Archive for March, 2010

Get Your “Freak” On

Posted in Action, Horror with tags , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by ericstraus

There is a vampire craze on television and in movies these days – the “Twilight” series, HBO’s “True Blood,” and “Vampire Diaries” on the CW network are all extremely popular, focusing on the integration of vampires (and other mythological creatures) into modern society.  But slipping under the radar was a film last year called “Cirque de Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” based on the Cirque de Freak book series by Darren Shan.  Perhaps no one noticed this film because it doesn’t have any teen heartthrobs (well-known ones anyway), nor does it center on vampires’ inclusion in “normal” society.  I did not expect much from it, but it’s a decent vampire flick with an interesting (although not totally original) story.

Chris Massoglia plays Darren Shan, a slightly nerdy high-schooler with an obsession for spiders who does his best to stay on the straight and narrow, but is often pulled off the path by his life-long best friend Steve, played by Josh Hutcherson, a rebellious sort with a passion for the world of vampires.  A flyer advertising a freak show wafts to their feet, thrown from the window of a mysterious purple Rolls Royce driving by.  Darren and Steve, intrigued by the flyer, end up sitting in the front row and are introduced to a variety of circus performers, from the super tall emcee aptly named Mr. Tall (played terrifically by Ken Wantanabe), to Evra the Snake Boy (played by Patrick Fugit), and Salma Hayek as Madame Truska, a voluptuous beauty who can grow a beard on command.  The final act is Larten Crepsley, played by John C. Reilly.  Steve thinks he recognizes Crepsley from one of his vampire books.  Crepsley is a magician of sorts who carries around an extremely large, poisonous and rare species of spider – Darren is entranced by the spider and decides he must have it for his own.  He hides in Crepsley’s dressing room and overhears a conversation between Crepsley and Mr. Tall, where he learns some amazing secrets about Crepsley and the other freaks.  But he escapes with the spider and brings it to school, where it gets loose and ends up biting Steve.  Feeling horribly guilty, Darren confesses his crime to Crepsley in hopes of getting an antidote for Steve.  Crepsely agrees to give him the antidote on one condition – Darren must become his assistant, and must become a half-vampire.  Darren agrees, in order to save his friend.

Things get complicated after Steve realizes that Darren has become half-vampire, a dream that Steve has had for years.  We begin to learn of the war between vampires and “vampanese,” a vampire species bent on killing humans, while vampires only feed on, but don’t kill humans.  Darren must begin to use his new powers to save his fellow man and protect the freak show society, of which he’s become a part, while Steve’s loyalties are questioned and sides are chosen.

Reilly seems a bit out of his comfort zone playing a vampire – he’s good at being an oddball, but as a vampire, it doesn’t quite work.  The plot is somewhat reminiscent of the “Blade” films, where violent vampire sects break from the pack and force their own agenda…it’s also similar to the “X-Men” series when mutants have to choose either between the pacifist side that wants to integrate into human society, or the revolutionary side which wants to take control.

The film is entertaining as the plot unfolds, and we see the two sides pitted against one another.  The freak society is quite enjoyable as far as characters go – Fugit’s Snake Boy has an ambition of being a rock star, but feels handicapped because, well…he’s a snake boy.  We feel sympathy for the freak side of life, and therefore look for a happy ending where the freaks win.  But the film’s conclusion is somewhat open-ended, begging for a sequel; a sequel which will most likely go as unnoticed as the original.  But if you’re sick of the “Twilight”-style of vampirism of late, “Cirque de Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” is a good alternative.

Final Grade for Cirque de Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant: C+

Rockwell Makes “Moon” Shine

Posted in Drama, Sci-fi with tags , , , , on March 29, 2010 by ericstraus

When reading the plot summary of “Moon,” one can’t help but think there will be a lot in common with the Stanley Kubrick epic “2001.”  But aside from a few very general similarities, “Moon” shines on its own as a psychological drama, with touches of humor and a brilliant performance by Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Choke), who not only stars, but also co-stars…more on that in a minute.

We learn through future newsreel footage that an enormous supply of energy is being harvested from below the moon’s surface, and then shuttled to Earth in the form of a space pod.  Giant machines mine the moon rocks, gathering the dormant solar energy and then sending them off to Earth where the energy can be extracted.  Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an engineer who is sent to work on the moon for a 3-year contract job, making sure the mining equipment runs smoothly, and fixing problems as they arise.  We join Sam two weeks away from his 3-year term being up.  His scraggly beard, long hair and conversations with plants tell us it’s been a long 3 years.  Sam runs on a treadmill to stay in shape; the only communication he gets is through video messages – apparently the mechanism that allows live video feeds has been broken (or so Sam is made to believe) for some time.  We learn through the video messages that Sam left his wife and very young daughter back home while he headed to the moon, and it’s obvious Sam can’t wait to see them again.

