29 December 2011

Movies: The Shrine

The Shrine (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1341710/

Supernatural Horror Mystery

Carmen, a writer, ignores her editor's orders and travels to Poland to investigate multiple disappearances of tourists involving a small village called Alvania. She brings along Sara, her intern, and her photographer boyfriend-on-the-rocks Marcus.  They discover a very tight-lipped group that chases them out of the village. But they also notice a crazy column of fog that sits unmoving in the middle of the woods.  Carmen and Sara both walk into the fog and discover a mysterious demonic statue in the middle. As Marcus tries to talk the girls into returning to the car and getting out of there the villagers chase them all down.

Stars Cindy Sampson as Carmen. I don't think I've seen anything she's been in, but folks who watched the TV series "Supernatural" probably would. Meghan Heffern plays Sara. I haven't seen most of anything she's been in either. She was in "Chloe" but it's been long enough since I've seen it I don't recognize her from that either. Aaron Ashmore plays Marcus. You'll recognize him even if you've never seen anything he's been in (Warehouse 13 for example). His twin brother Shawn was Bobby Drake/Iceman in the first three X-Men films. Heck I get the two confused all the time, I gotta use IMDB to sort it out. 

Sure there's some production issues in the film, less-than-stellar acting by some of the cast, and overall it looks rather small budget. To my ears the spoken Polish sounds like the actors learned their lines phonetically, but I'm not experienced in how spoken Polish sounds so what do I know?

But the weaknesses are made up for by the story and the rest of the production.
For me the story seems a lot "fresher" than most of the recent supernatural films that have been released in the past few years, and approached more intelligently. What is nice is they give you hints about the mystery to where you can figure the twist out before it happens. A lot more showing than telling takes place, which keeps us as viewers more involved in the film.

They didn't use much CGI, perhaps due to budget, but I think that actually works to this film's advantage by letting our imaginations do the work. The "less is more" factor held true in this case. Some may complain there's no subtitles for the Polish spoken, but I think that works to the film's advantage too. By keeping us in the dark about what is said it adds to the feeling of isolation. Heck I don't even know if the Polish spoken really translates or not. It doesn't matter. 
I really appreciate the effort they put into the film. So yes, even though there are some weaknesses, the remaining strengths make up for it.

If you're in the market for a better-than average supernatural mystery thriller I recommend this one. It was a nice surprise because it turned out much better than anticipated.

28 December 2011

Movies: Source Code

Source Code (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0945513/

Sci-Fi Thriller

Army Captain Colter wakes on a train, unsure of where he is. The lady sitting across from him talks to him like he knows her, but calls him by a different name. When he catches a glimpse of himself in the window he freaks out - the face he sees is not the face he remembers as his own. He rushes to the bathroom to find in his pocket identification that matches the face instead of who he thinks he is.
The train explodes and Capt Coulter is now strapped in some sort of harness inside a small capsule. A Capt. Goodwin talks with him via a video link asking him if he found the bomb on the train or the person responsible. He says no, tries to get answers, they tell him little then send him back.
It turns out the train bombing already happened earlier that morning. A technology has been developed to transfer Capt Coulter's mind into the mind of one of the dead passengers, to tap into the last 8 minutes or so of his short-term memory.  Some technobabble is spouted to describe some quantum physics theories and brain stuff to explain how it is possible for them to return him repeatedly into this dead passenger's memories to try to figure out who the train bomber is.
The bomber had informed the authorities the train bomb was just to get their attention and he's going to set off a larger "dirty bomb" somewhere in Chicago, potentially killing millions. The experimental technology run by the military is being used as a last-ditch effort to try to stop this upcoming attack.

First off - I was hesitant to watch the film. Time-travel sci-fi usually leaves me disappointed. But that doesn't mean I hate all time-travel stories, I'm just very wary when it comes to watching them. I figured I'd give this one a shot. It has a good core cast in Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farminga and Jeffrey Wright. Plus it was directed by the guy that directed "Moon" - which was a surprisingly good film that didn't get the exposure it deserves and the 'science' behind its 'science fiction' was used the way science fiction is supposed to be used. I'll take this time to recommend seeing "Moon" if you haven't yet seen it.

Seeing who the cast and director were was enough for me to give it a chance. I didn't even mind that the writer is the guy responsible for "Species 3" and "Species: The Awakening". Actually it's only the writer's 4th film. Perhaps this will get him more work?

If you can't tell, I actually liked the film despite its being a time-travel film. Early on it reminded me in some ways of "Twelve Monkeys" (another should-see film).  It certainly was a lot better than "Next" and "Butterfly Effect", which are actually more fantasy films than sci-fi.  I realize this 'looping until things work out for the best' isn't a new concept. They've done it in "Groundhog Day" (great film), an "X-Files" episode, multiple "Star Trek" franchise episodes, and in plenty other TV series. And yes, plenty of times I gripe about recycled story lines and such. Basically it boils down to I'm more irritated by recycled stories when they don't improve on the concept, or if the "loop" is the main purpose of the episode instead of interesting character exploration. In other words, if the story sucks tossing "time looping" doesn't make it better. And writing a "time looping" story just to write one and slapping some folks in yammering through it doesn't help either.

And that's why this film works for me. Besides covering repeated attempts to figure out who the bomber is, it also doles out bits and pieces about who Capt Colter is and why he's on these missions. It's about the characters, their past and present, their motivations, their desires, the thrill of the mystery. The sci-fi component is just a framework for a thriller and character story to play out.

So yes, better than I anticipated. Entertaining and thrilling enough.

