Saturday, January 31, 2009

Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen teaser is now online...

I hated the first Transformers the first time I saw it. I hated the campy tone, the over-the-top acting, preschool humor, and ridiculous romantic subplot ('hey, I only want you cause you're super hot... wait, you have a juvenile record and your father was a car thief... you're a whore!'). Me, my wife, and my ex-roommate seemed to be the only ones who despised the film during summer 2007 (my wife was sure that we had seen a different cut than our peers).

Even my unborn child violently kicked my wife's womb in protest on opening night (she did the same when forced to watch Grease 2) However, when I saw the picture a second time on HD-DVD (to give it a second chance), my colicky newborn daughter slept through the entire 140 minute feature, thus temporarily making Transformers my favorite film of 2007.

The biggest problem was that the issues mentioned above disguised the fact that there was very little robot action in the film. What was there was quite exciting and stunning (the FX were peerless), but at the end of the day, there was far more humans bickering than robots smashing. Hell, Optimus Prime doesn't even engage in robot combat until the 110 minute mark.

That doesn't seem to be the problem here. Of course, this is just a Super Bowl teaser, but, my god... the size of everything! That last shot of the Optimus Prime leaping from the collapsing bridge (and the sheer size of his opponent) is just the kind of thing I wanted to see in the first film. Michael Bay will be shooting several scenes in IMAX and I may just see this one just to drink in the visuals. I may hate myself in the morning, and I'll have no qualms complaining about being fooled twice, but here's hoping that this is the Transformers movie that I wanted in the first place (where the robots are the stars and not the comic relief supporting characters).

Scott Mendelson

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra teaser now online...

For an official version of this teaser, go to Coming Soon.

It's been awhile since a major summer entry completely debuted its advertising campaign during the Super Bowl (was The Hulk the last one in 2003?). Anyway, the buzz on this film has been rather lousy, and this teaser doesn't exactly scream confidence, but it's also much too fast paced to get much of a sense of the final project. Oh, and wow does the guy that Dennis Quaid answers to look like a young James Rebhorn (alas, it's not him, I checked)?

We can see that The Baroness (Sienna Miller) will be the main face of evil, with Destro (Christopher Ecckleston) and Cobra Commander (played by... um... 26-year old Joseph Gorden-Levitt?) hidden for most of the action. The 'Real American Heroes' barely get any screen time, with Rachel Nichols (Scarlet), Marlon Wayans (Ripcord) and Channing Tatum (Duke) barely getting a close up. Of course, everyone's favorite action figure was Snake Eyes (Ray Parks) so he gets several moments in the too-brief clip. Dennis Quaid brings a certain credibility to everything he does, so we'll see. I loved the first two Mummy pictures and hated Van Helsing, so hopefully this will be Stephen Summers' return to form.

There are two big marketing problems, aside from whether the movie is or isn't any good. First of all, any trailer for GI Joe is going to struggle to not play as a 'serious' (and thus unintentionally humorous) version of Team America: World Police. Second of all, for all intents and purposes, there has already been a GI Joe movie. It came out in 1994 and starred Jean Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia. Yes, it was called Street Fighter and yes the names were different, but that felt as much like a live-action GI Joe film as anything.

Slight digression, but according to IMDB, Rachel Nichols' other 2009 summer tentpole, Star Trek, will in fact be shown in IMAX. This may be old news, but its the first I've seen of it. This is a fantastic decision, as the film's seemingly huge scope cries out for IMAX, although this again brings up the question of how competing studios will fight it out for the relatively few IMAX screens available for these special engagements (in just this summer, there will be three major films utilizing the IMAX format in just over two months - Star Trek, Transformers 2, and Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince).

Scott Mendelson

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Review: Taken (2009)

93 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Usually when someone opines ‘oh, they don’t make them like this anymore’, they are paying a sort of high compliment, as if said film represents a lost form of quality. But Taken absolutely fits the bill of the kind of movies that they ‘just don’t make anymore’. But it’s no classic; in fact it’s not even all that good. But it is something all-too rare in the post-Columbine/post-Lieberman FCC hearings: a mid-budgeted, star-driven, violent thriller. That Fox edited it down to a PG-13 by slightly toning down the blood and gore doesn’t make it any less of a trashy relic of a bygone era. And, by keeping the action fast, brutal, and plausible, the film succeeds in actually being a superior update on those 80s relics like Commando.

A token amount of plot – Bryan Mills’ daughter (Maggie Grace) is going away with a friend to Paris, much to her father’s consternation. Since Bryan (Liam Neeson) is an ex-spy, he’s a little more paranoid than most. Alas, his instincts turn out to be correct when Kim and her friend are almost immediately kidnapped by human traffickers. Now Bryan has 96 hours to get to France and use his ‘special set of skills’ to get his daughter back before she truly disappears into the underground realm of the international sex trade.

To director Pierre Morel ‘s credit, nearly a third of the short running time is used to set up the relationships and characters before heading into the chase. We get a good look at the somewhat overtly forward relationship that Bryan has with his daughter and ex-wife (Famke Janssen, who is given absolutely nothing to do), and the peacemaking attempts by the new husband (Xander Berkley, who gets about six lines of dialogue). We get a sampling of his talents when he accepts a quick gig to protect a famous pop star, and we get a couple fun scenes of him cooking burgers with some old spy buddies. By the time the kidnapping occurs, the relationships are established enough that the last hour of pure chase and action aren’t completely pointless.

The abduction scene itself is the best scene in the film, but if you’re lucky enough to have avoided the thrill-spilling trailer, I won’t ruin it here. The rest of the film follows a regular investigate, interrogate, chase and kill motif found in films like Target or Man on Fire. The violence isn’t nearly as grisly as Man on Fire, and the film making is less stylized as well. Oddly enough, since it was made by French filmmakers, the film has a distinct whiff of Europhobia. Foreigners come in exactly three varieties: scary (the French), scarier (the Albanians), and scariest (the Arabs). One could argue that the French filmmakers are casting their immigrant brothers as boogiemen as a form of ethnic bigotry, but any history on that would require more research than this film deserves.

Despite a strong first act, the film never really pays off on the issues that are brought up. While Bryan is right to worry about his daughter’s safety, one could argue that she would have been more honest with him and more helpful if he hadn’t been so controlling in the first place. And while it’s refreshing that Xander Berkley doesn’t turn out to be the secret bad guy, his casting in a glorified cameo creates a giant red herring that hangs over the movie right up until the climax.

