Friday, June 26, 2009


The way I see it, there are going to be three kinds of people in the world: Those who are blinded by the bells & whistles of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN and think it's the greatest movie of all time... those who care nothing about the bells & whistles and think it's the worst movie of all time... and those who acknowledge that, sure, it's a ridiculous, bloated, trainwreck of a movie... but goddamn, is it freakin' loaded with awesome, balls-out kick-assery! I wholeheartedly fall into that third group -- I couldn't help but love the movie, even as I sat there dumbfounded at how truly awful some aspects of it were. The bells & whistles are THAT impressive -- especially when projected onto the majestic, 80-foot IMAX screen.

Because really, let's face it: It's TRANSFORMERS. It's directed by Michael Bay. Things like "plot" and "acting" and "character development" are all minor details in the grand scheme of things. People who lambast the movie for being essentially devoid of all those things, or who claim that the movie is a sad waste of several hundred million dollars that could have been put towards solving the world's energy crisis or some such thing... well, they just don't get it. It's TRANSFORMERS, dammit! The first film was my #1 guity pleasure of 2007... and the sequel looks like a lock for the same title this year. And it's not because it had a deep and complex plot -- it's because it had GIANT TRANSFORMING ROBOTS FROM MY CHILDHOOD KICKING THE CRAP OUT OF EACH OTHER AND WRECKING SHIT.

I guess there is a plot, though... something about the Decepticons needing information that college-bound Sam Witwicky has stored in his mind so their fallen leader can rise again, and the Autobots teaming up with the the military to hunt and destroy hidden enemies, and... umm... oh, sorry, I lost my train of thought because I started thinking about the ridiculous hotness of Megan Fox, and then more explosions and WOWOWOW... so yeah... plot, schmot.

But the battles... holy shit. From the opening debacle in Shanghai to a dramatic duel in the forest to an epic extravaganza amongst the Egyptian pyramids... the action is fast, intense, loud, at times head-spinning, and always jaw-dropping. The forest battle featuring Optimus Prime vs. Megatron, Starscream and Grindor (one of several scenes filmed with IMAX cameras, for the benefit of those who see it on the giant screen) is my personal favorite -- aside from being crazy awesome, it manages to induce some real emotion, as well. By the way... sweet Christmas Christ, Optimus Prime rules in this movie. He is the epitome of all that which is badass. Along for the ride is an even bigger supporting cast of Transformers, which is obviously cool. (Though, what was with those two gangsta Autobots, AKA the most blatantly racist characters in a movie since SONG OF THE SOUTH? Yikes.) Most of the problems that plagued the first film have been fixed -- characters are more easily recognizable by look & voice, and battles are easier to follow, for the most part. (Though it can still get pretty crazy at times, and if you glance away for a split second, or so much as blink, you could get lost!)

As for the humans... I'm still not a huge fan of Shia LeBoeuf, but man, this kid is living a dream life. He's Spielberg's golden boy. He has starred in two Transformers films AND Indiana Jones. And to top it all off, he gets to make out with Megan Fox -- whose hotness knows no bounds and is the only thing that can draw one's attention away from the robots and explosions. She does have some competition this time around, though, both on screen and in real life: Isabel Lucas, who plays Alice, Sam's sexy college classmate with whom there may be more than meets the eye. (Actually, not really, Megan would kick her ass.) Meanwhile, Sam's parents are back and wackier than ever -- Mrs. Witwicky may be the most entertaining human character in the movie, particularly after eating some "special" brownies. Rainn Wilson as a pompous astronomy teacher is an inspired cameo, and John Turturro seems to be enjoying himself. Dialogue is manic and fast-paced, as if every character is high on speed -- but surprisingly snappy and filled with non-sequiturs and ridiculousness, so it works well.

