Saturday, December 31, 2011

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

There are six of them. They meet in a soundproof room and discuss whatever small pieces of information they have about the enemy. They are Control (John Hurt), Alleline (Toby Jones) Haydon (Collin Firth), Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Esterhouse (David Dencik) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Together they are the braintrust of early 70's era British Intelligence, known as "The Circus." Once of them is a mole.

Someone once told me that by the end of a John Le Carré novel, you are likely to know the characters better than some members of your immediate family. Indeed, one of the great pleasures of Tomas Alferdson's new thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on Le Carré's 1974 novel, is realizing how complex the plot has become despite seeming so simple. Here is a spy movie that is neither a slamb-bang action spectacle, nor a talky gabfest. Most importantly, this is a film that understands the mindset of espionage. It's hero, George Smiley, doesn't shoot anyone, he barely talks to anyone. He's turned being inconspicuous into a life pursuit.

As the film begins, there is a screw-up in Hungary. An agent is killed while trying to convince a general to defect. It seems that the whole thing was a Russian trap. The consequences of the debacle shake up the Circus. Control and Smiley are forced out, and the egotistical Alleline takes the top chair. A year later Control is dead. His untimely death came before he was able to find the mole. The investigation falls to the retired Smiley, who accepts with something approaching mild annoyance.

There are many, many details to the plot. Many involve Smiley interviewing several operatives, including a disgraced courier Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), and the still active supervisor Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). The interviews play out almost like therapy sessions. Smiley doesn't say much, he points in the direction he wants with open-ended questions (more frequently, open-ended nods), and lets them talk. As a result, we learn a lot about what makes these people tick, particularly Tarr, but nothing is extraneous. There is tragedy and pathos but emotion is not overplayed. In fact, it's often very, very repressed. This is after all, a British film.

Aferson, who made a splash with the Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In, has made a film for people who are paying attention, and a film to watch more than once, of small details. Aferson isn't concerned with flash, but still demonstrates one of the best visual eyes on the planet. The performances are, across the board, fantastic. There isn't one weak link to be found. Oldman is excellent with his minimalist performance. The rest of the ensemble is uniformly great, particularly Tom Hardy (Bronson, Warrior) and Mark Strong (Kick-Ass, Sherlock Holmes) who has a small, but pivotal role. This is a clean, efficient film. See it. Ruminate on it, then see it again.

Grade: A

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is currently in limited release, it expands to more theaters January 6th.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

The Tintin comics are kinda like soccer, popular everywhere except America. It's a real shame too, because if Steven Spielberg's new film adaptation is any indication, we've been missing out on some great  adventures. For the uninitiated, Tintin was created by Belgian artist Hergé in the late 20's. The comics are notable for their innovative artwork and also being fun and whimsical.

This film is primarily based on the 11th book of the series The Secret of the Unicorn and bits and pieces from other entries. But all you really need to know is that Tintin (Jamie Bell) is basically Indiana Jones as a kid. Instead of being an archeologist, he's a boy reporter. He travels the world with his dog Snowy solving mysteries and getting into trouble.

We find the intrepid newskid at an outdoor market buying a model ship named the Unicorn. He has no particular interest in the ship beyond his love of history. But several parities have a much more immediate interest, particularly the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig) who's more than willing to kill to get his grubby hands on the model. As Tintin works to solve the case, he teams up with the comically inebriated Captain Haddock (a fantastic performance by Andy Serkis). Haddock knows a lot about the model, but only when he's sober—a very rare occurrence!

Spielberg has been trying to make this film, in one form or another, for about 30 years. The passion that he and producer Peter Jackson have for this character is positively infectious. There is a level of visual inventiveness here that is not often displayed in cinema. In one sequence we see two galleons. Both ships are being rocked back and forth by tremendous waves. They become entangled at the mast. The bigger ship tips back upright pulling the smaller ship out of the water entirely. The smaller ship dangles from the sails as pirates leap down from one ship to the other! In another scene two characters fight in an elaborate duel but instead of swords, the combatants stand behind the controls of giant cranes. Every time it seems the film cannot possibly have another great sequence, Spielberg pulls another great gag out of his bag of tricks!

pictured: excitement!
In a way, this is a return to a Spielberg we haven't seen since the 80's. But another way, this is a new Spielberg. The motion-caption techniques gives the film an improvisational feeling while still being animated. The style has all the creativity of animation, the gravity of live-action but never stumbles into the uncanny-valley as Robert Zemeckis has while using similar techniques. This film has freed Spielberg, it's a filmmakers imagination transcribed directly onto the screen. He can go anywhere, do anything. This film, this character has empowered him in a way I've never seen.

If the film is successful in America (it's already done gangbusters overseas), the sequel will be directed by Peter Jackson after he finishes The Hobbit. It's a shame that we're going to have to wait that long.

Grade: A

For those wishing to read the comics but don't know which of Tintin's 24 adventures to start with, the AVclub has recently published a very nice guide which you can find here. I've only read bits and pieces of comics, but I'm gonna run out and buy them at the earliest opportunity  

Monday, December 26, 2011

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL

The Mission: Impossible films have never been very substantive. So much so that the third film shocked some by having a coherent plot. Even the Bond films are deeper than these. What the series is good at is providing a playground for great stunts. An action movie test lab if you will. In that sense Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is a rousing success.

The plot is cut and dried. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his I.M.F. team (I.M.F. stands for "Impossible Mission Force"- love that!) are disavowed after a failed recon mission leaves the Kremlin in ruins. They must clear their name and stop a terrorist from destroying the world itself!

It's a more coherent film than most of the series with extra attention paid to Hunt's team. From the previous film we have the over-eager technician Benji (Simon Pegg), and new additions like the slightly worn out Jane (Paula Patton), and the mysterious analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner). The team has great chemistry and unlike many ensemble action films, no one feels extra. It's still Tom Cruise's show, but it's more balanced and everyone has plenty to do (particularly Pegg). The story may be light but the character relationships have an intricate feeling to them.

Outside of a young Jackie Chan, is there a living actor as committed to extreme stunt-work than Tom Cruise? In one nail-biting sequence Ethan must run around the outside of Dubai's Burj Kahlifa hotel, the tallest building in the world. Another actor would have done the done close ups against bluescreen, used a stunt double, etc. But not Cuise, that is the actual Tom Cruise running and jumping roughly 2,000 feet above the ground without a safety net! It's a great stunt, but more importantly, it's a well constructed sequence. The closest that any of these sequels have come to equaling the suspense the Langley break-in from the original.

The danger of having such a spellbinding stunt so early in the film is that nothing can top it. But that doesn't mater as even the more artificial action scenes are great fun. Such as a sequence where Hunt must pursue a target through a giant sandstorm, a prison break based around a Dean Martin song or a climactic fight inside an automated parking garage (it works like a giant vending machine and as ridiculous as it looks apparently such things do exist).

