Wednesday, August 31, 2011
True Lies: Helen Mirren & Co Can’t Handle the Truth in “The Debt”
“The Debt” revolves around three young Mossad secret agents on a mission to find and capture a Nazi war criminal and bring him back to stand trial. The story begins in 1966 as the three agents Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephen (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) come back from what appears to be a successful mission. Thirty years later (and portrayed by older, different actors) the three retired agents seem to be hiding something. The past is not done with these three. Rachel’s (also played by Helen Mirren) daughter has just published a book about her mother’s successful assignment, but like the scar on Rachel’s cheekbone, memories don't just go away. In fact it’s too hard for David (Ciaran Hinds) so he steps in front of a bus. Rachel and Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) need to get to the bottom of this and go back and confront their past. The story flashes back and forth between the years 1997 and the 60s until it’s slowly revealed what this trio’s mission was all about.
David and Rachel were undercover as man and wife. Their target, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) is a fertility doctor with whom Rachel makes regular appointments. She has an entire backstory and her scenes with this man, in a completely vulnerable state with her legs up on stirrups, are just simply fascinating to watch. Jessica Chastain is simply one to watch after already having wonderful roles in The Help and The Tree of Life. Things seem to be going fine for these three young agents until… well that would spoil the fun now wouldn’t it? Let it be said that director John Madden (the guy who made Shakespeare in Love, not that football guy) stages things, sometimes more than once, so well that we’re always aware of what’s going on and is edited to sustain maximum suspense. We get some scenes completely out of context and then are shown them again for the purpose of knowing things now that we didn’t know then.
I was actually pretty impressed with how suspenseful a movie could be when we know that the three heroes make it at least until the year 1997. I mean how enthralling could a story about three agents on a secret mission be if we know they make it out alive? It’s a bold choice for the screenwriters to make. I’m even more impressed to learn two of writers have previously churned out the scripts for “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men First Class.” Those would be Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Peter Straughan is credited as well. And not only is the action and drama staged so well, but its all accompanied by another winning score from Thomas Newman. His suspenseful music fits the action extremely well.
I’m not too shocked to learn that “The Debt” is in fact a remake of a 2007 film of the same name from Israel. In an age of remakes and reimaginings and revampings it’s to be expected. But what’s not expected is when a film can be remade for an American audience who would have never even known about its source material. Here is a great film, a wonderful little thriller, who can now be enjoyed by film fans across the country. It offers exquisite performances, terrific suspense, a taught script and a wonderful music to accompany it all. It’s certainly unworthy of its dumping ground release date, but it’s wonderful filmmaking to be sure and that’s that truth. GRADE: B+
Friday, August 26, 2011
Holmes Sweet Holmes: Things Go Bump in the Night in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is an interesting take on the “haunted house thriller” in which people move into a new house and then proceed to be terrorized by unexplained beings. Except this time the beings aren’t ghosts, they’re creature demons! They sort of reminded me of something from The Gate? Remember that one with little Stephen Dorff? That flick could certainly use an update. Guy Pearce plays Alex who works on restoring old mansions. He’s trying to get on the cover of Architect’s Digest even if it means ignoring the painfully disturbing cries of his medicated daughter Sally (Bailee Madison). Sally has sort of been dumped on him by his ex-wife. Neither of Sally’s parents seem like responsible parents. At least there is Alex’s girlfriend Kim (a disturbingly decent Katie Holmes) who Sally acts cold too, but gradually warms up to. Sally spends most of the time moping around the house trying to find something to occupy her time in this gigantic mansion.
Ok so let’s talk about the mansion. I don’t know what person in their right mind would want to stay overnight in this place, let alone hang out there during the day. It’s eerie beyond belief. Let’s thank the wonderful work of the production designer because the mansion is definitely one of the most well defined characters in the film. Alex learns there’s a sealed off basement to the house, which he decides to uncover which is never a good idea. Soon Sally is hearing voices from the basement. Someone wants to be her friend and the kid is so lonely that I’d probably try to make friends with the scary voices in the basement too. We learn the voices belong to miniature demon-like creatures who like feeding on human teeth and enjoy poking at people with pointy objects. They certainly do a number on the bearded caretaker who seems to know a lot more about this place than anyone else.
