Reel Opinions

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mirror Mirror

I kept on waiting for Mirror Mirror to really build into something special, but the movie never quite gets off the ground. All the elements for a great fantasy are up there on the screen. Director Tarsem Singh (Immortals) has given the film a beautiful look by mixing detailed sets, well-used CG, and even some stop motion animation. The costumes by the late Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker's Dracula) are nothing short of stunning. And the cast certainly seems to be having fun. So, why isn't the movie itself as fun as it should be?

picI personally lay the blame at the screenplay level. It's a messy and muddled concoction that never seems to be able to settle on a single tone. It tries so many different angles on modernizing the Snow White story, it almost seems like the credited screenwriters were fighting amongst themselves as to what tone the movie should take. Sometimes, the movie wants to be witty and satirical, such as the sarcastic and self-aware narration that sets up the film. Sometimes, it seems to want to be a female empowerment story. (The Snow White in this story is pretty handy with a sword, and makes her living for a short while as a Robin Hood-like bandit.) And sometimes it wants to play things straight. Even the cast seem to be taking different approaches to the material. Julia Roberts hams it up as the Evil Queen. Nathan Lane shows up as a comic foil, and plays the part as if he's Nathan Lane, who just happened to wander into a costume drama, and doesn't know why he's here. And Lily Collins as the heroine plays Snow White as if this is an honest attempt to tell the classic fairy tale. Oh, and the Seven Dwarfs now have more in common with Larry, Moe, and Curly, then Happy, Dopey, and Grumpy.

picWith a tighter screenplay, I have no doubt this material could have worked. As it is, this movie is all over the place. It opens with a beautifully done stop motion animated sequence that tells how a good king (Sean Bean) raised his lovely daughter, Snow White (Collins), to be the ruler of the land, until he was bewitched by a cunning and vain evil Queen (Roberts). When the king disappeared in the dark woods on the outskirts of the kingdom, supposedly killed by a beast that lurks within them, the Queen took control of the castle, locked Snow White away in isolation within, and started taxing the villagers until they became poor, and the kingdom itself fell into ruin. With her fortunes dwindling, the Queen hopes to marry the handsome and wealthy Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) from a neighboring kingdom. However, when the Prince meets the lovely Snow White (who escapes from her isolated room to dance with him at a palace ball), he falls for her, instead.

picBecause of this, the Queen orders her sniveling yes-man (Nathan Lane) to take Snow White out into the woods and kill her, but he cannot go through with the act, and abandons the young maiden instead. After only about a minute or two of being lost in the woods, she comes across the home of the Seven Dwarfs, who act as forest bandits, robbing from anyone who tries to cross through the woods. It seems that the Dwarfs have a grudge against the Queen as well, as they used to live within the kingdom, until she had them kicked out, due to the fact that she's anti-little people. This inspires Snow White to make them into noble bandits, who will steal from the Queen, and give the money back to the poor, suffering villagers. If the movie had focused on this idea, we might have had an interesting movie. Instead, we get forced slapstick when the Prince is turned into a dog with the aid of a magic spell, a battle with the evil beast that haunts the forest, and a romantic subplot between Snow White and the Prince that fails to generate any sparks.

picI'm sure that the filmmakers behind Mirror Mirror thought they were being clever by adding fantasy adventure elements, and even a Bollywood-style musical number into the movie. But, I think a simpler or more focused approach would have worked better here. There are sporadic moments that work here. Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane get off a couple funny one liners as the two lead villains of the story, and I even kind of liked the idea of the Seven Dwarfs being exiled bandits. I have no problem with the idea of a revisionist take on the Snow White story. In fact, I welcome it. My problem lies in how this movie seems to try to take so many different approaches at once, while never quite settling on one. It spends so much time trying out different tones and art styles that it never quite finds the heart of the story.

picThis is a problem I seem to have with a lot of films directed by Tarsem Singh. He's certainly a master when it comes to the visual style, but he has a hard time telling stories we can care about. This trait once again raises its ugly head here. We marvel at his sets and the look of his fantasy world, but we could care less about who or what is inhabiting it. Because of this, the talented cast sometimes seem adrift. We have plenty to engage the eyes, but nothing for the heart or mind. While Mirror Mirror is certainly not a bad movie by any means, it sure can be frustrating at times. We see all the wasted potential, all the missed opportunities, and wonder why nobody stood up and took charge.
If anything, this movie is an ambitious failure. It tries really hard, and although I can't recommend it, it's not without its charms. I can easily see it becoming a favorite with young girls, who will probably enjoy the stronger take on the Snow White character. As for me, I think I liked this film more for what it tried to do, than for what it actually did.

