January 23, 2008

This site is moving!

Please visit Frothy Ruminations, now with fizzy effervescence!

 I can’t for the life of me figure out how to disable commenting on the entire blog, although I can do it for individual posts. Please jet over to the new site to comment on the posts – they’ve all been exported.

367 – Eastern Promises

January 20, 2008

Any time a new movie is shot in black and white, people use adjectives like “stark” and “realistic” to describe it. Sometimes they’ll combine the two: “stark realism” and so forth. The style is supposed to be evocative of grittier, dirtier times (can anyone imagine a colorized Grapes of Wrath?), times when people kept on keepin’ on as best they could while dealing with the harsh realities of daily life.

The black and white cinematography in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises compares and contrasts the everyday lives of middle-class Londoners with the raw, terror-fueled violence of expatriate Russian gangsters. Additionally, as in other, earlier movies, the truly bloody moments are made all the scarier because of the lack of color; everything feels realer while still seeming authentic. (Not an easy feat; for ultrarealism that seems insincere, try reality television.)

A midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) helps deliver a baby to an unidentified young girl who dies during childbirth; Anna, being a Good Samaritan, decides to try to discover the girl’s family, so that the newborn can live with them instead of slipping away into the red-tape-ridden foster-care system. Aided by a diary found in the girl’s handbag, Anna winds up at a Russian restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who promises to help Anna in her quest by translating the diary from Russian to English.

Meanwhile, a lower-level employee of Semyon named Nikolai (a sensational Viggo Mortensen) is slowly moving his way up the ladder of Semyon’s empire, which is of course not wholly invested in restauranting. Nikolai is one of those marvelously inscrutable figures who knows far more than what he says, which is precious little, in constrast – there’s that word again – with Semyon’s own son, Kirill (an equally wonderful Vincent Cassel), who is boisterous, petulant, and covetous. The film manages to make its audience question Nikolai’s intentions and loyalties; is he merely in this murderous racket for his own gain?

Steven Knight’s screenplay is tight, coarse, and even a bit gruesome; it’s definitely not for the weak of stomach or heart. (A dead man’s fingers are removed in a very early scene, for one thing, and there’s an extended fight scene involving a nude Mortensen in a steam bath.) As with any other suspense thriller worth its salt, there are plenty of plausible twists and turns – but none can be easily foreseen, and they aren’t simply strung together as red herrings designed to just continually shock the audience, which is the sort of thing a younger Cronenberg might have attempted.

All four leads are terrific; Watts is an improvement over Maria Bello, who costarred with Mortensen in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (maybe he’s got something for cute young blonde actresses). But this isn’t one of those innocent-young-heroine-saves the day movies, either. You know the ones. The girl with seemingly no talents, smarts, or powers somehow defeats a tough, organized opponent using only her womanly wiles and spunkiness. No, not here. Anna is intelligent and resourceful, yes, but the real conflict isn’t between her and the evil Russian mafia, it’s a conflict within the crime family itself. The dichotomy between Nikolai, the outsider becoming the boss’s favorite, and Kirill, the son at war with his own inner demons, is richly detailed with a modicum of dialog (mostly Kirill’s). Cassel and Mortensen are so wonderful together, you almost think that their characters ARE brothers instead of one being naturally superior (by birthright) to the other.

Cronenberg’s come a long way since making slasher pics in Canada (this is, in fact, the first of his movies that was filmed entirely outside of Canada); it’s as if he woke up a few years ago and decided he wasn’t going to make any gross-out pics like The Fly, Rabid, Scanners, or Dead Ringers. Coupled with A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is raw, energetic, and stunningly filmed.

***1/2

366 – Cloverfield

January 19, 2008

Some people may remember the heady days of 1999, when there was slow Internet hype of a low-budget first offering by two unknown filmmakers named Sanchez and Myrick. When it first hit theaters, The Blair Witch Project was a welcome change from the almost-antiseptic approach that directors were taking to movies; most scary action movies seemed almost too stagy, too unreal, too implausible. Blair Witch used a handheld camera and was marketed as lost, recovered footage of an experience in the woods gone awry.

Here in 2008, though, the anarchic, subversive idea of handheld, intentionally amateur cinematography is almost passe’, isn’t it? Since 1999, audiences have seen reality television shows and gritty, dirt-in-your-face movies that aim for an ultrareal effect; consequently, the novelty has worn off. We’re no longer amused by footage we could have shot ourselves, and we’re no longer automatically terrified when something scary is filmed with a camcorder.

In Cloverfield, a group of young people is throwing a going-away party in New York City for one of their own; Rob, who is assuming a high-paying job in Japan. Naturally, one of his best friends, Hud, videotapes the party, asking various guests to offer testimonials to Rob, sort of as one would do at a wedding reception. Then BOOM, there’s a loud explosion, and the guests flip on the TV – looks like a giant something or other is attacking the city.

Because everything is seen through the camcorder that Hud is lugging around, we’re supposed to feel a kinship with these pretty twentysomethings, although to be frank they look and act a little more like teenagers. Using Hud’s camera, director Matt Reeves introduces us to a few characters who may or may not make it through to the end of the film. We’re told very little about them, but it’s quickly evident that the people on whom the camera does linger will be characters we’ll follow after the tragedy strikes.

On the plus side, the monster is hardly seen at all, really just in shadows and the like, until near the very end of the movie, and no explanation is offered as to where it came from. The result of this, though, is that the focus is shifted to the game effort put forth by our survivors as they attempt an inexplicably dumb quest. The instant they decide that’s what they’re gonna do, you start guessing which of them will be killed off.

At any rate, such a focus means that it’s pretty important that the actors themselves turn in strong, evocative performances, and no one here does. The impression one gets is that the actors were hired mainly because they weren’t supertalented thespians, that producer J.J. Abrams was going for amateur-looking acting to go along with the amateur-looking camerawork. I get that, I really do, it’s just that watching a 90-minute home movie isn’t all that interesting when you can tell a lot of the special effects were done with CGI.

This movie represents some of the worst aspects of cinema verite. The haphazard, slapdash camerawork is, of course, how you or I might use a camcorder, so it’s realistic; on the other hand, most people don’t want to watch a homemade film to which they have no connection. If my friends had made this, I might have been into it a bit more, but the film never engages its audience. (The party is an obvious contrivance to attempt to engage us, but it just shows me a bunch of pretty young people acting like doofuses.) And because there are all of these zooms to the left and right and up and down and whoops here we go, falling and gasping, it’s tough to make sense of what’s going on. Sure, I know, that’s how the characters feel, too – what’s attacking us? Where should we go? What should we do? – but I am not the characters, and in this case, seeing things through their eyes just makes me dizzy and not care about them much at all.

And that, dear friends, is the crux of the problem. The movie wants you to be right down there in the trenches with the characters, but to do that it’s got to make you like the characters, root for them in some way, and it just plain fails to do so. Instead, we’re treated to nearly 90 minutes of people running here and there and getting attacked by who knows what, and so forth (there are a LOT of shots of feet, as Hud’s camera is pointed straight down a lot of the time). To put it simply, it’s like watching any other loud, dumb action movie, only instead of excellent camera angles and world-class cinematography that grabs you by the throat and never lets go, you get some brain-damaged diphthong toting a home video camera like it’s 1990 and he’s at his first no-adults party.

