Monday, February 28, 2011

The Grace Card (2011)

Starring Michael Joiner, Michael Higgenbottom and Louis Gossett Jr.
Directed by David Evans
Rated PG-13: Violence, Some Thematic Elements

The film opens on a flashback to our protagonist, Bill “Mac” McDonald’s past, were we learn that a speeding car killed his son Tyler. We know his son’s name because he screams “Tyler!” after he bolts awake. Dreams are quite dangerous in the movies, aside of the risk of running into Freddy Kruger or Leonard DiCaprio in your subconscious, apparently having a nightmare generates enough adrenaline in your body to propel your torso at near lethal velocity the second you regain consciousness.

Well fifteen years later Mac is complete jerk, his morning conversation consisting of complaining how ethnics have moved into their neighborhood and yells at his living son Blake for being such a screw up and that Tyler never would have turned out like this. In fiction when your character is a jerk, it’s best to give them at least one redeeming trait so that we don’t completely detach from them. Mac is saddled with Dead Offspring Syndrome, so he gets a sympathy pass by association rather than by anything he does himself, as we see he’s a lousy husband and father, an outright racist, a bit of a sexist and a terrible police officer to boot.

We are then introduced to his new partner Sam Wright, whom the other police officers snidely call “Preacher”, due to his second job as a minister. Mac and Sam don’t get along, Sam getting the promotion to Sergeant over Mac, the latter convinced that the choice in candidates was due to race. Sam doesn’t really help matters by irritating his partner by signing verses from hymns during patrol. “A-MA-ZING G-RACE! Public domain we don’t have pay anyone! Hahaha.” We’ve already established that he’s the religious one of the duo so this is really just overkill.

The film also contains Louis Gossett Jr. as “Grandpa George”. Gossett is best known for his award winning roles such as Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley in “An Officer and A Gentleman”, Fiddler in “Roots”, and as Calvin Bouchard in “Jaws 3-D” (the latter of which had him nominated for the Golden Raspberry, which is an award of sorts). Despite his name on the poster with our two leads, he doesn’t really “star” in the movie since he only shows up in three short scenes, only two of them with dialogue and are just used to advance the spiritual side of the movie and serve as wised old mentor for Sam. By the end he hardly seems worth the mention.

Home life for Sam and Mac is lacking in subtlety. The Wrights live in a warmly lit earth toned house with a family dinner, light hearted banter and conflicts that are quickly and easily resolved. Contrast with the McDonald’s, who sit their cramped claustrophobic dining space that’s parked right up against a wall, and is lit by only one small overhead light. Apparently they’re broken in spirit as well as shins, stumbling around, banging into furniture in the dark.

Things pick up later, while on patrol Mac shoots a burglar fleeing a scene, only to discover that the thief his just shot was his own son! DUN-DUN-DUN! Mac’s reaction is so over the top that I nearly ruptured a lung laughing so hard. It turns out I’m not the only one to have grievous harm done, as Blake has been shot in the kidney and needs an urgent replacement.

Mac’s character arc comes to a head as we reach his big conversion scene, were, with Sam’s help he gives his life over to God. Not much to say here, its par for the course as far as Christian films are concerned and I’d best leave it at that.

Hope arrives just in the nick of time as it is revealed that Sam is an eligible donor for Blake’s needs and volunteers immediately, though he does take the time to have a flashback to all the moments he’s shared with Mac, that we’ve already seen in some poor attempt at pathos.

During the operation, Sam’s daughter asks her mother how they know a kidney from a black man will work in a white boy. Mom replies that while we’re different on the outside, but on the inside we’re all the same. It’s true all right; permit me to demonstrate by vomiting up rainbows. As far as a film about race relations goes, this isn’t exactly “In the Heat of the Night”, heck, this movie doesn’t even begin to break a sweat.

We cut ahead six months later so that we don’t have to see any of the gradual change to the characters after such a shocking ordeal, though this may have been done intentional, so that none of the actors have to actually “act”. The conclusion is at Sam’s church, which is now packed to the brim with new members including the McDonald family who are all happy and smiling and everything seems A-Okay. Then things suddenly become tense when the man who killed Tyler walks into the church, and in front of the whole congregation asks Mac for forgiveness. Wow. No pressure. It’s the kind of ending that would seem ridiculous even if it were on a daytime soap opera. Well as you expect, Mac extends his “Grace Card” to the man, as well as a hand to shake before we cut to the credits.


