Saturday, April 14, 2012

It Came From The Cineplex: The Woman In Black, Chronicle, John Carter, Safe House, Gone, Wrath Of The Titans, Jeff Who Lives At Home

As far as movies are concerned, 2012 is turning out to be one big yawn-fest. There's been very little worth watching, and apart from the juggernaut that is The Hunger Games, few if any box office winners. I'm hopeful that things will perk up significantly during the summer movie season.


 
The Woman In Black
It's the welcome return of Hammer Films! Hammer churned out dozens of horror films between the 1950s and 1970s and their movies were always stylish and well-made and featured top notch talent like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It's good to see the studio making a comeback.

The Woman in Black marks star Daniel Radcliffe's first post Harry Potter role. Based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, it tells the story of a young solicitor (that's a lawyer to us Yanks) who's sent to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, owner of Eel Marsh House in an isolate rural English village. As you might expect from the name "Eel Marsh House," it's not a nice place to visit. The house turns out to be haunted by a mysterious woman in black (Houston, we have a title!) whose hobby is killing the children of the village.

It's got all the usual Hammer trappings: spooky decaying house on the moors full of creaking and moaning, mysterious deaths and suspicious villagers who warn the newcomer to go back from whence he came.

Missed opportunity: Christopher Lee was for many years a staple of Hammer Films and by rights should have been in this one. He's currently filming The Hobbit, so despite his age he's obviously still working. There was even a perfect role for him in the film-- he could have played Radcliffe's boss, the one who sends him to investigate the haunted house. It was a small five minute part and he wouldn't have even had to get out of his chair. Maybe they wanted him and he was busy, who knows? Pity he couldn't have been in it though.

It's creepy, atmospheric, and beautifully filmed. It's got a nice retro feel that evokes the classic Hammer Films of the past. Although I enjoyed it for the most part, ultimately it's just not very scary. Unless creaking floorboards and doors that close by themselves terrify you; if so you'll likely be wetting yourself.

I feel kind of sorry for horror movie directors these days. People just don't scare like they used to. If you go the eerie and moody route, modern audiences are bored stiff. If you go the opposite direction and fill your movie with gore, then your movie becomes torture porn. It's tough to make a truly frightening movie anymore.

Pros:
• The return of Hammer Films!

• Beautifully filmed.

• Daniel Radcliffe does a decent job in a largely silent role.

Cons:
• Spooky, but ultimately not very scary.

A stylish throwback to old school Hammer Films, I give it a solid B.



Chronicle
My favorite movie of the year so far (although considering the competition, that's damning with faint praise).

The plot concerns three high school friends: sullen loner Andrew (who looks amazingly like a young Leonardo DiCaprio), his outgoing cousin Matt, and class president Steve. After a party, the three friends find a mysterious alien object in an underground cavern, and of course they have to touch it, which is what one naturally does when one finds and alien artifact. It zaps them with some unknown energy and they're knocked unconscious. A few days later the trio discover that as a result of their exposure to the object, they now have telekinetic abilities.

They begin experimenting with their newfound powers, at first using them for fun and to pull harmless pranks. Andrew starts becoming much stronger than his friends as his powers begin to corrupt him, causing him to believe he's now an "apex predator." He ends up turning into a full-fledged super villain, culminating in a catastrophic showdown between him and his cousin Matt.

The film is well-written and engaging and is a fairly fresh take on the superhero genre. It features a relatively unknown but excellent cast, and the super power effects are realistic and very well done.

It was also quite a profitable film for 20th Century Fox; it was made for a reported $15 million and grossed an amazing $120 million. Expect to see Chronicle 2: Even Chronicler coming to a theater near you very soon.

One reason this movie was made so cheaply is because it was filmed in South Africa, no doubt in order to save money. I'm beginning to notice more and more movies made outside of Hollywood. If they're not careful their expensive studios and unions are going to price them right out of business.

