Archive for April, 2010

Close Encounters with “The Fourth Kind”

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2010 by ericstraus

The “realism” approach to horror films has been a popular trend ever since the success of the “Blair Witch Project.”  Films like “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity” play on the concept of documentary-style horror, where the scares seem more realistic because the audience is witnessing them “first-hand.”  “The Fourth Kind” is another attempt to capitalize on this kind of filmmaking, and is successful in creating a scary, somewhat realistic look at alien encounters.

The film begins with star Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil, The Fifth Element) addressing the audience, explaining that the role she will be playing is based on a real person, and that the film’s scenes are re-creations of actual events.  This concept is supported throughout the film by side-by-side scenes of the re-enactment along with the supposed “real” scenes.  Jovovich plays Abbey Tyler, a psychologist in Nome, Alaska who while under hypnosis from her own therapist, experiences disturbing and emotional visions about the death of her husband.  Nome has been rife with strange disappearances and odd behavior, and part of Abbey’s quest to understand her own problems is to interview people in town who have experienced strange things.  She discovers that all of her subjects have experienced the same vision, though it is unclear if it’s been while dreaming or not.  Abbey then puts her subjects under hypnosis, and that’s when the real frights begin.  Horrific scenes unfold before the hypnotized people, strange voices are heard, and as the audience, we see the “actual footage” of these videotaped hypnosis sessions, along with the recreations by the actors.

Eventually we learn that aliens are involved in the stereotypical fashion of abducting people and conducting painful experiments on them.  But the real fright that we experience as an audience comes from the “actual” hypnotherapy sessions; director Olatunde Osunsanmi does a nice job of convincing us that the videotaped interviews are real.  Seeing Jovovich and the other actors having nightmarish experiences is not scary – seeing the “real” Abbey Tyler’s face contort and voice change into a demonic tone is certainly unnerving.  There is “footage” from a sheriff’s dashboard camera that shows one of the aliens’ victims kill his family and himself because he can’t take the visions and the nightmares, which is a very disturbing scene.

The mystery that unfolds is not all that intriguing – it seems to be based on actual alien abduction stories (the film’s ending credits feature actual 9-1-1 calls from people seeing UFOs along with newspaper headlines about the same); what keeps us riveted to the screen is the progression of the hypnotherapy sessions, and the horrific images contained therein.  If you like a good scare and don’t think that typical slasher films are frightening, you should enjoy this movie.

Final Grade for The Fourth Kind: B

“Ninja Assassin” Acquires its Target

Posted in Action with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by ericstraus

“Ninja Assassin” is geared toward one type of audience: people who think kung-fu movies and ninjas are cool and want to see one hell of a lot of ninja fight sequences.  If this does not appeal to you, you will not enjoy this film.  I, however, think kung-fu movies are fun and ninjas are very cool, which is why I wanted to see this movie.  And I was not disappointed.

Set in the present day and directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta), “Ninja Assassin” tells the story of Raizo, a nearly invincible ninja who betrays the ninja master who had trained him since he was a small child, and now must fend off the other disciples hunting him.  Sung Kang (Fast & Furious, Live Free or Die Hard) stars as Raizo, and we learn through many flashbacks about his cruel and intense training at the orphanage where he was raised (the younger Raizo is played by Korean pop star Rain).  Akin to a military boot camp, Raizo and the other students are subjected to tortuous exercises and painful punishments by their “father,” Ozunu (played by Sho Kosugi).  The only escape his mind gets from this regimen is from a female cohort Kiriko – she shows him the only compassion he would ever experience, and when she is killed for trying to escape the orphanage, Raizo is forever changed.

It’s a story of revenge and a longing for something meaningful in life – but what makes the movie so much fun are the over-the-top, bloody, violent battle scenes.  Heads and limbs are removed from bodies by flashes of ninja swords; ninja throwing stars shoot out of the shadows with machine gun-like speed.  It’s all shot very much like a live-action graphic novel, almost cartoon-ish but still looking realistic enough. 

The “fear of the ninja” mystique is played up in an entertaining fashion, as tough guys cower at the sounds of ninjas dashing around the room, the glint of steel catching their eye just before their blood spouts like a fountain from their chests.  Kang has obviously had extensive training in ninja weaponry, as he wields a large blade attached to a long chain, killing off would-be assassins with the flick of his wrist.

There is no deep message in “Ninja Assassin,” no real emotional character development; it’s simply a slick, fast-paced, action-heavy kung-fu flick with bloody deaths done in creative fashion.  And if that’s up your alley, you will thoroughly enjoy this movie.

Final Grade for Ninja Assassin: B+

The Truth and Lies of “The Informant!”

