REVIEW: Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (Tetsuya Nomura, 2005)

Two years after Cloud and company saved Midgar from the threat of Sephiroth (the Darth Vader of gaming), a tale chronicled in the epic video game Final Fantasy VII, a new chapter is unfolding. Cloud, who left his new home with friends Tifa and Barret in Nebleheim to live in seclusion and battle his inner demons in his departed love, Aeris' church, has recieved a plea from Rufus, the former owner of evil energy giant Shinra, to protect him from a snot-nosed newcomer named Kadaj and his two cohorts Loz and Yazoo who are searching for their "mother." Confused yet? All the key characters from quite possibly the best video game ever are back to defend their planet and tie up loose ends in this aftermath story.

Advent Children was released in Japan in 2004 but its American release date was postponed repeatedly since then. Rumor has it the filmmakers were searching for precisely the right voice talent to perform the dubbing (they ended up with, among many others, two easily recognizable actresses - Rachel Leigh Cook and Mena Suvari - voicing Tifa and Aeris, respectively). Due to this flirtacious release, anticipation for the film on these shores has risen feverishly among fans. Since I did not pre-order the DVD, I made sure I woke up early on release day to ensure myself a copy. The magic of the Final Fantasy games is that while they carry accordingly fantastic storylines, they have potential to be pleasantly unfocused when it comes to plot, allowing the player to grow emotionally attached to the characters. By the time I finished the seventh installment in the series that this film picks up after, I felt like I was part of the surrogate family of indelible characters featured within. With such raw emotion involved in a situation like this in which I have little to no control over the progression of events, a sequel - especially one that would only take up 110 minutes of my time as opposed to an entire winter break from high school - was more than welcomed into my Aeris-adoring arms.

I was overjoyed to unwrap the DVD and pop it in my player, and it provided me with a great ride with familiar characters and only a few speedbumps along the way. The first thing I had to get over was the occasionally anime-esque dialogue. Despite my love for ├ćon FluxBurst Angel and, well, Final Fantasy, It takes a lot for me to invest in most anime (well, okay, Flux isn't Japanese... Korean/American fusion... but still). Thankfully the dialogue in question is easy to get past, a fact most likely attributable to the utterly fantastic computer animation that is impossible to argue with. This is by far the best CGI feature I've seen to date, and to think - it's not even cutting edge anymore... it premiered almost two years ago!

Advent Children is basically one long action scene but it's punctuated enough that it doesn't grow tiresome. The slick action is handled as only an animated film could handle it (live action has tried, read: Matrix Reloaded's first multi-Smith fight, Van Helsing's Mr. Hyde bout) and is always fun as hell to watch. I'm glad I decided to pull my comfy chair up nice and close to the TV screen for it. There's also a rousing sequence during the Bahamut battle in which all the characters we had yet to see make their entrances - Barret (the Mr. T of the crew) with his chaingun, Cid with his bo and airship, Yuffie with her whatever-that-is and Red XIII carrying the excitable Cait Sith on his back (a welcome dose of comedic relief.) Where Children is packed to its chocobo gills in action, however, it could really stand to have some more quiet scenes between the characters to further develop their relationships and give us that extra 'oopmh' of caring when we see them fight. And yeah, I know chocobos don't have gills, I just wanted to throw them in this review somehow.

While at times the film seems fairly random and aimless - a poor excuse of a story to get our gang back for another adventure - the payoff is exactly what I was looking for. With familiar locations and score pieces (and even the level-up sound effect cleverly utilized as a ringtone) to make my heart hark back to the emotions I felt while playing the game, there's no way I wasn't going to enjoy myself. Along with all that though, was a much desired learning of what came to pass between Cloud and Aeris.

If you're a fan of the video game series, Advent Children is an absolute must for you. Otherwise, you might find yourself a bit bored and certainly confused (previous knowledge of the material is a requisite here - the film is extremely authentic in that regard). I'll be enjoying many more viewings of this one as time goes on.