A majority of the film is spent with Sally trying to figure out what these voices are and once she realizes they are not exactly friendly, she can’t convince her dad or Kim that there’s actually something pretty dangerous going on. Alex just thinks she’s upset (and she is because of a serious lack of decent parenting I’d say) and she has every right to be because demon creatures want to eat her. Apparently Kim comes from a troubled past, which we don’t really learn anything about, so she quickly relates to Sally and begins to investigate. This leads her to discover the mystery of why uncovering that sealed basement was the worst idea in the history of worst ideas.
The film is directed by first time filmmaker Troy Nixey and what an impressive debut it is. He employs the Jaws method and refuses to show us anything up close too soon and lets the creatures be revealed when the time is right. Although del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ script could have used a little more about these creatures. I felt there were too many unanswered questions about them. We spend so much time with Sally that I sort of wished we could see what these demons were all about. But there is so much wonderful gothic imagery and the film is punctuated with disturbing R-rated content (and nary a curse word or naked body part to be found). You have to just respect the fact that it feels like the filmmakers were making something fun and stylish and not just attempting to steal the money from your wallet. I liked the performances even if I didn’t always admire their characters actions. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” isn’t the scariest movie by a long shot, but it’ll at least give you the willies and in this day and age you can’t quite ask for more than that. GRADE: B
Friday, August 19, 2011
High Stakes: This New “Fright Night” Has Bite
Besides how cool is that someone of Colin Farrell’s stature is appearing in a horror movie remake called “Fright Night?” That alone wins this thing points, as does the always appealing Toni Collette (who really doesn't have much to do here). Anton Yelchin is the new Charley Brewster. He’s a typical teenager: he goes to school, has a former best friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasses aka McLovin) who he has become “too cool” for, and a sweet girlfriend named Amy (Imogen Poots). Things are pretty normal until the new guy Jerry (Farrell) moves in next door. He flirts a little bit with his mom but soon Ed has convinced Charley that Jerry has been killing off their classmates. They live in a Las Vegas suburb so most people don’t even notice when the residents seem to come and go. Charley needs a little bit of convincing, but once he breaks in to Jerry's place and sees him sucking the blood of a stripper he needs no other evidence.
Things are much more (unsurprisingly) quickly paced here than in the original film. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) moves things right along. In fact there’s really not even much build up of suspicion between Charley and Jerry. He pretty much sees Jerry take a bite and he then must find a way to stop him. He enlists the help of a boozy Las Vegas showman named Peter Vincent (a marvelous David Tennant who acts circles around his young co-stars). He’s the scene stealer. If Jack Sparrow was a magician, he’d be this guy. He injects some must needed humor into Marti Noxon’s script which just felt a little too rushed to me. I enjoyed how in the original film they slowly built up Charley (and the audience’s) suspicion. This new version though makes good use of its modern day setting and placing the film in and around Las Vegas (where people stay up all night and sleep all day) was a cool move.
“Fright Night” is billed as a horror film and that’s pretty much accurate, although I’d be hard pressed to find anything here that’s particularly scary or suspenseful. Since we see from the opening scene that there’s some kind of monster on the loose it zaps any chance of impending doom. I did enjoy one particular sequence in which Amy, Charley, and his mom escape by SUV after Jerry blows up their house. Jerry hitches a ride under their vehicle and uses his sharp vampire fingernails to make his way inside from underneath. It’s comical and yet exciting and all pretty well staged. Even if all of it had to be seen through murky 3D glasses.
I can’t really see this updated version overwhelmingly pleasing fans of the original film. They take too many liberties with the original’s story and characters, but I think the spirit is intact (and who wouldn't love that Chris Sarandon cameo?). This could have easily been a lot worse and doesn't rely too much on fake-looking CGI. Some advice: You’re most likely going to want to skip the expensive 3D surcharge (even though the film was shot in 3D and not post-converted). In a film that takes place mostly at night, you shouldn't need to watch it through grey lenses. Otherwise sit back and enjoy the fun, it doesn’t suck. GRADE: B
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
2 Guys, a Hostage and a Pizza Place: “30 Minutes or Less” Doesn’t Quite Deliver
The sad thing about “30 Minutes or Less” is that the cast is talented and the director knows what he’s doing. Director Ruben Fleischer made overwhelmingly fun “Zombieland” just two years ago and he treads similar territory. He was able to mix dark humor and with graphic violence surprisingly well. Here the humor isn’t that hysterical and the action isn’t that dramatic. It’s just sort of an odd blend like “Kick-ass” that just sort of left a bad taste in my mouth. Like I said the cast is good. Jesse Eisenberg follows up his Oscar-nom with a role that was made for him. A jittery pizza delivery guy slacker. This probably would have been Seth Rogen’s breakout role a few years ago. Parks and Recreation’s Aziz Ansari does good as his equally nervous best friend. Sort of reminded me of an Indian-American Woody Allen.
