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.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #6: They’ll Get You in the End (Unless You’re in Love)

Recently, Simon Pegg—co-writer and star of zombie movie/parody “Shaun of the Dead”—wrote an op-ed piece for “The Guardian” in response to the British television movie “Dead Set” discussing the virtues of the classic slow-moving zombies versus the modern “speed” zombies. The piece was titled “The Dead and the Quick” and basically argued that since zombies are technically dead, they should never move quickly.

Although I have enjoyed some of the quick-moving zombie pictures that have come out during the past few years, I tend to agree with Pegg on this matter. Pegg argues that the classic theme of the living dead is humanity’s natural fear of death. Not just physically death; but our mortality as a whole, which involves growing old and developing physical disabilities. Pegg writes, “Death is a disability, not a superpower. It is hard to run with a cold, let alone the most debilitating malady of them all.” He continues, “…the zombie trumps all (movie monsters) by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.”

I’m happy to say that during this year’s Horrorfest I did not have to sit through any zombie movies where the living dead operated above the laws of our mortal nature. Beyond being dead and still walking around consuming the flesh of others that is. No, the two zombie movies I watched this year contained the classic lumbering death we’ve all come to know and love through the years. And they were satisfying.

Spanish horror director Jordi Grau directed the 1974 zombie cult classic “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie”, released in Italy as one of the popular “Zombi” pictures. Grau’s take on the zombies in this picture doesn’t stray far from George Romero’s zombie model in his own classic “Night of the Living Dead”. And they benefit greatly from his beautiful color cinematography.

We meet a London-based artist on a weekend trip to the country. When a sanity-challenged woman destroys his motorcycle in a thoughtless accident, he hitches a ride with her to the small town where he sister and brother-in-law are expecting her. Once there they discover that the dead appear to be walking around and are hungry for flesh.

While this movie doesn’t really add much original to the basic function and form of the zombie, Grau does add his own original touch to the thematic elements of zombie lore with an environmental theme that could have found this movie in my last Horrorfest report “Nature’s Revenge”. The cause of the walking dead in this scenario is an experimental, non-chemical, sonic insect control device for the area’s farmers. The pitch of the sound waves drive the insects into a maddened frenzy that sends them tearing into each other’s flesh for food instead of vegetables. Well, it apparently gets under the skin of dead humans in the same way. Don’t mess with nature, man.

“Zombie Honeymoon” will go down as one of the undiscovered gems of Horrorfest ’08. This ultra-low budget film found a home a couple of years ago on Showtime, but I imagine it has still been seen by very few. It is a love story between a young woman and her new husband, who unfortunately has become a zombie. Because of the typical symptoms that come with zombism (craving human flesh and all that) this comes as a great inconvenience to the newlyweds.

This movie (along with Mr. Pegg’s) exemplifies how well zombies work as creatures of comedy while still being monsters of horror. Going along with Pegg’s arguments, I would say this is because zombies are monsters made up of our human weaknesses rather than our strengths. I suppose it is a stretch to think of the animalistic nature of werewolves as strength, but the sexuality of vampires is viewed by many as strength, especially within a society that tends to repress such feelings. But both these monsters are always depicted with super strength and other supernatural senses, while zombies are depicted as mindless and even childlike.

“Zombie Honeymoon” takes this childlike innocence one further by depicting that most innocent of cinematic outlooks, the pure romantic. Hollywood spends endless millions each year to churn out countless romantic comedies that look at the realities of life as something of a distraction from our childhood notions of romance. As long as you can be true to that childlike nature in yourself, you can attain that storybook romance you always dreamed of as a kid. In “Zombie Honeymoon” there isn’t any romance purer than the one depicted between these two lovers, when not even death and the oral consumption of friends and family can tear their love apart.

While I only looked at two traditional zombie movies, I did see two others that depicted some zombie traits (mindless humans attacking normal people in brutal, savage manner). But these movies were smart enough not to claim the attackers were zombies. In both films the mindless beastials are not yet dead, but do everything left within their power to destroy the unaffected. And one is the smartest horror movie I’ve seen in years.

“Quarantine” takes a queue from this year’s earlier creature feature hit “Cloverfield” and puts the audience in a point-of-view position in the middle of all the action. A two-person television crew is doing a feature on a typical night in the life of an L.A. firehouse when the unit gets called on what is supposedly a routine medical assist. It turns out the apartment building they’re called to is ground zero for a particularly virulent strain of rabies.