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Mystery with tags , , , , on April 26, 2010 by ericstraus

In this age of corporate irresponsibility and greed, we tend to view “whistleblowers,” the ones who expose the executives for their wrongdoings, as heroes.  20 years ago, however, the attitude was not quite the same.  This discrepancy is depicted in the Steven Soderbergh film “The Informant!” in which we sympathize at first with a corporate whistleblower until we learn more about his motives and his personality.

Matt Damon stars in this true story about Mark Whitacre, a bio-engineer working on an advisory level for a leading manufacturer of corn-based products like high-fructose corn syrup and lysine.  Whitacre, fearing for his job security after sluggish performance numbers, decides to contact the FBI and disclose that his company is involved in an international price-fixing conspiracy.  Agent Brian Shepard, played by Scott Bakula, heads the case and does all he can to help Whitacre – in return, Whitacre must secretly record his meetings with his superiors and competitors to provide proof of the conspiracy.  But as the film goes on, we begin to see holes in Whitacre’s accounts of things – the FBI and even his own wife begin to question his motives and his truthfulness.  By the end, despite Whitacre’s achievement in exposing the conspiracy, his own illegal activities land him in prison and his lies permeate his professional and personal lives.

The film has elements of being a dark comedy and a mystery thriller; Damon, nominated for a Golden Globe for his work, is quite good at convincing everyone, including us, of things that turn out to be false.  It is refreshing to see him looking very different than his usual Jason Bourne action hero role (he had to pack on a few pounds for the part).  The movie certainly holds your attention for the duration, but it’s not nearly as entertaining by the end as when it starts off.  Whitacre is the focus of the film, and we are in the same boat as his bosses, his wife and the FBI as we learn more details about the cover-up without really knowing the truth.  Whitacre’s self-absorption is made obvious many times throughout as we hear his inner dialogue while he tunes out the various people speaking to him.  And that is where the film succeeds – at first we see Whitacre as a savior, a guy finally doing the right thing despite the public backlash against him once it’s made known about his whistle-blowing.  But as his selfish motives become more apparent, we feel betrayed and less sympathetic to his cause. 

Overall it’s a fairly entertaining account of Whitacre’s story and an interesting view of him both as the real Whitacre and as a movie character.

Final Grade for The Informant!: B-

Coming Attractions

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2010 by ericstraus

Due to some very aggravating technical difficulties, Eric’s Flix Pix is on a brief haitus until we get the projector fixed, so to speak.  But in the near future you can look forward to a review of “The Informant!”, “Ninja Assassin” and “The Fourth Kind.”  In the meantime, please enjoy some staggeringly overpriced popcorn and soda, and try not to feel too bad about the $15 movie ticket you just bought while you sit through 20 minutes of commercials.  See you soon!

“Ponyo” Doesn’t Swim Deep Enough

Posted in Family/Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by ericstraus

Hayao Miyazaki has directed some marvelous Japanese animation films of late – “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke” are all epic masterpieces of imagination and beauty, defined by their creative plots and Shakespearean characters.  Miyazaki’s latest release, “Ponyo,” maintains some of the beauty and whimsy of its predecessors, but is a much shorter, linear tale that fails to really suck you into any kind of fantasy world; perhaps Miyazaki intended to make a film more grounded in reality, but in doing so, the sense of magic and fantasy are severely lessened.

“Ponyo” is roughly based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Mermaid,” in that it tells the story of a fish born with a human face who desires to become completely human.  Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, Miley’s younger sister) gets her name when a young boy named Sosuke (voiced by Frankie Jonas, younger brother of the Jonas Brothers) finds her sleeping in a tidepool.  Sosuke becomes fascinated with the strange creature, and Ponyo becomes enamored with Sosuke.  But Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is a strange human/sea creature hybrid himself, tracks Ponyo down and brings her back home beneath the sea.  Ponyo discovers that she has magical powers and transforms herself into a human, determined to reunite with Sosuke. 

The story doesn’t get much deeper than that, and a lot of the plot seems incomplete.  Eventually Ponyo’s mother shows up (voiced by Cate Blanchett), a goddess of the sea of sorts, and decides that if Sosuke truly loves Ponyo and she him, then Ponyo can remain human.   Sosuke’s father Koichi (Matt Damon) works on a cargo ship and is not home often, causing strife between him and Sosuke’s mother Lisa (Tina Fey), which is resolved by the end of the film.  Fujimoto is bent on keeping Ponyo with him below the waves because he has a strong dislike for the human race, and talks of an apocalypse where the earth will be covered by water, making the universe balanced once again.  But so much is unexplained:  why is Fujimoto the hybrid creature he is?  Why does he hate the human race so?  Why does Ponyo yearn to be human?  Maybe the original Japanese release went into greater depth with the characters – but the film just feels like it flies by without regard to explaining things.

