Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogies could have ended.

There is one line of dialogue that, if added, would easily shave about 7 hours off of Peter Jackson's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogies respectively

I suppose I could just summon some of those giant hawks to take us straight to the mountain. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit in High Frame Rate

I suspect a few of you out there, less nerdy and obsessed with movies than me, might have noticed that one of the showings listed for The Hobbit said something like "HFR 3D" and wondered what the hell that means. HFR stands for High Frame Rate. Normally movies are filmed at 24 frames per second, but for The Hobbit, Peter Jackson filmed it at 48 frames per second.

In theory, this is supposed to make the film look more detailed and lifelike, since 48 fps is closer to how we see things in real life. In execution it yields mixed results. If you're wondering how noticeable the HFR is, the answer is that you will notice it the very instant that the Warner Bros. logo flies in at the start of the film. It looks astonishingly clean and fluid, but at the same time you might feel like something is a bit off.

One of the main problems I felt watching scenes that involved either a lot of movement was that in HFR, it felt as though you were watching the movie on fast forward. This was really problematic at the start of the movie, where there is lots of bustling action. Even minor things, like Bilbo cleaning up his house, felt as though they were happening too fast to be at normal speed.

Also problematic was the very look of the film itself. At many times it looked as though you were watching either a BBC sci-fi show from the 80's or the cut-scene in a video game. I suppose that isn't too surprising, since video games, and things shot on video (such as soap operas, 80's era BBC sci-fi shows, and essentially anything broadcast live) are shown at a higher frame rate than things shot on film. The thing is, it's hard not to associate the look of video with the types of things generally shot on video. Even though this movie has a massive budget, at times the HFR made it look like a British made for TV movie.

When it came to CGI heavy scenes, that's where it really felt like a video game. In one particular scene, an orc has a monologue while CGI rendered fire burns in the background. I'm sure it would have looked completely convincing had I seen it in a regular 24 fps showing, but at 48 fps, I felt like I should be picking up a controller because at any moment it would be time to start mashing buttons.

I'm willing to admit that part of the problem may not be that there's anything wrong with the HFR, and it's just that viewers tend to associate things shot at high frame rates with forms of entertainment that are inferior to movies. On the other hand, there's no getting around the fact that things shot in HFR look as though they are being fast forwarded, and I think part of that may be due to the fact that HFR reduces the amount of motion blur that occurs, which may be key to tricking your eye that what you're seeing is at normal speed.

I definitely understand the interest in showing movies in HFR, since there are times when watching movies filmed normally that I've been aware of their inferior quality. For example, next time you watch a movie in the cinema, pay attention whenever the camera pans across a scene. You'll notice that in those moments, the image gets blurry as hell. All of the detail gets completely washed out. In The Hobbit, in scenes where the camera panned, it still maintained sharp levels of detail.

I think it was a daring move on behalf of Peter Jackson to not only show the movie in HFR, a controversial new format, but to show it in HFR on top of showing it in 3D, itself a controversial format. Now, many of my friends have heard me voice my complaints about most 3D movies, but with The Hobbit, I think that the HFR greatly added to the 3D effect. I never felt the sort of eye strain I usually endure when watching a 3D movie. It was actually surprisingly comfortable to watch in 3D, aside from the fact that I had to wear glasses on top of my glasses. That's good, because The Hobbit clocks in at almost 3 hours long.

There were some moments where the 3D combined with HFR actually made the movie feel genuinely life-like. In some shots I actually felt as though the actors were standing right in front of me. At other times, it felt as if I was watching some absurdly immersive stage version of The Hobbit, and that the actors were on a stage, just a few feet away. It also helped that Peter Jackson seemed to know a thing or two about how to direct a movie in 3D, and the shots he chose had a very natural feel to them, as opposed to the eyeball gouging feel of Transformers: Dark of the Moon when seen in 3D.

This new HFR format is going to take lots of getting used to, and I suspect that we're going to see more of it in the future. I'd definitely be interested to see a 2D movie shown in HFR, preferably one without lots of CGI effects. Then, I feel, it will be easier to evaluate the format on its own merits. It's a bit hard to do now, because I think it's possible that CGI artists may have some work to do to catch up to the new format.

So, if you're a die hard film buff, I'd say its worth checking out The Hobbit in HFR, just to see what the next big thing in filmmaking looks like. If you're a more conventional filmgoer, I'd recommend seing a non-HFR showing, just so you don't get distracted by the radically different look of HFR. I myself plan to re-watch The Hobbit in a 2D non-HFR showing, so that I can focus more on the actual story, and not the look of the movie.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kickstart a better Cincy Comic-Con

For three years now, the Cincinnati Comic Expo has been Cincinnati's local comic-con. It's been good, but there seems to be a large group of people that thinks it can be much better. Yes, I know, a Cincinnati comic-con is probably never going to be as big an event as the ones in San Diego or New York, but that doesn't mean Cincinnati can't put on a big enough event for it draw crowds to the area.

So, a group of local artists, shop owners, and other business-minded nerds have decided they want to put on a local comic convention of their own, aptly named the Cincinnati Comic-Con. From what I understand, the people managing the Cincinnati Comic Expo haven't been as receptive to outside ideas as some would like, and more importantly, haven't made as much of a point of trying to bring current big names in the industry to the expo. Yes, they've brought many veteran writers and artists, and there is plenty of rising independent talent, but there's been been a notable absence of current writers, artists and other people who are working on big projects in the comic industry and other nerd-related things.

The Cincinnati Comic-Con is separate from the existing Cincinnati Comic Expo, but the goal is to make it a bigger event that gives comic fans more of a chance to meet with comic creators and other like-minded nerds.

And that's where you come in.

They've started a Kickstarter page to raise funds to put on the Cincinnati Comic-Con, which you can support by clicking here.

For those of you unfamiliar with how Kickstarter works, essentially the project creators set a financial goal, and you offer a pledge to help them meet that goal. Depending on how much you pledge, usually some kind of incentive is offered. If they meet their goal, you pay them and you get your prize. If they don't meet their goal, you pay them nothing.

For the Comic-Con project, the rewards offered include things like signed artwork and sponsorship opportunities, (something those of you with small businesses may want to consider). Even if you're not necessarily a comic-nerd type, its a worthwhile project to bring people to the Cincinnati area for a weekend.

If you're a Walking Dead fan, I do want to point out that Tony Moore, who did the art for volume 1 and many of the covers has some cool swag he's offering to backers.

Anyway, enough of my spiel. Head over to their Kickstarter page and help them out.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is an ambitious film based on a supposedly unfilmable book, but the three filmmakers behind it are no strander to either hurdle. Two of the filmmakers, the Wachowskis, are famous (or some might say infamous) for their ambitious work surrounding the Matrix sequels back to back. Not only did they film two movies, one after the other, but at the same time they also produced a videogame and an animated movie to expand on the story. The third filmmaker, Tom Tykwer, previously met the challenge of adapting a book many had called unfilmable with his movie Perfume: Story of a Murderer. These three filmmakers are possibly the only people working in Hollywood who had the vision and the clout to pull this film off, but they do, and the result is amazing.

To those of you who might be concerned that the Wachowskis would go overboard with the visuals like they did with the latter Matrix films and Speed Racer, (overboard in a good way, in my opinion,) you can relax. They've toned down the look of their segments in the film, so it has much more of a conventional feel to it, and also so that it blends more effortlessly with the visual style of Tykwer's segments.

The plot of Cloud Atlas is a bit tricky to describe, not because it's complicated, but because it is actually six stories interwoven together, each set in a different era. I say "interwoven" and not "intertwined"because although the film jumps back and forth between storylines, plot-wise the stories are unrelated. However, they are united in the sense that they all explore similar themes of love and fighting against oppression. There is also a sort of chain reaction that flows through the stories, where the events from the story set in the earliest era trigger events that affect the events of the next era in ways that become apparent as the movie plays out. These events ultimately end up affecting the future of the human race. It's so epic in its scope that the only ad I've seen to really capture the feel of it is the five and a half minute trailer made for the internet.

Unlike that other ambitious, era-spanning story, Darren Aronofksy's The Fountain, this movie is actually quite approachable. The six storylines in Cloud Atlas are so rich in character development, and so varied in their genres, that each of them could almost work on their own as independent movies. The first storyline is set in the 1850's, where a notary crossing the Pacific witnesses slavery for himself firsthand. Next, a young musician in the 1930's works with an aging composer in the hopes of becoming a composer himself. Then, an investigative reporter in the 1970's finds herself in over her head after uncovering a story about a a nuclear plant. In the present, a book publisher finds himself trapped in a nursing home after trying to flee some gangsters. In the 22nd century world of Neo Seoul, a clone that is bred only to work in a restaurant chain finds a chance to escape. Finally, in a distant, post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman takes on a mission to help an explorer from an advanced civilization.

