Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie Review: "The Crazies"

Originally published in the 2/28/10 edition of The Source.

There's snow on the ground and spring is less than a month away, but it feels like Halloween at the movies.

For the third straight week, a horror movie is one of the major cinematic releases. And while this week's latest stab at the macabre - a remake of George Romero's 1970s thriller "The Crazies" - lacks the haunting beauty of last week's "Shutter Island," it is a much more effective and terrifying creature feature than the ill-fated "Wolfman."

Ogden Marsh, Iowa is typical Movie Small Town, USA. It's a quaint little farming village awaiting the high school baseball team's first game of the season, an event that Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) looks forward to each year. It's a good thing he's there, because a resident with a blank stare in his eyes and a rifle in his hand shows up looking to disrupt the game. Two days later, the town is rocked again when another resident inexplicably burns down his home with his wife and child inside.

Dutton, along with his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) quickly piece together that something has poisoned the town's water supply and is now turning the town's peaceful citizens into methodical, silent maniacs, killing their neighbors without really understanding why. Things get even worse when the military unexpectedly shows up, quarantining the town and ushering the uninfected out while dealing with the infected in insidious ways. When David, who is uninfected, is separated from his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), he heads back to Ogden Marsh to take on the Crazies and the soldiers intent on keeping the outbreak silent.

Obviously, for a Romero remake, there is an element of zombie film to "The Crazies." Regular people get up and start walking around with homicidal intentions. The twist here is that the folks are not dead and, in some cases, appear to retain their memories and personalities, giving things a creepier undertone. Yes, it's still scary to see an average person stalk our heroes in a barn; it's even more chilling to hear them dispassionately discuss their intentions as if reciting their grocery list.

But director Breck Eisner ("Sahara") deserves credit for not going the easy route and making it a straight horror movie. Just when David is confronting the town mayor and the film looks like social politics will be the villain, it takes an unexpected left turn when the military swoops in and proves to be just as dangerous as the Crazies - their name for the infected. One of the film's most terrifying moments comes when the Army swoops into Ogden Marsh, rounds up families and sets up internment camps at the local high school. There's great suspense in a sequence where Judy, strapped to a stretcher, watches in horror as a Crazy breaks into the school armed with a pitchfork and dispatches her helpless neighbors.

Eisner shows a strong flair for telling a solid genre story, knowing when a slow burn is more effective than mass havoc, and being able to milk a scene for suspense, amp up the terror and effectively use gore instead of gratuitously shoving it in our faces. He's a bit too fond of the jump scare, but that can be forgiven, as the jumps in this movie are effective. He doesn't bog the film down in needless back story, but also is able to maintain the haunting atmosphere that small towns necessarily provide in these films in a way that is reminiscent of some of Stephen King's work. He also gets solid work out of his cast, particularly Olyphant in a rare heroic lead. The actor, famous for his villainous roles, has an intensity that serves his character well and Eisner is smart enough to not let his characters make the stupid decisions that so often plague the genre.

And that's really all there is to say about "The Crazies." There's no deeper meaning, no desire to be an iconic horror movie. It simply tells a solid story and does it with the right amount of intensity and terror. It's a thrilling, fun little ride that has a refreshing intelligence to it. From behind the safety of a movie screen, Ogden Marsh is one nice place to visit.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Movie Review: "Shutter Island"

Originally published in the 02/21/10 version of The Source. . .

Much like its asylum setting, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is a beautifully constructed, exquisitely detailed labyrinth of dark twists, dead ends and buried secrets. It may creak, groan and threaten to topple over, but in the end it succeeds in concealing its mysteries inside a haunting, beautiful structure.

The film is a pastiche of Hitchcockian thriller, film noir and psychological horror that burrows under our skin even when its plot threads don't always quite connect. Adapting a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone"), Scorsese dips his toes into the horror genre, but don't mistake it for slumming: what seems on the surface to be a standard locked-room mystery is, in reality, a poetic and disturbing look at insanity, guilt and fear.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall from Boston working with new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) to find a patient who goes missing on Shutter Island in 1954. The patient, Rachel Solando, was put there after murdering her own children and seems to have disappeared into thin air. That's pretty hard to do, considering that Shutter Island is a heavily fortified mental hospital for the criminally insane, surrounded by ominous bluffs and with electric wire surrounding the campus's creaky, dark buildings.

Teddy and Chuck arrive just as a hurricane is bearing down on the island, and Scorsese uses rumbling thunder and howling wind to underscore the constant feeling of dread and doom. But things get even darker when out of the weather, as everyone at the hospital seems to be hiding something. The orderlies and nurses stare oddly at Teddy and Chuck, the warden keeps just a little too close, and even the seemingly gentle and easy-going psychiatrist Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley) seems to be keeping secrets behind his warm smile. And then there's Max Von Sydow as a German psychologist who seems eager to provoke the detectives and may have dark secrets of his own.

DiCaprio , in his fourth outing with Scorsese, once again finds new notes to play as Teddy. A hard-boiled detective whose wife was killed in an arson fire, he has no sympathy for murderers. He talks tough and scoffs at Crawley's belief that patients must be treated with respect and dignity if rehabilitation is possible. But Teddy has his own demons - he suffers from migraines and, in nightmares, he relives his involvement in the liberation of concentration camps and speaks to the ghost of his wife (Michelle Williams) before she dissolves into ash. Once Rachel Solando's crime is mentioned, Teddy adds visions of dead children to his nightmares. Teddy is a man haunted, and Shutter Island seems more than happy to keep waking the dead.

