A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 426 – Elektra

Elektra – April 30th, 2011

Tonight we follow up the disappointing Daredevil with a movie featuring the best part of that one: Jennifer Garner as Elektra. I’m not terribly familiar with Elektra as a character. I encountered her while reading some of the Daredevil stories but I never looked for more for her so I went into this movie with very little prior exposure. Basically what I came in knowing was that Elektra saw her mother die and has since lost her father. She’s an amazingly skilled fighter who’s been training since childhood. That about does it. Maybe it’s good for me to not know much about some characters so any divergences don’t bother me.

Now, this isn’t a great movie and it’s not trying to be. It’s aiming square at decent and hitting that mark. But I will say this: It’s a movie that knows damn well what it’s doing. This movie had its spine defined right from the outset: Redemption. And with a firm intent in place, well, it follows that the movie will be far less muddled than, say, last night’s movie that couldn’t quite settle on its purpose. We follow the character of Elektra, who’s taken all of her natural talent and years of training and begun using it for contract killing. She is excellent at it and she gets paid well for it and it has become all she knows. Since she’s the heroine of the movie obviously we’ll need to get some sympathetic backstory for her and clearly she can’t remain the coldhearted killer we meet at the outset.

The backstory reveals Elektra’s mother’s death and the mysterious figure responsible. We also see some of her early training through flashbacks Elektra has while living in a large and empty house on an island, waiting for instructions for her next job. I like this set-up because it not only gives us some view of the loneliness and isolation of Elektra’s life, but ties those qualities to her background. It’s done a lot more smoothly than many other background flashbacks I’ve seen. The redemption begins when she receives her assignment and it turns out to be Mark and Abby Miller, the father and daughter living in the cabin down the beach from the mansion she’s in. And she’s met them and spent time with them and allowed herself to become somewhat attached to them. Thanks to the background we have for Elektra we know that she’s got some personal issues with girls losing their mothers. She can’t do it. She switches sides.

It’s a credit both to Garner and the screenwriters that I didn’t ever question Elektra’s about face. She waffles. She questions her decisions and actions. She walks away from the Millers before turning back to them. And I like that. I like that it wasn’t an easy decision on her part. Had it been black and white I would have rolled my eyes. Anyhow, she goes to her associates to find help, first going to her old sensei, Stick, then to her ‘agent’, McCabe. Because there are more assassins coming after Mark and Abby, sent by the sinister Hand organization.

My one huge quibble here is McCabe. He sacrifices himself for Elektra and the Millers and that’s a great thing for him to do but why? The movie doesn’t establish enough of a personal relationship between him and Elektra to make me believe he cares about her enough to do that and he certainly doesn’t know enough about the Millers to care about them. So why? If they’d established more of him caring more about the money then I’d buy it. As it is it threw me out of a tense scene that was meant to establish something meaningful.

Fortunately, once we really get back to Stick the movie gets a needed infusion of awesome, cause Stick is played by Terence Stamp and he is awesome personified. I truly wish that he had been in Daredevil as well, because while I don’t think he could have saved that movie as it was, he certainly would have added some fun scenes. Stick in this movie is really one of my favorite character types: A manipulator. Love him. He gets to deliver sage advice and plot exposition at the same time and it just plain works. Terence Stamp needs to be in more movies. I think that’s pretty much what I’m taking away from this.

I’m not going to go into detail about just why Abby and Mark are on the run from mystical demon assassins who can kill with a touch or pull snakes out of their tattoos. Suffice it to say that they aren’t what they originally claim, which should be obvious, and eventually they figure into the larger plot a lot more. The point here is that Elektra gets back on the path she should have been on to begin with and we get plenty of fun fight scenes with flashy weapons and magical powers and multiple female characters kicking a whole lot of ass. I cannot complain about any of that, let me tell you.

Thanks to the movie’s defined purpose, the addition of a bit of a romance plot as well as some bonding between Elektra and Abby end up working towards the same goal as everything else instead of distracting from it. And I totally buy Elektra and Abby’s relationship, which is nice and I think a lot of that has to do with Kirsten Prout, who played Abby, doing a nice job as a teenager in a situation she would never have chosen. Sure, I wanted to shake her at least once, but that’s a thirteen year old for you.

I think if I was going to point a finger at any one thing in this movie that keeps it only decent instead of higher up on the scale it would have to be the lack of definition to the villains. Sure, we get these fun baddies with powers like impenetrable skin and super speed and all, but we get very little idea of who they are and why they want what they want. It’s a peeve of mine, but villainy for the sake of villainy just doesn’t cut it for me for the vast majority of stories and characters and these ones barely even get names. Sure, the Hand are from the comics and all, but without much in the way of background they’re just a bunch of evil supernatural ninjas.

Overall, however, I had fun with the movie. It was far more engaging to watch than Daredevil and it was certainly clearer in its intent. I do have to say it disappoints me to read about reports that claim Jennifer Garner only reprised her role as Elektra due to contractual obligations and that Ben Affleck was embarrassed to play a costumed superhero. It takes away from the movies and the characters, I admit. Take a look at someone like Chris Evans or Ryan Reynolds and their enthusiasm is palpable. Much as I might not think Nic Cage made the perfect Ghost Rider, dude obviously loves the character. And I’d far rather see someone with a love for the character or comic books in general than someone who looks the part but doesn’t give a damn. It ended up working out okay here, but thank goodness for the upcoming super hero movies of this summer.

