‘Toy Story 3’ Concludes an Ever so Brilliant Pixar Trilogy

Toy Story 3 movie poster

I could never bear to give my stuffed animals away. They were a huge part of my childhood, and the thought of letting them go forever seemed so horrifying. Society expects you to give up on little dolls and stuff as you become an adult, and I honestly find that to be kind of bogus. Am I really supposed to stop playing with these plush friends of mine because society expects me to? Am I supposed to permanently kill off the childlike wonder inside of me so I look normal and hopelessly embittered like everybody else? Doesn’t this seem cruel?

In the end, I didn’t need to give my stuffed animals away. They got eviscerated by a rat that ended while they sat in a trash bag in the family garage. The rat wanted their stuffing, and he (or she) left behind a lot of rat poop which had to be disposed of carefully because it spreads disease. However, all the Eeyores I have collected over the years were fine as they continue to get preferential treatment ever since I got my first one back in the 1980’s.

It was inevitable these cuddly friends of mine would never get the same amount of attention as the years went by. The dilemma of what to do with these things we grew up with brings about strong emotions and uncertainty, and this is what Andy faces in “Toy Story 3.” Coming 11 years after its predecessor, young Andy who had given much love to these toys is now a young adult about to start college. His mother tells him he can either donate his toys to a nearby daycare center, or they can just go up in the attic. Despite Andy not having played with them in years, he is reluctant to let his toys go.

The majority of the toys from the first two “Toy Story” movies are back including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Rex, Slinky Dog, Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head, Bullseye and Hamm who has always been one of my favorites. Many, however, have since been donated or thrown out including Woody’s girl, Little Bo Peep. So, while Andy clearly has favorites among the toys he grew up with, it doesn’t make them feel anymore safe now that he is leaving home.

Woody (Tom Hanks) tries to keep the other toys’ spirits up even as he reminds them they knew this day was coming and that they might as well make the best of things while preparing for attic mode. However, an error occurs which has them getting donated to the nearby Sunnyside Daycare Center. At first, the toys don’t feel too bad because they are back in a position where they get to be played with on a regular basis. But despite the warm welcome from other toys, it quickly turns into their worst nightmare as they deal with kids who are not nearly old enough to take care of them. Instead of treating them with love, they get flung all over the place like they were frisbees, painted on, and contorted into positions which would make us cringe uncontrollably. Remember the scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” where one of Richard Dreyfuss’ children smashes a baby doll to smithereens? Jessie, Buzz Lightyear, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head and others get it just as bad here.

Now the third movie in a franchise is typically where a series goes off the rails or “jumps the shark” as some would say. After bringing something fresh and original to audiences everywhere, filmmakers end up relying on the formula which made the previous two movies so good. As a result, number three can come across as a regurgitation of our favorite moments to where it rings hollow because, even if they presented the characters in a slightly different context, it’s still the same old thing. The realization of this is always disheartening and depressing.

I’ve got good news though; “Toy Story 3” manages to escape this unfortunate trap and it proves to be just as inventive, imaginative, funny and heartwarming as its brilliantly made predecessors. Once again, Pixar shows they are not willing to rest on their laurels, and they keep their focus on the story as always.

When I was young, I always loved to believe my stuffed animals had lives of their own and did things I was never a witness to. I could see them taking out the Chevy Suburban my family used to have while the rest of us slept at night. To think they would be comfortable for the rest of their existence just sitting in my room didn’t seem particularly fair, and they deserved a night on town and a few beers. The great thing about the “Toy Story” movies is they understand how far our imaginations can go with this belief, and they play upon it in ways which are hilarious and endlessly entertaining.

Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack and the always dependable Pixar regular John Ratzenberger among others are back voicing their beloved characters. Slinky Dog, originally played by the late Jim Varney, is voiced here by Blake Clark, and he makes the transition almost perfectly seamless.

We also get to see Barbie (Jodi Benson) with her biggest role in any of the “Toy Story” movies to date as she finally gets to meet the man of her dreams, Ken (Michael). Director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt have a lot of fun playing around with the Ken we think we know, and they love hinting at the kind of person we think he might be. It’s funny to think Mattel didn’t want anyone touching Barbie when the first movie was made, and now it is unthinkable not to include her.

One of the prominent new characters in “Toy Story 3” is a strawberry scented bear named Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, but he’s called Lotso for short. Pixar always makes ingenious casting decisions in regards to the actors they pick, and casting Ned Beatty as the voice of Lotso is further proof. This cuddly and stain resistant teddy bear looks warm and affectionate, and Beatty’s voice makes us feel at home when Lotso first appears onscreen. But Lotso soon turns out to be a deceptive toy who thinks nothing of sacrificing the stronger toys to toddlers who are quicker to destroy than love them. All of what Lotso does here is powered by his feeling of resentment over being forgotten and quickly replaced by his owner. Now he manipulates the daycare center so he can live in comfort while the other toys suffer helplessly.

In terms of movies this sequel satirizes, it combines elements of “The Great Escape” and “Mission: Impossible” to show how challenging it will be for Woody and the gang to break out of Sunnyside. All the various descriptions of how closely guarded like a fortress this seemingly harmless place is leads to one brilliant moment after another. The one toy which gets chosen to watch over the surveillance cameras is an act of genius.

Now if you have already seen the trailer, you know one of the big set pieces in “Toy Story 3” comes when Buzz Lightyear gets reset and goes into Spanish speaking mode. Seeing him woo Jessie with his smoldering dance moves as if he were Ricky Martin or Antonio Banderas had everyone in the audience young and old laughing uncontrollably. The Gypsy Kings also perform a very cool cover of Randy Newman’s song “You’ve Got A Friend in Me,” and this version alone makes me want to buy the soundtrack.

And yes, Randy Newman returns to do the music score for a Pixar movie for the first time since “Monsters, Inc.” Once again, he captures the innocence of childhood and the exciting world these toys inhabit while also capturing the bittersweet emotions which bring this movie to a very emotional climax.

Of all the “Toy Story” movies, this one is easily the darkest as we see these toys get subjected to places which they should not come out of unscathed. Plus, these toys are at the endgame stage as they will soon part with Andy in one way or another. The ending of this one will almost certainly bring tears to the eyes of many as Andy talks to a shy little girl about his toys and Woody in particular. We’ve all grown up with these characters since the 1990’s, so we cannot help but feel like Andy in how we end up leaving certain things behind even if it breaks our heart.

“Toy Story 3” does what every Pixar movie does best; it entertains and enthralls the audience no matter what age they are. With this tremendous sequel, Pixar has completed another trilogy which will stand as one of the best in cinematic history, and they come around full circle with this adventure of Woody and Buzz, the characters who started it all for this animation company. They continue to push creative boundaries with all they do, and their enviable track record both creatively and financially is more than deserved. More power to them!

When this movie is over, you will know what a Lincoln Log looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Knowing the difference is important if you want to keep yourself from gagging!