One of my friends asked me what genre this movie is, and the best answer is that it's all of them. It's a period piece and a sci-fi adventure. It has moments of outright comedy, and moments that are horrifyingly somber. It's a crime thriller, a love story, an action movie an so on. Each of the stories really feels like its part of its own genre, but it's edited in a way that they all feel like part of the same epic. It cuts from a Blade Runner-like future to a period piece story, and yet it manages to maintain its flow.

Part of what helps unite the feel of the different stories is that the same principle cast is used in all six tales. The whole cast really shines in this movie, as they all play characters so different from each other that all you'll find in common with them is their faces, and then sometimes not even that much. The filmmakers employed a team of makeup artists that absolutely deserve an Oscar for their work, having the actors swap races and genders. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Jim Sturgess's character in the Neo Seoul storyline, where the British actor is made up to look Korean. Likewise in other scenes, Korean actress Bae Donna plays caucasian and Mexican characters. Tom Hanks switches from playing a doddering scientist to a futuristic tribesman to a modern day thug. (In case you're wondering from the trailer, yes that character is supposed to be ridiculous.) Hugh Grant plays a few characters that are so far removed from any roles you may have thought of him as playing before, such as an American Businessman or a savage warrior.

Not surprisingly, Hugo Weaving plays a villain in all six timelines.

For the most part, the film is very well paced. It opens aggressively, establishing the six timelines right off of the bat. It does have its slow moments, but just when it feels like it's a good time to duck out for a bathroom break, the story gets a spark in it and it bursts the action forward. Perhaps the only part of the movie I had trouble with was the story set in the post-apocalyptic future, as most of the dialogue is spoken in a degraded form of English. Fortunately the acting abilities of the cast carry the story when the words don't make sense.

Overall, I really loved this movie. The story was something that stayed on my mind well after the film ended. Everything about Cloud Atlas resonated with me: the music, the characters, the story and so on. I know the "everything is connected" movie has already been done plenty of times before, like with Crash, Babel and the previously mentioned The Fountain, but Cloud Atlas felt like a fresh take on the premise. Perhaps it's because out of all of those movies, Cloud Atlas is the most daring in the scale of the story. It's ambitious, but it delivers on that ambition. I don't know if any other directors could have pulled off such a mash-up of genres as the Wachowskis and Tykwer did. In fact, I was so amazed by this movie that I hope at some point down the road, this trio of directors can find another project to collaborate on.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Lets get one thing out of the way first. Dredd is not a remake of the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie, Judge Dredd. They are both based off of the same comic book character, but they are two different interpretations of the material. In essence, it's like Tim Burton's Batman versus Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.

Regardless of whether or not you liked the '95 version of Judge Dredd, the new Dredd is significantly better. It's like HBO's The Wire mashed up with Die Hard. The film takes place in a bleak future where wars have left the earth largely uninhabitable, except for in places like Megacity One, a massive city that spreads from Boston to Washington D.C. However, the story itself primarily takes places in Peachtree Tower, a 200 story housing block controlled by a drug kingpin named Ma-Ma.

In this future, crime is rampant, and law enforcement is done by judges, a police force that also acts as judge, jury and executioner. When Judge Dredd and a rookie named Anderson go to Peachtree to investigate a triple homicide, they find themselves trapped in the building by Ma-Ma, who doesn't want them uncovering her massive drug operation. Cut off from all backup, Dredd and Anderson have to battle their way through the tower.

Despite the potentially campy nature of the lead character, Dredd is actually a fairly camp free movie. There's no groan-worthy one-liners. No zippy comic relief sidekick. Most importantly, none of the characters run around trying to convince the audience that they're a total badass. A lot of that may be thanks to actor Karl Urban, who plays the grizzled Judge Dredd. (You may also know him as Bones from Star Trek.) Despite the fact that Judge Dredd is perpetually scowling and never once is seen without his helmet, (a fact that fans of the comic were particularly adamant about for this version,) he doesn't come off as some sort of two-dimensional archetype. Thankfully, even though most of his lines are delivered in a deep, menacing voice, it sounds like nuanced acting compared to the REALLY INTIMIDATING GROWLING used by Christian Bale as Batman.

I say the movie is fairly free of camp, but not entirely free, because there is plenty of spectacular displays of violence. People in this movie get killed in all sorts of unpleasant ways, such as explosions, being skinned, being cut down by all sorts of machine guns, and there is a higher than average amount of people being thrown off a building to their deaths. Still, even the most over-the-top deaths manage to restrain themselves from being cartoonish.

I suppose that on the surface, Dredd does seem like it's primarily a guy's movie, but if there's been one good trend to emerge out of sci-fi action movies over the last ten years, it's the continued emergence of strong female characters who aren't there just for eye candy. Dredd sports two such characters. There's Judge Anderson, played by Olivia Thirlby, and Ma-Ma, played by Lena Headey. As Ma-Ma, Headey is pretty damn terrifying and remorseless. She's more than a match for Judge Dredd and gives him a run for his money right up until the end.

More importantly, Judge Anderson feels like a breakthrough character for the genre. For one thing, it's actually kind of refreshing to see a gun-toting heroine who isn't stuffed into some skin-tight outfit designed to make her cleavage pop out. Her character may be a rookie, but by the end of the movie, she proves to be able to hold her ground just as well as Dredd. On a side note, Thirlby, in her judge's armor, kind of resembles Samus Aran, for anybody who might be considering casting a Metroid movie any time soon.

For a genre as frequently visited as "dystopian future," I was caught off guard by how impressive the overall look and feel of this movie was. Visually, this movie is bleak, and I don't mean the sort of faux bleak you usually see in sci-fi movies. The filmmakers used the right combination of location filming, sets and CGI to create a city of slums that feels way too real. There's also some incredible slow-motion shots throughout the movie, largely due to the drug that's at the center of all the violence, a drug that makes the brain perceive reality as happening at 1% of its normal speed. So there are these serene, dream-like sequences interspersed throughout the violence.

Overall, Dredd turned out to really exceed my expectations. The storyline was kept simple and clean so you could stay focused on the suspense, of which there is plenty in this movie. It's unlikely that this film will end up spawning a franchise, considering that it got completely spanked opening weekend, of all things, getting beaten by the latest unnecessary Resident Evil sequel. It also probably didn't help that this film was released primarily in 3D with minimal 2D showings. Still, at least if Dredd winds up being a stand alone movie, it's a damn good one.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Intouchables

I'd heard good things about The Intouchables here and there. I liked the trailer, and noticed it was playing at my local art house cinema for a longer than average time. What finally got me in a seat to see the movie was an ad the cinema ran during its pre-trailer slideshow. The ad said something to the effect of, "If you don't love this movie, bring your ticket back to the box office for a free movie pass."

That was a pretty bold claim. It's one thing to show a critically acclaimed movie that people are talking about. It's another thing entirely for the theatre to actually guarantee that you'll enjoy the film.

Honestly, when the film started, I was hooked in under five mintes.

I'll avoid the usual cliches that are often used to describe a film like The Intouchables, which is based on the true life story of a friendship that developed between a wealthy quadriplegic and his caretaker, a Senegalese immigrant with a bit of a criminal past. I'm talking about cliches like "inspirational,""heart warming," or other such phrases that call to mind a movie that's filled with lots of people crying and hugging, and musical score with lots of big swelling violins.

I can avoid using such phrases because the filmmakers didn't approach the material like it was some sort of Hallmark movie-of-the-week. Instead, they made a buddy comedy with a touch of drama. The tone of the movie is set early on when Driss, the Senegalese immigrant, shows up at the house of the quadriplegic, Philipe, to interview for the job of a live-in assistant. Driss has no actual interest in the position, and only comes to the interview to get a paper signed that says he's actively looking for work and can continue getting unemployment benefits. However, Philipe ends up giving Driss the job anyway because he's the only applicant to address him as a person, and not just some invalid who needs to be taken care of.

The story is primarily told through Driss's viewpoint, and the humor develops organically as he adjusts to his new career. He's reluctant to engage in the more hands on aspects of taking care of Philipe, and in fact has no actual training for the job. He constantly tries to hit on Philipe's redhead assistant. When he has to take Philipe out for high society outings, Driss doesn't hesitate to point out the absurdities of some of the things Philipe enjoys. For example, when they go to the opera, Driss breaks out into an infectious laughter the moment a man dressed as a tree comes out and starts singing in German.

Whether they deliberately mean to do it or not, Driss and Phillipe end up encouraging each other to take  more control of their lives. For Driss, this means taking on more responsibilities and being a better role model for his family. For Philipe, it means trying to enjoy life the way he did before he was paralyzed.