The POV format has both excited and confounded audiences since it was popularized as a perfect horror context format in the late nineties with the ultra-low budget phenomenon “The Blair Witch Project”. Many can’t get past the jittery photography in these movies, and often the logic behind having some character continue filming while the world falls apart around them is often weak. However, “Quarantine” has a great practical answer to that problem. But the greatest strength of this format is that it efficiently and effectively does what every horror movie is required to do in order to achieve the maximum terror effect—it puts the audience directly into the role of the story’s victims.

Wisely, “Quarantine” does not deal in themes and theories, yet it still addresses the zombie theme of facing our own mortality. Here mortality is a direct and immediate concern, and its question reaches a quick conclusion for each character. Because the CDC is onto the rabies outbreak before any of the people in the apartment building are even aware there is a threat, they become trapped in the same space with their own imminent deaths. But like all the creatures on this Earth, death is what we fight against more passionately, and sometimes savagely than anything else—even when it is inevitable.

In “The Signal” we get that whole immediate mortality thing going again, but this time we have another romance thrown into it. Here its not the pure-hearted Hollywood version as presented satirically in “Zombie Honeymoon”. No, here we get a love triangle, and when one of those lovers has had his brain short-circuited by a television signal that rewires everyone’s brains into sadistic harbingers of death… well, it brings a new definition to the jealous boyfriend.

But somehow that makes “The Signal” sound too standard. This is one of the most original horror flicks I’ve ever seen. It is a story told in three chapters by three different filmmakers. The first chapter is steeped in the horror of what is happening and focuses on the on the love triangle’s apex, the girl. There is nothing much here that hasn’t been seen before in one of those end of days/zombies are taking over the world storylines, but it is all so expertly done.

The second chapter follows the jilted boyfriend in his hotwired journey of mass murdering revenge. With people killing each other all over the city, the boyfriend doesn’t stick out as anything that isn’t happening to everyone, but his search to find and kill his lover and her new lover finds him and his victims in one of the strangest scenarios. No one can trust him, but he must use others to find his targets. This middle section acts as one of the strangest, bloodiest, and funniest film sequences ever conceived. Once again embracing people’s weaknesses as comedy in a context of horror serves the filmmakers well.

The final chapter is the film’s weakest, but follows the new boyfriend on his quest to save the girl from her former lover. This is the section where human nature rails against the inevitability of mortality. And once again we find horror filmmakers embracing the romantic notion of “love conquers all” as the driving force against that mortality.

Of course, it occurred to me as I was writing this that “The Signal” might also serve as some sort of statement about violence on television equating with violence in our society. If you think about how the mind-bending signal of the story works, it is going to affect those less ambitious in our society first, since it requires you to sit and stare at the signal for some time before its affects take root. Those who strive for more out of life will therefore have greater resistance against the signal. And those concentrating on things depicting violence against their fellow man, which dominates so much of our entertainment culture, are more likely to succumb. Of course, that creates a bit of a paradox when the same man writing this is also suggesting that “The Signal” is something worth seeing. But nevertheless, it is.

Read Simon Pegg's article "The Dead and the Quick" here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quantum of Solace / **** (PG-13)

James Bond: Daniel Craig
Camille: Olga Kurylenko
Dominic Greene: Mathieu Amalric
M: Judi Dench
Mathis: Giancarlo Giannini
Agent Fields: Gemma Arterton
Felix Leiter: Geoffrey Wright
Gregg Beam: David Harbour
Mr. White: Jesper Christensen

MGM and Columbia Pictures present a film directed by Marc Forster. Written by Paul Haggis and Neal Purvis & Robert Wade. Running time: 106 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, and some sexual content).

Dear Roger Ebert,

Let me first say that I am a big fan of your work and what it has done for movie criticism and the way many people view movies today. We’ve met, although you’d have to have some sort of miraculous memory to pick out one of thousands you must have met during book signings. I jokingly asked you if you could help me get Gene Shalit’s job. I’ve had a conversation about actor Dennis Haysbert with your wonderful wife Chaz at the Overlooked Film Festival.