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Wrath of the Titans

When I was growing up, we had video games based on movies. Then, for a while, Hollywood became obsessed with making video games into movies. Now we have films like Wrath of the Titans, which are movies that feel like video games. This is a mindless little piece of entertainment that goes in one ear and out the other, not bothering to make the slightest impression. It sure does look like it cost a lot to make, but the pace is so frantic, we hardly get a chance to admire what we're looking at.

picWrath of the Titans is not exactly a movie concerned with its plot, so it perhaps wisely decides to cram all of its narrative in its opening 10 minutes or so. We rejoin the hero from the last movie, Perseus (Sam Worthington), having hung up his sword and retired from the game of Titan-slaying. He is now concerned with a peaceful life as a fisherman, and being a single dad to his young son, Helius (John Bell). The peaceful life is interrupted when Perseus' immortal father, Zeus (Liam Neeson), pays him a visit late one night, to inform him that trouble's-a-brewin' in the Underworld. It seems that Zeus' brother, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), is plotting to free the dark god Cronus from his prison. Perseus rejects Zeus' pleas for help, wanting to just lead a simple life with his son. When Zeus goes to the Underworld to try to talk some sense into his wayward brother, he is betrayed by his equally wayward son, Ares (Edgar Ramirez), and imprisoned, where he is rapidly losing power. With the fate of the gods and the mortals at stake, Perseus finds himself forced to go into battle once more.

picAfter this set up, which brushes aside all the plot details and character introductions as quickly as possible, the remaining 90 minutes or so is devoted to non-stop action, explosions, fire demons rising up from the earth, giant cyclopes, and armies of extras racing into battle. Director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) shoots all of this with such frantic energy and motion, it quickly becomes overkill. We want the movie to slow down, but this movie is relentless. So is the soundtrack, which is filled with wall-to-wall screeches, screaming, shouting, erupting fire, and a bombastic music score that never lets up. There is a science to making a film like this. You have to give your audience a chance to breathe once in a while, or at least feel something. This is just non-stop sound and fury pounding away at your senses.

picPerseus is joined in his journey by a small band of heroes, but this movie will be damned if it lets us make an emotional connection with any of them. There's Agenor (Toby Kebbell), the son of Poseidon, who serves as the comic relief, so at least he gets to possess a sense of humor. (Something everybody else in this movie lacks.) There's also Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), whose main role in this movie is apparently to stand around and look attractive. She fills that requirement well, but I'm sorry if I expect more from my heroines. There are some other people who follow Perseus into battle, but they exist to be killed off in the action sequences that seem less like scripted events, and more like boss battles from a video game. Watch the climactic battle between Perseus and the giant fire demon, and tell me it doesn't resemble the final boss battle from a game. The only thing missing are button prompts popping up on the screen.

picMaybe this is a good time to point out that I have nothing against video games in general. Some of them can have wonderful stories, and can be great experiences. Wrath of the Titans simply models itself after the most mindless, button-mashing examples of video games. It's a dead zone of creativity, throwing a bunch of images and noise up on the screen to give the impression that something is happening. It will no doubt bring in the teen crowd this weekend, thanks to an aggressive ad campaign that has made it this week's movie to see if you have already seen The Hunger Games. I have no doubt that audiences will turn out in droves. My question is, how much of this movie will they be able to remember by the middle of next week?
I have a hunch that even supporters of this movie will find it hard to be enthused by this, and will label it as a successful little time waster. Considering how much money obviously went into this project, can you blame me for hoping for more?

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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

I didn't feel anything while watching The Hunger Games, and that's something I never thought I would say about a movie built around children and teens killing each other in a cruel competitive sport. This material should be tragic, chilling, and maybe more than a little thrilling. But director and co-writer, Gary Ross, has polished everything to such a perfect PG-13 glossy sheen that the movie loses all power it could have had. To top it off, the movie is also downright silly, uninspired, derivative, and kind of a mess.

