The Kids Are All Right(7/26/2010)

7-26-2010TheKidsAreAllRight

When I first began hearing about this project I was pretty skeptical, and in no small part because of the title.  First of all, this title borrows from a song by The Who which has no relationship whatsoever on the film, but that’s a pretty trivial issue.  The bigger problem is that this title implies a general lack of drama, after all, if the kids are indeed alright why there’s not going to be a lot of suspense about their fate.  Maybe in some other situations that’s not really a problem but it speaks to the primary challenges of a movie like this, about a lesbian couple raising a pair of children, is going to face.  If the message of the film is that GLBT couples are going to raise perfectly well adjusted children (a message I happen to agree with) then there’s not going to be a lot of conflict, well adjusted children are not very interesting.  But my concerns were not well founded, because in this movie there’s plenty of drama among the adults even if the kids are fine.

The film is about an unconventional family with two teenage kids who were raised from birth by a lesbian couple.  The mothers, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), had these children through the use of sperm donation back in the early 90s and each gave birth to one of the children.  The elder of these children, Joni (Mia Wasikowska), has recently turned eighteen and is asked by her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson) to use her new adult status in order to contact their biological father through the sperm donation firm.  Deciding to indulge her brother’s curiosity, she contacts their “father” Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a single free spirited guy currently running an organic garden/restaurant.  The two kids sort of hit it off with this guy and he decides to continue his relationship with the family as sort of a cool uncle who visits with them from time to time.  The kids are fine with this, but the sudden interloping of this guy sort of freaks out their mothers, who aren’t sure what to think about this development.

When I first saw the trailer for this I felt like it could be a sort of 21st Century version of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, not in that the plots are necessarily all that similar but because it could be a vehicle to explore a social issue through an accessible comedy about family dynamics.  I suppose there’s a little bit of that here, but not really.  This is not a political movie and it isn’t really about gay marriage so much as it’s about this one family and an odd little predicament it finds itself in.  Certainly the movie is trying to present a portrait of a healthy GLBT family, but it’s never aggressive about making this point, the family is simply presented at face values.  Occasionally the unique challenges of this family shine through, but the basic story points could have just as easily occurred if this was about a heterosexual couple that needed sperm donation because of mere infertility.  A lesser movie would have added some sort of homophobic bad guy in the third act to challenge the family, but there’s nothing like that here, the movie avoids sermonizing at all costs and never seems like an aggressive attempt to achieve political ends.

In fact, there’s really no bad guy here, one of the movies great accomplishments is that it’s able to make a film with real drama while still making pretty much every character genuinely likable.  Nic and Jules are a very believable couple with distinct characteristics, Nic is stable and career minded while Jules is basically a housewife with various plans for business ventures that may or may not be harebrained, but they also make sense as an opposites-attract couple and the actresses have legitimate chemistry.  Both are also very believable as mothers who clearly love their children but in subtle ways while also being somewhat awkward when trying to sit down and talk with them about teenage issues.

It would have been easy to make the sperm donor character into some kind of vaguely homophobic character that needs to “come to terms” with the family he’s come into contact with, but they don’t go that route at all, Paul is just as likable as the mothers.  Paul is basically an aging 90s hippie, the kind of guy who was probably really into grunge music at one point and who decided to keep chilling rather than sell out and become a yuppie.  The movie never judges him for his lifestyle, and he’s totally fine with the whole lesbian mothers thing and the kids rightly see him as a pretty nice guy.  Of course he has his problems too, he’s basically using the family as his own surrogate family and the mothers are right to question his intentions, but he’s not the stereotype he easily could have been and Mark Ruffalo brings a lot to the role.  In fact, after seeing this I’m finally going to get on the Ruffalo bandwagon, I feel like I’ve underappreciated him for a while (mainly because he isn’t a show off) but he’s really great here.

The titular kids in the movie are certainly nicely believable, but they aren’t quite as developed as the adults in the film.  This is particularly true of the fifteen year old Laser, who’s well written and acted in pretty much every scene but who seems a bit underdeveloped compared to all of the other characters.  The family’s daughter, Joni, fares a bit better and is brought to life very effectively by the rising star Mia Wasikowska.  The character is a model child and over-achiever but also sort of naïve and sheltered.  I would have liked a few more glimmers of flaw in her character, as far as adolescent characters go she does still seem a little too perfect, but that’s not a huge complaint.

