Archive | September, 2011

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses, Beastie Boys nominated for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

30 Sep

By Chris Engelhardt

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Credit: Scott Penner, via Flickr

The nominations for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2012 were announced Tuesday. Among the nominees are previously-nominated artists, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, War, Laura Nyro, Donna Summer and Donovan.

Guns N’ Roses, the Cure, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the Spinners, the Small Faces/Faces, Heart, Eric B. and Rakim, Freddie King and Rufus with Chaka Khan are first-time nominees who all made the ballot.

“The 2012 Nominees embody the broad scope of what ‘rock and roll’ means,” said Joel Peresman, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in a statement on the foundation’s website. “From vocal groups to hip-hop, from singer-songwriters to hard rocking artists, this group represents the spirit of what we celebrate at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Artists who released their first single or album in 1986 or earlier were eligible for this year’s ballot. Those who garner the most votes will be inducted on April 14, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio.

For more information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s website.

Movie Review: Super 8

27 Sep

By Chris Engelhardt

J.J. Abrams, director of Super 8. Credit: david_shankbone, via Flickr

Super 8, directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, is a fantastic mystery-thriller that comes billed as entirely science fiction.

Though centered around a sci-fi premise, the film, also penned by Abrams, remains a heavily human story. What we have here is a fantasy-drama juxtaposed with a love story that is as heartfelt as it is exhilarating–a masterful work that operates effectively as both a visual piece and an emotional work.

The film, set in 1979 in Ohio, follows youngster Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney), who is coping with the recent death of his mother. His father, Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler), is a deputy police officer entangled in an emotional web of distress over his wife’s death. The father and son hardly know one another. Jackson hides his sadness behind closed doors. Joe, often, refers to his mother’s locket which was retrieved from her body after the accident. Both are solemn, both miss her. We know it, and we feel it, too.

The movie moves four months forward , and Joe and his friends are enthusiastically working to create an amateur zombie movie to submit to a film festival. Charles (Riley Griffiths) is directing the project. The others all have their own individual roles (acting, applying makeup, etc). Charles manages to snag an attractive girl named Alice (Elle Fanning)—known to be something of a popular girl at school—for the lone female role in his movie. To put it mildly, Joe is excited by his friend’s decision. Shooting the film, in addition to Alice’s presence on-set, allows him to temporarily escape the unpleasantness of his father at home, and the harsh reality that his mother is long gone.

The irony, however, is that while Joe and crew seek to create their own horror story, they become a part of one in the process. While filming next to a nearby railroad, a mysterious collision between a freight train and truck results in a disastrous accident, and it’s Joe who notices afterward that something escapes the cargo of the train and heads into town. A string of strange happenings follow. Power outages ensue. Dogs go missing. Residents vanish. The military is soon involved, and with a growing panic among residents, Jackson and local authorities try to find answers as new questions and oddities continue to amount.

As its plot thickens, Super 8 builds on its mystery, ties us to its characters, and keeps us fixated throughout. Abrams’ strong screenplay engages on all levels, from its science fiction plot, to a developed love story, to the relationships between the characters we come to care for. He creates a magnificent, magical atmosphere that beautifully splices human sentimentality with mystery and suspense.

It’s important to note how effectively Abrams is in engaging his audience through his young cast. He allows us to view the film not from an adult perspective, but through the eyes of these youngsters. In their banter about their film’s script, the framing of scenes, and their love for movie-making, Abrams takes us through their journey while capturing the uncanny simplicity that comes with childhood, where all that matters is the moment.

Both Abrams and Spielberg, as youths, were constantly involved in making films with neighborhood friends, and smartly resort to their own experiences to craft a film that showcases youngsters doing what they did in their time. Super 8 is a remarkably pleasant surprise also in that it undeniably maintains the feel of Spielberg’s earlier films, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.—films full of life, energy, and excitement.

Though I won’t give away what that “something” was in the freighter’s cargo, as it would be a disservice to the film, it’s fair to say there’s a strong chance it may not exactly be human. Nevertheless, what can be said is that the collaboration between Abrams and Spielberg makes for a captivating, poignant, nearly-perfect picture.

