Archive for June, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by Colin Trevorrow.  Starring Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson, Karan Soni, and Mary Lynn Rajskub.

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) has never really fit into the norms and molds of society.  When she says she attended parties in college, she means she had acquaintances who would make out in her presence.  As a child she would play by herself or with a turtle she found in the garden rather than play with her siblings or friends.   Her social awkwardness extends into a job interview, preventing her from getting hired.  At an internship at a magazine, one of her coworkers jokingly refers to her as a lesbian due to her social ineptitude.

Nonetheless, Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) selects Darius and a nerdy Indian intern, Arnau, (Karan Soni) to accompany him as he attempts to write a story based on an unusual classified ad he saw in the newspaper.  The selection of both of them is reasonable because both of them are somewhat weird, and the ad itself is incredibly odd.  The ad also contains something that appeals to both Darius’ and Arnau’s natures.  She sees an opportunity to ease some past regret, and the scientific aspect of the project appeals to him.

Kenneth, (Mark Duplass) the man who wrote the ad, is even stranger than Darius.  He whole heartedly believes in his endeavor and goes to incredulous lengths to succeed.  While his success may seem impossible, Kenneth’s endurance along with Darius’ support make his project seem believable at times.

If for some reason, you skipped reading reviews or even missed seeing the poster for the movie, and do not know the content of Kenneth’s ad, I think it would be best to leave it that way.  The content of the ad is revealed within the first ten minutes of the film, but it was all the more surprising and entertaining not knowing what it was.  The film is very creative in the ways it handles the ad and other characters’ reactions to it.  This creativity was amusing and endearing, especially when watching it unfold with no prior knowledge.

Why does Kenneth put so much energy into his project?  Or more importantly, as he asks all potential partners, what does he want to accomplish with this undertaking?  Kenneth’s intentions are appropriately kept hidden until the very last minutes of the film.  When revealed, his intentions do tie the entire film together.

All the actions of the characters relate to one central theme of solitude versus companionship.  Jeff was not really fascinated in a potential magazine story about a peculiar newspaper add.  He wanted to go to the location of the ad in order to reconnect with an old friend.  Along the way he insists on setting Arnau up with his first encounter.  Darius wishes to heal the guilt she suffers from the death of loved one.  And Kenneth wants to restore bonds in his life that have been destroyed.

All of the characters are believable; none of them are stereotypes or poorly developed.  Jeff is a forty-year-old who still wishes he was twenty and could party endlessly with alcohol and drugs.  However, he has some profound moments when he realizes the shallowness of his current lifestyle.  Arnau is a nerdy Asian math-whiz, who only took an internship at a magazine because it “looks good on a resume.”  He wants to follow every rule on this assignment, but he also has moments of nervous insecurity.  Darius is confident yet lonely as an oddball intern.  Several scenes are humorous, because they are incredibly plausible, such as Darius’ exchange with her father about her social life at the beginning of the film.

Plaza and Duplass have great chemistry.  Initially they are awkward around one another, but that gives way as the work together and the seemingly absurd project becomes clearer.  Other relationships are equally realistic.

The only major fault in the film is that ending is slightly rushed and not fully explained.  Whether or not Kenneth succeeded in his project suddenly takes backseat to another more important goal.  The film possibly takes a turn into another genre that is completely out of place as well.

Neither safety nor success were guaranteed for Kenneth’s project.  There were many risks involved, all of which could have led to failure.  In the same manner, safety was not guaranteed in the search for relationships by all the characters.  With regard to emotions, the film suggests that human beings are as complex and uncertain as Kenneth’s mission.  Relationships require just as much work and energy as Kenneth and Darius put into preparing for the project.  In any stage of a close relationship, safety is not guaranteed.

Content Advisory: Frank sexual dialogue, an implied encounter, some heavy drinking and smoking, and occasional obscenities.                        MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.  Starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Jimmi Simpson, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, and Marton Csokas.