It should also be noted that this is a dramedy with an emphasis on the “dra.”  There are some good chuckle inducing scenes throughout the movie, but for the most part it really isn’t funny.  That is going to make it a slightly harder sell with mainstream audiences, but I’m not too worried about that.  This is a warm and likable movie that will probably be this year’s indie hit, and it’s also a whole lot better than the “indie hits” we’ve had to deal with in recent years.  This is far better and much less calculated than the likes of 500 Days of Summer or Little Miss Sunshine and it lacks any of the hip pandering involved in the likes of 500 Days of Summer or even Juno, if anything this almost reminds me of Sideways.  It maybe isn’t quite up to the standards of that Alexander Payne triumph but it’s up there.  I might not choose this over something as ambitious as Inception or something along those lines, but for what it is The Kids Are All Right is extremely satisfying and I’d venture to recommend it to almost any audience.

**** out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: The Wolfman7/21/2010

7-21-2010TheWolfman

When this remake of the 1941 film The Wolfman was announced a couple years back I was really excited.  At the time the film was set to be directed by Mark Romanek (one of the best music video directors of all time with an expert command of atmosphere and a pretty good movie called One Hour Photo under his belt), it had a great cast including the inspired casting of Benicio Del Toro (who had reportedly always wanted to play a werewolf), it was written by Andrew Kevin Walker (of Se7en fame), and it was going to have physical makeup effects by the great Rick Baker.  We hadn’t really seen period horror done right since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and we were also due for a good werewolf movie.  That was a whole lot of awesome there and there was definitely room for improvement in the 1941 film.  But then things began to fell apart.  Mark Romanek at one point dropped the project and was replaced by the much less awesome Joe Johnson (director of the monumentally forgettable Jurassic Park III), there was also talk of massive reshoots and the movie’s release date was pushed back a number of times until finally being given the rather lame release date in the February of 2010.  In short the movie had “troubled production” written all over it and reviews seemed to indicate it was a mess.  After finally seeing the film in its finished form I can see for myself what the results were.

The film is set in 1891 and begins with a stage actor named Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) coming home after his brother was killed by some sort of creature.  There, he meets his father John (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s fiancé Gwen (Emily Blunt).  The village is filled with rumors and conjecture.  Many there, including a Scotland Yard detective named Aberline (Hugo Weaving), think that Lawrence may have had something to do with the attack because of his past history which includes a visit to an insane asylum.  It does however become much clearer that the supernatural is involved when there is an attack on a gypsy camp by some kind of violent creature.  Lawrence is present during that attack and is wounded by the creature, but survives.  Not only does he survive but his wound manages to heal surprisingly fast, so fast as to seem almost… unhuman.

The first thing that this movie gets wrong is the atmosphere.  It’s clear that Joe Johnson has given a go at making some good period set dressing, but he’s never able to really make it as interesting as he deeded to.  Maybe it was budgetary constraints, maybe it was simply a lack of vision but the movie’s set decoration seemed neither authentic nor particularly artful or creative, just uninspired.  The exteriors aren’t much better either; the film never comes close to matching the atmosphere that was elicited from the moors in the original film.  I’m also not really sure what kind of horror movie they wanted to make.  This is an R-rated horror film (a decision I back up 100%), but they use this freedom in some really inelegant ways.  At times this feels as blunt as a slasher movie with kills occurring strictly for eliciting bloodlust rather than really building an effective thriller.  It’s like halfway through production they realized they weren’t capable of building a sophisticated horror film and decided they would just stick to appeasing the gorehounds.

As for the creature itself, it was alright, but it certainly wasn’t a monster for the ages and I might have been a bit too quick to assume it would be awesome just because they decided to use real makeup instead of pure CGI.  Otherwise the effects are kind of inconsistent.  For example one of the three transformation (the second one) sequences was really well done and creepy looking, but the other two looked kind of lame and workmanlike.  That extended to the attack scenes, a couple of them were really well done but some of them (especially the first one) were poor and marred by bad effects.

I heard an interview with Benicio Del Toro once where he said that he’d always wanted to play a werewolf, and that was long before this movie was in production, seeing him in a dream role was always part of what interested me in this project.  The final product however does very little to show any passion on the part of Del Toro or anyone else for that matter, and I don’t blame him for it either.  There are aspects of his work that seem to show flashes of a good performance, but it feels like they’ve been buried under some poor editing or something.  Anthony Hopkins on the other hand just seems really bored, like he’s just waiting for his paycheck to be mailed and neither Emily Blunt nor Hugo Weaving are given much to do either.

