Tue, Jan 31, 2012

: Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

While I really liked the first film, this one isn’t nearly as good, though it gets better as it goes along.

The story is mostly about how the main character’s big brother is making his life hell and their constant bickering is grating and annoying and depressing to watch. Later, when they learn to live together, it’s better, but it feels like there needs to be more to the story. The plot elements are also too standard, with the kids throwing a party and trying not to get caught, and a talent show segment.

There are some funny moments, but a lot of what the big brother does is just too mean. Of course, I write this as someone who never had a brother growing up and it’s very possible I just don’t understand that sort of relationship, but I just can’t imagine being even remotely civil with someone who treated me that way.

Still, the movie is pleasant enough, definitely family-friendly, and it ends well, but it’s definitely a shadow of the first which seems even more classic in retrospect.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jan 30, 2012

: The Grey

What a breathtakingly fantastic film!

I knew very little about this going in (I had not even watched a trailer) — all I knew was that it was a survival tale in Alaska, which didn’t sound that interesting as we’ve seen that sort of thing many times before.

I was a little confused at first, because it starts off awkwardly with flashbacks and such, and I thought that was a severe flaw in the film. But trust me — later on it makes total sense and there are important (and brilliant) reasons why it was done that way. Once the movie gets going and the plane crashes, it’s non-stop drama, terrifically done.

The story is elegantly simple: a group of oil workers on are on a flight to Anchorage when their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness in the middle of winter. Only a handful survive and as they struggle to cope with their situation, wolves show up and begin to pick off the men one by one.

This kind of story borrows a ton from Jack London’s stories — you really feel the desperation of the men and the wolves, and the pure fear and adrenaline rush when you see a black night and a pair of glowing eyes appear and then slowly, more and more and more and you realize there’s an entire pack of ravenous wolves just outside the light of your fire.

This is very realistically done, with a lot of variety in how the men die (it’s not just the same thing over and over). While there were a few places — common in films like this — where I wondered why the men didn’t do X or Y, for the most part the men do act rationally and do the right things to survive. (My primary question was: shouldn’t there have been an air marshall on the flight with a gun they could use?)

The film strikes a perfect balance between introspection and humor. My favorite example of this was where one man tells a tender-hearted story about his daughter and another craps on the story with a crude telling of an encounter with a fat prostitute and the first whines, “Here I was telling this heart-warming story about my daughter and you go and ruin it!” Just brilliant.

Toward the end the film tackles question of God — apropos considering the situation of the men — and I liked the way it was handled with no easy answers.

The performances all around are superb, but I must mention something I rarely discuss: sound design. Whoever did the sound on this film deserves an Oscar, because it is fantastic. Most of the time you really don’t see the wolves — they are just shadows lurking in the trees and you aren’t sure if they are even really there. But you hear them. The variety of sounds is fantastic: crackling of snow and ice, tree branches, growls, grunts, whines, classic howls, snarls, and countless other sounds that will send chills down your spine. Just amazing and a key reason this film will make your palms sweat.

Finally, a spoiler here — don’t read any further if you don’t want an idea of how this film ends. But I cannot discuss this film without comparing it to a film I absolute hated with a passion, The Perfect Storm. That film is a similar tragedy but it was pure depression. There was no point to it. There was no hope, nothing positive, nothing good. This film, while sad, leaves you invigorated. There’s a great line in the film where the main character talks about a life so pure that after living one minute you’re just desperate to live the next minute equally well. That describes the feeling of this film in a nutshell, for I didn’t leave the theatre sad, but wondering how I can live my life to the fullest. That is great filmmaking.

Topic: [/movie]


: Red Riding Hood

The trailers of this had me intrigued for the visual style looked impressive. But the reviews where terrible and it was gone from the theatres before I got a chance to see it. It’s pretty bad.

It’s not the worst and there are some good things. The ending is actually decent. Unlike many films which start off well and end weakly, this one is slow and meandering throughout and then has a nice twist at the end.

