Archive for June, 2013

Signs

Year of Release: 2002     Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.               Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, and Cherry Jones.

Although routinely criticized of late, M. Night Shyamalan is not a bad director.  If Signs and The Sixth Sense are any indication, he knows how to direct a camera and set a scene.  His occasional weakness, which recently has become increasingly frequent, lies in his script writing, which often suffers from mediocrity.  I think he could revive his career by simply hiring a good script consultant.

The Sixth Sense was a brilliant and original ghost story with genuinely frightening moments and, more importantly, characters who created a strong sense of empathy, which increased the sense of danger.  Signs has a great concept, but beyond that, it does not have much going for it.

Grieving father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is living with his two children Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, respectively) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix).  Graham has given up his ministry in the priesthood and no longer believes in God or in prayer after his wife’s death from a driver who fell asleep at the wheel.  Since Gibson, a self-professed Catholic, is playing the role it is obvious that Graham is going to have his faith renewed by the end of the film.  All the other characters address Graham as “father,” hammering home the point as well.

One day Graham’s children discover bizarre crop circles cut in his cornfield.  Then one of Graham’s dogs mysteriously goes berserk and tries to kill Bo, but Morgan manages to kill the dog with a grill fork.  If that seems too easy a solution since Morgan is about ten and has asthma, it is a good foreshadowing of the overly easy solutions to the upcoming threats.  The crop circles and the aggressive animals  are appearing all over the globe, causing mass panic and people to speculate that aliens are invading the planet.  (Whether or not there actually are aliens is set up to be a suspenseful mystery.  I thought the answer was immediately blatant, but I will respect the spoiler.)

Signs was meant to be a horror film which frightened the viewer through uncertainty and suspense.  The lack of knowledge regarding a possible alien attack was supposed to create an aura of dread.  Unfortunately, the film is too heavy-handed and predictable to have any sense of fear or suspense.  Signs made such a big deal about characters’ obsessions and past talents, it was obvious those elements were going to play into the film’s finale in an important way.  Perhaps I have seen too many films of this genre, but roughly twenty-five minutes into the film, I was able to predict the entire conclusion.

Not everything in the film is mediocre.   The children played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are very endearing, and both young actors give great performances, forming one of the best onscreen brother-sister relationships.  Joaquin Phoenix is very good as their concerned uncle, and even Mel Gibson shows an impressive range of emotion as their bereaved father, even if his presence adds to the predictability of the film.

Another problem with Signs is its script.  It has several intriguing moments, but too much of it is just bad.  There are several scenes of unintentional hilarity, which were meant to be frightening, such as Morgan’s attempt to save his family from what he believes is an impending alien attack.  His contraption is ludicrous and undermines the intended horror of the scene.  At a point when the family does believe it is being attacked by hostile aliens, they stand next to each other in the hall with dazed expressions instead of preparing to defend themselves.  Beforehand, they ate whatever foods they wanted for dinner, because they were going to celebrate before the end, but this scene also becomes absurd as the examples become increasingly extreme.

The theme of the movie, everything happens for a reason and God is watching out for us, is admirable, but the presentation is so heavy-handed, that in comparison, explicitly Christian films such as Fireproof seem subtle and nuanced.  Every event that features into the finale is beaten to death so that no one can miss the point.  Gibson’s character even explains the significance of the suffering to the audience to make doubly sure that everyone sees the connection.  Every single misfortune is given a positive reason that aids the characters in the long run.  There is nothing wrong with this, and it is great for a movie to address suffering in this way, but the examples are too over the top.

A horror film that explores existential questions of suffering is a terrific idea for a film.  Horror is one of the best genres to raise and answer unsettling questions that plague mankind.  Unfortunately, Signs lacks any genuine sense of horror, and the examples are extreme enough to undermine the worthwhile message.  The film is not a complete waste of time; the performances are quite good and Shyamalan directs the scenes well.  I stand by my initial observation: he needs a good script consultant.

Content Advisory: Some scenes of peril and mildly frightening imagery, three brief comical instances crass language.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: C+

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Much Ado About Nothing

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Joss Whedon.            Starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Jillian Morgese, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, Reed Diamond, Riki Lindhome, Spencer Treat Clark, and Nathan Fillion.

The greatest risk in reviewing a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is comparing it to the 1993 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh.  There are enough characters and distinctive scenes that I could easily take a full review comparing and contrasting each one.  However, that would tell you little about either movie, but only that I love Shakespeare’s play.

