29 January 2012

Documentary: This Film is Not Yet Rated

This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0493459/

Kirby Dick's investigation of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film ratings board. The board members are never made public, the guidelines under which they make their ratings determinations are unknown as well.
Dick hires some private detectives to help him find out who are the members of the board. He is able to get interviews with a few ex-board members, which is a feat considering they are sworn to secrecy for life. He also tracks down the membership of the ratings appeals board, which is a different group of people than the ratings board.
Interspersed throughout the footage of tracking these folks down are short history lessons about the board's origin, interviews with filmmakers and actors affected by the board's decisions, comparisons of the inconsistency of the board's ratings across a range of movies, and a bits of watching him try to get this film rated by the MPAA and his appeals process.

Interesting information and entertaining for film fans who are curious about how that system works. It's use of irony and tongue-in-cheek just makes the business seem that much more absurd. Especially when comparing what constitutes 'okay for children to view' as far as violence vs. s-e-x.

I'd recommend any aspiring film makers to watch this as well. 

6 years after the making of the documentary doesn't seem to have dated the information any, it's probably just as pertinent today.

26 January 2012

Movies: Another Earth

Another Earth (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1549572/

Drama / Sci-fi

17 year old high school student Rhoda discovers she was accepted to MIT. She goes to a party, drinks, drives home. Over the radio she hears a new blue star was discovered in the sky, just east of the North Star. She sticks her head out the window to try to see it.  So you know what happens next.
Right?
Yes, the DUI crash into a stopped car. Unfortunately the stopped car had John, his pregnant wife and their son inside. Tragically the wife and child are killed. John goes in to a coma.  Rhoda is charged and imprisoned.
On the day of her release we find out that what was thought to be a blue star almost four years ago is actually a planet. A blue planet. A planet that exactly resembles our Earth, continents and oceans-wise. After Rhoda's release she decides to take on a janitorial job at the local high school. Something she can do with her hands, something where she doesn't have to interact with others much.
On the fourth anniversary of the car crash she goes to the accident location. While she sits there experiencing whatever inner turmoil one experiences in her situation a truck pulls up. She sees John get out and put down a child's toy in memoriam. Her guilt drives her to find out more about him. She tracks down his house.
-= pause review =-
I stop to mention that at this point in the film I leaned over to my wife and whispered ominously, "She's gonna finish what she started four years ago." Wife didn't appreciate it. She thinks I should shut up during films. Can you blame her?
-= end pause =-
Rhoda builds up enough courage to knock on John's door, she wants to apologize for ruining his life. When he answers she chickens out and makes up a story about being a maid service that is giving potential customers a free cleaning as a try-out.  It is apparent that John doesn't have any clue who she is. His house is a shambles, much of what you would expect from a man who wakes from a coma to find out his wife and son were killed and now drowns himself in alcohol and mourning every day. John lets her have a shot at the cleaning. She sticks to her story and goes in and makes up some feeble lies about why she's not carrying any cleaning supplies. But he's so out of it I doubt he noticed much. He decides he wants to hire her for weekly service.
So, on top of janitorial work at the high school she is now cleaning his house. She isn't cleaning John's house for money, she's doing penance, trying to assuage her guilt. She tears up the checks.
She's also applied via essay for a contest to be one of the passengers on the first trip to the alternate Earth, sponsored by some rich dude that just happens to seem somewhat like a certain Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic. I'm sure that wasn't intentional (cough).

This film is a character drama, a redemption drama. We watch Rhoda's grappling with the radiating impact of her actions on her life and John's. Of course we know that her working regularly for John is a bad idea and can only lead to trouble, but she does it anyhow. Her guilt overrides her ability to decide to do the rational thing.  The sci-fi? Well, there are no spaceships or nukes lobbed from orbit or invading aliens or anything. It isn't that sort of sci-fi movie.

The sci-fi component comes from the approach and appearance of another Earth. Through most of the film it is just something happening in the background to the main story, but not really a main story driver. The exception is in the "introduction" and the "falling action" portion of the dramatic structure of the script, where the other Earth's existence is indispensable to the story. It starts the tragedy and ultimately provides the path to the end of the film.
All discussion we hear about whether the other Earth actually exists or not, parallels between the two worlds, the planned flight to explore there, takes place in the background. All are usually overheard from TV and radio news reports. However there is practically no attempt to explain it's sudden appearance, its approach to our Earth, it's seeming to "park" where it stops, why the crescent shadow on its surface seems to appear on either side, nor why there are no gravitational side-effects.  One has to suspend disbelief to get past those niggling details, which is probably going to be tougher for the folks who know to ask those questions. To their credit the did make nighttime brighter from the other Earth's shine.