The plot is where this whole film sort of collapses under its own weight. Danny McBride, a guy who a lot of people find hysterical except for me, plays Dwayne who wants to kill his former Marine father (Fred Ward) so he can inherit his lottery winnings. Him and his doofy best friend Travis (Nick Swardson) plan on hiring a hit man (Michael Peña) but he wants $100,000. So they decide to force a random guy to rob a bank by taking him hostage, slapping a bomb to his chest, and giving him 10 hours to get the money or else. Enter pizza delivery guy Nick (Eisenberg). It’s sort of a funny premise ripe for dark comedy, except that it’s just not funny enough. Dwayne is such a detestable person that any chance McBride had to be funny is wasted. And I couldn’t really buy that Travis was intelligent enough to make such a complex explosive device. These two guys are jerks who really bring down the film’s attempt at being funny. Nick’s friend Chet (Ansari) tags along and helps Nick in this preposterous situation (which is supposed based on a similar true life incident) and most of the comedy is derived from these two ordinary guys in an extremely unordinary situation.
Besides having trouble handling the odd shifts in tone, Fleischer thankfully keeps things at a fast pace (and a short running time) and never really gives us a chance to really think about how ridiculous this whole thing is until it finally ends. And it ends rather abruptly I might add. Lots of people get shot, or caught on fire, and when it was all over I was left wondering what was really the point of it all? Sure it has its moments, but most of that is ruined in attempts to be profane and gross. I’m no prude, but some of the more irreverent humor wasn’t quite earned. The first time screenwriter Michael Diliberti is definitely someone to keep an eye on though.
If anything “30 Minutes or Less” will help you make one of the most important decisions of your day. I had pizza for dinner. GRADE: C+
Saturday, August 13, 2011
The Bridge on the River Die: Death Returns in the Eye-Popping “Final Destination 5”
Pretty much everyone knows the premise the Final Destination films: some kind of tragedy occurs, it turns out to be just the “vision” of the main character, said character then warns his or her friends about the impending disaster, which actually occurs. But of course those people were meant to die, so death comes after them individually in progressively gruesome ways. “Final Destination 5” is no different. This time we get a bunch of paper company office workers on a work retreat. They charter a bus and before you can say “Dunder Mifflin this is Pam” a huge suspension-bridge collapses sending the employees and every other person on the bridge to their deaths. The person with the vision is Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto). He’s able to save his ex-girlfriend Molly (The Walking Dead’s Emma Bell), their co-workers Peter (Tom Cruise look and sound-alike Miles Fisher), gymnast Candice (Ellen Wroe), the nearsighted Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), warehouse guy Nathan (Arlen Escarpeta), chubby man whore Isaac (PJ Byrne) and office boss Dennis (Todd Packar himself David Koechner). These characters exists simply to be killed off but writer Eric Heisserer attempts to give them personalities. The gymnast girl dies, you guessed it, in a gymnasium. And even our favorite coroner/grim reaper stand-in Tony Todd returns after being absent the last couple times.
You can’t really look at these types of movies the same way you would other films. A good slasher will have likeable enough characters and watching people die with cool special effects along the way. The fact that the film was actually shot in 3D instead of being post-converted is such a plus. The 3D effects are pretty outstanding, even better than the last installment. Take a look at the opening titles alone. There is so much stuff coming flying at you in the face I almost had to duck. There is nothing really to complain about here. The opening disaster is extremely well-executed and was actually pretty impressive and intense. Nothing will beat the original film’s airplane explosion, but that’s because airline travel is a general fear that most people can relate to. I will say that I probably won’t have any problems driving over a bridge, but I digress. And you’d think that after four films the filmmakers (including newbie director Steven Quale) would have no fresh ideas. Ah but they do. There is no two deaths done alike. The traps that death sets up are pretty wild and never predicable. Even at number five this series manages to come up with some of the craziest death sequences. Perhaps the fact that the writer and director didn’t work on the previous films helps inject some fresh, uh, blood here. It just works.
