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Saturday, March 21, 2009

MONSTERS VS. ALIENS

By D.E.Levine

Director: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Producers: Lisa Stewart
Co-producers: Jill Hopper Desmarchelier, Latifa Ouaou
Story: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon
Screenplay: Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, Rob Lertterman, Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Cast Voices: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogan, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Paul Rudd, Stephen Colbert
Running Time: 95 Minutes
A Paramount release of DreamWorks Animated presentations
Genre: Animated, 3-D

When I met with Jeffrey Katezenberg of Dreamworks at CES2009 in January, he was excited about the commitment of Dreamworks to 3D for both television and film. I admit I was less enthusiastic since the technology has been around since the 1950s and the snippet that I caught in the last Superman film didn't convince me the technology was worthwhile.

I admit I was wrong since the 3D technology definitely enhances "Monsters vs. Aliens", the first full 3D production of 2009. Described by some as "Monsters, Inc." meets "War of the Worlds", the filmmakers borrow heavily from already existing sci-fi films, pop culture, and their own Dreamworks inventory, especially since Dreamworks partner Steven Spielberg has been associated with some of the greatest sci-fi films ever made.

Prior to the start of the film, a spaceship beams up to the Dreamworks logo where their famed moon-perched boy is seen fishing. From the beginning their are constant and shameless allusions to Star Wars, E.T. , Spaceballs, Dr. Strangelove, Station Zebra, Gulliver's Travels, King Kong, Godzilla and even The Wizard of Oz. There's even a humorous jab at Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' a film about global warming. Although the references may be lost on the younger crowd, the older audience members relate immediately.

While the writers could have developed totally new monsters for this film, they chose instead to fashion their monsters after some of the legendary existing sci-fi creatures. But their monsters are benign and funny instead of being threatening and scary. This changes the thrust of the movie which will never reach the excitement level of the older sci-fi pictures. Even the initial alert is humorous for when a couple of Trekkie techies stationed in Antarctica detect a UFO headed for Modesto, Ca., they issue a "code Nimoy."

Unfortunately, a young lady named Susan, who is getting married in Modesto, is flattened by the UFO out in back of the church, but she still manages to get to the altar on time. Just as she is about to exchange vows with her local TV weatherman fiance Derek, she starts to glow green and grow to enormous proportions. With her Paris honeymoon on hold as her fiance flees, federal forces capture Susan (using techniques reminiscent of Gulliver's Travels) and incarcerate her in a facility run by a general who runs project he describes as "an X-file wrapped in a cover up, deep fried in conspiracy."

At this point Susan still doesn't realize how lucky she is that she was saved from marrying the shallow, self-inflated Derek, and she dedicates herself to actions that will return her to her normal Susan size so she can get married and take that Parisian honeymoon. The viewing audience, of course knows that Derek isn't good enough for Susan and figures there has to be something better in store for her.

At the facility, Susan, now renamed Ginormica, meets a quartet of other detainees, all of whom have suffered freakish accidents that transformed them into monsters with special talents. The brainiest is Dr. Cockroach, a diminutive scientist with a bug's head (think The Fly) who acts as a foil for a giant dim-witted one-eyed blue glob/blob named B.O.B (i.e The Blob). The third monster known as Insectosaurus is a larval entity of indeterminate origin who's seven times larger than Ginorminica (think Mothra) and the fourth member of the quartet is The Missing Link, a humanoid and amphibian fusion (i.e. the Creature From the Black Lagoon). Because the federal government doesn't believe that society can deal with what happened to these five people, they are all kept under lock and key by General W.R. Monger .

The viewing audience is told the back stories for the four monsters Ginormica joins so that they have an understanding of what happened and empathy for these four unfortunate people. The point is made that monsters are people too, just like the ogres in Shrek (a Dreamworks franchise). However, the members of the Monster Squad has been incarcerated for years under life sentences, with no hope for release, and Ginormica joins them under the same conditions and hopelessness.

When the evil alien Galaxhar, who has now lost the material that transformed Susan into Ginormica, sends an alien probe to Earth to retrieve it, the ineffectual and bumbling U.S. President fails to conciliate via the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" theme. Faced with a seemingly impregnable enemy, their guardian and captor, General Mongor is desperate enough to promise the five monsters their freedom if they defeat the enemy.

Coming home for a visit, accompanied by the other monsters, the perennial cat is out of the bag. Susan, dreaming about getting back to normal size and making a life with Derek, is dumped by the weatherman who's moving on to larger TV venues without her. Since all the men and monsters in the film appear vain and somewhat ridiculous, the action centers around Susan/Ginormica and her realization that she deserves better than what the men in her life have provided up to that point.