Overall, The Wolfman is about as disappointing as its reputation would suggest.  It isn’t a terrible film and if the production was as troubled as it sounds I guess they were lucky to make something that was this watchable, but it could have been a whole lot better.  I’m about willing to place all of the blame for this on Joe Johnson, I just don’t feel like he had the skill to turn this into the really transcendent thing that it seemed like it could have become with a little genuine vision.  The fact that this bland hack has been hired to make the Captain America film makes me a lot more scared than anything in this movie.

** out of Four

Inception(7/16/2010)

7-16-2010Inception

It’s no secret that the summer of 2010 has been something of a disaster for anyone looking for quality thrills.  Hollywood has almost exclusively pushed garbage like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Jonah Hex, and Knight & Day at the masses for the whole season and finally it isn’t just the critics who are complaining.  Audiences have also finally caught on and are resisting this market-tested garbage and box-office receipts are down.  Through all of this there has been one beacon for those seeking quality from large budget Hollywood production: InceptionInception isn’t a remake, a reboot, a sequel, or a prequel.  It isn’t based off of a best-selling book, nor is it based on a T.V. show, a comic book, a videogame, or an amusement park ride and it also isn’t clearly derivative of some other movie made twenty years ago.  It’s a bona fide original screenplay with an original concept made by, Christopher Nolan, someone who has been going against the grain of an increasingly soulless Hollywood his whole career.

The film is set in a world where scientists have found a way to infiltrate people’s thoughts while they’re dreaming.  Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thought thief of sorts who specializes in this kind of dream infiltration, though currently he’s on the run from the law and cannot return to the United States and has consequently been separated from his children.  Eventually Cobb meets an industrialist named Saito (Ken Watanabe) who can arrange for his return to his home nation, the catch is that first he needs to do a major job for him.  Saito wants Cobb to infiltrate the dreams of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son of a dominant competitor in Saito’s field that’s currently on his deathbed.  Saito doesn’t merely want Cobb to steal from Fischer’s memories (extraction), rather he wants him to plant an idea in Fischer’s head (to dissolve his father’s empire), a process called Inception.  To do this Cobb needs to put together a team that includes a researcher into Fischer’s life (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an architect to construct the dream environment (Ellen Page), a chemist to make a sedative that will keep them all sleeping (Dileep Rao), and someone to impersonate people within the dreams (Tom Hardy).  The problem with all this is that this mission will be going on in the subconscious of Cobb, which is actually a pretty volatile place, as he’s in mourning for his deceased wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and the memory of her has been showing up in his dreams at unfortunate times lately.

Christopher Nolan is in many ways the savior of Hollywood.  The financial environment in Hollywood is such that pretty much anyone interested in making great films has given up on working with large budgets and as such the blockbusters have been left to the Ratners, Bays, and McGs of the world.  Nolan is one of only a few people that has bucked this trend and made quality action films that seem to have been shot with genuine conviction.  This side of his career has mainly been executed through his pair of Batman films: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  Between projects like that he’s specialized in complex, mind-bending thrillers like Memento and The Prestige.  With Inception, Nolan has managed to fuse these two sides of his career, the movie fits the description of “mind-bending” to a T but it’s also made with the same large scale that was brought to Nolan’s Batman movies.

This technology of searching through people’s dreams seems to be a pretty damn original sci-fi concept, I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like it from any other movie and that’s pretty impressive in a genre that’s thrived on cloning a few stock ideas like time travel and space exploration.  It’s also clear that Nolan has carefully thought through this concept and given it a number of logical rules that are explained in very understandable ways through some pretty naturalistic exposition.  One of the film’s great strengths is that it makes all of these rules seem really coherent throughout the movie, as long as you’re paying attention you shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping up with the plot, and even if you fall behind a bit there’s still plenty to enjoy.  Really the fact that you need to keep up makes the film exhilarating right from the get go, all too often the audience is way ahead of movies these days and the idea of an action movie like this actually challenging people really makes it stand out.

