Friday, May 28, 2010

Higgens Network: Prince of Persia

Movies based on video games haven’t had the breakthrough like comic book films. It took awhile but those films have gained a level of respect through audiences and critics once they had more quality in them. With Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the long journey continues.

This movie is loosely based off a few of the games in the series. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the titular Prince named Dastan. He grew up in the slums of Persia until one day he impressed King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). The King adopted him as his own son. Years later Dastan joins his adopted brothers in a quest to take over a city that may be harboring DMD (Daggers of Mass Destruction). It is a holy city protected by the beautiful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton). After their victory, Dastan is framed for murdering the King and escapes the city with a mysterious dagger.

The dagger ends up being the Dagger of Time (Note the all powerful capital letters.) If this dagger possesses the Sands of Time, then it could be used to move backwards through time if only for a few moments. Everybody wants this dagger because of its potential power.

The TV show LOST took great pride in its storytelling by avoiding non-paradoxical time travel. If a character goes back in time and undoes everything then the previous parts of the story become irrelevant because they are erased. Prince of Persia remarkably only deals in paradoxical time travel. If Dastan gets stabbed, he presses the button on the dagger and the entire thing is immediately resolved. There’s no drama in this.

The movie realized how much power is in this dagger so they avoid it as much as they can. For almost the entire movie, the dagger is empty and is just tossed around like a prop. Majority of the dialog of this film is “Who took the dagger!” “Give me the dagger!” “Dagger dagger dagger!” It quickly became monotonous as with the rest of the over-written scenes. Scenes are constantly over-explained or unneeded. This is what makes the pacing for this movie so bad. Some of its chase scenes are enjoyable, but the path to get there is rather dumb so they lose its fun.

Visually the movie is great. It does what a movie of this caliber to spend its budget on: making a great looking period. It’s no surprise this is the same team behind Pirates of the Caribbean. Yet that movie succeeded beyond just its cool look. It had characters worth following. Dastan is no Jack Sparrow. In fact he’s barely a character at all. He’s just a guy jumping around and smiling. Sure he bickers with the Princess but that’s only because they are romantic interests. Speaking of, poor Gemma Arterton. She is a very talented actress but she’s stuck playing the exact same role as she the one in Clash of the Titans. She’s above this dumb script. All she has to do in this is change outfits, quip a few times, and speak nonsense about “destiny” despite the fact that destiny doesn’t really play a part in this movie at all.

One day they will be a video game movie that will shake people up and Hollywood will realize its potential. There’s true potential if they capture Bioshock’s atmosphere or Metal Gear Solid’s plotting properly. Until then we’re left with Prince of Persia and its terrible terrible ending.

Film Yap: Top TV Shows That Could Be Movies

With recent box office hits like Sex and the City, many are wondering what other television shows could easily translate to the big screen. Not all of them are easily convertible. Too many shows are too serialized and designed only for long-term storytelling. That’s why we’ll never see LOST, Mad Men or The Wire in cinemas. However there are a few shows can that take some of their contained structures and make an exciting feature. Such as….


This 90s FOX comedy was cancelled way too soon. Jay Mohr played Peter Dragon, the ultimate immoral film producers. The first (and only) season was all about trying to get one movie off the ground despite every mishap that went wrong. Much like Extras and Entourage, there were many celebrities who played comical versions of themselves. Sandra Bullock had a great cameo when she stormed into Peter’s office after she found out he secretly made a sex tape of the two of them and sold it as a porno called While You Were Sleeping On My Face. She later calms down when she gets a cut of the royalties. There have been plenty of Hollywood satires like What Just Happened and State and Main but they never had teeth this sharp. If you want to see its potential, the entire series is available for free on Hulu. The sad thing is that Buddy Hackett would have to be recast.

Arrested Development

It’s been a year of teasing us, but I’m still hoping this movie will happen. Once again FOX canceled this show way before its time. This beloved cult classic is about the Bluth family who were enjoying the rich lifestyle until their father was arrested for illegal business activities (and light treason). Never has there been a comedy with such strong writing. Episodes are layered with so many subtle hilarious jokes. There was not a weak note in the entire ensemble, which included Will Arnett as the idiot magician GOB and David Cross as the sexually confused Tobias Funke. If the stars aligned perfectly and everyone’s schedules were free this could be a hysterical feature. That is a difficult feat since Jason Bateman and Michael Cera, who are now Hollywood A-listers thanks to this show, play two of the main characters. However fans are so desperate for more of this show, they’ll settle for a puppet musical starring Franklin.

Burn Notice/Human Target

These are both action shows that are currently on the air, but I’m sure FOX will cancel Human Target soon since the quality is so high. These are both shows that are exciting but also very intelligent. Burn Notice is about a spy (Jeffrey Donovan) who was framed and is now stuck in Miami. He uses his skills to help people in need. His narration fills the audience in on a ton of clever tricks that are beyond the usual clichés in film. Human Target is about Christopher Chance (Mark Valley) who is hired to insert himself into a dangerous situation and defuse the problem while it’s going on. This may not be as intelligent as Burn Notice but it has creativity in its action instead. There is no show on television that matches its impressive fight and chase scenes. Both of these shows have great chemistry between its teams. Burn Notice has Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell and Sharon Gless while Human Target has Valley, Chi McBride, and Jackie Earle Haley. Both shows are a ton of fun and could really use a bigger budget to great use.

Doctor Who

Like the last set this show is still going on. In fact it has been going on rather thoroughly since the 60s. It is the story of an alien named The Doctor who travels through time and space and getting into various adventures. The show was recently rebooted by writer Russell T. Davies to great effect in 2005 and gained more popularity with David Tennant in the title role. Now the reigns have been passed to actor Matt Smith and writer Stephen Moffatt and the show has never been better. The writing is so strong that I’m fascinating what they would come up with as a big-screen adventure. This would also be a great way to introduce more American audiences to the show since majority of its popularity resides in the United Kingdom.

