Thursday, December 28, 2006

Children of Men

Although Children of Men is centered around the tired idea of a dreary dystopian future, director Alfonso Cuaron has taken an entirely refreshing and amazing approach that will reaffirm your belief in the art of filmmaking. Adapted from a novel of the same name by P.D. James, the film presents the chilling concept of a near-future world where the entire population is infertile. No children have been born in over 18 years, and the adults have lost hope for themselves and their communities. The population stumbles through their daily routines in a rapidly disintegrating infrastructure littered with slums, abandoned schools, and fading dreams.

Clive Owen stars as Theodore Faron, a former activist who has settled into a mundane and secure existence as a cog in a corporate machine. Like most of the population, he drifts through life without any joy or purpose, just taking one day at a time as the clock slowly winds down on the entire human race. He had a child once with his long-ago girlfriend, but lost both of them when the child died. When the girlfriend re-enters his life with a surprising proposition, he’s faced with the decision about whether to remain in his comfort zone or assist her with her dangerous request. Eventually, he chooses to help her transport a refugee woman to a safe destination. He later learns that the woman is miraculously pregnant and expecting delivery within days.

England has become a wasteland, with trash piling up in the streets, deteriorating mass transit vehicles, and crumbling buildings. This bleak society is one of Cuaron’s primary accomplishments, as the production design seems so real that viewers don’t have to make any leap of the imagination to buy the concept. There are a few minor nods to technological advancement, mostly through the use of video billboards and slightly different vehicles, but the tech never detracts from the believability of the environments. Cars look like real production models covered in grime, fashion hasn’t gone off on any wild tangents, and there aren’t any hovercrafts or other futuristic toys to distract viewers. Cuaron’s London isn’t too different from today’s reality, making the film seem chillingly possible rather than absurdly abstract.

The movie’s acting duties rest firmly on Owen’s shoulders, but he’s backed up by a superb supporting cast including Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Moore’s role is far smaller than expected, making her exit all the more surprising and powerful. Caine gets the most mileage out of his brief role as an aging, slightly comical hippie, seemingly relishing the chance to play against his usual reserved type. Ejiofor isn’t given much material in his role as an activist leader, but contributes a fairly solid performance.

Another one of Cuaron’s key accomplishments is the bravura camerawork throughout the film. He could have settled for standard camera setups with multi-angle coverage and cuts, but instead designed some fascinating one-take scenes that will be studied in film schools for decades to come. One scene finds the protagonists traveling by car until they encounter an angry mob and quickly retreat in reverse gear, which doesn’t sound all that special except that the camera appears to be in the car, constantly moving from passenger to passenger to capture their dialogue at the right times as well as all of the action outside of the car. Every seat in the car was occupied, leaving even less room for maneuverability and more room for amazement. It’s reminiscent of a similar scene in War of the Worlds, but seemingly more real and thus more impressive.

The showcase one-take scene finds Owen and his compatriots struggling through a warzone as violence erupts all around them, including their temporary apprehension by pursuers, their harrowing separation, and Owen’s valiant effort to find his way back to them as he enters and climbs a building teeming with refugees under fire from military tanks. Blood gets splattered on the lens near the latter part of the lengthy run and stays there, enforcing the concept that we’re right there in the thick of things. Like this scene, much of the film was shot with handheld cameras, giving it an immediacy that forcefully involves the audience. The camerawork is completely stunning and worth the price of admission alone, but thankfully the story supports the effort as well.

The script defies expectations at every turn. Long-lost loves usually lead to rekindled flames, but this reconciliation takes a surprising turn. Good guys become bad guys, keeping us off-balance as we try to determine the resolution. The protagonist doesn’t spend time bemoaning his past to gain our sympathy, doesn’t befriend anyone or have any emotional breakthroughs. The final goal is clearly stated, but its resulting outcome isn’t explicitly defined. In short, there’s enough ambiguity and peripheral information that the overarching story feels like glorious, messy reality rather than sterile, linear fiction.

