Monday, June 28, 2010

Heeeeeeeere's Johnny!

There is a scene early on in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in which a young Alice (Mairi Ella Challen) confesses to her father (Marton Csokas) about her strange dreams and wonders aloud if she's crazy. Like a good father, he presses his hand to her forehead, takes it away, and morosely tells her that yes, she is quite bonkers. "But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."

And so there's the ultimate message of this movie, delivered in the first five minutes. It's actually not a bad message; How obvious is it that the greatest minds of any generation - Galileo, Einstein - often spurned social convention because they were so sure they were right? Alice's father Charles Kingsleigh is portrayed as such a person, one who wanted to reroute English trade routes around the world in such a way that defied logic, or at least the logic of his possible investors, who were sure he was mad. And so many years later after her father's death and when she's come of age, Alice (In Treatment's Mia Wasikowska) becomes one as well. Brought to a party to be proposed to by a charming if dunderheaded lord, Alice steals away from the party chasing a white rabbit that she recognizes from her dreams, only to fall down the rabbit hole and into the place she used to go where she dreamed, a place she called Wonderland.

Tim Burton may not ever have been a great director, but usually he's at least solid. However, he hasn't had a good film since the largely underrated Big Fish in 2003, and his last film, Sweeney Todd, was surprisingly uninspired. For the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, the quality of his films has been surprisingly shaky. But one thing has always been consistent: his image. There's a dark moodiness to vision that's in all his films, and it's perfectly situated in this film in the place of Wonderland. For every dark, creepy forest, or the zaniness of the rabbit hole Alice falls into, there's just as much in the bright false-happiness of the Red Queen's (Helena Bonham Carter) castle, or the striking brightness of the castle of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). It's that visual element that Burton revels in, which is what made Scissorhands and others of his films such modern classics.

I'll talk about the special effects, first. Alice in Wonderland was advertised as being in available in 3D in most theaters but the DVD version was only in 2D. It's an odd choice by the industry to have these recent movies that succeeded in large part in the theaters to their 3D promotions (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) to not release them in 3D for home consumption. Is it the technology? Coraline was released last year on DVD in 3D but it was not exactly a bright success in that medium. Perhaps they're taking the "special edition" route. In six months 3D versions of these movies will be made available on DVD, when you're not even watching the edition you already OWN. Regardless, you can pretty much tell by watching the movie where the 3D is SUPPOSED to be. Am I relieved that I haven't seen the 3D edition? Yes. Unlike the story-lite Avatar, we don't need the 3D in Alice to distract us from the fact that there's no unreasonable plot to follow. We can enjoy the movie for what it is, not what it wants us to see.

Mia Wasikowska may be playing the eponymous Alice, but Johnny Depp gets top billing. Why? Name recognition, of course! This is Disney we're talking about, and they know what sells tickets isn't necessarily a great story or groundbreaking effects or even great acting, but in fact the quality of the names you hire. And so we have Depp, champion of both Burton and box office, placed in the relatively small role of Mad Hatter...relatively small until Burton re-sized the Hatter's role to much more than just a tea party. The Hatter is still mad, of course, but lucidly mad, rather than completely, bat-crazy insane. And he's a veritable ally to Alice against the Red Queen, who has taken over Wonderland since Alice last visited (dreamed) it. He used to be quite sane, and a talented dancer to boot (unfortunately, we're subjected to this inane dance by the movie's end). All in all, Depp is perfectly cast, as he creates quite the parallel to Alice's father's statement of the best people being insane. Many things are still kept from the books, for instance the tea party. He also frequently asks Alice how a raven is like a writers desk. In all, Depp is probably the best thing about the movie, and so most deservedly earned that top bill.