My only gripe: it's yet another found footage film, ala The Blair Witch Project and Apollo 18. Haven't we had enough of these to last us a decade or three? I'm growing very weary of this filming style. The technique does lend Chronicle's effects sequences a much needed air of reality, but it hampers the quieter expository scenes as the filmmakers have to come up with increasingly implausible reasons for a video camera to constantly be filming the characters. I would have liked the movie just as much or more if it had been shot as a simple straightforward narrative.

Pros:
• Realistic effects, that for the most part looked like they were really happening, rather than a bunch of epic set pieces.

• Excellent cast of unknowns, especially Dane DeHaan, who plays Andrew.

• Similar to the TV series Heroes, except that it's good.

Cons:
• Found footage shooting style

• Found footage shooting style

• Found footage shooting style

A satisfying and deceptively simple story that starts out small but ends with a very large bang. I give it a B+. I would have given it an A if not for the found footage aspect.



John Carter
Based on the series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter unfortunately may well go down as one of the biggest bombs in film history. Some reports estimate it'll end up losing somewhere in the neighborhood of a whopping $200 million. That's a pretty bad neighborhood to be in. That's 200 million DOLLARS too, not rupees or shekels.

I firmly believe the main reason for its failure is the dull as dishwater title. I said way back in December that removing the "Of Mars" from the title was a boneheaded move and I was proved right. In the past few weeks I've mentioned the film to several people and in every single case they all said, "What's that about?" Hardly a scientific poll, I know, but the fact remains that the general public has never heard of John Carter. I'm a big sci-fi and fantasy nerd and I've barely heard of him. The filmmakers shot themselves squarely in the foot by saddling the movie with such a bland title.

Even more frustrating:  they FINALLY deign to call it John Carter of Mars in the last ten seconds of the film. Oy gevalt!

I wonder if the fact that it was prominently labeled as a Disney movie hurt it as well? Some still dismiss Disney films as kiddie fare and avoid them like the plague. Maybe it would have been better if they'd distributed it under their Touchstone Pictures brand, to disguise the fact that it came from the House of Mouse?

The plot of the film revolves around John Carter (natch), a former Confederate soldier who in 1868 is somehow transported to the planet Barsoom, better known to us as Mars. There he becomes embroiled in several conflicts between the various Martian races. If you've seen even one sci-fi movie in your life, you will not be surprised to find out that Mr. Carter unites the warring parties and becomes the champion of Barsoom.

I very much wanted to like the film, as it had a nice Flash Gordon-y retro feel to it. Sadly, for whatever reason it just didn't connect with me. There's way too much story to cram into the running time, and even though there are reams of exposition, somehow very little gets explained, resulting in an overcomplicated and muddled mess.

For example, I have no idea what the bald aliens were trying to accomplish. They gave the space pirate guy a super powerful weapon with which he could gain control of all the Martian (sorry, Barsoomian) cities. And they did this why…? Were they using him as their puppet, while they pulled the strings behind the scenes? Were they trying to influence the balance of power for their benefit? Or were they just a race of space assholes? Your guess is as good as mine.

Another poorly explained concept: At the beginning of the film John Carter is seemingly teleported to Mars. Later on we learn that the version of him on the Red Planet is some sort of astral projection, while his real body is still safe and sound (and unconscious) back on Earth. How this works is never adequately explained. Does his Earth body need to eat and drink? Is is in some sort of suspended animation? Will it age or is it frozen in time? Does it need to go to the bathroom? These are all legitimate questions that are glossed over and never addressed.

I was happy when I first read that the film was being directed by Andrew Stanton, as he'd previously directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E for Pixar. I was expecting a lot more from Mr. Stanton. Maybe he should stick to digital characters. His fish and robot actors at Pixar displayed far more emotion and humanity than anyone present here.

The movie was co-written by Michael Chabon, which may help explain my less than enthusiastic reaction. Unlike the rest of the world at large I don't worship at the altar of Chabon and I hated his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay with a white hot passion. This screenplay didn't alter my feelings toward his work.

