Archive for 2009

The Walking Dead Recap: “Infected” (Season 4, Episode 2)

This week’s episode of The Walking Dead spoke quite powerfully to me, as I am currently suffering from the Sinus Infection of Doom. When I had what was basically Captain Trips in 2012, I narrowly avoided watching Contagion during my worst symptoms – thank Jesus. I’m always under the vague assumption that I might die of some stupid thing like the common cold. Sunday’s Walking Dead clarified for the audience just how fragile we are, how vulnerable to even the simplest bugs in a world without real medicine. (I, on the other hand, am dosing myself with real medicine as I type.)

Patrick zombie

Dinner! Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

Last week, Patrick died suddenly in the shower and reawakened as a walker, which rendered the whole prison open to attack from within its own walls. In the opening scenes of this week’s episode, Patrick goes about his zombie business, unfortunately silently – which leads to a rash of deaths and near-misses in the snoozing cell block. Luckily (and conveniently), none of those killed were our core group of folks.

Michonne leaves the prison to go on another Lone Wolf expedition, telling Rick and Carl she’ll bring them back the things they like – but returns in a panic when she hears a gunshot. She chastises herself for returning; it was indeed very stupid, and she’s letting her feelings get the better of her. But Michonne with feelings is better than the hardass we met last season. Unfortunately, she nearly gets herself killed coming back through the gate to help her friends; Carl and Maggie come to her rescue. In one of the season’s best scenes (Danai Gurira is truly a force to be reckoned with), Michonne outright refuses to take baby Judith from Beth after Judith spits up carrots all over Beth (babies are gross). Finally, Michonne takes the baby, at first holding her away, listening stone-faced to her imploring cries – and then she holds her close while tears spill from her eyes. Sometimes we forget that Michonne has a past, and that even she can’t turn it all off forever. She’s softening, and it scares her…but it sure is exciting for us. As Beth says (suddenly she’s full of wisdom), “When you care about people, hurt kind of comes with the package.” Read more

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (12/26/09)

Movie Poster: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

Directed by Guy Ritchie
Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg

Sherlock Holmes – Robert Downey Jr.
Dr. John Watson – Jude Law
Irene Adler – Rachel McAdams
Lord Blackwood – Mark Strong
Inspector Lestrade – Eddie Marsan
Mary Morstan – Kelly Reilly
Sir Thomas Rotheram – James Fox
Lord Coward – Hans Matheson
Mrs. Hudson – Geraldine James

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Movie still: Sherlock Holmes

Jude Law as Dr. John Watson and Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes
in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes
 [Photo by Alex Bailey]

Beautiful Sets, Robert Downey, Jr., and a Smart Script Breathe New Life Into a Whodunit That’s Been Done a Hundred Times Before

Hollywood’s reaction to a dearth of new plots seems to be to reanimate old corpses, sometimes to great effect and sometimes to the shudders of moviegoers and critics alike. This year’s Star Trek managed to add elements of action and adventure to a television show so many see as boring space drama, and Guy Ritchie’s latest movie Sherlock Holmes does the same for the astute, placid literary Englishman. Those who take great pleasure in decadently executed Victorian period pieces, mysteries, logical deduction, or watching Downey, Jr. punch big bad guys in slow motion will love the movie. Others may not be so enchanted.

Holmes is one of the world’s most enduring figures, literary or otherwise. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective has seen hundreds of incarnations and dozens of copycats, and has become more than a household name. Ritchie, whose previous films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are cult favorites, brings a violent and adventuresome sensibility to the often sedate Holmes. Conan Doyle’s legend left behind a mental image, compounded by pop culture, of a rather mellow English gentleman in a deerstalker hat, puffing on a pipe and wandering about a crime scene with avidly shining eyes. Ritchie’s version of Holmes, played impeccably by Robert Downey, Jr., is these things but also much more: a bare-knuckle boxer, a martial artist, a loyal friend, and an occasional lover of women.

The film follows the famous duo of Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) as they work to solve a series of ritualistic murders, then to explain the resurrection of the murderer, Lord Blackwood, after his hanging. The movie takes place at a time when superstitions and science clashed raucously (this has been explored before in movies like Sleepy Hollow and From Hell), and when Blackwood appears to practice the black arts, London’s masses respond with frenzied hysteria. Holmes and Watson’s mission is to discover the truth behind his apparently supernatural resurrection and to uncover the plot of the secret society that wants a stranglehold on the city. Up pops Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an old love interest and nemesis of Holmes (Watson posits that Holmes’ fascination with her stems from the fact that she’s outsmarted him), to complicate and speed the process. Each step of the way reveals obstacle after debacle, sometimes resulting in injuries to person and pride, and as the duo wade through the mounting evidence, it becomes clear just how science weighs in against superstition. Unfortunately the whodunit has been done so many times that, even in a new light and with wonderful new effects, the movie seems overlong and a mite predictable.

