Monthly Archives: June 2012

Ted (2012)

by Steve Habrat

I may upset tons of people when I say this but I have never been the biggest fan of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy, the wildly popular animated television series that relies heavily on making one random joke about pop culture after another to the point where I almost get sick to my stomach. I’ve always found the jokes lazy, with MacFarlane hoping you’ll giggle at all the randomness he fires at you at rapid speeds. He’s also gone on to create two other animated series that have almost identical set-ups (American Dad and The Cleveland Show), one worse the other. With the popularity of Family Guy, you knew MacFarlane would eventually make the jump to the big screen and now he has with the surprisingly funny and warmhearted Ted, the first good comedy of the 2012 summer.  If you worry that Ted’s premise will wear itself out, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Focusing on a raggedy teddy bear that has magically sprung to life, Ted has a charm you just can’t resist, no matter how hard you try. This profane little party animal will also surprise you with his humility he demonstrates late in the game, something I was not expecting at all but ended up really getting into. Yet the magic of Ted comes from the way that MacFarlane manages to work his pop culture referencing gags into a live action film and for the first time, making it seem like there was some actual thought behind all those geeky references.

On Christmas day, 1985, young Boston outcast John Bennet (Played by Bretton Manley) makes a wish that the cuddly teddy bear he received Christmas morning would come to life and be his best friend forever. John wakes up the next day and realizes that his wish has come true. After horrifying his parents with his creepy new buddy, John and “Teddy” scamper off to conqueror the neighborhood. Teddy or Ted (Voiced by Seth MacFarlane), as he quickly becomes fond of, begins to catch the attention of the media and he rises to be a huge sensation across America. The fame fades and the years pass with Ted getting into trouble here and there. We soon come to present day where Ted and John (Played by Mark Wahlberg) are still shacking up together, living in a cloud of marijuana smoke and half-consumed beers. John works a dead end job at a car rental company that appears to be going nowhere fast but he still manages to get by. John is in a happy relationship with the sweet Lori (Played by Mila Kunis), who is forgiving of John’s loser lifestyle and beams at every moment they have together. Yet on their fourth anniversary, John fails to purpose to Lori, forcing her to demand that John pick her or Ted. John begins trying to grow up for Lori but the raucous Ted makes that a difficult task, especially when he gets his own apartment. Ted also finds himself harassed by a bizarre father (Played by Giovanni Ribisi) and his overweight son, who will stop at nothing to make Ted a part of their family.

It’s not hard to see what MacFarlane is saying with Ted, as he presents a man-child who just can’t let go of his teddy bear (or his free spirited youth, if we are going to identify the metaphor). Only when the man-child lets go of that teddy bear, will he truly be a man for his gushing gal pal. After some recently iffy starring roles, Wahlberg is back on track speaking through a thick Bahston accent and trading droll geek dialogue with the sexy Kunis, who couldn’t seem more at home here. The two work great together, making you wonder why nobody has tried pairing them up before. Every time you think John has finally gotten on the right track, in crashes the vulgar best buddy to rip him away from his adult responsibilities. Before separating, Ted and John would plant themselves on their sofa, rip bongs, and drone on and on about why Flash Gordon is the best movie ever made. When Ted gets his own place, things really spin wildly out of control into booze-filled blowouts that have them doing cocaine with one of their idols (I won’t spoil the surprise). Yet it was those little moments between John and Lori that forces some of the stuffing over in Ted and makes way for a human heart.

When we aren’t going “awwww” over John and Lori, you will be doubled over laughing over the slovenly title character as he curses his way into your heart. He ends up becoming a new pop culture icon himself! Ted is a skillfully illustrated little CGI creation that has been carefully fleshed out to make us never grow tired of his reckless, foul-mouthed behavior. Despite the fact he is a computer image, he really holds the screen, making us cease to see him as an expensive animation and view him more as a flesh and blood character. It helps that MacFarlane stuffs him with quite a bit of emotion that he smartly reveals at just the right time. When Ted realizes the damage he has done to John and Lori’s relationship, he goes above and beyond to really help his buddy out, actually realizing that he has been a horse’s ass and admitting it. This isn’t a fast one pulled by MacFarlane (thankfully). I kept waiting for Ted to revert back to being an asshole, and while he does in a way (he is more smartass than asshole), this character actually does undergo a major metamorphosis even before the final chase sequence is thrown in to for the hell of it.

Ted does come with a few rips and tears in his matted little body, mostly from the half-conceived weirdo father and his even bigger weirdo son, who are supposed to be the villains in all of this. Ribisi’s Donny is game to get freaky and he sure does in the final stretch, but Ted could have been a really great movie without his character being on board. His son does provide one of the film’s funnier one-liners but it doesn’t justify their inclusion. Without them, this comedy could have been fifteen minutes shorter and all the better for it. Community’s Joel McHale shows up as Lori’s frisky boss who constantly tries to impress her with all of his money. He quietly steals the show from everybody else and quite frankly, there wasn’t enough of him in the film. Ted also features a handful of other celebrity cameos that mirror MacFarlane’s fascination with random pop culture referencing. Don’t get me wrong, they are pretty clever and they will definitely catch you off guard. Another inspired decision by MacFarlane is having Patrick Stewart acting as the storybook narrator who goes off on a hilarious rant about how bad 2006’s Superman Returns was.

Another flaw that really bothered me in the opening half of Ted was the way that MacFarlane would undercut his own jokes. He would deliver a good one, think he was on a role, and then go too far with it, sucking the laughs right out of the moment. It happens a number of times near the beginning, sending Ted into a slight tailspin early on. Luckily, MacFarlane rebounds and the second half doesn’t have a dull moment. Overall, it is great to see MacFarlane showing a bit of range with Ted. After making millions off of rehashing the same material with slightly different characters, MacFarlane proves he could be a comedic force to reckon with on the big screen. He can do crass with the big boys and he can tell jokes until it hurts. If you were looking for another reason to see Ted, check it out for the chemistry between Kunis and Wahlberg, a pairing that I hope to see on the big screen again sometime. Even if you’re not a fan of MacFarlane’s television work, there is still much to enjoy in Ted. Plus, you have to give MacFarlane credit for producing a summer comedy that is worthy of the ten bucks you will spend on it.

Grade: B

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Piranha (2010)

by Steve Habrat

I really don’t know why I didn’t go see Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha back in the summer of 2010 but I do kick myself now for never taking the time to go check it out. What a hearty dose of gruesome fun in the sun this Piranha out to be! Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever 2003 French horror film High Tension and the hair-raising 2006 redo of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, doesn’t shy away from giving us exactly what we would want to see in a film called Piranha. Yes, we see one of the hungry terrors actually burp out a penis, a girl get her blonde locks tangled in a boat engine propeller, and tons more assorted carnage for any horror fan to go bonkers over. Piranha also happens to be a mighty fine tribute to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, even giving us one hell of a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, donning the same wardrobe that he did while battling that iconic great white shark. While Joe Dante’s original film was basically Roger Corman’s quick cash in on the popularity of Jaws, Piranha fully gets that and it plays with it quite a bit. It also seems like Aja has it out for obnoxious spring break college kids who say “bro” too much, enjoy showing off their tribal tattoos, and hate anyone wearing a Pixies t-shirt. Oh boy, does Aja get them good.

