“Daybreakers” Sheds Some Light on Vampires

Posted in Action, Horror with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2010 by ericstraus

With the prevalence of vampire film and television shows these days, it’s hard to find any originality in the genre.  HBO’s series “True Blood” has taken an interesting angle, creating a world where vampires are integrated into human society, and the backlash that accompanies such inclusion.  The film “Daybreakers” takes the concept one step further, positing a futuristic world where vampires are not the minority – they are the overwhelming majority, and it’s the humans who are outcasts and must struggle to survive.  Combining elements of “The Matrix” and “28 Days Later,” it’s a decent vampire movie with solid acting, gory blood special effects, and a thought-provoking take on what’s becoming a stale genre.

The film takes place 10 years in the future, and we learn that a vampire virus of sorts infected 90% of the earth’s population in the present day; the virus either killed its victims or turned them into vampires.  This new majority gave the human race a choice – become a vampire, or become food.  So for the last 10 years, humans have been on the run, hiding from the rest of the world.  The vampires have continued living as a civilized society; they all have jobs, apartments, homes, families, etc.  The only changes, major as they are, are that they cannot go out in daylight, and must feed on human blood.  But technology has evolved enough to make vampire life easier – underground tunnels allow vampires to go from place to place during the day, and their cars are equipped with “daylight mode,” where the windows darken and the driver uses several monitors to see outside.  Their food source is at the heart of the matter – major corporations now harvest human blood in mass quantities for distribution.  Vampires line up at Starbucks to get a shot of blood or two in their coffee. 

Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a hematologist for one of these corporations, working to find a blood substitute so that vampires won’t have to rely on humans for their sustenance.  Dalton is one of a minority of vampires who believe that hunting humans for their blood is wrong – he looks with disdain at the horrific machines that slowly drain naked humans of their blood.  Under the direction of Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), he works hard trying to synthesize a blood substitute because the human population is dwindling, and therefore so is the vampires’ food.  Some vampires have begun transformation due to their starvation, becoming evil, vile creatures with wings and tails, living in the tunnels underground.  Dalton comes across a band of humans on the run, and as he is sympathetic to their cause, he joins them and meets Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe), who we learn was turned into a vampire but then changed back through controlled exposure to ultraviolet rays.  Dalton makes it his mission to harness that power so that vampirism can be cured.

The gore is not gratuitous, but we are dealing with blood as a main character of the film, so there is plenty of it to be splattered around.  The film does pose an intriguing societal situation – if Dalton finds a cure, would vampires want to become human again?  Dalton’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) disagrees – he tells us he never “fit in” as a human.  But as a hunter of humans for the military, he feels like he belongs, and he rejects Edward’s compassion for the human species.  In reality, this question is true for anyone who has a disability or is not considered to be “normal” – if there was a cure, would you want it?  Or should people embrace who they are, regardless of what they are? 

The vampires do not have the luxury of pondering that choice for long, because in the film, if they kill all the humans, they kill themselves, hence the corporations’ need for a blood substitute.  The dialogue is well-written, the action sequences are fun, and overall, it’s an enjoyable vampire movie that manages to maintain some originality.  The only thing missing was Barry Manilow’s song “Daybreak” somewhere in the film.

Final Grade for Daybreakers: B

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Picking “The Lovely Bones” Clean

Posted in Drama, Oscar-nominated, Thriller with tags , , , , on June 3, 2010 by ericstraus

You probably remember the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about Grape-Nuts:  “You open the box, no grapes, no nuts…what’s the deal?”  This film’s title immediately brought that joke to mind, because you watch the film, no lovely, no bones…what’s the deal?  Apart from a spectacularly creepy performance by Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones” is a fairly non-compelling story that lacks suspense, utilizes no original special effects, and offers no catharsis or relevant message whatsoever.

We find out in the first couple of minutes that young Susie Salmon (played by Saoirse Ronan, who also narrates the film) has been murdered by a neighbor.  The story details what led up to her capture and death, and then follows the aftermath in both reality and Susie’s experience in some form of purgatory.  The family and community are shattered by her disappearance, and as time goes on they begin to accept that she will not be coming back.  A police investigation turns up her hat, but no other evidence or answers.  Her friends and family try to move on with their lives, but after a while, Susie’s younger sister Lindsey begins to suspect that their neighbor George (Tucci) is hiding something.  Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) also begins to sense something amiss with George, and eventually George has to dispose of Susie’s body.