The story takes place in dingy, dreary, nearly monochromatic 1890s London, which is rendered beautifully by combining various locations with CGI—the movie was shot in London, Manchester, and Liverpool, and the result is a genuine sense of Victorian England. The costumes and sets are flawlessly detailed and genuine, from Holmes’s dingy parlor to Watson’s impeccable suits. The action sequences are built around the time period, and though they are at times so overdone as to be cartoonish, they do compound the truly dirty sense of a London swimming in mud and poverty. The shipyard at Chatham Historical Docks and the half-finished Tower Bridge (a nice symbol for a London begrudgingly plodding into a new technological era) are backdrops for some action scenes. Ritchie has a penchant for slow-motion violence, and that’s present in Holmes’ bare-knuckle boxing; the interesting touch is the way his ferocious logic works in tandem with such inherently chaotic violence.

Downey, Jr. is something of a phoenix; his career fizzled in the 90s with drug addiction and criminal mishaps, but soared in the last few years with hits like Iron Man. He’s a rare actor who seems to become his character while still retaining a bit of himself, and he plays slightly-nutty-and-fiercely-intelligent better than almost anyone. He’s a witty, fast-talking, and wide-eyed version of Holmes, and it works wonderfully in Ritchie’s update. Jude Law, playing trusty friend and sidekick John Watson, is the perfect foil and comrade to Holmes, taking his eccentricities in stride and stepping up to bat when it’s his turn to fight. In pop culture representations, Watson is often an inept foil to Holmes’s brilliance. Not so in Ritchie’s version (nor in the books). Interactions between the two are truly enjoyable. Rachel McAdams’s Adler is a secondary character, strong-willed and tough but secretly vulnerable; she doesn’t contribute much to the plot, but hovers at the outside of the impenetrable Holmes-Watson dichotomy.

At two-plus hours, the film is overly lengthy, with a few scenes that offer explanations avid viewers won’t need. Exposition, though, is part of the Holmes legend, and his fierce mind and logical deductions are of course the most important part of the character. The fun of watching the film doesn’t come from solving the mystery, but from the action scenes (cartoonish though they may be), the gorgeous feel of Victorian London, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson. In this new take on Holmes, Ritchie succeeds in adding some rock and roll to a familiar story. It’s probably not a major addition to Ritchie’s oeuvre, nor to the countless action films of the decade, but it’s an enjoyable movie with a good new twist on an old plot.

Movie Review: Nine (12/26/09)

Movie Poster: Nine

Nine

Directed by Rob Marshall
Screenplay by Michael Tolkin, Anthony Minghella
Based on the musical with book by Arthur L. Kopit
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston

Guido Contini – Daniel Day-Lewis
Luisa Contini – Marion Cotillard
Carla – Penelope Cruz
Lilli – Judi Dench
Saraghina – Fergie
Stephanie – Kate Hudson
Claudia – Nicole Kidman
Mamma – Sophia Loren

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Nine

Penelope Cruz stars in Rob Marshall’s Nine
[Photo by: David James © 2009 The Weinstein Co.]

Nine’s Fantastic Cast Can’t Save It From
Sloppy Pacing and Boring Music

Rob Marshall’s Chicago was a pitch-perfect Broadway-to-film adaptation that used the best of both mediums to create a film that left you smiling. No one really expected Marshall to duplicate that success with Nine, a movie based on the life of Federico Fellini and more full of Oscar nominated actors than almost any other movie this year—but with such talent as Sophia Loren, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, and Marion Cotillard aboard, the movie could’ve been so much better. Poor pacing and unmemorable music are only the film’s most obvious flaws. All in all it’s a disappointment.