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April 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Elektra (2005)

April 30, 2011

Elektra

I like this movie loads more than I like the Daredevil movie that spawned it. As I said yesterday Jennifer Garner as Elektra was the best thing in Daredevil, and this movie gives her a lot of awesome stuff to do. It has some of the cooler mystical overtones of her story from the comic books without delving into the truly strange bits from the Elektra: Assassin storyline. It brings in elements like Stick and the Hand and the war between good and evil.

The film starts out with a sly bit of misdirection. In the opening preamble we’re told about a legendary warrior known as “The Treasure” and the war between the good and evil forces that want to claim her. Naturally if you are familiar with the comics you assume that Elektra is going to be this warrior. She is, after all (as shown in the opening scene) a legendary unstoppable assassin. The comic books make an issue of the battle for Elektra’s soul (and Matt Murdock’s soul for that matter.)

It is only when Elektra takes on her next contract that things begin to become clear. She has been hired to kill a thirteen year old girl named Abby Miller and her father who are on the run from something, although they won’t say what. Elektra is haunted by flashbacks of the death of her own mother and either she’s in love with Abby’s father or she has a new-found respect for life, so she decides instead to try and save them. It is only after they’ve been running for a while that we discover Abby is a martial arts prodigy – the real Treasure that everybody is trying to gain possession of.

Of course it’s all an excuse for Elektra to have a climactic battle with the Hand warriors led by the sword wielding speedster Kirigi and his henchmen Stone, Tattoo and Typhoid. It could have been an inconsequential supernatural martial arts movie, which would have been cool too, but there are a couple things that actually make the movie work.

The biggest thing this movie has in its favour is Stick – played with a sly grin by Terence Stamp. He’s not always convincing as a blind martial arts master, but he is completely awesome and cool. Simply by being Terence Stamp. I was also really impressed by the young actress playing Abby, Kirsten Prout. She does a great job portraying a impishly troublesome girl with a rebellious streak, and she has real chemistry with Jennifer Garner. If the relationship between the two of them didn’t work you wouldn’t be able to accept Elektra’s redemption arc, but as it is you get a sense that Elektra sees a lot of herself in Abby.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t great cinema. It’s a comic book inspired adventure movie and aside from a little playfulness it walks a safe and well worn path. On the other hand, it is a lot of fun to watch, with some cool fight scenes, some cool super powers, and a nice redemption arc for the lost soul of Elektra, tainted by sorrow and tragedy. I would recommend it over Daredevil any day.

April 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 425 – Daredevil

Daredevil – April 29th, 2011

Andy introduced me to Daredevil as a comic book hero when I was in college. I read two books, Born Again and The Man Without Fear and felt like they gave me a pretty good feel for the character. I didn’t immediately feel the need to go hunt down everything else about the character, but I liked him and I liked the world he was set in. So when this movie came out and started to get not-so-great reviews I was disappointed. Not crushed like I would have been if, say, Batman Begins had stunk up the theaters, but it was sad to know that apparently a hero I quite liked hadn’t been done as well as he deserved.

So the thing is, I never bothered to watch it. Andy told me it was bad and I’m not overly fond of Ben Affleck as an actor (I’ll get into why in a moment) and I just never felt the need. Watching it tonight I decided it isn’t so much that it’s a bad movie. I think I know from bad movies, so I can say this with some authority. We have bad movies in our collection and this doesn’t even approach most of them. What it is, is something worse than bad. It’s mediocre. It is middling at best and that’s a real shame because it’s clearly had a lot of care put into homage to the comics, which says to me that the people making it actually give a damn. So how did it turn out so blah?

I found it rather hard to care about pretty much everything in this movie. Having read enough of Daredevil’s origin story to know where he comes from, I was hoping that some of that would be captured in the movie. Instead it’s whipped through in a flashback. Lots of things happen in this movie, like the people making it wanted to make sure they covered as many bases as possible. Which is likely part of the problem. Got to include the origin and the law office and Elektra and Kingpin and Bullseye and the journalist and the cops and vengeance and redemption and come in under two hours. I honestly think this might be a case of too many fans involved in the making of the movie, wanting to include too much love for the source. Looking at the trivia there’s character names based on all the various creators of the character. There’s homage to issue covers and old themes and so on. Kevin Smith, a notorious comic book fanboy, has a small role as a character named Jack Kirby. This is not a movie made by people who didn’t care, like I suspect X3 was (still bitter about Callisto) and I think it was overkill. There’s a point where when you make a movie with an iconic character who’s been around for decades and had several major storylines, you have to step back and pick and choose what to include because you can’t use 40 years of comic books as your movie storyboards. And I think that’s just what they tried to do here.

It gets messy. We start out with Daredevil, whose secret identity is Matt Murdock, a young and idealistic lawyer who was blinded as a child due to a freak accident. Said accident took away his sight but enhanced his other senses to the point where his hearing serves as a form of sonar (I know the movie and comics call it radar, but if it’s supposed to be echolocation it’s sonar and yes I will remain pedantic about that) so by using the sounds around him he’s able to “see” his surroundings. He trains hard, somehow learning martial arts in secret. The comics explain his training and I found it odd that a movie so full of homage didn’t find a way to mention his mentor, Stick. Anyhow, mild mannered lawyer by day, crime fighter by night, Daredevil exacts justice that Matt Murdock often can’t get legally due to crooked lawyers and a flawed legal system. Oh, and he’s also out for vengeance for his father, a boxer who was killed by crime boss Kingpin for not throwing a fight. Toss in a beautiful woman named Elektra, who’s thoroughly trained in martial arts herself and also the daughter of one of Kingpin’s associates, kill off her father and set her on a mission for revenge and also have a reporter trying to find out who Daredevil is and what he’s out to do and you’ve got this movie. Starts okay, then falls apart. And I totally forgot to even mention Kingpin’s hired hitman, Bullseye, in there. Cause yeah, our villain hires another villain to do his dirty work.