Need more? Here in 2008, it’s a scant six-and-a-half years or so since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; one of the more unforgettable images of those attacks was that of people running down the street as a huge billow of smoke, dust, and debris chased after them, with the damaged towers in the background, ready to collapse. That image – as well as the image of one building leaning against another – is revisited in Cloverfield, and instead of being wowed and amazed, you’re somewhat chagrined and uneasy. I wasn’t even in New York on that day, and yet my reaction to those images here was just horror, not wonderment.

I initially thought that the long buildup to the monster attack itself was a bad idea in itself; we get endless shots of the party and the people in it, merely for exposition and empathy. “Bring on the monster!” I shouted, internally. And then the attack comes, and for the rest of the film you feel like you’re on a roller coaster ride after having eaten fourteen hot dogs.

Cloverfield isn’t worth the endless, smug, metahype it generated for itself leading up to its release. It means to be edgy and groundbreaking but winds up being tired and played out. The monster does look pretty cool, and some of the stunts are worth watching, and there are some genuine scares, but overall it misses its mark by quite a bit. The rolling head of the Statue of Liberty is clever, but that’s about it for wit.

**

Cloverfield

January 17, 2008

Know what finally comes out this week? Cloverfield, that invading-monster story from J. J. Abrahms. Like other films before it, Cloverfield has been able to build up phenomenal word of mouth: What’s the monster? What’s going to happen?

There have been fake websites purporting to be “official” movie sites, MySpace pages for some of the characters, and other sites relating to various aspects of the movie (such as one for a drink product, Slusho). Some of these sites are legit, containing actual clues about the movie, and others are decoys.

One site that’s trying to compile all the real clues is the aptly titled Cloverfield Clues. This site contains photos, links to trailers, and of course any kind of media coverage. Boy, you can’t buy PR like that, huh?

Still and all, the hype has worked – at least for me. I am stoked to go see it, and it’s mainly because of this word of mouth. If I thought it was just going to be another big monster-attack movie, I might not be so keen to see it, but I’m intrigued – is there more to the story? Will we find out where the monster came from? Will it attack elsewhere, or just New York City?

One troubling aspect might be the handheld-camera angle. Look! An explosion over there! VROOOOOOOOM and suddenly you’re barfing up a lung because of the hyperactive zoom lens and hyperkinetic character onscreen running madly toward (not away) from the locus of boom.

Anyone else want to see it? Let me put it this way. There are some out there to whom this movie will never appeal; they just don’t go for visceral entertainment, popcorn movies, etc. But for the rest of you, given a choice between seeing it in a theater or on DVD, you really should consider the former. I watch a buttload of movies at home, see, but there are certain types that are simply better on the bigger screen: movies that take place in space or underwater, or on a desert, or have lots of explosions, and so on. Unless you have a big-screen TV, it ain’t gonna be as exciting at home.

Sundance

January 17, 2008

Looking at links on this lovely day …

11 Influential Sundance Movies from Entertainment Weekly and From Park City It Came: 10 Sundance Sensations That Changed Filmmaking from The Onion’s AV Club

I’ve actually never been to A film festival, let alone Sundance. But remember that South Park episode where the Sundance-like festival organizers had irrevocably screwed up Park City (not named in the ‘toon, I think), so they invaded South Park instead? Good times, good times. Also notable for the appearance of Mr. Hanky.

Day Watch by Night, Night Watch by Day

January 15, 2008

In the beginning, there were forces of Light and of Dark, and one fine day, the two great armies met on a bridge and proceeded the beat the ever-living immortal crap out of each other, until it was decided by one of the Great Ones that the Dark people would watch over the Light (i.e., “Day Watch”) and the Light would watch over the Dark (i.e., “Night Watch”). And eons later, Timur Bekmambetov made a couple of movies on the theme of good versus evil: Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006).

In Night Watch, we meet Anton, a nervous young man who’s apparently found out that his girlfriend is having an affair while pregnant; Anton visits a crusty old Russian woman (the movies are set in Moscow) who claims she can cause a miscarriage justlikethat. But then things sort of go wrong, and things aren’t as they seem, and I feel safe in telling you that as a result of this meeting, Anton discovers he is one of the eternal ones involved in this timeless battle against the forces of dark – a Light One. Those of Light and Dark are known as Others – i.e., not humans – people with otherworldly powers who can exist on planes other than your typical Earth plane. And legend has it that some day a Great Other will basically break the longstanding tie between the Light and Dark Others, in essence tilting the battle one way or another.

It all sounds awfully Gothic, doesn’t it? Anton grows into a mopey, cynical agent of the Light, not entirely happy with his lot and keeping his emotions and desires fully in check. He works on a team of Light agents who patrol Moscow in heavy-duty all-purpose trucks to halt illicit Dark activity during the day.

Meanwhile, what of this Great Other? Are his or her talents completely latent at this point, or is he or she on one side or the other? The actions undertaken by Anton in that aborted arrangement with the old Muscovite set into action a chain of events whose importantance and relevance are not readily apparent until well into the second movie, Day Watch.

One interesting aspect about the production of the movies is that they both have the look and overall tone of a movie from 1980s Hollywood. I’m not sure if this is an intentional effect, or if the Russian film industry is still about a generation behind American moviemaking. I can’t quite put my finger on what made me think of the 1980s, but it was abstractions as lighting and the color of the film. Hey, all the agents have cell phones, so it’s surely not set IN the 1980s (in fact, the second movie is set in ’06, I believe.)

Both movies are a lot of fun, with the usual caveat about subtitled Russian movies in play. To be honest, with so much action going on – and some inventive, gory special effects – I hardly noticed the time it took me to read the subtitles. It’s not as if they’re crafting Dostoyevsky down there, you know. As as result, I focused much more on the action at hand and was able to follow along with things pretty well. Sometimes the plots get a little… complex, shall we say, but it’s never so out of reach that you want to give up on it and watch an old Yakov Smirnoff routine instead. (That would be dumb of you, and you’re not dumb.) Both movies are intense, visceral films and present a creative new take on a theme that’s popped up in myriad films over the entirety of the movie camera’s existence. The denouement in Day Watch at the party is something to watch – shades of The Omen and Phantasm, to be sure.

Night Watch (2004): ***
Day Watch (2006): ***

Delinquent Daughters! booga booga

January 14, 2008

Delinquent Daughters comes on a DVD set called Cult Classics, so there’s just no possible way that the movie’s any good, right? Right. There’s nothing good about it, except that it’s… no, sorry, there’s nothing good about it, period. It’s not good in the so-bad-it’s-funny way. It’s not good in any way at all.