It is that "other" kind of science fiction. The story isn't about the science or speculative science. The story is the character drama being played out. True the other Earth is important at the start and the finish of the film, but the movie isn't really about the other Earth. The film is about lives, impacts, and new questions. One has to overlook the physical impacts of such an event otherwise they will be stuck in a dead end that obscures the core of the film.

Despite the film following dramatic structure almost exactly, presenting a character story that unfolds rather much as predicted, I really enjoyed the film. I can see already that the "denouement" is going to anger some folks.  Like or hate the ending, the ending isn't the whole film.

So, if you're in a mood for sci-fi of the action/adventure/explosions/aliens/pew-pew type, don't watch this, it isn't any of those at all. If you're in the mood for a character drama with (or without) a light sci-fi backdrop, this should fit the bill quite nicely. It is sort of in the ballpark with "Never Let Me Go" in that respect, that is, a drama that does have a science fiction air about it but not akin to what most folks consider to be sci-fi.

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Oh crap I forgot to mention that William Mapother plays John. You might remember him as Ethan the Claire-stealer from Lost, though he's shown up in lots of other stuff. By the way, he is Tom Cruise's cousin.  Brit Marling plays Rhoda. She's also a co-writer of the script. I recognized her from the "Community" valentines-day episode in season two where she plays a gal that Britta hangs out with because Britta thinks the gal is a lesbian and it turns out that the gal thought the same of Britta. That was her only TV appearance. She's been in four other films to date, none of which I've ever seen.

25 January 2012

Movies: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1401143/

Dark Humor Fantasy / Horror
Finnish language film (English Subtitled) with some English language

I had hoped to watch this during the 2011 Christmas season, unfortunately the film was so popular it sat at the top of my Netflix queue in the "Long Wait" status until the end of January. Oh well.

A couple of Finnish kids sneak across the border into Russia to see what is happening atop a mountain they can see from their house. An American company is drilling through the top of the mountain, looking for something. While the kids watch, the drilling team apparently finds what they were looking for. The kids overhear the team mention they plan to blast away the rock to reach that layer. Fearing discovery, the kids run back to their respective homes.
Based on bits of conversation he overheard, Pietari, the younger of the two, suspects the Americans have discovered Santa Claus. Pietari studies a big pile of Santa Claus mythology books. According to the myth and illustrations the original Santa Claus wasn't that nice a guy. Some drawings depict Santa using a switch to whip the crap out of naughty children, another shows him placing the naughty ones into pots of boiling water. The myth tells an account of how local Finnish folk of old got tired of Santa's cruelty and tricked him onto a lake, where he fell through the ice and froze. Over the course of hundreds of years the folks buried the frozen Santa Claus under a mountain. Possibly the very mountain that Pietari saw the Americans drilling.
After the blasting of the mountain things start going bad for the local families. When Pietari's father and neighbors began the annual round-up of reindeer they discovered the whole herd had been slaughtered. Pieteri's father assumed the blasting in the mountains had scared wolves into the herd. At the same time Pieteri discovers local children are disappearing.
Fearing wolves, Pietari's father dug a wolf pit lined with stakes to capture any approaching the house.
Something fell in the pit, but it wasn't a wolf. It was an old bearded man. And he wasn't dead.

I have no clue who the cast is. Ditto on the writers/director.

Actually a fun and sometimes potentially scary film.  I say "potentially" because I can see how some scenes might wig out some folks, but I'm so desensitized to most scary/horror flicks I can only guess at the level of scariness. There is a little bit of violence, but not much.
I enjoyed this twist on the Santa Claus story. I realize "evil Santa" has been done before, but this was done from a different angle. Especially with the Santa's helpers. They sortof reminded me of Zwarte Piet in some ways, but just as Santa Claus isn't your Coca-Cola Santa Claus (yes I borrowed that line from the film), they aren't especially Zwarte Piet either. 

The film sortof had a B-movie appeal to it, but was produced well, so it didn't have the B-movie cheapiness look. The cast did rather well too, as best I could tell. The story is amusing in the dark humor way. I'm sure there are plenty of jokes dropped in that I completely missed because I don't have enough Finnish cultural exposure to catch 'em, but that didn't hurt the film much. I didn't even mind the helicopter scene near the end that stretched the bounds of suspension of disbelief. The film was fun enough by that point that I gave 'em a pass.