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

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‘The Kids Are All Right’ is About Marriage, Period

The Kids Are All RIght movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” takes its title from one of many great songs by The Who. However, I kept wondering about the movie’s title in regards to the way it is spelled. The Who’s song is entitled “The Kids Are Alright” while the movie splits “Alright” into “All Right.” What exactly does this mean? Are the kids infinitely more intelligent than the parents in this movie? Do they make better decisions in their lives than the adults? We all know kids have a stronger detector system when it comes to exposing the hypocrisy of parents and adults in general, so perhaps the movie’s title means to spell this out literally. Or maybe it’s because The Who made a rockumentary a number of years back called “The Kids Are Alright,” and perhaps Focus Features didn’t want to confuse the two. Anyway, that’s just a thought.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this movie on the day Proposition 8 was overturned by the California Supreme Court (YES!!!). This was the same proposition which barred gay couples from getting married and found funding from people who didn’t even live in California. However, to call this a gay or lesbian movie would make audiences completely miss the point as that is like calling “Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy” movie for crying out loud. What the couple of Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) go through is not any different from what many “straight couples” go through, and it really gets to the truth of what hard work marriage can be.

Nic and Jules are a very loving couple indeed, and there is no doubt about how deep their affection for one another is. Furthermore, they have two wonderful children: a 15-year-old boy named Laser (Josh Hutcherson), and an 18-year old girl named Joni (Mia Wasikowska) who is about to head off to college. The major difference between Nic and Jules is while Nic has had a successful career as a physician, Jules has failed at just about every business she has tried to start up on her own. It gets to where Jules starts to wonder if Nic is really just belittling everything she does, and a resentment between the two grows quickly.

But what really throws a wrench into the family’s dynamic is when Joni, after being pushed by Laser to do so, contacts their biological father. Both were conceived by artificial insemination, and the sperm donor turns out to be a very nice guy named Paul (Mark Ruffalo) who has a phobia of commitment and leads a decidedly bohemian life. Upon meeting these two kids, he warms up to them immediately and finds himself changing in ways he didn’t expect. But then he meets the parents, and things get really crazy.

What I really liked about “The Kids Are All Right” was that after a summer of superheroes and high concept movies, here’s one which deals with real people and situations we all recognize from our own lives and the lives of others. The characters conceived here are all well meaning people who never come across as contrived or clichéd in the usual sense. Director Lisa Cholodenko, along with co-writer Stuart Blumberg, succeed in creating some wonderful characters, and they give them with hilarious dialogue which is also insightful and refreshingly down to earth. These are people with visible flaws which make them all the more human, as if we need to be told this.

I never found myself taking sides or hating any of the characters. Like I said, each one is well meaning and comes into this situation with the best of intentions. Of course, we all know where the best of intentions can lead us. When these people stray from one another, we may disagree with what they do, but Cholodenko uses this to make us understand why some end up doing the things they do. Everyone is complicated in their own way, but labeling people as bad for doing certain things only serves to blind us from understanding them as individuals.

All the actors are clearly in love with playing the intricacies of their roles, and each one creates a character we quickly become emotionally invested in. Annette Bening is perfect as Nic, the bread winner of the family. While at times very high strung and a bit overprotective of her family, she imbues Nic with a strong sense of commitment while losing sight of what brought her into this relationship in the first place.

Julianne Moore shines as she always does as Jules who feels increasingly neglected in her role as housewife, and her fear that Nic is not taking her career endeavors seriously feels very much justified. In many ways, Jules gets looked down more than anyone else in the script, but Moore never makes Jules a pitiful creature and gives her a strong center which she finds her way back to. Also, her speech on marriage is one of the movie’s best moments, and it comes from an honest place.

Mark Ruffalo continues his reign of great naturalistic performances and makes film acting look effortless. His character of Paul could have been the bad guy of the piece or some sitcom-like character, but you never doubt his sincerity in how he grows to love these kids which he had a hand in bringing into the world. Even when he missteps (and he really does), I found it impossible to dislike the guy. Of all the characters in “The Kids Are All Right,” he is the one who grows the most, but his revelations come in a way which is not exactly appropriate.

Both Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson are great as the kids, and Cholodenko keeps them from becoming conventional in the teenager mainstream movie kind of way. Wasikowska gets to be much livelier here than she was in Tim Burton’s bland remake of “Alice In Wonderland,” and she radiates intelligence which makes her character wise beyond her years to where she comes across as the most mature one in the film. Hutcherson also makes Laser into an interesting kid caught up in friendships which aren’t really sound and finding a father figure in the last place he expected to. Seeing him discovering his parents’ videotape of gay male pornography leads to one of the funniest scenes this movie has to offer.

If there is any complaint I have with “The Kids Are All Right,” it’s the ending. The plight of Ruffalo’s character is frustratingly left unresolved, and we never do learn if he will keep in touch with Joni and Laser. Nic and Jules do get a satisfying conclusion, but seeing Paul getting cut loose was an unfortunate disappointment. I was eagerly waiting to see where he would end up after all which had ensued.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” is one of the nicest surprises of the 2010 summer movie season, and it deservedly got a large audience for an independent film. It has what I would like to see more of in movies: regular, down to earth people with problems and flaws much like anyone else’s. I also think it involves a relationship which any couple (and I strongly stress the word ANY) can relate to in different ways.

By the way, for those of you who think that gays getting married is still a threat to the “sanctity of marriage,” I got two words for you: Donald Trump. End of story.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Enter the Void’ is Mind-Blowing and Unique in a Way Few Movies Are

Enter the Void movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010.

Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void,” his first feature length film since the highly controversial “Irreversible,” is one of the craziest and hypnotic cinematic experiences I have ever sat through. A hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of colors, some of which looked like they were taken from Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” it’s a surreal out of body experience and the kind you do not see today in American cinema today. In a time of soulless remakes and films which shamelessly manipulate our emotions, this is a one of kind motion picture as it breaks boundaries to create something unlike anything we have seen before. Like Noe’s previous films, it is destined to have sharply polarized reactions. Some will admire it, and others will find it excruciating to sit through. As for myself, I was mesmerized from beginning to end, thankful I got to take in something not bound by your typical Hollywood formula.

Straight after the IFC Films logo appears, Noe propels us into this visionary experience by beginning with the end credits, just as he did with “Irreversible,” racing through them at warp speed. Watching this, I was reminded of what Homer Simpson said during the end credits of “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

Then the movie goes from there into the opening titles which themselves are exhilaratingly creative and makes you feel like you’re at a rave party in Tokyo. Crazy visuals done to the song “Freak” by LFO, they alone were worth the price of admission and got applause from the audience I saw it with at the Lamelle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles.

The word “enter” gets blasted onto the screen, and we then make it to the seamier side of Tokyo as seen through the eyes of the main character, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown). Just like in the opening sequence of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” we see everything from his perspective as he talks with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) who lives with him in a small apartment, and as he smokes some Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) which provides him with the ultimate high, filled with amazingly beautiful colors. During this time, we see Oscar is reading a book his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) gave him called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Alex describes the book as one person’s experience after death, and of how it eventually leads to rebirth. From there, you get a good idea of where “Enter the Void” is going as Oscar later gets shot dead by police while attempting to flush his drugs down the toilet.

At this point, “Enter the Void” becomes a literal out of body experience as Oscar dies and his soul, no longer caged in its human form, rises from his lifeless body. From there, he floats through the darker sections of Tokyo as he watches over his sister as she moves on with life, devastated she can no longer spend it with her dear brother. Throughout, Noe goes back and forth in time as we come to see the connection Oscar and Linda developed in their youth, and how their promise of always being together is strong even as tragedy threatens to tear them apart.

