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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy film’

9 (2009)


It is inevitable that humanity will eventually die out. Depending on your level of optimism, some theories of human extinction may be more inevitable than others. Relatively recently, scientists have started wondering about what legacy humans will leave behind on planet Earth when we, as a species, go to our final reward. What, if anything, will be left behind to carry on our work?

9 is a computer animated science fantasy film directed by Shane Acker, based on Acker’s short film of the same title. It stars the voices of Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau, and Christopher Plummer.

It is wartime. An unnamed Scientist is charged with building an artificially intelligent device called the Fabrication Machine, which will build other machines to wage war against a dictator’s enemies. Sometime later, we see that this was apparently a spectacularly bad idea, as humanity has subsequently been wiped out, their mighty civilization in ruins. However, life remains… sort of. Nine small homunculus-like ragdolls called Stitchpunks remain in this barren landscape, created for a purpose that they do not yet know. One of these, 9, was the last to be created before the Scientist died, and he finds himself in a terrifying world where remaining war machines hunt the Stitchpunks as the Stitchpunks try to find safety and a purpose. They are inquisitive and industrious, able to improvise any number of weapons and devices from the odds and ends they find around them, but this soon gets 9 in trouble when he accidentally reactivates the Fabrication Machine, which commences hunting the ‘punks in earnest. 9 believes their only hope is to fight back, but the spiritual leader 1 believes that survival will only come by running away and hiding… and 1 is willing to make sacrifices to ensue his ideal society. Before long, they ‘punks start running out of places to hide, and soon they must face this new horror, or risk their own annihilation.

This is a beautifully rendered movie. Due to the relative scale (the Stitchpunks are only about six inches tall), the debris left over by the apocalypse forms a new landscape for them to explore – a sandbox for the little MacGyvers to build what they need out of what is left behind. The nine main characters are surprisingly unique for burlap ragdolls, and I was amazed at how expressive and distinguishable their faces were, considering they were basically a couple of lenses (or, in the case of 5, a single lens) with a slit for a mouth. In addition to distinct appearances, each Stitchpunk also has a unique personality, easily avoiding the pitfall of making them little carbon copies of one another by making them embody aspects of the Scientist who made them. The war machines are also innovative and terrifying, from the Fabrication Machine (which reminded me vaguely of GlaDOS from Portal) to the Seamstress (who looked like Sid from Toy Story had allied with the Other Mother from Coraline to make a Stitchpunk hunting monster). The world inhabited by the stitchpunks is huge and beautiful and frightening, and a delight to watch.

Unfortunately, in actual substance the world of 9 falls short. It is light on explanations and thin on plot, and while an unexplained world like this can make the exploration of its mysteries a delight, here it was a bit frustrating. I didn’t get the feeling that the Stitchpunks learned anything about what happened to the world, and while they made progress against the War Machines and maybe helped nudge the world back to life (if inadvertantly), I had no real feeling of progress. Like little robots, the Stitchpunks are only following their programming, which appears to be compiling information and rebuilding the world any way they can. What plot there is doesn’t seem to quite stretch to cover the 79-minute running time, making the bulk of the film feel like mostly padding.

While 9 is beautifully detailed and demonstrates a Stitchpunk’s-eye view of a post-apocalyptic world, ultimately it falls short in terms of plot and feels like it could have been so much more. Worth a rent for the visuals alone, but other than that don’t look too hard for a complex story.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)


In any dating situation, one can expect both sides to enter the relationship with a bit of baggage – it’s part of having a past. Sometimes this baggage affects the impending relationship, sometimes not so much. Scott Pilgrim has just met the girl of his dreams. Naturally, she has baggage. Too bad all her baggage has superpowers. That’s okay, though. Scott Pilgrim knows kung fu.

Or something.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a comedy film directed by Edgar Wright, based on the independent graphic novel series Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. It stars Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, and Ellen Wong.