Heck - just check out the trailer. It's the reason why I wanted to see the film in the first place.  If you like what you see, give the film a watch.
Not really child friendly for a few reasons, subtitles being one, adult words being another. There's a third reason I won't tell ya because I figure if I didn't get any warning about what my eyes were going to be exposed to it is perfectly fair game to not warn you.

----------------

Apparently the director and writers had made a couple of short films along the same lines back in 2003 and 2005, which served as a launching point to be able to make the feature length "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" (RE:ACT). Both short films are currently available on YouTube.

Rare Exports Inc.
This film short shows a hunting team tracking down and capturing a Father Christmas, then taming, training and preparing him to be shipped off. Basically the Rare Exports Inc. company sells Father Christmases to other countries for their Chrismas season. 

The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Guide
This film short is sort of a warning/admonishment to Rare Exports Inc. clients about not following the rules when handling a Father Christmas. Actually a bit more violent than the "RE:ACT" feature.  Also my least favorite of the series.  But does establish a few more details that make it in the feature film, specifically the proximity safety instructions and gingerbread cookies.

I'm not sure if watching them prior to watching "RE:ACT" would spoil too much of anything in the feature film. They're somewhat prequel-ish, but also somewhat sequel-ish.
I noticed cast overlaps between both short films and the feature film.

You can check out the film's website to get more info and watch the trailers if you want.

24 January 2012

Movies: Mary and Max

Mary and Max (2009) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0978762/

Stop motion animated

An 8 year old girl in Australia, Mary Daisy Dinkle, picks a random name out of a New York City phonebook, Max Horowitz, and writes him a letter, launching a lifelong on-off-on-again pen pal relationship between the two.

Most of the film is narrated storybook-style with the characters filling in with their voices through their letters. It may seem to move slowly at first, but once I was used to the pace of the storytelling it wasn't so bad. I just had to get over that first hump.
Although this is stop-motion animated it's definitely targeted toward a more mature audience. Not so much that it's mature themed, it deals with emotionally mature topics. It isn't designed to be entertainment for children and chances are they'd find it slow and uneventful. No ponies or rainbows or unicorns or screaming mice or anything for them.
The animation is superb, and the story is so strong, so poignant. It deals with the hardships Mary has to live with growing up with her alcoholic mother, distracted father, getting picked on at school, trying to fit in, getting married, her career, etc. It also deals with the hardships Max deals with as he is overweight, is an adult with Asperger's Syndrome trying to make sense of the world around him, and the consequences of his actions and reactions that he has little control over.

A few of the better-known actors voicing characters are  Toni Collette as adult Mary, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Max, and Eric Bana,. Hoffman was amazing, he nailed that character, I couldn't even tell it was him. I thought that Bethany Whitmore, who voiced the child Mary, did a great job too. What's really nice about this voice work was the actors voiced the characters and fit the characters well, as opposed to making sure you recognized who the voice was behind 'em.

I really enjoyed this film, and realize it's probably not everyone's cup of tea.
The film is more an emotional ride, so if you choose to watch it don't do so on a night you're hankerin for some action or comedy.

22 January 2012

Movies: Vampires

Vampires (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1500906/

Faux-documentary style comedy
Foreign film (Belgium), French language (English subtitles)

Been on the fence about writing about this film. I guess I'm off the fence now, but I reserve the right to jump over the fence at any moment.

A film crew is invited by a Belgian vampire community to document their life. It didn't go too well for the first two film crews, but the third crew was able to get the work done unscathed. The third crew follows the St. Germain family. Bertha and George are the mother/father of the family, Samson is the worthless son and Grace, the daughter, is tired of being undead and dreams of being human.  Another vampire couple lives in their basement.
Through the documentary we get glimpses into how the vampire community is structured, how they integrate into modern society, differences between how different governments (Belgium, Canada) coordinate with the undead population, and the family's navigation of all that external stuff while their internal family battles unfold.

Shot in the cinema verite style.* The comedy comes from multiple directions, not only in the actions of the actors but also in how the different communities operate, how different governments deal with those populations, how the characters react to situations, etc.  Probably commentary on society as well, some of which is lost on us Americans ignorant of how other governments work.

Seems like is was probably shot in sequence, and seems like it probably didn't have a fully developed script at the start. Some of the characters began rather over the top before calming down as the film progressed, almost like they weren't sure how "off" to play themselves. I almost quit watching the film early on because of the scenery chewing, but after giving a little extra time they settled down and it wasn't so bad and got funnier as it went along.

Amusing and not too bad, but probably slow for most viewers.  Not a must see film. Not a terrible choice if you've got tons of time on your hands, have a curiosity about foreign films and their takes on vampires and have nothing better to do.

