Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Slumdog" Is Worth A Million Bucks

Danny Boyle has made his mark on cinema by applying his talents to a wide multitude of genres. Boyle’s latest effort, Slumdog Millionaire, pushes his eclectic collection of films that much further.

Slumdog tells the life story of a young Mumbai boy from the slums, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), and uses the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to detail the events of his life, in particular his search for Latika, his destined love.

Slumdog Millionaire is a modern day fairy tale. The film’s story is told through a carefully crafted nonlinear narrative structure using a plethora of flashbacks. The game show portion of the film acts as present day and as the film’s plot device by using carefully crafted questions to tell a new part of Jamal’s past life. Simply put, the film is more about the way Jamal reaches his destination rather than the actual destination itself or the game show. And boy is it well done.

There’s so much to love about Slumdog that it’s hard to simply summarize it all. This is a special film. For me, it’s one of those very unique masterpieces that come along once or twice a year rendering the critiquing of the film to be difficult. I know, it sounds funny. It should be rather easy to spew words out to detail what you love about a film. In this case, it hasn’t come easy. This film is just good.

Boyle’s years behind the camera comes to fruition with this film. The high paced frantic cinematography Boyle offered up in 28 Weeks Later is combined with the beautiful cinematography he developed with 2007’s Sunshine. The film is expertly handled and it is a noticeable quality. Boyle absolutely knew what he was doing and it shows through his visionary work.

Story wise there is lots to love. True vision of slum life in India or not, the film is still very captivating and oozing with emotion as the boys fend for themselves, survive on their own and grow into being young adults. Certain Indian journalists have attacked the film for not being exactly precise (one writer complained about how these boys would never know the name of Samuel Colt as they would never refer to the gun as a Colt).

Other Indian journalists have opened their eyes and realized that Slumdog is not supposed to be a documentary piece on life in Indian. I, for one, would rather not make comment on what I haven’t experienced. All I know is that loads of inaccurate films are made about all types of locations, from Boston to countries in Asia. Whether this film is one of them or not is besides the point when judging how technically sound and enjoyable the film is.

For as much charm this fairy tale holds there is an equal amount of gritty crime thriller to be savored. Part of the success of everything staying rather balanced is the ensemble performance. The three children in the film are played by three different young actors. All three versions stand out remarkably. The youngest versions of Jamal and his brother Salim have an uncanny ability to perform their scenes naturally.

As the story progresses and the boys grow, new actors are introduced and they each uphold the quality of acting. The film culminates with Dev Patel (Jamal), Freida Pinto (Latika) and Madhur Mittal (Salim) rounding out the tremendous youth performances. Not to be forgotten are Ankur Vikal, who plays crime boss Maman, the film’s most evil character, and Anil Kapoor, as the game show host Prem Kumar. The film wouldn’t be what it was without each and every one of these names and more.

Slumdog is one of the freshest films you’ll find in cinemas right now. Aiding this is the absolutely scorching and energizing score by Indian composer A.R. Rahman. The score, which also features musician M.I.A. and her hit song Paper Planes, is unlike most things heard in films. At times it’s intense and at other times it’s joyful. Rahman uniquely covers all grounds with his own brand of music.

Slumdog Millionaire is simply the incredible culmination of lots of talent. As much as the film is to be credited to Boyle for his directing prowess, it would have been impossible without the actors the film had, Rahman’s engaging score or Simon Beaufoy’s carefully structured screenplay of the Vikas Swarup novel Q and A. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, I can only hope the charming Slumdog Millionaire walks away with a great deal of Oscars. Boyle may finally be getting the credit he’s always deserved.

"Taken" Heats Up Winter Months

A lot is to be expected when Luc Besson, the man responsible for action heavies such as Leon: The Professional, gets behind production. Whether it be directing, writing, producing or a few of those titles combined, action fans can expect the best from Besson. Besson’s latest project, Taken, a film he both wrote and produced, is no slouch in comparison to other notable projects of his such as The Transporter and District 13.