Scorsese, possibly the most accomplished American director, has carefully assembled a cast of familiar, talented actors whose presence establishes a shorthand with the audience. Ruffalo is the trusty sidekick, Kingsley the calm mentor who may have sinister motives, Patricia Clarkson shows up later to give Teddy some no-nonsense advice and Sydow's very presence always carries a sinister weight. Scorsese wisely lets these actors play familiar notes, but later asks us if we can actually believe anything they've said.

I have to tiptoe lightly here, because the film's endgame will be the subject of much debate. Some will complain that the final twists come out of nowhere, but the truth is that Scorsese has hidden clues to the big reveal throughout the film and I believe a second viewing will actually improve the movie for many. Closely watch the way a character handles a gun, reaction shots that seem innocuous at first or dialogue that, when heard again, may carry a double meaning. Many may not like the dark places the film finds, but it is very apparent that this is the ending the film was building to the entire time.

Still, I suspect that upon closer inspection, not everything will hold up 100 percent. The plot creaks and twists and sometimes seems in danger of unraveling. In retrospect, there are elements of it that require a heavy suspension of disbelief. Then again, how much we second-guess depends on how much we believe the characters when all is revealed.

But Scorsese is not interested in simply putting together a puzzle box. The plot is simply a way for the director to experiment with genre, and delve into his favorite themes of guilt and redemption. He's less interested in "what happened" than in "how it feels." Saturating the film in deep, dark colors and working with an ominous, doom-inspiring soundtrack, Scorsese allows "Shutter Island" to tap into viewers' psyches, haunting them without resorting to explicit violence or jump scares. The film is, in a way, a haunted house story and Shutter Island, with its endless corridors, leaky ceilings and dank cells, is one of the creepiest settings this side of "The Shining." Scorsese's imagery here is nightmarish and yet beautifully grotesque. Teddy's nightmares are terrifying not because of what they show, but because of how they make Teddy feel. There are disturbing and horrifying images put on display, and yet they never feel gratuitous or cheap, as Scorsese films even the most disturbing scenes with the intention of delving into the deeper truths behind them, finding visual poetry in the death camps of Dachau or in a soaking wet child asking Teddy to save her. There's a sadness and grief to the horror created not only by Scorsese's wonderful eye but DiCaprio's powerful performance. The film's final passages could have elicited a clever laugh, but watch them closely; there's a feeling of sorrow and tragedy to them. The film's final words carry a loaded weight and several tragic implications.

"Shutter Island" is a clever mystery whose plot engages us even as we realize its preposterousness. The story, even in novel form, was pure pulp. What Scorsese has done is add a very human layer to this tale and, by doing that, made a film that shows us that what's outside our minds is the least of what we have to fear.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Movie Review: Percy Jackson and the Olympians--The Lightning Thief

It's very hard not to talk about "Percy Jackson and the Olympians..." without making comparisons to Harry Potter.

That's a bit unfair, I realize. After all, Rick Riordan studied Greek mythology and began writing the books well before the world learned about Hogwarts. And while there may be some similarities, they are basically structural ones...everything else is drawn from myths that have been around hundreds of years.

Then again, 20th Century Fox clearly wants audiences to head into this looking for "the next Harry Potter." They even went and hired director Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two "Potter" installments for Warner Brothers, something the trailers tout very prominently.

And while I'll try to keep the "Potter" references to a minimum here, the truth is that the very things that keep "Percy Jackson" from being a great film--although it's a fun one--are the things that JK Rowling and Co. did so well and have made Harry transcend simple entertainment to be one of the most beloved pieces of literature/film of the last few decades, while "Percy Jackson" merely distracts and entertains for two hours. It's not a bad distraction and it will likely please its core audience. It's just that every once and awhile a very similar "Potter" component appears and reminds us once again how much better that series is in comparison; it's like being reminded of how great "The Wizard of Oz" is while watching "The Goonies." Don't get me wrong; I love "The Goonies"...but it's no "Wizard of Oz."

Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) is just an average teen living in the Bronx, struggling with ADD and dyslexia. His mom (Catherine Keener, criminally underused) has married a cruel slob of a stepfather (Joe Pantoliano) and Jackson, of course, is having problems reconciling all of this. His only moments of clarity come when he sits at the bottom of a swimming pool for ten minutes at a time to think. Things don't get much better for Percy during a trip to the National History Museum when his teacher turns into a demon and tries to kill him. Don't you hate adolescence?

It turns out that Percy is the son of Poseidon. If you remember your Greek mythology, it seems that the gods were quite randy and would often come to Earth and hook up with mortal women. So it happened that Percy's mom ran into some guy on the Jersey Shore who said he was Poseidon. Then he split, after Zeus cut off all contact between gods and their children--demigods. In an opening scene, we see that Zeus's (Sean Bean) lightning bolt has been stolen and he believes the son of Poseidon is to blame--why he believes that is never really explained, nor is an explanation given as to why the base of Mount Olympus has been moved to the Empire State Building.