The enslavement of the Hebrews by the Egyptians; the massacre of Christians in the ancient Roman games, Africans selling their own countrymen to Europeans, and finally slavery in the United States.  All of these events were propagated by vampires.  Just as vampires are enslaved to their nature, humans’ instincts to be greedy, arrogant, and oppressive have led them to enslave and kill one another.  Whenever such an event happens, the vampires seize their opportunity and encourage the killing and enslavement so they can feed on the victims.  So Adam, (Rufus Sewell) the leader of the vampires, explains to Abraham Lincoln. (Benjamin Walker)

Yes, Abraham Lincoln the sixteenth president of the United States of America, leader of the country during the Civil War, which was an effort to destroy the vampires in the US and the evil they wrought.  All of Lincoln’s greatest and most famous accomplishments take backseat to his true vocation: a vampire hunter who destroys legions of the undead at night with a silver axe.  And many of his best known achievements were driven by his desire to destroy evil by harming vampires in as many ways as possible.

If you maintained a straight face while reading through all of the above, I am impressed.  I struggle to tell someone else the title of this film with a straight face.  The film itself treats the premise quite seriously, and it is this seriousness and enthusiasm for the subject material that makes the film a mostly enjoyable and diverting  experience.  It delivers almost everything that one would expect and a few pleasant surprises in addition.

The fights against the bloodsuckers are staged as expected.  Extravagant axe-swinging, leaping through the air, and chopping up the vampires as their blatantly fake blood splatters across the screen in slow motion is goofily appealing.  There are a couple of genuine scares when a vampire suddenly appears that one did not expect.  And there are a couple mildly surprising twists involving Lincoln’s mentor Henry (Dominic Cooper) and his boss Joshua. (Jimmi Simpson)

Nearly all of the major events in Lincoln’s life are given an alternate explanation.  The Battle of Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, famous deaths, and Lincoln’s decision to go to Illinois are all due to his vampire hunt.  It was a little disappointing that one of the most pivotal events of Lincoln’s life, while humorously foreshadowed, was not tied into his career as a vampire slayer.

There are also good parallels between the action of characters.  Late in the film, both Abe’s and Mary’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) actions mirror each other in a significant sequence.  Earlier lines and themes return in predictable yet amusing places.

The overt Christian elements in the film were a pleasant surprise.  The movie opens with a quote from Genesis, praising the name of Abraham.  Vampires are an embodiment of unadulterated evil, and this evil enslaves them to their passions and leads them to destroy others.  The chief vampire is named Adam.  He passes on the vampire curse to other humans the same way that Adam passed on original sin to the human race.  Silver is the only weapon that can destroy a vampire, because silver became cursed when Judas received thirty pieces of silver, or blood money, for betraying Jesus.  Lincoln’s strength and prowess as a vampire do not come from hatred but from truth and a thirst for justice.

When I first heard of this film, I rolled my eyes and placed it on my “films to skip” list.  A couple positive reviews from sources I trust convinced me to watch it, and I am glad.  While undeniably flawed, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has enough cheesiness and enthusiasm for its subject to be a diverting, mildly entertaining, summer sleeper in a “so bad it’s good” way.


Content Advisory: Much stylized gore and violence, a fleeting sexual scenario, and brief partial nudity.                  MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B-

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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon)

Year of Release: 2007     Directed by Julian Schnabel.  Starring Mathieu Amalric, Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Seigner, Niels Arestup, and Max von Sydow.

Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) flicks his eyes open and sees himself surrounded by hospital staff in a blurred room.  The doctors begin speaking to him and he answers them.  At least, he thinks he answers them.  Although Jean-Do can hear his responses as he formulates them, he has lost his ability to speak.  The doctors inform him he has woken up from a coma following a stroke and all of his body, except his eyes, is paralyzed.

