Saturday, February 27, 2010


Directed by Breck Eisner

Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson

For almost the past decade the horror-remake train has been running full-steam ahead. Hollywood has locked down a formula for these remakes, and nigh every one of them follows it. Hire an up-and-coming director (usually a first feature filmmaker), cast either unknowns or "Hey I Know That Guy" faces, throw a fair amount of blood at the screen, and, this is the most important, make sure it looks super, super slick. The formula has proven more hit miss than hit - for every surprisingly good redo (Dawn of the Dead 2004 - for my money the best of the bunch) there are two or three atrocious ones (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Amityville Horror, Halloween). Sure they all look slick, but very rarely do you get a director who can do anything other than fill the frame with pretty (and grisly) images.

The Crazies is based on the George Romero 1973 film of the same name. It's been too long since I've seen the original, so I can't comment too much on the remake's fidelity to it, but I do know the basic premise remains the same: the residents of a small town become infected by a virus that slowly turns them crazy when it enters their drinking water. The government soon steps in - by sending in the military to contain the virus (re: exterminating) the residents, and a small band of townsfolk band together to escape.

In this film the small band of townsfolk is made up of Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), the Sheriff's Deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), and town-girl Becca (Danielle Panabaker). Through the course of the film they must not only fend off those infected by the virus (dubbed "crazies" by the military), they must also out-run the soldiers sent to keep the virus from spreading by any means necessary.

Director Breck Eisner follows in the footsteps of those modern horror directors commissioned to film remakes of older films. Directors like Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th), Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), and Andrew Douglas (The Amityville Horror). Like those directors, he makes The Crazies look slick. Unlike Romero's original, you can tell this film was shot with a fairly reasonable budget. Thankfully Eisner, a first time horror director, understands the genre and relentlessly paces The Crazies with set-piece after set-piece (the best being set in a car-wash). He also has a good eye for frame composition - a bird's eye-view shot over a lake shows the blurry image of a plane under the water, "crazies" move in and out of the background unbeknownst to our main characters - and even when the story becomes predictable (which it is straight from the opening credits) what's going on in front of the camera keeps the audience from losing attention. Eisner has an instinct for what unnerves us, and he uses that instinct to great effect in The Crazies.

As good as Eisner is behind the camera, it's a shame his cast doesn't help him out in front of it. Timothy Olyphant displays none of the charisma he displayed in films like Go, and Radha Mitchell is equally as drab. The only performance of note is Joe Anderson as Russell. He gets some of the screenplay's best lines, and he has a blast spitting them out. He turns in a great performance in a genre not known for them.

With a craftier screenplay and a better cast, The Crazies could possibly have been a modern horror classic. As it is, it's a more than above average genre film that's quite fun and enjoyable. It's a respectable entry into the modern day horror canon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Directed by Armando Iannucci

Starring Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Steve Coogan

In the Loop is one of the funniest films of the past twenty years, and perhaps one of the greatest satires of all time. That's pretty hefty praise, I'm well aware, and to be honest I didn't assess the film in that manner after the first time I saw it during it's theatrical run. After a second viewing, though, I'm confident that the film is just that good. So what was different the second time around? I was able to watch the movie in the comfort of my own home and pay more attention to the rapid-fire (and endlessly quotable) dialogue and catch more of the blink-and-you'll-miss-them jokes. Without the distraction of audience laughter muffling every other deadly funny line, it was clear that I was watching the smartest, sharpest comedy in quite some time.

The basic premise of the story is this: after making an offhand comment that goes against the party line about a war Britain and the USA may be cooking up, International Development Minister Simon Foster (Hollander) finds himself a pawn used by both British and American politicians. That's the gist of the film. What In the Loop is ultimately about, though, is how those politicians and architects of war have personal lives just as regular folk do. Office politics, sex-drives, misunderstandings, mea culpas, late nights, and raquetball (among other things) are a part of life even for those tasked with carefully pitching the idea of going to war to those who can make it happen. In the Loop is not so much about politics as it is about the politics behind politics. These adult men and women squabble, fight, back-stab, and act petty like most real people do.