During all this, Susie drifts aimlessly through a strange world, where landscapes change instantly, weather and sky fluctuate constantly, and she meets another girl named Holly who helps her understand what’s happened to her.  Susie tries hard to communicate with her family, as she is able to see things that are happening in the “real world.”  But she also spends time cavorting through rolling hillsides and rainbows; she is told that she is not in heaven…yet.  But the world around her seems to change in stride with her mind set.

Those of us familiar with Peter Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy have no trouble recognizing the special effects used in “Bones.”  It seems like Susie’s purgatory world was created solely for Jackson’s entertainment…so that he could run through his menu of special effects to his heart’s content.  But other than being a vehicle for CG effects, Susie’s limbo universe serves no purpose to the film.  Her father apparently can sense that she isn’t completely “gone,” but otherwise Susie’s experience is completely disconnected from the rest of the film.

Toward the end, we are offered a glimpse into the future to see George’s demise, which is completely unrelated to anything that has occurred during the rest of the film.  In essence, it was like watching two films simultaneously; the story of Susie’s family and their quest to cope, and the story of Susie in purgatory.  But as I mentioned, there is no clear connection between the two, leaving us wondering why we should be interested in either story.

Ronan definitely has a future in the movie business – she is a very good actor, and along with Tucci, it’s the only reason to pay any attention to this film.  But overall the film is little more than a docu-drama about Susie’s ordeal, and an effects-laden self-pleasuring by Jackson.

Final Grade for The Lovely Bones: C-

“A Serious Man” is Seriously Good

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2010 by ericstraus

Dark comedy, or “quirky drama,” is where Joel and Ethan Coen have found their greatest successes over their illustrious career as filmmakers.  From “Raising Arizona” to “Barton Fink,” and from “Fargo” to “The Big Lebowski,” the Coens are masters at creating memorable characters, great dialogue and fascinating backdrops for their stories.  There have certainly been some disappointing moments along the way, but their latest offering, “A Serious Man,” is a triumph, blending comedy with oddball drama, bizarre characters and a truly skewed look at Jewish-American culture and 60’s suburbia.

The person referenced in the film’s title is Professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a lot to deal with.  He is coming up for tenure where he teaches, which is threatened when he is offered a bribe by a Korean student; after a clean bill of health from his doctor, he is later ominously summoned back to discuss the results of his X-rays; his pot-head son Danny only talks to him when he needs the TV antenna fixed; his daughter Sarah is stealing money for a nose job; his gun-toting neighbor keeps infringing on his property line with his lawn mower; his brother Arthur is a mysterious house guest, locking himself in the bathroom for long periods of time while draining a cyst on his neck; and his wife Judith has fallen in love with another man, completely to Larry’s surprise.  Eventually Larry and Arthur are forced to move into a motel when Judy’s lover Sy moves into the house, and during all this Larry tries to find answers through his faith, getting counsel from various rabbis, but finding little help.

Despite the pitfalls that keep happening to Larry, his obliviousness to his family’s problems is quite entertaining, balancing our sympathy for him with laughter at his misfortunes.  His wife’s lover Sy calmly tries to console him and even befriend him, leaving Larry, and us, frustrated to no end.  Arthur, played by Richard Kind, is a prototypical Coen Brothers character – he’s a mathematical genius, creating probability equations at a super-human level, but uses his skills to gamble, for which he gets in trouble with the law.  He uses a 60’s medical technology device to drain his cyst, and comically answers “Just a minute!” every time he is asked to get out of the bathroom. 

The suburbia aspect is a key element of the film – the only true accomplishment Larry feels is in fixing the TV ariel on the roof, particularly when he catches his attractive neighbor sunbathing nude in her backyard.  The property dispute with his neighbor is steeped in truth.  And his son’s daily routine consists of running down the street from the school bully/pot dealer to whom he owes money.  Suburbia is supposed to be a haven; an oasis of “normalcy” in an evil, crazy world.  But Larry’s life is anything but normal and sane, despite how much he wants to believe that it is.

