Astro Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka, “Astro Boy” told the story of a brilliant scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) specializing in robotics who recreated his son (Freddie Highmore)–physically with memories included–after the boy’s untimely death during a military testing led by a cruel president (Donald Sutherland). I thought the first third of this film was very strong. Although the look of the movie was crisp so it easily appealed to children, the story was almost a little too dark. I was impressed that it immediately tackled the idea of a parent’s debilitating grief and the effects of trying to replicate a child. It was like watching a version of Steven Spielberg’s underrated “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” but aimed toward children. And like that film, this animated movie also explored what it meant for the main character to be a human (initially), a robot (later on), and accepting the fact that having both characteristics wasn’t so bad. It was also interesting because the first half was set in a world where robots were passively enslaved to humans. In the second half, like David from Spielberg’s film, Astro left the shiny, floating city for the city below where robots were hunted and were forced to participate in a battle royale sort of event. Unfortunately, that part of the picture wasn’t as strong. In fact, it was unfocused. There were times when the attention wasn’t on Astro’s journey but instead on the side characters’. The darkness of the first thirty minutes were stripped away and the tone felt very uneven. The momentum was so slow to the point where I wondered whether it ran out of creative ideas to entertain. I haven’t read the manga but I think if David Bowers, the director, made this picture with edge from beginning to end, it would have been a lot stronger and more interesting to adults. The whole bad guys versus good guys toward the end was kind of typical–something that one can easily see in other animated movies designed for children such as the disappointingly mediocre (but very cute) “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I felt like this film had an innate capacity to be more introspective than other animated flicks and it’s a shame it didn’t take advantage of that. Other notable voices included Bill Nighy, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and Charlize Theron. “Astro Boy” was about a boy’s identity crisis but as a film it should have had a clearer picture about what it wanted to be. However, I did have a good time watching it because it had so much energy and some of the jokes were pretty amusing. Perhaps it’s a good rental if one could use a break from a series of serious movies like I did.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on Joe Connelly’s memoir, “Bringing Out the Dead” was about a paramedic named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) who increasingly became out of touch with reality after several sleepless nights and increasing guilt involving a girl he failed to rescue. I liked the film’s first half but I was very put off by the second half. What I thought the first hour of the picture was strong because it captured the reality of how it was like to be a paramedic in the city. I liked the way Martin Scorsese, the director, highlighted the grittiness and ugliness of city life and putting his characters in the middle of a sea of negative emotions. The way the paramedics dealt with their patients were sometimes very sad, sometimes amusing, and sometimes maddening because the ethical codes were not always followed. The way they numbed themselves by means of making jokes out of serious situations were interesting defense mechanisms to observe. Unfortunately, the second half consisted of way too many scenes in which Cage’s character experienced hallucinations. I understood that he was guilt-ridden but I felt like the hallucinations were very distracting and it took away the picture’s sense of momentum. Maybe Scorsese wanted to contrast those fantastic elements with realism but I did not think it worked to the movie’s advantage. Those scenes went by so slowly and I became very frustrated. I also did not like the romantic angle between Cage and Patricia Arquette. It felt forced because they did not have any sort of chemistry. “Bringing Out the Dead” features a main character who is very flawed and at times unlikable but those are the qualities that made me interested in him. He took his job seriously so he was very hard on himself, which were most prominent when he drove around in an ambulance with another paramedic (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore). This film is definitely not for everyone because it doesn’t really have a defined plot. It’s more of a peek on a man’s life and how he swallowed the elements of the job he hated such as the deaths and dying people. Set mostly at night, Cage’s narration while patrolling the streets reminded me of “Taxi Driver.” Unfortunately, “Bring Out the Dead” isn’t as strong and isn’t as focused. At least it had good performances.