If there's another thing that these films do is provide a great template for directors. Each film has had a different director and each film has unique stylistic thumbprint. Ghost Protocol is no different. It is particularly notable for being the live-action debut of Simpsons and Pixar vet Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). This is an extremely fun and triumphant debut full of Birds trademark humor. If he chooses to, Bird can very easily become one of the worlds best action-directors. This is not as personal as his earlier films, buy hey, it's Mission: Impossible.

Grade: A-

I saw the film in IMAX. If you can afford it, I recommend it. Roughly 30 minutes of the film was shot using the format and the results are breathtaking. Bird engulfs the audience with the 9 story screen. The dust of the desert. The vertigo of climbing the building. It's all much more real and immediate thanks to the large format film stock.



Picture this 9 stories tall!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

For several decades, Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger has received in the mail, a frame of pressed flowers for his birthday. Until 1966 they where from Harriet, his niece; afterwords they where from her killer. So opens David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a stylish and confident new thriller.

To help solve the case, Henrik hires Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), an ambitious magazine editor who was recently convicted of libel after trusting the wrong source. After 40 years of investigating the case himself, all Henrik knows is that the killer is someone in the family.

As Mikael begins his work, we also follow Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a mentally disturbed computer hacker who's being sexually abused by her new guardian. After getting some very bloody revenge, she's hired by Blomkvist as a research assistant and the movie proper starts.

This film deals with some weighty material: rape, fascism, corruption, obsession, and more rape. There is a political undercurrent that's hard to ignore, but it's never preachy, and Fincher gives it to us with all the trademark style he's shown in Se7en, Fight Club, The Game and The Social Network. Beautifully under-lit with echo-chamber sound. Not that this film is as good as those, but it's just as stylish.

With all apologies to the late Stieg Larsson, the plot is the films biggest problem. The structure is not well suited to film. As lurid as it is, the film is a bit dull at first. It takes too long to get going and overall it lacks the transcendent resonance that would put into the very top tier of thrillers. That said, it's better than the Swedish version from a few years ago. It's better put together, lacks the overly sappy ending and isn't as dependent on it's lead performance. Rooney Mara is fantastic as Lisbeth Salander. She won't make you forget about Noomi Rapace (who originated the role to great acclaim), but she's not trying to. The performance is playing a very different note here. Daniel Craig does a lot with his lumpy character, Christopher Plummber is fantastic as Henrik and Stellan Skarsgard has an unforgettable scene near the end I must leave to you to discover.

The main draw of the story is Salander. She is still one of the most fascinating characters in fiction right now. She is tough as nails yet there's something fragile about her. She give no heed to the roles society wants her to play. The world is against her and she is against the world. As interesting as the mystery about Harriet is. The material dealing directly with Salander's world is the most interesting and it's a little irritating that she's sidelined just as the film finds it's footing.

This is a very good film, not as good as should be, but about as good as the material can be without radical surgery to the script. But something about the complexity of the film tells me that I'll like this more on repeat viewings.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

YOUNG ADULT

Some people grow up too soon. Mavis Gary never grew up at all.

The 30 year old Mavis (Charlize Theron) spends her time writing, drinking, watching VH1 reality shows and, occasionally she gets around to her job. She writes-ghostwrites-a series of young adult books about a high-school girl who "was never taken seriously because she was too pretty."

One day Mavis decides too go back to her hometown and reconnect with her high-school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson). It's worth knowing that she undertakes this quest knowing full well that Buddy is married and has just had a child. Along the way she strikes up an unlikely friendship with an old classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt) who does his best to tell her that she's insane. Mavis is condescending enough to Matt that he, up to a point, enjoys watching her fail miserably.

And fail miserably she does. When she meets Buddy again, she misreads every social cue that should tell her that he is not just married, he is extremely married. For instance: Buddy describes himself as being a zombie, in reference to being a new father. Not having spent much time around infants, Mavis thinks he's referring to his marriage.

The film is a reunion for screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, who both made Juno together, but comparing this project to that one would be completely wrong. Cody has dialed-back her stylized dialogue lending this film a more real-world feel. A lot of people criticized the protagonist in Juno as sounding as if she where from another planet, while Mavis just feels trapped on another planet. There's a fair bit of harsh satire going on here, but Reitman is able to warm up the material considerably. On paper Mavis is a bit of a cliché, with the toy dog in her purse, her wigs and "Hello Kitty" T-shirts, but Reitman and Theron work to find a deeper truth to this woman. As misguided as her quest is, she is trying to to pull herself together, it's not just 'the bitch from high-school being mean,' she's trying to pull herself out of a deep depression. Trying to live that fantasy life that only exists in her books.

Grade: B+


TABLOID

The new Errol Morris film Tabloid is the most lurid, off-the-wall documentary to come along in a long time. It tells the story of Wyoming PHD beauty queen, Joyce McKinney who, in the late 70's, fell in love with a flabby Mormon named Kirk Anderson. Joyce claims that his family brainwashed him into not loving her and then sent him off to London to forget about her. From there Joyce went to London, kidnapped him with chloroform and a fake gun. Drove him to a small cottage in Devon and deprogrammed him using, um... bondage sex.

From there things just get odd. After Joyce's arrest for rape and kidnapping, she becomes a media sensation meeting movie stars and rock-gods. She starts writing a book telling her story, stating that she was just an innocent girl who was trying to rescue the love of her life. She quickly enters into a rivalry with London tabloid The Daily Mirror, who disputes her "pure as the driven snow" narrative by revealing the nature of the "modeling" work she used to finance the caper, and claiming to have a plethora of nude photos as evidence.

We hear most of this story from McKinney herself. We also hear a good portion from Daily Mirror reporter Kent Gavin. McKinney claims that the stories about the time she spent in California are flat lies and that the photos are fake. Kent claims that he's seen the negatives that prove they aren't but can't produce them. Joyce also claims to have had material that would prove that they are fake. But sadly, or suspiciously, all the evidence was stolen.

It's clear that Anderson and McKinney had some sort of romantic relationship prior to all the weirdness, but it's unclear to what extent. It's unclear to what extent Anderson did or did not enjoy the "deprogramming," "You can't put a marshmellow into a parking meter," Joyce claims. It is clear that he denounced her after, perhaps out of guilt, perhaps not. The only thing that is certain is that they are not together now.

