Saturday, August 22, 2009

Avatar (Sneak Peek)

I had the chance to check out about fifteen minutes of footage from James Cameron's new film, Avatar, releasing December 18. The movie is being hyped as a revolution in special effects and the boundaries of filmmaking.

After a brief intro from Cameron himself, we put on our bulky 3D glasses (especially for someone that already wears corrective lenses) and watched a quick early scene of Sam Worthington as a crippled soldier attending a briefing on a distant planet. The commanding officer is speaking to all the dangers in the jungles beyond the base. Cut to a scene with Sigourney Weaver strapping Worthington ("Jake" in the film) into an apparatus that scans his brain.

Apparently Jake's consciousness is then transferred to the tall, muscular body of a native alien, his "avatar." The next scene features Jake in his new self deep in the jungle going toe to toe with a dinosaur-like beast. From here on out, the clips are essentially highly rendered uber-detailed animated film set in this alien land. Creatures are attacking or attacked...Jake meets others of his "kind" and his grapples with a flying creature to show his dominance. The final minute or so is a montage of battle sequences with militaristic forces.

The 3D was intriguing (I probably haven't been to such a film since my childhood and it's obviously advanced a bit from the days of flimsy blue/red lensed glasses) and the effects are certainly solid, but, as I said, it's more or less exceptional animation. I'm intrigued by the story and I was very pleased visually, but I have this horrible feeling the film might be met with apathy outside of the genre set (of which the screening was mostly populated). It's been over 10 years since Cameron was king of the movie world with Titanic. I'm happy to see him return to his science-fiction roots, but from this glance Avatar won't offer anything earth-shaking.

So is it a revolutionary step in filmmaking that will change the future of movies? Maybe only for directors and producers with deep pockets and long leashes. I think the rest will still rely on actual actors and sets. We'll see how the general movie-going populace reacts in December.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Hangover

I'm not a huge fan of modern comedy. Most of it tries too hard, aims for the lowest of laughs and assumes that the only comedy that's funny requires bodily fluids, naked women to distract you from the lack of real jokes and an overpaid actor hamming it up with a goofy voice. But enough about Adam Sandler... (I kid...mostly.)

That's not to say that The Hangover doesn't have it's share of dirty, nay...filthy, jokes that are most definitely meant for an adult audience. At one point a seemingly gay naked Asian gangster attacks the leads and a tiger is dry humped in the back of a police we aren't talking about sophisticated humor in a British accent.

What makes The Hangover so much fun and such a solid modern comedy is sheer unpredictability and a cast that gels with comic synergy. The first act of this flick is a little slow, but necessary to set up the rest. Four guys head to Las Vegas for one last night of partying before one gets married. They get dressed for the night out and head to the roof for a drink and toast together before getting started. Flash-forward to the next morning as three of them wake up in a demolished room with a chicken, a tiger and no groom. No one has a clue what happened.

Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms (The Office) and bushy man-child Zach Galifianakis hold their own as the three groomsmen racing around town attempting to piece together a night they need to remember but may be happy they forgot. The quest puts them in one bizarre situation after another, including encounters with the aforementioned "gangster," a sweet stripper (Heather Graham) and Mike Tyson. Cue hilarity and enjoy.

Rating: B+

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lily Allen

Alright, Still - B
Sassy, sweet, profane and utterly British, Lily burst onto the pop scene in 2007 and immediately disarmed listeners with catchy ska-esque tunes occasionally fused with hip-hop and a potty mouth you can't help but smile at. Album opener "Smile" sets the tone immediately:

When you first left me I was wanting more
But you were fucking that girl next door
What ya do that for?
Thrown in a few more songs about dealing with unwanted suitors ("Knock 'Em Out"), life in a gimme-gimme world ("Everything's Just Wonderful") and a plea to her slacker brother, "Alfie," and you have a charming debut, but not too charming.

