Sunday, December 30, 2007

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem / *½ (R)

Dallas: Steven Pasquale
Kelly: Reiko Aylesworth
Morales: John Ortiz
Ricky: Johnny Lewis
Jesse: Kristen Hager
Molly: Ariel Gade

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by The Brothers Strause. Written by Shane Salerno, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett and Jim and John Thomas. Running time: 86 min. Rated R (for violence, gore and language).

There are times when watching movies can be down right discouraging. I shouldn’t let a movie like “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” get me down in a year that brought such wonderful cinema as “American Gangster”, “Zodiac”, “Grindhouse”, “Stephanie Daley”, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, “Eastern Promises”, “No Country for Old Men”, “Knocked Up”, and “Hairspray”. But I can’t help it. I understand that the sci-fi genre can’t hope to produce high aspirations throughout, but how could one franchise—or even two, as is the case here—have fallen so far from its original greatness.

“AVP-R” made me yearn for Ridley Scott’s patience in building tension, with his long tracking shots and the silence of space in the original “Alien”. I desired James Cameron’s maternal themes and terse action from “Aliens”. I remembered David Fincher’s moody production design and stylized camera work from “Alien 3”. The simpler but easy to follow plots of the two “Predator” films were well conceived compared to this “Requiem” mess. Even the failure of “Alien: Resurrection” aspired to be something greater than just an action contest of rubber-suited muscle. Hell, I even found some pleasure in the rudimentary gamesmanship that made up the entirety of Paul W. S. Anderson’s sub-standard “Alien vs. Predator”. But “Requiem”—a title that has no apparent meaning beyond the fact that it sounds cool—aspires to be nothing more than bad B-grade cinema.

The Brothers Strause graduate from the visual effects teams of such visually stunning pictures as “300”, “Constantine”, and “The Day After Tomorrow” to the directors’ chairs with all too typically muddied results. It seems the only knowledge they gained from their experience with visual effects over the past decade or so is that if you keep the picture very dark, the audience won’t be able to see when you’ve colored outside the lines. The aliens and the predator in this picture fight many times, and I don’t remember an action picture where I dreaded the action sequences so much. This is simply because the picture was so dark that none of the action could be followed. There was even this potentially awesome looking alien/predator hybrid, but I never got a good look at him so I’ll never know for sure.

That is not to say those Brothers Strause handled the non-action sequences any better. Shane Salerno’s script provides too many characters and never any solid reasons for them to remain in harm’s way. With a plot set for no particular reason in Crested Butte, Colorado, Salerno (“Shaft”) doles out all the typical rising death count movie character types. John Ortiz (“Miami Vice”) is terribly miscast as the small town’s reluctant sheriff. There is the affluent rich girl Jesse (Kristen Hager, “I’m Not There”) and Ricky (Johnny Lewis, “The OC” TV series), the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants her. Ricky’s older brother Dallas (Steven Pasquale, FX’s “Rescue Me”) is a reformed troublemaker and former friend of the sheriff. And the strong female heroine comes in the form of Kelly (Reiko Aylesworth, FOX’s “24”), a recently returned soldier from Iraq and mother to Molly (Ariel Gade, NBC’s “Invasion”).

Why the story doesn’t begin with Kelly is beyond me. Instead we are introduced to the space creatures first as the bug-like aliens break away from their captors, the predators, aboard a spacecraft that crashes in the Colorado wilderness. I believe this scene is meant to be a continuation of the final scene from the first “AVP” movie, but the alien/predator hybrid is the only reference ever made to that story.

In fact, the referencing of previous films and practices of the aliens and predators with no further explanation or purpose seems to be a theme of this movie. Like the ship’s captain in the original “Alien”, one of the characters is named Dallas. No relation between the two is ever mentioned. In the same way Ripley takes on the mother role to Newt in “Aliens”, Kelly must work to be accepted by Molly as her mother again after years away at war. But once they start dodging blows between the aliens and the predator, Molly might as well not even exist. There are scenes that reference “Alien 3” as well, including one in a hospital where the alien/predator hybrid seems to take the same interest in the pregnant women in the maternity ward that the alien took in Ripley’s pregnancy from that earlier film. But the purpose seems designed more to disgust the audience than to make any biological sense.

Perhaps the most mind-boggling reference to any of the earlier pictures in either franchise, however, comes when the predator seems to counteract his entire purpose on the planet when he kills a cop, skins him, and hangs him from a tree for the humans to discover. While this is a common practice of the predators in previous incarnations, this predator is not on Earth to hunt humans, but rather purpose re-capture the aliens and erase any trace of their existence. Why else would he be carrying around some chemical that disintegrates all living tissue with which it comes into contact. He meticulously destroys all evidence left behind by the escaped aliens, including a father and son that were impregnated by some face-sucking alien bugs, but then he leaves the cop’s corpse as a calling card. I guess a predator just can’t suppress his own nature.

