Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Dearth of Quality Movies: South Carolina Style

For the last six months or so, I have been living a crazy existence down in the city of Columbia, South Carolina. And along with this living situation, I have had a fair share of ups and downs. Mostly downs. Because for those of you who know me know that I have one major passion in life. And that is the Cinema. I capitalized it because it sounds more culturally refined and proper to do so. Plus, it sounds better than "Movies." (P.S. I'm better than you because I call it the Cinema.)

Unfortunately, the choices in Cinema are sorely lacking in comparison to other places where I have lived. And that is rather frustrating.

I bring this up now for one major reason: I want to see Juno. And I have been given no opportunity to see this movie. Normally, I can withstand such withholdings. Because I'm no film snob. I like my mindless action movies as much as I love the subtle dramas. So it follows that I have something to watch on the weekends, even if it is only Alvin and the Chipmunks. But it becomes a serious issue when people who are much less passionate about this pastime than I am are essentially brought to a theater to see Juno. And I'll be honest. I'm rather envious of them and I'd prefer they didn't see it at all.

On Christmas Day, Juno expanded into almost 1000 theaters. And, not one of them was within 70 miles of my current location. The problem is, I do not know what to do to get these movies here. I, and I alone will not be able to bring these movies to this city (or even this state for that matter, but that's a completely different conversation.)

There is one theater, called the Nickelodeon, located downtown, which apparently has one screen and on the weekends will show an artsy movie. And it changes every week. And Juno isn't on its schedule. The Nickelodeon is a recent discovery for me. I have yet to go there, but hearing about it months ago I immediately dismissed it as a place to play Double Dare or Legends of the Hidden Temple. (On second thought, I don't know why I didn't seek it out sooner. Nothing I'd love more to have a deep conversation with Olmec about Cleopatra or Davy Crockett.) But when I realized what it actually was, I became intrigued. Alas, the fact that there is only one theater and the selections are limited makes it a place where I probably will not end up frequenting too often.

The fact is, this place essentially sucks. Between the lack of movie choices and the lack of pizza choices, I sometimes wonder how these people even get by at all. Sure, Michigan often times wasn't anything to write home about, but I promise that you would not want to trade me. Especially if you were me.

I could probably complain more. Much more actually. But I will refrain. Because the only thing that's affecting me dearly is the lack of ability to go see Juno. And now that I'm thinking about it, the lack of an IMAX theater. There used to be one about an hour and a half away from my current location, on the beach in Charleston to be exact. But the week Transformers was to open up there, it shut down inexplicably. It's almost as if there's a higher power that is trying to wreck my movie-going enjoyment. (Crap. I called them the movies. Well, I'm still better than you anyway.) This has also forced me to forgo the 6-minute Dark Knight IMAX preview before I Am Legend. It's like everywhere I turn, there is more evil lurking its way into my life. An evil that I must turn around.

I welcome any suggestions that are deeper than "move away" or "get a new job". Simple in theory, but much more difficult in practice.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets Review

What can really be said about National Treasure: Book of Secrets other than it's a standard by-the-numbers Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The plot is fairly simple, the acting sufficient, and the overall tone of the movie is just one of general accessibility. Yet, putting all that aside and taking it in for what it is results in an entertaining event that could have been much worse than it ended up being.

Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage, in his first ever sequel) has recently been thrown out of his girlfriend Abigail's (Diane Kruger) house because of communication issues. He's also currently on tour discussing some Civil War findings. Of course, completely out of no where, Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) reveals a page of John Wilkes Booth's missing diary, which purportedly connects Gates' great-great-grandfather to the assassination of President Lincoln. The audience is already aware of the ancestral Gates' innocence, as the first scene of the movie shows what really went down regarding that page, and, surprise, surprise, the real conspirators were using Gates to decipher the lost City of Gold.

So, in order to clear his family's name, Gates must now prove that his great-great-grandfather was in fact on the trail of the City of Gold. Somehow, by finding this City, it will prove that he was innocent. Because apparently the former Gates couldn't have simultaneously plotted an assassination AND searched for a lost city.

What follows is a series of nonsensical clues that Gates must follow while staying one step ahead of Wilkinson in a manner that could be likened to Indiana Jones meets James Bond. Unfortunately, Gates is lacking the ultimate charm of either of those two legendary heroes and does not quite command the same excitement.

