Friday, July 18, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers Review

While brushing up on some classics, I finally got around to watching the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  This eerie landmark piece of cinema had a huge cultural impact and is still viewed today as a political allegory of its time. I knew of its historical significance and was eager to see it for myself. Past experience of 1950's cinematography caused me to brace myself for something delightfully cheesy, but this was a solid film that has withstood the test of time.
Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients are all suffering the same paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially skeptical, especially when the alleged doppelgangers are able to answer detailed questions about their lives. But Bennell is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and determines to find out what is causing this phenomenon. Joined by his old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), they discover alien plant pods that eventually produce a duplicate replacement of one of the town's human citizenry. As the pods reach full development, their "seed" assimilates the physical characteristics, memories, and personalities of the humans but are devoid of emotion. Together Dr. Bennell and Becky race against the growing invasion to warn others of the impending threat.
Having aliens from space that look and act just like everyone else was innovative during an era where movie monsters were giant bugs, ghouls, and bloodsucking vampires. Instead of having an obvious enemy to fear and fight, the horror was obfuscated aliens which were indistinguishable from our friends and family. Having shape shifting enemies that look and act just like us is common in modern movies and television shows. Invasion of the Body Snatchers might not have been the first ones to do it, but it is certainly portrayed in the most impactful way early on in movie history. We have this movie to thank for all later aliens hiding in plain sight as humans.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers hit theaters during the height of McCarthyism when everyone feared unknown communist spies and a soviet takeover of the United States. Earlier movies depicted aliens representing the threat of other countries invading, but this movie depicted a subtler invasion of political ideals; anyone could be a communist, even your next door neighbor. Many people see the emotionless doppelgangers as an allegory for the loss of personal autonomy in the communist systems. Others saw in the story a commentary on the dangers facing America for turning a blind eye to the tyranny of  McCarthyism, or of a bland conformity in post Eisenhower-era America. It's applicable no matter how it is interpreted, and it truly is depicted a harrowing way. There's a scene towards the end of the movie where Dr. Bennell is franticly trying to get people to recognize the impending threat and pleading for them to take any kind of action against it. He yells, "Look, you fools, you're in danger! Can't you see?! They're after you! They're after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! THEY'RE HERE, ALREADY! YOU'RE NEXT!" As he screams the last lines he looks directly into the camera at the audience, trying to warn us, too. Even now, this is a chilling scene.
 The script was very well written; it didn't pander to the audience or spend unnecessary amounts of time with the characters wondering what is happening or what could be done. For a 1950's film, this is pretty fast paced. The plot unfolds gradually and logically, the plot points are clear and understandable, the characters are well written. Even Becky wasn't depicted as a panicky woman who is only present to scream at things that don't involve housework; she's not all that helpful, but she's a more progressive female protagonist than most were in that time period. The camera work was also impressive; it used some excellent angles  to capture action. There was frequently something to focus on in the foreground while action was happening in the background. The use of lighting created a eerie sense of foreboding that permeated most scenes. This movie is superior visually to most movies of its day and also in terms of the story.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a sci-fi classic that has spawned many rip-offs trying to capitalize on its success, as well as three remakes. The script is good, the camera work is above average, and the themes are fascinating. The fear and paranoia this movie exudes is remarkable and still gave me the chills today. It's no wonder this movie has withstood the test of time. I highly recommend seeing Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  It's currently (as of writing this) on NetFlix Instant Play. I liked this enough to want my own copy. I'm also curious to see how the remakes stand up to the original.

The remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers include the 1978 version of the same name which stars Donald Sutherland, 1993's Body Snatchers, and 2007's The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Have you seen any these four Body Snatcher movies? Do you have a favorite? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Escape from Tomorrow Review