In the ways of comparison, I will say this: the main thing that stops me from preferring Whedon’s adaptation over Branagh’s is Beatrice and Benedick.  Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh own the roles of the sparring lovers.  Amy Acker is nearly on par with Thompson, but Alexis Denisof, while good, is not even remotely in the same league as Branagh.  In other points of comparison sometimes Whedon’s film is superior, sometimes Branagh’s.  Overall, it averages to about a tie.

Whedon shot Much Ado About Nothing in twelve days at his home during a break from filming The Avengers, which alone is an impressive feat.  The cast is comprised of his friends and people who have worked with him on his past television shows.  Whedon wrote the music himself and had the songs performed by his brother, Jed.  This level of intimacy adds a very effective touch to the entire production.  All the actors are very comfortable with their roles and with Shakespeare’s dialogue, and they are a pleasure to watch.  The songs from the play are set to a syncopated, pop vibe which reflects the modernized setting, but it is still relaxed, suggesting the frivolous nature of the play.

Amy Acker leads the cast as Beatrice, the feisty niece of Leonato (Clark Gregg) and cousin of Hero (Jillian Morgese).  Acker masters all of her lines, capturing the wit, sarcasm, and bantering nature of Beatrice.  She is insecure when she needs to be, and brazen when she challenges other characters.  Acker plays very well off all the other actors, adding both to the comedy and the pathos in the story.

As Benedick, Alexis Denisof is good.  He delivers his lines naturally and clearly enjoys himself.  However, he does not have the feistiness that Acker has as Beatrice, and their sparring is somewhat one sided.  Whedon also added a goofiness to the portrayal of Benedick that seems out of place.  Since Benedick needs to be an equal sharp-witted arguer with Beatrice, making him the clown of the story is misdirecting the source of his humor.  Admittedly, he does have a couple scenes in which he should behave comically, but they are overdone.

Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz are excellent as the naive lovers Hero and Claudio.  (Yes, they are both a step up from Beckinsale and Leonard in Branagh’s film.)  Kranz in particular captures the impetuousness and gullibility of the foolish Claudio, perfectly capturing the character that Shakespeare wrote.  Morgese is appropriately doting as Hero, but she also shows tremendous range in her acting.  She is convincingly playful as she baits Beatrice with her maid.  Hero’s heartbreak, too often glossed over, is very poignant and tragic due to Morgese’s skilled performance.

Sean Maher is phenomenal as the brooding, manipulative, and sinister Don John the Bastard.  (A million times better than Keanu-emotionless-monotone Reeves, and I promise I won’t make any more comparisons to the 1993 film.)  When he says his brother’s joy makes him sick, his disdain for others as a tortured, hate filled individual comes across clearly.

The decision to change Conrade’s character, one of Don John’s two assistants, to woman played by Riki Lindhome works well.  It gives Don John an extramarital love story, which removes his character even further from the marital joy that the others wish to celebrate.

Nathan Fillion commands every scene he is in as the bumbling constable Dogberry.  He plays the character in a droll deadpan, suggesting a character completely oblivious to his own foolishness and ignorance.  His Dogberry clearly has no clue what is funny about a line such as “Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption!”  Fillion’s interpretation is very different from Michael Keaton’s aggressive slapstick.  (Okay, that really is the last comparison to Branagh’s film.)  Even if Keaton is slightly over the top, both interpretations work well.  However, when Conrade insults Dogberry with the line, “You are an ass,” there is much less provocation here for that insult, which makes Don John’s companion seem more villainous.  The interpretation that one prefers is really a matter of personal comic taste.

The only thing that slightly misfires is the movie’s attempt to give Beatrice and Benedick a back story.  From the play, it is clear that they had past disagreements, but the opening scene, along with a later flashback, suggests that past one night stands have left them bitter with one another, and Beatrice views Benedick as a callous womanizer.  If that had been the source of their quarrel, the attempted setup for them would almost certainly have failed.

The two scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into believing the other loves them are hilarious.  Whedon nails the comedy both physically and in highlighting the humor in Shakespeare’s dialogue.  Both Acker and Denisof respond with absurd shock and slapstick, clearly showing why they are a perfect match for one another, which had previously failed to come through in their bantering.

