28 August 2012

Movies: Retreat

Retreat (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1410051/

Thriller

Martin and Kate take a trip rent the only house on an isolated island off the coast of Britain. They were there years before when they were young and in love. This time they've returned to try to overcome a personal tragedy and rekindle their marriage. While dealing with their issues a man named Jack washes up on shore. They take him inside and try to call for help on the radio, but can't get any response. Jack awakes and tells of a highly communicable and deadly disease that is ravaging Europe.  Jack is in the army and he basically takes control of the house, boarding it up against anyone trying to get in to keep the disease away. There is no way for Martin and Kate to verify the story, which begins to cause conflict with Jack as well as amplify their personal issues.

Stars Cillian Murphy as Martin, Thandie Newton as Kate, and Jamie Bell as Jack. The only other folks you see are Doug, the owner of the island, who ferries the couple across the water, and Mrs. Doug.

Everything takes place in basically one location, the island and the house. Sort of like in the thriller "Dead Calm" where the cast is isolated on a boat, or "Phone Booth" where the entire film takes place in a phone booth.

Acted well, great location, tight story, good thriller that will probably keep you guessing to the end.

Also, if you're shopping for such films, go ahead and check out "Dead Calm" and "Phone Booth" as well. Different stories, but similar thrills stemming from isolation, claustrophobia, hopelessness and tension.

25 August 2012

Movies: Lockout

Lockout (2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1592525/

Action

Set in 2070-something, the U.S. has built a massive Maximum Security prison (MS One) set in orbit around the Earth. The worst of the worst are warehoused there in 'stasis' (which is a fancy way of saying 'coma' I suppose). The President of the U.S.'s daughter travels to the station to see first-hand if the reports that the stasis the prisoners are placed in causes mental breakdowns. So of course the prisoner awakened for the interview is probably the least stable psycho they have on hand, and, of course, he escapes and releases all the other prisoners, who soon take over the station.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, an ex-military (non-specific secret agency) operative named Snow is accused of murder and selling state secrets and is going to be sent to MS One. When word comes down that the inmates on MS One have escaped and have taken President's daughter hostage they make a deal with Snow to locate her and help her safely escape the station,

Stars Guy Pierce as Snake Plisskin Snow, Maggie Grace (Shannon on Lost, other films) as the President's daughter Emilie. Also has the great Peter "Pancakes House" Stormare in the cast, and perhaps a couple few other recognizable folks.

There's actually a bit more to Snow's backstory than my mini-intro-summary contains, a backstory that is mostly a Macguffin to tie the film together from start to finish and provide motivation for Snow to agree to the rescue.

The Snow character is amusing. Maggie Grace does well in her role. Stormare brings life in to an otherwise shallow two-dimensional character. Actually almost all the characters in the film are shallow action film stereotype caricatures, the only thing breathing life in to any of them are the actors in the roles. 

As hinted at above, the premise of this film is nothing short of "Escape from New York" redressed in a space station. The story is based on an idea of Luc Besson. Luc Besson's name is promoted all over this film as 3rd credit on the screenplay and executive producer. Which basically means his idea written and directed by a whole other crew. Yeah, I knew that going in. I'm not fooled by the ol' bait-and-switch that Luc Besson's name has become. Ultimately, this film could easily have been inserted in to the "Escape from..." franchise by changing "Snow" to "Snake Plisskin". Heck it probably was conceived as such.

Overall - a fun film if you enjoyed "Escape from New York". Turn off expectations of any resemblance of reality, sit back and watch it happen.