There is a moment near the end of the film that brings everyone together – Danny’s Bar Mitzvah.  Despite each family member’s failings, they all take their faith seriously, and seeing Danny “become a man” brings smiles to all their faces; even Judy and Larry share a proud parental moment.  But naturally things are not completely normal – Danny is stoned out of his mind as he tries to perform the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, and nearly blows it. 

Nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, it’s the Coen’s best comedic film in many years.  The film conveys the message that just when we think things are fine, something else arises to complicate everything, be it Larry’s tenure and his health, to his marriage and his kids, to the film’s ending – it seems like a happy ending, but the final shot shows more doom on the way, which justly sums up the movie. 

Final Grade for A Serious Man:  A-

No Real Bond with “Brothers”

Posted in Action, Drama on May 24, 2010 by ericstraus

The theme of a veteran returning home after witnessing the horrors of war is unfortunately quite relevant at this point in time.  How does one try and regain their “normal” life after living with such ugliness and torment?  How does a family reconnect with their loved one, especially after believing that he was dead?  These are the questions posed by “Brothers,” and while blessed with some strong acting performances, the film runs a gamut of clichés with no real impact.

We’ve seen this family dynamic many times before – the career military patriarch, the one son who follows in his footsteps and wins his admiration, and the other son who chooses his own path and receives his father’s disdain.  The heroic son in “Brothers” is Sam (Tobey Maguire), and the black sheep is Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Sam is a family man, married to the beautiful Grace (Natalie Portman) and father to two precocious daughters Isabelle and Maggie.  Two days before Sam ships off to Afghanistan for yet another tour, Tommy is released from prison, his time there due to a foiled bank robbery attempt.  Their parents Hank and Elsie (Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham) join everyone for one last family meal before Sam leaves; the tension between Hank and Tommy is obvious, but corny to the point of the viewer expecting to actually hear the line “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” 

Sam’s return to Afghanistan takes a tragic turn as his helicopter crashes.  Two military men arrive to tell Grace the bad news, which she later imparts to Tommy.  The family goes through the five stages of grief, and after some time, things settle down, largely due to Tommy stepping into the “man of the house” role as he plays with Isabelle and Maggie, remodels Grace’s kitchen, and basically fills Sam’s void.  Eventually Grace and Tommy find a brief romantic connection, but it doesn’t go any further than a kiss.

Meanwhile, we learn that Sam has actually been captured, not killed, and the scenes of what he endures while in captivity, along with another soldier, are intense and horrific, particularly what he is forced to do to his companion in order to survive.  Sam is later rescued by a military squadron and returns home.

We immediately see how Sam has changed – he seems emotionally distant even as he embraces his family at the airstrip.  His return also affects Tommy – the reunited family heads home, leaving Tommy behind, once again feeling like the outcast.  But the happiness doesn’t last long, as Sam tries to re-assimilate to his home life.  He feels disconnected, like his family can’t possibly understand what he’s been through – he even asks to get sent back to Afghanistan.  He suspects something happened with Tommy and Grace, and despite his assurance that he’d understand if that was the case, something just isn’t right with Sam.  His daughters become fearful of him; Grace is frustrated and upset.  Eventually Sam snaps, trashing the new kitchen and fighting with Tommy.

Maguire and Portman give great performances; it’s nice to see Maguire not being Spiderman for a change.  Gyllenhaal is a bit disappointing; his performance is somewhat wooden and stiff.  But the most amazing actor in the film is young Bailee Madison, who plays Isabelle.  Only 9 years old when the film was made, her emotional range is staggering.  She goes from happy to sad to faking happiness seamlessly; her performance outshines everyone else’s.

But apart from the acting, the film falls flat.  The story is much more about Sam and his family than about Sam and Tommy; we don’t feel any real connection between the brothers, be it love or hate or anything.  Once Hank sees how helpful Tommy has been with the family, he gets over his disappointment and they accept each other, predictably so.  There are scenes of Tommy cavorting with the girls, with happy music playing and Grace smiling approvingly…very clichéd and boring.  The only real intensity occurs when Sam is in captivity and in the scene where he finally snaps at home.  But other than that, everyone’s emotional states are very predictable.  It would have been more beneficial to the audience if we didn’t know what happened to Sam; we would not be able to predict his behavior and everyone’s reaction to it.  But because we are kept in the know the whole time, we see everything coming.  The only thing I couldn’t predict was Madison’s terrific acting. 