The result of all of this is that we get almost no time to spend on any one of these characters or plots. Murdock himself gets the origin flashback, and I admit I liked the kid they had playing him and I liked his relationship with his father and how it all played out. I liked the reveal of his sonar and the visual effect for it. But once that’s over it’s all fleeting introductions and very little in the way of character development. Elektra gets some background where we find out her mother died in front of her and her father’s had her train in self-defense since she was five. But that’s about it. We meet Murdock’s law partner, Foggy (played by Jon Favreau, who seems to do a nice job in these sidekick roles) but get no background on him whatsoever. Hell, we don’t even get to know the backgrounds for our villains. Kingpin grew up in the Bronx and Bullseye is Irish. That’s it. That’s all we get.

Aside from that it’s all fight scenes and kissing. Because there’s this dramatic romantic plot for Murdock and Elektra where he can’t tell her who he is (classic superhero trope), but then they also square off and spar in the middle of a playground full of kids. Cause yeah, Matt, that’s totally subtle and not giving anything away at all. And then there’s more action and more action and then Matt goes to confession and then there’s more action and then some poignant scenes for him and Elektra and more action. It’s uneven and undecided and frustrating.

Honestly, going into this I expected the weak point of the movie for me to be Ben Affleck. He seems like a decent guy and all and he’s been making a name for himself as a director, but most everything I’ve seen him in has him playing a version of himself and I wasn’t sure he could pull this off. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he wasn’t terrible. He didn’t nail the role but he didn’t ruin it. The only thing I disliked was his constant half-smirk, but I think that’s just how Affleck’s face is built. But really, I didn’t hate him here. I liked Jon Favreau and I liked Michael Clark Duncan as Kingpin and I even kind of liked Colin Farrell’s twitchy Bullseye. Jennifer Garner as Elektra was easily my favorite role of the movie though, and given how mediocre this movie ended up being I can see why the second one wasn’t a second Daredevil movie but an Elektra movie instead.

April 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Daredevil

April 29, 2011

Daredevil

I have a fondness for Daredevil. Not for this movie – for the Marvel comic series about a man with no fear. Before I discovered Daredevil, and the Frank Miller Daredevil in particular, I had a general disdain for Marvel. It came from years of The Incredible Hulk and Spider Man cartoons in my youth. In my mind Marvel was a technicolor world of crazy magical hijinks – the kind of thing that gave comic books a bad name. DC on the other hand was the home of Batman and Swamp Thing and the Watchmen. In the nineties DC – through the Vertigo label – became the source of all that was cool and awesome about comics. Dream and the Endless. Tim Hunter. John F-ing Constantine. Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman were in DC’s court. Then again, Frank Miller had started out over at Marvel, and around a time when I was collecting everything he had ever written I picked up a bunch of his Daredevil stuff. Sure, okay, Daredevil is a blind man whose super power is that he can see, but he’s also super cool.

As a result of my love for the comics I was looking forward to this movie, and also as a result my reaction to the film was slightly more vitriolic than it might have been if, say, an Aquaman movie had been disappointing. I have said in the past that this is an awful movie, but the truth is that it’s simply a fairly mediocre movie. It’s just a little bit less than adequate, really. But I found this to be profoundly disappointing in a Daredevil movie.

The plot is a kind of amalgam of several of the Frank Miller story lines. It has an abbreviated origin story about how the bookish young Matt Murdock was blinded (this time by liquid hazardous waste instead of a glowing green bar of radioactive waste.) We get to see his father, the washed up prize fighter who is working as muscle for a small time crime boss in Hell’s Kitchen. After Matt is blinded he discovers that his other senses have become ultra powerful. When his father is killed for refusing to throw a fight Matt becomes obsessed with justice – becoming a conscientious lawyer by day and a masked vigilante by night. We see him meet and clash with Elektra, the love of his life, and we see her swear vengeance on Daredevil because she believes that he’s responsible for the death of her father. There’s a bunch of fight scenes, some pretty cool special effects, and a very disappointing showdown between Daredevil and the Kingpin.

Part of the problem with this movie is that it can’t seem to settle on a single tone. It wants to be a serious story of a man obsessed with vengeance for his father’s death. It also wants to be a sort of romance story. It also has a lot of pure cheese – mostly on the part of Colin Farrell as Bullseye – a villain apparently more obsessed with witty one-liners than with all the casual killing he does. The movie very quickly touches on a number of iconic moments in the general Daredevil story arc from the books but doesn’t stick with any of them long enough to flesh them out. So like the digital representation of Daredevil himself in the movie the plot leaps implausibly about and looks fairly fake as it does so.

Ben Affleck is not awful in the role of Matt Murdock. He actually does a convincing job of portraying a blind man some of the time. This is one of the better aspects of the movie – it realistically portrays a blind man in a sighted man’s world. I appreciated seeing things like the braille printer in Matt’s office and the way he folds his money to distinguish denominations from each other. He has a watch with a flip top so he can feel the hands. He walks convincingly with a cane. Clearly, a lot of research was done here. Then he goes and spoils it all by having a very public fight in a playground with Elektra. (At least in the comics when Matt and Elektra battled for the first time in college he was wearing a scarf over his head as a disguise.) Really there’s not much attempt made to hide Daredevil’s “secret” identity in this movie. By the end of the film I think the only major character who doesn’t know who he really is is his old friend Foggy Nelson.