What makes In the Loop so great and what it gets right is that the focus is always on the jokes, never on an agenda. Those coming into the film looking for an affirmation of their political views would be wise to drop that attitude before pressing play. One of the observations of the Academy Award nominated screenplay (adapted from the BBC series The Thick of It) is that no matter what side you're on, back-room political machinations have always and will always take place, and are made even more complicated and sullied by human behavior.

And it is in watching these characters behave where In the Loop gives the greatest joy. From James Gandolifini's passive-aggressive General Miller to Anna Chlumsky's young naïve go-getter assistant Liza, to Steve Coogan's frustrated parliament constituent, each actor gets multiple comedic moments and nails every single one of them. Very rarely does a cast as large as In the Loop's stick nearly every funny landing.

The character you'll remember the most after watching the film, though, is the one played by Peter Capaldi. His Malcolm Tucker is viciously caustic, condescending, and insulting yet mines the most laughs from the film. Most of the words that come from his mouth are of the unfit-for-print variety, but it's practically a thing of beauty to listen to the man create new and profane ways to insult people. To paraphrase a line from A Christmas Story, "he works in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay." When Tucker word-spars with people (and that's exactly what he does for most of the movie) the film reaches levels of brilliance that are practically blinding (or deafening, if you're sensitive to cussin').

Director Armando Ianucci chose to shoot single-camera (think The Office) while making the film, and it gives In the Loop a documentary feel. While the style lends a feeling of realism, it also adds a layer of surrealism - it's hard to believe these "professionals" are acting this way. But I imagine it's a fairly accurate depiction of government office life. Spend
any amount of time in any work office and you'll find that no matter how professional grown-ups are supposed to act very rarely do they act grown-up.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Directed by Stuart Walker

Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson

Forty-three years before Warren Zevon wrote a song about them (and seventy-three years before Kid Rock bastardized that same song), Universal made a movie about one. Predating The Wolf Man by 6 years, Werewolf of London is considered to be the first Hollywood werewolf film, and featured make-up effects by Jack Pierce, who would go on to create the look of many of Universal's most famous creatures, including the Lon Chaney Jr version of the half man/half wolf and Frankenstein's monster, largely considered his most iconic work.

While in Tibet searching for the mariphasa plant, botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. He survives the attack and heads home to London where, at a botanical show, he is confronted by Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), who claims to have met Wilfred in Tibet while also searching for the mariphasa plant. Dr. Yogami tells the botanist that the bite of the creature that attacked him in Tibet will transform him into a wolf, and that the mariphasa plant will temporarily stop the change. Dismissing the doctor's warning, Glendon continues with an experiment he has been perfecting: he has created artificial moonlight which he filters through a huge lamp in order to get the mariphasa plant to bloom. He soon comes to find that Yogami was telling the truth, and before long is running through the streets of London with hairy palms and inch long fangs.

One of the interesting aspects of Werewolf of London is that there's a science-fiction element to it as well as horror. Glendon transforms his mansion's basement into a laboratory, which comes complete with a Jacob's Ladder and the aforementioned moon-lamp. He wears a white lab-coat and even has an assistant (who seems to show up when it's convenient for the plot). While the spectre of the science-fiction doesn't loom large over the film, Glendon's experiment does play a significant part in the story, and it's quite fun to watch screenwriter John Cotton prod the genre into what is essentially a horror film.

What the film is really about (and why we're watching it), though, is how Glendon handles his transformation, what becomes of him after he changes into a monster, and, most importantly, how he looks
when he becomes the monster.

As previously stated, make-up artist Jack Pierce was commissioned to create the effects in Werewolf of London, and his work is a precursor to what he did with The Wolf Man. While not as extensive and jarring as the make-up done one
Lon Chaney Jr., Henry Hull's wolf-visage is still effective and a great example of the kind of pioneering advancements Pierce was making in regards to practical make-up effects in the early days of cinema. Also impressive are the transformation scenes, which I believe to be superior to the one found in The Wolf Man. The first time we see Wilfred change, he stumbles out of his mansion, unsure of what is happening to him. He passes behind a series of trees, and with each pass we see he has become more beastly. A second transformation sees the camera panning from Glendon's face to his hands resting on his lap and back again, and each movement of the camera shows successive modification of his body. Both scenes are a combination of great direction and effects work.

