Month: June 2010

Do You Want to Play a Game?: Review for Funny Games

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Most mainstream audiences don’t like snooty art house films. They seem to think that the subject matter that art house films tackle is too dense or something, but if it hasn’t been directed by Michael Bay, they tend to avoid it. They suspect that the people who watch them like to brag about it and like to brag they seem more cultured than everyone else.  But, when they come across a sadistic film like Funny Games, a film that acts like one of those Evangelical Christians knocking on your door and waiting to shove their message down your throat, they might have good reason.

What better an idea than to show how America loves to watch violence than just to hand it to them and give it to them on a foreign silver platter. Place them in a theater and subject them to watching what Americans love to watch: sadistic violence. Funny Games is a very drastic misnomer. Nothing is funny about this film.

George, Ann (Naomi Watts), and their young boy Georgie are terrorized by a pair of white sociopaths dressed immaculately in white. These young maniacs symbolically represent the entertainment biz, the ones who draw in those masses ready and rarin’ to watch brutal films like Saw and Hostel. The members of this upper-middle class family are the ones who get tortured, the ones that we American seem to love to watch so much.

Michael Haneke, who has directed masterpieces like Cache and The White Ribbon, has attempted to show us what kind of pigs we are. The subject of film violence and its influence on the public has been very controversial, the sides debating on its negative influence. Haneke’s objective is to show that violence indeed can be negative on someone’s way of thinking. While trying to do that, he simultaneously tries to anesthetize violence, trying to ward off the blame that one could put on him for making this film in the first place. However, this is a remake of a 1997 Austrian film of the same name. And by remake, I mean shot-by-shot remake. Nearly every frame of the film is identical to the original film, but for some reason, this version seems more malignant and mean than its Austrian counterpart.

The violence in incredibly unsettling, because unlike slasher films where the violence is cartoonish and torture porn films, where the violence is so over the top and sadistic, it’s unbelievable, it’s realistic and scary. But this film, which basically involves people in your home making you play mind games in which you hurt each other in a much more realistic way than Saw could ever portray, somehow crosses a line between reality and sick fantasy. Each move the family makes puts them closer in danger, because the killers are right there. They’re more than willing to cause this family as much harm as possible.

But the message of how sick Americans are doesn’t work well. One of the sociopaths, played by The Dreamer’s Michael Pitt, every so often looks into the camera ad speaks to the audience, making a *wink-wink* camera joke, making the film very self-aware. The lunatics know what they’re doing, and they know what the audience is doing: the audience is watching. The audience could stop, take the DVD out or something, but they haven’t. This is what Haneke is trying to say, and rather unsuccessfully. We’re hypnotized by violence. We can’t get enough. We play violent video games in which we blow people apart as part of our objective.

What is successful about the film is the way Haneke utilizes the violence. He wants us to recoil in fear and disgust, and sometimes he just shows the result of violence and not the violence itself. The deaths don’t happen on screen. Sometimes the scariest things are what you can’t see. Sort of like Tobe Hooper’s  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where there’s no blood in the movie, but only suggestion. But, isn’t he providing the violence for us? Couldn’t he have just as easily just made a documentary? Yes, he could have. But he didn’t. With the psychopaths smirking at the camera and the last shot on Michael Pitt, Haneke seems to relish the fear he’s instilled in us. He wants us to be ashamed. And in some ways, we are. But, before long, Haneke just gets snooty all over again. Dear god, even the tagline for the film is snooty: “You must admit, you brought this on yourself.” He is certainly poking us in the nose for watching this genre in the first place.

But what is, as a whole, a very sickening and preachy film, when you get halfway through, the film, God forbid, gets dull. The pace suddenly comes to a halt and we’re left with the two surviving parents blow-drying a cell phone and trying to find a car to save them. This could have been remedied by the use of a film score, but the only music you hear in this film is classical music at the beginning to show how snooty this family is and then some hard-rockabilly-metal hybrid that has screams in it. Does this music represent the screams we will undoubtedly pour from our mouths as we watch this film? Or is this just used to show that this is a “contemporary” update to his film made for Americans who love their metal music? Either way, without a score, we’re left hanging at certain scenes, not terrified, just sort of bored.