What National Treasure DOES do is present even the most implausible situations in an entertaining and relatively exciting way so that boredom never really has an opportunity to present itself. The entire cast of characters is likable and charismatic enough that while you are never really concerned with the ultimate outcome of their arcs, you are curious enough to let it play out as it is. Some of the situations are just so ridiculous that its tough to swallow. The clues are put in such insanely difficult places to get to, but not only do the characters retrieve those clues, they do so with such ease that it amazes me that security for any elected official is continued to be employed. Then this is followed up with little to no retribution, adding a layer of insanity that would not quite be there otherwise.

But, like was stated before, this is a standard Jerry Bruckheimer movie, so to expect anything else would kind of be pushing it. Obviously people are not going to see this for intense plotting and intricate characters. No, people are going to go see it to spend an enjoyable evening out, and in that regard, the movie does deliver. People who did not like the first one are obviously going to hate this one as well. And it's certainly not going to change anyone's mind who already hates Bruckheimer's mindless movies in general. Yet, if you just want to see some crazy people getting into some crazy situations that span the globe, then National Treasure: Book of Secrets is worth checking out.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd Review

Tim Burton is one of those directors who I am always curious to see what comes out of him next. His newest movie, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a unique entry from him as it is based on the Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name. I went in with absolutely no expectations, since I am only vaguely familiar with the musical itself and have never heard a song from it at all. So fortunately I was able to take everything in without any preconceived notion about what the movie should be.

Despite a few small issues, Sweeney Todd is one of Burton's best movies and succeeds on a number of levels. The story follows Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) as he returns to London after an exile of nearly 15 years. What happened is never fully explained, only to say that Todd, then Benjamin Barker, was sent away on trumped up charges so that Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) could take Barker's beautiful wife Lucy and their daughter away from him. Upon Todd's return, he meets up with the equally disturbed Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who happens to have quite an infatuation with Todd and informs him that his wife poisoned herself shortly after escaping Turpin and that his daughter, Joanna is now living under guard of Turpin himself.

Upon hearing the news that his beloved is now dead, his thoughts only move to one thing, and that is to exacting revenge upon Turpin for ruining his life. He then sets up a barber shop where he rarely gives actual haircuts but murders most of the customers to be served in Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.

Burton crafts an incredible interpretation of London that reflects the craziness of both Todd and Lovett. Their pale, darkened eyed complexion within their decrepit shops is juxtaposed against the more flesh-colored and colorful people around them. While the world is still ultimately a dark and unfriendly place, the external world that Todd and Lovett do not inhabit is much more of a welcoming place than the place in which they reside. The resulting atmosphere is incredibly effective in crafting a disturbing mood throughout the length of the film.

Depp and Carter in particular give excellent performances highlighting the specific issues troubling their individual characters. Rickman is equally disturbing as the fiendish Judge Turpin, a man whose moral code seems to be blinded by his own carnal desires.

What Depp, with the help of Burton, does is craft a character who is so blinded by his lust for revenge, he fails to see what it is doing to his life. Despite having the knowledge that his daughter is alive, he still seems to be more concerned with taking lives than he is with trying to start a new one for himself. Carter's Mrs. Lovett is equally blinded by her infatuation with Todd that she is willing to do things for him that she probably wouldn't do if he was not around. Despite the fact that Todd gives her very little reason to support him, she is wrapped up in him nonetheless.

The music is also excellent. The majority of the movie is sung, not spoken, and while Depp and Carter might not have the most beautiful singing voices, they are definitely sufficient and the way they sing is most certainly in line with the types of characters they are portraying. A few of Sondheim's numbers sound a little dated, but ultimately they are all catchy, intense songs that definitely help to create a mood for the film.

The issues that I had were rather minor. I was rather curious as to why Barker/Todd was taken away to start with and how he ended up on a ship back to England. I suppose we can assume that he escaped from prison and attempted to swim away, but this is never fully explained. Also, I was curious to know about what happens to a few characters once the movie ends, but given the movie is about the journey of Sweeney Todd, I can understand why the choice was made to end it where it did. People can come to their own conclusions about the other, more ancillary characters.

Also, in a few places it just felt too much like a stage production. There were moments when I realized that this was meant to be seen on stage that was a jarring moment that took me out of the movie. Fortunately, moments like those did not last long and it was very easy to fall back into the world of the dark London.

The film also delivers its R-rating rather strongly. Certainly no one will be complaining over a lack of blood, as the violence is so unflinching, yet it somehow delivers a sense of humor about plenty of the violent situations. The dark humor that is threaded underneath the tragic journey of Sweeney Todd creates an excellent movie that is sure to be recognized come awards season.