-----
Spoilery stuff, so don't read if ya don't wanna:
Some viewers were left irritated wanting to know what happens to the mind of the person inside the body that Capt Colter inhabits during his visits. I don't recall if the film states what happens during their technobabble explanation of the process. I'm assuming the scientist and team sending Coulter back don't give that much thought considering it's the final 8 minutes of that dude's life and he's already dead, so there is no permanent harm done.
As for the question in the context of his final visit to the 'host'. Yeah - I can see the complainer's point. But following through utilizing the science the storytellers are positing as the explanation behind what's going on, there are an infinite number of universes so that is just one outcome out of an infinite number of outcomes. And by that logic there exists a universe like this one where that outcome is perfectly acceptable to the complainer's counterpart and they don't raise the philosophical question they now ask. :P

24 December 2011

Movies: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who Played with Fire and Kicked the Hornet's Nest

My thoughts on the Swedish/Norwegian film series based on the three-book Millennium series by Stieg Larsson.  The films are "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", "The Girl Who Played with Fire", and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest".

All together this is a Mystery Crime Thriller group of films with tones of Revenge and Redemption and all together a sweeping character drama.

These are the subtitled Swedish language films, not the english-language remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" that is in theaters.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1132620/

I figured with the English-language remake of this film hitting theaters this December I would take a look at the original film that I've heard talked about so positively the past couple of years. And, if I like it enough, will probably watch the two sequels as well. They are in Swedish language, but they're captioned, so there's only having to deal with that.

Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter/editor for Millennium Magazine, goes on trial for libel for an article he published about an investigation he did into a company.  He claims he is innocent, that he was set up. Especially considering all his sources disappeared and all of the documents they provided turned out to be fakes. He's found guilty and is sentenced to a fine and some jail-time, which he is scheduled to begin serving in six months.
Henrik Vanger, one of the retired owners of a different family-owned company, had him investigated by Milton  Security company to determine if he is actually corrupt or is as outstanding an investigator as he was believed to be prior to the trial. Based on a good report Vanger decides to hire him through the security company for the duration of that six-month waiting period to look into a 40 year old mystery involving the disappearance/possible murder of his niece.
Lisbeth, an investigator/hacker that works for Milton Security, continues to check up on Mikael. Why isn't exactly clear, perhaps out of curiosity because she could find no evidence of any wrongdoing, or perhaps she's compelled to keep digging because, as she said, 'everybody has secrets.' As she continues to hack into and peek at his computer she stumbles upon some of the evidence related to the disappearance. It is a list of names and/or initials and possible phone numbers that seemingly go no where.  Lisbeth comes up with a possible connection that neither Mikael nor the investigating police were able to make. She sends him an anonymous(ish) email deciphering the coded text. When he mentions receiving the email to his contact at the security company, the one that introduced him to Vanger, the man realizes who it probably was and puts Mikael in contact with Lisbeth.  Together they begin unraveling the threads of the 40 year old mystery.

Actually, a heck of a lot more than just that happens. Things that deal with character establishment, hints at Lisbeth's past, troubles she deals with in her personal life. They all tie in to the story in some way, establishing character motivations and responses to situations. Even if the story seems centered on Mikael and his investigation, the central character is clearly Lisbeth.

Although the mystery itself isn't very complex once the investigation reaches its climax and we've seen the solution, watching the mystery followed and unraveled and the character development is riveting. For a 2+ hour film it certainly didn't feel like it, despite reading translated dialog throughout.

There are some brutal and graphic scenes in this film, scenes of sexual nature and sexual assaults/rapes. They aren't just thrown in for spicing up the film, they're present because they are integral to the story. If you have issues watching stuff like that, either don't see the film, turn away when appropriate, or tough it out because you're forewarned.

If the remake (starring Daniel Craig) is anywhere near as good as this film it'll prove to be quite awesome. A good mystery story will reach a wider English-speaking audience. And I'm definitely going to check out the Swedish-language sequels.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1216487/

The story of Lisbeth continues, starting around a year or so after the previous film ends. Mikael Blomkvist and his Millennium Magazine return as well.
A budding writer approaches Mikael and his magazine with a story about illegal sex-trafficking, specifically those who have availed themselves of the service and possible tracking down one group responsible for the trafficking. He already has vetted sources. His story ties in with his girlfriend's PhD work, which specifically covers the effects on the girls involved in these sex-trafficking rings.
The writer and his girlfriend are found murdered, murdered with a gun belonging to Lisbeth's legal guardian. And Lisbeth's fingerprints are on that gun. When the police go to question him they find he has been murdered as well. Lisbeth is now wanted by the police for the murders.

Mikael tries to track down what is going on to clear Lisbeth's name. Lisbeth is doing the same. They aren't directly working together, but working toward the same goal.

Events from the previous film directly tie into this story.  The legal guardian and his relationship to Lisbeth was first introduced to us in the first film. Her having a legal guardian despite being 'of age' involves those events from her past revealed in the first film. Lisbeth's past is fleshed out more and factors directly into the story.
I don't think it is essential to have seen "Dragon Tattoo" first to figure out what is going on in "Played with Fire". However the tie-ins to characters and back story established in "Dragon Tattoo" certainly will inform one's sense of character connections.  It's much better to have watched "Dragon Tattoo" first.

As with the first film there's plenty of character development, mystery, thrills, violence. We get to find and follow the threads that all lead to the tapestry woven at the core of the story along with Lisbeth and Mikael. As with its preceding film the story, pacing, acting, film as a whole is so compelling that by the end it didn't feel like I just watched a 2+ hour film.
However the conclusion of the film doesn't feel like a conclusion to the story. It leaves the viewer wanting, wanting for a conclusion to the bigger story that was hinted at in "Dragon Tattoo" and greatly expanded in "Played with Fire". Once I watched this film I felt I had no recourse but see it through to the end by watching the next film in the series.

