific time in cinema's history, the conflict that George is going through is very universal and just as relevant today. For example, I worked as a projectionist at a movie theatre. Cinemas are going through a big change right now as most of them have switched over the digital projectors replacing the classic 35mm film projectors. Essentially, I lost my job to this advancement in technology. Of course, this comes with its own problems, but I might write an article about that subject some day soon. The point is that I could understand Valentin's fear and reluctance toward change. And I doubt I'm the only one.

Strangely enough, The Artist deals with some heavy issues and I didn't even think about it all that much until later. I was just along for the ride while the film was playing. It deals with rejection, divorce, alcoholism, depression, and issues along those lines, but it doesn't feel very heavy. It mostly maintains a very light tone and keeps a good sense of humour throughout. It's not that it comes across as false, nor does it understate the severity of the problems; it just allows the style to carry the movie through the darker territory. That's a fine line to walk and the movie dances joyfully on it.

I might need to watch it again. I liked it, but I'm not sure if I loved it. I certainly believe that The Artist is a clever and fun movie with a lot of heart. It really feels like a love letter to the silent era of cinema and the stars of that time. It's the exact movie that it intended to be and it accomplishes a lot. What more should I ask it to be?

4 sour grapes

Hope & Social - Sleep Sound (2011)

Sometimes in life, by chance you stumble upon something really great. One day on, I was browsing through albums by genre, probably the difficult to define genre of “alternative,” when I stumbled upon this record. I think I was caught by its beautiful cover art. I clicked and then I listened and I knew that this was quality work and from that moment on I was a Hope & Social fan. I was actually planning on reviewing this months ago, but then I moved and forgot about it for a time. But I have now remembered and I wish to share my enthusiasm for this record for anyone who is willing to read.

Sleep Sound is their third full length album and probably their most fully realized. It's a diverse, but very consistent collection of songs. Their music is a clever blend of a few genres, merging gospel, ska, folk, and rock'n'roll. It all comes together so naturally that it feels like a style of their very own. I honestly can't think of a band with a sound similar to them. Though, as far as ambition and quality of work goes, I could see them fitting nicely in with Canada's own Arts & Crafts record label. Though Hope & Social are actually from Leeds, England, showing that there is a promising independent music scene on the other side of the Atlantic also.

Every song has a bit of a different personality, some are fun and win you over with their upbeat charm. Others feel much more personal and restrained. Though, what works is that every song comes across as very genuine. They're clearly labours of love and mean a lot to the Hope & Social. It's just old fashioned good, honest song writing and that's something that makes it easy to connect to. Their music emotes very strongly, but not in a typical way. A lot of the time when we think of emotional music, we associate it with sadness, but this album covers a greater range than that. We hear moments that are joyful, sombre, passionate, and contemplative. No songs drain me though. Even through the slower pieces, I feel encouraged and inspired.

What sets Sleep Sound apart from their previous albums is the increased richness of their sound, this time with an added brass section, which was sparsely used in their second album April. This time it's a much more pronounced sound, adding a lot of character to the tunes. One of my favourite sounds in the world is an appropriately placed trumpet and there are a few of those moments in this album. Most of the time they still are at heart a rock band and they never feel like they're straying too far from their genre, which is fortunately very flexible.

My love for this album grows each time I listen to it, every song connecting with me and leaving a lasting impression. My favourites? “Rolling Sideways” is great fun and has a great piano track. “Cotton Wool” sets a great emotional landscape, giving a sense of longing and distance. It's quite beautiful. It's followed by “Them Rolling Boys” which is a more edgy track, and certainly one of the strongest as it has the most satisfying progression and rocks the hardest throughout. The final track “Fast Train” is another terrific track, that feels like it's taking me on a long journey, leaving me wanting more. I guess I'll have to wait until their next album though.

What is encouraging is that Hope & Social are a band that seem comfortable in their own skin. Their music is strong and confident and they give the listener the choice of how much they want to pay for it. Not only with the digital copy, but the physical ones as well. You can download it for free or the disc is available for simply the cost of producing it and shipping. All they ask is that you pay them what you feel the album is worth, which is a difficult thing for a musician to ask, particularly when they pour so much work into their art. I would encourage you to give Sleep Sound a listen and if you share my enthusiasm, why not support the music?

5 Stars

Puss In Boots (2011)

The Shrek movies have their fans and will forever be a landmark for Dreamworks Animation. Not only was the first film start off their 3D animation business, but it's also been their most profitable franchise. I, however, am not a big Shrek fan. In fact, I feel that the first Shrek movie was one of the single most overrated films of the last decade. The only one of the series I thoroughly enjoyed was the second film, and much of that was because of a certain feline character who stole the show. I must not have been the only one to see that this was one of the stronger characters of the series because finally, after the Shrek movies have been (hopefully) put to rest, Puss In Boots has been given his own feature film.