The last thing that warrants mention is that the film is shot in black and white, which helps create the lighthearted, romantic atmosphere necessary to the story.  This camera work, along with Whedon’s skilled directing and the talented performances from the entire cast, easily overcomes the few minor misinterpretations that very slightly mar an otherwise excellent adaptation of my favorite comedy by the Bard.

 

Content Advisory: A few implied sexual encounters, some suggestive dialogue.                                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Night and Fog

Year of Release: 1955     Directed by Alain Resnais.            Narrated by Michel Bouquet.

The following statement is in no way meant to be a slight towards Schindler’s List.  I think Spielberg’s epic film is a masterpiece that deserves the acclaim it receives.  But Night and Fog, a short French documentary made ten years after the Nazi concentration camps were shut down, achieves the same level of pathos and horror in its mere thirty-minute runtime that Schindler’s List achieves in just over three hours.  Again, I am not belittling Schindler’s List; I am trying to emphasize the incredible power of Night and Fog.

The film is comprised of a trip to the remains of the concentration camps in 1955, shortly after they first opened for public viewing.  Intercut with the present day color shots of the camp are black and white photos of actual inmates as well as some archived footage of the atrocities.  As the viewer sees what the camps looked like during the time of the filming, the film cuts to photos of the same location when the camps were in use.

Adding to the power of Night and Fog, the film does not focus on any specific concentration camp, but uses footage from several and mentions the most infamous ones by name.  The narrator draws the viewer’s attention to the barrenness of the current landscape: the patchy fields of grass, crumbling buildings that look like the ruins of a once flourishing city.  The film then shows the “cities” at the peak of their functions.

The entire film follows this pattern of shifting between present day and the past with efficacy.  As the camera slowly pans along the weed-covered train tracks leading to the camp, the film shifts to footage of a train arriving at a concentration camp, full of prisoners unaware of the upcoming horrors.  A shot of the cramped, wooden sleeping barracks, which would be uncomfortable for one person, is followed by pictures of three or more prisoners crowded onto one cot.  The narration draws the viewer’s attention to the significance of the crumbling and damaged remains before cutting to the tragic photos and recorded films.

All the images, both past and present, are connected by a haunting score by Hanns Eisler.  The music is driven by an uneven percussive beat and often is interrupted before cadences, suggesting the terrible nature of the camps.  With its shifting modes and highly textural form, Eisler’s score bears resemblance to Messiaen and Stravinsky, two composers who were affected by the horrors of World War II.

Night and Fog highlights the ignorance and blind following of orders that allowed the atrocities of the concentration camps to occur.  The places were built simply as one more workplace and living quarters.  Even some of the victims contributed to their construction.  When people walk among the ruins now, they often pose for postcard pictures, not realizing what happened behind those walls.  Night and Fog shines a light through that darkness.  It is one of those rare films that remains as unforgettable as the tragic events it depicts.

 

Content Advisory: Many gruesome and nude photos of concentration camp victims, explicit references to methods of torture.                                Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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The Shining

Year of Release: 1980     Directed Stanley Kubrick.  Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers.

The opening of The Shining perfectly sets the mood for the film.  The camera pans over the Rocky Mountains at a tilted angle, suggesting the sinister, supernatural nature that the following story will entail.  To further add to the sense of dread, the Gregorian Chant Dies Irae, as realized by Berlioz in the fifth movement of his Symphonie Fantastique, underscores the imagery.

During this sequence, a brightly colored small sedan cuts across the screen, standing out against the somber backdrop of the Rockies.  The driver has no reason to sense any danger and is eager to arrive at his destination: the Overlook Hotel, where he, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), hopes to take over the duties of caretaker for the winter when the Hotel is closed.  Once there at his job interview, Jack is given a reason to have second thoughts.  The extreme isolation of the hotel during winter, when the mountain road is closed by snow, once drove a prior caretaker to murder his family with an axe.  This does not phase Jack, because he is looking forward to the isolation in order to finish his novel, so there is no worry that he will go insane.

If one does not already know via cultural osmosis, Nicholson’s mannerisms and the opening music clearly indicate that Jack will go insane.  The Dies Irae not only gives the opening of the film a sense of fear, but it also suggests a looming day of reckoning for one’s sins.  In Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the chant is used as the basis of the symphony’s final movement: an artist’s opium induced “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”  Novelist Jack Torrance views himself as a creative, artistic individual, and over the course of the film he will regress to his own demonic endeavors.