picTo the legions of fans of Suzanne Collins' series of novels who have already made this movie a runaway blockbuster before it was even released, I will admit up front, I think I missed the boat here. I did not find much to like in The Hunger Games. The movie is shallow, with thinly drawn characters that barely manage to make an impression. Some of them I'm sure are being saved for the inevitable sequels, where they will no doubt play larger roles. But what about the many characters who die during the course of this movie, and fail to make any sort of impression? What are we supposed to feel about them? The movie is set around the tragic idea that in an unspecified future, kids from poverty-stricken areas known as "districts" are forced to compete in a combat game where they must kill each other until only one is left standing for the amusement of high powered, wealthy citizens who live in luxury in a closed off society. What must these kids be feeling to have been picked? Have they been training for this moment their whole lives? What about their family and friends back home? Any loss? Any regrets?

picAside from the two lead characters, we don't really learn the answers to any of these questions. There are 24 kids from 12 main districts (one boy, and one girl from each district) when the games begin, and of those kids, 22 of them exist in this screenplay simply to die. They are not developed in any way, hold no personality, no fears, and no hopes or dreams. The two kids who do matter are Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Both hail from District 12, and both are clean-cut hero types, so we know they're going to make it out of the competitive Games okay, which removes much of the tension from the start. This was one of my big problems with the structure of the story. We spend so much time with just these two. Why not try to develop some of the competitors too, so we could feel something when they die, instead of staring at the screen with casual indifference? Then again, when the movie does try to make us feel something over the death of a young child at one point of the movie, it drags out the death scene so long, it almost becomes unintentionally comical. So, maybe it's a good thing a majority of the young cast is treated like disposable cattle.

picI hear you asking, how can a movie built around kids killing each other brutally be PG-13? Ah, but you see, this is the kind of bloodbath the whole family can enjoy, because the movie barely lets us get to see it! Most of the action is shot in such extremely tight close ups, and with a camera that refuses to stop moving and shaking around. This way, we barely get to see the deaths as they happen. We just get some close ups of some bodies shaking and moving around, and then we get a quick glimpse at the bloodless corpse of one of the kids, so we know who just died. The camerawork in this movie irritated me to no end, especially how in certain scenes, it never seems to stop moving for absolutely no reason. It also sometimes keeps on rapidly cutting to something every two to three seconds, which becomes incredibly distracting. This is especially evident in the film's opening half hour, when Katniss volunteers to enter the Games in the place of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who is initially chosen to compete. It is at this point that Katniss and Peeta board a train, and head for the Capital to prepare for the games.

picIn the scenes set in the Capital, we meet many of our adult cast members, and it's here that the movie created a strange disconnect for me. While the District kids are depicted in a fairly normal and semi-realistic light, the adult characters are dolled up in such over the top costumes and outlandish personalities, they come across as cartoon caricatures. First up, we have Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who looks like a living porcelain China doll, and draws the names of the children who will compete in the Games. After this, her role in the movie is pretty much over, but she still hangs around anyway, not really contributing anything. Next up is Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former champion of the Games in his younger years, now a hopeless drunk. He exists to give Katniss some survival advice, and to stumble about in a drunken manner when need be. We also have Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), who controls the Games, and has the hair and beard of a cartoon devil. Other notable residents of the Capital include an over the top talk show host (Stanley Tucci), who interviews the kids, and the President of the elitist society (Donald Sutherland), who kind of looks like what would happen if Santa Claus slimmed down and decided to become a ruthless dictator.

picAside from their over the top appearances and gaudy make up, none of the adults make much an impression. I'm guessing they're being saved for the sequels, as it would be a shame to throw away some of these talents in roles as underwritten as these. As The Hunger Games went on, I became increasingly frustrated. It's based around a cruel sport where kids are forced to kill each other, but it doesn't want to get its hands dirty, or give us any emotional investment. It wants to show us a future society where the cruel haves look down upon the downtrodden have-nots, but it gives us such fleeting glimpses of said society. It wants to hint at a romance between Katniss and Peeta, but forgets to give them a connection, other than a vague flashback that the movie keeps on cutting back to. As an adaptation, it stays strictly at surface level, never really digging into its characters or ideas.

picThis is also a highly sloppy, and at times laughable, adaptation. There are moments when the movie stops the action completely so it can cut to two newscasters covering the Games, who talk directly to the camera, and explain to us just what exactly is supposed to be going on. You know a screenplay is bad when it literally has to introduce characters in order to explain itself to you. Also, near the end of the movie, the evil minds behind the Games decide to unleash some monsters upon the kids, in an attempt to speed things along, and get a winner faster. I'm still trying to figure out just what these monsters were supposed to be. They show up, unexplained, and look largely like a junky mess of CG blobs. The movie tries to hide the questionable effects work by shooting the scene at night, and keeping the creatures concealed mainly in darkness, but it doesn't help matters much.
Look, I'm not delusional enough to believe that this review will change anyone's mind. The fans will make this a hit, and we'll see a sequel next year, I'm certain. When that sequel comes, might I suggest that the writers try to add a bit of feeling for the characters? Or maybe a quiet moment or two where they actually seem human? That's all I'm hoping for from the sequel. But, given that the fans are eating this movie up, I probably won't get it.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