Repellent, sickening, and disgusting, Michael Haneke takes his message of media violence and how it influences us a bit too far and while making some of us think, he just comes off as an arrogant director who wants to rub it in the American’s faces. An absolutely repulsive film, Haneke tries to send a message and aestheticize violence but it becomes hypocritical.  Grade: D

Third Time’s a Charm: Review for Toy Story 3

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15 years after the initial release of Pixar’s first animated film Toy Story, Pixar has finally released a second sequel to the beloved series. Openly aimed at the audience that grew up with the previous two films, Toy Story 3 blends nuanced storytelling, emotional wallops, and amazing visuals. This is probably Pixar’s strongest film since WALL-E and Finding Nemo and it proves as a worthy successor to Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

Andy, the owner of the beloved toys, has grown up with us. He’s 17 now and he‘s off to college, having neglected his toys for the past several years. Begging for attention, Woody and the gang have set up several various plans to get him to play with them again. But to no avail. The toys accidentally get donated to a daycare center, Sunnyside, a seemingly toy Utopia run by a large and jovial purple bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). Lotso is not all hugs and happiness; he’s an evil dictator. It is up to Woody and the gang to escape from

The film has some of the best storytelling of any movie in the past 15 years. Michael Arndt, who also was nominated for an Academy Award for Little Miss Sunshine, wrote the screenplay, clearly aiming for the kids, or now teenagers, who grew up watching the previous films. Arndt is a strong storyteller, adding humor when needed, appealing to both adults and children (but not vulgar humor, which companies like DreamWorks are a bit notorious for), and true sadness and emotion. The elements in the film are very reminiscent to other styles. When Chuckles the Clown recounts the past of Lotso, he brings us and draws us into a vivid and imaginative flashback origin story, similar to scenes in film noir, like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Chatter Telephone acts like both a phone booth in a noir and as the voice over the line, as he helps Woody with security precautions. The voice, high, raspy, and sounding suspicious is extremely memorable and sounds like those secret agents or those unofficial allies from movies like Casablanca. And just like in a noir film, he gets beat up and tortured. Some of the angles and camera work within the film is also reminiscent of classic romance films.

The emotion is very potent within the film, as each scene rings true and special. Unlike most kiddie films, where they try to take every single opportunity to make you weep (unsuccessfully for the most part), Toy Story 3 very strategically places key emotional plot points within the film. So strategically and well done, the film has made several audiences members weep, including myself. You pause for a moment and think, AM I crying over toys? Yes, you are. These characters have grown to mean a lot to their audience and it’s not bad that one would cry during the film. Very much like another of my Pixar favorites, WALL-E, the fantastic emotion often comes in the facial expressions of the characters. While I’m not really a fan of Randy Newman’s music, he has transcended the art of scoring into a film and has added the extra emotion to each scene with the great score.

Speaking of great animation, it’s been 15 years since the first Toy Story! This one looks fantastic. It’s been a long time and the animation technique and detail has progressed almost exponentially in comparison. Every seam in Woody’s denim pants and every piece of fur in Lotso’s body is perfectly visible. The characters are also significantly more flexible than before, now able to do the tango! (Stay for the end credits for that).  The film looks majestic in every way.

The introduction of new characters is really great. Barbie finds her Ken, and the two offer some of the funniest moments in the film Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton, is a vain, plastic, self indulgent henchman of Lotso, but falls immediately for Barbie (voiced by Jodi Benson, the speaking and singing voice of The Little Mermaid). Both designed very much like the figures in real life, their movements are stiff, and rightly so. The articulation is perfect, in the way that their joints give very little articulation by themselves, but the personalities that the voices lend give the characters whole new animation. Lotso is the big patriarchal leader of Sunnyside, pulling strings when need be and positively evil. Wronged in the past, he takes his anger out by becoming a power hungry freak. Bonnie is a human little girl who finds Woody and she’s like a girl version of Andy; lovable, kind, and a welcome addition, She takes care of her toys and plays with them. That is what all the toys wanted. Fretful that Andy doesn’t love them anymore, Bonnie is just what they needed.

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are back and they sound great as usual. Delivering lines just as perfectly as ever, the two make Woody and Buzz more real than we could ever ask. They’ve become iconic in their own way and it’s a great welcome back and a fond farewell to the two leads.

The film, though, rated G, and though aimed at the nostalgic group, was extremely dark. Filled with suspense and action throughout, the storyline was just too dark for 3 – 5 year olds. That, with the sad moments, would make younger kids bawl, undoubtedly. So, if you have any really young kids, I don’t recommend the film to you. However, if you kids have 8 and up, then that should be fine.