What makes the film work is the commanding lead performance from Liam Neeson. This is a wonderfully blunt, thoroughly compelling star turn. Bryan’s single-mindedness and lack of compassion for anyone stupid enough to get in the way is a nice change of pace from the recent spate of introspective, self-loathing action heroes (Jason Bourne probably would have wept amidst the carnage… ‘look what you foreign meanies made me give!’). Neeson looks incredibly young and fit (which I suppose justifies 25-year old Grace playing a 17-year old), and he’s obviously relishing the chance to play a cold-blooded action bad ass. If the film does well enough, this could easily turn into a Liam Neeson franchise.

If this were the 1980s, movies like Taken would be a nearly bi-weekly occurrence. But now even Paramount (previously the home of the star-driven thriller) would rather risk $150 million on GI Joe than spend $40 million on another sure-to-be profitable Alex Cross movie. Thus, such genre exercises are in short supply. So while Taken does not quite qualify as ‘good’, it does work as ‘good fun’. It’s lean, mean, and occasionally stupid in that old fashioned way.

Like Pierre Morel’s previous film, District B13, this is both incredibly silly and quite fun (alas, Liam Neeson doesn’t get to perform parkour). Like the Jason Statham/Jet Li action film War (for which Morel was the cinematographer for American director Philip G. Atwell), this is the kind of movie that we probably shouldn’t give a pass to, but we miss the genre so much that it feels like a reunion. In the post-Columbine age, far too many cops’ partners have gone un-murdered. And too many unsuspecting daughters of spies and soldiers have freely traveled abroad, unmolested by foreign fiends. Leave it to the French to give Americans what we didn’t realize we were missing.

Grade: B

Review: Heart Of Stone (2009)

Heart of Stone
90 minutes
Not Rated

by Scott Mendelson

Note - this film just won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Slamdance film festival.

Heart of Stone
is, on the surface, a documentary version of that oft-told tale of the inspirational inner-city principal bringing order and hope to a blighted urban school district. That so many stories exist both in fictional and non-fictional realms is a sad commentary on the state of public education in this country. But this film (originally titled It’s Hard to Be an Indian) has more on its mind than the feel-good story that we all know so well.

A token amount of plot – In the 1960s, the Weequahic section of Newark New Jersey was mostly a first generation Jewish community. Spurred on by bitter memories of the Holocaust and the Great Depression, the Jewish majority graduated more PhDs from Weequahic than anywhere in the country (their most famous alumni was novelist Philip Roth). Following the 1967 Newark riots, most of the Jewish community fled, leaving behind only the poor black citizens. Over the next thirty years, the community’s economic stock plummeted and the school in question became a template for the failure of inner-city schools. In 2001, the new principal, Rob Stone, embarked on an ambitious project to restore the school to its former glory, and wrestle away control from the factions of the Crips and the Bloods that had become the dominating social order.

Ron Stone, a black man who was married to a Jewish woman, immediately established the school as a violence-free zone, and worked to quell rumors or situations that might have given rise to gang violence. The major thrust of this goal was an intense conflict resolution program that acknowledged the gang influence on the community but refused to let it control the school. He was astonishingly successful in defusing the gangs’ chokehold and even inspired gang members to give up the streets and attempt higher education. Furthermore, he engaged the all-too-willing help of black and Jewish alumni in order to raise scholarships and inspire the students. The Weequahic Alumni Association still exists today.

None of Stone’s ideas or methods should be all that shocking or controversial. Conflict resolution would obviously be paramount to decreasing violence within the school halls. Of course such efforts cannot succeed without the help of the community. That such an ideology should be considered noteworthy enough to form a documentary is a rather said statement by itself. But that is not a slight against the film itself.

The picture itself is, like many documentaries of its nature, an interesting story well told. The opening act is filled with fascinating anecdotes about life in Weequahic in the 1960s, with the White, Jewish, and black communities living with only a token amount of harmony (there was one white gang called ‘the bangers’ who would attack Jews, while there was another gang called ‘the redskins’, who would protect the Jews). The latter two acts delve into what will surely seem like cliché for most followers of big-city education: the gangs, the hopelessness, the struggle to get parents involved when there aren’t always two parents, and the lone parent has to work all the time just to survive. But writer/director Beth Toni Kruvant deals head-on with various cultural stereotypes on all sides that make the system that much harder to reform. The picture also delves into the oft-repeated claims about bitter hatred between the Jewish and African American communities.

Heart of Stone is an inspirational story about an inspirational man. There is also a tinge of anger in the picture, both at the sorry state of certain public schools, as well as bewilderment as to why Stone’s relatively logical reform system isn’t simply considered common sense. This film is not a masterpiece of technical production; in fact the video quality is occasionally crude. But this is a story worth telling, so the means of which it is told is immaterial.

Ron Stone’s example had a literally transformative effect on this previously written-off school, as well as the students who attended it. Hopefully his ideology can serve as a blueprint for other similar schools and give said students a chance at something that many of us took for granted – a future.

Grade: B+

Review: Barking Water (2009)

Barking Water
80 minutes
Not Rated

by Scott Mendelson

One can’t help but feel like a bully for picking on a film like Barking Water. Shot on what surely was a shoestring budget; this third feature by writer/director Sterlin Harjo (whose previous film, Four Sheets to the Wind, won the ‘Special Jury Prize’ at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival) is basically a tone poem concerning a dying Native American man as he heads on a final road trip of potential redemption and peace. This is obviously a labor of love for all involved, but you’ve seen variations on this story many times before. Barking Water does little to differentiate itself from the pack.

A token amount of plot - Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman) is a Choctaw Indian who is at last succumbing to disease and old age. But before he departs this Earth, he convinces his friend and occasional lover Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) to drive him to see his estranged daughter, so that he may make amends for sins past and meet his grandchild for the first time. Although Irene is reluctant as their friendship ended years ago on bad terms, she eventually agrees to soothe her own guilt, and their friendship is renewed as they embark on one final adventure together.

The rest of the film unfolds basically as you’d expect it to. There are long, dialogue-free scenes of characters simply watching the road and the scenery around them (often constructed as music-video style montages), there are encounters with colorful locals, and there are moments of shared pain and reconciliation. There is quite a bit of atmosphere to this film, but it’s difficult to disguise the fact that very little happens.

I cannot go on at length about favorite moments or favorite dialogue because there are very few incidents and not a lot of dialogue. The majority of the film takes place in a single moving automobile, and much of that time is spent in quiet reflection. Again, the picture attempts to be a tone poem, but the film fails to define itself past its well-worn narrative hook. For much of its length, it is basically a filmic road trip through rural Oklahoma.