The importance of Jean-Do’s eyes is stressed in the opening fifteen minute montage.  This entire sequence is shot from his perspective as he lies unable to move in the hospital bed.  The doctors move about him; he follow them with his eyes.  Due to an injury in one eye, the picture is appropriately blurred.  Once the bad eye is sown shut, the picture becomes clear whenever the camera adopts Jean-Do’s point of view in order to reflect his good eye.

Jean-Do’s good eye will be more important than he can imagine.  After a period of despair, he decides to make the most of his situation.  Using his one good eye, Jean-Do blinks in order to communicate.  At first his communication is simple: one blink for yes and two for no.  Soon one of his therapists devises a system in which he can dictate by blinking.  Using this system, he begins writing a book for a contract that he had with a publisher prior to the stroke.

Director Julian Schnabel makes incredible use of cinematography.  He alternates between Jean-Do’s point of view and an observant third person viewpoint.  Once Schnabel has firmly established Jean-Do’s perspective, he switches to a third person viewpoint so the viewer can observe Jean-Do and his visitors as they interact.  At this point Amalric does an incredible job of holding a single pose and portraying a vegetative state.  Through his one open eye, Amalric depicts concern and interest in his surroundings.  A particularly touching scene occurs at the beach with Jean-Do’s children as they embrace their father, care for him, and play hangman with him.  Another moving scene takes place towards the end of the film when Jean-Do begs for some time alone to listen to one person speak to him.

In addition to the aftermath of the stroke, the film also portrays Jean-Do’s imagined fantasies and flashbacks before the stroke.  To differentiate from the present, these scenes are always shot in third person.  One recurring fantasy is an underwater shot of a diver trapped in a diving bell, helpless and dependent on the wire for life.  Another fantasy occurs out in forests and open fields with young butterflies flying through the flowers after hatching from the confinement of their chrysalises.  It is fairly obvious that Jean-Do views the diver as himself and the butterflies as what he wants to become, springing out of his impaired body and flying away.

The flashbacks show the viewer the moments of his life that Jean-Do valued most.  Caring for his aging father, bonding with his son, and spending time with his mistress are the most frequent flashbacks.  There is one brief flashback to his career as a magazine editor, but this occurs when someone mentions his former job, and it does not return.  His connections with others were most important to him, and in his paralysis he values other people’s presence more than anything else.

From the very beginning of the film, there is a clear element against euthanasia.  In the opening scene Jean-Do is mentally active, aware of all his surroundings, and very much alive.  Even though he can neither move nor speak, he mentally responds to questions and is shocked when the doctors cannot hear him.  His inner monologues are voiced and he comments on everything that people say and do around him.  When Jean-Do becomes depressed about his situation and asks for death, his therapist lectures him on how lucky he is to be alive and to be able to communicate at all.

The score reflects Jean-Do’s mood and his struggles.  At first there is very little underscoring.  Only an occasional melancholy solo piano reflects Jean-Do’s isolation and despondency as he accepts the severity of his situation.  During the butterfly fantasy the music becomes more lively and begins to incorporate other instruments.  This continues as Jean-Do incorporates more people into his life at the hospital.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly provides a breathtaking and inspiring glimpse into a paralyzed man’s life, a window into a life just as meaningful and complete as any other life.

Content Advisory: Several fleeting but explicit scenes of nudity, sexual situations, and occasional crass language.                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Moonrise Kingdom

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by Wes Anderson.  Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Tilda Swinton.

The camera slowly pans across the upstairs of a colonial island home.  The three youngest Bishop siblings place an LP on a turntable, and a young boy begins to narrate the structure of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.  After the brief introduction, the grand and portentous chords of the Britten cut through the soundtrack.

Disinterested in the activity of her younger brothers is Suzy, (Kara Hayward) the moody oldest child of Walt and Laura Bishop. (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand)  Instead of socializing, she sits by herself reading or looks over the island with her binoculars.

On the other side of the island outcast Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has run away from his scout camp, resulting in a hunt from the other scouts and the island police.  A few hours later, Suzy is missing as well.

