September 2009 Reviews
By Shawn McKenzie 9/9/2009
Here are my reviews of the movies that were released in September of 2009. Check back later as the month progresses for more reviews.
Based on filmmaker Shane Acker’s 2005 Oscar-nominated short of the same name, the movie takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. A scientist (voice of Alan Oppenheimer) builds the B.R.A.I.N. (Binary Reactive Artificially Intelligent Neurocircuit), an artificial intelligence to make things easier for society. He built it for The Chancellor (voice of Tom Kane), who used it to create the Fabrication Machine, which built machines for war. The machine eventually cracked and wiped out all of humanity. Before ultimately dying, The Scientist created nine rag doll-looking “stitchpunks,” along with a Talisman that he hoped would preserve humanity’s wasted gifts. The last one he created before he died was #9 (voice of Elija Wood), who, though being the newest of the stitchpunks, showed a flair for leadership. He hopes to find out who and where he is from #2 (voice of Martin Landau), an old inventor. The Cat Beast, a large machine that looks like it has the skeleton of a cat and has the head of an actual cat’s skull, soon swallows up #2. #9 is rescued by #5 (voice of John C. Reilly), who takes him to their leader, #1 (voice of Christopher Plummer) and his enormous but dimwitted enforcer, #8 (voice of Fred Tatasciore.) He also meets the other stitchpunks. #6 (voice of Crispin Glover) is a weird artist who keeps painting the same strange prophetic drawings over and over again. #7 (voice of Jennifer Connelly) is a warrior and the only female stitchpunk. The mute twins, #3 and #4, communicate using blinking lights, and occasionally they turn their eyes into film projectors. #9 is sure that #2 is still alive, and the group heads out to rescue him (even though #1 thinks it’s a bad idea.) Unfortunately, along the way, #9 makes a mistake by putting the Talisman into what he thinks is the appropriate slot, which reactivates the Fabrication Machine. The stitchpunks are on a mission to not only save #2, but themselves from the large, spider-like machine. In this year where almost every animated feature is in 3D, this movie is one that I really think should have gotten that same treatment. Visually it is so huge in scope and very fast paced. Some pretentious critics might argue that the movie suffered by including dialogue (the short didn’t have any dialogue in it), but I think that Acker would have put dialogue in the short if he had any decent voice actors. Wood was the perfect choice to voice #9, since he already had practice leading a band of fantasy characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Connelly has been in action movies, but I don’t remember her doing much of the butt-kicking herself…and she did a good job (at least for the voicing an animated character.) I didn’t think that Glover was weird enough as #6 for a man who has made a career out of playing weird characters. Overall, I thought that Acker’s first full-length feature was exciting and entertaining, and I look forward to seeing his next flick. By the way…Tim Burton only produced this movie…he didn’t direct it (just like he didn’t direct Henry Selick’s 1993 movie The Nightmare Before Christmas…he only produced it and wrote the story.) In fact, the only pieces of animation Burton has directed are a 1982 short called Vincent and the 2005 film Corpse Bride. The confusion might be because the advertisements focus on his credit, and that all of those projects have been in stop-motion animation (even though 9 is mostly CGI and only looks stop-motion.)
Hey…did you ever see the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada? Did you know that Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly was based on a real person? Well…unless you aren’t a hardcore fan of the movie, or of the 2003 novel of the same name that it was based on, you may not have known that. Lauren Weisberger wrote the novel based on her experiences working for U.S. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (Anna Hathaway’s character was based on Weisberger.) The September Issue is the real life documentary of the actual Wintour. Every year, Vogue has a large issue coinciding with the New York Spring Fashion Week. In 2007, their September issue was the single largest issue of a magazine ever published, weighing in at nearly five pounds, and consisting of 840 pages. Emmy-winning documentary producer R.J. Cutler comes back to movie theaters with his second directorial full-length feature (he mostly produces and directs TV projects; his first movie was the 1996 doc A Perfect Candidate), and honestly…the movie wasn’t as interesting as I thought it might be. As a TV doc producer and director, he has done some very good projects, like FOX/PBS’s Emmy-winning “American High,” Showtime’s “Freshman Diaries,” and FX’s “Black. White.” With this movie, I was expecting to see the real-life Miranda Priestly. What I got was a portrayal of a woman who looked bored most of the time and fought with her long-time Creative Director Grace Coddington, who was a former model herself. Virtually everyone in the movie sucks up to Wintour, so there are no catty remarks about her. Only Coddington seems to stand up to her. I suppose I wanted more conflict, but it was more about the behind-the-scenes making of the September issue. Ho hum.