The biggest downside, aside from the trivialities we've already discussed, is that, at two and a half hours, the movie is waaaaaaaaaay too long. They could have trimmed about 45 minutes' worth of unnecessary fat and made a much more streamlined but still action-packed film. In particular, pretty much every scene involving the U.S. military falls flat -- I didn't give a rat's ass about any these characters in the first movie, and they take up way too much screen time once again. Then again, if the movie wasn't so long and bloated, it wouldn't be a prime example of sheer, unabashed excess, which I guess it part of the point. Michael Bay has never been a particularly good filmmaker (and, at times, downright awful... PEARL HARBOR, anyone?), and giving him access to hundreds of millions of dollars, top-of-the-line cinematic technology and free reign to do whatever he wants is akin to leaving a two-year-old child to play by himself, then turning around and finding that he scribbled all over the walls and is now sitting and drooling proudly in front of his creation. But hey, such is Hollywood. (And yes, that is another Megan Fox pic, just for the hell of it.)

Anyway... I'm going on and on, but there's probably nothing really new here. If you're going to see TRANSFORMERS 2, you're going to see it; if you're not, you're not. But in my humble fanboy opinion, this movie is as much of a thrill ride as we've ever seen on the big screen, and it's enough to overcome any & all shortcomings (of which there are many). Should Michael Bay decide to take another few hundred million dollars out of the mouths of the world's starving children and give us a third installment in a couple of years, I just have one thing to say: AUTOBOTS, ROLL OUT!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Seven Summer Silver Screen Spectacles

Well, the Summer of '09 is off to a fine start, with some real gems (STAR TREK, DRAG ME TO HELL, UP) scattered amongst lots of solid entertainment. I haven't been completely disappointed with anything I've seen over the past month and a half, which is nice. Granted, as I mentioned in a previous entry, I've been a bit more selective this year than in the past (no IMAGINE THAT for me, thanks)... but still... let's take a look at what goodies this summer has given us so far:

ANGELS & DEMONS -- The biggest question going into this movie was whether or not Ron Howard, Tom Hanks & Co. would be able to correct the mistakes they made in THE DA VINCI CODE -- that is, would they manage NOT to suck all the fun out of the story? Well, I'm happy to say that they got it right this time. Everyone and everything seemed much more comfortable -- in particular, Hanks as Robert Langdon, the noted symbologist with a knack for getting involved in potentially world-changing religious conspiracies. This time, the Catholic Church is attacked by the ancient society of the Illuminati, who kidnap four Cardinals that are considered frontrunners to become the new Pope. (It's interesting to note that I learned everything I needed to know about the Pope selection process when I first read the book, which came in handy when Pope John Paul II died... but I digress.) Even though the Church doesn't much care for Langdon after the events of THE DA VINCI CODE (yes, the movie is a SEQUEL, whereas the book actually came first), they call on him for help -- and along with a hot Italian chick, he embarks on a journey along the Rome's Path of Illumination to try and solve the mystery. It's well-paced, dark at times, but with some welcome humor sprinkled throughout. I think it also helps that the supporting cast isn't COMPLETELY loaded with all-stars -- in retrospect, that may have actually hurt the previous effort (especially since DA VINCI featured some very lazy and uninspired casting -- Jean Reno as a French cop? Ho-hum). That being said, Ewan McGregor was excellent as an enigmatic priest and it serves as a reminder that Ewan McGregor needs to be in more movies. All in all, a solid film, and true to the twisty-turny popcorn entertainment that is Dan Brown's forte.