21 Jump Street

There is no better experience for a film critic than a movie that genuinely and pleasantly surprises them. I knew walking in that 21 Jump Street was going to be a comic take on the old TV series that ran from the late 80s to early 90s, and helped launch the career of Johnny Depp. What I was not prepared for was that there is a certain sweetness and charm to the film, thanks to the surprisingly strong chemistry of its two stars, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. This is a highly entertaining comedy, and gives me hope that Tatum (an actor I have not really enjoyed up to this point) could have a strong future as a comic actor.

picAs the film opens, we're introduced to Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Tatum), who are high school rivals. Schmidt is the insecure nerd, who gets tongue-tied when trying to ask the pretty girl to the prom. Jenko is the bully jock who enjoys chuckling at Schmidt's misery. Seven years pass, and the two find themselves reunited at the police academy. This time, however, they realize that they need each other in order to succeed, as Schmidt has the brains to help Jenko pass the written exams, and Jenko has the brawn to help Schmidt pass the physical obstacle course exam. They have a brief stint as bicycle cops, but the Chief soon assigns them to a new program, where they will go undercover as high school students. In one of the film's funniest lines, the Chief explains that they are reopening an old undercover program from the 80s because "The guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity, and are completely out of ideas".

picThis is smart and funny stuff, and it only gets smarter and funnier as the two infiltrate a local high school, to try to find the source of a new synthetic drug that is growing in popularity, and recently killed a student. Schmidt and Jenko are not only trying to pass themselves off as regular students, but also as brothers. Of course, they don't look like students (then again, "kids" in high school movies seldom do), nor do they look like brothers. It doesn't help that they both forget their fake identities that the Chief supplied them with seconds after arriving at the school, so they're both assigned the wrong classes. Still, they quickly figure out that the school's main drug dealer is the eco-obsessed yearbook editor, Eric (Dave Franco, brother of James). In the process of trying to get close to Eric and find out what he knows, Schmidt winds up becoming popular with the other students, while Jenko finds himself alone and rejected, and treated like an outcast.

pic21 Jump Street attempts to do a lot of things, and does almost all of them well. It's a self-aware and very smart comedy that pokes fun at its own cliches and stereotypes. It's a buddy picture, with this "odd couple" learning to work together. There's a romantic subplot, concerning Schmidt getting close with a pretty young school actress named Molly (Brie Larson), when Schmidt gets the lead role in a production of Peter Pan. There's also plenty of over the top violence and action sequences, which are handled well enough, but is probably the most forgettable part of the movie. Because of this, it's a wise move that the directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) rely on smart dialogue, rather than action to draw us in. Credit must also be given to Michael Bacall's screenplay, which is quite a shock, considering the guy was also credited with writing the abysmal Project X just a couple weeks ago. Either his heart really wasn't in that last movie, or he has shown a dramatic leap in talent in a very short time.

picBut it's the surprisingly successful combination of Jonah Hill (who brings a sweet, naive charm) and Channing Tatum (who plays it sweetly dumb here) that makes the biggest impression. They're wonderful together, because they both play on the same level. Even though Schmidt is technically "the smart one", he screws up just as much as Jenko, which creates an odd sort of bond between the two. They need each other, and realize it quickly. This isn't one of those movies where they're enemies for most of the movie, then learn to put aside their differences. They realize they can help each other early on, and it's this friendship that carries the movie. Hill gets to create a charming and sympathetic character who simply wants to belong, while Tatum (who has never been better) manages to be funny, sweet, and surprisingly personable.

picLike a lot of comedies that aim for greatness, 21 Jump Street falls just a little bit short. The last half hour or so isn't quite as funny as the stuff that came before it. But, I liked the characters, and the movie itself had won me over a long time ago, so it didn't really matter. What I can say with certainty is that I have laughed this loud or this much at a comedy so far this year. What a wonderful feeling that is, after sitting through movies that barely elicited a smile from me. I also feel the need to note that although this movie definitely earns its R-rating, this is not an offensive movie. Well, okay, there is one visual gag near the end that comes close to crossing the line, but it at least knows when to cut away.
Speaking of the ending, it hints at a sequel, which I would certainly welcome, but I hope they don't go and simply recycle ideas. This premise could easily lead to some uninspired sequels. Still, I'm going to remain optimistic. What we have here is one very funny movie, and one that's almost certain to be a crowd pleaser. Don't spoil it, just so we can see these characters once again in an inferior movie. Give these guys the sequel they deserve.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Thousand Words