All of the rules of this technology do not dominate the movie either, if you don’t want to keep track of them you should still be able to enjoy the movie as a really clever mix of science fiction, heist thriller, and action movie.  Of the three, this might actually most resemble a heist film.  The film depicts an assembled group of specialists conducting an elaborate plan that comes together in that Oceans 11 kind of way.  While most of the members of the gang are in their own ways colorful and interesting, this is clearly Leonardo DiCaprio’s story.  In fact I think this movie has a pretty close kinship with DiCaprio’s last film, Shutter Island.  Both films have DiCaprio going through a weird twisty adventure with themes of grief at their heart and the relation between DiCaprio and Cotillard here reminded me a lot of his relationship with Michelle Williams in that last film.  I quite liked Shutter Island, but frankly I think Inception blows it out of the water and I don’t say that lightly considering that earlier film was made by the master filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

From a visual perspective, the movie is stunning.  The fact that this movie allows people to craft dreams essentially provides the characters with a flexible sandbox where the people in control are only limited by their goals and their imaginations.  Consequently there’s a lot of really imaginative sequences where the characters take seemingly realistic environments and sort of “bend” them to their will.  Take an early sequence where DiCaprio shows the Ellen Page character an urban environment he’s designed and then precedes to fold the entire city in on itself into a gravity defying labyrinth straight out of the mind of M.C. Escher.  This same sensibility is also applied to various action scenes like a show stopping fight between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a number of imaginary goons in the middle of a hotel hallway with completely distorted gravity.

That this is an excellent film was not a surprise to me, the question really is simply a matter of how great it is.  First I guess we need to ask if Nolan has surpassed his work in The Dark Knight.  I think the answer, overall, is “yes.”  Granted, there’s no performance here that really comes close to topping what we saw out of Heath Ledger in that film.  That’s not to say that any of the acting is weak, everyone is quite good here but there really isn’t a role that’s nearly as showy The Joker, on the bright side this prevents the film from having a supporting role that steals the show away from the lead.  This also isn’t going to be interpreted as some sort of political allegory in the way that The Dark Knight was either, in fact I doubt this movie will really be used for intellectual interpretations of any kind.  This is a movie that derives its strength less from symbolism and allusion than it does from simply being an extremely well made and cleverly structured action film.  The movie also doesn’t have any of the drawbacks that The Dark Knight was pegged with either.  The movie does not have any elements which I expect will be as divisive as The Dark Knight’s third act, and in general, the fact that this is an original IP rather than an adaptation gives it a lot of added gravitas.

So what is the film’s place in modern film history?  I think it might just be the best action movie since The Matrix.  In fact the experience of watching this reminded me a lot of my first viewing of that film.  It’s a science fiction action film that presented a concept we hadn’t seen before on film, presented it with pristine craftsmanship, and augmented it with thrilling and original action sequences.  The difference is that The Matrix was made on a budget that was large but not necessarily humungous and by people who were previously untested, whereas Inception was made on a tentpole budget by an auteur that was on the brink of triumph.  Inception also lacks a lot of the MTV sensibilities that make The Matrix something of relic of its time, as far as CGI heavy action movies go this is about as classy and high-brow as you’re ever going to get out of Hollywood.

In case it isn’t already clear, I loved this movie.  I loved it visually, I loved it narratively, I loved it as entertainment, I loved it as art and the notion of someone not loving it sort of baffles me.  I’m sure there will be some people who will watch it defensively, ready to nitpick it to death out of some misguided plan to keep it from drowning out some other favorite of theirs, but I don’t even want to hear it.  People are entitled to their opinions but I implore people not to listen to these naysayers.  This is a movie that delivers more thrills in five random minutes than most movies have in their entire running time.

**** out of Four

Predators(7/12/2010)

7-12-2010Predators

The 80s were full of action movies with macho dudes shooting everything that moves.  A lot of these movies were terrible, but a number of them have stood the test of time.  One of those movies was John McTiernan’s 1987 film Predator.  This movie doesn’t rise above other Schwarzenegger by adding a lot of smart subtext the way that a Total Recall did, and it doesn’t do it through sheer high budget production values like a Terminator 2 did.  The way Predator managed to rise to the top was a combination of McTiernan’s suspenseful filmmaking, a witty screenplay and through the assemblage of a memorable cast anchored by Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and Sonny Landham.  More importantly it had a really cool alien in it with an iconic design by Stan Winston.