This movie should definitely be in the running for this year's Best Picture nomination, and if the Academy has any sense to it, it will make sure that this is one of the most heavily talked about movies come award season. Aside from being well paced, well shot, well edited and just an overall shining example of how to tell a story, the film's two leads, Omar Sy and Francois Cluzet, give amazing performances. Like the film, their performances aren't overbearing, but they feel real and convincing. They feel less like actors portraying the people the story was based on, and more like they are the actual people this was based on. Just as The Artist made its lead, Jean Dujardin, a recognized name in America, I'm sure that we'll see Sy and Cluzet in a few movies made in the states.

Overall, The Intouchables is a very lighthearted and fun movie. Even thought the subject matter sounds like something that should be heavy and emotional, it's a movie that's going to put you in a good mood by the time it's over. So if it's playing in a theatre anywhere near you, go see it there, because I'm sure you'll enjoy it even more watching it with an audience.

Friday, August 24, 2012


These days, it seems like a safe bet to say that if you're going to make a movie using a traditional form of animation, you're going to make one with a worthwhile story to tell. Traditional animation is just too time consuming to invest the effort into making if the story isn't there to go with it. So I'm pleased to say that Laika Studios' new film ParaNorman is a product worthy of the time and effort spent making it.

Laika is also the studio behind Coraline, the otherworldly stop motion animation film based on the book by Neil Gaiman. Even though, ParaNorman doesn't share any of the writers or directors from Coraline, it delivers the same high quality of storytelling that Coraline had. If they keep this up, Laika is going make a name for itself as the Pixar of stop motion animation. (That is, if Pixar specialized in making creepy, supernatural films aimed at all audiences.) Speaking of Pixar, ParaNorman might just give Brave a run for its money at the Oscars.

With ParaNorman, Laika seemed to take their target audience for the movie and model the central character around that. Norman is an outcast who doesn't have any friends at school and isn't understood by his family. Hopefully for most viewers that's where the relatability ends, as Norman is an outcast because he can see and talk to dead people, but everybody thinks he just does it as a way to get attention. It also doesn't help that Norman's uncle used to make the same claims, but everybody just assumed he was insane.

Just as Norman is getting used to the idea that he should stop telling everybody about all the ghosts he sees, and act a bit more normal, his uncle tells him about a centuries old curse that threatens the town, and how Norman has to be the one to keep it at bay. When the curse does hit, he manages to convince enough people to help him on his mission, but the local townspeople start losing their minds once a pack of zombies starts strolling through town.

You can tell that the people who made this movie have a real love for the horror genre, and wanted to pass some of that along for a younger generation. I'm not talking family friendly stuff like the black and white Universal Pictures monster movies. I mean stuff like Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, and all of the low budget knockoffs that followed. They're the movies that in theory, good parents should never show their children, but in reality the best ones always did.

I'm not exaggerating when I say this. It almost felt like something inspired by Shaun of the Dead, minus the swearing and gore. ParaNorman parodies the classic horror movies in that way that makes fun of them, while at the same time, reminding audiences how great they are.

As for the animation, the filmmakers pull of some wonderfully surreal shots throughout the movie, especially when Norman finds himself having visions of things that happened in the past, and the world starts to burn away like something out of Silent Hill. But the really impressive stuff comes at the end when you see the witch that's behind the curse. It's a bit hard to describe, and I don't want to ruin it for you anyway, but it makes great use of the kind of visuals you can pull off when you're shooting a movie frame by frame.

I didn't see ParaNorman in 3D, but this is the one instance where I'm going to say I regret not doing that. Of all the movies I've seen shot in 3D, Coraline was the only one I felt that there was a genuine added value to the viewer because of how it made the surreal visuals pop out at the viewer. Seeing as how they're made by the same studio, I imagine ParaNorman's vivid imagery must look just as impressive in 3D.

Overall, ParaNorman is a welcome addition to the canon of Great Nerd Movies. I can see it easily becoming a cult classic for a younger generation. And for any parents out there who are horror movie fans, this is a great primer to get your young ones started.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why The Dark Knight Rises Fell Short (for me at least)

First thing's first. This posting is going to be pretty much all spoilers, so if you haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, move on.

When I walked out of Dark Knight Rises, I found myself significantly underwhelmed, which was in stark comparison to how I walked out of Batman Begins, with my mind blown in disbelief that somebody had made the Batman movie I never thought WB would have the guts to make, or how after watching The Dark Knight, I was so revved up, I literally could not sleep (which was problematic because I had just seen a midnight show).

It took a bit of time for me to sort out how I felt about TDKR. On the one hand, I was pretty disappointed with it. But, as time passed, I realized that I couldn't really say it was a bad movie. I know what it looks like when a director drops the ball on a comic book trilogy. This movie wasn't at all like Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, where Ratner mistook randomly killing off characters for dramatic suspense, or like Spider-Man 3, in which everything that was wrong with the movie could be summed up in a 5 minute sequence where a very emo Peter Parker does a very angry jazz dance.

Still, in comparison to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, for various reasons TDKR just didn't meet the standards set by its predecessors, and failed to do so by a considerable margin. Batman Begins was the exact film that fans had wanted to be made. It was a film that actually developed and analyzed the Batman origin story instead of existing just to hock toys. Nolan did the unthinkable and followed it up with a movie that was far more deserving of 2008's best picture Oscar than the winning Slumdog Millionaire. (Not saying that Slumdog wasn't good, but four years later, Dark Knight still has a lot more of a cultural impact than Slumdog did.) Unfortunately, TDKR was burdened with a plot that was overwhelming from the start, drew its inspiration from one of the weaker eras of the Batman comics, and went a bit too far with its interpretation of the characters.

At any rate, I've been asked to justify how it is that a diehard Batman/Chis Nolan fan such as myself wasn't blown away by the concluding chapter to the Dark Knight trilogy.

The Characters

I think the first problem I had with Dark Knight Rises was that it sort of undid the ending of Dark Knight. In that film, even though Batman is clearly affected by the death of Rachel Dawes, he finds it in himself to fight past the pain. He vows to continue being Gotham's protector, even if it means being seen as the villan. It's an ending that rivals Empire Strikes Back in terms of having the heros suffer a tremendous loss, but striving to rise above it.

Except he doesn't. Dark Knight Rises opens with Bruce Wayne as a recluse who has given up on being Batman. I realize that since this is a movie and not a comic, I shouldn't expect Nolan's version to have Batman going off on nightly adventures, but having him do nothing for eight years straight really seems contradictory to the version of Batman he crafted in the previous two films.

While we're at it, was I seriously the only person who was bothered by how little of Batman is in this Batman movie? Even in his Bruce Wayne persona, it felt as if there was a sizable amount of the film where he just wasn't there. The supporting characters in Batman may be interesting, but when it comes to telling the final chapter in a character's story, and when that story is being told an epic with a multi million dollar budget, you expect that character to be in the bulk of the story.

Other characters seem to contradict their attitudes in the previous movie as well. Lucius Fox is no longer disgusted by the idea of Batman abusing his power as he did by hacking every cell phone in Gotham. Instead, he happily shows Bruce Wayne more toys which he could use to dominate an unruly populace.

Then they're's Gordon and Alfred, both of whom also seemed to be under-used in this film, which would have been fine if they weren't so integral to the story in the previous two films.

As for the new characters to this film, I wasn't honestly that big a fan of the treatment of Bane. I'm perfectly fine with the decision to drop the aspect of his character where he injects himself with a super steroid before going into a fight. However, the way that Tom Hardy had Bane speak was too quirky to sound menacing. That is, at least when you could even understand his dialogue. He sounded like Ian McKellan playing Darth Vader as Gandalf. He was way too jolly to be evil.

Hardy's line reading aside, Nolan violated one of the core rules of writing: Show, don't tell. In the other movies, the audience was shown what it needed to conclude for itself that the villans were evil. For example, nobody has to tell us that the Joker is both a genius and a maniac. We figure that out for ourselves through the bank heist he plots at the opening of the movie. Same goes for Scarecrow. Nobody tells us that he's a corrupt doctor. We learn that by watching him declare gangsters insane so they don't get sent to prison. Nobody has to tells us he's fearless. We come to that conclusion when we see him gas Batman and set him on fire.

With Bane, we're given his entire backstory through a plot dump from Alfred. We're told we should be afraid of him because he was too uncontrollable for the League of Shadows. We're told that he must be ruthless because he supposedly was born and raised in a prison. The result is that when Batman starts chasing Bane, it feels less like he's doing so out of personal motivation and more like he's doing so because that's what the plot requires of him.

I'm on the fence of how I feel about Miranda/Talia. It was a good plot twist having Ra's al Ghul's daughter be under Batman's nose the whole time. In fact, it makes for a more plausible telling of one of the storylines in the comic where Batman becomes romantically involved with Talia, even fathering a child with her, even though he is fully aware that she's the daughter of one of his greatest foes.

Just one problem with pulling it off as a plot twist: Marion Cotillard was too perfect a casting choice for the role. When she was announced as being in the cast, it was a wide assumption on the internet that she'd be playing Talia al Ghul. I had actually assumed that's who she was supposed to be until her character introduced herself as Miranda Tate.