Scott Pilgrim (age 22) lives in Toronto. He is the bassist for the band Sex Bob-Omb, and has just begun dating a high school girl named Knives Chau (over the protests of all his friends), who shares his love of video games and really digs his music. Then he meets Ramona Flowers, an American girl with technicolor hair who has been appearing in her dreams. Suddenly his entire world revolves around wooing Ramona, leaving Knives in the dust – and then he learns about Ramona’s little baggage issue – seven evil exes whom he must defeat in order to gain the right to date Ramona. They’re, like, a League of Evil. And they all want to annihilate Scott. In the meantime, Sex Bob-Omb hopes to sign a record deal with a major producer, and Scott has to cope with issues surrounding his gay roommate Wallace. And… a really weird movie ensues.

I’ve never read Scott Pilgrim, so this movie was essentially my first taste of this world, and the presentation left me pretty confused. On the one hand, Pilgrim himself seems like an average guy with very few social skills, a garage band, and a slightly complicated love life. That plot alone, would make a decent slice-of-life drama. And then there’s the video-game stuff that ensues surrounding the Seven Evil Exes, with sequences that come out of nowhere like the final boss rush of a beat-em-up game and don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the movie. The battles with the Evil Exes are highly stylized, more so even than the rest of the movie, suggesting that they take place in a Calvin and Hobbes-esque view of reality rather than in what we would call reality. The only characters that manage to ascend beyond the rank of one-dimensional cardboad cutout are Scott himself, whose character development is portrayed in the context to racking up points and coins with the defeat of each ex, and Ramona herself, who remains mysterious even as we learn more about her and her checkered past.

The presentation of Scott Pilgrim’s world was often distracting, with certain sound effects manifesting visibly, comic-book style, and a minor running gag wherein a foulmouthed character’s salty language is obscured by a black censor bar over her mouth and a sound effect obscuring the words themselves. These effects, coupled with the fantasy-laced fight scenes that come out of nowhere like random encounters in an RPG and thereafter play out like battle in Mortal Kombat, culminating in an explosion of coins (seriously – where the hell do the coins come from?) and the occasional powerup (one of which becomes crucial to Scott’s ultimate victory) from each defeated foe, made this movie seem like the independent comics equivalent of Ang Lee’s Hulk, laced liberally with comic book tropes for good measure. The main plotline was decently interesting, with Scott fighting Ramona’s past in order to be part of her future, but it often drowned in the gallons of special effects surrounding it.

I tried very hard to enjoy this movie. Unfortunately, what could have been a good story was ultimately lost in the ludicrous amount of shiny used to present it. Fans of Scott Pilgrim might enjoy it, but I found it to be schizophrenic and spectacular, without a strong enough storyline to back it up.

300 (2007)

04/25/2011 3 comments

There are macho movies. And there are manly movies. Then there are those movies that are so laced with testosterone that they are very likely to impregnate any unprotected females who watch it. When Frank Miller sets out to make a graphic novel, he seldom takes half-measures, and this pseudo-historical account of a bunch of buff, half-naked warriors defending their nation against the Persions is no exception. After all…

This is Sparta.

300 historical fantasy film based on the graphic novel of the same title retelling the Battle of Thermopylae. It was directed by Zack Snyder, with Miller riding along as executive producer and consultant. It stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, and Rodrigo Santoro.

Dilios, a warrior of Sparta, relates the story of King Leonidas to an unseen audience, telling of his gruelling boyhood under the Warrior Code of Sparta to his ascension to the throne. Leonidas is a born badass. Naturally, when a messenger comes to Sparta on behalf of the god-king Xerxes and demands that Sparta submit to Persia, Leonidas basically tells him to blow it out his ass and kicks the messenger into a pit. Knowing that this display will incite war with Persia, who boasts an army ten million strong, Leonidas visits the Ephors, whose blessing he needs before the Spartan council will go to war. The plan he proposes will force the numerically-superior Persians into a bottleneck at Thermopylae, thereby eliminating their advantage. The Ephors refuse, as their oracle decrees that Sparta must not go to war during a religious festival. Fine. Leonidas is not just going to lie down and submit to the Persians, regardless what the Ephors say. Why? Because he’s Leonidas, dammit. He gathers 300 of his best men and head off to Thermopylae anyway to cockblock the Persians, unaware of the corruption stewing within his own city. And badassery ensues.