Released in 1944, Delinquent Daughters is part of the same “message” family as such legends as Reefer Madness, Marihuana, and The Cocaine Fiends. Yep, you guessed it, it was supposed to be a way to steer kids away from the horrors of illict drugs and debauchery. Nowadays, a movie with this sort of theme would play to empty houses, as the kidlets would find other, more awesomer movies to go see. But back then, you had pretty much one choice when it came to movies – whatever your local theater was showing. Yes, it’s true, kids – once upon a time, there was not only just one theater in town, it showed only one or two movies, and almost never at the same time! Why, you could see two or three showings of the same movie, all for a shiny nickel! Why … hey, where are you going? Come back here!

In Delinquent Daughters, some dopey teen doped up on dope or completely straight, I can’t recall which, jumped to her death on purpose. The police call it suicide; I call it a crying shame they didn’t let the audience watch. But I digress. As the cops investigate the cause, they unearth a gang of marauding teenagers who steal from candy stores and gas stations! Who smoke and swear (well, they think bad words) and show absolutely no respect for their elders, the dang spoiled nitwits! (I love how when the kids are stealing, they get like $4. Yes, four dollars. What the hey hey? ‘Course, that was like $4000 in 1944 money.)

Throughout a lot of the movie, the screen’s almost entirely black. No, it’s not that the picture’s bad on the DVD player or TV, no sir. I can see the outline of a teen there, or maybe that’s a large dog. Or a car. Or the President of the Bobby Vinton fan club. Anyway, there’s something there. It’s just what we might call “poor lighting,” but here, I say it’s a benefit, as it keeps us from merely hearing bad acting instead of seeing it as well.

A huge waste of time. You’re welcome.

Delinquent Daughters: *

365 – Atonement

January 11, 2008

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this movie is a twisty-curvy, tightly plotted suspense thriller on the order of Notes on a Scandal. Instead of a plot that takes plausible but largely unforeseeable left turns, Atonement’s story is obvious, too blunt, and crackling with cliche. Everything, from the haphazard direction and editing to the numb acting, is a bit of an embarrassment to all involved.

Wildly overrated, Atonement is closer in style and scope to a Merchant-Ivory film, so if that’s your cup of tea, you might like this one a little more than I did. But it’s more like the dimwitted, held-back-in-school bastard child of such films, because although it contains all the proper hoity-toity attitude and pretty costumery, it has none of the subtlety or charm – in short, the characters are all largely unsympathetic, giving the audience no one to root for. This isn’t always a deal breaker for me, but when the characters are dull, vapid, vacuous space takers, it does sort of put a damper on things.

At age 13, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) is a pretentious, self-possessed newbie writer. She’s supposed to be a child prodigy of sorts, but she seems more perfunctory than imaginative (to be sure, we don’t get much of a glimpse of her writing efforts at that age; it’s merely implied how great she is). She harbors a crush on the handsome, strapping son (James McAvoy) of her wealthy family’s housekeeper, who has long had eyes for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). On a hot summer day, Briony illicitly reads a note from Robbie (McAvoy) intended for Cecilia (gasp) and then later sees something she shouldn’t have. Subsequently the girl swears to seeing something she definitely didn’t see, her perspective colored by her feelings for Robbie and her interception of the note. This irrevocably alters the lives of all three, of course.

The movie jumps around quite a bit, timewise, which at one point was an interesting approach to filmmaking but more often than not nowadays seems sort of played out and unnecessary; here it’s done to confuse the audience a little bit, some trickery thrown in to distract from the fact that the plot itself is fairly bland and melodramatic. Because of Briony’s misinterpretation, Robbie winds up in prison and later in the military, fighting in WW II. Much of the film describes his attempts to get back to London to be with Cecilia. Cecilia, meanwhile, works as a waitress – a job that’s a bit lower than her family’s station should allow. Briony forgoes attending an exclusive writing academy and becomes a nurse, all owing to her guilt (not to mention her obstinancy).

But what does it all mean? That one person’s sworn testimony can screw up the lives of somewhat-innocent people? Oh, there’s news. In the end, it all feels like much ado about nothing. Has Briony truly atoned for her sin? Of course not. She didn’t have the guts to say anything when she had the power to do so; to make herself feel better, she writes a novel over the course of the rest of her life. So, no real atonement, just a general sense of comfort and insincere assuaging of guilt.

I think that’s the crux of the issue here – the movie feels insincere. Are Robbie and Cecilia madly in love, or do they just want to have hot sex all the time? Little in the early half of the movie indicates the former, and plenty of evidence is shown for the latter. But even if they are in love… well, here is where the issue of What the Movie Is crops up; this is not a psychological thriller, it’s a dopey romance movie. It’s a chick flick, even with some truly garish and probably unnecessary war scenes. (Do we really need to see burn victims? How does this further the plot?) The script is even based on a romance novel, by Ian McEwan. If pining for lost loves sounds like a grand old time to you, by all means dive into this murky, tortured movie.

As for the casting, it’s not terrible. Knightley, who has said she wants to play more mature roles, continues to look like a tal, bug-eyed boy, with her shapeless, bony figure. She’s not a bad actress, but she might have been a little in over her depth here; at no point did I feel sympathy toward Cecilia, although she’s supposed to be a victim here. McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland) looks a little more girlish here than Knightley does, what with his impossibly red lips, even in the war scenes.

So. If you’re expecting a thick-plotted, twisty thriller about what happens when a lie spirals out of control, this is not the movie for you; if you like costume dramas with actors rising to their material, this is also not the movie for you; if you like love stories with no apparant happy ending and actors sinking to melodramatic depths, this is a winner.

*1/2

364 – Spider-Man 3

January 8, 2008

Spider-Man 3 might be best subtitled, “Peter Parker Grows a Pair.” That would seem like an endearing quality if this was a coming-of-age movie about the sand-in-the-face nerd finally overcoming bullies and low self-esteem to win the girl of his dreams, but it’s not so wonderful or interesting in a superhero movie.

Sure, Spidey DOES have low self-esteem, and sure, Peter Parker IS a nerdy little twit, but he’s no weakling – that ship has long since sailed. Now, Spider-Man is the hero of children across the city, so there’s less reason to empathize with him, to identify our own uncoolness within Parker.

The problems with this movie are manifold. To begin with, the webslinger has far too many bad guys to face. First, there’s the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), an escaped convict who fell into a particle accelerator and now has the properties of, well, sand. Then there’s an alien parasite, conveniently falling from the sky so it can latch onto Peter and bring out the worst in his repressed personality. Then there’s Eddie Brock (Topher Grace), a supremely vicious rival photographer. Oh, and Harry Osborn (James Franco), the son of the Green Goblin; he thinks Spidey killed his pop (he didn’t), and he knows Peter is Spidey (oops). So you can imagine what’s on Harry’s mind.