I know. It's kind of unfair to fault Nolan for doing too good a job of casting, and I reiterate that it does make for a good plot twist, but it would have made for a better twist if he cast against expectations of the character as he did with Ra's al Ghul in Batman Begins, where he cast the Arabian villain with the very Irish Liam Neeson and the very Japanese Ken Wantanabe.

The Plot

The plot of Batman Begins is extremely straightforward. It's the about the creation of a hero. We learn his motivation for becoming a vigilante. We see him work to become his vision of a hero, and it pays off when he saves the city. It's a nice, clean but epic story.

The Dark Knight had a slightly more complicated plot, but for the most part it was a classic tale of good versus evil, and about how easily the forces of good could be corrupted. However, there was one part where the story went off the rails a little. There was a needlessly complicated sequence that begins with Batman arriving at a murder scene of two victims named Harvey and Dent, and has him somehow following the fingerprint on a shattered bullet to an apartment where several police officers have been tied up. It's an awkward part where the plot became too complicated for its own good.

Unfortunately, the first half of TDKR is heavy with an over complicated plot. At the start of the film we're hit with a battery of plot points. There's some kind of new energy reactor. There's a theft of finger prints. There's criminals operating out of the sewer. Bruce Wayne has gone bankrupt. Mergers and acquisitions are happening, and so on. All of this is happening on top of the fallout from Dark Knight. It all ties together halfway through the movie, but it's kind of exhausting trying to keep track of everything that's going on prior to the stadium scene. Personally, I had a hard time getting into the movie because I couldn't quite figure out what was the core of the story I was supposed to get behind.

Then there's the second half of the movie, which really amounts to one big plot hole. I know. Many of the greatest movies have plot holes in them. Why did the Empire wait until they circled the big planet to blow up the little one? Wasn't is just a bit too coincidental Spock exiled Kirk to a planet that just happened to be where the older time travelling Spock was? I get it. No story is going to be perfect, so why let a plot hole get in the way if it makes for a great tale otherwise.

It's easy to do when it's a minor plot hole, but the one in Dark Knight Rises was quite large, in which Bane is setting out to finish what the League of Shadows had set out to do. In Batman Begins we learned that first the League tried to drive Gotham into the ground over the long term through economics. When that failed, they opted for a more immediate approach, sending the city into a drug induced state of mass panic, but even that was thwarted. Clearly an even more immediate approach was required.

And Bane does come up with a more immediate approach. He acquires a nuclear bomb... with a five month timer. Even 007 never had a villan stupid enough to give him that much leeway. I also found it a bit confusing as to why they would bother with the charade of threatening to blow up the city if anybody tried to leave. Equally confusing is why Talia even bothers waiting to hit the detonator switch. She and Bane are both in town when the bomb is scheduled to go off. If she's so willing to die with Gotham, at the very least, why not trigger the bomb the moment she realizes that Batman has returned?

The whole class warfare aspect of the story also felt like Nolan was trying a bit too hard to be topical with the story, and addressing the current economic crisis. Never mind the fact that a recession was already at the core of Batman Begins. The story of  TDKR never really commits to the class warfare plot, and doesn't feel like an essential element. It might have worked better if the story adressed whether or not Bruce Wayne was doing enough for the people of Gotham with his money in his role as a civilian, or if he put so much effort in maintaining the illusion of being a billionaire playboy that the people of Gotham think of him as one who doesn't give back.

Fundamentally, a lot of my problem with the plot came from the choice of source material. Nolan picked two 90's era Batman stories to base the bulk of the film on. The first half draws heavily from Knightfall, the story in which Bane breaks Batman's back. The second half draws from No Man's Land, a year long story where an earthquake hits Gotham, and the U.S. Government chooses to abandon it, rather than rebuild.

Knightfall isn't that really good of a story to begin with. The story only exists to capitalize off of the success DC had with killing off Superman. It's notable in the chronology of Batman as being the story that took him out of commission for sometime, but from a storytelling point of view, it's got nothing on The Long Halloween, The Killing Joke, Batman: Year One or any of the other stories that were used as inspiration for the first two films.

As for No Man's Land, Nolan only really borrowed the main premise from that story. The plot, which centered around Batman's rogues gallery battling for control of the ruined Gotham, would have been too unwieldily to adapt to film anyway. However, the replacement story that they came up with just felt so unconvincing. We're seriously expected to believe that everybody is going to just sit back and relax while terrorists cart a nuclear weapon around the city?

Then again, I had no issue with trying to figure out how the Joker had the means to set up explosives all around Gotham without anybody noticing in Dark Knight. I guess what bugs some people doesn't bug others.

The Good

Now there are quite a few aspects of the film I was able to get behind. I appreciated how heavily the plot of Dark Knight Rises tied back to Batman Begins. When Batman Begins was initially released, I think the public may have been a bit too put off by Batman & Robin to really get behind a new Batman movie. It never really experienced the sort of buzz that surrounded Dark Knight. By bookending the plot of the third movie with the plot of the first movie, it felt like Nolan was reminding audiences of his less talked about Batman movie.

I also really liked the idea of Bruce Wayne letting himself have a happy ending. Writers seem to revel in depicting Wayne as an endlessly tragic character. In writing tales set in Wayne's future they either have him as a militant psychopath, such as in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, or as a bitter and solitary man, such as in Batman Beyond. It's nice to see an interpretation of Batman where his tragedy is treated as part of his back story, but not as an essential aspect of his character.

Lastly, I liked the appearance of Jonathan Crane in the courtroom scenes. Movies based on comic books almost always use a villan for one movie then dump them after that. It's fun to see members of the rogues gallery behave the way their comic counterparts do, showing up in stories where they're not the central villans.

So there you have it. It's probably more than anybody ever cared to read on why a person thought of a movie as being adequate instead of exceptional. Even though as an individual movie it was a disappointment as an individual movie, it made for a good enough conclusion to the Dark Knight Trilogy. Or, at least I should say it made for a better conclusion than other attempted trilogies, such as Spider-Man or X-Men. I suppose that just goes to show how good a storyteller Christopher Nolan is. Even when he makes a movie that's only half as good as his usual work, it's still better than what other people put out.

Friday, July 13, 2012

An Open Letter to Travel Writers Documenting Cincinnati

For those of you reading this who are not in Cincinnati, the Queen City is currently wrapping up hosting the World Choir Games. It's proven to be a grand opportunity for this city to showcase itself to groups from all across the world, and thankfully the first phase of The Banks project, the new Smalle Park along the riverfront and the Washington Park renovation were completed before our international visitors arrived. With our city putting its best foot forward this past week, naturally we've attracted a few travel writers as well. To those travel writers who are visiting, I have one simple request for you:

Please don't be like Vanity Fair contributing editor A. A. Gill.

Back in 2010, Gill paid Cincinnati a visit to write an article about our rather regrettable local attraction, The Creation Museum. As religious themed attractions go, it's not the one I'd personally direct visitors to. I'd rather show them St. Peter in Chains cathedral, the Holy Cross-Immaculata church in Mt. Adams, or the Touchdown Jesus off I-75 (or at least I would if it hadn't been struck by lightning and burned to the ground.) Alas, the purpose of his article was to highlight the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of the Species, and the 201st birthday of Charles Darwin, and so a visit to the Creation Museum made sense.

He devotes one paragraph to his time spent in Cincinnati before venturing twenty miles south of the Ohio River to the Creation Museum, and in that single paragraph he managed to pack in the most condescending impression of Cincinnati I've ever read. He describes Cincinnati as a city whose citizens have little to boast about, aside from a little optician's shop that makes glasses in an hour. (Why this stood out for him at all is beyond me, as I'm sure that in New York, they have LensCrafters.)

That was it. That was the best he could come up with to describe Cincinnati to others: as a city of nothing noteworthy, except maybe for one bloody optician's shop. Keep in mind that Gill's article came out months after the New York Times wrote about how to experience as much of the city as possible in 36 hours, an article which barely scratched the surface of things to do in town.

Now I'm not expecting every travel writer who comes to Cincinnati to write glowing reviews about it. The downtown nightlife and restaurants may be great, but the shopping experience leaves much to be desired. Getting around the city outside of downtown isn't exactly easy to do if you're not from here and don't have a car.

Hell, even I'll admit I can't quite imagine people wanting to visit Cincinnati if not for business, or to see friends or family. One time I found myself flirting with a bartender in London and talking about my hometown, which prompted her to say, "Maybe I should visit there sometime."Without thinking, I responded, "Really? For your first trip to America you want to visit Cincinnati?"

No disrespect to my city, but it's not exactly like we're an international travel destination. It'd be the equivalent of visiting England for your first time and deciding to see Liverpool or Manchester over London. You'll certainly get a better idea of what everyday life for an American is by visiting Cincinnati, but the casual tourist spending thousands of dollars to visit America might have a more exciting time visiting a city like New York, Chicago or New Orleans if it's their first trip.

