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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Today's presentation is brought to you by the letters O, M, and G.
The haunted house movie is a staple in cinema. I would say modern cinema, as the genre has truly come into its own over the last twenty years or so, but that would discount far too many films from the early heyday. And as a film enthusiast of the highest order, I can't, in good conscience, do that. I've always held the beauty of a truly good haunted house film about all others. They have a way, when done correctly, of tapping into the true nature of the viewer, and raising many of the important emotional journeys a film should take you through into the forefront. Childhood fears, loss, love, abandonment, etc. A good haunted house film, and by that I point out The Others, El Orfanato, The House on Haunted Hill ('53), even Monster House to some extent, make us fearful of things that aren't there. Whatever it is that goes bump in the night, whatever it may be that causes our lights to turn off at the perfect(ly wrong) moment, whatever it is that moves something from one end of the room to another when we aren't looking. But, mostly, it's what goes bump in the night. 

They aren't pleasant films, usually. Especially in the case of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. This film employs creepy gnome-like creatures that feed off children's teeth and collect the living to join their periodontal party. They are afraid of light, they hunt like vikings, and are small enough that they can't easily be seen. So, how do you fight them? Well, you can't, really. You can scare them away, but lights will always go out, and kids will always have teeth. In theory, it's the perfect set up. But, again, not exactly pleasant. 

Guillermo Del Toro has a beautifully twisted mind. He's able to take the most "Tim Burton"-esque sensibilities and carve them into something not alienating and "Tim Burton"-esque. And, interestingly enough, is able to do so without losing his vision as an artist, nor his culture. But that's a topic for a different article. Del Toro prodouces this film, which is a remake of the 1973 TV film of the same name. 

Our story follows young Sally (Bailee Madison) as she's shipped - for lack of a more appropriate word - to her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex and Kim have sunk their fortune into the creepy Blackwood Manor in hopes of remodeling and selling it for a high profit, also in hopes to kick start Alex's new business. He, as a father, is remote and distant. Calculated, almost, in the way he loves both Kim and his daughter. (notice that Kim comes first). He is self-centered in a way that no one seems to notice until his daughter starts having "episodes" and seeing things that can't possibly be real. Kim wants to be Sally's friend, first, and hopefully grow to love her as a mother might her own child. Sally wants nothing to do with either of them. It isn't until Sally stumbles across a mysterious basement filled with scary drawings and hints of things gone very wrong in the past that anyone seems to notice her as she really is. 

It's easy to dismiss a child as wondrous or sympathetic, but it's hard to take note of something that might be beyond your own adult reasoning. Such is the struggle presented in the film. If a child came to you and said "there's a man in my closet", you'll freak out, grab an ax, and go in swinging, clothes and toys be damned if they get in your way. But, if a child came to you and said "there's a swarm of tooth fairies in my closet trying to eat me", you'll medicate the kid and send them to counseling for the rest of the next twelve years. Such is another struggle of the film. Alex and Kim, mostly Alex, can't see past his own dinner party and dismisses these visions and acts of violence as a way for Sally to lash out and seek attention. 

The most distressing thing about this film, though, has nothing to do with the story. But, more so, on the technical side of things - remember back in the day when we didn't have CGI to rely on? When puppets had to be made and things had to be controlled by hand rather than BIOS? I officially miss those days. Think back to the wolf in The Never Ending Story. How half of it appeared on camera, and it was hand operated, rather than drawn in through numbers. That creature terrified me as a kid, and still makes my stomach turn even today. Watching it be killed and bleeding, knowing that in theory it wasn't just the puppet being killed, nor the character, but the man operating it. There's a strange sense of well-roundedness that comes from puppetry in movies. There's a man and his hands controlling everything you see. That's terror. Here, though the creatures are frightening, if not a little over-personified, it's CG imagery. And it takes longer than it should to get past it. 

The film is effective, though, which is all we should hope for from a horror movie. It delivers upon its promise to scare but do so in a creative way. Not too many "jump scenes", not too many brandished violins telling us when to be scared. But, it's left up to our imaginations, and the man behind the camera designing it for us. A good horror movie relies on atmosphere. And Troy Nixey has a handle on that, almost as solid as Del Toro (who co-wrote the screenplay).  And when a director can control the atmosphere, he can control the audience. Much like, dare I say it, old school puppetry. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Midnight in Paris

A Nebbish Jew in Paris
Woody Allen's films have always been soaked in sarcasm; even dripping with an understated sense of irony. The man has a hold on the human sexual condition, and is, at best, the consummate writer. Dating back even to the days of Take the Money and Run, Allen's keen observation on mankind's lack of a moral trust has driven his screenplays forward (thought, sometimes, right into the ground). With Midnight in Paris, he moves his characters forward and into the ground, simultaneously. There's a grimy sense of resolve to this film, that makes it seem less like a love letter and more like a middle finger, and the end of an era in Allen's career - his Euro-flavor of the decade might be wearing off. Or, at least, wearing thin. 