With all of these villains, you’d think there’d be plenty of conflict.  Clearly, however, the writers felt something else was needed, so they invented a highly contrived plot thread in which Peter (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane’s (Kirsten Dunst) relationship disintegrates. It should be no surprise to you whatsoever that somehow this relationship gets resuscitated by movie’s end. They’re together! They’re apart! They hate each other! They love each other! You’ll hate them both! And what bugs me more than the obviousness, the sheer craptastic predictability of the relationship angle, is that both MJ and Peter act like completely selfish, rotten jerks to each other – and we’re supposed to eat that up. Apparently, we’re supposed to think, “Hey, yeah, that’s exactly how it is!” Supporters of the movie might point to the fact that Peter’s under Venom’s control when he’s treating MJ like garbage, but that’s not true – he’s a creep to her well before Venom shows up. He’s smug, self-centered, clearly soaking up the adoration of the city like he was Donald Trump handing out low-income housing in Brooklyn. Okay, maybe not that smug, but still. Peter Parker, in this movie, behaves exactly opposite from what makes Peter Parker interesting to the rest of us in the first place – that he is an insecure dweeb who happens to have superpowers. A crass, smarmy punk is not appealing.

There’s one telling scene – it was in the trailer, too – that shows Peter strutting down the street, wearing the Venom costume under his normal clothes, and every girl stops to stare at this supposed virile paragon of masculinity. Yeah, Peter Parker. The problem is that Tobey Maguire isn’t much of an actor, and when he has to stray from the golly-gee innocent-lamb of Peter Parker, his inabilities are completely exposed. In short, he sucks ass. He can’t carry a scene without putting on a mask and looking like he’s swinging on some web-like substance. The casting of Maguire made sense originally, because he looks exactly like the kind of doofus nitwit you’d expect Peter Parker to be, but in this movie, when he has to be more than just that doofus, Maguire can’t hack it.

Speaking of looking like he’s swinging …. isn’t the whole purpose of CGI to make awesome things look real? Remember back in the day when actors would be in a car, appearing to drive through a city, when it was obvious they were on a set with the city scene playing in the background? I mean, on the cheaper films, it was pretty clear what was going on. The CGI in this movie is a lot like that. When Spider-Man is swinging between buildings, it looks like they took Maguire jumping around and plopped it onto a city background. It looks terrible, and it’s distracting.

So, let’s recap. Too many villains (they should have stuck with Sandman and Harry), a shallow, ridiculous relationship, poor special effects, and bad acting, at least on  Maguire’s part. But hey, I can’t blame him entirely – Sam Raimi’s script turns Spider-Man into Emo Spidey – complete with stereotypical Goth haircut and dull monotone! And who knew that simply wearing the Venom costume could make one an accomplished jazz pianist and dancer? With all of these obvious inadequacies, you’d think that the door would finally be closed on this series, but since the movie did well, you can bet a S-M 4 will pollute the theaters sooner rather than later.

*1/2

The Hurricane (1937)

January 7, 2008

So I caught this old John Ford film the other day, DVRd off TCM, and I was very impressed with it. Point number one: The titular hurricane doesn’t show up until the final half hour or so of the movie. So that was a bit of a downer, because then you had to wade through predictability and stereotyping and whatnot to get to it. But man, what a payoff!

Marama (Dorothy Lamour) and Terangi (Jon Hall) are natives on a South Seas island; they love each other and wed, and then Terangi has to ship out on a schooner that travels to and from Tahiti. Once in Tahiti he gets into a fight with a Very Important White Man, and Terangi’s subsequently locked up for six months, then longer, as he keeps attempting to escape.

Meanwhile, the governor of his own island, De Laage (Raymond Massey) refuses to intercede on the behalf of his citizen, mostly because he’s a big jerko he insists that the law is the law and there’s nothing he can do and so on. De Laage’s doctor (Thomas Mitchell, who earned an Oscar nomination) and wife (Mary Astor) try to persuade him to see the light, to no avail.

Up to this point, the underlying theme is that islanders should have the same rights as white people. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the theme as intended by the film’s creators, but it’s easy to see here in 2008. Oddly enough, though, the two main natives are played by white folks – Lamour, later famous for the Hope-Crosby Road films, was from New Orleans, while Hall was Californian. In fact, had the point not been explicitly made in the movie that Terangi was, in fact, not white, I wouldn’t have figured it out. That’s one of the few downsides to black-and-white films; it’s perhaps a little harder to see subtle differences. But what’s strange is that everyone else in the movie acts as if Terangi is so, so, so different from the white people, when to the untrained eye (i.e., me) he looks just like them.

Anyway, all this is just filler until we get to the storm. And oh my goodness, what a storm. Apparently $150,000 was spent to create the island village, and $250,000 was spent destroying it. Anyone who’s seen the devastation that Hurricane Katrine wrought can sadly identify with the last reel of this film. A church, made of stone, is destroyed. Trees are uprooted – not saplings, but huge trees with gargantuan trunks. It’s an awesome, jaw-dropping spectacle – a tremendous feat for 1937. Back then, there were no Academy awards for special effects, but clearly The Hurricane would have received at least a nod.

It’s almost a pity the film’s in black and white, too, because the idyllic paradise island simply looks less inviting than it should – the photography makes it look almost stark and barren, not rich and lush as the imagination would have it.

***1/2

2008 Movies to Wait for

January 6, 2008

So it’s the beginning of 2008, so it’s the perfect time of year for a preview of the upcoming releases. Now, I don’t have the smarts or go-getter attitude needed to sort through hundreds and hundreds of movies to see which ones might be kinda sorta neato to look forward to. Luckily, the good folks at Slash Film have gone to the trouble of finding 55 Must-See Movies of 2008.

Of the 55, I’d say the following are the ones I’m anticipating, in order of release:

1. Cloverfield (January 18). There’s a lot of buzz – kind of a subtle codeword for “hype” – for this film. It’s supposed to be about a giant monster attacking New York,
but it’s not Godzilla or King Kong or any monsters with which we’re already familiar. And it’s shot with a hand-held camera (think Blair Witch Project), which might get annoying after a while.

2. The Spiderwick Chronicles (February 15). It’s another one of those alternate-universe fantasy movies, a la the Narina movies, or Harry Potter, or The Golden Compass.. but it does sound interesting, and Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) plays twin boys – and he’s a great young actor.

3. 10,000 BC (March 7). I’m a sucker for epics, especially on the big screen, so this I gotta see. When’s the last prehistoric movie we’ve had, anyway? On the plus side, Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) is the director; on the minus side, Roland Emmerich (Godzilla) is the director.

4. Horton Hears a Who! (March 14). Okay, it’s another Dr. Seuss movie, but THIS time, it’s completely animated. So I think we can toss aside comparisons to How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. Jim Carrey plays Horton, and since he won’t have to screw around with costume distractions, he can be funnier than he was in Grinch. Which I didn’t see, and wouldn’t admit to seeing even if I had seen it. Which I didn’t.

5. Righteous Kill (April 18). Know who’s in this one? DeNiro AND Pacino. On the screen at the same time, as cops! They’re huntin’ a vigilante! Rounding out the cast are 50 Cent, John Leguizamo, and Donnie Wahlberg. Expect some gunplay and salty language.

6. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (April 25). Hey, it stands to reason that if you liked the first stoner-friends movie, you’ll go for this one as well. I mean, look, same cast; even Doogie Howser returns. Originally, this was called Harold and Kumar Go to Amsterdam – they were going there to foil a wedding, or some nonsense – but when it was realized that the characters never make it that far, the title was changed.

7. Iron Man (May 2). Another Marvel character makes it to the big screen; this one’s directed by Jon Favreau (Swingers, Made, PCU). I still wanna know how IM goes to the bathroom.

8. Speed Racer (May 9). This one has a great following already, with the characters having been around like thirty years, and with the Wachowski Brothers (the Matrix trilogy) directing it. Can’t miss, right? Oh! And Christina Ricci as Trixie. Emile Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) is Speed. Expect plenty o’ CGI.

9. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (May 16). I liked the first one, and everyone’s back on board for the second one, so I expect to like this one as well. I happen to like big-budget, effects-laden supermovies! So sue me. Haven’t read the books, though, ‘cuz they’re for kids.

10. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (May 22). Finally! This is the one I’ve been waiting for. Of all the 08s, this might be the 08iest. I’ve seen some of the stills, and Harrison Ford still looks Indy-like. And look at the cast! Shia LaBeouf (Transformers), Karen Allen, Cate Blanchett, John Hurt, Ray Winstone, Jim Broadbent! No Denholm Elliott, who died in 1992, but also no John Rhys-Davies, who’s still alive. Dang. (At least, as far as I know.)

11. The Happening (June 13). Okay, I’ve taken shots at auteur (heh) M. Night Shyamalan in recent years, and I don’t think I’ve done so unfairly. I swore that after The Village, I wouldn’t watch any more of his dreck. I skipped The Lady in the Water, but I’m wondering about this one, because “they” claim it’s his best script since The Sixth Sense.

12. WALL-E (June 27). Earth has been evacuated, but the last robot is still chugging away. It’s animated, of course, directed by the guy who did Finding Nemo. Interesting concept; I’d be driven mad if I was the last human on Earth, but who knows what the last robot would do? Continue to perform its task, I suspect, until some new stimulus happened along..

13. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (July 11). Now, I liked the first one. (Shut up!) And everyone’s back, including Doug Jones as Abe Sapien and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth. Something about a so-called master race wanting to take over the world, and, as the title indicates, they’re all blonde. It’s like a legion of Draco Malfoys.

14. The Dark Knight (July 18). I enjoyed the rebooting of this franchise, even if Christian Bale’s unofficial (i.e., known to me alone) nickname is “Light Bulb Head.” Heath Ledger plays Batman’s new nemesis, The Joker – let’s compare and contrast with Nicholson. Oh, and looks like pretty lil’ Katie Holmes has been replaced by pretty lil’ Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes – a huge, huge upgrade.

15. Trailer Trash (August 22). IMDb has no information on this release, which supposedly will be composed purely of fake movie trailers; Eli Roth is the director. The /film site says August 22 is the release date.

16. Valkyrie (October 3). Tom Cruise plays a German count who’s out to kill Hitler, which sort of makes him a good guy. Amusingly, Germany refused to allow Cruise (who executive produced) to film in Germany, on the grounds that his chosen religion, Scientology, isn’t recognized by Germany as a religion. Heh. I have a feeling this one will bomb. Why>? Because Cruise is attempting to act – check out his eye patch! – rather than get by on his derring-do and movie-star looks. He’s not a good actor.

17. The Changeling (November 7). Angelina Jolie’s kid is kidnapped; he’s returned, but she’s not so sure it’s the same kid. Interesting idea, and it’s based on a real case (from the 1920s). I think Jolie’s the only name in it, for whatever that’s worth.

18. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (November 21). Seems like only yesterday everyone was speculating about who the half-blood prince was. Each of the HP movies has been good to great – I particularly enjoyed the last one. The movies, as their main characters have, have become more adult as they’ve progressed; each film is delicious in its detail and honest in its portrayal of teenage angst. Can’t wait.

19. Bond 22 (November 22). It’s Bond. Cmon. And! It’s apparently the first one to be a direct sequel to a previous bond (Casino Royale, of course). I didn’t think I’d like Casino Royale, but it was pretty good.

20. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (November 26). In this David Fincher film based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, Button (Brad Pitt) is a man who ages backwards, which causes trouble when he falls for Cate Blanchett. Fincher’s films are always a bit different and entertaining, and Pitt and Blanchett were wonderful together in Babel.

21. The Day the Earth Stood Still (December 12). I’m not one of those people who immediately and automatically hates, hates, hates remakes. I think that if a new generation comes along and hasn’t gotten to see the original in the theater, what’s the problem with a remake? As long as it’s not exactly the same, you see; you got a new audience, and maybe as director you want to approach the subject from a slightly different angle. That said… why on Earth would you cast Keanu Reeves as Klaatu? I guess because he’s an alien, that’s why, and you expect them to be emotionless piles of protoplasm.

22. Star Trek (December 25). Now, this could get interesting. It’s the style nowadays to reboot movie series, at least long-running ones, so that you can cover some of the old ground while introducing new actors into the old roles. Star Trek’s been around 40 years now, and this will be the first Kirk movie since Star Trek VI. (Well, the first Kirk-as-the-main-guy movie.) Will J. J. Abrams be able to pull it off, what with a slightly unknown cast? Could sink the series, but it could also completely revive it.

363 – F**k

January 6, 2008

It’s the Queen Mother of curse words, Although it’s been supplanted in some regards by the c-word (ask your parents), eff dash dash dash has far more uses – why, it’s probably the single most useful word in the universe, or at least the English language, since it can be used as a noun, an adjective, an adverb, an interjection, a verb, and so on. Seriously, let’s see your “the” and “thing” do that.

This documentary uses the bomb 857 times, so you know it’s not shying away from its subject matter. Pontificators from all sides of the spectrum weigh in on the word, from its uses in movies and songs to its origins and meanings to its use in the arena of politics (as famously used by the sitting Vice President on the floor of the Senate).

But in the end, it’s not as if anyone is going to be swayed one way or the other here. Those who think the word’s not all that bad (although perhaps shouldn’t be used anywhere, anytime) seem to make reasoned, thoughtful arguments, but the people watching this movie are probably on that side of the fence already, anyway. (By contrast, the more-conservative voices offering opinions come off as uptight jackasses who want to control everything.)

Those interviewed include Janeane Garofolo, Billy Connolly, Bill Maher, Pat Boone, Sam Donaldson, Ice-T, Chuck D, John Crossley, Ron Jeremy, and Tera Patrick. All come off pretty well, doofy conservative arguments notwithstanding. But, man, is it just me, or does Billy Connolly look weirder every year? He looks like the Cowardly Lion on crack. Add in his sometimes unintelligble Scottish accent, and you get something you’d expect to find in the mines of Moria. That’s a Lord of the Rings reference, for you non-nerds out there.

Love Pat Boone, though, even when he comes off as a crusty old bastard. He said that he created a new word that he uses instead of cuss words – “boone.” Yep, he uses his own name. He drops something on his foot – “aw, BOONE!” Awesome. And then Ice-T, learning of this, agrees – he says he’s gonna boone his wife later that night.