That creature (known to nerds as the Yautja and to others simply as the Predator) has long been linked to the Alien franchise, an association that eventually culminated in two horrible crossover films, but outside of that the Alien movies fared a lot better in the sequel department.  The first Alien film was followed up by the legendary sequel Aliens (whose plural title is borrowed by this film).  That film was followed up by a pair of problematic, but at least rather interesting sequels, unlike the Predator franchise which featured only the original film and a 1990 sequel (Predator 2 starring Danny Glover) which was at best a serviceable action film.  The new film Predators, is an a attempt to right that wrong and give fans the third sequel they deserve.  Wait a minute, a sequel?  Wow, it’s amazing how dignified a mere sequel feels like in this world of reboots, remakes, and uber-franchises.

The first Predator was set in a Central American jungle, the second in a near future Los Angeles, and this third film is set in a jungle on an Alien planet.  As the film opens, a bunch of unrelated people wake up in a freefall, landing on this planet and running into each other.  Among this crew are an American mercenary (Adrian Brody), a Mexican cartel member (Danny Trejo), a black oops sniper (Alice Braga), a Russian commando with a minigun (Oleg Taktarov), a Japanese Yakuza member (Louis Ozawa Changchien), an African civil war soldier (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), a death row inmate (Walton Goggins), and a doctor (Topher Grace).  These people don’t know each other but they seem to have been choosen as a representative of the warriors of Earth.  After a short while the group comes to realize that they’re being hunted by something (not hard to guess what) and that they’ll need to work together in order to survive the ordeal.

A lot of people will point to the Alien Vs. Predator films as proof that crossover movies are an unworkable concept, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  I’d argue that those movies easily could have been good if they’d been made by people who were going to take their task seriously, but instead they got the property-hopping hack Paul W. S. Anderson to film the first one and a couple of inexperienced music video directors to direct the second.  Even worse, the two films were filled with sellout nonsense like the decision to make the first one a tame PG-13 effort and the decision to cast a bunch of teenagers in the second.  In short, the movies were both blatant cash-grabs made by people with minimal ambition because they knew they could make pretty much anything with these iconic creatures break even.  While there’s nothing in the filmography of Nimród Antal, director of this new Predator film, to indicate that he’s leagues above the AVP directors, but it’s clear from the moment the movie starts that he’s taking this assignment a lot more seriously than either of them.

First and foremost, this film has been given a much better cast than either of those AVP films, which were primarily filled with the kind of pretty-boys and models that seem to fill all too many horror movies these days.  Here we’re given a cast filled with tough guys like Danny Trejo, and each one of the characters in this ensemble are given a pretty effective getup as well.  It’s a well calculated mix of action movie types, much as the commando unit in the first Predator was.   The one problem with the cast is also the most prominent: Adrian Brody.  Brody is a good actor and I have no problem with someone like him being featured in an action film, but I do have an issue with someone like him trying to pretend that they’re Arnold Schwarzenegger when they’re not.  Brody is not a natural tough-guy and simply giving him a monotone voice and an attitude is not going to change that.

The film also has a really good sense of when to employ fan-service and when not to.  There are a number of nice homages and easter eggs here like the opening credits which are nicely replicated from the original film, or a moment where Adrian Brody kills a scorpion-like bug with a knife.  For the most part the film also knows not to overdo it with moments like that, for instance they never try to shoe-horn in a gratuitous utterance of the signature line “you are one ugly motherfucker,” or any other unoriginal one-liners.  All this gives the film a lot of “street cred” if you will.  This really feels like it was made by someone who cares about this series and wanted to give Predator the sequel it deserved.

I really want to say that this really is that great sequel that we’ve been waiting for, but it really isn’t.  While the film did build a lot of goodwill its first half, it squandered a lot of it in its second half, where a lot of the film’s novelty quickly wore off as the film began to be very darkly lit and at times rather claustrophobic.  I think the problem is simply that, unlike the original film, there’s no real mystery here.  The first Predator film didn’t even introduce the alien until well over a third into its running time and we didn’t really know the nature of the threat until the third act.  Here we already know what the Predators are and what they’re likely to do and deep down there aren’t really any new ideas being brought to the table.  Our heroes are slowly picked off, but the film never really builds into a truly standout adrenaline pumping action sequence.

When all is said and done, this was clearly a very well intentioned effort and it is definitely going to tide over fans of old-school action films until Stallone’s The Expendables drops.  It’s also going to provide some good creature thrills to those looking for a good matinee and it will give fans of the franchise something to chew on, but in the long run this is really only going to function as a footnote in the legacy of this series.