I know I’ll probably receive flack for coming down hard on a Christian film and for measuring by the same standards I would use for any mainsteam Hollywood film, especially given the theme of grace in this particular movie, but I can’t think of any reason why I should do otherwise. The problems I have with this film have nothing to do with its Christian message of forgiveness and mercy, both values that I can firmly attest to, but rather how the story is portrayed. When it all comes down this movie is intended to coddle viewers rather than convict them. The drama simplified for the sake of it evangelical sub culture target audience. The race relation element of the film in particular fails to deliver because it is incapable of branching beyond its simple depiction of racism, so that the finale can easily resolve all the bad blood. 

The direction relies heavily on communication through telling rather than showing in the actor’s performances because the characters really don’t have personalities. Instead the characters are used as blank slates to have problems projected onto them with no way of dealing with their situations on their own. They are written to have all their issues solved by giving themselves over to God, and presto change-o they are now completely different as a result! The filmmakers say “Take our word for it, and if you don’t believe, just look at the ending were Mac is backed into a situation were he can make no other choice except the one presented here.” There is no tension for them because they don’t feel like real people, especially when we don’t see them changed but are only told they have changed. The quality production values are really the movie’s only redeeming feature.

Final Score:
1 out of 5. Dull and Toothless.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fright Night (1985)

Starring Chris Sarandon,William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse and Roddy McDowell
Directed by Tom Holland
Rated R: Violence, Brief Nudity

The Story:
Typical teen Charley Brewster suspects that his new neighbor may be a vampire in disguise, but no one believes him. He goes to Peter Vincent, an aging actor who once played a famous vampire killer in a series of movies for help, but he doesn't Charley either until the truth is final revealed and together Charley and Peter fight in monster in a haunted house showdown.

My Thoughts:
The first act has an absolutely terrible set up, Charley ignores the cheesy horror movie on TV as well as his girlfriend who has just admitted to being ready to “put out”, in favor of watching a coffin being moved into the house next door, which is somehow more interesting to him. We follow that up with some clunky TV News exposition at a place that looks like its supposed to be teen hangout from “Happy Days” and get to meet Ed “Evil” Thompson, Charley’s high pitched and highly annoying “friend”. Charley engages in “Rear Window” antics, monitoring his neighbor’s activities for some unknown motivation, alienating those around him with his strange superstitions.

He calls the police, when he has little to no evidence to support his theory and plays the “vampire” card way to early so that absolutely no authority figure will believe, on top of that now the vampire knows you know about him. What an idiot. By this point my sympathy is with the vampire, because he shows just how clever he is, getting an invitation into Charley's house and sneaking around when Charley least expects it. However, when he tries to kill Charley, idiot it not, it crosses the line. Maybe if Charley were more charismatic I might have latched on to him more. The setting also love to remind us that he’s a teenager with the previously mentioned 1950s teen hangout, brief reference to school and studying, and the discarded Playboy pin ups alongside crushed Coke cans (I guess crumpled tissues would have been too racy) Speaking of sex, we’re also reminded that this is a teen movie in the eighties, as twenty minutes in we get a brief shot of bare breasts as an enticement to stay for the rest of the movie, a hallmark of a pre internet age of cinema.

Speaking of the internet, the exposition is handled rather clumsily. In an internet era I can either Google, Wikipedia or TV Tropes my way for a complete list of tell tale vampire signs, weaknesses and counter measures. Well, since Charley can’t do that, he relies on “Evil” to tell him about vampires, which is strange given that we see Charley watching movies about vampires on the Fright Night TV show that we see is on his TV every night. You’d think he’d be parked on his bed with one eye on screen taking notes while keeping one eye on the window.

It is a very “Eighties” movie. The dance club scene really doesn’t belong in any other era and feels crow barred into the end of the second act. Skipping ahead, Amy is kidnapped by Count Vampire because as per the law of Immortal Monsters be it Mummies, Vampires or Ghosts, their lost love is reincarnated into the next generation and looks exactly the same. This bit is never really explained though and the two of them have a Cinemax style love scene without any actual sex but plenty of over the top synthesized music.