Like all man-wolves, Wilfred Glendon must have a significant other whom he loves deeply and, therefore, is in danger every time the moon is past it's waxing gibbous phase. In Werewolf of London, Glendon's love interest is his wife Lisa, played by the extraordinarily beautiful Valerie Hobson. Lisa becomes distant from Glendon as the film progresses; she's at first spurned by his rigid dedication to science, then becomes drawn to a close friend named Paul (Lester Matthews), who fuels Wilfred's transformative rage. It's interesting that the women in Werewolf of London are portrayed as adulterers, drunks, or a combination of both. It should also be noted that the only victims of Glendon while he is a werewolf are of the female sex. Wilfred Glendon prowls the streets of London like a rabid, animalistic Jack the Ripper, complete with trench-coat and hat.

Werewolf of London may not be as iconoclastic as The Wolf Man is, and the title may have been swallowed by twenty years of more famous productions on the marquee. But the film itself is a great addition to the canon of early horror cinema. Seek it out should you be hungry for such a thing

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, James Cameron has announced that his little film called Avatar will be making an appearance on DVD and Blu-ray on April 22nd. He also mentions a 3D Blu-ray release sometime in November, however the same article is updated with a statement from Fox indicating that the 3D home-video release will not be ready by November.

I'm anxious to see how Avatar does when it arrives to the home-video market. While I don't doubt it will again set a record or two I have a feeling that, by this time next year, you'll see quite a few DVD and Blu-ray copies of the movie in the "used" bin at F.Y.E. and Wal-Mart. I'm one of the handful of people who think the movie is just good and not convinced it's anything other than empty spectacle. Really, really, really well done spectacle, but empty nonetheless. Will people still buy the story when they're not able to have the world of Pandora envelop them on a gigantic 3D screen? Or will the thread-bare and heavy-handed plot be more evident on a home-viewing. We'll know soon enough.

Check out the article here for some more info about Avatar and what Cameron has in store for the sequel. As indifferent as I am to the movie, I really kinda have an urge to check it out and see how it holds up on the small screen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley

U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) is summoned to Shutter Island in 1954 to investigate the disappearance of a patient from the island's mental hospital. As Teddy and his new partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) dig deeper into the investigation, they discover all is not what it seems at the hospital, and the man responsible for the well-being of the patients may very well hold the key to the island's deadly secret.

If the above description of Martin Scorses's new film sounds as generic as a film plot can get, that's because it is. Even if you've only seen a handful of movies in your lifetime, the plot of Shutter Island will seem at least vaguely familiar and not terribly surprising. You'll probably even be able to figure out the final twist in the story - the moment you realize everything you've just seen means something else - if you haven't already just by watching the trailer. This would normally be a huge problem for a thriller - how thrilling is it, really, if we already know what's going to happen? What saves Shutter Island, however, is the director's dedication to the genre's aesthetics, both visual and aural, a great lead-performance, and a who's who of a supporting cast giving their all and having fun with the schlocky B-grade material.

This isn't the first time Martin Scorsese has covered this kind of ground (he directed the 1991 remake of Cape Fear which treads the same territory), but it's definitely the most fun he's had with it. And even though it's not the type of film you're used to seeing from him, he's obviously very comfortable with it and adept with the material. It's always great to see a master tackling a genre that's not their forte and, sometimes, schooling those who may dabble more in that same genre only to lesser effect. I have a feeling that in the hands of another, less proficient (dare I say younger) director, Shutter Island would have been an absolute mess - a jump-scare filled, jump-cut edited, heavy-metal music blaring, music-video-esque disaster.

Instead, the film is very methodical and tense. Robert "Currently Nominated for an Oscar for My Work on Inglourious Basterds" Richardson's cinematography is quite stunning, contrasting the bright, popping blues, greens, and yellows of life outside the island with the drab gray, blacks, and blues behind the hospital walls. Richardson's camera is allowed to move in and around the island/hospital like a lost patient observing the story - it hides behind chain-linked fences, observes through steel-meshed floor. It whips suddenly, and lingers on the long, barely lit hallways. Scorsese knows that the images the mind creates when faced with the total absence of light is much more frightening than anything put in front of the camera. He also makes great use of sound: the anguished cries of patients are audible throughout the film, as is the battering of the hospital by an outside storm, and these aural cuts have much to do with launching Shutter Island's creepy factor to 11.

