Archive for December, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (8/10)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 30, 2007 by Brandon


Tim Burton is one strange filmmaker, from tragic drama like Edward Scissorhands, to family-friendly yet wonderfully creepy films like The Nightmare Before Christmas. He’s always had a penchant for the Gothic, and in his latest outing, based on the Broadway play of the same name, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, he returns to his roots with melodramatic and masterful bloody flair. Sweeney Todd is gleefully twisted vision, a film that really can’t be compared to much else, other than to say it’s something along the lines of the bastard child of the most song-happy musical you can think of…and Kill Bill. Only better. Much much better.

Opening with an ode to the despair and corruption-filled pits of London, sung with a gritty baritone by the thankfully-good singer Johnny Depp as the damned Sweeney Todd, we soon learn that Todd, a long long time ago known as Benjamin Barker, a barber, was exiled for fifteen years by a corrupt government official, who maligned him with a false charge so that he could take hold of his beautiful wife and child. Now Todd is back with revenge on his mind and a razor in his hand. He meets a young woman (insert name here), played by Helena Bonham Carter, who offers him her upstairs room with which he might carry out his vengeance, which, he soon decides, encompasses all who come into his shop, for they were all guilty, in one way or another of what happened to him and his wife.

Sweeny Todd is a deliciously gritty splatter fest. Filmed mostly in dark grays, blacks, and whites, you would think that it would remain a drab and unmoving picture, but this is not even close to being true, in part due the singing (which I’ll get to later), and also due to the buckets of blood that bleed onto the screen. It’s about the only thing in the film that really has any color, save for the hideously revealing blue suit that a rival barber wears (Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen with gleeful energy and an insanely bad French accent). It takes about half an hour for any blood to reach the screen, and by that point I was feel apprehensive. According to rumors and some news tidbits circulating around the internet a few months ago, the studio was pushing for a PG-13 rating for the flick, to which fans of the play screamed in outrage. After the obviously toned-down Beowulf, the terribly schizophrenic Fred Claus, and the seriously lacking in carnage Hitman, this didn’t bode well. And then Sweeney made his first kill, and as the fountain of blood shot up from that person’s neck, I knew that this had to have been planned to be R. I sighed in relief, and the movie only got better from there. Depp calls forth blood from necks like a master orchestra conductor summons the notes from a band, both a symphony of sound and emotion. As Depp and Carter sing, the razor sings as well, intertwining with the sadistic yet incredibly clever lyrics like it was a part of the song itself, and the blood that spurts into the air, splattering into Depp’s shirt and running down the victims’ necks.

The singing is another strong point, though not the strongest, sad to say, of the movie. The idea itself is masterfully pulled-off, with such disingenuous genres as a musical and a slasher, and the satirical and self-aware parody is note-perfect, yet surprisingly deeply serious and powerful. I have not seen the play, and, as with movies based on books or some other genre I won’t judge based on its source material, though from reviews and articles that I’ve read, there are considerably fewer show-stopping numbers in the film version. The film functions less as an obvious over-the-top musical and more as a serious kind of drama, and the musical numbers that do exist tend to take place between two people and function more as a conversation than something which exists solely to dazzle with its musical brilliance. I would have liked to see more grand numbers in the film, though – the only real one takes place once Todd decides to extend his quest for vengeance to the whole neighborhood –as he strolls through the streets in an imaginary sequence wherein he accosts all the businessmen and politicians that were inadvertently responsible for his wrongful imprisonment. It’s a dazzling piece of music, the highlight of the whole film, and if there had only been more of them the film would have been much more effective as a mutant mash-up of musicals and slashers. The singers in the fof ilm all sing very well, though this is obviously a first outing for Depp as a singer. He’s good, but he’s not spectacular. He is not bad in the least, just inexperienced, though for the first half of the movie it seems he’s holding himself back in some way. Thankfully, though, when he does finally unleash his vocal cords, the gritty baritone I mentioned earlier is a welcome addition to the picture. Carter’s twistedly soothing works much better, and Alan Rickman’s few snippets of song of course function beautifully.

Acting is the absolutely strongest part of the movie. Alan Rickman as the judge who wronged Todd made me shake my head in amazement. Rickman is an actor’s actor, relishing every single role he plays down to the slightest nod of the head and the smallest handshake. Bonham Carter reminded me of her role in this year’s Harry Potter, with a similar wacky hairdo and a positively insane personality. Timothy Spall, another Potter veteran, plays Rickman’s henchman, and it works, if being a bit unmemorable. Depp doesn’t quite measure up to Rickman in terms of sheer acting ability, but his portrayal of Sweeney is a fascinating one. The combination of a revenge-filled heart and a sheer lust for blood can be seen in Depp’s eyes every time he is onscreen. Sweeney’s as real as any character you’ve ever seen in a film, and one of the great things about Depp’s portrayal is that he makes some leaps of faith and logic believable just because he acts it well. A person in real life would never behave as Sweeney does, but Depp makes us believe that, faced with the tragic events of his life, he could.