Another thing I give this movie credit for is the wonderful “sonar” effect showing us how Matt sees the world using his hearing and sense of smell. It looks cool and is entirely plausible in the world of the movie (if you can accept that Matt can somehow dodge bullets as he hears them coming.)

I just wish that the rest of the film could live up to that. It doesn’t though. It’s a bit of a mess, really. I has a great deal of narration at the start telling us what we’re seeing, which always pisses me off (except in Creeping Terror, where it makes me laugh my ass off.) It is packed with supposedly symbolic imagery which has no relevance to the film. (I dare you to count the crucifixes and angels.) If you want to drag religion into your comic book movie that’s fine with me, but at least have it make sense for the character instead of being window dressing. It ends up feeling like writer/director Mark Steven Johnson wants to make an epic film but doesn’t quite know how. There are hints at the paradox of a lawyer turned vigilante and how laws cannot be upheld by vengeance, but they, like so many little tidbits in the movie, aren’t fleshed out at all.

It frustrates me that it feels like this movie is such a near miss. It does some things right, and it has some intriguing things to say about the character of Daredevil. It is absolutely packed to the gills with homage and reference to the comic books. All the same, it falls flat and feels shallow and unfulfilling. The best thing in the entire movie is Jennifer Garner as Elektra. She’s cool and flawed and fascinating. It made me with there were a movie with just her in it – and then there was. We’ll review that tomorrow.

April 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 424 – Next

Next – April 28th, 2011

I remember seeing previews for this back when it came out and thinking it looked like a neat concept but being uncertain of the plot the concept was used for. It looked like your standard “there’s a bomb!” action movie with a gimmick and I wasn’t too terribly interested in seeing a standard action movie with a gimmick unless it was super well done. I never heard anyone say this movie was super well done, so I never bothered. And it seems there was a reason for that. It really is a near concept, but the execution leaves me wanting more.

It didn’t take long for me to decide that this movie had some issues when it came to plot. What we’ve got here is a movie that’s not sure what it is. Is it an action movie with a romantic subplot or a romantic movie with action scenes? Is it supernatural or magical realism? Ultimately it’s that lack of defined identity that causes the most problems for me. I don’t mind a movie that breaks the mold and does something that defies traditional genre lines but it takes a lot of skill to do that well and this movie falls short, sad as that is. And since it isn’t breaking through traditional genres it ends up bodging a couple together in hopes that they’ll balance out and they don’t.

Our main character is Cris Johnson, a Vegas magician who has an act where he predicts the future and comes up with facts about his audience. It all seems like cheap tricks except he really can see the future. Two minutes into his own future, to be precise. Seems like a neat trick, but he just wants to live a quiet and semi-normal life, hiding in plain sight while keeping himself flush with winnings on moderate bets against the house in various casinos. And things seem to be going mostly okay aside from two things: One, he’s about to be noticed – finally – by casino security and thence by the FBI. Two, the one exception to his two minute rule is a vision he’s had of a woman in a diner and he doesn’t know who she is or why she’s shown up to him so far in advance. And so we’ve got our two plots. Cris is focused on finding this woman and figuring out who she is and why she’s shown up. The FBI wants him because they’ve got a rogue nuke in the hands of terrorists somewhere in L.A. and somehow they think he can find it. Or rather one of them, Agent Ferris, thinks so.

Now, this edges into Snakes on a Plane territory for me in that the “best option” here seems so wildly outlandish I’ve got to wonder just what other resources they’ve exhausted before letting Agent Ferris track down a dude who might be able to see two minutes into the future at best. Really? This is all we’ve got left? I have to think that we’re dealing with one of two scenarios: Either Ferris’ boss gave her a couple of teams to humor her and get her out of the picture so he could focus on stuff he could count on or we’re in a world where these powers aren’t so incredibly outlandish. Rare, but not unheard of. Enough so that an FBI agent could reasonably say “Hey, there’s this guy who can see into the future” and not immediately land themselves a nice safe desk position until the psych evaluation results came in. Because off Ferris goes with a rather large team of FBI agents with their helicopters, trucks, guns, etc. all to find this guy who can see her coming.

And Cris isn’t interested in using his rather specific gift to help Ferris out. He’d like to stay out of the government’s hands and just pursue his mystery love interest in peace. But there’s a bomb! A nuclear bomb! In the hands of an undefined and rather multinational terrorist group! And only the Two Minute Man can help! So Ferris tracks him down and the terrorists follow her to him, figuring that he must be important if she’s so hot on getting him. Meanwhile he’s charmed Liz, the mystery woman, and ended up spending a night with her in a quaint motel near the Grand Canyon. The two plots get tied together when first the FBI and then the terrorists involve Liz in their pursuit of Cris and to be honest it’s pretty sloppy.

