Friday, February 26, 2010

The Crazies

Movie: The Crazies

This is a surprisingly good film. I haven't seen the original, so I can't compare, but though it feels like a generic premise (mysterious virus makes townspeople crazy) and some aspects are familiar, it's done in such a compelling manner it's interesting. It reminded me a lot of the tongue-in-cheek Final Destination films in that it's self-aware of its genre and plays on that. For instance, there's a scene where the wife goes to the barn looking for her weird-acting husband and stands in front of a spinning combine and you're positive he's in the driver's seat and is going to run her over in a gruesome death, but it's just a tease. Another aspect that I liked is that the main story is not so much about surviving the crazy people, but doing that while outwitting the ruthless military types sent in to quarantine the area. That gives the story a different feel from the standard zombie flick. The ending is good, too. Not that there aren't flaws in the film -- it's still a limited story and genre -- but it's good fun with a few thrills and characters you want to see succeed.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Shutter Island

Movie: Shutter Island
Director(s): Martin Scorsese

An incredible film. I purposely knew next to nothing about this going in. I'd seen a glimpse or two of a trailer, but all I knew is that it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and was directed by Martin Scorsese. That was enough for me to go. Oddly, despite knowing zero about the story, it turned out to be just what I expected. The film is about a U.S. marshall going to a remote island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane and looking for an escaped patient. As soon as I saw that we were dealing with crazy people, I had ideas about where the film was going, and that's what it did. Though I didn't know the specifics, it still felt predictable to me, though I suspect most people will find the "twist" surprising. What made the film work for me was everything else: the wonderful 1953 period setting and island location, the excellent performances, the flawless use of special effects to convey story not spectacle, the terrific dialog and writing, and the masterful direction. Everything is just so well done. The plot's gimmicky but it works because there's depth at every level of the story. The film's deeply emotional, disturbing, eerie, sad, and tragic. It's got some tough emotional moments in it that may not be for all people (for instance, one of the crazy people killed her three children, and there are also disturbing scenes at a Nazi concentration camp), but in general this is a must see film. It's not perfect -- the story's almost too clever for its own good -- but so much of it is done so well that it's worth seeing just for the experience. Go see it!


Monday, February 15, 2010

The Wolfman

Movie: The Wolfman

Strange film. Visually, it is occasionally stunning: terrific foggy forests, English manors, 19th century London, and of course scary wolf-monsters. Some of the latter is truly excellent with fantastic (and agonizing) visuals of hands and feet transforming into claws and hind legs, the fingers bending the wrong way. However, those same special are a few times almost laughably bad -- just the occasional glimse or two, but it's enough to confuse. Storywise, the film is similarly disjointed. It's a basic tale of a prodigal son returning home when his brother is murdered by a strange creature, and of course when he investigates, he ends up getting bitten and turning into a werewolf. But Benicio Del Toro is miscast as the lead, with his strange, carefully enunciated accent not matching up at all with his British father, played by Anthony Hopkins. It actually leads to confusion, as I times I found myself wondering if he was supposed to be a foreigner or if there was some subplot I didn't know about yet (i.e. Hopkins really wasn't his father, etc.). Such issues distract from the story. There's also a problem with the pacing of the film: it races at 90 MPH throughout, with little time for reflection or characterization. There are many moments when it seems to hint or lean that direction, but nothing comes of it, so it's more of a teasing promise that the film will be better than it is. The potential of a werewolf story is huge: themes of transformation, curses, good and evil, the beastliness of man, and so on, but this script takes little advantage of any of that. In the end this is nothing but an action/horror film with some wonderful visuals. I liked the visuals well enough to have liked the movie -- it's interesting viewing, especially the excellently bizarre nightmare sequence in the middle -- but I can't recommend it for most people as the story is too weak and the film too fractured.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Movie: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

From the opening scene, I knew I was going to have issues with this film. It begins with a giant Poseidon emerging from the sea and climbing onto a wharf and frightening an old fisherman speechless. After walking for 50 feet as a giant, he suddenly turns "waterish" and shrinks to normal human size. I'm saying to myself, "Huh? If he can appear as human, why start off as a giant? Wouldn't that draw undo attention? This makes no sense!"