Many will probably see “Enter the Void” as being a pro-drug movie, but I will leave this up to you, the viewer to decide. This is a movie meant for an adult crowd anyway, not for pre-teens. With drug trips, or so I am told, you are lifted high into a state of euphoria which seems untouchable in our everyday lives, but you are also brought down to emotionally shattering lows you will be desperate to look away from, but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from what you will soon wish you’d forget. Your mind may be freed up in this state, but don’t ever expect to have any control.

Look, I’m not saying drugs are right, but if we’re not taking something illegal and very dangerous, then we are probably relying on something pharmaceutical. Anyway, this is not a movie to get all political about.

When the movie veers into Oscar’s youth, we get to see the close relationship he and his sister have with their ever-loving parents, and the times we see them together are very sweet and captured with a strong sense of innocence. But this later turns out to be a setup for when the parents are killed in horrific fashion after a truck going in the wrong direction smashes into their car, killing them instantly. It’s impossible not to feel the shattered emotions of the children as their lives are irrevocably altered in ways which rob them of a childhood they deserved to have.

Noe does manage to counter many of the disturbing moments of the movie with scenes of innocence and sweetness, and this is an aspect of his filmmaking people don’t often give him credit for. In the midst of shocking scenes filmed in all their psychologically damaging glory, he does capture intimate moments between which I rarely seen in movies being released these days. This was even the case in “Irreversible” when we watched Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci frolicking with one another in their apartment, and the fact the two were married in real life at the time makes those scenes feel more emotionally honest as a result.

As with your typical Noe motion picture, “Enter the Void” is not the kind which can be easily recommended to those interested in mainstream fare. In fact, is as far from mainstream cinema as you can get these days, and those who are easily offended would do their best to keep a marathon-like distance away from it. There’s even a scene where we watch helplessly as Linda gets an abortion, and although I was afraid it would be a much harder to sit through than it was, it is bound shake up a lot of the audience members’ emotions.

The acting for the most part is good. Special praise goes to Paz de la Huerta whose character of Linda has to go through the film’s most viscerally emotional moments, and she portrays them without a hint of simply playing the emotion. I also liked Cyril Roy as Oscar’s mentor Alex and found him to be an enjoyable presence even in the film’s more damning  moments of despair. But let’s be honest here, this is a director’s movie more than anything else, and it is easy to believe this was Noe’s dream project for years. It’s a movie for visual and sound designers to go nuts on, and they must have had a blast trying to bring the director’s own psychedelic visions to the silver screen.

At two and a half hours long, “Enter The Void” does get a bit tedious at times. When the movie ended and the lights came up, I heard one guy say, “So at what point did you fall asleep? For some, this movie will be a lot longer than it should. The only time I got a bit restless was during the hotel orgy scene which overstays its welcome after not too long. Noe uses this scene to make clear the difference of having sex and making love, but he spends far too much energy filming this moment instead of just cutting down to its bare essence. I started to feel like Sean Young at the DGA awards when she told “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” director Julian Schnabel to “get on with it.”

In spite of this, I was completely mesmerized by “Enter the Void” from start to finish as it took me on a cinematic journey far different than most I have sat through this past year. It will surely go down as one of the definitive love-it or hate-it movies of 2010, but I have no problem sticking up for what Noe has accomplished even if it became a bit overindulgent.

Personally, I’m glad we have directors like Gaspar Noe around because it feels like cinema worldwide is lacking filmmakers who take risks and challenge the conventional structure of your typical corporate product posing as a movie. We need more directors like him now because it has become increasingly understandable as to why many no longer go out to the movies like they once used to.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender’ is a Cinematic Atrocity

the last airbender movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2010. I also want to dedicate it to my good friend Ed Mahoney who was brave enough to endure this cinematic monstrosity with me.

I couldn’t help it. I had to see this movie for myself. Ever since it opened, “The Last Airbender” has received some of the most atrocious reviews of any movie ever made. Audiences all over have been calling for M. Night Shayamalamadingdong’s blood for the last decade, and they just may get their wish with this monstrosity posing as a summer blockbuster.

But nothing could keep me or a friend of mine from witnessing the cinematic carnage of what was an eagerly awaited motion picture. The reviews were getting increasingly abysmal, and public perception made it look like a car crash you drive by on the freeway which you can’t help but look at. We knew we only had ourselves to blame since we paid $10 bucks each for our tickets, but we were willing to make the sacrifice.

Well, I came out of “The Last Airbender” laughing hysterically. In fact, I couldn’t stop laughing for an hour after I walked out of the theater, and it was for reasons Shyamalan didn’t intend. Everything you have heard about it is true. It is a complete and utter disaster and fails on just about every level a movie can. It proved to be so boring to where I almost passed out even when the soundtracks and explosions increased in volume. Furthermore, the plot is almost completely incoherent, and the dialogue will make you howl in disbelief. Shyamalan’s career has officially hit rock bottom with this atrocious adaptation, and no one is going to ever let him off easy for all the things he got wrong here.

I could tell from the start the movie was going to be terrible as the opening scroll fails to make any back story seem the least bit comprehensible. Then words “Book One” appeared, and it quickly reminded me of what Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi were once told by Irvin Shapiro when they were selling him a certain horror movie:

“Fellas, if you call this movie ‘Book of the Dead’ they’re gonna think they have to read it! Call it ‘The Evil Dead!’”

Campbell and Raimi thought it was the worst title they ever heard, but what did they know?

So, what is “The Last Airbender” about exactly? Well, it’s about this kid named Aang who is brought up out of the water where he has either been hiding or accidentally entombed in, and he is revealed to be the new Avatar. In plain English, the Avatar is the only living being capable of controlling the four elements: water, fire, air and earth. But wait, he wasn’t actually trained on any of them, and yet people take him at his word. What happened? Doesn’t it make more sense for him to be resurrected and have him be fully trained? Or are we going to watch him perfect these so-called talents in future sequels? You know Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon are just begging for a franchise here.

Oh, I see! Aang found out 100 years ago he was the new Avatar and ended up running away because he didn’t want the responsibility. Also, this meant he could never have a family. Now that sucks! You haven’t even gotten laid yet, and then you find out you have all these powers and can defeat anything and anybody in your way. But you know sooner or later, this kid is going to hit puberty and really scare the crap out of everyone. The question is, will he hit puberty in this movie or the sequel?

Those who know me best know how sick and tired I am of movies which have characters forever reluctant to accept the fact they are “the one.” We end up having to spend almost three quarters of the movie’s running time watching Aang bitch and moan about his unfair predicament, and all the time I found myself getting infinitely impatient as we know he will eventually accept the role the universe has given him. Look, you’re “the one,” so get on with it already! Take pride in the fact you can defeat so many enemies without ever having to use a gun!

The two innocent looking kids who accidentally resurrect Aang are Katara, one of the last waterbenders of her tribe, and Sokka. These characters were originally Asian in the television series this film is based on, but Shyamalan chose to cast Caucasian actors instead. To say fans were angered is one of the ultimate understatements of the year. If Shyamalan was such an ardent admirer of the show, he would have honored the source material without question. His casting decision is even more bewildering when you take into account he is an Indian American filmmaker, an ethnicity sorely underrepresented in movies. Furthermore, the actors he cast are personality free and spend way too much time emoting when they should have been acting.

The main antagonist of “The Last Airbender” is the fire nation which appears to be comprised of men who have had all the joy sucked out of their lifeless faces. All of them seem to be on the same emotional wavelength, and none ever appears to enjoy being pyromaniacs for life. Would it be too much to show the bad guys enjoying what they do even as we want to see them fail?

