Saturday, September 27, 2008

Eagle Eye / ** (PG-13)

Jerry Shaw: Shia LaBeouf
Rachel Holloman: Michelle Monaghan
Zoe Perez: Rosario Dawson
Agent Tom Morgan: Billy Bob Thornton
Defense Secretary Callister: Michael Chiklis
Major William Bowman: Anthony Mackie

DreamWorks SKG presents a film directed by D.J. Caruso. Written by John Glenn & Travis Adam Wright and Hillary Seitz and Dan McDermott. Running time: 118 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, and for language).

“If a butterfly flaps its wings in China, will it rain in London?”

There are as many variations on this saying—known as “the butterfly effect”—as the infinite possibilities that the Chaos Theory behind it suggests. But chaos does not apply to the modern action thriller. The plots are too structured and intricate to allow for variants of any kind. Even when a plot seems to allow freedom of choice for its characters, that freedom is usually an illusion of the plot that is either well hidden or not. “Eagle Eye” is one of those movies with a plot so preposterous that even the slightest notion of random elements have been vanquished from the script.

Chaos works against a movie like this. Like in a scene where the movie’s hero is in a car that has been picked up by a giant crane, and the villain’s plan depends upon the hero jumping out of the car at a specific point. Before the action reaches that point the car’s front window must fall out so the hero can jump through it. In order to achieve this the villain allows the crane to tip the vehicle forward, but how does the villain know the hero will maintain his grip on the car’s dashboard long enough to make it to the point where he must jump from the vehicle? The villain eventually explains some computer program that allows for the perfect personality test, which tells exactly how a person can be manipulated, but no personality test could determine whether someone will loose his grip for a million other unpredictable reasons.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The hero is Jerry Shaw, a loser who has dropped out of Stanford, can’t keep a steady relationship, works at the Copy Cabana, and can’t even pay rent on his dump of an apartment. There is one thing special about Jerry. His is a twin. His brother excelled at everything he did. He was living a successful career with the Air Force, when he was killed in a car accident.

When Jerry returns from his brother’s funeral, he finds things have changed in his life. His bank account now has $750,000 in it, and his apartment is filled with state of the art military weapons and deadly chemicals. He receives a phone call in which he is told the FBI will be there in 30 seconds and that he must get out of the apartment. He doesn’t. But after a cool-tempered anti-terrorism agent played by Billy Bob Thornton tells Jerry he’s in “a lot of trouble,” Jerry is forced to escape and follow the instructions of the mysterious voice that is able to call him on any phone and is aware of his every movement.

Jerry is not the only innocent pulled into this sinister mystery plot. Rachel Holloman is a single mother forced into the plot for fear of her son’s life, although it seems the villain’s scheme would have been more efficient by only involving her son and leaving her out of it. But then Jerry wouldn’t have anyone to work off.

Shia LaBeouf (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) continues to prove he is a compelling actor to watch on screen with his ability to make Jerry a believable hero. And Michelle Monaghan (“Mission Impossible III”) is appropriately desperate to save her son as Rachel. But neither actor seems to grasp the absurdity of their characters’ use in the plot. For a movie that is all situation, these two actually seem to think this is all about them.

Thornton is as smooth as ever as Agent Morgan, although he conveniently buys into the alternate theory he has fought against for the entire film at just the point he must. That theory that Jerry and Rachel are being manipulated is presented by an Air Force investigator played by Rosario Dawson (“Clerks II”). Although it is nice to see Dawson get a shot at a high profile role, she isn’t given much to do beyond figure out what is really happening pretty much by accident. Michael Chiklis (FX’s “The Shield”) is given a good opening scene as the Secretary of Defense, but is quickly lost in the movie’s design.

Director D.J. Caruso teams up with LaBeouf a second time, their first collaboration being the Hitchcockian movie “Disturbia”. And although he has once again cast LaBeouf as another Hitchcockian hero—the falsely accused man—the direction is not handled with the perfection of style as a Hitchcock. The fast-paced quick cuts of many of the action sequences are confusing; especially when so many of the vehicles look alike. And he has a tendency to move his camera without purpose.

I suppose if you can overlook the chaos theory that acts against the intricately detailed plot developed by the villain, this may be an effective thriller for you. But there are just too many things this plot depends on going perfectly in order for it to play out. And the only time things don’t work the way they are supposed to for the villain are when the script requires the characters to break away from the restrictions placed on them. “Eagle Eye” could use just a little more chance in its stratagem.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Horrorfest 2008 Preview: Horror on the Brain!