I suppose The Brothers Strause are proud of their resolve as filmmakers for having the guts to kill off children in the same horrific and gory manner as any of the adults in the film. What they don’t seem to have the brains to do is look at the films from which theirs originated and demand a script that lives up to the legacy that has been bestowed upon them. When the 007 series begins to spin its wheels, MGM shakes it up with a major revamp. Fox only seems interested in milking these once valuable franchises until they are dead and buried.

Monday, December 24, 2007

I Am Legend / *** (PG-13)

Robert Neville: Will Smith

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Richard Matheson and the 1971 screenplay “The Omega Man” by John William Corrington and Joyce Corrington. Running time: 101 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence).

I remember watching Will Smith in his first big screen starring role. The movie was called “Six Degrees of Separation” and told the true story of a man who conned his way into New York high society by claiming to be the son of Sydney Poitier. It starred such accomplished actors as Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland and Ian Mckellen, was directed by the great Fred Schepisi and written by renowned playwright John Gaure from his award-winning Broadway play. The character piece was a departure for Smith, who was still making his popular “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” television sit com and was known as a hip hop artist. Although the movie was well handled by the veteran filmmakers, its weak point was Smith’s performance which lacked the deeper inner workings of the more accomplished performers. Few could have guessed at that time what a powerful actor Smith would become. It seems every time he makes a movie he raises the bar a little bit higher. With “I Am Legend”, he has leapt to a height little reached by others in his trade.

In a virtually solo performance, Smith plays Dr. Robert Neville, the sole survivor of a world wide holocaust. Neville wanders a deserted Manhattan hunting and scavenging supplies with his only companion, his dog Sam. Sam is lovingly portrayed by a German Shepherd named Abby, but I think Smith deserves a great deal of credit for carrying her performance as well. Neville has “conversations” with the dog to hold on to his humanity.

If the images of a Manhattan that is beginning to succumb to three years of vegetation growth is not disturbing enough, it is clear that Neville and Sam have many things in this humanless world to fear. Despite the obvious skill with weaponry Neville displays by hunting caribou through the streets of the decimated Big Apple in a sports car, he won’t go into any dark places. He has alarms and elaborate security set up in his apartment compound that are set to keep him locked in from sunset to do sunrise.

Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) and screenwriters Mark Protosevich (“The Cell”) and Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) do a good job structuring the story so you are given just enough information to make it clear what Neville’s goals are and keep you guessing about his motivations. The action is set three years after a mutating virus first sets in on the human race turning most people into savages with little resemblance of their humanity. Some, like Neville, were immune to the virus, but were killed off by those infected. Through a series of personal flashbacks, Neville shows us the beginnings of the outbreak and what happened to his own family. He had been a military scientist charged with finding a cure. He chose to stay at ground zero to continue his work. Reversing the effects of the virus is his only purpose left.

There is a second wonderful performance in the movie provided by Emma Thompson (“Nanny McFee”). It is perhaps the most nuanced performance I’ve ever seen in an uncredited cameo. She opens the film as a doctor being interviewed on television for having discovered a cure for cancer. Her characters uneasy nature portends the dark developments to come.

I should not ignore some other performances that figure into the ultimate outcome of the plot. Brazilian actress Alice Braga provides a saving grace for Neville late in the film as Anna along with her son Ethan (Charlie Tahan). The filmmakers were wise to realize she could not have affected Neville without the boy. And Dash Mihok (“The Day After Tomorrow”) provides the threatening actions of the alpha male of the infected, who proves cleverer than Neville anticipates. It is a shame, however, that Lawrence felt the need to digitally enhance the infected mutants instead of relying on old fashioned make-up application. The digitally rendered infected have a rubbery, unrealistic appearance that destroys some of the illusion.

Some have criticized the film’s ending and its emphasis on faith and spirituality. Perhaps this is just backlash from the undue criticism of the recent release of “The Golden Compass” for its alleged anti-religious themes. But the filmmakers do a good job supporting their faith-based themes by presenting them simply and not providing extraneous or overwrought examples. Many of the plot’s details are flawed, such as Neville’s resources for power and gas, but other details support the story’s conclusion. Every character has a purpose, which may explain why there are so few. The characters are not aware of their purpose. God provides the materials for salvation, but the characters must provide their own means. As someone who espouses no definitive religious allegiances, I could see this story fitting in with any of the Bible and many other theological allegories.