------------
* The look of the film sort of reminded me of how "An American Family" was shot.  Although "An American Family" was actually a more compelling watch because it was a groundbreaking real cinema verite documentary, which in turn made the film "Cinema Verite" a compelling watch because it's a film about the making of "An American Family" and the cast nails the performances.
Wow that got all meta all of a sudden. And a topic wasted in association with this film "Vampires".

21 January 2012

Movies: Star Wars Uncut: Director's Cut

Star Wars Uncut: Director's Cut

 Crowdsourced Reimagination

Here's a description of the project from its YouTube page:
In 2009, Casey Pugh asked thousands of Internet users to remake "Star Wars: A New Hope" into a fan film, 15 seconds at a time. Contributors were allowed to recreate scenes from Star Wars however they wanted.
... [T]he crowd-sourced project has been stitched together and put online for your streaming pleasure. The "Director's Cut" is a feature-length film that contains hand-picked scenes from the entire StarWarsUncut.com collection. 
StarWarsUncut.com won a 2010 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement In Interactive Media - Fiction.

 Yes - the whole original Star Wars film reassembled into a coherent and recognizable film from bits and pieces generated by hundreds of people.  Beat per beat it matches one of Lucas's recut versions of the film. I dunno which Lucas recut was used as the template, but I know it's not the original theatrical cut.  But it really doesn't matter. You can't tell if Han shoots first in this one anyhow.
Some of the clips are amazing, some are funny, some are animated, some are acted out by puppets or Legos or people or pets or babies or styrofoam cups and whatnot, but all are obviously labors of love. I don't know if I could watch the whole film recreated in any single one of the styles, but the beauty of the project is the sheer number of different recreations reassembled, resulting in a film where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I didn't get to sit and watch the whole film in one go, but it was very easy to pause then pick up right where I left off. Especially if one is very familiar with the film from multiple viewings. I know I've lost count of how many times I've seen Star Wars, but I come from a generation that got to see its original theatrical release and subsequently gripe about every Lucas re-release that changes the original cut.

If you happen to be one of the many who have an undying love for the first Star Wars film despite everything Lucas has done to rework it, this compilation is worth every minute of watching. It is amazing.


The whole 2 hour film can be viewed at:
YouTube: http://youtu.be/7ezeYJUz-84
Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/34948855


Project Website: http://www.starwarsuncut.com
It's home site seems really slow loading.

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I first heard about the project from this 20 January 2012 Onion A.V. Club article "The crowd-sourced Star Wars Uncut film is here, in all its DIY glory" and watched it that very night.  I recognize the coincidence of the article appearing so close to the SOPA-PIPA discussion in the House and Senate.  Isn't it sad that projects like this would never happen under SOPA/PIPA.

I realize they are just films and the world will continue regardless of their existence. But Star Wars is a world wide cross cultural multi-generational shared experience. It's a good thing, for everyone. Labors of love like this project highlight how big and influential SW really is, and it is amazing to see how so many diverse parts can be brought together into one recognizable whole.

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PS If you're sort of a sci-fi/fantasy nerd and appreciate some of the fan generated content out there, take a look at Superman: Requiem.

17 January 2012

Movies: Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0165982/

Animated film (by Dreamworks)

In this film Sinbad is tasked to steal the Book of Peace for the goddess Eris. When he fails to do so, she disguises herself as Sinbad and steals it herself, framing him. Sinbad is sentenced to death, but his boyhood friend and prince of Syracuse, Proteus, believes his tale that he didn't steal the book and offers to take Sinbad's place. Sinbad is given 10 days to recover the book or Proteus gets offed.  Proteus's fiancee Marina stows away on Sinbad's boat to ensure that he actually does go try to recover the book instead of running away. Adventures happen. Guess the ending.

Sigh.

Voice acted by Brad Pitt as Sinbad, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Marina, Joseph Fiennes as Proteus, Michelle Pfeiffer as Eris, Dennis Haysbert as crewman Kale. Other folks too. The voice casting wasn't really terrible despite the "look at the big names" casting that took place, they more or less fit their characters and tone of the film.

As a film for children this is probably fine and entertaining for them. They don't know any better.  They'll probably like the dog Spike 'cause there had to be a cute animal companion slobbering on stuff and doing funny things.
Technically the animation is fine, a mix of computer generated backgrounds and sequences with seemingly traditional hand-drawn animation. The music is neither great nor terrible, just effective enough. Loud, bright, orchestral and fanfare-ey at the right moments, background-y at others. The dialog, ugh. Plenty of contemporary phrases and lines to keep things modern, make weak contemporary jokes.  All wrapped around a mediocre story.


