Friday, April 29, 2011

A Watershed Moment

I can't really remember ever going to see a circus growing up. No, Cirque du Soliel doesn't count. The circus most people are familiar with seem as though it has remained the same after countless decades. Even if you've never been, you probably have an idea of what to expect: high-wire escapades, exotic animals, human acts like the bearded lady or the tattooed dwarf, clowns. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as many of these circus companies have adjusted over time to become the entertainment juggernauts they are; even their most ardent opponents have to acknowledge the effect that those colorful tents and performers have on the average populace. But those same opponents would love to point out the countless acts of animal cruelty and human rights violations that have gone practically unnoticed, for fear it would diminish the drama that is the "Greatest Show on Earth." That's where Water for Elephants comes in. The film, based on the bestselling book by Sara Gruen, takes a hard look at the methods of traveling circuses during one of America's darkest hours, the Great Depression, and introduces to those who watch things they cannot help but be entranced by, whether they've seen a circus or not.

Supposedly, Rosie was a better kisser
Robert Pattinson stars as Edward Cul... I mean Jacob Jankowski, who one day has his whole life planned out ahead of him, only for everything to change irrevocably in one day. The day he is to take his final exams to graduate from Cornell University with a Veterinary degree, Jacob's parents are killed in an automobile accident, and he learns that due to his father being behind on the mortgage, the bank is foreclosing on his house. Homeless and wandering, Jacob finds himself an unlikely job with the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. He eventually enters a guarded friendship with circus manager August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz) and the star of the show, his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Hired on as an animal handler, Jacob sees how abusive August is of both people and animals, and it is only a matter of time before he must do something, if only to save Marlena - who he loves - and new show elephant Rosie, who he finds under his care.

Four Best-Actor nominees in one shot, anyone?
It may be too often said that the performance of an animal is the best part of a film, but far more rarely can that be construed as a good thing. From the moment adorable elephant Rosie - played by a very talented Asian elephant named Tai - makes her appearance a third of the way through the film, she manages to steal every scene in which she takes part. Obviously intelligent and showing impeccable timing (not to mention a comedic flair), Tai excels in whatever she's tasked with, whether it be a simple trick or as a victim of physical abuse. She is by far the best performer on screen, but don't be fooled into thinking that everyone else are just chumps. Pattinson is especially a surprise, proving he can put on a good show outside of the Mormon vampire set. Perhaps setting the stage for a long career combining all of his Dean-esque talents, Pattinson proves that he can handle the leading man moniker with ease. Witherspoon is also a delight, proving that she's worth so much more than her relatively brainless roles in films like Legally Blonde and 2010's How Do You Know. Hers is even more challenging for having to learn physical routines with her pachyderm co-star, and she works the different angles of her character like a true professional. That Waltz is practically the least of these four stars should not weigh negatively on him; as the film's villain, he is properly dangerous, skeevy and manic. However, Waltz also manages to convey the few positive traits Augustus contains, making for far more than a mere one-dimensional bad guy. All the performances, from the biggest star to the tiniest bit role, are excellently played and truly connect with the audience.

Sigh. He's so DREAMY.
One thing I was impressed by was the story that director Francis Lawrence chose to tell. He could have easily made the film all about the romance between Jacob and Marlena at the expense of the two-faced circus business. Instead, most of the film actually focuses on the conflict between Jacob and Augustus, with the fate of the circus and everyone aboard somewhere in the middle. Rosie is also featured much more than you would guess from the previews, as her role and that of some of the other animals shows us of the horrible cruelty that performance beasts underwent at a time when fresh meat couldn't be afforded for the lions, star horses are driven to the point of physical breakdown and a cruel trainer would leave welts and open sores on the skin of an elephant in a fit of rage. While we are led to believe that this was partly due to the crushing realities of the Depression, there's no reason to believe that these types of goings on don't happen nowadays. Animal cruelty still happens, as recently as 2009 when Kenneth Field (CEO of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus) admitted to treatment of elephants in ways counter to the US Animal Welfare Act. Presumably even worse in this earlier era, Water for Elephants does a good job showing us abusers who treat these innocent victims even worse than the underpaid manual labor they use to set up their Big Tops.

Trivia fun! In a deleted scene in Vanity Fair, these two played estranged mother and son!
The film does use some CGI effects, most notably in a few scenes in which characters ride atop the circus train while the night sky twinkles in the distance. Sadly, these scenes don't look too realistic, but at least they manage to convey the comfortable mood the story is going for. Most of Water for Elephants is nothing like Lawrence's previous works, the more visually-stylish Constantine and I Am Legend (or his countless music videos). Most everything looks quite realistic, and while the few instances of SFX usage are not meant to wow us, the actual bits and pieces of circus acts are the true eye-poppers; from glimpses of the aforementioned high-wire acts and animal tricks we get our excitement, as though we were patrons of the circus and not the cinema. If there's anything involved there besides amazing camerawork and a great idea of what the director wanted to show, I sure couldn't find it.

Not even the "Greatest Show this Year", but still good nonetheless
Water For Elephants has a few flaws, the most notable being a contrived ending that surprises only in the fact that you never thought they would take the simple route to victory. Still, the word "magical" perfectly works for the majority of the film's execution, and for that reason it makes the 2011 Top 10 list at #7. Of course, if you're more interested in seeing elephants, you can always check out the International Elephant Foundation or perhaps even this article about them. I had a great time and this is a title I would definitely recommend for audiences of all ages.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Questionable Choices

It's a break from films today, as Hello, Mr. Anderson takes another look at a medium I've long been a fan. Those who remember my look back at David Willis's webcomic It's Walky! and his new regular series Dumbing of Age knows what a fan I am of the genre; I read webcomics every day, often discovering new titles and constantly adding them to my list of browser bookmarks. It was actually through Willis that I became familiar with the name of Jeph Jacques; Willis would mention him whenever the two were at the same convention or whenever he would post a guest strip on Jacques's site. That most recently brought me to the point of discovering Questionable Content, a slice-of-life comic set in the city of Northampton, in my own state of Massachusetts. While I admit I've never been to the city that influences this title, I've heard nothing but good things from my partner in crime and best friend The Opinioness. Northampton is widely known as a central display of art, music and counterculture, with a thriving LGBT community and alternative medical practices that are obviously a huge influence on QC. The comic itself began in August of 2003, at first posted twice a week but eventually expanded to post every Monday through Friday when Jacques left his day job to focus on creating content full-time. There are over nineteen-hundred comics released on Questionable Content's site, and it took me nearly an entire weekend of non-stop browsing to absorb them into my system.