*** out of Four

The Killer Inside Me(7/6/2010)

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I’m a pretty big adherer to the auteur theory, but there are some directors with careers that seem bent on challenging it.  I’m thinking in particular of Steven Soderbergh and the man who is in many ways his British equivalent: Michael Winterbottom.  Winterbottom has seemed equally comfortable making smart post-modern comedies like 24 Hour Party People and Tristam Shanty: A Cock and Bull Story as he is making gritty political thrillers like In This World and A Mighty Heart.  With his newest film, The Killer Inside Me, Winterbottom has made one more left turn in his career: he’s made a dark and nasty noir exercise that will repulse as many audiences as it intrigues.

The film is set sometime during the Eisenhower administration in a West Texas town called Central City.  The central character is a Deputy Sheriff named Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) who seems like a strait laced boy scout about to start a family with his fiancé Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson), but this is a façade.  Below his clean cut appearance lies an intense darkness: the character is a violent sociopath.  The story begins with Ford encountering a local prostitute named Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) with the intent to run her out of town, instead he starts a steamy affair with her rooted in rough sex.  Soon both of them will be involved in a blackmail scheme with ties to the local magnate named Chester Conway, but this is sort of a red herring, deep down this is all about the Lou Ford character and the darkness within him.

In portraying the Lou ford character Casey Affleck seems to have picked up right where he left off in the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  Anyone who saw that triumphant film will instantly recognize the inflection that Affleck is speaking with here.  There are certain similarities between the two characters too; it probably wasn’t a coincidence that Andrew Dominik, director of that earlier film, was once attached to this project.  The difference is that Robert Ford was a sort of creepy and stalker-ish guy who could finally be driven to murder only after a good two hours of build up.  Lou Ford on the other hand is an absolute sociopath who kills numerous people and then blames other people for “making him do it.”  A lot of movies like, say, No Country For Old Men can make characters like this seem disturbing yet oddly cool at the same time.  I don’t have a problem with those movies, but what’s really interesting about this one is that it doesn’t make the killer seem remotely cool, he just seems creepy and kind of pathetic: more like Tom Ripley than Anton Chigurh.

These murders, two of them directed toward women and a number of them with vaguely sexual overtones (though there’s no actual rape) has shocked a number of critics.  I’ll avoid the word “controversy” because this hasn’t really reached or offended many people outside of the film community, though I suspect it would cause more of an uproar if this aspired to wider mainstream success.  This is indeed a really violent and sexual movie and frankly I’m kind of surprised that this was able to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating (not that I’m complaining, it’s about time those MPAA prudes updated their standards).  There have been stories of walk-outs among sensitive audience members who were disgusted by the material.  Fair enough, if you’re sensitive to violence this definitely isn’t the movie for you and probably isn’t the movie for you, but that is your problem and not the movies.  I’d argue that this disgusted and horrifying reaction is exactly what the movie intends to elicit and the fact that it manages to affect audiences as widely as it has is in itself a success.

Some have criticized the movie for featuring more sustained and graphic attacks against women than men, but I’d argue this is inherent in the basic plot of the Jim Thompson novel the film is based on. It’s not Winterbottoms fault that Lou Ford’s scheming requires quick deaths for the men.  In fact, the differences in which the deaths are depicted kind of underscores the issue here: people barely bat an eye when Lou Ford’s male victims are killed, but these other two gruesome murders really stay with the audience.  The killings are not remotely glamorized, anyone who actually “enjoys” these scenes and finds them fun bits of entertainment would have to be a lunatic.  All that said, this isn’t an example of a movie that I’d still send sensitive audiences to for it’s other variety of other virtues, because as much as I like elements of this movie and want to defend it, this is a flawed film.

The movie opens with a really snazzy opening credit sequence set to the sultry tune of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” it looks like a genuine throwback to the openings of older movies.  It’s a really fun opening, maybe a little too fun.  That’s emblematic of one of the movie’s bigger tonal problems, it really relishes in its period noir setting in a way that doesn’t really match the film’s dark content.  I think a more minimalist approach to the setting might have been called for, in fact they maybe could have transferred it into contemporary times.  I guess that modern forensics might have made some of the plot points a bit of a stretch, but when they transition from vicious violence into these elaborate sets filled with period vehicles and such, it’s really jarring.