Morris weaves this tale into an extremely entertaining documentary. McKinney is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. Even if everything she said was true, she'd still come off as a self-serving obsessive at best. But Morris never demonizes her or even criticizes her, instead he sympathizes with her on a deep and real level. It's not as hard as it may seem. Joyce has not lived an easy life since the trial. For years she was hounded by paparazzi. Home videos reveal her to be extremely lonely, perhaps even clinically depressed. She never married and her only companions seem to be her dogs. It's been over 30 years since she kidnapped Kirk Anderson with the chloroform and the fake gun.  She's still working on that book.

Grade: A

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS


For a film about a the worlds greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows doesn’t seem interested in showing us much actual detective work. In fact by the time the film starts Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) has already solved 80% of the case. Leaving him to stumble through 125 minutes of over-gimmicked action, punctuated by long stretches of inane chatter while he tidies up tieing arch nemesis Moriarty (Jared Harris) to a series of bombings. Of course Holmes is not alone on this country-hopping trek. He’s joined by faithful-ish companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and sometimes by a gypsy played by the wonderful  but underused Noomi Rapace (the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). To further explain the plot would be over-dignifying the plot.

This is a silly film. I tried to takes notes on all the silly or dumb scenes but I lost count, here are the highlights:

  • Moriarty blows up a building to cover the simultaneous shooting of one of it’s occupants. "No one will look for a bullet after that explosion!"
  • Sherlock's series of Clouseau-level disguises that include a very insensitive “chinaman.”  
  • Sherlock throws Watson's wife from a train speeding over a bridge. But don't worry- He "timed it right."
  • More stuff on the train. We are shown that Holmes infiltrated the bad guys cabin as a woman (see above) and replaced two specific bullets with lipstick tins that will cause the guns to backfire. Now, we are asked to believe that Holmes worked out the timing so that the fight would last X number of seconds and that the bullet that misfires would be the one pointed at his head at the end of the fight. How did he know that? What if one of his combatants had attacked in the wrong order so that the gun pointed at his head was the wrong one? How did he know the exact moment when they where going to attack with the machine gun?
  • Why is Holmes’s brother Mycroft a nudist?
  • How impractical is Holmes's "urban camouflage" which only works if he's standing still and in a specific spot? 
There are many, many more dumb logic-defying moments. If I told you my favorite it would spoil the film, which may not be the worst thing in the world.

I don’t mind a jazzed up Sherlock Holmes. I quite enjoyed director Guy Ritchie's previous outing. But that film actually understood Holmes even if it wasn't being orthodox, it had some restraint. But this film, from the same creative team, just doesn't have a clue. Holmes doesn’t come off as a brilliant detective as much as a conspiracy-nut who happens to be right.  The action scenes are so ridiculously hypercharched and self-indulgent that one just overloads. To make matters worse, everything that isn’t an action scene feels like padding. There are some effective scenes in the final third, most include Harris’s Moriarty, but by that point it's a hopeless cause. I will give the film some credit for knowing that Watson served in the British Army and referencing Reichenbach Falls, but on the whole, this is a dumb, irritating film with no respect or basic understanding of it's source material.


About midway through the film, an exacerbated Watson tells Holmes that "This is the last time we join forces." I'm not one to talk at the movies, but I couldn't help groaning "God I hope so!"

Grade: D

Note: If you're looking for a good take on Sherlock Holmes, I recommend Billy Wilder's 1970 film "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" or the recent, wonderful BBC series "Sherlock." The later is currently streaming on Netflix instant.

Friday, December 16, 2011

THINGS I MISSED: BEGINNERS


At it's best, Beginners is a film about misfiring synapses. How our memories don't flow in a straight line, and how things get jumbled up and messy. It's also a little too humorless for it's own good. The story is essentially that of director Mike Mills. Oliver (Ewan McGregger) is a graphic designer. In the first of several timelines, Oliver's mother has just died and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay. Hal start over again as a gay man at 75. A brave and difficult thing to attempt if ever there was one. His son however is a different story.

In a further off timeline Hal is dead of lung cancer and Oliver has to deal with it. He's as closed off and private as his father was when he was in the closet. Oliver doesn't do well with women and is afraid to even try. Being morose is better for the art than it is for the artist. But he finds some company in an equally distant French actress played in a charming enough performance by Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds).

Their romance want's to be the backbone of the film, but it's just not as interesting as Hal's story which is positive and life affirming beyond it's LGBT dimensions. It's nice to think that a person can make such a radical life change so late in life and be successful. The film spends much time on Oliver trying to deal with Hal's coming out and death, but Oliver is too vague of a character, painted with slightly too broad of a brush to be of equal interest. His musings on life are amusing and mostly insightful, but they just don't add up to much. Laurent's character is even more problematic. She's not a real person as much as she's an archetypal abstraction of a woman. A lonely screenwriters projection.

What makes up for most of this is the style. The film floats back and forth between Oliver's various memories from four different points in his life. but it's not a mental workout figuring out where you are. The film drifts to whenever it feels it needs to-just the way that memory does. One of the films pleasures is how director Mills illustrates Olivers thoughts for us. When his father is told that he has a tumor the size of a quarter, Mills shows us a quarter against black. Then he shows us all the different combinations of coins that add up to 25 cents. It's always interesting how we think of such mundane things when we get bad news.

Hal's character aside, little of this story feels new but that's appropriate. People have been living variations of stories like this since the beginning of time and will continue to do so. Oliver likes to list what the Sun looked like in 1955 and 2003. What the stars looked like and the cars and the president. Beginners is what the mid-age, auto-biographical, emotionally adrift film looks like in 2011.

Grade: B-

Saturday, December 10, 2011

HUGO

It's interesting that a story about the birth of film, that deals so much with the loss of film negatives was shot digitally. It's kind of a charming notion, a statement to the nostalgics out there that the old ways will live on. It helps that Hugo was directed by one of cinema's greatest filmbuffs, Martin Scorsese, and adapted from award winning children's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The film is a Dickensian fairytale about a young orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who winds the clocks and lives in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse Pairs train station in the early 30's. Hugo must hide from Gustav (Sacha Baron Choen), who wants to send him to an orphanage. He also deals with a grumpy toy shop owner who is secretly film pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) who might know the secret to an old automaton that Hugo and his father (Jude Law) where repairing before his untimely death.


It's all a little muddled, a little bloated at times, I suspect it worked a bit better in the book, which ran over 500 pages. It doesn't help that this film is way outside Scorsese comfort range. He tries to turn the station into a living, breathing place but doesn't quite succeed. I was reminded of the airport that Tom Hanks had to live in in Steven Spielberg's under seen film The Terminal, and how well that airport worked as a living space that characters inhabited. Scorsese isn't able to sell his Gare Montparnasse as effectively as Spielberg sold his terminal but he tries. There are a lot of vignettes going on, including a sweat little romance involving a jealous dog. Sometimes these asides are more welcome than others. Choen's performance, in particular, gets old fast. His character is supposed to be off, but his off-ness is off. Which wouldn't matter if he wasn't such a major presence in the film. Hugo is very much a film of two halves. The first sags; but the second shines.