Super 8, in the mist of its science fiction, is about how people react to the unexpected. How people cope with life, with sadness, with fear, and with one another. It’s a timeless tale of youth and adventure, of emotionality and growth, and of living, learning, and letting go. There’s a powerful scene when Joe faces losing his mother’s locket, the very item he has to remember her by. It’s moments like these that go beyond any special effects, any range of choreographed action sequences, or, for the matter, conversation. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Grade: A

This article was originally published on Suite101: http://christopher-engelhardt.suite101.com/super-8-movie-review-a376266

Movie Review: Sucker Punch

27 Sep

By Chris Engelhardt

Vanessa Hudgens, star of Sucker Punch. Credit: LGEPR, via Flickr

The visually fantastic Sucker Punch, limitless in its explosive violence and objectification of women, maintains a perplexing story of little substance.

Director Zack Snyder’s latest—which he co-wrote with Steve Shibuya—much like his other films (300, Watchmen), is mesmerizing to watch. Snyder, over time, has cemented his own personal style—his use of slow-motion, claustrophobic close-ups, and vivid colorization—among the ranks of other directors in Hollywood. Not to mention he’s developed a specialty for staging exhilarating action sequences.

Where he has yet to excel, however, is in his storytelling, and Sucker Punch, a chaotic mess of a story, plays out very much like a gigantic video game brought to the big screen. Though at times a fun ride, Sucker Punch—packed with partially-clothed women, vivid violence, and endless weaponry—is more of a male teenagers’ dream than anything else. It’s a picture where action is abundant, and overall story and structure matters little.

Set in Vermont, we’re introduced to 20-year-old Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who has been committed to the Lennox House asylum by her greedy, abusive stepfather. There, she is scheduled to be lobotomized. It’s also there that she befriends Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Amber (Jamie Chung), Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), and they decide to plot their escape from the asylum.

What Sucker Punch does is blur the line between reality and fantasy, very frequently and quite, at times, confusingly. On one level of fantasy, Baby Doll and company are sort of brothel employees under the control of Blue (Oscar Isaac), who uses the brothel to cover up for illegal activities. All of the girls dance at this brothel.

When Baby Doll dances—which we never see—we enter into another layer of fantasy, where she imagines herself and her crew to be combat warriors immersed in numerous battles, all under the advisement of a leader named Wise Man (Scott Glenn). They fight an array of villains, from some sort of zombie German soldiers, to deadly robots, dragons and these seemingly super-sized samurai creatures who yield multiple weapons. Again, this makes for film heaven for a younger male audience, which was most certainly Snyder’s intention.

To establish some connectivity between reality and fantasy, Snyder sets the story up in such a way that the items the women need to escape from the asylum in reality are the same items they need to obtain in the fantasy world.

And while Sucker Punch gives us thrilling, colorful action, beautiful actresses to ogle, along with flashy cinematography, and while its energy level is remarkable, the visual experience doesn’t compensate for the picture’s incoherent, choppy, and poorly-structured story, as well as its deafening sound level and mismanaged music score.

While fixated on its action sequences, Sucker Punch is incredibly loud, noisy and disturbingly painful to listen to. Its music score only adds to the pain. With the exception of a few cover songs, including a cover of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” (which actually features Browning), the song choices are horrific, ill-suited and terribly situated throughout the picture. This has been a re-occurring trend for Snyder, which only leads me to believe that when his scenes contain no dialogue, 1) he either has little faith in his acting talent, or 2) fears his fans will become bored.

As a story, Sucker Punch, in hindsight, is really all about the characters’ plan to escape, and, hence, the “battles” that these women endure to achieve their objective. Snyder’s use of fantasy here is primarily an excuse to pump his movie with action, cleavage, explosions and special effects.

What also hinders the story are the poor transitions between reality and fantasy, and the lack of an overall human story among these characters. We know they want out, but there really isn’t a level of character development that allows us to empathize with these girls. I also questioned the connection between Baby Doll’s dancing and the violent fantasy level she imagines, which remains a mystery to me. Why would a female’s mind wander to a place of violence while dancing?

The entire full-female ensemble are all on display for their physical appeal—including Cornish, though she has both beauty and acting chops. Though, amid their conversations of escaping the asylum and battling enemies in deadly war zones, while they can get a little shrill, and a bit dramatic, the performances here are nowhere near as hammy as those I’ve witnessed in recent cinematic disasters such as I Am Number Four and Battle: Los Angeles. Though, I could have been blinded by their beauty and their outfits.

Snyder does a hell of a job with the film’s presentation and stylized action, but in terms of overall story, Sucker Punch simply feels as though it was meant to move from one battle to the next. I cared little for the in-between, though I wanted to. When it ended, I realized that Sucker Punch had balls, plenty of babes, but was without a brain.