Anyway, protected by his best friend and satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson), Percy leaves the comfort of his mother and heads off to a safe location in the woods. Poseidon, it seems was not the only amorous god...they've been setting up franchises all over the United States before turning into deadbeat dads and sending their children to a summer camp that trains them to be expert warriors. When Hades (Steve Coogan) kidnaps Percy's mom and demands the lightning bolt in return for her safety, Percy, Grover and new friend Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario)--the daughter of Athena--head off across the country to find sacred pearls that will allow them to enter Hades and escape unscathed.

I know I had some fun with the plot description, but I will give the film credit for the way it weaves Greek mythology through our modern culture. Percy's dyslexia is actually a symptom of being a demigod--what he initially sees as dyslexia is actually his brain rearranging letters into the Greek alphabet. There's a fun visit to a stone garden to visit Medusa, a thrilling battle with a hydra in the Parthenon (Tennessee) and an acid trip-like encounter in Las Vegas with the Lotus Eaters. Columbus tells the story with energy and humor and it moves fairly briskly; his skills as an action-fantasy filmmaker have improved greatly since the first two "Harry Potter" films and he appears to be more comfortable with using computer effects (let's remember the first two "Potter" films are also the weakest in the franchise).

There's some great fun to be had and the A-list actors are clearly having fun, particularly Pierce Brosnan as a minotaur and Uma Thurman as Medusa, clearly relishing her opportunity to do some PG-rated vamping. Coogan, as Hades, is mostly hidden behind special effects but is allowed to cut loose on a trip to the underworld, where Hades shows up in full rock star regalia. Rosario Dawson, as Persephone, is allowed to be as hot as a kids' film allows.

A side effect of that, however, is that the side characters steal the thunder from the main actors. Lerman, Daddario and Jackson do what they can with the roles, but there's nothing original or particularly endearing about Percy and his friends. Whereas Rowling's characters each had innate personalities and a quirky charm--and were brought to life by sheer lighting-in-a-bottle choices when choosing the young actors to portray them--Percy and his friends are just standard wisecrack spouting Hollywood teens. They lack the dorky appeal of a Ron Weasley or the innocence and goodness of Harry Potter...Annabeth could be a tomboyish Hermione, but she's not given much to do other than shoot arrows and run from danger. The characters aren't unlikable--and hopefully in future installments there will be some depth added. But on this first go around, there wasn't much that endeared them to me.

Indeed, that seems to be my reaction to "Percy Jackson" as a film. I was never bored while watching it and was even entertained by the fun action sequences and clever way of melding a modern kids' tale with ancient legend. I could see myself enjoying this as a 12-year-old and made a comment to a friend shortly afterward that I had enjoyed the movie much more than I thought I would have.

But over time, my enthusiasm waned and I found the experience did not stick with me the way a great adventure should. While the incorporation of the Greek mythology is fun, the modern-day setting lacks the romance and whimsy to set it in and leaves the film feeling more like an action story than a true fantasy-adventure. Percy and his friends are fine to spend two hours with, but I can't necessarily say I was curious to see what awaited them next. The final encounter with Percy and the gods comes off clunky and anti-climactic instead of jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. And for a film that posits some interesting ideas--the gods as absentee fathers--the film quickly runs from dealing with them any deeper or giving the characters any emotional resonance. Even when Percy's mother is taken away by Hades, he simply wakes up in a hospital, has a moment or two of remorse and then stands up and heads off to explore the camp as if nothing happened.

And yes, the core audience likely won't care about this. Except that they might. After all, I've mentioned the similarities between Harry Potter--a kid from a special family background finds out he's extraordinary, is taken to a magic facility for people like him and goes off on a Scooby Doo-esque adventure with his friends. True, it's a troupe used time and again in storytelling--but younger viewers will quickly spot the Potter influence. And they may come away realizing that Rowling's story created an enchanted world for its characters to play in and dealt with resonant themes like love, sacrifice and friendship. Younger viewers may not be able to articulate it, but they'll know some thing's missing. Part of it is simply that Rowling created a once-in-a-generation masterwork that is hard to equal. But part of it is also that in an attempt to make lightning strike twice, they've robbed it of any thunder.

My Essentials: "Almost Famous" (2000, dir. Cameron Crowe)

I've decided to get one or two films in this series filed every weekend when possible. To do that, I'm giving myself a head start by posting the films on my "rack of honor" that I already wrote about last year when I was doing The Alphabet Project. Not many were done, but this should get us through "Almost Famous," "Anchorman" and the "Back to the Future" trilogy before I double-back and look at "Alien" and "Aliens." Here are my thoughts on Cameron Crowe's wonderful little drama from 2000, which is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Almost Famous

The best movies are the ones in which watching them again feels like visiting with old friends. I'm thinking of "Juno," "Lost in Translation" or "Before Sunrise." Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous" is another one of those films, a movie that gives me a great big bear hug every time I watch it and leaves me grinning and with that warm sensation that Roger Ebert has revealed to be "elevation."

This is the pinnacle of Crowe's career. I think "Say Anything..." is one of the great love stories of the past few years and "Jerry Maguire" is a funny and intelligent studio work. But this is his most heartfelt, immersive and honest work. I think both "Vanilla Sky" and "Elizabethtown," his two most-recent works, have their merits and are unjustly maligned, but they are missing that personal, heartfelt charge that flow through his other films and culminated in an gush of nostalgia with this masterpiece--which was the best film of 2000.