Questionable Content centers around a group of friends living in Northampton in the present day. Marten Reed is a California boy and indie rock enthusiast who moved to the city following his (now ex) girlfriend. He randomly meets fellow indie fan Faye Whitaker and the two fast become friends. Though you might at first imagine this story going down the obvious romantic route of boy meets girl, Faye has no romantic interest in Marten, and the two instead become best friends who end up living together after Faye accidentally burns down her apartment. The two build an eclectic group of friends, and the comic focuses on the everyday lives of the troupe, from romantic liaisons to drunken banter.

Where do they get their period-clothing, I wonder?
From day one, it's obvious just how "indie" QC is, from its musical inspirations to counterculture parodies. The indie rock conversations early on are deeply opinionated but easy to follow, and made easier by Jacques's lessening of that theme later in the comic's life. The comic follows many themes that would be banned from your local newspaper; it speaks frankly about sex, alcoholism, relationship sabotage and bisexuality, but doesn't treat these things as mere humorous asides. Sure, you'll probably laugh at the jokes presented, but the story also treats these themes with the seriousness they deserve. When one character decides to go see a therapist, it isn't a big joke, like those you might see on network television. When a couple break up, there are consequences both long and short-term. Questionable Content is so realistic in its storytelling that you can look past the more outlandish elements as mere aberrations.

Character is one way webcomics either thrive or die. There are many examples of titles that either don't introduce new characters or fail at making memorable personalities for the readers to latch onto. No matter how much you might like a particular character, too much from them means you might get sick of them relatively quickly. Questionable Content thankfully has some of the strongest and most unique characters I've seen on the web, and has constantly added more to the benefit of the series as a whole. Originally focusing on Marten and Faye, Jacques did well by surrounding them with Dora, a bisexual ex-goth and cafe owner and Faye's boss, and Pintsize, an "AnthroPC" or AI computer who has been Martin's companion since forever. Dora was simply adorable, and Pintsize managed to elicit most of the laughs from the audience. From there Jacques went further, creating Dora's successful man-whore brother Sven, eccentric OCD-suffering Hannalore, Marten's lesbian boss Tai, and W.O.W. fan and former shut-in Marigold, to name a few. Hannalore especially is a lot of fun to read, as you're never sure what hilarity will erupt from her mouth next. Even though Marten is technically the comic's leading male, the story is often dictated by the ladies, with Faye, Dora and the others stealing whole storylines while Marten stands back and reacts. That female-centric narrative alone makes for a different experience than most popular titles.

As my friend Nick has pointed out, you would be forgiven to start from the beginning of the story and cringe at the artwork that litters the pages. It's well past 150 pages before the artwork approaches anything resembling "acceptable" by professional standards, and until then you're better off focusing on the dialogue and humor. Once Jacques leaps that artistic hurdle, however, his art is a wonder to behold, and constantly improves over the course of the series. Character design especially is key, as characters are often easily recognizable and have their own "looks" that differentiate them from the others. Long story short, a little patience here leads to a visual artistry not many cartoonists can match.

As I said, I managed to get through just over nineteen hundred comics in the span of a weekend. The reason I was able to pack in so much viewing was that I literally could not tear myself away from the site for very long before being inevitably drawn back in like a trout on the line. Local ties notwithstanding, I truly enjoyed reading the entire existing series cover to cover. It's become my new favorite webcomic, surpassing the love I harbor for It's Walky!, Schlock Mercenary, and Real Life by some degree. I'll be reading it every day, and I can easily recommend it to any who can take a few minutes out of their day to read their funnies.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Speed Bumps

I believe that the ultimate purpose of film is to take the viewer to places they've never seen and give them experiences they've never had before. Even if the situations presented are familiar, the movie must put forth little-known ideas to entertain its audience. After all, how interested would we be in the films we watched if they were to present to us things we already knew firsthand? It has to shock us or make us laugh, and no matter what city, country or planet you set your tale on, a film needs to have that element of the unknown to really resonate. When The Fast and the Furious debuted in theaters way back in 2001, it brought to the table the intrigue of illegal street racing to the forefront. Featuring a bevy of big names sure to appeal to the younger set, the film went from unknown quantity to megastar, raking in the dough and becoming a true international phenomena. For stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, the film helped catapult them to super-stardom. Diesel landed the legendary role of golden-hearted crook Dominic Toretto, sandwiching it between infamous characters Richard B. Riddick (Pitch Black) and Xander Cage (xXx), proving his draw with audiences. Walker also benefited greatly from the film, taking the popularity he earned on it for all it was worth. Two sequels to the film followed. Walker returning to star in 2 Fast 2 Furious, a movie equally panned and successful. Though it no longer had Diesel on board, the franchise had legs (or wheels, in this case) and took off, spawning yet another sequel in the process. Having little to do with the previous films (and taking place in Japan, as well), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was financially disappointing, even considering that it starred Lucas Black and Bow Wow, relative nobodies by Hollywood standards, in leading roles. It did well enough to conceive yet another addition to the family, however. Fast & Furious was most notable not only for being the most successful film in the series, but the first sequel to reunite the stars of the original film; Diesel, Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordanna Brewster returned in grand fashion, leaving no theater carrying excess tickets. And so they did it again. This time Diesel, Walker, Brewster and a mishmash of characters from all four previous films reunite in Fast Five, a sure assault on the senses that screens this coming weekend. Of course, since it hasn't come out I have yet to see that film. And so I decided to perform something of a pregame ritual this past week, using my Netflix resources to see the original deal, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

You just don't mess with a man wearing a cross around his neck
Having next to nothing to do with the 1955 Roger Corman original, the film stars Paul Walker as Brian O'Conner, an undercover police officer attempting to gain acceptance in the world of Los Angeles's illegal street racing scene. A group of racers are hijacking semi-trailer trucks, and Brian has been sent in by the FBI to determine which of the crews is responsible. To that end, he attempts to get close to the crew run by Dominic Toretto (Diesel), facing adversity at his newcomer status. Still, he manages to gain Toretto's trust, along with that of Dom's sister Mia (Brewster) and several of Dom's followers. After fruitless investigations into rival groups, Brian eventually concedes that the Toretto clan (with all of whom he as practically become friends) are the culprits, and must decide whether his loyalties fall on the side of the law or friendship.