Part of the problem is that the movie seems to really want to portray Cris’ life and difficulties with his gift. He can see the future but only a tiny part and only in a very small focus, but it makes everything seem tedious to him and puts him in danger of being used. We get a few tidbits of his prior life, such as tests he did when he was a child and spent 36 hours guessing the next card in the deck for a team of researchers (in which case one would expect there to be a record of him somewhere that Ferris could have found, but whatever). The whole plot with Liz has the two of them talking about destiny and whether everything is predetermined. He’s mystified by her and how she’s the exception to his rules. There’s a lot of potential in the personal themes there. But then the movie wants to be a taut and suspenseful action flick too. There are quite a few scenes with Cris using his power to dodge bullets and duck punches and stop just before triggering a bomb. There’s the whole terrorists-with-a-nuke plot going on in the background while Cris is romancing Liz. It’s all just such an odd juxtaposition of plots and I get why it was done, with Liz eventually being used as a distraction to Cris to keep him focused on her and not the nuke, but that tosses the movie out of the romance/drama realm and into the action realm again and it just feels uneven and poorly meshed.

Another problem I have with the movie is that while I very much enjoy the concept, I don’t know that the movie portrays it well enough. There are times when it’s obvious that Cris is looking at what’s coming next but we can’t see what he sees. There are times when it’s obvious that Cris is looking at what’s coming next and we do get to see a glimpse of it. And there are still more times when the movie sets you up to think something’s happening when it’s actually just a potential future Cris is seeing and we then rewind back to the point when he’s seen it. Oh, I totally understand why the movie does what it does with the dramatic use of the rewind and all. And I get why it can’t always be showing us all the possibilities of what’s going to happen. But it seems unsatisfying to me. I can’t help but wonder what someone like Chris Nolan would do with this concept.

My last problem with the movie is Ferris. She’s a tough lady who Gets Things Done. That’s her character. And for the most part she seems like a good strong figure in the movie, determined to get Cris and stop the impending disaster. But for one, she’s obsessed with this guy she’s only just found on some tapes from a casino. Who the hell is she and why was she watching casino security tapes in the middle of a nuclear crisis? And then she’s strapped Cris to a chair and pried his eyes open Clockwork Orange style to force him to watch the news and tell her when he sees footage of the bomb. Which will give her two minutes. That seems so bizarrely obsessive for he sake of a very short window. She tells him to stretch the two minutes. Does she even get the restriction here? I guess not, but then it’s a sloppy movie in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the ending. I’ll avoid specific spoilers, but it’s a little frustrating to hit the end and see the future that Cris should not only have been able to see but also figure out given any sense at all. Not that the movie shows you what’s going to happen. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wants you to think everything is going to be just fine. But I could see it nonetheless. I’m gifted like that.

April 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Next

April 28, 2011

Next

You may recall, if you’ve been following this movie project since the very beginning, that we reviewed a cheesy Nick Cage movie as our fourth or fifth review. It involved Nick’s character knowing the future, and before we put it in I thought that movie (Knowing) was this movie. I was wrong of course, but maybe you can understand my confusion. The distinction is that in Knowing Nick’s character is tortured by the inevitability of the future, in this movie he spends the whole time surfing through the best of all possible futures.

I enjoy the concept at the core of this movie, which frustrates me because I don’t particularly enjoy the movie itself. It involves a man, Cris Johnson, who can see two minutes into the future. Always two minutes. He has a sad sort of life as a two bit Las Vegas mentalist calling himself Frank Cadillac. He’s been eking out a living trying not to draw too much attention to the fact that he knows the roll of any die or the order of the cards as long as the results will be revealed within the next two minutes. When the pressure gets too bad he can make a getaway using his future sight to wend his way through all the possible next two minutes to find the path that leads to freedom.

This is a very cool notion, the idea of seeing multiple outcomes that can result from different paths taken. We’ve seen it already seen it in a couple of my favorite films: Groundhog Day and Run Lola Run. Sadly, with a couple notable exceptions near the end of the movie, this movie doesn’t do a very good job showing Cris navigating the many possible futures. We get to see him taking the miraculously perfect path like Phil Connors at the end of his very long day. We get to see him on a couple occasions slowly going through the alternatives available to him in search of just the right result. Most of the time, however, he doesn’t seem to know what’s going to happen until just before it does happen, and even then he seems surprised. I think that the film makers just couldn’t figure out how to portray this in a way that made sense to the audience.

Call that problem one.

Problem two is that after establishing this cool mechanic they proceed to throw it out the window because there’s this one girl that Cris has seen for some reason who is outside of the normal two minute window. He has seen her coming into a certain diner at a certain time, and he keeps going back there with the hope that this day will be the one where he finally meets her. Apparently there’s something special about this girl Liz. The issue with this is that the movie never bothers to resolve anything about her. Supposedly where Liz is concerned Cris’ power is much enhanced and he can see much further ahead (how far is never made clear) but still he is constantly shocked by things about to happen just seconds into the future.

Then there’s problem three – the whole main action plot of the movie. There’s this group of foreign terrorists who have smuggled a nuke into the US and a sort of female Fox Mulder who knows about Cris and his ability and wants to use him to prevent Armageddon. This FBI agent, Ferris, is obsessed with capturing Cris and forcing him to use his precog powers for the greater good. The terrorists are obsessed with killing him before he can reveal to the FBI the location of their weapon. Of course Liz gets caught in the crossfire. It’s a poorly thought out plot on many levels. For one, Cris very correctly points out that two minutes warning is not going to help much when a nuclear detonation is involved. For another, it’s unclear why both the FBI and the terrorists are so convinced that Cris is the key to their articular agenda. It is a frilly doily of a plot with more hole than material. Most frustratingly the final twist ending resolves absolutely nothing. He does actually want to help stop the terrorists and protect Liz, but I can’t figure out how the events as we see them at the end of this movie have that desired result.