REVIEW: Silent Hill (Cristophe Gans, 2006)

In 1999 a video game was released that would evolve the face of thrills for everyone holding a controller. This game would also inspire many to follow suit by creeping into the minds of its players with unforgiving, insane visuals and soundtracks rivaling the eeriness of Time's intro from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Though it intrigued me, I never actually played Silent Hill or any of its sequels due to the high price of gaming, but apparently it was a big hit. The film adaptation of the original installment follows Rose, mother of Sharon (whose name you'll hear screamed about ninety times,) a little girl with a sleepwalking problem. During Sharon's subconscious constitutionals she repeats the name of the titular town, so Rose gets the bright idea to take her there. The excursion turns into a nightmare when Sharon disappears and Rose is subjected to twisted scenery and throngs of unusual, demonic creatures. Christophe Gans, director of Le Pacte de Loups, helms the hot-ticket film starring Radha Mitchell, Jodelle Ferland, Sean Bean (in a painfully useless role), Laurie Holden (who looks like a younger Jane Lynch) and Henry Townshend (who looks like he desperately wants to be Christopher Meloni).

The imagery in Silent Hill is begging to have been conjured in the 1920's. German Expressionism akin to The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariNosferatu and some ingenius shorts from the era would have done this film a huge number of favors. The creepy creatures of the darkness, especially Pyramid Head, would have been fantastic if transported back in time and mastered to life by someone like Robert Wiene. That's not to say they aren't cool as they are, because they most certainly are, it's that the modern feel of the film doesn't seem to do them as much justice as they deserve (though it gives a valiant and highly memorable effort).

The film's biggest issue lies in its script, which feels like it was proof-read by Gomer Pyle. We are immediately thrust into the main characters' family during an attempt at a tense moment which allows us no time to care for them. There is a brief development device used in the second scene between mother and daughter, but it only makes the one appearance and oozes with transparency. Even toward the end when the jumbled storyline is coming together and the true evil is rearing its head, another unwanted device arises to help the audience side against the revealed villain. Despite the fact that this device, set in a scene vaguely reminiscent of The Pit and the Pendulum, was executed very well, it would have worked better if the driving storyline was used in its place. Again, I'm unfamiliar with the source material and am unsure if what I'm referring to as a "device" was in fact a part of the original story, but when adaptations are done in this fashion, liberties must be taken.

Though the production seems misguided in many places, I can't help but show it respect for its great integrity. As several folks in my showing agreed with me to the extent of our knowledge, there has been no film like this before. Little girl with black hair aside, it doesn't conform to past horror successes and really develops its own style that hits more than it misses. Even when it misses it's still fun (zombie-things that think they're in West Side Story? Yes, please!) Some of this unique style might be attributed to its origins - some of the scenes seem like they could have easily been cinematics you get to watch after completing certain tasks in the game or reaching certain locations like Grand Hotel's room 111.

The TV-spots were really what made me want to see Silent Hill, which is strange because I usually despise TV-spots. Seeing the strange creatures really did it for me, and I got chills every time the words "I am the reaper" were exclaimed in that demonic voice (which was not in the actual film, much to my chagrin but much to the happiness of others who felt it was cheesy). I was secretly hoping for something the likes of the House on Haunted Hill remake from the master of freely psychotic cinema, William Malone. While I do like the original House quite a bit, Malone's take is a total blast of maniacal terror and easily one of my favorites in its genre. Silent Hill didn't perform to those standards but the payoffs were more than worth it. The finale is something that won't soon leave my mind - a must-see sequence for any horror buff.

I am certainly not disappointed. In fact Silent Hill has lingered quite nicely in the ol' noggin. If I were to recommend any course of action with it, I would say wait for DVD and enjoy it with some popcorn and a few friends.


REVIEW: Ellie Parker (Scott Coffey, 2005)

In 2001 Scott Coffey made a short film called Ellie Parker concerning an hour or so in the life of a struggling actress in Los Angeles. In the title role of the film was Naomi Watts, an actress Coffey met when he acted alongside her in Tank Girl (as her half-man half-kangaroo love interest, no less) and Mulholland Drive. A few years later, the the two talents reunited to expand the 20-minute short into a feature and re-release it. Watts had become significantly more famous in the elapsed time having starred in several popular and highly acclaimed films, but she was happy to return to the Ellie character and further develop the story of this neurotic, audition-hopping woman, her relationships and psychological tribulations.