The second half of the film is more about cinema. The birth of cinema and the great tragedies that sometimes befall great artists. There is a montage near the end detailing the history of early film that is simply astonishing. Perhaps one of the best things that Scorsese and his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker have ever done. We don't just see recreations of silent films, we get to see the real thing. Some of the archival footage has even been lovingly converted into 3D. According to legend, when the Lumiére brothers showed The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station audiences where scared that the train might actually hit them. Now, we get to re-experience that in 3D. For film buffs, that alone makes up for some of the films overall lumpiness.


in 3D!


The film is a technical marvel; I've never seen 3D this good before. It's better than what James Cameron achieved in Avatar by leaps and bounds. Cameron may be a bigger tech-head, but Scorsese has a better eye for composition. It's also what Scorsese does with the technology. He allows the camera to just sit and look at his subject. We get to just sit and observe Ben Kingsley's jutting nose. Choen's charactered features suit the format as well. We also get lots of spinning gears and clockwork that looks fantastic in 3D. One doesn't feel as if Scorsese is inventing a new film language, but that he's reinvigorating what already exists.


It's very appropriate that the film is in 3D. As a filmmaker, the real Méliès was a pioneer of visual effects (we actually get to watch him invent special effects and editing), it makes sense that a film about his legacy be made with the latest gimmicks. But ultimately, the films many flaws mean the film is only an adequate tribute. It lakes the warmth and light of Méliès films. Scorsese is one of cinemas greatest practitioners, but whimsy is not something he's good at. One wonders what other filmmakers might have done with the project. It's a good film, but Steven Spielberg, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson all could have made this film better.


Grade: B-

Friday, October 28, 2011

MAKE/REMAKE: The Thing From Another Word (1951) vs. The Thing (1982) vs. The Thing (2011)



Remakes are a tricky thing. They are almost universally reviled but only in the world of film. No one minds when a theater company revives Othello, or when a singer covers a famous song. It's not like the remakes are filmed on the bleached negatives of the originals. Perhaps it's because the originals are often beloved and the remakes are so often sub-par. But must it always be this way? It seems that if a remake where to work, the original would have to be good but lacking in some obvious way and/or the creators of the new version must have some kind of vision, or unique take that justifies the expedition. Which brings us to The Thing, the rare case that has been filmed, not once, not twice but three times. The first remake shows how to do a remake correctly, and the more recent remake shows how to get it all wrong.

The Thing From Another World, co-directed by Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby is a great example of a 50's B-movie. It's got it all: the army, aliens, scientists, radioactivity even an intrepid reporter.

The film starts off at a military base on the edge of American civilization (Alaska) where we meet a curmudgeonly Air Force re-supply crew lead by Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) on their way to the research base deep in the Arctic wilderness. It's cold there. The wind blows horizontal snow. Icicles hang all the way to the ground. Snow is piled up 10 feet high outside. But there's more going on than the temperature. A strange crash has been reported a few miles from the base. The crew and a bunch of scientists go to investigate and discover the remains of a flying saucer. The craft is accidentally destroyed but our heroes are able to recover its pilot, encased in an 8-foot block of ice, and take him back to the base. 

Now obviously we know that the thing will get loose and start terrorizing the base. It was a law of the horror genre even in 1951. But there is a second conflict between the Air Force personnel and the scientists. The lead scientist Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) fills a role nearly analogous to the evil corporation man in more recent horror films. Dr. Carrington doesn't want to destroy the Thing, but wants to save and study it. He just can't believe that a super-intelligent creature can be malevolent He's not an evil scientist per se, he just has his priorities wrong. The second half of the film is fairly atmospheric, you can see the influence on future sci-fi/horror films such as Alien, and the ending is dynamite but the film has a few things that keeps it from transcending its genre.

Co-directors Hawks and Nyby do a great job of showing us how cold the base is on the outside, but when the film goes inside, it's quite easy to forget that theses characters are in the arctic at all. They try a bit, wind rushes inside when doors are opened and alike, but these gimmicks are few and far between and come off as cheap tricks. All it would have taken is the faint sound of the wind howling. The second, larger problem is that the group is too chummy. Even after the creature kills two people, the remainder of the crew still trade jokes with each other as if nothing has happened. Captain Hendry is almost more concerned with wooing his old flame (Margaret Sheridan) as he is with killing the creature that's threatening the world.  To be fair, the romance subplot is done well, and just racy enough to raise eyebrows (be prepared for some light bondage). Also the comradery between the men is fun, even if it is out of the war movie cliche handbook, but ultimately, while these elements help keep the film from being too one-note, make the film tonally wonky.

What really keeps the film going is the titular thing. In the short story that inspired the film, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, the creature was a shape shifter, a great gimmick that was dropped for this version. Perhaps it seemed too technically difficult (though a lot can be done with shadows) but it's also likely that the idea of a monster that can look like anyone might have been a little too touchy in 1951, in the midst of the the Hollywood Blacklists. That said, the Hawks/Nyby Thing is still interestingly weird. Thought went into this creature, not in the sense that it's biologically air-tight or even plausible but in the sense that it perfectly strides the line between cheesy and creepy. The constant speculation and hypothesizing about that nature of the beast gives the film a mild creep factor that is enhanced by the fact that we don't really see that much of the Thing until the end. We know that it is basically humanoid but that's about it. Of course that is a very wise strategy considering that the final reveal of Thing is a little disappointing.

The Thing From Another World is a fun film, full of enough gee-goolies to bring out the 10-year-old in anyone and it's got at least one great jump-scare but a remake is still understandable. It's easy to see how, with the right director, this material can be tweaked to make a truly terrifying picture that works as something more than a genre picture, something that, to quote the film, truly makes you watch the skies in fear.

Which brings us to John Carpenter's 1982 remake titled simply The Thing. By the time Carpenter started work on the film he had already established himself as an important, bankable director. Why do a remake at this point? Well, Carpenter was a fan of the original film, but was also a fan of the original short story, which the Hawks/Nyby team had largely reconfigured to fit their sensibilities and the technology of the time. But fidelity alone is not enough to justify an adaptation. Anyone can follow the source exactly. For example: Zack Snyder essentially took himself out of the equation on his adaptation of Frank Miller's comic 300 by following the graphic novel word for word, panel for panel, too in love with the material to fully filter it through his own mind and make his own film. Something that Carpenter is willing and able to do with his version of The Thing. The result is a film that is not only faithful to the short story but also feels like it could have only been made by John Carpenter.