Piranha begins with fisherman Matt Boyd (Played by Dreyfuss) fishing and enjoying a couple cold brews out in the middle of Lake Victoria, Arizona, one sunny afternoon. After accidentally causing a small earthquake that cracks the lake floor, Boyd’s boat is pulled into a whirlpool that unleashes thousands of hungry piranhas that proceed to rip him to shreds. Meanwhile, Lake Victoria is crawling with scantily clad tourists who are ready for spring break shenanigans. Among them is local seventeen-year-old Jake Forester (Played by Steven R. McQueen), who is eager to join the party. Jake’s mother, Sheriff Julie Forester (Played by Elizabeth Shue), is consumed with keeping an eye on the drunken college kids and has barely any time for him or his two younger siblings. Jake ends up meeting porn filmmaker Derrick Jones (Played by Jerry O’Connell), who offers him some money to take him around to local hot spots so he can shoot some steamy footage. Jake agrees and takes off on a boat trip around Lake Victoria, bringing his crush Kelly (Played by Jessica Szohr) with him for the ride. As word gets to Julie about the disappearance of Matt Boyd, she teams up with her tough-as-nails Deputy, Fallon (Played by Ving Rhames), to find him. Soon, more bodies pile up and Julie is forced to investigate what is causing these deaths or close the lake. She ends up taking a group of seismologist divers to the crack in the lake floor where they make a terrifying discovery.

Once Piranha gets moving, the film really bares its teeth and chews you up, right down to the bone. Things get NASTY. The death scenes here are seriously grizzly with a heavy sprinkling of camp. The final half of the film is a never-ending bloodbath that features one memorable death scene after another. Drunken college kids are chewed in half by the scurrying school of death lurking just below their inner tubes. One naked girl after another is chewed up to the point where they are floating skeletons while one gets the top half of her chest chopped off. You can’t help but laugh when splat pack director Eli Roth shows up as the judge of a wet t-shirt judge who meets his maker by getting a speed boat to the face, spraying his gooey brains all over the tanned mug of a horrified hottie who is looking to show off her double D’s to thousands of chanting beefcakes. It practically leaves you exhausted even at its brief eighty-nine minute runtime. If you have ever found yourself annoyed to no extent by abrasive sex-starved teenage idiots, this is the movie for you. Aja apparently can’t stand them either and he makes you know it.

While it lures you in with its excesses, Piranha has a surprisingly clever cast keeping this pleasure cruise on course. I just couldn’t stop laughing over the sweet cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, who seems to be having a grand old time at this B-movie soirée. Shue and Rhames as the heroes here are exactly what you would expect. They don’t really blow your mind but I never expected them to. Rhames does get a nifty sequences where he rips the engine off a dingy and uses it to hack up a school of charging piranha. McQueen and Szohr get the typical teen roles of looking good for the camera while Jerry O’Connell dances around them in a cocaine fury. O’Connell’s Derrick is just as unpleasant as he should be and you will be counting the seconds until he comes to face to fangs with the chomping menace.  Also on board is Parks and Recreation cast member Adam Scott as the hilarious Novak, the head of the team of seismologist divers. Scott happens to be a welcome presence in anything he is in and he adds some more welcome humor to an already hysterical experience. The other awesome cameo is Christopher Lloyd (Yes, THAT Christopher Lloyd) as a pet shop owner who identifies the piranha as an extremely violent species that went extinct two million years ago.

Using almost the same plotline as Jaws, Piranha 2010 is more of a loving tribute than sloppy rip-off. It affectionately winks at the Spielberg classic, which I think is why I liked it as much as I did. Judging by some of the shots found here, I can assume that this had some truly awesome 3D to hold the audience’s attention and would have been fun in a big theater. The guys get an extended sequence of two nude women swimming around like dancing mermaids while the girls will scream over a piranha belching out a chewed up penis right at them. In addition to those two moments, the engine wielded by Rhames looked like it would have been pretty neat in 3D as does the darting school of piranha, who leap at the screen like aquatic demons. The film luckily doesn’t go on for very long, making it even more likable than it already is. Aja doesn’t hesitate to show the audience that he is capable of really creating a suspenseful mood and really freaking us out. He really is a talented guy who should be given more horror projects. Piranha may not make you a better person and it may not challenge you intellectually, but you just won’t be able to resist its B-movie allure, even if that allure is dripping with blood, guts, and tons of nudity.

Grade: B

Piranha is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Wall-E (2008)

by Steve Habrat

Of all the Pixar movies that I have seen, my favorite one is without question director Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E, the film that I believe has the most heart and soul out of all the Pixar films. I absolutely love that this is a silent film for half the runtime, allowing us to get sucked in to actions rather than the words. It is very hard to not fall for the peculiar little robot that loves Hello, Dolly, has a cockroach for a pet, and is puzzled over a bra. You won’t be able to get enough of the moments where Wall-E discovers that he is in love with fellow robot EVE, mystified by her sudden presence in his lonely little world. I felt for him in his desperation for a friend, someone he could share all of his interests and chat with in his hysterical little robot blips and squeals. When Wall-E isn’t overtaking you emotionally, you will be shocked to see how intelligent this film truly is. With Wall-E, Stanton points out that big corporations control almost every aspect of our lives and have made us the overweight slobs that we are. They control fads, what we eat, drink, what we should fear, what we should see, etcetera. Tell me that is not thought provoking for a children’s film! And yet Wall-E still fills me with childlike wonder as it shows us how beautiful love can truly be.

Wall-E begins in the distant future, with earth having been abandoned by her polluting children and left to be cleaned up by a garbage-collecting robot named Wall-E. Wall-E has been by himself for quite a long time without anyone to connect with except for his pet cockroach. He spends his days working at a task that seems like it will never be finished and he spends his evenings watching Hello, Dolly and staring up at the stars, hoping for a savior to come and take him away from the mundane. One day, Wall-E sees an enormous spaceship land and send out a sleek robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who is on the hunt for plant life. Wall-E immediately falls for EVE but she is so consumed with her mission on earth that she barely even notices the sweet Wall-E following her around. The two eventually connect but when Wall-E shows her a small plant he has found, EVE scoops up the plant and heads back out to space to the Axiom, an enormous spaceship that contains what is left of the human race. Wall-E chases after her but once he boards the Axiom, the lovable duo discovers a plot that would prevent the humans aboard the Axiom from ever returning to earth.

