Monthly Archives: June 2013

The ABCs of Death

The ABC’s of Death is like eating a box of chocolates slipped under your front door by a stalker: A few are naturally savory or unexpectedly delightful, the bulk are just there, and then you run across the weird ones that you need to wash down afterwards with something strong… followed by a few that were doctored up so badly (re: Crunchy Frog and Anthrax Ripple) that you vomit the half-chewed glob along with the remnants of your lunch into the trash.

ABC’s definitely covers a gamut of good to bad, realistic to surreal, bloody to weird, a few animated shorts, serious to sad, amusing to superfluously over the top in terms of sheer carnage. This is a movie where the “No animal was harmed…” disclaimer should be modified to “No animal or human was harmed…” as the body count for various forms of mammalian life in general here is rather high. I would even categorize two of the entries as some kind of freaky-disturbing Asian torture p0rn, except I hesitate to embarrass the torture p0rn crowd by the comparison.

One welcome shift is that many of the clips are foreign, and English audiences will need to use the subtitle feature to follow dialogue; that’s actually a testament to diversity and kind of a welcome feature.

A few of the directors will be recognizable to general Western audiences, especially because of their involvement with some fairly recent indie-style projects as well as franchises like V/H/S. I found the Ti West clip (M) horribly disappointing and unimaginative, while the Adam Wingard sequence (rather meta, and involving an innocent-looking fowl) was one of the funnier shorts in the movie.
If I had to pick, probably the most dramatically interesting and high-quality production of the bunch was D (by Marcel Sarmiento), while the one that makes the most coherent (if bloody) social statement was X (by Xavier Gens). I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that both entries that could be labeled as animation (one conventional, one claymation) deal with the inherent dangers of scatalogical functioning.

ABC’s embodies both the benefits and flaws of acquiring 26 unspecified clips from a variety of filmmakers, stuck in a pre-specified order. While you will see quite a variety of clips of endurable length, the only editorial control lies in the original choice of the directors and what letter they are assigned. There is no way to create an encompassing dramatic arc, control pacing, or prevent repetition in theme or setting. With a two-hour run-time, if you can stomach the prerequisite gore, this is one of those movies that is more watchable in bite-sized pieces (if you dare pop one in your mouth); doing so won’t mess up the flow, and watching the film in a few sittings, when you’re in the mood, might even make it more enjoyable.

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Man of Steel

Jonathan Kent: You’re the answer, son. You’re the answer to “are we alone in the universe”.

Clark Kent at 13: Can’t I just… keep pretending I’m your son?

Jonathan Kent: You ARE my son. And I have to believe that you were sent here for a reason. And even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is.

Despite negative critical buzz, “Man of Steel” is the kind of movie whose success hinges upon your particular tastes. Yes, it doesn’t help that one of Snyder’s weaknesses as a director is creating nuanced pathos — that problem plagues him here, he has trouble knowing how to shoot a scene in a way that generates complex emotion, there are lines that fall flat — but the story by Goyer and Nolan at least gives him that chance that “Sucker Punch” never had.

It also doesn’t help that the movie breaks from established expectations for a Superman movie; while accusations of the tone being “brooding” honestly are overblown, it’s true that this Clark goes through his growing pains as a boy even while essentially on the same route to becoming the Superman the world knows and loves. It just seems difficult, in the eyes of many, for Cavill’s genuine earnestness to compete with Reeve’s understated sweetness of soul. The latter joined with Kidder’s tenacious but squirrelly Lois seemed to possess more chemistry than Cavill and Adams are able to generate here.

The best parts of the movie focus on Clark’s ever-maturing loyalties. The most important events in Clark’s childhood are revealed in flashbacks; the Clark who begins the movie is a young man still “searching” for himself, drifting through odd jobs across the breadth of North America. While he is aware that he is not human, the only definitive thing he knows about himself is that he often feels compelled to help those who are in need, even if it might expose him. When he finally runs across a simulacrum of his Kryptonian daddy, he can face the task of forging an identity that honors both sides of his heritage. The real dilemma is what happens when Zod and his mob of cray-cray finally comes earthside: Clark is forced to choose between an adopted home where he’s always felt untrusted as an outsider, versus blood relatives who are (in essence) total asshats. What should have been a Kodak moment becomes instead a family-holiday nightmare, but it’s through what follows that Clark finally comes to terms with who he is and what he values.

Yes, there are fight sequences, as one would expect in a movie about the mightiest mortal of them all. If you enjoy watching superheroes destroy large swaths of urban architecture, then this should be a veritable smorgasbord — the fights here make the Neo/Smith battle from Matrix Revolutions look like preschool recess. (The distance of the first knockback needs to be measured in miles, not yards; and whoever wins the Metropolis City construction contracts at movie’s end will be in business for at least the next century.) The only side that doesn’t stand a chance is (of course) us, the humans, even using our most advanced weaponry and battle tactics; and it doesn’t take long for the Kryptonians to recognize humanity as Superman’s only real weakness as well.