The film continues from there, piling on the convenient coincidences, logic leaps, bad dialog and acting, and idiotic plot. The plot... oh dear, I must mention the plot. It is so lame as to be laughable. The premise of the film has potential: basically the ancient Greek gods and goddesses still exist and still occasionally, hem, "hook up" with mortals and produce demigod offspring. Our titular Percy Jackson is one of these, the son of Poseidon, one of the top three gods, but he has never known his dad (there's a rule forbidding gods to have contact with their half-human children). Percy has no idea he's a demigod and struggles with feelings of being different all his life. Our poor story consists of Zeus, the head god, being angry that someone has stolen his lightning bolt. (How that could happen to such a powerful god isn't explained and is one of the film's key skips of logic.) Only a demigod could have taken it and he assumes it must be Poseidon's son (presumably because only a child of the big three would be powerful enough). Zeus is so pissed he gives an ultimatum: there will be war among the gods if his bolt isn't returned in a fortnight. Apparently this war would accidentally destroy earth as a side effect, so it's important to us this war be stopped. Thus starts a crazy quest by Percy where he: is attacked by monsters and learns he's a demigod, goes to a secret training camp for demigods to learn to fight (with a mere ten days until the deadline, despite that many of the other demigod children have been training their entire lives), leaves the camp to rescue his kidnapped mother, and finds the lightning bolt and returns it to Zeus before the deadline. There are so many problems here I hardly know where to begin. For instance, Percy's life has always been in such danger that his mother was forced to stay with an abusive man because his repulsive odor masked the smell of Percy's blood from the bad creatures. But the camp is supernaturally protected: why couldn't he have stayed there like the others? Another issue is that Percy's goal isn't to find the lightning bolt and stop the war: he only wants to rescue his mother. But he's so dumb he's ready to leave camp on his own without even knowing how to find and get into Hades! (That's another thing: you would think that learning you're a demigod and have special powers and that creatures like furies and minotaurs exist would give you at least a little pause, but Percy takes everything in such uncritical stride it's a joke.)

But here's the strange thing. Despite a rocky start and a nonsensical plot, the film started to work for me. Oh, it's dumb. Really dumb. But it's sort of fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously. It throws out bits of pieces of random Greek mythology at the viewer with a tongue-in-cheek glee, and sometimes it's quite clever. For instance, I liked the way it would pair modern things with the ancient, such as making the new Mount Olympus the Empire State Building or setting Hades (Hell) in Hollywood. My favorite was having the "island of the Lotus eaters" myth set in a Las Vegas casino where our heros eat the free food and fall into a drugged stupor, not unlike the effect of real casinos!

The characters are also fun: our heroic trio consists of Percy, the beautiful Annabel (daughter of Athena and our requisite love interest), and Grover, a satyr (goat man), who's the much-appreciated comic relief. Grover really makes things tick because he's not so dumbed down as to be useless and annoying, but he's just off enough to be interesting. My favorite Grover moment was the one where he just nonchalantly starts tearing bites off an aluminum can and casually eats it. This was perfectly done, without undo emphasis (not even a raised eyebrow by the others). Hilarious!

Next we get cameos of famous actors slumming it up small but fun roles as various monsters and villains, such as Uma Thurman playing a terrific snake-headed Medusa. This adds to the film's charm and humor.

But what really makes things work are the well-done puzzles and challenges the team faces. Okay, we're not talking ingenious plot here, but it's deftly handled in ways that are believable and that push our hero into gradually learning about his powers. (He doesn't just automatically know how to do god-like things: he has to be clever, and each member of the trio contributes.) I also like that though the film repeats Greek mythology it doesn't just copy the solutions from the original stories (though there are echoes, like using the shiny back of an iPod touch as a mirror to face the can't-look-at-her Medusa). As you get into this part of the story, you're enjoying yourself and the plot silliness hardly matters. (It also moves at a fast pace, which helps.)

The ending has some issues but is decent enough, and certainly satisfying. I liked the way all the storylines were wrapped up. Overall, though filled with flaws, the film still works: it's silly fun, great for kids (though young ones might be frightened by some of the Hades imagery), and the special effects -- though shockingly fake-looking at times -- are occasionally superb. It's actually a pleasant film, which is more than I can say for many. I would liken it to the similarly flawed-but-fun Journey to the Center of the Earth from a few years ago. If you can turn off your brain enough to enjoy it, go for it!


Friday, February 5, 2010

From Paris with Love

Movie: From Paris with Love
Director(s): Pierre Morrel

This is an action buddy movie with a strong French influence with the story being written by one of my favorite directors Luc Besson ("The Professional") and directed by the guy who did last year's fun Taken. It's set in Paris, though other than the occasional snippet of French language and a brief scene at the Eiffel tower, the location's really irrelevant. Even the key car chase scenes could be on any freeway. Like most buddy films this pairs up two opposites: in this case, a wannabe spy who's an intellectual and an older pro who's more action-oriented. But one aspect of this pairing I found refreshing is that these two sort of like each other. Usually in films like this there's genuine animosity and anger, and sitting through two hours of such negative emotion is depressing. This was much more pleasant. There's still conflict, but it's more about the different ways these two think about a problem and they don't fight much. I liked that a lot. John Travolta's character as the veteran is hilarious and outrageous and he gives a fantastic performance. He keeps doing insane things, shooting people seemingly at random, but then reveals it's all part of his clever plan. Excellent. His partner's character in comparison is rather dull (which is the point, as he's a bureaucrat that wants to be a spy) and I didn't find him too engaging. Travolta's what makes the film work. In terms of story, there isn't much of one. Sure, the two are awkwardly paired together to stop a terrorist threat, but the "big twist" toward the end is so obvious I saw it in the first five minutes. Fortunately, though, the predictability of the plot doesn't ruin the film. It's still a fun action film (pretty much entirely due to Travolta's character). It's also only 90 minutes and like Taken, goes non-stop once things get going. It's not a deep film by any means, or even a great one, but it's definitely fun, silly, and outrageous, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Movie: The Lovely Bones
Writer(s): Alice Sebold (novel)
Director(s): Peter Jackson