Grade: C-

This article was originally published on Suite101: http://christopher-engelhardt.suite101.com/sucker-punch-movie-review-a364307

Movie Review: Battle: Los Angeles

27 Sep

By Chris Engelhardt

Aaron Eckhart, star of Battle: Los Angeles. Credit: gdcgraphics, via Flickr

Battle: Los Angeles, directed by Jonathan Liebesman, is the type of film that serves up sizable action, impressive effects and really not much else.

Penned by Christopher Bertolini, Battle: Los Angeles, while consisting of excellently-staged action sequences and captivating visual effects, is a messy exhibition of over-dramatic acting, stupid dialogue and confusing camera work that makes distinguishing scenes harder than finding a needle in a haystack.

Its story, unsurprisingly, plays out like just your average aliens-invade-earth picture. It’s August 12, 2011, and what is first believed to be a series of meteors landing all around the world turns out to be a breed of extraterrestrials who have come to colonize Earth. In total, 17 countries are under attack, and these aliens don’t waste any time annihilating the innocent and slowly wiping out the human race.

Los Angeles comes under attack. Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), who has just called it a career, is called back into the line of duty under Second Lieutenant William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) and his platoon as they fight to reclaim the city of Los Angeles and to help save civilians. The platoon is later joined by other soldiers, including Sergeant Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez). But when soldiers end up having to save themselves from the clutches of these fast, intelligent and violent aliens while rescuing civilians, their mission becomes more dangerous than anticipated.

There’s more wrong with Battle: Los Angeles than right, with many of the film’s major faults resulting from its weak story and sloppy direction.

Bertolini crams his screenplay with characters, so much so that, consequently, we hardly learn about them. We know their names; we know they’re tough and well-trained soldiers. Some have family. Some do not. We see who most of them are on the surface, but they’re otherwise one-dimensional stick figure characters. By the film’s end, I couldn’t help but wonder what the purpose of introducing so many of these characters was in the first place.

Then there’s the combination of silly, preachy dialogue, mostly hammy performances and a completely inappropriate music score to boot.

Somehow, these marines, whether in general or in the middle of battle, find time to gossip among one another and also find the time to punch walls, rocks, basically whatever lies in front of them. One soldier, during a climatic shootout, manages, amid zipping shots and explosions, to take the time to punch a rock after he witnesses a comrade perish. He then rejoins the battle. Throughout, laughable one-liners such as “Goddammit,” or “We’re the Marines, dammit” are quite prevalent. These lines come off as more exaggerated nonsense than believable Marine talk.

Arguably the film’s greatest flaw is its overuse of hand held camera work. Liebesman’s intention, it seems, was to incorporate the hand held technique to place us in his picture. But when a movie’s visual presentation is more distracting than appealing, that’s an issue. The movie, a good part of it shot in hand held, is at times confusing and tiresome to look at. Some shots are indistinguishable, others poorly framed. Many simply take up space on the screen and are of absolutely no substance.

Battle: Los Angeles is, at best, a mediocre sci-fi flick heavily reliant on action and special effects.

Grade: C-

This article was originally published on Suite101: http://christopher-engelhardt.suite101.com/battle-los-angeles-movie-review-a360597

Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

27 Sep

By Chris Engelhardt

Matt Damon stars in The Adjustment Bureau. Credit: Siebbi, via Flickr

The Adjustment Bureau, written and directed by George Nolfi, is a gripping thriller driven by excellent performances by Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.

Based on the Philip K. Dick short story “The Adjustment Team,” The Adjustment Bureau is a fascinating picture focused on free will and predestination—it calls into question whether we can create our own destiny, or whether our lives are predetermined.

Damon stars as David Norris, a New York politician who is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. On election night, to his dismay, David fails to garner enough votes to come up victorious.

Shortly before his final speech, thanking his loyal supporters for their commitment, David meets, in the most unexpected way, Elise Sellas (Blunt), a dazzling beauty and contemporary ballet dancer.

Elise and David immediately hit it off. They talk politics, their pasts, and even share a kiss. There’s a connection. Shortly after their first meeting, he’s called on to present his speech, and the two go their separate ways—though David cannot shake her from his mind.

Elise inspires David to avoid his planned speech, and, instead, to speak candidly. He does. David talks to his supporters about the behind-the-scenes ways of a politician and what he had to endure during his campaign. He makes an indelible impression among voters, which opens a door for him to run again for Senate several years later.