High concepts have a high probability of misfire, but Cuaron has perfected his vision of the future by focusing entirely on the reality rather than the fantasy. In turn, he has delivered a captivating, thrilling tale that transcends its source material and approaches instant classic status.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Curse of the Golden Flower

2006 opened with the opulent but soulless The Promise by vaunted Chinese Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige, and now closes with the equally confounding Curse of the Golden Flower by Chen contemporary Zhang Yimou. No other Asian release has arrived with greater anticipation or talent this year, especially due to the potent combination of writer/director Zhang and his original muse, superstar actress Gong Li, reteaming for the first time in over a decade.

Zhang retooled the framework of stylized historical epics with the colorful, action-packed Hero, which benefited from a reasonably strong story in spite of its Rashomon-like structure. He followed up with the less cohesive but equally vibrant House of Flying Daggers, then retreated from those large-scale efforts to return to his roots with the small, simple, and satisfying Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, proving that he hadn’t abandoned his small-time beginnings after a taste of big-budget spectacle. Zhang clearly still knows how to spin a powerful tale, so it’s all the more distressing that the story is given such short shrift in his new film.

Gong Li plays the icy wife to the equally cold and calculating emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) as they raise their three sons in their luxurious, unbelievably ostentatious palace. There’s clearly no love lost between the two, although there’s plenty of illicit love between Gong and her stepson, the crown prince. The prince is also getting some action on the side from a palace worker, who happens to be the daughter of the chief palace doctor, who happens to be married to a woman with a mysterious past that disrupts the entire balance of power when revealed. Got all that? There’s more, and the twisted relationships of the royals and their subjects add plenty of head-scratching to the proceedings as viewers try to keep everything straight. It’s family drama on a grand scale, so fans hoping for a higher volume of action set-pieces like Hero are bound to be bitterly disappointed.

While the entire film is an absolutely eye-popping display of vibrant color, gorgeous costumes and scenery, it ultimately feels just as empty as the lives of its cloistered royals. Their mutual deceit and plotting for selfish gains grows tiresome rather than interweaving into a fulfilling denouement, resulting in little emotional payoff by the time all the revelations, traps and countermeasures have been played.

Aside from a couple of minor fights, Chow’s role requires little more than glowering at his dysfunctional family. Gong fares a bit better, but is largely confined to quaking uncontrollably to silently express her rage and sorrow rather than having the chance to expound upon her emotional state. It’s understandable that the royals are expected to maintain their composure, but also off-putting as we miss the chance to fully explore their motivations or reactions.

In spite of its writing deficiencies, the film is worth watching simply for the sheer beauty and scale of its spectacle. The stunning look of the film just begs to be experienced on the largest screen possible. The palace grounds are frequently filled with thousands of subjects, culminating in a bloody battle as massive as anything in Lord of the Rings. The limited action sequences are overflowing with fighters, especially a bravura scene seemingly filled with dozens of ninja-like warriors simultaneously descending from the sky on ropes as they decimate an outlying province. The ornate palace and costumes are hyper-real constructs that bear little historical accuracy but immense visual satisfaction, veritable explosions of color and fine detail unlike anything ever seen before. And finally, the opportunity to see Zhang direct fellow legends Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat together onscreen is reason enough to give the film a pass, even if they never get the chance to fully show what they can offer. Enjoy the film for its epic production values, just be wary of its confusing and uninvolving plot.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Happy Tree Friends - Season 1 Volume 1

The Happy Tree Friends are a bunch of cute, cuddly cartoon characters doomed to horrendous torture and death in every episode. Similar to Itchy & Scratchy from The Simpsons or Kenny from South Park, the characters serve no real purpose other than to die in extremely creative and hysterically funny ways. This new DVD collection gathers nine of their newest adventures as broadcast on the G4 television network.

The show started out as a Web phenomenon that spawned previous DVD collections of their early outings and numerous marketing tie-ins due to their candy-colored cuteness factor. Nothing really changed during their move to G4, except that each episode runs roughly seven minutes as opposed to the three-minute average of their original webisodes. Due to their late night scheduling on the little-seen G4 channel, the DVD release is the best way for the masses to catch these new episodes.

Each episode begins with the Friends peacefully going about their daily routines until something goes terribly awry, such as a runaway rollercoaster or a gigantic snowball barreling through town. Characters are generally of the gentle woodland creature variety, including a rabbit, beaver, squirrel, skunk, and moose, making their vicious torture all the more sadistic. The characters eventually lose their limbs, their faces, get impaled, exploded, and ripped to pieces, generally resulting in no survivors by the end of each cartoon.

