Archives for November 2011

Happy Feet Two

Happy Feet 2 PosterRating: ★★½☆☆

Beneath all the environmental and existential issues that layered the original “Happy Feet” was a subject of equal relevance: the unifying enchantment brought about by music. We were taken to the icy isles of Antarctica, where a kingdom of emperor penguins greeted us with mesmerizing vocal performances worthy of a Santana collaboration. It was established that penguins were naturally gifted singers, so it came as a surprise when one odd little fellow named Mumble couldn’t hit a single note.

No matter. Mumble, it turns out, projects a skill in tap dancing no penguin has ever possessed before. Like Eminem, he was the first of his kind. (Or was it Vanilla Ice?) We felt pleasure seeing and hearing Mumble’s feet produce those catchy beats even though we were pretty sure that it’s implausible to compose those sounds by stomping on ice. His example made it clear, to both us and to his fellow penguins, that music is secluded to no one; it’s a personal celebration that’s best experienced in the company of others. The penguins sang. Mumble danced. We smiled. A Win-Win-Win.

Will and Bill the Krill2006’s “Happy Feet” created a rhythm of splendid joy that is unfortunately missing in this sequel. It aspires to be about a lot of things, but the movie’s structure isn’t designed for an intricate narrative.  It sends a message about the hazards of global warming. It talks about finding your place in your community. And it examines the food chain from the perspective of the members located at the bottom of the list. This is all probably too much for a penguin movie. “Happy Feet Two” becomes so busy trying to send these messages that it often forgets to do what it does best: Party.

The sequel features three subplots, carrying one lesson each. The first one to emerge is the insecurities that trouble an odd little fellow named Eric, who happens to be the son of Mumble (Elijah Wood). A second story comes into play when the penguin nation becomes trapped after a giant iceberg hits their homeland. The third subplot diverts us away from the penguins and introduces us to a pair of krill buddies ardently played by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. The comedy of their characters is standard, but the fun here is the choice of actors who were tasked to voice these crazy krill. This subplot could inspire a Better Movie starring Pitt and Damon as the lead characters in a live-action comedy.

Erik in Happy Feet TwoAs for the music, I felt a lack of singing and dancing, which is probably caused by the exposition required by the stories. I thought that some of the more dramatic numbers were underwhelming. These penguins aren’t that enjoyable standing still in a solo performance when compared to their lively group songs that include some nifty choreography. The songs are hit-and-miss, but I assure an ecstatic climax that will cause the older members of the audience to sing along. The impact of the event purely depends on the strength of the song, but I don’t blame the movie. How can you go wrong with Queen?

So I can’t quite give “Happy Feet Two” a positive rating, but when it comes to movies that showcase Singing Animals, I’d rather see this again than sit through any of the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movies. “Happy Feet” wins, both in terms of humor and cuteness. In fact, the young penguins here are so fluffy that, if Agnes from “Despicable Me” went to visit them, she will definitely die.

Tower Heist

Tower Heist PosterRating: ★★☆☆☆

“Tower Heist” is a robbery movie like many others. Here is a sub-genre so mindlessly recycled that films within its category are mainly differentiated by the intellectual capacity of its characters. Develop your heroes as smart individuals, and you’ve got a thriller. Gather a group of idiots, and you’re set for a comedy.

The crooks in “Tower Heist” are so hopeless that, to them, the phrase “Like Stealing Candy from a Baby” would be more of a challenge than an idiom. So incompetent are these chumps that they’d fail at conquering a 7-Eleven with a tank. Yet here they are, plotting to rob millions of dollars from a luxury hotel equipped with, and I quote, “the most advanced security systems.” We begin to doubt this claim when we notice nothing beyond the typical surveillance cameras that’s being kept in check by The Preoccupied Security Guard. His watchful eyes beam at the pages of Playboy, instead of the monitors.

Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy in Tower HeistBut forget about the security system. The story, which has potential for a fun, escapist comedy, is let down by lazy writing that ignores the possibilities of its premise. One instance that supports this point is the sequence where our heroes are tasked to shoplift from a store in the mall. Each of them enters a different shop. They look for an item, take it, walk away, and that’s it. We sense that a lot more could have been done with this idea if it were handed to a zanier director, like Adam McKay (“Anchroman”). Brett Ratner, commonly known as a crappy director and a narcissistic asshole, is just showcasing the former description.