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The negatives. I'm doing this wholly separate from the near-accolades above because, my gosh, there is so much that is wrong, or off, or just plain cheating in the film. The film can be enjoyed despite these negatives, and sometimes I really had to work to watch around them, but I can't ignore they exist either. Keep in mind this is just a small sample of some of the more glaring issues.
How the mentally unstable prisoner is able to escape in the first place - the series of events that lead to his escape are, well, dumb. Predictable and dumb and pulled straight out of "Con Air".
As mentioned before all the characters are stereotypical caricatures with little to no depth. And, again, the only thing that makes them watchable are the cast.
There's a chase sequence that is obviously all CG with Snow either pasted in blue-screen or rendered. It looks like a videogame chase sequence. The most obvious of the CG footage in the film and somewhat distracting, though thankfully brief and not repeated.
The film ignores physics practically every chance it gets. How 'gravity' is provided not only on the MS One station, but in the transport vessels and such, is of course ignored. But what really makes it obvious happens when Snow has to cross an expanse in the center of MS One, which actually might be the station's "gravity generator". If you watch the film and see the scene you'll understand. In a nutshell - nothing is too sacred to be sacrificed in the interest of getting from point A to point B.
There's another scene, near the end, that is even more over-the-top wrong. I won't say what happens, but you'll know it when you see it.
Some things happen for no reason at all. Specifically the International Space Station crashing in to the MS One prison. I suppose they explain it because they mention without the maintenance crew constantly controlling the station's free-fall MS One moves out of its orbit or something, but no, that doesn't just happen in the time frame the film takes place. It happens, then nobody mentions it again, which basically tells me if they never had that crash happen it wouldn't affect the story one bit.
The biggest head-smacking "duh" of the film? The concept of having a prison in space in the first place. I mean, come on. Was there not a more expensive prison solution imaginable? They could warehouse them all in abandoned salt mines or under the sea or something for incredibly less than it would cost to build a space prison. The payload costs of launching that much material and that many people in to space alone would pay for the salt mine solution many times over.  I realize that there is no story if it isn't a prison in space. How else could Luc Besson one-up Carpenter's walled up Manhattan or Los Angeles?

So how is this different than, say, "Shoot 'Em Up"? Well, out of the gate "Shoot 'Em Up" tells you exactly what sort of lampoon of over-the-top action films it is going to be. "Lockout", on the other hand, is more like "Live Free or Die Hard", where a seemingly acceptable "suspension of disbelief" universe is repeatedly shattered by improbability stacked upon improbability stacked upon implausibilities and impossibilities to the point where it collapses under its own weight.  Sure, "Shoot 'Em Up" does the same thing, but they tell you ahead of time it will be that way, so it's okay. "Lockout" doesn't, it just cheats whenever it needs to cheat to move the story to the next scene or 'go big' for a bit to wake the audience.
None of that means I didn't enjoy watching the film. I liked it, just as I liked "Live Free or Die Hard" for what it was. But liking them doesn't excuse their faults.

23 August 2012

Movies: Attack the Block

Attack the Block (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1478964/

Sci Fi Comedy with light action

While a group of young teenage hoodlums mugs a nurse as she's walking home to her apartment block, a meteor-thing crashes in to a nearby car. The nurse takes the confusing opportunity to escape. As the hoods check the car for valuables something attacks and scratches Moses, the 'leader' of the small gang. The thing, which looks like a hairless grey monkey, takes off running, the kids chase it down and beat it to death. They take it to the local pot dealer because they know he watches National Geographic all the time and they figure if anyone can identify it, he can. He has no idea what it is, so they all assume it's an alien. About that time more 'meteors' start hitting all around the area. The hoods take off to kills some more 'gremlins' and find the new arrivals are much larger, furrier and have glow-in-the-dark teeth. Scarier and more savage. Of course the kids run at this point.

Stars mostly a bunch of British kids I don't recognize as the hoods. Nick Frost ("Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz", "Paul" etc) makes an appearance as Ron the pot dealer. Edgar Wright, writer/director of those same films is an executive producer on the film, but I'm unsure how influential his role was in the making of the film. This was writer/director Joe Cornish's first feature film.
The film's premise is sort of like if "Signs" happened in the rough neighborhood of South London's government housing blocks, to paraphrase the director.
Tell you what, for a film starred by and written/directed by mostly unknowns they did quite good. The production looked a lot more mature than I'd expect out of first-timers. Most of the special effects were practical with very little CGI, which added to the realism of the scenes. The crew did an amazing job with the creature effects. Didn't look B-movie at all.

Sure, the hoodlums are not very likable at first, but there is some character growth as the film progresses. So just as nurse Sam's heart softens toward the kids through to the end of the film the viewer is inclined to start rooting for the hoods as well. 