And me? I shouldn't have watched it. I should've known better. Anyone with a modicum of exposure to the Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) and Greek mythology is probably going to groan when seeing this, because it's basically a mash up of weak references to Greek mythology with a tiny bit of weak 1001 Nights references tossed in. Heavy on the Greek, light on the 1001 Nights. Two wholly different cultures and their stories separated by centuries mashed into this one film, modernized for your convenience.
Packed full of action sequences already watched to death in Disney films like Aladdin,Tarzan and Pirates of the Caribbean with a splash of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I suppose if the actual story played out between the characters wasn't so shallow and forced and the dialog wasn't so mediocre it may have been better.
I do have to give them credit for one sequence, right after Alladin and Marina enter Tartarus. That was probably the most original thing in the film and kind cool.

Not a great film, not entirely terrible. Entertaining enough for the kids but probably not destined to be on obsessive-replay like some great animated features tend to become (Toy Story, Little Mermaid, etc).

----

Kinda grabbed this one on a whim with the TiVo and it's been sitting on there for a while. Figured I'd clear up the space so TiVo could use it for something else. Had some time since I'm between Netflix deliveries and just finished watching BBC's Sherlock season 1. I really enjoyed Sherlock and recommend it.  This was kindof a downer after that.

08 January 2012

Movies: Burke and Hare

Burke and Hare (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1320239/

Dark Comedy

Set in the 19th century Edinburgh, Scotland, William Burke and William Hare are friends trying to earn some sort of living. When they discover one of Hare's boarding house patrons has died, Hare's wife wants the corpse out of the house. They stuff the corpse in a herring barrel and roll it halfway across town before deciding to stop at a pub for a drink. Hare has a talk with a local he knows used to rob graves for corpses to sell to the medical school doctors. The city militia has been cracking down on grave robbing, strangling that source of income, and the local organized crime boss has moved on to other ventures. With a dwindled supply of corpses for dissection it is rumored that a certain Dr. Knox is willing to pay good money for fresh corpses. Hare takes the opportunity to make some money and dispose of the corpse. Dr. Knox pays them, and the trio strike a deal where they are to provide a corpse a week for Dr. Knox to use in his medical school.
When they discover fresh corpses aren't easy to come by Burke and Hare begin murdering people to supply corpses to Dr. Knox.

Although "I Sell the Dead" is similarly themed when it comes to body-snatching, "Burke and Hare" is based on the actual Burke and Hare behind the West Port murders. And it is a bit funnier too, and less silly. This is a dark comedy so of course it is fictionalized and not exactly true to historical details, and other historical details are polished up for comedic effect. For example one scene gives us the moment that "burking" as a term is defined. Burking is a means of homicidal asphyxia achieved by simultaneously smothering the victim (hand over mouth and nose) and compressing their chest, and was named after William Burke.

The film humanizes Burke and Hare. They are a couple of unemployed blokes with no prospects for employment doing what they can to get by. It puts the viewer in an odd space where you almost root for Burke and Hare even though you watch them repeatedly murder people to supply corpses to Dr. Knox for money. They really did this. And to drive the point home the end of the film treats us with a quick trip through the Edinburgh University Medical Museum to the display of William Burke's real skeleton.

Burke is played by Simon Pegg (Shawn of the Dead, etc). Hare is played by Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings, King Kong, etc).  We are also treated with other fine actors including Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry, who play Drs. Knox and Monro, competing medical school instructors and adversaries.
The film is directed by John Landis, probably best known for gems like The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Coming to America, Michael Jackson's Thriller video, Animal House, etc. Yeah, you've seen some of his films.

The film is dark, funny, and at times an intellectual multi-layered inspection of good and evil across social classes. Smartly done. It isn't a modern lowest common denominator blunt comedy of quips and punchlines and winks at the camera with hooks and fart and poop jokes. Well, there is a poop joke in there. It isn't pee-your-pants funny, it is dark gallows humor and measures of cross-social-class juxtaposition. The exploration of the moral quandary achieved when the advancement of medical science is furthered by the murder of folks. Not just that, but the budding growth of capitalistic enterprises built upon those ill-gotten monies.


In some ways reminded me of "Cannibal! The Musical". Mostly in the way "Cannibal!" is a dark musical comedy wrapped around real historical context.  "Cannibal! The Musical" is definitely worth watching too, especially if'n you think you'd like a history story about Alferd Packer's trip from Utah to Colorado that left accompanying party members dead and partially eaten, followed by Packer on trial, all punctuated with musical numbers (of course). The film is by Trey Parker and Matt Stone and comes from pre-South Park days. It is surprisingly historically accurate in some ways, which just adds to the humor.