Rob Marshall takes a cue from Fellini’s 1963 classic  (and he is certainly not the first nor the most talented director to do so), which is about a director with writer’s block whose imagination runs wild as he strives to compose another film. In Nine, Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) wracks his brain for a script for his newest movie even as he does press conferences and begins costume design. His horrifically self-centered flailing draws his mind to all the women in his life, each of whom is given approximately fifteen minutes of screen time. His wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), mother (Sophia Loren), and costume mistress (Judi Dench) occupy the most time in his mind as well as onscreen. A whore he encountered as a child (Fergie), an American reporter he nearly beds (Kate Hudson), and his cinematic muse (Nicole Kidman) also dance in and out as he struggles for his latest greatest plot. With a cast like this, the movie should’ve been a triumph; Day-Lewis, Cruz, Dench, and Cotillard have won well-deserved Oscars in the last few years, and Loren is one of the screen’s original sirens. Unfortunately, most of these stellar acors perform no more than a few minutes’ worth of lines.

Day-Lewis is a notorious method actor, and he adopts a kind of stoop, shoving his hands in his pockets and donning shades and a fedora as he tries to slouch past the constant onslaught of paparazzi that follow his every move. Though he seems to be a born performer, he’s not really built for singing, and while his numbers aren’t terrible, they’re not good either. Kidman’s chops as a singer and dancer were already tested to fine results in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and she holds her own as Claudia. Dench is a pleasure to watch in her role as dour costume mistress Lilli and her song “Folies Bergére,” largely because the woman is incredibly versatile and genuinely seems to enjoy her turn as songstress. Kate Hudson, whose thin physique and bouffant fit perfectly in the mod styling of the era, either can’t dance well or is not given the chance; her number’s a miniskirt-and-skinny-tie-clad disaster. Marion Cotillard is perhaps the film’s brightest star as Guido’s long-suffering wife Luisa. As Luisa realizes the extent of her husband’s philandering, Cotillard drowns herself in the role. It doesn’t hurt that the actress is achingly beautiful, nor that her song-and-dance number is the sexiest and also the saddest in the film. She pulls these elements together with utter aplomb. The Black Eyed Peas’ lead singer Fergie also shines as Saraghina, a whore who helped shape Guido’s approach to women—but she is of course a singer and not an actress.

Marshall apparently strove for the early 60s New Wave Cinema feel, which relied heavily on shaky camerawork and frenetic editing—except during musical numbers, which are proscribed so heavily as to be cloying. As the filmmakers strove to pay homage to 1960s Italian cinema, they lost the meaning behind the art, leaving a messy result. Chicago touched all the right buttons as it jumped from reality to imagination and back, then deftly wove the two together. Nine slides clumsily back and forth between Guido’s self-absorbed womanizing and the imaginary world in which he’s the center of each woman’s world. The movie fails to knit together its fantastic and authentic elements as artfully as Marshall’s last film, and the pacing doesn’t help: though it may be reasonable to assume each woman is allotted about fifteen minutes of time in Guido’s overworked brain, that doesn’t help the film move along. Instead it leaves a trail of loose ends. The film’s music is also utterly unmemorable, which in itself is a death knell for a musical.

Critics and audiences alike had high hopes for Nine as a worthy Oscar contender this year. A cast of solidly great actors should’ve built a strong foundation for homage to a Fellini film, but the end result is a house of cards, some sections weaker than others, the whole of which collapses under the slightest pressure. Marshall has a lot to live up to after Chicago, and hopefully his next film will fare better.

Movie Review: Avatar (12/19/09)

Movie Poster: Avatar

Avatar

Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron

Jake Sully – Sam Worthington
Neytiri – Zoë Saldana
Grace – Sigourney Weaver
Col. Miles Quaritch – Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon – Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge – Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman – Joel David Moore
Moat – CCH Pounder

CLR Rating: 3.5/5

Movie Still: Invictus

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Zoë Saldana as Neytiri
in James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller Avatar

[Photo credit: WETA. ®2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved]

This Visual Masterpiece is a Must-see Despite a Dreadful Script

James Cameron’s resume is extensive and vividly familiar to anyone who’s ever had the notion to watch science fiction films. The man brought us the screenplay for Alien, then he directed the first two Terminator movies, then he was behind Titanic, one of the highest-grossing films in history. It shouldn’t be a surprise that once again, he’s ahead of the technological curve with this year’s holiday release, Avatar.

For Avatar, a movie the director has dreamed about since his twenties, Cameron used a “physics based sim” and a modified version of the Fusion camera to create a three-dimensional experience like absolutely none other. The movie has been heralded as a turning point for film technology, and frankly, that is probably true. The film is, visually at least, wholly unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Due to the technology Cameron used (and helped to invent, according to advance press), CG in Avatar doesn’t enhance the movie, it is the movie—but watching the flora and fauna of Pandora doesn’t feel like watching CG. In 3D, the film is an experience in immersion: once the characters are placed onto the moon Pandora, the audience is drowned in gorgeous scenery the likes of which earth has never seen before.