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is a father struggling for the love and acceptance of his daughter. Against his better judgment he allows his daughter to go to Paris with a friend. When his daughter and friend are taken by men involved with trafficking women, Mills, a former spy and preventer of “bad things”, heads to Paris and revisits the skills that make him dangerous in an attempt to retrieve his daughter.

There’s no beating around the bush here. Taken is badass. Neeson absolutely steals the screen giving his best old man tour de beat ‘em up impression. All the way through Neeson is absolutely fierce, energetic and convincing. Director Pierre Morel, who reteams with Besson for their second film together, does a good job handling the action scenes. Never are they so disorienting that lack of focus is lost from the important action scenes that make this film as entertaining as it is.

As fun as it is, Taken is as straightforward as action films come. Besson’s script involving the trafficking of women in foreign countries is slightly exploitative in the fact that it simply uses it as a trigger device for the action. This is not a social commentary piece on the dangers of these all too serious events, which must be understood to not be too critical on the film’s simple story.

The script can also be found suspect if you crave realism in your films. The way Mills attempts to track down his daughter can only be enjoyed with a high suspension of disbelief. What Mills needs to have happen happens and the information he needs to find is given to him. Fact of the matter is this film is a gritty revenge tale and straightforwardness and a little implausibility does nothing to take away from the enjoyment that is to be had from watching a 56-year-old Liam Neeson kick the crap out of criminal scum in gauntlet fashion.

The unique thing about Taken is that since it’s not an American produced film it was released here in our homeland much later than it was in other countries. My theatrical viewing of this film was my second viewing and I must say that it held up quite nicely. This all comes despite the fact that the film was released in the states with a PG-13 rating. No actual scenes were cut from the film but a few of the sequences were limited down a tad.

It’s always disappointing to see a film of this nature get cut to a PG-13 rating and it isn’t just because we want more blood. The tampering with the action and torture sequences disturbs the emotion of the film, one of the most important aspects of Taken. The revenge Mills is seeking can still be felt but even the few select cut moments would add more to it. If no other version of this film existed I’d have no qualms, so take it as a grain of salt when judging this film.

Taken is one of the surprise films of the last year. It starts a bit slow so when the nearly nonstop action comes at you you’re even more taken aback by its high adrenaline nature. Do not let the tame PG-13 rating fool you. Things are still a bit grisly and the action is exciting and fulfilling. Taken, led by Neeson’s demanding and dominating performance and Morel’s cool and calm directing, should certainly be experienced by anyone looking to fill their hunger for revenge.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

“Lycans” Does Vampires vs. Werewolves Justice

When Kate Beckinsale decided to hang up her skin tight costume and faux vampire teeth, the studio had but one logical choice for a third film in the “Underworld” series: A prequel. Whether a prequel to the centuries-old feud between vampires and werewolves is what fans wanted or if it was even necessary is beyond argument at this point.

“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is an origins story that focuses on how former slave to a legion of vampires, Lucian (Michael Sheen), becomes leader of a powerful race of werewolves in an uprising against vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy). The film details how the long running war between the two groups in the first “Underworld” film came to be.

With the departure of Beckinsale also came the departure of her husband and director of the first two films in the series, Len Wiseman. Promoted to his spot is Patrick Tatopoulos, a man who knows monsters. Tatopoulos worked as creature designer on the two previous “Underworld” films as well as in other recent genre films such as “I Am Legend” and “Silent Hill”. “Lycans” is Tatopoulos’ feature length debut and it is a commendable effort.

Although both the lead actress and director are gone, not much else has changed. Given expanded and elevated roles are Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Sheen, fresh off his terrific performance in the Oscar nominated film “Frost/Nixon”, returns as Lucian, would be leader of the Lycans. Rather than going head on with Richard Nixon, Sheen’s character faces off with the equally sinister Viktor, king of the vampires. Both actors hold their own and do a lot for the film emotionally when it needs it the most.

Stylistically “Lycans” matches the feel of the first two films. The sets are lavishly gothic and the tone is dark. Where the film takes a drop is in the special effects department. From time to time a few of the deaths look poorly done and sloppy. A little more attention could have been given. The action sequences are filmed using the ever-popular and increasingly annoying hyper-edit technique. “Lycans” is not even close to being the number one offender of using this new Achilles’ heel of action films but it is still present. That said, the action scenes are, more often than not, impressive and entertaining.