Final Grade for Brothers: C+

Imagination Running “Wild”

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , on May 20, 2010 by ericstraus

Director Spike Jonze’s first film, “Being John Malkovich,” was a breath of fresh air in a usually stale Hollywood.  The film was imaginative and original, unlike anything previously seen on the big screen.  His latest film “Where the Wild Things Are,” adapted from Maurice Sendak’s award-winning children’s book, is another triumph of creativity and ingenuity.  It is far from a family-friendly film, instead tackling the inner workings of a troubled child’s mind while simultaneously bringing Sendak’s characters to larger-than-life status.

It is made clear that this film is not for kids during the first 2 minutes, as Max (played by relative newcomer Max Records) tears around his house, chasing the dog while wearing his wolf costume.  He eventually catches the dog, wrestles with it, and then Max’s seemingly innocuous play fighting turns ugly, as he tightens his grip on the dog and howls menacingly.  The frame freezes, catching Max in a disturbing pose.  It’s a very effective way of setting up the rest of the movie.

Sendak’s book is actually quite short, with Max traveling to an imaginary land in his own mind, meeting a group of monsters who make them their king, but eventually he misses his family and finds happiness in his own home.  The film stays true to this, but fills the rest of the time with a whole story of Max’s relationship with the monsters. 

We get an understanding of why Max behaves as he does – his father is absent (dead, divorced, we don’t know), he has no friends, he’s ignored by his older sister, and his mom has little time for him.  After a violent outburst at home, Max runs away, running until he escapes into his imagination, and sails a ship to an island where he finds the “wild things.”

Max’s own behavior is reflected in the monster “Carol” (voiced by James Gandolfini) – Carol likes to break things, likes to express his individuality; Max instantly bonds with him.  The other monsters, looking for some sort of leadership, accept Max as their “king” – Max of course is happy as can be, as he has finally found people who accept him, and most importantly, listen to him.  But eventually Max’s boasting and odd demands cause strife within his new society, and he begins to realize that perhaps this is not the place for him.

There is a lot of humor in the monster clan; the dialogue is well-written for the other vocal actors like Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper and Forest Whitaker.  A love story develops between Carol and KW (voiced by Lauren Ambrose, the fantastic actress who played Claire in the “Six Feet Under” series), but this is an unnecessary and uninteresting subplot.  It’s the one aspect of the film where I felt the filmmakers were struggling to fill up 90 minutes worth of material.

Where the film truly succeeds is in the personalities and the societal customs of the monsters.  They sleep in a big pile, one on top of another, much to Max’s delight (due to his apparent lack of affection at home).  They race to the coastline and howl at the setting sun.  These things are not in the book – Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers crafted a wonderful vision of the monsters’ land and their attributes, and really created a well-thought out connection between Max’s mind and what we see on the screen.  The film drags a bit as the initial triumph of Max’s coronation fades and he assimilates to the monsters’ society, but the ending is touching without being corny, and ultimately we feel as transported to another world as Max does. 

Final Grade for Where the Wild Things Are: B

For Music Fans, “This Is It”

Posted in Concert film, Documentary with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2010 by ericstraus

Whatever you might think of Michael Jackson’s personal life, whatever you believe about his legal entanglements, one fact is undeniably true: he was one of, if not the greatest performer in music history.  If you aren’t convinced of this, you will be after seeing “This Is It,” the documentary made shortly before his death.  The film chronicles the rehearsals for what was going to be billed as Jackson’s final shows, and as the footage shows, it would have been something beyond memorable.

The songs are all terrific, from the great tunes off the “Thriller” album like “Beat It,” “Human Nature,” “Billie Jean,” and of course the title track, to his beginnings with the Jackson 5 on “Stop the Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There,” to anthems like “Black or White” and “Man in the Mirror.”  The choreography holds true to the moves we all became familiar with from Jackson’s videos – we all know what someone is talking about when they say they can do the “Thriller dance.” 

We are shown clips of the video footage that was to be used as introductory material for the performances.  For “Smooth Criminal,” Jackson had digitally inserted himself in old Bogart and Edward G. Robinson crime films, running from machine gun bullets and jumping through glass windows.  The “Thriller” intro video was shot in 3D, with zombie hands reaching into the audience while Vincent Price’s creepy narration from the original track streams throughout; we get to see Jackson and director Kenny Ortega cueing actors during this part.