That being said, there's still many positive things to be said about Cincinnati, such as our architecture, our food (which is worth bragging about, internationally), and our museums (the real ones, not counting the Creation Museum). We've got a top-notch zoo, fantastic theatre options, and our little Midpoint Music Festival keeps getting bigger and bigger every year. Even in terms of non-touristy things, we have much to boast about. Good luck trying to make it through your day without laying hands on even one product by Cincinnati's own Procter & Gamble.

With each passing year, our downtown has taken major strides to becoming more and more attractive to visitors, such as the participants of the World Choir Games. What's been great about the games is that the people in charge of them have made a point of showing participants as much of the Greater Cincinnati area as possible. All week long I've practically been tripping over visitors everywhere I go. Hopefully when they return to their home countries, we'll have given them plenty of good things to talk about.

My request to the professional travel writers who have visited Cincinnati this past week is to be honest. We may not be as fancy as New York, or London, or whatever major cities you come from, but we really have rolled out the red carpet for our visitors this week. When you write about us, talk about the things you found lacking as much as you talk about the things that impressed you. Just don't write that we have nothing to boast about.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

10 Movies for a Hot Summer Night

For most of you reading this, summer no longer means the same sort of freedom it did when we were kids. It's no longer a three month long vacation, but at least it's a vacation from television. There are only really a handful of good shows on air over the summer. The rest are all either reruns or game shows that don't really require you to watch from start to finish. For all those nights when it's too hot out to be outside with friends, or you feel too lazy to catch up on those books you meant to read, here are ten movies you can enjoy even if your A/C isn't working. 

10. (500) Days of Summer
Just do be clear, I didn't put this movie on the list because it has "summer" in the title. It's on the list because summer is the time of year when we all kick back and make a point of enjoying all of the great things we love in life, and at its heart, that's what this movie is about. It just so happens to be told through a love story about a man who falls in love with the girl of his dreams and slowly has to deal with the realization that she doesn't quite feel the same way about him. Personally, I can't think of a movie that does as good a job as this does of capturing every aspect of what it's like to fall in love, ranging from the low points of trying to understand how somebody you love doesn't love you back, to the high points of wanting to dance in the street out of sheer joy.

9. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
This list would have felt a bit incomplete without a western on it, so I decided on one of the fun ones, instead of the stone cold serious ones. It came down to this and Back to the Future Part III, with that film losing out only because it's best watched as the climax to the trilogy. Butch Cassidy is perhaps one of the all time greatest buddy movies ever made. Plot-wise, it's nothing too complex. After the law gets on their tail one too many times, Butch and Sundance decide to flee to Bolivia. What it lacks in plot development, it more than makes up for with comedy. I actually bought this movie a few years ago, having never seen it before, and then wondered how I went so long having not seen it.

8. Panic Room
This is one of those great thrillers that manages to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock, without ripping him off. (Well, if it does rip off Hitchcock, director David Fincher didn't do it in any obvious way.) I love how the premise of this movie is so simple, yet it provides so much suspense without feeling drawn out. Jodie Foster plays a mom who buys a new house with her daughter that happens to have a panic room in it. (Yes, her daughter is played by Kristen Stewart, but this was before she annoyed us by starring in all of those damn Twilight movies.) On their first night in the house, burglars break in driving mother and daughter to hide in the panic room. Unfortunately, the thing they came to steal just happens to be in the panic room, leading the burglars to try everything they can to draw them out.

7. Adventureland
I swear it's just a coincidence that this movie also happens to star Kristen Stewart. In fact, lets not focus on that. Lets focus on the rest of the cast, which includes Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. Then there's also the director, Greg Mottola, who also gave us Superbad as well as a few episodes of Arrested Development. The story centers around Jesse Eisenberg's character who just graduated from college to find that the only job he could land is at an amusement park. Odds are this film will make you feel a little nostalgic for that one summer you had where you were old enough to hit up bars with your friends, but young enough that you didn't have a real-world job yet.

6. The Brothers Bloom
If you're at all excited about the upcoming sci-fi flick, Looper, you should check out writer/director Rian Johnson's previous film, The Brothers Bloom. It's a con-artist movie, so not exactly the same genre as Looper, but it will give you a feel for his slightly quirky writing style. Oh, and it's also a pretty damn fun movie. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play Bloom and Stephen, brothers who pull off elaborate con jobs where everybody ends up feeling like they got what they wanted. When Bloom decide he wants out, Stephen talks him into one last con that involves an eccentric heiress played by Rachel Weisz, which turns into an epic globe-spanning adventure. However the scene stealer of this movie is the brothers' silent partner/explosives expert, Bang Bang, played by Rinko Kikuchi, who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Babel.

5. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
I felt like a Wes Anderson movie belonged on here. I picked this one for the list because underlying this story of a father bonding with a son he never knew he had is a grand, albeit bizarre, sea adventure. This is probably the most ambitious out of all of Wes Anderson's movies because it mixes his usual dysfunctional family comedy/drama with plenty of special effects and a few big action scenes. It's sort of like a summer action movie for the art house crowd.

4. Rear Window
With the heat as unbearable as it's been this summer, it kind of makes one want to just stay indoors, even when you're not watching movies. Thus, it seems appropriate to include on this list a film about a man who has to stay indoors all summer because of a broken leg. This Hitchcock classic, starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, shows off the director's skill as he's able to tell stories about several characters who share the same New York City courtyard, even though the camera never leaves Jimmy Stewart's apartment. It's all from the point of view of Jimmy Stewart's character, who spies on his neighbors out of boredom, and of course since it's a Hitchcock movie, he begins to suspect one of them of murdering his wife.

3. Inside Man
Although he might not have thought of it that way, Inside Man was such a departure from the usual Spike Lee joint that the marketing for this film downplayed Lee's role as director of this film until after it was released and performed well at the box office. This film has a brilliant multi-layered plot that starts out with a bank heist that turns into a hostage situation, but as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that there is something more complicated than just a bank heist going on. Of course, being a Spike Lee movie, race relations is a subtext that runs throughout the movie, although oddly enough it's mainly used for comic relief to alleviate the tension.

2. City of God
This Brazilian film is quite possibly one of the greatest crime movies ever made, and if you haven't seen it yet, you have no idea what you're missing out on. It follows the story of two men who grow up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. One becomes a photographer, and the other becomes a gang leader. Ze, the one who becomes the gangster, is definitely one of the more vicious characters of cinema. Not only is he terrifying when we see him as an adult, but he's also genuinely psychopathic when we see him as a kid. Rocket, the photographer, ends up becoming involved with the gangs as he covers them for the newspapers, and begins to gain their trust. It's a gritty film, but it's also filled with moments of characters enjoying life even though they're at the bottom of the ladder. In other words, it's a film that will move you, but it's not something heavy that will bring you down.

1. Die Hard: With a Vengeance
There really did have to be one big budget blockbuster movie on this list. I know a lot of people have already placed Die Hard on their list of movies to watch every Christmas, and I put the blizzard themed Die Hard 2 on my list of movies to watch in a snow storm. It only seemed right that there be a place for Die Hard: With a Vengeance on this list. Yes, it essentially just rehashes the same premise as the original Die Hard, except it takes place across a city instead of a skyscraper, but it's packaged in a way that it feels different enough. Probably because in this one we have Jeremy Irons leading John McClane around town chasing after riddles and clues. For the record, it does always bother me that they don't explain the water jug puzzle in its entirety. I know the solution, but since they skip past a few steps in the puzzle, every time I finish watching the movie, I end up reworking that puzzle just to remind myself what the solution is. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

Sony had quite an uphill battle on its hands when it came to getting people to accept a reboot to the Spider-Man franchise. Spider-Man 3 was a wreck. The public seemed to be way more excited about this summer's other superhero movies, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. On top of that, doing a reboot meant retelling Spider-Man's origin story, essentially remaking portions of the original Spider-Man, which is just ten years old.

I'm going to apologize in advance for the fact that this review is mainly a comparison between Amazing Spider-Man and the original Spider-Man, but considering that there's not even a significant generation gap between the two movies, it's safe to say that the comparison is one most viewers are going to make anyways.

Lets be honest, Sam Rami's Spider-Man was a landmark film, whether or not you personally liked it. Not only was it filled with iconic moments, such as that upside down kiss between Spider-Man and Mary Jane, but it was the first superhero movie to really develop the characters, rather than just get them from one action sequence to another. It essentially set the standard of what we now expect from superhero movies. Before Spider-Man, you just had a movie with Batman fighting the Joker. After Spider-Man, we get Batman and the Joker engaged in a battle for the morality of Gotham City.