This film's fatal flaw is also it's most compelling aspect. The story's a grim one about a 14-year-old girl murdered by a serial killer in 1973. This happens at the beginning of the film and she ends up stuck between heaven and earth and watches her family struggle to deal with her loss. That the subject matter is so somber is the heart of the film's problems, because it's not a pleasant subject to watch for over two hours. The film feels dreadfully long, probably double its runtime. It would have been far better if 30 minutes was cut. The storyline is so simple it holds no surprises: obviously the girl is already dead and she'll go to heaven once her family's properly healed. We're itching for that healing from the beginning, but of course it doesn't come until the very end, which makes all the stuff in between somewhat tedious. The writers and producers were somewhat aware of this problem; unfortunately their solution was to tame down the material. For instance, though I haven't read the novel, I heard that in that the girl's body is chopped up and the killer accidentally loses her elbow which the cops find and the family knows she's dead. That's grim. In the film, the cops only find her knit hat soaked in blood. Also in the film we're not shown the murder itself. I realize the producers wanted a more mainstream film, but all this weakens the effect of the murder. In fact, I wasn't even sure the girl was murdered (she wasn't either as she didn't realize she was dead). While the bad guy was definitely portrayed as creepy, we don't realize just how evil he is until much later in the film. The story could have been so much more powerful if we'd seen up front how this seemingly nice guy was really the most hideous monster. It wouldn't have been pleasant, but it would have been an emotional sock to the gut. Instead, we get this vague watered down thing with no violence shown and it's bewildering and too tame. Another weakness that annoyed me is there are many "spooky" scenes in the film: odd little glances and exchanges between characters, scenes of tension when the sister sneaks into the killer's house looking for evidence, etc. Unfortunately most of the time there's nothing concrete behind these moments. Or at least we aren't shown what triggers them. For example, the camera will pan by the killer's house with ominous music and he'll do something innocuous like close his curtains. The sister's watching as she jogs back and she's creeped out. Why? Do you get creeped out when your neighbor closes his curtains? I need some sort of a reason why she's bothered. Does she suspect he's the killer? (She doesn't until later in the film.) Is it just some weird sixth sense or instinct? If so, then show us something that tells us that. This happens in other ways as well, like when the killer returns home while the sister's in his house, he immediately starts looking around like he's suspicious. Why? Does he hear or see something? That is not shown and I found his action bizarre. If this had only happened once or twice it wouldn't be such a problem, but it happens dozens of times in this film, and the result -- at least for me -- was that by the end of the film wolf had been cried so many times that I didn't buy the tension and the dramatic music came across as cheesy melodrama. Tension is great: but do like Hitchcock and show us why we should be scared, why the characters are suspicious, etc.

Despite all these flaws, however, I still like this movie. I liked it far more than I expected. The heavenish fantasy scenes the murdered girl lives in are wonderful, both in beauty, imagination, and special effects. Peter Jackson's vision is terrific. I loved the way the girl's heavenly dream world mixed with elements of real life. My favorite was when her father, whose hobby was building model ships inside bottles, began smashing his collection in his grief. For the daughter, who was on a beach, this showed up as giant glass bottles with huge ships inside washing up on shore and shattering against the rocks. Jackson intercuts between the two scenes and it's tremendously powerful, as the giant glass bottle ships breaking up really feels like the world is ending, the girl crying and pleading to her dad to stop, and him basically losing it. Just wonderful and amazing. The film is full of great moments like that. There are many astonishing scenes of tenderness and beauty. There's sadness, but there's happiness as well. The film does of great job of portraying the healing that takes place over time. There are some weird things, like at the end when the dead girl temporarily exchanges bodies with a living character (I didn't get that at all and it didn't seem to fit within the story's reality), but overall this is an impressive film. It's far from perfect, however. It's long, focuses on a grim subject matter that the producers seemed afraid to mention (this story could have been so much more powerful), and much of the tension felt artificial to me, stirred by the score without anything in the shot to justify the alarm. The performances are excellent for the most part (though the father character felt dreadfully miscast and Mark Walberg needs to stay away from emotional scenes as he just makes me want to laugh when he pretends to cry). I thought the killer was fantastic, definitely awesome, and surprisingly the younger sister (who ages during the story which takes place over several years) was better than the murdered lead (not that the lead actress was poor, she just had the one-note role of being dead).

Overall, this is one of those odd films where the many flaws are clear, but I liked it anyway. In fact, I am shocked at how much I liked it. I think I would at least consider owning this on disc: the fantasy sequences alone are worth it to me to study, as are many individual scenes and shots. As a whole it doesn't quite work as a film and I don't think I would watch it entirely through again, but I would love to explore certain parts. It is mesmerizing at times. Recommended, but with caution: be aware going in that this isn't a great film. It has great moments, however, and if you can enjoy those, I think you'd find this entertaining and emotionally moving.