★★ / ★★★★
Aaron Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, a typical geek who goes to a typical high school with typical hormonal friends (Clark Duke, Evan Peters). But what’s not typical is his dream to be a superhero, serving people at a time of need and rescuing them from bullies or dangerous criminals. I liked the first and last forty minutes of this film. The first forty minutes was amusing because the lead character was still trying to figure out how it was really like being a superhero; that one does not win every battle and sometimes a trip to the hospital is necessary. In a way, it worked as a spoof of those extremely serious adapted-from-comic-books superhero movies. The last thirty minutes was pure action. Comparisons of Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl to Uma Thurman’s The Bride was pretty accurate because both can deliver the eye-popping violence and snarky sense of humor. However, I didn’t like the fact that Moretz’ character overshadowed the lead character. After all, the movie was supposed to be about the blossoming of a nobody to a possible somebody who everyone adored on YouTube. As for the middle portion of the film, I thought it was weak and lazy. The bit about Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a rich boy wanting to be a superhero was very formulaic. I constantly felt that he was trying to be funny but falling flat every single time. I like Mintz-Plasse, especially in “Superbad,” but I thought he was miscast here. A pompous, know-it-all, conniving kid would have been a much more interesting a character instead of a wimpy wannabe. Other fatal shortcomings involved Nicolas Cage as the father of Hit Girl (and also a superhero). There was a history about his character that I wanted the film to get into. Whenever the camera was focused on Cage, “Kick-Ass” had an added gravity that it desperately needed in order to be something other than a spoof of superhero films. Instead, the movie unwisely spent much of its time showing us scenes involving the main character being mistaken for a gay guy by a girl he liked who happened to want a gay BFF. As cheeky as it was, it was also unnecessary; it got old pretty quickly and I wished I had a fast-forward button. Overall, however, I did enjoy “Kick-Ass,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and not focusing on the more interesting characters that could potentially provide an extra dimension to the project. The film did hint on a possible sequel which I think is a great idea because there were a number of questions that remained in my head by the time the credits started rolling. People compare this film to “Kill Bill” in terms of violence but I think “Kick-Ass” doesn’t hold a candle to Quentin Tarantino’s bloodbath. I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a teenage version of “Watchmen” that is less focused, less ambitious but more amusing with a modern twist.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Adaptation.,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), had many weapons in its arsenal but its imagination was its most powerful. This was a film about many things: the writer’s struggle to adapt a novel to film (Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman), a woman’s (Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean) desperation to break out from her loveless marriage and find another soul that she’s compatible with (Chris Cooper as John Laroche), sibling rivalry and the fear of being eclipsed by someone who shares our DNA (or worse, someone who we think is less talented than us), and the fusion of reality and fantasy to tell a story that is not only unique as a whole but utterly unforgettable every step of the way. I was also impressed with this picture’s ear for dialogue. Right from the get-go, the audiences get a chance to hear what was going on inside the main character’s head. And in under three minutes, we get to learn his insecurities, neuroticisms and outlook of the world. With such a rich collection of qualities we had a chance to absorb, we got to see him evolve from when he was at his worst up until he was at his best (which didn’t come without a price). I also enjoyed the scenes with Streep as the lonely author who had no connection with her husband. The way the director showed her lying awake thinking about her life next to her husband was touching and I could feel her silent suffering. Even though the choices she made toward the end of the film were not the best, I understood where she came from so I cared what would ultimately happen to her. Jonze’ ability to wash the material in mystery was outstanding; his use of foreshadowing and double/triple identities made the movie that much more alive and engaging. I thought it was amazing how one new piece of information could instantly alter the perspective from which we saw each character. Like his exemplary work in “Being John Malkovich” (how eerie it was to see the set and actors from that movie in this film!) and “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation.” had a lot of commentary about our psychologies and philosophies regarding our inner selves and the way influence other people’s lives. What I love about Jonze is he does not give us the easy answers and instead lets us think about what is right answer specifically for ourselves. I absolutely loved “Adaptation” because it was a cinematic experience that was surreal, satirical, stunning, self-aware and not afraid to reference to things that were random. Although it had a lot of insight to offer its audiences, it did not come across as pretentious or preachy. This is a film of rare quality and should be seen by those searching for creativity and vivaciousness.
★★ / ★★★★
“Knowing,” directed by Alex Proyas, was about a man who stumbled upon a message from a time capsule written by a strange girl fifty years ago. The message consisted of seemingly random numbers but if one decided to look closer, one would find out that it recorded the events of major disasters that were to transpire in the future. Because of all the negative reviews, I had low expectations coming into it. However, the first third was so effective so I naturally thought that the rest of the picture would be as smart and suspenseful. I couldn’t be any more wrong. Nicolas Cage tends to overact in most of his movies and this one is no exception. To me, he was most effective when he first figured out what all the numbers meant. He was able to balance fear, anxiety and excitement while still being that intellectual that he was presented as in the beginning of the film. But the moment Rose Byrne entered the movie, everything started to feel so unbelievable to point where I lost interest. I can’t believe I’m saying this but she actually upstaged Cage when it came to overacting. I actually said, “Just shut up” during one of the scenes because she interpreted her character in such an irksome manner. As for its special and visual effects, sometimes they looked like scenes from video games but sometimes they impressed me. I particularly liked those plane and subway scenes. They looked really haunting and it was very difficult to dispel the images from my head. If such disasters happened, I was convinced that it would look like that. The last third of the movie felt like a completely different movie altogether. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to that patient and sometimes creepy style of storytelling that pervaded the first third. The third act felt like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (the most recent version), which is not a good thing. Everything felt forced and I had to wonder why the writers felt like they had to do something grand for the sake of being grand. Ultimately, “Knowing” drowned in its own mediocrity. However, I did appreciate its efforts to want to be something more than typical despite its unfortunate yet inevitable outcome.