The rebooted version, Amazing Spider-Man, manages to meet the standard of deep character development set by the original film, approaching it in a different way. Amazing Spider-Man is this franchise's equivalent of Batman Begins. Just as Batman Begins envisioned a more realistic portrayal of Batman over the more cartoonish Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies, this new version of Spider-Man is a grittier and more human hero than Sam Rami's version. 

Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) manages to steer his version of Spider-Man through the same origin story as Rami did but makes his version feel new and different. It's faithful to the comic's origin story in the way that it needs to be, while at the same time putting a more realistic spin on things. Webb's Spider-Man never takes up professional wrestling, and he's initially motivated entirely by trying to hunt for Uncle Ben's killer, instead of being driven to do good by his uncle's words of wisdom. In fact, that memorable phrase, "With great power, comes great responsibly," is never actually said in this version, but the sentiment is heavily implied. 

The Social Network's Andrew Garfield portrays his version of Peter Parker as a teenager troubled by the loss of his parents. He's nerdy, but instead of being an archetypal nerd as Tobey Maguire played him, Andrew Garfield's Parker is an outsider. It's not that he can't fit in with his classmates, he just doesn't want to. When he takes on the identity of Spider-Man, he still feels like a high school student in the suit. He's vulnerable, both physically and emotionally. Amazing Spider-Man makes more of a point on dwelling on the loss of Parker's family than the original film did.

One detail I really appreciated about Webb's version of Spider-Man is that he takes some pretty serious injuries over the course of this movie. It's details like that which make Garfield's performance feel so much more realistic than Maguire's. Don't get me wrong. I love Tobey Maguire's version of Spider-Man, but Garfield really makes you buy into the idea that he's just a kid, with no combat training, driven by vengeance to act as a vigilante.

The same level of character depth in Andrew Garfield's performance is also present in his supporting cast. While I had no doubts about Emma Stone giving a kick-ass performance as Peter Parker's original girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, I was worried that Dennis Leary was going to be two-dimensional with his performance as Gwen's father, a police captain trying to arrest Spider-Man. Instead he comes off as gruff, but rational, acting the way you might expect a real cop to act, and not frustrating viewers by being unreasonably fixated on catching Spider-Man to the point where he can't see the real threat. The same goes for supporting characters, like Aunt May, or Flash Thompson. Sally Field's Aunt May isn't a helpless old widow, but rather is a genuinely concerned parent trying to keep peter from losing himself in tragedy. Flash evolves from being just a high school bully to a character with actual depth.

Amazing Spider-Man may not have audiences calling it the greatest superhero movie of all time, but it's a damn good action flick. The film shows great potential for how the new franchise may turn out, and hopefully it will last longer than three installments. I also think that if Webb is still in charge by the time they decide to tackle the symbiote-suit storyline that we'll actually get the edgy film we were all hoping to see in Spider-Man 3, but instead were given Peter Parker's emo dance. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

This film has one of the more unique stories behind its genesis. It was inspired by an ad that first appeared in the back of a magazine, then spread like wildfire across the internet. The ad is written by a person looking for somebody to accompany him traveling through time, who must bring their own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. The ad is only seven sentences long, but it's seven sentences that undoubtedly spark the imagination of anybody who reads it. It just so happened to spark the imaginations of a few indie filmmakers enough to make a full length movie out of it.

In Safety Not Guaranteed a reporter and two interns go in search of the author of the ad. Jeff, the reporter, is actually using the story as an excuse to try to reconnect with an old girlfriend, leaving Darius, one of his interns, to do all of the research on the story herself.

Like any good indie comedy, it shifts between laugh out loud moments and very poignant ones. The author of the ad turns out to be Kenneth, a grocery store clerk, who is actually serious about going back in time. As Darius works to gain his trust, she lets herself buy into his story, but at the same time realizes he might be dangerous. There's also elements of a buddy road trip comedy thrown into the mix as Jeff works to get the other intern he brought along to loosen up and go wild.

At its heart, Safety Not Guaranteed is a movie about characters trying to fix what's wrong in their lives, focusing on either how things are going wrong for them now, or how they messed things up in the past.  The time travel aspect of it is really just a plot device to expose what the characters want to change about how they've lived their lives. It sounds gimmicky, but it's subtle in its execution. The filmmakers never hit you over the head with how Jeff is metaphorically trying to go back in time while Kenneth is trying to do it literally.

As a side note, the author of the original ad has actually come forward and explained himself. It turns out he's not crazy. He was just trying to fill up ad space. You can read his story here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Innkeepers

I've found that some of the best horror movies I've seen are ones that were made on a low budget. I think it's because when filmmakers accept the limitations of their budget, rather than crafting outlandish nightmares with complex mythologies, they're forced to make a story that's much more scaled back. Instead of relying on CGI monsters, they have to rely on playing up our own inherent fears. Fears of the dark. Fears of ghosts and supernatural phenomenon. Fears of being lost or trapped. All of these fears are put against the viewer to great effect in the film The Innkeepers.

The film was written and directed by Ti West, whose previous film, House of the Devil, seems to be a bit of a cult hit among horror enthusiasts. The Innkeepers is a fairly straightforward story. It's set at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a hotel that's in it's last weekend of operation before going out of business. The owner is off on vacation, and the hotel staff is down to two employees, Claire and Luke, who are staying in the empty rooms for the closing weekend. With the hotel essentially deserted, they decide to investigate the ghost that supposedly haunts the hotel, and that Luke claims to have seen.

The filmmakers did such a good job of establishing the atmosphere in the movie that you owe it to yourself to meet them halfway. Kill all the lights. Watch it with as few people as possible. Watch it in a basement if you're daring enough. And absolutely, turn up the volume. The DVD actually plays a notice at the start of the movie saying that for full effect the volume should be played loud.

At first I just assumed that this was so that they could surprise you with things popping out at unexpected moments. To some degree that is what happens, but it's mainly to make sure you hear the barely audible noises in the film. Several key scenes involve Claire wandering around empty rooms with a tape recorder trying to pick up sounds of ghosts. At first she just hears static, but it slowly gives way to coherent and unnerving sounds.

The ghosts in this movie are kept pretty simple, which makes them not only frightening, but downright believable. If you've ever found yourself in a situation where you're hesitant to enter a dark room in an empty building, because something in the back of your mind is worried there might be something unnatural in there, even though you don't really believe in ghosts, this movie will prey on your fears. When the ghosts do manifest themselves, what happens is probably what you're afraid will happen to you when you're in that dark and empty room.

Some parts of the story are predictable, but Ti West takes what's familiar and makes them feel like elements that belong in every classic ghost story. It just conveniently happens that one of the few guests at the hotel is a spiritual medium, but from a storytelling point of view, she's put to good use by establishing the potential dangers of the hotel's ghosts. Likewise, when an old man shows up at the hotel, insistent on checking into a specific room, you know that something bad is going to come out of it, but there's still that sense of dread you'll get while you wait for the inevitable scene to happen.

In fact, building a sense of dread is what the horror aspect of this movie revolves around. It provides little bits and pieces here and there to make you feel unnerved. Things like faint noises and a building full of empty rooms. At the same time, the scenes between Luke and Claire enjoying themselves in the empty hotel provide you with enough of a sense of security that you are willing to accept why two people would stay in a hotel if they think it's haunted. When the dread starts to build to its fever pitch, you really notice the loss of that sense of security. This film has one of the best deliveries of the line, "She's right behind you," that I've seen in a while.

It's also worth noting that the Yankee Pedlar Inn is actually a real hotel. Unlike it's depiction in the film, it's currently still in business, and they proudly let visitors know on its website that it was used as the filming location for The Innkeepers. It might not seem like the wisest of marketing strategies, but then again the Stanley Hotel  also proudly lets visitors know it was the inspiration for Stephen King's novel, The Shining and the filming location for the mini-series adaptation. They even show Stanley Kubrick's version (which was not filmed there) on a continuous loop on channel 42.

Getting back to The Innkeepers, it's a nice compact story that doesn't waste time stretching its premise out any longer than is necessary. It probably isn't all that scary a film if you watch it in broad daylight, but if you watch it the way it's meant to be watched, you'll find it has all the kick of a good campfire story.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Roman Coppola may be the most underrated of all the Coppolas. There's a good chance you're familiar with his work, even if you don't know it. He co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited, and Moonrise Kingdom and was a second unit director on some of Wes Anderson's films. He directed the music video for Wyclef Jean's "We Trying to Stay Alive."He was also was the man behind the eerie and theatrical special effects in Bram Stoker's Dracula, which his father directed. Despite this, it seems he's still a bit  obscure, except to the most die hard film aficionados.

Back in 2001, Roman wrote and directed a film called CQ. So far it's been the only film he's directed, although he is currently working on another one. CQ is a story about an American filmmaker named Paul, who lives in France in 1969, and is working as an editor on a film called Dragonfly, a sort of Barbarella-inspired spy movie. At the same time, he's working on a side project of his own, recording every aspect of his day-to-day life. On the one hand, Paul's career advances as the producers of Dragonfly start going through directors. On the other hand, his relationship with his girlfriend starts to fall apart because of his obsession with documenting his life instead of filming it.

