Friday, July 30, 2010
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
The movie looks at an unconventional family that still feels remarkably relatable to just about anyone that's experienced the growing pains of family life. The two women at the center of the film are Nic and Jules, played, and really, inhabited, by two great actresses in Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. Nic and Jules are a lesbian couple who have been together for two decades. They've raised two children together, grown older together, and, despite differing personalities, have stuck together through thick and thin. They are, in many ways, an odd couple. Nic is a micro-manager, a strict parent, an accomplished doctor. Jules is a free spirit, more of a friend to the kids, less uptight. And yet, they seem to have a genuine, caring, layered relationship. Rarely do you see that in a movie, but, here it is. Jules and Nic have two children, and both of the actors playing their kids are nearly as good as the award-winning actresses playing their two moms. Mia Wasikowska is a real standout. Best known as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Mia plays the prodigal daughter with a lot of nuance, a lot of heart. Her character, Joni (named after Joni Mitchell) is 18 and spending her last summer at home before college. She's smart, dedicated, yet looking to break free and spread her wings. Her younger brother, Laser, is fifteen and getting into trouble. He's a good kid, but has been hanging with a bad crowd. Josh Hutcherson, who plays him, does a great job with his mix of teen angst and youthful energy. Most importantly though, plotwise, is the fact that Laser has developed a longing to seek out his biological father. He and his sister were each a product of one of their two moms, who were both inseminated via the same donor. Without telling their moms, Laser convinces Joni to contact the donor agency and ultimately get in touch with their dad. Their dad turns out to be a guy named Paul, played by Mark Ruffalo. Paul is one of those guys who's so cool and collected and carefree that it's easy to find him offputting. He's a motorcycle-riding, leather-jacket wearing owner of an organic restaurant that grows all of its own ingrediants in an adjacent farm. He's a guy that seems to take everything so in stride that you have to wonder how much of it is genuine and how much of it is bull$%&#. At first, Laser in particular is weary of Paul, but soon enough, his tough-guy-meets-hippy persona wins over the kids, and they begin to bond. And that's where the trouble begins ...
There are some really well done twists and turns in the film, but again, nothing seems too melodramatic, because it's all grounded in well-drawn characters played to perfection by an awesome ensemble of actors. There are moments of real comedy, and real emotion. A lot of the overarching themes here - growing up and going to college / coming of age, settling down vs. living free, two people figuring out whether or not they truly belong together, etc. - these are all things we've seen before. But, these fairly universal themes are handled so well here, with such nuance, humor, and grace, that you can't help but get sucked in. This is one of those movies that could have been really sappy and cloying in lesser hands, but here, it just feels like a slice of life that is relatable on a number of levels. A big problem with movies like this can also be that the movie wants you to sympathize with unsympathetic characters, something which can ultimately be really offputting. Here, all the characters get a fair shake, but the movie also doesn't gloss over their flaws. Mark Ruffallo's character is no saint, and it could have been a fatal flaw had the film spent too much time trying to get us to side with him. Luckily, director / co-writer Lisa Cholodenko seems to really get the characters, and to have a real feel for their strengths and their flaws.
Again, I can't emphasize enough how good the acting is here. Moore, Bening, Ruffallo, and Wasikowska all do some really incredible work. Wasikowska is maybe the most surprising as the soon-to-be-college-freshman Joni. Though she was good in Alice, this to me is her true breakout performance.
Even if you're not typically into this sort of film, I'd still say take a chance and check out The Kids Are All Right. It reminded me a bit of Little Miss Sunshine, in that as the movie went on, it really snuck up on me just how invested I had become in these characters and their lives. Indeed, great characters, a superb script, and top-notch acting make this one of the biggest surprises of the summer, and likely one of the few surefire award-winners so far this year.
My Grade: A-
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Note: The review contains some minor spoilers, but attempts to address the major themes of and questions posed by the film, without explicitly discussing any major twists or plot developments.
- Rarely before have I sat in a movie theater and experienced complete and utter silence from the crowd for two and a half hours. Rarely have I watched a movie so enthralled, so captivated, that I barely dared to breathe for its duration. Few filmmakers possess that innate ability to create such engrossing, mind-melting entertainment ... but Christopher Nolan is one of them, and Inception is right up there with his best films to date. Let's face it - it's been an off year so far for movies, and it's been a summer filled with mostly brainless crap and overhyped, assembly-line cash-ins. Enter INCEPTION. It's wholly original, and it's something we've never quite seen before. And yet, it's the culmination of the many recurring themes that have obssessed Christopher Nolan throughout his directorial career. Inception contains echoes of Memento, of The Prestige, of The Dark Knight. It seems influenced by everything from James Bond to Blade Runner to The Matrix to Munich. It's a heist film, an action film, a mind-%$#&, and a meta-movie about movies. It's quite possibly the best film of the year so far, and maybe the best that we'll see in 2010. It's a movie I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I saw it. This is one we'll be discussing, theorizing about, pondering, for years to come. It can be confusing, and frustrating, and hard to penetrate. It might just be a masterpiece.
I'll be honest - there was a moment after seeing Inception where I was, more than anything, annoyed with the movie. The ambiguous ending had left me feeling slightly cheated, as I thought the movie was above what seemed to be a cheap "or is it ...?" type of ending. Afterall, it was only a few months ago that Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Shutter Island, a twisty but flawed movie that was hurt by the fact that it contained perhaps one twist too many. There are, I think, a number of similarities between the two films - even aside from their star. But Inception is, by far, the more complete and ultimately satisfying of the two movies, and I'll try to explain why.