Sunglasses; making people look like asses since 1929
Wow, when I go back and re-read that, it seems even more implausible than I THOUGHT. The Fast and the Furious is so dependent on cheap thrills that its easy to imagine how horrible the film would have been without gratuitous car races, chases and overall vehicle exploitation. The cars are even more sexualized than the underdressed young women who attend these events, making for an interesting reversal, but it all just detracts from the fact that there's very little actual story going on. Of course, story is far from the main reason people like these movies (and you pretty much have to know what you're getting into with ANY Vin Diesel film) and as long as you can take in the adrenaline rush the movie throws at you, it can be enjoyed on a more primative level.

Unseen off-screen: the rampage of teen girls storming the set
In fact, it's these race scenes in which the film shines. Director Rob Conlon, who for much of his career has thrived on action titles, shows a good eye for angles and conveying just how fast these care are going, a visual difficulty to which anyone remotely familiar with NASCAR events can attest. Conlon succeeds in letting the viewer in on just how exciting and dangerous it can be in one of these heavily-modified vehicles, and it makes the film all the more enjoyable to have the audience brought in on the action. It's an obstacle not too many directors can overcome.

Ooh, that's gonna hurt
Acting in action films, however, is one that is really never attempted. Part of the reason for this is the genre's focus on explosions and excitement over plot and character development. You typically won't see a top-caliber actor stoop to doing action films (unless its Will Smith), and by the same degree you'll almost never see a performer in an action role nominated for a major award. Action movies tend to be the harbor for lesser performers to catch an audience, and FatF is the perfect example of such a device. Diesel is of course little more than a gigantic meat-bag, flexing muscles upon muscles and backing that up with his usual gravelly bass vocals. Showing only occasional glimpses of emotion (and the actor he COULD be if he tried), Diesel simply settles. While Toretta is definitely one of his signature roles, it's not really all that different from most of his others, with the notable exception of Riddick. Walker looks too young to be either a real undercover cop or legitimate street racer, and has the acting talents only slightly above. His good looks might make the ladies swoon, but they can only carry him so far and is role is such a poor melange of cliches that it's almost a shock that he became the face of this franchise. Rodriguez does little more than smack talk and drive the occasional car, and any depth to her character must have been left on the cutting room floor. Brewster is only slightly better, and her romance with Walker's character is shoved to the side at the first sign of real excitement. There are some good supporting characters, but even they are limited by the shallowness of the film's script. Rick Yune, Chad Lindberg and Matt Schultze do their best in underrated performances, but ultimately are only minor distractions from the real stars.

The only things pimped here are on the street
While the upcoming Fast Five might have cracked my most anticipated films list for this month, I'm certain I could have passed on seeing this original, as I'm sure the sequel's story will not depend on me knowing what happened in the previous films. Still, for entertainment on its most basic level, you could do a lot worse than The Fast and the Furious in picking rentals. Sure it's lacking in plot, character and sensibility, but when you have so many visuals going on at once, those missing things can be forgiven and forgotten. The true secret to its success, however, was the ability it had to introduce us to a real-world event that most of us may never see first-hand.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Apology for the Ages

There are several reasons there's no post today. Stress, work, sleep deprivation and copious amounts of alcohol (seriously, whoever's been sending the free drinks my way: keep it up) all had a part to play, and at this point my body is so beat up that it needs time to recover and my mind needs time to refocus. Sorry!  I'm taking a health day for now and bumping the piece-in-progress to Monday, so I'll be looking forward to seeing you all then!

Seriously. Keep the booze coming.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

High School High

Sometimes I see a trailer I absolutely hate. The trailer would fill me with such a loathing and bring me no end of misery, often resulting in my dismissal of the film because there could be no way that it could ever be good, not in a million years. Sometimes my initial opinion turns out to be mistaken. Sometimes that trailer I hated so much turns from ugly duckling to beautiful swan and the full-length film is so much more than the bits and pieces of trash I had initially viewed. The Adjustment Bureau is the best recent example I can come up with, decent-at-best previews turning into a much better time than I had been expecting. So yeah, sometimes that works out. Sometimes, however, what you see is what you get. When trailers began to show for Your Highness, the latest movie by the director of Pineapple Express and the latest movie release specially designed for chemically-treated individuals, it would be safe to say that I was less than impressed. Despite genuinely liking Danny McBride in small roles in other movies and Natalie Portman's general awesomeness, I couldn't get past the idea of wastes of space like James Franco, lousy-looking special effects and the trailer's overall vulgar attitude. It was a major turn off, so when I sat down to watch it this past Monday (the only other feasible option was the historical thriller The Conspirator), I was hoping that the real thing would trump any previews.

Be afraid of where she sticks that arrow...
McBride plays Thadeous, younger son of King Tallious (Charles Dance) and brother of the heroic Fabious (Franco) in a mystical realm of enchanted creatures and heroes. While Fabious is celebrated all over the land for his bravery and combat prowess, Thadeous's antics are generally frowned upon by the people in his kingdom's court, and he isn't taken seriously by anybody, not even his own father. When his brother's bride to be (Zooey Deschanel) is kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux) for part of an evil ritual, Thadeous finds himself forced to join Fabious on a quest to get her back. Teaming up with a strong female warrior (Portman), Thadeous must discover a strength he never knew he had and rid the land of Leezar's menace.