Is this film as good as its predecessor? Hard to tell. "Dragon Tattoo" sets a high bar because it is so 'fresh and new' in the sea of recent film productions. In comparison "Played with Fire" might seem to fall a little short of that mark, especially when you already know part of the story from the first film and its conclusion isn't near as conclusive. I think had this come out by itself it may have been just as acclaimed. But I still feel its better to have seen "Dragon Tattoo" first.

Glad I watched it and I'm certainly going to finish this series of films. And, if the remake of the first is a hit I'm certain they'll finish remaking the rest of the series as well.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1343097/

The final installment of the series. This one picks up exactly where the previous film leaves off.
Even though it would be possible to start here it wouldn't be worth it. Starting here would be like watching "Return of the King" before the previous two "Lord of the Rings" films. It can be done, but why? There is no way to really understand the depth of the back story for the events in this film without having seen its predecessors.

The film continues to plumb Lisbeth's past and the details and greater-reaching interconnections of the story behind it. Even though it has a bit less action than the first two films, the story and the compelling thrilling drama playing out is just as deep and developed, and it brings closure to the events started in "Played with Fire".  Performances and production are just as solid as with the first two films.

I'm not going to talk about much else, this film is really dependent on its predecessors and discussing its story line could possibly be too spoilery for the other two films.


In conclusion concerning the series
One could watch "Dragon Tattoo" and be satisfied with an involving story played well to its conclusion. It works that well stand-alone. If "Played with Fire" is watched then "Kicked the Hornet's Nest" almost has to be watched to bring satisfactory closure to the grander story arc.

I'm glad they started with "Dragon Tattoo" because it is such a strong compelling story. They could have started in the middle, with "Played with Fire" then "Kicked" before releasing "Dragon Tattoo", but I don't think that order would have felt near as cohesive or powerful nor would it have served the grander story as well.*

The Millennium series as a whole is really good and worth watching. Each have their compelling stories embedded within a grander story arc and, when spread over a couple nights of watching, provide hours of quality entertainment. I'm glad I watched them.

And, the more I ponder the films, I have to wonder why are they remaking them in English? They are already outstanding films as they exist. Perhaps it is just because they aren't in English and they are great stories and film studios smell good money to be had in remakes of outstanding foreign films. Like "Let the Right One In". Same thing. Outstanding foreign film as is and it didn't require being remade, but they did anyway. Not a complaint, an observation.

--------------
* One could contrast that with the Hannibal Lecter story.  "The Silence of the Lambs" worked so well that they made "Hannibal" then "Red Dragon". The point being that starting in the middle with "Silence" followed by "Hannibal" then working back to "Red Dragon" would be a similar order of story progression as watching "Played with Fire" then "Kicked" before "Dragon Tattoo".  But what worked for Lecter  wouldn't necessarily work for Lisbeth.

Yes I know that "Red Dragon" is essentially the same story as "Manhunter", and "Manhunter" predates "Silence" by five years. Despite being a good film in its own right "Manhunter" never received the acclaim "Silence" received and didn't truly launch the series.
I don't want to get off track on the Lecter series, perhaps I'll save that for another time.


--------------
Side note about something I found out reading up about this series of films. They made a miniseries out of these films consisting of footage from the same production as the films. Each film is recut into 2 episodes of an hour and a half each, a total of six episodes. The miniseries clocks in at 9 hours story which makes it almost 2 hours longer than the three films combined. I'm curious to see what else from the stories they include, but I don't think the television miniseries is available to watch over here just yet.  Apparently only "Dragon Tattoo" was intended to be a film followed by straight-to-TV-miniseries for the remainder of the stories, however the film did so well they cut the remaining two films from the production for the series.

Edit 21 March 2012:
I noticed a couple few weeks ago that the Millenium TV miniseries  is now available streaming on Netflix. Woot!

22 December 2011

Movies: Fright Night

Fright Night (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1438176/

Horror Comedy

Charley discovers that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire. 
Remake of the classic 1985 "Fright Night".

That's right. A horror comedy. Sometimes light in both departments, sometimes a little confused whether it is supposed to be a comedy or not. But it works out in the end.  You'll recognize some of the cast, including Colin Farrell as the Vampire Jerry, Toni Collette as the mom, Doctor Who fans will recognize David Tennant as Peter Vincent. And I recognized Imogen Poots as Amy only because her name always makes me laugh. And, for original film lovers, there's even a Chris Sarandon cameo.
The screenplay was written by Marti Noxon, a name probably best known to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fans as a sometimes writer and producer of the show. Yeah, the same Marti Noxon responsible for the script of "I am Number Four". But I'll let that slide. But if you've watched "Buffy" you'll probably recognize some nods to the franchise and detect a familiarity in the feel of the film.

As mentioned before it is a remake of the 1985 film. Many years have elapsed since I last watched the original, so I'm working on vapors when drawing comparisons. But I do recall I enjoyed the comedic campiness of the original.

It keeps most of the major characters, beefs some roles up, tones some roles down, rewrites others.  For example, Tennant's Peter Vincent is a Las Vegas stage magician vs. Roddy McDowell's aging locally produced washed-up midnight monster movie host.  The number of major players is lightened up a bit, probably tightening up the story and confining it to a space as small as the suburb it plays out in. Unfortunately for this film the rewritten and toned down "Evil Ed" character isn't near as entertaining as the original.
Storywise it keeps some of the core things from the original (vampire neighbor, bitings, confrontation at the end), but changes the location, character backgrounds, some story events.  As with the tightened up cast the story was simplified and tightened up some too. But all that tightening results in the amusing observation that events occur that in a normal world have police and possibly FBI crawling all over the place yet they don't seem to attract much attention in this film's world.
Gone is 1985's campy feel. This one is a comedy though sometimes it seems to waver, as if it gets lost and starts taking itself seriously at times, only to remember it is supposed to be lighter and comedic.