Walk Hard Review

Judd Apatow is the new Hollywood golden child. Every movie he has any involvement with these days is immediately touted as being "From the people who brought you 'Knocked Up' and 'Superbad'." Which, let's face it, is a very helpful message for any movie to have since both were such successes both financially and in terms of laugh content. Unfortunately, Walk Hard does not quite live up to the same levels of hilarity those other two movies had.

Walk Hard is a pretty simple movie to describe. Essentially, writers Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan took the basic plots of "Ray" and "Walk the Line", melded them together, added jokes when necessary, and called it a day. That's not to say that the movie does not work, because on the whole, it does. Functionally, the movie works rather well and uses the fact that John C. Reilly is playing the same character from age 14 to his 70s to a humorous advantage. The problem lies in the fact that the movie is not nearly as funny as Knocked Up or Superbad.

On the positive side, the laughs are pretty consistent. Most of the jokes are relatively humorous and there are a few very funny situations in the movie. It never bored me. I was constantly curious about what sort of wacky, out of control situation they would throw out next. So in that regard, the movie succeeds. There are also numerous small roles that are meant to illustrate the time period in which Dewey Cox is currently residing in, ranging from Elvis to the Beatles which are all very funny in the ways they send up the actual musicians.

The ultimate problem is that the movie just is not funny enough. There was nothing particularly memorable in the movie, except for the fact that a few penises are shown on display for no apparent reason than for people to go "Hey look, it's a penis." There is very little reason for them to be there, but I suppose the same could be said about the naked women in the movie. Except people are going "Hey look, they're boobies." But whatever.

It's also lacking the heart that the last two Apatow movies had. Knocked Up and Superbad were not only extremely funny movies, but included characters that you truly cared about and wanted to see succeed. They were flawed individuals who were trying to make their way in the world. Dewey Cox does not have that same connection to the audience that those previous characters had. I suppose that is somewhat the point in a parody movie, but when all the marketing materials are used strictly as a way to compare the movies, one cannot help but do an actual comparison.

For what they have, all of the actors do an extremely proficient job with their material. John C. Reilly is genuinely funny as Dewey Cox and the supporting cast including Kristin Wiig as Dewey's first wife, Edith and Jenna Fischer as his second wife, the June Carter send-up, Darlene, all deliver very funny scenes. The material they have to work with is just unfortunately somewhat lacking.

Despite the negatives, Walk Hard continues Judd Apatow's dominance of comedy. Even though it does not ultimately achieve the levels of greatness, it still exists as a funny movie that is leaps and bounds above such recent drivel as "Good Luck Chuck" or "The Heartbreak Kid". Apatow has raised the bar on himself, so it's just that much more obvious when he fails to meet it, even if the movie itself is an entertaining and funny way to spend two hours. Hopefully this is just a small slip-up in a line of excellent movies to come.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend Review

"I Am Legend" had a very unique opportunity to become an intimate big budget picture. The fact that Will Smith and his dog are essentially the only two characters in this movie made for a rather interesting experience throughout the majority of the film. Unfortunately, the movie does not ultimately end in a satisfactory way, leaving me to ponder alternate ways things could have been wrapped up.

Being unfamiliar with the source material and the two films prior to this one that attempted to adapt it, I was able to come in with essentially zero preconceived notions about what it was supposed to be. Yet, it does make me wonder how different the original novel was, since the last 30-40 minutes or so seem to be a completely different movie.

The movie begins in a televised interview announcing that cancer has been cured using a modified virus that only attacks cancer cells. This is the only set-up, save for a few minutes of flashbacks, for the remainder of the film. Immediately we are thrown into the world of Robert Neville (Will Smith) who spends his days hunting for food and searching for survivors of the mutated virus that killed the majority of the population and turned the rest into zombie-vampires.

Will Smith carries this movie as really only he can. His performance is relatively nuanced in comparison to many of his other films and the fact that he is alone for such a huge portion of the movie speaks volumes to his capabilities as an actor. The interactions with his dog, Sam, show a desperation for contact that would not be nearly as evident in a lesser actor. Also, one particularly moving exchange happens between Neville and a mannequin that truly shows where he is emotionally. What this provides is a welcome departure from most big budget actioners which primarily focus on gigantic effects sequences and have little in the way of emotional development.

Unfortunately "I Am Legend" turns into exactly the type of movie that it seemed to be rebelling against in the last quarter. About 3/4 the way through, a major turning point happens in the movie and it becomes almost like the writers had no idea where to go from there, but realized that the movie needed to end. What follows is a few ridiculous conveniences that just seemed to undermine the psychological intensity of the majority of the movie. This coupled with an intense zombie/vampire showdown creates a complete lack of focus in an otherwise focused movie.
The resolution seems to be obtained too easily and much too quickly.