The thing with Inception is that - and I think people will come to realize this more and more as time goes on - you can't look at it as a typical "is this a dream or is it real?" type of story. It isn't that, not at all. I think that the commentaries I've read that say that it is, in fact, a movie ABOUT movies have it largely correct. Inception is a movie about the power of fiction to affect reality, about the power of ideas, and the transference of ideas, and how those ideas can take root in our minds and legitimately affect the very way in which we live. At first, I was frustrated by Inception because it seemed to create a world steeped in rigid logic, and yet also left a lot of the "rules" unexplained or ambiguous. I was filled with logic questions after leaving the theater - and on some level, the movie invites us to think about its dream scenarios in this manner. Dreams - especially a portayed in fiction - tend to be messy, random, and surreal. But Nolan recognizes that many dreams have their own warped logic. If you view the entirety of the movie as a dream world (even the parts purported to be "reality"), then the bigger picture makes a lot more sense. There is sometimes a very specific logic to how things work in this world, but ultimately, things happen that are contrived, convenient, and unexplained. Inception takes on that higher level of meaning when you look at it - at THE MOVIE - as a shared dream that we, the audience, partake in together. We as an audience undergo the very same rollercoaster ride that the characters in the movie do. We THINK we are convinced of a certain narrative, a certain universe, but ultimately we realize we are not so certain of what we've been seing. Ultimately, we are the marks, the movie the dream, and the narrative of the movie was itself the "inception" - the idea planted in our minds. That's what makes the movie so brilliant - it works on a metatextual level in which its entire narrative folds back around to comment on itself and the shared experience we've just had. For that reason, I think the movie will be talked about for years. Its screenplay will be analyzed, its editing choices scoured for hints and clues. My initial frustration was in part because I was looking at Inception as just another movie with a couple of twists thrown in to mess with us. Soon enough, it occured to me that this was most definitely NOT just another movie.
But let's back up for a second, and look at the dreamworld that Inception presents to us. In this world, certain people have become experts in dream manipulation. They create shared dreams - realities within the sleeping mind that can be navigated in order to influence one's subconcious thoughts and desires. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, a tortured soul who's on the run from his own checkered past. He's fled the U.S. to escape criminal charges, and now works as a dream-maestro for hire. As it turns out, dream-invasion is a particularly useful skill in the world of corporate espionage: Cobb is hired by the enigmatic Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe), the head of the Cobal corporation, to go into the dreams of a corporate rival. Saito wants Cobb and his crew to implant an idea into the mind of the rival (played by Cillian Murphy), via his dreams - a risky and rarely-attempted process called inception. To do this, Cobb's team must carefully craft a multi-layered dream, consisting of multiple dreams-within-the-dream, in order to convince their target that the planted idea came of his own conciousness. Aside from all the other dangers inherent in such a complex plan, the x-factor is the instabilty of Cobb's own subconcious. Haunted by dreams of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard), Cobb's own demons are difficult to keep out of the shared dreamscape.
In many ways, Inception plays out like a heist movie of the highest order. Cobb leads his team as they carry out a carefully-constructed but risky plan, and each member of the team brings a unique specialty to the table. That, of course, is where the movie gets to have a lot of fun in a more conventional sense than the complex meta-narrative might indicate. Indeed, the surface-level of the movie's first act or two has an old-school "gathering of the team" feel that reminded me of movies like Spielberg's Munich. Of course, the potency of these scenes, and the characters we meet, is helped greatly by the fact that Nolan has assembled a truly impressive cast.
Leonardo DiCaprio does a very nice job, as always, as the lead protagonist, Cobb. I can see how some might dismiss his performance somewhat, in that it's similar in some ways to past roles that the actor has played, including his recent turn in Shutter Island. But DiCaprio really does help anchor the movie as Cobb, and lends some real power and emotion to some scenes, and a cool, all-business approach to others. DiCaprio really has to carry the emotional load of the film, and he does an excellent job. The only other character that really gets that same level of dramatic intensity to play with is probably Marion Cotillard as Cobb's wife, Mal. Cotillard is haunting and at times terrifying in the part, and has some truly powerful scenes. When I think about the film's most memorable overall performances, Cotillard's may be tops. It's a mysterious yet unforgettable turn, similar to that of Carrie Ann-Moss as Natalie, in Memento. It's an award-worthy turn, to be sure.