One honest disappointment of “Man of Steel” is that the supporting cast — many of them fine actors in their own right — are limited by the script and/or direction so as to be merely adequate rather than super. And the female characters so typically strong in a Superman movie don’t really get a unique voice here at all. (Diane Lane, as Martha Kent, shares a good portion of the female screen time with Adams, but her lines are sadly more paint-by-the-numbers than resonant.)

Only the two father figures of the movie — Jor-El and Jonathan Kent — fair decently; and of the two, Costner’s performance is easily the stronger despite Crowe’s trademark machismo. Jonathan Kent walks a tenuous line between hesitance and prudence, a simple man who places more value in character than achievement, and yet just when you think he’s holding Clark back needlessly, he lifts the boy higher so that he has a chance to fly. Although the Kryptonian father bequeaths his son with the coolest gifts (superpowers, advanced science, alien technology), it’s the human father who somehow creates a safe space around his son so that in the silence he can finally hear his own voice. (This is notably realized in a flashback scene with Martha, where she provides a safe focal point for Clark amid the sensory chaos he is experiencing during puberty while struggling to master his emerging abilities.) What Snyder lacks as a director of dialogue he often finds within a particular visual image, and this movie has a few such shots that are powerful without any words needing to be spoken. In the end, Clark might feel robbed by being stuck between two worlds , but in the process he has received a double-portion of something that some people don’t even have one of: A pair of loving parents.

While Shannon does not bring the same casual audacity and narcissism to the role of Zod brought so deliciously by Terrence Stamp, his zealot leader is almost more admirable, his motivations more accessible. Zod seems almost sane when explaining that everything he has done has been for the good of the people — well, his people. It’s the kind of justification that might even fly as long as you weren’t the one at the business end of the zealot’s brutal ministrations. But it does raise the stakes: The old Clark in “Superman 2” had no doubt that a Zod victory would be a disaster, while in “Man of Steel” stopping Zod means ensuring that the people of Krypton will be forever lost. It’s the general’s right-hand woman, Faora-Ul, who is the real amoral terror among the Kryptonian rebels, viewing mercy and restraint as evolutionary disadvantages that result only in extinction for those foolish enough to practice them.

How you feel about “Man of Steel” by the movie’s end will likely depend in part on how carefully you can track the human story through the movie, versus just the superpowered one. As a parent of both biological and adopted children, I could resonate with both sets of parents — the ones who gave away their son so that he might live, and the ones who invested and sacrificed to raise him regardless of where the boy would finally decide to hang his cape. Would that any of us had parents who loved us enough to provide us with the resources and freedom to, rather than bending us to their will, find our own answers and passions over the course of our own lives.

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The “Locked Room” Gambit

(Otherwise known as “Who am I, and How Did I Get in this Handbasket?”)

These movies belong to a subset of the “puzzle” movie. They typically involve a bunch of people waking up in some kind of enclosed space from which they can’t easily escape, unable to explain how they got there, why they are there, what they need to do, or even who they happen to be.

(This kind of setup also sometimes occurs within the context of a larger movie, such as the Saw entries I’ve included here: The “locked room” puzzle is just part of an even larger puzzle that other characters are trying to solve.)

The fun of course comes into trying to solve the mystery before the characters do. Whether the fun continues as the move progresses depends on how “fair” the writer has made the mystery, so that the viewer might have a chance to unravel it.

Cube

The protagonists each awake in a cube-shaped chamber, with square doors on all six surfaces. The cubes can be of different colors. Some of the rooms contain death traps, all of which seem devised to be as sadistic as possible. As the characters move from room to room and join forces, they must find a way to escape the large trap of the Cube while simultaneously determining which of the smaller cubes are safe to traverse. This movie has spawned a few sequels.

Exam

Eight final candidates for an unidentified job position filter into a windowless room and are handed nothing but a piece of paper and a pencil. They are given instructions on what and what not to do, told they will be asked a simple question, then are left to their own devices. Candidates are removed from the room when the rules are broken; only one candidate (if any) can be offered the job.

Nine Dead

Nine people awake in a basement, chained so that they cannot escape or reach each other. A masked gunman informs them that one of them will die every ten minutes, unless they can figure out exactly how they are each related. This movie thus differs from the others in that it’s not an elimination game, and in fact cooperation is not just encouraged but mandated; there is no way to solve the riddle unless they communicate clearly with each other, and if they don’t solve the riddle of their connection, none will escape alive.

Unknown

Five characters awake in room in a sealed warehouse. Two characters are free; the rest are fettered in some way (rope, handcuffs, etc). Some of them are wounded; all have been drugged so that even their personal memories are temporarily lacking.