Sweeney Todd ended up being everything I had hoped for, and it’s a film that I may even want to see a second time in theatres, and with the amount of films I see, that’s rare. It’s an odd little oddball of a movie, a gothic horror musical with great performances, fantastic production design, twistedly brutal murders, music to haunt, terrify, and amuse you, and a story that, at its core, is pretty fascinating. There’s little else like it in theatres this year, and with the cloning that Hollywood seems to have become so adept at performing, that’s saying something. Sure, it’s based on a musical, but who wouldn’t want to watch Johnny Depp slash throats on a Friday night? That’s what I thought.

Sweeney Todd is not for the weak of stomach. The murders are very brutal, and there’s plenty of blood to go around, but if you’re hungering for something that is so obviously and beautifully unique (in its own twisted and sick way), Sweeney Todd may be your thing. It worked for me, and I would call it most definitely worth ten dollars and twenty-five cents.

Juno (9/10)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 20, 2007 by Brandon

I’m gonna admit it – the trailers for this movie made it seem like some annoying cutesy sundance movie; the kind that prides itself on being quirky and offbeat, but whose foibles often just come off as contrived and self-congratulatory. So when the time came when I was at a theatre (for some reason this happens to me a lot), I had to choose between this, or…Alvin and the Chipmunks. Hello, Juno. Still apprehensive, I walked into the theater, and what greeted me onscreen was a lovely little tale with some surprisingly deep characters, a smart script, and some of the year’s best, acting, hands down. Movie aside, Amy Ryan from Gone Baby Gone, Ellen Page is here.

The movie begins with the titular character standing on a lawn watching an old beat-up cushioned chair, which we soon learn, was where her and her boyfriend did some activities that led to the main storyline of this movie – her being pregnant. She drinks a couple of quarts of Sunny D in just a couple of hours, to make sure she has enough urine to take her third pregnancy test of the day, that she purchases from a convenience store clerk (Rainn Wilson, The Office’s Dwight, in a glorious cameo). I balked at this. A ridiculous amount of Sunny D just to take a pregnancy test? Please. Cutesy self-congratulatory comedy here we come…the music as she walks back to her house after the third positive test of the day (yes, three; two wasn’t enough) didn’t bode well either. It seemed tailor-made to be magically pasted on to, once again, any sundance movie.

But then something happened. As Juno proceeds to tell everyone, from first her best friend, then to the father, played by Superbad’s Michael Cera, then to her dad and stepmom, she became more and more endearing. By the time she had set up a meeting with some parents (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) to whom she would give the child once it was born, I was hooked. Juno (the character) is charming, witty, sharp, and has a simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic outlook on life, along the lines of, “sure, things suck, but they’ll probably get better.” Ellen Page deserves as many kudos as there are to give for her performance. She absolutely is Juno, from start to finish. Sometimes the script calls for her to deliver lines that are witty at the expense of the realness of the situation, but this is forgivable, as this movie contains some of the funniest lines I’ve heard all year.

But if this were all there was to Juno, I wouldn’t be giving it such a high score. So what else? The performances and the characters. I’m telling you, if there ever were such an obvious contender for best picture, this is it. It has that Little Miss Sunshine feel, which, though it ended up losing questionably to The Departed, was still a strong contender. One of LMS’s weaknesses was a family that felt just a little too quirky for its own good. In Juno, every single character is real down to the very marrow of their bones, and the performances contribute to this. Michael Cera basically plays his Superbad character of a nervous high school youngster, but he adds many little layers to it that almost transform him entirely. I believed this character would react to these things in this way. JK Simmons as Juno’s father is a great and perfect father figure; Allison Janney takes the touchy role of the stepmom and makes her absolutely wonderful; and finally, Bateman and Garner as the parents-to-be dazzle with their incredibly layered performances, which brings me to the absolute best thing about this movie.

The characters. Hands down, flat-out, rolled dice, and all that jazz. This movie has some of the deepest characters that I’ve seen in a film in a long while. It’s the kind of movie where you think you have the characters pegged right off the bat, but then as the movie progresses you realize how wrong you were, and not because they were shallow when you met them in the first place. If I went back and watched this movie, I could catch so many more nuances on Jennifer Garner’s face because I now understood better who her character truly was. This film plays with your expectations, and as you go along with it, you can’t help but fall in love with everyone, from little Juno all the way to her father. Bateman and Garner as the couple surprise the most of all, and characters which I initially thought I would hate for their shallowness turned into actual real people before my eyes. A film that can do this, and do this effectively, deserves some of the highest praise around. The movie just floored me so much that in a movie that I initially kind of wanted to despise, I ended up loving like none other. Not since Ratatouille’s charming and delightful story capture me up so much in its characters and world.