Getting back to the heist aspects of the film though, the other supporting performances in Inception are especially impressive in that most of the film's characters don't get a lot of fleshing out. To that end, the actors have to really make an impression in order to quickly get you invested in their characters, since the script only has so much room to give them depth. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a great job of doing just that - he has a great back-and-forth chemistry with DiCaprio and the other members of the team, and without a ton of dialogue, he creates a compelling character in Arthur, Cobb's right-hand man who collects all of the intel on a mark prior to a mission. Arthur gets to star in some of the film's most visually-spectacular scenes, including a soon-to-be-iconic sequence in a zero-gravity hotel corridor. Gordon-Levitt's physical presence in these scenes is really pretty incredible - the choreography, in which the actor plays a big part, is astounding. Gordon-Levitt has steadily been proving himself as one of the better young actors in Hollywood, but an unexpected standout is Tom Hardy, who plays Eames. Eames is a "forger," a master of dreamworld manipulation who can effortlessly change his appearance within a dream by playing off of a shared dreamer's perceptions. Hardy as Eames is effortlessly badass, and quickly becomes a fan favorite for cool-factor alone. I have a feeling we'll be seeing Hardy in a lot more big movies after this one. Dileep Rao is another guy who I'd only seen in one or two movies before, but he does a nice job as Yusuf, a chemist specializing in ultra-potent, sleep-inducing serums. And of course, there's Ellen Page, rounding out the team as its newest recruit - a student prodigy named Ariadne who becomes the team's "architect" - the builder of the dream worlds that will be used to navigate the mark's subconcious. As the newbie to the group, Page's character is the audience's proxy, but Page is much more than just an exposition-machine. She provides a lot of the movie's heart and soul, and its through her that we begin to realize the true extent of Cobb's longstanding issues. Rounding out the main cast are Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, and Michael Caine - each veterans of past Christopher Nolan films, and each doing their usual bang-up job here. Watanabe is just plain cool and kickass as Saito, and his initial introduction in the film's opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Sure, it can be a tad difficult to understand Saito's English at times, but in a way that only adds to the cool-factor. Cillian Murphy's character, Fischer, is perhaps the movie's most troubling. Fischer is the rival businessman whom Saito hopes to influence via inception, and the mission to plant a non-native idea in Fischer's head is the key to the film's elaborate heist. Murphy does a great job with the role, but if you interpret the film straightforwardly, then it seems like an awful lot of work just to plant a fairly simple idea into someone's head. If, however, you look at Fischer as some sort of misdirection in what is ultimately Cobb's dream, well, then it's difficult to figure out how the characer fits into Cobb's story, exactly. A similar problem exists around Michael Caine's character, Miles, a father figure to Cobb. It's easy to guess that there's more to Miles than meets the eye, and I'm betting that many interpretations of the film will place more importance on Miles than the film might initially indicate. But again, to the great Caine's credit, he's able to make an impact as Miles even though a lot about the character is left to our own imagination / interpretation.
And by the way, one clue that nothing in the movie is to be taken for granted is clearly the highly evocative names of each character. I think it's safe to say that the names provide a lot of hints as to the mythological and other hidden meanings of the characters and the overall narrative.
Now, I think the greatness of Inception has a lot to do with the stellar cast, but it can be most directly attributed to a.) the incredible screenplay by Christopher Nolan, and b.) the incredible direction by Christopher Nolan. I've already talked about how the screenplay is a mutilayered stunner, so let me gush for a minute about the direction. Look, I'll be honest about Nolan - there are a couple of signature directing tricks in his playbook that still sort of annoy me. His action scenes are still too quick and choppy at times, and he tends to make things so chaotic at times that some of the emotional impact is lost in the shuffle. But, in other ways, Nolan is the absolute best in the biz. His films always look gritty yet sleek and epic. There is a sense of grandeur that he creates in certain scenes in his films that few others can match. And he just has an innate sense of how to do badass and mindblowing without ever really winking at the audience. Sure, there are small moments of humor in most Nolan films, but the intensity and narrative momentum NEVER lets up. Nolan crafts films in which you cannot stop paying attention for even a second, and you don't want to. He hooks you in, and envelops you in his moody, atmospheric, all-encompassing worlds. Inception is filled with traditional action - chase scenes, gunfights, brawls, and shoot-outs. But you don't watch them like you would in most movies. Here, the action is so closely tied to the unfolding narrative that you're as invested in *how* and *why* the action is happening as anything else. It's pretty remarkable, and it's why, again, audiences seem to be watching this one with wide-eyed, unflinching intensity. I should also mention the pulse-pounding score by Hans Zimmer. The droning tones of the music give the movie a mythical, apocalyptic feel. Like most of Nolan's work, the movie deals with the grandest of themes, the very nature of reality itself. This is a heist movie, an action movie - but it's also an essay on life and death and perception and existence. This is some seriously epic stuff.
We all know the cliches - as soon as we hear that a story is about dreams, we wonder whether the time-honored questions of "was it all a dream?" will surface. From The Wizard of Oz to Alice in Wonderland, entering a fantasy world, a dream world, is a persistant myth in pop-culture. From Narnia to Newhart, from The Sandman to Blade Runner - we've always told stories in which we question the nature of reality. Is what we think we know really truth? Is what we perceive actually reality, or is truth simply in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps we've been oversaturated with this idea, to the point where we're all weary of movies that hinge on twists and last-minute reveals. Inception is tricky, because on some level it is tempting to dismiss it as inconsistent, illogical (despite so much of the story being based on logic), and frustratingly ambiguous. If we do in fact view the movie as a straightforward story, there are countless questions that we have to ask about the story. We don't have a lot of information about these characters, and what information we do have might be unreliable. We are told a lot about the "rules" of shared dreams and dream manipulation, but we don't know *all* the rules. We don't know how Eames can change appearance, or what, exactly, the architect's mazes are supposed to accomplish. We don't know what Miles teaches, or even if he's Cobb's father, or Mal's father. We don't know what sort of corporation Mr. Saito runs, or why he's willing to go to such lengths to sabotage his competitor. But, when you look at the movie *as* dream, most of these concerns disappear. How many times have you woken up from a dream, only to realize that what seemed 100% logical and plausible in the dreamworld makes no sense in the waking world? In dreams we assign logic to the illogical, and I believe that's exactly what's going on in Inception.
Aside from all that, Inception is jam-packed with memorable scenes and moments. People will be talking about the zero-gravity fight scene, the videogame-like winter fortress raid (shades of Metal Gear and Call of Duty - emphasizing the film's game-like aesthetic), the train tracks, the totems and their meaning (and that damn top) for a long time to come. On another level, there will be endless discussion about the film, endless attempts to interpret the narrative, and endless theories about what *really* happened. The brilliance of the movie, however, is that it seamlessly allows for all those interpretations to work, to have validity. It's never simply a question of "was it all a dream?" That question is planted for us to consider, but the details are also ours to work out. Nolan, I think, knew damn well what he was doing. He aimed high ... and it worked, brilliantly. Inception is shockingly ambitious, and for that reason alone it deserves the highest praise. This is one to see twice. This is one to discuss. This is one that will, I think, haunt many dreams.