Much has been made (if you pay attention to this sort of thing) of Paramount's decision to move Shutter Island from an October 2009 release date to February 2010. I'm not going to speculate on the reason for the date change, however I do think had the film been released during the fourth quarter of 2009 then Leonardo DiCaprio would have been a strong contender for at least a Golden Globe Best Actor nod, if not an outside shot at an Academy Award nomination. While I've always kind of liked his work, it's been hard to argue that some of his roles in the last decade have not fit. His performance as Teddy Daniels, however, is his strongest stuff in years. I'm finally seeing what Scorsese has been seeing in him for almost the past decade. It's just a shame it took almost four collaborations between the two for that to happen.

The rest of the cast is a grab-bag full of some of my favorite supporting players. Max von Sydow (who turns 81 in April!) shows up as the sinister Dr. Naehring; Mark Ruffalo turns in a solid performance as Teddy's partner; Elias Koteas and Jackie Earle Haley (last seen as Rorschach in Watchmen) are maniacal mental patients; and John Corroll Lynch and Ted Levine have small roles as a corrections officer and the hospital warden respectively. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the acting talent involved here. One of the joys in watching the movie is seeing these actors play off each other and realize they're in a B-grade thriller directed by a legend.

Like The Wolfman, Shutter Island is a movie that is lifted above the mediocre nature of it's screenplay by a talented director and participants that care about film as a craft. (Shutter Island also has an advantage of an outstanding music supervisor who has chosen some magnificent pre-existing pieces of music - one of which can be found here and the other here to go along with Scorsese's images.) Both of these films are very modern yet lean heavily on old-fashioned techniques, creating exciting and new ideas. Shutter Island may not be a revolution in storytelling, but it certainly is masterful filmmaking .

Monday, February 15, 2010


Directed by Tom Ford

Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult

Whether we are aware of it or not, we make our true selves completely invisible to the rest of the world. We do it because it makes life easier. For us and for those around us. Some have more reasons to go about their day unnoticed than others, though. In A Single Man, Colin Firth plays George Falconer, one of those individuals whose life is better led without the secrets in it pouring out.

It's November 30th, 1962, and George is a gay man living in Los Angeles - reason number one for him to wear his invisibility cloak. The second reason is that eight months before, George lost his significant other Jim (Matthew Goode) in a car accident, and this torments him immensely. So much so that he spends that late November day planning his suicide.

The film opens as George awakens from a dream in which Jim is laying cold and dead next to an overturned car. It then follows his morning routine to become the "George" that the outside world knows: a normal, relatively happy college English professor who keeps his distance from his students; who chides fellow associates who speak of taking refuge in home-made bunkers, paranoid Russia will lob the nuclear bomb onto U.S. soil at any given moment. George then spends his day carefully arranging his life so that, when it ends, the people that know him can properly take care of things.

On this, the last day of his life, George takes extra care to notice things he may not have noticed before. His neighbors' interactions with each other, the hands of a clock moving slowly, the smile of a pretty office girl, the exposed muscular torso of a male tennis player. He also does things he may not normally do: instead of talking the assigned Aldous Huxley book with his students he discusses the perceived threat of minorities; he dances to rock and roll with his neighbor and one time London-lover Charley (Julianne Moore); he opens up to a young free-spirited student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). These experiences change George's perception on the way he has led his life since losing his love - as a depressed, morose, unfulfilled slog who feels even more invisible since the one person who really knew him was taken away.

Tom Ford, the director of A Single Man, is a fashion designer, and it shows in the way he handles the film. Every frame is wonderfully composed and full of texture, color, and wonderful production design. In fact, some of the scenes are almost too well done, lending an almost clinical feel to the look of the film. It's a beautiful - really beautiful film, but Ford tries too hard in places to make it look perfect.

This is corrected, though, by a mesmerizing performance by Colin Firth. I'm not too familiar with Firth's work, but here he is the heart of the film, and whenever a chasm arose between the film and the emotional attachment I had with it, Firth (who has the gargantuan task of being in every single scene) was there to reign me back into the grip of cinema playing out before me.