William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is, of course, a thinly-veiled version of Crowe as a teen, who is hired to follow the band Stillwater for Rolling Stone at the age of 15 (they think he's much older). Despite the pleas of his tightly-wound, moralistic mother (Frances McDormand) Miller hits the road with the band and witnesses the in-fighting, parties, arguments, on-stage triumphs and love for the music that surrounded the 1970s rock scene. He makes friends with the band's guitar player, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and falls in love with a groupie--er, Band Aid--named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and gets advice from rock journalist Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).

It's tempting to describe this movie as a coming of age story, but that would give the impression that this is about William's journey and growth. But watching it again, I found that William does not really change too much over the course of the film--he loses that wide-eyed innocence, for sure, and finds his own moral footing but the thing that keeps him so grounded is that he keeps one foot planted in reality, remembering the teachings of his mother, and is able to see the truth when all the rock stars and their hangerz-on are living in a fantasy world. "It's all happening," is a mantra that Penny Lane and her fellow Band Aids use over and again--near the end of the film William has the chance to challenge them as to what that means. What is happening? When are they going to come back to the real world?

No, the film is not just a coming of age story. Like "The Shawshank Redemption," which is mistakingly thought to be Andy's story instead of Red's, "Almost Famous" is not so much about William Miller but about the effect he has on those around him. This is made even more clear in the "bootleg" DVD cut, simply called "Untitled," which adds about 30 minutes and deepens the supporting characters' plot threats--I loved the original film in theaters, but I always watch the Bootleg cut on DVD; it's a far superior piece.

It's tempting to say that this film resonates with me because of my journalism background, but the truth is that I was still in college when the film was released--and while I was a journalism major, I was never too caught up in it at the time. Having worked as a journalist for nearly four years and having the opportunity to interview some famous people and be close to my passion (film instead of rock music), I think that my love for it has grown. There's something about being the outsider and having a close proximity to those whose life seems to be a fantasy or a fairy tale--you have the opportunity to pick apart the dream, deconstruct it and point out how it's manufactured in many respects, standing apart from the real world. I think the reason many people get uncomfortable around journalists is because of that fact--they have a view of themselves, a reality that makes them feel comfortable and safe...the reporter represents reality, which can pick it apart and reveal it as nothing more than a house of cards.

"Just make us look cool," Hammond tells William. That's a pretty loaded statement--it implies that Hammond thinks he can convince William to sacrifice his journalistic integrity in favor of friendship and coolness. It also implies that Hammond knows that Stillwater is not cool--that there are deep-seated rivalries and factions in the band that, were the public to see them, would reveal that they are just a bunch of young guys playing band.

Of course, that is the truth. Hammond thinks he's better than the others in the band and the lead singer (Jason Lee, pre-sell out) resents Hammond's popularity (I love the line 'your looks have become a problem'). William is an observer when Hammond temporarily leaves the band in Wichita and spends an evening at a house party when he gets high on acid and ends up on the roof of a garage proclaiming "I am a Golden God" before jumping into a swimming pool. The scene is funny--and based on the real-life exploits Crowe witnessed while writing for Rolling Stone--but it also reveals the flaws inherent in Hammond and in the band...and the danger of letting the outsider, a journalist, observe it all.

William is also a danger to Penny Lane, a young girl who has abandoned her regular life in the hopes of escaping reality through rock and roll. She's in love with Russell, but she naively believes he sees her as more than a groupie, that he will leave his wife for him. She knows the reality of the life she's chosen, but she still believes that there's hope in the fairy tale. Watch her reaction carefully when William tells her that Russell has traded her to the band Humble Pie for a case of beer...I think Hudson has thrown away a lot of the potential she's had in favor of frothy, ultra-stupid chick flicks...but here she delivers one of the most heartbreaking performances of the past few years.

In fact, every performance here is fantastic. Aside from "Saved," Fugit has pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth. And maybe that's for the best. His work here is genuine and innocent, maybe because it was his first work. He really appears to be a kid who is wide-eyed and can't believe his luck to travel with his heroes. But that's why it works...William is being formed on this trip; he's a blank slate being molded by what he sees here and is trying to meld the teaching of his mother with the reality he sees on the road. Crowe could have gone the broad route and had William turn into a party-animal who repents at the end...instead, he presents William as a three-dimensional chracter who respects his mother's morals but realizes how uptight she is...and then, on the road, realizes how right she is about many things. That teaching helps him keep objectivity and protects him from getting caught up in the fantasy of traveling with the band.

Crudup is an actor who never really registers with me, although he was fantastic as Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen." Here, though, Crowe's brilliant screenplay has created another fleshed-out and fully-developed character. He's not a rock god caught up in the dream but a young man who struggles with the excitement of fame coupled with his love for music. He can't believe his good fortune and also allows it to sweep him away. He does drugs, cheats on his wife and treats William horribly at some points--and yet we also get scenes where his humanity shows through. The final scene in the movie, when he and William finally get to have their last interview, is one of film's perfect wrap-ups.

