Friday, July 13, 2007

The Island (2005)

Directed by Michael Bay
Starring Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson

Now here's a movie that had some promise and could have been a great suspense/mystery into the foundation of self and soul, but they totally went after the Chick, Bang, Boom audience instead by

A) Revealing the truth of their existence in the first 10 minutes of the film and making the rest of the story one huge effects-laden chase scene.


B) Hiring Michael Bay

CloneBoy meets CloneGirl in controlled lab habitat. CloneBoy saves CloneGirl which threatens to expose Evil God-Complex Scientist. Evil God-Complex Scientist hires Mercs to hunt down CloneBoy and CloneGirl with apparent bonus if they can destroy FutureLosAngeles in the process. CloneBoy and CloneGirl escape by hiding in the Speederbike scene from Return of the Jedi. CloneBoy and CloneGirl discover the world, their sexuality, and that people - in general - suck. Evil God-Complex Scientist never learns any lesson. CloneBoy and CloneGirl return to save their CloneFriends with the help of MercLeaderWithAHeartOfGold. Evil God-Complex Scientist has a nasty experience with his Pocket Fisherman and dies. CloneBoy, CloneGirl and their Clone Friends emerge from the ground and signal that there will be 6 more weeks of winter.

Jeez. There are days that I seriously wonder about Hollywood and the people that go see movies and then I remember that the target audience for this fiasco was probably pre-pubescent. I can only pray that Transformers doesn't suffer from the fact that it shares 2 of the 3 screenwriters.

From a purely subjective standpoint, this movie is full of plotholes and omissions. There's a really cool jetbike sequence, but you never see anything like this vehicle anywhere else in the movie. Lincoln Six Echo, the main character, who is so nosy and curious that he's called into the "Principal's office" is freely allowed access to a restricted area and then somehow manages to keep the key, allowing him to learn the truth and escape. The clones are supposed to be kept in a vegetative state according to law, but this causes them to die prematurely so they're implanted with memories and made to live a THX-1138 style reality where everything is monitored and controlled. Considering the staffing requirements, that's a pretty big secret to keep hidden, especially from the Defense Department which is supposedly the big funder of this project. The list goes on. Better to just check your brain at the door and get a new one from your clone on the way out.

Ewan McGregor manages a good accent and I thought it was a nice touch that his "Original" has the full "shite"-laden Scottish accent and that they play into this in a scene you see coming the moment the two meet. My only gripe is that at times the pacing is awkward when the two share the screen. Clone-Ewan speaks, then there's a gap of dead space before Original-Ewan responds. This is especially evident in a scene where they're arguing over who's going to drive a $500K Cadillac. Scarlett Johansson does a good job, though her Original is in a coma and you never see her except for an ad in a storefront so there's no interplay there. Sean Bean as the head scientist plays self-righteously evil to a "t", which I'll admit he's very good at.

Repeat after me:

This... is... a... Michael... Bay... film...

Granted, Bruckheimer isn't producing, but there's still an incredible number of practical and CG effects and as usual they're all over the top and reminiscent of how 5-year-olds play with Matchbox cars. In one scene, featured heavily in the previews and which you'd think would spell certain death for anything larger than an amoeba, the characters are miraculously saved by netting attached to construction scaffolding. The guy who rescues them even says "Jesus must love you". No, just Michael Bay.

And they say Sean Bean's character has a god-complex.

Hard to hear through all the explosions.

Atmosphere and Immersive Details
Although they create a very nice compromise between a utopian future and a dysfunctional one better than Minority Report, there's still not much to really draw you in. Most of the technology is familiar but just evolved enough to feel strange. My earlier gripe with the jetbikes... you'd think these would be all over the LA skyline but there are only 2 in the entire movie. The action sequences are comicbook fantasy with enough speed and debris to turn the main characters into chunky salsa many times over. All the cars (Cops, Mercs, etc) are Dodges (except for a Chevy truck that was nicely aged and gets credit for being well thought out). Even the basics of the story are full of holes. There's almost nothing believable to be had in this film, which is good because I'd hate to believe that an operation like the one depicted would ever exist.

A lot of action, too little story, and too much external inspiration makes this just an "ok" flick. They could have taken it down a slightly different route without getting too cerebral and added a bit more originality (they actually used the speederbike sounds from Return of the Jedi in the Jetbike sequence) and I think it would have been better for it. 2 Stars, Didn't Like It.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Jacket (2005)

Directed by John Maybury
Starring Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley

I remember seeing the previews for this movie and thinking initially that it would be a horror film. I mean, what other genre is there where you're tortured in a straight jacket? The premise seemed strange as well, and in hindsight still does, but perhaps that's what sets this movie apart from others like it and makes it memorable, even if other similar movies could be considered better.