Now turned into a female empowerment story with a kid-friendly theme where neither monsters nor aliens can actually die (that would be psychologically damaging to and unpopular with the kids) the movie is humorous and entertaining but doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat. For a change it's not New York City that is destroyed, as the oversized monsters tramp through San Francisco destroying much of the city as they head for a showdown at the Golden Gate Bridge. The 3D effects are eye popping both in the space and the Earth scenes, proving that 3D does add something significant and for small children it's especially entertaining.

After vanquishing the robot probe, Ginormica and her fellow monsters must face its maker, Galaxhar, who arrives with the typical conqueror attitude that if you want something done right (like conquering the Earth), you have to do it yourself. Four-eyed and megalomaniacal, his attitude is just as vain and self-centered as the men and monsters in the story. Galaxhar however, is a force to be reckoned with because he can produce unlimited numbers of identical clones that appear unbeatable.

Another theme appears as we see that despite special talents and female empowerment issues, Galaxhar and his army is unbeatable until the monsters pool their talents and act as a team. Once they form a team confronting and beating their alien enemies is possible.

The film is enjoyable, full of clever quips and references, a humorous feel-good vehicle enhanced by the use of 3D technology and the professional actors and comedians that recorded the voices. It will never be considered a great film because it borrows from too many of its predecessors.

THE DEATH OF ALICE BLUE

By D.E.Levine

American Premiere: Museum of Modern Art, March 20, 2009
New York City
Director: Park Bench
Screenplay: Park Bench
Producer: Alex Appel
Cast: Alex Appel, Park Bench, Kristen Holden-Reid, Barbara Radecki, Megan Fahlenbock,
Vernonica Hurnick, Conrad Coates, Carolyn Dunn, Gordon Currie
Awards: 2008 Accolade Awards of Merit (Feature Film and Direction)
Language: English
Country: Canada
Running Time: 87 minutes
Genre: Satire, Parody, Drama

This is the sixth year that the Museum of Modern Art in New York City has had a Canadian Front bring independent Canadian films to their auditorium for American audiences.

Raven Advertising is a rat invested, run down agency with dirty walls and a group of snobbish, elitist employees. Alice Blue starts her week on Monday as a pallid, meek, introverted creative intern. She is physically present at the agency but doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the staff. Alice lives at home with her pushy mother whose dominant personality appears to subjugate Alice so much that she is too meek at home to speak up regarding her own dreams and desires but daydreams about being successful at work.

Alice is assigned to the agency's handsome creative director to work on the Nether Wines campaign. Her work on her presentation is interspersed with romantic daydreams about the same director. Alice has hopes of impressing him with her ideas and presentation. But Raven is a strange environment. While one rebel employee (Peter Green) claims that "fifth dimension lizards" have tampered with the mind of an employee (Annie) who lives behind the walls of the copy room, he attempts to recruit Alice against the bosses he considers sinister.

Although many of the female employees mock Alice and laugh in her face, the dreamy creative director leads her on, never mentioning that Raven is run by a cabal of vampires. Over the course of a week the audience sees the eerie meetings for the Nether Wines campaign, the blood red liquid of the wine itself, the unusual cold storage unit in the basement, the bodies that are stored in the basement, murders that are left to the imagination, and the slow revelation of blood relationships between Alice, her mother and members of the company.

Viewers soon see that the ad campaign for Nether Wines is to draw attention to the nether regions while a vampire sucks a victim dry and suggests they go out to lunch the same week. The tongue-in-cheek script and presentation by the actors adds to the satirical quality that is necessary for the film since the plot is neither original nor new.

In the space of just five days we see Alice undergo a transformation from pale, demure and frumpy to pink cheeked, Gothic looking, grunge dressing and sexy. A presentation to the Nether Wine clients is hysterically funny and simultaneously appalling as the vampires use the tools of professional business to attack and kill (a commentary on how work can kill?). Tacks are hurled at bodies, laptops are used as shields, pens get stuck through eyeballs, metal pointers impale chests, security cameras squash heads and other heads are decapitated.

Throughout it all the client remains impassive and signs the contract with Raven, obviously unaffected by the gore and bloodshed. Also exposed are the secrets in Alice's own life, her father's role in Raven, her own blood heritage and her discovery of the hundreds of years of eternal life that her dreamy creative director and other executives have enjoyed via their vampire bloodsucking ways.