My Grade: A
Thursday, July 15, 2010
So, here we go ...
DANNY'S TOP 10 QUESTIONS FOR COMIC-CON 2010:
1.) Can Marvel Studios prove that it's still as mighty as ever?
- Marvel struck gold with the Iron Man franchise, finding just the right Tony Stark in Robert Downey Jr. However, the once-mighty House of Ideas is going to have to overcome a lot of uncertainty and skepticism during its Comic-Con presentation next weekend. The two centerpieces for Marvel will be Thor and Captain America - neither of which has ever enjoyed much success outside of the comics. Both movies will have to really make a splash in order to win over the hearts of jaded fanboys. Meanwhile, everyone will be wondering about The Avengers - the super-team-up film that Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor are all building towards. Lots of people are upset that Edward Norton is out as The Hulk. Afterall, The Incredible Hulk was the first Marvel film to exploit that whole idea of a shared-continuity movie universe. And hey, Edward Norton is an incredible actor to boot. It will be really interesting to see what sort of impression Marvel makes at Comic-Con. Not only will they need to prove that Captain America and Thor are for real, but they'll have to indicate that The Avengers is going to be worth the wait and the hype. The stakes are certainly high -- the future of the studio, and maybe even of the superhero movie genre in general -- will be in the balance.
2.) Can DC Comics find box-office success with anything other than Batman?
- Despite the massive success of The Dark Knight, DC and Warner are still playing catch-up to Marvel in a lot of ways. That is supposed to change with the formation of DC Entertainment, a new group dedicated to bringing DC's stable of superheroes from the page to the screen. First up on deck is Green Lantern, a franchise that's been the comic book world's most buzzed-about superhero book for the last several years, thanks to the epic storytelling of writer Geoff Johns, and universe-spanning stories like Rebirth and Blackest Night. Will the movie version of GL capture that same sense of awe and wonder and cosmic adventure? Let's hope so. DC needs a win after the misfire that was Jonah Hex, and the nonstarters that Superman and Wonder Woman have been. In any case, Entertainment Weekly just released the first photos of star Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern, and they looked ... okay. A bit odd, but could be cool in-motion. We'll see. But DC needs GL to be a huge franchise. There's no reason why it shouldn't be a huge, Star Wars-like epic. Will it be? We're about to find out.
3.) Has anyone seen that movie Tron? Yes? Really? Wow!
- Who would ever have guessed that THE blockbuster of 2010 is poised to be the sequel to Tron? But thanks to an amazing marketing campaign by Disney, and a movie that's shaping up to be creative, imaginative, and fanboy-pleasing, Tron is perhaps the most-anticipated movie of the year. You've got Jeff Bridges, you've got Daft Punk doing the soundtrack, and you've got Brad Bird and Pixar reportedly doing script touch-ups. Will Tron in fact be geek nirvana? Comic-Con will be the final test, and I feel like the movie will pass.
4.) What will be this Fall's biggest TV "event?" Smart money says Zombies.
- A lot of new Fall TV will be previewed at Comic-Con, including a couple of big genre shows from the major networks. A couple of them look very promising, so it will be interesting to see fan enthusiasm levels for new series like NBC's The Event and ABC's No Ordinary Family. Still, the sleeper hit may be AMC's WALKING DEAD. It's an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed comic book of the same name, and its writer, Robert Kirkman, is very much involved in the TV adaptation. Oh, and did I mention the pilot is written and directed by Frank Darabount (The Shawshank Redemption)? Plus, it's zombies. On TV. On AMC. Holy crapballs, this could be awesome. I can vouch for the comic - I'm a huge fan, and it's one of the absolute best books of the last decade. As for the TV show, well, it might just be THE must-see new show this year.
5.) What's in store for Batman now that Bruce Wayne is back?
- DC Comics has taken Batman on quite the roller coaster ride over the last couple of years. Under the guidance of mad genius Grant Morrison, Bruce Wayne was "killed," send back through time, and replaced in the present as Batman by former Robin Dick Grayson - who recruited Bruce's estranged son, Damien, to be the new Robin. Now, thank to Morrison's "Return of Bruce Wayne" storyline, the original Dark Knight is on his way back to the present, but it remains to be seen what his return will mean for Dick Grayson, Damien, etc. DC has already announced a slew of new creative teams for the post-Morrison era, so one thing is for sure: change is coming.
6.) Is True Blood the hottest show on TV? And will it be the hottest show at Comic-Con?
- With a red-hot, in-progress third season, an Emmy nom for Best Drama, and a rabid, ever-expanding fanbase, True Blood may just be the most buzzed-about TV show at this year's Comic-Con. And, with no Twilight panel this year, the line for True Blood's event could very well be the show's longest and most insane. But True Blood isn't just for teenaged fangirls - it's a show with bite, that's only gotten crazier and more over the top as it's gone on. With vampires, werewolves, sex, and violence - and a killer mythology that continues to expand - True Blood could very well attract the craziest - and most diverse - crowd at this year's show. Sidenote: GLEE has a panel this year, and it will be very interesting to see how the show is received at Comic-Con. I think it will get a good reaction -- after all, geeks love theatricality, and hey, *everyone* loves Jane Lynch.
7.) Can Scott Pilgrim (and Edgar Wright) take over the world?
