Friday, April 27, 2012

A.I. Artificial Intelligence Movie Review

As I often say, I don’t like categorizing films according to genre. It’s an oversimplified way of describing a film and it tends to undermine any movie that doesn’t have a clear cut category into which it fits. There isn’t a lot of genre blending when Sci-Fi is involved, but Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is an unusual blend of Sci-Fi and drama. I think that’s why some people were put off by it. Generally we go to a Sci-Fi movie to see explosions, action, aliens, and special effects. A.I. does have some amazing special effects, but it’s a character-driven drama first and foremost.
 In the future, the human race reaches the point of creating realistic robots (called mechas). One of the mecha-producing companies builds David (Haley Joel Osment), the first child mecha and the first to have real feelings; particularly a never-ending love for his human “mother,” Monica (Frances O'Connor). David was meant to be a substitute son while her real son is in cryo-stasis with an incurable disease. David lives happily with Monica and her husband, until their real son returns home after a cure is discovered. Rivalry arises between the two boys and they compete for Monica’s affection. Eventually Monica decides to return David to his manufacturer to be decommissioned to prevent any further problems. But Monica has become so attached to David that she sends him out on his own to prevent his destruction. Child-like David decides that if he can find the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio (a story Monica once told him) that he can become a real boy and win back Monica’s love. With the help of Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a male prostitute mecha on the run after being framed for murder, David sets out on a journey to earn Monica’s love again.
A.I. was originally the concept of Stanley Kubrick who later turned it over to Steven Spielberg. After Kubrick passed away, Spielberg finished the project as a tribute to his deceased friend and colleague. Kubrick is known for making bleak movies while Spielberg is known for making happier movies; both writing styles are manifest in A.I., creating some interesting thematic contrasts. We see cold, creepy mechas who look and act similar to humans, but can’t replicate genuine human behavior; compared to genuine love between family members. There is innocent child-like nature and domestic bliss, which differs from the gritty harshness of the world outside where mechas are treated with hate and mistrust by some. These contrasting elements make for an interesting and diverse setting. I think the overall theme of A.I. is that humans are unique, diverse, special, and impossible to replace.
On the one hand, David is remarkably adorable and endearing, but on the other hand there’s something disquieting about him as well. This is a different sort of character that Osment plays from his famed role in The Sixth Sense (1999), and he plays the part brilliantly. One of the subtle things that makes this character so eerie is you never see him blink; this was an aesthetic suggestion that young Osment made to Spielberg. You want to empathize with the lovable David, but we are constantly reminded that he is not real. We (and David’s “mother”) are projecting emotions onto a machine that is only able to simulate emotion, but not perfectly. In the end, I’m still not sure if this artificial being is someone I should relate to or feel sympathy for, almost like an old computer I don’t need any more. I liked the computer, but the machine and I didn’t have an emotional bond. Nevertheless, I tear up at the end A.I. every time I see it.
 A.I. Artificial Intelligence breaks away from our expectations of Sci-Fi and presents us with a drama, not an action movie. I think that divergence is off-putting to some viewers. There’s also several points in the movie where it could have ended, but kept on going. The actual ending is touching, I think. There are themes and directing styles that were influenced by both Kubrick and Spielberg, which make it fascinating to watch if you’re a film connoisseur like me. I’ve got a copy on my movie shelf next to some other favorites of mine. I think this movie would be alright for younger audiences (maybe 10+), though it may raise some awkward questions such as “What does ‘Gigolo’ mean?”

What is your favorite robot movie? It could have good robots or bad robots. Comment below and let me know!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Secret of Kells Movie Review