The third act really does pick it up for me. The best scene for me is when Peter has his showdown with Evil, who is now a werewolf. Peter falls and fains over a broken railing so that Evil can do the “run and land on the impalement” trope, but the animatronics, makeup and most of all the acting, is what sell this scene as we see Evil recognizing his final death as he shifts from werewolf back to boy, his eye show remorse for his demise and convey thanks to Peter for releasing him as he slowly crumbles away, as Peter is petrified, his eyes welling with tears. Wow. Its a scene that I really wish had been in a better movie. If this footage this been used for the conclusion of "An American Werewolf in London", I would bumped my rating there to five stars easily.

Charley and Peter make their last stand in the biggest dry ice production plant ever, by flashing crosses to ward off evil, but it has to be backed by faith, which Charley has in spades, but for some reason Peter doesn’t even though he got the cross to work on Evil before, and now in the last stand Peter when does believe and for some reason it doesn’t work. Also Amy is now a vampire with a Chelsea smile and rows of impossibly sharp teeth that are absolutely freighting (out of context they might have been comical) and they have to kill the vampire before dawn in order to save her. I never really understood how that works. It’d be like if your friend was choking on an olive, and you try and help by destroying the jar of olives that it came from rather than working to remove the offending olive itself. Either way the kill the head vampire at daybreak so I don’t really know if that counts as "before dawn". Plus that’d be a great sequel hook if Amy started showing sign of vampirism, the two of them slowly realizing it but not knowing what to do about it.

The film pays homage to its processors, namely the Hammer Horror series, but seems to revel in its clich├ęs with a lack of genre savvyness. Its most redeemable elements are the parts rather than the whole. 

A remake is in development (no surprise), set for August 2011 and while Anton Yelcin as a teenager seems par for the course, but David Tennant as Peter Vincent makes this one a blip on my radar, an excellent actor returning as a returning action hero makes it all worth it.

"I'm going to be played by Doctor Who?"

Final Score: 
2 ½ out of 5. Tolerable. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)

Voices of Jim Strugess, Hugo Weaving, Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Zack Snyder
Rated PG

The Story:
Young owl Soren and his brother Kludd, fall out of their tree and are abducted and forced into an into an army for an evil owl empire. Managing to escape Soren and his new friends seek out the ledgendary Guardians of Ga'Hoole for aid.

My Thoughts:
I cannot talk about this movie with stressing the beautiful animation and the astonishing level of detail. Each owl looks unique and each have their own expressive faces. The trouble is that it’s a bit hard to project yourself into an animal in a fully animated world built on fantasy world rules. Its also a little hard to swallow that the Guardians shrouded in myth so that none of the common owls are sure they exist, while conversely the Guardians believe that the evil Metalbeak is a myth too. Despite this, I really do like how they don’t sugarcoat or water down the situation for kids. Theres also a  spotlight on the dark Cain and Abel plot between Soren and Kludd. They make a big deal talking about how war isn’t glamourous hero stuff and shows signs of the consequences of conflict.  Only for our pretentious hero to receive glamourous rewards after an unlikely victory on the heels of a dizzying final fight with the big bad , which was only won because our protagonist "followed his heart". 

Very fast paced, but hard to process in a hurry. Zack Snyder shows great visual skills and incredible special effects, but a rather generic fantasy story that is so speedy is hard to attach itself to, isn’t going to make much of impact in my mind in the long run, no matter how great the effects, though their groundbreaking status will add at least another point the final score.

Final Score:
3 out of 5. Exceptionally Unexceptional.

The Omen (1976)

Starring Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner
Directed by Richard Donner
Rated R: Violence

The Story:

The last time I put on a scary movie, it was “Poltergeist”, a film that had a plot motivated by the love for a child. Here we have a plot that is motivated by fear of a child. Ambassador Robert Thorne uncovers a conspiracy and the haunting realization that his son is the Antichrist.

My Thoughts:

It is a bit difficult to accept our leads at first for not recognizing the unsettling events around them. Though as a jaded viewer I am all too aware of the genre conventions to watch out for, so I may be biassed, because the opening scenes following the growing family, really do put you off your guard. After a series of grizzly deaths, Gregory Peck and Daivd Warner travel the world on a quest for the truth about the boy, Damien. This is quite easily the best part of the movie as the tension heightens with each discovery and the frights in this part are subtle and subconscious. The exhuming of the graveyard ruin caused me to squirm in my seat more than any of the film's many graphic decapitation scenes. This makes the urgent conclusion, seem a bit meek by comparison as it involves more traditional set ups of a stretch of silence before something jumps out of the dark corner. I suppose I should be grateful such an old trope was limited and saved for the end.