- This August, all eyes in Hollywood will be on Scott Pilgrim - the action-comedy-romance comic book adaptation from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. Like Kick-Ass before it, Scott Pilgrim - filled with videogame references, Gen Y pop culture riffs, and a self-referential meta style - is a movie seemingly made by geeks and for geeks. So the question is: will the movie be a hit, or, like Kick-Ass, will its appeal not truly extend beyond the hardcore fanboys and fangirls? Wright will make one final plea for world dominance at this year's Comic-Con. Meanwhile, his old running buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost will be making their own appeal, plugging PAUL - a slackers vs. aliens movie that looks firmly in the tradition of Shaun and Hot Fuzz. To that end, it could very well be awesome.
8.) Can Fringe finally break on through to the "other side?"
- Look, for months now, I've been raving about Fringe. To me, it's evolved into the heir apparent to the likes of The X-Files and Lost, and the fact that the show was completely snubbed by the Emmys is ridiculous. But, fans are starting to catch on, and embracing the show en masse. In years past, Fringe was a popular show at Comic-Con, but this will be the first year that the show really comes out to the show in full force. The entire main cast will be there, and they'll be coming off a stellar season in which business really picked up. It stands to reason that the fans will be primed and ready to give all involved a true hero's welcome, and perhaps that buzz and energy will translate to the mainstream critics, press, and fans finally recognizing the show. Hey, it is on the cover of TV Guide's Comic-Con issue this week, so we shall see.
9.) Will comics finally go digital?
- The wheels of progress have been turning, and the times, they are a' changing. With the launch of the iPad and new digital comics services from Marvel and DC, fans are wondering if digital comics are finally becoming a viable alternative to plain old paper funnybooks. I think many fans will always prefer old-fashioned paper, but still, any advance that gets comics into more people's hands can't be all bad, right? I mean, Comic-Con has become as much about movies and TV and games as it has about comics, but it's a shame, because there is so much good stuff out there that the mainstream isn't reading. From superhero books to stuff like Fables, The Walking Dead, Invincible, and Sweet Tooth -- there are lots of comics that could find a much, much bigger audience via digital distribution. Will it happen? Will the publishers embrace this technology and put out books day and date with physical retail? It will definitely be interesting to see what happens.
10.) And finally ... what will be the show's big surprises?
- That's what's so great about Comic-Con -- you never quite know what to expect. A much-hyped movie could disappoint, and a little sleeper indie could steal some of the big boys' thunder. You just never know what will pop with the crowd. Will Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch kayo Comic-Con? Will Let Me In win over the skeptics? Will Sly Stallone kick some ass with The Expendables (okay, that's not really a question, but still). Will The Green Hornet sink or swim? Will there be any advance buzz about a new Superman, Batman, or Flash film? Will Megamind be able to out-despicable Despicable Me? Will JJ Abrams, Joss Whedon, or Peter Jackson have any surprises in store? Will the city of San Diego be trapped in a giant, unbreakable dome and be shrunken down to bottle size for the experiments of some nefarious alien menace? My god, the suspense. In any case, it's going to be a blast. Stay tuned for my complete post-show wrap-up, and until then -- "excelsior!", kick some ass, and dammit all.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Saturday, July 10, 2010
Friday, July 9, 2010
- Despicable Me is one of those movies that you can't help but want to like. Because, from moment one of this film, it's clear that, if nothing else, this one is ... different. It has a unique look, a unique sensibility. It has a European flair both visually and tonally. Maybe most jarringly, it's a CGI animated film that's not from Pixar or Dreamworks. All of those factors make Despicable Me instantly stand out from the pack. The only problem is that, well, the pack has been pretty darn great lately. Dreamworks recently hit it out of the park with their best animated movie yet - How To Train Your Dragon. And Pixar's Toy Story 3 - a universally loved animated achievement - is still fresh in moviegoer's minds. So many are going to be wondering how Despicable Me stacks up. The answer is that Despicable Me is a lot of fun - it's wonderfully animated and often imaginative and funny. But, it's not quite in the same league as Pixar's best when it comes to storytelling and world building, and so it ultimately feels much lighter and less meaty than the typical, multilayered Pixar film.
One thing I'll say about Despicable Me is that it knows its target audience. To be honest, people like me have probably been spoiled by movies like Wall-E and Toy Story 3 that work as well if not better for adults as they do for kids. Despicable Me is unabashadly a kid's movie though. It has the kind of cute humor and zany sight gags that will make little kids laugh and cheer in delight, while leaving older viewers grinning, perhaps, but not quite bowled over. There isn't a lot of subtext to Despicable Me - the story is told in a straightforward manner, and there's never any doubt that the "villainous" Gru will quickly realize his inner heart of gold. The three sisters who he comes to adopt and yes, eventually love, are just painfully cute, and the movie is never above using their cuteness for all manner of easy laughs and even easier aww-shucks moments. Again - all moments that will play will with the kindergarten set, but not so much with their parents. And hey, maybe that's a good thing - I'm sure lots of parents of young kids were somewhat shocked by, say, Toy Story 3's dark themes. But then again, Pixar never explicitly sets out to make kids movies. Despicable Me though, it aims its humor and its storytelling directly at the tykes in the audience.