The humor comes entirely from the devious and inventive ways the characters die, typically cascading from one simple accident to a massive horror of Biblical proportions. For example, when a baby gets stuck in a kitchen sink, there’s no question that the garbage disposal will come into gruesome use, but there’s also no way to predict that baby and father will eventually end up plummeting off a gigantic waterfall after a prolonged extraction attempt. None of the characters really talk, so the comedy is universal for all fans of its over-the-top brand of dismemberment. Buckets of blood are spilled in every episode, leading to the creative disclaimer that the show is “not recommended for small children or big babies”.

The show is best in small doses, but the nine episodes presented here still feel a bit brief for DVD collection. A few extras are provided, mostly showing life behind the scenes of the creators in their studio but not really offering much enlightenment into the creative process. While the DVD is worth it for rabid fans of the show who can’t wait to own the newest adventures, patient fans might want to hold out for the inevitable box set of the full season.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Architect

The Architect has an interesting core concept, but buries it under implausible and uninteresting subplots that doom the picture to obscurity. Anthony LaPaglia stars as a successful veteran architect presented with a plan to destroy one of his early designs: project housing in the 'hood that has become a haven for crime in the intervening years. This creates an intriguing dilemma for him as he's faced with the decision of whether to protect his creation and artistic vision or embrace the moral and popular movement to destroy it. It's a great launching point for an insightful look into a number of topics including race relations, art vs. morality, and nature vs. nurture, but the film largely bypasses any attempt to explore the basic idea and instead detours into family drama.

LaPaglia's family consists of his frigid, neurotic wife, his seemingly normal son and a daughter with major daddy issues. His wife is played by a completely miscast Isabella Rossellini, exhibiting absolutely no chemistry with him or even any believability that there could have ever been any chemistry. She spends her days moping around the house with nothing to do, apparently to gain our pity about how bad she has it as a pampered housewife living in luxury. She could completely disappear from the film and not be missed in the least.

His son seems fairly balanced at first, but when he learns about dad's project housing problem he heads out to explore it for himself and ends up exploring his sexuality instead. As he enters the ghetto, he's almost immediately approached by a totally unbelievable character: a sensitive young man from the housing project who just naturally assumes that the son is looking for gay love and continues to help him even when advised that he's not. This kid listens to corny rock, likes men, and hangs out with the white boy, but we're supposed to believe that he's able to exist seemingly unscathed in his hardcore, crime-ridden environment. The resolution to this subplot comes completely out of left field, definitely resolving the storyline but certainly not providing any satisfaction or logic.

And then there's LaPaglia's daughter, played by rising star Hayden Panettiere (NBC's Heroes). Panettiere’s character has come to an age where she's ready to explore her sexuality, which in her case involves sneaking into a bar, hitting on the first and second sketchy guys who pay her any interest, then hitching a ride in bachelor number two's big rig. We're expected to believe that he refuses her advances during a tearful interlude that has her uttering priceless dialogue along the lines of "why don't you think I'm pretty enough to have sex with?" It's brutal, but it gets even worse.

Once she's safely back home, and completely out of any context, dad enters her bedroom to proclaim that he thinks he might have touched her inappropriately earlier in her life. She nonchalantly acknowledges it, and dad exits her room. Huh? The film hinted at some impropriety, mostly through her Lolita-esque sexual exploration, but just dropping that bombshell out of the blue and then returning to business as usual completely obliterates any attempt at reason or resolution. On the upside, Panettiere makes the most of her confusing role, putting in another strong performance in her blossoming career.

As if we didn't have our hands full enough with LaPaglia's family drama, the head of the movement to destroy the housing project also has her own family issues. Viola Davis brings a subdued strength to her role as the resident fighting for change, but her character isn’t given much to do in the film. Just in case we had any doubt about her motivation for destroying her home, her daughter blatantly explains to her and the audience that the home is a bitter reminder of Davis’s dead son and she just wants to bury the area for selfish reasons, not any moral crusade. This unnecessary revelation is another example of the clumsy writing and direction that negate any goodwill generated by the solid performances of Davis, LaPaglia, and Panettiere.