This movie differs from the other in that (1) the production quality is decent, rather than shoestring, and (2) it stars a number of established mainstream actors, including Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”), Greg Kinnear (“As Good as It Gets”), Joe Pantoliano (“The Matrix”), Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”), Jeremy Sisto (“Six Feet Under”), and Peter Stormare (“Fargo”). 

Saw II

Eight strangers (one a boy named Daniel) wake up in the basement of a house filled with nerve toxin that will kill everyone if they do not escape within two hours. They are told that each of them possesses part of the solution and then left to their own devices.

While this riddle occupies much of the movie, it is housed within a larger puzzle, where police inspector Matthews is being shown a feed of what is occurring within the house, yet promised that his son Daniel will be safely reunited with him if he resists his urge to save them and instead sits out the game with Jigsaw.

Saw V

In this case, the main puzzle revolves around the plight of five strangers who awaken in a sewer death trap and undergo a series of fatal puzzles, their numbers dwindling along the way.  While they do solve each room in turn, not every solution might be for the best.

Clue

A non-traditional entry in the genre, due to its comedic tone, but it fits the criteria. Six guests (named after the infamous playing pieces of “Clue”) are invited to dinner; a body is found; the butler locks the house the mansion until the killer can be pinpointed; the remainder of the movie is about the characters trying to determine how each is connected to the stiff and, finally, “Who Dun It.”

Three different endings were filmed and shown randomly during the theater release; the home release version includes all three endings in the viewing.

[to be continued if more come to light]

Warm Bodies

Love changes things. It can open one’s eyes, it can remake the world. Maybe it can even raise the dead.

Warm Bodies isn’t “just another zombie movie.” R is one of those zombies who is not like the others. Although he’s not much for words anymore, and although he’s driven to chow down on human flesh with the best of them, inside beats the idealistic heart of a Disney movie protagonist. R can’t dance, and he sure can’t sing, but he’s got the next best thing — a record album collection of popular 70’s and 80’s tunes — and it’s all tucked away in his own little Ariel-esque treasure trove of odds and ends he’s collected in order to remind himself of what it was like to be human, once.

R is trapped in the terrible merry-go-round all zombies face — staggering about, grunting, eating people, falling to pieces — until one fateful day when he and a posse of fellow zombies run into a group of teenagers out on a medicine run. Zombie meets girl, it’s love at first sight, and R’s heart literally skips a beat. Better yet, Julie’s boyfriend just bit the dust, so there’s an opening for a new stiff in her life… or, at least, hope springs eternal for lovelorn teenagers, undead or not.

Warm Bodies (usually humorously, sometimes cleverly) manages to filter a teenage romantic comedy formula through the zombie motif. In fact, the more R changes, the hunkier he becomes… but Nicholas Hoult wasn’t cast just as a pretty face; he believably manages to convey the earnest nuance of a transition from Mr. Zombie Lonely Heart back to something more recognizably human. His love interest, Julie (Teresa Palmer, know for her kick-ass #6 in “I Am Number Four”) is thick-skinned and bull-headed, so it’s believable that she can handle being trapped in zombie territory without freaking out regularly. (There’s only one moment where she surprised me with an unexpectedly subdued response, but the moment passes quickly.)

John Malkovich as Capulet, err, Julie’s father — the survivalist leader with an understandable vendetta against the zombies who ate his wife — plays what screen time he gets pretty much by the numbers, ho-hum. Analeigh Tipton has a nice little role as Nora, Julie’s best friend and co-conspirator, who offers necessary BFF support as the two little lovebirds attempt to bring their two clans together without being offed in the process. It’s all not exactly Shakespeare, but the banter between some of the characters (R and Julie, Julie and Nora) is alternately endearing and amusing. R’s interactions with his “best zombie friend M” (where “best friend” means staring blankly at each other and grunting on occasion) are also drolly funny, and the ever-evolving relationship between them signals how the zombie zeitgeist might be changing for the better.

The movie spends a lot of time developing the relationship between R and Julie, so much that the film feels unbalanced when the endgame is reached and resolves itself more quickly than expected. However, there’s so much good stuff in the first half that it’s not a huge loss, even if it would have been nice to see a little more meat regarding the prejudice inherent between humans and zombies. The visual palette is rich and detailed, with dream and memory sequences in vibrant gold and the color tones moving from cold blues to a more normal range as the story progresses.