There is nothing exactly wrong with the plot of “Lycans” but it did feel a bit conventional. It draws slightly from the realm of Shakespeare with a kind of forbidden relationship between two members of different families. These families just happen to be vampires and werewolves. What the film does do well is let the viewer see both sides of the story. This should lead to new experiences when watching both the first and second films again.

Being vampires and werewolves, the film has the feel of a big budget B-movie, complete with the campy visuals and dialogue. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing if appreciative of this style of filmmaking. Heading into the film expecting a mindless battle between vampires and werewolves will result in the best experience. Expect anything else and it’ll be a sorely disappointing time.

“Lycans” is a far from perfect adventure into the “Underworld” universe. Regardless, the film is an entertaining experience. It does a good job of setting up the first film meaning fans of the series should be pleased. Most of the acting is far better than it should be for a film of this type. Sheen and Nighy, along with new leading lady Rhona Mitra and Kevin Grevioux’s return as Raze, elevate the film’s rather typical story and get its juices flowing.

After spending so much time sifting through this season’s Oscar nominated films, it was nice to shut off the old brain for a bit. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is a lot better than we’re typically treated to in month of January. Monster fans, be pleased.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

‘Benjamin Button’ Leads Way at Oscar Nominations

The nominees for the 81st annual Academy Awards were announced last Thursday morning with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” leading the way with 13 Oscar nominations, including one for best picture.

Among the nominations “Benjamin Button” received were best actor in a leading role nomination for Brad Pitt and best supporting actress for Taraji P. Henson’s performance in the film. The film stocked up in the technical aspects of the nomination list by securing nods for art direction, cinematography, film editing and original score among other categories. The film also received nominations for Eric Roth’s adapted screenplay and for David Fincher’s directorial efforts.

Runner up to “Benjamin Button” was Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire”. The film, which won best picture at this year’s Golden Globes, received a total of 10 nominations. The film was shut out in the acting categories but received nominations for best picture, directing and adapted screenplay and scored a double nomination in the best original song category for the efforts of A.R. Rahman.

The final three spots for the best picture category were taken by Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon”, Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” and Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader”, which was the most surprising nominee of the five. Notable films left off the best picture nominee list include blockbuster favorites “The Dark Knight” and “Wall-E” along with limited released films like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” and John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”, which received four nominations for excellence in acting.

The snubbed films weren’t left out completely as the late Heath Ledger was nominated for best supporting actor for his work as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”, one of the film’s eight nominations. Segregation between best picture and best animated feature continued as “Wall-E” was left as a nominee in the best animated feature category. “Wall-E” received six nominations in total. Mickey Rourke, who won best actor at this year’s Golden Globe, continues his comeback streak with a nomination for his lead performance in “The Wrestler”.

In addition to Pitt’s and Rourke’s nominations for best actor in a leading role were Frank Langella for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”, Sean Penn’s turn as Harvey Milk in “Milk” and Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor”. Ledger is joined in the category of best supporting actor by Josh Brolin for his performance in “Milk”, Robert Downey Jr. for his comedic role in “Tropic Thunder”, Philip Seymour Hoffman in the aforementioned film “Doubt” and the surprising Michael Shannon for his portrayal of a mentally sick man in “Revolutionary Road”.

The category for best actress in a leading role contains nominations for Kate Winslet in “The Reader”, Angelina Jolie in “Changeling”, Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married”, Melissa Leo in “Frozen River”, and Meryl Streep in “Doubt”. Best actress in a supporting role features two women from “Doubt” as both Amy Adams and Viola Davis received nominations. Joining Adams, Davis and the aforementioned Henson (“Benjamin Button”) is Penélope Cruz for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and Marisa Tomei for her performance in “The Wrestler”.

The Oscars are set to take place on Feb 22, 2009 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California. The ceremony will be hosted by Hugh Jackman and will be televised on ABC.