The film is a wonder of storytelling and animation. Emotionally sound and well made, Pixar proves that it is once again at the top of their game. This is one of Pixar’s best films and it’s one of the best films period to come out this year. The style and the characters grew up with us, so the nostalgia is well placed. This is an excellent film. I had very high expectations walking into the film, and after it driving me to tears three times, the film surpassed my expectations…to infinity and beyond!

Grade: A+

The Best of Pixar

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With the release of the 11th Pixar film, I thought it appropriate to rank the ten other films that Pixar has churned out. What’s different about Pixar compared to other animation studios? The animation itself, while certainly a new and amazing technique and medium, has little to do with what makes Pixar so amazing. What makes Pixar amazing is the fantastic stories they tell. Every film they’ve ever made appeals to both children and adults, but not in such a vulgar subversive was as, say, Shrek from DreamWorks Animation. All of their films have a very dark subtext and are layered smartly. This is what sets Pixar apart and ever since they debuted on the feature film scene in 1995 with the groundbreaking Toy Story, the mile-stick that every other animated film has been measured against. Pixar has broken box office records left, right, and center, including breaking the record for biggest opening weekend in the month of June, with Toy Story 3 taking in an astounding $110 million. So, let the ranking begin!

10. A Bug’s Life

Out of work circus performers are used to impress clan of native people’s fighting off enemies. Very much a thespian story of the importance of acting, and also the importance of being yourself, A Bug’s Life was never a very appealing film for me. After their success with Toy Story, I feel as if the screenwriters tried a bit too hard and only accomplished a very surface wary storyline, instead of the complex and layered plots they would eventually produce. Nonetheless, the film is still good, if not great. Grade: B

9. Cars

Certainly packed with an all star cast, the film that brought John Lasseter back to the director’s seat warmed hearts. It was set in a very familiar locale: Route 66. But what Cars had in warmth, it also had in corny jokes. This is not a problem, as it was a pleasure to see on the screen. The moral of the story is don’t let your ego get too big. It was Paul Newman’s final acting job before he passed away. Larry the Cable guy plays a very obvious comic relief character, Mater, a tow truck that seems to have come straight from Hill Billy Central. Delightful at times. Bonnie Hunt’s voice acting however is a bit bland. Grade: B+

8. Monster’s, Inc.

A wonderfully successful film about the scariest things hiding under your bed, the voice acting from John Goodman and Billy Crystal is fantastic. A very lovable story about what it means to monsters when they scare little kids, the film had true heart and the little girl in the film Boo, is one of the cutest things to ever set foot on screen. The film transcends what it means to confront your fears, it even jumps a whole other level. It remains cute, but it shows the beauty of friendship, and, after all, laughter. A great film! Grade: B+

7.  Ratatouille

This was probably the hardest of the Pixar films to sell to kids. Oh, cooking. In comparison, the other films had much more relatable subject matters. Yay, monsters! (Monsters, Inc.) Yay, fast cars! (Cars) Yay, talking toys! (Toy Story/Toy Story 2) But a cooking rat? The great thing is they pulled it off! The combined great story telling, relatable scenarios for kids and gorgeous visuals makes for an awesome film. Oh, yeah, and food! (I never knew good bread was in the crust.) The cute little rat, Remy, made cooking more enjoyable than it had been for kids in years. Also, this was one of their funniest films. Grade: A-

6. Up

The film starts off really, really depressing, and how can one get kids over that when an important character dies in the first 15 minutes? Well, there’s nowhere to go but Up. Pete Doctor helms this picture with a sweet story and a big scale. The innocence and sweetness pulls this together and it becomes one of the most wonderful pictures ever. The scale of the film is enormous, traveling all the way to South America. But the important part is that it shows you how to find adventure right in your own back yard. Grade: A-

5. Toy Story 2

One of the very few sequels to match its predecessor in quality, the film packs emotion where it needs it and lots of humor. The visuals blaze on the screen and it’s a thrill ride for all. Luckily, however, it’s not as scary. The introduction of the new character Jessie, voiced by Joan Cusack, is welcome as a worthy adversary to both Buzz and Woody. My favorite part remains the montage that Jessie sings, the montage about her past. Sarah McLachlan sings a flawless rendition of “When She Loved Me” by Randy Newman and it brings a tear t one’s eye very easily. Grade: A