“Tower Heist”, directed by Brett Ratner, centers around a deluxe high-rise, the hard-working staff that maintains it, and the wealthy tenant who lives in the topmost floor. The rich man is Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), who is facing legal battle after losing the pension of the hotel’s staff in a Ponzi scheme. The building’s manager, Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller), is enraged. Determined to recover the pension of the employees, including his own, Josh summons his inner criminal mastermind in a mission to revenge steal from Shaw.

In urgent need of a team, Josh recruits the expertise of a clueless concierge and an elevator operator who once worked at Burger King. He takes a long, sad look at his companions. Not good. Josh approaches an experienced thief named Slide (Eddie Murphy), hoping that he could attain some consultation and partnership. The character of Eddie Murphy allows him to relive the kind of humor that established his reputation as a comedian. But the mistake that “Tower Heist” commits against him is that they never give Murphy the screen time he deserves. We get a peak at what he used to be and can be again, but we never really get there.

Michael Pena, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, and Casey Affleck in Tower HeistWe eventually arrive at the day of the heist. In its most crucial and unexpected circumstance, our heroes find themselves facing a dilemma that would stump Danny Ocean. But they press on. Josh, Slide, and team must lower a solid gold car from the top floor of the high-rise.

At one point, we see the car suspended out a window, just waiting to be seen by anyone with functioning eyes. But it seems that nobody ever looks up nowadays. Because these happenings are detached from the rest of reality, very little excitement is accomplished.

If “Tower Heist” offers any consolation, it’s the hope that it brings to the career of Eddie Murphy. It’s about time he stepped away from his fat suits. This aging comedian is headed in the right direction, which is the direction opposite to what Adam Sandler is currently in.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo PosterRating: ★★★★★

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is an exceptional thriller that supplies just about everything you can expect from its genre: an unsolved crime, a devious villain, a collection of clues, a determined investigator, and a climactic sequence where they all come together. These elements are all aptly done, but our attention is captured by an enigmatic woman whose own vague life can be considered a puzzle that’s more perplexing than the one she occupies.

Her name is Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). She is a skilled surveillance agent and an ingenious computer hacker. Her face, firm and pierced, rarely reveals any form of emotion. Her dark, gothic look attracts our immediate interest, but even the most analytical of audience members cannot observe beyond her physical appearance. The dragon tattooed on her back, which we get to see once, is open to our interpretations, but that’s about as far our theories can go. She prefers to keep her secrets to herself. Conversations with Lisbeth occur only when necessary, and they usually end quickly. Moments where she secures her isolation are often “celebrated” with a lighting of a cigarette.

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander

Lisbeth is a complex character whose present life is silenced by the scars of her past. Earlier scenes depict her encounters with depraved men; their harassment seems to carve further into an already existing wound. We get this impression because she responds to these offenses not as a weak and helpless victim, but as an audacious and adamant fighter. People who take a closer look at Lisbeth should recognize a subtle beauty. Perhaps she only uses her piercings and make-up as tools to conceal her looks from lustful eyes.

The story involves Lisbeth’s current surveillance of Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who’s six months away from a three-month sentence in jail.  Blomkvist intents are pure and righteous, but consequences can be great if you lose a legal battle against a powerful tycoon. In his remaining time of freedom, Blomkvist agrees to work for a retired, wealthy businessman named Henrik Vanger. This provides the plot for the movie, which follows Blomkvist’s investigation of Vanger’s missing niece, who first disappeared almost forty years ago.

Clues emerge. The case becomes broader and clearer as it points to a brutal massacre of innocent and unsuspecting women. And right there is when we fully identify the movie’s theme: Violence against women. We saw it first through Lisbeth’s suffering, and we see it again in the rape, murder, and mutilation of the women we come across in Blomkvist’s investigation. When Lisbeth herself learns about this tragedy, she teams up with Blomkvist in a mission to apprehend the killer.

Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander

Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander

Director Niels Arden Oplev is not hesitant to portray disturbing images where women are savagely abused. But the movie is entirely feminist. The late Stieg Larsson, who wrote the novel from which this movie is based upon, empowers Lisbeth as a woman who is brave, intelligent and independent. He views her as a survivor, destined to burst into a silent rage of furious anger once she encounters a monster guilty of the sins that broke her humanity.

This is a thriller that is more than what it’s about. The plot provides a gripping story, but its principal purpose is to accentuate the character of Lisbeth Salander. By the film’s end, we feel grateful to have been granted a mild access to her life. And though she retains her impenetrable persona, at least we can now look at Lisbeth and see that she’s more than just a girl with a dragon tattoo.