It seems that a lot of people think that animated movies are targeted exclusively towards small children, and consider all animated movies to be “Disney Movies.” Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on animated movies, nor are animated movies exclusively intended for small children. It’s so nice to come across a good animated movie that is not made by Disney, Warner Brothers, or Dream Works. Such movies are hard to come by, but are worth searching for more often than not. The Irish-French-Belgian foreign film The Secret of Kells (2009) was a great find!
The story is set in the eighth century and gives a fictionalized account of the creation of the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels in Latin. Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is obsessed with building a protective wall around the early-Christian Abbey of Kells to protect it from marauding Viking raiders. When master illuminator (an old term for illustrator) Aidan of Iona (Mick Lally) arrives at the monastery, Abbot’s young nephew Brendan (Evan McGuire) is fascinated by Aidan and the unfinished book he brings with him. Aidan allows Brendan to help work on the book by sending Brendan beyond the walls of the Abbey and into the forest beyond to collect a specific kind of berries to make brilliant green ink. Having never set foot outside the Abbey walls, Brendan becomes lost. He is rescued by a fairy girl named Aisling (Christen Mooney) who helps him along the way. With barbarian Vikings closing in, can Brendan’s determination and artistic vision illuminate the darkness, and show that enlightenment is the best fortification against evil?
This really is a neat story. It’s brimming with Irish legend and mythology. Several characters and places were real people and location. Look up Abby of Kells and the Book of Kells; they really do exist. Aidan of Iona was also a real person. Even Aidan’s pet cat, Pangur Bán, is based on an old Irish poem written by a monk about his cat. Stick around during the closing credits, a verse from this poem is read. Brendan has to face Crom Cruach, deity of Irish mythology whose worship is said to have been ended by St. Partick. Aisling is a forest spirit with abilities drawn from Irish fairy tales. There’s so much culture and history imbued within the story, and it makes the movie fascinating! It reminds me of an Irish version of Disney’s Mulan (1998) which was heavily based on Chinese legend and mythology.
Since The Book of Kells is essentially the first four Gospels of the New Testament, the movie had ample opportunity to become religious and preachy. I could see that not settling well with some viewers. Really, the only religious elements in the movie are some crosses seen around the monastery. The content of Aidan’s book isn’t even specifically discussed, but is established to be important for enlightenment though not the Christian religious creed specifically. The movie focused on the history and mythology, not religiosity.
I cannot speak highly enough about the animation in this film. It has stylized 2-D animation overflowing with fascinating little detail. The real Book of Kells is teeming with decorations in the margins, and I think the animators tried to capture that style in The Secret of Kells. The colors are brilliant and the details were astonishing. Many scenes had patterned borders that are magnificent to look at. There are some scenes that are so captivating that I became annoyed when the scene changed because I wasn’t done looking at the pretty images! The animation is art that is meant to be admired, not merely to express a story through visuals.
The Secret of Kells was so good. It was graphically stunning and so captivating to watch. The story is highly interesting and heralds back to old mythologies, legends, and real world histories. I’d love to get a copy of this on Blu-Ray. Young children as well as mature adults will enjoy this film, I’m sure. The humor and action coupled with the stunning animation will surely captivate audiences of all ages.

Watch the trailer and see how stunning this animation is in action.

What are some legends or mythologies that you would love to see used in a movie? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Moneyball Movie Review

I’m normally not one to patronize sports movies. A couple of them have been quite good, provided the sport itself isn’t the main focus. The Sandlot (1993) is about learning how to make friends and the bond that friendship brings. Remember the Titans (2000) is about overcoming prejudice and racism. Both are great movies. Miracle (2004) is about playing hockey at the Olympics. It was also good, but I couldn’t get into it because hockey was the main driving factor in the movie. Along comes Moneyball (2011), directed by Bennett Miller. I wasn’t very excited about it; but it did star Brad Pitt, so I gave it a shot.
Based on a true story set in 2002, the Oakland A’s General Manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), is faced with an unfavorable financial situation. His budget doesn’t allow him to get good players for his team, resulting in poor performance that jeopardizes the future of the Oakland A’s. After discovering and hiring Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Yale economics graduate, the two formulate a new approach towards scouting and analyzing players. Using statistics, probabilities, and objective evidence they acquire three baseball players no one else wants. This is met with lots of negative criticism from the team’s owner, the recruiters, and Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the Athletics' manager. The season starts out rough, since Howe isn’t playing the team according to Beane’s plan . When Beane’s plan is finally implemented, it sets the A’s on an unprecedented winning streak.  If Beane’s innovative managing style works, he will have changed the game of baseball forever.
Moneyball follows several underdog sports movie tropes: finding the right players to win the game, the right way to coach the ragtag group, emotional stuff, building confidence among the players, etc. Every sports movie has this stuff in it. What’s so interesting about it in Moneyball is that it is all shown from the business, managerial perspective. All of these things are related to numbers, money, statistics, job security, business transactions with other teams, and whether or not it all fits into the allotted budget. It makes you believe the game is played by the dexterous, but is won by the poindexterous.
That could take the magic out of the game and possibly the drama out of a sports movie. But make no mistake, this movie was very dramatic and exciting. You really get a feel for Billy Beane’s character and understand why wining the World Series is so important to him. Because of that, you empathize with his budget plight and his stresses about the negativity and antagonism he receives every step of the way. The story really is all about Billy Beane and his radical business decisions. In order to remain a good manager, he makes a point of not mingling with the team he manages very much so he can remain as objective as possible. He really is an interesting, strong person that is fascinating to watch in action.
One of the best parts of the movie was the dialogue. Every interaction between characters seems very natural. I may as well have been a fly on the wall during real sports business interactions. Everything seemed so realistic and very dramatic. The dialogue was rich, yet filled with sports terminology that goes over my head. I’m just not a sports person. Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of baseball will have no trouble. In spite of my sports ineptitude, such dramatic tension was built up in the office and on the game field such that when important plays were made I got goose bumps!
You don’t need to be a sports fan to appreciate Moneyball. It’s well acted, exquisitely written, well directed, and will keep you engaged even if you don’t know diddlysquat about baseball. If you do know diddlysquat about baseball, it will be all the better. Moneyball is the first baseball movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (Oscar) since Field of Dreams (1989) twenty-two years earlier. It’s that good. I think the movie would bore younger viewers since there is little actual baseball in this baseball movie. I probably won’t get a copy of this myself, but it is worth owning if you enjoy baseball or sports movies in general.