Other acting was good, if not as deep as Depp. Carter is very campy as the evil Red Queen, something of a combination of characters from the Lewis Carroll books: The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland and the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass. Whether screaming to off someone's head or in somewhat a more calm scene, It's difficult to take the Red Queen too seriously, as most of the actual evil is better displayed by her underlings, most notably Stayne, the Knave of Hearts. Stayne is properly portrayed by Crispin Glover, and matches a Burton character to a T, complete with heart-shaped eye-patch. Anne Hathaway is actually sort of disappointing as the White Queen, a seemingly air-headed beleaguered monarch who dabbles in something resembling voodoo or necromancy for her powers. Whether the ditziness is real or a show for her supporters is never revealed, but nothing Hathaway does in this film is very important, unfortunate for the actress who garnered such deserved praise in Rachel Getting Married. With so much CGI, there were multiple voice-only roles that were cast, and Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Arkin, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse and Timothy Spall all deserve credit for their excellent contributions, even is Spall's character, a bloodhound named Bayard, doesn't seem to be based on any character from the books. Finally, Wasikowska is charming and elegant as Alice, the straight woman in a bendy world. Alice never fits in in either world, as she's too screwy to fit in the normal standards of the real world, and Wasikowska does a good job of playing that up, consistently expressing confusion and slow understanding up until she has to convincingly play the part of hero and becomes a strong woman of conviction by the end. She's arguably the early break-out female performer of 2010 and we'll see if this translates to her getting promising work in the future, or if she'll be relegated to being one of Burton's "favorites" and only work regularly in his films. She's too good for that, but Depp is too and he went for years before Hollywood took him seriously.

So what's wrong with Alice in Wonderland? Well, it doesn't run overlong, but what ending there is falls flat. It's as if everyone working on the project finished this big elaborate final battle (on a chessboard, no less) and realized: "Oh, crap, we have to end this movie!" And so it's rushed and obvious and not a little silly, including even Depp's little stupid dance. This can be largely credited to screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who's resume (consisting of Disney animated films and kid shows) doesn't exactly scream for confidence. To wrap up the bad ending, the closing credits began with this awful song who's singer I thought sounded familiar, but I wasn't sure. Alice was sung by Avril Lavigne, and it's just as bad - worse even - as you would expect from any Avril Lavigne song. I mean, DAMN, that's a bad song. I'd rather listen to Kenny G end this film than ever hear Lavigne again.

For most of it's 108 minutes, Alice in Wonderland is as interesting, thought-provoking and wondrous vision of fantasy as you'll find in the theater these days, but the mediocre ending does all it can to ruin that experience for you. Not even great special effects or a star cast can save it, as it's ultimately another disappointing film for Burton's library. This in itself is hardly a surprise, but would it kill Tim to try an original idea for once, as in the past ten years only Corpse Bride wasn't based on someone else's story. If he's going to keep piggybacking onto other people's works, he needs to figure out a better way of telling it his way without the messes to which that inevitably leads. For the message it pertains and strong feminine lead, another director perhaps would have been better.

But this is Disney, and they need their name recognition.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

We are "A" Go

Seeing a movie in the theater is a trying experience.

Now I don't know if it's different in the suburbs' multiplexes and I know it's not the same as the above statement would suggest at smaller, independent theaters that would show you something like, say, Cyrus. I'm talking about the multiplexes in the city. I live in Boston, and when I want to see a big blockbuster movie, I head down to the AMC Loews Boston Common to watch it. And for the most part, the theaters are in great shape. Everything works. Then you take into account the people around you.

To be fair, most of your fellow viewers in the theater are quite normal. But all it takes is one pair of teenaged parents bringing an infant into a PG-13 movie or one guy shouting out "Yeah, boyeeeee!" When the guy on the screen gets the girl. It's annoying. It's disrespectful, and I can only think to myself how the hell do these people graduate to regular society? Be a jackass at home, leave the outside world to the more mature of us.

And that's what's wrong with watching movies in city multiplexes. And yet even those people can't disturb the image of one of the best action films I've seen in years. The A-Team is everything you expect, fantastic action, unbelievable circumstances, and, possibly most importantly, a believable group of friends who'd go to hell and back for one another in a heartbeat.