I walked outside a couple of nights ago and—thanks to an unusually mild temperature year here in Missourah—the smell of fall was in the air. Summer had given way already to the refreshing breeze of a new season—a season where the old begins to make way for the new. And as I breathed in that slightly tangy scent of fall, I knew the bloodbaths of Horrorfest were just around the corner; and that glazed-over look of suffering that the summer heat brings gave way to the glint of a bedeviled perversity that compels so many to sit in a dark room and scare themselves silly.

Although, the smell of fall gave me this thrill of anticipation I feel every year as I stock my Netflix queue full of gore and grisly screams, it all nearly snuck up on me this year. I’ve been busier than ever with my writing and reviews, plus my house is under major construction and my three-year-old is at that age where every hour he is awake requires strict attention to keep him in line. Talk about terror!

October is my favorite month of movie watching all year because of this little obsession I’ve created and dubbed Horrorfest. Unlike most film festivals, this one consists for the most part of one audience member—myself. But I invite all of you readers to join in viewing the films I watch every year during my own personal film festival. So get your rental queues ready!

This year I’m presenting my most structured playlist in the eight years that I have held Horrorfest. The biggest area of focus during this year’s fright fest will be in the area of horror remakes. I plan to watch a couple of originals and their modern remakes throughout the month, including the recent reinterpretations of “Prom Night” and “Funny Games” and their better received original versions. I will also view the recent US remakes of J-horror hits “Mirrors”, “One Missed Call”, and “The Eye”. And I will watch the 1951 original “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in preparation for the December release of the remake starring Keanu Reeves.

I’m also going slightly sequel crazy this year in a study of the recent trend in the “torture porn” subgenre of horror. I’ll be catching up on the “Saw” series by taking in episodes II-IV and hopefully the theatrical release of “Saw V”. I’ll also finally sit down and watch Eli Roth’s popular “Hostel” and “Hostel II”. And I’ll watch perhaps the ultimate torture porn, the highly controversial and critically derided “Chaos”. In the sequel set I will include two documentaries “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” and it’s follow up “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”.

Of course there will be the standards subgenres of zombies (“Let Sleeping Corpses Lie”, “Undead”, “Diary of the Dead”, “The Signal”, “American Zombie”) and vampires (“Skinwalkers”, “30 Days of Night”, “The Fearless Vampire Killers”). My look into the vampire subgenre will also include an overview of the first few episodes of HBO’s new series “True Blood”. There will also be a couple of scares aimed at kids, including “The Spiderwick Chronicles”, “Igor”, and Tim Burton’s cult-turned-popular hit “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.

I’ll also try to find some hidden gems in movies that may have been overlooked like “Awake”, “The Orphanage”, “Prey”, “Scarecrows”, “P2”, “Stuck”, and the HBO mini-series from last fall “Five Days”. As usual there will be a couple of goofs like 1976’s rats-attack picture “The Food of the Gods” and Uwe Boll’s latest anti-masterpiece “Postal”. And I’ll try to figure out what happened to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening”. And I’ll watch an old acquaintance’s first feature film, Carter Smith’s “The Ruins”.

As usual this list is not set in stone. There will be titles I won’t get to, and some theatrical releases that I haven’t listed might drift into town. I’d really like to get a peek at “Quarantine”. One of the pleasures of Horrorfest is that I might just happen along something on cable or even in my own library, and discover a movie I hadn’t planned on watching, but was so glad I did.

One such movie that was not intended to be part of my Horrorfest lineup, but served as a wonderful appetizer because of its creepiness and ghost-themed story was Guy Maddin’s tribute to silent film “Brand Upon the Brain!”.

Actually, every movie I’ve ever seen of Maddin’s is a tribute to silent film. Last year I watched his “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” for Horrorfest and it was one of the best Dracula movies I’ve ever seen. It was essentially a filmed ballet of the classic Bram Stoker story, and Maddin’s silent film-inspired directorial style was perfect for it.

“Brand Upon the Brain!” however, is the best Maddin effort I’ve seen. It is a ghost story about a man named Guy Maddin, of all names, who returns to his boyhood home. Located on a secluded island where his parents once ran an orphanage, Guy relives the traumas of his childhood in flashback, all narrated by Isabella Rossellini. Young Guy lives under the close protection of his mother who oversees all from her lighthouse telescope, but begins to feel the oppression of her control over him when a famous child detective arrives at the island to investigate the strange behavior of Guy’s parents. Of particular interest to the detective is Guy’s sister who show signs of experiments run on her by her father, signs that all the orphans share.