Camera work was fine for the most part though there was a moment of disturbingly wonky coordination between the camera panning inside the car vs. the outside view pan.  Decent enough special effects and makeup. They even retained nods to the vicious vampire face design from the original.

All in all it is entertaining. As a film it does stand on its own. As a remake it is not near as disappointing as one would suppose. I think they revamped the characters, settings, locations enough to result in a different film and avoid seeming like a rehashed crapfest, yet retains enough similarities viewers of the original will recognize.

But, in the end, I'm still left wondering why remake a film that really didn't need to be remade in the first place. The original "Fright Night" has its place and works as-is. The new film just seems to be someone else's take on the theme, leaving it with a less-than-fresh feeling and seeming more of a grab to cash in on Gen X childhood memories. With the recent glut of vampire films the remake just adds another to the pile.  Perhaps they're testing the waters for a remake of "Monster Squad"?
Holy crap! I was joking but apparently there is a remake of "Monster Squad" in development. LOL. The conflagration of nerdrage will be immense if development leads to production.

Thus the film is a conundrum. It's good enough, but has been done before, but is different than its namesake, but really didn't need to be made. Meh, just give up and watch it if you want, or don't.

20 December 2011

Movies: YellowBrickRoad

YellowBrickRoad (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1398428/

Horror / Psychological Thriller / Mystery

One day back in the 1940s the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire, left everything behind and walked up a winding mountain trail. The U.S. Army was called in to investigate. They followed the trail and recovered some folks that had been slaughtered along the way, recovered others that froze to death further along the trail, and never found the rest of the population. The mysterious event was quietly covered up. New residents of the town don't discuss the events with anyone, however the expanse of wilderness to the north of town is off limits to all including hunters, loggers, developers, etc.
Recently the Army's reports about the incident were declassified, so a writer-couple and their psychologist friend assemble a small team to accompany them to map out the path and try to uncover clues behind the mystery of the town's disappearance. The plan is to write a book about the mystery and what they found while retracing the path. When they arrive at Friar they find out the coordinates for the trail head are wrong, pointing instead at the Rialto theater. No residents will talk with them about it, except for the popcorn chick at the theater. She tells them how her grandfather used to visit the town every couple of weeks back in the 40s around the time the town emptied, and she can guide them to the trail head and give them any information they need that comes from local lore about the incident.

The film has a rather small cast. What is odd is most of the cast looked familiar to me, but when I looked up the cast members I can't recall watching any thing any of them have been in.
Filmed primarily in the woods somewhere. In some ways it reminded me of a low-budget guerrilla-style film project, like "Blair Witch Project" or possibly "Monsters".  The film seemed quite a bit more scripted than "Blair Witch", more like how "TrollHunter" seemed. Thankfully we are observers, we are not part of the cast nor are we 'found footage reassembled'. This frees them up to jump between the subgroups once the main group fractures so we can continue to follow what happens to them.

I thought the film started with a neat kernel of a story, but as the trip along the trail progressed I see-sawed between boredom and dread for the end of the film. Yes, weird unexplainable junk happens along the way to keep things spicy, unexplainable not only to the team on the path but to us viewers. These moments dragged me briefly from "yawn" to "hmm, what's this?" before I settled back into waiting for whatever next happens. As the story progresses toward its conclusion it lands fully in the 'unexplainable' wheelhouse, almost like some sort of weird psychotropic-fueled dream sequence. However my curiosity got the better of me, I had to see it play out. I figured it would probably wind up as one of those 'journey better than the destination' endings.

But, all told, the journey wasn't so grand for me and neither was the ending. Someone mentioned David Lynch in reference to this film, but I don't see it. Sure some of Lynch's stuff may come off as psychotropic-fueled nightmares too, but there's a progression to Lynch's stuff that makes sense in that psychotropic-fueled nightmare world he presents.

Though I wasn't particularly impressed with the film I do have to say that technically the production wasn't terrible. They were able to pull off the 'less is more' story telling to some degree of success, where they don't have to show everything, and your imagination is allowed to fill in the blanks. Thankfully the cast isn't yammering exposition constantly to tell you what just happened in case you missed it. But the imagination gets quite a workout by the time the film finishes. Considering I thought I recognized some of the cast then couldn't track any of them down to anything I've watched, I suppose they did fine for their roles as well.

Probably be worthy SyFy channel fare, even better than some of their productions. Not quite what I was hoping for based on the trailers for the film, not near as terrible as it could have been.  And, now that I think about it, I liked it better than "Paranormal Activity".

19 December 2011

Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458339/

Action Adventure Fantasy

This film gives us the origin story of Steve Rogers, how he becomes Captain America, who Red Skull and Hydra are. All set mostly during World War II, just as the original comics were set. They also explain how Captain America happens to be around in modern times, just in time for the Avengers film due out in 2012.

The special effects were rather amazing. Especially turning a beefed-up Chris Evans (Captain America) into 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers during his pre-super-soldier serum days. Wow that was some amazing CGI work.
As for story, it was entertaining, they had a good extended cast of characters we might see referenced in the future, good continuity with the Marvel universe as presented to us in bits from the preceding Iron Man/Thor/Hulk films, and a good tie-in to the upcoming Avengers film. Yes, this is primarily a vehicle to introduce us to the Captain America character for the Avengers film, but it works well as a stand-alone film in the entertainment department too.