The story takes place before Puss meets Shrek and they become companions. Puss (Antonio Banderas) is an outlaw with a bounty on his head and he learns of some magic beans in the hands of two dangerous criminals named Jack and Jill. Puss has been after magic beans for half of his life and doesn't believe they exist, though he is compelled to track the beans down anyway. He is met by another cat burglar (get it?) who is also after the beans and their competition gives them away and they both fail. After tracking the other burglar, he learns it is the notorious (and beautiful) thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) who is teamed up with an old friend Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galafianakis), who Puss had a falling out with after being betrayed by the greedy egg. Now, they're teamed back together to seek the magic beans that will grow a magic beanstalk leading them to a castle with endless riches.

Wow, that plot wound up being a real challenge to summarize. It's really quite a strange jumble of fairy tales, not unlike Shrek. I'm actually impressed that they managed to make it fairly intelligible and easy enough to follow that kids shouldn't have trouble keeping up. Though, I have to confess that I have some complaints about a plot twist in the third act of the film which I felt didn't quite work with the story. That being said, I see why they did it, I just think it should have played out differently. I can't really elaborate because I don't want to spoil the movie.

Puss In Boots is not a Shrek film and the only shared character is the title role. More importantly, it feels very much like a different kind of movie. Shrek was a fairy tale spoof. Puss In Boots is an adventure film, set in the same world where various mother goose characters all coexist... not always peacefully. It is often funny, but not always hilarious and I believe that is intentional. Puss is a funny character but the story isn't about gags. It's about relationships, betrayal, and redemption. Well, when I put the big words there, it sounds a little deeper than it is.

But let's be honest here, Puss was the optimum choice for a feature length spin off. I can't think of any other character from Shrek who would work as well. Would you watch a Donkey movie? You might? I don't think I would. Puss has a more dexterous form, making it easier to build a story for him. His past was a mystery, but much was implied. If anything, I can't help but feel that Shrek was holding him back. I think for the most part he was just following Shrek and Donkey around and occasionally he would have a chance to shine and do something cute and impressive. Puss In Boots has a fast paced story with so much energy and action. In fact, I sort of feel that this still isn't the best possible Puss In Boots movie that could have been made around this character. And I also wonder what would happen is some company actually wants to do an adaptation of the real Puss In Boots story. This film is not that.

I especially recommend Puss In Boots to people who love cats. Cats are a never ending source of amusement to many people (myself included) and there are many visual gags and character traits that Puss has that should be entertaining. Sometimes these jokes are very subtle, sometimes they are not. I'm glad that the film makers had a sense of humour, but were not talking down to their young audience. Adults will find some jokes for them and may also be swept away by the action. Whatever the case, I think most will find something to like in this film.

3.5 Stars

Nothing Like the Holidays (2008)

When Nothing Like The Holidays came out a few years ago, I was quite interested in seeing it. I hadn't had the chance until just a few days ago, but I knew I'd get around to it eventually. It seems that in recent years Christmas movies have gotten to be very commercial. Often it's about crazy shopping or competitive neighbours putting up lights or some outlandish story involving Santa Claus. I think that these days we don't seem to make many Christmas classics and that's because I can't help but feel that there is a real human element missing in the holiday film genre. So, when I saw this trailer, I felt that it promised to fulfil exactly what was missing.

It follows a Puerto Rican family in Chicago. All of the grown up kids have come home for Christmas and have brought their stories home with them. Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) has just come back after 3 years serving in Iraq. Mauricio (John Leguizamo) has a workaholic wife. Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) is a struggling actress in Hollywood. But they're all together under one roof again and able to enjoy the company of each other and their parents. However, their mother Anna (Elizabeth Peña) announces over dinner that she is going to divorce their father Edy (Alfred Molina). Guess that ruins Christmas, right?

Nothing Like The Holidays seems like the kind of movie that meant a lot to the people who were making it. And I imagine that it will connect with some people and not as much with others. I could relate to it because I come from a bigger family and can understand the difficulties with getting people together for Christmas and the joy that comes with having family under the same roof. 

The movie boasts an excellent cast. Check out this list: Luis Guzmán, Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, and that girl from Death Proof. It's a great collection of Latin American actors who deserve roles with a little bit of meat to them. And they get that in Nothing Like The Holidays. Most characters have a story arc and internal conflict and they all have great chemistry with one another, shooting fast dialogue as if they were actually family. If the movie has one thing going for it, it has to the the performances.