To be fair, the acting is more than adequate, and Richard Ray Whitman is genuinely noteworthy. He has an incredibly detailed face, something suggesting a colorful James Bond villain. Also, the film is not overly sentimental, so the moments where the emotion does push through feel earned and not cheap.

Barking Water is not a bad film by any definition, merely a relatively uninvolving one. The final moments have a certain power, but then it is difficult not to be moved by the closure on a long and storied life. Unless you are a fan of Native American cinema, I cannot truly recommend seeing Barking Water. It may be a noble failure, but that does not make it a success.

Grade: C+

Sunday, January 25, 2009

TV Review: Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Wow... this is my 300th post is just under a year. Since I'm tired of complaining about Oscar nominations and cheap movie studios, let us break for a moment to discuss something awesome.

Although it is theoretically pitched to a younger audience, with bright colors and gee-wiz adventure, the newest Batman cartoon has a certain level-headed sophistication that makes it completely watchable for audiences of any age. Despite being a cartoon that seemed to have been invented purely to sell newer and different action figures to an ever younger audience demographic, Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold is smart about its kid-friendly science fiction adventures. And it's also very funny. Taking its name and its modus operandi from the long running (and occasionally canceled) comic book series, the show teams Batman up with a different B-level DC comic book hero every week, sending them both off on a fantastical adventure in far-off lands, alien worlds, and fantastical environments. The secret to the show's success is two-fold. The stakes are still life and death and Batman is still his gruff, no-nonsense self, which renders the insane occurrences around him and his nonchalant reactions to them downright hysterical.

Ironically, the light tone allows the creators to engage in rather violent fist-cuffs and smack downs, while the characters discuss matters of death freely without constantly using disguise words like 'destroy' or 'disappear' or 'lost'. For example, not only did the most recent episode have an onscreen death of a major hero, but the show's otherwise light and funny Christmas episode (awesomely titled 'Invasion Of The Secret Santas') contained the most vivid flashback of the Wayne murders that I've ever seen in a Batman cartoon. Second of all, Batman (voiced with punchy authority by Diedrich Bader) remains ever the hard ass, although he is more grouchy taskmaster than brooding psychotic. Crime fighting is a job for him, and whoever is riding shotgun in the Batmobile sure as he'll better pull their weight. But, since he is crime fighting with equals and not junior partners, the dialogue has a sense of true camaraderie and respect. Batman may believe he's superior to many of his partners, but he genuinely likes them and considers them his friends (if only in internal monologues).

I'm also quite fond of the crime fighting 'Dos and Don'ts', where Batman and Green Arrow or The Blue Beetle discuss personal strategies, making the show into an occasional superhero version of Burn Notice (apparently, if you carry knock-out pills in your belt, you need a special casing so they don't go off on you while you're moving). And Bats is forever unphased, which lends a trippy kick to the all the absurd goings on ("Are you seeing what I'm seeing?," asks Plastic Man, "Because I'm seeing gorillas riding pterodactyls, with harpoon guns, stealing a boat.") While Bader is a surprisingly convincing Batman, the show is extra funny if you imagine Christian Bale's McGruff The Crime Bat uttering some of Batman's choice dialogue ("Pretend you didn't see that," Batman sternly advices two traumatized youngsters, after they witness Batman punch the head off a robot Santa Claus).

In the end, the show works because of its absolute matter of fact presentation of the goofball subject matter. Whether attacked by murderous Santa robots or facing down unhinged dinosaurs, Batman treats it like any other day at the races. Tongues are obviously placed firmly in cheek, but the show is serious when it needs to be ("If I wanted you to retire," Batman explains to an over the hill Wild Cat, "it's because you're like a father to me... and I don't want to lose another one."). This is easily the most consistently funny Batman property since Adam West hung up his cape in 1968. It's certainly not high art like Batman: The Animated Series, but it's smarter than The Batman and it's a perfect counter-balance to the realism-drenched crime drama that is The Dark Knight. Because even the darkest of Dark Knights may have been undone by "Fluke, the most obnoxious dolphin on the planet."

Grade: A-

Scott Mendelson

Yes, Marvel IS apparently doing Iron Man 2 on the cheap after all.

From Variety comes this report that Mickey Rourke is being offered a measly $250,000 to play a major villain in the upcoming Iron Man 2, a low-ball figure that may cause him to make The Expendables instead. I've previously written about Marvel's apparent attempts at penny-pinching the May 2010 sequel before, but this new information is startling. Marvel is allegedly as badly hurt by the economy as any company (unlike DC Comics' relationship with Time Warner, Marvel Comics has no giant conglomerate to fall back on) and they are trying to find ways to save.

The latest casualty was Samuel L. Jackson, who will now NOT be playing fan-favorite Nick Fury in this sequel (or apparently in The Avengers, if that even gets made), allegedly due to a very low-ball offer for a genuine supporting role (as opposed to the applause-inducing cameo at the end of the first film). Folks, on opening weekend, geeks and non-geeks alike were talking about two and only two things: Robert Downey Jr's performance and making sure their friends knew to stay for the end credits for the Sam Jackson cameo. Hey, I guess Marvel can always go with someone who has experience playing Nick Fury, Mr. David Hasselhoff.

Also in negotiations to apparently work for peanuts are Sam Rockwell as a second villain and Emily Blunt as Black Widow. Blunt as Black Widow serves two functions, since she could theoretically take much of Fury's expository dialogue and allow the producers to potentially dial down Gynneth Paltrow's role, thus allowing them to go cheap on her too. Toss that in with Don Cheadle replacing Terrance Howard (boy, am I starting to wonder if his exit wasn't about money after all) and you certainly have an eclectic and interesting cast for this superhero sequel. None of these fine actors are so underemployed that they have to take whatever they can get for a sure to be huge moneymaking tent pole picture. We'll see who bites and for how much money.

I can understand that Marvel wants to cut corners when it can, but is playing hardball with the sequel to your most valuable property really the way to go? Iron Man single-handedly made Marvel into a real movie studio and briefly created the impression that they were movie making geniuses. Whatever issues I had with Marvel's choices in the past, they spent A-grade money on a B-level comic book character and let Jon Favreau make the film he wanted to make. They took a risk and it paid off big time for them. And they've been making some whip-smart choices about who directs their various properties, so I was hoping to be able to cheer for them for awhile. But this is not smart decision making. Yes, they may be saving up so that they can blow their wad in other, more technical arenas, but Iron Man was a success because of its characters and fine actors, not because of its occasional flying robot action scenes.