As an independent film, their are no expensive special effects in this film. With a modest budget and very few tricks, a few effects are tried and are semi-effective. Alice ultimately must choose between good and evil, between renunciation of her heritage and history or acceptance of her fate as proscribed by her family bloodlines and ties. Her decision may be disappointing to some viewers who were lulled into believing her future lay elsewhere by her appearance and actions only a few days earlier.

Friday, March 20, 2009

SIN NOMBRE

By D.E.Levine

Director and Writer: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Producer: Amy Kaufman
Executive Producers: Gerado Barrera, Pablo Cruz, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal
Cast: Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores, Kristyan Ferrer, Tenoch Huerta Mejia, Diana Garcia, Luis Fernando Pena, Hector Jimenez
Dialogue: Spanish/English
Running Time: 96 minutes
Genre: Drama

Writer/Director Cary Joji Fukunaga's feature debut is a fascinating tale of Central American migrants making the dangerous trip through Mexico to get to the United States and cross the border illegally. Shot primarily with an unknown cast, the film is believable, if a bit long and Fukunaga admits that he made the perilous trip himself several times so that he could write about it realistically. The unusal thing about this film is that while other people have told tales of migrants after they arrive at the border, this film centers on the problems of the trip and survival of the immigrants before they actually get anywhere.

There are a number of stories interwoven here and coming together through the migrants' travels. One story line centers on the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Chiapas in southern Mexico. Watching one of the members of the gang (Casper) bring a 12 year old into the gang through the indoctrination of being beaten almost to death and then killing an enemy, the viewer is horrified at the rite of passage that is customary in order for young boys to join the gang. The gang leader Lil'Mago has a face and body totally covered with dense tatoos. Despite the grungy gang compound and the always present threat of violence, there is a camradity present that is lacking in the lives of those not belonging to the gang.

Another theme focuses on a teenager (Sayra) in Honduras joining her long-absent father and uncle to travel to New Jersey. Treking across the jungles in Guatelmala and across the river in Mexico, they hop a freight train to the northern border. Hundreds of people wait near the tracks at night and climb to the roofs to ride hundreds of miles exposed to the elements.

The two stories merge when Lil' Mago forces Casper and the newly inducted 12-year old (Smiley) to join him in robbing the defenseless immigrants on top of the train. Lil' Mago's assault on Sayra causes Casper to kill him with a machete, toss him off the train, and become a marked man for having killed the gang leader.

Sending Smiley home, Casper and Sayra join forces to elude gang members and make it to the border. There is violence, bloodshed, horror, and anticipation as these two form a bond while fleeing the gang members in an effort to reach the USA.

The visual effect of the trek through the folliage of the jungles (not actually in Guatamala due to lack of finances), the hordes of people making the trek to the north to cross over illegally, and the strange bond that forms between Casper and Sayra are intriguing and tantalizing. The train scenes are a bit too long though, as the redundancy of riding the train in the elements is pointed out repeatedly, perhaps more often than necessary since it causes the film to drag a bit. While appealing, it's also hard to understand why the girl immediately trusts a gang member, despite the fact that he saved her from assault. He's heavily tatooed and does nothing to cover his markings from his fellow travelers or those hunting him. Instead, dressing in brightly colored tank tops that make him even more noticeable, one has to wonder whether he really thinks he can save her and make it to the border or whether he considers himself to be doomed.

Overall, the viewer does believe the actors, the stories and the violence and is caught unprepared for the ending.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SUGAR

By D.E.Levine

Directors and Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producer: Paul Mezey, Jamie Patricof, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Executive Producer: Anna Boden
Cast: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michale Gaston, Jaime Tirelli, Jose Rijo, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield, Alina Vargas, Kelvin Leonardo Garcia, Joendy Pena
Dialogue: Spanish/English
Running Time: 118 minutes
Genre: Drama

The same group that gave us 'Half Nelson' has now written and produced Sugar, a film that gives us a little seen look at Dominican baseball players trying to leave the training farms in the D.R. and make it to the major leagues in the United States.

Basically in Spanish, the film concentrates on Sugar, a young man who has spent most of his childhood and teenage years bucking the odds against him to make it from obscurity to the major leagues. A pitcher who excels in the D.R., we see through following Sugar, how large an industry has grown up in the D.R, around finding young boys and putting them through training on major team farms.

Getting to a farm doesn't guarantee you'll make it, but Miguel "Sugar" Santos is a really good pitcher, gets noticed and is chosen to go to training in the USA. His family, shown as living in meager surroundings at almost poverty level, is thrilled because even his training income which he sends back home is greater than any income he could possibly earn locally. Of course, their dream and his is to make it all the way to the U.S. Major Leagues.

