Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Spirit / ** (PG-13)

The Spirit/Denny Colt: Gabriel Macht
The Octopus: Samuel L. Jackson
Sand Saref: Eva Mendez
Ellen Dolan: Sarah Paulson
Silken Floss: Scarlett Johansson
Pathos, etc.: Louis Lombardi
Commissioner Dolan: Dan Lauria
Morgenstern: Stana Katic
Lorelei Rox: Jamie King
Plaster of Paris: Paz Vega
Arthur the cat: Himself

Lionsgate presents a film written and directed by Frank Miller. Based on the comic book series by Will Eisner. Running time: 103 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of stylized action and violence, some sexual content and brief nudity).

One of the posters for “The Spirit”—the new movie adaptation of a 1940’s style comic book series—depicts an artistic rendering of the titular hero drawn by the film’s writer/director Frank Miller, with the title of the film reading “Will Eisner’s The Spirit”. Eisner’s comic book was a sort of goofy, somewhat comedic take on the pulp noir heroes of that era. As envisioned here by Miller, The Spirit seems to inhabit the same hellish black and white noir universe as the characters in his and Robert Rodriguez’s 2005 film “Sin City” and might be more accurately titled “Frank Miller’s The Spirit”.

In “Sin City”, Rodriguez and Miller wrote a new cinematic language, creating a noir nightmare with harsh lines of shadow and light in a black and white world where only splashes of color where found as characterizing features—one man’s shoes were red, a certain girl had blue eyes, another was entirely in color, the blood flowed in bold red and white, and the Yellow Bastard was yellow. Miller returns to this same production design style, using the same filming techniques of shooting the actors on green screen with minimal props and set pieces, filling in the backgrounds and details in digitally after the fact. The effect in “Sin City” was like a comic book page come to life, and while the process continues to makes a bold statement and provide stunning visuals, Miller has transferred Eisner’s characters into his own universe where they don’t quite feel at home.

The Spirit (Gabriel Macht, “American Outlaws”) is ex-cop Denny Colt, who somehow cheated death and returned with invulnerability to most wounds making him possibly immortal, although death in the form of Lorelei Rox (Jamie King, “Gary Unmarried”) is always waiting close by to finally embrace him. He abandoned his former life to become Central City’s protector and developed a reputation as a ladies man. He works with but separate from the police force, an arrangement that doesn’t sit well with Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria, “The Wonder Years”) on the surface. This is perhaps because one of The Spirit’s squeezes is Dolan’s daughter Dr. Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson, “Studio 60 Live on the Sunset Strip”).

The story picks up when a childhood flame turned jewel thief, Sand Saref (Eva Mendez, “The Women”), returns to Central City in a scheme that seems to involve The Spirit’s arch nemesis The Octopus. Samuel L. Jackson (“Jumper”) plays The Octopus as a Samuel L. Jackson character and seems to exist expressly for the purpose of beating the snot out of the invulnerable hero. He is accompanied by a sexy, yet apparently asexual assistant Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson, “Vicky Christina Barcelona”) and an army of clone goons (all played to moronic perfection by Louis Lombardi, “24”).

It appears as if The Octopus was written by Miller to be played only by Jackson, since the character so blatantly embraces all the characteristics Jackson has become famous for, such as demeaning those around him with his intelligent quips and bracing delivery. Or it could be that Jackson is simply aware that his particular brand of delivery is the primary reason people come to see him. He has fun with it however absurd it makes his character.

There is a great deal of humor in the script, but it must struggle its way to the surface, fighting through the dark atmosphere established by the stylized environment of the black and white world. Miller does allow much more color into his camera than he and Rodriguez did in “Sin City”, but hardly enough to capitalize on the colorful humor that could have shined through in a brightly lit movie. It’s strange that Miller chose to mirror his “Sin City” material with Eisner’s characters, since Eisner’s book was always painted with a bright and broad palate of color.

Miller also struggles with the pacing of the film. There are times when he seems to admire the spectacular images he creates too much, lingering on many of them for too long and returning to them too often. One image of a girl silhouetted in red as she walks away is cut to three times when once would have been more effective. The pace is also slowed down when The Spirit stops to talk to himself instead of placing all of his exposition in voice over. Not only is it awkward to have the hero talking to himself, but also voice over allows the action to continue while the exposition is laid down. Or perhaps he is talking to the cat that seems to exist only to follow The Spirit around.

Another thing Miller seems to have forgotten without Rodriguez there to guide him is that when you ask your audience to accept such a foreign world as the ones created in “Sin City” and here, it is very important that the environments are consistent. The movie opens with a fight between The Spirit and The Octopus. It appears to start out in a body of water, like a river or a lake. Midway through the fight it seems to become a sludge pit, much like the tar pit scene from “Sin City”. Then it turns back into water. Finally, the two finish their fisticuffs on a smooth yet solid surface of mud. This is a distracting way to begin such a stylized movie.

It also seems as if the PG-13 rating is something that was imposed upon Miller and has a restricting effect on the material he wanted to include. There is a joke involving Miller’s own decapitated head that is almost lost by the fact that the head only appears on the border of the screen. In an effort to avoid depicting the gore of the decapitation, it is becomes impossible to tell that the head is severed at all.

For those paying close attention there may be plenty of material here to keep them interested. Miller has included a great deal of detail and referencing to influences both from the comic book world and cinematically. He also proves that he can take on a solo project and still provide the stunning cinematic images equal to the graphic work he has produced for comic books. “The Spirit” isn’t a terrible movie. It just doesn’t live up to the ambition that inspired it. To some it will provide what they are looking for. To most it will only provide bewilderment.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Marley & Me / *** ½ (PG)

John Grogan: Owen Wilson
Jennifer Grogan: Jennifer Aniston
Sebastian: Eric Dane
Arnie Klein: Alan Arkin
Ms. Kornblut: Kathleen Turner

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David Frankel. Written by Scott Frank and Don Roos. Based on the book by John Grogan. Running time: 120 min. Rated PG (for thematic material, some suggestive and language).

Our dog is a very important part of our family. Some of you may have read the “Confessions of a Movie Hound” columns she contributes to my blog site every once and a while. We talk to her, make fun of her, and play with her like she gives just as much to the family as any of us silly humans. And no mater how much she annoys us with her barking and nipping, her jumping on laps unsolicited, her passing of wind like some sort of new age art form, she is just as important as anyone of us. “Marley & Me” is a movie that understands this family dynamic.