I've mentioned Hudson, but it just seems that every role here is wonderfully cast. There are no ciphers here; Crowe, drawing from his own recollections, has lovingly crafted even the most insignificant characters and cast them with careful thought. Jason Lee is scathing and funny as the lead singer who wants to be the most-beloved in the band and yet there's a certain saddness to his character as he's also, well, almost famous compared to Hammond. McDormand is a strict mother but she does it out of love for her children...she has scenes that are both funny, as when she scolds Hammond over the phone, and heartbreaking, when she breaks down and cries over her son's absence. It's well known in these parts that I am in love with Zooey Deschanel and it was here that I first saw her wide-eyed beauty and energy. Heck even Jimmy Fallon is tolerable here as the agent who wants to take Stillwater to the big time...and if you can make me like Jimmy Fallon, you've accomplished something. Phillip Seymour Hoffman never delivers anything less than a fantastic performance and his work as Bangs reeks of authenticity; who else could be so irrasicble, uncool and unlikable than a true journalist?

Crowe's screenplay is the triumph in this movie. Every line of dialogue, every development of character and every detail of the rock scene has the perfect mix of authenticity, heart and humor. The rumor is that Steven Spielberg, whose Dreamworks produced this film, read the script and told Crowe not to cut a single thing from it and film it as it was. Maybe that's why the "Untitled" cut seems so much more alive and energetic. Or maybe it's just that I can't get enough of these characters and the world they're caught up in. Maybe I just want more of the wonderful soundtrack, which is like listening to Crowe's 1970s mix tape. Or maybe I'm like the character--I just want to be in their world for a bit, avoiding my own reality for a few hours.

I mentioned that I don't think it's my journalistic background that first drew me to the movie. I think it's actually Crowe's passion...he's so lovingly crafted this film that it's contagious. It's a movie that makes me smile. In William Miller I see a character like myself, someone who is so very not cool and has the opportunity to see the world he loves. Maybe it's the hope that I can be as grounded and objective as he is, seeing the world and not losing my soul. Maybe I'm also just as in love with Penny Lane as he is and I need this as an excuse to see her again.
Or maybe I need to take a note from the scene in which William stands in the wings watching Stillwater and jotting down his thoughts and Penny takes the pen out of his hand. Maybe I'm thinking too much and just need to put the DVD in and let myself get taken away by the music.

Movie Review: "The Wolfman"

First of a few reviews today...I'll have my thoughts on "Percy Jackson and the Olympians--The Lightning Thief" up later.

This was originally published in the Feb. 14, 2010 edition of The Source.

What is it about the werewolf that is so hard to get right?

Few movie monsters are so enduring, yet few are responsible for truly good films. For every “American Werewolf in London”—which still stands as cinema’s final word on lycanthropy—there’s a “Van Helsing,” “New Moon” or “Teen Wolf” waiting in the wings.
Universal Studios’ remake of their classic “The Wolfman,” in theaters this weekend, comes close to making this feral beast truly scary. It has capable A-list actors, atmospheric cinematography and outstanding special effects by Rick Baker, the man responsible for “American Werewolf’s” still-unmatched transformation sequences.

Which is why I found myself a bit surprised to feel so apathetic about the affair once the credits rolled.

Director Joe Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”) sticks fairly close to the original story. Actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns to his family’s estate in rural 19th Century England after his brother has been reported missing. Talbot arrives too late—his possibly-insane father (Anthony Hopkins) tells him his brother’s body has been found in the woods, torn apart by some manner of beast. The brother’s wife Gwen (Emily Blunt) has stayed behind to care for the family as the rumors in town begin to circle that a werewolf may be to blame.

Talbot ventures out to a gypsy camp one evening to investigate a medallion found on his brother’s body. While he’s out there, he’s attacked and bitten by the same beast that killed his brother. Although his wounds heal surprisingly fast, Talbot finds that when the full moon strikes thing s have a tendency to get a bit hairy and it’s not uncommon for him to wake up the next morning in the woods, his clothes torn and bloodied.

The original “Wolfman,” released in 1941, was a creature made explicitly for cinema. Although the creature lacked the literary pedigree of “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it’s become one of the most endurable movie monsters, and with good reason—there’s something primal and terrifying about becoming an unstoppable killing machine against your will. The successful werewolf films have a tragedy about them—there’s dread as the full moon approaches, pain as the transformation begins and sorrow when that silver bullet finally destroys the monster, but kills the hero.

Johnston’s film makes an attempt at that. He definitely has atmosphere to spare—bathing the film in moonlit moors, foggy forests and candlelit corridors. The film’s two transformation sequences have the requisite bone-crunching and hair sprouting while Talbot panics and begs to be killed. And a love story between Gwen and Talbot grows particularly touching and seems to be heading for the tragic finale.

But something happens and the film fails to make an impact. Johnston is like a performer who knows the lyrics but can’t carry a tune; having worked early in his career on “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he knows how to frame an icon on the screen but fails to grasp what makes the character iconic. The werewolf effects are impressive and it’s a truly intimidating beast; but del Toro is so buried under makeup that we never feel that the wolf is Talbot, thus negating the horror of watching our hero kill and any emotional impact that would follow.