Veronica Mars

Remarkably the CW and not FOX canceled this show. This is the show that deservingly made Kristen Bell a star where she played the titular Mars, a young amateur private detective who was more like Phillip Marlowe than Nancy Drew. The show was improperly billed as another teen drama, but it ended up being one of the best examples of neo-noir in any genre. Its season long mysteries were some of the best plotted stories of any TV show. The show had a powerful level of cynicism that was balanced remarkably with heart and fun. I thought its abrupt finale suited the series, but I would still like one more story to tie up the loose ends and revisit the characters years later. This could also show Hollywood that Bell is capable of more than Couples Retreat and When in Rome.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Higgens Network: Exit Through the Gift Shop

The best film I’ve seen this year may not even be a film. Exit Through the Gift Shop may be a prank or a ruse. It could be completely true or a masterfully fabricated fable. What makes the film work is that either way, it’s effective.

Exit is a documentary about a failed documentary. Thierry Guetta is a very odd Frenchman who is constantly filming everything he sees. His camera is always on recording the minute details of his day. He comes across an interesting phenomenon in Los Angeles: street art. He befriends a man named “Space Invader” who takes stencils of characters from the Space Invader video game and posts them around the town. He decides this new underground art movement is perfect for a documentary.

So he becomes a bit obsessed. He’s constantly following around artists like Space Invader as they avoid the cops and post their work. The biggest name in street art is a mysterious figure named Banksy, who is the director of this film. He has never been recorded on tape but he is legendary. He has snuck into major galleries and posted his own work. He’s put up pictures in the Middle East and has creatively destroyed a phone booth for the sake of art. He is his own phenomenon. Thierry keeps trying to get him for the documentary and when he finally does this movie goes into a new direction.

The story becomes a bit incredible and I don’t want to spoil anything. Needless to say it brings up the question of whether what we’re seeing is real or not. Is this another Banksy product? How real is Theirry? He seems to be quite a bit crazy and definitely an idiot. Is he a convincing actor or a legitimate character, reminiscing of Timothy Treadwell from Grizzly Man fame?

Knowing these answers does not take away from the powerful questions the movie has about art. Is street art real art or is it merely graffiti? Can someone be “wrong” for getting something out of a piece of art that appears to be baloney to others? Then how does money factor into all of this? The film doesn’t draw these questions only on its own artists but of all of art.

Seeing the film just on the surface level is highly entertaining as well. The movie is consistently funny, usually at the expense of Theirry or his future handle “Mr. Brainwash.” The film maintains a subtle level of mystery, as it seems every talking head is looking back at what happened with a certain level of disappointment. The footage seen is incredibly and puts the audience in the same level of as excitement as these renegade artists.

The film sticks with you and encourages you in its own subtle way. Is that from the puppetmaster Banksy or is he just taking credit for it? Just thinking about the film in that way makes the film powerful and successful.

MovieSet: Remaking the 80s

Having an established audience is a way to calm the nerves of movie producers. Making something that is completely new is a gamble. When a book or a play or lately a board game could be made into a feature film there is a promise that fans of the original shall end up buying a ticket. The latest trend is not to adapt, but to remake. In particular, Hollywood has turned to the films and franchises from the ‘80s.

On paper it makes a lot of sense. The teens from the ‘80s are now in their 40s. Revisiting Freddy Krueger and Conan the Barbarian creates a powerful sense of nostalgia. There is also a new generation of moviegoers who have never seen these films in theatres and could be introduced to these franchises.

This trend really began with the onslaught of horror remakes. The original versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes were technically ‘70s products but they opened to millions of dollars their opening weekend. This led to studios making their own version of ‘80s movies like My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, House on Sorority Row, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and the upcoming Fright Night.

Horror films are always a safe investment because they are cheap to produce and always seem to make a profit. People flock to whatever horror movie is in theatres, much like family films. As for critical reception, that is a different story. My Bloody Valentine 3D has the highest score on Rotten Tomatoes with 55%, but the others range from 8% to 25%. Ultimately the critics don’t matter to the studios because there are already plans to make more films with Jason and Freddy. (Not together, though.)

Since this system for horror has worked, it comes as no surprise that the studios are doing the same for other popular items from the ‘80s. It seems like the rationale for adapting or continuing these films is to showcase the improved special effects. That was very evident with the new version of Clash of the Titans. The film has taken the campy scenes and upgraded them with state of the art CGI. Worldwide Clash has made $300 million dollars but fans of the original still site the Harryhousen creations as the more memorable filmic experience.

More and more films are on their way. Next month will ring in a new version of The Karate Kid, this time with Will Smith’s son in the title role and Jackie Chan as the wise teacher. The A-Team is one of the summer’s biggest films as a modern telling of the beloved TV show. The Expendables is not a direct remake, but is undeniable an ode to the action films of its time. It stars Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Ivan Drago himself: Dolph Lundgren. This November the update of Red Dawn comes out. Dawn was the quintessential movie depicting the “red scare.” At the end of the year, we’ll know if it’ll hold up with out the ever-looming threat of communism. There is no official release date yet, but a new version of Conan the Barbarian is on its way to come up next year.

A few studios are taking a fresher route. Instead of just remaking the story, they are choosing to continue it. A third installment of Ghostbusters has been heavily rumored but it’s still unclear if it will ever be made. Actors have said conflicting information on when they are going to shoot and what the film will entail. Bill Murray seems to be very cynical about the project, while Dan Ackroyd is enthusiastic.

A fourth tale of Mad Max will start shooting this summer, but it will be without Mel Gibson. It will be called Fury Road and will be directed by the man behind the first three, George Miller. Little is known about the project aside from rumors about money problems possibly affecting a delay.

With all of this skepticism, there is one sequel that is really exciting fans of the original. At last year’s ComicCon, the footage of Tron Legacy invigorated the crowds. Tron is a cult Disney movie about Jeff Bridges being sucked inside his computer and having to deal with the world inside. It’s most remembered for its light races. Legacy picks up the story many years later with Bridges’s son joining him in the electronic world. The movie is written by two of the writers from the show LOST and will premiere this December.