If the plot sounds strange, the film is even stranger but so well suited to the silent format. It is not truly a silent film because of Rossellini’s narration, however it has been presented theatrically by Maddin with live narration and score. All of the other film techniques are right out of the silent era, and they reveal what great qualities the silent era held for film, especially those of a creepier nature. The whole thing has an otherworldly feel to it that compliments the supernatural nature of its subject matter.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

He Said, She Said: The Women (PG-13)

One Movie, Two Views

Mary Haines: Meg Ryan
Sylvia Fowler: Annette Bening
Edie Cohen: Debra Messing
Alex Fisher: Jada Pinkett Smith
Crystal Allen: Eva Mendes
Molly Haines: India Ennenga
Maggie: Cloris Leachman
Uta: Tilly Scott Pedersen
Catherine Frazier: Candice Bergen
Tanya: Debi Mazar
Bailey Smith: Carrie Fisher
Leah Miller: Bette Midler

Picturehouse presents a film written for the screen and directed by Diane Eng
lish. Based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce and the 1939 screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for sex-related material, language, some drug use and brief smoking).

“A woman is like a tea bag, you cannot tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
—Nancy Reagan

Synopsis: A loose remake of the Clare Boothe Luce play and the 1939 movie of the same name, “The Women” focuses primarily on two women. Meg Ryan (“In the Land of Women”) is Mary Haines, a fashion designer who has never taken her own risks. The world she inhabits is disrupted when she discovers her husband is having an affair with a younger, sexier “spritzer girl” (Eva Mendes, “We Own the Night”). Annette Bening (“Running with Scissors”) is Sylvia Fowler, Mary’s best friend and a fashion magazine editor struggling to retain her journalistic integrity in a time when gossip has become more important than information. Two other friends support them—Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith, “Reign Over Me”), a lesbian author, and Edie (Debra Messing, NBC’s “Will & Grace”), a mother of four who refuses to stop having children until she births a boy.

He Said / ***
By Andrew D. Wells

What a surprising delight “The Women” is. I went into it expecting a closed-off female cavalcade of clichéd events, forced drama and inside humor; and discovered a free-spirited but serious look into the lives of successful women and the challenges they face in dealing with modern relationships and love. Instead of generalizing the relationships of the women depicted, writer and first-time director Diane English (an Emmy winning writer for television’s “Murphy Brown”) develops very specific characters and situations, without cutting corners on the way these women deal with problems and face challenges.

The plot doesn’t develop along predictable lines, nor does the comedy stoop to cheap slapstick. The humor is intelligent and informs the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. There is an early confrontation between Mary and Crystal, the spritzer girl, which takes place in a lingerie shop. Instead of developing into a catfight between the two women, the scene is handled with a reasonable conversation that springs out of the characters’ feelings about the situation. The dialogue is funny and smart, and reveals important details about whom these women are rather than pandering for cheap laughs.

Mary’s relationship with her daughter Molly (India Ennenga, the voice of children’s character “Pinky Dinky Doo”), and the unexpected relationship that develops between Molly and Sylvia are also handled with keen observation of the inexperience teenagers have in dealing with adult issues. At first, it seems as if Molly is going to be just an accessory character—someone to shake her head at the adult behavior—but she turns out to be a real teenager who is greatly affected by her situation and needs an adult to help her through it. And I appreciated that English didn’t make all the women’s attitudes toward children the same. It is rare to see women that are allowed to dislike children without being the villain.

But all that I’ve said here might give the impression that this movie is some sort of realistic drama where the audience is shown the hard realities of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. “The Women” is a fantasy of sorts. There are no men to be seen in the entire film, save one. (Can you spot him?) All of these women are successful, living a New York high life where money is only a logistic issue and the characters’ problems are fairly cosmetic. But this good life does not work against the movie’s success. The filmmakers have depicted these women’s charmed lives in order to draw the audience into a world we want to enjoy.

“The Women” also gives the impression of a road movie in the way English populates the film with many characters who drift into the story to offer insight and advice to our heroines and then drift out again. There are important cameos by Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Carrie Fisher, Bette Midler, and Debi Mazar. Each of these performers brings their own personal signature to the insight their characters provide. And the characters of Edie and Alex help to balance out the heavier parts of the plot with some good old-fashioned comic relief in the final scenes.