It’s odd to write that the werewolf attacks are the film’s least effective sequences—Johnston builds effective dread as Talbot suffers nightmares and endures torture while committed in an insane asylum. The build-up to the werewolf scenes are atmospheric, creepy and taut. But Johnston seems to be afraid to truly scare his audience when it comes time for the payoff, instead rushing through the rampages and relying too heavily on shock tactics and gore and throwing in unnecessary humor that defuses all tension. A scene where Talbot transforms in front of a panel of doctors should have been milked for suspense, dread and pure terror—instead, Johnston robs the scene of suspense by incorporating a lame gag concerning Talbot’s chief tormentor. The abundance of gore in this movie is also astonishing; I have nothing against a bloody horror movie, but I expect a filmmaker to understand that gore is best used as punctuation in a horror scene, not the main scare tactic. The severed limbs and computerized blood made me feel less like I was watching a remake of a classic monster movie than that I was watching a “Friday the 13th” ripoff.

That’s not to say the movie’s a waste of time. Although the werewolf sequences lack any primal terror, they are filmed with energy and style—a rooftop chase is particularly effective. Danny Elfman’s score underlines the film’s gothic tones and, again, the cinematography is beautiful to look at, as are the werewolf effects. The actors do their best here—del Toro captures the weight of a man under a curse and has a sweet chemistry with Blunt. Hopkins seems to be having more fun than he has in ages, chewing the scenery (sometimes literally) for all it’s worth. “The Wolfman” is an entertaining theme park ride of a film, but it fails to scare up genuine horror.

But still, it’s better than “Teen Wolf Too.”

Friday, February 5, 2010

Movie Review: "2012"

I had pretty much given up on seeing "2012," the latest end-of-the-world spectacle from Roland Emmerich. I missed it upon its initial screenings and, upon hearing that the special effects were the only thing that stood out about the film, had pretty much decided against seeing it on a small screen. Then, while out with my girlfriend last weekend, we found it playing at a big revival house near her and figured to check it out--more to see the theater than anything else.

Let me just say this: seeing a film like "2012" in a place dedicated to classics like "Casablanca," "The Wizard of Oz" and, yes, "The Blues Brothers," may be cinematic sacrilege.

"2012" made a lot of news upon release for playing upon the whole hype of the world ending in 2012 as the Mayans supposedly predicted--although it bears noting that the Mayans never predicted the end of the world; they simply ended their calendar in 2012 (if I designed a calendar in the 1400s, I probably would have stopped after 600 years as well). I have a feeling that most of the "news" was hype drummed up by 20th Century Fox's PR machine and not any actual fears or scientific beliefs--everything presented in this film is so utterly ludicrous that any scientist backing it up should just surrender their diploma upon leaving the theater.

Emmerich--who has ended the world by aliens (Independence Day), lizards (Godzilla) and cold (Day After Tomorrow) in the past--has to have put the nail in the coffin of end-of-the-world disaster flicks with this film. Here the world doesn't just get gets baked, flooded, smashed, ground up, chewed up and spit out. It's the rare movie that has a body count of 5 billion people; thank goodness there was no blood, otherwise the PG-13 rating would have never stuck.

I'm still a bit unclear as to why the world is ending here. As far as I can understand, it has to do with massive solar flares that are destroying the Earth's crust, which leads to massive earthquakes and tidal waves around the planet--California sinks into the ocean, Yellowstone National Park and Hawaii are turned into massive lakes of lava, a tsunami buries Mt. Everest and, just for good measure, Washington is flooded--but not before the battleship John F. Kennedy smashes into the White House. Yes, gone are the good old days when Emmerich was content to smash a few American landmarks...the whole world is wiped off the map in this flick.

The effects are, of course, staggering--before "Avatar" hit the screen this likely would have been an Oscar contender for visual effects. I can't say they look real--California sinking into the ocean and waves covering the Himalayas tend to be unreal as rule--but they are effective. The destruction's scale in this movie is amazing.

And, to be honest, a bit disturbing. I realize the movie was released well before the earthquakes in Haiti. But in light of 100,000 people dying in real life, watching a massive earthquake played for excitement--and, sometimes, for laughs--just isn't fun. It used to be that Emmerich simply showed a building crumbling and we'd be satisfied. Now he shows bodies falling from bridges and collapsing buildings and trains slamming off the rails and into giant crevices--after 9/11, there's just something about mass death and destruction that is a little less entertaining. Were he playing the sequences for horror and emotional impact, I might have been more forgiving...but he's playing the end of the world as action-adventure and entertainment. Something about considering the death of billions to be remotely entertaining feels a bit icky.

But it soon becomes less icky and more numbing as the devastation goes on for two more hours. I'm finding a growing weariness with filmmakers who depend on special effects as moneymakers rather than tools. After awhile the entire affair feels more like a videogame and less like a film.

That's not to say the film is boring. As I said, the scale of the effects is astonishing. And there's a cheesy guilt to enjoying the increasingly preposterous plot twists--a plane twice flies between two crumbling buildings, a stretch limo outruns an Earthquake in downtown L.A., the heroes board a plane conveniently carrying luxury cars--which they then drive to safety in the Himalayas.

I find it funny that I've wasted all this time describing the action and effects and haven't even touched on the plot or characters yet. And yet, that's probably fitting. There are a lot of actors in "2012"--a lot of very good ones, actually, including John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Woody Harrelson (who steals the show as a crazed mountainman), Danny Glover (the President), Thandie Newton (his daughter), Chiwetel Ejiofor (the science advisor who saw the whole thing coming) and Oliver Platt (as the slimy politician who has his own agenda). And there is a plot--Cusack must get his family to the government folks, who are loading secretly-constructed arks that will carry survivors to safety. There's even a bit of a moral conundrum--seats on the ark may have been sold to the highest bidder instead of open to all. But everyone is at the mercy of the effects. In a movie that pays such lip service to the idea of humanity, Emmerich seems to have no idea how to tell a human tale.