These stories are now close to one hundred years old. In that time, numerous and sundry filmmakers have plundered bits and pieces from the books (the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, for example). In some cases they've lifted the plot wholesale (Avatar bears a very uncomfortable similarity to this story). As a result the movie feels a bit stale. Even though John Carter did it first, we've seen it all before. Pity they couldn't have brought some sort of fresh perspective to the proceedings.

Pros:
• Excellent visual effects (for the most part), especially the four-armed Tharks.

• Since it's a Disney movie, by law there has to be a funny animal sidekick, hence the inclusion of Woola. Surprisingly he wasn't as annoying as I thought he'd be.

Cons:
• Familiar plot brings nothing new to the table.

• Overcomplicated and bloated.

• Poorly explained character motivation makes it difficult to understand why everyone's doing what they're doing.

• Some of John Carter's "super strength" effects (particularly when he was running and jumping) were less than convincing.

• The framing device of the nephew reading John Carter's account of his Martian adventure in his journal was totally unnecessary. It added an unwelcome layer to an already overcrowded movie.

Bone headed title. Bone headed marketing. Boneheaded storytelling. Unfortunately I have to give it a C.



Safe House and Gone
I'm pretty sure I saw both of these movies because I have the ticket stubs to prove it. Neither made much of an impression on me though; in fact I barely remember seeing them at all.

Safe House is something about a junior CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) having to watch over an ex-CIA agent turned rogue (Denzel Washingotn) who escapes on his watch. He then has to recapture him at any cost.

Gone is about a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) who was the only victim to ever escape a local serial killer. A year later, her sister is abducted and she fears the killer is back. She vows to rescue her sister at any cost.

I was bored to death by Safe House, as I've just never been a big fan of spy and espionage thrillers. It was an endless series of escapes and captures as the two leads played cat and mouse with one another. I can't even summon the energy to write a proper review.

If nothing else, Safe House did give us a good look at actor Joel Kinnaman, who had a small role. Believe it or not, Kinnaman is starring in an upcoming remake of Robocop (!). Yeah, you heard me. Looks a little on the scrawny side to me, but what do I know? I guess Peter Weller wasn't exactly a bodybuilder when he played the role, and once he gets in the robo-suit I guess it won't matter. Still and all, I don't think he would have been my first choice.

I liked the horribly-titled Gone a little more, although there wasn't a lot to recommend about it either. Take one part police procedural, three parts fugitive movie, add a dash of slasher film, bake for 90 minutes and you get a whole lot of nothing.

One thing both movies have in common: in each the hero must commit numerous felonies in order to advance the plot, but there never seem to be any consequences from their actions. This happens a lot in action movies, but seems rampant here. Car theft, reckless driving, resisting arrest and even premeditated murder all are excused by the end of the pictures. I have serious doubts that the characters' punishment would be as nonexistent in real life.

I give Safe House a resounding C- and Gone a C+. I think. I'm still not sure I saw either one.



Wrath of the Titans
Even though I remember next to nothing about the first film, I get the general impression that this one was better. I enjoyed it somewhat, which I can't remember saying after seeing the first one. Not a very good endorsement of either film, is it?

The plot: ten years after defeating the Kraken, Perseus the demigod (our hero, lacklusterly played by Sam Worthington) is visited by his pappy Zeus (Liam Neeson). Zeus tells him that the power of the gods is fading. This is a bad thing, as when their power is gone the walls of Tartarus will fall, releasing Kronos (Zeus' father). This also would be bad, as Kronos will be a bit peeved after his long imprisonment and will scour the Earth. For some reason Zeus believes his normal sized half-god son can defeat the thousand foot tall humanoid volcano Kronos.

It's pretty standard sword-and-sandal fare. The storyline, such as it is, plays out very much like a video game, as the characters (quite literally) have to make it through various levels and defeat the end bosses to get to their objective.

One major complaint: in the original 1980s Clash of the Titans, the creatures were animated by stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen. He always made sure you got a good long look at all of his monsters, even when they were engaged in battle. After all, the whole reason for watching a movie like this is to see the monsters, amirite? In Wrath, you can barely catch a glimpse at the constantly whirling CGI creatures. The monster designs looked cool, as near as I can tell from the brief glances I got. They just wouldn't stand still long enough to get a good look at them. Helpful hint for the animators: just because your CGI monsters have unlimited mobility doesn't mean you should make them spin like tornadoes all the time. Have your monsters stop and roar once in a while.