While Wall-E remains consistent its entire runtime, the first half of the film is such a breath of fresh air, it remains one of the crowning moments for the Pixar team. When you aren’t wrapped up in little Wall-E’s daily routine of compacting and rummaging through trash, you will be pulling for the little guy to find that spark with EVE. I absolutely love watching Wall-E discover a Rubik’s cube, car keys, and a fire extinguisher. He has grown bored with the monotony of his day to day, desperate to find something that will entertain him enough to forget about the tedious task of shuffling garbage. We also get to meet his pet, a cuddly little cockroach (Did you EVER think a cockroach could be cuddly?) that crawls around Wall-E’s insides, making him giggle and fidget. Watching the two get out of bed was a chuckler, Wall-E so groggy that he bumps into things as he tries to get himself ready for the day. When EVE shows up, Wall-E really perks up as he zooms after EVE, hiding out of bashfulness as he attempts to work up the courage to approach her. The two share a moment in Wall-E’s little house that is movie magic at its absolute finest.

The second half of the film is just as entertaining but it marches to a different beat. We get to meet tons of robots that prowl the Axiom while the humans all lounge around on hovering recliners. The humans are all obese slaves to a corporation called Buy N’ Large that announces over loud speakers what the current trend is in fashion (Keep an ear out for a voice cameo from Sigourney Weaver and an eye out for an appearance by Fred Willard). Buy N’ Large provides the humans with endless amounts of soda as they video chat into screens that obstruct their vision. Wall-E accidentally knocks out one human’s screen, a man named John (Voiced by John Ratzenberger), who discovers a world around him that he has been completely oblivious to. Wall-E and EVE also manage to short out another screen that belongs to a woman named Mary (Voiced by Kathy Najimy). John and Mary meet up and they quickly fall for each other, laughing over the quirky, love drunk robots that brought them together. Aboard the Axiom, Wall-E gets a bit preachy, a call to shake ourselves out of current fads and trends that are controlled by others and explore the world around us. We also get to meet the ships captain (Voiced by Jeff Garlin), who is clueless to what Earth is until he begins to research it. Wall-E comes equipped with a green message, wagging its finger at us for polluting the earth in addition to our brains and bodies.

Wall-E takes its good old time developing the love story between Wall-E and EVE, forcing us to emotionally invest in these little joys and I’ll be damned if the payoff isn’t overwhelmingly satisfying. Not one aspect of the film seems rushed, despite the fact that the film only runs an hour and a half. The standout sequence of Wall-E has got to be when Wall-E and EVE dance around in space, their love deepening with each spin through the air. The film does get a bit intense in the final moments as our lovable little hero gets badly wounded and barely clings to life. It falls on EVE and the captain to save the little guy AND the humans aboard the Axiom. Wall-E is such a pleasant film because it allows us to really get to know this little guy inside and out. His binocular eyes practically overflow with intrigue, curiosity, and wonder at the world around him. It is astonishing that Wall-E’s eyes are more alive than the eyes of the “human” characters found in most other animated offerings. In the multiple times I have seen Wall-E since it was released on Blu-ray, I haven’t been able to find a single thing wrong with the film, a rarity considering most newer films are far from perfect. Wall-E turns out to be a great cinematic love story and a masterpiece of animated filmmaking. Don’t be afraid to fall for this one!

Grade: A+

Wall-E is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Jaws (1975)

by Steve Habrat

Throughout my film courses at Wright State, one of my professors (who will remain nameless in this review) argued that Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws was not an important motion picture but rather the bane of their very existence. He rarely had a kind word for the film (or Spielberg himself) and it was just downright perplexing. On the one hand, there could have been bitterness there because Jaws was such a commercial success, the first summer blockbuster marketed on a large scale and he was stuck on the smaller scale art house fare, reluctant to give anything with an explosion in it a chance. On the other hand, he could have just been in love with his own pretention and too stubborn to realize that Jaws had some very important things on its mind, mainly reflecting the Watergate scandal that gripped the nation at the time and exploring class relations among its three main protagonists. My professor liked to argue that Jaws, and the imitation blockbusters that followed, chose not to deal with real world consequences to the violent actions within the films themselves, glossing over the cold hard truth. He is wrong, folks. Jaws DOES deal with some real world grief, fear, and the heaviness in the heart of everyman hero Brody. And if what is going on underneath all the mayhem isn’t clever enough, Spielberg makes a film that is an absolutely flawless example of how to perfectly build suspense and follow through with a delivery that will have the viewer’s heart in their throat. Maybe Jaws isn’t such a piece of garbage after all…

Considering everyone and their mother have seen Jaws at least once, I won’t dive into too much detail about the plot. Jaws opens with a group of free-spirited teens partying on the beach. Two of the drunken teens slip away and decide they are going to go skinny-dipping. The boy passes out while in the process of undressing but the girl makes it into the water, only to find herself getting tugged around by an unseen predator that proceeds to rip her to bits. The next day, police chief Martin Brody (Played by Roy Scheider), who has just moved from New York City to the scenic New England island of Amity, finds the remains of the girl on the beach. The medical examiner concludes a shark killed the girl, prompting Brody to close the beaches down, just when the summer crowds are starting to pour into Amity. Overruled by the mayor, the beaches reopen with the promise that there is nothing to fear in the water. Pretty soon, two more people are dead and Brody quickly brings in Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Played by Richard Dreyfuss) to help find the shark swallowing tourists whole. Brody and Hooper join forces with a blue-collar professional shark hunter Quint (Played by Robert Shaw) and they board his rickety boat the Orca, setting out to find and kill the predator before more people are killed. They soon catch a glimpse of what they are going up against and they quickly realize that they are going to need a bigger boat.

No matter how tough you think you are, Jaws, which is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, has at least one moment that will send you flying out of your seat. Yes, it is a rollercoaster ride caught on film but Spielberg keeps us on our toes for the entire runtime of the film. He is aided by the iconic score by John Williams, which adds to the stomach-knotting tension found woven through Jaws. I dare you not to jump when you get your first good look at the aquatic beast that rears up to show off its pearly white fangs. You’d be lying if you said your pulse didn’t quicken when Brody, who is well aware a shark killed the girl, sits helplessly on the beach while people pour into the water for a cool-off. Each playful shriek has Brody inching closer to the edge of his beach chair. I guarantee that you mimic him each time you watch the film. All of this suspense is aided by the fact that we don’t see the shark until more than halfway through the film and this glimpse is one of those reveals where if you blink, you’ll miss it. By keeping the monster off screen, our imagination runs wild with, “How big is the shark?” “What does it look like?” “Are our heroes equipped to do battle with this monster?” Between the score, the concealment of the shark, and the slowly rising tension, Spielberg crafts a film that still sends people fleeing from it to this day while the brave ones who remain scream their heads off.

While Jaws may be a big budget studio picture, Spielberg refuses to dumb the entire project down and treat us like blithering idiots. Jaws is eager to address the Watergate scandal, which the country was still trying to wrap their heads around at the time. Tricky Dick’s resignation was still fresh in the mind of most American citizens and the fear that we may not even be able to trust our own leaders is touched upon in Jaws. Throughout the first half of the film, the honest everyman Brody is pitted against Mayor Larry Vaughan (Played by Murray Hamilton), a liar done up in flashy suits who jumps on television to reassure the edgy tourists that there is nothing to fear in the waters of Amity. He breathlessly tells Brody that he can’t close the beaches down because the citizens of the area depend on the money that the tourists bring in. As the body count racks up, the slippery politician is caught up in his fib that everything is okay and out of disgrace, he allows Brody to hire Quint to track down the shark. The film uses Vaughan’s dishonesty to infuse the film with some stinging grief that really sticks with the viewer. The mother of one of the victims approaches Brody and scolds him for opening the beaches when he was aware that there was a shark in the water. This confrontation shakes Brody to his core and his character is never the same again. He seems quieter and a bit dazed as a result, seeking refuge in a bottle of wine.