Netflix, Blockbuster Struggle for Online Supremacy

The advent and rise of the internet has changed the landscape for DVD rentals as we know it. The option of illegally downloading movies for free has become a viable and intriguing option for computer literate people. On the other hand the internet has opened an honest debate of brick and mortar DVD renting at Blockbuster versus the convenience and ease of online rental services such as Netflix where the DVDs are sent to you.

There are lots of points to weigh when considering how to go about renting films. First and foremost is to consider how many DVDs you rent on average per month. At the rough price of $4 plus tax at a local Blockbuster store things can add up quick. Netflix’s online plans are a much more cost effective option.

If you rent four DVDs a month in an actual Blockbuster store you’re spending the same amount as you would be for Netflix’s three out at-a-time plan which is set at $16.99 a month. To sweeten the deal members are given the ability to watch a limited selection of films and television shows on your computer or Netflix ready device. Selections range from classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” to niche titles such as “Dancer in the Dark” to television shows such as “The Office”. The instant watch feature is available with any of the Netflix unlimited plans which range from one at-a-time for $8.99 a month to eight at-a-time for $47.99.

Those of you that own an Xbox 360 might have noticed Microsoft’s partnership with Netflix this past fall when the New Xbox Experience system update came into effect. If one has an Xbox 360, a gold Xbox Live membership and any of the unlimited rental plans on Netflix they are able to view the instant watch selections on their televisions through their Xbox 360. This includes a small number of high definition titles. The new partnership with Microsoft essentially gives capable Netflix users a seemingly endless collection of films at home to watch at any time of the day.

In an attempt to combat the efforts by Netflix, Blockbuster devised their own online rental program. The program is similar in function to Netflix where users add films to their queue and the titles are shipped to the member at home. The one difference comes with Blockbuster’s Total Access program. For $19.99 a month members receive three rentals at home at-a-time and five in-store exchanges per month. This means that five times a month you’re able to bring your returned and sealed envelope of a DVD you received in the mail to the store to exchange it for a free rental.

When Blockbuster first began this promotion they offered unlimited in store exchanges for a cheaper price meaning if you rented 15 DVDs in a month you could turn that into 30 DVDs if desired. The other basic option for Blockbuster is $15.99 a month for three out at-a-time with no in-store exchanges. This does not come with any sort of online viewing feature like Netflix does.

While price for online services might lean in Blockbuster’s direction there are a few more items to think about that will help you make your choice. First you must consider the types of films that you’re going to rent. My experience has shown that many of the films that Blockbuster had as very long waits (which is as long as it sounds) are available to ship next day at Netflix. The general selection and variety on Netflix is much wider as well. Far more niche genre titles or obscure foreign films can be found on Netflix that are nowhere to be found on Blockbuster’s online program.

As far as the always important customer service goes Netflix trumps again. From my experience with Blockbuster’s online program I can’t help but suggest against it if you want to receive your DVDs in order and on time. With Blockbuster I would sometimes have titles that are listed as available skipped over. Instead of having the number one film on my list sent to me the title I ranked fifth would be sent. When you have limited time to receive and watch these films the idea that what’s available will be sent to me is always important. Another problem is receiving the wrong disc or a broken disc. While this isn’t an often occurrence it happened more times with Blockbuster than it did with Netflix.

There is a lot to think about when choosing the rental method appropriate for you. The best way to decide between the two services might be to use both services free limited trials that typically last two weeks. Although it is a limited time frame it might give you a good idea as to which program you’ll get the most out of.

The convenience of going to a store and picking a DVD up on a whim has been surpassed by the even more convenient process of having DVDs shipped straight to your mailbox. Both Netflix’s and Blockbuster’s online programs are a much cheaper alternative to the old fashion brick and mortar. The two companies seem poised to battle for supremacy in online DVD renting. As far as the future of physical store rentals one can only wonder if the competition for online supremacy plus the economic struggles will spell disaster for Blockbuster’s in-store rental system.

Album review: Umphrey's McGee - "Mantis"

Umphrey’s McGee
SCI Fidelity
January 20, 2009

Like most jam bands Umphrey’s McGee is best known for their live performances and material. The band’s new album, “Mantis”, explores a new method of creation for the rising group. Unlike previous albums, “Mantis” was created entirely inside a studio and is not comprised of any previously played live material. Jam band purists who are initially turned off by the sin of the studio may rethink their beliefs after giving “Mantis” a spin.

