Feb 18, 2013

Escape from Planet Earth

It's hard to exhibit anything other than pity toward Escape from Planet Earth, an energetic and well-meaning but thoroughly watered-down and creatively ossified kiddie flick unceremoniously dumped into theaters after languishing in development and production hell for nearly six years.

Feb 15, 2013

The Berlin File

...a sporadically entertaining, modestly ambitious shoot 'em up that frequently succumbs to spelling out its subtext. At least the fisticuffs and gunfights are skillfully composed and edited, none better than an apartment brawl that ends with our protagonist functioning as an impromptu wrecking ball...

Feb 10, 2013

Freebie Flicks: RMS Titanic Edition

In Nacht und Eis (In Night and Ice, 1912)

Atlantis (1913)

Atlantic (1929)

Titanic (1943); if you download the file, you can use these subtitles.

1958's A Night to Remember (embedding disabled).

And James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss, a film I cannot recommend but for the extraordinary footage it includes of the wreck. If this silly documentary ditched Bill Paxton and so much of its excessively imposed "narrative," it could've been tremendous, but silver linings notwithstanding, it's easily the weakest effort in Cameron's body of work.

Feb 6, 2013

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): A

In 2004, Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy stood apart from the usual slew of blockbusters with the most unlikely and smart-assed of characters to yet grace the superhero-savvy screen. In returning to the character after the Oscar-lavished Pan's Labyrinth, it only makes sense that Del Toro would take things to eleven; like the take-every-chance zeal of an enthusiastic young director's first film (Re-Animator comes to mind), he makes this one as if worried he'll never be able to make another. The resulting effect is a work of unexpectedly tremendous passion on virtually all levels. The creativity on display shames almost everything in George Lucas’s Star Wars universe, and there are times when Hellboy II brings to mind the everything and the kitchen sink mania of Sam Raimi's impossibly over-exerted Evil Dead II, making this a film prone to inducing sensory overload in the best possible way.

Hypnotic, brilliantly clashing colors light up the senses like an array of electrified stimuli with what must stand as some of the finest art direction in a recent blockbuster film, while Del Toro handles his CG-heavy graphics in such a way as to make them not a storyboarded fantasy, but a similarly roughly-hewn extension of our own world. The story begins long ago with the tale of a war between mankind and the magical races of the world (elves, goblins, etc.), one so punishing it eventually saw the creation of the titular army – the work of a master blacksmith goblin, and one unstoppable to all who did not command it. The agreed-upon treaty between the humans and non-humans was disapproved by one Prince Nuada (Luke Gross), an elf who now, after long preparations, seeks justice for his people and plans to unleash the Golden Army on mankind once again. Enter Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and company, members of an officially nonexistent government organization used to combat the supernatural away from the public eye (that's the idea, at least).

If the first Hellboy was about the loss of our fathers and the mystery of where we come from, Hellboy II centers on where we are going, and what we do when the mantle passes, a universal theme Del Toro fuses with his characters’ sense of isolation (from the humans they protect, from their own non-human kind) with a genuinely artistic heft. Subverting virtually every expectation associated with this kind of film (impromptu appearances by tumors and Barry Manilow are just the tip of many savory pleasures), Del Toro successfully renders his central characters not so much as outcast freaks but as just another link in the chain of an emotionally disconnected world.

Praise be to Ron Perlman, who again proves that this is the role he was born for. Even beneath layers of makeup, he exudes raw, unfettered humanity fronted by snarky attitude. The cast entire submits to the material with just the right mixture of self-serious posturing and sly self-awareness, with special nods to Doug Jones for three separate roles (his main part being a delightful fish-man with the unfortunate moniker of Abraham Sapien), and the sublime vocal work of James Dodd in a part best left undiscussed. Such performances root the film in something identifiably human, no small feat for characters such as these. Almost profound, the film makes one instantly long for more after its pseudo-cliffhanger ending has come to pass. Truly, sometimes the best things come in threes.

Originally published on November 28, 2008 at Suite101

Feb 4, 2013

Quantum of Solace (2008): C-

So often does the bad accompany the good in life, perhaps out of necessity, so that we may truly appreciate the latter. After the ravishing James Bond reboot Casino Royale – arguably the best in the series – it would appear inevitable that the next film ratchet things down a few notches; a cynical view, yes, but one reinforced by the dearth of sequels that rise to the occasion presented before them (The Empire Strikes Back, Before Sunset, and The Godfather, Part II notwithstanding). Quantum of Solace isn't completely execrable, but any box office gold it accrues will be purely incidental. That it wastes one of the best titles the series has yet seen is among the least of its offenses.

To say that sequels are doomed to failure is naïve, but with  Marc Forster at the helm, that the follow-up to Royale turned out to be one of the worst of the series seems more like destiny manifest. Hype indicated that this might be the first Bond film with Oscar potential, yet in attempting to appeal to the "legitimate," often hollow standards of the awards brigade, it forgot what makes good James Bond films tick so furiously. Daniel Craig – the best performer the character has yet seen – was largely responsible for this in his Oscar-robbed performance, yet even he can only pull so much weight with a script as thematically skimpy and a film so clunky in its assembly as Quantum. Like air escaping a punctured balloon, his effort goes to waste. Not unlike an old man relying on his cane, Quantum leans on the dramatic/thematic weight of its predecessor as a means to justify its own existence, routinely looking back in lieu of forging its own pulse. Once a slow-burning ember of self-immolating emotion, Craig's Bond has been offensively reduced to the 007 equivalent of a sulking teenager, and it’s to the actor's enduring credit that as much emotion makes it to the screen as possible.