It's good to be third in line to be king!
At first glance you might think that not a whole lot of effort was put into the making of Your Highness, and for the most part you would be right. According to director David Gordon Green, the script was nothing more than an outline for the story to follow, meaning that most of the movie was made up as the filmmakers went along. This outline was written by McBride and Ben Best, who in the past has teamed up with McBride on the film The Foot Fist Way and the HBO series Eastbound and Down. That prior collaboration aside, the lack of in-depth scripting means that all the dialogue here is improvised, which can be a clever move when done intelligently. Unfortunately, most of the performers here are obviously not that good when it comes to improv. Far too often, the punchline to a joke is reduced to immature cursing and poop humor, which the film takes the time to revel in. It also features blatant nudity when it can get away with it. Don't get me wrong; I like dirty jokes at times, but even I demand my crassness to aspire to an intellectual level. Futurama; Monty Python's Flying Circus; The Marx Brothers; W.C. Fields; Rocky & Bullwinkle; if you're going to be dumb, you can at least present that stupidity in a clever way, as these examples have over the history of film and TV. Instead, most of the humor here lacks severely, funny only to those whose higher brain functions have been limited by choice (and plenty of narcotics) or chance.

Portman wonders what demon she pissed off to be in Your Highness
Another item lacking is in the special effects department, whose sole duty is to make fantasy tales like this fun to look at. Sure, it's a fantasy PARODY, but when the story goes all out with dragons, witches, minotaurs and ogres, you might want to make them as real as possible to avoid seeming TOO self-degrading. Unfortunately, the team hired wasn't up for the job, as the effects look okay at their best, atrocious at their worst. It's obvious they blew their money on one or two big scenes and had to scrimp and save the rest of the way. One scene featuring a "wise man" who dispenses advice is weird in that the character is obviously a mediocre puppet, a clear sign of mismanaged funds when you consider a much more ferocious monster battle later on.

The blank vacant look to Franco isn't acting...
What was probably the film's biggest coup was hiring big-name actors to play the lead roles, most notably 2011 Academy Award Best Actress winner Natalie Portman, who gives it all but is all wrong for this role after capturing the hearts of audiences in last year's Black Swan. Not that she can't play the part; she's far and away the best part of the film as the ranger (think Tolkien's Aragorn or Legolas) with trust issues and a killer right hook. The problem is that she's BETTER than what this film could possibly have to offer. You might think that one bad role doesn't unravel a career, and you'd be right. Still, with 2011 already adding this and No Strings Attached to her resume, one has to hope that Portman makes no more missteps in the near future. This material is much closer to McBride's usual fare, and even I'll admit that he can be surprisingly funny as the film's cowardly hero. McBride is one of those talents who seems to be on the Jack Black career path; best as a supporting character, he's stretched in a lead role and can't be counted on to be at his best throughout. He's certainly not helped by his character's ability to be completely unsympathetic. At least he's better than Franco as the lofty heroic brother. This one's for you, James. Everyone seems to think you're hot shit. They think you have awesome talent. Well, I haven't seen it yet. Maybe if you didn't whore yourself out to whoever would give you screen time, or maybe if you kept the illicit drug use (need we remind you of your simply awful Oscar hosting gig?) to a minimum, I might be more considerate and give you half a chance. As it stands, you can't impress me, ESPECIALLY if this is the kind of material you so often bring to the table. The rest of the supporting cast is unremarkable, as talents from Deschanel to Dance to Damien Lewis are wasted and Justin Theroux doesn't do himself any favors with his mediocrity. And when you think about it, why would they even care? It's hard to believe this was anything more than a paycheck for most of them.

The film has horses... that's a good thing, I guess
I'm all for pot comedies, but when you take the "comedy" aspect out of the equation I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with what's left. Easily one of the year's worst, I had hoped that Your Highness would be so bad it was good. Instead, it looped all the way around and became bad again, surely a sure sign of the level of quality Hollywood can get away with when given a chance, by consumers too high to care. Honestly I'm not sure what the film's producers were aiming for; were they TRYING to insult most of their potential audience? No matter, I suppose. It's likely this film won't be remembered by this time next year, and I can't imagine a more fitting end for Your Highness than to go up in smoke.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I Scream, U Scream

Back in 1996, director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson released their new take on the horror genre with Scream, a self-aware horror film that both celebrated and parodied slasher films. It did so by essentially publishing the "rules" of these films in an effort to create a realistic scenario concerning sick people copycatting famous films like Friday the 13'th and Halloween. The film introduced Ghostface, a brand new killer who would play a game with his victims, testing them on their knowledge of scary movies where failure ends with a bloody massacre. Scream was a watershed moment for the careers of Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette, and has arguably become Craven's best known work (and that includes a varied horror catalogue of Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes and The People Under the Stairs), and it was no surprise that two sequels quickly followed in the original's wake. Unfortunately, Scream 2 and 3 lacked in originality compared to the original. Scream 2 was largely a good film but lacked in the character development of the people outside of the main cast that made the original so interesting. Scream 3, however (the only one I managed to see in the theater at the time) was a mess, trying far too hard to wrap up the trilogy and being a bit TOO self-involved to the detriment of the story and scares. With that wreck of a finale and the end of the trilogy, it was assumed that there would be no more Ghostface, no more Scream. That changed this past weekend, when Scream 4 was released, fifteen years after the first and eleven after the series' last entry. Surrounding the surviving Campbell, Cox and Arquette with a young cast from a new generation and changing the rules of engagement, and helmed by original creators Craven and Williamson (returning to the franchise after writing the scripts for the first two films) made for a compelling argument to see this latest iteration, possibly the first in an all-new trilogy. Seems too good to pass up, doesn't it? Still, the length of time between the third and fourth films makes you ponder the stability of the franchise, and it was with this mentality that I cautiously approached the screening.

I wouldn't want to be the person in THAT trunk right now...
On the fifteenth anniversary of the Woodsboro Massacre (of Scream), Sidney Prescott (Campbell) returns home as part of a promotional book-signing tour. Reinventing her life and refusing to any longer be characterized as a "victim", Sidney seems to be doing well with her new life until her old nemesis Ghostface returns, set to create a killing spree to put his old ones to shame. After a couple of high school students are slaughtered and evidence is planted in Sidney's rental car, Sheriff Dewey Riley (Arquette) forces her to remain in town, where she stays with her aunt Kate and young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). Dewey, in addition to investigating the murders and protecting Sidney, is also put upon by his wife, retired journalist and current novelist Gale Weathers (Cox), who goes rogue on her own investigation. Meanwhile, Ghostface appears to be everywhere, attacking everyone involved and eventually it comes down to Sidney and her allies to put an ultimate end to the murders in her home town.