When Jaws isn’t making us feel Brody’s pain, Spielberg is allowing us to really get up close and personal with the three different protagonists. Middle class Brody wanted to escape the violence of New York and live a peaceful life only to stumble into more violence where he least expected to find it. His reveal is most certainly a reflection of the violence that America was still trying to recover from throughout the 70’s. Quint is a blue-collar WWII veteran who likes to poke fun at Hooper, who has a college degree and happens to be wealthy. The group bickers with one another and they have a hard time working together at first but they are able to put aside their difference over drinks and lengthy explanations about past experiences. Quint and Hooper, who butt heads the most, are able to level with each other by comparing their scars, first physically and then psychologically. Quint’s reveal is the standout, a deeply disturbing account of being stranded in shark infested waters at the tail end of World War II. Then, to celebrate their understanding, they engage in drinking and singing, only to be yanked away from bonding by their aquatic nemesis. This bonding sequence happens to be one of my favorite scenes in the film. I love it when Spielberg cuts to the outside of the boat and up pops our antagonist, a common enemy for the uncommon trio.

Perhaps one of the most influential thrillers next to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (my professor’s favorite film), Jaws hits gold with its equal parts action, adventure, horror, thrills, and comedy, all while giving us three characters we grow to deeply care about. Unlike Spielberg’s later work, Jaws doesn’t have such a happy ending to soothe us. He is bold enough to kill off one of the protagonists, a shock to someone who is only familiar with his projects that came in the wake of Jaws. He also doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, a staple that was immensely popular in the horror films of the 1970’s. To say that Jaws isn’t a classic film worthy of study just because it was the film that “invented” the summer blockbuster and was heavily marketed by the studio is ridiculous. While marketing Psycho, Hitchcock used a gimmick that forbid anyone into the theater once the film had started. This gimmick is okay but the marketing for Jaws was a major crime? Maybe I’m the only one who sees something wrong with that argument. Jaws remains one of the best American movies ever made by a big Hollywood studio, one of the best thrillers of all time, and the quintessential summer blockbuster. An undisputed classic that will make you never want to visit the beach or go into the water again.

Grade: A+

Jaws is available on DVD. It hits Blu-ray this August, a must purchase for any fan of cinema.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012)

by Steve Habrat

In the past few years, many critics and horror fans have complained about the sorry state of the vampire genre, which has embraced soap opera melodrama, bloodless confrontations, and abstinence. To me, vampires are not overly emotional, glittery-skinned models who drive their supped-up cars around like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. So, you can understand my frustration with all the negative reviews of director Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a vampire film that re-imagines the greatest president of all time as an axe-swinging bloodsucker slayer. Also present in the Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter credits is Tim “Dark Shadows” Burton, taking the role of producer here, who recently seems hell-bent on restoring some honor to the vampire genre. You have to hand it to Burton and Bekmambetov as they dream up a moving graphic novel that isn’t afraid to bare its fangs and put its 3D effects to work. They also don’t forget to add a small bit of self-aware fun to all of the limb severing brutality.

After he sees his mother attacked by a bloodsucker, the young Abraham Lincoln (Played by Benjamin Walker) seeks out the help of a mysterious vampire hunter named Henry Sturgess (Played by Dominic Cooper), who reluctantly begins training Lincoln in the art of hacking up vamps. After ten years of training, Lincoln moves to Springfield, Illinois, where he begins snooping out vampires for Sturgess. He shacks up with a local shopkeeper named Joshua Speed (Played by Jimmi Simpson), who gives Lincoln a money making job to fill his time in between swinging around an axe and reading law books. Lincoln soon gets the pleasure of meeting Mary Todd (Played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who he quickly falls for despite warnings from Sturgess that he have “no friends or family.” Eager to find the vampire who killed his mother, Lincoln finally gets the order to confront and kill the man responsible, but he also catches the attention of Adam (Played by Rufus Sewell), an extremely deadly vampire who owns a plantation in New Orleans. Along with his sister Vadoma (Played by Erin Wasson), Adam sets out to find and kill Lincoln at any cost.

Throughout much of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film had been cropped down and condensed into a brief hour and forty-five minute runtime. It seems like Bekmambetov and Burton didn’t want the film to overstay its welcome but I honestly never grew tired of it. It felt like Bekmambetov took the Cliff Notes version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and made a film out of those rather than the actual book. I’d be curious to see what they left on the cutting room floor. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter moves at a breakneck pace and it springs the action on us almost instantly. Before you know it, our 16th president is prowling the misty landscapes searching for demons to hack into bloody chunks. The film has been accused of not stopping to laugh at itself and that it takes the action too seriously. While it does keep a somber tone firmly in place, Bekmambetov and Burton know that you have already laughed at the premise before the trailers have ended so why continue to harp on the joke. It would only run it into the group and then people would be complaining that the film falls back on its B-movie premise rather than getting serious.

While it is not as heavy on the horror, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter turns up the action and delivers some seriously bloody battle scenes that will hold your attention. When Lincoln isn’t chopping down a tree with one swing of an axe, he is out spinning the axe around his hands like an airplane propeller and finding new ways to stylishly chop off a vamp’s limb. While Bekmambetov provides countless slow motion shots of bodies twirling through the air, he showers the audience is streams of blood erupting from slit throats and decapitations. The highlight showdown is a smack down on train that has Lincoln and his best friend William Johnson (Played by Anthony Mackie) teaming up against a swarm of roaring killers. They toss the silver laced axe back and forth to each other while Lincoln uses his bare fists and William wields dual pistols with silver bullets. There is also a nifty scene on a Civil War battlefield that has Confederate vampires charging into battle against terrified Union soldiers, who are massacred by the undead terrors in the blink of an eye.

Surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is filled with above avergae acting from its cast. It takes Walker a few minutes to really stand firmly in Lincoln’s shoes but once he does, he disappears into the role. Later in the film, Bekmambetov hides Walker behind the silliest fake beard ever captured on film. Dominic Cooper gets to have flamboyant fun as a vampire hunter with a secret. Sturgess always seems to be in the right place at the right time, always yanking Lincoln out of a tight spot. B-movie princess Winstead shows up as Lincoln’s first lady Mary Todd, who late in the game gets to play hardened griever whose eyes show the signs of a woman loosing faith in her husband. The only two characters that I felt there should have been more from were Simpson’s Speed and Mackie’s William, both who are likeable enough characters, but a tad embryonic, especially Speed. Rufus Sewell is fairly drab as the undead plantation owner Adam, especially when we see him next to smirking creep Jack Barts (Played by Marton Csokas), the man who killed Lincoln’s mother.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter does have a few slip-ups in the production department. At times, we can clearly see the make-up smeared all over the faces of the characters and the contacts stuck in the eyes of Mary Todd. Bekmambetov uses a combination of CGI and authentic make-up applied to the undead antagonists, which makes them look pretty ferocious, especially when they erupt into shrieks that reveal rows of razor sharp fangs. There is also a far-fetched action sequence set in the middle of a thundering stampede of frightened horses. Yet Smith, who serves as the screenwriter here, doesn’t forget to add the clever little touch of the vampires being the ones supporting slavery, literally sucking the life out of helpless and innocent men, women, and children. It might be slightly obvious but at least they found an intriguing way of working the supernatural into historical events. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is by no means a perfect piece of filmmaking but in an age where Edward Cullen is a more prolific bloodsucker than Dracula, the B-movie thrills and gory winks found here are enough to make us forget about the sensitive skinny jean vamps with sparkly skin.

Grade: B-

Brave (2012)

by Steve Habrat

After last year’s lemon Cars 2, Pixar has returned to form (sort of) with Brave, a thunderously exciting and comedic offering that falls victim to childish antics that never have the dual appeal for adults. Lacking zero complexity, Pixar opts for a simple story and keeps things light this time around, reluctant to show their emotional strength. Brave also lacks the vision that made their previous offerings so irresistible and unforgettable, seeming somewhat bland in comparison to tasty offerings like Wall-E, The Incredibles, Up, and Toy Story. Yet Brave, with its enthusiastic voice work and detailed visuals, still manages to get on your good side with some clever moments of slapstick humor that will have you chuckling due to their unpredictability. It also features an immensely likable main character in Merida, an archery obsessed tomboy who likes to allow her unruly explosion of red curls bounce around her face as she rides through the woods shooting arrows at targets. I admit I was worried that I may not care for this feisty free spirit but I have to say that she is a real charmer.

Brave takes us to the 10th century Scottish highlands where we meet Merida (Voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the archery fanatic daughter of King Fergus (Voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Voiced by Emma Thopson). Merida happens to be a tomboy who loves riding her horse through the woods and firing arrows at several targets she has placed around a trail. She also gets a kick out of climbing up the sides of mountains to drink from waterfalls. Merida is a firm believer in pursuing one’s own destiny rather than having her life planned out for her by others. Her behavior horrifies her mother, who demands that she learn to act like a lady before three neighboring clans arrive in their kingdom for a competition that would allow one young man the chance to win Merida’s hand. The clans arrive and each clan leader offers up his first-born son to compete for Merida, even though she is disinterested in the entire event. Merida grows restless during the competition and she erupts in an outburst that infuriates her mother. Merida runs off into the woods where she finds herself face to face with a witch (Voiced by Julie Walters) that offers her a spell that would change her controlling mother. The witch conveniently forgets to add that there is a small side effect that changes her mother’s appearance too. Meanwhile, the clan leaders begin to grow restless over who will win Merida’s hand, slowly stirring up war between King Fergus and the neighboring clans.

Pixar’s first fairytale does come with quite a bit to admire even if it is reluctant to tackle any heavy topics. I can honestly say that Brave had me laughing from start to finish. I loved how rowdy the film was even if things do get a little too out of hand at times. Brave has tons of shouting, drinking, eating, singing, fighting, brawling, and more shouting, sometimes driving the viewer to a headache but it is all in good fun. You’ll get a bang out of King Fergus as he stomps oafishly through the frame, devouring chicken legs and chugging cup after cup of ale. The heads of the three clans, Lord Dingwall (Voiced by Robbie Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Voiced by Craig Ferguson), and Lord MacGuffin (Voiced by Kevin McKidd), are all equally boorish and disgusting in their own right but they do manage to grab a whole slew of giggles. The one interesting aspect of Brave is that the film is not hiding the fact that it is advocating female empowerment. The men are made out to be clueless and battle hungry in addition to their already hearty appetites. Yet the men are compassionate to the women and they do respect them, which does make Brave’s message a bit perplexing. I understand that Merida wants to break away from what is expected of a lady but I thought we were over this old fashioned defy-conformity-and-do-what-makes-you-happy message by this point.

Brave is, after all, a ladies show and the guys are just there to fill some space. Merida acts as a firm role model for young girls, a less gritty and animated Katniss Everdeen for five-year-olds. Director Mark Andrews pushes Macdonald to really emphasize the Scottish brogue, making her a bit cartoonish at some points but that actually adds to her appeal. She is the liberal answer to her conservative mother Elinor, who is tied to old-fashioned behavior and unwilling to accept anything less. She warns Merdia to keep her bow off the table and that she better grin through the pain of a corset. A blow-up between these two worlds is the only moment that Andrews really cranks the emotional intensity up a notch or two. When the spell is cast upon Elinor, the plot takes an unexpected twist that worried me at first but then really gains some momentum and keeps the laughs flying. The other female character that I was intrigued with upon first meeting her was the witch, who is introduced halfway through the film and then never heard from again. I kept wondering when the story would return to her and develop her further. Alas, she magically disappears.

While I enjoyed all the main characters in Brave, there was a trio of scene stealing tykes that won me over early on and kept me in stitches every time they scampered into the action. I’m talking about Merida’s three trouble making younger brothers who gag over their dinners while plotting ways to make off with trays of sweets brought to them by their servants. Wait until you see the scene where they have to steal a key off one servant, who stashes it in her cleavage. The Pixar team manages to deliver one hell of a pay off in the final stretch of Brave, offering more satisfying action than most of the other blockbusters that have taken up space in the theater this summer. Yet the Pixar team seems unsure over how to make a film that is aimed at younger girls and the message to send to that demographic. It falls back to something that would have really been saying something before the Women’s Liberation Movement but today, it just seems lazy, especially after what Pixar has accomplished with some of their other work. It may not be the best of Pixar’s bunch and you may yawn over what it trying to say underneath all the yelling but Brave still manages to be one of the better films in a summer that has been filled with duds.

Grade: B

The Incredibles (2004)

by Steve Habrat

The family who argues together saves the world together in director Brad Bird’s 2004 superhero adventure The Incredibles. One of the most action packed Pixar offerings, The Incredibles is a zippy homage to comic books while also pulling back the curtain on the suburban family and allowing us to see what makes every member of the All-American family tick. While The Incredibles, which was also written by Bird, borrows heavily from the critically acclaimed comic book Watchmen, Bird and the Pixar team tweak the storyline is multiple places, watering Watchmen’s extremely complex storyline down, and allowing the focus to be much more intimate. The results are dazzling with snappy jokes, gripping action, and one perfectly timed joke after another. The Incredibles is also a much more adult film, running two hours with multiple suggestive moments and really earning its PG rating. This is far from the warm and cuddly offerings that Pixar is famous for, especially when we glance back at the films that came before The Incredibles. This is the film that really showed the world the emotional punches that Pixar could throw at audiences all while keeping them wildly entertained and mesmerized.