It turns out, however, that everything, from David meeting Elise, to his chance to re-run for Senate, was all a part of the plan of The Adjustment Bureau, an organization that makes sure “things go according to plan.” Human beings, we learn, have pre-determined fates, and agents of the bureau make sure that these fates, or plans, designed by the organization’s “chair,” are fulfilled.

But David, unexpectedly, meets Elise again, and the two intend to stay in touch. David, as a result of his run-in with Elise, learns about the mysterious bureau and his fate—I won’t divulge the details of how this happens or what his fate is. David does learn, though, that he isn’t supposed to be with Elise. Deciding to rebel against the bureau’s plan for him, he fights to find a way to be with Elise as members of the bureau, including top agent, Thompson (Terence Stamp) do everything in their power to keep them apart.

The combination of Nolfi’s intelligent screenplay, laced with romance, suspense and wit, John Toll’s fantastic cinematography which beautifully captures New York City, and all-around strong performances make The Adjustment Bureau an absorbing experience.

Damon and Blunt are absolutely fantastic from start to finish, and their natural chemistry is the driving force of the film. From the moments where they share their innermost thoughts, to when they’re being chased by the bureau, knowing that if they’re caught their love will be erased, Damon and Blunt fuel the film with a palpable emotional core.

The Adjustment Bureau does have its issues, but they are few and far between. Most pertain to the Bureau itself. For one, there’s a lack of historical background for the Bureau. What’s more, the agents of fate, though grave and persistent, aren’t as threatening or intimidating as you’d think. Oddly enough, they’re too relaxed. Could it be because they possess superior control over the inhabitants of the world? Maybe. But why at times they’re readily available to provide David with information about their Bureau, given that they’re trying to prevent him from being with the woman of his dreams, is beyond me. Those are, however, small gripes, especially when looking at the movie as a whole.

While remaining both moving and thought-provoking, The Adjustment Bureau makes the powerful suggestion that sometimes, despite unfavorable odds, it’s worthwhile to fight for what we believe in. This is a picture that’s not to be missed.

Grade: A-

This article was originally published on Suite101: http://christopher-engelhardt.suite101.com/the-adjustment-bureau-movie-review-a358322

Movie Review: I Am Number Four

25 Sep

By Chris Engelhardt

Dianna Agron, star of I Am Number Four. Credit: Gudlyf, via Flickr

I Am Number Four, directed by D.J. Caruso, can best be described as lazy, lifeless and illogical. And that’s being polite.

During the film, I glanced over at several friends who had joined me for the viewing. One, who had encouraged me to give the movie a chance because of his love for the novel, written by Jobie Hughes and James Frey (which I did not read), shook his head. He clenched his fists and shot me an undeniable look of frustration. This was within the first 15 minutes of the film. This was a sign of the agony to come.

I Am Number Four follows John (Alex Pettyfer), a.k.a. Number Four, an alien from the planet Lorien who escapes to earth after a breed of aliens known as Mogadorians wipe out his planet. John is one of nine Loriens on earth who possess special powers that pose a threat to the Mogadorians. John’s hands can emit pale blue light forces of sorts, which can act as very powerful flashlights in dark corners. He’s also agile, super-strong, and can use his “force” to move objects and individuals.

The Mogadorians travel to earth, where they murder Loriens one, two and three. John is next. He and his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant), travel to Ohio, where they try to blend in to avoid being targeted. But we all know their efforts will prove pointless.

Had the film focused more on the conflict between the two breeds of aliens, and expanded on their rivalry and provided us with a concrete backstory, maybe it would have been a passable popcorn-action flick. The majority of the film, however, is a major teen-romance mush-fest, much like the kind you’d see on a mid-afternoon soap opera. John, who befriends Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a quintessential nerd who is bullied by school jocks, finds a love interest in Sarah (Dianna Agron), a photographer who has an eye for him. There is absolutely no chemistry between Pettyfer and Agron.

I Am Number Four grows painfully worse, so much so that it becomes laughable. The uneven, illogical screenplay is crammed with nauseating one-liners, soulless characters and perhaps the most unconvincing villains in recent memory.

“All I think about is you,” says John to Sarah in one cringe-worthy moment. She shares the same exchange soon after. At other times, the dialogue is, literally, laugh out loud funny. When Number Six (Teresa Palmer) finds John and helps him fend off a group of Mogadorians, John, somehow, re-charges her with his powers. “Red Bull is for p*****s,” she says afterward with a smile. Not too long after comes another gem of dialogue, after Sam vaporizes an enemy. “I play a lot of X-box,” he says.