It's Not Me, It's You - A-
For her follow-up, Allen doesn't stray too far from her formula, but still grows up and out a bit, mixing in stronger social commentary with her usual cheeky attacks on bad lovers ("Not Fair"), small-minded people ("Fuck You"...nothing left to the imagination there) and the celebrity drug culture ("Everyone's At It"). Along the way she even gets downright romantic on "Who'd Have Known" and "Chinese." I look forward to where this gal can go in the future.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9

Some of the best science fiction films are those that slip in under the radar. They don't have a "name" cast, multimillion-dollar promotional campaigns or prime summer scheduling. They get by on solid screenwriting, directing and maybe a concept never before seen or expected. Think Dark City, Donnie Darko or Cloverfield. All "little" films that could...only the latter was a real box office success, but they all became cult classics through "you have to see this" word of mouth.

District 9 seems likely to be added to this list. Mostly unheralded in this summer's blockbuster season, it's quite possibly one of the best unconventional sci-fi films in years.

Filmed in a semi-documentary style (at least in the first half), the movie depicts one of the most honest portrayals of an alien visitation. In the early 80s, a giant spaceship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa (which the movie acknowledges is already different than most American-centric filmmaking would give us) and just sat there. Once the military got inside, they found millions of alien refugees in a state of disorder, disease and poor living conditions, eventually moving them to a poorly managed slum called District 9.

Twenty years have passed and conditions have only worsened. Johannesburg's residents are not pleased with their presence and occasional incursions, the governments of the world won't let the aliens (known as "prawns" for their insectile/crustacean-like appearances) leave or join our society. The third-world/war refugee analogies are pretty obvious, but there is no heavy-handed proselytizing here.

The prawns have powerful weapons that can't be used by humans, so a powerful corporation with UN-esque authority have taken it upon themselves to police the district and seize these weapons. Their latest effort is to relocate the aliens to another camp, further from civiliation (and presumably even more restricted). Our POV character is Wikus (Sharlto Copley), the paper-pusher promoted to oversee the evictions and serve notice across the district. Wikus ends up deeply embroiled in the struggle for the prawns to survive under circumstances I won't spoil, leading to a shift in the status quo and a battle for the future of an entire species.

At times brutal and violent, District 9 plays more like a street-drama than traditional genre flick, but it's still filled with incredible special effects work. The prawns themselves are masterfully done...I couldn't tell when they were CGI or practical models and/or costumes (if they are ever the latter at all). The haunting mothership looms over many shots and the action-packed final act features exotic weapons and machinery that makes CGI like Transformers look like over-done videogames.

District 9 is my pick for sleeper hit of 2009.

Rating: A-

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Alice in Chains

The Seattle music scene of the early 90s has been well-documented for pioneering the "grunge" sound...that raw, crunchy noise that broke past the by-then passe heavy metal phase. Eschewing big hair and makeup for flannel, combat boots and mop-tops, hard rock had new gods, albeit somewhat reluctant ones. Nirvana got the press and bittersweet ending, Pearl Jam tried their hardest to deny their stardom and Soundgarden launched spin-off bands. Alice in Chains is the band that always feels forgotten to me, but I found them one of the best of the era.

Anchored by the nasal snarl of front man Layne Staley and man-behind-the-music Jerry Cantrell, AiC kept their sound dark and sinister, more in tune with the "heavy" side of metal with occasional hints of country and acoustic sensibility. They aren't for everyone and they didn't get the pop love of those other bands, but they still contributed to a much-needed musical revolution.

Facelift - B-
Starts strong, but gets redundant in the latter half. Still, the first six tracks, including "Man in the Box" and "Sea of Sorrow" are early essentials

Sap - C
The first of two EPs with a more experimental, "softer" sound. Only "Got Me Wrong" stands out among the four tracks. Listen for Chris Cornell on "Right Turn."

Dirt - A-
Probably the most definitive and well-known AiC album is filled with tunes about drug addiction, anger, suicidal thoughts and my favorite track, "Rooster." See also "Down in a Hole," "Angry Chair" and "Would?"

Jar of Flies - A
AiC's best album is their second EP of slower acoustic tracks, famously written and recorded in one week. You didn't have to be a fan to appreciate chart-topper "No Excuses," epic and symphonic "I Stay Away" or haunting "Nutshell." Short, sweet and nearly perfect, Flies rates as one of my favorite albums.