I have a great respect for your opinions, and your reviews throughout the years have probably had more influence on my own critiques and movie tastes than any other. “Quantum of Solace” certainly doesn’t mark the first time I have disagreed with your thoughts on a film, but the words of your two-star review came as a shock to me.

You praised 2006’s “Casino Royale” for breaking away from the mold of James Bond films that had become old hat—as many other critics did. You said, “I was becoming less convinced I ever needed to see another (Bond film).” And the new direction “Casino Royale” took the franchise in changed that. Suddenly Bond was fresh again, freed from all the kitsch and overdone clich├ęs of the long-running series.

“Quantum of Solace” picks up right where “Casino Royale” left off, both thematically and quite literally. You say the opening car chase has “no connection with the rest of the plot.” Not only does it have much to do with the plot of “Quantum of Solace”, but it also has a great deal to do with the plot of “Casino Royale” and presumably the next installment of the franchise and maybe more down the line. Bond carries cargo in his trunk during that chase that ties all of what is going on in these movies together—Mr. White (Jesper Christensen, reprising his role from “Casino Royale”).

Mr. White is a classic bond villain in the vein of Bond’s early arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Like Blofeld—a character that was represented in the earliest Bond films as a faceless figure that demanded Bond’s head over a speakerphone while petting his Persian cat—Mr. White is not seen much but holds all of the secrets of the organization that is behind the events in both this movie and the previous one. One difference is that Mr. White does not appear to be the commander-in-chief of the Quantum group as Blofeld was for SPECTRE.

But without much screen time for Mr. White, Bond must still face a villain we can all invest in. Here is it Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”). Like many Bond villains of the past, Greene is merely a small cog in the wheels of the Quantum group, so his villainous plot is minor is the grand scheme of things. Le Chiffre’s greatest crime in “Casino” was gambling with Quantum’s money.

Your complaint about Greene’s name not carrying some of the flair of past Bond villains is missing the irony of his scheme. A guy named Greene hoarding water supplies in a dessert country? This is from a guy who hides his evil intentions behind an environmentally progressive company. Greene is the perfect name for this Bond villain. It is usually the henchmen who have the wackiest names in Bond films (i.e. Oddjob, Jaws) but I don’t think a character with a name like Ozone would fly with today’s audiences. Maybe Gore-monger would work?

Speaking of Bond names, you expressed your displeasure with the rather plain choice of the name Camille for the lead Bond girl (Olga Kurylenko, “Max Payne”). Admittedly, this is a rather dull choice for a Bond girl name, but the lead Bond girl usually has a more conservative name than the supporting ones. It makes it so much easier to take them seriously.

But “Quantum of Solace” doesn’t leave us without a typical Bond girl (Gemma Arterton, “RocknRolla”). How much more Bond can a girl’s name get than Agent Fields’ full name? She is the one that James seduces. But what is this redhead’s full name? The fact that screenwriters Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (I don’t really know which one is responsible for Ms. Fields) don’t spell it out for the audience exemplifies the confidence they show in their audience’s intelligence. Not something past Bond writers could be accused of. And anyone with a working knowledge of British pop culture can figure it out.

The treatment of technology is another subtle touch on the filmmakers’ parts. You complained that the Q division had been dropped from the Bond tradition. But just like Bond’s emergency defibrillator in “Casino Royale”, the gadgets of Q division still exist in “Quantum of Solace”. They just don’t have some pun-delivering scientist prophesying just what situations Bond is going to find himself in later in which to use them.

Plus most of inventions of Q’s have become commonplace in our modern society. Maybe our cars don’t shoot rockets out of their headlights, but my wife’s minivan could spin Q’s head. Who doesn’t carry their own personal compact communicator that allows HQ to know where they are at any given minute these days. It just takes the simplicity of Bond’s cleverness to trick one of Greene’s stooges into turning his own cell into an instant homing device. And really, how cool is that wall of instant information in M’s office? I can almost hear Moneypenny’s filing cabinet rusting in some lonely warehouse.

But these are merely quibbles with your sentimental observations on the old versus the new. The statement you made that really fired me up was the leading theme of your critique that “James Bond is not an action hero!” I don’t believe I have ever read such a bold misstatement about any aspect of the film medium. “James Bond is not an action hero!” Roger, are you kidding me?!