It is no surprise that the two twelve-year-olds join one another and begin their exploration of the island.  Shortly after Suzy’s disappearance, Laura discovers one year’s worth of notes exchanged between her and Sam detailing where they would meet to run away, but not where they were going.

Once Suzy and Sam rendezvous, the movie flashes back to one year earlier and shows their endearing and whimsical romance via pen pal letters.  This flashback formed the bulk of the trailer, but one important detail which foreshadows the climax of the film was thankfully not revealed in the trailer.  This detail is subtle enough that, while the viewer notices it, he will probably not remember it until it comes into play at the end of the film.  At that point, it is amazing how well Anderson structured the film.

There are several important plot elements , which foreshadow later events, that are all openly revealed in early scenes.  However, like the foreshadowing when Suzy and Sam meet during the flashback, there is enough subtlety that the viewer does not focus on these plot elements until they return towards the film’s climax.  There are two reasons for this.  One is the dexterity with which Anderson handles the plot; the other reason is the interest and concern for Suzy and Sam’s story as they try to escape the search party looking for them.

All the characters are believable, engaging, and empathetic.  Gilman and Hayward have more chemistry than any other pair of child actors in recent memory.  They actually have more chemistry than a good number of older actors as well.  Both of the twelve-year-old actors capture the naïveté, longing, and loneliness of their characters.  They make the childhood romance believable and touching.

In her two brief scenes, Tilda Swinton is stolid and commanding.  In one scene, she marches into a building with an icy demeanor and authority reminiscent of her performance  as the White Witch.  Yet, she is still believable as a human being devoted to doing her job properly.  She and Bruce Willis have a heated and humorous exchange over Sam’s future.  Murray and McDormand are amusing and touching as a couple who are deeply concerned about their daughter.  Edward Norton is humorous as the overly enthusiastic Khaki Scout leader, but he also deeply cares about the children entrusted to his care, and he has some very poignant scenes with the children.

The opening use of Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra is not the only Britten used in the score.  Early on in the film a church puts on a production of Noye’s Fludde.  There are several songs by Britten as well.  Alexandre Desplat composed a whimsical romance theme that complements the Britten very nicely.  Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra is a very appropriate choice for the film, which is used to open and close the film.

Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra is an instructional piece and it is a set of variations.  Both of these classifications apply to Moonrise Kingdom as well.  Suzy and Sam’s choices are strongly influenced by the flawed examples that they receive from the adults in their lives.  All the adults try their hardest to help the troubled children, but none of them know what Sam and Suzy need most.  The lives of the authority figures are in disarray, which makes it hard for them to be good role models.  Directly before she runs off with Sam, Suzy witnesses her mother meet with another man.  Sam has lived in state institutions under uncaring bureaucrats.

Suzy and Sam’s devotion to one another and the tenacity with which they pursue their romance may seem unbelievable.  On close examination, it makes perfect sense.  Sam is ostracized by his fellow scouts because he is different and socially insecure.  Suzy admits that she has no friends and is in constant trouble with her parents and teachers.  She wears a thick coat of eye shadow to appear more mature.  He goes on wilderness explorations by himself, living off the wild and supporting himself.

The film hints at the children’s strong resolution through the music.  When Suzy receives Sam’s letter detailing their plan to run away, the soundtrack plays the percussion variation from Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.  When Sam first enters in another humorous scene suggesting that he is trying to act beyond his years, the score is a percussive ballad.  The similarity between the underscoring for the young lovers suggests that what they need more than anything else is friendship and support.  Both of them provide this friendship and encouragement that no one else will give to them.  Suzy and Sam’s adventure to their own moonrise kingdom is wonderful to them, but their lives could be even more wonderful with more meaningful relationships.  While percussion alone can be an amazing sound, the full orchestra can be much more glorious.  After Britten goes through each section of the orchestra, he brings the entire ensemble back together for a splendid complex fugue to end Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.  Whether Sam, Suzy, and their families can achieve that triumphant conclusion is kept hidden until the very last moments of the film.