Still ... I do think there's a lot more that could have been done with the film's fun premise. There's not much world-building in the movie, and it feels like something of a missed-oppurtunity. You can't help but compare it to something like The Incredibles, that so fully fleshed-out its world of superheroes and villains. Despicable Me comes with a premise - a down-on-his-luck supervillain, that seems to beg for a crazy world to be built around its characters. But we only get hints of that. The Bank of Evil that Gru goes to for loans is one of the movie's funniest ideas, for example, and Will Arnett hams it up to great effect as the bank's gruff man-in-charge. But there aren't many other instances where we actually get a feel for what the world of the movie is like. Are supervillains commonplace? Are there super-heroes? Is there some sort of league of villains or do they all work alone? Are any of them *really* evil, or are they all glorified pranksters like Gru? The movie never really has as much fun as it should with the concept. It doesn't really play off any tropes from other superhero fiction or James Bond spy genre stuff or anything like that. Gru looks and talks sort of like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, but there's no equivalent of an Austin Powers for him to face off with. Truth be told, there isn't much plot to the movie at all.
Instead, 80% of the movie is focused on the budding relationship between Gru and the three girls he hastily adopts in order to use them as part of his latest evil plan. Gru, engaged in a rivalry with an up-and-coming villain named Vector, needs to steal back his shrink ray - currently in the possession of the geeky Vector - so that he can carry out his long-gestating plan of "stealing" the moon. However, not a whole lot of attention is given to Gru's not-so-sinister attention grab. Like I said, it's all about Gru's slow turn from prickly villain to big-hearted adoptive father of three, which proceeds in a manner that will be predictable to anyone who's ever watched an episode of Full House.
But, when Despicable Me picks up the pace and lets its visuals shine, it really comes alive. The film's few action scenes are surprisingly great, and the overall aesthetic of the movie is truly eye-popping. The film's most fun sequences often involve the Minions - Gru's horde of Oompa Loompa-esque henchmen who are bright yellow, talk in their own crazy language, and have voices that sound like the aliens from Toy Story. The Minions have all kinds of cool little visual gags throughout the movie, and are very entertaining. They're surprisingly mysterious though. What the heck are they? Aliens? Robots? Clones? Not even a single line of explanation is given. Maybe in Part 2? Again though, I loved the film's visual style, and the animation is often breathtaking. There's that distinctly European flair to the film, and I liked the bold, colorful look of the characters and settings.
The voicework is also really well done, and Steve Carell is very good in the lead role as Gru. It's sort of insane how many top talents are in this movie (many of them in surprisingly minor roles, too), but everyone does a good job, from Julie Andrews as Gru's disapproving mother to Jason Segal as his rival Vector.
Despicable Me is enjoyable and visually pretty remarkable, but I couldn't help but feel that it seemed a little flimsy when all was said and done. a little short on excitement, plot, and the sense that this world was fully-formed and thought-out. I wanted a little more depth, a little more detail. I think this one will satisfy the entertainment appetites of kids, but will leave anyone over the age of 10 hungry for a more substantial animated meal.
My Grade: B
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
1.) JOHN NOBLE for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama ... for his absolutely amazing, memorable, unique, and gravitas-infused performance as Walter Bishop on FRINGE. Noble was doing THE best acting on television or anywhere else in the universe, or multivers. He was the man, plain and simple, and if he isn't nominated it will be a crime!
2.) TIMOTHY OLYPHANT for Best Lead Actor in a Drama ... for kicking ass and taking names each week on Justified.
3.) FRINGE for Best Drama Series ... for usurping the likes of Lost and 24 this year as THE must-watch, hi-octane, mind-bending serialized drama on network television.
4.) COMMUNITY for Best Comedy Series ... for rebounding from a shaky start and becoming the most laugh-out-loud hilarious sitcom on the air.
5.) NICK OFFERMAN for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series ... for being hilariouly awesome on Parks and Recreation as Ron Swanson - aka one of the main reasons why Parks has become a must-see comedy.
6.) HENRY IAN CUSICK for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series ... for upstaging every other member of the Lost cast as the enigmatic Desmond Hume, and instantly injecting new life into the show's sputtering final season when he reappeared, brotha.
7.) JANE LYNCH for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series ... who is a lock to be nominated, yes, but still - Lynch is a true queen of comedy who deserves every ounce of praise she gets, and is absolutely stellar on Glee.
8.) JUSTIFIED for Best Drama ... for developing into the most consistently riveting, badass drama on the air after only one season. Justified is just that damn good.
9.) THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN for Best Late Night / Variety Program ... for a great run that gradually evolved into something truly great, with a final series of farewell episodes that were truly memorable, amazingly hilarious, and just plain classic television.
10.) ADAM BALDWIN for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy ... yes, I said ADAM. CHUCK, being alternatively a comedy and a drama (a dramedy, as the kids say these days), is difficult to classify in the Emmy's rigid system of genre division. But Chuck as a whole deserves some love for a great third season, and Baldwin is the show's most reliable utility player. As John Casey, he kicks ass and is always spot-on with his humor. CHUCK rocked this past year. Best Comedy, perhaps?
Bonus Pick: TY BURELL for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy ... this one is so obvious that I hesitate to even bother mentioning it, but then again, I did mention Jane Lynch, so here's a shout out to Modern Family's MVP - as Phil, Ty Burell is a comedic tour de force every week. I think he's got to be the favorite to win it all.
Now, watch the actual Emmy picks suck. All I know is, if John Noble isn't nominated ... we riot!
Friday, July 2, 2010
For the second year in a row, I got to attend the E3 expo, walk the show floor, and even attend a Big 3 press conference (this year, it was Sony's). Still, one meager day at the show is not even close to enough time to see and experience everything, and, unless you're a member of the press with special access priveleges, there's a lot of good stuff that's either behind ridiculously long lines and/or behind closed doors. So, I'll be honest, I don't think I would have even been able to fully digest all that was E3 2010 without checking blogs like Kotaku, watching G4's coverage, etc. Even after all that, it's still tough to tell which of the much-hyped hardware devices shown at E3 will hit and which will miss. If you listen to the Microsoft gospel, for example, the Kinect is poised to take over the world and revolutionize in-home entertainment (I left my white, glowy poncho at E3, so I'm not quite sure if I'm ready to drink the Kinect kool-aid just yet).