It’s not a bad documentary, but it’s no great shakes, either. It actually feels a little tedious and repetitive and redundant after a while, because you’re like, “Okay, I get it! Fuck is a bad word!” There; there’s my gratutious use of the word. I feel so virile!

**1/2

362 – Rise: Blood Hunter

January 2, 2008

Despite its unwieldy, off-putting title, Rise: Blood Hunter (aka simply Rise) isn’t as terribly cheesy and disgusting as I imagined it would be. A reporter (Lucy Liu) wakes up in a morgue’s body drawer and discovers she’s been changed into a blood-seeking, human-chomping immortal, or something, and rather than gleefully embrace her new self she decides to track down the evil bastards who put her in that condition, making her a sort of avenging angel for all those who have been similarly wronged.

Sadie Blake (Liu) is a sexy, classy young lady who’s just written a front-page story about teen goth clubs. One of her coworkers, the nerdy computer stereotype, tracks down a phone number that one of the teens handed to Sadie – turns out it’s not a phone number but the first in a series of clues that leads to a website devoted to some weird bloodsucking cult. Sadie, of course, thinks the story’s over and goes on a quickie vacation to Mexico with her sister, but when she returns, you guessed it, her coworker’s dead. Sadie follows clues like a good little Nancy Drew and winds up getting kidnapped (several times) and killed (several times), all to figure out who or what’s behind everything.

The story jumps around a lot, flouting the conventions of time as we know them; things simply don’t happen in the exact order we’d expect them to, which clouds Sadie’s motives and intentions quite a bit. Is she good? Is she even human? After all, once she’s been attacked by the vampire people, she’s not exactly the picture of health, and she’s gotta eat to survive. Is her ultimate goal of revenge enough to offset the unpleasant facts?

It helps that there’s a typically hissable bad guy, Bishop (James D’Arcy). He’s eternal, of course, and he kills and mutilates and rapes for the sheer joy of it. There are no moral or ethical quandaries with this guy. Plus he has an effete, brandy-swilling British accent, making all the more unctuous and slimy. (Well, he’s slimy also because he’s often covered in someone’s blood.)

Now, granted, this isn’t a pleasant, sedate movie to watch. It’s full of gore and guts, although not so much as, say, a movie like Saw or Hostel. It’s still not for the weak of stomach. You might remember how, in Kill Bill, The Bride traveled all over to wipe out those who’d wronged her – but the film didn’t show us this in the order in which each avenging occurred, did it? So you’d see Uma Thurman wander over to Viveca Fox’s house not knowing if she’d already visited Lucy Liu. Well, you would know, of course, if you picked up on the subtle hints, and that’s exactly how it is here. At one point, Sadie runs into alcoholic, world-weary cop-with-a-conscience-and-a-cause Clyde Rawlins (a fantastic Michael Chiklis) and mutters something about having seen him before. And if you watch the movie closely, you see exactly where. It’s as if there are no coincidences in the movie, and I think that works in its favor.

Still, it IS just a revenge flick, albeit one with vampires and a kick-ass crossbow. Liu is very, very good – she’s not the screaming, hands-in-the-air type of heroine, but she’s also not the balls-out gut-stomping Lara Croft type, either. Remember, Lucy Liu is petite; she doesn’t automatically have this intimidating screen presence, so she uses what she has and makes the most of it. In her case, I’d have to say it’s her eyes, flashing terror or courage in…. well, in the blink of an eye.

So despite some predictability, the movie does work, thanks to Liu and the novelty of the disjointed sequencing. There are quite a few chills, and the plot doesn’t stray too far from its main revenge thread, thus simplifying matters.

***

361 – Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

December 29, 2007

The five of you who have read past the title and are here, in the body of the review, I have this to tell you – it ain’t that bad. Sure, this is the sixth or fourth in a rapidly declining series, and as the Law of Sequels tells us, the farther away from the first movie we get, the quality of each film decreases exponentially. Or proportionally. But I don’t want to get all mathy on you.

The film before this showed the long-awaited pairing of the Aliens and the Predator, and for the most part the result was pretty compelling. This time around, in a scene reminiscent of the original Alien movie, an interloping alien emerges from the prone body of a Predator and attacks the crew, causing their spaceship to plummet to a little blue-green planet. Before you know it, alien face-huggers are implanting themselves into a hunter and his son and then birthing chest-bursters near a small, unsuspecting Colorado town.

Meanwhile – and really germane to the plot – the Predators have sent another of their kind down to Earth to destroy any evidence of their crashed (and dead, apparently) and to eradicate the Aliens. Which is a pretty fair fight, since the Predator has a lot of big guns and can turn invisible, and the Aliens can spit acid and slap you about the face and head. Of course, humans get caught in the crossfire, as they did in the movie’s immediate predecessor.

There are a lot of standard structures in this movie, such as the virginal (ahem) high school queen; the bad boy; the bad boy’s older brother, who’s an ex-con, and so on. People routinely wander into unlit areas for no reason other than to get slaughtered, and it’s pretty clear from the git-go that the humans in this story are there merely to give us something to care about.

Because let’s face it. The Predator is in his watery-invisible form for most of the movie, and the Aliens are dark, and they all fight in dark, dark areas. With no humans, no recognizable faces, we might as well be watching polar bears in a snowstorm. Not only that, but – as with the last film – the audience can get someone for whom to root, in this case, the ineffectual, victimized humans who fire what amount to BB guns at a Sherman tank. Remember the tagline from the last movie? “Whoever wins, we lose?”

For the first couple thirds of the movie, the humans act stupid and/or dully, acting as mere befuddled targets than people you’d care about. Except, of course, for the people who would somehow make it to the final third of the movie. Don’t worry, they’re easy to pick out; everyone else is easy to pick off.

And certainly, it wouldn’t be a sci-fi movie without some kind of potential government coverup/conspiracy/meddling; thankfully, that thread isn’t introduced until well into the movie, which means we don’t spend half the film with the specter of the Evil Goverment That’s Out to Destroy Everyone. Good thing, because more enemies just complicates things.

Bottom line is that the final twenty minutes or so definitely make up for the lousy pacing and the lack of tension in the first hour. I mean, things were so bad that you could easily predict what would happen to a character you just met. Death scenes were telegraphed with a giant beacon that said “PERSON DIES HERE. BLOOD SPURTS.” And make no mistake, this is a grisly movie that delights in people getting slaughtered in fun and exciting ways, involving evisceration. Or getting poked in the eye or chest. Or flaying. And no groups are spared – not women, not children, and not even pregnant women. It’s a real windfall for aficionados of equal-opportunity gore.

**1/2

360 – Charlie Wilson’s War

December 23, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War is based on real-life events, but that doesn’t mean it’s awesomely compelling. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) an almost-invisible Congressman in the 1980s who specializes in drinking and carousing, decides to push for the U.S. to aid the Afghanis, whose country has been invaded by the Soviet Union. Only they had to do it secret-like, you see, because the Cold War was ongoing at the time. Couldn’t have the Russkies knowing we were arming their enemies, because then we’d be directly involved when we wanted to remain indirectly involved. You know, because of the nukes.