A thick fog of gloom hovers over the release of the new Eddie Murphy comedy, A Thousand Words. The source of the gloom? The simple fact that this movie was supposed to come out back in 2008, and has sat on the studio's shelf the past four years, as they tried to figure out what to do with it. And we all remember what happened the last time an Eddie Murphy movie sat on the shelf for years before hitting theaters. If you don't, I'll spell it out for you - The Adventures of Pluto Nash happened.

picWell, here's news to lift your spirits should you find yourself about to watch this movie. A Thousand Words is a much better experience than Pluto Nash. Although, looking back on that sentence, I realize that's faint praise, as I think the stomach flu I had last year was a better experience than Pluto Nash. Maybe this will work better...A Thousand Words certainly isn't terrible. It's just mediocre and not very memorable. Still not encouraging, I know, but I can't help it. That's just the kind of movie this is. Murphy plays Jack McCall, a motormouth literary agent who, as the film opens, is desperate to make a book deal with a popular new age guru named Dr. Sinja (Cliff Curtis). While making the deal at Dr. Sinja's new age retreat, Jack happens to prick his hand on the bark of a Bodhi tree. Somehow, this causes an identical Bodhi tree to suddenly sprout up in Jack's own backyard. He is also now somehow connected to the tree.

picThe movie doesn't really bother to explain much of how or why this happens. It's whimsical, so we're just supposed to accept it. About the whole part of Jack being connected to the tree - Apparently, whenever Jack talks, a leaf falls off the tree. Examining the tree, Dr. Sinja estimates that there are only about a thousand leaves left. Once the last leaf has fallen, the tree will die, and so will Jack. What is this supposed to prove? It's supposed to make Jack a better person, I guess. To listen more to others, especially his loving, but long-suffering wife, Caroline (Kerry Washington). But mostly, it's an excuse to have Eddie Murphy mug his face and pantomime through a lot of awkward situations, like business meetings. That's what the whole concept is based around. Since Jack can't talk without making the leaves fall, he has to find other ways to communicate. I hear you saying, why doesn't he just write down what he wants to say? He tries this at one point, and the leaves fall, just as if he were talking.

picThere's a lot that doesn't make sense in A Thousand Words, and I don't know whether to blame the screenplay by Steve Koren (Click), or the editing, as the movie does seem to have certain scenes missing. For example, late in the film, Jack's frustrated wife tries to satisfy him sexually, but since he refuses to talk, she takes it the wrong way, and thinks he is no longer interested in her. She suggests that maybe they should seek help in their relationship. A couple scenes later, without any explanation, she has suddenly moved out and taken their toddler son with him. There is also a montage, where Jack goes around trying to do good deeds, thinking this will somehow break the curse of the tree. This is all well and good, except we don't know why Jack suddenly thinks this would help. He just does it.

picStranger still are the later scenes, where Murphy's character suddenly starts having out of body experiences, and literally talking to his inner child in a sun-drenched field, while the sappy music score by John Debney crams emotion down our throats. We learn that the whole thing has to do with some kind of traumatic moment in Jack's childhood, and he attempts to connect with his aging mother (Ruby Dee), who is suffering from Alzheimer's. The legendary Ruby Dee brings her scenes more emotion and pathos than the material deserves, but it's still awfully manipulative. The heavy-handed final scenes, which feature Jack taking a spiritual journey into the pain of his past, is supposed to be dramatic and uplifting, but come across as confusing, as the whole tonal shift from screwball comedy to forced sentiment seems to come out of nowhere.
A Thousand Words is not a terrible movie. It's confused and it's poorly edited, but you can see glimmers of the hope the project once held from time to time. Considering the last two movies we got the previous times that director Brian Robbins teamed up with Murphy (the awful Norbit, and the not-quite-as-awful, but still pretty bad, Meet Dave), I expected much worse. This one will likely join the growing list of forgettable Eddie Murphy comedies, rather than the growing list of his terrible ones.