With all of these dancing and singing movies and TV shows coming out lately (Step Up, You Got Served, Dreamgirls, The Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” franchise, FOX’s “Glee”), you knew that they were going to eventually either parody it…or remake a classic singing/dancing flick. We already got a parody this year with the Wayans Brothers’ Dance Flick, so I guess they had to remake 1980’s Oscar-winning (for the score and the title song) Fame. The movie isn’t a shot-for-shot remake, but it does borrow heavily from the multiple plotlines of the original. Taking place in the present, students audition for enrollment into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Among those auditioning (and getting in) include several young actors, dancers, singers, musicians, music producers, and filmmakers. Denise Dupree (Noturi Naughton) is a classical pianist who auditions for music teacher Martin Cranston (Kelsey Grammer), but she actually wants to be a hip-hop singer. Her dad (Julius Tennon) doesn’t think that she should waste time with singing and concentrate on the piano, while her mom (April Grace) just mildly agrees with everything he says. Also having problems with a parent is rapper/actor Malik Washburn (Collins Pennie.) His dad left him when he was a kid, and his sister died in a drive-by shooting, so…after auditioning for acting teacher James Dowd (Charles S. Dutton)…he hides his enrollment from his mother (Michael Hyatt) who thinks that rapping and acting are a waste of time. Victor Taveras (Walter Perez) is a talented keyboardist (according to Mr. Cranston), but he really desires to be a music producer. He starts a relationship with talented ballet dancer Alice Ellerton (Kharington Payne), who…along with not-as-talented gay Iowan-transplant Kevin Barrett (Paul McGill)…were auditioned by dance teacher Lynn Kraft (Bebe Neuwirth.) Jenny Garrison (Kay Panabaker) is a shy girl trying to become an actress and singer, but she is barely enrolled by singing teacher Fran Rowan (Megan Mullaly) and Mr. Dowd. A student who doesn’t have any problems is naturally talented singer and actor Marco Ramone (Asher Book), who starts a relationship with Jenny…a relationship that is tested by her association with Andy Matthews (Cody Longo), a successful alum who is a regular on a TV show that films in Manhattan. Neil Baczynsky (Paul Iacono) is an wannabe filmmaker who asks his father (Howard Gutman) for $5,000 to give to a man who tells him that his short film will receive distribution. Joy Moy (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) is a theater actress (and occasional drunk rapper) who is offered a part on PBS’s “Sesame Street” and must decide between dropping out to concentrate on the show or staying in school. Principal Angela Simms (Debbie Allen, the only returning cast member from the original 1980 film…though she is playing a different character this time) runs the school and tells them that, “You got big dreams? You want fame? Well fame costs…and right here is where you start paying…in sweat” (or some variation of that famous speech from the original movie.) It follows the highs and lows of the four years of school until graduation day. The original movie started a franchise of other projects. They include an Emmy-nominated TV series (which ran on NBC and in first-run syndication for six seasons and included Allen as a major character); a first-run syndication spin-off series called “Fame L.A.” which ran from 1997 to 1998; a 2003 reality show version hosted and produced by Allen; and an Off-Broadway musical, which ran from 2003 to 2004. This remake may be PG-rated (as opposed to the R-rating of the original movie), but it shares some of the same problems. The major problem is that…coming in at an hour and 47 minutes…there isn’t enough time to really explore the characters (the 1980 version was two hours and 14 minutes…and still didn’t have time to explore their characters further.) That’s probably why they made the TV show in 1982 (which gave Allen for Emmy nominations as Lead Actress in a Drama Series) so that they could make up for what the movie lacked. Another problem I had with the remake specifically was that the students looked like they were all “acting” instead of being natural (the veteran actors who played the faculty were all great though.) The singing and dancing was excellent (especially an early scene in the school’s cafeteria), and former girl group 3LW member Naughton specifically was great (she sang cover versions of the two Oscar-nominated songs from the original movie, the winning “Fame” and the nominated “Out Here on My Own.”) Overall, it wasn’t a horrible movie…but I don’t see it getting a new spin-off TV series (watch the highly entertaining “Glee” for that thrill.)
Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is an FBI agent living in the year 2017. He does his job well…only he isn’t doing it himself. In this future, almost everyone are using “surrogates”…remote-controlled robotic bodies that serve as better-looking versions of their human operators while they generally lay around in bathrobes. Everyone in Tom’s life…including his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell), his supervisor Andrew Stone (Boris Kodjoe)…uses surrogates. The only one who doesn’t use one is system administrator Bobby (Devin Ratray), because he is having too much fun controlling the surrogates himself from his console. Who is responsible for the creation of surrogates? Scientist Lionel Canter (James Cromwell) is the creator and founder of the Virtual Self Industries (VSI) corporation, and his surrogates were intended to thwart interaction with other people…thereby almost wiping out crime and war, since those things were now being done by surrogates. With everyone feeling safe, it allowed them to do other things…like act out their fantasies or just escape from their own boring lives. There are detractors though. Zaire Powell III, a.k.a. “The Prophet” (Ving Rhames)…opposes the use of surrogates because they are inhuman and an abomination against God. He is the leader of an anti-surrogate group called The Dreads with the intention of disrupting society’s way of life and forcing them to become human again. The story begins with the murder of Canter’s son Jarid (Shane Dzicek), who was making out with a female surrogate outside of a nightclub. Tom and Jennifer investigate the murder (the first one in years) and discover that the surrogate’s controller has also been murdered…which isn’t supposed to happen. Jarid, who also worked for VSI, had been fired from his company years earlier, and therefore was disaffected by surrogates. The suspect appears to be hitman Miles Strickland (Jack Noseworthy), and while pursuing Miles, Tom damages his surrogate. He is suspended for his actions, but still being a law enforcer, he attempts to solve the murders himself…without the use of a surrogate. Jonathan Mostow only directs movies every three or four years, and they have been hit-or-miss for me (1997’s Breakdown and 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines I liked; 1989’s Beverly Hills Bodysnatchers and 2000’s U-571 I wasn’t as crazy about.) This movie…based on a five-issue graphic novel series written by Robert Venditti and drawn by Brett Weldele…hit it out of the park for me. I always like Bruce Willis, and it’s always good to see him be the lead in something interesting. I enjoyed the story, because I really couldn’t figure out who the actual “bad guy” was until the end. I realize that the movie was intended to be a metaphor for our dependence on technology (cell phones, e-mail, etc.), and normally movies with a “message” irk me…but I didn’t care in this instance. I was still able to enjoy the fast pace and the intricate (but not confusing) plotline, and still talk about it with friends on my cell phone while writing this review on my PC and checking my e-mail at the same time. I’m not sure I’d use a surrogate myself if they ever did exist…but maybe I’ll wait until 2017 to make up my mind on that topic.
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