Most of the cast here are unknowns which I thought might give Shyamalan the power to discover some incredible new talent as he did with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” But from the start you see that these actors are not going to even compare to that kid who saw dead people.

Aang is played by Noah Ringer, and his job seems to be playing the emotion more than the character. We never fully buy into what Aang is doing because Ringer is not able to give us a character worth rooting for. Nicola Peltz plays Katara, and Shyamalan said he refused to make the movie without her, but she is not given much to do other than pine for Aang who is way too young for her. She keeps coming on to Aang like some stalking fan, and I kept waiting for Aang to drop his polite guard and yell at her, “COULD YOU GIVE ME A MOMENT TO MYSELF???!! PLEASE???!!!!”

The biggest name “The Last Airbender” has to offer is Dev Patel whom we all remember from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Patel plays Prince Zuko who spends an obscene amount of time moaning and groaning over how he was once heir to the throne but has since been exiled by his father. The only way back into his dad’s good graces is to capture Aang. After a while, I couldn’t figure out if Zuko was a good or a bad guy. Maybe that ambiguity was supposed to be there in the screenplay, but it gave me a headache just thinking about what role this character was supposed to play in the story.

As for the screenplay, it features dialogue which sounds like people listlessly reading facts from some outdated history book which should have been removed from circulation seven years ago. Much of it cannot be digested without cringing in utter horror. This is the same problem I had with the “Star Wars” prequels as they too contained characters made to sound like they are in some stuffy period piece when they should sound relatively normal. Compared to those three movies, however, George Lucas’ dialogue sounds amazingly fresh compared to what comes from Shyamalan’s pen.

I’m not sure what else to say about “The Last Airbender” other than it is a monumental failure, and the blame for its epic awfulness lays solely at Shyamalan’s feet. One has to wonder how the director of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” could have stumbled so badly. He has gone from being a wunderkind of cinema to its abandoned stepchild, and I think success has spoiled him too much to where the creative freedom he has at his disposal needs to be reined in. This is the same guy who pulled off one of the most brilliant twists ever in a movie with “The Sixth Sense,” and now he has given us a summer blockbuster every bit as inept and infuriating as last year’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

Do I regret watching “The Last Airbender?” No, not really. It was worth it just to watch the finished result so I could analyze everything wrong with it. But with so many movies out there worth watching, I would encourage you to avoid this one at all costs. Watching paint dry will prove to be a far more invigorating experience. Better yet, watch the Nickelodeon animated television series it is based on instead. You do not need to convince me it is better than this cinematic atrocity.

Maybe Shyamalan should just direct for the time being. No more screenwriting. Lord knows how long it’s going to be before he gets over this creative disaster. Considering the talent involved, there’s no excuse for it to be this atrocious. None whatsoever.

ZERO out of * * * *

 

‘I Saw the Devil’ Serves Up Revenge at its Coldest and Most Brutal

I Saw the Devil movie poster

Many people will be quick to criticize “I Saw the Devil” as being excessively and unnecessarily violent. Indeed, it is an unrelentingly grim cinematic experience as we watch a serial killer chop up beautiful young women into little pieces and the boyfriend of one of them getting his revenge on the evil bastard. I’m guessing there will be a number of critics as well who will say Americans would never come up with such graphic depictions, but we know otherwise (“Saw” or “Hostel” anyone?).

But unlike other horror movies, “I Saw the Devil” does not exist to simply gross us out or make us uncomfortable as humanly possible. There’s a real story here amidst all the carnage about the hollowness of wanting revenge and of what it does to those who seek and get it. But Jee-woon Kim, the same man who directed “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” has created a motion picture which finds brutally fresh new twists that keep us pinned to our seats for the entire two and a half hour running time. Yes, it is truly unrelenting.

The movie starts off with the beautiful Joo-yeon (Oh San-Ha) talking with her fiancé Soo-Hyun (Lee Byung-hun) on the phone while she is waiting in her car on a snowy road out in the middle of nowhere. Before you know it, a man by the name of Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) viciously attacks and knocks her out. Back at his grungy workshop, Joo-yeon begs for her life and tells Kyung-chul she is pregnant, but it does no good. Kyung-chul’s face is an enigma as you are not sure what he is feeling at the moment. You want to think he has some form of empathy in his rotten soul, but to him this is a luxury he cannot afford. Either way, it doesn’t stop him from chopping away at Joo-yeon with a rusty hatchet.

Upon finding her severed head in a nearby lake, Soo-Hyun, a special agent, vows to make her attacker feel the same exact pain he made his victims feel. From there, the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and we begin to wonder which of them is the more vicious and violent. Unlike most American revenge thrillers where we can tell the hero apart from the bad guy, the line between them is hard at times to make out.

The first thing I want to say about “I Saw the Devil” is just how beautiful the cinematography by Lee Mo-gae is. It’s kind of a cross between the vivid colors of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and the immensely cold and snowy landscape of “Let the Right One In.” I’m guessing Kim Jee-woon and Lee Mo-gae were inspired by the filmmakers of both movies, and even he succeeds in finding a beauty amidst all the hideous carnage which goes on. The image of the snow proves to be a metaphor for how cold the soul of the two main characters are or have since become, and things grow colder for them all the way towards the movie’s messy climax.

In terms of acting, Choi Min-sik’s performance stands above everyone else’s here. Choi is best known for his amazing and unforgettable performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy.” Throughout the movie’s running time, he never tries to hide the fact his character of Kyung-chul is a pure psychopath and a manipulator of emotions he is unable to fully experience on his own. It’s a brave performance which doesn’t hold back anything, and it makes you wonder what depths the actor went to in playing such a twisted human being.

Lee Byung-hun also deserves points for bravery as the now fiancé-less Soo-Hyun. This is the character we most easily identify with here, but he soon becomes “I Saw the Devil’s” most tragic one as well. We can’t really blame him for wanting revenge and to torture this killer without a conscience, but as the movie goes on, we see how his quest for vengeance it is destroying whatever is left of his damaged soul. Lee makes us care about this man even as he becomes almost as depraved as Kyung-Chul. Even when he slices off a key part of Kyung’s body, we still follow him even if we are increasingly repelled by his actions. His conscience comes out in the form of Soo-Hyun’s family, but their sane take on the situation is not enough to pull him back from the abyss of hatred he is forever trapped in.

Make no mistake, “I Saw the Devil” is a seriously violent motion picture. It feels like forever since I’ve seen so much blood spurting out of the human body on the silver screen. I also can’t remember the last time a guillotine was used so predominantly in a movie either. All the same, like any great Argento movie, it’s rendered in the most beautiful cinematic fashion. This is not your average “Friday the 13th” sequel where things are thrown together in the cheapest way possible. The colors are vividly realized, making everything we see here all the more cinematically gruesome.

Once you get past the seemingly unending carnage, you will see how these two men pretty much deserve one another. “I Saw the Devil” is a strong character piece featuring people who, in any other movie, would be at opposite ends of the law-abiding spectrum, but who have more in common with one another than they initially realized. While a part of us wants to see this sick bastard suffer horribly, there’s another part slowly reminding us how we can suffer just as much in wanting an eye for an eye. It’s also full of twists and turns you cannot see coming, and none of them seems convoluted in the slightest. The movie is full of surprises, many of them incredibly grim. If you thought “Harry Brown” was dark, this will redefine the term for you.