As I mentioned, though, there are a few flaws. Cutesy moments that, if done without, would have done wonders to make this a near-perfect screenplay. The dialogue is sometimes too conveniently clever; little quirky touches seem oddly out of place – Cera’s character eats orange tic-tacs, which Juno calls “his only vice”, and it’s never clear exactly why they’re a vice or why they’re present, other than the predictable use at the end of the film for a nice little happy moment. Narration is super-imposed over a lot of the film, but I really don’t think this movie needed narration to survive. I suppose it helps to cement it as Juno’s film, but to me it removed me from the reality a little bit. And finally, the music, though absolutely adorable (“Here is the church and here is the steeple; We sure are cute for two ugly people”), sounds a little too contrived and indie for me. I mean, I can appreciate cutesy music where applicable, but still.

Despite all this, though, Juno impressed me so much in other ways I have to give it a very high score. This movie may end up going on my best of 2007 list – it’s that good. Good performances, good screenplay, GREAT characters, and a story that will warm your heart this Holiday season like no other (sorry for the cheesiness there, I couldn’t help it), Juno is a strong candidate for the surprise comedy that came out of nowhere. It is directed by the guy who did the sometimes-too-clever and annoyingly witty Thank You For Smoking (which, don’t get me wrong; I loved), but that film is not something you would expect to come from a guy with the incredibly soft touch evidenced in Juno. A great, excellent, wonderful comedy.

I loved loved loved this movie. I can hardly believe how much I loved it. If you had told me beforehand that I would fall in love with this movie so completely I would have probably labeled you a bit on the nutsy side. Juno is a great comedy for people who are tiring of big Christmas-heavy blockbusters or Oscar-hungry pictures, and if you’re one of those…well, what are you waiting for? Go see it!!

I Am Legend (8/10)

Posted in Uncategorized on December 19, 2007 by Brandon


Yeah, that’s right, you are.

No matter who you are or where you live, chances are you reserve some measure of respect for Will Smith, and there’s a good reason. He’s gone from rapper to TV star to blockbuster king, all seamlessly, and he’s maintained his dignity while doing so. He’s helped to cement the marketability of African-Americans in films. Back when most movies were being made about white men, he was among the frontrunners, alongside Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, and others. Sure, he’s been in some crap, but he’s also been in some very quality films as well. Earlier this year he released The Pursuit of Happyness, and I Am Legend is closing off this Will Smith 2007 sandwich. So how does it hold up? Well, I’m happy to report that even though it has its fair share of flaws and doesn’t deliver on the action-packed quality the trailers promised, it ends up being a rather haunting and surprisingly captivating end of the world tale.

The year is 2012. Humanity, and in particular, New York City, has been devastated by a virus that had been believed to cure cancer, but in fact had mutated and transformed most of the world into vampiric-like beings who live in the dark. Will Smith plays Robert Neville, the last man on Earth, living on a cut-off Manhattan Island with his German shepherd, Sam, and going through a daily routine of gathering food, hunting, and capturing these “infected”, as they’re called, in order to study them and find a cure. He also spends an hour every day at midday waiting on a pier overlooking the water in hopes of seeing someone come to the rescue.

For the first five minutes of the movie, it seems like it’s going to be a long and boring ride. I mean, how fascinating can watching one man play golf, send radio transmissions, and work out turn out to be? As it turns out, pretty damn fascinating. The routines that Smith goes through (it’s been one thousand days since that he’s been doing this) emphasize how lonely he feels, and Smith’s performances sure makes it pack a punch. He has a daily routine of going to the video store and renting out movies, and he talks with the mannequins to forget how alone he truly is. He converses routinely with his dog, too, and the bond between them is one of the strongest human/animal bonds that I’ve seen onscreen in years.

The movie opens with an interview with a doctor who claims she’s cured cancer. Less than a minute later, we see Smith driving through the ruins of a devastated New York. This film serves as a cautionary tale of sorts, against the sin of human pride. Throughout the film, there are flashbacks to Smith driving his wife and child to escape New York, and these also serve to flesh out Smith’s character too. They work far better than placing them at the beginning, where is traditional. The sparseness of their placement and where exactly they are placed serve to further emphasize Neville’s situation. By the end of the film, the character of Robert Neville feels so real that I wouldn’t have been too surprised if he stepped offscreen to say hi. Smith does some excellent work here and makes hims a terrified shell of a man, emphasizing his humanity rather than his situation. Another actor might have made him simply scared sh**less, but Smith has the wits to know that he needs to create a character we can identify with, and he succeeds brilliantly.