Overall the story is amazingly tight and coherent, especially for a first-timer film. Things happen for a reason and those reasons are doled out as the story progresses. No obvious hanging threads nor wasted scenes. The cast even provides a plausible explanation as to why this alien invasion seems to be concentrated in a South London apartment block.
Even though it got right in to the story early on it did seem to be on the edge of dragging a little up front, but it really gets going during the second invasion and barrels to the finish. So I'm thinking that early on dragging feeling is a bit unavoidable as everything that happens during the opening act pays off later in the film.

I suppose it sort of fits in the same genre of amusing comedy homage films as "Shaun of the Dead" did for zombie flicks, "Hot Fuzz" did for buddy cop films and "Paul" did for close encounters films, except it isn't an Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost film. But it stands in good company.

So, if you're in the market for an amusing alien invasion flick this one should be worth fitting that bill.

19 August 2012

Movies: Jesus Henry Christ

Jesus Henry Christ (2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1393742/

Comedy

Young Henry James Herman is something of a prodigy. He has a photographic memory, very high IQ, started talking at 9 months old, etc. He lives with his mother and wonders why he has no father, but mother won't talk about it. For his 10th birthday Henry's grandfather gives him a newspaper clipping about Henry when Henry was a baby, a history that Henry's mother has hidden from Henry his whole life. From that clipping Henry finds out he's a test-tube baby, so Henry sets out to find out who is his biological father.

It stars Toni Collette as Henry's mom, Jason Spevack as Henry, Michael Sheen as Dr. O'Hara and Samantha Weinstein as Audrey O'Hara. I've not seen Spevack nor Weinstein in anything before but they did well in their roles, even though I thought they both looked familiar I didn't recognize anything they've already been in, so (shrug). Collette and Sheen are much more recognizable. Sheen was Lucian in the "Underworld" films and Collette has been in tons of stuff.

This is one of those quirky indie comedies, but quite cute and heartfelt. Its solid core cast really makes this film work well. Yes, it is a feel-good film. It is amusing, entertaining, has its funny moments. Probably a decent enough family film. The title makes sense by the time you get to the last act of the film.  It sort of fits on the same shelf as "Little Miss Sunshine", which if you haven't yet seen is worthwhile, especially if you enjoy good cute feelgood indie comedies. It is just coincidence that Toni Collette is also the mom in "Little Miss Sunshine".

So yeah, recommended for amusing lighthearted comedy night, as is "Little Miss Sunshine" if you haven't seen that either.

18 August 2012

Movies: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black (2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1596365/

Horror drama

Set in the early 1900s young realty company worker Arthur Kipps is sent to a remote village to prepare Eel Marsh House for sale. A widower, he leaves behind his son with the nanny, they are scheduled to come visit a week later. When Kipps gets to the village the locals try to discourage him from staying, treat him shabbily, warn him to stay away from Eel Marsh House and try to rush him back to London.  Kipps stays on to do his job, but the past of the house begins to interfere with his duties.

Stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) as Kipps. The fine actor Ciaran Hinds is Mr Daily, the only local friendly to Kipps.
The film is based on a 1989 TV film of the same name, shown in the UK. Interesting tidbit - the actor that played Harry Potter's dad was in the original version of this film and played the same role Radcliffe plays.

As a recently released ghost story film "The Woman in Black" does quite well. In some respects it reminds me of "Ghost Story", which was a fine modern ghost story film in its day. I was also reminded of "The Others", not so much plot-wise but moreso in that it was also a fine ghost story film in its day. It is refreshing to see interesting ghost story films that don't resort to cheap startle tactics and overproduced CGI to get responses from the viewers.

The opening sequence - only about 3 minutes long or so - was such a great opening scene I was ready to watch the rest of the film. I did a mental "oh yeah! fist pump" because it made me ready to see how the story played out.
The story plays out by dribbling bits of details from here and there, hints from things the townspeople say coupled with things Kipps finds among the house's contents. By the final act of the film you know the history and why things are happening. The story pieces fall together quite nicely. The end of the film is intentionally telegraphed to us viewers, and we're even reminded immediately beforehand in case we missed it. Usually I gripe about telegraphed endings, but it is integral to this story as told so I didn't mind.