Based upon the bestselling memoir by newspaper columnist John Grogan, “Marley & Me” is one of the best dog-based movies I have seen. This is because the movie isn’t really about the dog; it’s about the family. And it’s not some sappy feel good story about people who come to fully understand the purpose of life through the help of some benevolent four-legged friend. Yes, you can better understand the strength of their love and family bond through the story of how this dog became such and important part of their lives; but their lives have ups and downs, and their relationships with each other and the dog bend and yield and firm up and grow almost imperceptibly throughout the course of their lives together. Only in the end do you understand how much they all mean to each other.

Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”) plays John Grogan and Jennifer Aniston (“The Break-Up”) plays his wife Jennifer. The story starts out on their snowy wedding day in Michigan and follows them to Miami and later to Philadelphia. We see them in their early writing careers and see John develop into a successful columnist despite the fact that he’d rather be a reporter like his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane, “Grey’s Anatomy”). It’s Sebastian who suggests to John that a new puppy might stave off Jennifer’s urges to have kids right away. And so John and Jennifer adopt a Yellow Lab pup and name him Marley because Bob Marley is playing on the radio on the way home from the puppy farm.

John frequently claims that Marley is “the world’s worst dog.” And to be sure, I wouldn’t want Marley as my own pet. He chews up everything—the pillows, moving boxes, the couch, the garage, the in-law’s chairs, the car seat belts, many leashes, and an expensive necklace that was meant to provide a release from the strain Marley has put on John’s and Jen’s relationship. He’s a large dog that runs at anything, often careening pieces of furniture into innocent bystanders. He’s even kicked out of obedience school by the otherwise formidable Ms. Kornblut (Kathleen Turner in a cameo appearance).

But Marley makes good humorous material for John’s column at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. After writing his first column about Marley, John is encouraged by his editor Arnie Klein to put as much of his personal life into his column as he can. The great Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) makes the rather small role of Klein into a funny and colorful break from John’s hectic home life.

Eventually John and Jennifer do have the kids despite Marley and learn the hard lesson that it does not get easier. And this is where “Marley & Me” really surprised me. I expected some cute “family” movie where we get to watch all the crazy things that Marley does to the people who call him theirs—the type of thing where the dog does something horrible and the two Hollywood stars look at each other, say “Aw Shucks!” and all is forgiven because they love their big ball of fur sooo much. But Marley is a real dog and also a real inconvenience most of the time. The emotions he drives John and Jennifer to are the real stresses of life rather than some Hollywood plot concoction.

Marley is hardly the even the main focus of the story. The dog is just one element of the lives that these two people have chosen to have together. They also have to deal with the problems of work and kids, homes and salaries, and just being able to get along when nothing seems to be going right. It is about how most things never really work out the way we plan or expect them to. Wilson and Aniston perform an act of bravery in their performances by dropping any semblance of on-screen “personalities” and give themselves up to the material. They deal with their problems without the performance tools of cleverness and quick wit. When they’re stung, it hurts.

But I fear that makes this sounds like an unhappy movie. It is a wonderful joy because there is so much to recognize from our own lives here. Director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and his screenwriters Scott Frank (“Minority Report”) and Don Roos(“The Opposite of Sex”) capture an aspect of family life that is rarely explored in Hollywood movies. Nothing simply happens in this movie because the characters or the plot wishes it. All the joy and love in the Grogan family has to be achieved; it’s not just assumed.

Some may feel the movie has been mismarketed as a family movie because it isn’t the typical joke fest that ridicules the lives we all live. But it’s a family movie that deals with the realities of having a family and how the choices made by the parents are choices that must be lived with and dealt with by the family as a whole, including the choice of owning a large animal. You will be warned to bring some Kleenexes. These warnings should be heeded, but don’t let them deter you from bringing your children. They may find this movie helpful in dealing with some of the choices you’ve made.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button / **½ (PG-13)

Benjamin Button: Brad Pitt
Daisy: Cate Blanchett
Queenie: Taraji P. Henson
Caroline: Julia Ormond
Thomas Button: Jason Flemyng
Tizzy: Mahershalalhashbaz Ali
Captain Mike: Jared Harris
Elizabeth Abbott: Tilda Swinton

Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures present a film directed by David Fincher. Written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord. Based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Running time: 159 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief war violence, sexual content, language and smoking).

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is indeed a curious case. Seeing it, you will see the portrait of a life. It’s a strange life in that it’s the life of a man who is born old and grows young. But it’s a life like any other. It’s about how any of us live our lives. How the many people we know and love pass in and out of our lives. How we begin feeble and fragile and end in much the same state. How the way you live your life is more important than the details contained within it. But why is its premise so strange?

Director David Fincher has crafted an evocative movie that spans through a good deal of American history—from the very end of the First World War to the storm of the century that was hurricane Katrina. Through it we see the life of Benjamin Button, who makes the phrase “a curious case” into a grand understatement. His mother gives her life in child birth, but his father can’t stand the thought of raising the “monster” his son appears to be—a baby with sagging skin and other traits of an old man. He leaves the baby at an old folks home run by Queenie, who takes the boy in as her own child. As he grows through his developmental childhood, his old appearance allows him to fit in easily at the home. But soon life beckons, and only then does Benjamin’s curious case begin to resemble life as we all know it.

The central relationship in Benjamin’s life is a romance with a girl he meets in the home named Daisy. She is about the same age as him when they meet during a visit to her grandmother. Although he looks like one of the home’s clients, she senses something different about him and a bond forms between the two. As Benjamin learns and grows through life, he and Daisy will come into and out of each other’s lives until their mutual destiny is made clear.

Fincher (“Zodiac”) and his screenwriters Eric Roth (“Munich”) and Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) tell their tale at and even keel, never rushing Benjamin’s life from one point to the next. They effectively evoke the epic nature of an individual life. Fincher’s direction wonderfully captures the time periods Benjamin’s life explores—from his time on a Navy commissioned tug boat during World War II to the explorative artistic scene of 1950s New York City. Fincher even uses old sepia tones to evoke flashbacks to even earlier eras. But everything in Benjamin’s life seems to lead him back to the place of his birth—New Orleans.

Brad Pitt (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) and Cate Blanchett (“Babel”) bring their incredible ranges to two performances that span two of the longest natural human life spans seen on film. Their age work is the best I’ve seen, convincing in every stage of their characters’ lives. Pitt actually does double duty by portraying the old-age child Benjamin with the use of seamless special effects and make-up. Effects are also used on both actors to make them look younger than their ages at their opposing respective points.