Right from the opening scenes it's clear that Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Bad News Bares) have more on their minds than Hawks and Nyby. The film is a series of questions, many of which are never answered. The film opens with Norwegian scientists hunting a dog via helicopter. The scientists chase the dog to an American outpost. They try and warn the scientists there to stay away from the dog, but get themselves killed before they can get the message across. This leaves the Americans to wonder why in the hell a bunch of scientists would be trying to kill a dog? Did they go nuts or is something more sinister going on?

Two of the Americans, Cooper (Richard Dysart) and MacReady (Kurt Russell) check out the Norwegian camp. The place looks like it's been firebombed. The bodies they find look like murders or suicides. But then there's the other body. The thing doesn't look right, doesn't look human. "Is that a man in there?" Cooper asks. They bring it back to base and have the camp surgeon, Blair (Wilford Brimley), do an autopsy, revealing that despite the heavy deformities the body has a perfectly normal set of human organs.

Meanwhile there's that dog they rescued from the Norwegians. He's a strange mutt. He looks catatonic and rigid. It turns out that the dog is not really a dog, and the body isn't really human. They're Things; alien creatures that can flawlessly replace any life form they touch. By the time the Americans find out, it's too late; some of them are still human but some aren't. 

Isolation is a bigger theme this time around. We never see anything outside of the base. The radio is even less functional here before being destroyed altogether. The exteriors feel a lot colder, and the interiors are dank and claustrophobic, no forgetting where you are in this version. Cabin fever really sets in. 

 The whole business with the Norwegian camp is an invention of the Carpenter film, but it's a great device. It allows Carpenter to slowly develop the film as he introduces the characters and plants images that he'll come back to later in the film. It's also a great piece of misdirection. The film looks like it's a mystery centered on what happened to the Norwegian camp, but the real mystery has much more immediate stakes. Also, finding the creature among the corpses of it's previous victims is just a lot more atmospheric than what appears in the short story or the Hawks/Nyby version

Another choice that Carpenter makes is in his characterization. Like the Hawks/Nyby version, Carpenter has a large group of people populating the base but they're not separated along the ideological lines of "military might" vs. "scientific curiosity." Carpenter's crew are more diverse than that. Some of them are scientists of varying fields, some might be ex-military, some are blue collar schmoes. As a result they feel less like abstract archetypes and more like real people and this makes their eventual conflict more believable. Unlike the original, no one is concerned with studying or making peace with the Things. The creatures are too gruesome and horrifying to inspire any empathy.

The portrayal of the creatures is an interesting choice. We see a lot of them here, that seems to break the so-called "Jaws Rule" which states the more you show of a monster, the less scary it is. But Carpenter gets away with it because he's mixing different kinds of horror. He has the gooey creature effects, but he also has long stretches where the things go unseen as the heroes try and figure out who is human, and who is a thing. There is the famous scene where MacReady thinks he finally has a way to delineate man from thing via blood test that shows how Carpenter builds up the psychological tension and then gives it a wondrously icky payoff.

If John Carpenter’s Thing was an example of an exceptional, well justified remake, than the 2011 re-remake by first timer Matthijs Van Heijngen Jr, is an example of a remake that has very little to offer.

Technically speaking, The Thing 2011 is not a remake, but a prequel (though they still titled it as if it were a remake). This immediately gets the film into trouble. What made Carpenters version work was that it was its own beast. It didn’t try to be anything like the Hawks/Nyby version, nor was it afraid to deviate from its literary source. It was a case of a young director taking per-existing material and putting his own, indelible stamp on it. In the process, Carpenter made his third classic film (after “Halloween” and “Escape From New York”). By choosing to set his film in the same universe as the '82 film, chronicling the events at the Norwegian camp before the Thing escaped and made it’s way across the Antarctic tundra to trouble Kurt Russell and his friends, Heijengen limits its potential, shooting himself in the foot right out of the gate.
There's another conceptual problem: the whole point of the Norwegian camp affair in the ’82 Thing was to foreshadow what was about to happen to the American camp. For those who saw the original, there's no extra mystery added by switching camps and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5), don't do much do exceed those rock bottom expectations. Yet again, an Antarctic research camp finds a flying saucer trapped in the ice. Yet again, the scientists find a passenger entrapped in a block of ice and bring it back to base only to see it thaw (this time it explodes out of the ice) and wreak havoc by imitating people. At this point it should be very clear that although this film is technically a prequel, it follows more than enough of the basic plot points to qualify as a stealth remake. 
 
But even from this compromised position, I'd like to think that a film can still recover. A good director, a good screenwriter can still make a worthwhile film. Unfortunately a series of poor choices Heijngen makes shows that he is poorly qualified to follow John Carpenter and Howard Hawks.

Firstly, while Carpenter populated his film with well defined characters, Heijngen populates his with monster food. Many times I found myself wondering who these people were and whether I should care about any of them. Second, in the Carpenter version, the monsters where intelligent. Only attacking when they had selected a good target or they backed into a corner. They bided their time, and were more chilling for it. In Heijngen’s version the things attacked whenever the screenplay was getting dull, which was quite frequently.

The monsters themselves looked good. I suspect that some of these designs could be made into popular action figures. However, the physicality of the monster has never been the scariest element in these films and in this new version the things are gooey for sure, but never was I scared of them. They are shown too often and too clearly. The film often feels like a run-of-the-mill slasher film with anonymous people hiding in the shadows, getting picked off one by one.

Adding to the films generic qualities are the unnecessarily, ubiquitous camera shakes, and a laughable musical score by Marco Beltrami. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more about connecting the dots between it an the original (incorrectly I might add) than telling its own story. The climax of the film takes place inside the flying saucer. The one location in the Thing universe even less in need of further investigation than the Norwegian camp.

The film wasn't all bad. There where some clever details. Like the idea that the things can't replicate non-organic matter. It's a reasonable idea that might help answer lingering questions from the '82 film. It pays off well in a scene involving tooth fillings. Also, it was interesting to see a female lead in this material and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) was fine casting. That said, because the film is set in 1982, you might expect sexual politics to play some role in the film, but they don’t. Also, more could have been done with the fact that this group of scientists where a multi-national crew. It could have been the American's vs. the Norwegian's vs. the Thing. But this film is full of stuff that could have been good had the filmmakers made the choice to pursue them instead of making a cookie-cutter monster mash.

So there we have it. This film has been made three times now. The material has inspired countless other films from Alien to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The material can work or not work. The versions that do work, work because their directors made intelligent choices in how to execute that material.  