It drives me crazy that this movie is so lackluster. There are hints of the interesting world that Cris lives in, but they’re never explored to my satisfactionn. Take, as a minor and fairly spoiler free example, the moment when Cris picks up a phone and calls Ferris’ cell phone without thinking about it. Well this makes perfect sense – Cris would never dial a wrong number as long as the other party answered his phone. If he can truly see every possible future then he could easily explore every possible phone number until he found the one that worked. Likewise he should be able to instantly hack any password or PIN. There’s just so much potential here, and it saddens me that it isn’t lived up to.

It’s even more frustrating because I really want to see more of Cris and Ferris working together. Ferris is played by Julianne Moore, who gives her a strong and powerful vibe. She’s a woman used to being in command and getting her way. I enjoyed seeing her in action, and felt shortchanged that I got to see so little.

This movie is a tease. It introduces cool ideas and abandons them. It feels like it borrows some of its coolest moments from other movies (like the famous train escape from The Fugitive.) It sets clear rules and boundaries to the supernatural talents that Cris has, and promptly throws them out the window. It leaves me unfulfilled and frustrated, and wishing that it culd have been better done because I so very much love the concept.

April 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 423 – Curse of the Golden Flower

Curse of the Golden Flower – April 27th, 2011

Going into this movie I knew next to nothing about it. Chinese period piece with lovely visuals and Chow Yun Fat? Yes, that was pretty much it. And that does describe it on one level. It’s a very pretty movie and it is indeed a period piece and Chow Yun Fat plays the emperor who looms over the entire story. But there’s a hell of a lot going on in this story and in this movie. It’s a brutal story, full of characters who seem sympathetic but aren’t, but then again they are.

I really wish I wasn’t fighting a head cold right now because I’d love to spend more time on this review and I simply can’t. Not without losing precious sleep. This movie deserves more attention and time than I can invest in it tonight, which is a real shame. Because it’s beautiful and tragic and after listening to a little bit of the director talking about it, I’ve got things to say about a few of the character and I’m afraid I’m going to end up glossing over too much. So I apologize for that right now. And I would highly recommend this movie with a couple of caveats: There are no happily ever afters here and the movie has some incestuous relationships. If you’re not up for dealing with either of those, just walk on by.

I’d rather not spoil the specifics, but one incident of incest is rather crucial to the plot and comes out very early on. Set in the Imperial palace in ancient China, the movie follows the implosion of the royal family. The Emperor has three sons: Wan, the eldest, was his first wife’s. Jai is the next, followed by Yu, both of whom are the sons of the current Empress. For the past ten years the Empress has been taking medicine every two hours as ordered by the Emperor. For the past ten days it has been poisoned with a plant that will drive her mad, also as ordered by the Emperor. The Empress is having an affair with her stepson, Wan, who doesn’t want to continue it. Jai has been stranded out on the borders to be taught to respect his father’s control. And then there’s Yu. Whom no one seems to pay any attention to. And they all come together for the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival, where the schemes and plots and secrets they’re all hiding and planning will come to a head.

What strikes me about this movie is the contrast between the overtly lavish sets and setting – clearly made for the purpose of showing just how opulent the Imperial palace and lifestyle is here – and the very personal views we get of the various desperate characters. As I mentioned before, very few of the characters are completely sympathetic. Jai, yes. His brothers? Not so much. And I should feel sympathetic towards Wan, who’s stuck in an impossible situation, but his actions make it difficult to feel completely one way or another. It’s the same with the Empress. On one hand you feel terrible for her, stuck in a loveless marriage with a cruel husband whom she knows is poisoning her, but on the other hand she’s forced her step-son into a clearly unwelcome sexual relationship. And the Emperor? He’s so far on the nasty end of the spectrum it’s amazing. It’s an impressive display of characters who have all been so hurt and twisted they end up hurting others and perpetuating a cycle that’s leading inexorably downwards. But really, it’s all the Emperor’s fault at the root.

It comes out later on that his first wife didn’t die as he claimed, and that revelation and its implications are what truly start to rock this already sinking boat. While the Empress apparently rapidly loses her grip on reality it ends up seeming as though perhaps she’s unwittingly set up the ultimate in revenge on the man who put her in the position she’s been trapped in. And according to the director, one of the things he wanted to highlight in the movie was the horrible situation a woman would be in at the time period in the movie. He seems to have wanted to show just how bad it could be and in the comments made on camera he’s speaking of the Empress specifically, but I believe there are two others who are far more sympathetic and clearly caught up in a world in which they could never have won. Regardless, it’s an interesting note for the movie and if I had more time I’d want to really explore it.

I’ve spent so much time talking about the plot – which I believe is based on a play from the 1930s and I’d love to see that too – I haven’t really taken the time to talk about the visuals. But they deserve some time. They are astounding. And that’s a lot of the point. They should be gorgeous and opulent and amazing. The vast numbers of servants, the lavish clothing, the rooms, the carpets, the masses of yellow chrysanthemums. It is, in the true sense of the word, decadent. I loved the feel that this all gave the movie. It turns the palace into a very elaborate and large cage for those living inside it. What I also found fascinating was the huge number of servants who always seemed to be around. Sure, the Emperor and Empress dismiss them with the wave of a hand whenever sensitive topics are spoken of, but given the response time when something is needed? There is always a servant nearby. There is no way all of the scheming and vitriol would stay a secret. Yet the family clearly assumes that no one will speak of their secrets. Because their underlings are only barely people to them. Yet another symptom of their sickness.