The scenes with Cusack and Peet--as a divorced couple trying to protect their kids--are mind-numbingly cheesy, with horrid "comedic" moments and dialogue that lands with a thud. When they hook up with a Russian politician who has a seat on the ark--and the aforementioned plane with luxury cars--we simply roll our eyes...we know not only that the sleazy politician will probably not get on the ark, but that the cars will probably come to some use.

The scenes with the government officials are more interesting. There's an intriguing premise about how the government would handle the end of the world--who would you save and how would you start over. The film picks up steam whenever Platt and Ejiofor are onscreen but, unfortunately, goes limp again whenever we cut back to the not-so-happy family.

Emmerich also fills the screen with needless secondary characters who are related to the primary ones--a jazz duo on the sea and a couple in Japan--who have no bearing on the plot but simply exist for supposedly tear-jerking moments in which we're supposed to get emotional because they didn't "get to say goodbye." The film is so packed and rushed that the scenes play as obligatory afterthoughts, never achieving any interest or emotional involvement. I could see the film working better as a large scale miniseries, but at nearly three hours the film manages to feel both bloated and dramatically empty.

The result is a film that is never boring but is never really engaging, entertaining or exciting either. The cacophony Emmerich subjects the audience to quickly becomes numbing and obligatory and it ends with such a pedestrian crisis (a stuck door? Really?) that I had to laugh. Emmerich has made a career out of destroying the world but really only did it once in a manner that entertained me ("Independence Day.") His best film was actually the Revolutionary War flick "The Patriot." But he keeps returning to devastated landmarks and repetitive special effects as if there just was too much world for one man to destroy.

Hopefully with "2012" he got it all out of his system.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Essentials: "Groundhog Day"

Okay, a word of explanation. This was originally supposed to be the relaunch of The Alphabet Project, which I began last year over at my other blog. That project was supposed to go through my DVD collection from A-Z, allowing me time to post my thoughts on the films I own. My plan for 2010 was to restart it, but taking the films from my "shelf of honor," in which my 50 or so favorite films are.

Normally, we'll follow an alphabetical protocol...unless I feel like shifting things up based on what I feel like watching or how my mood is striking me; so I'll rename it "My Essentials"--I like the name because they're the films I feel are essential to knowing what type of films I like, and I consider all of them to be great works of art in their own cases. This week, I will have thoughts on two films for this column. In honor of this week's "holiday," I'll be writing my thoughts on "Groundhog Day," which I revisited again over the weekend. I've also got some Essentials titles backlogged from last year that I'd like to print here and I'll be seeing a new addition for my Catch-Up column on Saturday night.

But for now, let's talk about Groundhog Day.

GROUNDHOG DAY (PG, 1993, Dir. Harold Ramis)

"What if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't today"

When we think of spiritual films or those that tackle existential crises, our thoughts tend to go toward Bergman, Ozu or a number of other somber artists not afraid to put entertainment aside in favor of delving deep into matters of the soul. When pressed to name my favorite "deep" films, I'm quick to point out "Babette's Feast," "Wings of Desire," "The Last Temptation of Christ," or "The Shawshank Redemption."

I'll admit that my thoughts don't immediately run towards an actor groomed on "Saturday Night Live" and the director of "National Lampoon's Vacation."

And yet, sitting here 17 years after it's release, I'm reminded again that the romantic comedy "Groundhog Day" addresses matters as deep as any of those previous films. It's a metaphor for those whose existince seems monotonous and uneventful. It's an examination of the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the film's hero finds that money, drink, ambition and sex grow hollow without something deeper. It takes us through life's cycles of monotony, recklessness, childishness, love, despair and finallly contenment. I'd wager that it's one of the deepest box office hits of the past 20 years.

It helps that it's hilarious.

Bill Murray, in one of the best performances of his career, plays Phil Connors, a Philadelphia TV weatherman who ends up repeating the same day over and over again in a small Pennsylvania town. Phil is obnoxious--he's the kind of television "talent" that loathes working in a small town with people he perceives as simpletons. He's arrogant, cynical and ready with a cutting remark--of course, it's all couched in Bill Murray's smarter-than-the-room wit, delivered with something akin to charm.

Phil goes through the daily routine of waking up, making banal chit-chat with the innkeeper of the bed and breakfast he's staying at, trying to avoid the annoying banter of a nerdy acquaintance who tries to sell him insurance, condescendly addressing the audience watching his newscast in Punxsatawney and trying to maintain his sanity as he tries to get home with his coworkers--particularly his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), who has just as much sincerity as Phil has cynicism.

Unable to return home, Phil goes back to his hotel and falls asleep...only to awake at 6 a.m. to the same song ("I've Got You Babe") on the radio, followed by the same banter by the radio deejays. Stepping outside, Phil relives the same encounters and conversations he endured on Groundhog Day and quickly comes to realize he's living the same day over and over. He can change and make different decisions, which affect the outcome of his day---but no matter what he does, he'll still wake up in bed at 6 a.m. on Feb. 2 listening to two deejays telling him to put on his warm woolies because it's cold out there today (it's cold out there everyday; what is this, Miami Beach?)