"Burke and Hare" is not an out of the park hit, but a solid film. I liked it, it's entertaining and funny enough for me. Though I can understand that some folks just don't find dark multilayered comedies like this their cup of tea.

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After seeing this film I get to wondering if perhaps I was too harsh on "30 Minutes or Less" for making a comedy based (more or less) on a real-life incident. When it comes down to it that really isn't any much different than this film.  I suppose I was more put off by how "30 Minutes" came out so soon after the real-life event (7 years), whereas "Burke and Hare" the film is 182 years after the events. Whether the terrible event happens within my lifetime or centuries before really shouldn't matter I suppose.

07 January 2012

Movies: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1270761/

Horror

Before I watched the film
This is a remake of the 1973 TV movie "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark". I remember watching this movie as a child, however I haven't seen the film since. All I have are vague shadowy recollections of bits and pieces and a certainty that it scared the crap out of me at the time. I checked to see if it was ever released on DVD. Nope, but I did find that it can special ordered from The Warner Archive. Apparently they burn a copy and mail it to you.  As warm as nostalgic feelings go, I don't think I'm feeling quite that nostalgic about seeing the original again.  If it were available through Netflix, sure, but not quite purchase-strength nostalgic.

Anyhoo - when I heard that it was going to be remade, and that one of the writers/producers is Guillermo del Toro, I knew I had to see this remake. I've enjoyed most of del Toro's work in the past. He's on my 'instant watch' list - if I see his name on something, I'm gonna watch it. So even if I hadn't seen the original I would've watched it.

I can't help but have 'expectations' built up, expectations from vague childhood memories coupled with expectations of del Toro quality. And I realize having expectations is dangerous. I know I'm setting myself up for disappointment if I have high expectations. Especially when expectations are built upon some vague childhood memory foundation.

Hopefully I've learned to better cushion against such negative impacts. For example I anticipated the dangers of childhood memories vs. remake reality prior to watching "Land of the Lost, although I  prepared myself for that purely from its casting alone. Most other remakes I also try to steel against the 'expectations of memory vs. resulting film." Perhaps I can steel myself against potential crushing disappointment prior to viewing this one.

Remakes are mixed bags. Most of the time I don't understand why remake a film that was fine to begin with.  But in this instance the original is not easy to come by and even less known than most remakes hitting the screens lately. I've never seen it around to be watched again since its original airing, nor has it really been easily available in the mean time. Yes it can be had, but I never really knew that until I looked into it. I never would have looked into it because, honestly, I'd rather forgotten it even existed until the remake buzz started.

Just so you know, that's where my head was at before I watched this remake.

After I watched the film
Now that I've watched it, here's my take.

Nice. I have some complaints (I usually do) but overall I liked the film.  Good delivery of a scary atmospheric horror film.  Great for the Saturday night popcorn horror film.

In this take on the story Alex is an interior designer that buys big old houses, restores them, then tries to sell at great profit. Kim is his live-in interior designer/assistant/squeeze.  His whole focus is on completing the restoration, getting a magazine cover spread to up the price and pay off all the loans he took out to buy the house and restore it. Alex's wife (or ex-wife, I'm not exactly sure, the dialog made the situation iffy) sends their daughter Sally across country to live with Alex.
Sally isn't too happy about the situation. She feels abandoned by her mother, especially because the mother said "visit with Dad" not "move in and live with Dad".  She arrives pre-hating Kim for being there and rejects all of Kim's attempts to make friends. She feels her father's distance as he's consumed with the restoration project.
That first night in the house Sally thinks she hears whisperings. The next day she begins exploring the house and grounds and discovers windows that lead to an unknown basement.  The caretaker warns her off, but curiosity gets the better of Alex and Alex soon tracks down a hollow wall that hides the door to the basement.  The basement turns out to be the lost studio the original owner painted his works in. Sally hears more whisperings from behind a bolted-up ash pit grate. Later on Sally sneaks down and begins to unbolt the grate to find out what is whispering to her. She doesn't quite succeed, but whatever is down there finishes the job and now has access to the house.
Then even more scary things start happening.

