Friday, October 28, 2011

Movie Review: The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers is a novel by French author Alexandre Dumas. There have been many film and cartoon adaptations made dating back to 1903; at least once a decade, sometimes more. You would probably be hard pressed to find someone who is unfamiliar with the synopsis, whether they know it or not. What, then, could Paul W.S. Anderson’s new adaptation offer that hasn’t been done dozens times before over the last century? One word: Steampunk.
In Venice, The Three Musketeers Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans), with the help of Athos' lover, Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich), steal airship blueprints made by Leonardo da Vinci. However, they are betrayed by Milady, who gives the blueprints to the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). Upon returning to France, the Musketeers are forced to disband by Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) for their failure. A year later, young D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman) leaves for Paris to become a Musketeer. He manages to offend each of the disbanded Musketeers, and challenges them to a duel. The four are brought to the young King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) and his wife, Queen Anne (Juno Temple) for dueling in public, but are given a full pardon. Richelieu, with the help of Milady, plants false evidence to suggest that Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham are having an affair, in hopes that war would erupt between the two countries, kill King Louis, and put himself (Richelieu) to rule France. To prove the Queen’s innocence and stop a potential war, the Musketeers must retrieve the planted evidence and her stolen jewels, from Buckingham, the most securely guarded location in England.
This adaptation of The Three Musketeers (2011) is very fast paced and focuses primarily on the action, and little on the characters. There are some token moments of character development that are vaguely interesting. Since those moments are all we get, the characters remain underdeveloped and simple. Arthos is interesting because he’s lost faith in the world, in people, and in love as a result of Milady’s betrayal. It is restored by the end of the film, but it is not revealed why. D'Artagnan is a quintessential arrogant young man out to prove himself to the world. His inexperience is taken advantage of a few times by other characters, but this doesn’t seem to make him any more humble. Milady is interesting with her political machinations, resourcefulness, and constant double-crossing. However, the fact that she is dishonest seems to be what defines the character. There really is nothing more to her than that. The script was awful and the characters were oversimplified, in spite of some good opportunities to make them more interesting.
Steampunk is basically sci-fi technology that is generally set in the Victorian era where everything is still steam powered. Air ships, mechanical computers, and steam- powered robots are all common in Steampunk. It can be interesting, but generally just adds unnecessary aesthetics. That is basically what it does for The Three Musketeers. Arthos uses an aquatic combat suit to take out enemies from underwater. Da Vinci’s vault has ridiculous booby-traps reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie. Milady has enough mechanical spy gear to make James Bond look like mall security. The climactic fight is between two air ships trying to knock each other out of the sky. None of these devices, or anything like them, should exist in that time period. It’s kind of like if someone were to make a movie of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and add a bunch of Steampunk technology. Nothing meaningful would have been added, it might detract from the movie's overall quality; it might be fun, but ultimately pointless.
Anderson’s The Three Musketeers was a fun action movie. It had flat characters, a dumb script, great special effects, and a creative setting. This really isn’t worth watching in the theaters unless you really value the 3D experience. If you’re already a fan of Steampunk, you’ll love it. If you are not, it is still kind of fun, but it’s definitely a renter if anything.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Movie Review: Source Code