I think I enjoyed this one a little more than Thor because it had its setting primarily during World War II. Setting it in the period where having a Captain America made sense. Including Red Skull works really well in that context too. I liked the evolution of his costume and shield and the nods they make to the original comics in doing so. I also liked how they incorporated other Marvel WWII characters.
I think this one ended up more action-y and felt a little more grounded than "Thor".  I guess because it's a matter of technology vs. mythological origins. When you think about it, Cap'n America, Red Skull, Hulk and Iron Man are all products of human ambition conflicted with human corruption during the 20th into the 21st century. The Thor addition is sortof explained away as 'alien technology seeming to be magical' but we know that's just a slipcover over its being characters from Norse mythology retold and retooled.

If you plan on watching The Avengers it is worth it to watch this some time before. Especially if you've seen the two Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk and Thor. Captain America makes clear references to things we've already seen in Iron Man, Thor and Hulk. They all feed into the upcoming Avengers film. If you don't plan on watching The Avengers it is still an entertaining and fun film.

Yes, 2011 gave us a bunch of comic-book to movie adaptations. But I have seen a big difference in the Marvel films lately. They've been working toward keeping a continuity of story in the franchises and they've been putting a lot more effort into better stories with really slick special effects. True they are rewriting origin stories, canon character history and such, but I think they're improving as they learn from previous mistakes and I look toward a more unified future.

16 December 2011

Movies: Thor

Thor (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/

Action Adventure Fantasy

Based on the Marvel comic Thor. Any resemblance to Norse mythology is purely cosmetic.  Any resemblance to the Marvel comic I'm unsure of as I didn't read that series.

Hulk's review:
Thor make Odin mad. Odin cast Thor to Earth to teach him lesson. Thor meet earthlings. Loki does bad things. Thor smash.

Thanks, Hulk!

Even though this film is clearly a set-up to the upcoming "The Avengers" film it actually stands well on its own. A nice little Thor on Earth origin story.  Has its humorous moments, action moments, great special effects, decent cast, decent story to follow. I liked it. It wasn't a waste of time.  It's turn-off-the-brain entertainment. Kinda predictable in some ways, but action-y enough too. And I do hold appreciation for Branagh's direction of the film. The guy is good, and he did good with what he had to work with. By that I mean script/production/studio pressures.

If you plan on watching "The Avengers" it is worth it to watch this at some time beforehand, just to have the background. This lightens the load of "The Avengers" having to spell out all the backgrounds of all the heroes, otherwise the first 3/4 of that film would be showing us the origins of all the Avengers team members. As it is they'll probably have to chew up time to introduce a few new ones anyhow.
What is nice about them all (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk) is there is a bit of planned continuity to keep everything in the same Marvel universe. Unfortunately due to licensing and rights ownership issues a few other Marvel character/franchises are owned by other studios and are rather excluded from that Disney-owned Marvel Universe continuity at this time. Maybe some day if deals are renegotiated or properties bought back or something.


That said, here's where holding opposing opinions at the same time gets fun.  On the stand-alone-as-a-film level I can appreciate that the film is entertaining. But in the context of the glut of comic book adaptations hitting the screens recently this is just another one.
In many ways the Thor film feels like the recent Hulk films, and in some sense like a lot of other comic-book-to-film adaptations. You have the hero of the film, you have the love-interest, you have some large organization trying to suppress/control/destroy, be it government or government arm or whatnot, you have personal crisis and overcoming that crisis to some degree. In some ways its almost the same core script, just change the names of the characters, the costumes, the special effects, minor details. Cap'n 'Merica is in the same boat.  At the same time I see it all fits in the bigger picture leading up to "The Avengers", and appreciate that they are taking this route to get there.


The trend of the major film studios to throw shovelfuls of comic adaptations, reboots, remakes, rehashes, sequel-prequels and rewritten formula scripts at us is fatiguing. Especially when you realize they're all the beginning to look like the same stories redressed. What we as viewers do have to look forward to is it is a game of diminishing returns and some day, when enough diminishing happens, we'll have other trends to look forward to and watch all the studios go through the same motions in some other genre.

So on one hand I enjoyed the film, on the other, it is tiring. But I'll keep subjecting myself to 'em. And they know that. Which makes me part of the problem.

14 December 2011

Movies: Triangle

Triangle (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1187064/

Mystery Thriller (with dash of horror)
A UK/Australian production.

Six folks go sailing off the coast of Florida together.

No, this isn't the start of a reboot of "Gilligan's Island", although with the remake-mania sweeping Hollywood right now I bet there have been more than a few scripts shopped about to do just that. But back to this movie...

Six folks go sailing off the coast of Florida together. We have the boat owner, the deckhand that lives on the boat, the boat owner's best friend, best friend's wife, best-friend's-wife's-coworker brought along as a potential blind-date-love-interest for the boat owner, and, finally, the waitress from a place the boat owner eats. You quickly get the impression boat owner is sweet on the waitress, is annoyed by best-friends-wife bringing along her cowoker, but nevermind, the coworker is more interested in the young buff deckhand anyhow.

I realize at this point you're probably thinking, "yeah, this isn't starting so good". That's rather how I felt at first too. But then the movie got right into where the movie was planning to go anyhow. Which is great. Great for me, potentially great for you if you end up watching the film. By the way, the boat is named "Triangle." But they also happen to be sailing into the Bermuda Triangle. So, take what you want from that. The movie title could mean either, or both.

While they are sailing along the wind suddenly dies. A freak storm blows in, capsizes the boat. Most of the boat people make it back to the now upside-down sailboat hull to await whatever happens next. A giant ocean liner comes along, though it looks a little bit old, like 1930s old. I don't know if it's really 1930s, that's just the decade that comes to mind for some reason. They all climb aboard.  The boat is seemingly empty of other passengers and crew.  The survivors begin making their way around to try to find someone, anyone, or a radio to call for help.

Now, I can't say what mysterious thrilling things happen, because it is damn near impossible to try to summarize the story without giving up what's going on. That's why I wouldn't recommend reading too much at IMDB or Wikipedia ahead of time, you'll spoil it before you see it. And, as with most stories, it isn't the destination, it's the journey. And even though though you realize early on what is happening and might guess where the movie will go, will you be correct? That's the rub.