The movie is not without its merits.  Miyazaki does present some stunning visuals, such as Ponyo’s mother taking on a huge shape as she is one with the ocean, or Fujimoto creating magical colors beneath the sea’s surface while encased in a bubble.  As a very short fable, the film does its job.  But the expectation of a Miyazaki film, at least for me, is to really be transported into a fairy tale, to see things unlike anything ever seen, and to simply be entranced.  “Ponyo” does very little of this; perhaps with tempered expectations I would have enjoyed the film more. 

Final Grade for Ponyo: C+

“Up in the Air” Flies High

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2010 by ericstraus

There is a particularly romantic quality about always being on the go, about traveling constantly from one place to another, meeting new people on each airplane and in each hotel.  “Up In the Air” contrasts the romance of this kind of lifestyle with the conventional idea of romance – finding that special someone who you can create a life with…in one location.  It’s a film with a good deal of humor as well as some thought-provoking drama, set in the very relevant era of massive company layoffs.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man with the horrible job of being a corporate thug.  Hired by other companies to terminate their employees, he goes from city to city, conducting face-to-face firings while attempting to spin it as a chance for these poor souls to be re-born, to follow their dreams…to convince them that being laid off is a good thing.  But Bingham has been doing this for so long that he has his speech memorized, he knows how to react no matter what the employee says – he recognizes that people aren’t going to like him, but he seems to genuinely care that they leave with at least a slight amount of optimism in their hearts.

Because of his job, Bingham’s lifestyle is one of going from airport to airport, his “Admiral’s Club” card in hand.  He travels in business class, gets the express registration at hotels – he travels extremely efficiently, and does his job the same way.

During one evening in a nameless hotel bar, he strikes up a conversation with an attractive woman named Alex, played by Vera Farminga (The Departed).  They trade war stories as Bingham learns that she travels nearly as extensively as he does, and they end up in bed together.  It seems that this is not unusual for either of them, as they part ways the next morning but not after checking their schedules to see when they can meet up again.

Bingham’s career is threatened when a young upstart, Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick (New Moon), introduces a new method to their company’s madness.  She proposes terminating employees via a remote video chat, rather than face-to-face, thereby slashing travel budgets and company expenses across the board.  Bingham passionately rejects this proposal, claiming what he does must be done in person and that Keener can’t possibly understand without being on the road herself.  Bingham’s boss Craig, played by Jason Bateman, agrees and instructs Bingham to take Keener with him on his next trip.

Throughout the adventure, Bingham and Alex occasionally meet up, and Keener gets a true education on what it means to lay someone off.  In the end, Bingham’s ideas about love, family and commitment are tested and change through the special relationships that develop between he and Alex, Natalie and even his own family.

There is great dialogue between Bingham and Keener – Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner adapted a marvelous screenplay, nominated for an Oscar, that is clever, funny and touching – though the touching parts could also be called “cheesy.”  Bingham is a man completely opposed to the idea of settling down; he does motivational speaking gigs where he imparts his ideas against carrying lots of emotional weight around with you, be it from family, friends or lovers.  His lack of understanding about these things is hilariously illustrated through his task of toting around a cardboard cut-out of his sister and her fiancée; he was asked to take photos of the couple in the various locations that his travels afforded him, an assignment that he loathes and cannot comprehend, for reasons deeper than the obvious.  His job therefore suits him perfectly – he never gets to know anyone longer than a day, if that, and he can do his job more effectively because he can’t connect to the people he’s firing.  But Alex and Natalie throw everything out of whack, leading him to rethink what it truly important to him.

The first half of the movie really flies (no pun intended) – there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments and entertaining dialogue.  The second half takes on a more serious tone, and drags down the film’s pace and energy.  But the acting is superb – Clooney, Kendrick and Farminga all received Oscar nominations for their roles, and deservedly so.  Kendrick is especially charming as the eager corporate suck-up, trying her best to keep a strong face while her inner emotions begin to overwhelm her.  Clooney is in fine form as well, deadpanning one-liners and then transitioning to someone who never had any emotions to hide, trying to hide them.

“Up in the Air” was also nominated for Best Director for Jason Reitman, as well as Best Picture.  Reitman did a marvelous job of putting us in Ryan Bingham’s world, experiencing the different-but-the-same airports and hotels.  There’s also a terrific shot of Clooney and Farminga standing in line at a non-chain hotel in Wisconsin, waiting to check in.  They are both used to the express check-in lines at the big chains, and when Clooney sees an employee not helping anyone, he asks if she can help them – her reply is that her line is only for their “special club members,” much to Bingham’s ironic disappointment.