There is a problem with the updates and remakes though. The reason these films initially worked was because they were something new. If they are still warmly remembered 30 years later, then they had a significant impact. If the studios want to create films fans that will love a films for years and years, it would be more beneficial to have the philosophies of yesteryear. Don’t just literally mimic the films, but mimic the style. Take risks and create something that could generate its own unique fanbase. That gets people really excited.

Film Yap: Saturday Night Live From TV to Film

One of the most anticipated comedies of the summer is…MacGruber. The Film Yap podcast has already observed the odd origin path of this movie. It’s a movie based off a one minute long Saturday Night Live sketch that is a spoof of the 80s TV show MacGyver. The movie has been getting surprisingly favorable buzz, which is rare for SNL movies.

Several movies have stemmed from the sketch show and quickly bomb with audiences. Films like Coneheads, It’s Pat, The Ladies Man, A Night at the Roxbury, Stuart Saves His Family, and Superstar are not often seen except for when Comedy Central is desperate for programming. The reason so many of those films didn’t work lies with the sketches themselves. There isn’t a sketch on SNL that could ever be called complex. Once the show finds a character that works, they typically milk it dry. The problem is that they only work on a few minute timeslot. Pat, of It’s Pat fame, only exists as a gender-boggling gimmick. That really can’t be stretched for 77 minutes. (One can easily argue it can’t be stretched for 3.)

A lot of the films have trouble finding a proper plot to put these characters in, but with a comedy the plot isn’t the most important. If the comedy is working then the movie is working. There are two films that are almost universally seen as SNL successes on the silver screen: The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World.

The Blues Brothers doesn’t come from a sketch, exactly, but from a musical segment on the show. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd dress up in black suits and black sunglasses and act like the coolest guys in the room. They don’t move or talk much except for when they break into song. In the film they go back to their childhood church and they need money. So they believe they are on a “mission from God” and need to bring the band back together to get the money. The film is a series of vignettes with musical numbers and outrageous chase scenes. The guest stars are all funny and the soundtrack ended up being a bestseller as well. The film is not exactly adapting a sketch, but making a really solid movie out of two characters who were barely on a sketch show.

Wayne’s World, on the other hand, was definitely a series of sketches. They were sketches that almost didn’t make it to air. The first one aired at the last timeslot, which is usually where they dump their oddest ones. It found a following and ultimately led it to two movies. The sketches are the aired public access shows of Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey). They are two boys who talk about what is going on in the world or their own lives with their unique joyous attitude. The film expands their world by having them interact with people outside of their basement. Rob Lowe is a sleezy businessman (It’s either that or an idealistic man working in politics) who wants to buy their show. The movie works because so much of the comedy is very creative. It constantly breaks the fourth wall and commenting on its circumstances and single-handedly brought “Bohemian Rhapsody” back onto the record charts. This film and its sequel aired almost twenty years ago but the phrases “Party on Wayne/Garth” and “Schwing!” are still familiar in the pop culture lexicon.

So where will MacGruber fit into this spectrum. As a fan of comedy, I would hope towards the end with Blues Brothers but time will tell. The previews show it appears to be more of a send-off of action movies instead of the character constantly trying to dismantle a bomb. I mean that concept could never work for a movie…okay aside from that recent brilliant Best Picture winner. Check on the website to see what Joe Shearer thought of the film.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

MovieSet: Inside the Black List

It started as an insider’s award, but The Black List has become more and more known to the rest of the world. It’s a rather uplifting concept. A team of film executives vote on their favorite unproduced screenplays that were read that year. They highlight the scripts based on quality not marketability which is a fresh change of pace.

The first year the list was made public was in 2005. The top three movies were Things We Lost in the Fire, Juno and Lars in the Real Girl. All three of those ended up being produced. The first film wasn’t a complete success. It only received a 64% on Rotten Tomatoes and made 3.2 million dollars at the box office. The other two had much larger success. They were both nominated for Best Original Screenplay during the 2007 Oscars with Juno taking the prize. That movie also was a huge hit in theatres making $143 million while only costing $7.5 to make. Other prominent entires on the list include Charlie Wilson’s War, The Kite Runner, The Queen, Reservation Road, Babel, and The Prestige.

The top choices of 2006 were The Brigands of Rattleborge, State of Play and Rendition. The latter two opened to lukewarm reviews and very low box office despite their A-list casts (Russell Crowe, Reese Witherspoon respectfully). Brigands has yet to be produced but the script has been purchased by Warner Brothers. It is a very dark western about three men who terrorize a town during a thunderstorm. There larger successes but they were farther down the list. Seven Pounds, 500 Days of Summer, and Superbad all earned significant profits in its theatrical releases alone. The latter of the group ended up making over 100 million dollars beyond its budget.

The top three films on the 2007 list were less successful. They were Recount, Farragut North and Passengers. Only Recount has been produced and it never went to theatres. It was going to be a film made by acclaimed director Sydney Pollack, but he became incredibly sick and ended up dying shortly after. Jay Roach took over and made it into a TV movie for HBO. It ended up being a great movie that won several Emmys including Outstanding Made for Television Movie. The other two mentioned have yet to be made, but once again the scripts have sold. There are more on this year’s list that have been made. The Road was high up on the list as was This Side of the Truth, which was later, renamed to be The Invention of Lying. Further down the list are The Human Factor (Invictus), Adventureland and this year’s The Book of Eli. Surprisingly low on the list is Slumdog Millionaire, which ended up winning a ton of Oscars including Best Picture. This movie has always been the underdog because when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival it almost wasn’t going to get a theatrical distributor.