Scream 4 features an all-star cast to be killed, including Sookie Stackhouse and Veronica Mars
One of the biggest heists the Scream series pulled off was its ability to hire big-name actors for its starring roles. Known primarily for smaller budgets, horror films are often forced to go with unknown performers with dubious talents and credentials. With the Scream franchise, however, the creators hit pay-dirt when Drew Barrymore approached them about the script for the first film, briefly holding the lead role before unexpected schedule conflicts forced her out. She remained with the production however, and when the film was released, Barrymore - already a star in her own right - became famous as the first on-screen victim of the series, dying horribly in the very first scene (okay, technically Kevin Patrick Walls played the first victim, but he didn't say a line so that doesn't count, right?). She was also not the only legitimate star to sign on; Campbell was a big name at the time, headlining the Fox drama Party of Five, and later appeared in the ill-fated TV drama The Philanthropist. Cox was also famous, but for a completely different genre; she was working on the NBC comedy Friends at the same time she starred in the film, and had to lobby extensively for the chance to play a "bitchy" role. Scream became Arquette's largest role to date, but being part of the Arquette acting family guaranteed he was a known quantity at the time. Between Arquette, Campbell and Cox, the films showed their heart, and the three have become the most reliable performers in the recurring casts. Other big stars managed to make appearances in the film and its sequels, and the cast lists were spotted with well-known names such as Rose McGowan, Liev Schrieber, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O'Connell, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Laurie Metcalf, and Parker Posey. The Scream phenomena became so huge that many of the actors who signed on did so without ever reading the scripts, so influenced were they by the film's legacy and successes.

No, Emma, hair dye won't make you the new Sidney
Scream 4 is a return of sorts to that franchise's successes. Like stepping into an old pair of sneakers, watching the film is akin to something broken in and comfortable, with the series' trademark scares/humor combination in full effect. Thanks most likely to the reunification of the creative team of Craven and Williamson, not to mention the familiar characters played by the principal trio, it's very easy to recapture the magic of the original Scream. Unfortunately, that is also the film's main fault; the film feels SO familiar that it doesn't really tread any new ground, despite the movie's marketing department claiming that all-new rules were in play. Sure, new elements are added, such as the killer recording their murderous exploits for future release, but very little is actually done with that angle. I couldn't help but think that this generation's Ghostface was much less clever than previous incarnations, as he barely used his trademark phone calls to open up to his slayings. Ghostface's motives however are a nice break from that of the original trilogy, and while I won't go into it here (you find out in the film's final act), I felt that the reasons for the murders were very generation-appropriate and twisted enough to be believable, if perhaps a bit TOO warped overall. An overlong false start showed the audience that the film creators were well aware how their story progression was worn and thin, but that didn't stop them from going the tried and true route. The ending was also gradual to the point where I almost lost interest, but was still good overall. Between the first and final act, however was a nice blend of chaos and fear that comes together nice and easy. The film successfully keeps you in the dark as to who the true killer or killers are,  one thing they've managed to successfully replicate in every entry to the series.

The game of "Telephone" was never meant to be played with cellulars
Another thing the Scream series was known for was its good acting corps, most notably the big three. Arquette plays a more matured version of his classic character Dewey, with his new Sheriff job and marriage to Gale having grown up Dewey to the point where the goofiness of his origins rarely makes an appearance. He's still lovable, and fans of the series I believe will like this latest transformation. Cox is back in step as the hard-nosed Gale, though very little interesting is done with her character. Her motivations for investigating the murders are entirely self-motivated and selfish, as she simply wants material for her next book.Suffering from writer's block after ten years away, she hardly makes for the interesting character she once was. Cox plays the writer to great effect, I just wish more had been done with the Gale. Campbell is by far the best of the big three, as I thought Sidney's transformation between Screams 3 and 4 was remarkable, to say the least. It helps that Campbell has been more or less out of the spotlight since her early successes, making her starring role here a more fresh experience.

Scream 4 does a great job of putting Cox and Campbell in the line of fire
It's a shame the secondary cast doesn't leave more of a lasting impression on us. Like last year's Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a Culkin manages to be the best part, in this case younger brother Rory Culkin as a horror film geek named Charlie. Like his older brothers, Culkin has the ability to steal any scene in which he's part, but not in any over-the top way. He's simply too talented to ignore, and hopefully will result in bigger roles in the future. Heroes star Hayden Panettiere has her biggest role to date as Kirby, a closet horror fan who is Charlie's romantic interest, though she regularly rebuffs his stunted advances. At first it looks like she might not bring much to the table except for a super-short haircut, but she proves to be more talented as the story progresses. Erik Knudson also enjoys his largest role so far as Robbie, Charlie's best friend and VP of the school's horror fan club. Knudson, who had small parts in last year's Youth in Revolt and Scott Pilgrim, is a character actor in the making who gets a chance to show his chops here. Sadly, these three are the only good parts of the supporting cast, with most of the others being either wrong or not talented enough for what they must do on screen. Despite coming from the acting lineage of aunt Julia and dad Eric, Emma Roberts doesn't seem to possess the skills to be anything more than a Nickelodeon star. The film does the best it can to try and mold her into a new generation's Sidney, but there's only so much that can be done with her. Alison Brie as Sidney's publicist is a do-nothing role that just screams "cannon fodder". The same is true for deputies Hoss and Perkins, played by legitimate actors Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson. Marley Shelton could have been interesting as a young deputy with eyes for Dewey, but not enough is done with her to be any good. Nico Tortorella and Marielle Jaffe are practically useless in their portrayal of other students in peril. Unlike the first film, there simply isn't anyone on the supporting cast to come anywhere near the same level of  the main three characters.