If you want to cut costs, don't do it on your flagship franchise, the one that is all but guaranteed to return said investment. There is a strong possibility that Iron Man 2 could very well be the highest grossing film of summer 2010, with only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 1) standing in its way. If spending an extra $20 million gets a top-flight cast and makes sure that the current cast is happy, then spend $20 million. Hey, Marvel... want to save almost $200 million in production and marketing costs? Don't make Ant Man.

On the plus side, the current spendthrift ways make it more likely that Marvel will cast Jon Hamm as Captain America in Joe Johnston's film adaptation (since he'll likely work for peanuts). Of course, if Marvel is set on going cheap, then there is always the frightening possibility that the 1990 Albert Pyun Captain America film may end up being the superior version.

I come at this not as a foe but as a friend. I didn't worship Iron Man like a lot of people did, but there were ingredients there for a vastly superior sequel. With a stunningly successful original behind them, and most of the introductory exposition out of the way, the filmmakers can make a film that has the confidence to deal with the various geopolitical issues that were brought up rather than toss them away for a rock-em-sock-em robots climax. I understand the need to save money for any major company. But if you're Marvel Studios, Iron Man 2 is not the film to cut corners on (and for that matter, neither is Captain America).

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Yes, but... Melissa Leo is now an Academy Award nominated actress...

Melissa Leo has an Oscar nomination. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It stinks that The Dark Knight got snubbed in the major categories and it stinks that The Reader seems to have exemplified the worst of the Academy's tastes (it's badly reviewed and barely seen by audiences... oh, but it's a Harvey Weinstein production about Nazis and The Holocaust!!). It stinks that the long overdue Kate Winslet will likely win Best Actress for a supporting role that allegedly ranks as one of her lesser performances. It stinks that Bruce Springsteen didn't get a Best Song nomination in a category that only has three entries this year.

Wall-E made 162 ten-best lists on the official Movie City News scoreboard.
The Dark Knight made 134 lists.
The Reader made 22.

This isn't just about The Dark Knight getting snubbed, or Wall-E getting denied. This is about a series of inexplicable and/or artistically indefensible calls that, on one hand is a cry of refusal to acknowledge that mainstream cinema can be art, while on the other hand engaging in the kind of apparent 'star-fucking' that is usually attributed to the Golden Globes.

To wit - The Academy has passed over The Dark Knight and/or Wall-E, films that 94% and 97% of the nations critics at least really liked, over The Reader, a film that few have seen and that has amassed a barely-fresh 60% on Rotten Tomatoes (for comparison, Snakes On A Plane currently sits at 70%).

Once again, nearly all of the major nominees came from official 'Oscar bait' films; films that were held until the very end of the year, often screened at the last minute so that the quality of said film wouldn't cancel out the hype. We wonder year after year why so many studio releases are pitched to the lowest-common denominator, and then we watch as every allegedly high quality film that the studios dare to make all come out in the same 60 day period. In snubbing The Dark Knight and Wall-E, the Academy seems to be saying A) don't bother with quality genre pictures, because we're just going to ignore them and B) don't bother releasing good films before November, because we have no long term memory and we'll forget them.

On the other hand, the Academy made sure to nominate Angelina Jolie for The Changeling (instead of Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky) and Brad Pitt for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button; performances that were neither acclaimed nor particularly challenging (to be fair, Jolie and Pitt were much better in such films as A Mighty Heart and Burn After Reading). Why do I get the feeling that they would have nominated Jennifer Aniston as Best Actress for Marley & Me if they could have found a way to justify it?

As for Bruce Springsteen's shocking omission from the Best Original Song category (for The Wrestler), it may have fallen prey to the rule concerning original songs (no songs that are just over the end credits). I don't recall exactly how the song plays out at the end of The Wrestler, but maybe they should have done what Pixar did, and have some kind of story being told during the end credits like in Wall-E (Thomas Newman and Peter Gabriel's catchy 'Down To Earth' was nominated).

I could go on and on about the dumb calls that were made (Bolt over Waltz With Bashir in the Best Animated Film category), but I'm well aware that it's merely an exercise in futility and simply a case of substituting my own judgment for the Academy.

I could discuss my unease with Robert Downey Jr. getting an Oscar nomination for a gimmick rather than a sterling lead role in a popcorn entertainment. I didn't even like Iron Man, but he single-handedly convinced the world that a merely 'ok' movie was a truly great one. But I'll give the Academy the benefit of the doubt and hope that they nominated the performance that Downey Jr. gave in Tropic Thunder as method actor Kirk Lazarus (however overrated it was) rather than nominating the concept of a white actor playing a black guy. I'll concede my possible oversensitivity and let it pass. But I will certainly wonder out loud why Danny Boyle was the sole-nominated director for Slumdog Millionaire when it was in fact co-directed by Loveleen Tandan.

But, in the end, aside from the fact that Oscar nominations matter little in the grand scheme of things, I can take comfort in the calls that the MPAA got right. They nominated Richard Jenkins for The Visitor. They nominated Viola Davis for Doubt (her one scene is one of the best scenes in any movie of 2008). They didn't just nominate Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn, but also their equally good costars, Marisa Tomei and Josh Brolin (proving that they actually watched The Wrestler and Milk). The original screenplay category has a few outside the box choices (Happy Go Lucky, Wall-E, Frozen River).

And, of course, I can take pleasure that, as of this moment, Melissa Leo is now an Academy Award-nominated actress. Yes, ladies and gents, Melissa Leo, Sgt Kay Howard, who has struggled to find decent roles in ten years since she was booted off of Homicide: Life On The Street for not being pretty enough and for the bad press drummed up by her stalker ex boyfriend John Heard (the unequivocal 'jump the shark' moment for that beloved show)... she now has an Oscar nomination. So, if I may take a moment to extend a token and long overdue middle finger to NBC and John Heard respectively, Melissa Leo will now and forever more be labeled as 'Academy Award nominee'.

Scott Mendelson

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama's inaugural address...