The films of the 2008 list are too recent to have been seen in theatres, but most are in production. The only ones that have been made are Inglourious Basterds, A Couple of Dicks (Cop Out), The Fourth Kind, and Up in the Air. Two of those ended up being nominated for screenplay Oscars. The first title on the list, The Beaver, was quickly brought into production because of its placing on The Black List. Jodie Foster is directing this Mel Gibson comedy about a man who has a beaver puppet and believes it’s a real animal. The next film The Oranges is currently being filmed (if we can believe IMDb) and has a great cast including Allison Janney, Catherine Keener, Hugh Laurie, and Oliver Platt. The third placement of the 2008 list is also in the middle of filming. Butter is the story of a girl competing in a butter carving contest in the Midwest. It will star Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Garner, Kristen Schaal and Alicia Silverstone. Other notable scripts on this list that have received a lot of buzz include Fuckbuddies, I’m With Cancer, and The F-Word.

A few months ago the latest incarnation was released with a few surprising titles. The top choice is a promising movie called The Muppet Man, which is a biopic about Jim Hensen. That has the potential to be really promising. The second title is a bit of a cheat because this was never in any danger of not getting made. It’s called The Social Network but it is more commonly referred to as “The Facebook Movie.” It’s an adaptation of the book by Ben Merzrich who wrote the book 21 was based off of. The screenplay is written by acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and has already been filmed with Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake in leading roles. David Fincher also directs it. There are currently no immediate plans to film The Voices a creepy sounding movie about a deranged man who hears his animals talk to him.

Aside from the ones already mentioned, there are a few more in the works. Everything Must Go is a film that will come out next year starring Will Ferrel and Rebecca Hall. It’s an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story about an alcoholic who loses his wife and job and decides to have a yard sale. The anticipated Water for Elephants will start filming in one week. This popular book club book will star Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. However one of the coolest upcoming films (Black List or not) is Source Code, which is the next film by Duncan Jones. Jones wowed everyone with his first film Moon and this one is about a soldier who wakes up in another body. All of these movies will be out sometime in 2011.

Ultimately The Black List is a great resource. It’s one of the best ways smaller scripts can get national attention and interest. It may not mean instant financial success, but it draws the attention of a lot of talent actors. When you have specific actors interested and attached then producers feel safer putting more money into a wider distribution. That means they are easier to be seen. It’s not a perfect system, but it has lead to a lot of high quality movies and that’s a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Film Yap: All About Shrek

When Shrek premiered in 2001, no one expected it to be the phenomenon that it would become. From a marketing standpoint, this shouldn’t work. Shrek is not a cute talking animal like so many Disney films. He’s an ugly ogre who’s not even that interested in saving the princess from the castle. Then again, that’s probably why the film worked.

The first Shrek film took a familiar format and put a lot of new elements into it. It was very self-aware and was able to have fun with it. Shrek and his sidekick, Donkey, do save the princess and defeat the villain but the motivations behind it is to initially be left alone in a swamp. There are plenty of fart and burp jokes in addition to jokes clearly only meant for adults. This really sets the staple of pop culture references, which has begun to plague most of the Dreamworks films. These sorts of jokes are usually to accommodate adults while they are trapped in the theatre. The kids aren’t really supposed to know that Princess Fiona is doing a move like Neo in The Matrix.

While being meta and sarcastic, Shrek also ended up being sweet as well. It had good messages about accepting people for who they are and definitions of beauty. It was making a lot of references to other films, but it still made a few of its own original moments. Most kids growing up with these films can give you the onion dialog verbatim.

Then sadly something was lost from the following films. It was like the filmmakers didn’t have anything else to say about fairy tales. Shrek 2 did what every sequel does which is to make everything bigger. There are more characters some were welcome (Puss in Boots) and some are forgotten (Prince Charming). However the movie didn’t really move forward, but instead went back. Once again there are the same themes of inner beauty and acceptance. There were still some fun aspects to this movie, but at the end of the movie our heroes are in the same place as the ending of the last film.

Shrek the Third moved the series forward but in the process infuriated or at the very least disappointed its fans. The entire movie felt uneven, but the worst offense was that it made Shrek an unlikable character. The King dies and Shrek is asked to take over the responsibilities. They show a montage of the jobs and sure Shrek bumbles at them, but they still seem easy. Shrek is lazy so he decides to go find Arthur and tries to manipulate him into taking the throne. He also finds out Fiona is pregnant and he’s upset about that as well. Shrek has always been a bit of an anti-hero, but it’s like the first two movies never happened.

Shrek Forever After is more of a grounding of the series. It’s very low on pop culture references and returns to more of the pacing of the first one. It moved forward the character of Shrek but used it in the veil of an alternate reality where the motivation is to return things back to normal. The entire plot is extremely reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life except with an added antagonist.

Financially, the series was a huge success. The first three films are in the Top 50 domestic box office of all time with the second one positioned in the 5th spot. There are millions of toys and even its own Christmas special to air every year. There is no other animated film franchise with this kind of power aside from Toy Story. The major difference is that the Toy Story series (and all of Pixar) has had a stronger level of quality. It’s sad that the final chapter of Shrek couldn’t have returned to its initial level of creativity. It didn’t really seem to have the feel of a true final chapter. Perhaps that means we’ll see another Shrek film down the line in ten years to introduce the characters to a new set of kids. I would be hesitant, but it could have potential if it stuck to what made the original great and focused on being new and innovative, not just rehashes.

Higgens Network: The Secret in Their Eyes

During the last Academy Awards, there were a few upsets. Precious and The Hurt Locker were technically underdogs in their respected screenplay categories. The biggest surprise was the Best Foreign Film winner The Secret in Their Eyes. It wasn’t seen by a lot of critics at the time so it didn’t receive a lot of press at the time. Now it is being released in more theatres and people are able to decide for themselves whether it’s better than The White Ribbon or A Prophet.

Surprisingly, it is. There is joy in finding a movie that is so well constructed. This movie uses a very interesting narrative structure to tell its story. Ricardo Darín plays Benjamin Espósito, a federal justice agent who is looking back at a case that occurred several decades ago. He wants to write a novel about his experiences working on it. He looks to his friend Irene (Guillermo Francella) to help him remember what happened. She is more hesitant than Hastings.