I've said in other reviews, such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire, that the production of some movies are far more interesting than the resulting movie itself. That is certainly the case with Escape from Tomorrow (2013). It was filmed at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland without permission from The Walt Disney Company. That alone was a major draw for audiences of this independent film. It ended up being a weird movie that made less sense as the movie progressed.
Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) is an unsatisfied middle-aged man, on vacation to Disney World with his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), and his two small children, Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) and Eliot (Jack Dalton). Already distracted and dissatisfied, he receives the news that he's been fired from his job, which pushes him over the brink. Something inside Jim snaps. He is impatient and then bitter toward his wife and kids, develops a pathetic sexual obsession with two beautiful French teenage girls (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru), and hallucinates sinister visions on harmless rides. The park environment soon turns to something more sinister as Jim discovers its secrets. Jim must protect his adventurous kids, placate his suspicious wife, and defend himself against the “Happiest Place on Earth”.
Guerrilla filmmaking is a form of independent filmmaking characterized by quickly shooting scenes in real locations without any warning, and without obtaining permission from the owner of the locations. This is usually done because they don't have the budget to get permits. Larger studios tend to avoid this tactic because of the risk of being sued or having their reputation damaged due to negative PR exposure. 28 Days Later did some Guerrilla filmmaking in a few scenes. Escape from Tomorrow is the most ambitious piece of Guerrilla filmmaking I've ever seen. Disney has a reputation for being very protective of its intellectual property, and having a movie filmed on their turf right under their noses is major snub to the mega corporation.
A lot of it was filmed on location in the Disney Parks in Florida, and on a few actual rides. The cast and crew had to be very careful to avoid detection from Disney's park security. They kept their scripts on their iPhones and were shooting on hand-held cameras similar to those used by park visitors. This is the ultimate guerrilla art. It lashes out against the placid, sexless, clean-scrubbed version of happiness peddled by Disney, not because it thinks sanitized diversions have no place in American life, but because the Disney vision is so blandly oppressive. Escape from Tomorrow isn't intending to defame Disney or drag its name though the mud, but rather parody or satirize its squeaky clean image.
The whole movie is shot in black and white. If you've ever been to, or seen Disneyland, you'll know how very cheerful and garish the color scheme is. The lack of color coupled with the camera work gave the parks a very eerie feel, which was further impacted by sinister faces superimposed over jovial smiles of the characters on the "It's a Small World" ride. None of the park's music was actually used in the film. A score was composed to imitate the reparative saccharine tunes heard on some of the rides as it might sound once a fed up park guest starts to tune it out and it becomes a jovial buzz in the background. This vision of the Disney Parks is fascinating and foreboding.
The story in Escape from Tomorrow didn't make much sense. The connection between scenes isn't always clear, but since Jim is gradually losing his marbles, the disconnectedness fits in a way. The themes and mood of the film are too narrow to support the length of the story. It's fine that we never leave Jim's perspective, and that the whole story is shaped (or deformed) by his mix of despair, lust, and resentment. Many great movies have stayed anchored to one character's point-of-view. The problem here is that Jim's psyche isn't interesting enough to wallow in for 90 minutes. The supporting characters offer no relief from the monotony of his distress; they aren't written to suggest that there's more to them than what Jim sees. The teenage girls never seem like anything more than dirty-old-man fantasies, Lolitas skipping, laughing, and teasing him. Emily is rarely more than a suffering spouse or a griping shrew.  Similar to the mental breakdown in Dark Water, we don't quite get a full picture of the story which complements the confusion and uncertainty Jim is experiencing. And yet, the ending comes completely out of nowwhere, makes very little sense, and only raises more questions when it should be resolving questions for the conclusion. The story had a lot of potential, but ended up falling far short of what it could be, especially given the pains that were taken to film it.
Escape from Tomorrow is the ultimate guerrilla art. It took some bold moves in filming, and shows us a skewed version of Disney that is steeped in science fiction and paranoia. The story isn't interesting enough to justify the length of the movie, and the characters are mostly uninspiring. The camera work is impressive, and the filming locations are highly impressive given the risks taken. After the movie's initial success at Sundance, Disney became aware of it. The director, Randy Moore, took meticulous care to avoid overt copyright infringement . Even with a shot of a Mickey Mouse character interacting with park guests, Disney hasn't taken legal action yet and seems to have chosen to ignore Escape from Tomorrow. As it is an independent film it is not rated, but some of Jim's fantasies include topless women; for that it would probably get an R rating. This isn't something to watch with youngsters present even with all the Disney motifs. I truly have no desire to see this ever again, but I do appreciate it as a piece of cinematic art that challenged the way films are made.

Guerrilla filmmaking has potential to capture some very interesting locations. What do you think an interesting location for a guerrilla filmmaking movie would be? I think something filmed at a variety of different Wal-Marts might be intriguing. Comment below and tell me what you think!