If the Oscar Best Picture field had not been widened from 5 to 10 this past year, I’m not sure if this film would have garnered a nomination – but for the most part it’s an enjoyable ride around the country with very likeable characters, smart writing and a good story.

Final Grade for Up in the Air: B+

Enjoying the Long Face of “Red Cliff”

Posted in Action, Drama with tags , , , , on April 6, 2010 by ericstraus

John Woo is arguably the most significant action film director of the last 25 years.  Movies like “A Better Tomorrow,” “Hardboiled,” and his masterpiece “The Killer” have profoundly influenced current North American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Tony Scott.  In the early 90’s, Woo brought his Hong Kong action style to American studios; his first U.S. film was “Hard Target” starring former action star Jean-Claude Van Damm, and he followed that with “ Broken Arrow ” starring John Travolta and Christian Slater.  Both films were not very good, but still carried signature Woo action sequences.  “Face/Off,” with Nicholas Cage and Travolta is, in my opinion, a fun film to watch, despite its ridiculous plot.  The action scenes in that film are really amazing.  But the truth is Woo’s films lost something when he began working for American studios.  His characters and plotlines had Shakespearean qualities; it wasn’t always about the action.  The exception might be “Windtalkers,” again starring Nick Cage…that movie was a lot more character-focused than his other American releases, which includes the terrible “Mission: Impossible 2.”  But the characters in “The Killer” and his other Hong Kong films really brought the audience into his fantasy world; this, in turn, made the action scenes so much more vivid and alive.  His shootouts were highly choreographed dances with bullets and blood.

With “Red Cliff,” Woo returns to the Hong Kong studio and has made an epic war film, attempting to recapture the magic of his earlier works.  This film went completely unnoticed in the U.S. , perhaps due to its 4 hour and 45 minute running time (it comes in two parts on DVD).  But for fans of the old Woo style, with interesting characters and gigantic, elaborate sets, “Red Cliff” is a nice change from the Woo films of the past 20 years.

Taking place during the Han Dynasty in the 200’s A.D., “Red Cliff” tells the story of megalomaniacal Prime Minister Cao Cao who convinces the Han Emperor to give him control of their massive army, in order to wage war against the “rebels” of the South, Sun Quan and Liu Bei.  Liu Bei’s top advisor and strategist Zhuge Liang convinces Liu that the only way to stave off an invasion from the North is to join forces with their rival southern faction, led by Sun Quan.  Zhuge then travels to convince Sun Quan of the same thing.  He succeeds, but then must also convince Sun’s Viceroy Zhou Yu.  Zhuge observes Zhou Yu during a tender moment with a little girl playing a flute, and realizes that Yu is not only a fierce military leader, but has a strong heart.

The alliance is formed, and the rest of the film jumps back and forth between camps, revealing each sides’ strategy and the reaction by the other.  A brief but unnecessary love story develops between a woman from Liu Bei’s side and a warrior on the Prime Minister’s side; friendship is tested and then strengthened between Zhuge and Zhou; and everything culminates with a huge final battle.  Each side has warriors of exceptional skill, but in the end, good conquers evil.

Woo’s style is prominent throughout the film, from the marvelously choreographed sword fights to the sweeping shots of battlefields.  There is a terrific scene with Zhuge and Zhou playing “dueling qins”; a qin is the ancient Chinese stringed instrument, a guitar precursor of sorts:

The scene provides not only an incredible experience, music-wise – all qin music I’d heard in Chinese films before was nothing compared to the way they were being played in this scene…like Clapton and Eddie Van Halen were strumming the strings; but it also symbolizes the bond the two characters create as they contemplate allying their forces together.

It would be hard to not compare “Red Cliff” with another war epic of recent years, the “Lord of the Rings” films.  While Woo’s film lacks the emotional surge felt during the final battle of “The Two Towers” or the epic battle in “Return of the King,” the production values and creative use of sets and war strategy is right on par.  There is a terrific naval battle scene where Zhuge cunningly tricks Cao Cao’s naval forces into “giving up” 100,000 arrows.

The second half of “Red Cliff” is not as engaging as the first half.  Woo did create a 2 ½ version of the entire film, and that may be enough to satisfy American audiences.  But as a purist, I wanted to see the whole vision, and for the most part, it’s worth the time.  Great individual fight scenes, beautiful visual depictions of the horror and chaos of war, and clever battle tactic displays make “Red Cliff” a triumphant return for John Woo, getting back to some of the stylistic and character-driven traits that made his early works so striking and important.

Final Grade for Red Cliff: B