The case is the rape and murder of a beautiful young woman. Espósito doesn’t know why he’s so compelled to this case but he is determined to solve it. He has to go through his corrupt system and his alcoholic partner, Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella). Despite being a bit unstable it is Sandoval who ends up clarifying the way to find the guy: you can hide a lot of things about yourself, but you can’t hide your passion.

Passion is seen through many lights. It fuels the motivation of all of the characters and each one is done masterfully. There is suspense not only in the mystery aspect of the plot but seeing how certain relationships will ultimately play out. The film teases thanks to it jumping back and forth in time and occasionally having an untrusting narrator. Every single aspect of this movie is well thought out and appears to be effortless. Nothing is an accident ranging from Sandoval’s frequent trips to the bars to even the unique typewriter that’s used. It’s so satisfying to see everything tie together.

It’s not just the plotting that excels in this story but everything gels well. The acting, especially from the leads, was fantastically subtle. They really succeeded in portraying the characters from two different ages. They were able to show a different level of tension with the plot and they easily conveyed how long they were friends from a given point.

Just to single out one scene, there is absolutely incredible scene at a soccer game. It appears to just be one flowing shot that goes from an aerial shot, into the stands, and then into a powerful footrace. I know there has to be some tricky editing in there, but it really looked like one impossible shot.

The film comes together in a very satisfying conclusion while still leaving a lot to process. Easily one of the best mystery films in several years.

Film Yap: Valentine's Day

Don’t tell anyone, but Valentine’s Day is secretly a remake of Love Actually. They moved the location from stingy old London to beautiful…Los Angeles. December was too cold and yucky of a month so they moved it to…February. Also why have award-winning actors like Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson when you can have Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba.

Oh boy.

Exactly like Love Actually, this movie shows roughly a million stories about love around the city. There are people who have been in long relationships, new relationships, wrong relationships, no relationships, many relationships, and even phone sex relationships. There’s over a dozen A-list celebrities playing these parts and most of them do a lousy job. Julia Roberts plays one of the least convincing army captains I’ve seen in awhile. Emma Roberts is oddly blunt about talking about her sex life with her teachers. Patrick Dempsey is a surgeon who is romantically involved with various people...okay he was fine. He’s had practice in that role.

Ensemble movies have been done well before and another one on love isn’t a bad idea. The reason why this movie doesn’t work is because it doesn’t take itself seriously. Too many of the relationships in this movie are not see as credible. There is a subplot with the lovesick grandnephew (Bryce Robinson) that tries to buy roses for his crush and is too distracted to even play soccer. The movie never views his emotions as legitimate but instead as a punchline. The same goes for the storyline with Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner. All of their dialog suggests they are stupid people who are fueled by physical attraction.

So clearly only older people can actually be in love. Except the movie never sold that well either. Assorted characters just spit out the occasional vague statement about love that is never insightful. Everyone is just going through the clichés. The heightened security after 9/11 should have put an end to any airport scene but no. Kutcher gives an inspiring(?) story and somehow gets a boarding pass to get into any gate. Then he jumps past security, which should put the whole place on lockdown but instead he was easily able to have his scene with Jennifer Garner.

The whole movie plays out like a lame fairy tale. There is no suspense in how everybody is going to end up or even how they are going to intersect. In order to fulfill some of their emotional arcs, major leaps of reason have to be given. The stories are never juggled properly and nothing is developed beyond a simple logline for each couple.

There is one line when a kid connected the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the luck of the Chicago Cubs. That was good.

The DVD extras include a contrived interview process asking the cast to talk about their Valentine’s Days and a featurette where they all praise the director Garry Marshall. There are also a ton of deleted scenes, a commentary by Marshall, a blooper reel, and a music video. However the feature that is highlighted the strongest is the trailer for Sex and the City 2. Seriously, it had its own sticker on the wrapper and on the back it’s blocked off with a pink background that immediately catches the eye. Isn’t this trailer easily accessible on the web right now? Again, over-thinking.

Film: 1 Yap

Extras: 2 Yaps

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Film Yap: Good Job Academy!

That’s right! Good job Academy! It’s not often I get to say that because it’s easier to talk about the Academy’s odd and stupid choices. (Hello Blind Side.) However they have created this trend of pleasantly surprising me with the Best Foreign Film category. I say surprise but this is the category I keep getting wrong in my Oscar pool.

It started in 2006. During this year, the movie Pan’s Labyrinth wowed the world. People who don’t typically see movies with subtitles ended up buying a ticket and becoming really emotionally attached. For good reasons, it’s an excellent film. It is about a young girl who retreats to a dark fantasy world during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Guillermo del Toro directs it and he’s allowed to show his mastery with emotion and magic. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, which is rare for foreign films. It picked up a bunch of early ones during the ceremony, but didn’t end up winning Best Foreign Film. Everyone thought it was a lock, but instead the Academy gave it to The Lives of Others. Like many people, I went to the theatre with my arms folded and wondering what could have taken the trophy away from Pan’s.

It turns out the Academy was right. The Lives of Others is masterful. It is this German film about the secret police during 1980s. An officer is asked to spy on a playwright and is increasingly intrigued with the life. Everything about the emotional arc feels completely earned and realistic. There are also incredible scenes of suspense and paranoia equipped with an ending that is just perfect.

Not many really paid attention to this category in 2007 because it wasn’t that interesting. 12, the Russian remake of 12 Angry Men, is worth a rental though. Onto 2008…

All of the magazines and theorists were saying the award would go to either The Class or Waltz With Bashir. Both of them are solid films. The Class, which won the Palm D’or, is an excellent examination of a public school in France. It was very good, but suffered from simply not being The Wire Season Four. (Don’t know what I mean? Rent The Wire immediately. I don’t care that it’s a TV show and not a film; it’s better than everything in the theatre right now.) Waltz With Bashir was a very inventive animated account of one man’s memory loss from the Lebanon War.