The Incredibles ushers us into Metroville, where multiple superheroes fly through the sky and save the innocent civilians from destructive foes looking to level the city. We meet Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Voiced by Holly Hunter), and his best buddy Lucius Best/Frozone (Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), all who team up together to rid the city of scum. After the government grows weary of all the collateral damage caused by the “Supers”, they put into place the “Supers Relocation Program”, which forces “Supers” to retire their crime fighting ways and fit in with the rest of society. Bob and Helen soon retreat to the suburbs and Bob takes a job at an insurance agency while Helen raises their three children, Dash (Voiced by Spencer Fox), Violet (Voiced by Sarah Vowell), and the toddler Jack-Jack. Bob, who longs to relive his superhero days, is bored with white-collar conformity and grows more and more frustrated with each passing day. After loosing his temper at his job and getting fired, Bob finds himself approached by the mysterious Mirage (Voiced by Elizabeth Pena), who asks Bob to stop a deadly rogue robot on a remote island. Mirage promises Bob that if he can successfully destroy the robot, he will receive a reward. Bob defeats the robot and he soon begins getting other missions from Mirage, all while leaving Helen in the dark about his new job. Bob soon learns that these missions are being controlled by Syndrome (Voiced by Jason Lee), a super-villain who masterminds countless destructive weapons and has a plan that will wipe the retired superheroes off the planet.

At just under two hours, The Incredibles is given room to really develop its characters to the fullest extent possible, paving the way for weighty superhero films that followed in its wake (the next year would see Batman Begins hit theaters, which would set the bar even higher for the superhero genre). We get to see the day-to-day of each Parr family member, seeing what secrets they hide and how they deal with having extraordinary powers while living ordinary lives. Bob has to take mental torment from his boss, each little mental shove just bringing Bob closer to tossing him around like a ragdoll. Violet is an outcast at her high school, hiding behind thick black bangs and practically fainting at the sight of her crush. When he notices her, she activates her power to turn invisible. The troublemaking whippersnapper Dash enjoys placing tacks on his teacher’s chair, using his lightning fast speed to keep the teacher scratching his bald head over how Dash is pulling the prank off. Helen, who acts as the housewife glue of the family, wears a happy face as she spoons meatloaf and green beans onto her family’s dinner plates. Meanwhile, Bob rounds up Lucius for “bowling night”, which really consists of the duo sitting in a car listening to a police scanner and chatting about the good old days. Lucius, now married, tries to keep his wife happy by not ruining special meals, even while a robot pummels downtown Metroville. Each hero is given their conformist demons and they grapple with how to tackle those demons, realizing that they really do need each other to work these issues out.

The supporting characters of The Incredibles are just as fun and hilarious as the first string. Bird thinks up a really nifty villain in Syndrome, who as a boy was Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan. Syndrome, whose real name is Buddy Pine, was always eager to help Mr. Incredible out even when Mr. Incredible would tell him to stay out of the way. Being wounded by his idol makes him all the more interesting and sinister when he is dishing out his payback to Mr. Incredible. Mirage is a character that is a bit underused but I did enjoy the way she would vacillate back and forth from evil to hero. I really enjoyed being kept in the dark over which side she would be aligned with next. The scene-stealer here is Edna Mode (Voiced by Brad Bird), an oriental fashion designer who comes up with the costumes worn by the “Supers”. A chic pint sized motor mouth, Edna is hysterical when explaining why she dislikes capes and recoiling from Mr. Incredible’s dated superhero get up. She really shines when she unveils a new line of outfits for the entire Parr clan. She also seems like she could be a villain in future Incredibles installments, seeming to get quite a bit of joy out of Bob and Helen’s rocky marriage.

You will be surprised to know that The Incredibles never feels like almost two hours. The film flies by and before you know it, you are right smack dab in the middle of a thunderous final showdown between one of Syndrome’s horrifying creations and the Parr clan. The action will keep the kids glued to the screen, even more so than some of the other Pixar films. While the film does get a bit heavy when it deals with the inner workings of a rocky marriage, the kids won’t really notice and instead by enamored with all the nifty gadgets and laughing over Edna. For fans of comic books and superhero films, The Incredibles is essential viewing and in my opinion ranks as one of the better superhero films to emerge from Hollywood. It is just as interested with the people under the cowls and what they carry around in their heavy hearts. Easily in my top three Pixar films of all time, The Incredibles is a touching film about the beauty of family and friends, all while being a relentlessly entertaining superhero thrill ride packed with gut-busting humor and wit. Let’s hope the Parr clan returns to save the world again.

Grade: A

The Incredibles is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Ratatouille (2007)

by Steve Habrat

If I had to pick Pixar’s least accessible film, I would have to go with Brad Bird’s 2007 offering Ratatouille. Featuring some of their finest voice work, particularly from funnyguy Patton Oswalt as the rodent chef, clean animation, and a dreamy score, Ratatouille is one of Pixar’s artiest creations in their line of work. While it may not appeal as much to the kiddies, Ratatouille is crafted more for the adult viewer, featuring more adult humor rather than easy gags that will keep a ten year old howling at the screen. Personally, I find Ratatouille one of Pixar’s funniest films, yet the subtext, with it’s anybody-can-do-anything-if-you-set-your-mind-to-it message, is a little too simple minded, especially since Pixar is capable of infusing their films with some major real world weight. I did find the way the film skewers uptight critics, the ones who are so rooted to their opinion and refusing to alter that opinion extremely well executed. It seemed a bit personal too, since this is the film that was the follow-up to Cars, the first Pixar film that failed to run off with the imagination of some critics.

Ratatouille introduces us to Remy (Voiced by Oswalt), a rat who loves to cook and is blessed with a sharp sniffer that gets him the job of detecting rat poison in the food that the rest of his rat colony gathers. The colony is lead by Remy’s stern father Django (Voiced by Brain Dennehy) and his goofy brother Emilie (Voiced by Peter Sohn), both who voice disgust over Remy’s trust of humans. After having to make a hasty evacuation from their rural dwelling, Remy gets separated from the rest of the pack and ends up in downtown Paris, right at the doorstep of the famed fine dining restaurant Gusteau’s. Remy, who happens to a huge fan of the late Auguste Gusteau (Voiced by Brad Garrett), the chef behind the famous restaurant, fully believes in Gusteau’s message “anyone can cook.” After ending up in Gusteau’s kitchen, Remy crosses paths with newly hired garbage boy Alfredo Linguini (Voiced by Lou Romano), an uptight klutz who can’t cook to save his skin. While exploring the kitchen, Remy notices Linguini accidentally mess up a pot of soup, which he quickly tries to fix but is caught by Linguini. A bowl of the soup is served and the customer begins raving about how delicious the soup is. The rest of Gusteau’s staff believe that Linguini is responsible for the soup but Linguini knows that it was actually Remy that fixed it. Linguini soon grabs the attention of the cranky head chef Skinner (Voiced by Ian Holm) and an even crankier food critic Anton Ego (Voiced by Peter O’Toole), both eager to reveal him a fraud.