NB: Do not leave until after the credits.  There is a delightful scene during the credits that makes connections between art and life via an analysis of the score.

Content Advisory: Sexually suggestive content including references to arousal, underage drinking, discreet references to an affair, brief gore, fleeting profanity and crass language.                           MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Dark Shadows

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by Tim Burton.  Starring Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, Jackie Earle Haley, and Helena Bonham Carter.

Dark Shadows marks the eighth collaboration of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.  It is not their best work, but it is a far cry from their worst.  Depp plays Barnabas Collins, cursed by the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) whose advances he spurned.  She turned him into a vampire and vowed to destroy all future descendants of the Collins family.  When Barnabas returns one-hundred-ninety-six years later, his family is falling apart and the family business is nearly ruined.

This is natural material for Burton, and both he and Depp clearly enjoy themselves.  The art direction and set designs are impressive, colorful, and engaging without going over the top the way that Alice in Wonderland’s sets were an out of control smorgasbord of unique colors and shapes.  The gothic design of Collinwood is remarkable and strikes a good contrast and balance between the two time periods.  Burton’s recreation of the 1770’s and the 1970’s were amusing .  He gets solid performances out of a mostly familiar cast.  Michelle Pfeiffer is commanding as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarch of the family.  Helena Bonham Carter is eerie as the selfish Dr. Julia Hoffman.  At one point, I did wonder about having Carter and Pfeiffer switch roles, but I think it was best the way Burton cast it.  Chloë Grace Moretz is sullen and brooding as Carolyn, the secretive daughter of Elizabeth.  Bella Heathcote captures the innocence of Vicky, and Eva Green is seductive and conniving as the evil witch.

The film runs one-hundred-thirteen minutes, which is a little long.  The propulsion of the film is Burton’s eccentricity, solid cast performances, Depp’s occasional humor, and Elfman’s score.  Everything is good, but altogether it may not have enough meat to carry the film for much longer than one-hundred minutes.  It would be sort of like constructing a meal out of gourmet salads and ice cream.  It is enjoyable, but does leave one desiring a bit more.

While Dark Shadows is a film that I personally enjoyed and would certainly be willing to watch again, I would not disagree with anyone who disliked it.  The film is a marked improvement over Alice in Wonderland, which was mostly devoid of any of Burton’s trademark quirkiness.  Perhaps there is too much quirkiness in Dark Shadows creating an uneven pacing and disproportionate balance between comedy and horror.  That certainly could isolate most viewers, especially those less fond of Burton’s oeuvre, or those less familiar with it.  However, this Burton admirer found the film to be an enjoyable change of pace that hearkened back to some of Burton’s best works, such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

(Or maybe after immediately watching Black Swan, anything is an enjoyable change of pace.  But I doubt that is why I enjoyed Dark Shadows.)

Many critics have complained that Burton and Depp never find a balance between gothic horror and campy spoof.  Barnabas is certainly a fish out of water in the 1970’s, and the film reflects his odd and futile attempts to fit in with society.  I thought that those attempts were humorous rather than isolating, but again, I would understand if the jokes were not to someone else’s taste.  Danny Elfman composed a melancholy gothic theme for Barnabas and the 1770’s that strongly contrasts with the pop music selected for the later time period.  After the prologue, the film cuts forward two-hundred years away from the cursed Barnabas to Vicky who wishes to make a new start to her life.  The switch in the underscoring is appropriately an equal contrast.  The dichotomy between the two styles of music is similar to dichotomy between the gothic horror and the comic awkwardness.  Just as Elfman’s music helps them fit together, Burton and Depp manage to keep all the elements together in an enjoyable mix of horror and comedy, spanning two centuries.

The film is a must see for anyone who is a fan of Tim Burton.  Anyone else who is interested should probably wait until it comes out on DVD.

Content Advisory: Sexually suggestive scenes and dialogue, implied oral sex, fantasy violence – some of it gory, a suicide, and brief crass language.                       MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: B-

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