Stars Guy Pierce as Alex, the "distracted by his career Dad" figure. Katie Holmes as Kim, the "Dad's current squeeze" figure. And little Bailee Madison as Sally, the "child in danger" figure. And wow - that little girl carried almost the whole film on her shoulders. She did good and was generally convincing, even in the situations they called on her to act terrified. Checking Bailee's IMDB I see she's been getting quite a bit of work for a girl so young and apparently I've already seen her in "Conviction" and "Bridge to Terabithia", though I didn't remember.
By the way, I caught right away that Katie Holmes's character is named "Kim" in this version of the film. If I recall correctly in the original it was just Alex and Sally, and Sally was Alex's wife. This version splits the original's "Sally" character into "Kim" and little "Sally". I'm guessing the adult female role is named "Kim" in honor of Kim Darby, the actress that played "Sally" in the original.  I figure by splitting the "Sally" into two roles and making a child the focus of the story it disturbs the viewer a lot more, making it scarier.

The "Alex" character is one of the least developed main roles, he rarely steps beyond the stereotype of being so distracted by his project that he barely interacts with those who should be most important in his life. Yes he does care, and makes attempts to be a father to Sally and companion to Kim, but they are all in-the-moment events. He tends to just be 'authoritarian dad' to Sally. Alex doesn't come around until it's too late. Kim is a little more developed because she pays more attention to Sally and starts realizing much earlier something odd is happening.  The rest of the supporting cast do fine in those roles, supporting the main characters and keeping the story moving. The film focuses mostly on Sally and Sally is the most developed role as a result. As I mentioned before Bailee does great carrying the film in that capacity. But for me the character relationships do seem a bit hollow through most of the film, which might actually be intended by the filmmakers, I'm not sure.

All things considered, scares-wise they did pretty good. There is a bit of mystery that Kim begins investigating concerning the history of the house. The caretaker's relationship to that history is explored a little. But it isn't much of a mystery to us, the viewers.  We already know what is in the house based on the opening sequence before the title credits, and the rest just fills in the details to answer most of the 'whats' and 'whys' concerning the things behind the grate. 

Here is the one thing that bothered me most about the film. We are shown almost right away what is behind the grate during the opening sequence. Come to think of it, the opening sequence is probably the best sequence of the film. I would have preferred to not see them so early in the film, instead just hear whisperings, see shadowy movements and corner-of-the-eye glimpses. There is one key scene where Kim sees them the first time. That would've been THE perfect moment to show us, the viewers, what Sally had already seen. The big reveal after letting our imaginations go wild. However, that's not the case.  We are shown right away what is in the dark we should fear, instead of letting us fear the dark through most of the film.
Another thing - it seems like every adult's solution for crazy shit happening around Sally results in Sally being put to bed. If you watch the film you'll understand why it's such a weird response and disappointing.

I still can't compare this film to its original, I don't remember near enough. Sure, it didn't really scare me the way the original left its lasting impression, but I'm not seven years old either. I can see the film is scary enough, and I think they did pretty good. As I mentioned before, considering the original isn't very accessible I don't particularly mind this remake, which brings a good scary story out for more people to see.


In short Good, but not great. I bet you wish I wrote that way up top, eh?

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My biggest fear after all this is that a sequel gets made.

06 January 2012

Movies: 30 Minutes or Less

30 Minutes or Less (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1622547/

Comedy

Dwayne is a man-child, unemployed, skill-less, still living at home. He has an idea for a tanning salon as a front for prostitution but doesn't have the funds to get started. Dwayne's father won the lottery and Dwayne is worried the money will be spent before his father dies. So Dwayne and his equally-unambitious friend Travis cook up a plan to have Dwayne's father killed. The hit man will cost $100grand, so they come up with a scheme to strap a bomb to an unsuspecting pizza delivery guy and make him rob a bank to fund their hit.

If the whole 'strap a bomb to a pizza delivery guy to force him to rob a bank' sounds familiar it is because that really happened back in 2003, with an explosively tragic result, and received a lot of news attention at the time. No, this film is not a documentary nor historical fictionalized drama about that incident. The real event wasn't funny and is a unique enough incident to not really qualify as a subject of dark or gallows humor. But someone wrote the film anyway. The writers of this film claim they were either unaware of the incident, or perhaps vaguely aware of it. Dubious.

So my mindset going in to the film was one that's balancing "inappropriate comedy subject matter" on one side and a curiosity about how they pull off the film on the other.

We get a core cast of Jesse Eisenberg (Social Network, Zombieland, etc) as Pizza Delivery guy Nick, Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation, etc) as his best friend Chet, Danny McBride as Dwayne, Nick Swardson (you'll recognize him when you see him), Fred Ward as Dwayne's dad, Michael Pena as the hitman. Actually a pretty good cast mix.

Good thing too.  The success or failure of this film rests squarely on the cast being able to pull it off. And they do.  Especially Ansari. That dude is funny.  I'm not a Parks & Rec watcher, so I have no idea if he plays the same type of character or not.