It doesn’t help that none of the actors give us a reason to care for their characters, save for Olyphant, whose character constantly reminds John and the others to remain prudent and attentive. And given that John faces death, one would imagine he’d heed his guardian’s advice. But when puppy love strikes, logic goes out the window.

And the villains? They resemble nasally-sounding Russian mobsters with bald, tattooed heads and gills for breathing. Not the most formidable antagonists around.

I Am Number Four also manages, and annoyingly so, to raise numerous questions. We’re told that the Loriens must be terminated in numerical order. We never learn why. We learn that before going after John, the Mogadorians murdered the guardian of Number Six, but not Number Six. Which means the Mogadorians went out of order. This is left without explanation. And how is it that these aliens can so easily adapt and survive on another planet?

There are hardly any answers, and after a while, there’s hardly any reason to care. I Am Number Four is an unforgivable mess.

Grade: D-

This article was originally published on Suite101: http://christopher-engelhardt.suite101.com/i-am-number-four-movie-review-a353251

Movie Review: Black Swan

25 Sep

By Chris Engelhardt

Natalie Portman stars in Black Swan. Credit: Josh Jensen, via Flickr

Director Darren Aronofsky’s admirable psychological thriller Black Swan is an eerie, erotic and compelling ballet narrative, and easily one of the best pictures of 2010.

From Aronofsky’s precocious direction and the film’s glorious cinematography, to a riveting screenplay and an Oscar-caliber performance by Natalie Portman, Black Swan is not only a brilliant psycho-drama, but Aronofsky’s most absorbing work to date.

Portman stars as Nina Sayers, an overly meticulous, quiet but passionate ballet dancer bound for glory.  She gets her big break when she’s cast as the swan queen in an upcoming production of Swan Lake being directed by Toma (Vincent Cassel), a talented director with a reputation for having flings with leading ladies.

When rehearsals begin, Nina is responsible for two roles, the white swan and the black swan. She is able to grasp the first perfectly. It’s her execution of the black swan, however, that fails to impress Toma, who constantly reminds her that she needs to “let go” or “lose” herself in the role.

Newcomer Lily (an impressive Mila Kunis) seems to embody the black swan—she’s mysterious, dark and sensual, and Toma takes immediate notice. That’s when the plot of Black Swan thickens. Nina, while dealing with her insecurities of whether she’s truly capable of pulling off both parts, begins to notice unusual markings on her body. Nina also finds herself experiencing alarming hallucinations and life-like dreams. As her world slowly begins to turn upside down, and the pressure to succeed builds, Nina questions her identity, and begins to wonder which happenings in her life are real, and which are fantasy.

Black Swan enraptures with every twist and turn, and maintains the feel of a staged play. The first two acts provide for the perfect build- up of suspense and conflict, making the transfixing climatic finale more than worth the wait.

Aronofsky manages to keep his film technically plausible by filling it with impressive set pieces, costumes, dance choreography, etc. He does so while making the viewer as much a part of the Swan Lake production as those dancers who are involved. As Aronofsky did with The Wrestler—arguably his most affecting and emotional work—he shot the majority of Black Swan via handheld camera, an effective technique that establishes an engaging “in the moment” atmosphere. The result is a picture with a natural energy and palpable emotion—especially seen through beautiful close-up shots—and one that always brings the viewer into the scene.

There are also great performances throughout, including strong performances from Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers, the concerned, over-protective mother of Nina, and Winona Ryder as Beth Macintyre, a former swan queen who’s gone off the deep end after her career becomes a question mark. Kunis is excellent as a rival character who seems to desire the role of the black swan, but may or may not have ulterior motives.

But this is by far Portman’s picture. She gives the performance of her career as a troubled, frail dancer full of heart and technique who undergoes an unprecedented transformation while striving to achieve perfection. Portman, exquisite throughout, conveys astounding grace and effortlessness, and communicates through words and heavily through motion and mannerism. She makes us aware, with her quiet eyes and elongated stares, that below the surface of an otherwise angelic-faced talent, there is a lurking, harbored darkness within Nina. There are few actresses that possess the ability to reveal so much of a character while saying so little. Portman, in an unforgettable performance, has proven to be one of them.

Grade: A+

This article was originally published on Suite101: http://christopher-engelhardt.suite101.com/black-swan-movie-review-a330159