There are 40 years’ worth of James Bond movies that beg to differ with that theory. Just watch the alpine skiing meets cliff jumping opening of “The Spy Who Loved Me”, or the bungi jumping/skydiving into an airborne plane opening of “Goldeneye”, or the transvestite fisticuffs to jetpack escape of “Thunderball”, or the stunning “free running” opening chase scene in “Casino Royale”. I don’t see how you can watch any Bond pre-credit sequence and say with a straight face that Bond isn’t an action hero.

You praised the final two Brosnan Bonds, “The World is Not Enough” (1999) and “Die Another Day” (2002), for increasing the amount of action sequences. “Quantum of Solace” is only conforming to Bond tradition by attempting to one-up the previous film in the series with its amped up action. And it does so in spades. This is easily the most action-packed Bond to date.

You criticize the “obvious” and “incomprehensible” CGI work in the opening chase sequence. Well, I couldn’t see the lines, and it wasn’t half as obvious as the goofy night surfing CGI work in “Die Another Day”. Talk about incomprehensible.

I understand what you are saying about the quick-cut editing of the action sequences, however. This style of editing is often a turn off, but here I found myself so riveted by the grittiness of the scenes, I wanted to rewind and see how they did it.

Marc Forster adds “accomplished action director” to his resume with this movie. Where he showed restraint from typical Hollywood melodramatics in his emotional “Monster’s Ball”, here he embraces Hollywood’s overblown mentality to provide an action movie that never stops to morn its victims. Even the most delicate piece of spy work Bond performs in the film—the scene in which he smokes out several members of the Quantum group during a private/public meeting—is juxtaposed against the backdrop of the performance of Puccini’s betrayal opera “Tosca” on a floating stage whose production design brings to mind echoes of the great Bond art director Peter Lamont and production designer Ken Adam.

But Forster doesn’t abandon character development for the action. No, instead “Quantum of Solace” provides the strongest relationship ever seen in a Bond film and fills in some unexplored character motivations in Bond himself. You say Bond is not an action hero, when he is actually not a typical action hero. That’s what keeps him above other action heroes. Now, Daniel Craig (“The Golden Compass”) is a different Bond. Before violence was a necessary inconvenience of Bond’s profession, now just about everything is. But he’s good at what he does—so good that sometimes not even his matriarch boss M (Judi Dench, “Notes on a Scandal”) can discern his motivations. But in the end his devotion to her and his country is always his ultimate motivation, as it should be for the world’s greatest spy.

You say you think with Bond 23 the producers need to start from scratch yet again, which is what they have done every time a new actor has taken up the mantel of Bond. But that is just what they are doing with Craig. This time instead of doing it all within the confines of one movie, they are taking their time in the process to build a better Bond than we’ve ever seen. Usually, they just rebuild the surface of the franchise. The faces changed, while the whole gimmick remained the same as it did in the original Bond film “Dr. No” (1962). With “Casino Royale” they stripped away all the kitsch and gimmicks. In “Quantum of Solace” the filmmakers have gotten down to the essence of Ian Fleming’s superspy—Queen and country above all else.

Of course, yours and mine are just opinions, and neither of us are alone in ours. My concern with your comments deriding this new natured “action hero” Bond is that it gives fuel to those who say you can’t please a critic. We clamor for something new in our movie going experience, and then when we get it we say we wished it were back the way it was. Perhaps in this day and age we do need a lighter-hearted Bond. And certainly he is the only action hero we might be willing to accept that from. But when it comes down to it, I’d watch “Quantum of Solace” again before I would “Die Another Day”.

My sincere respects,

Andrew D. Wells

Read Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun Times review of "Quantum of Solace" here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa / ** ½ (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Alex: Ben Stiller
Marty: Chris Rock
Melman: David Schwimmer
Gloria: Jada Pinkett Smith
King Julian: Sacha Baron Cohen
Maurice: Cedric the Entertainer
Mort: Andy Richter
Zuba: Bernie Mac
Makunga: Alec Baldwin
Mom: Sherri Shepherd
Moto Moto:

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Written by Etan Cohen. Running time: 89 min. Rated PG (for some mild crude humor).

I often use phrases like “story structure”, “character development”, and “thematic elements” when writing a review. I use these technical aspects of storytelling to defend my point of view on a movie, but the basis on which I initially judge a film is my genuine enjoyment of the experience of watching it. Sometimes I have to think long and hard on the technical aspects of a film to determine just why I liked it or disliked it. Sometimes I can hardly explain my feelings at all.