There are also fine performances submitted for the many supporting characters in Benjamin’s life. Taraji P. Henson (“Hustle & Flow”) is every bit the mother Queenie needs to be, both for Benjamin and the clients who are left in her care to live out their final days. Jared Harris (FOX’s “Fringe”) brings humor and charm to his role as Captain Mike. And Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton”) plays Benjamin’s first love in one of the movie’s more elegant segments. She’s an older woman who can sense the youth inside Benjamin that she cannot see and uses it to recapture her own lost lust for life.

But something is wrong with this movie. For all its beauty and care in the treatment of it’s subject, the gimmick of it gets in its way. I was reminded of “Forrest Gump” while watching it, often wondering just what the point of this whole tale was. Now, “Benjamin Button” is much more focused in its intentions than “Forrest Gump” was, as such is purpose is clearer. But in the end it doesn’t seem the premise of a man aging backwards is all that necessary for this particular portrait of life. Although the direction of the story is never predictable, the outcome is never surprising because this backwards life is really no different than a forward one. Much is made about the notion that everything changes, but this is neither a new idea nor one that is made clearer by living a life in reverse.

Fincher once again proves himself to be a master of mood, period and style with this film. And it very well may be that time will allow at least this critic to come to a deeper understanding of just why this story had to be told this way. But it seems to me that other than the fact that Benjamin Button starts out his life looking like an old man and ends it as a baby, there is nothing any more curious about his life than anyone’s. But just about anyone’s life can be curious indeed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

It’s a Wonderful Flick

About 25 years ago, I stayed up with my dad on Christmas Eve while my mother and brother went to bed. For some reason, although television was never really something we paid much attention to during the holidays, we decided to flip through the channels. We came across this old black & white movie that had just started, so we decided to watch it.

It was about a man that never seemed to get what he wanted out of life. He spent all of his time helping other people, often at the sacrifice of his own desires. On a particularly bad Christmas Eve, he tries in desperation to take his own life after he prays to God for some help and is answered with a punch in the mouth. Interrupting his suicide attempt, however, is the real answer to his prayer—an angel who shows him what would’ve happened to the people in his life had he not been there for them. Through this vision he discovers what a wonderful life he has.

Of course, most people know the story of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. In the past twenty years it has become a perennial television holiday staple. It has lived a second life, thanks to video and television distribution, after spending decades as a forgotten Hollywood Silver Age gem. And its premise has been reproduced in countless movies and television shows.

But on that Christmas Eve when my father and I stumbled across it on PBS, it had just begun to be remembered. I had never seen it. I don’t think I had ever watched a black and white movie before, or one that had been released before 1968. My dad was familiar with the movie by title but had never seen it before either. So we sat there until well past midnight watching this movie that was well outside of our individual film tastes—there were no car chases, or gunfights, or space ships, or dragons. We sat there and fell in love with a movie.

I have returned to “It’s a Wonderful Life” every year since my father and I made that Christmas discovery so many years ago. For many years, the two of us continued to watch it together every Christmas Eve, including the rest of our family members in our new found holiday tradition. By the time I moved away from home and settled with a family of my own, it had become a tradition for many American families.

While my father and I no longer had the opportunity to watch it together every Christmas Eve, I continued to watch it with my own family, never going a year without seeing it. And my father and I continued to watch it together whenever we could each holiday season.

Finally, this year we were together for Christmas Eve once more, this time with my children and his grandchildren. Now, the three-year-old is still a little too young to care, but my seven-year-old has already started to develop a healthy appreciation for movies. But still, this one didn’t have the cartoon characters, or the talking dogs, or the friendly robots that meet his criterion for what makes a good movie.

When we asked him to watch it with us, he said, “No.” But then we put it in and by midway through the movie—even after that yucky kiss between Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed—he was hooked. We asked him if he wanted to stop and go to bed so Santa could come, and he looked at us with sad doe eyes. “Will Santa still come if I stay up to finish it?” Well, certainly he would.

The poor kid never did make it to the end of the movie, though. He fell asleep just as Clarence the angel got to what happened on the day George prayed for help. But until his hard day of playing with his cousins got the best of him, he was as wrapped up in George Bailey’s wonderful life as I was the first time I saw it and have been ever since. I just know that when I go to watch it next Christmas, he’ll be right there by my side waiting to see one of the most magical movies ever made.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Yes Man / *** (PG-13)

Carl Allen: Jim Carrey
Allison: Zooey Deschanel
Peter: Bradley Cooper
Nick: John Michael Higgins
Norman: Rhys Darby
Rooney: Danny Masterson
Lucy: Sasha Alexander
Tillie: Fionnula Flanagan
Terrence Bundley: Terence Stamp

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Peyton Reed. Written by Nicholas Stoller and Jarrad Paul & Andrew Mogel. Based on the book by Danny Wallace. Running time: 104 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude sexual humor, language and brief nudity).

I’m not much of a conversationalist. Nor am I much of a drinker. However, if you get me drunk, you can’t shut me up. The first time I ever got drunk I was with my best friend since first grade. As the sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon that early morning, that friend leaned on my shoulder—getting too close in the way that drunk people do when their sense of personal space is just a little fuzzy—and said, “Dude, you were so damn funny tonight!” Now had the two of us or the other two friends we were with been sober on that long night of laughter, perhaps we wouldn’t have found ourselves so humorous. But we had a hell of a time that night.

Jim Carrey makes me think of spending a drunken night with a couple of really close friends—people who would laugh at things that no one else would understand. That’s what Jim Carrey’s antics are like. If you aren’t drunk with the same unadulterated verve for life as he is, he might come off like some obnoxious drunken stranger. But if you’re there on the same level with him, he’s the funniest inside joke you ever had on a drunken binge with your best friends.

In “Yes Man” Carrey is once again given free reign to bump and bound off the wall with his particular brand of absurd physical humor in a premise that seems designed only for that specific purpose. Carrey is Carl Allen, a man still suffering from a three-year-old break up. In that time he has become reclusive and unwilling to wrench himself from the rut of non-commitment his life has fallen into. He doesn’t go out with friends. He has the same dead end job. He ignores every call he receives on his cell phone. The most social activity he has in his life is wandering the new release aisle of his local video store. Hasn’t he heard of Netflix?