What makes Ratatouille such a delicious treat is the budding friendship between Linguini and Remy, both who realize that they ultimately need each other to succeed. Linguini needs Remy because he can’t loose another job and Remy needs Linguini to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. The film also develops a love story between Linguini and another member of Gusteau’s staff Colette (Voiced by Janeane Garofalo), who is forced into keeping an eye on the jumpy Linguini. The love story is fitting since the film is taking place in the city of love. The film also has Remy finding his father and brother, small little detours in the story that stress to Remy that he shouldn’t be so trusting of the humans. The film knows that Emile and Django are slightly bland characters so Bird smartly doesn’t focus on them too much. The film really gets moving when Remy discovers a way to control Linguini (pulling strands of his hair) so that they can continue to fool Skinner and Ego into thinking that Linguini is really cooking and not being controlled by a rat. This is where the film embraces some heavy physical comedy that will really appeal to the tots.

Ratatouille is a film that isn’t content with having one major villain but two antagonists to drive Linguini and Remy to the brink of madness. Skinner is a pint-sized terror as he tries to discover how Linguini is able to cook so well, especially since he is such a bumbling goofball. He is hilarious in his attempts to barge in to rooms to catch Linguni talking to Remy and he tries to get him drunk in the hopes that Linguini will spill the beans about his little helper. Skinner is also trying to capitalize on Gusteau’s name with a line of wretched frozen meals that he is eager to get into supermarket freezers. The skeletal Ego is also a pretentious nightmare as he spews his dislike for Gusteau’s motto and his restaurant, finding the food beneath his refined palette. He sits in his coffin shaped den typing away one negative review after another while sending shivers down his butler’s spine. Ego, who practically gags at the mention of Gusteau’s, gets a witty exchange late in the film with Linguini. Ego growls that if he doesn’t love the food he puts in his mouth, he “does not swallow.”

At nearly two hours, Ratatouille does run a bit long but it never ceases to tickle our imagination. The film gets far on such a simple premise and watching everything come full circle is delectable. The film is brimming with enough characters to hold the adult viewers attention for a good majority of the runtime. Halfway through Ratatouille, we get to meet the rest of Gusteau’s staff and they are all hilarious in their own individual way, even if the film then quickly forgets about them. The final rush to think of something to serve the impossible-to-please Ego will have you rolling on the floor in laughter, especially when you see who shows up to give Linguini and Remy a hand. You can’t shake the feeling that the portrayal if Ego is a jab at the critics who waved off Pixar’s previous offering Cars, a touch that I actually like even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Cars myself. I was also impressed by how detailed the scenes of downtown Paris are, at times seeming almost real if glanced at from a distance. Overall, Ratatouille may send a simple, elementary message, which is somewhat disappointing, but it features enough “awe” moments and is spiced up with enough laughs to have you ordering up seconds and sending your compliments to the chef.

Grade: A-

Ratatouille is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Up (2009)

by Steve Habrat

Did you ever think that animated feature films could move you as much as Pixar’s animated offerings do? One of the most emotional in their body of work has to be 2009’s crowd-pleaser Up, a film that refuses to gloss over real world obstacles that we will all have to face one day. It truly is hard to believe that these films are aimed at children when they are much more adult orientated in their themes. Up has to be one of Pixar’s heaviest films but it also has to be one of the most lively outside of the Toy Story series. Like staring into a neon rainbow, Up is a gorgeous film that doesn’t rely on its meticulous visuals to keep it aloft. No, Up boasts a splendid story that is carefully and delicately told. The script, penned by Peter Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy, packs thrilling, high-rise action and jokes that fly at the audience at breakneck speeds. Yet the best part of Up is the unflinching look at the pain and heartbreak that life can throw at us and how we can still make our dreams come true, even if we think it is too late.

Up begins in the 1920’s with the young Carl Fredricksen, a quiet boy who hides behind giant eyeglasses and an old pilot’s cap, seeing a theater newsreel that features famous explorer Charles Muntz (Voiced by Christopher Plummer) setting out to find a rare species of bird. Carl dashes out into the sunlight, eager to mimic his hero and while exploring an old house, he stumbles across a chatty redheaded girl named Ellie. The two adventurers strike up a friendship and they soon fall in love with each other. They get married, move in to their dream home, and begin saving for a move to Paradise Falls in South America, the same place their hero Muntz explored and ultimately never returned from. As responsibility and heartbreak prevent them from their dream move, the two try to forget about their dreams and focus on their lives in America. Seventy years sneak by and Ellie passes on, leaving Carl (Voiced by Ed Asner) a bitter and cranky old man, fighting to stay out of a retirement home. He is also tangled in a nasty battle to keep his home from being taken by a construction company that wishes to demolish it to make room for a skyscraper. After a nasty confrontation that ends in Carl injuring one of construction workers, he ties millions of helium filled balloons to his roof and takes off into the sky, setting a course for Paradise Falls. Once aloft, Carl quickly discovers he has an unwanted guest tagging along.

Once Up lands in Paradise Falls and allows us to get to know the energetic and pudgy Boy Scout Russell (Voiced by Jordan Nagai), the film takes on a lighter tone that the kiddies will go gonzo over. We get to meet a rare squawking bird that Russell calls Kevin and a pack of talking dogs that are led by the dopey Dug (Voiced by Bob Peterson). I loved the scenes where Carl has to grit his teeth and tolerate the ball of energy that is Russell. I also enjoyed seeing Russell win Carl over with his constant pestering. It was great to see the bitter Carl finally emerge from his shell and allow another person to grow close to him in the wake of Ellie’s passing. Early on, we see that Ellie suffers a miscarriage, which severely wounds the hearts of the optimistic couple. It truly is heartwarming to see him watching over Russell in a fatherly like manner and admitting that he just wants Russell to be safe. It will also get you when Carl reluctantly begins protecting man’s best friend Dug and the rare bird Kevin, especially when Kevin gives Carl backtalk. You’ll be on the floor in laughter.

Up has to be one of the most bipolar films that I have ever seen. One second, it will have you gasping for air in between all the knee-slapping jokes and the next second, it will have you fighting back tears. The silent opening montage that shows us the progression of Carl and Ellie’s marriage is sweet, fuzzy, and piercing. There is more emotion in this opening ten minutes with computer-generated characters than there are in most live action films with flesh and blood actors. Take note, Hollywood. The last act of the film embraces rollicking thrills set in the clouds. Our motley crew of heroes is pitted against the now evil Charles Muntz and his army of talking dogs. The one flaw that does sort of bother me in Up is the lack of development in Muntz, who is just suddenly evil. We are given a thin explanation that sheds light on his bitterness, but I wanted a bit more out of him. It doesn’t help that he enters the film late in the game. You will, however, get a kick out of the elderly showdown between Muntz and Carl, both who suffer loud cracks in their backs as one swings a sword he can barely lift and the other swings a walker.