The only companion Sam has is GERTY, the computer that makes everything on the moon base function.  Kevin Spacey provides GERTY’s voice in his calm, relaxing tone; the only clues we are given to GERTY’s “emotions” are happy face images on his display screen – he’s either smiling, frowning, shedding a tear, or has an expression of conflict.  But unlike “Hal” in “2001,” which GERTY will undoubtedly be compared with, GERTY has a pure desire to help his human companion – GERTY is more likely to do the right thing than what he’s programmed to do, which is an interesting take on the computers vs. humanity conflict…based on “2001,” we expect GERTY at some point to attempt to control Sam…but GERTY is not what we expect.

Things get a bit strange when Sam begins hallucinating – he sees an image of a teenage girl in the kitchen; he sees his own image reaching toward him from under his bed covers, and he sees the same girl on the lunar surface as he’s driving a rover of sorts to check out a malfunctioning machine.  This vision causes him to crash his rover, knocking him unconscious.

Sam then awakens in the infirmary of the moon base, under GERTY’s watchful care…and the mystery begins to unfold as to how he got there.  He convinces GERTY to let him leave the base – Sam goes to where he crashed his rover, looks inside, and finds his own body still inside.

The mystery plays out quite enjoyably for the viewing audience, and as I mentioned earlier, Rockwell becomes his own co-star as there are now two Sams trying to uncover the truth about what’s happened to them.  There is some funny dialogue between them, and Rockwell does an incredible job playing both parts, as they each begin to take on different personalities.  Director Duncan Jones does a truly convincing job in conveying the desolation of the moon, and Sam’s isolation.  The story is quite good, and the mystery that unravels is fairly original and engaging.  It’s unfortunate that Rockwell was not nominated for an Oscar, as his performance drives the film and makes it quite an enjoyable experience.

Final Grade for Moon:  B+

Falling Out of Love with “Capitalism”

Posted in Documentary with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by ericstraus

Michael Moore still has the ability to make engaging, entertaining documentaries as we’ve seen with “Roger and Me,” “Bowling for Columbine” and “Sicko,” but is he losing his edge?  His latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” exposes the history of capitalism and our country’s infatuation with it, and how it has led to the current economic nightmare in which we are embroiled.  But Moore’s targets are far from controversial – they are the greedy Wall Street bankers who took all our money and paid their CEOs huge bonuses.  Perhaps Moore is trying to broaden his audience by attacking the obvious, but the impact is lost.

The film certainly does have some though-provoking moments, such is in the opening credits as we see a montage of scenes from ancient Rome mixed in with current images, while the narration describes the reasons behind the fall of Rome, which we see are easily applicable to what’s happening in today’s society.  Or like in the way people usually connect capitalism with democracy, when in fact they can be polar opposites.  Why, he asks, do we demand democracy in our political system, yet we accept a dictatorship at the workplace?

Another interesting aspect of the film deals with religion; Moore speaks with several clergy members about, in essence, what Jesus would say about capitalism.  The overwhelming reply was that Jesus was a Socialist, and that he would not approve of a system that constantly rewards the rich and punishes the poor.

He speaks with congressmen and senators about the system’s apparent failure, but they pretty much tell us what we expect them to tell us (based on their being Republican or Democrat).  We see emotional examples of how workers are beginning to fight back against greedy corporations that close plants while earning record profits, like a window and door company in Chicago.  The workers staged a sit-in until they were paid the money they were owed at the time the business closed; the outpouring of support from the community was immense, and eventually the company gave in and paid them.

Moore creates a convincing argument that during the Reagan years, our country stopped being a democratic union and became a corporation.  Cabinet posts were being filled with CFO’s and other corporate big-wigs from Wall Street institutions, and the country was being run like one giant factory.  He suggests that the only way to fix things is to destroy capitalism and embrace democracy.

Moore is certainly not going to convert anyone by demanding the dismantling of capitalism, but even the blue-collar right wing faction of our society will support his vitriol against AIG, Merrill Lynch, Goldman-Sachs, etc.  And that’s why his message is not as bold and shocking as it has been in previous films.  But he is still a good filmmaker – I just hope his next target isn’t Kim Jong Il.

Final Grade for Capitalism: A Love Story: B-

Up Close and Personal With “Jennifer’s Body”

Posted in Comedy, Horror with tags , , , on March 22, 2010 by ericstraus

Following her Oscar-winning screenplay for 2008’s “Juno,” writer Diablo Cody turned her pen to a horror/comedy film called “Jennifer’s Body,” starring Megan Fox (Transformers) and Amanda Seyfried (Mean Girls, Mamma Mia!).  Like “Juno,” the film focuses on the teen angst of high school girls, only this time instead of tackling a realistic topic like teen pregnancy, Cody presents a story of satanic ritual, demonic possession and cannibalism.  And yes, it’s somewhat of a comedy.