Leading the cast as Paul is actor Jeremy Davies, who you might recognize as Daniel Faraday from Lost. (Now that I think of it, he spends most of his time in both roles wearing the same black tie and white button down shirt.) He's perfect for the role, capturing the vibe of a man swept up in the free spirit vibe of the 60's but who hasn't lost himself in it. This is in contrast to the actors playing the other directors for the film within the film. Gerard Depardieu plays a director more concerned with making a political statement than making a film that's profitable, and Jason Schwartzman more or less plays his own interpretation of Andy Warhol.

I'm a bit disappointed that in the years since this was released we haven't seen more of Angela Lindvall,  who does double duty performing as Valentine, the leading lady of Dragonfly, as well as performing in character as the spy Dragonfly. As Valentine, she comes off as a warm hearted girl next door, but as Dragonfly she's an absolute sexbomb. It's impressive how she creates a character that feels completely natural when she's supposed to be off set, but when she's supposed to be playing the spy it almost makes you wish they made an actual feature film out of Dragonfly.

One of my favorite things about this film is the visual aspect of it. Not content to just set the movie in the 60's, Roman Coppola gives this film the look and feel of a movie made in the 60's. I don't mean some cheezy homage to 60's cinema either. If it weren't for the copyright notice, you might honestly think this was shot around the same time as The Pink Panther or the Sean Connery James Bond movies. He absolutely nails the color and lighting. Complimenting the visuals is a score by French psychedelic band Mellow, that again, feel perfect for the era.

Roman Coppola plays around with blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Sometimes we the audience will be shown a scene from the film within the film, presented as a fully edited and scored work, only for it to abruptly transition to the crew working on the film. Other times, the audience gets to go along with Paul's daydreams as he ponders what he wants to do with the film, letting characters from the film mix with his real life. It lends itself to the sort of wackiness one might expect based on Coppola's collaborations with Wes Anderson, if the wackiness of a Wes Anderson movie were somehow contained to one character.

As I mentioned before, Dragonfly, the film being made by the characters in CQ, feels like it should be a stand alone move. Even though you only see about fifteen minutes of footage from Dragonfly within CQ, it's so well thought out you get the sense that somebody in the 60's made such a movie from start to finish. Knowing this, the producers threw in two cuts of the film as bonus features on the DVD. One is supposed to be Paul's version of the film, the other is supposed to be Gerard Depardieu's character's version.

All in all, CQ is a worthwhile movie checking out if you're at all a fan of The Darjeeling Limited, the Coppola family in general, or just movies with that 1960's mod vibe to them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why "Aliens" May be the Worst Title for a Sequel

Any film buff has inevitably had this happen. You're talking about the Alien movies, and when it comes to the first of the sequel, you really have to make it clear which movie you're talking about. If you mention James Cameron, you're in the clear. If you don't you've probably found yourself overemphasizing the "s" in Aliens. Why? Because you have to make it clear you're talking about Aliens and not Alien. As a result, it sounds like you're talking about a movie called Alienzzz, which sounds like some sort of space invader themed gangster movie from the 90's.

Of course, you could be sacrilegious, and call it Alien 2, but this usually only happens after you've gotten fed up of clarifying whether you're talking about Alien in a singular or plural form.

It's not just in conversation that this is problematic. It can be annoying when it comes time to watch the movie as well. You have to do a bit of a double-take just to make sure it's the original or the sequel you're selecting because the title is a difference of just one letter.

I can understand not wanting to call it Alien 2. Considering how horror movies tend to be sequelized to death, it makes sense to give it a more original sounding name, but  I always thought that Aliens was a bit too clever. I imagine that when it first came out, a lot of the marketing effort must have been spent clarifying to people that it was a sequel, not a rerelease of the original Ridley Scott movie. They could have at least given it a more distinctive name like Alien Hoard or Alien: Get Away From Her You Bitch. Not the most original titles, I know, but you get where I'm going with this.

All of this popped in my head recently because of Prometheus, Ridley Scott's new prequel/spinoff to Alien. I would have left it as definitely being the worst title for a sequel, instead of maybe being the worst, but as I was dwelling on this issue, I realized that The Fast and the Furious movies definitely have Aliens beat.

The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift is the only one of the sequels with a respectable sounding name. (On a side note, this is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies.) Some degree of effort was put into naming two of the other sequels. 2 Fast 2 Furious may be a crap title, but at least it's clear that it's a sequel to the original. Then there's Fast Five. Certainly a better effort than 2 Fast 2 Furious, but still not great. If it were good, then maybe the TV ads for this movie wouldn't have had the voice over guy call it The Fast and the Furious 5 while the Fast Five logo appears on screen.

The worst of these is the fourth entry to this series. They could have called it Fast Four or if they really wanted to strain things, F4ST and the Furious, or 4ast and the 4urious, or some crap like that. Instead they just called it Fast & Furious.

At least Aliens makes sense as titles go. In the original, there was one alien. In the sequel, there are several. (I know it's supposed to be an entire hoard, but ever since reading on IMDB that only 5 alien suits were made for the movie, I've had a hard time not seeing the crew being chased by the same 5 aliens.) On the other hand Fast & Furious is just begging to be confusing. From a cataloguing point of view, those two should share the same spot on the shelf. You can't just look at the title when you pick up one of those movies. You actually have to flip to the back and read the plot description just to make sure which movie you're picking up.

I'm sure a worse title will come along soon enough. Studios always seem to dread just slapping a number at the end of a film title, but aren't always good at coming up with decent names for sequels. If we're lucky, a few summers from now, we'll all be bombarded by ads for Trans4mers.


With Prometheus, director Ridley Scott did what I'm sure many directors have wanted to do after making an iconic horror movie who's impact was diluted by a slew of unnecessary sequels. He decided to reclaim his work. In 1979, Scott gave us Alien. While the sequel Aliens was comparable to the original, the franchise was marred by increasingly poor sequels, ultimately culminating in the Alien vs. Predator movies, which turned out to be far from as awesome as we all imagined they would be.

Prometheus isn't technically a prequel to Alien, but it is set within the same fictional universe, and does take place prior to the events of Alien. Rather then focus on the Xenomorph (what non-nerds would call the alien creature) it instead focuses more on Weyland Industries, the company that the crew of the ship in Alien worked for. In Prometheus, we learn more about the company's founder and the goals behind their space exploration as they chase after the possible origins of life on Earth.

The tone of this movie is considerably different from others in the Alien franchise. The others were straight-up horror movies, but Prometheus is more of a sci-fi drama with some intense horror elements. The story opens with a team of scientists who have found repeated evidence of a star map in drawings made by ancient civilizations. They are convinced that the planet shown through the map contains the secret of human creation. Of course, what they find on the planet turns out to be something dark and evil.

Much of the film focuses on the nature of what it means to be human. It's actually one of the few films I can think of that actually poses the question, "How can one believe in Christianity once they know aliens exist?" If it isn't the first to pose that question, at least it's one of the few I could think of that does so in a way not condescending towards religion or science. We see the nature of humanity questioned mainly through the eyes of David (Michael Fassbender) an android who is constantly reminded by his ship mates that he isn't human. But, as David points out to his human counterparts, they may find their creators as indifferent to their humanity as they are toward's David's. This is balanced against the religious convictions of Dr. Shaw (played by Noomi Rapace, star of the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo movies.) In spite of what she sees and what she gets put through, she still shows signs that she holds onto her faith.

The film isn't all philosophical debate, in fact that aspect takes a back burner once the action kicks up. As the mission (inevitably) starts to go wrong, we the audience are treated to some very intense scenes. There may not be any moment as iconic as the original Alien's chest busting scene, but there are moments that match it's level of white-knuckle intensity.

The core story about an ill fated space is well played out, and makes for a great movie on its own, but the subtle underlying philosophical element of the story is what makes it stand out from other space horror movies. My only gripe about Prometheus is that it raises deep philosophical questions, and implies there are answers to them, but it leaves them unresolved. Of course deep philosophical questions are part of the best works of science fiction, especially unanswered ones. Blade Runner also questions what it means to be human. Minority Report questions the line between intention and action. 

Unfortunately Prometheus raises questions that it feels like there are concrete answers to. Worse than that, it implies they'll be answered in a possible sequel. Imagine if in 2001: A Space Odyssey, instead of leaving the monoliths as mysterious objects lurking in the background of great moments in human history, he implied there was an answer to what they were, but you'd have to wait until the sequel to find out.  If this style of storytelling feels familiar to you. it should come as no surprise then that this film was written by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof.