Carl runs into an old friend (John Michael Higgins, “Fred Claus”) who can see he’s in a bad place and talks him into attending a self-help seminar. At the seminar, guru Terrence (Terence Stamp, “Wanted”) makes a covenant with Carl the he must say “Yes” to any request he is confronted with. Soon Carl is ordering a wife over the internet, taking guitar and flying lessons, learning to speak Korean, and agreeing to any crazy thing that a world full of strange people can come up with.

This is Carrey’s movie from credits to credits. Almost all the other performers are just there as props and set dressing for Carrey’s antics. His two best friends, Peter (Bradley Cooper, “Midnight Meat Train”) and Rooney (Danny Masterson, “The ‘70’s Show”), are ever present. Peter’s impending marriage has a little to do with Carl’s decision to attend the seminar, but mostly they only exist to react to his seemingly insane actions or to place him within insane situations.

Even Carrey’s love interest has no real story arch of her own; but as played by Zooey Deschanel (“Elf”), Allison is that sort of free spirit—which only exist in Hollywood screenplays—that anyone could fall in love with. The two Meet Cute after Carl performs his first act of Yeshood by giving a homeless person a ride to a remote park at night. What at first looks to be a perfect debunking example against the power of “Yes,” turns into the primary reason Carl decides to ascribe to the covenant. Allison is the best thing to happen to him since his ex left him, and because his first “yes” lead directly to meeting her, he becomes a true believer.

Director Peyton Reed continues his streak of producing romantic comedies that are more interested in turning out laughs than true insight into the natures of men and women. But after his last outing—2006’s “The Break Up”—it’s nice to see a relationship of positives versus the one of negatives presented in that movie.

It’s a shame screenwriters Nicholas Stoller, Jarrad Paul, and Andrew Mogel felt the need to conform with Hollywood standards by providing a false crisis at the end of the movie that puts the lovers in jeopardy through their own ignorance. But the relationship, like everything else beyond Carrey himself, is really just background here. The only reason to see this movie is to see Carrey doing what he does best—freaking out in ways the rest of us only can imagine when we’re drunk. But if you think Carrey is the type of happy drunk you’d find funny rather than obnoxious, then you probably will like to hanging out with him in this movie.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still / ** (PG-13)

Klaatu: Keanu Reeves
Dr. Helen Benson: Jennifer Connelly
Jacob Benson: Jaden Smith
Regina Jackson: Kathy Bates
Michael Granier: Jon Hamm
Professor Barnhardt: John Cleese

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by David Scarpa. Based on the 1951 screenplay by Edmund H. North. Running time: 103 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sci-fi disaster images and violence).

“Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”
         —“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)

Those four simple words are really just gibberish—an alien language made up as a command the heroine of the movie must speak to prevent an alien robot from destroying the Earth. There is no translation provided for these words in that Cold War sci-fi classic. None is needed.

In a time when world terror has become as frightening a prospect as nuclear war between the US and Russia once was, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” seems a fitting remake. But it also seems that in the past 57 years filmmakers have forgotten that how a movie is made isn’t quite as important as why it is made. The new “The Day the Earth Stood Still” looks great—all spectacle and special effects—but somehow the reasons have gotten buried in a muddy mess underfoot.

The reasons are there. An alien lands on Earth with a giant robot to save the planet from the destructive nature of humans. A few good people try to help this visitor and prove to him that humans are worth saving while others of more aggressive natures react to him with fear and violence. Is the dual nature of man as a creature of both love and hate worth the pain and suffering we cause each other? And is the survival of one species as important as the survival of the entire planet? It’s message is not of a subtle nature, but director Stephen Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) is more concerned with the spectacle of an attack on the Earth by more advanced beings than he is with contemplating the full implications of the questions the story asks.

The movie opens with a flashback to a mountaineer in 1928 who discovers a glowing sphere on a mountaintop. He touches the glowing ball and wakes up later with a burn on the back of his hand. This scene serves to explain why when a giant sphere lands in present day Central Park, the alien who emerges from it looks like Keanu Reeves (“A Scanner Darkly”). The scene is completely unnecessary, containing information that could have been communicated in one brief line of dialogue. But it looks good.

The alien calls himself Klaatu and is treated as a potential dangerous weapon by Secretary of State Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates, “Fred Claus”). A single mother scientist, Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly, “Blood Diamond”) senses the alien is benevolent and frees him from his military captivity. Soon they are fugitives on the run with Helen’s young son Jacob (Jaden Smith, “The Pursuit of Happyness”). Helen is aghast to learn the Secretary’s fears aren’t far off as Klaatu plans to save the Earth by ridding it of human life.

All of this is told through action scenes of car chases and helicopters and explosions, all the while the military is left to its own devices in trying to disengage the giant robot that is destined to become the instrument of humanity’s destruction. Screenwriter David Scarpa (“The Last Castle”) even goes so far as to give the biomechanical robot an anagram to explain his name, Gort. I honestly didn’t pay enough attention to the anagram to reproduce it here, but explaining why Gort is named Gort and how Klaatu can appear human is missing the point. Hell, the Earth never even stands still at any point in this remake!

It is perhaps a great irony that John Cleese—a man who became famous with his depiction of stupidity through silly walks and dead parrots—should appear in this film as Professor Barnhardt, an intellectual example of the potential that man could one day reach. Cleese (“Die Another Day”) provides some of the very small amount of philosophical rhetoric found here that comprised the majority of the original dialogue-driven film.

Watching this film, I was reminded of the backlash against the first “Star Trek” movie, which was helmed by the original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” director Robert Wise. Wise was thought of as a prominent director when he landed the “Star Trek” assignment but was still well known for his seminal sci-fi classic. There was great anticipation for what he would do with the popular cult series on film. But fans were disappointed with how little action there was in the first “Star Trek” movie. Well, there was almost no action in the original version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. What Wise recognized about “Star Trek” was that it wasn’t about action, it was about ideas. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is about ideas as well. These new filmmakers would have done better to recognize that.

Or maybe I’m just upset that they chose to depict the destruction of Giants Stadium.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #9: The Quiet Scream

There are many different forms of the quiet scream. Sometimes it is just a woosh of air exiting from a wide-open mouth. Other times there is the faintest of squeaks emitting from a petrified face. Sometimes it is a hand in the mouth to hold back the possibility of a loud outburst. And sometimes it is the gnashing of your teeth as your significant other digs her nails into the flesh on the back of your hand.

Like the many different reactions we can have to horror, horror movies themselves comes in many forms, shapes and sizes. Some are big scares. Some intellectual. Some get you talking with your companions afterward, while some leave you lying awake at night thinking, “only kids are supposed to be afraid of that dark shape in the closet.” And every Horrorfest there are some movies I watch that just don’t fall into easily categorized horror subgenres.