Director Joe Carnahan, producers Ridley and Tony Scott and original series creator and producer Stephen J. Cannell and their crew have done something amazing here. Not only did they create a fantastic action movie (lately an oxymoron with more examples than will be recounted here) but in the first thirty minutes they created a sequence that, rest of the movie be damned, I could watch back-to-back for days with a smile if I had to. That I could enjoy the rest of the movie after a chase on land and in the air is a tribute to the overall quality of the film, and the charisma of the characters.

Ah, the casting. It's always a challenge to cast actors when the parts they're trying to land are characters beloved by millions around the globe, perhaps most notably Mr. T's B.A. Baracus. So to land four actors who can perfectly embody the souls of such characters it's a glorious thing indeed. Starting with Baracus, we have an almost-unknown (except perhaps to fans of UFC or Pride Fighing) Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who for all anybody outside Hollywood was going to be a disaster. And you know what? Label Jackson "B.A." right now because I honestly thought he captured the part perfectly. It helps that the character was written very faithfully to the original, complete with Baracus' fear of flying and physicality (though thankfully leaving out the gold chains). He truly pities fools and that's what the part needed to keep the film afloat.

District 9's Sharlito Copley was perhaps the surprise casting decision of the foursome. Copley, who's only prior major role had been in last year's Oscar-nominated sci-fi film, worked out great in Dwight Schultz's "Howling Mad" Murdock shoes. It helps that in District 9, Copley had to be a bit crazy, because that was a perfect lead-in to this role, which makes R.P. McMurphy look like the man on the street. Copley is afforded the best comedic dialog, which he delivers with perfect precision, such as in one scene in a customs gate in which he gets a chance to show off his Swahili, an allusion to his African descent.

The most unsurprising of the cast is possibly Bradley Cooper as the lothario Templeton "Faceman" Peck. Originally portrayed by Dirk Benedict, Cooper makes the perfect chameleon, able to mask his appearance via subtle methods and also seduce the ladies, his specialty. This is the first movie I've actually seen Cooper in (That's right, I've yet to see his breakout in The Hangover) and I was definitely pleased by his performance. He toed the line between charm and honesty perfectly, and the performance was all the better for it.

Finally we get to Hannibal. Who would have thought that such a distinguished and serious actor like Liam Neeson would do a film like this, but something must've been right in his mind, because he's here, he's awesome, and he kicks ass as John "Hannibal" Smith, the leader and brains of this rag-tag outfit on the run from the law and out to get back at those who set them up. Neeson, like the others, gives a fantastic performance, not allowing himself to be bogged down by his signature catchphrase. He comes into this role as a more believable military leader than in the original series (with respect to the late George Peppard) and doesn't fail to inspire us with his ability to totally become his character completely: There's Hannibal, and there's Neeson. Two different souls.

The cast is rounded out by Patrick Wilson as CIA operative Lynch (a reference to the original series' first season villain, Colonel Lynch) and Jessica Biel as Lt. Charisa Sosa, A DOD operative who once had a relationship with Face before leaving him and is now in charge of hunting him and his fellow teammates down. Both are good in their roles, with Wilson doing an outstanding job in developing his character throughout the film, and Biel being solid overall pulling double duty as Face's love interest as well as s serious hunter with killer instincts. She doesn't let feeling get in her way, and she could be the team's most dangerous enemy.

It may be somewhat unbelievable for a group of men to escape an exploding plane in the safety of a parachuting tank and then safely land in a lake in sed tank, but that's the A-Team. I don't expect normal people to do it, but then again, when were these people ever normal? Most importantly, the effects are actually believable, unlike those you occasionally see where it's obvious it's green screen, or it's obvious it's CGI, and so on and so forth. The effects actually feel fluid to the rest of the film, and it simply makes the experience even better. Some film editing, however, seems a little choppy, but that's just picking at gnats at this point. A great editing job would have secured the incentives, not nailed the contract.