Umphrey’s McGee belongs to the small subgenre of progressive rock jam bands. Stage-wise the band is undoubtedly influenced by the methods of both Phish and Grateful Dead. Although UM’s sound is of its own unique style, the band can be likened to progressive giants such as the energetic King Crimson. “Mantis” brings the group back to their 2004 effort “Anchor Drops” in exploring the progressive side of things.

The 20 month period spent in the studio creating “Mantis” was seemingly well worth it. While calling it the band’s best work would be jumping far ahead of myself I’m surely hooked on the album. For fans of previous work by UM all that is loved is back. The soaring choruses led by lead singer and guitarist Brendan Bayliss and the absolutely jarring riffs and guitar shredding by both Bayliss and second lead guitarist Jake Cinninger.

The band’s choice to keep the album at a concise 54 minutes proves to be a good call. Taking up a large part of those 54 minutes is the album’s title track. It is a near 12 minute track that leaves no part of the progressive rock genre untouched. Complete with a few energetic and soulful solos and jazz-funk piano the track speeds by you. When it reaches its virtuous finale you’re left wanting more.

The bottom line is that “Mantis” is essentially full of highlights. I’ve given the album a good five or six plays and don’t ever find myself skipping a track here or there like you might find yourself doing from time to time. This six man band fuses all parts of the band into one tight package. They’ve created their own unique sound and have elevated it to a point of pure achievement.

If you’re new to the genre or the band “Mantis” would be a viable place to start. The hooking lyrics and addictive sounds are enough to grasp the newest of ears. While UM might always be remembered as one of the premier live improv bands of the genre, “Mantis” cements them in a new place: the studio.

Album review: The Bad Plus - "For All I Care"

The Bad Plus
For All I Care
Universal Classics
February 3, 2009

For jazz trio The Bad Plus playing inventive and creative covers of popular rock songs has been a signature part of their musical progression. The group’s latest album matches the trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King with vocalist Wendy Lewis.

“For All I Care” marks two new advances in the band’s history. For one, it is the first all cover album from the band. In addition, Lewis’ arrival to the group marks the first time they match vocals up with their inventive covers. Fortunately for all involved the new concept turns out beautiful. The vocals correlate perfectly with the trio’s style of music.

What makes The Bad Plus’ covers so unique is the way they transform popular rock songs into intense jazz pieces. They’ve done it to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars, Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is perhaps their most popular and notorious cover to date. Because the trio is made up of a pianist, a bassist and a drummer the ever popular guitar pieces must be made up for, which is where the true creative nature of the trio comes into play.

“For All I Care” covers all walks of music. It begins with a cover of Nirvana’s “Lithium” before transitioning into a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. Similarities in both songs are of course very noticeable but each cover takes on a mind of its own. Lewis’ warm and low key vocals add to this. The group sublimely takes the song out of its previous realm and into the jazz world.

I am typically not one to drool over covers but The Bad Plus happens to be an exception. This is not the case of a group trying to sound like another group. You realize it’s a Pink Floyd song but it’s an entirely different experience. The same holds true to the cover of The Flaming Lip’s “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”.

The Bad Plus tackles it all in their newest album. From some of the most notable progressive rock songs to 20th century classic arrangements from the likes of György Ligeti and Milton Babbitt each cover is a new experience in of itself. Long time fans of the trio might be disappointed with the lack of their usually brilliant original recordings. Otherwise, “For All I Care” is an interesting, intriguing and ultimately very satisfying album full of reworked songs from at least one band or artist we can all identify with.

Ah, I planned on doing more...

Ooh boy, did I plan on doing more during my break from school. I figured I'd write reviews for all the Oscar contenders. Sadly this didn't come to fruition. I never imagined how lazy one can get with no job and no school to keep them busy. And it's not even over yet. Ah well, if anyone actual reads this blog you'll be happy to know I'll be posting a lot more things here as the semester starts to begin.

- Mike