Jack’s greatest problem is that he places his individualism above all else.  He yells at his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) when she interrupts his writing by offering him a sandwich.  He spends nearly no time with his son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and is the outraged when Danny does not trust him and finds his moodiness upsetting.  The one time that Jack does reach out to another character is when he embraces a naked woman in an erotic fantasy, whose existence he denies to the detriment of his son’s well being.

Wendy is trying her best to cope with Danny’s seizures and frequent dialogues with his imaginary friend Tony.  However, her coping usually entails allowing Danny to do what he likes until a crisis occurs.  Due to her ignorance of Danny’s problems, she does not attempt to protect him until it is almost too late.  As if to underscore her unawareness, in an early scene after one of Danny’s seizures, she offers the pediatrician a cigarette as she takes one out for herself.

Since Danny is mostly left alone, he spends the days talking to Tony, who lives in his mouth and tells him things, things that he can repeat to no one.  He also races around the hotel corridors on his tricycle, where he encounters the two murdered daughters of the prior caretaker, who invite him to come play with them, “forever, and ever, and ever.”  Since this is the most direct form of interaction Danny has, he draws even further into himself, eschewing all human company until his fear sends into a sort of trance.  At this point, since Danny’s communication skills are so poor, he reverts to only speaking through Tony, but Tony’s cryptic mutterings are no help or consolation to the very concerned Wendy.

The title of the film refers to a special means of communication.  Danny has a unique gift that enables him to correspond with others without speaking or even seeing the person with whom he is communicating.  However, Tony forbids him from telling his parents about his gift.  The one adult who understands Danny, the hotel’s cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), also shares this gift.  As Hallorann explains when he meets Danny, the two of them “shine.”  This shine penetrates the demonic forces of the hotel.  It allows Danny to see what happened in the past, and know what danger the inevitable future holds.  He cannot communicate that danger, because of his isolation from his parents, but the shining does offer him the only chance of salvation from the evil in the Overlook Hotel.

Stephen King initially complained that The Shining betrayed one of the central ideas of his novel, the disintegration of the family.  King also said he wanted Jack portrayed by a likeable everyman, who is driven insane by the sinister forces within the hotel.  I think the first complaint is groundless; the film is clearly about the disintegration of family and its consequent horror.  Jack puts himself and his work before everything else, and the horror stems from those decisions.  Even Wendy unwittingly allows Danny to keep to himself and shun human interactions; when she fulfills her duties as a mother, she gives herself and Danny a chance for survival.

King’s second complaint may have some weight to it, but I also disagree.  Had Jack been a praiseworthy husband and father, he would never have desired extreme isolation from all society, including his wife and son, which leads to him losing his mind.  Kubrick’s shift of the source of the horror from the hotel to Jack himself emphasizes King’s theme much better than King realized by portraying the consequences of Jack’s choices and not making him a victim of an outside force.

Kubrick emphasizes the themes of isolation and ignoring one’s family through his meticulous camera use.   During conversations, different camera angles place each character on a different visual plane, giving the sense that they are each in their own world and are not connected or fully listening to one another.  The low steadicam tracking shots follow Danny around the hotel on his tricycle, focusing only on him.  When other characters walk around the hotel, the camera slowly follows them at an unusually long distance, placing them alone far away from the viewer.

The selection of music also adds to the eerie, suspenseful tone of the film.  Kubrick picked very atmospheric pieces by Penderecki, Ligeti, and Bartok.  He even edited scenes so significant actions and movements would correspond with noticeable accents in the music.  Scenes play out longer than they otherwise would have in order to allow the music to shape the mood.

Kubrick opted to make the characters in The Shining victims of their own selfish choices.  While he does suggest there is a permanent force of evil afoot at the Overlook Hotel, he clearly shows the consequences of that evil only occur when characters freely choose to embrace it.  No character escapes the consequences of their sins, and the most grievous sins, those that destroy the family, are punished most severely.  Through his usual skilled direction, Kubrick crafted a film that frightens not only through suspense, but also through its unflinching application of the effects of sin.

 

Content Advisory: Semi-explicit full frontal nudity, brief shot of pornographic photos, several scenes of disturbing violence and gore, family discord, occasional profanity and obscenity.                      MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with much discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Man of Steel

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Zack Snyder.       Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe.