“Awake” is a particularly quiet movie based primarily around a quite scream. It imagines what would happen to someone if they were to find themselves within a sort of waking coma, while people they trusted plotted around them to pull the plug quite on purpose. The main character is a prominent business executive undergoing a procedure that will save his life when he discovers that although he is conscious of everything going on around him, everyone else thinks he’s under from his anesthesia.

The horror in this movie is psychological and quiet. Although Hayden Christensen often takes heavy criticism for his droll acting skills, they work in this film’s favor as the terror builds from his calm, unconscious exterior to suggest the terror that is going inside. It is the ultimate form of helplessness he must experience as a victim that cannot run or fight or even indicate to anyone he has any knowledge of what is happening to him.

One of the best elements of this story is that people who seem obviously to be acting outside of his best interests, aren’t. So often family members in a medical crisis are depicted as being hysterical and unable to make responsible decisions for loved ones. Such is not the case in life. It is nice to see a thriller in which family means something more than just a plot contrivance.

From a victim that can’t communicate anything, to a group of victims that won’t shut up. I suppose that is what detractors against Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” have so much trouble with in QT’s own unique take on the slasher flick. Originally a part of the ‘70’s exploitation homage double feature “Grindhouse”, people looking for more action in the extended DVD version of the movie will be disappointed to find only more talking.

But dialogue is what Tarantino does so well. Watching a Tarantino film is like participating in those long debates you would have with your friends in high school or college about who was a better early video game hero, Mario or Pitfall Harry. And if that’s not what you’re looking for in your exploitation/car chase/slasher films, you’re just not going to enjoy Tarantino’s take on it.

But Tarantino is also a great filmmaker on top of being a great dialogist, and if you are willing to sit through those seemingly pointless conversations you will also find some great car chase scenes, amazing stunts and one of the most original portrayals of a serial killer brought to you by Kurt Russell at the top of his game. As for the director’s cut of this movie, perhaps it is a little too talky at its extended length, but it still contains some of the most skilled filmmaking you will ever find in exploitation horror.

While perusing other genre enthusiast’s horror lists during last year’s Horrorfest, I stumbled across the movie “Scarecrows” as an overlooked classic and added it to my ’08 lineup. One of the reasons most people had sited it as a classic is the way the movie sets itself up as a heist picture before turning into paranormal horror territory. It follows a band of thieves during a getaway flight that goes wrong when one of the gang double-crosses the others by bailing out early with the dough. The gang lands the plane to chase down their Judas and find themselves on a farm where the scarecrows have come to life from to exact vengeance on anyone who steps foot on their farm.

While I found this movie on many a horror fanatic’s overlooked list, I fear its admirers suffer from what I call Red Dawn Syndrome. This is a malady that affects film enthusiasts by allowing their good memories of a film to positively alter their judgment of a film they have not seen in a long time to the point where they feel their ability to assess a film’s worth was just as good at the beginning of their love for movies as it is after years of experience. Hence you think back to a movie like “Red Dawn” and remember how psyched you were to see it and how kick-ass it seemed at the time because it would have been so cool if you had been Charlie Sheen tricking those commie Ruskies bastards into your traps; and you attribute those feeling to the film’s value as art. Of course, you become painfully aware of your illness when you rent the movie twenty years later to relive your glorious vicarious youth only to discover that “Red Dawn” really sucks. Well, “Scarecrows” is a little better than “Red Dawn”, but far from an overlooked classic. It was overlooked for a reason.

It certainly doesn’t suck as much as being stuck in the window of the car that hit you for an entire weekend, however. Now, I remember the news story in which a woman had hit a man while driving home one Friday and left him stuck in her car window in her garage over the weekend. The man was still alive. Certainly the stuff of horror, but who’ve thought you could make a feature-length film based on it? Director Stuart Gordon, the mastermind behind the cult classic “Re-Animator”, that’s who!

“Stuck” is an overlooked horror movie. It is devilishly entertaining and funny in ways you would never imagine this off-the-wall news story could be. Mena Suvari plays a nurse who hits a homeless man, played by Stephen Rea. Instead of just giving the audience the psychological dilemma of the victim, we also find ourselves exploring the dilemma of the perpetrator of this crime. Suvari has just been offered the chance at a major promotion at her workplace and is terrified of destroying her career prospects.

But Gordon is such a sly director, he allows us to see the humor behind these characters’ situations, while still treating them seriously. And what at first seems like a story that will only allow for a character study in one particular situation, ends up developing into a full-fledged horror movie with sudden unexpected violence and an envelope of deceit for the nurse that reaches out and pulls in victims with most of the world none the wiser.

Of course, the whole point of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is for the whole world to notice. Yet in the 1951 sci-fi classic, Director Robert Wise takes a much quieter approach than the new 2008 version promises. Like last year’s Horrorfest sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” finds its inspiration in the Cold War. But Wise is more interested in the immediate threat of nuclear war, than the socio/political ones of “The Body Snatchers”.

In our age of terrorism and fear “The Day the Earth Stood Still” couldn’t be any more ripe for a remake, but the new version will no doubt lose much of the intellectualization of the original, which is much more talk driven than action oriented. When the alien Klaatu lands with his destroyer robot, there are no big chase sequences or explosions, at least until later in the film. Instead he appears to want to observe our society and befriends a young boy and his mother. Only later do we fully understand Klaatu’s sinister plot and finally experience Patricia Neil’s quiet scream and famous line “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!”

Were there ever a day the Earth truly stood still, it wouldn’t be a day the people could say they didn’t see coming. It is the job of sci-fi and horror films to quietly warn us of our weakness and problems, all the while scaring us silly.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #8: Is Torture Porn Horror?

Is torture porn horror? The term ‘torture porn’ is disturbing to be sure. It was coined to describe a trend in horror movies of late that seem to relish in the graphic detail of violence and gore to which the victims of their tales are subjected. In the same way pornography shows us explicit sexuality for the sole purpose of arousing our own sexual impulses, some people believe the obsession in depicting the detail of such graphic violence against victims in horror movies arouses a similar desire of some people to see such violence.

But in watching several movies during this year’s Horrorfest that could fall under the subgenre of torture porn, I was struck by how this graphic depiction of violence removed much of the horror of the experience and replaced it with elements from other film genres.

Torture as Character Study.