The special effects of I Am Legend aren’t exactly top notch, but they’re not really something to scoff at either. The infected looked a little too CGI, and at the beginning there’s horrible CGI work with some lions. Other than this, though, the rest is top notch, and for the most part the effects don’t make themselves too well known. The action is first-rate, and the tension sometimes gets so high you’ll find yourself gripping the edge of your seat wanting to scream at the screen with apprehension. There are a few scenes that are masterfully staged to maximize terror and fear. One of the things that I was pleasantly surprised about this movie was its well-cultivated environment of fear. The cheap scares are very minimal (if not non-existent), which really heightens that sense that Robert Neville must feel whenever he exits his house and must constantly be on the watch for the infected.

The film is not without a few weaknesses. In the last fifteen minutes of the film there is talk about God and spirituality and destiny, which seems to pop out of nowhere, but if you look for it you’ll find foreshadowing earlier. Another weakness is the sometimes too convenient-for-horrible-th

ings-to-happen-plot. Neville has been surviving 1,000 days without a scratch on him, and I suppose something wrong was bound to happen sooner or later, but the mistakes that occur in this film seem too simple for an experienced survivor like Neville. A key point in the film revolves around an incident that is never really explained and makes you wonder why Neville had not thought of that earlier. The cinematography is also fairly unimaginative. It does its job perfectly well, and with some sweeping shots of a deserted Big Apple it really succeeds in hitting home the idea that this is a world that we do not know. But in the first five minutes of the film, as we see Time Square overrun by piled-up cars and grass growing everywhere, I couldn’t help but think of 28 Days Later, where the main character wakes up to a deserted London. With the beautiful yet terrifying cinematography there, the idea of a deserted city was much more powerful. Aside from these few complaints, though, the film is a very interesting experience, the token summer blockbuster that somehow found its way into a December release.

One very impressive factor about I Am Legend is how much its director, Francis Lawrence, has evolved since his last outing with 2005’s Constantine. That outing (which, yes, I did enjoy) was rather boring filmed, with every shot perfectly centered, as if he were scared to draw outside the lines. With this movie, he has some challenging shots in the dark (no pun intended), fast motion shots, and many others that he handles quite well. It’s nothing that’s Oscar-worthy, but it’s a step up for him, which I appreciate.

I Am Legend is by no means a masterpiece. A lot of critics are panning it right now, but I think they’re just being too Oscar-happy. If this had come out during the summer it would have been much better received. I think also a lot of people may be ticked off for the liberalities it takes with the book. As I’ve said, I haven’t read the book, but from what I’ve read, the book is a lot more revolutionary than this semi-generic picture. But it does its job very very well, and Smith’s charisma does wonders to carry the whole thing. Smith is a legend in himself, so it makes sense. It won’t win many awards (if any), but it has a good heart at its core, some powerful acting, and challenging explorations into the depths of a lonely human soul, and an endearing story about a man and his dog. What more could you want?

I really really liked I Am Legend. Those who have been waiting in eager anticipation for months for this movie (like I had been) will most likely still enjoy it. If you know Will Smith at all you know that his presence in a movie usually means it’s a guarantee you’ll have a good time. My recommendation: if you’re a sci-fi fan, go see it. If you’re a horror fan, go see it. If you’re a Will Smith fan, go see it. Have I covered all the demographics? Yup, I think I have.

The Kite Runner (6/10)

Posted in Uncategorized on December 15, 2007 by Brandon

 
“There is a way to make a boring onesheet again.”

Before I begin, I must say that, right off the bat, this movie absolutely sucks in comparison to the book. There’s not even a question there. Therefore, like with the Golden Compass, I will not mention the book unless absolutely necessary in my review. You have been warned.

Recently, I’ve begun to notice that American filmmakers suck when it comes to making a powerful film about the Middle East that relates to the struggles that seem to gripping that area with an iron fist lately. They either seem to be too heavy-handed, too expository, or just downright dense about our involvement as a nation over there. Lions for Lambs was ambitious but ultimately a let-down; Rendition had a star-studded cast and was headed for Oscar glory until critics discovered it was preachy and incredibly naive; In the Valley of Elah was better received, but still, it was by no means a triumph; The Kingdom was a joke…the list goes on and on. However, if you look at films made the people who actually live over there, these are some of the most powerful and true and balanced in-depths films you will ever see about that area. Paradise Now was a powerpunch, The Syrian Bride was a desperately tragi-comic affair that exquisitely portrayed some of the dualism of that area. These kinds of things lead me to believe that Americans just can’t seem to make a movie about the Middle East right now, which is why I was more than apprehensive when I saw that Marc Forster, who directed the critically lauded Finding Neverland and Monster’s Ball, was signed up to take the helm on this one. Maybe they thought that his expertise in those areas qualified him to handle this blockbuster-power yet delicate subject matter movie adaptation of a lovable book. Turns out they were wrong. Kite Runner is movie that’s flawed in so so many ways, yet, despite the clumsy direction and script, and believe me, this is some damn clumsy work, the story of redemption and love shine through enough to give it a fair recommendation.