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Fault in our Stars Review

I had not heard of The Fault in our Stars (2014) before having a friend suggest we go see it together at the theaters. I did a little research and it looked for all the world like an independent romance film cram packed with every romantic trope to ever be written for a chick flick. I begrudgingly went along to see the movie expecting a rehash of A Walk to Remember, but I was pleasantly surprised by a well written drama with some interesting and dynamic characters.
Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort) are two teenagers who share an sardonic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that transcends their physical ailments. Sixteen-year-old Hazel suffers from thyroid cancer and needs a portable oxygen tank to breathe adequately. Hazel is forced by her well intending parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell) to attend a support group for teens with cancer. During one of the meetings she meets seventeen-year-old Agustus, an ex-basketball player and amputee. Gus had osteosarcoma, but he is now cancer-free after having his leg amputated. Gus's incessant flirting results in the two forming a relationship and falling in love, but the relationship is anything but miraculous given the disabilities each one has and the prospect of death looming over them.
One of my many complaints about The Bucket List is how lightly it takes the subject of cancer. The characters in The Bucket List seem to suffer from a cancer that is nothing like cancer; the movie is so optimistic about cancer that the writers can't possibly know anything about it. In most Nicholas Sparks stories, such as A Walk to Remember, the terminal illness is treated like nothing more than a sad plot twist that is thrown in with no reason other than to jerk tears. The Fault in our Stars, however, depicts cancer in a very realistic way in all of its depressing, terrifying, and painful glory. I expected a rehash of A Walk to Remember, but The Fault in our Stars takes the bold move of having both lovers have cancer. No, this is not a romance that has a tragic twist at the end, it's a tragic drama that has a love story in it. That alone makes The Fault in our Stars a much more solid and interesting story than A Walk to Remember or The Bucket List ever was.
The characters in The Fault in our Stars were really interesting. Hazel struggles with depression, being a burden to her parents, avoids connecting with other people, and feeling like a time bomb of emotional trauma to those around her when she inevitably dies. Under similar circumstances, I could see myself struggling with those very same issues; Hazel is very relatable. Gus is the quintessential optimistic cancer patient, he's the type you hear about overcoming terminal illness based solely on hopefulness and a desire to keep going. But even ominous reality of death and the oblivion that lies beyond it cracks Gus's buoyancy from time to time. Gus's cheerful brightness contrasts his rare meltdowns so starkly that it makes the reality of death all the more terrifying.
The only other movie I've seen Shailene Woodley in is Divergent.  She didn't exactly have great material to work with there. Woodley's acting skills really shine through here. She's amazing. She handles a tragic character beautifully and makes her portrayal of Hazel seem effortless. She's an actor to watch for in the future. I've only seen Laura Dern in Jurassic Park and in a small cameo in Jurassic Park 3. But I think she played one of the more impactful roles in the movie. We see this scene repeatedly in a flashback where young Hazel is on her death bed at the hospital and in great pain from the medical treatment of her thyroid cancer. Hazel's mom is trying to stay supportive and optimistic, but is in great emotional distress at seeing her daughter in so much pain and so near death. She smiles warmly to her daughter and tells her that she can let go and let the pain go away, and then turns to her husband collapsing into tears and cries because she won't be a mother anymore. While we return to this flashback several times, it doesn't become any less affecting. The acting is absolutely incredible.
There are plenty of romantic moments in The Fault in our Stars. At first they are predictable, cliché, and very cheesy. When Hazel and Gus first meet and he starts flirting I couldn't help but think, "Ugh... are they really doing that?" It wasn't anything I hadn't seen repeatedly in other movies, and yet before the end of each scene I caught myself thinking, "Aww... that's so sweet!" I couldn't help but get caught up in the romance between the characters. There were many times when it was cheesy, yes, but it was handled in such a way that I was not taken out of the story for an almighty eye-roll as I was in A Walk to Remember. The difference is these were characters I actually cared about and were invested in and the dialogue wasn't forced and trite. When romance is done well in a movie it can be good, but it usually is cheesy and full of lines that no one with any real eloquence would say. But the romance in The Fault in our Stars was good and solid, if a little corny sometimes.
I truly didn't want to like The Fault in our Stars. I fully expected a sappy Nicholas Sparks style of story; devoid of interesting characters, romantic dialogue that no real person would say, and a story so sickly sweet that you'd need to brush your teeth afterwards. But none of that was the case here. I genuinely liked all the characters, I actually liked the romantic moments in this movie, and there was some very real drama in this movie. The story is wise, funny, and heartbreaking without resorting to cheap clichés and exploitation. The sweetness of the romance is overshadowed by the dark prospect of death, and gives it a very down-to-earth depiction of cancer. It's not just the patient that is pained by it; this movie shows how it affects everyone the patient knows and how painful it is for loved ones to see them suffer. The Fault in our Stars is a good solid movie that is romantic, funny, and philosophical. I think that if you enjoy dramas and romance movies, this is one worth catching in theaters. Make sure you bring some tissues, though. I cried a lot during this movie. I even think this is good enough to justify owning a copy of once it is available on Blu-Ray.

