Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Task of movie reviewing made much easier by absence of Jack Valenti

Just this past week, DVD screening copies of the Focus Features releases "The Door in the Floor" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" wound up on my doorstep. Their arrivals certainly weren't something to jot down on the out-of-the-ordinary note pad or anything (if you were a member of the Online Film Critics Society, you'd know full well that this happens frequently during the latter months of a year), but considering how much hysteria had been caused in the industry over the previous months regarding piracy, they were nonetheless a sight I hadn't expected to see for some time. The first emotion was that of skepticism, but then an epiphany: "Of course! That old poop Jack Valenti is no longer at the head of the table at the Motion Picture Association of America!" Remember what they used to say in those high school comedies about parents always spoiling the fun of an ambitious teenager? Imagine, then, how a party animal would feel knowing that his mom or dad has gone on an extended vacation, leaving him alone in the house.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Polar Express / ** (2004)

"The Polar Express" is the most expensive vanity project ever made. Fashioned out of a computerized concept, with a budget that reportedly extends into the area of $170 million, Robert Zemeckis's flashy and ambitious motion-capture holiday cartoon is so intoxicated by its own wild production values that it has little time to do anything else - not the least of which is tell a halfway-compelling story, even by the average child's standards. And that's a little disheartening, because the picture and all its positive energy arrives at a very convenient time, when the world around us in utter turmoil and there is such a strong desire for something genuinely uplifting. For those a little more intuitive than most young kids, however, it's hard to find much to celebrate in a film that seems less like a good-hearted fable and more like a successful business man waving around his bulky check book.

Friday, November 5, 2004

I, Robot / ** (2004)

Seeing the name Alex Proyas attached to any science fiction film should be an immediate assurance of greatness. What we are dealing with here is not just a specialist of his craft, but an artist and a visionary, celebrated by his peers for taking minimal concepts and developing them into something beyond expectation. Any moviegoer who was fortunate enough to get to see his "Dark City" during its brief 1998 theatrical run can vouch for this claim, as it remains perhaps the most imperative film of its genre in the last ten years (and more importantly, was seemingly responsible for providing a lot of the early ideas explored by the Wachowski brothers in "The Matrix"). Now, the very suggestion of seeing him at the helm of "I, Robot," a film inspired by the famous Isaac Asimov story of the same name, suggests that we may be in for a repeat scenario. Once a guy finds his true forte, after all, what's to stop him from going even further?

Shark Tale / ** (2004)

Ocean divers see only what their eyes permit when they descend into the deep corners of the sea, but animators come equipped with the privilege of imagination which allows them to perceive such things in both a brighter and more amusing framework. Innocent schools of fish can become civilized societies, while vibrant coral reefs can become big urban habitats. The fact that the floodgates have opened thanks to computer animation now allows these images to be pure realities - but just as innovation can breed creativity, so can it too breed repetition. Disney/Pixar's "Finding Nemo," released last year to immense commercial success, was the first computer-generated endeavor that gave personality and narrative flair to deep-sea creatures, and now we have "Shark Tale," in which the filmmakers fill the screen with the same familiar backdrops and characterizations that seem to have grown all too common by animation standards. If not for the fact that the visuals remain so colorful and distinctive, in fact, one would almost accuse the studio, Dreamworks, of being too predictable a competitor.

Saw / **1/2 (2004)

Unconventional brilliance or over-the-top fodder? These are the two answers that come to mind when one questions the achievement that is "Saw," especially as it leaps ever-so-zealously towards an ambitious climax. Up to that point, the movie's near-numbing attack on the senses has a certain zeal that is almost commendable - its approach a drastic departure from the most recent Hollywood horror films - and viewers react, just as the filmmakers hope, with a certain distress that is almost emotionally scar-inducing. But as is required of any movie with the chutzpah to challenge the conventions of value in the cinema, there must also be a certain amount of relevance in the scenario so that it emerges as something more than just a flashy geek show. Director James Wan's serial killer thriller, about a murderer whose streak of homicides makes his victims the target of their own fate, seems to provide little ground for that to happen; while its details are hardcore and gratuitous, the payoff is lackluster, and nearly all the moments in which you expect the film to pull away the mask and reveal a deeper identity end up feeling like long exercises in overkill. The fact that it is all well made on a technical level makes that assertion all the more difficult to face.

The Incredibles / **** (2004)

Pixar's "The Incredibles" is by far the best of the CGI-animated films in the Disney canon, a wondrous and exciting spectacle that is just as enticing narratively as it is visually, and a film that reaffirms the strength of the animator's imagination. It's also a considerably extreme departure from the Pixar standard, side-stepping the widely-accepted "buddy movie" approach of films like "Finding Nemo" and "Toy Story" so that it can charter new and more satirical territory - namely, a story involving a family of misfit superheroes. The leader of the pack, Mr. Incredible, is kind of like a Superman with more compatible social skills, and his partner in crime, the virtuous and fetching Elastigirl, is a headstrong woman who is perfectly capable of holding her own against a job dominated by the male ego. Together, they live by the tasks of any standard superhero formula - save the world, try to live a "normal" life, then save the world all over again - but as the movie opens, their vocation of choice is suddenly undermined by the onslaught of countless frivolous lawsuits (in one instance, Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal man but winds up injuring him in the process, thus resulting in a legal battle). With the profession now threatened, heroes worldwide turn in their masks and enroll in the Superhero Relocation Program. Their days of saving lives and correcting misdeeds, it seems, are over.