When I watched 300, I knew that it was based on historical events, though they were passed through the filter of a narrator who knew his audience and wasn’t about to let the facts get in the way of a rollicking good story. Add to this the Frank Miller filter, and you’ve got a tale whose historical content is more in line with Clash of the Titans than Saving Private Ryan. That’s okay, though, because it looked really awesome. A few characters and storylines were added to Miller’s material to offer a bit more depth and conspiracy to the narrative, and this decision did help break up what would otherwise be about an hour and a half of muscular, half-naked Spartans beating the everloving hell out of muscular, half-naked Persians, and offered a glimpse of what might have been happening back in Sparta while King Leo was at Thermopylae kicking ass and chewing gum. The stylized presentation of events didn’t detract from the movie at all – Miller had researched the Spartan lifestyle and how Greek warriors preferred to be portrayed, and the finished movie was very much in line with this. I call it the Testosterone Filter.

Despite the wall-to-wall asskicking that one would naturally expect from this movie, the setup and some of the filler did offer chances to get to know the Spartan characters, and provided a coherent introduction to the Spartan way of life to an audience that might not have a military history background. Leo et al were taught to fight and be strong from an early age. Men who died in combat were honored, as were women who died in childbirth. Queen Gorgo herself was beautiful but hardly a retiring queen, stepping up to directly garner support for Sparta going to war against the Persians while her husband and his 300 closest friends were fighting the good fight at Thermopylae. Men born crippled or deformed were considered lower than human – fitting in a society where you were expected to fight or die. The Persians were also depicted as subhuman monsters, a frequent complaint as it smacked of racism, but consider the narrator – a Spartan Warrior trying to convince the rest of Greece to unite against The Enemy. In that respect, Dilios’ account of Thermopylae was informative propaganda – look how hard our king fought against Those People who want to take everything we have and enslave us! Incidentally, I found David Wenham an amusing casting choice for Dilios, considering I’d seen him previously as the decidedly noncombatant comic relief inventor Friar Carl in Van Helsing.

If you want to see a manly movie, featuring manly warriors fighting a manly battle against manly enemy forces, I recommend 300. What it lacks in realism, it easily makes up for in impressive visuals and an exciting, action-packed story plucked from the pages of ancient history.

Van Helsing (2004)

04/22/2011 2 comments

Here’s a story
Of a man named Stoker
Who wrote a monster story just to scare
And because every great monster needs a hunter
He also wrote Van Helsing in there.

And here’s a story
Of a man named Sommers
Whose monster movies often entertained
He wanted to refurbish old Van Helsing
To make a brand-new franchise self-contained.

Van Helsing is an action horror film written, produced, and directed by Stephen Sommers, intended as an extended homage to the old Universal Studios monster films of the 1930s and 1940s. It starts Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, and Kevin J. O’Connor.

Van Helsing is an amnesiac vigilante monster hunter working for the Knights of the Holy Order, stationed at the Vatican. After returning from a mission to capture kill the murderous Edward Hyde, he is given two new tasks: Kill the fabled vampire Dracula, and while doing so prevent the last of the Valerious family from being trapped in Purgatory due to a vow one of the Valerious ancestors made. With the assistance of Q Branch Friar Carl, Van Helsing loads up on the cool toys he will need to take down the powerful vampire and sets out for Transylvania. When he arrives, he discovers that, with the recent death by werewolf of Velkan Valerious, the sole remaining heir is one Anna Valerious, who is determined to fulfill her family vow to kill Dracula. When Dracula and his three brides attack the village, they are forced to team up, and make a few chilling discoveries: 1. Velkan is Not Quite Dead, having been transformed into a werewolf under Dracula’s control. 2. Dracula has been trying to bridge the gap between life and undeath and bring hordes of little vampire babies, his offspring, to life. 3. He might be close to finding a way, if he can just get his hands on the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein. 4. Dracula also remembers Van Helsing from a past encounter, and may hold the secret to unlocking his lost memories. Now Van Helsing is torn between stopping a cunning monster and discovering his own past, between his mission and his growing love for Anna, as he seeks a way to end Dracula’s menace once and for all. Again.