The concept is great: a wolf is terrorizing the village of Red Riding Hood but it’s not just any wolf — it’s a werewolf, and one of the villagers is the killer. The girl starts to wonder if it’s her boyfriend, or perhaps the man her parents have pledged her to marry.

Unfortunately, this “mystery” isn’t all that mysterious, and the love story is terribly unconvincing. (We’re given no background of the characters, just told they love each other, and we really don’t care.) The psychological “is he or isn’t he” aspect of the story, which should be fascinating, is so ineptly handled and so many suspects are presented that it’s just confusing (basically everyone is a suspect). Everything is tedious and boring, and the moments of drama are overdone.

That said, I did like the ending which actually made sense (that shocked me) and brought all the weird happenings together. But it was way too little too late. Also, the stylish visuals I liked from the trailer only happen in one or two places in the film; the rest of the time the film is surprisingly ordinary. Skip it.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 28, 2012

: Bad Teacher

I wasn’t very interested in this when it came out, but caught it on a free HBO preview and was surprised by how much I liked it. The impression I’d had was that it was just dumb, full of rude potty jokes with a “bad” teacher who was an idiot. But she’s not stupid: she’s just scheming and lazy and self-centered. She was actually quite intelligent, going to some impressive extremes to get her way.

Basically she’s a pretty girl looking for a rich man to snag. The teaching job is just temporary so she doesn’t take it seriously. When her fiancé realizes she’s just there for his money and dumps her, suddenly her job is all she has. She ends up with a quirky rival who’s trying to out her as a bad teacher, while she’s trying to cheat and skate by showing her students movies every day and sleeping and doing drugs and booze.

She’s really a horrible person who’s only nice when she needs something from another, yet as the film goes on she slowly changes into a better person. I was impressed by how this character change was handled. It’s not an easy to think to pull off realistically, and when the key to the movie’s humor is her badness, you can’t have her be an angel or change overnight.

Usually dark comedies like this are uneven (think bad santa), but this one was consistent and worked pretty well. It’s a little slow on occasion and some of the humor misses (some of the supporting characters are too weird and don’t completely work), but the movie’s far better than I expected. Yeah, it’s definitely raunchy and crude, sometimes unnecessarily, but there is humor in the concept, and I liked that not all of the comedy comes from a teacher using the f-word or smoking pot. It’s actually a surprisingly smart film with a clever plot and a satisfying ending.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Jan 27, 2012

: Man on a Ledge

This is an odd movie to describe, since a key aspect to it is that you’re not supposed to know what else is happening beyond just a man threatening to jump off a building. The jump threat is just a distraction for the real story and that is actually the bulk of the film — but of course that can’t be talked about in reviews or the trailer leaving us with a movie we can’t discuss.

In a way this is two movies: in one the jumper and negotiator chat, while in another, a complex plan is being put to work. The awkward thing is that the story I can’t talk about without spoiling the film is the better of the two. I had thought the jumper/negotiator psychology would be fascinating, but unfortunately it’s so clear early on that it’s just a pretense, even by the people involved, that there’s not much going on at all. I found their scenes boring and pointless, and the negotiator does so little and leaves the man on a ledge alone for long periods of time that I wondered why she was even there. (The movie would have been better served to keep us in the dark longer, to show us the secondardy storyline but not reveal how the two were connected until later, thus investing more drama in the potential suicide. As it was, the suicide was treated as a joke.)

The ending is even more preposterous, with several different coincidences helping out our heroes and a couple of fake “the plan’s all ruined” moments that are somehow all work out in the end. I could have done without a lot of that and would have preferred a simpler, more linear ending. All that complexity just opens up major plot holes that take away from the realism. I also wasn’t impressed with the way all the people who’d been opposing our hero instantly change their tune at the end without even a murmur.