“The Thing From Another World” B+
“The Thing” (1982) A
“The Thing” (2011) C


NOTE: If you'd like to know more about John Carpenter as a director and his version of  "The Thing,"check out this excellent review by Max O'Connell, over at our sister blog "The Film Temple" 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

DRIVE

He drives around at night a lot. He gets paid to do that, but you get the feeling that he'd do it anyway. He's a lonely man. So removed from humanity that he doesn't even get a name. The credits list him as Driver. Driver is played by Ryan Gosling (Crazy Stupid Love, The Notebook) who continues to remind us why he's one of the best actors working today. When we meet him, he's driving a getaway car. What follows is one of the most exciting car chases in recent memory. Unlike what we get in something like "Fast Five" it feels real. The movie seems to know how it feels to be pursued by the cops.

Driver is one of those 'By day, by night' types. By day he's a Hollywood stunt driver, rolling over cars and stuff. We know what he does at night. His handler for both jobs is a crusty, local mechanic named Shannon (Brian Cranston). Shannon is bit of a father figure to Driver, albeit an exploitative one, and sees a future for the kid as a stock car racer. Shannon gets a pair of his gangster pals to sponsor the car. The gangsters are played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. They are an odd pairing, casting wise, but they work great together. Both are menacing but for different reasons.

Early in the film Driver befriends his neighbor Irine, played by Carry Mulligan. The romance that develops is not hot n' heavy. It's shy and tentative, almost chaste. But it's clear that she's bringing something out in him, something that's been hidden for perhaps his entire life. Unfortunately it gets put on hold when her baby-daddy, Standard (Oscar Isaac), is released from prison. In a lesser movie Standard would have been an abusive husband that Driver has to rescue her from. But thankfully, it's not a lesser movie. Standard and Driver become friends, in a way, and Driver offers to help him get out of his mob debt by helping out on a heist. The film heats up considerably from there.

This is a very stylish film. The car chases, while sparse, are utterly fantastic. The film looks great and director, Nicolas Winding Refn, is a master of visual storytelling. He wastes nothing. He doesn't load the film down with too much talking. Driver doesn't speak much, he just does things. As a presence, Gosling walks around like the reincarnation of James Dean or Alain Delon. He chews his toothpicks. He wears his white, scorpion jacket looking like a knight, or a superhero. Of course, he's not really a superhero, he's a man-child with anger issues. It is fitting then, that the jacket gets more and more bloodstained as the film goes on. We don't learn much about him. We don't know if he was born emotionally distant or if he was made that way by some past trauma. I vote for the past trauma. I think the key is a scene near the end where Driver goes to kill one of the main villains. Driver wears a latex-rubber mask he stole from his day job. It's such a dehumanizing mask that it doesn't feel like he's hiding his identity so much as he's building a wall between himself and the world.

I wrote in my review of Bronson that Nicolas Winding Refn would one day direct a great film. That day is here. The problem with Bronson was it's lack of thesis. This film has one in the form of a song, A Real Hero, which plays twice in the film. In Bronson, Refn kept his protagonist at arms length. Here, Driver is keeping the world at arms length, and like that song, he is left to wonder what it feels like to be "a real human being."

Grade: A+

Friday, September 16, 2011

BRONSON

Sometimes a movie depends so squarely on a lead performance that it's casting becomes the film. Nicolas Winding Refn's 2008 film Bronson is just such a case. Bronson tells the true tale of Englands most violent prisoner. Michael "Bronson" Peterson. Bronson is played by Tom Hardy (Warrior, Inception), and the film follows him throughout his hyper violent life.

Tom Hardy IS the film. Without Hardy as Bronson, there is no film. Period. And there in lies the problem. Hardy is fantastic and fearless in the role, but there isn't very much else going on here. The film is essentially 92 minutes of Bronson hitting things. There is some variety to be sure. Sometimes he's hitting things while in jail, sometimes in an insane asylum, sometimes in underground boxing matches. Near the end of the film he abandons the whole 'hitting' part and tries his hand at being an artist, but it doesn't feel right so he goes back to hitting things and the movie pretty much ends.

To be fair, you can't have the movie without the hitting. Bronson was and remains Englands most violent criminal. He is a difficult character. He's spent time in 120 prisons and logged over 30 years in solitary confinement. He takes joy in causing pain, loves being in prison, and nothing else. He's not quite human. But where as other directors, such as Scorsesse, might find some sort of thesis or point to Bronsons life, Refn just presents it. Perhaps he's saying that there is no point, that some people are just violent sociopaths and that's that. If that is his point, it is a depressing one. I honestly don't think the film is really trying to say anything. It's as if script-development stopped when the lead role was cast and that is simply not enough. If anyone can make any sense out of this film, this man, please post your ideas in the comment section.

The real story here is Tom Hardy as Bronson. He is a force of nature, and he is unlike anyone else working in the buisines. He's built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he moves like Charlie Chaplin. The way he moves and uses posture is lightyears ahead of most other actors. Even his shoulder-blades give a great performance in this film.

Refn is a good director and this is a very stylish film. A dangerous drinking game can be made out of spotting Stanley Kubrick references. You get the feeling that Refn will one day make a great film, but this is not it.

Grade: C+

"Bronson" is currently streaming on Netflix Instant. Hardy is currently appearing in the MMA drama "Warrior," and will play the villain in The Dark Knight Rises. Refn seems poised to break into big time too with "Drive," which opens today.

THINGS I MISSED: FAST FIVE

I've never seen any of the "Fast & Furious" movies. I'm not a snob, I just never got around to them. So I decided to dip my toes in with the most recent installment "Fast Five," which was a surprise critical and commercial hit. It can be an interesting experience, dropping into a franchise five installments in, there is clearly a lot of back story I missed, but filling in the gaps is kinda fun and it adds dimension to the story. If I get some details of the mythology wrong in this review-I apologize.

The film presumably starts off where the previous installment left off, with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) heading off to jail. Off course, his friends Brian (Paul Walker) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) bust him out in a manner involving fast cars. How no one is killed is beyond me, but oh well, moving on.

The gang finds themselves hiding out in Rio. They say that they're going to go straight, but that never works out in movies about criminals and soon they find themselves embarking on one. last. job. This time against a local drug dealer. Things are complicated due to the arrival of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson who plays Luke Hobbs, an elite FBI manhunter. He's a badass dude, he's got this whole elite team dedicated just to tracking down Toretto and his crew, and a big SUV that even Batman would envy.

It's important to mention that SUV because, that's the kind of movie this is. It has people in it who have 'stuff' going on, and that's nice, but really, people in this movie are defined by what they drive. Toretto with his Dodge Charger vs. Hobbs with his Bat-tank. It's a testosterone soaked rivalry that you just know will end in pain. When people do talk, it's in movie trailer dialogue. They are constantly saying things like, "Let's settle this once and for all" and "We need a team."

The heist plot is fun, even if it is out of the action-movie cliche handbook. The preparation sequences are several notches below Oceans 11, but they are more than sufficient for this type of movie.

