REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog

26 12 2009

2009 has been a great year for animation, particularly in the advances that were made in leaps and bounds this year.  Wes Anderson used stop-motion animation to bring “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to life.  Although they hesitate to call it animation, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis continued to perfect the motion capture technology, the former practically reinventing it.  To top it all off, our good friend Pixar, faithfully churning out magnificent movies year after year, had perhaps their finest moment yet with “Up,” and the Academy may just reward it with only the second Best Picture nomination for an animated film.

But what about old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation?

The Princess and the Frog” is one of the best movies of the year not because it sets out to revolutionize its craft or because it tries to impress us with its bravura; in fact, it’s such a joy because it does just the opposite.  It sticks rather simply to the way animation was done in the good old days, and it has the beautiful charm to make you feel like you did as a child watching the Disney animated classics.

“The Princess and the Frog” is able to channel the rapture of the golden age of animation while combining it with a more contemporary ethic.  It doesn’t entirely belittle the power of wishes and dreams, which movies like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” trained us to believe was all you needed.  But the movie’s main lesson is to teach the value of working hard to achieve your dreams, which is just what Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose, “Dreamgirls”) does.  She works two jobs in New Orleans so she can open the restaurant that she and her father (Terrence Howard) dreamed about when she was a child.  He is the main voice echoing in her head, always saying that you cannot rely on the cosmos to give you what you want.  However, in a moment of desperation, she kisses a frog who claims to be a prince in hopes that she will get the fairy tale ending of “The Frog Prince.”  But the frog doesn’t become a prince; Tiana becomes a frog thanks to a voodoo priest (Keith David) that is creepy on a level I reserve for villains like Jafar and Scar.  The two must travel through the bayou to reach Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess that can set things back to the way they are.  To navigate the perilous terrain, they enlist a trumpet-tooting alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a thickly accented, love-struck firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings).  The journey is filled with plenty of spirited musical numbers and enough fun to make your smile as wide as the Mississippi.

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REVIEW: Up in the Air

20 12 2009

I’ve never been much of a person for philosophy.  However, I do love the story about the philosophy professor who teaches a whole class and then concludes with an exam that has one word written on it: Why?

The other day, I decided to give myself the same exam.  Why?  Why do I spend so much of my life obsessing over movies?  What are movies other than a bunch of moving images?  What does my life amount to if I spend the entirety of it staring at a screen?

A few hours later, I sat down in a theater and watched Jason Reitman’s latest feature, and every doubt or qualm I had about the time I devote to cinema went away.  “Up in the Air” is a movie that reminds you why you love the movies, and I would be willing to throw away days of my life to find two hours of cinema as perfect as these.

Here, Reitman adapts a novel by Walter Kirn but does not merely transpose page to screen.  He takes Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), the man who becomes fascinated with grabbing frequent flyer miles while traveling around the country firing people, and sends him on a different route.  Reitman’s trajectory goes straight through a chilly air current of recession and job loss affecting millions of Americans at this very moment, but at no point does “Up in the Air” hit turbulence.  Reitman remains in complete control of his vessel at all times, guiding with a firm and confident hand.

Everything in Ryan Bingham’s life involves reducing commitment.  His job is fueled not just by bad economy but also by people who want an orderly, unemotional way to let employees go.  His life consists of routine and self-sufficiency, all the while proving to himself that he can feel surrounded when others insist him to be isolated.  He preaches his lifestyle without attachment to those willing to listen as the only way to a life completely free of burden.  Where others fill their lives with relationships and family for satisfaction, Bingham turns to elite rewards programs and a lofty goal of earning ten million frequent flyer miles.