Squandered from the opening, borderline-incoherent car chase onward, the film screams not only of screenwriter Paul Haggis's contrived methods of exposition, but Forster's unimaginative approach to filmmaking. From his own surface-deep take on the Peter Pan mythos in Finding Neverland to the outright disastrous The Kite Runner, he’s long been a filmmaker who prefers telling over showing, forgoing poetic expression for banal seriousness seemingly made with award show compilations chiefly in mind. Forster drops the torch that was passed to him, and chief among his failures is a dearth of visual continuity: something preferable for any motion picture, and a must for action.

Clueless is the only way to effectively describe the compilations of shaky medium and close-up shots that pose as action scenes; failing to establish any sense of the spatial relationship between the hunter and hunted, they instead play out as motion sans progression, like a videogame with respawning opponents and an unlimited ammo count. Inept to the point of neutering all interest in plot, Quantum may be the lousiest entry since 1975's The Man with the Golden Gun. This time around, Bond's biggest adversaries are those behind the camera.

Originally published on November 16, 2008 at Suite101

Feb 3, 2013

Freebie Flicks: Jerry Maquire (1996)

The related portion of this video starts at the 2:45 mark.

Happy Superb Owl!

(With acknowledgement of the artwork of Takeshita Kenji.)

Feb 2, 2013

Warm Bodies (2013): B

There's plenty about Warm Bodies that can be accurately described as absurd, even stupid, but such can only prove detrimental if one accepts the central premise of a zombie film with literal seriousness in the first place. The dwindling human population amidst the apocalypse is essentially an afterthought here, with a network of survivors holed up, Escape from New York-style, while the perished shamble away in a wistful recreation of their former lives. That zombies can think, use tools, and even communicate has been an established wing of the genre at least since George Romero's Day of the Dead, and Warm Bodies capitalizes on those predecessors to subversively charming effect (impersonating a reanimated corpse, a human lurches about excessively, at which point their unlikely zombie protector groans "too much"). "R" (Nicholas Hoult) is our chief protagonist of the undead (he can't remember his entire name), Julie (Teresa Palmer) the resistance fighter he falls for after eating her dead boyfriend's brains. I suppose this kind of film was inevitable in the wake of the Twilight franchise's success, but whereas those pretentious blockbusters pay trite lip service to fears of age and death, Warm Bodies is confident enough to make fun of itself even whilst sincerely examining the nature of love and self-understanding, no surprise from director Jonathan Levine (of 50/50, a film I'm most grateful for), who also adapted the script from Isaac Marion's 2010 novel. In this regard, the film is a triumph of having its cake and eating it, too, frequently inconsistent even within its own set of zombie "rules" (slow shufflers who spring to caffeinated life when under attack) and all the better for thumbing its nose at expectations with the occasional deviant touch. The low budget look occasionally suggests an unsatisfying television aesthetic, but the creative production design (particularly the creepy skeletons) and earnest script (which is tasteful enough to never explicitly articulate the film's Shakespearean trappings) go a long way in elevating so modest a work. A small pity that John Malkovich doesn't have more to do, but like most of Warm Bodies, he's a pleasure under any circumstance.

LIST: Zombie films I've seen, ranked in order of preference.

Feb 1, 2013

Mama (2013): B

While not without a fair share of what is frequently referred to as "idiot plotting" - contrived circumstances indicative of shoehorned screenwriting - the surprisingly worthwhile Mama almost completely overcomes these flaws with vested characters, assured visuals, and performances as least twice as good as one might expect from a horror entry released in the dumping groups of January. The film begins with financial executive Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) snapping amidst the latest economic downturn, killing his wife and co-workers and kidnapping his two young daughters. His brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) leads the unlikely search and rescue, finding young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) five years later, holed up in a remote forest cabin, feral and malnourished. He and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) attempt to raise the brutish girls and undo the damage wrought by their isolation, a noble effort quickly undercut by the titular presence, a twisted, covetous ghost who took to protecting the girls during their disappearance. Director Andrés Muschietti (adapting the film from his own 2008 short) relies heavily on pounding decibels and negative space, not unlike any number of recent lackluster horror releases, albeit delivered here with a refreshingly tempered sleight of hand and a number of breathtaking, genuinely creepy sequences, none better than the hallway shot of Annabel doing laundry, oblivious to the supernatural happenings taking place just out of frame (although a terrifying showdown with the titular spirit, illuminated only by the flash of a camera bulb, comes close). Fairy tale overtones and a touching look at the long-term implications of abandonment go a long way in substantiating the film's weighty subject matter, the cherubic Charpentier and Nélisse almost exquisite as the emotionally/psychologically fractured siblings, the reliably excellent Chastain giving believable complexity to her character's dual feelings of personal yearning and burgeoning maternal instincts. Once the ambiguity of the ghostly scenario has been nullified and the untold stories haunting the past come to light, the creep-outs and supernatural bellowings (and occasional inconsistencies in character judgment) almost wear out their welcome; fortunately, Mama reveals itself as no mere shocker, but a thoughtful rumination on what it means to love, lose, and move on from life's cruel blows.