Coffey's barren budget made for an extremely loose shooting schedule (if you could call it a schedule) and he's very lucky to have the full film. The crew consisted of him and only him with the exception of a few days on which he had a sound guy or an extra camera op. The genuinely handheld, practically lit style here works a lot better than the feigned handheld style of films like The Bourne Supremacy. With this style we can relate immediately and feel like we are watching a character who is keeping her head above water financially while being lost in L.A.'s small-scale acting world. Much of the cinematography is improvised therefore giving the impression of a home video with dramatic thrust.

In one of the scenes directly from the original short, a casting director reminds the lead character that the film she's trying out for will be shot on a DV camera, so her performance needs to be raw. This is a perfect set-up for what lies ahead while Watts gives herself over to Ellie, uncompromisingly portraying her core elements and most private moments. She is given a lot to do and a lot of freedom to do it with, and makes for the key reason the film is recommendable - without her, there would be no film. Complimenting her performance is the aforementioned home video style of the piece - it is almost as if the camera is the frenetic utensil with which she writes her diary and what we are exposed to is what she writes, though not as directly as in something like Ben Coccio's Zero Day. Other recognizable actors featured are Mark Pellegrino, Johanna Ray and Chevy Chase.

While the film is interesting enough to watch thanks to Watts, however, it doesn't leave any lasting impressions. From Ellie's perspective I feel I have learned something about the grind of the low-level audition process, but not much else. It also lacks a beginning and end even though it seems to tease at the idea that it contains a complete journey. We could come into the story at any point, thrown in a bit of character development where necessary and get the same results.

Ellie Parker is worth the rent to see what it's all about but probably best left as a one-night stand.


REVIEW: Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

The cultural phenomenon that barely anyone has actually experienced - that is Brokeback Mountain. Its more famous dialogue, musical score, wardrobe... all of the core elements have quickly become engrained in pop America despite the box office numbers not quite matching the hype. Because of this, it seems a challenge to view the film without thinking of it as "the gay cowboy movie." Thankfully the task of seeing beyond that diminutive label is made easy in Ang Lee's latest critically acclaimed display of versatility.

Brokeback's first third, in which the lead characters tend sheep and develop their relationship on the title location, feels thinly spread. Not all that much happens - even on the visual front - but ultimately we are given an idea of what it might have been like to be there, bored, hungry and lonely. The greatest quality of the film does begin to take shape though, and that is the representation of relationships. As the surprisingly captivating story's runtime ticks away, we watch the two men over years and years grow closer together and further apart, their wives and in-laws and their interesting dynamics and most sentimentally and memorable, their children growing up and reacting to the situations surrounding their coming of age.

Going in I was hesitant. The theatrical trailer seemed to have given everything away, robbing the experience of intrigue. In that case I was glad to see it pulling through right off the bat with a uniquely paced and dialogue-free opening scene. That trend continued and even though I knew most of the major plot points from the advertising campaign, it was the humble stylings and underbelly of the film's emotion that kept me interested.

One of the more widely noted (and Oscar nominated) aspects of Brokeback is the acting. Overall it didn't impress me to an Oscar-worthy level, but it was undoubtedly good and showed range from all involved. My favorite performance actually came from Anne Hathaway (who also surprised me by looking so yummy.) She was instantly winning, commanding her character and Jake Gylenhaal's and officially graduating from her Disney days. I have to briefly mention Randy Quaid's performance, which has become default conversation on the topic of Brokeback lately. He brings depth to a fairly one-dimensional villian-esque character similar to Dustin Hoffman's performance in Finding Neverland, but it remains now as just another bit of the film tainted by publicity due to Quaid's ridiculous lawsuit which you can read more about here.