A gulf war (the first one) veteran (Adrien Brody), wounded in the line of duty and discharged, is charged with a heinous crime and committed to an institution because he has been found to suffer from a delusional state and deemed mentally unstable. As part of his treatment he is routinely drugged, strapped into a full body straight-jacket and slid into a morgue drawer where the boundaries of reality break down and allow him to travel to another time. During his time in the drawer, he comes to find out about his own impending death and helps a woman (Keira Knightley) who is haunted by the semi-abusive relationship she had with her mother.

Ultimately this is a movie about self-sacrifice, good deeds and redemption, though it does break a few of time-travels unspoken rules in Hollywood. Namely that the future is either flexible or immutable in any given movie, but in The Jacket, it's seemingly both.

I still haven't seen The Pianist, Brody's Oscar-winning performance (though it is in my queue) so I can't compare this performance to what can be assumed to be his best work, but he does a good job playing crazy and off balance in this role. Keira Knightley does a good job and isn't her usual monotone self. She plays dark and damaged decently, but not convincingly. It's like when they try to ugly up an actor/actress to play a role... you still know they're good-looking underneath.

I was impressed by the supporting cast which included Kris Kristofferson, Jennifer Jason Leigh (who amazingly stays fully clothed... though she isn't a starring role so maybe this doesn't count) and Daniel Craig (the new James Bond). Kristofferson plays his usual grizzled old man who could kick your ass and Leigh's character is good but relatively forgettable, serving as the yin to Kristofferson's yang. (Ok, that sounded bad.) Craig was a bit of a surprise in the sense that it's always fun to go back and see movies that now-famous actors were in before they became the big names they are today. Like watching Kevin Spacey in The Ref. One thing's for sure, I'm glad they left him blond as Bond, he's a bit odd looking as a brunette (or is that just him playing his role as a fellow patient well?)

There are plenty of flashes and surreal effects while Brody's character is in the morgue drawer. They're quite disorienting, which I'd imagine is a pretty good representation of what the character is supposed to be going through. Flashes of the past, the present, the future, the war, etc. A few of these sequences tend to go on for a while, but that just helps you to empathize I guess. There are no effects when the character arrives in or leaves a different time, he just disappears between camera cuts.

I seem to remember a lot of very quiet scenes with sound effects playing a bigger role in this movie than music, especially during the time in the morgue drawer to try and bring you into the character's experience in a sort of sensory deprivation chamber. Amusingly, the song that opens the credits seems to be an answer to the question posed in the final spoken line of the film.

Atmosphere and Immersive Details
You really feel you're in the drawer with Brody. The silence, the darkness, the flashes of light and images and staccato noises all really draw you in. Character motivation was weak, with some apparently sadistic orderlies who took a bit too much pleasure in their work and some reversals that seemed to come out of left field in the usual "I hate you, I love you" fashion.

My biggest issue is the premise of the movie: that if you're drugged and restrained and stuck in a dark cramped "womb-like" place, you'll actually start traveling through time. They hinted at the fact that one of the drugs causes visions and hallucinations, but I'd have been happier if they'd explored that avenue a bit further, really making you question if the character was actually traveling or just simply delusional as everyone else believed.

A good movie, but not a rewarding movie. I'd recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the actors or the genre, but if you're looking for a really good "mental patient traveling through time" movie, go check out 12 Monkeys. 3 Stars (Liked It)

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Machinist (2004)

Directed by Brad Anderson
Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh

I've liked Christian Bale as an actor for a while now, but I'll admit that his star rose for me only in the past few years when I rented American Psycho and saw him in Batman Begins. A friend recommended I see this movie, saying that it was a really good film and that Bale lost a dangerous amount of weight to play the lead role.

A skinny outsider, trapped in a dead-end job and suffering from insomnia, meets some guy who apparently is so far below the radar that nobody else knows anything about him. As time goes on, the beginnings of a conspiracy are uncovered that will ultimately shake the core of the outsider and how he views the world.

Sound familiar? At first glance, this story smacks of Fight Club without the fight or the club, but ultimately, The Machinist is a completely standalone story. I’ve tried to avoid the recently ubiquitous “schizophrenic/invisible friend” movies ever since making the mistake of seeing “Identity”. Luckily, we’re not treated to that type of sensationalist supernatural representation.

Instead, the main character’s descent into madness is gradual and calculated with plenty of ominously foreboding elements. Hollywood tends to romanticize schizophrenia, and this movie is no exception, but at least it's subtle, closer to the way A Beautiful Mind pulled the wool over your eyes until the reveal and then maintained the effects of the character's illness. Overall I was impressed with the portrayal and the way the movie took you along for the ride.