There are some nice glimpses of Jackson’s rehearsal style.  He is a perfectionist to say the least, but never comes off as a “diva.”  He certainly gets frustrated at points, but never projects himself as being mean or cruel.  Some of the more amusing moments come from Ortega suggesting things to Jackson in a very clear, detailed manner; his wealth of respect for Jackson is obvious.

The emotional aspect of the film is one of feeling sad that such an icon has passed, and that no one will ever get to see the actual show that we see being rehearsed.  This is addressed in the opening of the movie, as the words on the screen tell us the decision to release this footage was “for the fans.”  Jackson’s songs are truly iconic, as was he, and there is no doubt that this show would have been monumental; music fans will be grateful for this peek behind the scenes, but will be disappointed that the final product will only exist in our imaginations.  But Jackson was all about imagination, so in some bizarre way, it all makes sense.  If you’re looking for one comprehensive way to capture Michael Jackson the performer, this is it.

Final Grade for This Is It: B+

“Away We Go” Keeps it Real

Posted in Comedy, Drama with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2010 by ericstraus

I’m not a fan of romantic comedies, mainly because I find them neither romantic nor funny.  They are usually formulaic Hollywood drivel, full of clichés and unfunny pratfalls.  The formula, in case you don’t know, is as follows:  boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, conflict arises, boy and girl break up, conflict is resolved, boy and girl live happily ever after.  Boooooring.  But the film “Away We Go” blasts the tired romantic comedy formula into the stratosphere; it’s a wonderfully refreshing film, as it actually succeeds in being both funny and romantic.

The movie tells the story of Burt and Verona, played by John Krasinski (The Office, Leatherheads) and Maya Rudolph (Saturday Night Live, Idiocracy) respectively.  The film opens with the couple discovering they are pregnant, during a very funny and sexual moment.  Burt and Verona are very down-to-earth, unmarried, living in very modest conditions.  The rest of the film follows them from their home in Connecticut and continues as they travel across the country, visiting friends and relatives while they try and find the best place to settle down to raise their child.  Along the way they are exposed to the many different styles of parenting and family dynamics, and in the end they find the perfect place to start the next phase of their lives.

The minor characters, while certainly exaggerated for effect, represent a good slice of the variety of parents and families nationwide.  Verona’s parents died when she was in college, a subject she doesn’t like to discuss.  Burt’s parents decide they’re moving to Belgium a month before the baby is due, just because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do.  Family friend Lily, played by Alison Janney, belittles her children sarcastically, completely ignorant of the ill effect it has on them.  Maggie Gyllenhaal plays LN Fisher-Herrin, a new-age lactation nurse.  Her over-protection and intellectualism is played with tremendous comedic effect.  Friends Tom and Munch (yes, Munch) have four adopted children because Munch has continual miscarriages, and despite the joy she feels from the kids she has, her depression at not being able to have her own is obvious.

The main reason this film succeeds is the writing.  Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida co-authored the script, and it is fantastic.  The comedic parts are truly funny – there is a recurring gag where Burt, after learning that the baby’s heart rate is slightly low, keeps trying to get it racing faster in creative ways.  The dialogue that comes out of Burt’s mom, played by the magnificent Catherine O’ Hara, is hysterical, as is the darkly funny yet disturbing rants spewed by their friend Lily.  The romantic, sensitive dialogue, which usually seems so forced and corny, is written very naturally and organically.  We completely believe that Burt and Verona are in love because what they say to each other is honest and real.  The film doesn’t rely on emotional music to tell us what the characters are feeling – the dialogue is 100% believable.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) paints a colorful backdrop for the various locales visited by our main characters, from Connecticut to Phoenix, from Wisconsin to Miami – although most of the film was actually shot in Connecticut, Mendes’ use of props and colors convince us that a Miami backyard is really in Miami and not the Northeast. 

Verona eventually confronts her past, and while the final scene is a bit predictable, it’s been such a fun journey that it doesn’t matter.  The film is very atypical of romantic comedies, which is perfect for someone like me who is not a fan of the genre.

Final Grade for Away We Go:  B+