You have to admire a horror series that tackles themes such as fatalism and predestination. “Final Destination 5” is definitely the movie I’ve been waiting for. I’m so glad that it was everything I could have hoped for. And with “Scream 4” earlier this year, this is certainly a great year for horror sequels. It kind of makes me hopeful that “Piranha 3DD” could actually be outstanding. This flick offers just the right amount of things we expect from this series and just enough surprises to make it one of the best of the entire series. And remember I said there was a twist you’ll never see coming. I just can’t stop thinking about it. GRADE: A-
Tuesday, August 09, 2011
High Pretension: “The Tree of Life” is an Equally Frustrating yet Beautiful Sprawling Epic
Terrence Malick is a pretty interesting filmmaking. Not just because his movies themselves are interesting (like Badlands or The New World) but because he’s interesting himself. A known anti-Hollywood recluse the guy has made only five films in about forty years. He took a twenty year hiatus after Days of Heaven before coming back with the Oscar-nominated “The Thing Red Line.” He turned the Pocahontas story into a beautiful and meditative nature film with “The New World” six years ago, and now he returns with his most bold work yet, “The Tree of Life.” A ponderous, meditative, work of art is a visual fest for the eyes and a test of patience for the easily bored. I was kind of one of them. The film takes a nearly forty minute detour to show us how the entire universe expanded and formed. We see earth come together and then life appears and evolves into fish and then reptiles. Look there are dinosaurs in a Terrence Malick movie! And then an asteroid ruins it all and helps humans show up. The whole sequence sort of works as an entire prequel to the opening of “2001 A Space Odyssey.” It was fascinating (with great effects work by Douglas Trumbull) to watch and you always wonder, why are we seeing this? Beats the hell outta me.
The movie is called “the Tree of Life” of course, so I guess it seems appropriate for us to witness how life first formed on our planet and how it relates to the human story we’re watching. The unconventional narrative begins with the O’Brian family in Texas circa the 1950s. Father is a stern Brad Pitt and Mother is a loving Jessica Chastain. They have three boys. We get to know most about Jack (who is played as an adult by Sean Penn). We see Jack as a baby and then the film begins to finally focus on the beginning of his adolescence (where he’s played by Hunter McCracken). We learn early in the film that one of the brothers has died at age 19 (perhaps in the war) and I take a majority of the film to be Adult Jack’s memories. Most of the time what we see is his summers spent playing and roughhousing. Eating dinner with his family, getting yelled at by his dad and given hugs and tickled by his mom. He becomes rebellious. Almost thinks about hurting his dad. We see the almost mundane lives of these characters but shot through the almost too beautiful and vivid to be true work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The film was written by Malick but there’s hardly any words spoken; this is truly a film where the images tell the story. Meaning is achieved through its editing and visuals; this is a film professor’s dream come true.
“The Tree of Life” is a movie that can easily be found annoying while watching it because you just want to scream at the screen and shout “Oh my God what the heck is going on in this movie?!” But I refrained because it was so sort of captivating. It’s a movie that is probably more fun to discuss than to actually watch, like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” or “2001.” You have to equally admire Malick for making a movie like this and yet you want to slap the pretentiousness out of him. This is a story about life and while we’re all here as told through the lives of this family. I’m not quite sure I really get any of it, but if you want to be intrigued by the strangeness of it all - and the undeniable cinematic artistry - you should check it out. GRADE: B
Friday, August 05, 2011
It’s Hard out Here for a Chimp: You’ll Go Bananas for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
James Franco, as charming as ever off his Oscar nomination for “127 Hours” and his befuddling hosting gig, is Will Rodman a scientist who’s working a cure for Alzheimer’s. There’s something about scientists working to cure diseases that never really end well, huh? I’m thinking “Deep Blue Sea” specifically. At least here they’re experimenting on chimps and not man-eating sharks. Rodman injects this new virus into a chimp, who gains super intelligence and has it has a baby. He takes home the baby chimp (who they name Caesar) after the mother breaks out of her confines and the program is shut down. As the years progress Will and his Alzheimer’s affected father (John Lithgow) raise the chimp as it were a small child. Unfortunately it attacks one of their neighbors and has to be put away in ape facility run by Brian Cox and his jerk of an employee Dodge played by Harry Potter’s Tom Felton. Soon Caesar who feels rightfully neglected by Will soon helps the other chimps and apes rise up against the humans who have treated them like the animals they are. Meanwhile, this virus that makes these animals super smart is actually fatal to human beings.