At a time when too many comedies take the easy way to the laugh by having their characters behave like children, it is nice to see a movie that has the integrity to show adults deal with their problems by trying to resist childish impulses. The characters in “The Women” actually consider their situations before acting upon them—some longer than they should. And they pay the consequences for their actions, but they also live with verve and purpose. “The Women” isn’t content to merely make fun of life’s difficulties; it works through those difficulties with humor.

She Said / ***
By Angie Wells

First, I’ll say, I asked my husband to get this movie for me for Christmas. I loved it. I gained inspiration from it. And it made me realize how lucky I am to have a good husband and good friends. Born and raised in small town America—rather than the bustling streets of Manhattan—I find I am lucky enough to have the same four best friends now as I did in elementary school. We are miles apart now but still keep in touch and visit often. After seeing “The Women”, I realize how much I value my friends and how much I miss being close to them.

“The Women” is a wonderful film about friendship and life. Yes, we’ve seen that set-up a hundred times, but this one is different. Having money doesn’t make one immune to the heartaches that life sometimes throws at us. Four friends’ relationships are tested and tried when they discover one has a cheating husband. One lives the life of the perfect socialite mother. One has broken through the glass ceiling. One believes her duty is to procreate. And one’s a lesbian who has trouble rising before noon.

The director’s choice to have only one male character appear in this film is amusing. I spent most of the film waiting and wondering which man we might see. The cheating husband maybe? Or someone more insignificant, like a handsome cabana boy or shirtless gardener? I won’t give it away, but it was worth the wait! This restriction does present a few hurdles for the director. Some scenes would’ve been better with a man written into the script, but I can only think of one scene in which the concept felt forced. Overall, I enjoyed the novelty of it.

The A-list cast is a joy. One of my favorite actresses, Meg Ryan, plays the slighted Mary Haines. (Meg, the one we love to hate. Is anyone really that cute?!? Honestly?) Mary finds herself betrayed—a situation all women fear. And not just by her husband, but by her best friend, too. Like many women, Mary has put her own life aside to raise and care for others—her husband, her daughter, and her community. One day she wakes up to find the rug has been pulled out from under her.

Her best friend Sylvie serves as the rock in this group of four friends. She is successful, outspoken and dynamic; but still has trouble finding the backbone to tell her best friend her husband’s cheating on her. Edie is a brilliant mess of a mother, a pregnant goody-two-shoes with a skeleton or two in her own closet. And Alex is the lackadaisical author, whose sexual preference in women provides comic relief from the very serious situations. It was great to see Alex and Edie come alive in the last scenes. Jada Pinkett Smith and Debra Messing steal the show in the last minutes of the film. Eve Mendes, as Crystal Allen, represents what most middle age women fear most—a young hottie with little respect for other women.

I found several similarities to my friends and me in this film. Each character has a trait similar to that of a friend of mine, making it easy for me to understand their relationships and judge their reactions to certain situations. But there were some flaws in this film. Other than her husband’s infidelity, Mary has a very cozy life. She is wealthy, has a daughter and good friends, and is very involved in bettering her community. Her life isn’t all that terrible. I found there were some issues that were difficult to relate to. Because of their privileged lifestyles, some problems were met with unrealistic answers for most of us. For example, Mary decides what she really wants out of life and the money to finance her lifelong dream materializes out of thin air. Most women wouldn’t be able to produce the start up cost on a venture like that! Then there’s the three months she “takes off” from real life to soak in her sorrow, but still manages to afford that million-dollar home in Connecticut with the housekeeper and nanny.

This film did a great job of showing how complex and meaningful female relationships can be. Life is messy. We all make mistakes, men and women alike. Some can be forgiven, others cannot. I loved that this film allowed the characters to make realistic choices, and didn’t stick to the cookie-cutter mold often found in Hollywood female entitlement movies. This film is great for women and men who value friendship. We all should treat our friends with the highest respect and gratitude. We never know when we might need them.

But that’s just a girl’s opinion!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mirrors / *½ (R)

Ben Carson: Kiefer Sutherland
Amy Carson: Paula Patton
Michael Carson: Cameron Boyce
Daisy Carson: Erica Gluck
Angela Carson: Amy Smart

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Alexandre Aja. Written by Aja and Gregory Levassuer. Based on the Korean motion picture “Into the Mirror”, screenplay by Sung-ho Kim. Running time: 110 min. Rated R (for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity).