In a classic De Niro-esque fashion, Christian Bale lost an incredible amount of weight to play the part of a man who hasn’t slept for a year. Every bone and muscle sinew sticks out from his seemingly 0% body fat physique. In one scene, you can actually count his ribs. The line “if you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist” is repeated twice and isn’t far off the mark. A scene establishes that his character weighs south of 120 for most of the movie. Beyond that, Bale plays a very convincing paranoid insomniac. I’m surprised that I never heard about this movie until after Batman Begins, though I can see why Christopher Nolan knew that he’d have the intensity necessary to play Batman/Bruce Wayne.

There are some actresses that almost guarantee a nude scene in a movie. Somehow, Jennifer Jason Leigh can’t get through a movie without showing off some skin. It’s like it’s written into her contract or something. No exceptions here, though to be fair she is playing a call girl so there’s at least some justification.

The computerized effects in this movie are subtle, almost subliminal at times. Flashes of a man wearing glasses and a speedometer. A water tower in a background shot that turns out to be a giant swing ride on second glance. An eerie lensing effect looking through a camera’s viewfinder. Together these serve to raise the emotion of the mystery quite effectively.

Practical effects are equally emotional, though in a more terrifying manner. Most notable are the industrial accidents that are reminiscent of horror films. The portrayal of the slow clockwork progression of a gruesome death or maiming by a soulless machine is chilling. That said, gore is kept to a minimum and lighting is used to reduce what you see to what you think you might be seeing.

The eerie and ominous orchestral score successfully heightens the mystery and suspense while complimenting the half-asleep waking dream state of the main character. (And I mean that in a good way.)

Atmospheric and Immersive Details
I’ve read somewhere that dreams are the way the rational mind makes sense of seemingly irrational events or events that the rational mind cannot face in the waking world. This movie capitalizes on this concept, moving the main character’s nightmare into his waking world because he is unable to sleep. An amusement park fun house ride in the middle of the movie serves as an extremely symbolic waking dream with almost every element hinting at the solution of the mystery. During the ride, the figuratively spiritual choice of Salvation vs Damnation is shown as a literal fork in the road with the fun house car heading to Hell on the left (the shoulder your devil sits on in superstition by the way). Left turns show up throughout the movie and ultimately play into the real reason that the main character drives so far out of his way to eat pie and coffee at the airport every night. It’s only once he faces his demons that he is finally able to make a right turn towards Salvation.

The use of imagery is vast, with specific elements appearing over and over (either in reality or imagined) and camera angles placed to include items important to the story or end a tracking shot on a word in a poster to add emphasis to the scene. Color and lighting help heighten the moods of the various scenes. Industrial machines appear deadlier and more menacing, characters appear surreal at times, and the darkness increases as the main character’s life continues to fall apart so that near the end there are no lights at all, only a few camping lanterns and flashlights. This light/dark theme carries right into the credits with a rarely seen fade to white and then black lettering against a white background.

A really good movie that I'm glad was recommended to me. Strong story, great detail, good acting and role preparation. This movie was right up my alley and I really enjoyed it. My only complaint would be that at times the story took a strange tangent that was unnecessary (Ivan's fingers) and though a solid film and one that I'd like to add to my collection, not one that I'd pick first to watch given a choice. Because of this, I've given it 4 Stars (Really Liked It).

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Directed by Rob Reiner
Starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan

I remember watching this film in high school at a friend's house one night. There were a bunch of us over and we couldn't decide what to watch. The girls eventually won the battle and tossed in When Harry Met Sally. Trouble was, they decided to fast forward through all the "couple on the couch" scenes, so until today I've never really watched this movie in its entirety.

"Men and women can't be friends, the sex thing always gets in the way." That about sums up the movie. Tracking the lives and romances and on-again-off-again friendship of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) from college graduation to their early 30s. There's the famous "fake orgasm in the diner" scene with Rob Reiner's mom playing the woman who orders "what she's having" at the end. But oddly, that wasn't the laugh for me. I got a good chuckle watching Meg Ryan switch instantly from "Passion" to deadpan, the quick change was comedy timing gold in my opinion.

The "couple on the couch" scenes I mentioned earlier are scattered throughout and seem to be interludes separating long chunks of time in the lives of the main characters. The couples are cute and their stories somewhat interesting, but ultimately forgettable. They're sharing an intimate moment of their lives - how they met - and though you feel their love, you really either go maudlin remembering how you met your sweetie or depressed that you don't have a story like theirs to tell.

Having gone down the "friends before lovers" road with my wife, we have our own stories to tell, though some are a bit complicated if you delve into the details. Better to glaze the surface and find that happy romantic nostalgia that this movie aims to bring out in its viewers.