TERMINATOR SALVATION -- I should have written a full review of this one, but oh well. Let's get one thing straight first off: There are really only two true TERMINATOR films, and they belong to James Cameron. Period. That said, T3 may have been a cartoonish mess in which Arnold's character was reduced to a caricature of his former self, but it had a good ending that set things off in an interesting direction. T4 picks things up several years later, with Skynet's ever-developing army of machines laying waste to the world. Christian Bale is John Connor, growling and snarling his way to the top of the human resistance. But John isn't necessarily the focal point of this movie. That role belongs to Marcus, a human who may or may not have been the subject of robot experimentation. He's kind of a tool, and I didn't really care much about his plight, nor his strange romance with Moon Bloodgood (odd, by the way, that there are so few women remaining in this post-apocalyptic world... but fortunate that they are apparently all hot). On the other hand, there's young Kyle Reese, played to perfection by Anton Yelchin, who nails Michael Biehn's portrayal from the original film. Kyle & John have their Anakin-and-Obi-Wan-esque meeting, which of course is significant since Kyle later become John's father after John sends him back in time to save his (John's) future mother from the Terminator that was sent to prevent his birth.... goddamn, Terminator films are crazy... but I guess that's why we just can't get enough of them, even when they are not very good. T4 is slightly better than T3 overall, though it is very nearly ruined by one major plot hole, which requires a SPOILER WARNING: If Skynet lists Kyle as their #1 most wanted, and John as #2... why don't they just kill Kyle as soon as they take him into custody? Why hold him there and wait for John to show up? If you kill Kyle, that's it -- humanity is finished. Terminators are supposed to be pure killing machines, not melodramatic Bond villains! Very, very careless and stupid oversight. But, it DOES set up the big battle between John and the newfangled T-800, complete with Arnie's face circa 1984 -- which is so awesome to see, that it kind of makes everything else worthwhile.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN -- The first NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM was a surprisingly enjoyable romp through my personal favorite museum, the Museum of Natural History (also, I think I just won the award for the most times using the word "museum" in a sentence). It was wacky & well-cast & dumb in a good way, but most of all, it was fun. I expected more of the same from this sequel, which brings Ben Stiller & Friends to the Smithsonian (natch), and I was not disappointed. It's wackier, slightly more dumb (still in a good way), and features an even better cast, including Bill Hader as a clueless General Custer, Hank Azaria as an sneering, lisping pharoah, and especially Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart -- an awesome, scene-stealing performance, filled with moxie and screwball comedy one-liners. It's actually a better portrayal of the doomed aviatrix than Hilary Swank managed in an actual Earhart biopic that will be released later this year. Plus, holy crap, did Amy's caboose look good in those skintight flight pants!

AWAY WE GO -- There is a lot to like in this indie comedy, co-written by Dave Eggers and starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a expectant thirtysomething couple who embark on a cross-country search for a new life. Along the way, they find that their own fucked up lives aren't nearly as bad as others that they encounter, and the best life you can choose is that which your forge for yourself. (I do not consider this a spoiler because if you don't see the ending coming a mile away, you should just stop watching movies.) Krasinski is his usual Halpert-esque self, and Rudolph -- who was always very hit or miss on SNL -- shows surprising range. Tremendous supporting cast including Catherine O'Hara & Jeff Daniels as Krasinski's flaky Antwerp-bound parents, and Allison Janney as a lewd, loud-mouthed friend. The film is a bit heavy-handed at time, and occasionally suffers from "quirky for quirky's sake" syndrome, particularly a ridiculously over-the-top sequence involving Maggie Gyllenhaal as a stroller-hating hippie mom. But when it works, it works well.

LAND OF THE LOST -- The trailers for this big screen adaptation of the '70s camp classic imply that it is one of those family-friendly, watered down PG-13 Will Ferrell comedies... and that is a shame, because in reality, it's far crazier than I expected and should be aimed at a whole other audience. It's loaded with raunchy humor (including an F-bomb!), bizarre non-sequiturs, old-school cheesiness and is generally pretty hilarious. Will Ferrell fans will not be disappointed by his portrayal of Dr. Rick Marshall, and pairing him with the always-funny Danny McBride is a recipe for comedic gold. Anna Friel brings some welcome hotness to the proceedings, and fans of the TV show should appreciate the cheesy effects, monkey people and rubber-suited Sleestaks who are still creepy after all these years. And of course... DINOSAURS! Smarmy dinosaurs, no less. It's not a great film by any means -- but it's wacky & fun.

THE HANGOVER -- I'm not sure why this movie is being considered a "surprise" summer hit. Seems like a no-brainer that the latest from the team behind OLD SCHOOL, a veritable love-letter to Vegas insanity, with a great cast and a hard R-rating, would be awesome. It definitely doesn't disappoint -- this is a funny-ass movie, possibly surpassing OLD SCHOOL in sheer, balls-out hilarity (though not quite as quotable). The plot is simple: Four guys celebrate a bachelor party in Sin City. Mad drunkenness ensues. They wake up in the morning to find their hotel room in shambles, a baby in the closet, a tiger in the bathroom, the groom missing, and no memory of how these things came to be. Thus they attempt to retrace their steps and figure out what the hell happened. Kinda like the plot of DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR... only way better. The guys' adventures are ridiculous: Marrying a prostitute, sure. Finding an angry, naked Chinese high-roller in the trunk of your car, check. Mike Tyson singing Phil Collins songs in your hotel room, why not? But it never feels like TOO over-the-top, because Vegas is one place where you can totally imagine these kind of things happening. The cast is top-notch, especially Ed Helms as the straight-edge, pussywhipped member of the group, and Zach Galifianakis as a disturbed man-child. Easily the frontrunner for the funniest movie of the year -- and to top it all off, it features what may be the greatest closing credits sequence in movie history, so be sure to stick around for that. Vegas, baby, Vegas!