The film opens with a dude named Amir, who has just received his novel in the mail and is ready to start a book tour to promote this premier, when he receives a call from an old friend who tells him ominously, “There is a way to be good again.” From this we go to a flashback taking place in Kabul, Afghanistan. Amir is a young boy who loves to fly kites and has a Hazara, which is a low-class basically slave level kind of Afghan, servant named Hassan. The two are inseparable, especially when they fly kites, where Hassan’s job is to catch fallen kites and Amir’s job is to fly. Mind you, I’m explaining all this because the movie leaves the audience to pick up the fallen pieces and try to piece them together. Never once is Amir and Hassan’s relationship explained, nor kite flying why it’s so important, nor much else at all. Forster leaves it to us to figure things out; we’re left there dangling. Anyways, because this is a story that spans about fifteen or twenty years of a man’s life, it’s difficult to give a plot synopsis without giving key plot points away, so I’ll just move on to elaborate on the film’s flaws.

Aside from the confusing manner of story delivery, several key points of character development revolve around important characteristics of the main characters that are never even mentioned. A major turning point in the novel revolves around the watery impression that the viewer has that Amir is some kind of coward. Amir and Hassan’s relationship seems more like a couple of kids having fun instead of the very dark heart that is at the center of it all. You often wonder why Amir is being so mean to Hassan and why he’s such a jerk to him when it doesn’t seem to make any sense, as the key point of his jealousy of his father’s love is completely left out. Spider-Man showed that you could show jealousy between a friend and his love for a father with just a few key scenes, but Forster just seems to have forgotten it, being preoccupied with important stuff: kite-flying.

Khaled Hosseini, in a press release a month or so ago, said that the kite flying he had seen in the film was incredibly well done and far far better than he could ever have imagined. In point of fact, the kite flying scenes in the movie don’t carry much emotional weight at all, and when they do, it’s not because of the glaringly out-of-place CGI or the look-at-me-I’m-swooping-through-the-sky cinematography. It’s because of the humans at the center of the story, whom, as we’ve already discussed, don’t have very many dimensions, in part due to the incredibly rushed feeling the story has. The novel is 300 some odd pages long, while the movie, though not committing the fallacy of Golden Compass by clocking in at under two hours, still has the feel of a director checking things off a list.

The script is stilted, convenient, rushed, and eliminates all the cultural subtleties and importances that made Hosseinin’s novel so successful. Granted, this is a movie, so I don’t expect that kind of detail to appear here, but the complete disregard for Afghanistan culture is not only glaringly obvious, it’s also insulting. When Amir flashes back to his childhood in Kabul, his home life seems little more than a slightly retro California house. When he asks his wife to marry him, all the culturalities of the situation are tossed aside in favor of a quick and easy little movie equivalent of a footnote on the side of a page. Forster is far more interested in showing Americans how similar we are to Afghans than how different we are. By the end of the movie I was questioning myself why exactly this had taken place in Afghanistan. In Forster’s version of the story, nothing core really seems to be different from American culture. This clumsiness in the script and direction is extended to other scenes that should have great emotional impact, such as when a character gets raped. It’s a scene that should be chilling and horrifying yet comes off like a coward filmed it. I can understand Forster doing it as tastefully as possible, but in filming the rape scene like that he completely removed any solid emotional impact it may have had. Sure, it’s sad, but so? Other times key plot points seem like contrived conveniences rather than the momentous and meticulously set-up that Hosseini gives them in a novel.

BUT yet I’m still giving Kite Runner a fair recommendation. Why? Well, for the reasons I said above. The story is a deeply powerful one whose brightness shines through despite all the contrived and clumsy direction. If a good director and screenwriter had gotten a hold of this story, you can bet we’d be looking at a near masterpiece. The final scene in the movie brought tears to my eyes even though I had spent the previous two hours practically mentally demolishing it. Such a powerful emotional impact cannot be denied, and in my book, redeems this movie as a whole.

The Kite Runner is a very very flawed movie. The direction just plain sucks, the acting is all right, and the script is incredibly rushed. But the story is so good and so powerful that you really find yourself caring for these characters. The man who plays the adult Amir carries a quiet kind of charisma that really enables the audience to like him. Without him, I would be giving this movie a much lower rating, even though, as I said, the story is powerful. Not Forster’s type, though. Stick with American emotional movies, man. This one, though okay in the end, just wasn’t your thing.

If you’re the type of person who is not satisfied with a movie adaptation of the book unless it keeps virtually everything, there’s a high chance you’ll despise Kite Runner. But even if you don’t despite everything, like me, you’ll find yourself consistently wondering why the scenes cut were cut and the scenes kept in were kept in. Forster’s in a very confused outing here, but just try to ignore him. You’ll find a solid and uplifting story at the core of it all, and for some people, this may be just the ticket.