But two forces begin to disrupt Bingham’s smooth sailing.  The first is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), the callow new employee fresh out of Cornell who proposes a new system that threatens the high-flying lifestyle that he has turned into an art.  In order to reduce travel budgets and keep employees at home, she allows for the further desensitization of their terminations by simply informing those out of a job through a computer.  Bingham objects not just because of the obvious hazard it poses to his way of life but because he sees himself as more than just a messenger boy.  He is a voice of reassurance and a reminder that greater things lie in store; losing your job isn’t the end, it’s the beginning if you allow it to be.  To give her a taste of what it feels like to drop the ax on unsuspecting Americans, the boss (Jason Bateman) sends Natalie on the road with Bingham, who is less than willing to sacrifice for her to gain some insight.  The second force is Alex (Vera Farmiga), the female counterpart and kindred spirit of Bingham.  They instantly connect over the joys of traveling, and passionate feelings emerge.  But due to the nature of the lives they lead, neither is looking for any sort of commitment.  Yet as chance encounters become planned encounters, Bingham begins to wonder if his firm resolution to a life without connections is really one without burden. Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: An Education

25 11 2009

In the age of the booming blockbuster, independent cinema is in dire need of a movie that can appeal to a blooming generation of teenage moviegoers if sophisticated cinema is to survive.  I couldn’t be more pleased to report that “An Education” is that movie.  Although it is the type of movie that typically plays best with adults, it has the power to resonate among younger viewers unlike any movie of its kind.  Director Lone Scherfig’s clear understanding of the mind of teenagers radiates from as early as the opening credits, where sine graphs and frog diagrams devolve into hearts.  Thankfully, her vision is complemented by phenomenal performances and a sensational script that easily makes for one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year.

Jenny, the film’s heroine played with a stunning mastery by Carey Mulligan, is a character with struggles that people at crossroads in life can still appreciate many decades after the movie is set.  Sadly, she faces the same problem of creating a “college identity” separate from her regular identity that still plagues teenagers today.  Her parents (Alfred Molina and Carey Seymour) make sure that she has all the interests and hobbies necessary for her to fit the Oxford bill, obliging her to partake in activities that she loathes.  Through the process, Jenny begins to feel somewhat uneasy about going to spend four years doing something “hard and boring” with her nose in a book at a university only to end up in a “hard and boring” career for the rest of her life.  She reasons, however, to go against the grain would mean throwing away years of her life dedicated to looking impressive on an application, but still the desire remains for something beyond the education that a textbook can provide.

Almost as if an answer to an unspoken prayer, a chance encounter with the charming, older David (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jenny a taste of a captivating world where the formalities of her schooling rank substantially below the proclivities for enjoyment.  Gradually, David’s outlook rubs off on Jenny, and she becomes willing to throw out what she has worked so many years for to enter the materialistic world that he inhabits.  For all those who think Jenny’s judgement is being impaired by an infatuation for love, what is she doing other than indulging a yearning that all students have had?  Her curious exploration into a very adult world ultimately leads her to a course she had never expected to be enrolled in – a crash course in adulthood.

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REVIEW: Adam

18 09 2009

It really is a treat when movies like “Adam” come along.  It is a movie that tugs, rather yanks, on your heartstrings and never lets go.  It is, to quote my friend, “overflowing with cuteness.”  This is due mainly in part to the poignant and touching performance from Hugh Dancy as the titular character who is stricken with Asperger’s syndrome.  With every line, the emotional connection he forges with the audience deepens until it gets to a point where he just slaps a big smile on your face that won’t soon go away.

After the death of his father, Adam (Dancy) is thrust into self-sufficiency and loneliness, left with some frozen macaroni-and-cheese and astronomy charts for solace.  But when an attractive woman moves into an apartment upstairs, things begin to change for him.  Beth (Rose Byrne) gradually falls head over heels for Adam’s charm and begins to introduce him to a world that to him seems farther away than the most distant planets and stars – the one that lies just outside of his door.  With the best of intentions, she thrusts him into situations that require him to read people’s emotions, a skill which is severely inhibited by Asperger’s.  Beth loves Adam, but she misguidedly equates this sentiment to caring for a small child, taking a similar approach to him as she does to the young students she teaches.  And as Adam begins to develop a more acute sense of emotions through the relationship, this tactic can only lead to trouble.