The script by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, of course, exploits this for its comedic potential. Once Phil quickly accepts his new reality, an excitement sets in--he can do whatever he wants. He can participate in a car chase, manipulate a single lady, steal from the bank, eat as much as he wants. And, of course, he begins to be captured by Rita's innate goodness and works to earn her affection. And while she begins to fall for him, Phil always finds himself rebuffed at the end of the night.

Which leads into the darkest passages of the film, in which Phil begins to despair and grows suicidial. Yes, there's the funny scene where he kidnaps the town's groundhog and drives his car off a cliff. But there's a somberness to the scenes where he electrocutes himself, steps in front of a car or leaps from a building. The scenes have just enough levity to keep us from being depressed, but not enough for them to be considered slapstick--there's something deeper going on here, as Phil's journey begins to speak for our own...who hasn't felt that each day was the same, that they were stuck in a rut they couldn't get out of? Who hasn't begun to despair and felt that there has to be a way out? The film is addressing a dilemma faced by all of us. "What would you do," Phil asks some local drunks, "If you were stuck in the same place and every day was the same and nothing you did mattered?" "That about sums me up," one of the drunks responds.

And yet, the film doesn't end in those hopeless passages, nor does it venture off into an inane plot where Phil discovers how he can get out of his day-to-day loop. Instead, Phil makes peace with his situation and instead resolves to make himself better and kinder. He learns to play the piano, tries in vain to help a dying man and becomes a local hero as he saves those throughout town who have flat tires, are about to choke or fall from trees. He starts to loose his cyniscism, but Murray never makes the transformation unbelievable or removes the character's edge; Phil is still funny, but a bit more self-deprecating than caustic. We start to like him more--and as we do, so does Rita.

Yes, it's a typical tale of redemption--not that too disimilar from "A Christmas Carol" or "The Grinch"...same idea, different holiday. And yet the film never feels cliche, sappy or tired. Even its necessarilly repetitive structure still feels fresh the entire way through because of the clever ways the script changes Phil's interactions with people and events through each cycle. Had it been a one-note comedy, the film would have easily fallen flat, but Ramis is wise enough to change the tone as the story requires, creating the rare comedy that is both brilliant in its conception and involving on an emotional and existential level.

Murray is essential in this role--he's one of the few actors who we love to watch even as a jerk. Perhaps we sense a good guy beneath the snide comments or Murray's charisma from previous roles just predisposes us to like him. I have a feeling that it's because Murray lets us in on Phil's secret--that underneath all his sarcasm and cynisicsm lies a wounded man. A man who can get women to sleep with him, but no one to love him. Who can be a talent, but only in a small market like Philadelphia. A man who thinks he's smarter than the rest of the world and a bit skeptical as to why they all still seem to be happier than him. He never comes out and reveals a past hurt, but he doesn't need to; any recovering cynic recognizes one of their brethren. The key is that Murray plays the role just right all the way through--he plays Phil not as a bad man, but a jerk; we laugh at how rude and obnoxious he is while also realizing he's not a guy we'd want as a friend. His tranformation is allowed to come gradually as Phil begins to learn what he desires, what isn't workinga nd what he needs to do to get it...there's a subtlety to Murray's performance here that I think goes unappreciated. Oddly enough, in his later dramatic roles, it's the subtlety that Murray is praised for--I think people overlooked the wonderful skill on display here as well.

To see how good Murray is here, contrast it with his work in "Scrooged" just a few years earlier. While the film makes me laugh, I've always felt it comes across as a bit "off," laughing at Dickens' story rather than appreciating its power. And part of that reason comes from Murray's miscalculated performance--his character is crass and cruel, not sarcastic and funny. Although we learn there are dashed dreams in his background, we never feel much of the weight of them. And his transformation at the end feels too abrupt and also insincere. "Groundhog Day" covers many of the same thematic elements as "Christmas Carol," and yet Murray's work is much more powerful's because he's created a character that we like and who is allowed to breathe, learn and grow.

But recognition also belongs to the game cast that surrounds Murray here, who are required to repeat themselves over and over while having no clue what Phil is enduring. Andie MacDowell is the anti-Phil and she plays here role as a sincere, kind-hearted woman without the neuroses or vapidness too many romantic comedy heroines seem required to have. Chris Elliott's work may be smaller, but he manages to get a laugh every time he speaks. And Stephen Tobolowski--as poor Ned Ryerson, the insurance salesman (Bing!)--is priceless, a great supporting character that provokes some of the film's biggest laughs.

It's funny how "Groundhog Day" has seeped into our culture. When we get deja vu, we often say something feels like "Groundhog Day." It's a film that has gone from being a clever romantic comedy to being admired as one of the most in-depth and even spiritual films of the past 20 years. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies review of the film ( has made allusions to "It's a Wonderful Life." And the more I see this film, the more I am inclined to agree. "Groundhog Day" is funny and clever, but its true success comes from how well it captures the human predicament and how wonderfully Bill Murray captures every second of screen time.

It's totally cliche to see this, but if I was forced to repeat the same film over and over, I could do much worse than "Groundhog Day."


About Me

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.