This is the second modern appearance of Bubo the mechanical owl, who was the comedy relief in the original 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. Throwing a bone to the old school fans? I'm curious as to what the presence of this owl means. I doubt it signifies that the events of the original Clash took place in the remake's universe, as that would cause too many continuity problems. So why is it here? What's the significance? Audiences who've never seen the original will likely be left wondering what the hell this robot owl has to do with anything.

OK, we've had Clash of the Titans and now Wrath of the Titans. I predict the next installment will be Vexation of the Titans.

Pros
• Liam Neeson is excellent as always. Too bad his role wasn't bigger.

• Cool monster designs (I think).

Cons
• Apparently some ancient Greeks had Australian accents.

• In a related note, some Greek Gods had Irish accents.

• The old "reluctant hero" trope is trotted out yet again. Just once I'd like to see a modern movie where the hero immediately takes up the cause, instead of wallowing in self doubt or indifference to eat up screen time until the third act.

• Sam Worthington sleepwalks through yet another role, looking like he desperately needs a nap.

It's an unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary remake. I give it a C.



Jeff Who Lives At Home
Hey, it's another one of those quirky indie comedies that the Sundance crowd loves so much.

The plot, such as it is, follows the titular Jeff (played by the amiable Jason Segal, playing pretty much the same role he always plays), a 30 year old man-child slacker who, not surprisingly, lives in his mother's basement. It's his mother's birthday, and her only wish is for Jeff to rise from the couch, buy some wood glue and fix the broken slat on the kitchen cabinet. The film then follows Jeff's quest for glue as he's easily sidetracked into a series of interconnected adventures.

Along the way Jeff has a chance encounter with his estranged brother Pat (played by Ed Helms, who also is pretty much playing the same role he always plays, that of his Andy Bernard character from The Office), whose marriage is falling apart. Susan Sarandon stars as Jeff's mother, who is having a mid-life crisis as she attempts to discover the identity of a secret admirer in her office. Eventually the paths of Jeff, Pat and their mother intersect in the climactic setpiece at the end of the film, which isn't nearly as clever or interesting as the filmmakers believe it is.

The film tries to make some point about synchronicity and how life, the universe and everything are all interconnected. I think. I'm not really sure. 

It's an OK movie and a reasonably entertaining way to while away 83 minutes. It's being labeled as a "dramedy," which I suppose is an apt label. Unlike what the trailer would like you to believe, there's very little comedy on display here. If you're looking for belly-laughs, look elsewhere.

Credit where credit's due: I will give the film props for being an original story, rather than yet another remake or sequel.

By the way, take a close look at the poster above. Notice the row of laurel leaves surrounding the awards the movie has supposedly won. For some reason, indie films always plaster those on their posters, in an attempt to convince you it's good. The more laurel leaves you see, the more desperate they are.  

Pros:
• A good cast, although most of them are playing the same characters they always do.

Cons:
• Not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

It's a quirky independent dramedy. You know the drill by now. I give it a B-.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't seen the movie, but I re-read the book last year (having read most of the ERB canon back in my early teens, 30 years ago). Several of the items you mentioned as disliking -- Woola, no explanation for John Carter's astral body being on Mars while his physical body is on Earth, the framing sequence by his nephew -- are straight out of the book, so kudos to them, I suppose, for a faithful adaptation. But it sounds like the almost-universal derision of this film makes it one to skip.

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  2. Interesting! I've never read the books, so I didn't know how much was kept and how much thrown out. I did know that Woola was in the books, but I'm betting he *probably* wasn't a cute Disney-esque sidekick there.

    Didn't realize the framing sequence was in the book. It may have been faithful, but as I said it just added another layer to an already complicated story.

    I really wanted to like this movie-- I felt it could be the Star Wars of the new millennium. Sad to say I just didn't connect with it.

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