Judging by the preview, Source Code (2011, PG-13) seemed like a generic action flick with stereotypical characters and plot. It looked like it could be worth seeing but not a ground- breaking cinematic achievement. As it turned out, it wasn’t a terribly ground-breaking achievement, but it was much better than expected.
Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an American Army helicopter pilot, his last memory is on the battle field in Afghanistan. He wakes up on a commuter train in Chicago and realizes he has the identity of one of the train’s passengers. Thoroughly confused, he tries to figure out what is happening. Eight minutes after waking up, a bomb goes off in the train and Stevens wakes up again in some kind of pod. A military woman named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) speaks to him through a monitor and explains that he needs to go back and find the bomber. Stevens wakes up again, and relives the same eight minutes. But the bomb goes off again, sending Stevens back to the pod with no new information. Stevens demands to know what is happening. Goodwin and Dr. Rutledge (the scientist in charge) explain that he is part of a project that can put someone in another person's consciousness during the last eight minutes of their life. He is not time traveling, just living the last eight minutes of someone’s life. Simply deactivating the bomb would not change anything, but figuring out who the bomber is would help the government find the bomber in real life. Stevens lives the same eight minutes over and over trying to find the bomber, but he finds himself falling in love with Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan),  the woman traveling with the man in whose consciousness he is living.
The story line in this movie is pretty interesting; it’s almost as if Groundhog Day (1993) and Die Hard (1988) were blended together to form Source Code. You relive the same events over and over until you’ve memorized everything about the people around you, all while trying to stop a very clever terrorist.  There was some good potential for the movie to get boring since you are viewing the same eight minutes repeatedly. However, like Groundhog Day, it keeps showing a little bit more information each time Stevens returns to the train. This gives the audience ample opportunity to see new things and try to figure out who the terrorist is along with Stevens. There is just enough information revealed about the story as it progresses so that the audience is not left bewildered, nor is there so much revealed that the audience figures everything out too quickly.  The movie develops in such a way that it keeps the audience guessing and yet the twists and surprises are not completely unexpected.
Source Code is an action movie, but it has a great theme to it; life is precious and should be lived to its fullest. Stevens is by every means a military soldier, but he is intent on trying to save the lives on the train despite being told that they are already dead in the real world. I thought this was refreshing since even protagonist military officers are often portrayed as combat-driven war machines. When in the pod communicating with Goodwin, Stevens is generally a by-the-book officer. On the train, he’s still a good person with no real intention of hurting anyone, but he is willing to use force to find the terrorist. Military officers do have souls and feelings for people, contrary to how the media and cinema often depict them. Stevens asks Christina several times just before the bomb goes off, “What would you do if you knew you only had one minute to live?” This is a bit cliché, but is applicable to the theme and the concerns Stevens is dealing with each time he asks.
This really was an exciting movie and was lots of fun. It’s worth watching at least once. It may even be worth a second viewing so you’ll know what to look for since you would know the end from the beginning.  Definitely see Source Code, its more intelligent than your average action movie.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Movie Review: The Butterfly Circus

Independent films and short films often are made on a shoe string budget and are rarely seen by the majority of movie goers. Such films are usually praised in film festivals and then never heard from again. Thanks to the internet and websites like more short films are able to be distributed and seen by a larger audience. This is how I stumbled upon The Butterfly Circus (2009).
Set during the pinnacle of the great depression, Mr. Mendez (Eduardo Verástegui) the ringleader of a notorious performing troupe leads his humble circus as they travel around the devastated American countryside. The attractions in The Butterfly Circus are meant to inspire and instill hope in its audience, a much needed thing during the depression. While visiting another traveling carnival, Mr. Mendez and his troupe discover a man named Will (Nick Vujicic) with no limbs as a freak show exhibit. Will ends up running away from the carnival to join Mr. Mendez in his circus. Will is inspired by the performers in The Butterfly Circus, and starts a personal journey to find hope in his life in spite of his considerable physical limitations.
The story in The Butterfly Circus really is a formulaic “feel good” tale of hope, inspiration, and self respect. Given the synopsis above, you can probably make a remarkably accurate guess as to how the story ends. It’s fairly predictable, but it’s still not bad. It is pleasant, touching, and somewhat inspiring. Some of the circus performers were depicted as having struggles that society condemned them for; one had been a prostitute that became pregnant and then was unwanted, one was an alcoholic with a temper, and one was an old man that no one wanted around. Each overcome their trials and began inspiring others. There’s some symbolism with butterflies related to this that is a bit overt, but since the symbolism isn’t the driving force in the movie; I can forgive it.
 The casting director did a great job. Eduardo Verástegui did a magnificent job of being a charismatic and dapper ringleader that sees the good in all people. The character wasn’t flashy, but his mustache and the top hat he dons makes him look so natural and charming. One of the other circus performers, Otto the contortionist, is played by Doug Jones. Jones is in a lot of major motion pictures, but is rarely seen; he plays Fauno and The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Silver Surfer in Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), and Abe Sapien in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008) and many other uncredited costumed characters. We actually get to see him in this movie. He doesn’t get many lines, but he pays the part well. This short film also introduces Nick Vujicic. Vujicic is a motivational speaker who really does have no arms or legs. This film almost seems tailor made for him; it mirrors the self respect and gratitude themes that he often speaks about. Vujicic’s acting skills need to be polished a bit more; a couple of his lines seemed a bit insincere or forced, but he overall did very good job for his first role.
The sets were impressive; they really conveyed the depression era quite well, especially with the vintage cars. The color scheme had lots of dull colors; browns, tans, oranges, and dirty yellows give it an old-timey sepia quality to the movie. This helps visually express the despair and depressed feeling that the country had during the depression.  The period costumes were also very convincing. Even the bedraggled people living in tiny plywood huts were wearing tattered versions of 1930’s style clothing. All these elements combined really brought to life the depression era, even though the sets were still simplistic and small.
The Butterfly Circus is a fairly charming short film that is clean and tastefully done. It has won awards at independent and short film festivals. It is touching, and I admit it brought a tear to my eye at the end. It’s only about twenty minutes long and can be watched for free at the address below, and according to the website it is in process to becoming a feature length film in the foreseeable future. Keep an eye out for it.