There is a word that should never be associated with something that is supposed to surprise and even scare its audience. That word is ‘routine.’ For the past decade Hollywood has endeavored to adapt horror films originally made in Asian markets, like Korea and Japan. Most of these movies—often referred to as J-horror—are ghosts stories. In their original versions, they tend to be creepy atmospheric portrayals of ghosts trying to communicate some important past mistreatment to the living. Interestingly enough, the stories depend on the ghosts interrupting the routines of the living and jolting them out of their ignorance of the world’s atrocities. These movies are original and unique in the way they perceive horror in our modern world. In the American versions, their structure and execution are too often the routine aspects about them.

In “Mirrors”—a remake of a Korean movie—Kiefer Sutherland (FOX’s “24”) plays Ben Carson, a former New York City police detective who shot a uniformed police officer while working a case under cover. The details of the shooting remain a mystery but are frequently referred to by other characters with typical comments, like “I stood behind you,” “Nobody doubts you,” and “You’ll get through this.” Yet the filmmakers seem to want the audience to think that nobody believes him in whatever it was he claimed happened.

Ben has gone through all the typical dejection of a fallen hero. At the start of the story it has already been a year since his suspension from the force. He has separated from his wife and family. He has been through the throes of alcoholism and been sober for the past three months. And he’s living on the couch at his sister’s (Amy Smart, “Crank”) apartment.

There is an early expositional scene with his wife Amy (Paula Patton, “Déjà vu”) that works as a great example of the screenplay’s laziness. The couple has a fight about Ben’s behavior since his suspension where no details are discussed, just general attitude. The scene ends with no clear reason for their separation given and Amy screaming at him about how well she supported him.

For all of the lack of detail in the dialog by Gregory Levassuer (“P2”) and co-writer/director Alexandre Aja, the graphic nature of the film’s first scene betrays its own horror value with too much detail. The scene depicts a man slitting his own throat in front of a mirror. His image in the mirror performs the murder while the real man suffers the effects. Aja makes the mistake of showing too much graphic detail of the man’s throat opening up. While the thought of a man slitting his throat will make you squeamish, the sight of it—with its innards and excessive blood—is too unreal and loses its power. Aja had great success in not showing audiences the whole story until the end of his French-made breakthough “High Tension”, but when he remade the Wes Craven classic “The Hills Have Eyes” he proved his inclination for showing the audience too much of the gore to retain the tension of the horror.

Not surprisingly, no one believes Ben when he claims that the mirrors in the burned-out department store where he takes a night watchman job are trying to communicate with him. He decides to look into the history of the building and discovers a secret that could have been told to him by anyone who had ever seen a ghost movie in the past ten years. After a tragedy befalls someone close to him, he discovers that the ghost can find him or his family members through any mirror. Unfortunately, this incident is not exploited by the plot to make Ben’s search for the truth more difficult. It should seem that he is the culprit, but this avenue is never explored.

What strikes me the most about the Hollywood take on these ghost stories is that the ghosts are so insistent on haunting the least credible source they can find. Sutherland’s cop is such a shattered and broken soul himself, why would the ghost feel that he was the answer to its mystery, the solution to its truth. There is a least one other candidate for the ghost to pick on, but the ghost chooses this ex-cop who is possibly guilty of some former crime. Do these ghosts reach out for a broken spirit because it is closer to them? And why do they make the task they have for their victim to perform almost impossible to achieve? Certainly it must be difficult to communicate from the grave, but why make it harder for the living to solve their mystery by destroying his life?

Of course, these are merely general problems I have with this subgenre of horror, but “Mirrors” has some very specific missed opportunities. One involves a nun who provides one of the more intriguing possibilities about what might happen if the ghost gets what it wants, but the theological implications of her concerns are not explored in the film’s climax; instead Ben must engage in an unlikely physical battle with the ghost that ends without any explanation of how the ghost could truly be stopped. And the final scene of the film would have been a welcome exploration of the movie’s theories about the magic behind mirrors had it occurred earlier.