I found Van Helsing to be a neat little reimagining to a character who, in the original novel, was an old professor who had studied the ways of vampires in order to figure out how to kill Count Dracula. Here, he is a younger action hero who studies the ways of all monsters in order to determine the best ways to kill each. When you add this inventor sidekick Friar Carl, this vision of the vampire hunter becomes somewhat of a steampunk James Bond (complete with Bond Girl Anna Valerious). Like the Bond movies, this movie is mainly about the action sequences and the charmingly evil villain, and less about Van Helsing’s hinted-at background or, indeed, any meaningful character development. However, Van Helsing does manage to come off as a complex character. His mysterious past and the way he chafes at the rules and regulations of the Knights of the Holy Order echoes with Jackman’s other role at the time, Wolverine, but it heads in a slightly different direction here. Van Helsing grows cynical with his work, particularly as he recognizes that not all monsters are necessarily evil, and as he is set up as a fall guy when he kills otherwise innocent people who happen to have a monstrous alter ego. Unlike the antihero Wolverine, Van Helsing appears to be a genuinely good man whose implied horrible past seems to have trapped him in this role. The comic relief character Friar Carl balances out Van Helsing’s angst with much needed breather moments, particularly when his High Intelligence Low Wisdom antics result in explosions (to be fair, one of the explosions did save Van Helsing and Anna from a whole mess of vampires). Unfortunately, Anna Valerious manages only to be a typical Bond Girl, for despite her apparently tragic background she has about the emotional depth of a puddle, something for which I fault the writers less than the actress.

The plot of the movie, fortunately, was overall engaging, both as a standalone story and as the extended homage to classic Universal and Hammer Horror films that it clearly was. It hits all the traditional notes, with the mad scientist and his Igor, werewolves (which looked… just okay), Count Dracula and his three brides (whose flying forms were original and harpylike, but rendered in laughably bad CGI), all set in Transylvania, the place from which all European monsters hail. It’s a rule, that’s why. Most of the monsters are as expected, though they did try hard with the man-wolf forms of the werewolves, and a very steampunk take on Frankenstein’s creation. In essence, this is a reimagined crossover of classic monster movies, and it works mainly because the result is so much fun to watch.

If you want a fun, fresh take on an old character and classic monsters, I recommend Van Helsing. It’s a typical Stephen Sommers film, which means you can expect monsters and excitement, and a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Mask (1994)

04/16/2011 1 comment

Jim Carrey has always been a spaz. From his frenetic stand-up comedy routines to his chaotic stint as a member of the In Living Color troupe, he had already been labelled a human cartoon. Then in 1996, he starred in a movie that showed people how big a spaz he could be by turning him into an actual human cartoon.

The Mask is a superhero fantasy comedy film directed by Chuck Russell, based (generally) on the comic book miniseries of the same title by Dark Horse Comics. It stars Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, and Richard Jeni.

Stanley Ipkiss is a loser. He gets no respect at work, he is a shy closet romantic, and he is regularly bullied by everyone around him. His only friends are his Jack Russell Terrier, Milo, and his co-worker Charlie. One night after being denied entry to the elite Coco Bongo Club and getting stranded in a broken-down rental car by the harbor, Stanley finds a wooden mask floating in the water. On a whim, he takes the mask home, and puts it on as a joke – and the mask tranforms him into a wild, chaotic trickster with reality-bending powers, manifesting as a live-action version of a Tex Avery cartoon character. While his life seems to be turning around now that the Mask has been unleashed, it is also going to get him in trouble with two groups: The police, who are investigating the Mask’s robbery of the bank Stanley works at, and gangster Dorian Tyrell, who had been planning to rob that same bank just before the Mask hit it, and who owns the Coco Bongo Club. Now Stanley finds himself trying to keep a very odd secret from those who would use the Mask for evil, while keeping his natural Jim Carrey-ness on a leash.