I enjoyed this movie quite a lot, even if it was brutal. The cast is fantastic, and I don’t just mean Chow Yun Fat. Gong Li as the Empress brought a much needed humanity to her and all three actors playing the princes were wonderful. Everyone involved seems to have truly nailed their characters, making this a difficult movie in many respects, but difficult in the way that I like movies to be difficult. They aren’t simple characters, or easy ones. They’re complicated and painful and so are their relationships. It was, in my opinion, excellently crafted in every respect to be beautiful and terrible all at the same time.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Curse of the Golden Flower

April 27, 2011

Curse of the Golden Flower

We’ve reviewed a couple of Yimou Zhang movies for the project by now so although I haven’t seen this before tonight I thought I knew what to expect tonight. I was expecting something lush and gorgeous with spectacular and well choreographed martial arts sequences. And I got that, but this movie is also so much that I had not expected. I had not expected an epic tragedy full of intrigue, secrets and betrayal. I was not expecting something of this scope and grandeur. I could not have anticipated anything of this opulence and sheer scale – simply because there isn’t anything else like this out there. The closest I can come is Akira Kurosawa’s grand Shakespearean adaptation Ran, and that was constrained by the practical limitations of the time. Here, with the modern technology that made possible the epic battles of the Lord of the Rings series with apparently unlimited resources and a cast that appears to reach into the tens of thousands Zhang has made one of the most impossibly colossal movies of all time.

At the same time there is a surprisingly intimate story buried in this grand and extravagant movie. It’s a story about a family torn apart by secrets. We’re introduced to the imperial family slowly, getting a feel for each of them and the burdens they carry. At the center of the movie is the Empress – consort to the Emperor and mother to two of his sons. She has been having an affair with the Emperor’s other son, Wan, the eldest who was born of another Empress. Her elder son, Jai, is a steadfast and honest young man freshly returned from the frontier where he has been commanding the imperial armies. Then there’s the eager and youthful Yu, the youngest prince, who longs for glory of hos own and chafes at always being in the shadow of his elder siblings.

It would seem that the Emperor is aware of the Empress’ affair, and he has commanded his physician to start administering a gradual poison to the Empress in the cordial she is required by the Emperor to drink every two hours. With time, the physician tells his daughter Chan, the black mushroom being fed to the empress will destroy her mind. Meanwhile Chan has also been having an affair with Wan, who seems to be somewhat of an irresponsible layabout.

Things really get complicated when a mysterious woman in black shows up in the palace. She is the wife of the Imperial physician, mother of Chan, but the brand on her face hints at a darker past which she does not wish to initially divulge. She wants to help the Empress because she bears a grudge against the Emperor, and it is the root of that grudge that drives the film towards its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

To ground such a grand tragedy Zhang needed a stellar cast, and he clearly has that here. Chow Yun Fat portrays the Emperor. He’s so wonderfully imposing – a cold and aloof man isolated by his power. On the other side we have Li Gong as the Empress. She’s the primary character, and her quiet desperation and determination is almost palpable.

Add to this great story and great cast some astonishingly detailed production design, elaborate period costumes and an enormous apocalyptic battle and you have this movie. The sets are astonishing. In particular the halls of the palace with their glowing glass pillars are so detailed that it humbles you just to look at it. The vast courtyard of the imperial palace is apparently the largest movie set ever constructed in China and was big enough to dwarf the thousand professional soldiers involved in the battle scene there. (Their ranks were augmented by computer to fill the space.) The costumes too are intricate, detailed and ornate. Apparently they were also quite heavy and cumbersome.

This movie is an amazing accomplishment. It tells an interesting story of corruption, decadence and decay, and it tells it on a scale not often to be found even in the modern era of hundred million dollar blockbuster movies. I’d say that this is a movie that could not be made here in the United States. It’s so quintessentially Chinese. Not just in language and design, but in thought. Only in modern China, I think, could such a film exist. I’m glad it does exist too, because this movie makes the entire world a richer place.

April 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 422 – Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

The Little Shop of Horrors – April 26th, 2011

Today I had an unpleasant experience. I won’t say it was bad, because it went fairly well, but it was a root canal. And let’s face it, even the smoothest root canal in the world is still a root canal and involves getting shot full of anesthetic and having the nerves in one of your teeth drilled out. That’s unpleasant. Sure, I had a really great endontist and all, but yeah. No fun. So we decided to watch the only movie out of our collection that features a dentist. Sadly, we don’t own the musical version of this story, but we do have the classic, directed by none other than Roger Corman.

I went to check on various versions of this story after we finished watching it and was amused at how many of them prominently showcase Jack Nicholson’s involvement in the movie. He’s only in one scene and while he steals it quite handily it’s still just one scene. Still, out of everyone else in the movie he’s the biggest name now. Makes sense. But it’s still amusing. And it really is a great scene. Nicholson plays Wilbur Force, a young man who just loves going to the dentist and prefers to have his fillings and extractions done without novocaine. “It dulls the senses” after all. He positively delights in the promise of the pain of dental procedures. I’m sure he’d have loved a root canal. And his scene is what I thought of when I decided we should watch this today.

To be honest, I know the musical better. When I was in high school I was involved in a rather large production of it, involving the huge rented plant props and all. I was in the production crew and had to squeeze myself behind the plant with another crew member to hold the arms near the end. It was a fun production to work on and I’ve had a fondness for the show ever since. I only saw this version after I’d seen the musical and it immediately struck me as such a strange movie for someone to make a musical of, but at the same time it’s perfect. It was already a dark comedy that poked fun at itself and that brand of humor really translated well to the stage.