But above any religious connotations or technical quibbles “I Am Legend” is a wonderful vehicle for the acting talent of Will Smith. This is Smith’s movie, and it contains everything that has made him one of the most respected and popular Hollywood stars. It is sci-fi allegory. It is action packed and thrilling. It is high drama. It is great legend, and Will Smith rises to legendary status for it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Alvin and the Chipmunks / ** (PG)

Dave: Jason Lee
Ian: David Cross
Claire: Cameron Richardson

With the voice talents of:
Alvin: Justin Long
Simon: Matthew Gray Gubler
Theodore: Jesse McCartney

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tim Hill. Witten by Jon Vitti and Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi, based on characters created by Ross Bagdasarian. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor).

I will admit up front that I was never a fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks. I never liked their Christmas song because it was more about the chipmunks than it was about Christmas. (Its actual title is “The Chipmunk Song”—the part about Christmas only appears occasionally in parentheses.) And the lame attempts to turn them into a cartoon franchise left me yearning for more Disney shorts starring Chip and Dale. So it’s no surprise that I am not recommending this movie. But I’m a little surprised it wasn’t any worse than it was. The CGI-animated chipmunks were remarkably charming. But the film itself was not nearly as remarkable as the experience of seeing it in a theater filled with frothing kids.

My son Jack is not shy at telling me which movies he wants to see and pointing out when they show up in our local theater. I spent many weeks trying to shield him from the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” advertising campaign to no avail. Such is the price of breeding a cineaste at such a young age, I guess. I haven’t had the chance yet to make him understand that the sight of a talking chipmunk letting one rip in a man’s face is just not all that amusing. So when he saw—and repeatedly laughed at—that gaseous scene in the ads, he knew that this was a movie he had to see.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the droves of new chipmunk fans this scene had created throughout the entire community (and most likely entire country). Interestingly enough, although the chipmunk toot still produced a rousing response when finally seen in context, Jack claims his favorite part was when Alvin and Theodore got sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.

So popular was the chipmunk phenomenon amongst the children of our community that by the time it opened last Friday, it was the talk of the school. Jack ended up making his first movie date with Sam, one of his best pals from kindergarten. Sam was also kind enough to offer Jack a ride the theater—a gesture he neglected to pass on to his parents. Ang and I learned this when Jack asked sheepishly at dinner Friday evening if anyone had called for him. Jack doesn’t normally receive all that many phone calls at the age of six. Ang and I figured Sam had forgotten to ask his parents, to whom we are only very slightly acquainted, so we called them to invite Sam along with us. Sam’s folks loved the idea of not having to sit though “Alvin and the Chipmunks” with their son, but his little brother wanted to go too. So we offered to bring Max along and decided to give our younger son Jude his first test run at the cinema as well. Why we didn’t bring the dog along to herd them I couldn’t tell you.

At the theater we discovered half of the kids in Jack’s school had dragged their parents out to this clunker. Misery revels in company. After spending over $50 at the concession stand and coordinating a chain-and-buddy system to keep the kids together and performing a Barnum-&-Bailey—worthy balancing act with the popcorn, drinks and kiddie packs, we finally got the kids in seats and were able to witness all the chaos surrounding us. As the previews dished out the next string of cringe-inducing kids flicks, the chatter started to emerge from the 10-years-and-younger crowd. “I wanna see that.” “That one’s scary.” My favorite moment was when Sam claimed to have seen “Horton Hears a Who” even though it won’t be released until March, and then Jack chimed in, “I saw that one too! It was good.”

All the children surrounding us had similar reactions to everything. I had the impression of being stuck in a pen with bleating lambs. But the audience reaction really started to congeal once the film started. It was almost like watching a film with a festival audience. At film festivals, everyone has deep appreciation for the art of film and is much more willing to react and embrace the visceral experience of movies than during the typical multiplex experience. Kids don’t censor a thing. It was obvious from the start they loved those chipmunks, with “ooos” and “ahhs” synced to their every digital movement. And like I said, Alvin, Simon and Theodore were pretty charming.

It was also obvious that the ‘munks (as they’re referred to in the film) were the main attraction. The theater seemed to fall silent when the human characters were left to their own devices. I don’t think they were judging the contrivances of Dave (Jason Lee, NBC’s “My Name is Earl”) who’s music career was over until those ‘munks inspired him to write a song that certainly could have caught people’s ear in 1952 even though this film takes place in the present day. I’m sure they weren’t frustrated by the idiot plot romance that kept Dave and Claire (Cameron Richardson, TV’s “Point Pleasant”) apart when one moment of explanation would have brought them together. I doubt the juvenile depiction of the music industry through the ‘munks’ manipulative producer Ian (David Cross, HBO’s “Mr. Show with Bob and Dave”) bothered them. And I know they weren’t shaking their heads over how the talents of Jason Lee, David Cross and Cameron Richardson have—and hopefully one day will again—be used for much better causes. But they definitely weren’t feeling it from the human performers.