So lets talk turkey - the action scenes are top notch, really well done. Director Justin Lin, a vet of the franchise, understands how to shoot an action scene. He knows how to set up an action scene so the audience knows what's where and who's who. That should not be high praise, but the action genre is in such disarray that it kind of is. Perhaps it is a testament to how difficult action film making truly is. But this film pulls it off with boldly dumb style. There is a fun sequence involving a train that is so ridiculous that I broke out into applause. Also, the safe dragging conclusion causes memorable amounts of property damage, as it should.

"Fast Five" is a film for the 10 year old boy in all of us. Cars go fast, and sometimes go boom. The title is fine, though Vroom Vroom 5 - This Time In Rio would have worked too.

Grade: B

Friday, August 19, 2011

CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011)

There are two kinds of B-movies. The first kind is lazy, uninspired crap with just enough sensory titillation to get the audience in the seats, but has nothing real to offer them after the lights dim. The other kind is the fun kind, the B-movies that have the charm and whit (sometimes unintended) to be enjoyable. Unfortunately, the remake of Conan The Barbarian is the former. It is a dumb, dirty dog of a film. It seems to serve no purpose than to deprive an unsuspecting public of it's hard earned money.

The problems start before the credits do, with a maddening Lord Of The Rings style prologue that clarifies squat. The world of Conan simply isn't complicated enough to warrant a prologue. It just serves to further muddy an already confusing and dull film.

The plot concerns - I'm actually not entirely sure. I know that Conan (Jason Momoa) wants revenge on some guy for killing his father. According to IMDB, that guy is "Kohar Zym" (Stephen Lang), but the exposition is so bad in this film that I was unable to catch his name while watching the film, of any the names really. I'm sure that I'd have missed Conan's name if it weren't on the poster.

Anyway, Conan wants revenge and that's pretty much it. He has no point of view, no philosophy, nothing to set him apart from the villains. Conan has just as much personality as the henchmen he kills (and in one case, significantly less). At some point CoCo meets this monk-lady (Rachel Nichols) who has special blood or something. Conan doesn't care. He just knows that Zym wants her for some ritual, so Conan ties her up and uses her as bait. He mistreats her at every turn, calls her a harlot, and yet, she falls in love with him. Why? Because the screenplay gods hath foretold it!

Now, nobody goes to a Conan movie for the story (thank goodness), you're all wondering how the action was, right? I can report with absolute certainly that the action definitely involved swords. After that it gets hazy. Conan probably killed a lot of people, but I could barely see any of it through the impossible-to-follow editing (TM).

There was a battle with some sand monsters that looked promising, but it devolves into a confusing soup of hyper-edited tedium and confusion. I think Conan might have been poisoned, but I'm not sure. Anyway the film never mentions it again. The final showdown is particularly lazy. Did Conan just walk in to the evil stronghold without anyone noticing? Does Zym not have any sentries guarding his fortress? Was he forced to lay them off due to the bad economy?

There where exactly two things I liked. The first was Conans birth (ripped from the womb during battle!) The second was monk-lady's father, who is a pacifist until he meets the bad guy. I like it that this is a world where even the pacifists are blood-thirsty.

The screening I attended was in 3D. Only the 3D didn't work. The film kept throwing things at the camera but not once did I feel that anything was coming at me. All the 3D did was make the screen darker and harder to see. This may have lowered my opinion of the film, but rest assured, 2D could not have saved this film.

It's really sad because I remember the original Conan The Barbarian from 1982. That Conan was fond of quoting Genghis Khan and inserting blasphemies into his prayers. In short-he was a barbarian. He had a personality. Of course Conan (1982) was made by John Milius (he wrote Apocalypse Now), someone who half-believes Conan's caveman philosophy on war and death. Conan (2011) was directed by Marcus Nispel (the Friday the 13th remake) who seems to believe in remaking violent movies as unimaginatively as possible. This new Conan has no personality, either as a character or as a film. It didn't need to be intelligent, or tightly plotted, but it did need some pizazz.

Grade: D

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE

Sometimes in life, and love, someone disappoints you. They turn out not how you thought they where. The new film Crazy, Stupid, Love is kind of like that. For two thirds of it's running time it is a wonderful, charming movie about the desperation and complications of love. About what happens when the honeymoon is over and what comes after. And for those two-thirds it’s a near classic. Then it goes off the rails in the third act and never really recovers. C’est la vie.

It's a real shame too, because it starts out so promisingly, with a charmingly conceived montage of feet. The feet belong to happy couples out on the town. Clad in Italian loafers or stilettos, slyly inching towards each other. The camera then settles on the feet of Cal (Steve Carell), his lived-in, New Balance sneakers peaking out from under his work slacks. His feet are decidedly not inching towards those of his wife Emily (Julianne Moore). Our suspicions on the status of their relationship are soon confirmed when Emily asks for a divorce and confesses to an affair with a co-worker. The sequence reminded me of the famous 'disillusionment of a marriage' montage from Citizen Kane and of the power juxtaposition has to suggest back story.

From there Crazy, Stupid, Love throws a lot of balls in the air. Cal's youngest son (Jonah Boo) is in love with his babysitter (Analeigh Tiption). The babysitter is in love with Cal. Emily’s Co-worker is in love with her and it’s not mutual. Oy vey! Cal moves out of the house and sits in a local bar night after night, until he catches the attention of the bar's resident pick-up artist Jacob (Ryan Gosling). Jacob feels sorry for him and vows to help Cal reinvent himself into a pick-up artist.

That character, Jacob, as well as that whole subplot, could have come off as seedy and uncomfortable. But Gosling plays Jacob with such wit and warmth that you forget that he's kind of a jerk. Carell and Gosling are a great comedic pair, and the script by Dan Fogelman gives them a lot to work with. The other gem of the film is Emma Stone who plays Hanna, the one girl immune to Jacobs charms. Eventually they go on a date. That date is easily the best thing in the film and one of the most charming sequences of recent memory. Gosling is great in this film, but Stone is the secret weapon.

Unfortunately the film has some serious problems too. Marisa Tomei is a fantastic actress, but the character she plays in this film strikes the wrong note entirely. She’s mean and shallow in a film where everyone else is reasonably decent. Also, the subplot between the kid and the babysitter is clumsy and at times gimmicky. As if the filmmakers treated the kid as a toy or a doll rather than a real person.

Then, there is this plot point, this twist which derails the whole film. It probably would have been fine, but the material after the twist is not as strong as what came before. Then there is the ending, it’s not a real ending, it just sort of runs out of steam. It’s as if the film could have continued but instead there is this artificial cap stone that feels contrived and really drags down the film. It is a shame because there is an ambition to this film, it does have a formula, but it tries (and nearly succeeds) to transcend it. Many Hollywood movies play it safe, so it's nice to one try to break out, and all the more frustrating when it falls short.