I can say that this film reminded me in some ways of "Memento". If you haven't seen "Memento", you should. Regardless of whether or not you watch "Triangle." It is that good, I'll always recommend seeing that. But the "Triangle" story doesn't resemble "Memento" in any way, it's more of the 'feel' of the films. In some ways it also sort of reminded me of "The Machinist", although "The Machinist" is a bit ... "more" ... I guess. Again the story of "The Machinist" in no way resembles this film.  It is a 'feel' thing.
But if you haven't seen "Memento" or "The Machinist" you have no clue what I'm talking about, especially because I won't give much storyline or plot or anything to you. And, as I said, I can't do that, because it would spoil way too much.

I will say that, as Bermuda Triangle associated films go, this is probably the best to come out in a very long time. Especially because it's primarily a backdrop to the film, not the main focus or plot driving mechanism. Honestly the film could have been set anywhere.  But I find it interesting that a UK/Australian production does a 'Bermuda Triangle' associated film better than most any American production has.

It's a decent enough mystery thriller, it gives you plenty of clues as to what is happening, and even when you know what is happening and think you know what's going to happen next, you really don't know what's going to happen next. Or where it will end. Or if it will end. If you do watch it, pay attention. Almost everything you see or hear has meaning again in the film. Even seemingly disconnected events. Much like Checkov's gun, only on a grand scale.
Don't expect 'horror' on the scale that most 'horror' films strive to achieve. It's way more subtle. I suppose that goes for the 'mystery' and 'thriller' aspects too, to some varying degree. But it doesn't have to be big for the mystery/thriller/horror to be effective in a story. Sometimes less is more. Especially when done well.

Slick story, great production, good cast.
You really can't go wrong watching this one if you're in the market for a good fantasy mystery/thriller.

12 December 2011

Movies: Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1013860/

Comedy / Horror / Mystery

Dylan is a private detective. He also used to be the only human trusted to handle problems in the undead circles. Yes, vampires, werewolves, zombies and who knows what else are real in this world, except humankind doesn't know because the undead integrate into the human world and keep well hidden.  Dylan thought he had extracted himself from that world, only to be drawn in on a murder case that had a supernatural cause, a cause that ends up killing his partner, who returns as a zombie to help him.

Stars Brandon Routh as Dylan, you'd probably remember him most from the 2006 "Superman Returns" sequel*. You might recognize him from a couple of other films he's done since then, but he hasn't quite become the household name like his Superman predecessors. There's a couple other big-ish names in the film, but mostly little-knowns.

Apparently the film is based on a comic series, one I've not heard of. The film didn't inspire me to seek it out. Perhaps by not reading the comics I am missing out on how the film is supposed to 'feel'?  For a comedy it's not exactly, for adventure, action and mystery it's a little light on those aspects too.  Rather lightweight in all departments.
To me the film feels like a B-movie despite its $20million budget. Dunno what they spent that money on. Some of the makeup effects were okay I guess. It seemed like it applied 20 year old (or older) monster film techniques with smatterings of modern CGI to me. The vampires and werewolves were sort of light versions of the older hollywood-y style stereotypes and thankfully not Twilight-twinky-style. The zombies were a bit more cognizant of their condition than the standard zombie fare, more like Romero-style zombies with awareness plus the availability of food sources alternative to human flesh consumption. Regardless, all the different undeads were rather mediocre in many ways, but that's probably necessary to sell the 'integration of undeads in a human world' concept.
The film has its amusing moments, a few fight scenes, average dialog, okay story.  Credit where credit is due I think the efforts of the cast are all that stood between a film of mediocrity vs failure.

I wasn't greatly impressed, but as I didn't have much expectations going in to the film I wasn't sorely disappointed either. Just seemed like a big-costing production of a film that could've been made back in the '80s to ride the coattails of success from "An American Werewolf in London" and its  groundbreaking makeup and effects techniques.

Not a must-see film.  I finished watching it mostly because I started watching it, but probably would  not have missed out on much if I hadn't.  But watching to satisfy one's curiosity won't kill ya either. It is entertaining enough. Probably scary enough for youngun's that haven't already seen a bunch of real scary films.

----
* Yes, Superman Returns is a sequel to the franchise of four Christopher Reeve Superman films, not a reboot. Just a different cast. Unknown to me until this very moment is there exists another sequel to that franchise titled "Superman: Requiem" from 2011. Based on what little I've read "S:R" ignores events from Superman III and IV and incorporates characters from "Lois and Clark" and the comic books that weren't in the Christopher Reeve Superman films.
A November 11, 2011 release date in both US and UK. Still haven't heard anything about this film.  I see a statement that says "is a non-profit film for private use only and is not intended for sales of any sort." Apparently it is a fan-made film on a $20,000 budget.  That explains the whole new cast. The rights are still held by Warner Brothers, so they do know about it. For the curious - here's a trailer for the film.  Or, for the really brave, apparently it can be watched at http://themanofsteelisback.com/ in its whole one hour 22 minute entirety. 
Which I plan to do right after this review.
And I did. Read all about it here.

Movies: Superman: Requiem

Superman: Requiem (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1667443/

Action Fantasy

Yes, a Superman film was released in 2011. And it is a real sequel to 2006's "Superman Returns", which, in turn, was a sequel to the Christopher Reeve Superman films. 
This one just happens to be fan-made and on a $20,000 budget.  It appears to have been filmed in the UK. Either that or Metropolis had citizens move all their steering wheels to the right side of the car.
I'm guessing that Warner Brothers, who own the rights, must have granted permissions for this film's existence. A lot of the John Williams score from the Christopher Reeve Superman films was recycled into this one. Plus still shots of Margot Kidder as Lois Lane were used while explaining her absence, as was a still of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor senior. It rather ignores any lore established by the Superman III and IV films, which isn't a loss. 