While in the D.R. Sugar is confident, a sense of self and a devoted girl friend. He's expecting to be called up and he is along with several others. Lacking much English, once in Arizona the boys eat only the French Toast they know how to order, and marvel at the difference in accomodations provided to them in the USA. Sugar's performance and work get him sent to an A-team in Bridgetown, Iowa where he lives on a farm with a religious couple who are avid ball fans, attending all the Swing games and screaming their advice out. But, with little English and feeling isolated due to some racial incidents and lack of familiar surroundings, friends, foods, etc. start affecting Sugar's performance. After suffering a minor injury that sidelines him for a while, increasingly depressed and isolated, and overshadowed by the arrival of a new Dominican pitching sensation, Sugar takes a surprising turn.

We don't want to give away the entire plot, but the film, believable from the start even with the use of many non professional actors, loses steam as Sugar changes his life path. While the actors are believable, viewers wonder why a boy who devoted his entire childhood and teenage years to trying to get to the USA to play ball would give up easily without fighting for everything he's always wanted which is now within his grasp.

On the other hand, the film explores the very real plight of the many D.R. players who come to the USA and don't succeed in making it to the major leagues. Despite such success stories as Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez, there are more players that arrive from the D.R. training camps and don't succeed in making it to the U.S.Major Leagues than the ones who do. The film itself is done so realistically that when watching it you believe you're watching a documentary rather than a dramatic piece of fiction.

Friday, March 13, 2009

WATCHMEN

By D.E.Levine

Director: Zach Snyder
Screenplay: David Hayter, Alex Tse
Based On: the graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics
Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Deborah Snyder
Co-producer: Wesley Coller
Executive Producers: Herbert W. Gains, Thomas Tull, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Cast: Malin Akerman
Running Time: 161 minutes
Genre: Adventure

Initially published in single issues by DC Comics from 1986-1987, only Dave Gibbons is credited onscreen with authorship of the 12-part novel.

I brought no baggage with me to the screening for Watchmen because I've never read the graphic novel. Since I'm not part of the cult that grew up around the novel I thought I could be totally objective in reviewing the movie. Of course, I have friends who are part of the cult, are totally hooked, and tried to indoctrinate me regarding the characters and story beforehand.

From everything I've heard director Zack Snyder has been totally faithful to the novel in transferring the story to the big screen. Initially I thought it bore a resemblance in set design and overall look to Sin City (which I loved) but I must admit by the end of the film I was tired, confused and felt something was lacking.

In an alternate world of 1985, Richard Nixon is still in office, ostensibly enjoying a fifth term and the United States is facing an imminent nuclear war with the Soviet Union. President Nixon appears repeatedly and each time his nose is longer and more prominent. Reminiscent of Pinocchio, whose nose grows longer each time he lies, I interpreted the growing nose as an editorial comment on Tricky Dick's repeated public statements about his honesty (later proven to be lies).

When we join the film President Nixon has outlawed the masked and costumed superheroes that this story revolves around. In addition to being banned, a group known as the Watchmen are disillusioned because the world they dedicated their lives to saving doesn't seem to be worth the effort.

We only learn about the crime fighters because of the initial scene which is the murder of one of their own. Edward Blake, a former vigilante crime fighter known as the Comedian, is attacked in his luxurious Manhattan apartment and hurled to his death (shown in slow motion). His murder triggers a reunion of the remaining members of the Watchmen. The investigation by the other crime fighters to try to find out who killed the Comedian draws us into their lives in the present and their back stories.

The Watchmen are a strange and diverse bunch. Dan Driberg was the birdlike Nite Owl, a gadget expert. Equipped with a flying owl ship, he likes to cruise across the night sky and conduct rescues whenever he can. Walter Kovacs, known as Rorschach, his ex-partner, is a raspy-voiced tough guy sociopath who likes to play rough with criminals and wears a face mask bearing an inkblot that changes patterns. Depressed but pragmatic, Rorschach becomes increasingly paranoid, but as the film unfolds we see he has good reason for his paranoia . He urges the Watchmen back into vigilante action in essence for self preservation.

Adrian Veidt, the crime fighter known as Ozymandias "the smartest man in the world" is a genius at marketing and has successfully licensed and merchandised his persona accruing a massive fortune. But his money and brilliance don't appear to be enough to protect him from murder attempts. Are those attempts somehow related to the Comedian's murder? Are the other members of the Watchmen being targeted?