So yes, although it is the butt of more jokes than Ryan Seacrest (seriously, why do people hate that guy!? He's sharp as a tack) for its subject matter, Brokeback Mountain pulls through and exists as a fine movie - it earned a spot on my DVD shelf, anyway.


REVIEW: The Girl Next Door (Luke Greenfield, 2004)

Great friends, reckless abandon, endearing memories... that was high school. Or was it? A lot of us feel like we missed out on all that... that those four years (give or take) were all wasted either in the classroom or some other insignificant hovel. The opening montage of The Girl Next Door, set to Queen and David Bowie's excellent song "Under Pressure" (the first great song in a soundtrack full of them from "Dopes to Infinity" by Monster Magnet to Donovan's "Atlantis,") perfectly establishes the unforgettable nature of high school as it was for the "other kids" and introduces us to our main character, Matthew, the soon-to-be-graduated Senior (Emile Hirsch, who plays a key part in making the film so easy to relate to,) as he happens upon the epiphany that he missed out. New mainstreamer Luke Greenfield directs what could have easily been (and actually began conceptualization as) a cheap sex comedy but turns out to be something much more special.

The early character development, scene setting and commencing of the plot are handled surprisingly well with flare original to the genre. I couldn't help but be reminded of Dazed and Confused. The only complaint I can muster about this first third of the film, a minor complaint that lingers throughout and applies to a vast multitude of cinema, is that the character interactions are often too arranged, making the blocking and directing obvious and taking away from the realism factor. In the hands of someone like Dazed and Confused director Richard Linklater (is there anyone like him?) this would have been a non-issue, but of course considering his helming as an afterthought is frivolous. Greenfield, discovered through his 2000 short film, The Right Hook and utilizing an array of misdirection techniques in this outing, proves more than capable and does the movie good. He does the movie so good in fact, that much like Roger Kumble his name attached to a future picture would generate interest for me despite the subject matter. To daringly relate him to another director, I'll even add that he reminded me of a young Cameron Crowe in spots.

The comedy, running a unique path between strong sexuality and romantic drama, takes a strange curve from the story I expected it to follow, a simple scenario about a boy vying for love, and reveals our girl next door's secret: she's a porn star. At first I wasn't sure about what seemed to be a devastating deviation from the path of goodness that had been traversed so far, but it quickly proved itself as an intriguing amplification. We are introduced to Kelly, a porn producer played by Timothy Olyphant, a villain who is just too cool to hate. He takes our hero in as a protege, changing the film's gears in favor of even more fun.

While the porn angle does thrust the film into new worlds, it is also highly fantasized. Greenfield openly admits that he crafted the scene at the Adult Film Convention (and the rest of the envisioning of the pornography business for that matter) after his imagination and not the actual event that he's attended twice, but the imagined portrayal comes across as an obvious exaggeration, featuring dancing starlets on stages and even a back room whose goings-on border orgy. This is just another minor complaint, however, because the scene itself plays out very well and provides some of the best belly laughs from the comic duo Eli and Klitz, played by Chris Marquette (who drops an excellent Godfather II reference) and Paul Dano, two very funny young dudes who really deliver here.

I finally understand the wide adoration of Elisha Cuthbert, though I am still lost when it comes to pronouncing her name. Her performance here rivals starlets of the past such as Phoebe Cates. The on-screen pairing of Cuthbert and Hirsch comes through with great results - their eyes communicate angst with perfection. The smaller roles of the supporting cast are also reputable, taken up by actors like Timothy Bottoms (That's My Bush!) Donna Bullock, the magnificently eyebrow-less Harris Laskaway and Julie Osburn. And yeah, I actually did recognize one real porn actor featured in a cameo role, Steven St. Croix (A.K.A. "Captain Hook") credited as "Karate Guy in Porn Film."

With the R rating (or lack of rating on DVD,) The Girl Next Door supersedes its potential teen-flick status and becomes an unforgiving and honest film that is downright fun with a healthy helping of sentimentality. As Greenfield states in his commentary track, his young life didn't seem exciting and eventful like the lives of his subjects, so he has "to live vicariously" through them, and he has given us a fine way to do that ourselves with this film.