By this time Gregory Peck is a weathered veteran, and tackles this part like the pro that he is, encompassing an uncertain hero with ease even after years of playing square jawed moral compass types. 

Director Richarad Donner sets the grim atmosphere perfectly, using a series of unique shots and camera angles to convey alienation and claustrophobia to staggering effect.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one that really puts him through his paces. The ominous Latin chanting probably being the most memorable, but can also bend emotions by starting off with a sentimental sound only slowly introduce untuned instruments to render the scene unsettling.

It that respect its a hard film to rate because it succeeds so well at being so displeasing and uncomfortable to the audience and I base my scores on the quality of the film, I also temper that with how much I enjoyed it as a whole.

Final Score: 
4 out of 5. Chilling.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Poltergeist (1982)

Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’ Rourke
Directed by Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg (the latter uncredited)
Rated PG: Frightening Images and Peril

The Story:
The Freeling Family lives uneventfully in a quiet suburban neighborhood, until strange things start to happen. Lights flicker, furniture begins to move by itself and before malevolent spirits abduct their youngest daughter, Carol Anne. Driven to their whit’s end, the Freelings hire a team of paranormal investigators to bring her back.

My Thoughts:
The pacing is perfect. The film baits us with small feats to feed our paranoia before delivering the big thrills then giving us time to breathe in lighter, quieter scenes that contain Spielberg’s lighter “life force humanity” moments guided by Jerry Goldsmith’s kind and twinkling score, before elevating back to excitement. Each fright we are presented with escalates over the previous. Even though the movie has some very well known scares like the monster tree, the killer clown or the cadavers in the swimming pool, they are still quite startling. But despite all the amazing technical elements, the backbone of the story is the shock and grief at the unexplainable disappearance of Carol Anne and the desperate need to see her returned safely. The danger is ever present, as is the reason to stay, a perfect Catch-22.

Every element works like clockwork. The identifiable characters, the frightening situations, the precise music and special effects that still look amazing after twenty years.

Final Score:
5 out of 5. Superb.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Starring Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasence
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Science Fiction
No Rating

The Story:

When a defector from “The Other Side” of the Cold War barely survives an assassination attempt, a special team is sent in a miniaturized submarine and injected into his body to repair the damage against a ticking clock.

My Thoughts:

It became clear very quickly that this film was about the setting and situations and not about characters. We only get brief glimpses at the people assigned to go on this dangerous mission, and not much beyond their role in the operation. Grant, serves as the squared jawed All American strapping hero we is reluctant to accept the call of adventure at first but quickly falls into line. He briefly hits on Cora, the token female whom the generals are against sending on the voyage, despite her implied technical expertise. While she has the deck stacked against her, really her primary purpose in the movie is to look good in a scuba suit, because she does little else. We have a surgeon and a sub pilot whose names have already escaped me because once again, they serve no purpose other than their assigned roles. Finally, theres Dr. Michaels, the claustrophobic navigator, whose character gets the most depth only because Donald Pleasence is the best actor of the lot and can contribute much to such a scantily written part. He also commits sudden yet inevitable betrayal by the end, which isn’t to surprising given his typecasting in villain roles combined with the fact that if you’d been paying attention at all you’d have seen right through him, so the saboteur subplot doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. In fact that’s one of the film’s biggest faults. There isn’t a whole lot of tension for when our characters are in danger, because we just don’t have any characters that we care about to be concerned over whether they live or die.

Because of the urgency of the scenario the crew don’t have time to be trained or familiarized with their equipment and have to have it explained and prepared for them as slowly as possible. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the teams of beautiful super geniuses from the CSI dramas. At least there I can get a healthy serving of competence, science speak and inside the body camera shots. (Hat Trick!)

Once things get going, the crew seems to the encounter one obstacle after another. Each setback reads like the rapid-fire cliffhanger of an exciting Dan Brown novel, but in practice feels like a series of pit stops toward the ultimate goal. Each problem is solved with quick and easy MacGyver engineering with only small and limited consequences, so you’re just waiting for the next hurdle for them to jump over and then move on to the next one. The only time I was really shocked or scared was when Cora is attacked by antibodies and couldn’t breath (as she repeated tells us), but it wore off quickly when I saw their solution was to have four guys lean over her and start groping her chest.