Gil Pender (an immaculate Owen Wilson) is an American writer trying to rediscover his voice in the midst of denial. Denial regarding his own depression, his failing engagement to the seemingly perfect Inez (Rachel McAdams), and his fledgling career as a novelist. He's worked as a screenwriter for Hollywood, at least that's how he'd say it, for quite some time now and has a feeling that's all he'll amount to. Though, there's something to be said for that. But, never mind. He's unhappy, and that's common in Allen's world. He's undersexed, and that's also fairly common. To say that the abstract version of the idea of "cheating" is a recurring theme in Woody Allen movies is to reiterate that he writes them next to a thesaurus. It is what it is, and that's enough for him. 

Midnight in Paris might be the most bitter and negative of his most recent films. Odd, pairing Match Point among the crowd, but the film flows like a long-winded backhanded compliment. There's a seething undercurrent of depreciation for France, and maybe Europe in general. Even worth noting that the realistically fictionalized characters that inhabit Gil's fictionally realistic world are American tinkers and tailors, most of those responsible for the make of culture we know today. Yes, there are those classical European poets and painters we would all recognize a mile away, but there's a sense of America in this version of Europe that can't be shaken. So much so that Europe and her makers are stereotyped and painted more broadly than Paris itself. An American's tourist perception of what these people, and these places, might be. They are accurate, as far as we know, but to those who were there, we might be just as broad a picture to them, now, as we were, then, to us. Make sense? Because that's the tone Allen takes with his audience in this picture. Hints of New York flow under the Parisian bridges, even in the way the film is designed. For the first time in Allen's Euro-genre, there's nothing European but the setting. Not even the cinematography. Even the music feels ironic. 

The film, however bitter, is a travelogue for those having never been to Paris. Mentions of Bordeaux and Giverny might not be enough for those who have fled the Eiffel to seek the refuge of their once forsaken Liberty Bell, though there's a remark in Allen's writing of this story that amuses me the most - everybody leaves but him. 

He walks the city streets at midnight (in Paris. Get it?) and stumbles across a time warp, taking him back to the 20's. He talks shop with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), he dines with Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, he witnesses Picasso have a nervous breakdown, and meets F. Scott and the lovely Mrs. Fitzgerald. He lives a writer's wet dream, and several other writers' lives, in the span of only a few evenings. Obviously, there's no going back from that. But maybe that's what Allen has been trying to say all along? There's this time he's spent across the pond, trying to find a new voice in his career, but not matching the success he found in a different age (the golden age of film in the 70's, much like the golden age of literature and art in the 20's). It's all open to interpretation, much like fine literature and high art, but it's worth noting that Allen's films are getting more and more grim. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In Theaters This Weekend

"You know how I know you have cancer?"

This isn't the biggest weekend for releases we could possibly hope for, and our "number one of the bunch" is fairly obvious, yeah? There's 50/50 starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, the story of how a young man's life is changed for the better with his cancer diagnosis. We have Dream House starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, and Naomi Watts - a haunted house tale that might prove to be in the same vein as 2003's Cold Creek Manor (but, I really hope not). Then there's the weekly, obligatory romantic-comedy What's Your Number? in which which a girl does funny stuff to get a guy. It has Anna Farris in it. Finally, being released is a smaller film called Courageous - expect it to stay a smaller film, too. It's a "God Drama", in the same way that Fireproof and The Grace Card were, about four police officers who have to raise their new children in a God-honoring way. Is there box office potential in there? Well, father forgive me, for I am about to tell the truth - hell no. 

What better way to get to know our releases than to look at them individually? 

50/50. R.

What might be the best thing about a film like this is that it allows a certain kind of candor to come forth from the actors. Movies like this rely heavily on the honesty with which the material is displayed. So, being that it's pretty much a true story (taken from the screenwriter's own life experiences and then molded into a comedy for Seth Rogen), there's only so much dishonesty there can be displayed. We'll have to, as the audience, sift through what's real and what happened versus what isn't and what didn't, but it's safe to say that the story we'll see will be involving enough that we won't really give a damn. Here's hoping, anyway. Oh, and an early Oscar contender for Original Screenplay? Perhaps. This has an extremely Apatowian feel to it, and his screenplays generally get thrown into the mix come awards season.