The A-Team is not only a great action film, but a good movie overall with great effects, perfect casting and a sense of humor that didn't get too out of hand. I'm glad I was in the theater to see it, even if the jackasses of the world continue to congregate there. And on top of that, I saw for the first time theatrical trailers of Predators and Scott Pilgrim, so I came away with perhaps two future posts for you guys. It's win-win-win, and as Hannibal says early on, "I believe that no matter how random things may appear, there's still a plan."

 And I love it when a plan comes together.

Monday, June 14, 2010

There's No Place Like Home...

This week, The Latest Issue sets the WABAC machine for 2007, and the airing of the Emmy Award-winning miniseries Tin Man. This series was one I'd had my eye on for a while, but only providence and a Netflix streaming account brought it back to my immediate attention quite recently. Between the diverse cast and steampunk re-imagination of the original story, Sci-Fi's (now SyFy) huge miniseries event may have been three years late making it to my consciousness, but my interest in this piece did not wane even in it's absence from my immediate attentions.

The first thing you have to realize while watching Tin Man is that this is no Wizard of Oz. Whether you loved the original 1939 film or thought it was overrated, you can rest assured that while the spirit of the story is here (magic tornado sends girl to a mystical alternate world and she must find the Wizard), Tin Man is most certainly a total recreation, more inspired by the original idea than the story itself. It bears little to no resemblance to either the film or the series of L. Frank Baum books that created the whole franchise.

Zooey Deschanel stars as D.G., a waitress in the middle of nowhere, Kansas,  living with her loving parents while wishing for a more interesting life outside her family's farm. She's a fantastic artist, and constantly illustrates her fantastical dreams, which adorn the walls of her attic loft. Little does she know that there is another dimension, and it's evil ruler Azgadellia thinks D.G. is the only thing that can stand between her and total control of the O.Z., or Outer Zone. Unfortunately, Queen Azgadellia's plan to rid herself of this nuisance backfires, and D.G. finds herself alone and very shocked when she arrives in the O.Z. Gradually we're introduced to Glitch (Alan Cumming), a man with a zipper on his head and his brain removed; Raw (Raoul Trujillo) a "viewer" who's hairy race has been subjugated by Azgadellia; and Wyatt Cain (Neal McDonough), a "Tin Man", or lawman, who was locked up in an iron suit for defying the queen. They of course are this edition's representations of the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tinman. They're all lacking in the same areas their previous incarnations had; While Glitch and Raw share the exact issues (a brain and courage), Cain's problems stem more in his coldness due to the loss of his family. Glitch even says to Cain at one point: "Oh, come on Tin Man, have a heart!"

Unlike in the earlier film, there's not much wait for our new quartet to reach Central City to speak to the Wizard (Richard Dreyfus), who was once the great ruler of Central City but has been reduced to a drug-addicted parlor act in the wake of Azgadellia's conquest. Throughout the story in which D.G. tries to understand who she is and where she belongs, there are many sly references to the first film (for instance, D.G. once refers to the O.Z. as being "in technicolor") that make their way seamlessly into the story, including a Toto you didn't see coming. For all that, it's never a show that you need to have seen the original movie or read the books to enjoy, though if you were to not understand at least half of the references I'd be forced to assume you were either naive or sheltered and only had these three episodes to keep you company. Either way you'd have no problem keeping up, the story is that easy to follow.