One of the seminal torture porn films was the ultra-low budget indie hit “Saw”. The original “Saw” was scary in the way it laid out a completely unpredictable plot for two victims in a situation that it seemed unlikely to draw out into a feature-length film. Two people wake up chained in a grimy room. There is a dead body between them. Some tools and weapons are within reach for each of them, and there are clues left on a tape recorder as to why they are there and what they must do to escape. The frightening thing about the story comes in the realization of what they must do either to each other or themselves in order to survive their situation.

But what made “Saw” possible as a feature length story was the fact that there were also police detectives on the outside trying to find these people and their captor. In these details “Saw” resembled a police thriller as much as it did a horror movie. In concentrating a large part of its focus on the police procedural, “Saw” dragged the personality of the “killer”, known as Jigsaw, into the story. The character of Jigsaw was what enabled the filmmakers to continue the series through four sequels and, his influence for the most part eventually overshadows any horror the series has to offer.

I saw the original “Saw” back when it was released, and did not catch up on the rest of the series until this year, however I did miss out on the theatrical run of the latest installment “Saw V”. But it is obvious from “Saw II”, “Saw III”, and “Saw VI” that the methods of death—while still graphically detailed on screen—become an embellishment to the series. While “Saw II” falters by placing a bunch of uninvested characters into Jigsaw’s traps, the third and fourth installments do a great job of tying even the series’ missteps together while deepening its labyrinthine plots. By making Jigsaw’s motives the focal point in the sequels, the filmmakers are excused to continue depicting some of the most torturous and gruesome deaths ever seen on screen.

Torture as Thriller.

The horror premise behind Eli Roth’s popular torture porn series “Hostel” is that there is this hostel in an Eastern European block country that acts as a staging area for victims to be purchased by the rich elite to torture and kill. The bidding process is like the ultimate form of Ebay. American victims fetch the highest bids, because—as we all know—everyone hates Americans, even other Americans.

Interestingly enough, the story feels more like a spy thriller than a horror flick—kind of a poor man’s Jason Bourne series. Beyond the gruesome torture scenes, each of the two films presents us with a hero who must solve the mystery of just what is going on. Why are my companions disappearing? Why does the desk clerk look at me that way? And in the final act they must escape the evil clutches of those rich bastards.

The premise works in the first film where Jay Hernandez stars as the hero, and the audience must figure everything out right along with him. In “Hostel, part II” Roth tries a little too hard to give this simple premise a twist. First, he tries to give a female perspective by having women as the main characters. That’s fine, but in an effort to provide female empowerment—a common theme in horror—his heroine (Lauren German) looses her effectiveness as a victim by being rich herself and possessing as savage a nature as the men who partake in the hostel’s elite services.

Roth also gives too much away about how the hostel’s bidding and torture game works. By seeing the inner workings of this dastardly service, we loose the mysteriousness behind it. It has much the same effect as when James Bond’s arch nemesis in the early Bond films Ernst Stavro Blofeld went from being just a faceless man in a chair who asked for Bond’s head on a platter while calmly petting his cat to being the active villain in the movies. All his power as a character was lost. Too much of horror is dependent on the helplessness of not knowing exactly what is going on to give away all your killer’s secrets.

Torture as Homage.

The makers of the movie “Chaos” have weathered a great deal of controversy over their 2005 very low budget indie. Most famous is their debate with Roger Ebert over the irresponsibility of the evil they depict in their movie, which they claim to have made as a “cautionary tale.” The movie depicts the abduction and severely brutal murders of two teenage girls and the subsequent fates one of the victim’s parents face when the killers come to their house to hide from the authorities.

Like Ebert, I’m not really sure what they are cautioning people about beyond the fact that the evil people in the world will kill you. I found most of the movie to be rather good, if fairly difficult to stomach, until the final act when writer/director David DeFalco loses all sense of direction and turns the film into a glorification of the killer. This is truly irresponsible.

But perhaps the greatest crime of the movie is the fact that DeFalco claims it as an original idea, when never has a case of plagiarism been so clearly evidenced by the movie’s lack of credit given to completely ripping off both Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring” and Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left”. These three movies are so similar, there is no way DeFalco could have been ignorant of the other two’s existence. Craven is quite willing to give Bergman’s film credit for the inspiration of his film, both of which not only depict the murder of a child, but her parents’ blood lust turn against the perpetrators. DeFalco gets the cautionary part of the tale all wrong. Not only does pure evil exist, but also we are all capable of it given the motivation.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Four Christmases / *** (PG-13)

Brad: Vince Vaughn
Kate: Reese Witherspoon
Marilyn: Mary Steenburgen
Howard: Robert Duvall
Dallas: Jon Favreau
Paula: Sissy Spacek
Courtney: Kristin Chenoweth
Pastor Phil: Dwight Yoakam
Dallas: Tim McGraw
Creighton: Jon Voight

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by Seth Gordon. Written by Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. Running time: 82 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sexual humor and language).

One of the things I like best about movies is the way certain ones can just hit you with a lesson about life. Usually they are lessons you already know, often ones that have been stated in hundreds of other similar movies. But it takes a certain combination of laughs and people and pacing, and suddenly it hits you just right. In the new holiday-themed romantic comedy “Four Christmases”, there is a moment where I said to myself, “That is one of those truths about love that we all overlook too often.”

You often hear people talking about what they want out of a relationship. I want this or that. But a relationship isn’t about what you want; it is about what you are willing to give. No, that isn’t incredibly profound, but if we kept it in the front of our minds when in a relationship, would we talk about what we want out of it? “Four Christmases” makes this point very clearly through its simplicity, and along the way it offers some good laughs.

That being said, this movie doesn’t break any new ground beyond not staying beyond its welcome. At a brisk 82 minute running time, “Four Christmases” takes us through the typical holiday relationship torture test of seeing two beautiful people suffer through the trials of visiting the (cue ominous descending chords) In-Laws. Its particular take on the subject involves Brad and Kate. As played by Vince Vaughn (“Fred Claus”) and Reese Witherspoon (“Rendition”), they are a modern couple with an honest, open relationship. They seem to take pleasure in bucking traditional relationship values at the embarrassment of other couples, but they are true and in love with each other. Vaughn and Witherspoon make a surprisingly good couple.

Brad and Kate each come from divorced parents, which informs their choice to remain unmarried. They actively avoid their families during the holidays, claiming to be involved in charity work whilst actually spending their vacation on vacation, much to the chagrin of co-workers condemned to the family obligations. But when a thick fog grounds all of the San Francisco Airport flights and an ambitious news reporter put Brad and Kate on television to capture their disappointment in missing their flight to Fiji, the jig is up. They now are forced to visit his dad, her mom, his mom and her dad in one day, so they can still make their delayed vacation.