The movie definitely has a low budget 1960s feel to it. There’s an intangible quality to certain films made at that time that’s simply instantly recognizable. But this is a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously at all. It’s not truly a horror movie. It’s a comedy parody of a horror movie. It’s a movie about a young man who raises a carnivorous plant to impress his boss at the flower shop and ends up having to feed it human corpses to keep it growing. Sure, you could play that seriously and given what else I’ve seen from Roger Corman, he might well have. But this was certainly played for laughs. How else do you explain a character named Siddie Shiva who has a new dead relative every time you see her? Or Nicholson’s gleeful dental patient? Seymour’s hypochondriac mother who makes cod liver oil soup? Detectives named Fink and Stoolie? A flower shop customer who eats what he buys right off the stems (salting them first, of course)? No, this is parody, plain and simple.

So, to the story. Seymour Krelboin is a young man who works in a flower shop. His boss is the grumpy Gravis Mushnick and his coworker is the sweet Audry Fulquard. Seymour’s in danger f losing his job if he can’t impress Mr. Mushnick, so he brings in a plant he’s been cultivating at home. It’s a fly trap of some sort, raised from mysterious seeds. He’s named it the Audry Jr. and it turns out it’ll only grow if fed blood. So the movie continues with the reluctant Seymour bringing dead bodies to Audry Jr. and the plant growing larger and more impressive as the day go by. It attracts new customers, gains attention from a horticultural society and seems to be the ticket to Seymour’s life getting immensely better. Aside from all the killing he has to do in order to keep the plant fed and happy. Because yes, it talks to him, demanding food.

Put that plot together with the humor of the whole thing and you’ve got a truly bizarre movie that just seems to somehow work. It’s self-aware enough to parody itself, which is a difficult thing and I honestly couldn’t say if it was intentionally written in ahead of time or if it just worked out that way thanks to direction and acting. After all, this was shot over a very short period of time and at least one of the writers reports that they were drunk while they were writing it. But two of the customers are a couple of teenage girls sent to find a florist to provide flowers for a parade float. They latch onto Audry Jr. as the centerpiece of the float and are thoroughly thrilled by it even when it blooms to reveal the faces of the people it’s eaten. In fact, that makes them all the happier. There’s just this odd and perfect vibe going on through the whole thing and while I think some of it was simply the lucky convergence of actors, script and plot, some of it shows that with the right tools you can get a classically great film on a small budget in a short time. And it helps if you have Jack Nicholson.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

April 26, 2011

Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

I’ve never seen this movie before today. I’ve seen the musical that was based on it many times – both the film version and the stage version, but I’ve never seen the original movie. I have to say I was somewhat surprised.

What I was expecting, given the movie’s pedigree, was cheesy Roger Corman horror. I feel I’m familiar with his particular brand of film from this era. Things like The Wasp Woman or the Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent. But this movie is instead a cheesy Roger Corman comedy, and although some of his films have comedic elements this is the first I can recall seeing that was played almost entirely for laughs. I knew, of course that the plot of the movie had great comedic potential, because that is what is played up in the musical, but it was kind of strange to realize that although this movie had the word “horrors” in the title it was not a horror film.

The plot here is largely the same as in the musical that was spawned from this film. Bumbling young stock boy Seymore Krelboin is working for Mr. Mushnick in his struggling flower shop on skid row. He has a crush on his co-worker Audrey and he is raising a mysterious plant of his own design that he doesn’t really understand. Eventually he discovers that his strange plant, which he has dubbed the Audrey Jr., thrives on human blood. Over the course of the movie he reluctantly feeds the plant as it grows to enormous proportions. Mr. Mushnick’s little shop wins all sorts of acclaim from the Audrey Jr, but it is all doomed and ultimately Seymore’s complicity in the crimes necessary to satiate the plant catch up with him.

It sounds like the plot of a serious horror film, and that’s what I was expecting. I was expecting the majority of the humor in the movie to come from its laughably low budget and cheesy production values. What I was not expecting was that virtually the entire movie was going to be played for laughs. My first hint was when a visitor to the flowershop declared that it was his intention to eat the flowers he had just purchased. “That’s odd” thought I, but that was onlt the very beginning of the strangeness.

Mel Wellis as Mr. Mushnick is all about the crazy accent and the rediculous foreign character he is playing. Jonathan Haze as Seymore is all bumbling pratfalls. Excised from the musical version is Seymore’s hypochondriac mother, who cooks all of her meals with various homeopathic remedies in them. There’s a pair of high-school girls who are constructing a rose parade float and offer to buy the necessary flowers from Mushnick because they are impressed by the Audrey Jr. There’s the hard boiled pair of cops who communicate in clipped cliches.

Of course there’s also the sadistic dentist (though in this movie he’s only tangentially related to the overall plot) and his masochistic patient – famously played by a very young and manic Jack Nicholson. Of course I knew that this movie gave Jack his big break (in the same way that Tarantula did for Clint Eastwood) and it was indeed a pleasure to watch him hamming it up with the rest of the cast.

I had fun watching this tonight. It wasn’t anything like what I was expecting, but it was fun. I’m not saying it’s flawless. Much of the humor is rather strained (particularly the pratfalls, which never struck me as particularly funny) and the ending is a big “so what” that feels like it needs to be accompanied by a “wah-wah” trombone effect. The entire production is do broad and over-the-top that it doesn’t actually feel all that funny. It is a unique film, though, and somewhat of an iconic one. I very much wish, however, that I now had the movie musical to follow it up with.

April 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment