Sunday, February 28, 2010

Films in Review: An Analysis of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)

An enjoyable film, but my initial sense is that since this is based on a series of children's novels, I imagine the books must be better? However I've not read them. But even judging by the movie alone I would say that this story does not quite span the depth and epic feel of say, the Harry Potter series. Where Harry Potter (at least as the books) quickly spans out from the children's arena into more mature territory, Percy Jackson tends to stay within a nice safe children appropriate zone, even adding a little touching sub-story on how children can often feel alienated from their parents (Gods that they are). But even these attempts at profundity barely skim the surface of any real emotional drama and remain out-scoped by the adventure action-packed spectacle of it all, which I must say is quite impressive with everything from charging minotaurs to spitting 6 headed Hydras blowing fire into water (what an effect!). Though I don't know what they were thinking by casting Uma Thurman as Medusa...I don't know what was harder to buy, this famous actress as an ancient monstrous Gorgon or those ridiculous CG snakes in her hair. However, it is often quite clever how they adapted the Greek Myth into Modern Day mythos and it does come with everything you would come to expect from a film of its kind, pulling out all the stops. Of course the coolest thing this film tried to do was insert the idea that the myths of old were as real and true today as they were back then. That Gods and Goddesses are real and their children are living among us. But the film makes no real attempt at credibility or realism to establish this, flying off into highly unrealistic scenarios from the get-go that are the things such spectacle based movies are made of. Feeling only surface value, flap-jack action packed scenes rush right over any potentially emotional profound moment or cool concepts of ancient historical interest. The characters become one-dimensional with no real depth, character, or personality, except for perhaps Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), Percy's personal sidekick who comes along with a cute personable quip here and again. For me, this deprives the action scenes of any real investment on our part when, as the audience, we haven't really established a care for these characters, so it's really of no consequence to us what happens to them. One thing I did appreciate tremendously though! How the story did include an aside concept that Percy Jackson's ADHD (attention deficit disorder) and dyslexia were not actually shortcomings of him as a human, but indications of his inherent prowess as a god; attributes of how his mind works in a divine and different way.

So for those of you that know your Greek mythology you will certainly get a kick out of how they inserted certain historical mythos into the modern adventure story, with the three main characters, Percy son of Poseidon (Logan Lerman), Annabeth daughter of Athena (Alexandra Daddario), and Grover facing up to the same dangers of ancient times adapted for a modern-day setting (I found the Los Vegas Lotus-Eaters particularly clever). But I suspect that for those of you who really know your Greek mythology, you might just get annoyed with the silly distorted modern take on such ancient epic lore, with a lot of the portrayals of the Greek Gods themselves (particularly Hades and Persephone) falling a bit short. A movie like this aims to please and entertain, and with that in mind (ignoring the use of such epic ancient characters to serve this end) one can find it rather entertaining indeed. But if you are looking for an insightful look into how Greek gods and goddesses really exist today in the midst of our modern day world (somewhat along the level of say, X-men) you will surely be disappointed. There is no real substance here, just a quippy modern day spin-off, re-interpretated to please the masses. However, in that, I do believe that this film has succeeded in being exactly what it set out to be, an action packed children's adventure-spectacle featuring Greek Gods and monsters.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Films in Review: An Analysis of Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Oh Quentin...what a quaint little film you have made! What fun! True to Tarantino's style, broken up into Chapters, we get the recounting of a ruthless yet highly entertaining bunch of military "Basterds" who are sent forth from the US, Apache style, to kill and scalp Nazis in 1940s France. What this film brilliantly accomplishes three times over is in setting up cinematic scenarios of insurmountable high octane suspense that could easily rival Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense himself. My God! Over and over we find ourselves in scenes rife with undertones of secrecy and mistrust glossed over by the unsettling facade of Nazi pleasantries, like a ticking time bomb, which have you riveted to the screen with anxious anticipation. Deadly performances from Melanie Laurent as Jewish Cinema owner Shosanna, as well as from Diane Kruger in her part as the glamorously elite but double crossing German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark. Both women played with daggers in their eyes, like a high stakes poker game where you never reveal your hand. This would have to be so in a cast with Christoph Waltz opposing in the role of lead villain Nazi Col. Hans,
always cool yet dangerously unpredictable, who's mere appearance on screen would suffice to put you on edge.

Highly cinematic in his directorial style, Tarantino delivers the first chapter as a portrayal of the despicable yet commonplace acts for Nazi soldiers in France at that time. This seems to justify and give the audience full permission and carte blanche to sit back, relax and enjoy for the remainder of the film the retaliation of the Basterds, though often equally grotesque in their acts of scalping and maiming the Nazis. But hold no restraint! There can be no mistaking the carefully constructed fun-spirited tone which comes shining through the non-chalance and wickedly entertaining performance from the lead commander of the Basterds, Lt. Aldo (Brad Pitt) meant to give you full on Nazi killin satisfaction! With Pitt at the helm, this film has wit, charm and suspense all weaved into one, quite deliberately striking that particular note of tragic comedy that only Tarantino could pull off. The film ranges from the thoroughly enjoyable rantings of Aldo, with so many great one-liner quips I couldn't keep track, to the genuinely heart shattering dilemma of farmer Perrier LaPadite, played by Denis Menochet
with such a deep well of tragic emotion that I regret to have not seen more of this actor before. I find myself not wanting to comment too thoroughly on the specifics here of certain scenes as well because they really do speak for themselves and are carefully constructed in the reveal of information, much credit due to the editing. A must-see for any fun-loving movie-goer. And easily becoming one of my favorites from this director. But Quentin? Could we ease up on the graphics a bit? Some grotesque violence is graphically displayed, but in fairness I can see how it seems to have been pulled back in parts, and really is only shown in it's full glory at opportune moments, to create a kind of clincher effect. Hey, if he's gotta do it, he's gotta do it. One thing is certainly clear from the get-go, this is a very mindfully crafted piece of cinema from a director who knows what he wants.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Films in Review: An Analysis of District 9 (2009)

Wowza. What to say about District 9...Firstly, the entire beginning sequence is likely one of the most clever and brilliant story telling devices I've seen in a long time. The film only begins to take on the traditional narrative form about 30 minutes in but the way in which the world of this film is initially introduced to the audience is through documentary style interviews and mock up news coverage of this "District 9" as if it were a real media piece occurring in the world today and for the last two decades. So many little details of how that introductory sequence was constructed are just perfectly true to the actual nuances of legitimate documentary filmmaking so it plays like unedited news coverage of behind the scenes footage in a real government military evacuation. They did so much to "create a world" right down to the restricted area posters that read "For Humans Only" built into an intricate set design...Just brilliant! There was however an odd almost comical tone that was struck which threw me out of that masterfully constructed illusion. The character of Wikus (Sharlto Copley), the man appointed head of this MNU Evacuation operation, presents himself as so over the top and absurd in the smiling friendly naive manner in which he goes about leading the mission (think Steve Carell as Michael from The Office) to a point where it looses that sense of seriousness which the previous "media coverage" and interviews so strongly established.

Once the film takes off as a traditional narrative, there are still elements of that "news coverage" that come in and out, helping to strengthen the sense of credibility and believability that this "Alien District" is a real live happening. There was a broad exploration of what would actually happen in real life if an alien mother ship landed in Johannesburg, inspired most obviously from humanity's past indiscretions and historical conflicts; featuring such humanitarian issues such as racial discrimination, civil rights activity, government lust for advanced weapons technology and forced evacuation of "outsiders" to concentration camps. Every angle of the worst of mankind's human reactionary nature were presented: Nigerian weapons dealers, slum violence between locals and the alien "outsiders", angry civil rights protests of alien relocation, prejudice derogatory name-calling of the aliens "Prawns" and even bi-racial connotative themes were presented through alien-human prostitution rings. All of which seemed realistic and worked for me to establish and set "the scene" all be it bleak. However certain elements just don't seem to "play" alongside such heavy material, like the oddity of the abnormal obsessive affinity that these aliens had for cat food? Again such elements hold no real baring on the story and just seem to distract from the otherwise credible seriousness of the situation trying to be established.

Besides the remarkable cleverness of the documentary style opening, another stand-out feature of this film was really the visual effects. Through a combination of special effects makeup, prosthetics and digital CGI, the visual component became surprisingly life-like. Seven foot alien cockroaches with long lobster like claws could easily look absurdly fake but there was a realistic and even emotional visceral quality that was maintained with these creatures. The main Prawn-alien, who Wikus calls Christopher had such an endearing quality that came through his expression, as did his little baby prawn son which made them quite loveable characters; a feat I find impressive considering how intimidatingly hideous their otherwise outwardly appearance. Perhaps most impressive though was the transformation of Wikus himself where one of his eyes mutated into creature form but the other remained human. I was reminded of earlier disappointments that I had with the choice of visual style for the character of Harvey Two-Face in Dark Knight where it really became so over the top fake and CG looking that it almost couldn't be taken seriously. But here with Wikus, I really couldn't believe my own eyes in seeing how realistic these visual designers managed to create his half faced transformation. Believable to behold, it was truly an amazing visual feat.