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Silent House

I was perfectly willing to go along with Silent House for most of its running time. The movie seemed tight and suspenseful, and the lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen (from last year's indie drama Martha Marcy May Marlene) seemed stronger than what we normally see in a thriller like this. There was a stumble about halfway through the movie, where two of the main characters make an incredibly stupid decision for the sole purpose that if they didn't, the movie would be over. But even then, I was able to forgive it, and was still involved.

picBut then came the ending. Oh Lord, the ending. If this had been a simple "woman in distress" thriller, the filmmakers would have had something. But, oh no. They have to turn the tables on us, and throw in a twist in the last 10 minutes that turns everything on its head, and sends the movie spiraling down a path from which it never recovers. I am so sick of twists. Why can't thrillers just, you know, thrill? Why can't we just have a simple, well executed movie about a teenage girl trapped in a house with some dangerous people, which Silent House wants us to think it is until the final few minutes? Why does every thriller try to be more than what it initially is? When a twist ending is successful, we're surprised, and look back on everything we've watched differently. When it is not successful, we feel cheated. I haven't felt this cheated by an ending in a very long time.

picThe movie is a remake of a film from Uruguay, unseen by me. Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, a teenage girl who is helping her father, John (Adam Trese), and her uncle, Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), repair their dilapidated and boarded up old home with the intents to sell it once the work is finished. The old house serves its purpose well for a horror movie. Not only are all the windows and doors boarded and locked, but there's no electricity (meaning the characters have to wander down dark corridors with lanterns), and cell phone service is poor. Uncle Peter leaves the house after an off-camera argument with Sarah's father, and now Sarah and John are in the house alone. That's when Sarah starts hearing strange sounds coming from upstairs within the house. A brief investigation reveals nothing, but when Sarah is left alone in her room, she suddenly hears a loud thud from outside her room. When she calls out for her dad, there is no answer. He seems to have disappeared without a trace, although blood can be seen on the floor in one part of the house, and there seems to be someone ominous lurking about the house, just out of frame and out of Sarah's line of sight.

picWe literally follow Sarah every step of the way as she tries to uncover what happened to her father, and who is in the house with her. Directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (Open Water) shoot the entire film with a handheld camera, following the action as it unfolds. There are (seemingly) no edits, giving the illusion that the events up on the screen are occurring in real time. It's an interesting gimmick, though the sometimes shaky camera work will likely send those with weaker stomachs running to the bathroom. But in a way, this also helps with the tension for most of the film's running time. For the most part, we are seeing only what Sarah sees. Sometimes, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the intruder (or intruders) stalking about the dark hallways of the house. It also helps put the audience in the shoes of its heroine, since we are never really aware of something that she is not.

picI liked the tension that Silent House is able to raise. We know that someone is in the house, but we never quite get a good look. The way the movie created tension, as well as its simple yet effective atmosphere, reminded me a lot of the early works of John Carpenter or Wes Craven. Throw in the strong lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen, and I was ready to embrace this movie. I think that's why the ending ticked me off so much. Here was a movie that was working perfectly well, and they just had to throw in something to say "Things are not what they seem". This story doesn't deserve the ending we get. It deserves a tight, suspenseful climax where young Sarah has to fight for her life. Instead, we get some random weirdness that made my heart sink. Surely they weren't going to throw away everything that had worked up to then. And then, my fears were realized. This movie does indeed throw away everything, just so it could fool us.
I have not seen the original movie, so I don't know if it ended the same way. All I can say is that I liked this movie a lot better when it was simpler, and being honest with us. There are many people I know who believe a bad ending isn't enough to sink a movie. If you're one of those people, and you want to hold onto that belief, walk out of Silent House when there is 10 minutes left to go.

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Friday, March 09, 2012

John Carter

With a reported budget of around $250 million, and an advertising campaign that has failed to catch fire with audiences, people have pretty much pegged John Carter as the first big bomb of 2012. The movie does have a lot stacked up against it. It's a simple, old fashioned swashbuckling adventure story set in outer space, and pays tribute to just about every Sci-Fi cliche we've been seeing since the days of Flash Gordon. And you know what? I kind of enjoyed it on that level.

picIs John Carter heavily flawed? Oh, gosh, yes. The plot is convoluted nonsense, certain elements of the plot made little sense to me (but then, I have not read the original source novel, A Princess of Mars), and I'm sure there are a lot of people who will find this movie derivative of Star Wars and Avatar. But you know what? The story of John Carter turns 100 this year. Similarities to other famous film properties are probably intentional, and/or the result that the filmmakers of those movies were in some way inspired by the original novel. I'm not saying this movie is great. I'm saying that the sight of pirate-like ships that flew through the air, and the old fashioned "good vs. evil" storyline managed to reach my inner 10-year-old, who eats this kind of stuff up. Whether or not it will reach enough people to make back its massive budget is another topic, and one I won't really be covering. I'm here to talk about my thoughts on the film I saw.