MOON -- Excellent little slice of sci-fi set in the not-too-distant future, starring Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut finishing up a three-year assignment on the dark side of the Moon to harvest a new-found energy source. He is alone, with little contact with the world below -- in fact, his only real companion is a HAL-esque all-purpose computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), whose monotone voice is offset by bright yellow emoticons that show its mood. One day, on a routine expedition on the Moon's surface, Sam gets into a serious accident and wakes up in the infirmary with no apparent injuries nor any memory of what happened. Weird, yes... but it gets even weirder when he returns to the accident site to find... well... something that makes you wonder if things on the Moon are not necessarily as they seem or if he is slowly succumbing to space madness. The plot is intriguing, but two factors really help kick this movie up a notch. First, Sam Rockwell is outstanding, which comes as no real surprise; he's one of those guys that is always great. Second, the setting is fantastic. The space station and the Moon itself are stark, desolate and claustrophobic -- the low-budget effects actually work to the movie's benefit, for you can really feel Sam's loneliness and isolation. Good stuff.

Okay, that's all for now. Still to come this summer: TRANSFORMERS! HARRY POTTER! G.I. JOE! BRUNO! APATOW! MIYAZAKI! And much more!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Let's Go Mets... AT THE MOVIES!

Since this is first and foremost a movie blog, and, apparently, a Mets blog second, I must take a few minutes to discuss the awesomeness that is METS AT THE MOVIES. Every now and then when the Mets are on the road, they show the game on the big screen at a NYC movie theatre. Tonight's game against the Orioles was shown at the legendary Ziegfeld, and it was a great time. I mean, really, what could be better than watching a baseball game, which I love... in a movie theatre, which I love? And since we were watching the SNY broadcast, it was like some kind of wild fantasy combination of being at the ballpark, a movie theatre AND my living room at the same time! They have clearly discovered the formula for heaven on earth. Unfortunately, the Mets lost tonight -- but no matter -- here are just a few reasons why METS AT THE MOVIES is truly amazin':

IT'S HUGE -- It probably goes without saying that the big screen -- especially one as vast as the one at the Ziegfeld -- is a great way to watch a game. Pristine HD picture & sound quality, and they provide all the comforts of home, including between-inning crowd interaction, giveaways, the national anthem, the 7th inning stretch, Mr. Met and the Pepsi Party Patrol, etc. The Ziegfeld was a particularly good location, not just because of huge screen, but because it's a huge theatre overall. There were a LOT of people there, and the whole night had a distinct ballpark feel. They have apparently held the event at other theatres in the past, but hopefully they'll stick with the Ziegfeld from now on.

BETTER CHANCES FOR FREE STUFF -- I've been going to Mets games at Shea and Citi Field since 1985. Probably have attended hundreds of games in my life. And never once have I EVER won anything or gotten anything for free (not counting promotional giveaways). Not a t-shirt shot out of a cannon, not a Bubba Burger, not a gift certificate to Uncle Jack's Steakhouse, not even something stupid like a visor... nothing, in 24 years. But tonight, I got a free t-shirt from the Pepsi Party Patrol AND a magnetic schedule! YES!

APPEARANCES FROM METS LEGENDS -- Tonight, we were visited by '86 Met (and current SNY analyst) Bobby Ojeda, as well as '69 legends Ed Kranepool and Buddy Harrelson! They were there to answer questions and provide commentary, which was pretty cool. On the top of that, we were joined by current legends Mr. Met, Cowbell Man, and none other than Alex Anthony, the voice of the PA system at Mets games for some years now. Funny, he looked nothing like I thought he would... but that voice is unmistakable!