The Mist (6/10)

Posted in Uncategorized on December 15, 2007 by Brandon

A lot of critics and even some people I’ve met are hailing The Mist as some supernatural thriller that asks deep psychological questions, the most important of which is, when faced with death, do humans turn against each other, and if so, what do they find? Monsters? Are these monsters worse than what lurks outside. Do not be fooled. The Mist is little more than a glorified sci-fi channel late-night horror movie, with the only thing differentiating the two being three factors: slightly better actors; special effects light-years ahead, but still not top-notch; and this one’s in theaters. The Mist is exactly what you would expect from the trailers, the posters, and the buzz. There’s not a single surprise to be found among it, all, save for a few spotty (and debatable) “oh!” moments here and there in the film, and even those are spoiled by how ludicrous they are.

Based on the novella by Stephen King, The Mist opens in a small town in Maine (surprise surprise), where, a film and book artist, David Drayton (sounds like he belongs in a Stan Lee comic book), has his work destroyed by a freak lightning storm. The next day he goes to the local supermarket with his young boy and his rival sue-happy lawyer neighbor, Brent Norton, to get some supplies for what looks like what will be a long week ahead of them. Little does he know that for the next few days he’ll be surrounded by all the supplies he’ll ever need, but terrified to go outside, for fear of the mysterious mist that soon envelops the town and traps Drayton, Norton, and a host of other quirky smalltown folk in the supermarket. Soon monters start to appear in the mist, the doomsday prophesying Mrs. Carmody starts, well, doom-saying and prophesying, and it’s up to Drayton, the artist-turned-natural-born

-leader-inexplicably-buff-dude, to figure out how to beat the mist. My personal idea was to use a vaccum cleaner, but somehow that never came up.

The cast in the grocery store is a checklist of B-movie horror cliches, worse than many of those that populate the Saw franchise, and that’s saying something. There’s the cool/nerdy clerk who ends up having a hand in saving the day (of sorts); there’s the one I mentioned earlier, the dooms-day prophesying crazy Christian woman; there’s the main character’s child, whom he has to protect and promise that he will never let anything happen to him; there’s the love interest that results in tragedy; there’s the converts; the true believers; the heroes who die tragically; the idiots who die tragically…and so on and so forth. It’s lazy and annoying and even if it is a kind of homage to Rod Serling, it feels more like a copycat than an original creation.

Casting is both a strength and weakness of the film. Marcia Gay Harden’s character doesn’t really do anything except say, “Hey, you’re all going to hell unless you believe me.” That may not sound so bad on the surface, but once you get into the movie you really really really really wish someone would just shoot her. I know her character is supposed to be an idiot, but good actors can play off an idiot in a likeable way (if that sounds right), and what the usually extremely talented Harden fails to do here is play off anything as parody or even cheese. She takes it all deadly seriously and never once is her character really funny or satirical. All her character demonstrates is King’s and Darabont’s inability to fathom what goes on in the mind of a real Christian. This is the same doomsday-speaking Christian that we’ve seen in a dozen other movies, and even her Christianity from her point of view doesn’t make sense. She says she only believes in an Old Testament god, but then goes on to extensively quote Revelation, which is in the New Testament last time I checked. Perhaps I’m being too harsh because I myself am a Christian, but I don’t think so. A perfect example of what Harden should have done is Ollie, played by Toby Jones, who knows every second of the film that he’s in a ridiculous adaptation and doesn’t once take himself too seriously. The rest of the cast works okay for the film (Thomas Jane as Drayton is the best one), but they are often tiresomely unimpressive. Norton’s character of the skeptic is also fairly annoying, as he takes umbrage at everything everyone says and refuses to believe even the most obvious of occurrences. If a monster grabbed him around the waist he would still claim that someone was projecting an illusion or something.

Other instances of annoyingly bad cliches are how everything that can go wrong does. When monsters raid the store, suddenly everyone becomes a stumbling klutz just so they can get devoured and or stung. Other times some characters just stand there and scream instead of running, or just say something stupid. After Drayton has defeated a tentacle by chopping it off, leaving it sitting there in a pile of its own stink, he asks his buddies, in a very worried voice, “How are we going to make them [the people in the store] believe us?” I’m sitting there thinking, “You have a freakin tentacle, buddy. Use it!”

The special effects do their job, but they are not first rate. All the bugs and spiders look like they are made out of cardboard. A lot of them are fairly frightening, and the movie thankfully doesn’t skimp on the blood or gross-out factor. At one point a man explodes because his body is full of tiny spiders. Horror fans looking for gore and gross-out won’t be disappointed, but anyone looking for any true scares will leave the theatre with their heads hanging. The only time The Mist approaches being truly frightening is near the end of the film (which easily bests everything that came before), where Darabont veers from King’s open-ended ending with a solid smack in our faces. I won’t give it a way, but it’s an ending that you won’t forget. Its only problem is is that it seems like obvious way to go if you weren’t going to follow King’s story, and doesn’t really give Darabont much credit for his imagination.