I enjoyed it, it was a decent film. Although seeing Radcliffe in a non-Harry Potter role is going to take some getting used to, after a short time I was caught up enough to stop Expecto Patronuming to help young Harry deal with stuff, which I'm sure my wife appreciated. So yes, sometimes I even mock films I like.

14 August 2012

Movies: Killer Elite

Killer Elite (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1448755/

Action thriller espionage film, historical drama

Set in the 1980s, Retired British SAS member Danny is contacted when his mentor Hunter is taken captive by an Omani sheik.  When Danny talks to the sheik he finds out in order to free Hunter, Danny will have to hunt down and assassinate three SAS agents that killed three of the sheik's sons . Meanwhile another shadow group of retired intelligence and SAS members takes it upon themselves to stop the assassinations.
Apparently based on a tell-all book that claims to be the truth about British black ops back in the day, although the British government will not confirm anything. So basically the author claims the book is true, the film is based on the book and, of course, things are punched up and condensed and whatnot to make a film.

So lots of action, killings, fighting, etc. Stars Jason Statham as Danny, Robert De Niro as Hunter, Clive Owen as Spike the shadow group guy, bunch of other folks.

The film is pretty much what you'd suspect it would be. Sort of a more actiony Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy type film.  Good production, well shot and edited, no acting surprises out of anyone. Entertaining and enjoyable, although pretty much what one would expect. Sit back and enjoy.

12 August 2012

Movies: The Flowers of War

The Flowers of War (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1410063/

Fictionalized Historical Drama

Set during the Rape of Nanking in 1937, American mortician John Miller entered the city to bury a recently deceased priest that lies in state a church. Dodging stray gunfire and escaping pursuit by Japanese soldiers he stumbles upon and is able to safely deliver two student girls back to the church. Once there he finds more girls hiding in the church, along with the priest's adopted son George.  John just wants to bury the priest and be on his way, however a stray mortar had already landed on the priest's body and blew it away, so John decides to stay the night and try to head back to the safe area the next day.  A bunch of local prostitutes make their way in to the church grounds to hide from the Japanese soldiers and George hides them in the church's basement. When the Japanese soldiers storm the church John decides to pose as the priest to turn the soldiers away and protect the schoolgirls.

I'm not sure what the "based on true events" announcement at the start of the film entails, if it is just the historical context or if an American mortician did actually pretend to be a priest and step in to save a dozen schoolgirls, or what. Regardless, it is a good story.

Christian Bale plays John Miller, the rest of the cast are Chinese and Japanese folk. Bale and some of the cast speak English, but other conversations are in Chinese or Japanese with subtitles.
This also marks the second film that I know of that involves Christian Bale playing a character in China when the Japanese come ripping through. The first being the very good "Empire of the Sun". If Bale has been in more, I dunno.

A very good film. Plenty of tension and drama. Technical aspects of the film: sets, direction, lighting, costumes, sound, etc. are all excellent as well. Definitely worth watching.

Movies: Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0448694/

Puss in Boots, from the Shrek series of films, is back in his own film. We learn about Puss' origins and adventures before his Shrek days. We find out that Puss and Humpty Dumpty grew up together at an orphanage, that Humpty has obsessed his whole life about obtaining the magic beans that lead to a giant's castle in the clouds and owns a goose that lays golden eggs, and the falling-out then reunion between Puss and Humpty.

So yeah, we're mashing up Puss in Boots with Humpty Dumpty, Jack and the Beanstalk, with a little bit of Jack and Jill. The story is nothing like the original Puss in Boots fairy tale, Humpty is nowhere near his rhyme, Jack and Jill are nothing like you'd imagine from the nursery rhyme, and as for the Jack and the Beanstalk bit? That's actually closer to the mark than the rest, but still a bit distant. But J&tB gets a pass because this occurs after Jack's famous trip to the clouds.

Antonio Banderas once again supplies the voice for Puss. Selma Hayek voices Kitty Softpaws. Zach Gallifanakis (the bearded man-child of the Hangover films) voices Humpty. We also get Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris voicing Jack and Jill.

The voice acting - couldn't ask for better. I was wondering how well Gallifanakis would work in a voice acting role after watching him in his most recent films and his stand-up routines, but my fears were assuaged. Good job by all the cast.
The animation was good too. Dreamworks has come a long way from their early films, they've gotten better with each feature.