But once again the Academy through a curveball and awarded Departures as the Best Foreign Film. It was the only one of the five nominees that no one knew what it was about. It only played at the Hawaii Film Festival. So like last time I went to the theatre to see what the fuss was and once again I was blown away. Departures was a more emotional movie than the other two. It’s about a guy who loses his job as a musician and out of desperation he gets a new job at a funeral home. It’s seen in their society as a lower job, but he finds a lot of nuances and peace with it. It’s really a beautiful movie.

Then a few months ago, the Academy fooled me for a third time. I know. This story is repetitive, but everyone thought The White Ribbon was the frontrunner with A Prophet being the underdog. So, logically, The Secret in Their Eyes won. Once again, like a sap, I went to the theatre with illogically low expectations. Surprise, I was astounded. First off, it was a mystery which automatically sparks my interest. It also had a great narrative style. 30 years after a difficult case, a lawyer decides to write a novel about his experience. This causes him to revisit what happened with the help of the woman who got away. It’s a wonderfully constructed puzzle. Every single element is there for a reason even down to the broken typewriter. It’s a great great movie.

Of all the categories why is the Academy getting this one right so often? It is probably because of a new rule they instated. With this category, everyone who votes is required to see every film that is nominated. There are special screenings of each movie where I hear they have to clock in. This brings up a scary concept of people can technically vote for the other categories without having seen some (or any) of the films. It would be harder to regulate, but I wish this rule was for every award at the Oscars. Within just a few years, the credibility of the category has skyrocketed. It was also become a bit unpredictable which is also a nice change of pace with the Oscars. It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve learned my lesson.

Higgens Network: Iron Man 2

It’s so rare and refreshing to look forward to a sequel. Normally Hollywood just makes one without asking if anyone is interested. (Are people actually clambering for a Men in Black 3? Don’t worry; it’s going to be in 3D.) When the first Iron Man ended and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) announced to the world that he was metal superhero, I was sold. The first movie was so much fun and this ending promised we’re not going to see the overdone storylines about duality and secret identities.

So did Iron Man 2 accomplish the unlikely and make a good sequel? Yep. The first one is not a perfect film and neither is this one, but what’s important is that they are both really entertaining movies. As all sequels do, this one takes the story and makes it bigger. Unlike other movies the “bigger” aspect is not through a ton of villains but giving Tony Stark more problems and making his world larger.

Thanks to the Iron Man technology, the world appears to be more stable. No one can match Stark Technologies. This ego boost is making Stark more reckless as he mocks a senate committee among other things. The truth of the matter is that he’s quickly dying. His blood is being poisoned by his own technology and he can’t find a cure. Across the world, a Russian madman named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has perfected his own suit and vows revenge on the Stark family. He comes to America and attacks Iron Man further breaking apart Tony Stark.

What makes Iron Man such a refreshing series is that Tony Stark is as interesting (if not more so) than Iron Man. So the audience is not just waiting for the next action scene. That’s a very good thing because the action scenes in Iron Man 2 aren’t that great. Director Jon Favreau has a gift with comedic and emotional timing, but he still hasn’t perfected how to pace a good action scene. Too many of those scenes are too short and are too easy.

Luckily that is just a small part of the movie. The real crux is Tony’s stability with everything. Throughout the movie his real friends start to doubt him especially Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Lt. “Rhodey” (Don Cheadle). I wish the film was longer and was able to explore that evolution/devolution of those characters. There was just enough time dealing with more steps towards the 2012 Avengers movie by reintroducing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). I also hope this isn’t the last time we see Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). The humor is so strong with Rockwell and he plays this character so well. Hammer is Tony Stark without any of the genius or the scientific ambition.

I like how this series is dealing with different territory than the other ones in the series. Its new themes of legacy and technology are handled well but it never exhausts itself with them. The movie is still very funny thanks primarily to Downey Jr., Rockwell, and even Favreau who plays Stark’s bodyguard. This series shows that you can still be entertaining and intelligent without resorting to being too dark. Just like the ending to the first, I’m left wanting more. I can’t wait to see the next chapter in this expanded Marvel universe with Thor next summer.

Higgens Network: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Adapting a book like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not an easy task due to its extreme popularity. It’s now one of the highest grossing books of all time in Sweden, its original country, and has held a strong presence on the bestselling charts in America. It’s praised not only by audiences but by critics as well. In an unprecedented case, it was nominated for the Best Novel and Best First Novel in last year’s Anthony Awards, winning the latter.

So there is an expectation to take this adaptation seriously and faithfully. Niels Arden Oplev managed to pull off a really worthy version. He manages to balance all of the complexities of the plot in a very concise way. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is a popular journalist who has been discredited by a powerful businessman and is about to be sent to prison for libel. In the months leading up to his imprisonment, he is hired to work on an unusual case. Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) is an old rich man has been grieving ever since his niece went missing during a family gathering forty years ago. Since the bridge connecting to their private island was blocked, Henrik knows it had to have been someone in his family.

Running parallel to this investigation is the life of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). She is a young woman who has had a very difficult life. She is extremely smart, but socially distant. She has been abused most of her life and will continue to be assaulted during this movie. She works as a computer hacker and becomes interested in what Blomkvist is doing.

Salander is always the most interesting part of the entire trilogy and Rapace does a great job of capturing the difficult persona. The movie was brave in showing all of her flaws and the darker elements. One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is the infamous interaction with her guardian. The film does an intelligent job of letting the audience interpret most of her motivations going into that moment.

A lot of this comes from the European way of filming thrillers and mysteries. Not much is romanticized or over-explained. The focus is really on the plot and the characters and it moves in a very deliberate pace. The editing is quick to move from location to location once new information is made. This adds a powerful level of suspense and treats the audience with more respect than the typical Hollywood fare.