What is your all time favorite sports movie? I mean “real sports” movie; not Harry Potter because it had Quidditch in it. Comment below and tell me why you like it so much!

Friday, April 13, 2012

28 Days Later Movie Review

Danny Boyle is responsible for some great and critically acclaimed films which include 127 Hours (2010) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Once, while discussing zombies with friends, I was shamed for not having seen Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). Apparently you can’t discuss zombies with any kind of authority without having seen it. I managed to see it recently; now I can talk about zombies.
British animal liberation activists break into a laboratory in Cambridge to free some chimpanzees being used for medical research. A scientist begs them not to free the chimps because they are infected with a virus that causes rage. He is ignored and the chimps escape. Twenty-eight days later, a young man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma, alone, and in an abandoned hospital. He wanders out to find London completely empty. Jim draws the attention of some zombie-like humans who begin chasing after him. He’s rescued by Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) who explain about the rage virus and how it has decimated the country in a matter of days. They meet up with man named Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) who are following a radio broadcast promising a cure for the virus. When they reach the source of the radio, they find some corrupt renegade military personnel, lead by Major Henry West (The Doctor Christopher Eccleston). The military platoon quickly proves as much a threat as the rage-zombies.
Zombies have become such a common theme in movies, literature, comic books, and video games that I’m starting to wonder why people in zombie movies don’t seem to know what zombies are when they see them. I know several real people who have zombie survival strategies planned out, yet no one in movies or video games ever seems to have heard of zombies.
I don’t recall hearing the word “zombie” in 28 Days Later. I think that’s a good thing; actually calling them “zombies” would have weakened the movie and made it seem cliché. The infected weren’t your average zombies. They weren’t shambling, decomposing corpses; they were awake, alert, and filled with uncontrollable rage. The rage virus had more of a psychological effect than a physiological one. This seemed like a modern metaphor for social rage (road rage, air rage, etc). Rather than having a virus that kills victims and turns them into monsters, the virus amplifies something negative that is already in each and every person to levels beyond their control. Having the existing negative qualities deteriorate us into monsters is much more disquieting, I think.
Good science fiction makes commentary on contemporary issues in a unique, metaphorical way. The drive behind classic zombie movies revolved around fear of nuclear power and its possible ramifications. I think the rage-virus is more applicable to this generation; society seems much more frightened of disease than of nuclear power. Just think of the real world reactions to anthrax bioterrorism, the bird flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, and foot-and-mouth disease. Does a viral outbreak really terrify us these days more than a nuclear holocaust?
I could go on about the social commentary derived from this excellent film, but how does it stand as a zombie movie? Pretty darn well. Even if you just want to watch a movie about a few people struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse, 28 Days Later is a good movie to watch. It’s got a fairly small cast which gives the movie ample amount of time to develop the characters into people we care about. We even see them spiral downward from a civilized state into a survivalist mentality that doesn’t differentiate them much from the rage-zombies they are trying to avoid, even without becoming infected. And there is plenty of blood splattering gore to appease fans of zombies and the horror genre.
Parts of 28 Days Later are so obviously cheap that it is sometimes distracting. A lot of the sets were claustrophobically small; there even was a scene filmed with a Canon XL1 digital camcorder that anyone could get on However, in spite of its low production budget, the movie is so well executed that you can’t help but get drawn into it. You become aware of how cheap the movie is only fleetingly, and then get sucked back into the film right away.
This movie is really great; Zombie mayhem, some excellent actors portraying good characters, social allegory, suspense, and fun, unabashed violence. I wouldn’t recommend this to younger audiences; the imagery gets pretty intense. I cringed watching it and occasionally had to hide under my zombie-proof blanket. 28 Days Later was a fun zombie flick to watch and was highly satisfying. I’m looking for a copy on Blu-Ray for my shelf.