Now look, I am not saying it is bad to like revenge/retribution movies. Lord knows we need them every once in a while in order to exercise the parts of our psyche which are hopefully ruled over by common sense. But sometimes we need a cinematic reminder of how wrong it can be to get what you wish for. Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” was one of the harshest examples of this, and “I Saw the Devil” is not far behind.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Predators’ Rescues This Franchise From its PG-13 Depths

Predators movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010.

After those two god-awful “Alien vs. Predator” movies which brought each franchise down to an unforgivably cartoonish level, at least one franchise gets back on track with the Robert Rodriguez produced “Predators.” It puts, as Arnold Schwarzenegger described them, the ugly motherfuckers back into the action-packed R-rated territory where they belong, and we are provided with a cast of characters who are mostly complex and a bit cliched, but they are never bland like the standard bunch of fools which inhabit every other summer blockbuster movie in existence. It also completely disregards the groan-inducing existence of the aforementioned “AVP” movies and acts as a direct sequel to “Predator” and “Predator 2.” Still, it is clear from the get go how this one owes much of its inspiration to the 1987 original.

Schwarzenegger continues to evade each sequel made to “Predator,” so we instead have Adrien Brody starring as Royce, an ex-military soldier who has long since become a mercenary. In light of movies like “The A-Team” and “Green Zone” which were clearly anti-mercenary, now we have one we can root for without too much cynicism. “Predators” commences with Royce waking up as he is free falling in a way Tom Petty never sang about through the atmosphere to a planet’s surface where his parachute opens just in the nick of time. Once there, he comes into contact with others who have arrived in the same manner. They are all from different ethnic backgrounds but have one thing in common; they are the worst of the worst and are the best at what they do which is eliminating their respective enemies. Not all of them make it safely though as one slams to the ground when his parachute fails to open. This reminded me of Michael Rooker’s line from “Cliffhanger” when he said, “Gravity’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

They believe they are still on earth as the jungle looks all too familiar in their eyes, but it is soon revealed they are actually on some distant unnamed planet and have been dropped into a game preserve. Upon realizing they are in foreign territory, Royce correctly surmises they are the game. The predators are out there in their camouflage disguises, ready to dismember their prey in the most lethal way possible. I’m sure many you have seen the first two “Predator” movies and have gloried in their gloriously gory kills, and you can expect many good ones in this sequel.

The one thing I really liked about “Predators” is how it surrounds us with characters that are not the least bit watered over. Their lives have descended into the dark spaces we live to avoid, and their actions over time have branded them as criminals who are among the most wanted by their governments. Regardless, we still root for them to defeat the Predators on their turf which resembles an Amazonian rain forest. None of them are easily likable, but they are also not the same boring stereotypical schmucks which overpopulated the “AVP” movies. Like the characters from the original “Predator,” many whom have since become politicians, each one has their own set of quirks and crimes to run away from.

In addition to Adrien Brody, Alice Braga co-stars as Isabelle, a sniper from the Israel Defense Force and a CIA black operations assassin. Braga’s role continues the genre’s popular usage of strong female characters who can never ever be defeated easily, if at all. You also have Danny Trejo as the ruthless enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel named Cuchillo, Oleg Taktarov as a Russian commando Nikolai (a lot of Russian characters get named Nikolai in movies), Louis Ozawa Changchien as Yakuza enforcer Hanzo, Mahershala Ali as Sierra Leone RUF death squad soldier Mombasa, Topher Grace as a doctor named Edwin who seems misplaced among the group but has his own dark secrets, and Walton Goggins as San Quentin death row inmate Stans. They have their own specific weapons which act as an extension of what they are capable of doing, and despite their differences and varying levels of corruption, they need each other to survive. The writers did a good job of individualizing each character to where they stand out memorably, and each of them show how predators are equal opportunity decapitators. But therein lies the meaning behind the title of the movie; the humans are predators as well, and it’s kill or be killed.

By destroying the predators before they get murdered in a most vicious manner, the humans see this as their shot at redemption for all their bad deeds. Stans, on the other hand, who was on the verge of being executed, sees this as an opportunity to do the same things he got sent him to death row for. Its proof once again that crime makes you stupid.

While Rodriguez’s name has been plastered all over the promotional materials for “Predators,” the movie was directed by Nimród Antal who previously made “Vacancy” and “Armored.” Nimród gets a good dose of suspense and tension going, and he shows no interest in giving us a PG-13 movie we did not ask for. He does, however, let the pace drag towards the middle and gives us a little more exposition than we need. Things do pick up towards the end though, so he certainly did not forget the kind of movie fans expected to see.

The Predators themselves still look very threatening after all these years, and the filmmakers also bring us different versions of them throughout the carnage, just like at the end of “Predator 2.” We even get some Predator-like dogs which speed off after the protagonists like they are cougars coming out of nowhere. They look like the most vicious German shepherds you could ever come across. I know people think Doberman pinchers are the most dangerous dogs, but German shepherds freak me out more.

At first, it feels odd to see Brody cast as an action hero, but he pulls it off and makes Royce one of the more authentic antiheroes I have seen recently. Yes, he does have that moment where he takes his shirt off to show us how often he goes to the gym, but that is indeed an authentic six pack you see on him. Once again, Brody proves to be an actor who deserves a little more credit than he often gets.

I also really liked Braga as Isabelle as the actress sells you completely on her character of a female soldier who is tough as nails and not to be trifled or flirted with. She’s also the one who convinces the group how they are better off sticking together in the midst of odds which threaten to be as harsh as those of winning the California Lottery.

There’s also an inspired supporting performance by Laurence Fishburne as Roland Noland, a soldier who has managed to survive for “ten seasons” without having been slaughtered. The price for his survival though is the loss of his sanity as he has been on this planet for much longer than anyone should. Morpheus he ain’t, and Roland threatens to be every bit as lethal as the Predators. Granted, it’s kind of hard to make friends when many of them get sliced in half before you get to know their middle name, and it’s easy to develop invisible friends and talk to yourself as these aliens prove to be lacking in conversational skills. Fishburne is a kick, and it would have been cool to have seen more of him here.

But let’s not forget one of the most pivotal characters in this franchise which is the music of Alan Silvestri. The score for “Predators” was actually composed by John Debney, but Silvestri’s unforgettable themes are on full display here. All the heavy horn blasts, staccato string rhythms, and undulating timpani rolls are on display, and they continue to highlight all the action and tense proceedings throughout. While Debney does make the score his own, even he can’t ignore the themes Silvestri made famous.

Still, there is really no way to fully capture the menace these cinematic creatures had to the same level of the original. One of the great things about “Predator” was that, as with “Alien” or even “Jaws,” you didn’t get to see the full creature until the movie’s last act. As a result, they were scarier to where the thought of them alone left you deeply unnerved. These creatures have been around for so long now, and we have become all too familiar with how they look and attack which does take from this finished product.