Now this is already will remade for English audiences because we all know subtitles are scary. As long as they remain faithful to the plot, I think it has opportunities to be a good companion film. As good at the two leads were in this film, the rest of the supporting cast could have been stronger. Especially certain members of the Vanger family. Also I think there is more to explore with Salander’s character in this first volume. Before Stieg Larson died, he finished the first three books following Salander and Blomkvist. In Sweden, they have already finished the trilogy and the other two will be released internationally eventually. It’s too bad that Oplev didn’t direct the next two films because he has a distinct and interesting visual style that is never overt or distracting. It really shows his place as an extremely professional and reliable director. I can’t wait to see what he and the leads do following this giant (and earned) success.

Film Yap: Legend of the Tsunami Warrior

There’s always something special about a movie being ambitious. It may not always work, but at least the filmmakers are trying for something new. With Legend of the Tsunami Warrior, Nonzee Nimibutr wants to have an action-fantasy epic but this time deals primarily with the water. A lot works, but sadly not enough.

The story is a complicated one dealing with three princesses who run Langkasuka. Langkasuka is constantly under attack by pirates and the Black Raven, a warrior trained in Du-lum. Du-lum is a mystical art of being in sync with the water and its inhabitants. One way to stop the pirates is to get this big ‘ole cannon from the bottom of the sea and the only way to get that is through Du-lum.

A lot of the actions scenes are fun and inventive, especially some of the sword fights. The film slips when dealing with the emotional weight of the film. There are too many characters and Nimibutr can’t balance them all properly. He clearly seems more interested in the visual aspects of this movie. A lot of the shots are done with a clear artistic style. The special effects aren’t revolutionary but they are never poor enough to be distracting.

The really interesting thing is how Nimibutr tries to balance the reality aspects of the story with the fairy tale ones. It’s not a perfect gelling, but it is a different take than films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is a scene when a character gets shot in the head and another when a character learns how to “read the minds” of fish.

All of this is really just leading up to the big final battle which is entertaining, but would have been more effective with a stronger focus on its characters.

The DVD extras are pretty slim. There are only two featurettes. One Nimibutr and a few other cast members talking about the film. They keep saying the story isn’t complicated, but then it takes them several minutes to explain the plot. Hmm. The other is fly-on-the-wall look at some of the filmmaking through a mediocre camera. This DVD did an annoying thing of starting the movie immediately with the English dubbing. At least for me, I always like watching the movie in its original language.

Film: 2.5 Yaps

Extras: 2 Yaps

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Film Yap: Malice in Wonderland

At first glace, Malice in Wonderland appears to be one of the types of movies where the title was invented before the plot. Much like Snakes on a Plane or Hot Tub Time Machine. Yet as the movie goes on, it looks more like an afterthought.

LOST’s Maggie Grace plays Alice who is first seen running through England. Something is bothering her and she wants to get to Hulme Street. Before that could be accomplished, she gets hit by a car and loses her memory. The owner of the car is Whitey (Danny Dyer). Get it, like the white rabbit! He, of course, is running late and oddly decides to just put Alice in the car and drive off.

The movie continues as a boring Guy Ritchie rip-off. There’s this whole plot about Whitey needing to deliver goods and give a present for a mob boss and blah blah blah. The plot doesn’t really work as a parallel to Alice in Wonderland. It keeps inserting reimaged characters like a reggae loving Caterpillar who is not smoking hookah. The movie never established a “real world” to serve as a contrast to this underground “wonderland.” It seems all of London is this nuts. It’s not even a fun nuts. The manic editing, crazy decisions, and amnesia storyline just seem too reminiscent of those who have done it better.

Alice never feels trapped in this world either. (Only the audience). She could easily leave if there was any sort of rational sense going on. Yes, “wonderland” is not about logic but that shouldn’t apply to Alice. In After Hours, it’s believable the guy is trapped in that city because the obstacles are actually obtrusive. Alice’s distractions in this movie are completely unnecessary. Everything is too contrived and dull.

They say it’s more about the journey than the destination. That doesn’t excuse the movie for having such a terrible ending. The plot is concluded through a mind-numbing cop-out and then randomly wants you to care about the family history of Alice. Quasi-spoiler: turns out the whole movie is about love. Of course that is discovered through asinine dialog like “What has no conditions but one condition?” “Love!” Good God.

The only thing saving this movie are the two leads. Despite its stupid script, Grace and Dyer add a surprisingly amount of depth and honesty towards the characters. They’re both very likable and deserve better than this.

There aren’t many bonus features on this DVD. There is a featurette that actually proves that nobody was on the same page with this movie. The only other thing on the disc is a photo gallery.

1 Yap.

Film Yap: Observing and Documenting

Documentaries have always been a great genre to examine some great social experiments. Usually these ideas are recorded in book form, but there are some things that just work better in film. It’s the idea of capturing certain moments with imagery and sound that allows for high emotion and an effective time capsule. That’s why there is a powerful subgenre of documentaries that focuses on observation above anything else.

These types of documentaries are more dangerous than others. A lot of documentaries know their story before going in. It allows for a safety net in case their research or interviews aren’t ideal. For example there is an upcoming movie called Casino Jack and the United States of Money that is about Jack Abramoff and his scandals. It looks really great, but its director Alex Gibney knew there was a story there before he started filming anything. The observational ones require a lot of faith.

They really have to believe in their premises because if it works it could be a long-term commitment. The biggest (and greatest) of them would be the Up Series. In 1964, Paul Almond interviewed fourteen kids when they were seven years old. This is a quote saying “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” This series explored the truth in that statement. In the first film, Seven Up, they asked all of them various questions about their lives and society. They were questions to learn about them as people. By itself, it’s a fun movie but as a whole it’s amazing. Every seven years Michael Apted returns to these fourteen people and sees where there are and how they are doing. Often times the greatest stories are the ones by “regular” people. The series so far consists of Seven Plus 7, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up and 49 Up. 56 Up is expected in a year or two. I don’t think anyone involved expected how insightful this series was about the human condition and unpredictable nature of life.

