Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Underrated Part 7: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

It is with a degree of shame that we discuss this film: shame because we, like so many, failed to realize what this movie was when it was released.  Indeed, when it was in the theaters last fall, we opted to stay home.  We'd just been to see 9 and didn't feel the need to rush to another CG film.

We'd have been far better off skipping 9 and seeing this instead.  Not only is it a better movie; it turns out it's better science fiction.

If we could offer up one point in our defense it would be this: we had no idea it was SF at all.  Sure, there was a scientist in the commercials, but that hardly earns a movie the badge of science fiction. 

In this case, however, there can be no doubt.

Despite its use of slapstick, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs uses over-the-top and impossible technology as a lens to consider issues and ideas relevant to today.  Plus, they integrate a number of classic images and tropes of the genre; never in a way that breaks the tone or intrudes on the story, but rather in a manner that enhances the experience of watching.

Also, the visuals are beautiful, the jokes are absolutely hilarious, and the characters are fascinating.  All around, this is a great movie.  A great movie with rat-birds.  God, we love the rat-birds.  Even more than the walking television, a brilliant character in his own right.

There are moments when we thought the movie was about to fall apart, when things began pushing the boundary between absurd and wacky.  But, rather than spin out of control, the filmmakers managed to pull things together, no matter how bizarre the situations became.  There's a rule in film making that you never show a loaded gun in the first part without showing it fired.  Well, this is a movie with dozens of loaded guns.  But, instead of guns, they're rat-birds, peanut allergies, and a talking monkey voiced by Neil Patrick Harris.  These aren't throwaway jokes: they're woven into the story.  The resolution is, in part, extrapolated from these elements, but they're only pieces of the puzzle.

So, it's good.  But how good is it?

Allow us to be clear by retracting a statement we made when we reviewed How to Train Your Dragon:
"We are still waiting for a CG movie that's better than Pixar's worst film.  We're waiting for Dreamworks - or anyone else - to make a CG movie that was better than Cars."
It turns out that movie already existed.  We just hadn't seen it yet.  While Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is a long way from movies like Up or Toy Story 3, it's better than Cars or A Bug's Life.  To date, it remains the only non-Pixar CG movie we've seen better than Pixar's worst films.  That's a major achievement for something based on a book everyone - us included - thought shouldn't be adapted in the first place.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movie Review: Inception

Inception is a somewhat insidious film, striking a chord that's difficult to place.  It is familiar, though not easily identifiable.  Elements resonate with numerous genres and films.  It feels almost like a cross between Casino Royale, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and AI.

The movie missing from this list may be the most telling.  It wasn't until hours after seeing it that it occurred to us there were parallels between this and The Matrix.  Indeed, stripped of all else, both films were about the struggle between the competing forces of reality and dreams.  Both delve into the mind and epistemology.

Nevertheless, the two couldn't feel less similar.  In many ways, Inception is the movie that The Matrix wasn't.  Here, the style is understated, subtle, while the concepts take center stage.  It is measured and considered, thoughtful and probing.  It is, from the perspective of the science fiction fan, more pure, less diluted by cheap humor, silly leather, and Keanu Reeves.  Where The Matrix is a SF/action movie, Inception is SF/thriller.

And it's very good.  So good, in fact, it's difficult to imagine any fan of the genre disliking the picture.

However, it's equally hard imagining many loving it.  Inception is the kind of movie that intrigues and engages you.  But it doesn't enthrall or excite.  This is not the kind of movie you watch again and again.

But once or twice more wouldn't hurt.  There are a few moments we'd like to revisit for clarification.

Coming so soon on the heels of Predators, Inception offers the second good science fiction movie in as many weeks, a rare gift.  It's also one of the best spy thrillers we've seen in some time.

On a scale between one and five stars, where five equals Blade Runner, Inception scores four.  This is a far more intelligent film than we're used to seeing in the summer.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Movie Review: Predators

If there was any question before, there is none now.  Last summer was the year of 80s cartoons; this is the summer of 80s action films.  And, as those of us on the east coast are aware, this year it grows hot.

But to say Predators is an 80s action movie does it a disservice.  Predators is what 80s action movies wanted to be but couldn't quite pull off.  It's the platonic ideal of the 80s action movie.

Before it was released, the question being posed was whether Predators was a better movie than Predator 2.  Rather than answer that, we'd rather pose an alternate question.

Was Predators better than the original?