But I will say this: as cool as it was to check out E3, from a macro point of view, I have to say that this year's show was underwhelming. There was A LOT of emphasis on hardware, but where were the truly awesome games? At last year's show, I was salivating over new games like Uncharted 2, God of War III, Shadow Complex, and many more. This year, there just didn't seem to be the kinds of Triple-A games I was looking for, for the most part. Sure, there were some real gems - Nintendo in particular rolled out some long-time-coming core games for the Wii. But the fact is - as awesome as Epic Mickey looked, for example - I'd be much more excited to play it in HD on a PS3. Meanwhile, Microsoft's lineup of inevitable sequels (Gears of War 3, a new Halo) looked pretty (if not overly brown / generic), but didn't seem to bring much new to the table other than minor tweaks designed to excite the hardcore fans. Sony had a couple of exciting titles - Little Big Planet 2, Infamous 2, and - surprise! - Twisted Metal - but nothing that quite had the awesome-factor of an Uncharted or God of War, and not really any brand new IP's that really took my breath away. Those looking for the next, big, 100% original franchise - the next God of War or Uncharted - may have to keep waiting until next year.
If I had to pick a "winner" of E3 though, I'd probably have to agree with the conventional wisdom and go with Nintendo. After a couple of hugely disappointing E3's, The Big N finally brought out some big guns this year: Zelda, Donkey Kong Country, Kirby, and Metroid for the Wii all looked potentially great. Disney's Epic Mickey looked phenomenal - I want to play it now, please. And then, the unveiling of the 3DS was definitely the show's most impressive hardware rollout. The device looked sleek. Aside from the 3D, the addition of analog control is huge. And even though games weren't yet playable, the tech demos impressed, the 3D looked cool, and it seems like a ton of games are on the horizon, from numerous third-parties and including many big-name franchises. Meanwhile, I'm not sure exactly how or why Kid Icarus became the crown jewel of Nintendo's IP library, but for some reason people have been demanding a new Icarus game for the last few years. Showing a great-looking new Kid Icarus title for the 3DS was exactly what Nintendo needed to instantly sell the device to the hardcore fans. I do wish that Nintendo would create some NEW core game IP's that would inject a little juice into their lineup - Donkey Kong and Metroid are great, but how about some new ideas, new franchises? Still, I don't think either Sony or Microsoft showed as many must-have, much-anticipated exclusive games as did Nintendo. And there was no other product unveiling as successful or can't-miss as that of the 3DS. For that reason, props to Nintendo for a very, very solid show.
Meanwhile, Microsoft was ALL about the Kinect. This is one of those things that I could really see going either way. I mean, there's an undeniable "wow-factor" in seeing some of the Kinect games - like Dance Central or Adventure - in action. The technology is definitely cool and definitely impressive. But it also left me with a lot of questions. How well does it really work? How easy is it to set up in the average cramped living room or apartment? Are the games fun for more than 5 minutes at a time? And - who exactly is this marketed towards? Clearly, XBOX was going for a younger, more family-friendly audience with the Kinect. And yet, it was definitely jarring to see the juxtaposition of ultra-bloody shooters like Gears of War with uber-cutesy virtual toys like Kinectimals. Are enough families going to trade in their Wii's for the Kinect - which could prove pricey when you factor in the cost of a Kinect + XBOX console? It's hard to say - there's a lot of hype, but also a lot of uncertainty. And there wasn't really a game on display that was a true must-own for more traditional gamers. Even the still-early Star Wars game lost a lot of luster when you realize you'd just be swinging your hands around making lightsaber motions. Wouldn't you rather be, like, holding a lightsaber or some sort of stand-in? Sony kind of took jabs at this at their presser, touting how their Move had buttons and such for deeper gameplay possibilities. And it was a pretty valid point. Anyways, it's going to be really interesting to watch the reception that the Kinect gets in the marketplace. Do I want one? Yes. Would I shell out the money for one at this point? Doubtful. The real downside of the Kinect though, was that it seemed to eat up all of Microsoft's development energies. I mean, other than Halo and Gears and Fable - all series getting pretty long-in-the-tooth, where were the blockbuster, exclusive games? MS got a nice pop at their press conference by showing off the awesome-looking Metal Gear: Rising, but that one is multiplatform (as are 99% of the third-party games these days). But, there was nothing really outside-the-box or original, like an Alan Wake or Shadow Complex. When you saw just how much Kinect stuff was on display, being hyped to high heaven, and how little there was in the way of new, original, non-Kinect stuff. You couldn't help but wonder if that tenuous balance could come back to bite Microsoft. And hey, that ill-conceived Cirque du Soleil event, in which the Kinect was practically treated as a divinely-conceived gift to gamers, brought down from on high, worthy of cult-like worship ... well, that may not have done much to generate good PR either.