But for what it’s worth, “Predators” does provide some slam bang entertainment which helps to make up for those horrifically bad “Alien vs. Predator” movies, and it brings this particular franchise back to its roots, something that was long overdue. My only other complaint is there is not enough of Danny Trejo to see here, but we’ll be catching up with that badass soon when “Machete” gets released, and I can’t wait for that one.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Iron Man 2’ is Overloaded but Still a lot of Fun

Iron Man 2 poster

It was too easy to expect “Iron Man 2” to be better than the original. Many comic book movie sequels in recent years have blown away their predecessors to where you struggle to remember what the previous films were about. “Spider-Man 2,” “X-Men 2,” “Blade II” and “The Dark Knight” made us believe it was mandatory for sequels to be more enthralling because all the origin stuff was finally out of the way to where things could become a whole lot more interesting.

I was worried “Iron Man 2” would end up being like “Spider-Man 3,” a film whose massive disappointment still irks me years after its release. That sequel had far too much going on in it to where I quickly lost interest, and it was such a comedown from the brilliant “Spider-Man 2.” You’d hope the filmmakers and studios would remember how these movies do best with just one villain for the superhero to deal with. Sometimes you can get away with two, but you may be asking for trouble if you go beyond that.

With that said, “Iron Man 2” is still a lot of fun. Regardless of the flaws and clichés this time around, it is still the kind of experience you hope to have with a summer movie like this. Director Jon Favreau is back as is the always entertaining Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, whose heroics prove to be every bit as big as his ego.

This sequel starts six months after Tony has come out to the world as Iron Man, feeling no need to disguise himself in some geeky disguise like Clark Kent or Peter Parker. He makes a grand entrance at the Stark Expo which has since been relocated to Flushing, New York, and he resists the urge to make his technology available to the U.S. military. Regardless of the demands of smarmy Senator Stern (Gary Shandling is great fun to watch here) to make Tony turn over the Iron Man suit over to him, Tony stands confident in telling everyone he has successfully privatized world peace.

As always, success breeds enemies, and you can only go so high before you get knocked off your pedestal. The vicious knock down comes from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a deeply embittered and heavily tattooed Soviet physicist who is led by his father to believe Tony’s father, Howard Stark, had betrayed him by deporting him from America. Ivan eventually puts together his own arc reactor which allows him to use these electrified whips to inflict serious damage on objects and especially humans foolish enough to come within 20 feet of him. Clearly, Ivan has spent at least a decade in prison, and he has tattoos covering just about every section of his body. It made me think about what Robert Mitchum said about Max Cady in the “Cape Fear” remake:

“Jesus! I don’t know whether to look at him or read him!”

Rourke is a lot of fun to watch in this role which has him doing a pretty good Russian accent, and it’s a vast improvement over the crazy Irish brogue he tried to pull off in “A Prayer for The Dying.” Like the best actors, he focuses on the pain which drives his character, giving us something much greater and more fearsome than your typical one-dimensional villain. The only downside of his performance is that we don’t get to see enough of him. After one great fight scene on a race trick, we have to wait for Ivan’s electric whipping act to return in the film’s final act. Still, this is Rourke we’re talking about, and he gives it his all here like he did in “The Wrestler.” If there is one thing which hasn’t changed, it’s that Rourke still plays characters who never take the time to shampoo their hair.

Tony’s other chief nemesis is Justin Hammer, a business rival looking to create his own line of Iron Man suits since Tony is unwilling to share his. Plus, Hammer is looking to get into the Pentagon, a place Stark cannot see himself partying at. Hammer is played Sam Rockwell who provides a good dose of comic relief while still giving his character a nasty edge. You can feel the relentless resentment Hammer has for Stark and how it spills over into bringing Ivan on board not so much out of respect, but as a chance to tear down the empire Stark Industries has built up over the years. Rockwell continues to be one of the most interesting actors working today, and I loved how he tried to mimic Tony’s dance onto the stage at his own show to little avail.

The other big addition to “Iron Man 2” is Scarlett Johansson who plays Natalie Rushman, Tony’s new personal assistant. But eventually she is revealed to be a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. named Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who is flexible in ways her enemies only wish they were. The coolest fight scenes in “Iron Man 2” belong to Johansson, and she dominates the screen every time she’s onscreen. Her cool confidence combines with an irresistible sexiness. Like Rourke, she is underused here, but she is fantastic to watch throughout.

And of course, we have returning characters such as Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and Pepper ends up inheriting more responsibilities such as becoming the new CEO of Stark Industries. Samuel L. Jackson is also back as Nick Fury, having appeared in the post credits sequence of “Iron Man.”

Also returning to Tony’s side is Lt. Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, only this time he’s played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle is a fantastic actor and it is fun to see Rhodey try on one of those Iron Man suits, but I miss Terence Howard in the role. Howard brought a gravity to Rhodes which balanced out perfectly with Stark’s uncontainably egocentric personality. It’s no fault of Cheadle’s that Rhodes is not as strong a character this time around.

Watching “Iron Man 2” quickly reminded me of how good the first one was. Yes, it was an origin movie, but it was also one of the better ones in how fresh it felt and of how invested it was in the characters as well as special effects, something other summer blockbusters could learn from. We were left wanting more, but we also didn’t leave the theater feeling partially or completely unfulfilled. “Iron Man” left us patiently waiting for the sequel instead of craving for it in record time. Considering how good the first one was, we wanted the filmmakers to make as good a follow up as humanly possible.

“Iron Man 2,” however, is somewhat undone by putting too much into one movie. There are too many characters and bad guys here to where some don’t get enough of a chance to develop into something more interesting than usual. But Favreau keeps everything moving at a swift pace, and the cast is perfectly chosen as each one gets their moment to shine and bring their own uniqueness to their character.

But the one guy who really holds this franchise together is Downey Jr., and not once does he try to compromise Tony Stark/Iron Man and make him easily likable. Whenever Tony ends up acting like a jerk, we know what fuels his character; a despair over knowing how that the thing which saved him may also kill him sooner than he would prefer. I’m also thrilled he didn’t turn Tony into another superhero who constantly whines about the responsibilities they are forced to deal with. Tony wants all those responsibilities, and you know that with Downey Jr. playing the role, he will never shy away from what is expected of him.

I’m glad to say “Iron Man 2” is no “Spider-Man 3” thank goodness, but it could have been had Favreau and company not kept things going at the right pace. In the future, let’s hope Marvel sticks with one villain instead of two or more as it will make for a more effective motion picture. Still, all we ask from a summer movie like this is for it to be a lot of fun, and this one gives audiences a very entertaining ride.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Salt’ Has Angelina Jolie Doing More Than Tomb Raiding

Salt movie poster

Looking back, the summer 2010 movie season was truly the summer of the preposterous action movie. We got the big screen version of “The A-Team” which had four guys trying to steer a parachuting tank with its turret by firing rounds out of it, then there was Tom Cruise who could do just about anything except take the time to go to the bathroom in “Knight and Day” (Jack Bauer had that problem too), and even the brilliant “Inception” employed a concept which is not at all possible (unless the military is trying to keep it a secret). And then there was “Salt” starring Angelina Jolie which runs very rapidly through a river of plot holes and leaps in logic, and it’s just as much fun as the films I just mentioned. Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger” and “Rabbit Proof Fence”) who keeps things moving at such a fast pace, there’s not much time to sit back and count all the inconsistencies. All we can do is hang on to the edge of our seats and revel in the slam bang action brought to us without an overuse of CGI effects.