It seems like Hollywood is so eager to embrace the plots of these J-horror movies without ever trying to understand why they are effective. The originals are rarely just moody frightfests—although they do usually contain frightening moments and images—but they tend to explore the lives of the people who find themselves victims of these hauntings. It’s as if the filmmakers are hesitant to explore the true nature of these movies but are content to stick to a routine that eschews their power.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth / ** (PG)

Prof. Trevor Anderson: Brendan Fraser
Sean Anderson: Josh Hutcherson
Hannah Ásgiersson: Anita Briem

New Line Cinema and Walden Media present a film directed by Eric Brevig. Written by Michael Weiss and Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG (for intense adventure action and some scary moments).

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
— Thomas H. Palmer, “Teacher’s Manual” (1840)

There are certain properties that seem to get made into movies over and over again. It happens a lot with science fiction literature adaptations. Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is a story that has particularly dogged filmmakers—especially of late. Perhaps the best known movie version is the earliest attempt at the material, the 1959 film starring James Mason and Pat Boone; but IMdb lists no less than 12 other versions of the property since then, including 5 television adaptations in the last 15 years.

The makers of the latest theatrical version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” have tried to take advantage of the technological advances in film medium to give us an experience unlike any of the previous versions. “JCE” holds the distinction of being the first live action movie to be presented in the new digital 3D format. Of course, the makers have also taken advantage of the most recent CGI technology to create digitally animated scenery and creatures for the story; so much of the movie isn’t truly live action.

Unfortunately, Marshall Cinemas haven’t been equipped with the expensive digital 3D projectors; so I’m not able to comment on the effectiveness of the new format in respect to this movie. In a way, that allows for an impartial analysis of the movie itself, which should be able to stand on its own without the gimmick of three-dimensions.

To go along with the new technology, however, the filmmakers have taken a new approach to the material of Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel. Instead of just adapting the story Verne wrote about a scientist who discovers volcanic tubes that lead to a world contained within the Earth, screenwriters Michael Weiss (with his first theatrical writing credit), Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin (the writing team behind “Nim’s Island”) suppose that Verne’s novel was not fiction at all but a first person account told to Verne by the very scientist he uses as his hero.

In the present day, Brendan Fraser (“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”) is Professor Trevor Anderson—a seismic expert continuing the work of his brother, who disappeared more than ten years prior. Through some fairly routine scenes depicting his classroom etiquette and a disheveled apartment, we find that Trevor is not a very organized person. That is why it has slipped his mind that he had scheduled a 10 day visit with his brother’s teenaged son, Sean (Josh Hutcherson, “Firehouse Dog”). How inconvenient for him that on the very day Sean arrives the seismic sensors he and his brother had placed in strategic positions around the world show their first signs of activity since the brother’s disappearance.

The numbers point toward a seismic event in Iceland—the very location where Verne’s adventure begins. Trevor goes to investigate with Sean in tow. Once in Iceland, they hire a guide, Hannah Ásgiersson (Anita Briem, Showtime’s “The Tudors”). The three find themselves trapped in the volcano where Trevor’s readings were emitting and end up discovering the very tubes Verne described in his book. Soon they are retracing the steps of Verne’s scientists and ducking all the same dangers encountered in the book.

What is interesting about “JCE” is that it actually takes the time necessary to set up its intricate premise. Considering the 3D gimmick and the trends of modern Hollywood filmmaking, one would expect director Eric Brevig (a visual effects supervisor for such blockbusters as “Pearl Harbor” and “The Day After Tomorrow”) to be chomping at the bit to get to those action sequences. This cinematic patience might make younger viewers a little restless, but it allows the filmmakers to preserve the themes and scientific logic of Verne’s novel.

The action does eventually start rolling, but it is here where the movie strikes its warbling notes. Unlike the stunning visual effects Brevig was responsible for in the underrated 2003 live action “Peter Pan”, the world created for the center of the Earth never feels real. The actors seem to hover just above the ground in their CGI locations. And there is an overall impression that the budget was just a little too small to afford the shots Brevig really wanted. Plus throughout the movie—including the real location scenes—Brevig goes out of his way to exploit the 3D format, resulting in cheap 3D thrill shots, like when Fraser spits out his toothpaste right into the camera, or the coal mine car rollercoaster scene, which was done better more than 20 years ago in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.