Along with a nice parallel where R first protects Julie in his domain, then she later protects him in hers, there are two themes that bring dramatic substance to the movie. One revolves around why zombies eat brains in the first place, creating an even more intense dichotomy of pity versus revulsion for their condition. (It reminds me of discussions I’ve about the nature of vampires being undead who steal life from the living to pretend they are alive, and what moral choice remains to the vampire who wishes to be an agent of good rather than harm.) The other is in the origin of their condition — not just the virus but also a loss of the memory of what it means to be human — and that perhaps a cure relies less in a pill or injection and more in restored connections with those who can help them remember how to find their “way back.” (One might even go so far as to say that Warm Bodies comments on how fragmented human relationship leads to destructive consumerism, although that’s more of an idea for undergrads struggling for a film class term paper topic than something the movie consciously obsesses over.)

Along with the full-length feature, the BluRay contains a few goodies, including deleted scenes and a gag real with a few really funny bits. One of the “must-sees” is “Zombie Acting Tips from Rob Corddry” from Screen Junkies, a mock doc of the actor playing “M” that will leave you laughing and even perhaps a bit disturbed (in the good sense).

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Les Miserables (2012)

The closest I ever came to Les Mis was in college (back ’bout the time Hugo wrote the novel, *cough*) and a friend lent me his copy, and years later, it’s still sitting untouched on my bedroom bookshelf. (Note to self: Is that why he stopped talking to me?)

Too many purists were emerging from the woodwork when this adaptation hit the theaters on Christmas 2012, so I decided to save my money. The biggest surprise upon viewing this spring was how enjoyable it actually was, even if not perfect… but then again, isn’t acceptance of the imperfect the definition of grace? And if Les Miserables is a tale of anything, it is a tale of grace to move the heart.

Jean Valjean is a man harshly punished by society (5 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s child, another 14 for myriad attempts to escape), and not just before his release. His relapse into theft is quick (stealing the monastery silver), driven both by need and by society’s contempt for him as a prior felon — but a moment of grace by the Church offers him a taste of freedom and a new vision of who he could become. So Valjean violates his parole and vanishes in order to recreate his life from the ground up, reemerging eventually as a well-meaning and well-respected community leader.

The story might have ended there, but parole violation is still a crime, and the relentless Inspector Javert has no forgiveness for anyone’s shortcomings, not even his own; he lives so that others might pay for even the smallest of crimes. Valjean is granted a golden opportunity to pin his crimes on another, but selflessness have permeated his heart: He finds he can no longer stomach such deceit,  so he reveals his identity and the chase begins anew.

Les Miserables doggedly pursues this conflict between grace and guilt, dispensation and denunciation, through both the mundane events of life as well as through an actual revolution in the streets of Paris. Can the truly guilty still experience redemption? What is the nature and cost of forgiveness, what is the difference between a clean versus corrupt heart? Which worldview dominates, and what happens to the man who realizes his world no longer makes sense?

The public discussion around the movie at its release is, for the most part, accurate. In terms of composition, the movie relies on face shots for many sequences, which might provide some intimacy to the characters but reduces the contributions of establishing shots and set/costume design. However, Hooper’s decision makes some sense in terms of how the film focuses on live (not canned) performance, which involves capturing both sound and facial expression. Art is essentially a collection of decisions made between mutually exclusive choices; there are always tradeoffs, and in this case Hooper opted for the raw and personal.

Jackman, with prior stage experience, comports himself admirably as Jean Valjean; he’s believable, he’s sympathetic, he can sing, he can act, he propels the story forward by sheer force of will and emotional grit. It’s also impressive that Hathaway (as Fantine, the mother-turned-prostitute in trying to provide for her little girl) snagged an Oscar for a performance with so little actual screentime. While she sings well, it’s really her acting — especially the facial expressions during “I Dreamed a Dream” — that will tear your heart out. I don’t think I’ve seen such a diverse, yet authentic flow of emotion (sorrow, fear, rage, regret, emptiness) expressed within such a short range of time, even if at time the song dies in her throat. There are some who would take issue with this, but I don’t agree; she’s not a singer here, she’s an actress, this is a movie and not a musical concert, and Hathaway’s choices serve the ultimate goal of bringing the viewers deeply into the movie’s pathos.

Sadly, the comments about Crowe are also true; his singing skills aren’t up to task, he lacks confidence in his own performance, and even at his best moments sounds like he’s crooning to a lover rather than angrily hounding his enemy to the ends of the earth. (If you want to see “Stars” falling from the sky, you need go no further; the song is a disaster, from at least a characterization perspective.) But it’s hard to blame Crowe, who was doing his best with a role that was obviously beyond his grasp to start with.

The other characters comprise themselves well. Even if it’s not a stretch for them, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter perfectly play farcical innkeepers who always seem to have money on their minds. Seyfried as the older Cosette hits all the right high notes; and then we begin to run across cast members with extensive theater backgrounds and professional voices (Redmayne, Barks, Huttlestone, et al) who bring a whole new depth to the music as well as the acting. They don’t get as much attention as the top-billed stars… and to me, that’s a crime far worse than the theft of a loaf of bread.

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