When the trailers for this film first came out, I watched it and was intrigued right up until when the trailer began showing flying insects and monsters, giving away absolutely everything about the film. The best monster movies have always been one that hide their secrets well and don’t show the monsters too much. As any fan of horror knows, what you can’t see is always, ALWAYS, scarier than what you can. The Mist’s only redeeming factor is that I’m pretty sure what’s onscreen is exactly what the filmmakers wanted. They wanted to give us a B-movie sci-fi channel horror flick, and that is what we have.. Sure, it’s overlong, and like a lot of King’s work, near the end it meanders off and doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself. Also, the explanation that ends up being given for how the Mist was created is a bit predictable as well as extremely unsatisfying and very, very, very, very pointless. The Mist won’t give you misty eyes with its story, but it may make you do a double-take the next time you see some low-hanging fog. I’m pretty sure that’s about all teh filmmakers wanted.

The Golden Compass (4/10)

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2007 by Brandon

There is a moment in this movie where my heart soared, my breath was taken away, and I clapped along with everyone in the theater at what had just happened. It was a wonderful moment one that I still remember quite vividly because of one key fact: it was the only moment, in the entire movie, that I felt this way. Throughout the entire affair, I tried my absolute best to enjoy this movie, and normally, if I don’t feel enjoyment, I just have fun with ripping it apart, but I didn’t do that here. Despite my best efforts, the Golden Compass failed to excite me, draw me in, or give me anything I wanted from a movie in most every possible way. It was an almost painful experience, one of the most difficult times I’ve had at the movies in a long while. A derivative and unimaginative Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter wanna-be, His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass just does not work.

The opening of the film has us flying through a universe of whirling galaxies and fantastic colors, and for a few precious seconds it seemed like this was going to be a good and fantastic fantasy movie. We learn that there are many universes, worlds, and galaxies, some where people’s soul’s live inside their bodies, and some where the souls walk around on the outside, as in the alternative universe that our young plucky heroine, Lyra, inhabits. These corporeal animal souls are called daemons, and Lyra’s is Pantalaimon. One day, she happens to accidentally listen in on the conversation of her uncle, Lord Asriel, with leading members of Jordan College, where she lives, and also learns, that Asriel has discovered a way to travel between universes, which makes the leading members of Jordan College none too pleased, for they hate the idea that anything could exist beyond their own world. Soon after this, Ann Coulter, er, I mean, Marisa Coulter, a leading member of the Magisterium, the ruling class in Lyra’s land, takes an interest in Lyra and ferries her to the capital city where Lyra soon discovers her savior isn’t all she thought she would be. From here, Lyra goes through many adventures and meets many interesting characters along the way and o on and so forth. In a script that takes the tired idea of one person going on a quest to save the world, something must be done to differentiate itself, and The Golden Compass fails to do this.

The biggest problem of the film is casting and characterization. Dakota Blue Richards, who plays Lyra, is a cheeky youngster who takes her assignment to play a headstrong female lead and makes her an annoying self-centered whiny baby. Throughout most of the film she is constantly whimpering about how she hates people telling her what to do, which is presumably to make us want to see why the Magisterium is so oppressive, but which only makes her completely hateable. Throughout most of the movie I felt like giving her a solid smack across the face. She just wouldn’t <i>shut up</i>. On top of this poor characterization, most of the adults in the film come of as naive people who only care about telling people what not to do. Nicole Kidman does her best with Ms. Coulter, but the script calls for her to be incredibly naive and so she she just comes off as a flat-out idiot. A key plot point revolves around a deception that the audience doesn’t buy for one minute, yet which for some odd reason the characters onscreen accept without questioning at all. Iorek Byrnison, the ice bear that all-too-conveniently befriends Lyra, is voiced by Ian McKellen, and here’s the surprising thing: he’s actually disappointing. He sounds like he’s on auto-pilot, giving us the typical wise-old man routine without any effort at all. Despite this, he’s still Ian freakin McKellen, and as such, is light years better than most everybody else in the film. Sam Elliot, who plays a rogue cowboy-type-person that for some odd reason to decides to aid Lyra, was my favorite part about the film, as he pulls of his role with tobacco-spitting gusto. And damn if that mustache won’t eat any other mustache alive.