Verne’s story of a world within our world seems like it would be a natural candidate for cinematic adaptation. It’s an adventure that relies more on thrills than substance and offers a glorious fantasy world for audiences to behold. For some reason, however, filmmakers just can’t seem to make it work. In this day and age of realistic CGI animation and digital 3D formats, it would seem as if the time is ripe for a good version of this sci-fi classic. But for now, it’s back to the drawing board.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Babylon A.D. / ** (PG-13)

Toorop: Vin Diesel
Aurora: Mélanie Thierry
Sister Rebeka: Michelle Yeoh
Gorsky: Gérard Depardieu
High Priestess: Charlotte Rampling
Finn: Mark Strong
Darquandier: Lambert Wilson

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Mathieu Kassovitz. Written by Kassovitz, Eric Besnard, and Joseph Simas. Based on the novel “Babylon Babies” by Maurice G. Dantec. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, language and some sexuality).

America and France have always shared a strange symbiotic relationship. Strange in that we like to act like we hate each other, but we both enjoy the same tastes. From this relationship is born a film like “Babylon A.D.” Financed by an American studio, made by a French director with an American star, populated by some of the biggest name French stars in supporting roles, and with a Chinese martial arts star thrown into the mix; it seems this movie should please everyone. Yet it doesn’t.

Just weeks before its scheduled release in February, 20th Century Fox decided to push the release back to later in the summer months. But they didn’t move it to the summer based upon their confidence that it would be a blockbuster. No, they dumped in the place where bad movies go to die—the final weekend in August. They sited necessary edits as the reason for the delay.

I’m sure the ensuing months were filled with nasty arguments between the film’s director Mathieu Kossovitz (“Gothika”) and the studio heads about what type of picture it was. Nasty arguments are pretty much standard territory for any treaties entered into between America and France. Even this last week Kossovitz was in the press complaining that the studio had cut 15 minutes from the film he deemed essential to its success. He may have been right.

But enough about the tumultuous relations between the US and France. This is one of those stories that take place in the “not-too-distant future.” Toorop (Vin Diesel, “The Chronicles of Riddick”) is a mercenary living off the ravaged societal leftovers of a dystopian Russian landscape. He is employed by a gangster named Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu, “La Vie en Rose”) to transport a young woman to New York City. Aurora (Mélanie Thierry, “Pu-239”) has lived her entire life in an isolated convent; and when Toorop arrives to take her, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emporer”) insists on coming along.

There is an atmosphere to the movie that is like a cross-pollinating of “Children of Men” with “The Fifth Element” and a little “Minority Report”. Kossovitz places iconic sci-fi imagery throughout the film, like when Toorop travels to the convent in a car that is being airlifted by a helicopter, or the interior of Gorsky’s armored car, which is lined with real-time flat screen televisions acting as windows. But most of these images seem to be thrown in just for effect without much practical purpose.

Of course along the way, our heroes run into many obstacles to prevent them from reaching New York. Two groups of people seem to be after Aurora, the same church running the convent which raised her, lead by the High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling, “Swimming Pool”), and a group of mercenaries working for a man who claims to be her allegedly deceased father (Lambert Wilson, “Catwoman”). Aurora seems to have a special power and purpose that remains a mystery until the film’s final act, and it is questionable as to just how much Sister Rebeka knows about the church’s reasons for wanting Aurora in New York.

There isn’t much here that hasn’t been explored before in better movies, although there is the potential for much more. What could have been a deep philosophical allegory on the potential corruption of faith through organized religion is whittled down to little more than a cat and mouse chase movie. Where the theological ramifications of the movie’s philosophy could have been reflected in the dystopian state of this future world, the images of society’s future shortcomings are shown to the audience more for shock value than as any sort of mirror to our own reality.

As a chase picture “Babylon A.D.” is not done entirely without its own style and directorial skill. Kossovitz does a good job keeping the kinetic energy of the film on a full tilt. His camera rarely stops moving, and there are some intense action sequences, such as the fight scene in a nightclub where the cage matches are to the death and the pursuants jump around like monkeys on the catwalks, or the final road battle between the heroes in their Hummers and the villains in their Range Rovers. But there is too much under the surface here to restrict the story solely to its the action elements.

It seems there must have been more to “Babylon A.D.” that was cut out during the editing process. It wouldn’t be the first time a Hollywood studio didn’t trust the material handed them by a film’s director. But even in the scenes that remain in tact, it seems the filmmakers don’t entirely buy into their own rhetoric. There is a line spoken by Aurora to Toorop in the final scene that betrays the gigantic implications of what they have achieved. He says her name, and she points out that it is the first time he has ever spoken it. By this point, not only is the fact that he cares for her a given, but it is immaterial in regard to the theological consequences of their actions.