But all that said, I still liked this movie. It was fun and the dual story-line kept things moving. That secondary story was interesting and well-done (fairly realistic) and I found those other characters engaging (especially the spicy girlfriend who did not allow her character to just be eye candy). The performances are good and the direction and editing did well to make things exciting. It’s not a great movie, but it is enjoyable and there is tension and a little mystery. Worth a look if you’re curious and don’t expect too much.

Topic: [/movie]


: Miss Nobody

Fun little underated black comedy with the lovely Leslie Bibb somehow convincing as a wallflower secretary who discovers her way up the corporate ladder is by murdering her bosses and competitors. It’s delightfully done with her so innocent and naive and dumb luck helping her from getting caught as she learns to scheme. Not for all tastes and a touch predictable and inconsistent (as such movies tend to be), but I’m a sucker for this sort of humor and enjoyed this one a lot.

Topic: [/movie]


Thu, Jan 26, 2012

: Chloe

Director: Atom Egoyan

Strange film. It’s the type of film I want to like and it’s got a film noir vibe I did like, but it loses momentum throughout and the conclusion is terrible, abrupt and pointless and unsatisfying and feels like a Creative Writing 101 student cop out.

The basic concept is neat: an older wife becomes suspicious of her teacher husband and assumes he’s having affairs with his students. She hires a prostitute to test him, and to her horror, the woman tells her in explicit detail all the things her husband does with her. They keep meeting, the wife strangely fascinated, and soon those two are having an affair. There’s a little twist you see coming from page 1 of the script and when it does come, it’s barely dealt with, though it’s very important to the story. After that, things really go downhill and nothing makes much sense. It’s unfortunate, because there were some interesting moments and it’s an impressive cast.

In the end, it’s an interesting thriller, but one with more potential than success. It builds a lot of anticipation but doesn’t deliver. It’s not terrible and I did like much of it, but it’s a shame that the script wasn’t better. It’s apparently based on a French film, Natalie, which I think must be better and I’ll have to see some day.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Jan 25, 2012

: Freakonomics

Interesting documentary based on the popular book (which I have not read). I think I might have to check out the book. I didn’t know what it was about at all, but it’s basically using numbers and economic research to prove how the things we think we know we don’t. Some of the topics include a study on paying ninth graders for better grades, research on if your ordinary or unusual name has any effect on success in life, how seemingly moral sumo wrestlers cheat, why crime is down, and much more.

It’s a surprisingly entertaining and well-paced film, though I found the variety of animation and film-making styles to be a little jarring. Having different directors and animators do different parts is interesting, but is less coherent and some parts I didn’t like as well as others (i.e. the sumo wrestling bit was about four times as long as it needed to be for its point). Other segments — like the bribing of ninth graders — didn’t really seem to have a conclusion.

Ultimately it’s a little light on facts and heavy on frivolous entertainment and graphics, but it still very enjoyable and serves as a good introduction to the book.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jan 23, 2012

: Underworld: Awakening

A surprisingly good return to the Underworld universe, this time set after humans have discovered the existence of vampires and lycan and have purged them into near extinction. The film’s never-really-explained-or-used McGuffin is a hybrid child sought for by the authorities and lycan, which our heroine (the eternally lovely Kate Beckinsale) tries to protect. The plot is really just an excuse for lots of acrobatic stunts, cheesy CGI effects, and very bloody killing (in 3D the blood splatters come right at you in a make-you-duck and look-at-your-shirt-for-stains kind of manner). Not much brainpower at work here, but who cares — it’s all in fun. I had a great time (though I prefer the more down-to-earth fighting style of Haywire).

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 21, 2012

: Haywire

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Interesting high-octane actioner with the standout being newcomer Gina Carano who’s apparently a real MMA fighter in her first movie role. She’s not only gorgeous, but does her own fight scenes in a way that is utterly believable. That’s an important aspect, because the plot involves her as a sort of contract spy being blackballed by her own organization and framed for murder. She’s on the lam and must outrun all the bad guys and cops searching for her.