Grade: B-

Sunday, August 7, 2011

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

They've tried this before. Just over 10 years ago Fox tried to relaunch the "Apes" franchise with Tim Burton at the helm. That film sucked (though to be fair, Oliver Stone had a take on it that would have been worse). Now we have "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes," which instead of being another remake of the original, or a faithful adaptation of the book (which would have been nice) Fox has chosen to make a film that is, essentially, a loose remake of the forth film in original franchise, "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes."

So how was the remake of Planet Of The Apes 4? Quite good actually. Scientist Will Rodman (the ubiquitous James Franco) is developing a new drug to treat Alzheimers, a disease that's currently causing his father (John Lithcow) to rapidly deteriorate. While testing the drug on chimps, Will realizes that it causes an extraordinary I.Q. boosts as a side effect.

But when a test chimp goes berserk, testing is shut down. Rodman takes home a baby chimp and steals drug samples to test on his father. The chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis), becomes a combination test subject/child for Will. He charts Caesars progress over the years, collects data, but it never seems cold or calculating. Will clearly loves this chimp but he forgets that Caesar, hyper-smart or not, is still a wild animal. Eventually there is an “incident” and Caesar is transferred to an all ape animal shelter. Whether or not such places actually exist I am willing to concede for the purposes of the film. From here the “Rise” becomes a bit of a prison escape film.

Director Rupert Wyatt, handles the film smartly. He makes Caesar (the non-talking, non-human) the protagonist of the film. It’s a risky move that pays off. It pays off partly because of the amazing special effects but mostly because Andy Serkis is such a good actor when it come to portraying non-humans. His portrayal as Caesar is riveting. It’s very compelling to watch him become disillusioned with the world of man. His transformation is understandable yet chilling.

As the film goes on, the human characters become more and more sidelined, which is appropriate considering the nature of the film. Still, it would have been nice if they where a little more richly conceived, particularly the human villains. But still it’s an effective film that does a very good job of delivering it’s “Twilight Zone” style message about why it’s important to practice science ethically.

There are people who like to complain that pop-culture is just an endless recycling bin of remakes, reboots and sequels. I can see the point, but as long as the remakes are good does it really matter? At the end of the day it was a good idea to remake Planet Of The Apes 4.

Grade: B

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

The last one was bad. It was reeeaaally bad. It was one of the worst blockbusters of the last decade, perhaps ever. It was bad on so many different levels that multiple term papers could be dedicated to its shear and complete awfulness.

Even director Michael Bay noticed. This is a major accomplishment for the 46 year old director/Scott Backula doppelganger who is notoriously arrogant and seems to shun critical opinions of his own films. Yet it seems that every lick of press Bay has done for his new installment, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” has had him acknowledging that the last one was bad and promising that this film would be better.

And it’s clear that he has been trying. He’s toned down the crass humor, eliminated most of the more annoying characters (though a few remain) and has focused on telling a story with a discernable plot, a passible mystery and actual characters with simple, clearly defined goals! The result is a film that has characters that I kinda cared about, not a lot, but just enough.

The film starts with an interesting prologue telling us that the Space Race was created in response to a mysterious crash on the Moon. What crashed was a lost Autobot spacecraft containing a secret weapon. From there we catch up with Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) who has traded his stuttering problem in for Peter Parker-lite angst about having saved the world and not being able to translate that into real world success. He also has a new girlfriend (Rose Huntington Whitley) Sam is worried that he's going to lose her. He should worry; she's waayy out of his league. I won't reveal much more, just to say that this all intertwines in a manner that is a reasonably convincing by Michael Bay standards, and concludes with an all out war on downtown Chicago.

That destruction of Chicago sequence might be the best thing Bay has ever done. It takes up a nice, long chunk of the film and allows him to indulge in that thing that Michael Bay does best—blow stuff up. Even the editing of the action scenes are better in this film, his use of 3D in “Dark of the Moon” has forced him to relax his infamous MTV editing style (quick cuts in 3D can give viewers headaches). For once in a Michael Bay film the viewer actually has a fighting chance to understand and follow the action sequences. The 3D itself was great too it was really appropriate for a film of this cheese level.

This is really the first film in the series that actually delivers on the promise of the Transformers concept—giant robots destroying stuff on a massive scale. The first film lacked the budget to really show off the robots properly, the second was too bad for me to really care. This film is just barely good enough that I could actually enjoy the mindless, absurdly expensive spectacle of things going “Boom Boom Kaboom!”

So in summation, I accept your apology Michael Bay, but you’re still not ready to do “Hamlet.”

Grade: C

Friday, July 29, 2011

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

I love a good pulp. I love those thrilling wonder stories of days gone by, of larger than-life-heroes fighting to vanquish diabolical foes against insurmountable odds. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a world where evil is painted with a subtler hue that I harken for this simpler time. Of course, I know that this ‘simpler time’ never truly existed, but sometimes it is fun to pretend.

It’s 1942, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), an earnest but physically puny man, wants to enlist and help fight the Nazis. But he’s a 4F, and is turned away again and again. Then one day he is approached by a scientist (Stanley Tucci). The good doctor gives him the chance of a lifetime, to be injected with a super-serum that will give him the body to achieve his ambitions! He becomes, quite literally, Audie Murphy on steroids. Soon he’s waging an all out campaign to stop super-Nazi Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) from taking over the world.

I really like the villian, the Red Skull. What a great name, what a great look! It’s evil with a capital ‘E’ and a couple exclamation points thrown in. He has a fun scene at a monastery early in the film that feels straight out of Hellboy or Indiana Jones.

The steam-punk angle was fun. I always love seeing ray-guns in movies, though I was slightly disappointed that I didn't see the victims skeletons glow for a split-second before disintegration.

If I had one complaint about the film is that it’s a little too efficient for it’s own good. The second half seems to never leave montage mode. Meaning that potentially fun sub-plots, like the romance, or the camaraderie among the troops it heavily short changed. One never really gets a sense of what it felt like to be Captain America on this campaign.

“Captain America” is the latest film in the Marvel cinematic universe. An attempt to bring a singular continuity to the company's big-screen adaptations. These films are meant to be interdependent with each other, though they sometimes go out of the way to remind us that they all take place in the same universe. Director Joe Johnson handles the obligatory synergy by relegating it into this film's bookends. It's a smart approach as it allows for a tragic element we usually don't see in summer films.

It’s a good film, but it never gains the forward momentum of sci-fi pulp masterpieces such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow” or the more recent “Hellboy 2.” But it’s still fun nostalgia, and hey, it’s politically correct too.

Grade: B-