I will come right out and say it: I was bored out of my mind watching Man of Steel.  The entire film was basically one explosion followed by a bigger explosion with no character development or any genuine sense of conflict in which the outcomes were at stake.  As a result, I could not have cared less about any of the characters or countless battles.

The movie starts well enough.  There are impressive visual effects as Krypton is attacked by the rebellious General Zod (Michael Shannon), and it is fairly exciting to watch as Jor-El (Russell Crowe) hurries to save his newborn son by sending him to earth.  There is a sense of uncertainty and real conflict in the dialogues between Jor-El and Zod.  In the brief opening moments, Crowe receives enough screen time to bring a sense of empathy to his character, which makes his death tragic and poignant.  Unfortunately that urgency and emotion never returns to the movie after the opening scene.

The movie then jumps to Earth where the adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) drifts aimlessly with a scruffy beard and no sense of purpose, very much like Bruce Wayne in producer Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.  Clark occasionally rescues people displaying his Superman abilities, but then quickly disappears to guard his secret powers.  After a while he decides to search for his true purpose and identity, and he receives training from his father in an isolated arctic environment (also like Batman Begins).

Clark’s years as a child are filled in via flashbacks.  There are scenes of him learning to focus and overcome his sensory overload, working in a diner, and saving a school bus that blew a tire and fell into the river.  The last incident led to him being lectured by his adoptive father (Kevin Costner) that he must keep his powers secret so the world would not hate him.  This belief culminates in a totally unbelievable scene in which Clark decides not to use his powers.  The other flashbacks, which could have been touching and created empathy for the characters, are cut short by Clark misusing his powers, once as a petty act of revenge.  There could have been an intriguing learning curve for Clark as he grows into the icon of Superman, but the scenes of him being a jerk are just played for laughs and then forgotten as the film wears on.

A major difference between Man of Steel and Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, or The Avengers, or the Iron Man Trilogy, or (name nearly any superhero film) is that all those other films have characters the audience cares about.  Henry Cavill is a fairly flat Superman, but David Goyer’s script is just as much to blame.  Amy Adams spends too much time being a know-it-all to feel like her Lois Lane is ever in jeopardy.  Even the talented Michael Shannon is hardly menacing as General Zod.  The only character who brought any interest to the movie was Russell Crowe as Jor-El, effective both in his action scenes and in his role as a mentor.

Those other superhero films also all have storylines in which the outcome is at risk.  Or if the outcome is predictable, at least there is a sense of fun at watching the heroes go through their routines.  Man of Steel has neither uncertainty nor fun.  The film takes itself every bit as seriously as Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy without a villain that remotely challenges the hero, like The Joker and Ra’s al Ghul challenge Batman.  For all its plot-holes and absurd twists, Iron Man 3 clearly enjoyed itself, and even the villain in that film felt closer to succeeding than General Zod ever is.

Admittedly in a Superman movie, the audience knows that ultimately Superman will triumph over the villains, but there should be the possibility of the villains succeeding.  General Zod’s ultimate quest to kill Superman is clearly impossible, especially in the reboot of a major franchise.  The filmmakers should have shifted his quest to focus on retrieving his desired object, not killing Superman.  Even if the audience knows Superman will ultimately save the world, there could have been a period of real uncertainty had it seemed like Zod was capable of acquiring the object he needed.

Even the action scenes have no risk or urgency to them.  Superman and the Kryptonians simply take turns pummeling and throwing each other through more and more buildings.  By the end of the film, if Zod’s goal had been to eradicate mankind, he should have come close to succeeding, but it appears no one died (or at least no one important) despite the catastrophic damage that would rival that of an atomic bomb.  There were even three giant explosions that cause the screen to white out.  Normally one of those is the apex of the action, and the film then wraps up, instead it drags on to another bigger battle.

The conclusion was another problem.  Once Zod’s threat had been eradicated, the filmmakers still crammed one more fight scene into the film, even though it was obvious that Superman had won at that point.  This final fight served no purpose to the plot other than to drag the film out and suck out the little energy it had left.

How apathetic was I toward Man of Steel?  How is this for a litmus test: Superman’s final action may or may not have been unethical and a complete betrayal of the character.  By that point I was too bored to even care, and was just grateful the film was finally ending.

Content Advisory: Incessant explosions and bloodless action violence; some crass and mildly suggestive language.                          MPAA rating: PG-13

Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: D+

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