Director Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”) pulls out all the stops in the casting of the couples’ strange parents. Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek, and Jon Voight play the respective parents, each but Voight threatening to steal every scene they’re in.

They kick off their holiday fun with Brad’s whiskey tango father (Duvall, “We Own the Night”) and his “ultimate fighting” brothers Dallas (Tim McGraw, “Friday Night Lights”) and Denver (Jon Favreau, “Iron Man”). Kate learns some secrets about Brad, such as the fact that each boy was named after the city in which they were conceived. Brad’s real name is Orlando. Then it is off to Kate’s cougar mother’s house, and there perhaps is no better cougar out there than Mary Steenburgen (“Step Brothers”). We meet her new age preacher boyfriend (Dwight Yoakam, “Crank”) and Brad learns some of Kate’s skeletons.

Trips to the final two parents’ houses don’t reveal much new story-wise but do provide some good laughs, like the fact that Brad’s mom (Spacek, “Hot Rod”) is now dating one of his former best friends who doesn’t “want to replace (his) father,” he just wants “to be a friend.” Kate’s dad (Voight, “National Treasure”) comes in right on cue to provide a voice of reason.

That sinking feeling came to my stomach when it became clear the couple was going to hit that inevitable rough patch because of all they had learned about each other and their families during that trying day. But then instead of an extended sequence of the couple being mean to each other and pretending to feel ways they didn’t, as is standard for such formula, the characters remain honest with one another and that revelation about love I mentioned earlier comes over the audience and characters at once.

Despite refusing to torture the audience by drawing out things unnecessarily, this movie is all formula and only the truly conditioned will like it. Brad and Kate do go through some rather obvious introspection about themselves and how they feel about each other. But I liked the movie’s frankness with its subject matter. Nor do the filmmakers ask you to like people who really aren’t very nice. “Four Christmases” may seem like a holiday trial to some audiences, but for simple laughs and not even an hour and a half of your time, it has its moments.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #7: Television Terrors

As the economy begins to constrict like some leviathan of the deep taking victims one by one at the bottom of the sea, people are turning back to television as a source of a broad range of entertainment genres. Hopefully, that means the death of the “reality” craze, but some horrors will never go away.

Speaking of horror, this is a genre that seems to have become explored much more in depth by television of late than it has in the past. There are cable series that have gotten major network exposure, anthology horror series have been filling the gaps of the off-seasons, and there have even been some mainstream hits that have crossed boundaries into the areas of horror.

There was a day when sci-fi/horror anthologies gained some notoriety on TV, with the original runs of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits”. For many years television tried to regain some of the success of those shows with revamped versions along with news shows like “Amazing Stories” and “Tales from the Crypt”. But very little took beyond mild cable success. Then in 1993 a little television show that could showed up called “The X-Files” and from there an new obsession with horror began on television. First through horror soaps like “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, to new found success for the horror anthology with shows like “Masters of Horror” and “Fear Itself”, and even on to outright horror vehicles like the serial killer drama “Dexter”.

This year I took a look at two new horror-themed dramas in their first seasons and an HBO miniseries from last year.

“Fringe” is the latest outing from television maestro J.J. Abrams of “Lost” and “Alias” fame. It is fitting that it should have found its home at FOX, since it is not entirely unlike “The X-Files”. But this is “The X-Files” as done by J.J. Abrams. It follows an FBI agent tapped to form a team of investigators to explore nearly unexplainable phenomena. But in true Abrams conspiracy form these strange happenings have a connection known only as the Pattern.

There are no aliens in “Fringe”, but it does often start with the feeling of some of “X-Files” stand-alone horror episodes. But as each episode progresses it gets further and further from the “X-Files”. It contains a cast of quite original characters, all grounded by Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), who drives each investigation and every episode.

By presenting a new investigation with each episode, Abrams and co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci avoid the necessity for the audience of having to see every episode, as you pretty much must with their other creation “Lost”. But as the series progresses you begin to see more signs of their intricate overall storyline involving the Pattern and deep secrets that each character holds, ala the conspiratorial nature of both “Alias” and “Lost”. It’s a show that had to grow on me for a few episodes, but now I’m just as hooked as I was for their two other television classics.

A show that only took one episode to hook me, however, was HBO’s new ongoing vampire series “True Blood”. Adapted from the Sookie Stackhouse series of books by Charlaine Harris—unheard of by me until this television show—“True Blood” imagines a world where vampires have been outted after centuries of hiding their existence from humans.

In the greater world of “True Blood” vampires are campaigning for equal rights, producing a synthetic blood supplement that is sold like alcohol (although drinks like a non-alcoholic version of human blood), and generally going through their own civil rights movement. But the story takes place in a small bayou town in Louisiana. It has a large cast of characters, representing a vast tapestry of individual types, and lead by the romantic leads Sookie (Anna Paquin), a human with the ability to read minds, and Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a vampire trying to go the straight and narrow by “mainstreaming” with normal humans.

Recently, “True Blood” has drawn some negative criticism and comparisons to the new teen vampire romance movie “Twilight” from vampire purists for changing the rules of vampirism. The vampires in the series can be seen in mirrors and are not intimidated by crucifixes. But these criticisms are unwarranted since these vampires still deal with the traditional vampire themes of sin and temptation. Their existence is closely related with sexuality and most of the vampires in the series are not very nice. But then neither are most of the humans.

The series is rich with themes of tolerance and discrimination. The issues of race and homosexuality are explored through both the vampire and with gay and black characters. Addiction is seen through vampire desire for human blood and human need for drugs and the heightened experiences of vampire life. No stone of our compulsions and vices are left unturned in the series’ exploration of our humanity.

Cable networks have become the driving force for television. Ideas are tested out there before they’re attempted on mainstream television. HBO has been a pioneer in developing television into a format on the same level as cinema. Their partnership with BBC television has resulted in shows like “The Office” and “Extras” and many award-winning documentaries.

2007 saw these two companies’ collaboration on the miniseries “Five Days”. While not precisely a horror story, it presented the horror of lives touched by an abduction. It depicts five separated days throughout a long investigation into the abduction of a mother and her two children. We see the pain and distress of the family of the abductees and the investigators involved in the search. The quality of this episodic telefilm remains as high as those the BBC and HBO have become renowned for, and by the end of the series the audience has witnessed just a small portion of the exhaustion felt by all the individuals in the compartmentalized roles they each must play during such an ordeal.

