Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Summer Movie Wrap-Up

It's been a long time since I've posted any movie reviews, mainly because I've been working a lot lately and just haven't had time to see many films, but also because this was one of the most dismal summers at the movies in years.

There were a few bright spots to be found among the dreck however.

Inception

Inception is the latest movie from fanboy favorite director Christopher Nolan, who so successfully revitalized the Batman franchise in recent years.

Inception is a rare breed at the theaters this summer: an original film. It’s not a sequel or remake or based on an existing property, and should be applauded for that if for nothing else.

The best thing about it is that it’s got audiences talking again, actually discussing the movie. When’s the last time that happened? For the longest time now I’ve seen audiences file into the theater, sit quietly (more or less) through the movie, then silently file out when it’s over, never to think of it again. It’s nice to have a movie that actually spurs conversation.

It’s also nice to have to actually pay attention to a movie and be required to think about it.

The plot is pretty complicated to explain, but if I had to boil it down into one sentence, it’s a heist movie set in the dream world.

The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a man who makes a somewhat illegal living by entering the dreams of others, discovering their innermost secrets, then stealing and delivering those secrets to interested parties. For a price, of course.

Dom and his partner (played by the awesome Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are approached by a client and convinced to do “one last job.” But what a job it is. Their client, a Mr. Saito, has a business competitor named Fischer who stands to inherit his father’s mega-corporation. Saito wants Cobb and his team to enter Fischer’s mind and implant the idea to dissolve the company, thereby eliminating the competition. Implanting an idea is called “inception,” and everyone believes it’s impossible. Everyone except Cobb, of course.

The rest of the film concerns Cobb and his team as they enter Fisher’s mind and try to implant the idea. This involves several levels of dreams, as they enter Fisher’s dream, then convince him to sleep and begin dreaming within that dream, and so on. In all, there are 4 different levels of dreams. In a cool twist, we find out that time flows differently in the various dream levels. The farther down you go, the slower time moves, so that 5 minutes in the real world equals 5 years in dream level 3.

It’s all very complex, but as I said I was completely and utterly amazed at how easy it was to understand. The various characters are stationed in the different dream levels, but it’s easy to figure out where everyone is and how they relate to one another. I don’t know how Nolan accomplished this, but I wish he’d share his secret with the rest of Hollywood.

Inception should also be applauded for not overly relying on CGI effects. Oh, there's CGI in the movie of course, but a surprising amount of the effects were practical, shot live as they happened, just like in the old days.

I also liked the fact that the script didn't bog things down with technobabble explanations. Cobb and his team have a little machine that they hook themselves into, which enables them to enter the dreams of others. How the machine works is never explained, and it's really not important. It just does, and that's all that we need to know.

One thing I’d like to point out: Hollywood absolutely LOVES the whole “dream within a dream” concept. You know, a character experiences something horrible, then wakes up and says, “Whew, than goodness that was all a dream,” and then a monster rises up next to him and he realizes he’s still dreaming. For the record, I have never in my life dreamed I was dreaming. I don’t know anyone else who’s ever done this either. I suppose it’s possible, but I’m guessing it must be awfully rare.

If nothing else, this movie has one of the highest percentages of former child stars in it: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas all started acting as kids.

I won't spoil the ending, but it also got people talking about what they think happened.

Original, intelligent and stylish, I give Inception an enthusiastic A.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Based on the six volume graphic novel by Brian Lee O'Malley.

A love story for the Nintendo generation, Scott Pilgrim is a twenty-something slacker who’s in a band and is dating a teenaged girl. When he later meets Ramona Flowers, the woman of his dreams (literally), his life seems complete, until he discovers he has to defeat her seven evil exes in battle.

Did I mention that Scott lives in a reality where the laws of physics come straight out of video games? People can jump incredible distances, they have superstrength, they wield outrageous cartoon weapons, and when they’re killed, they turn into piles of coins (unless they have a spare life, and are subsequently resurrected!).

The whole video game world concept is a bit jarring at first, but once you get used to it, the movie’s fun, silly and energetic. It's got a little bit of everything thrown into the mix (even a Bollywood number!) but somehow it works, for the most part.

Michael Cera is the perfect choice to play Scott Pilgrim. In fact I can’t think of any other actor who could play the part better. The rest of the actors are also perfectly cast, and look exactly like their comic characters brought to life.

They even went to great lengths to recreate the various locations in the movie in minute detail. Whole swaths of dialog are taken verbatim from the graphic novel as well.

There are also lots of videogame in-jokes, for those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. I won't bore you with them here, but a certain little site called Google can provide the list for you.

The only problem is that in trying to cram a six issue mini-series into a two hour movie, a lot of things had to be severely compacted or dropped completely.

One casualty of the compression: Scott and Ramona's relationship. I didn't buy it for a minute. There didn’t seem to be much chemistry between them. There’s also the matter of Scott being a jerk to most of the female characters throughout the entire movie (especially toward Knives, his teenaged girlfriend). He eventually learns the secret of trusting himself, or humility or some such thing during the final battle and becomes a better person, but by then it seemed too little, too late to me.

The movie made great waves when a preview was shown at last years San Diego ComicCon, so everyone expected it to be a huge hit. It turned out to be something of a flop, barely eking out $30 million dollars (Its budget: $60 million).