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. The fact that Carrey’s portrayal of a human cartoon needed only minor CGI enhancement makes the movie that much funnier, but at the same time it offered a glimpse of his ability to play more subdued roles (well, relatively subdued). While Carrey as Stanley was more or less Just a Normal Guy, there were hints and twitches of Not Normal here and there, which only served as foreshadowing of what the Mask would be like, which was, personality-wise, Jim Carrey as a reality warper. Cameron Diaz also fared well in her first movie role as The Hot Chick, starting out as a love-interest/plot device before developing into a genuine character who actually serves a role in the climax beyond the Damsel in Distress. The other characters are borderline caricatures, from the annoying landlady to the bullying boss to the jerkass mechanics, but it works here, since they have to keep up with Jim Carrey in a comic book universe.

Once I heard that the movie had been adapted from a comic book series, I did pick up a couple issues of The Mask to compare. The comics (being from Dark Horse) are a lot darker, and the Mask is more dangerous and sociopathic than just a fun-loving trickster. Here, though, he’s a bit more audience friendly, making the Mask only as dangerous as its wearer, even as it unleashes new heights of hyperactivity that Carrey had previously only dreamed of. The Mask effects were excellent, earning the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (it lost to Forrest Gump) and perfectly translating cartoonish superpowers to a live-action medium. Honestly, I think only Carrey would have had the energy to play a character like this.

In the end, The Mask is a fun homage to Tex Avery cartoons and an exploration to the limits of Jim Carrey’s sheer hyperactivity. It really doesn’t pretend to be much more than that, and it doesn’t need to be. I highly recommend it next time you’re looking for a good comedy – just sit back and watch the chaos unfold.

Jumanji (1995)


In this modern world of realistic video games and interactive everything, wouldn’t it be great to have a board game that plays you back?

No. No it wouldn’t. And here’s why.

Jumanji is a fantasy-comedy film directed by Joe Johnston, adapted from the picture book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. It stars Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, David Alan Grier, Bonnie Hunt, and Jonathan Hyde, with jungle hazards provided by Industrial Light and Magic.

It is the year 1969. Twelve-year-old Alan Parrish is having a bad day. His father barely acknowledges him except to chastise him for what he’s doing wrong, and plans to send him to boarding school. His friend Carl Bentley just accepted the blame for Alan damaging a machine at his father’s shoe factory and lost his job. He just got his butt kicked by a group of bullies. Fortunately, he just found this neat board game called Jumanji, and decides to spend an evening at home playing it with another friend, Sarah, little suspecting that his bad day is about to last 26 years. Fast forward to 1995. Judy and Peter Shepherd move into the Parrishes’ old house and find the game, still in progress. With nothing better to do, they also begin playing, never suspecting that this supernatural game is going to turn their lives upside down, summoning things like lions, man-eating plants, giant mosquitoes, and a stampede into their small town. Now they must fight to survive and finish the game, hoping that when it is done everything will be back to normal…

Jumanji was an enjoyable fantasy romp, with a solid concept (vaguely malevolent magic board game) and a likeable cast of characters led by Robin Williams, here effectively straddling the line between comedy and drama as he deals with the dangers summoned up by the board game. The dual casting of Jonathan Hyde as both Sam Parrish and the murderous hunter Van Pelt conjures up a Peter Pan-like vibe, as many theatrical adaptations of that story cast the same actor as both John Darling and Captain Hook. Here, Van Pelt respresents Alan Parrish’s fears of facing his father (both in real life and in facing how he has internalized many of his father’s harsh mannerisms), and only in facing Van Pelt can the door be opened for Alan to face his childhood fears. The book, of course, is quite different from the movie – and only 26 pages long – but it has been well-adapted to feature-length here, keeping you on the edge of your seat as you wait to see what new danger could come out of this innocent-looking game.