After a few years, Trick-or-Treaters learned to avoid the Prescott residence
In all, Scream 4 is a lot of fun. It might not be as good as the original, but after such a long absence, it has far more going for it than it probably deserves. If this project had been tackled without the writing talents of Williamson, the direction of Craven, and the acting core of Arquette, Campbell and Cox, I have no doubt that it would have been a true disaster upon release. With it's classic mix of horror and humor, Scream 4 is like being introduced to a long-lost friend; you're excited to see them again, and not a whole lot has changed. Familiar to a fault, Scream 4 won't be remembered as the best horror film this year, and any plans to create a new trilogy with this as the starter should be approached with careful precision if you want to get things right. It's a shame though that barely anyone made their way to the theaters for this release, as it's been a fairly disappointing year for the cinema. Expected blockbusters have been anything but, with films like Sucker Punch, Drive Angry and I Am Number Four failing to make an impact, and even successful films have barely been making more than their budgets back in ticket sales. With failures like these, its obvious Hollywood is going to have to do some major tinkering to figure out exactly what it is that will bring people back to the theaters. Until then, they'll keep putting out more of the same, and the patrons will slow to a trickle, threatening to stop altogether.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Arthur's Reign

For as long as I can remember, my father has maintained this opinion regarding film remakes: the original is always better. Just about anyone can finger dozens of films that prove this, from Psycho to Planet of the Apes, The Wicker Flight of the Phoenix, Godzilla to Poseidon. It's far too mundane pointing out these obvious atrocities however, with such obviousness do they make themselves. It's true that Hollywood too often gets lazy when it comes to these titles, thinking all that's needed to appeal to both an existing audience and a young, fresh one is a tried and true story with name-brand stars and CGI. And yet for all the times my father was automatically right, I've seen several films that throw his timeless theory out into the streets. True Grit. The Ring. 3:10 to Yuma. Dawn of the Dead. The Thing. Many people don't know it, but Martin Scorcese's Oscar-winning The Departed was actually a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Internal Affairs. When done right, a remake might be even better than the original, even if the chances of that are fairly remote. And so that brings me to this day's review. Arthur is a remake of the 1981 film that starred Dudley Moore as spoiled, drunken billionaire who learns the true values of life and love. Arthur was nominated for four Oscars, won two, and is to this day considered among the best comedies of all time. Though a remake featuring British comedian Russell Brand would at first seem to land nowhere close to the level of quality put forth by the original, there was still some chance that the film might actually be pretty good, most notably in the castings of Helen Mirren and Jennifer Garner to back up Brand. And so I chose it this past weekend over Your Highness and Soul Surfer, the best of the rest from last week's new releases (of course having already seen the amazing Hanna), hoping for the best.

...And this is largely how Brand won his Arthur role...
Arthur (Brand) is a the fun-loving heir to the Bach mogul empire who finds himself in a fix when his disruptive and media-drawing escapades get him in deep water with his estate, most notably his mother (Geraldine James), who has never paid much attention to him and placed him in the care of Hobson (Mirren), his nanny since childhood. Embarrassed by his antics and knowing the distrust others place on the future of her company thanks to them, threatens to cut off his inheritance if he doesn't stop his childish ways. To that end, she arranges his marriage to Susan Johnson (Garner), a smart businesswoman in her own right who has interest in Arthur, though he really can't stand her. Instead, he randomly falls for tour guide/children's book author Naomi (Greta Gerwig), and the two begin a wonderful friendship. Soon, Arthur must choose whether to accept the marriage and with it his inheritance, or risk loving Naomi in poverty.

...And then he convinced Helen Mirren the film would be a good idea...

Every film director has to start somewhere, and this time it was Jason Winer's turn to make a dreadful debut. Winer comes in as one of TV's better talents, probably best known as one of the directors of the Emmy-winning series Modern Family. I don't watch the show regularly, but every time I do I can't help but love it. The show often weaves hilarity with heart, not an easy thing to do on a regular basis. Unfortunately, what works for a half-hour comedy show doesn't seem to work itself out over a nearly two-hour film. To be frank, Arthur is not humorous. All the funny stuff (if you can call it that) appears in the trailers or commercials you've already seen, and there's not one bit apart that seems even slightly entertaining. Winer shares in some of the blame, but even devoted Brand enthusiasts would be stretched to find anything to latch onto, unless you were as drunk as the the eponymous hero of the film while watching. With the exception of a few instances, there's remarkably little to laugh at, and Arthur often tries to establish itself as a serious narrative, despite featuring Brand on its poster.

You can just see Garner plotting her prison break
Perhaps the film's biggest obstacle is that in this day and age, billionaires just aren't as likable as they used to be. Long ago were the days of Little Orphan Annie and other stories in which rich folk were portrayed as benevolent and whimsical, almost like they were too good to be true. Unfortunately, in recent years we as a nation have been witness to Bernie Madoff and multiple other high-profile magnates, many who made their money by cheating the underclasses out of hard-earned dough. Even lesser-known moguls worldwide are often given lesser sentences for the heinous crimes they commit, further exacerbating the problem. Working class people have become so cynical that they simply don't trust the ruling classes, and so asking them to see a film featuring one, even a supposedly fun one like Arthur Bach, is as tough a sell as you can make.

Gerwig unveils her newest invention: the smoking children's book
To that end it's difficult to tell if Brand's performance is the worst I've seen this year or actually pretty good. Playing to the hilt the "spoiled rich boy" image, he really doesn't do anything differently than you've seen before, even in 2010's Shakespeare adaptation The Tempest. Brand's strength is not in acting; he's a comedian, and from what some have told me, a damned good one. He's certainly got a memorable image, and a public persona that demands attention. All the roles he's played up to this point have capitalized on that and only that aspect of his celebrity, and therefore barely qualify as characters and more as caricatures of the actor involved. Arthur is to a degree likable, but not so much that you can understand the attraction he presents to not one but two female leads. Helen Mirren is possibly the standout of the crowd, not surprising to anyone who's seen her perform. Taking a gender-bender with the role that netted actor John Gielgud an Academy Award in the original film, Mirren is amusing and inspiring, even when she's not actually in the scene. Sure, it's a step down, but she's still Helen freakin' Mirren! Yet it's Greta Gerwig with whom I found myself smiling more when the young actress was on screen. As the young, smart Naomi, Gerwig plays to the blue collars in the audience, working wonders in the process. She also has great scenes with Brand, and those bits with the two together are among the title's best. I was actually disappointed with Jennifer Garner. The actress, whose disappointing career showed a much higher ceiling with her guest-starring role in 2007's Juno, is pure movie villain through and through. Using the arranged marriage as a stepping stone to fame and fortune, Garner's character is so unlikable to the audience that it's implausible that she could at all be appealing to her fellow characters. Minor roles by Geraldine James (in another gender-swap), Luis Guzman and Nick Nolte are fine enough, but nothing to write home about.

