Monday, April 30, 2012

Shorts (2009)

       Film maker Robert Rodriguez is known for making family-friendly flicks as well as violent adults-only movies. His family films are always super family friendly and full of fantasy. Shorts (also known as Shorts: The Adventures of the Wishing Rock and Shorts: A Not-So-Tall Tale) is arguably his most original idea. The film is full of fantasy, adventure, humor, comedy, and life lessons. The film didn't make a huge impact when originally released and yielded mixed reviews from critics. It's a shame, but in a way, Shorts seemed destined for obscurity: it's too awesome for it's own good.

       The film stars a variety of actors, from Jon Cryer, to Leslie Mann, to William H. Macy, to Kat Dennings, to James Spader. Of course, those are the adult actors, when the film really belongs to the kids: Jimmy Bennett, Jolie Vanier, Devon Gearhart, Trevor Gagnon, and Jake Short among other names that may not be familiar. All the actors, young and old, do a fantastic job without being annoying or even exaggerated. If I could name any stand outs, I think I'd name Jolie Vanier (who had apparently never done a film before) as Helvetica Black as excellent and Trevor Gagnon as the hilarious Loogie Short, but that doesn't seem fair since every actor does an equally great job in their respective roles.

Wait, I haven't even gotten to the story.

       Toby Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) is our narrator and lives in the community known as Black Falls, which manufactures the Black Box, a black box that can do just about anything (I mean this literally). The boss, Mr. Black (James Spader) heads the whole operation and wants this thing in every home. I thought the whole Black Box idea was extremely clever, since in today's society all we do is play with black boxes that claim to do anything. The film definitely makes a mockery of the suburban subculture many of us endure, poking fun at said black boxes, TV, video games, relationships, school, and so on. It also makes fun of our self-fish attitudes and ignorance  towards certain things, such as what's really important and what really matters.

       Of course, at the center of all these lessons and jokes is the Wishing Rock, a rainbow colored rock that, when held, can grant you any wish imaginable. And I do mean any wish, even if it doesn't go quite the way you wanted it to. The rock manages to teach many lessons to its users as it passes through a variety of adventures, but not everyone who uses it learns something out of it (Toby's older sister Stacey played by Kat Dennings is one of these characters). As expected in family movie lore, the adults are the ones who can't control the rock properly where as the kids know better (or at least some of them do or at least their intentions are good). Also as expected, small quips of "I wish..." often lead to crazy results that lead to hilarity which then also lead to life lessons. This whole movie is wrapped in life lessons that I couldn't help but nod and agree to.

       The style of the movie is what probably stands out most. Due to the narrator being slightly confused and unreliable, the film is not told in order and is instead told in series of shorts (get it?), fast forwards and all. Something that struck me as strange was how the film began -- or better said, how it didn't begin. The movie is divided into five episodes, but before the movie actually starts, we see episode zero, which consists of two siblings (Cambell Westmoreland and Zoe Webb) competing in a never ending blinking contest. Does this ever affect the plot? Does it have anything to do with the plot? (I'll give you hint: Not really.) Needless to say, the short short known as episode zero gives the audience a good idea of what kind of movie they're about to watch. The music is also excellent, right from the opening logos establishing a cool but menacing tone that echos those family friendly movies that themselves have a bit of darkness in them. However, the film it self is no where near dark (not if you don't count the Black family), so the soundtrack ends up merely sounding very awesome as opposed to menacing, which I think was the point. I think the movie being silly and ridiculous was also the point, since the movie has an extremely care free and fun attitude about everything it does, save for those aforementioned life lessons.

       What stood out most for me was the movie's humor. Normally, family films for kids have terribly lame humor that makes me cringe uncontrollably. No, Shorts is extremely witty and clever, but that not only has to do with the script but the actors too. Many times, it's the actors that make a line great or horrendous, and just as many times, young children screw things up. Rodriguez is lucky that his young actors don't, if you'll pardon the phrase, suck at acting. The actors themselves might be what makes the movie as funny and fun as it is.