The Change-Up

The Change-Up PosterRating: ½☆☆☆☆

“The Change-Up” is frequently repugnant, occasionally misogynistic, sporadically racist and thoroughly stupid. This is a loathsome movie not because it aims for the lowest form of crass comedy, but because it aims for the lowest form of crass comedy… and misses. Depressingly humorless, the film falls apart at just about the same rapid rate as an Adam Sandler comedy.

“The Change-Up” revisits the drained formula of the Body-Swap movie, where two people of contrasting lives end up within the body of the other, and vice versa. Here, our duo is comprised of hard-working husband, Dave (Jason Bateman), and weed-smoking bachelor, Mitch (Ryan Reynolds). In a night of cursing, fantasizing, and alcoholism, the two head off to the nearest magic fountain to take a piss, one that’s long enough to refill the Fountain of Life. Dave and Mitch wake up the next morning and are distressed to discover a reality similar to the fate of the heroes of “17 Again”, “Freaky Friday”, “The Hot Chick”, etc.

Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman

Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman

What we have here is a story that requires only about 80-90 minutes to be fully told. Yet the movie doesn’t end until we reach its 105th minute. The reason for this excessive length is that “The Change-Up” doesn’t want to tell anyone a story. It is, in truth, a lame-brained, foul-mouthed machine whose sole job is to throw as much vulgarity and profanity as possible at its audience. If you finish this movie without finding something that upset you, consult your therapist.

Observing my own responses, I came to realize that crudity isn’t my problem with the movie, since I both admired “The Hangover” and the more recent “Horrible Bosses”. I think the problem with “The Change-Up” is its failure to include the slightest amount of intelligence in the delivery of its filthy humor. The movie is so devoid of wit that the only thing left for us to grasp are exactly what’s been placed in front of us, which is a montage of cussing, shouting, and wayward meanness.

"Are they retarded or something' -Mitch

"Are they retarded or something' -Mitch

Most of the movie is a verbal attack on the human race, revealing its abominable attitude towards blessings of universal value. (It shares its hateful thoughts on certain topics, then cowardly retreats at the last minute so things could conclude with a smile.) An example of this would be the movie’s mistreatment of infants as a source of comedy. Dave has baby twins, which are now in the care of the naive Mitch. He drops the F Bomb by addressing them as little F’ers as he vocally wonders if the babies are mentally retarded.

In a later scene, the twins are left unattended in the kitchen, where they play with death through knives and electricity outlets. In what sense is this funny? I felt sorry for these infants, especially for the one who keeps banging his head against a crib, infuriated by the fact that his first movie role is in “The Change-Up.”

Puss in Boots (3D)

Puss in Boots PosterRating: ★★★½☆

“Puss in Boots” is both a spin-off and a prequel that expands the Antonio Banderas character from the “Shrek” films. As a sidekick to Shrek, Puss only stood in the background as a portrait of cuteness. Now, he has taken command of the lead role, seizing its privilege by familiarizing us with his diverse life as a skilled fighter, dedicated lover, and excellent dancer. This is an eager and cheerful animated film that humors its way through its vibrant animation.

“Puss in Boots” remains in the same world that’s occupied by Shrek, where fairy tale characters share the same space and time, where The Gingerbread Man could bump into the Big Bad Wolf, where Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella could talk about the Prince Charming in their lives. It’s a delightful and nostalgic concept, one that’s been forgotten by the last two “Shrek” installments. But Dreamworks has recaptured its essence in “Puss in Boots”, reimagining and merging some fairy tales that have occupied the bedtime stories of our childhood.

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill

Consider, for example, the involvement of the brittle, delicate Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis). His undamaged shell suggests that he has yet to suffer his great fall. His association with Puss goes back to their early years. (Puss was just a cute little kitty while Humpty was just a cute little egg. You would think that Humpty would have hatched and developed into a chicken by adulthood, but no. He just grew into a bigger egg.) As kids, the two dreamed of acquiring the legendary magic beans, but conflicting personal convictions left them separated. Years pass, and the present circumstances have reunited them with the opportunity to rescue their friendship and conquer their hanging dream.

Rumors reveal that the beans are in the possession of two cruel, homicidal criminals named Jack and Jill. Their appearance in this film doesn’t match the innocent, clumsy pair of chumps we see in coloring books. No. Jack and Jill are constantly angry and discouragingly ugly, which is probably a result of the painful, frustrating tumbles of their early quests for pales of water. It is the goal of Puss and Humpty to take the beans from them. And to do this, they include the sleight of hand expertise of a black female cat named Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). A romance between Puss and Softpaws is built up along the way, of course, which is like seeing a furry Zorro and Catwoman in a romantic comedy.