As for the acting, Deschanel is solid as the heroine placed in an impossible situation. She's not great, but I can't tell if that's just because watching her walk is unsettling. Remember the Seinfeld episode "The Summer of George"? When Molly Shannon plays the woman who doesn't swing her arms? Remember how that weirded everyone out? See, Zooey Deschanel is Molly Shannon. Good acting, dialogue delivered well. Doesn't swing her arms. She's regularly upstaged by her cast mates, which is a good thing. Cumming is very effective and perfectly cast as Glitch. If it was feasible for someone to not have a brain, Cumming could play them. In a heartbeat. He has regularly the best dialogue, and always delivers in spades. Trujillo is better known for his dance career, but of his sporadic acting appearances Tin Man might have been his biggest opportunity and he handled it with aplomb. There are fewer scenes for Raw to shine as compared to his friends, but what he does do, he does very, very well. McDonough rounds out the group admirably. Unlike Cumming or Trujillo or even Deschanel, he has to play the straight man, and for a man to play someone who's normal except for the fact that his surroundings are NOT normal to us is a challenge that he pulls off admirably. It's a shame McDonough has not had a star career that some might have predicted for him since his stint on 2001's Band of Brothers but his biggest role may not have been filmed yet: He's rumored to play Timothy Aloysius Cadwallader "Dum Dum" Dugan in the upcoming Captain America movie. He certainly did well by himself here.

Outside the main foursome, the casting gets a little weird. Kathleen Robertson portrays the evil Azgadellia, and unfortunately she's long on sexy and short on talent. As an evil sorceress, she's unbelievable, and that's not acceptable from a lead role. One of the more interesting things about Azgadellia are the tattoos on her chest. These tattoos are actually her flying monkeys and releasing them requires her to... um... unstrap her corset and shove her bosom at the camera. Then we see the tattoos change into flying monkeys and fly off. Well, at least Robertson had the cleavage (or at least outstanding support) for the role. Much better is Callum Keith Rennie (of pseudo-BSG fame) as Zero, captain of the guard who's got it out for Cain. He's the one who took Cain's family away and locked him in the iron suit in the first place, so their scenes together are definitely worth watching.

Then we get to the Wizard. I'm still not sure Dreyfus brought anything special to the role, though he certainly hammed it up a lot. Perhaps that was all the role asked for, so if that was it, he certainly did that. It's a success for Dreyfus just being in something good (Seriously, he's been in very few good things since Jaws in 1975!) so we shouldn't be too hard on him. He doesn't hurt the story, so we'll give him a pass. Other great performances by Blu Mankamu, Ted Whittall and a young Alexia Fast help add character to the story.

The world of the O.Z. is both beautiful and ugly, inspiring and reprehensible. It has many faces and many sides, and a populace to match. On the special effects side, much of the 3D animations are done very well, and the costume and set designers did quite well building places and people who would reliably inhabit these types of scenes, and should be commended (in fact, they won an Emmy for best makeup in a miniseries, and were nominated for four Emmys related to effects) for their hard work. The only instances that didn't look right or real were some blue screen moments, ones involving our heroes running and the camera looking up at them from below. It's painfully obvious that the actors are running in place, and the movement behind and above them looks like it's happening somewhere else, with the actor edited in later. It really kills the atmosphere when something like that happens. Thankfully, it's not often enough to really disassemble the otherwise outstanding visuals.

I may have been 3 years late reviewing this, but Tin Man was everything I hoped it'd be. Sure, some of the casting was a little skewed, and I'm sorry but the ending was a little anti-climactic (although perhaps ironically appropriate). What this series showed was just how much the Sci-Fi Channel could accomplish with it's own original material and an open license. After all, this is the same channel that's brought us Eureka, the new Doctor Who, and Battlestar Galactica, probably one of the best shows on TV, period. Tin Man, though not a regular series like the previously mentioned shows, had all it's strengths and was a lot of fun to watch. If you haven't seen this yet, I definitely recommend it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Part Deux

In August, 2006, six chicks with picks descended into a cave system somewhere in the Appalachian mountains in the eastern United States. There, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna MacDonald), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), and Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) disappeared into caves deep within the mountains. There, they were tormented and confronted both by carnivorous human-like Crawlers deep beneath the surface and their own inherent distrust of the others. It was a great horror film, helmed by Neil Marshall, and despite good horror movies rarely being successful, The Decent raked in $8.9 million opening weekend en route to a $57 million worldwide gross. Sure, it's not Titanic, or even close, but with the exception of big Hollywood horror series like Friday the 13'th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween or Saw, a small, indie, foreign horror film would be lucky to make a third of what The Descent made.