picThe film's titular hero (played by Taylor Kitsch) is a disillusioned Confederate Civil War captain from Virginia who wants nothing to do with war after experiencing a personal tragedy, which is supposed to give John Carter some background story, but is treated so haphazardly in flashbacks, I have to wonder why director Andrew Stanton (Wall*e) left them in at all. Through reasons too complicated to summarize here, John finds himself transported to Mars with the aid of a mystical medallion he finds in a cave full of gold. On Mars (or "Barsoom" as the local aliens refer to their home planet), John finds that he has enhanced physical abilities. This gets the attention of an alien named Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), leader of a group of creatures known as the Tharks, who seem more than a little inspired in design by the Na'vi from Avatar.

picJohn quickly learns that the planet is facing a Civil War of its own, with two warring kingdoms battling for control of the entire planet. The Tharks prefer to sit on the sidelines, and watch the other inhabitants kill each other in combat, but John gets involved in the war when he manages to save the life of Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), the Princess of one of the warring kingdoms, whose father (Ciaran Hinds) is forcing her to marry the evil Sab Than (Dominic West), ruler of the other warring kingdom. Dejah's father hopes that the marriage will bring about a truce between the two kingdoms, but the brave Princess knows that Than cannot be trusted, and chooses to run away from her palace home and fight. After John and Dejah meet, she offers to help him find a way back to Earth if he will aid her people in their battle against Sab Than. Meanwhile, we learn that Sab Than is being led by a race of ancient beings led by the mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong), who get amusement out of watching the fall of various empires.

picDespite of a running time that stretches past two hours, John Carter never really slows down. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, the action is fast paced, we get a lot of crazy sword fights and airship duels that are fun to watch and executed really well, and the plot moves by so fast, we don't really have much time to focus on how little it all makes sense. Of course, this also leads to a lot of questions. We never really learn much about this war going on, or even who these two kingdoms are, what they stand for, or why they're fighting each other. We just know that one's good (their soldiers wear the blue capes), and the other is evil (they wear the red). It's a strange war. They obviously have access to advanced technology like airships and guns, yet they for some reason prefer to battle each other with swords.

picBut this was part of the fun for me. I loved the ridiculousness of it all. I reveled in the made up names like "Barsoom" and "Matai Shang". I had a big goofy grin on my face when John Carter got involved in massive sword fighting duels with an army of extras. I even enjoyed the big special effects, which don't really offer any sights we haven't seen before, but are done well nonetheless. My guess to my enjoyment is that this movie caught me in the right frame of mind. I was in the mood for a big, silly movie, and this delivers. At least the screenplay (credited to Stanton and two other writers) has the common sense not to take itself seriously. On a related note, the actors know what kind of a movie they're in. Everybody fits their role, from dashing hero, to the strong and independent beauty, and the scheming villains. That's all that really can be expected of them. This is not an "acting" movie to begin with. They know we've come for the aliens and the special effects.

picI will say this for John Carter - the movie manages to end on such a note that it leaves plenty of room open for more movies if this one is successful. (After all, this is only based on the first book in a series.) And yet, in a wise move on the part of the filmmakers, it doesn't leave on such a huge cliffhanger that we'll find ourselves disappointed if more movies don't come. They play it smart here. Wrap up the loose ends enough, but leave us wanting more. I think back on many failed movies that were supposed to lead to franchises, but never made it past their first movie. A lot of them used their endings pretty much as one big set up for a sequel that never came. At least here, we get some form of closure, and we can turn to the books or use our imaginations on what kind of future adventures await John Carter should Hollywood not want to risk a second movie.
John Carter was originally planned as a summer release, but was pushed back to the spring. This may hint to a lack of confidence from the Disney studio. Whatever the case, I found this to be a very silly and fun movie. I don't know if I'll remember much about this movie a few months from now, but I know that when I do think back on it, I might smile a little.