4. The Incredibles

As action packed as a mainstream super hero movie, this film is a gem by showing the family structure of a rather super family. Very funny and insightful, first time Pixar director Brad Bird ran the film and it came out fresh and satisfying. All the old clichés are there, but they’re newer, fresher, and more brilliant with the top notch writing and great voice acting. Its snappy score by Academy Award winner Michael Giachinno (who won for Up) is very reminiscent of John Barry. Fantastic and fun! Grade: A

3. Finding Nemo

Going to the Blue Planet has said to have been a pretty easy task, or at least that’s what the animators of Finding Nemo say. But, the gorgeous landscapes and emotion that the fish (yeah, fish) emulate is the best part about the movie. Certainly Ellen DeGeneres deserves props for her awesome voice acting as Dory, the fish with short term memory loss. Nemo remains the highest grossing G-rated film of all time, not counting inflation where Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the crown). A very emotional story about a clownfish whose son is kidnapped and his quest to find him, the notes are all perfectly orchestrated. Check out the credits for Robbie William’s recording of the Bobby Darin classic “Beyond the Sea”.  A very beautiful tale of love and family. Grade: A+


Another very hard film for Pixar to sell to kids, WALL-E is the story of a clunky robot who falls in love with a gorgeous new robot. Or, it’s a story of mankind redeeming themselves from years of waste. Or, it’s the story of a man who takes control of his life, his ship, and becomes the captain he was meant to be. All these intertwining stories culminate in a fantastic finale, and together, they are part of one whole beautiful story. Why was this hard to sell? There were barely 30 pages of dialogue. It was all up to the animators and sound designers (including Academy Award winner Ben Burtt, the voice of R2-D2 and sound designer of the Star Wars saga) to show the emotion and represent what was going through the characters’ minds. WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load lifter, Earth class) is a tubby and stout little robot who likes collecting things he finds whilst working. He likes musicals, especially Hello, Dolly! And he the essential underdog and hopeless romantic. The want and the sadness and the happiness that WALL-E feels is shown in his binocular eyes, as the lenses fill with star shine. It’s one of the biggest accomplishments in film and one of the most moving things I have ever seen in a movie. Grade: A++

1. Toy Story

In 1995, Pixar Animation Studios and Disney released a tale of jealousy, greed, and revenge specifically aimed at children. It was violent, loud, and fright filled It was also the first fully computer animated feature film. However the elements of greed, jealousy, and revenge are under the surface of a story that’s about friendship redemption, and dependence, but even so, it’s an important thing to note. Tom Hanks voices Woody, a toy that is put in his place when his place as Andy’s favorite toy is jeopardized with the arrival of a new toy. This new toy, Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear, is a space ranger with all sorts of gadgets on his plastic body. Light as the surface of this film may be, the story behind it is incredibly intriguing. Disney ordered a rewrite of the original script because Woody was such a mean and unlikable character. This movie is about how far people will go to be in the spotlight and how far they’ll go to get that security of knowing they’re the best. Incredible visuals, even today, 15 years after its release in theaters,  it looks amazing. It’s been an enduring classic and even appears on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest films ever made. John Lasseter does a spectacular job as director. An exciting and totally delightful film, Toy Story defies expectations, to infinity and beyond! Grade: A+++

The Top 3

Finding Nemo:


Toy Story:

The Fame, The Icon: What is an Icon?

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James Bond. Babe Ruth. Dale Earnhardt. Oprah. Monet. Van Gogh. What do all these fictitious and real life figures have in common? They’re all larger than life. And they’re all icons. What makes an icon? How do we define what an icon really is? Who is to say who and who is not an icon? An icon is someone or something that completely transcends real life and is instantly recognizable in their field or medium. They’re sometimes mavericks, but they all change the game somehow.

To be an icon, one must have reached the masses in a particular field or genre, so that their name is instantly recognizable to almost everyone. You say the name and, although they may not be immediately sure of what the person does, they know them for their sheer fame. Iconography is a representative of the people or of the thing they do. They have to exceed their main demographic. They become the poster child for whatever they do and become so recognizable that they last years and become timeless inspirations for people.