Well written movies should get an emotional reaction from you, not necessarily sad ones. What's the most emotionally intense movie you've ever seen? What made you so invested in it? Comment below and tell me why!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

Ben Stiller is an actor that I truly don't care for. He, like other comedian actors, is cast in the same irritating role over and over again. It's pretty rare when one of these comedies actually garners a chuckle out of me. Stiller has done a few movies that were tolerable, but overall I avoid him. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) was a highly publicized movie that sported some incredible visuals.  It was also not an over the top comedy. Will Farrell partially redeemed himself in my book with the drama Stranger than Fiction, so I thought I'd give Stiller a chance to do decent drama as well.
The manager of the negative assets sector of Life magazine, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has been working there for sixteen years and has a tedious life, not going anywhere but from his home to his job and back. He is an escapist, daydreaming into a world of fantasy many times a day. Walter has a crush on the recently hired Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), but is too shy to invite her on a date and is trying to contact her through eHarmony, and online dating website. The magazine is preparing to release the last printed edition before going digital and the loathsome manager of transition, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), is preparing an inevitable downsizing over the next few days. Walter has been the liaison between the magazine and the mysterious independent photographer Sean O'Connel (Sean Penn) that has sent to him a package of negatives. Sean also suggests to the senior management the use of the negative 25 for the cover of the last edition. However Walter cannot find the negative. Walter has no means of contacting Sean and finds a clue that he might be in Greenland. Walter takes action in the real world by embarking on a global journey that turns into an adventure more extraordinary than anything he could ever have imagined.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty stars and was directed by Ben Stiller. That's got to be very hard to direct and be the star actor of a movie. The role of actor and director are both demanding and taking on both roles at once should be an indication of a person's talent. Ben Stiller certainly is talented, I just think a lot of his typecast roles are annoying. When Will Farrell starred in a drama, he really let his talents as an actor shine. Similarly, Stiller allowed himself to showcase some above average directing skills as well as depict an interesting character when he's not bogged down by cheap, juvenile humor.
Walter Mitty is painstakingly stylish, but I don't think that's necessarily bad. The camera work and visual effects were phenomenal to say the least. Even when Walter is daydreaming of something fantastic, like jumping into a burning building to save a baby, CGI effects are obviously used. But it's so seamlessly integrated that you aren't always drawn to the fact that it is computer rendered special effects. The camera work was very artistic and visually pleasing, yet there are some shots that look so artistically aesthetic that it distracts you from what is actually going on in the scene. A good shot should keep you focused on the dialogue or action while still impressing the audience visually. The shots I'm referring to here made me feel like Stiller was shouting, "look how much work went into this shot!" so much so that I didn't always catch the important bits of dialogue. The movie looks good, but almost distractingly so.
The weakest point in Walter Mitty is the writing. It desperately attempts to captivate this carpe diem philosophy; it wants to grasp this idea but ends up being esoteric and vague. Try as it might, the script simply doesn’t lend itself to enough boldness to get that point across in a profound way. It weakens the overall impact of the story. This isn’t to say that it isn’t good, it simply isn’t as deep as it would like us to think it is.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a visually fantastic movie. The special effects are beautiful, the camera work is good if a little pretentious. It is an ambitious film, but it fails to back up its grand designs with enough substance to anchor this spectacle and keep it from drifting off into light-hearted whimsy. This is probably my favorite Ben Stiller movie and it was good to see him acting in a counter typecast role. I think this movie is worth seeing because of the great visuals and camera work, just don’t get your hopes up for something life changing. You won’t be missing a great piece of cinema if you opt not to see it.