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Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Lorax

The problem with adapting any story by Dr. Seuss into a full length feature is that his stories were usually incredibly short. Even the half hour animated specials that everyone grew up with had to throw in a bunch of musical numbers just to kill time. The latest Seuss adaptation, The Lorax, does have the heart of the story in tact, but it is surrounded by too much stuff that doesn't work. That said, I'm certain very small children will like it. And it's often quite lovely to look at, even while wearing those clunky 3D glasses.

picBefore we even get to the story of the Lorax, we are introduced to Ted, a boy who seems to be only about 11 or 12, yet speaks with the voice of the 24-year-old Zac Efron. Ted lives in Thneedsville, a plastic and artificial society that seems bright, sunny, and cheerful, but apparently the air is so polluted, that the residents gladly pay high prices for bottles of fresh air. The mind behind this world of fake trees and recycled air is Mr. O'Hare (Rob Riggle), who serves as the movie's villain. He doesn't want anything natural in his town, especially trees, since they create oxygen, and it would put his bottled fresh air scam out of business. The original story of the Lorax did not need a villain, and I doubt this needed one, as well. O'Hare and his goons exist to chase after young Ted in elaborate action sequences, when Ted starts leaving town, and exploring the wastelands of a once-thriving forest on the outskirts of town.

picWhat is Ted's fascination with finding what happened to all the real trees? The girl who lives in his neighborhood, Audrey (Taylor Swift), has started painting murals on her walls of the actual live trees that she heard once existed before Thneedsville came to be. Ted becomes determined to find out the answers of the trees' disappearance, and his grandma (Betty White, of course) thinks she knows who he can ask to learn the answers. Far beyond the Thneedsville limits, and even past the forest wastelands is an old shack where the mysterious Once-ler (Ed Helms) lives. He knows what happened to the trees, as he was the one responsible for them all being cut down. In the story and the original animated special, the Once-ler was never seen, except for his arms. He was supposed to represent an industry, and was thus rendered faceless to the viewers. In order to fill a full 90 minutes, not only do we get to see the Once-ler as a young man in flashbacks, but we also get his entire background story.

picWe learn that the Once-ler was a bright and inventive young man who became tired of being seen as a failure in the eyes of his dysfunctional family, and set out to make his fortune by making Thneeds - a substance with a multitude of uses, from clothing to building material. During his travels to make his fortune, he discovers a pristine forest of trees and playful animals. He immediately sets about chopping down one of the trees, so he can use its materials to make a Thneed, and winds up inadvertently summoning the Lorax (Danny Devito), a mystical orange creature who speaks for the trees, and for the animals that rely on them. He tries to warn the Once-ler about what will happen if he chops down any more trees, but once the Thneeds start selling like crazy, the opportunistic young man ignores the words of the Lorax, and sets about expanding his empire, and chopping down every tree in sight.

picThe flashbacks concerning the Once-ler's tale are the moments closest to the book, and are when The Lorax is the most successful. Not only are the exchanges between the Once-ler and the Lorax the best and funniest parts of the film, but they manage to get the film's environmental message out in a simplistic, but not overly heavy-handed way. Of course, the movie has to throw in a couple modern day satirical elements, such as when the Once-ler proclaims his thriving Thneed business "too big to fail". Another added subplot concerns the Once-ler obsessed with greed and becoming a success, so that he can prove to his family that he's not the failure they peg him to be. Still, these scenes are when the movie works. The animation is beautiful, there are some cute moments and sight gags concerning the local wildlife, and the movie respects the original story as told by Seuss.

picUnfortunately, this is probably only 40% of the movie, and its the remaining 60% I have a problem with. All of the added material with Ted, Audrey, and Ted's feisty granny trying to plant the last remaining tree seed, while the evil Mr. O'Hare tries to stop them, seems inspired by too many recent animated films, and not the memorable ones. It's built around a lot of forgettable musical numbers (oddly enough, none of which are sung by Zac Efron or Taylor Swift, the two cast members best known for singing), and wild chase sequences that seem tailor made for a video game tie in. It gets to the point where the movie starts to lose its focus, since the Lorax appears only in the flashbacks, and not in the central storyline that the filmmakers have created. Don't get me wrong, the movie is definitely well made on a technical level, and the voice acting is strong. The 3D is also used well, and doesn't cause the movie to lose any of its vibrant colors through those dark glasses. I simply found my attention waning during the film's more manic moments.
I suspect that very little kids will love The Lorax, but there's a much better animated film playing in theaters right now that they might like just as much, if not better. That film is The Secret World of Arrietty, which is quiet, and filled with a sort of wonder and imagination that this movie lacks. Yes, The Lorax is bright, colorful, and its heart is in the right place. There's just not an awful lot that stands out about it.

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