The script is mostly good. As I said, the dialogue is strong. It has enough comedy and drama to feel like real interactions between siblings. The characters are well rounded and complex, and I easily got a sense of what kind of person they are without clunky exposition. There was a good amount of development in that aspect of the script. There were, however, a few issues in the story department. There might be just a few too many subplots. I appreciate wanting to take time with all of the characters, but it might have been stronger if they kept the development in the immediate family because it starts to feel a bit forced when there are some lesser characters with stories that seem a bit tacked on. There isn't enough time to focus on all of those plots, so their resolution seems meaningless. The film tries so hard to balance all these stories; they're lucky they didn't all topple.

I also can't shake the feeling that the ending was a bit rushed. There was a lot that needed to be resolved, and while it all was technically, I don't believe I felt the necessary satisfaction that could have come from it. All it needed as a bit more time and focus on some of the right things. I don't think that I can elaborate too much more than that, because I wouldn't want to ruin it for you.

Christmas doesn't play that much into the story. It serves as a backdrop to the events as well as the most logical reason for all of the characters to converge together. This is good. It allows for a real story that doesn't revolve around holiday contrivances. No shopping. No Santa. Just real human interaction at a time where family is the focus. Nothing Like The Holidays is enjoyable, fun and emotional, but it never reaches the cohesive whole that might have elevated it to becoming a holiday classic. Most of the ingredients were there, but something went wrong with the stuffing.

3.5 Stars

Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto (2011)

Coldplay are a band that seem to stimulate a whole array of different reactions. Some people love them ever so dearly, while others despise them greatly. What can't be disputed is their popularity and their ability to sell records for a good decade now. Me? Well, I never hate them, but I've certainly had mixed reactions to their work. I believe them to be a band capable of so much and I continue to respect their choices to change up the vision of each album, so not to repeat themselves too often. This adventurous nature has elicited a number of responses from me, but their last effort Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends brought out a very positive one. Coldplay were trying new things along side guru producer Brian Eno, exploring a very earthy tone to the album. It was rock mixed with world music, electronica and even some orchestral arrangements. It was a great album and possibly the best from the band (though I am also quite attached to A Rush of Blood to the Head).

So, this wandering has lead Coldplay in a very different direction for their latest effort Mylo Xyloto. Perhaps it was because they knew that they couldn't repeat what they achieved with Viva La Vida that they took their music in a drastically different direction. Gone is the raw earthiness and in comes... shiny shine. I can't fault them too much for their work here. It's very clear that they knew exactly what kind of album it was based entirely on the cover art. The contrast between the cover art of their last album and this one is similar to the change in music.

What I've been leading up to saying is that Mylo Xyloto is a disappointment to me, but I don't know if I hold it against Coldplay too much. That's part of the process of taking risks with your art form. Someone out there is not going to like it. Although, the album is in an awkward space where it does touch on some new ground for the band, but feels extremely safe. Yes, they've changed, but they sound like their focusing on making songs that are accessible and marketable. Not a bad thing per se, but it's all so over produced and glossy that it's hard to find the emotional core of the music. In essence, they've made their first pop record which will appeal to some and alienate others. This is disappointing to me because Coldplay were one of the last good mainstream rock acts making music.

The album isn't a complete waste of time, in fact I wouldn't say that there is a “bad song” on it. If you look at it as a pop record and not a Coldplay album then it's actually above average in quality. But I do notice a lack of stand out tracks within; most of them are just pretty good or not bad. And it seems clear that they were aware of which ones were the stronger songs because they have been released as singles. I actually quite like their song “Charlie Brown” which has been on repeat in my head all day. I have similar feelings about “Hurts Like Heaven” and “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.” Though, my favorite song from the album is “Major Minus” which actually feels like a rock song, and also I see no indicator that it will become a single. Though, I do at times get a U2 vibe from the song, as if guitarist Jonny Buckland was channelling The Edge like he did several times on 2005's X&Y.

While the song writing is tight and the production is slicker than ever, I think the main problem with the album is the lack of heart. What made their early, and now seemingly simple albums, Parachutes and especially A Rush of Blood to the Head work so well for me was that there was a raw connectivity between the band and listener. Coldplay had a gift that brought them into the mainstream without all of the glamour and shine that Mylo Xyloto relies on. They were a band that spoke to their audience and it's a shame that some of that is lost now. That makes many of the slower tracks on the album uninteresting, which wasn't always an issue before.

That being said, Mylo Xyloto does at least feel like a cohesive album that is on a clear path. Many of the tracks link together and it seems like a complete work from start to finish. One has to admire how sure footed their going in this new direction. Even if it's the wrong direction, they have a cool confidence about it all that is kind of charming. What is reassuring is that Coldplay are a band who are willing to keep trying new things. I wasn't the biggest X&Y fan, but when they brought out Viva La Vida, my faith in them had returned. I can only hope that we'll hear another leap where they can mix this confidence with a bit more adventure.

3 Stars