Sally Jupiter was the female superhero Silk Spectre, very sexy and effective. Did she mix business and pleasure? Sally is bitter and as her story unfolds we see she has plenty of secrets in her back story that made her that way. Having retired, she forces her identity and a redesigned more current costume on her equally sexy daughter Laurie Jupiter. Does she suspect her former friends and crime fighters of the Comedian murder? If she knows something, is it safe for her daughter Laurie to be the new Silk Spectre?

Laurie has a crime fighter lover, Jon Osterman, who is known as Dr. Manhattan. A former Pentagon egghead who has served time behind bars. A government accident destroyed his physical body and turned him a morose glowing cerulean blue, but the accident also gave him regenerative powers. Bald and hairless all over, the glowing blue man has a fantastic bodybuilder-like physique, and can do some amazing things with that body including clone himself. He's lost faith in his country, the human race and his friends and prefers to streak across the universe. When he goes into self-imposed exile on Mars because of a media disaster, the glass palace that he conjures up accompanied by music by Philip Glass, leaves the viewer breathless.

Rorschach is sufficiently depressed and paranoid to suspect a link between the Comedian's death and the threat from the Soviet's of nuclear annihilation. He's the only one that suspects a link. Meanwhile, since he's being cleverly framed for another murder, the viewer has to wonder if perhaps there might be something real behind his paranoia. In which case, if it was true he wouldn't be paranoid.

The different threads of the crime fighters, their lives and their current story lines are played out against a series of flashback vignettes that explain each superhero's background, origins and specific worldviews. Underlying it all is the question "Who killed Edward Blake, the Comedian?"

With Dr. Manhattan in self-imposed exile on Mars, Laurie gets romantically involved with the Nite Owl, flying in his owl machine and crime fighting along side him. Is this true love or a match made on the rebound for convenience? Do they trust each other or are they acting?

I really tried to like this film but when the 161 minutes were over, it seemed like I'd been watching it for much longer. Mr. Snyder may have been true to the graphic novel's dialogue but I was confused and overloaded with too many characters that were crammed in and insufficiently developed. Crammed with confusing back stories and constant jumping from present to flashbacks, the dialogue seemed stilted and unnecessarily long so I didn't appreciate its authenticity.

I did like the soundtrack which was an eclectic mix of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Simon and Garfunkel and others. The soundtrack blared throughout the film at decibels so loud that everyone in the audience was deaf at the end. Requests to lower the volume didn't effect a result and frankly the excessive decibels on top of everything else made the picture such an unpleasant experience that I wouldn't recommend it to even the most ardent Watchmen followers

Thursday, March 12, 2009

THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS

By D.E.Levine

Director: John Kirby
Writer: Lewis Lapham
Producer: Libby Handros
Cast: Robert Altman, James Baker III, Bill Bradley, Caton Burwell, Paul Cantagallo, Hodding Carter, William T. Coleman, Walter Cronkite, Barbara Ehrenreich, Martin Garbus, Victor Gregorian, Lewis Lapham, Mike Medavoy, Pete Seeger, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., William Howard Taft IV, Kurt, Vonnegut
Running Time: 100 minutes
Genre: Documentary-Drama-Musical

Written by Lewis Lapham, an eloquent and well-known writer/editor for Harper's magazine, this film never casts doubt that America has a ruling class. Lapham states its existence at the beginning when his two fictional characters who graduate from Yale take different paths. One, Jack Bellamy, takes a job at a major brokerage house on Wall Street to make money and hob nob with the rich ruling class. The other, Mike Vanzetti gets a job as a waiter, settles down to write the great American novel or screenplay, and discovers that without the ruling class he's going nowhere.

While a genuine documentary-drama, written by Lapham as a literate, witty and provocative script, musical numbers are sung by charaacters from waiters and waitresses to Wall Street interns, enhancing the proceedings delightfully.

Both characters, Jack and Mike, get to ask questions about the existence of the American Ruling Class to the notables who Lapham and Kirby have induced to take part. It's obvious that Laphams intent is to establish the nature of the American Ruling Class by allowing his two main characters to ask questions about it of the other prominent, celebrated characters. The problem is that there's never a doubt that the Ruling Class exists. Laphams characters are two young men who have the opportunity to join the American Ruling Class while most of the viewers will never be able to gain access to the other characters appearing in the film or to other prominent members of the Ruling Class.

The film is about people who have elitist backgrounds and have the opportunities to choose what they want to do and where they want to do it. In today's economy, and even before the collapse of Wall Street and the stock market, the same opportunities don't present themselves to most people seated in the audience or elsewhere in the world.

Initially presented at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005, the film is now available on DVD and is in limited distribution at theaters.