The resolution of this film left much to be desired especially since the protagonist Wikus was such a prat to begin with and only seemed to manage minor growth as a character. What I will say though, is that for such an unlikeable character that Wikus was established to be, we certainly find ourselves feeling desperately sorry for him in his awful predicament, even rooting for him to get "fixed" by the end. The end action sequence features Wikus strapped into a giant robotic alien weapon-bot, very reminiscent of Transformers. But the spectacle here, unlike other empty Hollywood blockbuster action, really feels purposeful with much at stake for the fate of the characters. It also presents opportunity for our protagonist Wikus to perform probably the only valiant non self-serving act for his character in the entire film. Personally I prefer to align myself with characters motivated by valor that I can really get behind, though I appreciate that such a little weasel as Wikus, through an intense journey of extreme circumstances, could finally come to terms with his own personal integrity. In that way, I feel that director Neill Blomkamp has created a very unusual and unorthodox piece of cinema here, with a variety of nuanced themes, that can certainly be appreciated on many levels.

Films in Review: An Analysis of The Secret Life of Bees (2008)

My First thought: What a beautiful film. A portrait of life in the 1960's, where racial tensions and gender power strife were commonplace, focused within a 14-year old girl's journey to find healing and restore her connection to her Mother, whom she accidently shot as a 4 year old child. What is truly compelling about this film is the way in which the masculine and feminine energies must come to reconcile with one another in order to find healing, and peace. In running from the cold harsh reality of a life with an emotionally shutdown father figure whom she refers to as "T. Ray"(Paul Bettany), Lily (Dakota Fanning) finds herself in a house full of women, nourished and held by Motherly energies for the first time. And what's more? These African American honey bee harvesters, led by Miss August (Queen Latifah) have not only found a way to survive as black women in a "hate filled world" such was the social climate of the time, but found a way to thrive in it. Miss August teaches Lily how to harvest honey gently from the swarming bees, but in the process metaphorically demonstrates a kind of philosophical strength in how to get along and glide past the "sting" of the world. The strength of the poeticism of this piece comes from it's ability to relate and be real with the audience, in combination with these philosophical overtures. There is a spirituality and inherent religious aspect most obvious in the African Mother Mary figure, literally a life sized statuary that the women go to touch the heart of for strength. In this way, it would be all too easy for a film like this to become over earnest, yet these blatent religious overtones are firmly grounded by the very real-life emotional experiences that the characters must go through and overcome, lending them power. Even the "Queen Bee" Mother of the house, Miss August, in all her strength, must face the pangs and anguish of the world, but does so as a shining example, in full surrender. Really a remarkable demonstration of how to carry the strength of the masculine and yet be in the compassionate nurturing surrender of the feminine, all as one; a wonderful marriage. This theme is explored again through the sister, June (Alicia Keys),a hardened fierce "masculinized" woman, toting her NAACP wear, emboldened in her independence and refusing to marry. She too is not fully at peace in her exclusively masculinized front and must yield herself vulnerably in her feminine role in order

to finally find joy. In so many ways, they were all looking for their "Mother." And as Lily so pointed out, she could find that solace not rising up to the sky but by going deeper inside of herself.

Perhaps the most remarkable journey too, is through that character of Lily, much praises due to the really tangibly felt and authentic performance from Dakota Fanning who just seems to have immersed herself and really invested herself into this role whole heartedly. Her transformation as a character, learning from these women and standing in her power by the end of the film lent itself to a really strong moment of coming to an understanding of her father and really being present with him, waking him up to his own sobering reality. There are certain moments in films that are not to be forgotten, and this was surely one of them. An example of how the feminine can temper the masculine when it is brought into the full awareness and realization of Self. There is a really beautiful sense of the peace that emerges from this balance and of that coming to an understanding within oneself, which this film really leaves you with.

Having seen this film, and the authenticity in which it was created really brought about in me a profound appreciation for how far we've come as a culture and society since the 60s. It is a rare thing as well to find such a piece where you resonate and deeply care about not just one, but really all of the characters in the film, who each seem to have a life and breath of their own.
The Secret Life of Bees is a true treasure, and is not to be missed.