The performance of Firth and a wonderful score from Abel Korzeniowski (listen to clips here) elevate the film so that even the somewhat obvious and convenient ending packed an emotional wallop - for me, anyway.

A Single Man is a great film, and surely one of the best films of 2010. It's a film that digs deep into your emotional core and takes refuge, so that it's themes, power, and look stick with you for a long, long time.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Directed by Joe Johnston

Starring: Benicia del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, And Hugo Weaving

Plagued with production problems (including a last-minute change in director), The Wolfman remake seemed about as cursed as the Talbot family of the film itself. Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, the film succeeds when in gear as an atmospheric horror/thriller, but fails when it attempts to tell a cohesive story that makes a lick-of-sense.

Benicia del Toro (who uncannily resembles Lon Chaney Jr., the star of the 1941 original The Wolf Man) plays Lawrence Talbot, an actor who returns home to Britain after many years abroad in America, to reconcile with his father (Anthony Hopkins) and track down the killer of his brother Ben. While investigating a group of traveling gypsies (and in between fighting off advances from his brother’s fiancé played by Emily Blunt), Lawrence is bitten by a werewolf, and soon falls under the spell of the full-moon, which turns him into – well, you know. Entrails a-plenty are then spilled.

The narrative pays homage to the spirit and integrity of the original film in some places and spits in the face of it in others – and I’m not talking about the change in period to Victorian-era England. While the basic tone of the story and Larry’s struggle with what he has become remain more or less in tact, there’s an odd change to a key relationship that I can only figure was modified to satiate a modern audience that requires big, explosive third-act payoffs.

Problems with fidelity to the original source material, though, is a distant second to the problems the screenplay has in and of itself, regardless of whether or not it is sticking to the structure of the 1941 original. Characters make puzzling decisions – at one point Larry is instructed by his father not to leave Talbot manor under a full-moon, then, one scene later, does it anyway with no explanation as to why – and some important story points are glossed over and unclear. The screenplay is credited to Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, but it seems like there were more than two cooks in this kitchen. The narrative isn’t a cold sloppy Joe so much as a luke-warm stew of ideas served with only one purpose: to make sure what you only really care about is watching a half-man/half-beast hack off limbs, slash faces of small-town villagers, and gut officials of Scotland Yard.

And it is in these sequences where the film succeeds in spades. Director Joe Johnston (of the severely underrated The Racketeer and the severely retarded Jurassic Park III) crafts the scenes when Larry is in full wolf-mode with equal parts fun, gore, and scares. Legendary make-up artist Rick Baker has created a wolf man worthy of the classic film (and of the genre in general – seriously, it’s masterful stuff), and the gore effects are equally as impressive. It’s clear Johnston and Baker had a blast filming these scenes, and there are shots that exemplify a director who had complete and utter confidence in his make-up and special effects department. Johnston’s not afraid to bring the camera up close to Baker’s work and let it linger.

While there is a palpable sense of atmosphere throughout the film, a credit to Johnston’s abilities as a director, Johnston curiously fails sometimes to make use of fog and shadows, relying more on loud jump-scares and gruesome flashing images to frighten the audience. While overall I was impressed with the thick cloud of doom hanging over Blackmoor woods that Johnston creates, it felt like he missed plenty of opportunities to instill a sense of real dread into the film.

Del Toro does fine work as Talbot. Besides his aforementioned resemblance to Chaney Jr. (which is creepy), and a vocal cadence that is, at times, similar to Chaney’s as well, del Toro finds the place in Talbot that’s uncomfortable being back to where his childhood was, and is even more uncomfortable when he realizes he literally cannot control the beast within. The rest of the performances range from good (Anthony Hopkins (who once again brings his patented over-the-top derangement to the screen) and Hugo Weaving) to bland (Emily Blunt).

But you’re not going to see this film for Academy Award worthy acting or Robert Towne levels of screenplay craftsmanship. You’re going because you want to see a man transform into a monster and wreak havoc on the innards of innocent victims. You’re going to see it for that reason, and with the remake of The Wolfman, you’re going to get your money’s worth.


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