Jolie plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt who is just about to head on home to her loving husband Mike (August Diehl) who loves to study spiders when she and her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) suddenly get the opportunity to interrogate a Russian defector. During this interrogation, the defector reveals that a highly trained Russian agent will assassinate the Russian President when he visits the United States. He the name of this agent is Evelyn Salt, and the chase is on from there. Immediately thrown under a veil of heavy suspicion, Evelyn desperately rushes out of the office to find her husband before he disappears from her life forever. Never mind abiding the law or taking the time to explain herself, she wants her husband now! When a woman gets pissed, it is in your best interest not to argue with her, especially if she is a CIA agent!

Evelyn Salt is a mixture of both Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, and this is especially the case in how she manages to evade capture or break free from highly trained agents and officers on more than one occasion. The movie really plays on Jolie’s strengths throughout, and of the kind of person the media has perceived her to be. I say this because over the years she has been treated like some seriously deranged human being who would have sex with her bother instead of a regular person which she is if anyone actually bothered to notice. Jolie plays on these perceptions throughout “Salt” as we watch her relentlessly pursue those who wish to capture and question her, and also when she changes her appearance to get closer to her objective.

I also liked how by the time she comes to meet the man who will soon become her husband, you can believe she has been fully trained to all she can do. A lot of movies would have you believe these characters were born with these skills and have perfected them since they were toddlers. With Jolie, you never doubt her even as the movie becomes more ridiculous by the minute.

There are so many twists and turns throughout “Salt” to where it shamelessly flaunts its illogic plot developments throughout to where we give up trying to figure it all out. Compared to many of Noyce’s other movies, this is easily the most kinetic action movie he has made to date even when compared to “Dead Calm” which introduced Nicole Kidman to the world. You could complain about how things don’t add up, but Noyce never lets the pace of the movie lag for a second, and we never find the time to sort through the plot and characters while we are watching. For other movies this would be a major hindrance, but for “Salt” it works to its advantage. You’re too thoroughly entertained to even care if this film is messing with our head one time too many.

In addition to the talents of Ms. Jolie, you also have Liev Schreiber as her partner and friend Ted Winter. Many consider Schreiber to be this stone-faced actor who wears the same expression in each and every movie he does, but this is probably because they have never seen him act onstage where he gives one brilliantly inspired performance after another. Schreiber holds his own opposite the formidable Jolie as he desperately works to protect his friend from those who would make her disappear, and you root for him as he gets closer and closer to getting a full idea of who she really is.

You also have Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peabody, an agent above Winter who pursues Salt relentlessly. He’s the character you want to shake around and slap in the face so he can see how wrong he is about her (or how wrong we think he is). Chiwetel has done great work over the years, most notably in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” and he makes Peabody more than your average one-dimensional government official who would foolishly believe a Russian defector over a loyal agent from the CIA.

We also have to give Noyce a lot of credit for not relying on a plethora of CGI effects in “Salt.” When you see Jolie clinging for dear life on her apartment building 12 stories up from the ground, that was really her (get ready for some serious vertigo). It all reminded me of how good “Live Free or Die Hard” was as it tried to make the effects as real as possible as the filmmakers came to realize the typical film going audience would no longer be easily fooled by CGI effects. Sometimes they are not even better than the real thing.

If there is one seriously massive complaint I have against “Salt,” it’s in regards to Andre Braugher’s role as the Secretary of Defense. Those of you who know me are fully aware of what a die-hard fan I am of the NBC cop show from the 1990’s, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Braugher’s work on the show was beyond brilliant, and not many other actors can manipulate people through such theatrically volcanic explosions of anger. Furthermore, let us not forget his work in movies like “Glory” where he made the first of many memorable impressions. But in “Salt,” he is relegated to a role where he barely has any lines and is given far too little to do. What gives?! You want to cast Braugher in a movie, then you give him a role which is in tune with his well-known talents. Stop giving him roles which could be played by anyone.

Maybe “Salt” is more fun than it deserves credit for. But along with a pulsating music score by James Newton Howard and some tight film editing by John Gilroy and the well-regarded Stuart Baird, the movie gives you a good dose of adrenalin pumping fun which we don’t always get on the silver screen. Nitpick all you want about the events in “Salt,” it’ll still keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Ghost Writer’ Shows Roman Polanski Has Not Lost His Touch as a Filmmaker

The Ghost Writer movie poster

The act of ghost writing a book for a celebrity, be it a memoir or perhaps a children’s book, seems like a cheat. Granted, there are a lot of celebrities out there who do in fact write their own books, sometimes with the help of another, and good for them. But you can’t convince me O.J. Simpson wrote that book which contained his supposed confession of the double murder he committed back in 1994 that claimed his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. By now, we should know Simpson is going to be the last one to admit to any wrongdoing, and the idea behind it was pathetic to say the least. Still, there was a nice sum of money involved in this particular ghost-written book, and Simpson was struggling financially.

What really has me wondering about this whole process itself is who the ghost writer is, and of how they about seeing their work being credited to another who didn’t write it. On one hand, you avoid a lot of the hoopla and screaming fans who worship the work to an unhealthy extent, but the benefits you get out of it are depressingly minimal it seems. You are basically an anonymous person in a sea of people who get far more attention than they deserve, and this makes you easily expendable as a result.

Now I’m not mistaking “The Ghost Writer” as the definitive example of what a writer like this goes through, but the feeling of replacing someone or fearing you will be easily replaced cannot leave one in a state of supreme confidence. But what the movie version of Robert Harris’ book shows is how it can make for a really good mystery thriller.

“The Ghost Writer” is the film Roman Polanski made while he was “wanted and desired,” and it’s the same one he managed to finish post-production on while under house arrest. The writer of the movie’s title is played by Ewan McGregor, and to add to some vivid illustration to the title, we never learn his character’s real name throughout the entire running time.  Anyway, he gets a very lucrative job offer from a publishing firm CEO, played by James Belushi of all people, to ghost write the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). It turns out that McGregor’s predecessor on this project died in an apparent suicide, and his body was found washed up on the beach.

Once hired, McGregor is taking to Lang’s oceanfront house on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England. Of course, this was actually filmed in Germany as Polanski could not step on American soil without getting arrested. Upon looking over the manuscript from the deceased writer, and in his talks with Lang, McGregor comes to discover this ex-Prime Minister may have been involved in handing over suspected terrorists in Britain to the CIA for torture. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he fears he will end up like his predecessor.

After all these years, Polanski still knows how to make an excellent thriller, and he manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and intensity over the movie’s two hour plus running time. Throughout “The Ghost Writer” he is extra careful not to reveal too much of what’s going on, and it leaves us guessing as to what the truth really is. Like McGregor, we are left to sift through the clues left behind and figure out how they all add up.

McGregor doesn’t play any writer here, but instead one eager to get at the truth which is just within their grasp, and that’s even if they know they will not like what they see. McGregor gives a really strong performance here as the ghost writer, and Polanski succeeds in putting us in his shoes to where we feel as lost as him as he gets deeper into uncovering long kept secrets. During a chase scene, we are in the actor’s mindset, and even we can’t figure where to go or who to trust.

Also great in “The Ghost Writer” is Brosnan who plays an ex-Prime Minister who bares a not so subtle resemblance to Tony Blair. This gives the former James Bond actor the continued opportunity to shed his 007 image as Adam Lang in a way he must have been eager to do. Behind this image, we see on the television screen a man stuck in a moral contradiction he will never be able to escape. Flanked by his wife, a team of advisors, and besieged by a plethora of angry protestors out for his blood, Brosnan gives us a character you almost have to admire in how he manages to keep many things to himself despite an unrelenting pressure to reveal stuff he’d rather not reveal.