At times resembling an old sketch that has come to high definition life, Up’s spellbinding visuals are complimented by Michael Giacchino‘s delicate sore, which adds an extra push to all the emotion. The best moments of the score come in the quieter moments, when it is just little twinkles of piano keys. Up’s ultimate message of encouragement and reassurance are what really made me fall for the film. I firmly stand behind its reassurance that our dreams can come true, no matter how old or how young we are. I also loved Carl and Russell discovering that they need each other to nurse their wounded hearts. Russell, it turns out, is largely ignored by his biological father and told by his stepmother that he annoys his father too much. Each time I watch Up, it never gets any easier to hear Russell mutter that confession and Carl’s reaction always gets me. Up has to rank up there as one of my favorite Pixar films, one that has stuck with me the longest and is always a treat to revisit. It may be a tearjerker reminder of how unpredictable life can be but it always helps when you have somebody by your side to share the smaller moments with. Up is a dream come true.

Grade: A-

Up is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rock of Ages (2012)

by Steve Habrat

It is always great to see a musical on the big screen these days. Every once and a while, the genre has to resurface to show audiences that there is still life in that old dog yet. Now we have Rock of Ages, a heavy metal musical that promises to be “nothin’ but a good time.” I wish I could say that Rock of Ages is a good time but in actuality, it is a fairly choppy and inconsistent time with a flimsy story and too many characters left underdeveloped. Rock of Ages certainly gets the flamboyant glam rock appearance of 80’s hair metal correct, but for a musical that is fist pumping to rebellious 80’s sounds, the film is lacking the danger that is associated with genre. Everything here seems a little soft, especially our two leads that belt out beloved 80’s tunes that sound like watered down alternative covers. Rock of Ages plays things a little too safe for my tastes, refusing to let things get too out of hand or the bouncer will show up and toss you out on your ass. This is rock n’ roll on a three-drink limit and calling it a night at 11:00 p.m. It seems that Tom Cruise’s eager-to-rock Stacee Jaxx is the only one who showed up to really get this party started.

Rock of Ages begins in 1987, with small town girl Sherrie Christian (Played by Julianne Hough) traveling from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. She arrives on the sunset strip and bumps into Drew Boley (Played by Diego Boneta), a barback at the heavy metal club The Bourbon Room who dreams of becoming a rock star. The two immediately click and Drew ends up talking the cranky Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Played by Alec Baldwin) into giving Sherrie a job as a waitress. Meanwhile, Dennis and his right hand man Lonny (Played by Russell Brand) are trying to arrange a final farewell concert for Stacee Jaxx (Played by Tom Cruise) and his band Arsenal at The Bourbon Room, which would rake in enough dough to help Dennis out with unpaid taxes. On the other side of town, Mayor Mike Whitmore’s (Played by Bryan Cranston) ultra conservative and heavy metal hating wife Patricia Whitmore (Played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) discovers that The Bourbon Room has not paid taxes in quite some time. Along with several members of her church, she sets out to rid Los Angeles of The Bourbon Room and the rock n’ roll image that grips the city. Meanwhile, Sherrie and Drew are busy trying to make their dreams of becoming famous come true and in the process, they fall in love with each other.

Incredibly unfocused and messy, Rock of Ages can’t decide which plotline it wants to focus on. It jumps here and introduces a character there while failing to develop that character properly. Director Adam Shankman and his screenwriters Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo (who is responsible for the Broadway musical), and Allen Loeb try to make it all about Sherrie and Drew pursuing their dreams, but the young talents fail to really make us root for them. They are just pretty faces that are out of place in the sea of big hair and denim vests. The film largely ignores the plotline about the conservative Patricia trying to act as a wrecking ball to the heavy metal genre. I’m still trying to figure out how this plotline comments about the music scene today, especially when the most shocking thing in music right now is what kind of an outfit Lady GaGa will step out in next.  Furthermore, the screenwriters were absolutely clueless about how to properly lead-in to a musical number, each one more forced than the last (and one of the screenwriters is responsible for the Broadway hit!). This may all be fun on the stage but it only works in small spurts on the big screen.

Rock of Ages tries to conceal the messy plotline with an ensemble cast of up-and-coming talent mixed with established faces, making things even bumpier than they already are. Julianne Hough has the looks but she just never works as a heavy metal fanatic who weakens in the knees for Stacee Jaxx. She looks like she would have been more interested in the rising boy band craze of the late 80’s rather than Jaxx, who faintly resembles bad-boy Axl Rose. When it comes to her voice, she has a decent enough coo but it wasn’t made for these head bangers. Her Sherrie (who dots the “I” in her name with a pink heart) is a little too sweet for this scene of puke, sweat, fishnets, and whiskey. Diego Boneta doesn’t fare much better, never once coming off believable when decked our in ripped jeans, work boots, and black t-shirts. Just like Hough’s Sherrie, Boneta’s Drew is a bit too soft for The Bourbon Room’s crowd. In a scene where he is supposedly upset with Sherrie, he takes to The Bourbon Room’s stage and awkwardly grunts that he “wants to rock!” Everyone watching him glances at each other while wearing a look of “Is this kid serious?!” I was wondering the same thing.

The supporting talent is largely wasted or pointless. Zeta-Jones as Patricia sizzles from time to time but the film practically forgets she is the antagonist. Paul Giamatti is in the mix as Stacee’s money hungry manager Paul Gill, who is more than willing to trim his new talent to fit the latest trends in the music industry. Baldwin and Brand are reduced to standing around and scratching their heads over how they are going to save The Bourbon Room and ranting on about how glorious rock n’ roll is. They are also present to serve as comic relief, most of which falls painfully flat. The sexy Malin Akerman shows up as frizzy-haired Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack, who wields the most sex appeal in Rock of Ages. She disappears just as quickly as she appears, which is a shame because she gets one of the film’s best moments with Cruise’s Stacee. Also present is Mary J. Blige as Justice Charlier, the manager of a strip joint who serves absolutely no purpose in the film whatsoever. The director and screenwriters ask us to care about her but we know nothing about her, which makes it extremely difficult. The best one here is Cruise as Stacee Jax, a rock legend who literally rises up from a sea of scantily clad women and booze. He steals the best lines, gets the best musical numbers, and shows the most depth of any character in this thing. Bravo, Cruise!

The musical numbers in Rock of Ages have clunky lead-ins but they do manage to be a bit of fun. The best is Cruise’s reflective and soaring “Wanted Dead or Alive”, which shakes the stadium walls and the dueling “We Built This City/ We’re Not Gonna Take It” at the finale. Rock of Ages quickly laughs off other musical genres—proudly declaring that rock n’ roll is here to stay while every other musical genre is nothing but a trend. Has rock n’ roll really gone anywhere? Is there any current threat to it out there that would justify this film hitting theaters now? I didn’t think so. In the end, Rock of Ages wants to be the ultimate party film of the summer, but it has nothing to celebrate. The best parties are built around something fun that justifies pounding shots of whiskey and waking up with a raging hangover. Rock of Ages is all glammed up for a party that wound down back in the 90’s.

Grade: C-