Fox plays the title character Jennifer, and in a real stretch for her, she is the hottest girl on the planet and everyone, including herself, knows it.  Seyfried plays her best friend Needy, an appropriate name in relation to how her and Jennifer’s relationship works, and has always worked – they’ve been best friends since childhood.  Jennifer is the dominant shot-caller, and Needy is the plain-Jane support system when Jennifer needs her to be.  Jennifer is a stereotypical shallow, materialistic cheerleader who uses her looks and her body to get anything she wants – she sleeps with a cop in case she runs across any legal entanglements, she flashes her chest to get free (and illegal) drinks at a bar, etc.  Needy disapproves of course, but knows Jennifer will do what she wants.

Bad things start to happen when Jennifer decides she wants to bed the singer of a local emo-rock band, who they go to see at the aforementioned bar.  After a fire engulfs the place, Jennifer and Needy escape and find the band waiting outside.  They invite Jennifer to come with them in their van, and despite Needy’s pleading with her not to go, Jennifer goes.  She turns up later that night in Needy’s house, bloody and horrific, her teeth stained crimson.

We later learn, after several high school boys’ bodies turn up mutilated and dead, that Jennifer has been possessed by a demon through a ritual performed by the rock band.  This demon-summoning process would in turn procure the band fame and fortune.  What went wrong, apparently, was that they were supposed to sacrifice a virgin, which Jennifer obviously wasn’t, and so now the demon inhabits her body and must feed on human flesh.  The demon only presents itself when it’s hungry – until then, Jennifer looks and acts like her normal self.  But when it’s feeding time, she looks weak and vulnerable, until she feasts on another victim.

Eventually Needy has to choose between protecting her friend and protecting the innocent townsfolk.  So the film is a sort of commentary on true friendship, and on society’s obsession with physical appearance.  There are a few laughs, and the horror elements are actually filmed quite well by director Karyn Kusama.  Fox, while certainly well cast as the “hot chick,” is somewhat annoying to watch.  Her inflection and tone are the same with every line she delivers.  But as an evil seductress, she succeeds.  There are several slow-motion shots of her sauntering down the school hallway in sexy attire, showing her own self-confidence and ogle-inducing aura.

The film leaves many unanswered questions, like how did the rock band come across this satanic ritual?  Why did they assume that by performing it they’d get rich and famous?  Apparently it’s none of our business, and we don’t necessarily need to know.  The film is entertaining enough on its own; Seyfried does a really nice job convincing us that her inner conflict is real, and makes us root for her to finally do the right thing, to take control of her relationship with Jennifer.  In the end, Jennifer’s assumption that she can always take Needy for granted is what does her in.  The film is not as edgy as I think Cody would like us to think it is, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously and there have been far worse teen horror/comedies in recent years.

Final Grade for Jennifer’s Body: B-

Pure Escapism Cures “The Hangover”

Posted in Comedy with tags , , , , , on March 15, 2010 by ericstraus

There’s nothing realistic about the zany trail of events befalling the characters in “The Hangover.”  The film’s makers know this and don’t bother to try and convince us otherwise, and that’s why the movie is successful in making us laugh for 100 minutes.  There’s also a refreshing lack of an attempt at character development, something that usually bogs down goofy comedies – we don’t have much background about the characters, and we don’t need it.  The jokes and ridiculous happenings stand on their own, and the result is a nice chuckle-fest.

Four friends head to Las Vegas for a bachelor party – Doug (Justin Bartha), the groom; Phil (Bradley Cooper), the best man and “playboy” type with an anti-marriage attitude (though he is married); Stu (Ed Helms), a somewhat nerdy guy stuck in a bad relationship; and Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s future brother-in-law with questionable grooming skills and a penchant for mind-altering substances and hilarious non-sequiters.  They toast to what they expect will be a memorable evening, and then the film fast-forwards to the following morning.  Phil, Stu and Alan wake up in their hotel room to find the place completely trashed, a live tiger in the bathroom, a tooth missing from Stu’s mouth, and a small infant in the closet.  None of them have any memory of the night’s activities, nor do they have any idea of Doug’s whereabouts.  The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out what happened, and most importantly, how to find Doug so he can make it back in time for his wedding.

As they piece together the night’s events, we see how implausible they all are, from stealing Mike Tyson’s tiger, to Stu marrying a stripper, to discovering they stole a police car, to finding a naked, violent Asian man in the trunk of their own car.  It’s all quite absurd, but the writing is clever and silly and very funny.  The characters are all likeable enough to make us root for them, but certainly not in any deep, emotionally connected way, and that’s how this type of film should be – irreverent, sometimes gross, and completely preposterous.  It reminds me of probably the only other truly funny movie about a bachelor party, which would be, well, “Bachelor Party,” starring Tom Hanks.  Like “The Hangover,” the jokes are funny, the events insane, and the characters undeveloped.  They say laughter is the best medicine, so I recommend high doses of these films to cure your ills.