The comedy wavers between situational, physical and a mix of lowbrow to middle comedy. When the script first hit the lowbrow comedy beats I was worried, but as the film continued the cast performance makes up for grabbing at low-hanging fruit. The characters (and cast playing them) and situation are interesting enough to stick it out through the low bits, even though the outcome is more or less predictable.

So, even though at first blush I thought that making a comedy out of the incident somewhat inappropriate considering someone's head was blown off in the real world, I watched a film much funnier and more entertaining than I anticipated. Sure it is dark humor and trivializes the real-world incident. It isn't the first film to do that, nor will it be the last.

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Edit September 2012:
Randomly encountered this film on cable the other day, ended up watching it again.  Liked it again too, and was even less concerned about it's parallel to the real world incident this time. So yeah, this does have a rewatchability factor to it, even knowing how everything plays out. That's a plus.

05 January 2012

Movies: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1399103/

Much like its predecessors "Transformers" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" (T:RotF), it is a Michael Bay production.

Top notch special effects. Robots. Action. Robot on robot action. Explosions.

And, much like its predecessors, the film is some smattering of a story about something or other, humans skitter about and get in the way and get slaughtered left and right. This time around a girl that seems slightly smarter and has normal thumbs replaces Megan Fox. Some decent big name actors show up from time to time. And there's a Buzz Aldrin cameo.
But all that stuff is just filler between the robotbattlefightexplosiondestruction scenes.  New stereotype robots replace T:RotF stereotype robots. And explosions!

Just like the first two, don't look for deep meaning or story, just watch the robots and explosions.

04 January 2012

TV Series: Doctor Who

Doctor Who

Serialized Sci-Fi/Sci-Fantasy


I figured my first post of 2012 should be this one.

Background - The Short of it
I just spent 25 December 2011 through 2 January 2012 to marathon-watch Doctor Who, starting with the 9th Doctor (2005) through the 11th Doctor series 5 (2010).  That amounts to seven seasons of the show. 69 episodes plus 3 'special' episodes totaling 72 episodes.

About Doctor Who
The Doctor is the last surviving member of his species and is over 900 years old. He travels through the universe, and time, and has adventures wherever he goes. He travels in a ship called the TARDIS. From the outside it looks like an old blue British Police Box, about the size of a refrigerator box, but it is much bigger on the inside. And all steampunk looking too.
The Doctor tends to select a companion to travel with him, though there are times he travels by himself, and other times when he has multiple passengers. When The Doctor's body is damaged enough to kill him, but not kill him outright, his body will regenerate. The regenerated Doctor usually looks different than his previous incarnation, but retains all the memories of his past selves. That is why if you look at pictures of the Doctor he'll look like eleven different guys, all from the run of the series from 1963 to present.

The Show
The Doctor Who show beginning with the 2005 series have generally followed a format that consists of setting up a 'long story' - the overarching story for the series (season). Each episode amounts to a mini adventure for the episode (or two) it takes to tell that smaller story, plus drops hints and bits that lead up to and tie in to the larger story driving for the series conclusion. The shows also concentrate on the character development and relationship building between the Doctor and his companion(s). If there is a change in the Doctor (regeneration), or in his regular companion, there tends to be a few readjustment episodes.

The shows are all various mixes of character development, character relationship development, comedy, action, mystery, thrills, horror, overcoming impossible odds, even emotional dramas. Some shows have a Monster of the Week (MotW) flavor where its mostly devoted to solving that episode's problem and the sci-fi/fantasy bits are additional characters in the story. Others are more about the character development with the sci-fi/fantasy bits more of a background framework. Some episodes are better than others, others are worse, but overall the show as a whole is quite a compelling watch.

The 2005-and-on production quality tends to be high end, you can tell they had a great special effects budget.  I can't speak for prior to 2005 as I haven't watched them. To my memory the show back then looked like harshly lit soundstage sets and glued-together kitchen utensils as scifi gadgets, though that's an uninformed opinion.
The cast, and a lot of the big-name guest cast member appearances, do an amazing job. Sure there are occasional background actors that really chew the scenery, but the primary cast tends to do well.

Is it science fiction? In many ways, yes. Is it science fantasy? In many more ways yes.  Some things are so fantastical and the 'science' is so wonky that it can't be categorized otherwise.
But in the context of the Doctor Who universe that is okay. It is to be expected. Just go with it.

The fulfilling enjoyment of the show stems from watching the ongoing picture get painted, not just appreciating individual brush strokes. It is a fun and entertaining romp with enough story consistency to keep long-term viewers connected.