MORE METS REFERENCES THAN AT CITI FIELD -- The lack of Mets references at Citi Field is a subject for a whole other blog, but they got it right at the movies. Mets logos everywhere, old school chants, the aforementioned Mets legends, and even a singalong of "Meet the Mets!" The fact that they don't play "Meet the Mets" at Citi Field is a huge sore spot for me.... so I marked out bigtime when they piped it into the Ziegfeld!

IT'S CHEAPER THAN GOING TO THE BALLPARK -- Only $12 to get in... which, come to think of it, is also cheaper than a regular MOVIE these days, since most Manhattan theatres now charge $12.50. Throw in all the free stuff, and you are getting some major bang for your buck!

And most of all... IT'S FUN AS HELL! That's the bottom line, and I highly recommend this experience to all Mets fans next time they do it. I will surely be there, so perhaps I'll see ya!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Reliving the Top 5 Worst Mets Games I've Ever Attended

Well, the Mets just beat the Yankees 6-2, and much of the anger, despair and devastation I felt after last night's ridiculous, inexcusable, crushing defeat has been swept away (or at least, under the rug) with a nice rebound win. Not the first time I've experienced that myriad of emotions in a 24-hour period and probably not the last. So, yay, and LET'S GO METS! But still.... goddamn, that was a rough loss, and it got me to thinking... over the years, I've reminisced and written a lot about the BEST and most memorable Met games I've ever attended, as I have been fortunate to have attended many. But how about the WORST games that I wish I could forget? Indeed, I have attended my fair share of those, too... and I think the time has come to take a sordid trip down bad memory lane. Mets fans, grab a bottle of vodka and join me if you dare....

HONORABLE MENTION: GLAVINE'S INAUSPICIOUS METS DEBUT (3/31/03) -- Perhaps the most miserable live baseball game experience I've ever had. Opening Day '03 was bitterly cold and windy -- I think it was, like, 7 degrees outside, seriously -- and in the very last row of the Upper Deck, it felt even colder. The Mets introduced their latest acquisition, former hated Atlanta Brave, Tom Glavine..... who then got shelled and couldn't get through the 4th inning. Not a good start. The Mets ended up losing 15-2 to the Cubs (my first Opening Day loss since my streak began in '98), but my friends and I left after the 6th inning, which, in itself, is almost unthinkable. And of course, it's interesting to note that Glavine's Met career began almost as horrendously as it ended on the final day of the '07 season -- I'm still convinced that he was working for the Braves all along and was only here to sabotage the Mets from within. Dammit.

5. ONE OF MANY ARMANDO MELTDOWNS (6/14/02) -- Armando Benitez blew so many important and crushing games for the Mets, and I'm sure there were others that I attended that I have forgotten or simply blocked out... but this is the one that most comes to mind. On a rainy, nasty night at Shea, the Mets were clinging to a 2-1 lead over the Yankees. Steve Trachsel battled into the 6th and the bullpen kept the Yanks at bay, with Armando entering in the 8th to get out of a jam. But in the 9th, Armando gave up a game-tying hit to Derek Jeter that deflated the Mets faithful and brought the Yankee fans out of hibernation. Then in the 10th, to add insult to injury, the Yanks took the lead on a two-run homer by none other than former Met favorite Robin Ventura. Ouch.

4. FRANCO SUCKS THE LIFE OUT OF SHEA (9/18/98) -- Fresh off an amazing, dramatic series in Houston, loaded with game-tying homers, walk-off bombs, clutch pitching performances and more, the Mets came home and were greeted by the first legitimate playoff-like atmosphere at Shea in years. They were in the thick of the post-season hunt -- and earlier in the day, the Cubs had lost, so if the Mets won, they would suddenly be TIED for the wild card spot, and the crowd knew it. I was there, in the field level (courtesy of a college friend who had access to primo seats), and the place was simply electric. This was really the first time I'd experienced such a feeling in my adult life, since the Mets had sucked for so long. The Mets held a 6-4 lead in the 9th and handed the ball to John Franco...... who promptly coughed up THREE runs, giving the Marlins the win and basically crushing any hopes we may have had. Though the Mets came back and won the next two games vs. the Marlins, they ended up losing the final FIVE games of the season to the Expos and Braves (despite only needing ONE win to force a three-way tie with the Cubs and Giants) and the first of many disappointments to come over the next 11 years was complete.