Now, Sony had a pretty solid showing at E3. I think in the short-term, the Playstation Move is getting short-shrifted in terms of hype, but in the long term, it might be a real winner. Simply because ... it isn't really revolutionary, just a really, really refined version of the Wiimote, which at this point is a pretty proven peripheral. Sony had games like Sorcery that looked damn cool, that looked like a "real" game, and that used the Move in an innovative way. The Move isn't the flashiest of the new devices (despite it's sort-of-cool, sort-of-dorky light sphere thing), but it might just be the most practical for using in actual, you know, games. But, I liked the fact that the Move was marketed as a cool peripheral, and not as the end-all, be-all of Playstation gaming (as the Kinect was with MS). Sony seemed committed to regular-old-games, and that is good. Because, look, as Sony's hilarious spokesman Kevin Butler implied, THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH REGULAR GAMES! Imagine going to Sundance and instead of seeing hundreds of new movies, you only got a couple of movies and a bunch of new movie-watching-technologies, like 3D or VR or whatever. You'd be like no, F this, I love movies. Well, same with games. Controllers work awesomely. I love hitting a button and seeing an instant cause-effect on my TV screen. There aren't nearly enough games that simply kick ass via innovative takes on genre, or through innovative play mechanics, or through a unique art style, or through new ways of creating audio-visual immersion. If this generation had only been about 3D and motion-control, there'd be no Grand Theft Auto IV, no Bioshock, no Uncharted. Those games all raised the bar, and they did it not via new technology, but by being awesome and innovative. It's the same principle by which The Hurt Locker was the better movie than Avatar when all was said and done. But, back to SONY ... Sony did spend a lot of time on the Move and also on only semi-cool glasses-driven 3D tech. But, to their credit, they had Little Big Planet 2, Infamous 2, Twisted Metal, Sorcery, etc. Plus, the reveal that Valve's Portal 2 would be coming to the PS3, and was no longer an XBOX exclusive, was huge for Sony as they try to catch-up to Microsoft's sales figures. Again, nothing that was an absolute killer-app, but still some pretty intriguing titles. However, Sony had perhaps the show's best single moment when the aformentioned Kevin Butler came out at their presser and delivered a rousing yet hilarious speech on the state of gaming. YouTube it now if you haven't seen it.
Now, a lot of stuff was missing from E3. Lucasarts had no booth, so a potential blockbuster like Force Unleashed 2 was behind-closed-doors only. Activision had no booth, so ergo, no Batman: Arkham Asylum 2. Rockstar had no booth, so the ultra-promising LA Noir was absent from the show. Metal Gear Solid Rising and Infamous 2 were in video form only. All of Nintendo's 3DS stuff was confined to tech demo's - no playable Kid Icarus just yet.
It was definitely an interesting E3, and it feels like the games industry is at a crossroads of sorts. More and more, there's a desire to hook in the "casual" fans, and yet, there's now a whole generation of people, like me, who grew up with games and don't want to see their natural evolution halted so that grandma can play with her Kinectimal. Nintendo's strong showing was a reminder that, back in the day, the Mario's and Zelda's of the world were neither hardcore nor casual. They were challenging, artful games that anyone who wanted to could play and become immersed in. And maybe games like Gears of War and Call of Duty ARE too complex to be appreciated by the average gamer or would-be gamer. I've been playing games since I was 4 and those games intimidate me. But is then going to the opposite extreme really the answer? Is the antidote to too many violent and complex shooters really braindead games that are based on gimmicks? Nintendo seemed to finally hit that happy medium this year.
It was also just a weird year in that a ton of big titles had only recently come out in the winter and spring. Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, God of War III, Final Fantasy XIII -- all first-half-of-2010 titles that people are still buzzing about. It was going to be hard for games at E3 to match up to AAA games like those that the average fan is still very much immersed in.
The good news is that there were also a ton of cool-looking third party games that are going to be vying for your dollars this year and next. There were kickass console games, portable games, and downloadable games. There were innovative games and retro games. Much-hyped blockbusters and under-the-radar gems. Some games aren't my cup of tea, but impressed nonetheless - like ID's new game, RAGE. Others are exactly my cup of tea, so I'm really hoping they live up to their potential - like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. E3 was still supercharged with action and excitement, and walking on the show floor, you did indeed feel like you were in the center of the universe, the place where the future of entertainment was happening. So, that's my wrap-up, but, before I go ... here are my overall games-of-show of E3 2010:
1.) Epic Mickey - Wii
- This game just looks like a potential instant classic - I love the art style, the homages to Disney history, and the darker themes. I only wish it was on the PS3 in HD ...
2.) Metal Gear: Rising (video only) - XBOX 360 and PS3
- The sword mechanic in this one looked off-the-chain. It's Metal Gear, it's going to rock.
3.) Twisted Metal - PS3
- This game looked fun as hell, and it was great seeing the classic franchise resurface after a lengthy absence. If it can recapture the glory days of TM2, this will be amazing.
4.) Marvel vs. Capcom 3 - XBOX 360 and PS3
- A Street Fighter 4-style revamp of the arcade classic? Sold.
5.) Little Big Planet 2 - PS3
- The first game was a classic, and part 2 looks to take the adventure and creativity to new heights.
6.) Infamous 2 (video only) - PS3
- This one really looked to take the Infamous franchise to a new level. A better story, a bigger world, hugely-improved graphics. Could be epic.
7.) The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - Wii
- It's more Zelda, but with refined motion controls and the first Wii-only adventure, is there any doubt that this will be great?
8.) Vanquish - XBOX 360 and PS3
- An insane-looking action title from the developers of Bayonetta, this one looks uber-fun.
9.) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World - downloadable on XBOX 360 and PS3
- Here's my underdog pick - an old-school beat-em-up with awesome 2D, sprite-based graphics. This is basically the game I dreamed of as an arcade-going kid.
10.) Enslaved - XBOX 360 and PS3
- From the makers of Heavenly Sword, a cool third-person action game in which you have to protect a companion while fighting off post-apocalyptic badguys. Looks really good.
Other Honorable Mentions: Scribblenauts 2, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Kid Icarus (video only), Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II (not on the show floor), Rage, Gears of War III, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Sorcery, Dance Central, Children of Eden, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat (video only).