An occasional complaint I’ve heard is that the animals and such the games summons up are obvious CGI and look “fake”. To this I reply, well, of course they don’t look “real”. They’re not “real”. If anything, they’re summoned from a pocket dimension where lions and elephants (and pelicans!) cavort freely in the jungle alongside mosquitoes the size of hawks, spiders the size of dogs, and giant man-eating plants that will also snack on a car if it’s handy. The critters look like they “should look” through the eyes of a child more than how they actually look through the eyes of a biologist. It’s a movie about a magic board game – this is no time to be griping about realism in animals and plants summoned by fell magic. Just sit back and relax.

While some parts might be frightening to younger children, I would recommend this for family viewing. The story is engaging, the cast is solid, and the antics caused by elements of a fantasy jungle being unleashed on a small town are thrilling and entertaining. A must-see.

The Lion King (1994)


It’s the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life

The Lion King is a Disney animated feature film, the 32nd film in the Walt Disney Animated Classics. It features music by Elton John and Tim Rice, with an original score by Hans Zimmer. It stars the voices of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, Nathan Lane, a Whoopi Goldberg.

The birth of Simba, the son of King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi, is a momentous occasion at Pride Rock. All the animals have gathered to ceberate the presentation of the newborn lion cub – all except one. Mufasa’s brother Scar knows that Simba’s birth means he will never be king of Pride Rock, a fact of royal succession that chafes at him. As Simba grows, Mufasa and his hornbill majordomo Zazu attempt to teach him what it is to be king, but Simba would rather play with his friend Nala than listen to his lessons. When Scar executes a plan to assassinate both Mufasa and young Simba by wildebeest stampede, he is nearly successful, but Mufasa sacrifices his life to save Simba. Scar convinces the distraught cub that Mufasa’s death was Simba’s fault, and Simba runs away from the Pridelands in shame, narrowly escaping the hyenas that Scar sent to finish him off. As Simba grows to adulthood in the care of a meerkat named Timon and a warthog named Pumbaa, he turns his back on what he sees as his own mistake, but his past will soon return to haunt him. Simba will be forced to make a decision once and for all: continue running and leave the ruined Pridelands under the rule of his cruel uncle, or return to claim his heritage as the Lion King.

The Lion King is a richly layered animated tale, with beautiful visuals from Simba’s birth and presentation to the animals of Pride Rock, through the terror of a meticulously rendered windebeest stampede, through the despair of Simba’s exile to his epiphany and triumphant return. The characters are distinctive, even the extras in crowd shots, and the animation is fluid and graceful, like a traditional Disney animated film should be. Even though the cast are all animals, you see elements of humanity in them: the rough-and-tumble exuberance of young Simba simultaneously reminds us of a kitten and a preadolescent human. The quiet strength of Mufasa instantly invokes the reaction, “This is a king.” It helps that the characters are designed to bear a passing resemblance to their voice actors, seen most vividly in Scar, who is basically Jeremy Irons in lion shape.

The story is also deep and engaging, reminding one of such stories as Hamlet or any number of biblical tales regarding future prophets abandoned and found in strange circumstances. It is a universal story, one of tragedy and redemption that cuts across all cultures and is helped, not hindered, by the comic relief antics of the happy-go-lucky Timon and Pumbaa. Every character fits a classic archetype: the exiled prince, the scheming uncle, the wise but quirky mentor, the well-meaning but initially annoying advisor, the childhood friend turned love interest. And far from being two-dimensional stereotypes, each character feels well-rounded, as though they have a lifetime of development behind them. Everyone has had a father figure like Mufasa, a teacher like Zazu, a best friend like Timon or Pumbaa. The hyenas (though ill-served here as a species) embody the sense of greed and consumption that fuels Scar’s plans, and even Pride Rock itself is a character, a Fisher Kingdom that reflects its ruler: lush and fertile under Mufasa, but desolate under Scar. Everything works together organically, providing stories wrapped in metaphors embodied in characters so that you feel like you are a part of the world that has been created here.

While Disney’s traditional animated features became a bit hot-or-miss towards the end, The Lion King remains as one of their best feature films. Produced during the height of the animation department’s operation, this film remains as a family classic that will endure for years to come.