Olivia Williams is also terrific as Lang’s wife, Ruth, and she herself is a complex study in emotions. In the face of her advisors, Ruth has a tough façade which screams out “don’t bullshit me” whenever possible. But when Ruth is alone with the ghost writer, she lets this mask down to reveal someone who feels hopelessly trapped in a situation she has no real control over. She was probably promised something much different in life, something more positive, but she now looks back on it all as one big lie. Taking her character through different levels of emotion is fascinating to watch, and Williams holds our attention completely whenever she is onscreen.

I also loved seeing Kim Cattrall here as well, and her British accent was absolutely flawless. As Amelia, Lang’s personal assistant and mistress, she manages to keep the coolest face despite escalating controversies which threaten to define this ex-Prime Minister as a deceptive war criminal. Her strictness of directions can be seen through her sexy smile, and she holds her own against Lang’s wife with aplomb. There is an innate sexiness to Cattrall’s performance in how she goes about her days not losing a beat, and it is enthralling to see what she pulls off here.

There are also a number of familiar faces to be found in “The Ghost Writer.” You also have Timothy Hutton who plays Lang’s American lawyer Sidney Kroll, Tom Wilkinson who portrays Harvard law professor Paul Emmett, and even Eli Wallach shows up in a memorable cameo. In some cases, their appearances could have really taken us out of the movie, but none of them are able to hide the fact the real star of “The Ghost Writer” is Polanski.

Ironically, Polanski is in a good position with “The Ghost Writer” as the shadow of his most famous movies like “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby” are not hanging over this one. Throughout the years, he was trapped by his earlier work which he received so much critical acclaim for, and it affected his later movies like “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate” to name a few. But every so often he gives us a motion picture to remind us of how he has never lost his unique talent for filmmaking.

We see so many directors drop the ball in terms of maintaining suspense, but Polanski has not lost a beat, and this film sees him hitting his stride again. Many will say “The Ghost Writer” is the kind of movie which doesn’t get made anymore, but Polanski calls Hollywood’s bluff on that to where this is one which cannot be missed.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity 2’ Proves to be as Effective as the Original

Paranormal Activity 2 movie poster

We had every reason to expect the sequel to the surprise hit “Paranormal Activity” would be horrid. Movies like this come out of nowhere and make more money than anyone could have ever expected, so a sequel has to follow, right? God forbid the money train stops at just one movie! Even in the new millennium, greed is still king. Most people were expecting this to be as terrible as “The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows” which itself was a giant insult to its predecessor, hence giving more fuel to the “Blair Witch” haters who somehow felt tricked out of their money. Besides, how can you expect a story like this to remain fresh, let alone terrifying? We weren’t expecting what got hurled at us last time, literally and figuratively speaking, but now we feel more prepared than ever to scan every scene of this sequel in an effort to predict when the scares come.

Well, it is to my astonishment to say “Paranormal Activity 2” is no “Blair Witch 2.” Heck, it’s not even an “Open Water 2” or a “Jaws 2” or even an “Exorcist 2” for that matter. This sequel turns out to be as scary and unnerving as the original, and it respects Oren Peli’s film for what it was and does nothing to detract from it. In fact, this sequel adds additional layers to the original which enhances the experience of watching it all the more.

“Paranormal Activity 2” opens up in Carlsbad, California where we meet Dan and his second wife Kristin as they arrive home with their newborn son, Hunter. Once there, we also get to meet Ali, Dan’s daughter from another marriage, the family housekeeper and nanny Martine, and the loyal family dog Abby. A couple of days later after going out of town, they come back to find the house ransacked, but nothing has been stolen. As a result, Dan has security cameras installed to make his family feel safe, and maybe even catch whoever did this. After that, things get increasingly scary as the ominous hum which haunted Katie’s and Micah’s abode starts to show its presence in the family dwellings, and things begin to go bump in the night. Just like the original, the men never take the women or their fears seriously, and it makes the rest of us guys look like bad boyfriends and husbands.

Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat return from the first movie, but Katie is the one who is more prominently featured. It turns out Kristin is Katie’s sister, and they both shared a scary past as they were terrorized by an evil spirit. Both are hesitant to talk to explain what they went through as children because the thought of it coming back is too terrifying to consider.

The really clever thing about “Paranormal Activity 2” is it turns out to be a prequel as well as a sequel. It takes place several weeks before the events portrayed in the original, and the ending more or less coincides with what Katie and Micah went through. This, I thought, was an inspired decision because it gives more weight to not just this film, but the original as well. This is not just some dumb follow up with the same old story filled with unrelated characters making the same stupid mistakes. The fate of this family is very much interlocked with the fate of Katie and Micah, and their inevitable doom makes this sequel all the more haunting.

Whereas “Paranormal Activity” had just the one camera which Micah put in his and Katie’s bedroom for the most part, this second film has us looking through various security cameras which record the house from different angles, each revealing little things going on around the house. Then there are other scenes where characters are holding the camera and making us see everything as they search through the house late at night. The security cameras by themselves present images freaky enough to gives us goose pimples, but when we get the first-person perspective, things get even more intense than they already are.

You know what really gets to me about these movies? The silence around the house and the lack of a film score. For me, being alone in a room or a house without any noise gets my anxiety up and running as I suspect something bad is about to occur which I won’t be able to prevent from happening. Both “Paranormal Activity” movies understand this anxiety perfectly and play on it without ever relying on blood and gore. Plus, your home is where you and your family are supposed to feel the safest. What happens when the safety of your home is violated? Where can you feel safe after that?

The choice of director for “Paranormal Activity 2” is a surprise and not who I expected. Tod Williams is best known for directing “The Door in The Floor,” a criminally under seen drama with powerful performances by Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. How the producers thought of Williams for this film is beyond me, but he gives this sequel a strong suspenseful tone, and he keeps the tension at a high pitch throughout. Williams also gives us several excellent jump out of your seat moments which will make your hair stand on end, especially the one in the kitchen (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it).

The performances are nothing spectacular, but they are perfect for a film like this. I also have to give special props to Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat who still succeed in acting ever so naturally in front of the camera. After the first film, you’d think they would have a tougher time with this and be even more self-conscious than they were before. But they both act normal as if the first movie never happened which I found very impressive.

I’m not sure I can go on describing “Paranormal Activity 2” for fear of giving away too much. I was pleasantly surprised at how effective this sequel was because I expected it to be nothing more than a scam designed to produce a bigger profit than the original. The surprise of the first “Paranormal Activity” is gone, and there’s not much which is new brought to the material here. This sequel also has end credits which the original did not, although there is an elongated pause for those who want to escape the theater before they come up. But the premise is still very scary for those who were infinitely terrified by the first film. I left the theater with my nerves jangling, feeling very much like I did after I saw the original. A good deal of care was put into making this sequel work because everyone was prepared to tear it apart even before they saw it.

If you liked the first “Paranormal Activity,” I think you’ll like the sequel. For those of you who didn’t like it and can’t understand what the fuss was all about, don’t even bother.

I am also proud to say I didn’t make the same mistake of watching it before I went to bed like I did with the original. I saw it in the early afternoon when the sun was still out. It still freaked me out though. Getting to sleep that evening was not any easier.

* * * ½ out of * * * *