Quality television such as this often has to be sought out to be uncovered. But it makes all the “Deal or No Deals” and “Hole in the Walls” seem like petty entertainments that are fine for our kids to endure but leave an unsatisfactory emptiness for those who demand some form of substance in their television viewing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ebert's response

When you've written a couple of hundred reviews of different movies, you often try to look at different ways to approaching each one. You try to keep it fresh, so every review isn't exactly the same. I often feel I fall into the rut of: here's my initial thoughts, here's the synopsis, here's a couple reasons why I felt the way I did, here's my conclusion. So any time I can, I look for a different pattern.

I was so enthused by the new 007 "Quantum of Solace" that I knew I wanted my review to be special. Because I felt so strongly about it, I just had to know why a critic I admire so much as Roger Ebert didn't. Once I read his review of the film, I had my unique approach to my review. I would write him a letter to him detailing exactly why I felt he was off the mark.

The funny thing is, it never occurred to me until after I had written the review that it was actually a letter to Roger Ebert, and therefore should be sent to him. So I did. The only place I could find to send it was his Answer Man reader mail feature on his website. I did not really intend for him to publish it on his site, nor has he. I just wanted him to read what I had written to him.

Sunday evening I received my first e-mail from Roger Ebert. Perhaps I am making an overblown deal out of this, but this was a communique with a man whom I hold a great deal of respect for. He didn't say much. Understandable, since he must deal with hundreds of e-mails from complete strangers like myself every week. But he took the time to read what I had written and gave me a grand compliment in his response. Although, he sent it to me personally, it was a response to something I wrote to him on this website and I wanted my readers to be able to share it. Yeah, I suppose I'm bragging a bit, but mostly I am honored.

Here's what he wrote:

"Re: Quantifying 'Quantum'

Well, you make good points. Although I've seen every Bond movie, I admit I am not a scholar of them. Anyway, congratulations on your blog, and on your writing. You have a clear and persuasive voice.

RE "

I don't think I'll be deleting that e-mail anytime soon.

Read my letter to Roger here.
Read Roger's review of "Quantum of Solace" here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Twilight / ** (PG-13)

Bella Swan: Kristen Stewart
Edward Cullen: Robert Pattinson
Charlie Swan: Billy Burke
Dr. Carlisle Cullen: Peter Facinelli
Jacob Black: Taylor Lautner
James: Cam Gigandet
Alice Cullen: Ashley Greene
Rosalie Hale: Nikki Reed
Jasper Hale: Jackson Rathbone
Emmet Cullen: Kellan Lutz
Jessica Stanley: Anna Kendrick
Mike Newton: Michael Welch
Eric Yorkie: Justin Chon
Angela Webber: Christian Serratos

Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Written by Melissa Rosenberg. Based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer. Running time: 122 min. Rated PG-13 (for some violence and a scene of sensuality).

When did the vampire turn into a superhero? When I developed my love for them, they were creatures of bloodlust and sexuality. Now, instead of being creatures of horror, they’ve become some of fantasy. Wouldn’t it be fun to be a vampire?! We used to think that too. That’s always been part of their allure. But when they used to be a monster there was the taste of fear that went along with the desire. Today’s vampires hold more in common with Superman than they do with Dracula.

“Twilight” became one of the year’s most anticipated movies almost without anyone noticing. And now that it’s here, I can see that flying in under the radar was probably better for the movie than everyone knowing what they were getting into ahead of time. Then, it may not have seemed worth the bother. Of course, the movie was adapted from the best selling novel by Stephanie Meyer, and I am very much out of the loop having not read it or any of the others in her vampire series. I’m sure it must work better on the page than it does on the screen, or there probably wouldn’t be a movie.

The story involves a teenage girl, Bella (Kristen Stewart, “Jumper”), who moves in with her estranged father after not having visited him since she was a little girl. Her father (Billy Burke, “Untraceable”) is the sheriff of a small town in Washington State, where the weather is perpetually overcast and cold. Bella doesn’t fit in well at school, but soon gathers a small group of friends. But she can’t seem to keep her attention off the outcasts of the school: the Cullen family. Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) in particular strikes her fancy. She doesn’t know what to make of his strange behavior toward her; but after he saves her life under more strange circumstances, they develop a tentative friendship.

They eventually fall in love and Edward must reveal his family’s secret to Bella—they are a coven of vampires. The family patriarch, Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli, FX’s “Damages”), has taught his clan to feed only off animal blood, although the temptation for human blood is strong. This detail is where much of the mythology of their story goes wrong. By breaking the bloodlust for human flesh the sin of vampirism is lost. They retain all of their superhuman powers of heightened strength and accelerated speed, some can even see into the future; but they are more like mutants with superpowers than monsters.

There are some monsters in this new vampire mythology. Another small coven of vampires has been ravaging the town by taking human victims and threatening to expose the Cullens’s secret. When their tracker James (Cam Gigandet, FOX’s “The OC”) discovers a human in the midst of the Cullen clan, he becomes determined to kill Bella and start a battle between the two clans. So now a conflict that was once between the mortal world of morality and the undying temptations of sin has been relegated to a feud between two warring super-powered vampire clans. Humans have all but been eliminated from the equation, except as snacks.

The early passages of the movie play like some overcast and drizzling version of the newly revamped “90210”. But even teen soaps like that have more teeth than this vampire flick. There is a sense of timidity throughout the movie. It’s as if director Catherine Hardwicke (“Lords of Dogtown”) doesn’t want to offend anyone. Her depiction of the vampire’s superpowers is standard and often too weak. Blurring their movement to show their speed is overdone and too often looks just plain goofy in this rather melodramatic context.

The lead actors do well enough in showing their rising passion for each other. But Melissa Rosenberg’s script draws their courtship out for too long before getting to the meat of the issues of hanging out with vampires. I don’t know how closely Rosenberg (a writer for the Showtime serial killer series “Dexter”) follows Meyer’s book, but their needs to be a stronger focus on the bad vampires. They are the threat to this small town, but we never get a chance to feel that.

I had my concerns about seeing a vampire movie that is rated PG-13. The sinful explorations of human temptation for which that the vampire myth was invented does not lend itself well to a light touch. I never expected that touch to be quite as soft spoken as it is here, though. Although these vampires can see their images in a mirror—I’m assuming since they walk around in daylight—there is really nothing there at all.