Does demographic matter? If they’re really an icon, it does not matter thatmuch. It shouldn’t, because if they’re really an icon, they should be able to be known to those who doesn’t even watch or participate in whatever they do. Do I dare call Lady Gaga an icon? I can actually. She joins the throng of iconic music artists like Frank Sinatra (I hear jazz enthusiasts screaming already), Michael Jackson, Queen, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and others in one of those clubs a lot of people are dying to get into. But time will tell if she truly is as iconic as we make her out to be. The clothes! The music! Her avant-garde style and representation makes her an icon. Her flamboyant and audacious personality has made her extremely Fame-ous.

Babe Ruth, like him or not, is an icon for the sport of baseball. He changed the way we look at baseball and has been the high mark and ruler for every other player that has ever dared set foot on the diamond. His fame is almost unreal. How is he an icon in our culture? He surpasses just baseball fans and has been accepted into popular culture where even those who don’t know a foul to a strike know who he is. Those of whom who are far from sports literate know who he is; he is that iconic. He matters that much to baseball. He is a sports icon.

The name’s Bond. James Bond. 1 in 4 people have seen at least one James Bond movie, and even those other three who haven’t know who he is. He’s the epitome of debonair, he’s the essential ladies man, and he changed movies forever. (You may ask about the original Ian Fleming novels, but honestly, they have not had as much impact on literature as the movies have had on cinema.) There were only a handful of franchises that dare cast a dapper leading man who saves all the damsels and few of them were successful and retain an intelligent plot (which, after 40 years, did grow tired, until the 2006 reboot of Casino Royale). Only one or two, like Flash Gordon and Robin Hood, had managed to become box office blockbusters, but neither of them were contemporary figures. Robin Hood was from the days of yore battling kings and jesters and so on. Flash Gordon was, for the most part, a serial that had short installments and was too futuristic to be taken seriously as a contemporary action hero. But James Bond was introduced to the screen in 1962 and became one of the first ever blockbuster action movies ever. Grossing more than $10 million dollars in a short few weeks, they rolled out more and more Bond films. Bond has a legion of fans and has been the inspiration for spoofs and copy cats, making him a modern (correct usage) action hero. The theme alone is famous enough, with those twanging guitar and heavy brass. He is a movie icon.

Dale Earnhardt made racing exciting for those people who weren’t rednecks. Racing to some was simply people in fast cars taking left hand turns all day. But when Dale Earnhardt came onto the scene, no one else made it more accessible to those people who didn’t normally watch it. He became more famous that Captain Crunch. He got on a box of Wheaties. But the point of his iconography is that he became a part of popular culture. Everyone knows who he is, or at least has an idea of who he is. He is a racing icon.

Oprah changed TV. She changed charity efforts. She changed talk shows. If she’s not an icon, I don’t know who is. She’s larger than life. That’s what an icon is. She is a huge force of nature in both the entertainment world and everywhere else. She’s an inspiration to many and she is one of the most powerful people in the world today. She is a world renowned icon.

Steven Spielberg is certainly an icon. Say Jaws, ET, Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones, or Saving Private Ryan and they’ll be sure to know what they are. They *should* know who was responsible for them, but that’s where iconography can get a bit hazy. Today’s generation has little knowledge or a lot of apathy for “old” movies. Really, if you can create a summer blockbuster on a shoe string budget, you deserve far more recognition than you’re getting. To adults, he’s obviously known as one of the most seasoned and talented directors out there. Not only that, but he, along with fellow filmmaking icon George Lucas, changed how we look at movies. No, I don’t mean how we perceive a movie, but how we actually can look at them today. He is credited with making the first summer blockbuster with one of the most successful films of all time, Jaws. Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, is responsible for creating Pixar Animation Studios and the first digital editing program. He’s the first director to film a movie using a digital camera instead of using film reels. Both have transcended what it means to be powerful and to be revolutionaries in the film industry. They are both icons.

The Beatles are most definitely icons. Everyone knows who they are. Producing a spectacular catalogue in 7 years, they are one of the most famous bands in the world. A catalogue featuring some of the most famous songs of any era, the band did so much in such a short amount of time. They were especially famous in their early years, with the release of albums like Please Please Me and A Hard Day’s Night. Fans horded the group and created a complete frenzy. But their iconography is not only their fame status. It’s the music itself. The music they created defined a generation and it continues to move listeners today. The Beatles and their music are iconic.

What does this all mean? What makes an icon relies on how they are perceived by the public and how much they have transcended fame itself. “Fame is both internal and external”, said Lady Gaga in an interview for ShowStudio recently, and she’s right. Iconography is just a representation of that fame.