I also found the film’s central crime plot was a bit of a tease.  We’re led to think that this Chester Conway would turn into this Noah Cross style baron at the heart of all this, and Ned Beatty really makes him an interesting presence.  But this crime narrative never really materializes into anything, it’s basically just a really really elaborate MacGuffin.  If there’s one thing that MacGuffin are not supposed to be is elaborate, they’re supposed to be really simple things that can be quickly forgotten about, but when it’s something like this I can’t help but want the MacGuffin to come back and be relevant.

Then there’s also the issue of the film’s ending which was, in a word, confounding.  I don’t want to give anything away but this ending is so crazy that I’m not sure whether or not it’s supposed to be taken literally.  If it is supposed to be literal, then it’s ridiculous and I hate it.  If it’s not meant to be taken seriously and it’s some kind of wacked out metaphor or fantasy of the central character, there may be more defending it but I’d be lying if I said it made any sense to me.  This alone is almost enough to derail the movie for me, but there’s still a whole lot in the movie that I think is worth seeing like Affleck’s performance and the details of his character, that I’m still going to give it a hesitant recommendation.  But be forewarned, this is a challenging movie that should not be watched lightly.

*** out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: Daybreakers(7/5/2010)

7-5-2010Daybreakers

No matter how you cut it, the early 2010 release Daybreakers is a B-movie.  Well, I suppose in the very traditional sense it isn’t, as it was never meant to be seen as part of a double feature (although it would probably work well in that format).  But by any other standard it fits the bill: it’s (mostly) unpretentious genre-fare made on a relatively low budget with minimal ambitions beyond some very basic social commentary.  This isn’t meant as an insult but as description.  I don’t think anyone making this movie had any intentions of changing the world and the fact that the movie works as well as it does given the circumstances should be a compliment.

The film is set in a vague future in which vampires have overrun the world and humans who aren’t being farmed for their blood are disparate refugees.  Sounds like a pretty good deal for the vampires, who can live forever in comfort without having to hunt people to survive.  The problem of course is that the human population is not very big anymore and the blood supply is depleting rapidly.  That’s an even bigger problem than it sounds like, because in this world the hunger for human blood turns vampires into feral bat-like monsters rather than merely killing them.  Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), the leader of the world biggest blood supplier, has decided to address this problem by commissioning the creation of a synthetic blood substitute.  The main scientist behind this is Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke), someone who never really wanted to be a vampire and who has a lot of sympathy for the plight of humanity.  After a meeting with human resistance leaders Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and Elvis (Willem Dafoe) show him a new way, but there’s no way of knowing whether the vampiric masses will accept it.

Modern vampires are a dime-a-dozen in movies but they’re almost always depicted as a mysterious underworld that the rest of the world is more-or-less oblivious too.  As such, the idea of a modern world that’s completely dominated by vampires is pretty clever and the ins and outs of this society are easily the most enjoyable aspect of the movie.  For example, the vampire’s cars have a “daylight driving mode” that blacks out all the windows and allows the vehicle to be driven via cameras when the sun is out.  That’s pretty neat, but what’s even more interesting is the blood economy that seems to run the world.  The political allegory is pretty clear: blood is described as a “non-renewable resource” that requires either an “alternate source.”  Comparing modern society’s need for oil to vampiric bloodlust is perhaps a bit daring if you think about it in its plainest terms, and as unsophisticated as the allegory is it plays pretty well into the B-movie tradition of social commentary.

All that’s good, but Daybreakers often feels like it’s a lot of clever ideas like that in search of a better movie.  This definitely isn’t really a horror movie, there are a couple of jump scares here and there, but I don’t expect this to scare anyone who isn’t extremely squeamish.  The film acts more as an action film, but the action scenes here rarely rise above the level of “moderately exciting.”  All of it is also marred by some very sub-par CGI and by really bland blue tinted music video-like cinematography.  The acting also isn’t all that great; there are a lot of good actors here but none of them seem to be taking their jobs very seriously.  Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe mostly just chew scenery to the nth degree while Ethan Hawke doesn’t seem to have the drive to turn his lame twirp of a character into something more than what is on the page.

Gibing Daybreakers a pass is a bit of a tempting proposition, after all this could have been direct-to-Syfy caliber had it not been injected with as many cool ideas as it was.  That’s an impressive level of improvement, but there’s way too much badness here for it to really get away with such lowered standards.  Nice try guys.

**1/2 out of Four