Arthur's opening night audience
Arthur might have had the potential to be among the year's biggest surprises, but will end the year struggling to not be among its worst films. Failing to crack the Top 10 right now is not the kiss of death it was in March, but to do so on such an epic scale is disappointing to say the least. I definitely would not recommend it to you, fair readers, as while this month would seem to be a weak one for film releases overall, that's still not excuse enough to spend your money on this turd. If you have to see one movie this weekend in the theaters, I can name a dozen movies off the top of my head, including Hanna, Win Win, The Adjustment Bureau, Jane Eyre and Insidious. There's simply no reason to let Arthur get anywhere near that list.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

We've Got a Bite!

So what has a head full of saw-blade teeth, sneaks up on you without warning, and has an unending appetite for whatever it can reach? If you said Great White Sharks, you can congratulate yourself on getting pretty close. Still, the answer we were looking for here at Hello, Mr. Anderson is far more insidious than any mere meat-eater: Steve from Stevereads and I are teaming up once more, this time to look back at one of the all-time classics of film and a former #1 literary bestseller, Jaws. The famous Peter Benchley novel spent an amazing forty-four weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List... but I'm not looking to move in on Steve's territory. Since he likes to sink his teeth into the literary arts stuff, I'll let him focus his beady eyes on the original novel. I don't need him going into a frenzy, and I'm a chummy sort anyway. All I needed to see was supplied by a Netflix account and two-plus hours of free time, and while this was far from my first go-around with the granddaddy of summer blockbusters, I was still excited to view this old film with fresh eyes and an open mind.

Hey! Seafood!
The first major release by future Hollywood stud Steven Spielberg, Jaws takes place on the fictional vacation island of Amity, off the coast of Massachusetts. After a young woman disappears into the ocean one night only to reappear the next day torn to shreds by an unknown animal, new Amity Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close down the beaches to protect the people on the island. The Mayor and town selectmen fight against this action however, as shutting down the beaches so close to the Fourth of July weekend would be disastrous for the island's tourist industry. Not wanting to scare off the potential visitors, those in power wanted any whispers of shark attack to be suppressed, and so when more attacks terrorize the small island, Brody finally goes after the monster, hiring an eccentric shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) and helped by an ichthyologist by the name of Hooper (Richard Dreyfus). Together, the three very different men must hunt down one of the most ferocious predators ever to patrol the blue depths.

Let me start off by saying that it feels good to be able to say something nice about Steven Spielberg. Before the director tackled important topics and historical events in films like Munich and Schindler's List, Spielberg was a young up-and-comer being handed the reigns of a brand new franchise. Before his films were marred by cliches, self-importance and mediocrity - a cursory glance of his filmography reveals some of the most overrated films in the industry - he simply focused on telling stories. The Opinioness has told me in the past of Duel, a thriller featuring car chases involving tanker trucks and feats of awesome. I have yet to see the film, but its simplicity is on full display in Jaws. While I had forgotten some of the film's early events, it's surprising how once the three men get on the Orca, there's not one bit that I've forgotten over the years. This is when the film TRULY begins, three men against the elements and a force of nature. The ultimate man vs. beast tale, Jaws was more about the men than the actual animal, and seeing them interact from varying points of view almost makes the finale unimportant, though I still wouldn't miss it for the world.

A SI Swimsuit shoot gone horribly awry
Part of the film's success came not only from the premise, but the talented actors they got to play the big parts. Between the twilight of Shaw's career and the dawn of Dreyfuss's, Roy Scheider played the perfect outsider, a New York native who moved to the tiny island because it would be easy, only to be presented with the more serious pandemic of his life. In the role of Chief Brody, Scheider has been given perhaps his most legendary role; it's almost a shame that he's overshadowed by just about everyone on the set, including an animatronic shark. Robert Shaw had maintained a long, healthy acting career before coming aboard the set of Jaws; The Sting and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three were among his legendary films. Yet just about everybody who's anybody KNOWS Captain Quint, the fisherman and shark hunter with his roguish charm, foul mouth and deadly instincts for the sea. Shaw succeeded in creating not just a character, but an ICON, and his memory will long outlast those of many of his contemporaries. Richard Dreyfuss, fresh off a Golden Globe nomination for his role in George Lucas's American Graffiti, amazes just in the fact that he's such a young man in Jaws, and that's before he puts on a good face as the scientist Matt Hooper, who constantly finds himself at odds with people who he doesn't think are as smart as he. Hooper can be pretty arrogant, and a bit much for the other characters to take sometimes, but he gets to redeem himself in the end. A great job making the character sympathetic, and for that matter the three men together work wonderfully, helping especially to make the film's final act so engaging. Lorraine Gary does some good work as Brody's wife Ellen, but can't hope to put on the same level as her three co-stars.

Rub a Dub Dub
The special effects have held up nicely in the past thirty-five years, especially the shark effects. When the creature lunges out of the water for a snack, it's always a surprise, and looks extremely realistic. Spielberg's underwater shots, though cribbed to death by others, really did a great job of setting the scene for mayhem, letting you know when your favorite sea killer was looking for a new meal. Brilliant pacing early on meant you were never sure who was going to get attacked, and this made for one of the more intense experiences you can have watching a movie. Only an early scene featuring one of the victims being strewn back and forth across the sea looks less than perfect, with many jump cutting, but otherwise the SFX is perfect. John Williams's score is also legendary, though only his classic Jaws theme is really timeless. Many of the other songs on the soundtrack sound remarkably similar to his other work, so much that you can imagine him twisting a few passages around and BAM... Star Wars music.It's fairly easy to ignore, however, as you're rarely focusing on the music long enough to detract from the film quality.