If he actually makes good on these words, and those that oppose such ideas purely out of political incentive or spite can be quelled, then maybe all the suffering of the last eight years may not have been in vain. Obviously for those who have lost family in unnecessary wars, who have lost friends in preventable floods, and who have lost their financial security to the mythical infallibility of 'the free market', there can be only so much rejoicing. But for those whose main loss has been only their faith... faith in the promise of our country, the intelligence of its citizens, and the morality of our people, we can only hope that this will not be a prelude to overly cautious 'centrism' and four-to-eight years of bending over backwards to appease a vocal minority who would never stand by us. We, as liberals, progressives, and as American citizens have a president, we have congress, we have an overwhelming electoral victory, a sweeping mandate, and the political capital that comes with it. To quote Thom Hartmann, "Activism begins with you, Democracy begins with you, get out there, get active! Tag, you're it!"

Game on...

Scott Mendelson

Why Forrest Gump is still a great movie (and yes, it's better than The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button)

I haven't written much about The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and I don't intend to (it's a gorgeous looking, but flat, relatively uninvolving movie with a stunningly powerful final five-minutes). My friend, Randy Shaffer of DVD Future (and now, IGN - mazel tov!), was the first person to point out the similarities to Forrest Gump when he saw the film in early November. Over the last two months, the obvious self-plagiarism by Eric Roth has become a running joke, and frankly its probably the defining reason that The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is no longer the front runner at the Oscars (I'd argue the only reason it's even in the running anymore is due to it's surprisingly robust box office).

Whether or not this bothers you upon viewing said film is probably a question of how much you'll still admit to liking Forrest Gump. I loved the film back in July, 1994 and I still do today. But I know I'm in the minority. Of all the many victims of 'blockbuster backlash', none has suffered as much as Robert Zemeckis's Oscar-winning mega hit. Like Titanic, this is a critically praised, audience adored, and Oscar-winning smash that no one admits to liking anymore.

The biggest reason for the backlash, aside from the general need for the movie going 'elite' to inherently dislike anything popular, is the accidental role that the film has played in the 1990s culture war. The film's folksy, southern bent and overt emotionalism is the kind of thing that usually sends the movie snobs heading to the hills. And it didn't help that, during a speech in summer 1994 about violence and obscenity in Hollywood movies, eventual presidential candidate Bob Dole singled out Forrest Gump (along with The Lion King and The Flintstones) as the kind of movies that Hollywood should make more of. And when the GOP took back the Senate and the House Of Representatives in November and declared a new era of conservative rule, the seemingly 'conservative' Forrest Gump became the filmic whipping boy of angry film-loving liberals. And the release just three months later of the counter-culture movie of the decade, Pulp Fiction, brought about a bizarre 'us vs. them' dichotomy where one film was the cool, hip, liberal movie and the other was the square, cheesy, conservative film. This was especially inexplicable as Quentin Tarantino himself was a fan of Zemeckis's film as well.

But aside from the 'it's overrated' and 'its corny' sentiments tossed out by the naysayers, the one charge that has stuck is Zemeckis's somewhat foppish treatment of the 1960s radical youth movement that Forrest Gump's childhood sweetheart, Jenny Curran, finds herself involved in. It is absolutely true that the anti-war movement is shown in a somewhat cartoonish fashion, with the somewhat naive and over-their-heads 'free love generation' being portrayed as simplistic in their thinking, incompetent, and occasionally violent (the latter does have some historical precedent).

Fair enough but (pardon a slight digression), from my interactions with today's equivalent, Zemeckis may not be entirely off base. Like any mass movement, there are certain liberals/progressives who know little of what they speak. These are the sorts that in 2004 thought that their liberal education began and ended with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. These are the people who honestly think that Barack Obama will bring about world peace, end hunger, save the environment, and bring balance to the force in the first hundred days. They joined the Obama campaign because it was the cool thing to do, because he was charismatic and handsome, and because they wanted to be part of a vague 'movement'. These are the people who embarrassed themselves (and us) when they were asked about what Obama specifically stood for, because they had no clue of his policy stances on any given issue. And trust me, as a dye-in-the wool liberal, they are just as annoying as the equivalent 'ditto-heads' on the right.

But even if we don't feel like making excuses for Zemeckis's treatment of the 1960s anti-war youth movement (and note that he paints a more positive picture of the civil rights movement of that era), we must acknowledge a couple of things. For one thing, the film is viewed through the eyes of its simple-minded protagonist, someone who invariably saw the world in stark black and white and was probably confused by the moral complexity of his time. For another thing, complaining that the film punishes Jenny for her wild-child ways or criticizes those who wanted to make a difference is missing the point of the movie.

For all the heart-tugging moments and soaring music (Alan Silvestri's music is still one of my favorite scores of all time), the film is actually a two-pronged dark comedy, a very twisted take on the American Dream. First of all, Forrest Gump is basically the angel of death. Every person he comes in contact with, from Jenny, Bubba, and Lieutenant Dan, to the various real-life historical figures he meets in his life, they all, meet terrible fates. Some (John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, and in a deleted scene, Martin Luther King Jr.) are assassinated, some (Lieutenant Dan, George Wallace) are left crippled by violence, some (Jenny, Elvis Presley) meet ignoble ends via drug use and various forms of potentially reckless behavior. For whatever reason (perhaps Gump's incredibly good luck is counterbalanced by terrible luck for anyone in his path), Forrest Gump brings suffering, misery, and death to anyone unlucky enough to meet him.

Further more, Mr. Forrest Gump represents the very worst of America - he constantly succeeds in every avenue of his life, without even trying, without even caring. While the countless people he meets try and struggle to succeed, to make a difference, they all fail or fall by the wayside while this accidental success story plows by them. Only in America, Zemeckis may be saying, could a man who knows so little, cares so little, and tries so little in fact succeed at so much by random chance, while the ambitious and determined crash and burn in his wake (yes, the similarities to the 'Homer's Enemy' episode of The Simspons are not lost on me).

The irony of course in all of this is that many of the critics are falling over The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button BECAUSE of its similarities to Forrest Gump. Its more high-brow presentation, muted emotionalism, and more straightforward storytelling allows said critics to champion this allegedly more grown-up version of the same story. Sorry folks. Forrest Gump is the more grown-up movie. It does not wear its intentions on its sleeve. It dares to have a sense of humor about its far-fetched fable, and it actually has something sneakier to say about life other than 'you live, you die, try to love while you can'. Despite its audience-pleasing flourishes and its bright, sunny atmosphere, Forrest Gump is a far more complicated, and far darker fable than the relatively simplistic The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.