Unfortunately, that plot, while it sounds terrific on paper, comes across as muddled and confusing in the film. The first part of the movie involves a lot of flashbacks and you really have no idea what’s going on for the first half hour or so. Once she’s on the run things pick up and get much better, but the unraveling of the “mystery” at the end is worse than anticlimactic: the earlier parts are so dramatic and mysterious that we’re really expecting an awesome twist and there’s nothing unexpected at all. (We already know who the bad guys is, we just don’t know why, and the reasoning, while perfectly plausible and fine, just isn’t interesting or worth all the conspiracy drama.)

But despite the weak plot, this is still an above average action film and well-worth seeing. If nothing else, it’s wonderful to see Gina who is a real star and impressive even in her non-action scenes. The direction is also terrific. I loved how several long scenes with seemingly nothing happening — just the girl walking along a city street, for instance — were shot with few to no cuts, which subtly increase our agitation and expectations that something bad is about to happen. Another thing I liked was that while this girl is obviously a bad-ass, everything is very realistically done: she’s not superhuman and takes hits as well as gives them and the whole story feels plausible.

Definitely a blast to watch. I could watch it again and enjoy it even more, I think. Just ignore the meaningless plot and watch it for the fun stunts and action.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Jan 17, 2012

: The Oxford Murders

Fascinating premise as an American student goes to Oxford in the hopes of meeting his idol, a famous professor who lectures on how nothing — except for mathematics — can actually be proven. When the two stumble upon a murder, they follow the leads and debate philosophy and math, as the killer seems to be sending them clues that form a mathematical pattern.

I really liked a lot of this, but unfortunately the twist ending — simply by its nature — undoes a lot of the work of the film. It’s really sort of a clever ending, but it’s cumbersome and not satisfying (similar to the conclusion of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, it is realistic but disappointing). There are also a lot of dry points throughout the film, and the murders and clues are not very entertaining (again, a consequence of the chosen plot).

Still, the performances are good (Elijah Wood and John Hurt) and several great moments are worth the price of admission alone. Good if you like your murder mystery mixed with math and philosophical debate.

Topic: [/movie]


Mon, Jan 16, 2012

: Tucker and Dale Versus Evil

Hilarious horror movie spoof as the two titular idiots are mistaken as hillbilly serial killers by a bunch of moron college students vacationing in the woods. The movie works this brilliantly, having a series of coincidences and bad timing contributing to the idea that the two are murderers, with several of students accidentally dying and the others thinking they were killed. The students go out for revenge and things really get crazy.

Totally awesome, with a pretty good serial killer plot to boot. Fun on multiple levels, a lot like the original Scream, which broke new ground in simultaneously being a parody and a horror film. A blast from start to finish.

Topic: [/movie]


Sun, Jan 15, 2012

: In Her Skin

I wasn’t too interested in this as it sounded eerily similar to The Lovely Bones as it’s about a vanished girl who’s already been murdered as her parents struggle to find out what happened to her. I thought I would just watch a few minutes of it to get a feel of it, but I ended up watching the whole thing.

There’s something compelling about this Australian film. It’s based on a true story and it seems more cold-blooded and grim than fiction. The murder is the most vile I have ever seen — and that includes horror and serial killer films. It’s just so bizarre and pointless and subtly weird.

The victim is a sweet, naive 15-year-old dancer. She’s killed by her former babysitter, a 19-year-old girl who thinks she is fat and ugly and is envious of the young dancer’s beauty. She really is crazy and her performance is what makes the film work. The scene where she looks in the mirror after the murder and is horrified to see it’s still her own face staring back at her is chilling. The murder itself is hard to watch: she strangles the unsuspecting and trusting girl and it takes considerable time. It’s really heartless.

I liked that the babysitter isn’t portrayed as sympathetic. She’s somewhat sympathetic, but it’s clear she’s a monster. It’s a performance full of grays and is quite mesmerizing.