Before answering this, we should pause to reflect on the original Predator, to consider its merits, as well as its weaknesses.  It is certainly a fantastic movie, produced with more ingenuity than money, staring the world's most iconic action star.  It introduced one of science fiction's most famous monsters to the world, and provided a climactic action sequence that remains among the best ever produced.

But it is far from prefect.  The pacing of the original was inconsistent, and, while it used them mercifully sparingly, their were some groan-worthy lines of dialogue.

Predators, in contrast, opens at a breakneck pace.  It offers no unnecessary exposition and no flashbacks of any kind.  Not a single frame of the movie is wasted on planet Earth.  Not a second.  Character interactions are quick and smartly written.  These characters are no deeper or more complex than those in the original, but, by and large, they're far more effective.  With two exceptions, any member of this piecemeal team could have carried the movie.  Those exceptions, incidentally, are not accidental.  The two "odd men out" practically steal the show.

Which brings us to Adrien Brody, a man who, by rights, should never have been cast in an action movie.  He's thin, weak, and timid.  The last person you'd expect to fill Schwarzenegger's shoes.

After watching Predators, we're ready to see Brody cast as Conan.  Only it would be somewhat redundant, as that was more or less the part he played in the film.

Conan.  With an American accent.  And a gun.  Fighting beside several of the world's most badass mercenaries, killers, and soldiers.  Against three brilliant and merciless alien hunters.

Yeah.  It was better than the original.

While the final act of Predators wasn't quite as amazing as the showdown in part one, as a whole it has fewer flaws.  And, start to finish, it's solidly entertaining.  There were a few blatantly CG explosions that we could have done without, but that's hardly worth complaining about.  We were also a bit surprised by how much Predators echoed Pitch Black, though this is more an academic observation than a complaint.

While it was better than the original Predator, it falls short of Alien, which is really the bar SF action/horror is measured by.  Even so, if Alien is a five star picture, Predators deserves four.

Also, we'd like to take a moment to bow to the genius that chose the music that plays at the start of the opening credits.  It hardly seems a stretch to conclude that was probably Rodriguez's call.  While there will likely be some disagreement, we consider it a fantastic decision.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Movie Review: Jonah Hex

Sometimes a brilliant movie comes out that critics simply can't grasp or appreciate.  In recent years, Speed Racer stands as the archetype of such a film.  In other cases, a movie is released that is certainly bad, yet enjoyable nonetheless.  Movies like Ghost Rider fit this bill; neither the critics nor fans of the comic thought much of that picture, and yet we found it entertaining.

Indeed, when we walked into the theater today, Ghost Rider was what we were hoping for: the reviews had been too uniformly bad to hope for more.

Instead, we got another Daredevil.  Jonah Hex failed to live up to the characters potential, failed to utilize its actors, and failed to deliver a level of entertainment beyond what you'd expect from mediocre television.

We should mention now that if you're sensitive to spoilers you should keep reading.  The shock of learning some of the movie's secrets may keep you from seeing the film, and, on your deathbed, no doubt you will think back on the two hours of your life you saved and how you were able to put them to better use.

To truly understand the movie, you need to grasp just one scene.  Just one.  Jonah Hex has tracked an associate of his nemesis to a pit fight, where one of the combatants is a mutant snake-man with acidic spit.

Now, ultimately, the snake-man offers some of the more interesting effects in the movie.  He's quick, brutal, and kind of cool.  He's only on screen for a few seconds, and Hex never fights or interacts with him.  He just knocks the guy he's fighting into the pit then leaves, so we never see the snake-man kill or eat anyone.

Outside, Hex runs across some guys about to kill a dog.  He rescues the dog, and it winds up becoming a slightly more significant character than Megan Fox's.

At no point in any of this is the audience interested or engaged.  Only... confused.  Why is this happening?  Why isn't the snakeman more significant?

Throw these onto the pile of unanswered questions you'll ask.  "How does the 'nation killing machine' work?"  "Why does Hex's spiritual battle occur in a dull, plain desert that's less interesting than where he's physically fighting?"  "Why are these scenes in the movie?"  "What the hell did he just say?"  And, of course, "Why in God's name are we watching this?"

At least it was better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It doesn't matter whether you want to rate this against the best comic book movies or the best westerns: it's not doing better than one and a half stars.

There's some entertainment to be found in watching it fall apart, but that's all it really offers.  If you're interested in what could have been, track down the Batman: The Animated Series episode, Showdown, which features Jonah Hex and Ra's Al-Ghul.  Like Wild Wild West, there are several parallels to that classic episode.  They still haven't gotten it right, though.