Humpty, Kitty Softballs, Puss

Humpty, Kitty Softballs, Puss

This is very fun. The plot, which is rightfully shallow, is simply a set-up for jokes and references to other fairy tales. But “Puss in Boots” is most fun when it suspends the plot for moments of senseless joy. There is a pleasant scene where our heroes are mesmerized by the fact that they are standing on creamy clouds; they take a break from their adventure to appreciate the awesomeness. Prior to that scene, there is a stand-off between Puss and Softpaws. Instead of engaging in the expected swordfight, the pair duel it out in a dazzling dance competition. This is, so far, the most buoyant animated feature of 2011.

I experienced the misfortune of seeing “Puss in Boots” in 3-D. All nearby malls made it a point that they will only screen the more expensive version. I wish I had seen it in brighter 2-D. 3-D is a complicated technique only reserved for the most intelligent of artists. All I got from the added dimension of “Puss in Boots” was a splitting headache, which is the same kind of pain you would get after tumbling down a hill.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing PosterRating: ★★★★☆

The elusive, amorphous villain in “The Thing” boasts a potent quality long lost in the tradition of post-modern horror movies. Its creature operates in sadistic stealth. It invades the body of its living prey, sucking the life of its unfortunate host from the inside until there is nothing left of him except for his outside physical appearance. Each organism, whether man or animal, who has been victimized by The Thing all have one thing in common: They all ended up as a mere disguise to this intrusive, merciless freak.

The setting is in the barren, icy lands of Antarctica. An American research team is compelled to investigate a Norwegian facility after the remainder of its occupants die in a frantic attempt to assassinate… a dog. Inside the facility, our heroes find that the building has been through what your average C.S.I. would refer to as, “a struggle”. Outside, they discover a cadaver of abnormal shape and size. They notice that it was intentionally set on fire. And based on the empty containers of gasoline near it, whoever ignited the bastard wanted it to burn real good. Because our heroes are a group of curious researchers, they omit the instinctive response of leaving the body alone by bringing it back home with them.

The ThingSeemed like a bad move at the time, but their suspicions are ripped apart when they realize that the threat is lurking within the darn dog. The first of numerous moments of grotesque horror in “The Thing” occurs when their new pet is caged among other dogs. Heaps of flesh and blood starts bursting from the hound, transforming itself into a shapeless monster armed with teeth, tentacles, and an appetite. The helpless dogs trapped with this Thing are sprayed with a deadly acidic substance as they are dragged to The Thing’s gaping mouth, or mouths.

But enough about the dogs. The anxious excitement of “The Thing” begins when our heroes learn of the shape-shifting, body-invading nature of this sneaky alien. Since The Thing can infect any living individual upon the slightest contact, how many of the crew members have already been contaminated? Who can they trust? How can the healthy ones stay healthy? How can they find The Thing? And how do they kill it?

This is a creature concept of a very high order, one of great potential not only in terms of visual horror, but also of alarming suspense. A villain as complex as The Thing deserved the dedication of its disciplined director, John Carpenter, but the film is let down by a dull group of unintelligent, interchangeable characters. The researchers, who are thinly written, spend most of their time pointing their fingers and defending their innocence; it wouldn’t make any difference if This Character ended up as The Thing instead of That Character. Their field of work suggests discernment, but their actions sometimes reach a level of foolishness that they might as well be teenagers.

The Thing (Dog)These faults can easily be forgiven. The steady suspense is great fun, but at this point in history, I believe “The Thing” is most appreciated for its eruptions of gruesome and gooey monster madness. Because The Thing doesn’t have a permanent design, we are treated to a new, unsettling version of the same villain each time it reveals itself. By giving us different monsters to gawk at, the recurring attacks feel less repetitive. The prop, costume and make-up effects that form The Thing are so well-done that the movie proved to be a significant point in the advancement of special effects.

Movie monsters are often proud to set their ugly faces on display, but not The Thing. We suspect that it is a shy creature. But when its secret is thwarted, it seems to be more than happy to crawl/burst/ooze out of its disguise. The result is often a giant, living, breathing mishmash of your stomach contests. Whoever decides to dress as The Thing for Halloween and pulls it off deserves extra candy.