Another aspect of the film I liked was the way the police treated the frantic family with such indifference. Because there was no evidence of assault, they assumed the girl simply ran away and wouldn’t do anything. It wasn’t until weeks later, after desperate efforts from the parents brought forth a witness who had seen something, that the cops finally took the matter seriously. For me that was the worst torture of all for the poor parents, who couldn’t even get anyone to believe that their daughter had been abducted and possibly harmed. It’s bad enough to have a child disappear; worse is having no one care!

All that said, the film is not without flaws. The structure of the film is a little like The Lovely Bones with the dead girl narrating and us watching the events from different points of views, but at times this switching feels heavy-handed and awkward.

There were also several scenes where the emotions of the actors felt odd. It isn’t that they were wrong — they could have been correct — but there was something about the way they were presented that made them feel wrong. A classic example is when the parents finally learn that their daughter is dead. They show no reaction at all and seem calm and strangely detached. It is only later than we get the heart-breaking sobs and wild emotion we expected. That probably is an accurate portrayal of emotion. I’ve often thought that the reactions of relatives on crime shows is poorly done as they seem to immediately go into grief when a more accurate reaction would be shock and disbelief. But the problem with this scene of the parents is that even if it is true, it feels false, and we the audience feel puzzled and baffled and distracted instead of emotional. We needed at least some indication that the family felt something: a single tear, a split-second of distressful horror, something. We got that emotional reaction a moment later and it was good, but it was late.

(Another scene that does this is when the father of the babysitter finds her unconscious on the floor. He shows no emotion or concern, calmly telling the police that she has epileptic fits and this is the way she ends up. The scene felt incredibly odd.)

Still, despite a few strange decisions and errors, the film overall holds up and is surprisingly good. Not pleasant, but definitely interesting and emotional.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Jan 14, 2012

: Twilight: Eclipse

I’m not a huge fan of the Twilight series and expected this one to be terrible, but it surprised me. It’s actually pretty good and my favorite of the bunch.

The story is very simple, which I liked. Basically someone (the bad vampire girl from a previous film) is out to kill Bella with an army of fresh vampires, so both the vampire and werewolf clans have to cooperate to protect her. This sets up Bella right in the middle of the conflict between the two who love her, giving her an agonizing decision. She wants to marry Edward and become a vampire, but she loves the wolf boy, too, and doesn’t want to hurt him.

Most of the time when I see such “I’m in love with two men” dilemmas they come across as phony and forced, with one man clearly the obvious choice. But here the dilemma is real. With Edward she can have immortality at the cost of living, but with the wolf she would stay human. This choice is combined with her pending high school graduation, which is perfect as everyone is thinking about their wide-open futures and if she becomes a vampire it is permanent, freezing her in time at that age and ending any chance of a normal life.

The solution to this dilemma is also excellent and I really liked the way it was handled. It revealed that Bella is actually growing up and is intelligent, something I hadn’t seen much of before.

Of course the film still has many flaws, including lame special effects and action, overdone vampire drama, lots of “mystery” mood that isn’t very mysterious, and distracting irrelevant plot stuff that should have been cut. The worst was the nitpicking and irritating fighting between the two male leads. Yeah, we get that vampires and wolves don’t like each other. But they are so annoying we don’t want to be in the same room as their bickering!

But despite some problems, the core of the film is quite good and I actually liked it.

Topic: [/movie]


: Foundation

Author: Isaac Azimov

This is a classic bit of science fiction that I’d somehow managed to avoid reading until now. A while back I read part of this book but never finished it. This time I bought the audio version and finished it. It’s very good and holds up surprisingly well even after 60 years.