Lots of witty banter and monologues make the movie fun and heart wrenching throughout, but ultimately you get that feel good moment at the end, even if it's somewhat ruined by the penultimate "couple on the couch" scene that you knew was coming all along.

That witty dialogue I was talking about? Some of it is really good and you have to wonder if they were delivering lines or ad-libbing some of what the scene called for. There are a few scenes when you really see some great acting from Meg Ryan. Billy Crystal only falls into his usual shtick a few times, notably in a museum when he starts up one of his accents and at a Sharper Image when he starts up a karaoke machine with "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" from Oklahoma.

The only thing I'd call an effect is the awful hairpiece they gave to Crystal for his college scenes. Looked like a cat crawled on his head and died.

The only romantic comedy I can remember with Special Effects was Sleepless in Seattle and that was pretty bad. You're supposed to "Aww..." not "Ooh!" at these movies for a reason.

Lots of old Louis Armstrong songs and songs from that vein depicting either couples in love or at odds but still in love (Tomato/Tomahto). Fitting to the story of course. Personally, I love these songs and they were all over this genre a while back. Makes me wonder if 40 years from now I'll be watching a romantic comedy with my wife and hearing "Do me baby, one more time" as the background music. Nah...

Atmosphere and Immersive Details
This movie used the story to move you along and there's really not much care for small details or even the large ones. During an early scene when Harry & Sally are driving down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, they're approaching the city from the north and the Hancock Tower is looming in front of them. On this point of that road as you are driving south, there are apartments to the right of you and Lake Michigan to your left. But as the camera changes to view the actors through the windshield, there are buildings where the lake should be. In another scene early on, the two are in a diner (not THE diner) and the diner is full of patrons, but when they leave and go back to their car in the parking lot, the lot is practically empty.

All said, this is a classic flick, though not one that I'd be wanting to bring out over and over. For this reason, I've given it 3 Stars (Liked It). There's just enough romance and just enough comedy between the moments when they're at eachother's throats and moments when they're depressed to make watching this movie enjoyable, but not with enough warm fuzzies to want to watch it again any time soon. Maybe I'll trot this out again in 40 years on Interactive 3-D YouTube Blu-ray and splice in my wife and I on the couch for good measure.

Watch Now

So Netflix recently started a new service on their site called Watch Now. I'm signed up for the $14 plan so this entitles me to 14 hours worth of movies per month. Pretty cool.

My guess is that this is in answer to Blockbuster's recent campaign touting that unlike Netflix, you don't have to wait by the mailbox for the next movie to arrive, you can also get movies from their brick & mortar stores. Watch Now is like Netflix saying "who needs stores?".

So I figured I'd give it a try since this would help me to whittle down my list a bit faster. Unfortunately, they don't have all their titles available in Watch Now format, but this makes sense since the service is new and they do seem to be adding new films regularly. What is nice is that they allow you to pick movies from your queue, though seemingly not in any particular order and watching the movie does not remove it from your queue as if you had sent it back in the mail.

The service requires that you install a viewer, which is nothing new to anyone who's watched a TV show like LOST on their PC. The download was fast and problem free and the movie started right up. The player checks your video and internet to determine what resolution and image quality will work best for your PC. The controls are basic. There's a full screen option that gives you a pretty good picture, even at 54kbps via wireless. In Full Screen mode, clicking anywhere on the screen will toggle play/pause. There's no Forward or Rewind, just a slider that goes minute by minute. There's also no option for language or subtitles which would have been nice, but I can understand their omission. All in all, not a bad setup and once I can hook my Laptop to my TV, probably not a bad way to watch a movie.

What I'm really curious about is my bank of hours, especially considering that the movie I was watching (When Harry Met Sally) stopped midway through when my wireless network decided to grind to a screeching halt for some unknown reason. I eventually had to shut down my laptop to get it to work again. 57 minutes into the movie and I have to start all over again. Now, the movie's about 95 minutes long, so since I had to start over and move the slider to the 57 minute mark, am I still only using 1 hour and 35 minutes or would that instead count for 3 hours and 10 minutes?

I don't foresee using this feature all of the time, especially with the hourly system. It would have been better to say "congrats, you get 6 movies" and at least then I'd know that I'm not going to have to watch my minutes to ensure that I don't run out in the middle of a gripping film when I hit the 13hr 59min mark. And honestly, 6 movies is a lot and I probably wouldn't have thought twice about it. It wouldn't be too far off the mark from 14 hours and in fact I'd probably end up under 14 hours most months unless I was planning to watch a bunch of old scifi like 2001, Solaris (the original 4 hour Russian version, which is in my queue) and Dune.

All-in-all, pretty cool and simple to set up and use. Add some features and change the meter from hours to films and I'm all over it.