Playing someone afflicted with a condition like Adam is like walking a very thin tightrope, and Dancy walks across with poise and finesse.  Never for a second did I doubt the sincerity of the performance.  Byrne is also absorbing as Beth, but at some points, she came off as a little too whiny and it got a little bit under my skin.  But the star of the movie is undeniably Dancy, if I haven’t made myself blatantly clear already.

“Adam” was the first movie I saw after watching “The Graduate,” which has already had a significant impact on how I watch movies.  I need more time to fully absorb what I saw before I can write a full post on it, but the main lesson I took from “The Graduate” is that when the camera is in the hands of a skilled director, every shot and scene has a purpose.  In “Adam,” I noticed the symbolism in a scene that I normally would have dismissed as a filler and why they bothered to make Adam so obsessed with the stars.  But not every movie is like this, and I commend writer/director Max Mayer for making every second of the movie shine with radiant brilliance.

Despite everything else that I have raved about for five paragraphs, none of the aforementioned achievements is what makes “Adam” so special.  It is absolutely sensational how wide of a grin spreads across your face while watching it and how happy it makes you feels upon exiting.  The movie infects you with a giddy euphoria, a sensation which will linger like a welcome houseguest for days.  And for me personally, the movie inspired me to be more caring and patient with people who don’t necessarily have Asperger’s syndrome, but are maybe a little reluctant to come out of their shell.  “Adam” is a miraculous achievement in film, a sentimental and jubilant cinematic love story.  A / 4stars





REVIEW: The Hurt Locker

4 08 2009

My heart is still pounding from seeing “The Hurt Locker” last night, the most riveting movie to hit theaters this year. The movie takes a unique approach, using a bomb squad in Iraq to show that for some, war is not hell but an addiction. Dynamite performances from Jeremy Renner as the fearless bomb disarmer & Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty as his comrades who have to deal with him putting them so close to death every day in the field are what propel the movie. Equally stunning though is director Kathryn Bigelow’s vision for the film, and it is refreshing to see war from a different and distinct vantage point.

The movie isn’t very plot driven, and I think that works to its advantage. It plays out almost like a documentary, which gives it a very authentic feel. And with that comes a very natural suspense, and the uncertainty of every situation makes your heart pound. Bigelow makes a wise decision not to score the film’s most chilling moments, taking a tip from the Coens “No Country for Old Men,” and Iraq’s natural sounds are infinitely more gripping than hearing a soundtrack.

The movie mainly concerns itself with developing its three main characters, and it does so extraordinarily well. It is a marvel to peel back the layers of Staff Sergeant James (Renner). We find a man addicted the adrenaline rush of being in the face of death but is profoundly afraid of life back home with his family. Specialist Eldridge (Geraghty) is the polar opposite of James, constantly fearing his end and petrified in the face of death. He always resents James’ daring ways. Sergeant Sanborn (Mackie) is somewhere in between the two, never petrified by the thought of death but knows the stakes and wants to be cautious.

Renner gives an absolute tour de force performance as James. He strips James down until he is emotionally raw, although the script backs down from getting to the core of who his character really is. Renner also plays James with a striking charisma and humor. He makes his character real, and if the Oscars do not recognize him with at least a nomination, there is truly no justice in the world. Mackie is also sensational, playing his qualms with James’ behavior in the field with quiet strength. Geraghty often plays Eldridge like the clichéd troubled soldier, but he has some great moments where his character really comes alive.

“The Hurt Locker” is truly an exceptional film in that is driven by human drama rather than combat. And because it is set in Iraq in 2004 before the more recent successful troop surge, the triumph or failure of the bomb team is never certain. This lends the movie a sense of unpredictability and thus makes it all the more compelling and unnerving. If there is a more suspenseful and forceful movie in 2009, then we have a really special year ahead of us.  A / 4stars