3. 2000 WORLD SERIES, GAME 4 (10/25/00) -- The first and only World Series game I've ever attended. It sucked when the Mets lost the first two games of the Subway Series at Yankee Stadium, but we felt a glimmer of hope when they came back and won Game 3 at Shea. We figured, hey, if we can win Game 4 and tie this thing up... well, who knows. Unfortunately, the game got off to a bad start with Jeter homering on the very first pitch off Bobby Jones. The Yanks took a 3-0 lead before Mike Piazza jolted some life into the crowd with a bomb of his own. But then came the key moment that will forever live in infamy in my mind. I never considered Joe Torre to be a good manager -- to this day, I maintain that he was, at best, a mediocre manager who happened to be surrounded by awesome teams. (Hell, I could've managed the '98 Yanks to a World championship.) But in this game, Torre made the one truly smart managerial move of his Yankee career: In a key spot in the 5th inning, with Piazza at the plate, he yanked Denny Neagle and brought in none other than David Cone.... who proceeded to induce a harmless fly ball and get out of the jam. The Yanks won the battle of the bullpens the rest of the way, won the game, and of course, won the World Series the next day.

2. WAGNER MELTDOWN vs. THE YANKS (5/20/06) -- Pedro pitched a gem for 7 innings and Duaner Sanchez kept the Yanks at bay with an easy 8th. With a 4-0 lead, everyone figured they'd bring Sanchez back to start the 9th and keep Billy Wagner ready just in case. But no -- "Enter Sandman" began to play and here came Wagner in a non-save situation. Red flags immediately popped up in the back of our minds, but we figured, naaah, we're safe. Well, we weren't. Two hits, 3 walks, a hit batsmen and 4 earned runs later, Wagner walked off the mound having suffered one of the most monumental meltdowns I've ever seen and the crowd sat in stunned disbelief. The Yankees ended up winning in the 11th... and I trudged back to my apartment and this is what happened next.

...and finally....

1. 2006 NLCS, GAME 7 (10/19/06) -- After Endy's catch set the crowd into a state of pure bedlam, after Shea shook like I'd never felt it shake before, 56,000 fans were convinced that the World Series was within our grasp. But then, Aaron Heilman served up a two-run homer to Yadier Fucking Molina and you could feel the air get sucked out of the place. I'll never forget the pathetic, "!" that squeaked out of my throat when that ball sailed over the wall. It was like being punched in the gut. But still... in our minds, there was NO WAY we could lose this game after that Catch. Molina's homer was just one last bump in the road to victory. After all the stirring comebacks throughout the year... hell, it was the 20th anniversary of 1986!... all the signs pointed to a Mets miracle. But then came the 9th, and... well... yeah. The Mets get two men on base, but Willie plays with his heart instead of his head by letting banged-up Cliff Floyd swing the bat instead of bunting the runners over. (Yes, it would have been an unspeakably awesome Kirk Gibson moment if he'd launched a walk-off bomb, but come on.) Then, with the bases loaded and two out... Beltran... ughhh. Carlos, I know that Wainwright's curveball was a killer, but couldn't you have at least TRIED to swing? Even if you were nowhere close, it might've hurt a TINY bit less if you'd at least made some kind of effort. And who knows, maybe you would've gotten some wood on it and found a hole. But no.... with the bat on his shoulder, Carlos struck out with the bases loaded and the Cardinals celebrated while we all stood there in stunned disbelief. I know I haven't fully recovered from this defeat yet, and I think it's safe to say that the Mets haven't, either. Ugh.

Um, yeah, so there you have it... now let's move along. And as always, no matter how difficult it gets and how bleak it looks... BELIEVE!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

What's Up With UP?