That being said, Prometheus is certainly a landmark science fiction film. It draws upon elements from Alien and its sequels, but it's possibly the first movie I've seen that could be qualified as a prequel which manages to work as a stand alone movie, separate from the others. Considering how much buzz it's created on the internet since its release, you should probably see it soon, before other people spoil it for you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


What I love about Luc Besson is that he's a filmmaker who apparently never forgot about the kind of movies he wanted to make when he was fifteen. His filmography is full of action heroes that reluctantly have to save the day in some over-the-top scenario. He's the man behind Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element, and The Transporter. With his latest movie, Lockout, he came up with a premise so simple and good, it's hard to believe that it hadn't been made before.

A loose cannon government agent has to rescue the president's daughter from space prison.

I almost didn't care if it was good or bad. The day I read that premise and found out Luc Besson was producing it, I was ready to buy my ticket. Fortunately, Lockout turned out to be every bit as fun as the premise would suggest. I know. We could have had a Snakes on a Plane scenario, where a great premise turned out pretty weak when actually put to film, but lucky for us, Luc Besson knows how to take a crazy premise and make it work.

Let me just get this out of the way. Lockout isn't a great movie in the way that, say, Iron Man was. Then again, at no point does this movie ever ask you to take it seriously on any level, and if you're the kind of person that kind of misses those action movies where the hero quips a constant stream of one-liners, you're going to love this movie.

For one thing, it has Guy Pearce in the lead. His character, Snow, is sort of a John McClane kind of hero. That comes as no surprise since Lockout is essentially Die Hard in space. (Again, how would you not want to see that?) Snow is supposed to be sent as a prisoner to a maximum security prison in space called MS-One after he is wrongly convicted of a murder. After a prisoner breakout occurs on MS-One while the President's daughter (Maggie Grace) is on board, Snow is recruited to break into the prison and rescue the President's daughter before the prisoners figure out who she is. The fact that Snow is there so reluctantly lends itself to some of the movie's best moments, like when Snow hands the President's daughter a shotgun and a map and tells her to escape on her own so he can find the one guy on MS-One who can clear his name.

Lockout is one of those movies that's meant for you to just sit back and enjoy, and try not to think about too much. Sure, it's got more than it's share of plot holes, but this is movie so much about being brain candy that you're not going to care about them. It's fun for fun's sake. My only objection to this movie is that they made it a PG-13 instead of an R, which is at heart what this movie wants to be. At least the swearing and violence wasn't conspicuously absent in the way it was from the PG-13 rated Live Free or Die Hard. It's just as well, I suppose. If a movie is meant to cater to your inner 15 year-old, it only makes sense that an actual 15 year-old should be allowed to watch it without any hassle.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Total Recall remake is how I know I've gotten old.

I'd seen it happen to others before. Word gets around that some older movie is being remade and people get up in arms. Why? Because it's not just any older movie. It's a classic from their childhood. There was a hubbub over the Planet of the Apes remake, and the fact that somebody decided they needed to do a different take on Nightmare on Elm Street. For most of these movies I observed the remake from an academic point of view, seeing what was kept and what was left out, and seeing if fans accepted the new version. I was aware of the originals, but I wasn't fanatical about them. However, with all of those movies, they were either before my time, or I just didn't grow up watching them. That is, until now, because they're remaking Total Recall.

Just a heads up, SPOILERS from here on out. Then again, in all fairness, you had 20 years to see the original version if you haven't already.

There's something oddly significant about a favorite movie from your childhood being remade. For that to happen, usually some Hollywood executive has to decide that enough time has passed that what's old will feel new again, (the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man being an exception to this). Hollywood is essentially spending a ton of money to let you know that something you grew up enjoying is officially retro. It's not just a cultural reference, it's a 90's cultural reference. It's a landmark along the lines of when the first of your friends gets married or has a kid. When they start remaking movies you remember seeing when they first came out, it definitely means you're an adult.

I have vivid memories about the first time I saw Total Recall. Back in the 90's, long before our current era of on demand programming, movies airing on network television were treated like major events. Every time it came on TV, my family and I sat down to watch it. However, it always aired on a school night, so I only was allowed to watch the first hour or so. It was right about when Quaid made it to Mars that I'd be sent to bed.

Now if you've seen the original, you know there are a ton of questions raised during that first half of Total  Recall that needed to be answered, and quite frankly my parents' summary of the rest of the movie didn't quite cut it for me. Add that to the fact that every time it was on TV, all the kids at school would talk about how awesome a movie it was, I had to see the rest of it. Eventually I convinced my parents to rent it so I could watch the whole thing.

And as you well know, it was absolutely awesome. Even in the second half, the plot twists kept coming. There were all those 90's action one liners that they just don't write any more. There was a rudimentary lesson on the dangers of explosive decompression. And then of course, there was Mary. (Just because her most distinguishing feature was having three breasts, it doesn't mean she didn't have a name.) I think it was one of the first non-Disney movie I convinced my parents to buy for me. In short, I'm a die hard fan of the original.

Now for many people who are die hard fans of a movie, that movie is a sacred cow. Under no circumstances should it ever be remade. For some movies, this is certainly true. Just mention your plans to remake Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Indiana Jones ant the Last Crusade and you can hear the internet laughing at you. For years I would have probably put Total Recall on this list, but now that it's 20 years old, unlike the other movies I mentioned in this paragraph, Total Recall is starting to look a bit dated.

It's not so much the special effects that look dated, and the clothes and hairstyles everybody wears are all back in fashion again. What does feel dated is director Paul Verhoven's propensity for overkill-violence. The original Total Recall was a very intelligent thriller, but it's easy to overlook that fact when it's drowning in buckets of blood. Every other scene includes head shots, human shields and big ol' Arnold Schwarzenegger spraying about with machine guns. If you grew up watching movies like that, you'll still enjoy them, but these days that kind of over-the-top violence feels more cartoonish than it feels like a hardcore action flick.

Then there's the casting of Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid. These days audiences prefer their action heroes as the everyman instead of the musclebound action guy. Modern action heroes are guys like Will Smith, Matt Damon and Daniel Craig. They can act, and they look like average Joes with above-average physical fitness. Schwarzenegger is such a hyper-masculine caricature of a human being that it's hard to realistically picture a guy who looks like that as being anything but Hercules or a personal trainer. Seriously, Navy SEALS aren't even that bulked up. Now, I still a enjoy a good Schwarzenegger or Stallone flick as much as the next guy, and we all mainly saw those movies because of who was in the lead, but I think future generations are going to find them to be more hilarious than badass.

Total Recall is a great movie, but it's not exactly timeless. I never watched it and thought, "Man this looks so dated. Somebody needs to remake this," but I'm not going to object to it now that they have.

With the trailer for the new version of Total Recall finally being released, I think it's a fair time to start voicing my opinions on what I think about the remake, (as opposed to before, when the internet was about with people shouting, "They're remaking Total Recall? How dare they?" without any idea how it would look.)

I'll definitely see it in theatres. I'm intrigued by how it looks like the remake is really going to bring to the forefront the issue of whether everything is real, or if it's all part of Quaid's memory implant. This was sort of a plot element in the original, but aside from the scene on Mars where the spokesman from Rekall tells Quaid that he's just dreaming, it isn't really dealt with. Instead, it's more or less treated as fact that when Quaid went to Rekall, that it awakened buried memories. (Unless, you're director Paul Verhoven, who claims that the entire movie after Quaid's trip to Rekall is part of his fantasy, but I don't think the movie supports that.)

In terms of casting, I have no objections to Colin Farell taking over as Quaid. This is going to sound like blasphemy, but I also don't have objections to abandoning the Mars setting either. There's no point in doing a remake if you aren't going to do a few things differently, and when you think about it, it's not that essential to the story that the rebellion Quaid gets involved with be a rebellion set on Mars. For the record, the Phillip K. Dick story this was based on, "We Can Remember it For You, Wholesale," doesn't even take place on Mars. Actually it's more of a comedy story about a man who keeps going to Rekall to get artificial memories implanted only to discover they keep implanting him with memories he already had but were wiped from his mind.

I'm not completely behind this new version. It's being directed by Len Wiseman, director of two Underworld movies as well as Live Free or Die Hard. That's not exactly the best of track records. I mean it's as bad a track record as Paul W.S. Anderson, but it's still a bit questionable.  The screenwriters inspire a little more faith in me, as they worked on movies such as Zodiac, The Rundown and The Thomas Crown Affair. Here's hoping they bring their A-game.

So this is going to be the first time I'm going to go into the theatre, emotionally invested in whether or not a remake of a movie I grew up loving will match or even outdo the original. I realize that some fans will hate the remake by default. No matter how good it turns out being, they won't let themselves get past the fact that it's not the original, and that they think the original should have been left untouched. I'm not going to be one of those people. I'm going to go in with an open mind, and try to enjoy the movie on its own terms, instead of focusing on what was changed from the original. However, I'm also going to go in with high expectations. Not so much because I'm really anticipating this version's release, but if you're going to revisit Total Recall, you better make it damn good.