Not every one of these projects lasts for an entire lifetime. The Up Series is a rare example. One that ended up being longer than expected was Hoop Dreams. Initially it was just supposed to be a quick piece, ended up lasting several years. Steve James followed two black teenagers and their basketball career in high school. Of course the film is about much more than that. It really got into their family lives and how they interacted in the community. It’s a three-hour film that is worthy all of the praise it received. Roger Ebert called it the best film of its decade.

Another form of these observational documentaries would be the wide range of nature films. These are obviously less psychological and more interested in showing something new and awe-inspiring on our planet. Planet Earth is another amazing feat and I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been impressed by it. These films are even tougher because their subjects don’t know they’re being filmed. This is a riskier venture but could have some very impressive turnouts like March of the Penguins and Winged Migration.

To wrap this all up, I feel I’m obligated to mention the hybrid of the nature and the human observation documentaries: the newest film Babies. With every risk, there is the chance that it may not be as groundbreaking or revolutionary as hoped. In this movie, Thomas Balmes filmed four different babies from across the planet for one year. It’s an okay movie but it proved that the Up Series didn’t need to start at year zero.

I’m going to forget about Babies in a matter of hours, but these other titles are really impactful works of cinema. I can’t wait to see future examples of this subgenre. I know Richard Linklater has been working on a twelve-year endeavor exploring childhood in a unique way. Not much is known but having seen his previous passion projects, this has the potential to join the ranks as one of the best. As always, time will tell.

Film Yap: Babies

There was a level of nervousness going into a movie like Babies. The advertising campaign suggested that this movie might just be the big screen adaptation of an adorable YouTube video. Could there really be a full-length movie of…babies? The answer is yes and no.

Director Thomas Balmes found four babies and decided to cover them for an entire year. Two boys and two girls. There is Ponijao from Namibia; Mari from Tokyo; Bayar from Mongolia; Hattie from San Francisco. The movie is bold in that there is no narration or really even dialog. There are only a few phrases muttered on screen, most of which are not translated.

The film is interested in showing you these images and it is up to the audience to decide whether there is any insight. What I found that babies, by themselves, primarily range from curious, hungry, frustrated, and sleepy. Like puppies, while they experience these emotions they can be precious. That focus can only last too long before most people would get bored.

Thus clever editing saves the movie. Again, there is no narration but the film jumps between these cultures to show comparisons and contrasts to their lifestyles. The film explores—that may be too strong of a word—these babies interacting with animals, their own bodies, food and siblings. The strongest part of this movie is the look at the other environments. They jump from seeing Hattie playing around a vacuum cleaner to Ponijao in the middle of the dirt. Ponijao is often seen surrounded by flies and dirt. There’s never any doubt on the well being of the babies; there are different worlds out there.

The movie is technically very well made. There are some really great shots that required patience and creativity. In all regards, this is the best movie that could be made with this premise but unfortunately the premise still isn’t that great. There may be a little more going on, but it’s not enough. Even the best scenes are not that memorable. Any attempt to explain one of them will just make them sound like an abstract David Lynch scene. For example, there is a scene when one of the babies—perhaps Hattie—is sitting and looking bored while sitting next to a cat playing with a wire. That’s it.

The movie is fighting for relevancy. While watching, it is often enjoyable but it won’t last very long. At the end of the day, it’s just…babies.

The Techniques of Horror

I’m a very odd moviegoer when it comes to horror. I’ve never really been scared during a movie. As a kid I went searching through classic horror movies to find one, but alas. Even though I don’t get scared, I still find the genre to be a lot of fun. Just like comedies, it’s a genre that is using clever techniques to try and get a specific reaction out of their audience. Unlike comedies, I can still really like a horror movie if I’m not screaming.

One thing that really works for me in a horror movie is a great plot. I really like it when they act like mysteries. Movies like The Ring, The Orphanage, and even Saw have the audience try to figure out what’s happening along with the main character. This doesn’t mean: “Oh I think Character A is the killer but—Oh no, it’s Character B!” I like it when the plots are more twisting and unconventional. This allows for a lot of repeat viewings that hold up even if specific frights fade.

Sometimes the environment alone can make for a successful horror movie. This is a very delicate thing, because it’s not just about adding a few creaks in the haunted house. One of my favorite approaches is to create a sense of hopelessness. We naturally expect the hero to prevail, but if the situation is too overwhelming then it makes for a more suspenseful show. This can be done if the villain is too powerful. This isn’t like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers this time, because there’s not enough sympathy towards the protagonists. Everybody knows they are all damned aside from one or two lucky few. I’m talking about situations like The Exorcist where everything seems intangible. Having an enemy like the devil has certain connotations next to it, but not knowing the enemy is just as powerful. There is a Mexican film called REC where a TV crew are initially filming a fluff piece and then become trapped in an apartment complex where something is there…The whole film is shot through the crew’s camera a la Cloverfield. It’s wonderfully creepy.

It is techniques like this that become more effective to me. I’ll take the subtle creepy images over the bombastic gory ones any day. For me, grossing out the audience doesn’t work in scaring them. Violence should be used to establish the threat and certain ramifications but it doesn’t spook anyone. It just makes them uneasy and enough of that can remove the audience from the movie.

I like more subtle ways of making the audience chilled. Like when the vampire climbs up the hospital wall in Let the Right One In or half of the imagery in The Shining. I love this. It allows the filmmaker to really play with new clever ideas. Usually the images are able to stand on their own. There’s no score telling you how to feel or a dramatic camera shot to point the focus. It’s more unnerving if you find it on your own.

It’s hard to find a horror movie nowadays that focuses on these things that I like. Too many are made for the cheap thrills instead of the long-term effects. I have not seen it, but the new Nightmare on Elm Street seems to be guilty of that. I find that to be really disappointing because the original was a rather clever movie that had care put into it. Aside from this one’s cool casting of Jackie Earl Haley, I fear this will be forgotten like most studio horror movies. Alas.