And that's all I've got to say about that, right now.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, January 19, 2009

Review: Good (2008)

95 minutes
Not Rated

by Scott Mendelson

There is a moment in the middle of Istvan Szabo's Sunshine where John Neville angrily confronts his Jewish relatives after the Holocaust. Ralph Fiennes is tearfully recounting how his father was frozen to death in a concentration camp, when Neville wonders out loud why they didn't do something. Sure they had guns, but there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews and only thousands, if not hundreds of Nazis. It's a striking moment because it was the first time I had seen a picture involving the Holocaust that dared to portray the Jewish victims as anything but hapless victims of an inexplicable evil. Of courses, in hindsight its easy to ask why more didn't rise up against the Nazis. Sure, thousands of them would have been killed in the process, but as long as one of the dead wasn't you, why not?

I bring up Sunshine because it remains a better, more striking fable that deals with many of the same issues as Vicente Amorim's Good. Based on an allegedly classic 1981 play, this small-scale drama attempts to capture the feelings that many ordinary Germans had as the Nazi party slowly took complete control of the motherland. It's a fascinating idea that still resonates: how do you succeed in a corrupt government without becoming corrupt yourself? And if you do see evil all around you, do you sacrifice your own comfort to speak out, or do you just sit back and hope someone else martyrs themselves instead of you? But the ideas at the heart of the film outweigh the execution of the film itself.

Some plot - In 1930s Germany, literature professor John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) sees a sudden rise in good fortune when his novel advocating euthanasia ends up being used as government propaganda by high ranking Nazi officials. As his personal stock and potential fortune rises, Halder finds himself torn between succeeding within a political party that he does not agree with, or facing the consequences of shunning the current governmental establishment and losing any chance for success and financial security.

Again, this is an idea that is always worth exploring, the struggle of (to quote a recent high-profile tent-poler) 'trying to be decent men, in an indecent time'. But the fatal flaw of the story is that our protagonist isn't just decent, he's also gloriously naive. Time and time again, he tries to reason with his Jewish friend, Maurice (Jason Issacs), claiming that Hitler's reign is just a fad and that things will blow over soon enough. This may have been a reasonable position for an educated man to have in the mid 1930s, but John clings to this belief well past the point of self-delusion.

If this were a story about self-blindness, about a life lived without peripheral vision, then that would be one thing. But John Halder is presented to us as an educated and mentally sound man, someone who genuinely believes that the Third Reich is just a political party that will eventually be voted out of office. It is difficult to tell a story about a morally sound man who struggles with his humanity in a totalitarian regime when, for the majority of the movie, said hero is completely oblivious to the actual actions and true intentions of said regime.

Story flaws aside, the film looks splendid, and the acting is fine. Mortensen does righteous anguish as well as anyone, and Jason Isaacs provides a solid counterpoint, both as a foil and a direct consequence of Holder's bad judgment. The scenes between the Isaac and Mortensen are easily the film's highlights. And the picture ends on a jaw dropping five-minute shot that renders the fantastically terrible as plausible and frighteningly mundane.

Good is an interesting idea, thoughtfully acted and visually intriguing. However, it is nearly undone by a lead character that fails to represent the general idea that the film is allegedly about. Maybe it worked better as a play, but this theatrical adaptation only barely succeeds as a template for after-film conversation, rather than as an entertainment in and of itself.

Grade: C+

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: My Bloody Valentine (2009)

My Bloody Valentine 3D
100 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

For all the hub-bub about how 3D will save the theatrical experience, it can only do so much to enhance the package that it amplifies. Movies like Meet The Robinsons or Beowulf used the 3D gimmick to immerse audiences in a world that is already well worth visiting. Lesser films such as Superman Returns attempted to disguise the hollowness of its action set-pieces but only ended up magnifying their flaws and dramatic irrelevance. Point being, if a movie like My Bloody Valentine plays like a dime-store slasher picture, then adding 3D to the proceedings will only make it look like a 3D dime-store slasher picture.

Some plot - A loose remake of the 1981 George Mihalka cult film, this update still concerns the sleepy town of Harmony that is shadowed by terrible events from long ago. In the Hanniger Mine, an accident claimed five lives and turned the lone survivor into a perfect example of the classic hypothetical Speluncean Explorers legal debate (think 'Custom Of The Seas'). Having no desire to become Supreme Court precedent, survivor Harry Warden immediately escapes from the hospital to conduct a legally unambiguous killing spree that claims 22 lives. Ten years later, the town is still recovering when the return of Tom Hanniger, the young man who caused said accident years before, stirs up bad memories and bitter feelings. Right on cue the gruesome carnage begins anew, casting suspicion on an allegedly deceased Harry Warden, as well as the many other local citizens with motive and opportunity to paint the town blood-red.

When playing in the genre of 'closed room mystery', there are two ironclad rules. First of all, the eventual killer or killers must be someone that the audience is familiar with and someone that an audience member could theoretically suspect at some point in the film. Second of all, we must be able to trust our eyes. Everything that happens onscreen must be accepted as the truth as we saw it occur. My Bloody Valentine is a film that doesn't play fair and in terms of character development and story structure, it out and out cheats. Key character beats occur off screen, major developments are mentioned merely in passing, and there are at least a few moments where director Patrick Lussier out and out lies to his audience concerning explicitly onscreen events. That these occurrences are doled out evenly enough to not favor one suspect over another is irrelevant. The only way to solve this mystery is to flip a coin and hope it comes up heads.

To be fair, the film is surprisingly well-cast and well-acted. Veterans such as Tom Atkins and Kevin Tighe prop up the younger whipper-snappers (Jamie King, Jensen Ackles*, Kerr Smith), and their presence lends a certain prestige to the proceedings. But only the young leads really get anything to do, and fan-favorite Tom Atkins is especially wasted.

What you say? No one cares about the story, characters, or acting? They just came to see 3D slasher killings and R-rated blood and gore? Well, fair enough, except after an incredibly violent and gruesome initial ten to fifteen minutes, the film settles down into a stock template of one killing every ten minutes or so. In the downtime, we get the usual melodrama that fills these kinds of films- infidelities, town elders hiding dark secrets, red herrings, and errant suspicions. And if you're going to make the audience care about the mystery at the film's core, you'd best play fair with said audience. For a film that seems to hold no regard for human life and encourages the audience to laugh and mock the onscreen carnage (which isn't in itself a criticism), it sure spends a lot of time in the realm of human interest.