What's Your Number? R. 

And what might be the saddest thing about a film like this is that even though this is destined for critical failure, and poised for box office slaughtering, at least thirty more of these movies will be made before the year's end. And the closer we get to the holiday season, at least half of those will be holiday themed, which guarantees they'll make a profit. I Don't Know How She Does It has blissfully faded into white noise, but Sarah Jessica Parker isn't as popular outside of the HBO crowd as Anna Farris is. Farris is like that funny girl in high school we all wanted to date and be friends with. And, granted, I do believe she's one of the funniest women in Hollywood. But her appeal carries her movies moreso than the movies she's in carry her.

Dream House. PG-13. 

Maybe less Cold Creek Manor than The Others, maybe more The Abandoned than we realize (but that's more than all right by me!) Maybe a little bit What Lies Beneath, too. Which, again, certainly cool in my books. Still, though - this trailer tells us everything we need to know going in, and most things we shouldn't know until maybe then end of the movie. And maybe you've realized that the key word to this paragraph and description is "maybe". And maybe that's because this whole project is one giant "maybe". Maybe it will suck, maybe it will be brilliant, maybe it will take the number one spot in the box office away from 50/50 or The Lion King. Maybe no one will see it. Maybe I will. Yeah, I will. There's no maybe there. I think it looks great. Another showcase for Daniel Craig, and another reason to stare at Rachel Weisz for two hours.

Courageous. PG-13. 

See, this is what sucks about these movies - and yes, I am a Christian. So, I'm more than allowed to say what I'm about to say. They keep getting better and better, but the producers are assuming one of two things first, they seem to be assuming that just because these movies are about God and holy values, that people will go see them. Or second, they think that if they shove this stuff down enough throats people will eventually go see them because they feel they have to. Like church. If you guilt them, they will come. That's the suckiest thing about projects like this. The films themselves are hardly ever bad. Even in the case of Fireproof (which is one of the most unintentionally funny movies of that year) it had some good moments. So did The Grace Card. This movie actually looks damn decent. But, too God-heavy for the common movie goer. That doesn't live in the south. Go figure.

What are you seeing this weekend? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments section. Sound off! Enjoy your weekend! 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger


Cool  guys don't look at explosions.

It’s refreshing to see a film so inspired by its own patriotism. It’s also refreshing to see a film series such as these “Avenger” films that keep getting it right. Of course, they can’t all be perfect (insert Iron Man 2 jab here), but the series has what it needs; in spades. I read a few of the Avengers comics growing up, so I was a bit familiar with the story lines. However, I never knew too much of the mythology behind Captain America. I knew he was a World War II hero and he was the result of a science experiment gone right. He was the ultimate soldier, and he stood for truth, justice, and the American way. Essentially, he was Marvel’s answer to DC’s Superman. And cooler, to boot. But that’s beside the point. Captain America, for me, always held that feeling of what it meant to be American - standing up for what’s right, despite all costs. And that’s the feeling I was left with when this film ended. I was proud to be an American.

I also remember watching, in my youth, the first Captain America film. In my review for The Green Hornet, I noted that that’s the kind of film that makes me question the frailty of the genre. However, and thankfully, 2011’s Captain America - subtitled ‘The First Avenger’ - corrects the many vulgar mistakes of that film. I saw it as a kid, and even then I thought to myself “this is crap!”. There is one thing I took from it, though - the design of “Red Skull”, the film’s villainous Nazi commander. Rough, gritty, and ugly. Exactly what it should have been. Adult, and monstrous. The only thing missing from it was the performance behind the mask.

Captain America is really Steve Rogers (Chris Evans); a small, by all definition, kid determined to serve his country and make his father proud. His best bud Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) tries to protect him and keep him safe, but eventually - at the local fair - Steve enlists again and is accepted. He doesn’t do as well as the other boys. He’s about 100 pounds soaking wet, 5’7”, and shy. He’s brave, though; when he thinks a grenade is about to blow up his squad, he jumps on it without a second thought. He’s the soldier who might make Dr. Erskine’s (Stanley Tucci), Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper), and Col. Phillips’ (Tommy Lee Jones) project complete. They have a serum, and all they need is a subject. Rogers is recruited, and turned into the unstoppable American hero - and he’s exactly what we would have needed at the time.