Final grade for The Hangover: B+

“Law Abiding Citizen” Breaks a Few Rules

Posted in Action, Drama with tags , , on March 11, 2010 by ericstraus

I remember seeing the trailer for this film and thinking it looked like a fairly formulaic story – bad guy goes to prison but somehow still manages to commit murder while locked away; good guy lawyer figures it out and stops him.  But Law Abiding Citizen goes well beyond that, and pleasantly surprises with its commentary on the justice system as a whole, blurring the line between right and wrong, just and unjust.

The film opens with Clyde Shelton, played by Gerard Butler (300, Gamer), tinkering around with some hi-tech gadgetry and talking with his young daughter.  Suddenly his home is invaded by a couple of nasty thugs, one of which incapacitates Clyde, kills his wife while he watches, and then carries off the daughter with the implication that she will meet the same fate.  Some time passes, and we learn the thugs have been caught.  The case falls to District Attorney Nick Rice, played by Jamie Foxx (Ray, The Soloist), a workaholic attorney with a very high conviction rate.  He makes a deal with the man who did the actual killing to testify against his partner in crime; in return, he only spends 5 years in prison.  Shelton is completely surprised and angered at Rice’s decision to make this deal, his vitriol obvious as he watches Rice shake hands with the man who murdered his family.

10 years later, Shelton begins to exact his revenge – he tampers with the lethal injection of the condemned thug to make it as painful a death as possible; he finds the other thug, since released from prison, and tortures and dismembers him.  Shelton gets caught and goes to prison, with Rice prosecuting the case.  But Shelton, through a series of pre-planned events, continues to kill anyone associated with the 10-year-old case – the thugs’ attorney, the presiding judge from the case, Rice’s staff members and his boss.  It’s only just before Shelton attempts to kill the Mayor and her staff that Rice is able to discover Shelton’s secret and stop his spree.

The best moments of the film are Butler’s short speeches about the justice system and its failures.  At his arraignment for murder, he manages to convince the judge that the state did not have enough evidence against him to hold him without bail and that he should be released.  The judge agrees, but instead of Shelton walking out freely, he admonishes the judge for her ruling, declaring that he just murdered two people and she was going to let him walk out a free man.  He ends up being held in contempt for his angry outburst and returns to jail.

For a while it’s hard for the audience to know who to root for – on the one hand, we feel sorry for Shelton for the system failing to bring his family’s murderers to justice, and we can sympathize with his anger and need for revenge.  But when he continues to kill again and again, we still want to root for him but he makes it hard to do so.  With Foxx’s Rice, at first we dislike him for making a deal with a murderer, but eventually we do want him to put an end to Shelton’s rampage.

The film has some good action, suspense, and we are riveted as to what clever scheme Shelton will come up with next.  The last 20 minutes to the finish line do drag a bit, and some of the action is a bit predictable, but overall it’s a well-made action-mystery with good characters, that also manages to make an interesting social statement…not something I was expecting, or something you usually find in films of this genre.

Final Grade for Law Abiding Citizen: B

The 2010 Oscars…in Brief

Posted in Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2010 by ericstraus

This is not going to be a review of the Oscar program per se, as this is a film blog, not a TV blog…but one moment I do have to mention.  Did you catch Ryan Reynolds introducing the clip from “The Blind Side?”  He spoke as though he was channeling Rod Serling – I swore he was going to end his intro with “…in the Twilight Zone.”  It was quite odd.

But there were certain movie-related events that occurred last night which I feel are blog-worthy.  Most obvious was the historical win for Kathy Bigelow, becoming the first female to win Best Director.  “The Hurt Locker” took home several awards, including Best Picture, and deservedly so.  It was a great film.  So congrats to all those folks.

The biggest waste of time last night was the “tribute” to horror films.  I didn’t see the point to this at all, and several of the films they chose to show clips from were questionable, if not downright wrong.  They showed bits of old classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, Night of the Living Dead; they showed more recent slasher icons like Freddy Krueger, Jason, Michael Myers; fan favorites like Jaws and Sixth Sense and Poltergeist; and then, Edward Scissorhands?  Young Frankenstein?  Silence of the Lambs?  Maybe you could say Lambs was a horror film, maybe.  But the other two?  Nope.  A quirky dark comedy and a slapstick comedy do not a horror film make.

The tribute was preceded by what was by far the funniest moment of the night – a video clip of hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin sharing a hotel room bed and videotaping the room, as a parody of Paranormal Activity.  There are probably video clips of it floating around for now, but I’m sure ABC is going to delete them all soon.  But it was funny enough to make my eyes water.

And finally, I was glad to see Avatar win some technical awards, and nothing else.  Happy viewing.