The film is all about the voyage, and it’s an imaginative one at that, just not very well executed. The effects and sets are well designed and constructed, but haven’t aged well. You can see the wires in some scenes, but are fine otherwise so long as they don’t have too many shots of the crew standing in front of the rear projection windows engaging in dull surprise.

Final Score:
3 out of 5.  Interesting, but sadly not fantastic.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw
Directed by Joseph Sargent
Rated R: Language, Violence

The Story:
A New York City Subway train is hijacked by four armed gunman who have taken hostages for a one million dollar ransom, now its up to traffic controller Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) to negotiate for the lives of the hostages.

My Thoughts:
Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw are excellent in their respective roles. Matthau’s lack of chiseled A-Star looks with his round nose and tired eyes makes him completely believable as a working class schlub, but there is more to it than that in the performance. The camera holds back so that none of the main characters swamp any of the shots or the story. Frequently there are cuts between the train, the control station, the mayor’s mansion, and various police officers and such to remind us of the scale of the story and all the parts involved in it. A lesser movie might have turned Gerber into the big hero with a big showdown with the bad guy in the end but the large cast fits perfectly with the New York setting and the big city’s gleeful cynicism it employs serves as perfect levity. A big story with lots of parts to play and each one performs like clockwork. Suspense is key, each action propels the next until the thrilling conclusion

Final Score:
5 out of 5. Flawless.

The Majestic (2001)

Starring Jim Carrey, Laurie Holden, Martin Landau
Directed by Frank Darabont
Rated PG

The Story:
Jim Carrey stars as Pete Appleton, a Hollywood screenwriter working in B-Movies with high ambitions in the early 1950s. Things take a turn for the worse when Pete is blackballed on suspicion having Communist sympathies. After crashing his car, he winds up with amnesia, and wonders into the small town of Lawson were he is mistaken for Luke Trimble, an MIA war hero and favorite son of the town who hardly reacquaint him with his old life. He begins to accept it, until his past comes back to haunt him.

My Thoughts:
The film begins with some very clunky expository dialogue and some awful close up shots. Carrey’s aids how much we need to be told rather than shown about the character through a voiceover explaining his life to whoever he thinks is listening I suppose. I’m generally of the opinion that if you use a voiceover narration it needs to be incorporated into the whole film you’re using it to lazily tell us about the character rather than let us experience him for ourselves. Pete gets drunk in the bar explaining how his beautiful actress girlfriend left him, which would have been something good for us to see, so that we could see his sorrow first hand, but again, we have to be told about it. After that  he starts talking to a toy monkey to explain his emotions yet again. Then he bumps his head and gets amnesia and the telling finally stops.

Pete’s new identity of the heroic Luke is met with mounting praise. This is difficult to watch because we know hes not really who they think he is and everyone is suckered into it , making the inevitable “I always knew…” statements towards the end that much more painful.

Eventually Pete remembers whom he is and is dragged into court by a Communist Witchhunter who was only established early on but doesn’t have much stance as a bad guy since by this point we’ve all but forgotten about him. Carrey delivers a grand speech of “I stand for X and Y ideals” but it feels rather hollow and without weight or consequence, those present however, treat it with loud cheers, rounds of applause and slow tear drops. Carrey returns to Lawson with a crowd awaiting his return once again worshiping the ground he walks upon closing the film in a neat package.

The film is a homage to the sentimentality and triumph of the human spirit themes commonly found in a Frank Capra film such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”. Using those themes here doesn’t work because we have to jump from Pete to Luke and back again so we don’t have a connection with the main character. The disappearing and reappearing antagonist makes this worse and the climax lacks any manner of subtly. Its hard to believe that this is from the director of “The Shawshank Redemption”, were all of Tim Robbin’s actions were subtle and quiet, building towards a greater purpose with a slow build up that generated tension and gave time to really get to know the main character. Here we are fed the line that Pete’s actions have greater meaning and are then told to applaud without really feeling the effects.

It’s a good idea on paper, and Jim Carrey does a good job with the material provided, but it feels a bit to packaged and processed in to building a “feel good” movie that it has almost the opposite effect.

Final Score:
2 1/2 out of 5. “Modest” but not Majestic.