Since the subplots are mishandled so badly, it's no surprise that the potentially interesting main plotline is also fumbled. When LaPaglia is first approached by Davis with the request to sign her petition to destroy the projects, she tells him that Oprah already signed it. Hey, he's the creator, but who cares when a world famous celebrity has already blessed the movement? When he later makes his final decision regarding the petition, we learn more surprising news indicating that his input was never really required. If his decision didn't matter, what was the point of the film? It could be argued that the object was the journey of self-discovery, not the destination, but the character engaged in precious little soul-searching or resulting enlightenment for the audience, so this journey wasn't worth taking.

The film was based on an earlier play and seemingly gains nothing by its move to the screen. It’s currently in limited theatrical release in direct conjunction with its DVD release, so interested viewers have their choice of screening forum.

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Monday, December 11, 2006


Pixar has had an untarnished string of box office triumphs, but the chief creative force of their initial success has been absent from the director's chair for seven years. John Lasseter finally took the reins again for Cars, and while there was little question that the film would succeed with him at the helm, there was also little chance that he would deviate from the formula he created.

Cars tells the story of young hotshot racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as he learns valuable life lessons on his way to fame and glory. He starts off the film as a brash, headstrong youngster ready to take on the racing world by himself before hitting an unexpected detour into a small, forgotten town called Radiator Springs. The nearly deserted town is populated by colorful locals blissfully happy with their lives in the slow lane. Through plot contrivances, McQueen finds himself stuck in the town as a virtual prisoner until he completes tasks assigned by the crotchety leader, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). This sets up McQueen's forced appreciation of the little things in life, the importance of friendship, and listening to his elders.

About that story though, it seems very familiar. Let’s see: a cocky new model runs into a group of misfits who exist in their own isolated microcosm and teach him to appreciate friendship and the simple way of life. I liked it better when it was called Toy Story. The plot is extremely straightforward and shopworn, and it's stretched to the ungodly length of nearly two hours, but somehow Lasseter still manages to imbue enough magic in the film's surroundings that it's worth the trip. From tiny VW bugs buzzing around the town like flies, to scenic drives through gorgeous wide-open countryside, to the foibles of each of the town's quirky residents, Lasseter brings the car world to life as a fully-formed creation that feels lived-in and real.

There's only so much he can do with cars though, and that highlights the biggest weakness of the film. While every other title in the Pixar library has mass appeal, the subject matter of cars, especially related to NASCAR racing, immediately limits the potential audience. It's not really a racing picture at its heart, but the marketing campaign clearly highlights the racing action and downplays the core Radiator Springs story. It's hard to imagine little Suzie or her mother having any interest in a Lightning McQueen toy, no matter how likeable and flexible he may appear in the film. Large swaths of this country won't relate to the racing or the small town life. And how do you explain and sell US car culture to the rest of the world? No matter how good the story and characters are, the film had a tremendous liability from the initial concept and smacks of being primarily a passion project for Lasseter.

In addition to the retread story, there’s another Pixar hallmark regrettably still in play: big googly eyes on all of the characters. They’re less round than normal since they’re technically all windshields, but they give the characters a Playskool feel when many of us are tired of the norm and ready to move up to Hot Wheels. One of the most refreshing things about The Incredibles was that it didn’t seem like a Pixar film, largely due to the more mature subject matter and the toned-down eyes. There’s nothing wrong with chasing the kids market, but we already have more than enough talking animal pictures crowding that segment while the “grown-ups” get nothing except occasional niche Japanese imports. Pixar has the best technical and creative skills in the business, so it’s discouraging to see them take a step backwards here rather than really advancing what can be accomplished with an animated film.

The DVD highlights Pixar’s strength and experimentation in animated shorts through the inclusion of the stellar One Man Band. It’s completely wordless, conveys a simple story, and relies on sight gags, but the presentation is so non-Pixar that it’s a revelation of the goodness that can still come out of the studio. The short has a unique art style that looks almost painted, and the character designs look nothing like Pixar creations, exactly the type of innovative approach they should embrace for a full-length feature. The rest of the DVD extras are fairly standard and uninspired, including a so-so new Cars short from Lasseter along with brief features on the inspiration for Cars.