A sequel was never needed, but with the Descent's success, it was inevitable. And so in The Descent, Part 2 we once again meet Sarah (played once again by an excellent MacDonald), who has somehow found her way kicking and screaming from the depths of the mountains where after two days a search and rescue effort has been sent since she and her fellow spelunkers have not checked their equipment back in (It's not explained whether the US edited ending was used for the sequel, or the "true" original ending is canon). After Sarah is found, and seems to be suffering from amnesia, an effort is made to find the missing women, with Sarah brought along since she's the only one who's been to these caves. Why does Sarah have amnesia? Why, how else would she go BACK into the caves, then?

Right away, it's obvious we're on familiar ground. Neil Marshall may not have directed this sequel, but Jon Harris (in his directorial debut, but with tons of editing work on films like The Descent, Layer Cake and Snatch) knows how to use darkness as his medium once everyone's underground. It's always a strain to see ANYTHING in the darkness around the characters, and that's the way they want it. You'll see what you're meant to see, and if you're psyching yourself out waiting for something to jump out of the shadows, they're doing their job right. On top of that, we're also treated so several scenes we've seen before (if we've watched the previous film), such as the bone graveyard. Not that there's nothing new, we see much of the tunnel system we've never seen before, but it's nice to see these old touches that hearken back to the first film.

If there's one complaint I've heard about the original film, it's that the Crawlers were a stupid monster, not very threatening at all. Their "weakness", their blindness, was silly not because it's a cliche that they could then track by sound (despite not having any visually-obvious reason how their ears could register more than average) but that they couldn't track by any OTHER method; smell, for instance. Well, like or hate the cliche, the Crawlers are back, and they got a complete overhaul to make them look scarier, to actually make you think they COULD rip out your jugular with their teeth, which they do several times in this movie. For the most part, my reaction was positive, with Crawlers both scarier-looking and more individualistic, with no two looking quite the same. Some things should have been avoided (SPOILER: They just couldn't resist a big-ass-boss version of the crawler, could they?) but for the most part I was happy with the change.

If only I could say the same about the choice of cast this time around. While the six women in the first movie were all interesting and complex, the same can't be said about the meat that follow Sarah down into the mine depths. Sarah's forced amnesia is of course silly, but if it means McDonald is in the film, then fine. But the only remotely interesting members of the rescue expedition are the good-cop/bad cop duo. Bad-cop is Vaines of the Sheriff's department, played by Gavan O'Herlihy (Prince Valiant). Vaines is a big hulking brute of a man who tries to throw his authority around like he runs the place and secretly thinks Sarah has something to do with the disappearances of her fellow ladies (of course, even confronted with the crawlers, he still thinks Sarah's nuts) Good-cop is Deputy Rios, played by Krysten Cummings (a former Mimi Marquez on Broadway's Rent, she's making her film debut here). Rios is the compassionate one, and the one you sympathize with more when all is said and done. Sadly, the other three members of the rescue party are hardly worth mentioning, as they fail to capture even a glimmer of the likability or sympathy of the original cast.

Shauna McDonald said (and I'm paraphrasing from the special features) that she came in with the express goal of making a better film with The Descent, Part 2 than she had in the original. If she can't do that, she says, what's the point? And I certainly can't argue against that sentiment. If more sequels were better than the originals, the stigma against them in society would be far less. That said, The Decent, Part 2 is barely as good a film as the original, perhaps slightly less so. Despite the great work by MacDonald, the great set design, and a great launching point for Cummings to make her debut, the film slightly lacks. It lacks that chemistry the original cast had. It's missing the originality the first film truly possessed. And thanks to an ending that ultimately makes no sense (though perhaps setting itself up for a prequel), It's definitely not treading any new ground for future indie horror filmmakers to garner inspiration. But with the ground as eminently likable as this is, let's call it 4 out of 5 and say I was definitely happy overall. Definitely rent-worthy.