In my review of the animated movie “Madagascar” in 2005, I did not invoke any of the above phrases, but merely claimed it was “a hell of a lot of fun.” After reading other critics’ lukewarm reviews on the film, I thought I might have been mistaken about it. But upon seeing it again, I still found I really liked it. Perhaps that is merely because the lemur tribe in it claims to worship “the New York Giants!” Well, there aren’t any references to the Big Blue in the sequel.

I find it difficult to pin point just what the differences are between the two movies, but I didn’t like the second one nearly as much. It is as if the directing team of Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath—the same filmmakers responsible for the first movie—had their new screenwriter Etan Cohen (“Tropic Thunder”) take all the successful elements of the first film and just reproduce them in a new story. That isn’t such an unusual notion for a sequel, but it always seems to produce the same lackluster results.

The story starts in flashback, providing backstory on Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller, “Tropic Thunder”) and how this lion wound up as the star attraction of the Central Park Zoo in New York. Then it catapults us—in more way than one—right back to where the first movie left off with Alex and friends trying to escape from the island country of Madagascar. This scene is a good example of the rehashed elements. Suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a going away party where the lemur king and disciples from the original movie are singing the mantra, “I like to movie, move it.” The fact that all these characters that we would’ve had to see the original to remember are singing this club song is supposed to be enough to draw us back into another adventure with them.

Following another scheme by the crazy commando penguins—the scene stealers of the original—Alex, Marty the zebra (Chris Rock, “Bee Movie”), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinckett Smith, “The Women”), and the neurotic giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer of “Friends” fame) with King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen, “Sweeny Todd”) and his right-hand-lemur Maurice (Cedric the Entertainer, “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”) in tow do escape Madagascar, only to make it as far as Africa. Coincidentally they end up on the same animal preserve where Alex’s father Zuba (Bernie Mac, “Soul Men”) is the king of the pride.

The main story follows Alex and involves a challenger to Zuba’s claim as king, Makunga (voiced by Alec Baldwin, NBC’s “30 Rock”). Makunga uses Alex in a scheme to dethrone Zuba. Cohen makes no strides for originality in either Zuba of Makunga’s characters. Zuba is the typical disappointed father when he discovers his son is more of a performer than a fighter. And Makunga could be swapped out with just about any animal villain in a cartoon going as far back as Scar from “The Lion King”.

The other animals break off from each other and join their familial herds where they find that individualism is the lesson of the day, and keeping hold of your individualism is difficult without friends. Gloria falls for the stud hippo Moto Moto (hip-hop artist “so sexy you have to say his name twice.” Melman becomes the giraffe witch doctor to save them all from suffering every ailment under the sun in their sick-holes. And Marty finds he still can’t tell whether he is black with white stripes or white with black stripes in a zebra society where everyone talks and plays in unison.

Even those wacky penguins don’t work without some humans to confound. The filmmakers do provide them with a group of tourists lead by the old lady in Grand Central Station from the first movie. Even though the jokes provide some chuckles here and there, they taste stale.

“Madagascar” provided some wonderful lessons about knowing who you are and accepting your own individualism. It is fitting that the sequel should continue those themes, but by sticking all the characters into very similar situations that all teach the same lesson, it shows the creators behind this franchise to be lacking in the fresh ideas department. If we’re all supposed to be true to ourselves, maybe “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” also needs to escape its bonds with its lineage.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #5: Nature’s Revenge

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And by most accounts nature is a woman.

The nature’s revenge story doesn’t really get a whole lot of mileage under the horror banner these days. Back in the day of the b-movie creature feature it was much more prevalent a theme. Some classics like “Them” have emerged from the concept, but more often nature’s revenge pics have gone the schlock route, ala “Godzilla” or “Night of the Lepus”. While I’ll certainly consider titles like these for future Horrorfests, most of these movies lean more toward sci-fi than they do horror.

What might seem more horrific than being attacked by mutant giant animals animals? Being attacked by real ones. Large cats are real giant predators and have been the subject of more than a couple films. The last popular one that comes to memory would be the Michael Douglas/Val Kilmer starrer “The Ghost and the Darkness”. Recently “Prey”, by South African auteur Darrell James Roodt, was not deemed theater worthy in America by its studio and went directly to DVD.