Normally when I see a new Pixar film, the result is to be expected: Pure, unadultered praise and undying adoration. And at first, while watching UP, I was sure that would be the case once again. But then a funny thing happened: The movie continued to unspool (or digitally project, as the case may be), and I found myself... well... I won't go as far as to say "unimpressed," because the movie is great in many ways... but certainly not blown out of the water like I was with both TOY STORIES and THE INCREDIBLES, or stricken with the cinematic thunderbolt like with WALL-E. It even left a bad taste in my mouth at one point. Please allow me to apologize in advance for any incoherence that may plague this review, as I try to figure out what exactly happened here.

Let's start with what I liked, because that will make me feel better about myself. The movie, of course, is about Carl Fredrickson, a 72-year-old codger who sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream to find adventure in South America... in his house... carried off by thousands of helium balloons. Turns out, though, that a young Boy Scout has accidentally stowed away and naturally, hijinks ensue and friendships develop. The movie gets off to a great start with a flashback of young, adventure-seeking Carl meeting his soulmate (and fellow adventurer), Ellie. Then comes an expository montage that is just... wow. It traces the ups and downs of Carl & Ellie's life together, from the day they get married to the present day and runs the gamut from joyous to utterly heart-wrenching. Apparently this kind of montage is big in 2009, as we've already had two, in WATCHMEN and WOLVERINE -- but this one was by far the best. In fact, it was as good as anything I've ever seen in a Pixar film (which means it was as good as anything I've seen in any movie). I'm not sure I've ever found myself in tears during the first 15 minutes of a film, but it happened here. It's an amazing sequence, and far and away the best part of the film.

The animation and visual style of the movie is simply astonishing. Pixar should win a special achievement award for the balloons alone. The wilderness and landscapes are spectacularly rendered, and buoyed by a magnificent, dreamlike score, the movie has a distinct other-worldly feel. The use of digital 3D is equally astonishing -- it may be the best and most immersive use of 3D I've seen. There is nothing gimmicky -- no projectiles shooting at you or things bouncing for no particular reason. It feels completely natural, like you're floating right alongside Carl & Co. with your own giant balloon bouquet. Seriously, if you see this movie an a non-3D screen, you are not REALLY seeing it at all.

As a character, Carl Fredrickson is an old grump with a heart of gold and complexities that run deep -- if you don't take pleasure in rooting for him every step of the way, you are, frankly, a soulless slug. (He actually kind of reminded me of Asbjørn Jensen, the main character of the Oscar-nominated short film, THE PIG. Similar temperment, and they both had big glasses, too!) Carl's young cohort, Russell, is also filled with depth -- a lonely kid starved for fatherly attention, with a healthy curiosity and an appetite for adventure that, deep down, Carl can relate to. But my favorite characters are the army of talking dogs that Carl & Russell encounter during their quest -- especially Dug, the outcast that befriends them. We've seen talking dogs in movie before, but never like this -- it's a stroke of genius, as if the writers really tapped into a dog's mind and wrote down all the manic thoughts that must be going on in there ("I just met you and I love you!"). I laughed out loud every time I saw Dug in the trailer, and he's even better in the movie. Pixar films have had plenty of memorable supporting characters over the years, from Mr. Potato Head to Frozone to the little "foreign contaminant!" guy, and Dug is one of the best yet.

Okay, so, great characters, amazing visuals, an emotional rollercoaster... what the hell was WRONG with the movie, then? Well, simply put, I think they just overplotted things a little too much. I would've been very content if the movie had been centered around Carl & Russell's (and Dug's!) adventures in the flying house, with peril coming from the elements, landscapes, mysterious creatures, etc. It would've been very KING KONG-esque and cool. And for the first part of their adventures, that's exactly what we got. But then things unraveled when they introduced Carl's childhood hero, an explorer named Charles Muntz, who has been living in the wilderness for decades on a quest of his own. Frankly, I could have done without this sub-plot -- it bogged the movie down and was just flat-out BORING. Yes, for the first time, I was bored while watching a Pixar film. The chase scenes should have been cool seeing as how they involved a zeppelin and a flying house and talking dogs in biplanes... but overall, this entire chunk of the movie seemed gratuitous and unnecessary.