Its major flaw is also its key gimmick, which is that the book takes place over hundreds of years and covers a lot of fictional history quickly. The premise is that a radical scientist has predicted the fall of the galactic empire thousands of years into the future and set plans in motion to prevent catastrophe. He can’t prevent the fall itself — that is inevitable — but he can minimize the darkness that follows, reducing the chaos to a thousand years instead of 30,000. His predictions are eerily accurate, as he re-appears from the dead in video form right on schedule during crises, having recorded speeches prior to his death.

While this is fascinating, the nature of such a spread-out novel can be tedious. We are offered deeper glimpses into various points of history, but this makes the book feel more like a collection of related stories instead of a novel. We don’t get the richness of characterization and plot of novel: everyone feels like mere sketches. Unfortunately, that is simply a drawback of this particular kind of story. To tell the entire galatic history in full novel form would be an encyclopedic venture and would take a lifetime to read!

So I basically get out of this what I can: I enjoy the little stories of conflict and resolution, and I marvel that Hari Seldon’s science can predict human behavior so many centuries in advance.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Jan 13, 2012

: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Director: David Fincher

I liked the book and the Swedish film and I wasn’t sure how I felt about an American remake. I worried it might just be a competent version without adding anything new, but in the end it does enough I think it’s just a little better than than original film.

It’s definitely easier to understand what’s going on (and that nothing to do with the fact that original is subtitled). The book is incredibly complicated and this film does a great job making all that plot understandable. It is loyal to the source material for the most part, though they changed a few things for the better. I’ll spoil things slightly by mentioning two examples I liked.

One was having the girl’s original guardian not die, but have a stroke, so there are a couple of extra scenes with two of them later in the film. I thought the actor who played her guardian, despite not having a single line in the film, had one of the best performances. All we saw was his stiff, stroke-paralyzed body, unable to convey emotion, yet somehow he did. Amazing. Another change for the better was inclusion of a follow-up scene with the scummy lawyer in an elevator where Lisbeth reminds him of his promises and leaves him shuddering in terror. I felt like both the book and the first film dropped the lawyer story a little too easily so this quick follow-up was perfect (especially her final line to “stop looking at tattoo-removal websites”).

The film makes a few other changes that are not so good. I didn’t like that Lisbeth didn’t set fire to the car (it just blows up on its own). It’s a minor detail but key to her character and I don’t know why they changed it. Even more baffling is her asking Mikael for permission to kill the bad guy. That struck me as utterly out of character and I don’t know why that was in there.

Other “improvements” are more murky. I liked that they included some of the ending elements from the book that weren’t in the first movie (the stealing of the money, tracking down what happened to Harriet, etc.), but some aspects of how they accomplished all of that felt awkward and forced. They don’t ruin the movie but are simply different.

One sort of strange decision is that though the film is still set in Sweden (I had thought they were going to change to the U.S.), everyone in the film speaks English but with Swedish accents. This seems unnatural but worse than that, it makes some of the characters difficult to understand. With such an elaborate and complicated plot, understanding dialog is critical, and this works against that. It’s not a problem all the time, but on occasion it’s troublesome.

But overall I was very impressed by the whole production: the direction, sets, and script were all first-rate, and the performances were fantastic (especially Daniel Craig who was a perfect Mikael) and I thought Rooney Mara was great in a tough role (even more so considering how great Noomi Rapace was in the Swedish version). They fixed a few flaws in the original film but added a few others, so in some ways this is a wash (and I’d have no issues with someone preferring the Swedish movie), but overall I enjoyed this one more. It was just clearer and easier to understand. I thought I might be bored having both read the book and seen the other movie, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. They came very close to making it perfect.

(There still are flaws from the book that made it into the film, in particular the whole mess with the numbers and Bible verses, which still makes no sense. I was especially frustrated by how close they came to fixing the awkward link between the verses and the murders. They set it up perfectly with the cop mentioning the Rebecca murder, but since he didn’t actually reveal the unusual way she was killed, there was no way Mikael could connect the verses with Rebecca’s murder, yet he does so anyway in a skip of logic.)

Topic: [/movie]