Wilson can’t pull this off alone, of course, even if he’s the chairman of the committee that funds the CIA’s covert ops. The cool thing is that if Wilson asks for the budget to be increased, say, twofold, Congress sees only the amount, not the reasons underlying the increase. Even so, Wilson needs to schmooze and raise funds without blowing the cover; he’s pushed and prodded into action by a woman who can help him, wealthy Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts). Herring, a devout Christian, wants to help the Afghani mujahedin to push back against the godless Communist invaders. Rounding out the team is the CIA’s own rogue renegade rebel, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an iconoclast with the intelligence – if not the social graces – to help Wilson win his war.

Hanks turns in a pretty believable Texas twang and is a pretty good fit for the role, even when he uses profanity. I can’t remember the last time I heard Tom Hanks say the F word or be in a hot tub with naked women. Oh, wait, it might have been Bachelor Party. Somehow, even the older Hanks pulls it off. Then there’s Roberts, who’s also somewhat acceptable in her role as the Texan matron – but who must have had an on-set stylist who absolutely detested her, because she got put in some of the worst wigs known to women. (Men in general have worse wigs, obviously.) I mean, it looked like a blonde muskrat died on her head. I shouldn’t be too unkind, since the movie IS set in the 1980s, a decade infamous for its fashion choices, but the look was really awful for Roberts. And, as I mentioned, she’s somewhat acceptable – if one looks past the fact that she’s 40 playing someone considerably older but still looking like a 40 year old playing dress up.

Outshining everyone, easily, was Hoffman. It’s like the man doesn’t even have to break a sweat to outact people anymore. He’s even better than Hanks, who’s kind of restricted by the type of role that Charlie Wilson is – a fun-lovin’ Man in Charge. Supporting characters, like Hoffman’s Gust, often have more freedom to be wacky, offbeat, lovable curmudgeons. Hoffman’s fantastic, hidden beneath Gust’s bushy mustache and issuing bon mots; he steals the movie from the bigger stars (Oscar win notwithstanding) with a grumpy, energetic performance.

All in all, Charlie Wilson’s war is simply okay, a decent biopic about a man and situation unfamiliar to most people. It’s helped quite a bit by its superstar cast (and direction by Mike Nichols), but it’s not interesting enough to warrant much attention. When Hanks, Roberts, and Hoffman have retired from acting, this movie will appear only as a blip, a footnote in otherwise memorable careers.

**1/2

359 – No Country for Old Men

December 22, 2007

Mysterious and elusive, provocative and disturbing, No Country for Old Men is the finest Coen Brothers film to date. It’s got the profane violence of Blood Simple, the wry wit of Raising Arizona, and the tight plotting of Fargo – not to mention outstanding performances by Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. And it culminates in a big finish that’ll either leave you wanting more or simply cold.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A hunter named Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the scene of a drug deal gone really, really sour. Dead bodies, including a dog. Shot up trucks. A huge stash of drugs. And, at the end of a bloody trail, a dead man and a satchel with $2 million in cash. Now, what would you do in that situation? You’re armed, but who knows who’s out there in the wilderness, looking for their lost loot? If you’re Mr. Moss, you amscray the heck out of there.

Of course, someone’s gonna come looking for that money, and that person is a crazy bastard named Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who has a penchant for killing and absolutely no moral compass to speak of. He wants something, he kills you and takes it. Or takes it and kills you. Either way. Chigurh is single minded, but he’s by no means a simple man; he’s whip smart and blindingly fast with his gun and his feet. There’s something about Chigurh that separates him from every other killer who wants his money back; its intangible, and it’s all because Bardem is so perfect in the role. His sad eyes belie an absolutely terrifying, methodically maniacal criminal.

Completing the trifecta is a beleagured, world-weary sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is to No Country for Old Men as Marge Gunderson was to Fargo; the no-nonsense, superclever, seasoned Johnny Law who tries desperately to piece together the puzzle before every character has been murdered, a la Shakespeare. This is a role Jones was made to play, and I can safely say he turns in the finest, most nuanced and sincere performance of his long career. Jones has the countenance of a leathery cowpoke as it is, and the unique drawl to accompany it, and the beautiful, poignant script (also by the Coen brothers) allows him to really show his stuff.

Make no mistake, though, in spite of its subtleties, this is a very violent movie; many painful, gut-wrenching deaths occur. Still and all, one thing that makes the movie work is that the violence seems real, not comic-book style; it’s not violence without serious repercussions.

Back to the writing. At times during the film, multiple storylines are in motion, a la Pulp Fiction, and everything moves so seamlessly that it’s only later, in retrospect, that you recall certain aspects that tie in one character’s perspective with that of another. A mediocre screenwriter would have trouble with this, and plot holes the size of the Rio Grande itself would emerge. People would laugh about the plot inaccuracies and overall inadequacies.

And then, finally, there’s that ending. Some people will absolutely love the ending, but others will stare at the screen for a few minutes, wondering if there’s more to the story. Simply put, not everything is explicitly resolved, so if you’re the kind of person who must have everything tied up as if in a 30-minute sitcom, you’re going to have an issue or two with the finale. There was a bit of silence in the theater in which I saw this movie, but I didn’t get the impression it was the angry “THAT’S IT??” kind, just the surprised kind.

***1/2

Trouble in Paradise with Zombies

December 18, 2007

Caught two movies last night. (No, really.) Both from Netflix, although I viewed one online and one on my very own DVD player.

 First up, we had The Astro-Zombies (1967). As you might ascertain from the title, this was a huge stinker – which is why I wanted to see it! I actually took the trouble of adding several bad bad movies to my NF queue, just for the heck of it.

In Astro-Zombies, John Carradine (cast with type!) plays a scientist who’s trying to transfer memories from the recently deceased into, well, other dead bodies. He accomplishes this using 1960s technology, so you can expect plenty of smoking beakers and lots of lights and buttons that apparently don’t do squat.

Meanwhile, there’s subterfuge afoot. A crime gang (led by cult actress Tura Satana) figures out that mindless zombies are behind it, although I can’t remember why, and they plot to track down Carradine in his lab so they can use his knowledge to further their diabolical plans. Carradine’s Dr. DeMarco, it should be noted, is not a mad scientist, not even an evil doctor; he’s innocent and genuinely hopes his creations will cause good! So he’s kind of bummed to find out that’s not the case.

The CIA (?) gets wind of Dr. DeMarco’s experiments, too, because of the recent killings and the fact that Dr. DeMarco was kicked out of his research lab for his experiments.

 The best part of this is the zombies. They kind of look like Tusken Raiders, only if the Raiders were “special” people you wouldn’t trust with a sharp pencil. They move as slow as zombies are expected to move, which means, of course, that no one can out run them. Or overpower them – it’s like being undead makes you strong.

Anyway, the movie’s pretty awful, also Satana is a lot of fun to look at. A lot.