I realize just how hokey all of that sound and on paper this is a story that just shouldn’t work. How I managed to watch all of this and just buy it is pretty remarkable but I have to say that film just simply works. It takes its time unfolding its story and making us not only care about the human characters but these animals as well. Andy Serkis, who gave the body and soul to the Gollum character in the Lord of the Rings films, gives a terrific motion-capture performance as Caesar. Even though he’s all CGI you really feel like he has a personality. There is real life behind those eyes. So much so that I found myself getting choked up in certain emotional scenes. And the CGI is just as impressive. I was never quite fooled enough into thinking that Caesar was an actual living thing, but the effects are definitely as good as they could have been. And I had to do a double take a few times because the CGI orangutan, as one of the ape facility’s “prisoners,” looked so real I began doubting myself.
But let’s face it, what is the real reason anyone wants to see a movie called “Rise of the Planet of the Apes?” To see apes take over the planet of course? Well I will say they don’t quite get that far, but they do create quite a disturbance in San Francisco. They break out and rampage all over the city and there’s a pretty neat sequence involving the Golden Gate Bridge. I felt like the film could have easily rushed through the scenes before they break out and just had two hours of mayhem and action. But director Rupert Wyatt refuses to bore us with mind-numbing action. He and his writers Amanda SilverRick Jaffa take there time establishing a real connection between Will and Caesar. Caesar is certainly more of a developed character than Will’s girlfriend (played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) who is relegated to the “voice of reason” role where she says things like “this is wrong Will” and “some things aren’t meant to be changed.”
Tuesday, August 02, 2011
Craig’s Wrist: “Cowboys & Aliens” is the Best Alien Invasion Western Ever Made
Daniel Craig gives probably what I think is his most appealing performance in “Cowboys & Aliens.” Sure he’s good as James Bond but I think he has way more presence and charisma as a rugged outlaw. We meet him as a man who doesn’t know who he is in the middle of nowhere. It looks like he’s been attacked and he has some kind of strange metal bracelet on his wrist. Three unruly men stroll up on horses ready to blow his head off when he attacks all three. This guy means business. He strolls into town where we meet the locals. We finally learn this guy’s name is Jake and he’s possibly a wanted man. Then bamb! Aliens show up and start snatching up the townsfolk in one of the summer’s coolest action sequences. It’s sort of a Western version of something from “War of the Worlds.” Of course since this is the 1800s the term “alien” has yet to make itself known and these folks assume they’re some kind of demon race.
Harrison Ford shows up as Woodrow Dolarhyde who’s son (Paul Dano) has been abducted. Him and his men are hell bend on finding these demons and getting their friends and family back. He’s joined by Doc (Sam Rockwell) who runs the saloon and who’s wife has been taken. A mysterious and beautiful woman named Ella (Oliva Wilde) joins these men to find out what these demons really want. You’d think that a bunch of guys on horses with 19th century weaponry would be no match for a highly advanced alien lifeform. But that metal bracelet on Jake’s wrist is actually a deadly weapon that can shoot and kill anyone or anything just with the use of Jake’s thoughts (if I was 10 I would want one). It is cowboys vs. aliens big time.
Now an alien invasion movie is only as good as the alien lifeform we’re presented with. Recent alien flicks “Skyline” and “Battle: Los Angeles” were big disappointments mostly because the aliens were just poorly conceived and executed. The effects were bad and the look of the aliens weren’t very scary or interesting. These aliens are pretty cool and pretty grotesque and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t sort of scary or intimidating. Add to these fine creatures a pretty interesting mystery about what these extra-terrestrials want and how these cowboys intend to get rid of them add up to a great summer action adventure. There’s an interesting mystery to the film’s story (what’s Jake’s deal anyways? Who is this Ella chick?), a terrific sense of time and place and some really great action scenes.