There is a neat twist in the movie’s mythology of the Captain America world. Director Joe Johnston slides in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek montage of kids in the 40’s reading Captain America comic books and watching the Captain America movies. It’s a neat way to further connect the Avengers series with the real world, and loop the film around its own form of dirty truth. Note - dirty truth doesn’t necessarily mean that this origin tale is one of those “tell all, re-invent the wheel” movies. It’s just gritty for its own reality. There is war, and there are brave men dying for their countries.

Where the movie spends itself out, however, is the second side to the story. Red Skull is really Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), and tried to get Erskine to give him his serum. Of course, like most mad villains do, he injects himself with the potion and becomes evil. Now he wants to usurp Hitler and take over the world for himself. The film seems less concerned with the design of Red Skull, almost as if banking on the fact that people still hate (or don’t remember) the visual forcefulness of him from the first film. And Hugo Weaving’s portrayal suggests he’s seen Inglourious Basterds several times.

Where the film doesn’t spend itself out, however, are the other performances. Mainly, in all areas, it’s wonderfully put together. There’s a touching conclusion to a mostly dramatic script, but even in the drama there are hilarious one-liners and fully fleshed out characters. Being a superhero movie, it is effects laden. For the first twenty minutes or so, Chris Evans is CGI’d into the body of a small weakling. And it’s completely seamless. There are loud action sequences, but it’s important to note that the film isn’t just action and noise. There’s a love story that’s fully believable, there’s the sequel set-up, there are excellent performances, and a smart screenplay fueling that action. Marvel knows that there really isn’t another way to do these movies. They have the formula down to a science.



Come on, seven. Daddy needs a new immune system.

Contagion (n): the communication of disease from one person to another by close contact. 

There isn't much to that definition, but the word itself holds weight - you touch your face, and then touch a doorknob without even realizing it. Seven thousand other hands touch that doorknob, and then touch their faces. Which then kiss their dogs, children, lovers, wives, husbands, and so on and so forth. Without even meaning to, we touch each other hundreds of thousands of times per day. Not just one person to another one person, but one person to all other people, be it through handshakes, hugs, or doorknobs. And the most fascinating thing about Contagion are the subtle points of contact that aren't even noted in the film. 

The film itself starts with a simple illness. Simple, but with devastating effects - essentially, the immune system is crashed and destroyed, and the brain made entirely useless. It is fatal, if you're lucky (it seems). The first victim we see in the film is a married woman from Minneapolis (Gwenyth Paltrow) after her affair with a man in Chicago on her way home from Hong Kong. She coughs. And after a bartender has handled her money, we already know that the virus is spreading. And the title card on the screen says "Day 2". These aren't the first people to be sick, nor will they be the last (mostly because we need a movie, never mind the virus spreading at lightening speed). 

Contagion is, at its core, a thriller and is appropriately marketed as such. What kind of thriller it is could be a debate for an entirely different article, but at the heart of it all, you could call it a techno-thriller like Roger Ebert does - there are technical patterns that lump it into the genre, sure. Title cards displaying the times and places of the day, as such. The cheating woman's husband Mitch (Matt Damon) is immune to the virus - his fate is to watch the ones he loves around him contract it. Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a blogger spreading his fear and propaganda like a virus itself, to millions of "unique followers" of his website. 

One more hint to fully unlocking the film and understanding it beneath a surface level is that "contagion" isn't strictly meant to describe the influence(za?) of the disease, but the contagion of the emotional effect on the main characters, and how that spreads. Mitch, learning that his wife may have had an affair when she caught the virus, Alan spreading his own seething virus over the internet and television... And then there are the doctors - Cheever (Lawrence Fishburne), who heads a department at the Center for Disease Control and is working on developing a vaccine with Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle). Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is assigned out into the field to track down the last point of contact that bystanders might have had with recent victims, and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) tackles the field like guerrilla warfare, using security cameras and investigative research to track the moment the virus was first spread from person to person, in a casino, in Hong Kong, with Mitch's wife. 

Contagion gets under your skin (!) and never lets go of your nerves. It's a horror film, if you look at it from the right angle. Medical thrillers, legal thrillers, they all have one thing in common with horror movies - that obsessive hunt. Here, it isn't just a hunt but a race, and not even a race against the clock, but a race against our bodies. Cities are torn down by this virus in less than a year, millions of people are dead half way through the film, and yet Steven Soderbergh's scale of the film is so miniature and personal, that we can barely contain that knowledge at the sake of the four people we're supposed to care about when they keep touching doorknobs. The film operates on the ends of its given spectrum - small and calculated personal stories of survival matching with uncontrollable epidemy and fear. The contagion isn't just in the virus itself, but the footprints its leaves as it marches from host to host.