Really, this live action version of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” exists only to provide a platform for realistically rendered rodents to speak in high pitched voices, say cute things and perform absurd acts at the expense of their human counterparts. On that level, I suppose it delivers exactly what is expected of it. But if you aren’t under the age of ten, that really isn’t much at all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Golden Compass / ***½ (PG-13)

Lyra Belacqua: Dakota Blue Richards
Marisa Coulter: Nicole Kidman
Lord Asriel: Daniel Craig
Roger: Ben Walker
Serafina Pekkala: Eva Green
Lee Scoresby: Sam Elliott
Fra Pavel: Simon McBurney

With the voice talents of:
Pantalaimon: Freddie Highmore
Iorek Byrnison: Ian McKellen
Ragnar Sturlusson: Ian McShane

New Line Cinema presents a film written and directed by Chris Weitz. Based on the novel by Philip Pullman. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence).

Days before the release of “The Golden Compass”, The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops broke away from the thinking of the Catholic League and their call for a boycott of the film. According to the Conference’s review of the film, “explicit references to this church” found in the book “have been completely excised” from the movie. Perhaps they realized, as anyone watching the film would, that calling for any sort of boycott would merely associate their agenda with those of the story’s villains.

Taken from the pages of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” fantasy series, “The Golden Compass” tells the age-old story of one group of people trying to suppress the free will of others. It takes place in a world other than ours where each human has his own animal daemon, a sort of familiar that chooses its shape during childhood and is mortally linked with its human. If the human is killed, so is his daemon. If the daemon is hurt, the human feels its pain.

The world created by Pullman, and recreated here by writer director Chris Weitz (“About a Boy”) with the utmost familiarity, is a richly detailed, complex place filled with several sentient races of importance, including the Gyptians, Witches and a race of intelligent warrior Polar Bears with the ability of speech. The production design and visual effects are spectacular, giving us industrial age pastoral landscapes, advanced urban structure and technology, and a cold northern climate that holds many secrets from the people of this wonderful world.

The story is an adventure for 10-year-old Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), whom Lyra thankfully refers to as Pan. Lyra is the last in a line of people with a special gift to read a truth telling device known as The Golden Compass. She begins her adventure by saving the life of her uncle, the enigmatic Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig, “Casino Royale”). He is nearly poisoned by a member of the Magisterium named Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney, “The Last King of Scotland”) for his proposed expedition to the North to discover the true nature of a life force material known as Dust.

As Asriel travels to the North, Lyra finds herself in the care Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman, “Bewitched”). Despite Ms. Coulter’s niceties, her allegiance to the Magisterium makes her motives seem just as sinister as Pavel’s. The Magisterium is controlled by a High Council portrayed by fittingly dubious British heavies such as Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi. When it appears that Ms. Coulter is attempting to steal the compass, Lyra strikes off on her own to find her uncle and some children that went missing from her school.

This is a tale where any further description can only serve to harm the experience for viewers who are uninitiated into Pullman’s fantasy world. As one of them myself, I can’t say how devoted followers will take it. A story where a truth-seeing little girl enlists the aid of a gun-toting aerialist (Sam Elliott, “The Hulk”) and an armored polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen, “The Da Vinci Code”) to help her free children from a mysterious experimental facility where everyone has an animal companion that chooses its own shape and is destroyed with its counterpart may be a stretch for some audience members. But it is presented in such a casual way by the filmmakers—like everything in this world is just common knowledge—that once you get caught up in it, it seems like an adventure classic on par with the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

I’m sure there will be detractors who will complain that it is impossible to understand what’s going on, what with all this talk about daemons and dust and witches and ongoing conflicts that may or may not factor in to the bigger picture. But who ever heard of a Jedi or a Wookie or even the Force before George Lucas took us on his grand adventure. And like that fantasy masterpiece, the story of Lyra’s adventure is much simpler than the world which contains it. I can see a new generation of filmgoers obsessing over the contents of Pullman’s world in much the same way mine embraced the “Star Wars” mythology.

What I cannot fathom is how critics (and audiences apparently) have so casually dismissed this film. There is a powerful mythology established in this, what is surely the first episode of many, and an amazing attention to the detail necessary to sell a world so far removed from our own. Perhaps it is the very basic theme of how oppression of the general populace by the elite works that threw critics. Perhaps it didn’t live up to the hype created by the Catholic League’s condemnation of the film, since its villains could so easily represent many different forms of oppressive fraternities. To me their actions smacked more of Nazi fascism than anything else. Regardless of what others might think about it, I do hope it brings in enough money to warrant further installments of the series. It is one that promises to endure, if audiences will give it a chance.