Story-wise? It works. That odd mash of stuff works together. It's coherent, entertaining, and surprisingly (and thankfully) doesn't just reuse the Shrek storytelling model with Puss as the focus. They let Puss be his own lead in his own film.

Easily recommended if you like the Shrek films, like good storytelling in animation, have children, etc.

08 August 2012

Movies: Chronicle

Chronicle (2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1706593/

Sci-fi Fantasy Thriller Drama

Three high school students develop telekinetic powers after standing too close to a glowing mysterious crystal thingamabob.  The more they play with these powers the stronger they become, pretty much superheroic powers. But with great power comes great mistakes. Yeah you thought I was going to say 'responsibility'. But these are teens. Their brains still haven't developed the ability to process risk vs. reward efficiently* and their extra powers just make 'em a little more extra dangerous. * Now that is brain science - look it up.
One of the kids uses his camcorder to document everything they discover they can do, although some footage is cut in from other sources. We're basically seeing the coherent edited-together story.

Yeah, sure the powers come from some mystery thingamadoober of possible alien origin buried underground, but that don't make it sci-fi. Just clarifying why I crossed out sci-fi up there.

I began watching the film expecting it to be a not-so-good teen film with an obvious and absurd exploration of teens suddenly having super telekinetic powers. Well, it was still sort of teen-angsty, but it was a bit better of a film than I anticipated.  I liked how the three handled their newfound powers in different ways and with different levels of maturity. Now the third kid Steve, well, his character was slightly less developed than the cousin-friends Matt and Richard. He seemed a little less like a third pillar to hang the film on than a supporting prop inserted for a plot point.

Regardless of some of the film's flaws it is an enjoyable watch. And thankfully it isn't any sort of X-Men+Twilight mashup either. Less comic-booky than most new-found-superhero-powers-films.

04 August 2012

Movies: The Hunter

The Hunter (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1703148/

Drama

Martin is a mercenary/hunter hired by biotech company Red Leaf to go to Tasmania. The company had been informed of two confirmed sightings of a Tasmanian Tiger in the wild and wants blood and tissue samples.  The Tasmanian Tiger has been considered extinct since the late 1930s, so locating one is significant. Martin poses as an University researcher studying Tasmanian Devils in the area as a cover story, and spends days in the wild trying to locate and track the animal based on last known whereabouts. He experiences friction with the locals who think he's out there to shut down logging in the area. Coincidentally the house that Red Leaf arranges for Martin to stay at is owned and occupied by Lucy Armstrong and her two children. Her husband had disappeared in the wilds about a year and a half before Martin shows up, he too was tracking the possible existing Tiger. In addition to friction with the locals, Red Leaf begins getting impatient with Martin's seeming lack of progress in tracking the Tiger down.

Stars Willem Dafoe as Martin, Sam Neill as local guide Jack Mindy, Frances O'Connor as Lucy Armstrong, the lady of the house he stays at. By now everyone has seen Dafoe and Neill in tons of stuff, Frances O'Connor you might recognize as the Mom in A.I.
A notable supporting cast member is Sullivan Stapleton, if you happen to be a fan of Cinemx's "Strike Back" series, in which he plays Sgt Damien Scott. 
Also notable  was the performance of young Morgana Davies as Lucy's daughter Sass Armsrtong - she did great in her role.

Good things about the film - great location shoots throughout Tasmania, a neat  premise for a film in tracking down an extinct animal, top notch acting. Dafoe has to carry this film without saying much and, of course, delivers as Dafoe so expertly can.
However it was a slowly paced film. It's being advertised as an adventure film sort of sets one up for expecting adventure and thrills but its pace doesn't deliver. There is a couple of thrilly-like moments, but they are few and far between. Like I said - slowly paced film. Enjoyable enough, but leaves one wanting a bit more if you're expecting an adventure drama. Also some of the CG effects are "off" enough to detract from the scene.

If you enjoy well acted films or the cast, by all means watch it. If you want to see some wild Tasmanian flora, terrain, and a couple of cancer-free Tasmanian Devils (while they still exist) you'll get some of all that in this film. Don't watch it expecting a thrilling adventure story, though. It's way more sober in pace and slightly predictable in some story threads.