For the curious - here's a trailer for the film.
If you wish to watch the film, it can be viewed in its entirety at http://themanofsteelisback.com/

Now to the meaty bits.

We find that Lois Lane has quit the Daily Planet and left Supes and Metropolis in the dust. She now lives and works in London. Poor Clark/Superman stays behind and pines for her. I don't recall any mention of their child.
Alexander Luthor Jr., son of Lex Luthor, wants something Superman has. Information about something you'll learn about later in the film. To get it he devises an overly-complex plan that involves stealing something NASA brought back from space aboard a space shuttle and processing it into a bomb. Gee, wonder what that was. And considering the space shuttle brought it back it must have been hanging out in a relatively low Earth orbit.
But I digress - why kick a film in the details when its down?
Luthor sends letters to Supes (via Clark Kent) telling him exactly where the bomb is located and exactly what time it is going to explode. By letters I mean he cut letters out of magazines/newspapers and pasted them on a giant piece of paper forming the warning, just as any good bad guy is wont to do in situations where they don't wish to be identified.
Instead of arriving early to grab the bomb and fly it out into space where it can explode harmlessly, Supes waits until the last 30 seconds to find the bomb then covers it with his body and cape to contain the explosion. From the special effects we know this doesn't work because damn near the whole plant explodes and shakes Metropolis all the way to the Daily Planet.  Supes is left a bloody mess, his suit in tatters, and someone stole his torn-up cape to fly it as a flag of triumph.
Although Perry White was all prepared with a "Superman Dies" front page, he also had a "Superman Lives" front page run. The Daily Planet workers assemble to grumble about Perry's pessimism. Of course the (ahem) "prettiest" girls in the office crowd up front. But no worries, Supes was seen by witnesses to be crawling out of the crater to destinations unknown, so Perry can use his "Superman Lives" front page. The criminals of the world rejoice by staging riots to celebrate the multi-day disappearance of Superman and the police are powerless to stop them.
Clark Kent's coworker, Ali Noels, goes to Clark's apartment to see if he is okay because he hasn't been at work for a couple days. She walks through the seemingly unlocked door and finds a bruised and bloody Clark lying on the couch, covered in a blue knit blanket (probably a Ma Kent christmas present). Uh-oh, she discovers the tattered Superman tights barely hidden underneath! Instead of assuming he has some weird pajamas she realizes he is Superman. Darn Clark for not wearing his glasses on the couch. So she gets him an aspirin.
The rest of the film covers finding out what Alex Luthor II's grand evil plan is, what he really really wants. Can Superman ever heal and recover his powers to save the world once again? Can Superman justify breaking the law because he doesn't like Luthor's plans? Will Superman's broken heart ever mend?

Honestly, for a fan film it was produced a bit better than I anticipated. The editing and camera work weren't too bad, and they had actual actors in some of the roles. The story and dialog was, well, let's say I understand why this script wasn't picked up by a major studio.  Special effects - definitely the same off-the-shelf software tons of folks on YouTube have been using to make fake UFO films and such.  People shooting guns and getting shot effects are especially amusing. That and some of the flying and landing bits.

I chuckled through most of the film, mostly at the scenery chewing, bad lighting, unevenly applied makeup, terrible sound (especially in outside scenes and indoor echo-ey places), the shots of the Lois Lane stand-in from the back, the obvious Superman running in place in front of a green-screen shots, and Clark Kent's bald spot on the back of his head (giant comb-over fail). The funniest thing besides the 'cut letters out of magazines for dire warnings' bit was the bank robbers running out of the bank with little bags that had dollar-signs painted on the side. I was joking when I said "I bet the bags have dollar signs on them" during the film and then I saw them. Hilarious.

But you can tell this is a film made with love, the love of the fans behind it. Which is probably why Warner Bros. allows it to exist and use the stills and music from the Christopher Reeve films.

I found out about this film while writing up the Dylan Dog review. As Dylan Dog's Brandon Routh was in "Superman Returns" my aimless poking about on IMDB uncovered that the sequel titled "Superman: Requiem" exists. I'd never heard of this film so I started checking around to find out more about it. That's when I found I could actually watch the film and had to satisfy my curiosity.

If you never see it, will you miss out on an important chapter of the film Superman saga? Do you have to see it? Nope and No. It really isn't worth watching in order to close the book on the Superman film franchise started with the Christopher Reeve films, and doesn't really add much to that story arc either.  Watching it was worth it to me for the chuckles and satisfying of personal curiosity. I had low expectations, thus wasn't sorely disappointed and in some ways entertained. And, honestly, there are worse movies out there that cost a hell of a lot more to make.

If you do have a serious Superman jones going on I suppose you could watch it. Be aware that due out in 2013 is "Man of Steel", another Superman reboot and directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch). Russel Crowe is cast as Jor-El and Michael Shannon is General Zod. It might be worth watching, especially to see Shannon's take on Zod. Looking at the rest of the cast it appears they're banking on biggish names to attract folks to the film. Although casting Laurence Fishburne as Perry White is sortof a stretch.  I mean, seriously, Fishburne just doesn't come off as old and curmudgeon-ey enough to be Perry White.  I suppose Samuel L. Jackson would have been a bit too bombastic and pop-eyes scary, and Morgan Freeman, though age-appropriate, is too fatherly.
Succeed or fail I'll probably be watching that one. Well, maybe not. The Mayan long-count calender, thus the universe, expires December 21, 2012 so maybe we'll never get to see it. Shucks.