Another weakness of the movie is the rather unimpressive, sometimes needlessly incoherent, and disappointing plot. The daemons do little more than flit around and affect the people’s health if strangled or something, while providing some very impressive CGI. That’s about it. No real connection is ever felt. All the daemons feel more like little furry animal friends than their freakin souls. There are a couple of nice touches, such as when Coulter’s monkey daemon interacts with Lyra’s mostly-weasel daemon. Their interactions mirror the emotions running between Coulter and Lyra, and it’s very intriguing, but unfortunately, things like that only happen two or three times throughout the whole film. Another problem is that the daemons are never properly explained. Supposedly children’s daemons can change shape whenever they want, yet in key moments, where a simple change of shape to a smaller form would make the whole thing a lot simpler, for some weird reason they are unable to change shape. Why? Also, why does it seem that only Lyra’s daemon can talk? I suppose it could be that we are seeing everything from her point of view, so we can only hear her daemon speak, but the movie should have explained this a whole lot better than it does. And if this is Lyra’s soul we’re talking about, it seems awfully plain and boring to merely have them speak words to each other. Shouldn’t their bond be more powerful?

Another issues is the director, Chris Weitz, who is very obviously way out of his element here. First of all, he wrote the script, which as we’ve seen above doesn’t do to well to explain things in the book, and second of all, he directed this mess. He wrote and directed “About a Boy” as well as co-directed American Pie, and big budget fantasy is obviously not his thing. Most of the camera-work feels like it was done by chance – when a good shot occurs, which isn’t too often, you feel more like it was an accident than purposeful. He just simply absolutely sucks at cinematography, and scenes that should be full of excitement are spoiled by his inexperience in maneuvering a freakin camera. He only seems preoccupied with what is happening in the moment, and absolutely nothing else. When Lyra is running on Iorek’s back across vast fields of snow, it’s a scene that should feel majestic, grand, and epic, but I actually half-expected Iorek to crack open a bottle a Coca-Cola and start guzzling. The commercial wherein polar bears share some coke with penguins feels better filmed than this. He also doesn’t seem to know how to stage an emotional scene. There is a part, near the end, that, in the right hands, would have felt tragic, wrenching, and horrible, but because of the direction, ends up being a mere inconvenience with barely any emotion at all. And I’m sorry, Dakota Richards, but screaming does not count as acting. Add to all this the amount of cliches that pile up (at one point a character must cross a thing bridge made of ice across a miles-deep ravine), and you have one poorly-made movie.

Despite some pretty good CGI work, a lot of it is unimaginative. As I mentioned, the scenes in the arctic remind me more of a Coca-Cola commercial than they do a true fantasy adventure. The effects when Lyra reads the alethiometer (a device used for detecting truth) are so dull and derivative I had to hold my head in my hands in disappointment whenever it happened. Yes, the CGI is very very very good, but the way it is implemented leaves something to be desired. The best part about the effects are, hands down, the daemons. Everything else just kind of sits there like a rock.

This is just flat-out a badly made movie. None of the characters are really likeable, some of the story is never explained too well, the main girl is a selfish brat, and key plot points hinge on chance encounters and unbelievable occurrences. Anything good coming out of this movie results by sheer luck and not by skill, except perhaps the CGI, which is just flat-out some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. The action scenes are okay, and they shine despite Weitz’s direction. Some of the more colorful characters add a bit of a bright spot as well, but I’m sorry, this is just not a good movie. It’s a shame, because as I understand it this was some very rich source material. Another shame is that because of all the boycotting going on, it will only cause people to want to see it more. And the general reaction, judging by both rotten tomatoes and the normal public, has been disappointment. If you want to see a good fantasy film, go to Lord of the Rings, or one of the first three Harry Potters (the fourth and fifth less so). And if you think I’m being unfair in comparing this film to these franchises, for one, Pullman has said that he loves Rowling, and for another, New Line Cinema is touting this as the next Lord of the Rings, so they are begging the comparison. In the end, The Golden Compass is the kind of movie that makes you blessedly thankful for skilled fantasy directors like Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Chris Columbus, and Alfonso Cuaron. Chris Weitz just isn’t up to par, both as a writer and as a director. Here’s hoping that the next two installments will switch directors, because if it stays this way, it’s only going to get worse.

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If you’ve been wanting to see The Golden Compass, go ahead and see it, because anything I say won’t keep you from it. You may like it, but there’s a large chance you won’t. I was personally very disappointed, and I think that merits the film, at best, a rental down the road.

Speed Racer Trailer!!!!

Posted in Movie Buzz on December 7, 2007 by Brandon

Okay, this new trailer just obliterated my DVD/Blu-Ray misery.

The above video’s audio is a little off, but this link works perfectly fine.

The new film directed by the oft-heard-of-but-never-seen Wachowski Brothers just hit the net, and it looks FRIGGIN AWESOME! I am ten times more excited for this May. Come on. Iron Man, Prince Caspian, and Speed Racer. Friggin A. Yes. I think I love May the best of all summer months. Last year was Shrek 3, Spidey 3, and Pirates 3. This year isn’t as epic, but still. It is shaping up to be one hell of a variety-filled month.

Go!!!!!!!!!!!!