Then we have Trouble in Paradise (1932). This is a classic screwball comedy by director Ernst Lubitsch, who was known for subtle wit in his direction. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins play jewel thieves who fall for each other and team up to con a wealthy socialite, played by Kay Francis. Ah, but Marshall falls for Francis – or does he – and madcap fun ensues. Also in the cast are Charlie Ruggles as a stiff-backed major trying to win Francis’ hand and Edward Everett Horton, another rich sap who’s trying to do the same.

It’s a well-written, quick-witted film with plenty of laughs and physical comedy; Marshall, Francis, and Hopkins are wonderful together, and in real life the latter two were close friends. The premise is timeless, although the setting and execution do feel a tad dated now. But the inspiring, energetic performances by the three leads – as well as the supporting cast, particularly Horton – boost this one to classic status.

 The Astro-Zombies (1967): *

Trouble in Paradise (1932): ****

358 – I Am Legend

December 16, 2007

Anyone familiar with Richard Matheson’s story about the last man to survive a massive worldwide plague will have very little to complain about regarding this newest adaptation, with Will Smith as the slightly crazed Dr. Robert Neville, the harried former military doctor who’s been waiting for signs of other survivors for three long years.

Every day, Neville gather supplies from throughout New York City, and every evening, at dusk, he shutters his abode against the onslaught of zombie creatures that live only in the dark. Well, against those who’d attack if they knew where he lived. Which they don’t, really. And Neville has it made, at least in terms of resources. He has generators for electricity, so he can cook his own food (and for his dog, Sam). He has great security. He can watch movies to his heart’s content. But after three years, he’s more than a little lonely – he’s beginning to go crazy. (He’s even positioned mannequins in the video store so he can “converse” with them each day.)

We have a vague idea of what caused 99% of the Earth’s population to die, but the movie’s more concerned with the aftermath; how Neville survives, and how he lost his family. (Hint: It’s not because of the plague.) And this is where the strength of Will Smith comes into play. Until recently, Smith was mostly Action Guy – Independence Day, Bad Boys, I, Robot, and so on – and basically thrived on dopey catch phrases. Good news! There are no catch phrases in this movie. In fact, Smith has to actually emote and act, and damn if he doesn’t do an exemplary job. Remember when Tom Hanks chatted up a volleyball? Same sorta thing, only Smith’s talking to his German Shepherd; he needs to in order to keep hold of the tenuous gossamer strands of his slippery sanity.

When he’s not out gathering provisions and scouting for people, Neville is busy in his basement lab, trying desperately to reverse the virus and cure everyone. I’m not sure about the science angle of this, but since Neville himself is immune, he figures he can inject one of the zombie creatures with his blood, but that doesn’t work. So he keeps at it, adding things, taking away things. It’s all very scientific.

Smith’s beautiful, evocative performance is among the best he’s ever given, about on par with the maudlin The Pursuit of Happyness; I Am Legend is an action movie that doesn’t smack you over the head every five seconds with, well, more action; it instead builds suspense and then pays off. Multiple times. One reason this works is that director Francis Lawrence employed a hand-held camera during many of the more violent scenes, and it’s usually a pretty effective method – it’s just that sometimes the zigzagging is a little jarring. Still, not a big problem.

There are some differences between this movie and the original story, but they’re not bad differences, exactly; an example of a story being updated while not being demonstrably altered. And here’s another plus – although you do get to see the creatures – and they’re pretty nasty looking – you don’t see them often enough to get used to them, or their hideous screeches, or their no-holds-barred, uninhibited, visceral behavior.

***

357 – The Mist

November 25, 2007

Stephen King’s 1983 short story (more of a novella, really) is pretty well realized for the big screen by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption), although the ending might leave viewers cold, not chilled. The effects are excellent, as Hollywood strangely (and wisely!) decided to ease off the overproduced special effects for a change, and the result is that when we do see the creatures, we’re suitably terrified, especially since the camera never lingers long on any of them.

The basic setup is that a storm of the century has shut down the power in a small New England town, and the next morning a thick mist is rolling across the town’s large lake. Dave Drayton (Thomas Jane) gathers his eight-year-old son and, accompanied by his caustic neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), heads to the supermarket to load up on groceries. When they get there, they find that pretty much everyone else in town has the same idea. And it seems like just the usual bad-weather madness until a local citizen bursts into the store, blood on his chest, screaming about how creature from the mist took his friend, and dadgum it everyone better GET INSIDE CLOSE THE DOOR AAAH THEY’RE COMING, and sure enough, as the doors are closed, the mist comes rolling in, and people stay the heck where they are.

But it soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary mist, and that old man might have been on to something – something IS out there, but the mist is so thick no one can tell what it is. And that’s where the story really gets under your skin. What manner of creature is outside the store’s walls? Is it faster than a man trying to get to his car? Is it small, but vicious? Or is it gigantic? Is it even benign? (No, it’s not.)
In other, less-deft hands, a story like this would have been a typical monster movie, as our Intrepid Hero saves the world from sure destruction. But this isn’t about man versus the monster, it’s about man versus the unknown – and man versus man.

Almost all of the action takes place inside the supermarket. There are level-headed (but scared) people, like Dave, Amanda Dumfries (Laurie Holden), Ollie (Toby Jones), and Irene (Frances Sternhagen), and then there are the so-scared-they’re-irrational people, like Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden, whom I thought was miscast, possibly because I’d always envisioned Kathy Bates in the role) and Jim Grondin (William Sadler), and Norton. In a lesser movie, the theme would be that all of them must work together in order to survive, but that theme isn’t given a chance here, as would be the case in real life. There’s no rousing speech about how everyone’s in this together; people become unhinged and unwilling to listen to reason at the drop of a hat, because the unknown of the mist is too much to bear.

That’s where Mrs. Carmody comes in. She’s a Bible-thumping fanatic of the Old Testament, and she sees the mist and its denizens as a sign from the Almighty, and as the movie progresses she becomes more and more like a seer to the easily swayed – and sees herself as a righteous martyr who will someday sit beside God. In other words, a disaster like the mist gives a kook like Mrs. Carmody the perfect opportunity to save souls, whether they want to be or not, and her zeal gives the lesser-minded individuals something they can hold on to, rather than using their minds for practical survival.

Dave acts as the de facto leader of the survivors, mostly because no one else steps forward, not even the three almost-on-leave soldiers trapped in the store. But not only must he find a way to get out of the store and past the creatures, but he has to deal with the escalating insanity of Mrs. Carmody, whose rantings attract a larger and larger congregation, ending in tragedy.

The only real issue I have with the movie is the ending, which differs wildly from that in King’s original printed story. You would think that a Hollywood ending would be more tangible, thus giving the viewer better closure. Well, we do get some closure, but the result is that you feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. The finale is so unsatisfying, you wonder what the heck the preceding two hours were supposed to be for.

**1/2

Ten best shower scenes (NSFW)

November 25, 2007

And here they  are.

Caution: There be nudity. Do not click at work. I mean, what do you think “shower scene” means, anyway? People are extremely naked!


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