Although Roodt has directed such important South African films as “Sarafina!”, “Cry, the Beloved Country”, Academy Award nominated as the first ever Zulu language feature film “Yesterday”, and the upcoming “Zimbabwe”; “Prey” may not have even deserved a DVD release. I’m not sure what would attract such an important director to such dreck as this. It was certainly the worst movie I saw this Horrorfest.

There were moments during this movie where I did experience some of that thrill of horror/suspense I’ve spoke of before. But most of the suspense comes from the characters’ inability to unlock a door. The last time I looked lions still didn’t have opposable thumbs, so I don’t know why they kept locking the doors to begin with. Oh, I forgot to even explain what the movie was about. It doesn’t matter; you won’t want to see it anyway. This one makes the critically maligned “The Ghost and the Darkness” look like Bergman. I should just move on to the next movie in the theme.

So let’s go back to giant mutated animals. One of the classic stories in this subgenre would be H.G. Wells’ “The Food of the Gods”. Made into a feature film in 1976 by writer/director Bert I. Gordon, the movie caught the wave of a resurgence in popularity of the nature’s revenge pictures from the cold war era thanks to the Saturday matinee creature features that were playing every Saturday afternoon on television. Gordon specialized in these types of special effects heavy creature features, directing such shlock as H.G. Wells’ “Empire of the Ants”, “Village of the Giants” and “Earth vs. the Spider”.

“The Food of the Gods” really isn’t much better than “Prey”, but it is a whole lot more fun. Some old coots have discovered a spring bubbling up some concoction that allows animals to grow to giant sizes, but when the wrong animals star feeding on it, it doesn’t seem like such a great thing anymore. The acting is terrible. The writing is worse. And the special effects are like some sort of joke. They are surprisingly clean. It is hard to see the strings, but they’re the kind where you have real rats crawling around obviously miniature sets with real people filmed to look smaller than the rats superimposed on the sets.

In the last twenty years filmmakers have become slightly savvier in the way they present such preposterous ideas. One who has a subtler hand than the previous two directors discussed here is a former classmate of mine and first-time director of this spring’s horror adaptation of the novel “The Ruins”. Smith boldly chooses to depict a people-devouring plant created mostly with CGI almost entirely in daylight scenes.

This blood craving plant slowly devours American tourists at an off-the-beaten-path Mayan temple ruin. The successes of this story comes from the fact that Smith and his screenwriter—“The Ruins” novelist Scott B. Smith—make their tale about the characters, rather than the man-eating plant. And they don’t ever turn the plant into a monster. It remains a plant. It works on its prey slowly, as a plant would. This isn’t a masterpiece in any sense, but it has escaped the shlock that permeates the stories where nature attacks.

Now, many people are accusing M. Night Shyamalan of shlock direction in his films of late. I’ve never seen such universal prejudice against a director’s work based on some sort of expectation that he will repeat his former work. He has also been accused of repeating himself, when in reality he covers a completely different issue with each new film. I think the biggest problem audiences have with his new movie “The Happening” is that it is an “issue” film.

Originally titled “The Green Effect”, Shyamalan’s “The Happening” depicts the results of a biological event where plants along the most populated area of the United States begin to produce a chemical that affects people’s judgment centers. Too much was made of the film’s ‘R’ rating, and audiences were expecting some sort of slasher-style gore fest. The film earns its mature rating with its utterly disturbing depiction of people committing suicide en masse. But Shyamalan wisely uses classic thriller tactics of keeping most of the horror off screen, so it is up to the audience to use their imaginations. How else do you get an audience to yell at characters to run away from the wind? By engaging the audience’s brains in the horror process you require them to connect more to what they are witnessing.

But if there is one thing American audiences don’t appreciate, especially in their horror flicks lately, it’s the engagement of their brains in their entertainment. This is possibly why the end of this film has been derided by so many. But like the end of “War of the Worlds” there is a greater point to be made beyond the survival of the main characters. The real horror of a story like “The Happening” is how insignificant human influence is to our ultimate fate in our world. In the big picture we are merely specks of dust in a vast landscape that is indifferent to our presence here. So we had better respect our world and realize our ultimate place within it. This is the most important lesson of the nature’s revenge story.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #4: Ghost in Translation

Isn’t it interesting that whenever you try to recreate the flavor of something, it never comes out quite right? Asian horror movies—known commonly as J-Horror—grabbed the attention of American viewers in the first couple of years of this century, and soon after Hollywood was all over these new properties like a flock of vultures that smelled carrion. But Hollywood was not content to just feast on someone else’s kill. Hollywood insisted on killing the genre itself and is still in the throes of the murder of the J-Horror ideals with countless remakes of J-Horror classics by the dozens each year.