       Other things of note: Did I mention this movie is funny? Well it is. It's also colorful and fun. I would recommend it greatly to just about anyone. Seriously, anyone could watch this movie and (hopefully) enjoy it in some aspect or other...or they could hate it. Either way, there isn't anything in Shorts that I find bad enough that I couldn't recommend it to literally anyone (although, that last episode could have been handled better, but it's alright). In short (O I'm so clever), while it's not perfect (one of the many themes the movie mocks), Shorts is an excellent family film that can be enjoyed by anyone for it's unique presentation, clever humor, comedy, and life lessons that never seem to get old. As an added bonus, there's social commentary that pokes fun at modern suburbia and its inhabitants. So what're you waiting for? Give this over looked Rainbow Rock it's wish.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bottle Rocket (1996)

       In 1992, Wes Anderson made a short film called Bottle Rocket starring his old college room mate Owen Wilson and his brother Luke Wilson. In 1994, Anderson's short film was shown at Sundance. In 1996, the feature length version of this short film was released to theaters to terrible box office results but great critical acclaim. It was Anderson's, Owen's, and Luke's feature film debut, and was the start of a unique and fantastic career for one of America's greatest filmmakers. It was also, of course, the launching pad for the Wilson brothers.

       The film stars Luke Wilson as Anthony Adams, a man who's checking him self out of a mental institution (he checked in for "exhaustion") and is ready to get back out into the world with his friend Dignan, played by Owen Wilson. Dignan is the kind of man who acts like he should be in a mental institution: he has a strange personality but an optimistic attitude, and is extremely meticulous when it comes to just about anything and everything. Both these characters plan to be big time thieves (for whatever reason) and Dignan's the man with the plan(s); they decide, with the help of their rich friend Bob Mapplethorpe (played by Robert Musgrave), to rob a bookstore, get out of town, and go on the lam. After the heat cools down, Dignan plans to call an old employer of his, Mr. Henry (played by James Caan), who is apparently a great thief himself, so they can work with him. This is the basic premise of the film, but it goes through some notable changes.

       The acting involved is surprisingly excellent by everyone (even Shea Fowler as Anthony's sister is terrific). The man who steals the show (unsurprisingly) is O. Wilson and Dignan, who just has so much energy and charisma. Luke plays it cool while Robert plays it nervous. The Wilson's older brother Andrew even gets a role in this film as Bob's older brother (known as Future Man). Lumi Cavazos plays Inez, Anthony's love interest, who is very sweet and believable in her role. As for Caan, he is really fun as Mr. Henry.

       Even though it's only his first film, the trademarks Anderson would use in his later films are apparent or alluded to in Bottle Rocket: excellent dialogue, ever changing plot, primary colors, Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson, Kumar Pallana, slow-mo endings, smoking, close-ups on writings or objects, rich people, hour-and-a-half running time, The Rolling Stones, etc. Another trademark is Mark Mothersbaugh as composer; his soundtrack for the film is excellent, using very few instruments to deliver a unique sound. The film is also presented in a 1.85:1 matted widescreen, a film ratio Anderson would rarely revisit in his later films (this was, after all, his first movie). On that note, it's incredibly fascinating to see that a major studio (Columbia Pictures) released this film, featuring (then) unknown actors and a film director with a B.A. in Philosophy. Then again, this was a Gracie Films production, and the short film could've made a huge impression on the producers.

       Something I'd like to note are the colors in this film. As previously stated, primary colors are one of Anderson's biggest trademarks, and they play a huge role in establishing this film's tone. When the film first begins, everything is very bright, with the colors all being noticeable, even if they aren't particularly primary. As the film goes on, the colors and the brightness begin to fade, and by the time we are at the final scene, the colors have faded and are no longer bright as they were at the start of the film. In that sense, the colors and brightness express the film's tone, which arguably goes from optimistic to melancholy. Another thing to note is the film's editing, which is much quicker and urgent then it would be in Anderson's later films; however, the film benefits greatly from its fast editing.

       Bottle Rocket is an excellent film from everyone involved, never mind that it was Anderson and the Wilson's debut feature. It's a movie that has continued to stay unique over the years while maintaining appeal and originality. It has plenty of the signature Anderson touches audiences would come to love and features excellent performances from the cast - especially Owen, which would foreshadow his career in movies. From the music to the scenery, from the direction to the dialogue, from the characters to the editing, Bottle Rocket is a great example of film making at its most pure and basic.