Monday, July 27, 2009

Orphan - zero stars (2009)

A moment of distress sets in during the early stages of Jaume Collet-Serra’s “Orphan,” in a dream sequence that features a mother-to-be strapped to an operating table as her newborn, said to have died in the womb, is savagely vacuumed out of her uterus and half of its remains are handed to her in a blanket. This sequence, we learn, is an offense of repetitive nature, to be replicated at several sequential periods of the movie when characters indulge in arson, threatening the lives of others, animal abuse, the murder of nuns, sabotaging marriages, throwing school bullies off playground equipment, suffocating kids who have spinal injuries and countless other questionable acts. For 123 minutes, we find ourselves at the mercy of a story that treats all of this to not just crude and shocking proportions, but also to points that showcase obvious lapses in moral judgment and taste. Such qualities seem to be mere technicalities in an age of horror when boundaries no longer are in view, and here is a movie that makes full use of its ability to strategize the harshest, most macabre manifestations seen in any recent film plot.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - ***1/2 (2009)

The Harry Potter of yesteryear is but a distant memory. Gone are the light-hearted dining conversations between young witches and wizards and magic lessons from ambitious Hogwarts professors, and in their place exists the foreboding, fateful realization that nothing stays the same and things can only get bleaker before they are resolved. Directed by David Yates, the talented Brit who gave J.K. Rowling’s heroes and villains a sense of cinematic importance in the series’ last installment, here is a movie beyond the concept of being in awe of its special effects or weighed by its plot twists; what he has done is stripped this franchise of all its prerequisites and devised something more meditative, more dramatic and more touching one might anticipate. This is a movie that steps far outside of the comfort zone and becomes an enthralling and fully-realized gothic fantasy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Burning Beds and Dancefloors; Remembering the lives of two generation-defining entertainers

I was amazed at how deeply struck and saddened I felt on Thursday when news of the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson hit the mass media. Here were two people that could be no different, set against opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum, who had accomplished something lasting and then faded away from the limelight either by personal choice or lack of motivation. Indeed, when it came to acknowledging their bodies of work, our minds had often been elsewhere because they seemed so far in the past. Yet in their own ways, they lived very public tragedies in recent times that warranted a deeper insight from those of us on the outside, she with her brave years-long battle with cancer and he with a decades-long decent into depression, legal troubles and mental instability.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Hangover - **1/2 (2009)

A stroke of irony fills the air in one of the parting shots of Todd Phillips’s “The Hangover,” when a character uncovers a digital camera containing evidence of a night of exploits and hands it over to Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), who suggests that he and his friends view the photos “only once” and then delete all of them from the memory card. What this scene ultimately accomplishes is two-fold: 1) it is beneficial in tying up various loose ends purposely left open throughout several integral moments of the plot; and 2) it gives certain audience members like me an outline in attempting to reach a coherent assessment of the picture as a whole. For two hours we are cheerfully pummeled into visual and verbal submission by incredibly direct dialogue, embarrassing character situations, impossibly convoluted scenarios and ridiculous plot twists. We laugh at most of them, and sometimes even laugh at the fact that we’re being so entertained by such showy nonsense. But it is nonsense purely for the moment, because once those theater lights lift and we return to reality, we are content in the notion that the experience, no matter how amusing, is over. Here is the kind of movie that rightly disposes of itself at the moment it realizes that mindless fun is only funny for a brief time, and never in multiple doses.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Up - ***1/2 (2009)

What a delightful, ambitious, sweet and good-natured undertaking this is! Pixar’s “Up,” the studio’s tenth feature-length endeavor and first to be filmed in 3D, opens on a note of human subtlety that goes beyond what we expect of a cartoon and grows into what may very well be the most touching human drama of the year. We are used to seeing many things from the minds of this high-functioning production company, ranging from charming shorts to brilliant fully-realized feature films, but as always you can never really know what is hidden in that big hat of tricks. Ten films later, and after great achievements like “Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles,” we now realize that we are not simply dealing with animators but visionaries, who treat their craft with all the care and precision of a director straight out of Hollywood’s golden age.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terminator: Salvation - *** (2009)

The ominous fashion in which “Terminator Salvation” begins its existence on screen does little to calm the nerves of franchise devotees worried about a film that is missing a quintessential action hero, but it does offer new challenges. Instead of being faced with bleak setups or recaps of prior finales, the movie instead opts to open in a jail cell in 2003, where a death row inmate (played by Sam Worthington) is visited by a mysterious figure known as Dr. Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter). She is there in a last-ditch attempt to get him to sign over the rights of his cadaver for scientific study, specifically for purposes of cancer research (as suggested by her ghostly, balding appearance). A little persuasion works in her favor, and mere hours before one Marcus Wright faces his lethal injection, the company which Dr. Kogan represents becomes the legal owner of what will remain of this prisoner. Flash forward 15 years: judgment day has happened, Earth’s surviving humans are in isolated pockets across the globe waiting to rise against the machines, and Marcus appears seemingly out of thin air, alive and breathing, with no memory of his whereabouts since that fateful day of his execution.