There are lots of types of zombies in movies and video games. What’s your favorite kind and where are they from? Comment below; let’s talk zombies!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Zoom: Academy for Superheroes Movie Review

I love watching all kinds of movies. I know there are movies made that are campy and cheesy, but are still fun and entertaining to watch. I can think of several fun superhero movies like that. Zoom (2006) is not one of these films. Even for a ridiculous superhero movie,Zoom was excruciating to watch. It was so bad that I occasionally found myself watching my sleeping cat; watching him do nothing was much more entertaining than it was watching this movie.
Dr. Grant (Chevy Chase) discovers that a super villain named Concussion (Kevin Zegers) is making his way back through the space-time continuum to our dimension to destroy the world. General Larraby (Rip Torn)  decides to form a new Zenith Team, a team of superheros, to fight Concussion. The only remaining member of the original Zenith Team is washed out Jack Shepard (Tim Allen), also known as Captain Zoom. Shepard is called in to train the new Zenith Team with the help of Dr. Marsha Holloway (Courtney Cox), a big fan of Zoom who only knew him through the comic books written about him. A group of four kids with special powers are gathered; Dylan West (Michael Cassidy), a 17-year-old boy who can become invisible; Summer Jones (Kate Mara), a 16-year-old girl with telekinesis; Tucker William (Spencer Breslin), a 12-year-old boy with the power to enlarge any part of his body; and Cindy Collins (Ryan Newman), a six-year-old girl with super strength. General Larraby wants to enhance the powers of the kids with Gamma-13 radiation, even though it is the same thing that turned Concussion evil. It's a race to prepare the kids to work as a team and master their powers, but Shepard's bitter and sarcastic attitude only complicates things as Concussion draws ever nearer.
This was one of the most poorly written films I have seen in a long time! I'm fairly certain that the writers have never read a comic book, or seen a superhero movie. It's as though they browsed around Wikipedia for 10 minutes collecting all the superhero buzzwords they could find and stuck them into the Zoom script wherever they thought it made grammatical sense. Here is a line from Dr. Grant early in the movie: “We've been tracking a pan-dimensional anomaly that seems to be moving toward our time-space continuum.” None of that makes sense! I'm not demanding realistic science or anything, but even if you're using fantasy science (as many superhero stories do) it should at least make some kind of sense. The movie doesn't even explain how they conclude that this pan-dimensional anomaly is a harbinger of a specific super villain. Another thing about the script that really bothered me was  General Larraby insists on getting awkward, socially outcast kids. Why? Why wouldn't you want already trained professional adults to grant super powers to? And even if they needed to be children, why get social outcasts and awkward ones? Some scenes were added to appease younger viewers, like playing baseball and having dances in a secret government lab. None of the military officers or scientists seem to think this is a bad idea even though they know what is at stake. I'm not even sure anyone bothered reading the script before production began; the writing is awful! It's the kind of script only a flamethrower could improve.
Characters can be pretty easy to get wrong, but it's almost as if creating good characters for Zoom was avoided at all costs. The kids were quarrelsome, there was an undeserved romantic interest between Summer and Dylan and another between Shepard and Dr. Holloway. Shepard was even more juvenile than the children were. General Larraby refused to tell them, without a good reason, why they were being trained. In fact, we're given reason to suspect Larraby of being a villain himself, but he isn't. The characters had kind of an X-Men style set up, except that the lead superheros were all brats and Professor X was an immature loser. Then, when they do manage to get their act together, they decide that they aren't just friends, they are family! All of these children already have a family; they aren't orphans. They didn't have something missing in their lives that needed to be filled, they didn't come from a bad family environment and were seeking a paternal figure elsewhere; they simply put up with one another long enough to be able to work together for about 10 minutes.
I think the producers (and us viewers) were hoping that since Tim Allan skillfully made fun of one genre he should be able to do it again. Galaxy Quest (1999) was good, but Zoom was not. For the love of sanity, DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE! Destroy any copies you find! Hide your kids! Hide your wife! Protect your children from this insulting drivel! Watch your pet cat sleep instead; it's a much better use of your time.

What are some of the worst superhero movie you've ever seen? Zoom is easily one of the worst, but have you seen one that was even more horrible? Comment below, let me know!