And that's a shame, because the 3D effects are completely immersive and utterly impressive. Gore hounds will have a field day with the blood and guts on three-dimensional display, but they will surely tire of the overly repetitious killings. Unlike the original film, or even most slasher films, nearly every single murder in this film is done by the same pick-axe of doom. The 3D effects occasionally succeed in spicing up the routine murders (an eye-ball flying at the screen went over like gangbusters), but the majority of the violence is basically of the chase and hack variety. The film is quite violent and gruesome, but it is rarely if ever truly scary.

In the end, My Bloody Valentine 3D is a completely route slasher picture, with only the added gimmick of 3D violence as a selling point. If that's enough for you, you'll get your money's worth. But the same-old same-old nature of the killings, the relatively fake looking 3D CGI blood, and the complete lack of any real tension or drama dilutes what should have been a popcorn-flying party movie. In the end, as an apt metaphor for a picture set in a mining town - 3D effects cannot turn coal into a diamond.

Grade: C

* How amusing that the two stars of televisions's Supernatural, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki, both headline major-studio remakes of 'classic' slasher films. We'll see who wins the box office battle when Padelecki's Friday The 13th opens in February. From my limited exposure to said TV series, I'm guessing that Supernatural is both scarier and better than both of these films.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fox wins case against Warner Bros: Watchmen will be edited for a PG-13, cut it down to 90 minutes.

I'm kidding of course. The trades are reporting that Warner and Fox have reached a settlement over Watchmen that will involve an up-front payment of $5-$10 million, plus a chunk of revenue points of about 5-8% (and financial incentives on any sequels and spin-offs... which is about as likely as a sequel to Titanic).

Glad to see that peace has returned to our village. This could be a surprisingly good deal for Warner Bros. With the minimum numbers at play ($5 million upfront, 5% of the gross), Watchmen will have to make at least $250 million worldwide for the pay out to equal the $17.5 million that WB handed over back in summer 2005 over The Dukes Of Hazzard film. If the maximum pay off is in order ($10 million upfront, 8% of the worldwide gross), Watchmen has to gross just $94 million worldwide to equal $17.5 million in pay out. If you recall, they had to pay $17.5 million cash for forgetting to get the rights to the movie Moonrunners, the 1975 film that the original show was based on. The article does not clarify whether DVD/Blu Ray business is included in the percentage, but if they are, then things of course look better for Fox. But, risking a bigger pay off for a % of the cut does have a risk. Yes, that's right, for all the huffing and puffing about mean ol' Fox trying to bully poor Warner Bros., this is the second time the legal department has made this very basic mistake in three years.

If I may completely speculate for a moment, if the film does monster business worldwide (at $500 million worldwide, Fox stands to gain $50 million at maximum pay out, $30 million minimum), Warner could theoretically argue that they should only pay the smaller amounts (or a different, even smaller amount) on the fact that the film's success is due to Warner Bros' superior marketing department. And, considering the mediocre year that Fox had last year, versus the superior year that WB had (albeit, without The Dark Knight it would have been pretty glum), that seems like a plausible argument. And, furthermore, if the film flops, Warner could then argue that the 'negative media coverage' brought about by the public litigation hurt the gross of the film. Complete garbage of course, but it would be worth a shot if the film flops.

Also amusing is the fact that, according to the article, Fox spent just $1.4 million in development fees on the Watchmen project before it was put in turnaround. So, had Warner just done their basic, entertainment law 101-level homework, they could have just cut a check for $1.4 million a couple years ago and saved themselves quite a bit of headache and drama.

Look, I love Warner Bros, and they have a solid reputation for letting filmmakers pretty much do what they want with major properties, be it the Matrix series, the Harry Potter series, or the recent Nolan Batman films. Sometimes this makes them just under a billion dollars worldwide (since The Dark Knight was not released in China), sometimes it brings them Speed Racer (yes, my favorite film of 2008, but I will not dispute the financial detestation that resulted). But this is legal acquisition 101 - don't develop a property that you're not absolutely sure, 100% in writing certain that you have the rights to. Whoever messed this up in the legal department deserves to be fired and counter-sued for complete malpractice.

I'm glad the matter is resolved, and I look forward to seeing the picture. But, there is a small part of me that kind of wished that Fox had out and out won at court; that they had won the distribution rights to the picture and then decided to cut the film to a more 'audience-friendly' PG-13, and edited it down to 90 minutes. I mean, issues of artistic freedom and what not aside, could you even imagine the sheer insanity that would have caused in the geek community? Can you imagine how hilarious the AICN talk back boards would be, or the comments boards at the various other geek-centered movie sites? It would be absolute nerd pandemonium, with riots in the streets, runs on the comic book stores, and worldwide boycotts of upcoming Fox films. Nerd brother would turn against geek brother, with Joss Whedon being called in to try to quell the masses (after which Fox would thank him by canceling Dollhouse after two episodes). But, of course, they'd all still go see the 'kid-friendly cut' of Watchmen on opening weekend just the same.

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban dies at 88.

Let me be the one person who posts a Ricardo Montalban clip that isn't from Star Trek II. Here's a lovely little moment from the last live-action film Montalban even appeared in, Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (from about 2:55-4:40). Neither he or Sylvester Stallone are at their best, acting wise, but it's a surprisingly nice moment.

Ricardo Montalban, RIP - 11/25/1920 - 01/13/2009

Scott Mendelson

YouTube to clamp down on user-made videos with copyright protected music?

This article claims that YouTube is going to start removing uploaded user-made content that uses copy-protected content. This is going to be a massive undertaking and could have major repercussions for YouTube. Whether or not 'copyright protected music' will apply only to mainstream audio or whether this will kill the fake trailer market is unknown. But so far, the crackdown has been pretty pervasive and thorough. So far the trailer market is seemingly safe while the fanmade music video industry has been nearly wiped out overnight.

There may be one positive side effect from all of this. This apparently means that, should I wish to find a Sarah McLachlan song to rock my daughter to sleep or simply soothe her for a moment, I can actually find just the song, the official music video, or a live concert clip. When I type in 'Full Of Grace', I won't have to watch some terrible fan-made video showcasing the deep, passionate yearning that (pick two of four) Kate, Juliette, Sawyer, and Jack feel for each other. Nor will I have to watch a gloriously romantic montage detailing Buffy's agonizing decision on whether to sleep with Angel or Spike. And, if I can look up Evanescence's 'My Immortal' without being subjected to a painfully pathetic homemade video detailing the epic 'Withering Heights-worthy' love affair between Dr. Grey and McDreamy, then I'm all for crushing the rights of burgeoning artists. Well, not really, but you get the idea.

Amazingly, I never had this problem when Ally wants to dance to 'The Safety Dance' or 'Crocodile Rock'.