The film follows Jake Sully, a marine who lost the use of his legs in battle, as he travels to Pandora, a moon orbiting a far off planet, ostensibly in order to play dual roles as security guard for researchers and military spy. Sully and his counterparts are Avatar drivers, which means they inhabit surrogate creatures created from a mix of human and native DNA. The natives, called the Na’vi, are twelve-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-eyed humanoids whose behavior and rituals are similar to that of Native Americans. They are a highly spiritual and naturalistic tribe whose connection to their planet lies not just in their ancestry, but in actual biological synthesis with its creatures and vegetation. If this all sounds silly, that’s because it is.

Historically science fiction allows immense room for playing with societal concerns. The Red Scare, the Cold war, fears of the A-bomb, mistrust toward technology, racism, environmental issues: all have been tackled by sci-fi’s greatest authors and filmmakers. In the current economic and social climate, this year’s science fiction films have taken on hot-button issues including human greed, apartheid (District 9), and ecology. It can’t be a coincidence that in the year’s best science fiction humans are the enemy. In Avatar, the greedy corporate CEO (Giovanni Ribisi) and the seasoned, hardcore colonel (Stephen Lang) lock horns with biological researcher Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and her team of avid conservationists. As well as being home to the Na’vi, Pandora is populated by a natural fuel resource the government will literally kill for.

The story and script fail to create multifaceted characters, sticking instead to the inherent malevolence of military invasion and corporate America’s insatiable appetite for resources and money. In our current time of war and economic instability, these are significant social issues, but the film handles them ham-handedly, pitting stock characters against one another in an epic moral (and physical) battle between conservation and greed. The dialogue and Jake’s voice-over are terribly written (Cameron is also responsible for the screenplay), and the characters are static. Anyone who’s seen a science fiction film before will know the tropes: man travels to another world, falls in love, and ends up fighting for the culture he ostensibly came to study/gain resources from/demolish. Luckily the movie is a visual spectacle; else it would be yet another played-out sci-fi epic.

Cameron has been in the news recently regarding his tendency to write strong female roles. In a lengthy New Yorker article, he mentions that in order to create strong women, you write dialogue for men and then change the names. Sigourney Weaver’s career truly began with her role as Ripley in Alien (a character whose masculine tendencies are highly debated in feminist film criticism), and she returns to Cameron to play another strong-willed but ultimately doomed character. Grace smokes like a chimney, curses like a sailor (as much as can be done in a PG-13 film, anyway), and she’s willing to resort to physical combat for her beliefs. Zoë Saldana’s Na’vi love interest Neytiri and Michelle Rodriguez’s fighter pilot Trudy are yet other dominant females, but Cameron is no feminist ally. In a Playboy interview, he discussed how to create the perfect alien breasts for Neytiri, although the Na’vi aren’t placental mammals and therefore don’t require breasts. He knows how to appeal to teenage boys, and he does it well.

Visually, the film is truly a masterwork. Pandora is an affectionately rendered bioluminescent paradise. Characters physically link to their surroundings via grasping tentacles that appear from their long braids. Seeds float through the air like jellyfish, flora gleam with incandescent radiance when touched, and creatures unlike any you’ve seen before synthesize a world that is as unfamiliar to us as the bottom of the sea. But the magnificent flying creatures and the gorgeous vegetation feel so real you could reach into the screen and stroke them.

Though the movie is flawed and ham-handed, it’s imperative to view in the theater; the visual splendor and realism are absolutely jaw dropping. Home theater technology hasn’t advanced enough yet to be able to support a film like this one, so if there’s any movie you see in theaters this year, it should be Avatar. It’s a challenge not to be completely captivated and immersed despite the script’s laughable stupidity, and audiences searching for an escape from the winter doldrums will not be disappointed.