This year I focused on three such J-Horror remakes released theatrically in 2008. “One Missed Call” and “Mirrors” are from lesser-known original sources, but still encompass all the typical keynotes of your average J-Horror shocker. “The Eye” is remade from one of the first J-Horror hits in the U.S., a film of the same name by the now Hollywood-ized directing team of The Pang Brothers.

To call them “shockers” may be getting right to the point of just why Hollywood can’t seem to recapture the magic of the original horrors from our far-eastern contemporaries. Most J-Horror films don’t find their success through an increasing series of shocks and jolts. In fact, many will only contain one or two jarring moments. But what frights they don’t bounce out of your body with sudden scares they make up for in your mind with moody atmosphere and horrifying creepiness. J-Horror more often than not manifests itself through ghost stories that work on your mind with long, slow build-ups to their frightening revelations and truly disturbing images of their ghostly apparitions.

In watching the American versions of “One Missed Call”, “Mirrors”, and “The Eye”, I noticed a couple of other similarities that also seem to consume the damned in these ghost stories. The stories of all three of these films revolve around and depend imperatively upon hospitals and fires. In every one of these movies a hospital has been the location that inspires the events that take place. And each story includes a fire that caused great tragedy to the ghosts that haunt the heroes. In “One Missed Call” a recent fire that claimed lives at a hospital is the focal point of a ghost that calls people on the cell phones days before they are to die. In “Mirrors” a department store fire is the site of tragedy until it is discovered that ghost a patient at the hospital the building once housed was the cause of the fire and the current travails of the security guard who now watches the building at night. And in “The Eye” Jessica Alba’s blindness is cured in a hospital, but her newfound sight reveals through ghostly images cryptic messages about a fire that killed many workers in a Mexican factory.

Now, “One Missed Call” and “Mirrors” are far too dependent on their gimmicks to inspire the fear they intend to. The possessed cell phones are not as scary as they could be. Once someone receives a call predicting their deaths, we immediately start to concentrate on just how they won’t be able to avoid their fate, and we start scanning the backgrounds and the words the characters use to predict just when their deaths will occur.

“Mirrors” relies too heavily on shock treatment—director Alexandre Aja’s insistence on jarring the audience with sudden images or noises to try and make them jump. Because of this, the creepiness of just how the mirrors seem to be watching and reacting to Kiefer Sutherland’s hero is lost. Our boredom with such conventional scare tactics then has us looking for loopholes in the logic of how the mirrors work. And once you do that, you see how little sense any of this story makes.

“The Eye” is the only movie that worked for me. In this case, I found it even more effective than the original, but possibly at the expense of the scarier points of the source material. I was slightly disappointed with the original version of “The Eye” when I viewed it a couple of Horrorfests ago because it seemed to want to be two different movies. The first half is a very disturbing personal thriller about a blind woman who finally has sight but is cursed by seeing beyond the world most people see, into the land of the dead and the grim reapers that escort them to the afterlife. The second half is a mystery of where her eyes came from and the tragedy that surrounded the circumstances that brought them to her. The first story was very personal and quite frightening. The second was something on a much more sweeping scale and lost all of the horror of the first.

I think the reason I like this story better in Hollywood’s hands is because they really never succeed as well as the original in making the first half of the story quite so frightening. Because Hollywood is much better at sweeping grand gestures than any other film community, this film was much more successful at embracing the overall mystery of the woman’s story. Without committing so personally into the horror of her discovery that she could see the dead and their escorts in death, I was able to relax into the grander mystery of where her eyes had come from and why they gave her this extra sight.

It is clear that Hollywood will never be able to accurately recreate what makes Asian horror so appealing to its audiences, but certainly there are elements of any film culture that can be exploited by America to make for some form of success. Sometimes it just takes more broken eggs than others to make an omelet.