Scott Mendelson

My favorite trailer mash ups of late (animated mash-ups are the best, as you can actually get the lips to match):

'The Incredible Quantum of Solace':
Not only is the matching work impeccable, this also gives us the kind of pure action trailer that the actual Incredibles campaign denied us.

The Dark Knight trailer 01 (done in Batman: TAS style)
Of the many, many Dark Knight trailers done up in one version of Batman (the Tim Burton film, the 1960s show, etc), this is by far the most polished.

The Day is SAVED: 1989-1997 Batman films on BluRay, Andy Richter Controls The Universe on DVD, and the entire Powerpuff Girls series in one DVD set!

First off, Warner Bros. finally announced the impending (March 10th) Blu Ray release of the four original Batman films. They've been threatening to announce this for about three months or so, but it's now a done deal. All four films contain all of the (incredibly high-quality) extras that the standard DVDs shared, with the usual 1080p upgrade for the video and audio. Oh, and for Frisbee enthusiasts, there will be a digital copy of the original 1989 Batman film. It seems like I waited forever for the original Bat pictures to be given special edition upgrades, but it ended up being worth it. From the incredibly honest commentary and documentaries on the Batman & Robin DVD set, to the animated story boards of the deleted Robin sequence from Batman (which included the voices of Kevin Conroy, Efrem Zimalist Jr. and Mark Hamill), this entire 2005 set was a true labor of love.

On a lighter note, on March 24th, Paramount will release the complete series set of the cult favorite Andy Richter Controls The Universe. Like the equally under-watched and nearly as brilliant Andy Barker PI, this is an incredibly funny and deliciously well written show. This series, about a short story writer stuck writing manuals for a company that sells weapons of mass destruction, deserves to find a newer, broader audience. It also contains one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever, spoken by 'Freddy' (played by Conan O'Brian): "Well, she (his aunt) died doing what she loved... committing suicide."

But the biggest and best news: Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the greatest super hero show since Batman: The Animated Series - The Powerpuff Girls. They will have a marathon over President's Day, capped off by a new, final episode. The next day will see the release of a six-DVD complete series box set with all 78 episodes, a tie-in movie, commentaries, documentaries, and more. And in this time of great national strife and peril, there is no one better suited to kick righteous ass right now than Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup. Despite years of sub par DVD releases (and a crappy theatrical movie in 2002 - CURSES!), the greatest female super heroes of all time (She-Ra is all well and hot, but Blossom could kill her six times before she hit the floor) are finally getting the red carpet treatment they deserve.

I could tell you why this show is one of the best animated series from my lifetime. But that would cause me to ramble like arch-villain Mojo Jojo, the homicidal big-brained monkey whose rambling syntax seemed to have been cribbed by John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. Just sample the classic Cartoon Network promo, in which the three kids finally put an end to the 'legion of dumb' (the clip, which I am going to embed, right here, for you to watch, right now, so that you can sample the show, the show which will be on DVD next Tuesday, the 20th of January, the day you should buy the show, so you can watch the show, so you can laugh at the show, the show which I am talking about right now... Curses!).

Scott Mendelson

Monday, January 12, 2009

Review: Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Waltz with Bashir
90 minutes
rated R
By Scott Mendelson

Even in this day and age, the art of animation is still considered something primarily for the amusement of families and children. Even the more artistically challenging cartoons, be they Pixar films like Wall-E, or Hayao Miyazaki epics like Spirited Away, are inherently appropriate for children. As a result of this self-imposed (American?) segregation, there is still something uniquely shocking about seeing realistic or graphic violence in animated form. Be it the heavy-metal carnage of Japanese anime, or the occasional lethal violence in 1990s cartoons like Batman: The Animated Series or Gargoyles, the act of killing and scenes of bloodshed are that much more pungent when displayed in a medium that is still primarily known for entertaining the youngest of audiences.

As a result of this mindset, the tragic, violent true-life tale that concerns Waltz with Bashir is rendered even more powerful in animated form than it would likely have in live-action. Ari Foleman’s film is technically described as an ‘animated documentary’, and the term fits well enough. The animated recreations of historical events are no less in keeping with the genre than something like The Thin Blue Line. If this were a live-action documentary, it would feel like any other war story, albeit with a more intriguing narrative that propels said historical docudrama. But in the realm of animation, the brutal, bloody violence feels like even more of a violation when depicted as, to put it bluntly, a cartoon.

A token amount of plot - In 2006, Ari Folman meets with a friend from the army service period, who tells him of the nightmares connected to the 1982 Lebanon War. Ari is stunned to realize that he remembers next to nothing about that period in his life. After a disturbing dream/flashback that seems to be linked to his time during the war, he decides to track down fellow soldiers in order to deduce what happened during that period, why he can’t remember it, and what it has to do with the infamous two-day Sabra and Shatila massacre that occurred in Beirut.

The film takes shape in documentary form, alternating between first-person testimonials and flashbacks (animated recreations) of the events of Israel’s campaign against Lebanon, which was in response to an assassination attempt on Israel’s UK ambassador. For those who do not know the history, I will not divulge the secrets that Folman uncovers, but it is a morally complicated situation involving morality in wartime, the responsibilities of occupiers, and the notion of evil occurring via good sitting silent.

Whatever influence the current Israel Gaza offensive has on the reception of this picture, the film itself is strikingly apolitical. Although it is worth noting that a film of this nature could only have been made by an Israeli. With the hyper-sensitive nature of the one-sided Israel/Palestine debate in America (more so than in Israel itself), a film like this, which dares to paint Israeli soldiers as, well, human, would likely face accusations of anti-Semitism were its maker of any other nationality. Its strong moral judgment is one that condemns evil regardless of nationality or creed, be it evil through action or inaction.

Instead the film makes an effort to create a surreal template of what it feels like to be inside a war, inside a battle zone, and thus inside the mind of a soldier. Ironically, the animated medium lends this footage a bizarre emotional realism that would not be as effective in live-action. The film is ultimately about the madness of war, and the madness that occurs in a combat zone. Not a new idea to be sure, but the stark drawings and vivid images make this timeworn cliché into something new and stunning. While animation often has the ability to show us things we’ve never seen before, it also has the ability to take old images and older stories and render them strikingly raw and blindly fresh. Waltz with Bashir acknowledges that war is hell, and then proceeds to give us a first-person view of that very unique form of purgatory, as well as the guilt and self-recrimination that comes from surviving it.

Grade: A-


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