Furthermore, I disagreed with the film on an emotional level. At one point, Carl is forced to make a choice between rescuing Russell's new bird friend, Kevin, or saving his beloved house from flames. He chooses the house, and the film implies that he made the wrong choice. But why? If I had to choose between an animal I just met and had no emotional attachment to, and a house I've lived in for most of my life, I'd choose the house, too! Even worse, later, when he finally loses the house in battle, Carl changes his tune and says, "It's only a house." WHAT?? Now, I realize, at this point, the house had to be sacrified to save the good guys' lives... but to say "it's only a house" is ridiculous. He lived in that house for 50 years! I don't care how many adventures he's experienced and bonding moments he's shared, it's more than "only a house." In fact, it's borderline insulting to me personally: My parents are in the process of selling the house that has been in my family for the past 23 years -- not a terribly long time by some standards, but certainly a majority of my life, and it has been quite an emotional experience for all of us. If someone said to me, "Eh, what difference does it make, it's only a house!" I'd punch them in the fucking jaw. "Only a house," indeed. Come on, Pixar... for a company whose two most popular movies are based around the nostalgia for old children's toys, you should know better than that!

I guess what it boils down to is that the movie is, for the most part, a great little fairy tale with one really bad plot twist and a couple of moral issues that rub me the wrong way on a personal level. Mildly disappointing, perhaps, because you always expect to leave a Pixar film feeling like you're floating on air... but not remotely enough to cause me to lose even the slightest inkling of faith in their unparalleled awesomeness. If I were to rank the Pixar filmography (which I really should do someday... I smell a Top 5 list!), I'd probably put UP somewhere in the middle. And really, a middle-of-the-pack Pixar film is still better than the vast majority of everything else. So! To make a long story short: Go see the movie, bask in what's good about it, agree or disagree with my quibbles, but above all remember... SQUIRREL!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL... Please!

Finally, after years of toiling (with mixed results) over a certain webslinging blockbuster saga that has made billions of dollars worldwide, the great Sam Raimi has returned to his roots in triumphant fashion and given us DRAG ME TO HELL, the most wildly entertaining, deliciously disgusting, hilariously scary and all-around effective horror movie I've seen in a long time.

Doe-eyed Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a bank loan officer who faces a crisis of conscience:  Should she help the kindly old Gypsy woman who has come asking for a loan extension to save her house?  Or should she "make the difficult decision" and decline the loan in order to win the good graces of her boss and earn a coveted promotion?  When she chooses the latter, the Gypsy woman swears vengeance in the form of an ancient curse, promising that after three days of harrassment by a demon spirit, Christine's very soul will be (wait for it)...... dragged straight down to hell.

If this sounds a little cheesy, well, that's exactly the point. Nobody does this sort of comedy-horror like Raimi, the mastermind behind the EVIL DEAD films -- the movie is a smorgasbord of horror delights and Raimi handles each ingredient like a master chef.  From the the glip-gloppy sounds of the old lady's teeth as she pops them back into her mouth... to a POLTERGEIST-esque scene where Christine is manhandled by a spirit and literally dragged across the walls and ceiling... to a slimy eyeball popping out of a slice of cake... to a simple housefly inducing spine-tingling chills... to a bizarre seance involving a game of hot potato with an evil spirit and a demonic goat... just when you think it can't get any crazier, it does.  And just when you think it's all over... it's not!

Raimi handles the tongue-in-cheek dialogue, copious bodily fluids, glorious sound effects and suspense like a true master.  Cheesy as it is, the thrills are legit.  There isn't a cheapie to be had -- every twitch, jump and squeal is well-earned.  Many times, such as Christine's wild mano-a-mano parking lot fight against the Gypsy woman, I didn't know whether to cringe with revulsion or howl with laughter -- turns out it's not easy to do both.  Only Raimi at his best can elicit such a response, and he does it well and often.  It's the kind of movie you'll want to experience on the biggest screen, with the loudest sound system, and biggest crowd you can find (I recommend auditorium 13 at the Regal E-Walk Theatre in Times Square), strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

I understand that Raimi is currently in the early stages of SPIDER-MAN 4, which of course will make a shit-ton of money, regardless of whether it's acceptable (like #1), great (like #2) or horrendous (like #3).  But hey, if he uses those Spidey resources to come back and bring us his trademark brand of horror every now and then, all will be right with the world.  Sam Raimi, you can DRAG ME TO HELL anytime!