In the fight of Shark vs. Boat, Shark is a bit ahead at this time
Jaws is rightfully known as one of the greatest films ever made, hearkening back to the days when Spielberg could make a great movie without it having to brim with importance and superfluous messages. Those kinds of films can be fine, but so often we as audience members want to sit, stare at a screen, and get terrified. Jaws did this not by creating aliens and monsters to frighten its viewers; the creature depicted was real, dangerous, and plentiful enough that to this day beach-goers will not risk treading the tide. Never a dull watch, Jaws might not be one of my all time favorites, but like a light beer goes down easy on any given evening. After seeing it, however, you might get a hankering to grab Peter Benchley's novel and see how it inspired the film. If you're interested, check out Stevereads. Steve will be glad to see you; just don't get close enough to see his pearly whites, if you catch my meaning.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Song of Hanna

Okay, let's get this superlative out of the way first; Hanna is the best movie I've seen this year, standing tall at #1 for 2011. When I first saw the trailer for this title in December, I wasn't sure how I would feel about the action-packed thriller, only that it felt far different from any other film I was familiar with. The trailer was exciting, engaging, and flush with talented performers, including Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and rising star Saoirse Ronan. Music by electronica group The Chemical Brothers was also promoted, but I had a hard time believing the soundtrack could be as good as Daft Punk's work on Tron: Legacy. Helped by the fact that this past weekend was one for uninteresting new releases (including Arthur, Your Highness, and Blind Side wannabe Soul Surfer), plus an invite to see the midnight show by The Opinioness (who probably has her own review up and running by the time you read this), it was an easy choice to see Hanna over all the others. I'm very happy to have made that choice, as even a sleep-deprived evening couldn't take away the fact that director Joe Miller expertly put together an amazing film; that I get to write to you all about it is icing on the cake.

Yes, I'll just be getting our of your way now, thanks
Hanna (Ronan) lives in the wastes near the Arctic Circle with her father, Erik Heller (Bana). There, Erik has raised her to be a ruthless assassin, with the ultimate goal that of killing corrupt CIA handler Marissa Wiegler (Blanchett). Kept from the civilized world her entire life and all alone on her mission, Hanna goes on a journey of self-discovery while hunting down Wiegler en route to meeting up with her father again some day in the future. Meanwhile, Wiegler has her own team of lowlifes tracking down Hanna and Erik, as both are castoffs from her past wrongs, and has brought it upon herself to silence them forever.

The question remains: do the curtains match the drapes?
You'd be completely justified in assuming Hanna to be an ultra-violent mix of action, suspense and vigorous blood-letting, but what you might not expect is for the story to become funny. Not funny "hmm", I mean funny as in gut-busting laughs that will keep you smiling for hours. The film does take a more humorous tone when Hanna, on the run from a government holding facility, meets up with a vacationing family of tourists and ends up hitching a ride. Between the frank honesty and sometimes-bickering of the parents (Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng), the motor-mouthed brilliance of daughter and Hanna's budding friend Sophie (Jessica Barden) and Hanna's own trouble with social interaction (meeting Sophie for the first time, she repeats her own cover story from verbatim to hilarious effect), the whole series of sequences makes for some of the best parts of the film. It doesn't however stray from its often violent story - in fact, these humorous bits are often interspersed by sudden and shuddering acts - and so this act doesn't feel nearly as separate from the main story as it would in similar titles. In fact, it makes for a welcome respite and something new, and the humor's unpredictability means that you never see it coming, like some kind of pint-sized assassin.

Years later, Bana would recollect stints like The Time Traveler's Wife and join AA
Earlier I compared The Chemical Brothers to Daft Punk as longstanding electronic music groups turning in movie soundtracks. That comparison was perhaps a bit short-sighted, as while Daft Punk's electronic organs were ever present and almost essential to the immersion felt in Tron, The Chemical Brothers employed a far more subtle air in their work. Not only is their usual brand of synthesizer music amazing in its utility, but the group did an amazing job in creating music from whatever could be found, often mixing it into the background noise. Music connoisseurs will be more than happy closing their eyes and simply listening to the soothing and melodic sounds from everyday objects used to set up scenes, sequences and moods. Since Hanna has lacked music in her upbringing but always been curious about it, as a character she's experiencing all these strange acoustics with an ear just learning to hear on a whole other level. It does wonders to deepen our connection to her and develop the character even more than the script already does.

Oh, disembodied heads, you so crazy!
And the characters presented here are no cliched heaps of flawed humanity, either. In fact, the film excels in making even small characters lovable and engaging, and you especially feel for them when bad things happen. Ronan continues her climb to stardom over the bodies of those who oppose her; her Hanna is the perfect blend of violent sociopath and curious sixteen-year-old girl, shocking enough to be scary but emotionally raw enough to illicit sympathy from the audience. She's simply outstanding in the role, and at only seventeen years of age, we can expect even more amazing performances from her in the future. Bana missed his shot at being a legitimate Hollywood star about two Hulk movies ago, but also excels here in both an acting and physical role as Hanna's father and the man who made her the killing machine that she is. It's shame Bana makes poor choices in his films; he'll probably never get as popular in the States as he became in his native Australia for Chopper. Still, Hanna presents the idea that he might excel if he pursues the Liam Neeson route of action/thriller films, as he makes the most of Erik Heller as he can, sometimes overshadowing Ronan's own accomplishments in the process. I was afraid Blanchett would be little more than a heavy accent, but she more than acquits herself and makes a compelling villain as well. The film does oversimplify her evilness a bit by suggesting that she is that way for choosing her career over family (or vice versa), but that's really the only problem I have, and that certainly isn't Blanchett's fault. Her gooey southern accent, casual cruelty and a propensity for firearms combine to make Marissa Wiegler a dangerous individual to trifle with. Tom Hollander also does a good job as Wiegler's goon, a bleach-blond German psychopath who likes to make his victims suffer. I also have to give special credit to Jessica Barden for providing the film's funniest moments, even if her character was easily the least-developed of the bunch.

One tough lady
Some of Hanna's fight scenes were a little off, but only in those of the film's namesake and I assume only because it was a bit harder to make it convincing for the young woman to take out opponents twice her size. In fact, Bana has a much better scene halfway through that is so flawless that it lends itself to that argument. That's only a small nuisence, however; as I already stated, Hanna is just too good to avoid. Do yourself a favor, ignore those other films you haven't gotten around to seeing for now. Those still waiting to see truly great films like Win Win, The Adjustment Bureau, and Jane Eyre can put it off a bit longer, so demanding is Hanna's execution. This film grabs your attention and doesn't let go, and while it might not be remembered as the best movie of 2011, I can't imagine a world where it doesn't make my final Top 10 at year's end.