Have you ever seen a really good short film? What was it and what impressed you so much about it?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Movie Review: Sucker Punch

Zack Snyder is responsible for an iconic cult classic movie, 300 (2007). He later produced a movie version of a classic graphic novel, Watchmen (2009). His subsequent movies have declared that it is from the director of one of these two movies. We’ve come to expect over the top visual effects from Snyder’s high budget movies releases. Frankly, that is exactly what we get in Sucker Punch (2011).
In the 1960’s, a twenty year old girl nicknamed “Babydoll” (Emily Browning) is institutionalized by her abusive stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) who frames her for the death of her younger sister. Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), one of the asylum’s orderlies, accepts a bribe to forge signature of the asylum’s psychiatrist to have Babydoll lobotomized which should keep her from telling the authorities about real conditions of her sister’s death. Upon being institutionalized, Babydoll retreats into a fantasy world to cope with her new circumstances; she envisions herself as newly arrived at a brothel owned by Blue. She befriends four other dancers: Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Rocket (Jena Malone), and Rocket's sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). The brothel’s dance instructor has Babydoll dance during which Babydoll pretends she’s in feudal Japan. Here she encounters the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who tells her of the five items she will need in order to escape from the brothel. To get each item Babydoll dances, the five girls share an imagined scenario, and cooperate to get the item. Led by Babydoll, the girls engage imaginary warfare against everything from giant samurai, to Nazi zombies, to dragons, and robots. If they succeed, their journey will set them free.
Zack Snyder is a very detailed, visual director. At any point in the film there is a great deal to visually take in. Snyder doesn’t put in so much motion and nonessential details that it becomes visually distracting or even annoying to watch. Snyder is known for spontaneous moments of slow motion during action scenes. It is a neat visual effect, but is almost becoming a cliché for Snyder movies. It adds a dramatic edge, but is used with such frequency that I think the edge is becoming dull.
The synopsis above makes Sucker Punch sound a whole lot more dynamic and fascinating than watching the movie was. After you become accustomed to the visual sensory overload, your brain kicks in and you realize there isn't really anything happening and there's no real point for any of the over-the-top action. You realize that Babydoll is dancing to distract the imaginary Brothel and this is symbolized by something completely unrelated. I think Jeremy Jahns (link in the side margin) worded it best:

It’s all about proper paralleling. For something to parallel something it has to represent something else. Example: like the zombie World War II war scene would have made sense, if it was a dude in war who was afraid to kill things so he imagines his enemies were a bunch of zombie Nazis so he can get through it and kill them. And the Mechs could have represented something else. You know, that’s a parallel. Going into a boring office and stealing a map only to have the parallel of that be this crazy World War II scene with zombies? I don’t see it.