10 December 2011

Movies: Super 8

Super 8 (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1650062/

Action / Drama / Sci-Fi Thriller

Set in 1979, a ragtag group of friends are making a zombie movie on Super-8 film. Yes, young'uns, if you have no clue what Super-8 film is, look it up. After sneaking out to film a night scene at the town's train station they happen to capture a train wreck and part of its aftermath before the film runs out. A mystery surfaces concerning the driver of the truck that derails the train, the unleashed contents of the train, the military shows up to contain and keep government secrets, adventures happen.

If you happened to grow up in the 70s and 80s this film will probably evoke tons of memories.  The film easily conjures "Goonies" and "E.T." and other Spielberg family-friendly fare.  It also had moments that reminded me of "Cloverfield". Which makes sense, Spielberg is an executive producer of the film. J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Trek reboot, other stuffs) wrote and directed the film, and despite Spielbergian influences you can see a lot of Abrams's touch on this film. A little bit darker at times than Spielberg went with "E.T' and "Goonies". But still clearly an homage to those style films.

Decent cast of kids for the roles. interesting enough story, although somewhat predictable in outcome. It has your stock Spielbergian group of misfits of appropriate stereotypes, a recently dead parent of one of the kids with appropriate conflict between child and surviving parent, extended conflict involving the parent of another child in the ragtag group, the military/government machine stepping in to make life hard, etc. But that's okay - it is all very entertaining. Should be entertaining enough for both parents and younger age-appropriate viewers. I'm unsure how a viewer that lacks good "Goonies" and "E.T." memories will view the film. But if they do enjoy the film, they might just want to check out "Goonies" and "E.T.".

Definitely worth watching, not only for nostalgic nods to films of yore but as a modern family-friendly adventure film.

Movies: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1270798/

Fantasy Action Comic-book based(kindof)

Yet another X-Men franchise film, though this is a prequel to all of its predecessors. This one shows the assembling of the first X-Men team, how Professor X and Magneto first meet, establishes a deeper background story and explanations for some of the mutants we see in the preceding X-Men films. All of it starting around WWII and playing out through the Cuban Missile Crisis, rewriting a bit of real history in the context of the X-Men world.

All the cast for mutants appearing in all the previous films (save a couple of cameos) aren't in the film, they've been replaced with (logically) younger actors, but the new actors do a fine job. I think out of all the new cast Magneto and Mystique did best in foisting the mantles established by their predecessors. Xavier and Hank McCoy (Beast), not so much.

This film stays in the same wheelhouse of story lines established by the preceding X-Men films. As a stand-alone film it is enjoyable, in the context of all the X-Men films it is one of the better ones.

If you've been following the X-Men film franchise this is a worthy watch, even if you've flirted with avoiding it due to previous film let-downs. Its addition to the franchise keeps the series on the positive side where the 'whole of the series is greater than the sum of its parts', perhaps making up for some of the weaker sequel/prequel films.

Entertaining, good action scenes, solid CGI effects.

This was one of the many comic book to film adaptations that were released in 2011.   In this case being part of the quantity didn't seem to lessen the quality.

07 December 2011

Movies: Rango

Rango (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1192628/

Family friendly animated film

Rango is a lonely pet chameleon that is accidentally released in the middle of the desert.  He comes upon a town called "Dirt", an old movie-stereotype western town populated by local desert creatures and beset with drought problems. Rango's imagination and lies soon install him as town sheriff. As he bumbles along his way he begins to unravel the mystery behind the town's lack of water.

Stars Johnny Depp as the voice of Rango, and quite a few other well-known actors voicing major roles. What was nice about the voice casting was they matched the characters and was very effective. The casting wasn't used as an obvious vehicle to sell the film using the old "look what big name we have in this role" marketing tactic.

The animation is top-notch. They did that part right.  As a Nickelodeon film it is probably more for the kids than adults, though there are some humorous jokes only the adults will catch. Calls up plenty of old western film references, again to be lost on audiences who've not watched a lot of the western films from Hollywood's past.  Seemed a little slow to me at first, but once the film got going I just sat back to watch and forgot about the early pacing.

Was an enjoyable Saturday afternoon-type film. Not exactly a must-see film, but you won't go wrong watching it either.

02 December 2011

Movies: Wrecked

Wrecked (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1316622/

Drama with hint of mystery

A guy wakes up in the passenger seat of a car. A wrecked car. One leg is trapped beneath the dashboard, a dead man is in the back seat. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. As he looks for something to free himself he finds a credit card with a name on it, probably his name. He finds ID on the body in the back seat. As the radio still works, he tunes in whatever station he can while he tries freeing himself. He hears of a bank robbery where a teller was killed. He hallucinates people he can't identify, and smatterings of returning memories puts him in the bank robbery. The robber's names were broadcast over the radio as part of the police manhunt, and sure enough two of them match the ID on the dead body and the credit card the man found near him in the car.

Stars mostly Adrien Brody by himself, though there are other actors from time-to-time in the scattered resurfacing memories and in the hallucinations.

Not gonna say too much more, because it would give up too much of what happens in the film. Sort of a film that is like a 2006's "Unknown" meets "Buried".  Although, despite Adrien Brody, "Buried" was almost a better film and "Unknown" is a way better film.  This one was rather predictable and more boring than both "Unknown" and "Buried". Technically a good film with decent cinematography, locations, makeup, and the acting, but the pacing was a bit sluggish and, as I mentioned, the story was a bit predictable. Kudos to Brody for doing his own stunts.  Not a great film, not a terrible film, just this side of mediocre.

An easily forgettable film and I wouldn't put it on a 'must watch' list. But it isn't a terrible way to burn a Saturday afternoon if you're stuck for something to watch, though there is much better Saturday afternoon film fare to be had.