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog (12/11/09)

Movie Poster: Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog

Directed by John Musker, Ron Clements
Screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, Rob Edwards

Tiana – Anika Noni Rose
Prince Naveen – Bruno Campos
Dr. Facilier – Keith David
Louis – Michael-Leon Wooley
Charlotte – Jennifer Cody
Ray – Jim Cummings
Lawrence – Peter Bartlett
Mama Odie – Jenifer Lewis
Eudora – Oprah Winfrey
James – Terrence Howard
“Big Daddy” La Bouff – John Goodman

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie Still: Invictus

Disney Brings New Orleans to Vibrant Life With a New Princess Fable

No one knows better than Disney that, come time to adorn the Christmas tree, light the Menorah, or decorate for whatever holiday you may celebrate, audiences pine for light-hearted entertainment. This year’s The Princess and the Frog has already earned a lot of press due to its protagonist, Tiana, the very first African American Disney princess in the history of the company—which was founded over 85 years ago. The movie is also the first hand-drawn Disney film since the 2004 flop Home on the Range. Those of us who grew up on Sleeping Beauty, The Rescuers, The Lion King, and Snow White appreciate CGI’s perfection, but have also been longing for a return to the classic style. The Princess and the Frog is a gracious reward for the wait.

The movie opens on a beautifully rendered mansion. Two little girls, Tiana, with gorgeous cocoa-hued skin and plain clothes, and Charlotte, a vivacious little white girl in princess pink and ruffles, listen intently as Tiana’s mother Eudora recounts the fairy tale The Princess and the Frog. All three have lovely, soft Southern accents: instead of being played for laughs, their speech patterns are genuinely pretty. Charlotte swoons over the idea of marrying a prince while the independent Tiana remains skeptical. After all, who needs a man? Tiana and Eudora board a trolley home to the row of shacks where they live: this is a more realistic portrayal of race relations in the Southern U.S. than Disney has ever done before.

Cut to years later: an older Tiana is working herself to the bone as a waitress to buy an old sugar mill so she can open a restaurant. She drops a few coins into one of many coffee tins labeled RESTAURANT before she plops, exhausted, onto her bed. As she rushes back to work, a brass band dances down the street as Randy Newman croons, “Dreams do come true in New Orleans!” The city, which since Katrina has been imbued with a sense of tragedy, comes alive in Disney’s hands. The animation is strikingly beautiful—colors pop, architecture sings, and the music pays loving tribute to the original home of jazz. In Tiana’s vivid imaginings, Art Deco lives and breathes as flappers dance the Charleston and sip champagne in a decadent restaurant in the heart of the south.

On a visit to the city, Prince Naveen of Maldonia, over whom Charlotte swoons—she’s finally going to snag herself a prince!—proves to be a smarmy, self-centered joke (with a heart of gold). When a greedy voodoo shadow man, Facilier, turns him into a frog, Naveen appears to Tiana, begging for a kiss. When he offers her money for the restaurant, she can’t help obliging, and as a result she transforms into a slimy (mucus-secreting, actually) green amphibian herself. The two frogs head into the swamps, meeting a gator who longs to play jazz with the humans, a Cajun firefly in love with the Evening Star, and Mama Odie, a nutty voodoo priestess who lives in a wrecked ship in the bayou. Naveen falls in love with Tiana, and she realizes that her restaurant dream means nothing if she has no love in her life. The plot is fluffy Disney at its best—but the execution makes it a worthwhile watch.

Tiana is a major (and welcome) departure from most Disney princesses, the majority of whom are lily-white and have straight, shiny locks. Her dark skin and curly hair make her an ideal role model for the girls who have long yearned for an idol who looked the least bit like them. Cinderella and Snow White are famously hardworking Disney princesses, but they were enslaved as a punishment for their beauty (notably by jealous older women), and their stories culminate in finding Prince Charming. Tiana’s work ethic comes from her desire to be independent and build her own destiny—wonderful traits to offer today’s little girls. At one point her landlord chastises her, “A little woman of your…background…would have her hands full trying to run a business like that.” Well, she shows him. She’s a fantastically feminist character who, through her integrity and hard work, achieves her dreams. No silver spoons, angsty machinations, or evil stepmothers for this princess. Her motto is “watch out boys, I’m coming through!” Though her story includes a few tiaras, a flawed Prince Charming, and a number of hurdles, she’s not your everyday Disney muse—and that’s the best thing about the movie.

Adults and children alike will find themselves enchanted with Disney’s original retelling of a very American story, and with the animation that renews the vibrancy and brilliancy of a singular American city. Disney fans and those looking for a fun movie on a winter’s eve will not be disappointed. Parts of the movie draw on other Disney films: there are hints of The Rescuers’ fat, lively alligators, the spooky shadow spirits of Fantasia’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Cinderella’s beautiful ball gown, but these are comforting touches for those who grew up on classic Disney. The Princess and the Frog isn’t a really standout addition to the Disney stable, but it’s certainly worth watching—especially if you have a little girl who longs to be a princess, or if somewhere in your heart of hearts, a part of you longs for the fairy tale to come to life.