Was the World War II Nazi Zombie scene good? Sure, it was pretty neat. Did it make sense after the fact? Not at all. Each of the subsequent imaginary scenarios didn’t really make sense in the scope of the story. There are basically four imagined scenarios that take place within an imagined scenario. The movie had potential to have some interesting psychological aspects incorporated, or some creative parallels and symbolism--so much, in fact, that I was actively searching for it throughout the whole movie. It just wasn't there.
The characters were very flat and uninteresting; they had uninspiring, predictable lines; and acted feminine and delicate in the “real world,” but acted tough and powerful in the fantasy worlds. The movie had some potential for social commentary about women’s empowerment, but it seemed like it was portraying the idea that the objectification of women is what makes them stronger. That’s just wrong.
I know people who watch movies for no reason other than visual stimulus; they don't care what they are watching. Sucker Punch was tailor made for this kind of an audience. It’s like visual bubblegum; it just gives your eyes something to look at but has no real value. It's got neat visuals that are fun to watch; but overall was little more than fantasy fodder for 13-year-old video-gamer boys. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone unless they greatly value special effect over characters, cinematography, and plot.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Movie List: 30 Day Movie Challenge

This is a list of movies that I enjoy (or in some cases do not enjoy). A new title will be added each week for thirty consecutive days in the month of October. Keep checking back and comment about your opinions on the movies I list.

  • Day 01 – The best movie you saw during the last year: Inception (2010)
  • Day 02 – The most underrated movie: Van Helsing (2004)
  • Day 03 – A movie that makes you really happy: Hairspray (2007)
  • Day 04 – A movie that makes you sad: Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
  • Day 05 – Favorite love story in a movie: WALL·E (2008)
  • Day 06 – Favorite made for TV movie: Merlin (1998) staring Sam Neill
  • Day 07 – The most surprising plot twist or ending: Sixth Sense (1999), Bruce Willis was already dead!   
  • Day 08 – A movie that you’ve seen countless times: Jurassic Park (1993)
  • Day 09 – A movie with the best soundtrack: Watchmen (2009)
  • Day 10 – Favorite classic movie: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)
  • Day 11 – A movie that changed your opinion about something: Osmosis Jones (2001)
  • Day 12 – A movie that you hate: Twilight (2008) and subsequent titles.
  • Day 13 – A movie that is a guilty pleasure: Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
  • Day 14 – A movie that no one would expect you to love: Chocolat (2008)
  • Day 15 – A character who you can relate to the most: Julie Powell in Julie & Julia (2009)
  • Day 16 – A movie that you used to love but now hate: Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001)
  • Day 17 – A movie that disappointed you the most: The Brothers Grimm (2005)
  • Day 18 – A movie that you wish more people would’ve seen: Fido (2006)
  • Day 19 – Favorite movie based on a book/comic/etc: The Dark Knight (2008)
  • Day 20 – Favorite movie from your favorite actor/actress: Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
  • Day 21 – Favorite action movie: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  • Day 22 – Favorite documentary: Super Size Me (2004)
  • Day 23 – Favorite animation: The Incredibles (2004)
  • Day 24 – That one awesome movie idea that still hasn’t been done yet: Lois Lowry's The Giver
  • Day 25 – The most hilarious movie you’ve ever seen: The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
  • Day 26 – A movie that you love but everyone else hates: Lord of the Flies (1963)
  • Day 27 – A movie that you wish you had seen in theaters: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
  • Day 28 – Favorite movie from your favorite director: The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) by Peter Jackson
  • Day 29 – A movie from your childhood: The Neverending Story (1984)
  • Day 30 – Your favorite movie of all time: Ghostbusters (1984)