Universal Studios should have known better. Every time a movie makes a splash at ComicCon, it tanks at the box office. It happened with Snakes On A Plane, and it happened with Watchmen. A movie might excite the nerd community into a frenzy, but if it doesn’t catch the fancy of the general public, it’s gonna flop.

And once again, Hollywood comic book adaptations continue to mock me. It seems to be a fact of life that the more I like a comic book, the more Hollywood will change the characters, costumes and pretty much everything about it until it’s virtually unrecognizable, while comics in which I have little or no interest will inspire ultra-faithful movies. For example, Sin City. I was never a big fan of it, and could take it or leave it. It consequently got filmed panel by panel into an ultra-faithful movie. But the Fantastic 4, which I loved since childhood, got two movies which barely resembled their source material at all.

So it is with Scott Pilgrim. I enjoyed the graphic novels, but I’m not particularly emotionally invested in them. Therefore the movie is more or less the comic come to life.

Fun, inventive and faithful to its source material, I give Scott Pilgrim a B.

Piranha 3D

A violent and gory exploitation movie, just like the ones that used to populate drive-ins back in the 1970s. Sick and twisted, but a heck of a lot of fun. In fact this one of the most fun times I’ve had at the movies all summer.

The story is as simple as it gets. It’s Spring Break in the normally quiet town of Lake Victoria, and the whole town is suddenly invaded by 50,000 rowdy college kids out for a drunken, sex-filled good time. Then an earthquake opens a forgotten chamber deep beneath the lake, releasing thousands of prehistoric piranha into the normally placid waters. Hijinx, as well as the body count, then ensue.

Richard Dreyfuss has a cameo at the beginning of the movie, apparently playing the same character he did in Jaws.

Christopher Lloyd has a cameo as well. In an unexpected twist, he plays an eccentric and highly excitable scientist. Imagine that!

By the way, I wonder if that wheezy, exaggerated voice that Christopher Lloyd always uses in films is just an act, or does he actually speak like that in real life? Does he go into McDonald’s and say, “GREAT SCOTT! Give me a BIG Mac, a coke, and SOME FRIES!!! And SOOOPer SIZE IT!”

Elizabeth Shue plays Sheriff Forester, who has the unenviable task of keeping the college revelers off of the piranha’s menu. Hey, I just realized that along with Christopher Lloyd, she’s another Back To The Future alumni.

Jerry O’Connell does a great job playing a sleazy Joe Francis type character who’s in town to film a Girls Gone Wild style video.

The piranha designs look good and scary, and they’re adequately animated. The gore effects are all very well done, and some were downright shocking in their violence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It's nice to see finally see a hard R-rated movie, rather than a watered down PG-13 outing.

There’s also plenty of nudity (female, of course) on hand as well, which made me realize that that’s something you just don’t see much at the movies anymore. I’ve never understood why Hollywood can show bodies being dismembered in every way imaginable and no one bats an eye, but a pair of naked breasts can seemingly bring our civilization to the brink of destruction.

The after-the-fact 3D effects added absolutely nothing to the film, other than raising the price by $3. I’m hopeful it won’t be too much longer before this miserable 3D fad dies out.

Violent and gory, Piranah 3D is an entertaining B movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, and is a lot of fun. I give it a B.

Machete

Another old-fashioned exploitation movie, stylistically straight out of the good old 1970s.

Machete actually began life back in 2007, when it was created as a fake trailer for the movie Grindhouse. Fan reaction was so strong, director Robert Rodriguez decided to expand it into a full blown movie.

Danny Trejo, whose real life would probably make an interesting movie, stars as Machete, a Mexican cop who's set up by his boss (Steven Seagal, playing a hispanic!), who also kills his entire family. Talk about bad days. Machete eventually finds himself in Texas, where he's hired to kill a Senator McLaughlin (Robert Diniro), who's anti-illegal immigration stance is controversial to say the least. Machete gets set up again (this guy needs better decision-making skills), and is framed for the assassination attempt against the Senator.

He eventually gets revenge on the ones who wronged him with the help of an underground freedom fighter (Michelle Rodriguez), a sympathetic immigration agent (Jessica Alba) and his gun-toting priest brother (Cheech Marin).

Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan (!) and Jeff Fahey round out the cast.

As you would expect from an exploitation movie, there’s lots of over the top (and often physically impossible) violence and blood. The first five minutes are awesome in their violence and set the tone for the rest of the movie.

And it wouldn't be an exploitation movie without a healthy dose of sex and nudity as well. Every woman in the movie goes crazy over Machete. Every time they see his scowling face (seemingly carved from cement) they go wild, the clothes hit the floor and the porn music starts up.

If Machete ends up being a success, Rodriguez can chalk it up to a ton of free publicity. First of all, the illegal immigration subject matter exploded in real life just weeks before the movie’s release. Then co-star Lindsay Lohan decided to go out and promote the movie on her own by becoming the Most Important Story Of The Decade.

Best Line in the movie: “Machete don’t text.”

Violent, action packed and humorous. If you're a fan of 1970s exploitation fare, you'll like Machete. I give it a B.

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