The zombie/vampires are also much too plain. Yes, they are dangerous, but they seemingly exist as just mindless challengers for Neville except when they are inexplicably able to set up elaborate traps. The movie certainly would have benefited from an exploration as to what the people infected with the virus have become, beyond these mindless zombie/vampires.

"I Am Legend" suffers from a few ailments that hold it back from being a really good movie, which, unless someone goes back and reshoots the last half-hour, will not change. As it stands, it's absolutely an engaging way to spend two hours if only to see Will Smith continue to improve on his movie star status and acting capabilities.


Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Golden Compass Review

Much has been written regarding "The Golden Compass" and the author, Phillip Pullman, with his apparent master plan of converting the world's children into atheists, if some are to be believed. Yet, while this may be an issue within the books themselves, none of that controversy is apparent in the finished film. And maybe by using those controversial elements, the movie would have been much better off.

As it stands, "The Golden Compass" is little more than a cheap imitator of fantasy films that have come before it, such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. The movie itself is a textbook situation of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.

To sum it up, Lord Asreal (Daniel Craig) has discovered "Dust", a mystical energy force that apparently allows people to travel between universes. The concept of Dust goes against the teachings of the Magesterium, so this organization, which controls the vast majority of the world it would seem, wants to stop Asreal from making the existence of other worlds known to the public as this would undermine everything they teach.

Meanwhile, 12-year-old Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is taken into the care of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) where Coulter attempts to subdue Lyra, as Lyra is the child stated in the witches prophecy to be the one who decides the coming war. Lyra is also in possession of an alethiometer, or Golden Compass, which is an object that is capable of seeing the truth within any situation. Lyra escapes, and ends up on a whirlwind adventure that includes polar bears, sky cowboys, and witches.

There are so many issues with this movie it is difficult to find a place to begin. First and foremost, the movie is just too short. Clocking in at just under two hours, absolutely nothing is given any time to develop. Moments pass from one scene to the next with no real connection to any of the characters. In one example, Lyra uses her golden compass to ascertain the location of the great Polar Bear Iorek's (voiced by Ian McKellen) armor. She then tells him, he listens with no question of her motives or how she got this knowledge, picks up the armor and immediately becomes best friends with the child. Shortly after, a situation arises where Iorek's life is put into jeopardy and Lyra shows a connection with him that just does not make any sense whatsoever. No evidence was given in this movie to justify her reaction to the situation.

It is completely obvious that much was cut from the book in an attempt to fit into a sub-2 hour run time and ends up reading more like a cliff's notes on the novel instead of an adaptation. Other characters come and go with seemingly no compelling reason as to why they are there. Unfortunately, this means that it becomes impossible to connect with any of the characters on any more than a superficial level, making the movie less of a coherent whole and more of a mish-mash of situations.

The plot is also a difficult issue to grasp with as there does not seem to be any real goals until the movie is literally over. The characters stumble across things that lead them from one place to the next and very rarely do they ever take matters into their own hands. Every new character seems to lay out some clunky new exposition that attempts to fill the audience in on what has happened or is going to happen instead of just showing us. The movie then therefore follows into a large portion of summaries about the world instead of immersing the audience within the world.

Yet, not is all bad about the movie. There are individual moments of fun that are scattered throughout. The entire sequence with the Ice Bear army were probably the most engaging moments in the entire film, as they not only showed Lyra's true cunning and intelligence, but was also a showcase for an intense battle where the movie truly earns its PG-13 rating in a shocking conclusion.

Nicole Kidman's Mrs. Coulter is also an incredibly effective villain because she is just obviously off her rocker. Her desperate attempts to maintain self control are undermined by moments of pure insanity where it is clear that not much is right with this woman, and Kidman plays it wonderfully. Unfortunately, her time in the movie is very short and she is given very little to do when she is there. I certainly would have enjoyed to delve deeper into her story to understand her more, even though there was an unoriginal twist thrown into her character near the end. Yet, because there was such little explanation, it could turn into something much deeper in future films if they are made. Craig was also charismatic as Lord Asreal, but unfortunately he is in the movie for what seems to be all of 10 minutes.

Dakota Blue Richards delivers an excellent performance as Lyra, but again, her character suffers from the same problems as all the others, being a lack of development and a paint-by-numbers plot.

Ultimately, I found myself wanting to forget about this portion of the saga and more interested in what is to come. And hopefully, if they do make those other installments, they will learn to cut only what is necessary and focus on the characters much more. There have been worse ways to spend two hours, but I can think of so many better ways to spend them as well.