Alice in Chains - B-
Layne Staley's recurring battle with heroin addiction delayed new material for a couple years and this self-titled album (their last all-new studio release) tries to reclaim their metal roots. It has a few great tunes (opener "Grind," Cantrell-sung "Heaven Beside You" and "God Am" really work) mixed with clunkers.

Unplugged - A-
Appearing on the popular MTV acoustic show probably seemed unlikely for this band, but the set proved just how graceful their music could be, even previous "hard rock" tunes. Watch the actual show to see Staley visibly worn but still able to mesmerize in one of his last appearances.

Music Bank and Nothing Safe - B
Staley's addiction and personal life problems made him a recluse before his overdose in 2002. He recorded a couple new tracks for box set Music Bank, preceded by "sampler" Nothing Safe. A three CD (and one multimedia) compilation of hit tracks, early demos and unreleased's mostly for the purist.

Live - C
Gathering live tracks from shows throughout the 90s, this disc is surprisingly spare of "classic" AiC songs.

Cantrell has recorded two solo albums and the band is "reuniting" with a new lead singer to release a new album in late September. I'm intrigued and concerned at the same time. The new decade/century hasn't been good to the grunge figureheads of the past, but I'll give it a listen all the same.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

The first Transformers, much like most Michael Bay films, was a over-directed, sunset-soaked mess of special effects, explosions and fetishistic shots of military vehicular hardware. But also like many Bay films, there was a guilty pleasure quality to it. Fans of the old toys, cartoons and comics might have felt slighted to see their favorite characters no longer familiar (other than iconic Optimus Prime), but the film didn't sell itself to be anything more than a mayhem-filled action flick with gratuitous shots of Megan Fox bending over a car engine and an Autobot peeing on Jon Turturro. No one really complained.

Given all of that, there was no reason to expect a sequel to be cinematic genius or anything more than the first. It's everything we were delivered the first time...with a little less charm, a lot more mayhem and nothing resembling coherent storytelling. Let's not forget a sexy fem-bot with deadly kisses and a peekaboo skirt, more Megan Fox in unlikely clothing and scenarios, a pair of "good guys" that are bad comedy racial stereotypes at best and Jon Turturro standing beneath a giant robot's testicles. I'm making none of that up.

Michael Bay is apparently the horny teenage dork of the director set.

Transformers 2 made a ton of money, of course (and since I don't get paid to write this stuff, I willingly contributed so I share in the blame), and will inevitably lead to a third flick, but I won't be catching it in a theatre.

Picking up some time after the first film, the Autobots (the good guys) are working with the military to hunt down and destroy Decepticons (the bad guys) still on the loose. Said bad guys are getting reinforcements from on high and look to resurrect their fallen leader, Megatron, on behalf of an even badder guy, The Fallen. Don't bother piecing it all together, it's pretty much irrelevant.

Shia LaBeouf re-enters the story while heading to college, finding a piece of a Transformer artifact and getting stalked/seduced/hunted by that fem-bot. He goes on the run with his robo-buddies and unlikely girlfriend Fox while getting tangled up in some plot involving ancient Transformers and Egypt. I don't know...I gave up making sense of the film when a fight burst out of the back of the Smithsonian (last time I checked in Washington D.C.) into a desert.

The Decepticons are even more forgettable in this film...during the final battle, I couldn't distinguish between any of them that didn't have balls. At least the Autobots had color and product placement transformations when they weren't talking in Ebonics about being unable to read.

The action was sharp and the effects mind-bending at times (I'm still annoyed with how many moving parts the robots have, though), but it's all a smokescreen for a movie without any real heart, intelligence or sense. Michael Bay can blow shit up like no one else, but after a while, you completely forget why you should care.

Yes, I'm capable of watching a "mindless" popcorn flick, but when we give Hollywood so much leniency to make them, eventually we'll be left with nothing but. Thankfully, last summer's blockbuster, The Dark Knight, proved that smart film-making can still rake in the dollars, too.

Rating: D+