Friday, January 27, 2012

The Sorcerer's Apprentice Movie Review

In the wondrous world of marketing, a title becomes grounds for several different media types. For example, the book Eragon by Christopher Paolini hit shelves in 2003, and then a movie hit theaters in 2006; then in the wake of the movie an Eragon video game was released on several game systems. Do not play video games based on a movie based on a book; they are all lousy! I have never before seen a chain of “based on” titles that originated with 18th century classical music. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, directed by Jon Turteltaub, is a movie based on Disney’s Fantasia (1940) segment, which was based on a late 1890s symphonic poem by Paul Dukas and the 1797 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ballad.
The story starts off in 740 AD when one of Merlin’s apprentices, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina), betrays Merlin and joins evil sorceress Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige). Morgana mortally wounds Merlin before being stopped by another apprentice, Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage), who imprisons Morgana in the Grimhold, a magic prison similar to a nesting doll. Before dying, Merlin gives Balthazar a dragon ring that will identify the Prime Merlinean, Merlin's successor who will be the only one able to defeat Morgana. Throughout history Balthazar imprisons other Morganians, including Horvath, into successive layers on the Grimhold while searching for Merlin’s successor. Balthazar finally finds him in 2010, a young physics student named Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel). Dave had accidentally released Horvath from the Grimhold a few years prior, and he now hunts down Dave to locate the Grimhold and release Morgana. Should Morgana be released, she intends to revive all the dead Morganians and destroy the world. Balthazar must find the Grimhold before Horvath does, and train Dave in the ways of science and magic so that Dave can become a true sorcerer and save the world.
This movie is so dreadfully formulaic that attempting to expound upon the characters or storyline would be redundant. It’s almost as though Disney has this one story and set of characters that they keep using for different movies. You can accurately predict what each scene will accomplish and even what the following scene will be.  Seriously, you have seen this movie and these characters before. I’m deliriously in love with the idea of fantasy elements in a modern world setting, and this movie does have that going for it. Horvath was a pretty nasty villain, but with the movie being rated PG. You know he’s not really going to follow through with his dastardly threats; people rarely die in PG movies. One of the better parts of the movie was when Dave tries to bring to life some brooms and mops to clean his physics lab, which has similar results to Mickey Mouse’s dilemma in Fantasia. This whole movie concept may have started with the idea of making a live action adaptation of that Mickey Mouse classic.
So why watch The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Because it is really fun! The story and characters were terrible, but the visual effects were highly creative and entertaining. There was a constantly changing variety of magic being used; some were subtle like unfolding a gigantic spell book from a tiny pocket size square, to transforming a Chinatown Dragon Dance puppet into a real dragon. It was very exciting. I also liked how magic was developed as being similar to science. To get something to light up in flames, you had to focus on making the molecules speed up, creating heat, which sets something on fire. My favorite scene was the chase scene through New York City; there were creative, unexpected magical stunts were thrown at each other at rapid-fire speeds. The movie kept you guessing as to what abstract visuals they were going to pull on each other next. That kept the movie fresh and fun to watch.
This movie was not a profound example of meaningful cinema. The story and characters in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice were really weak, but the creative implementation of magic kept it interesting and fun. It was predictable, but the visuals kept you guessing. This is a great movie for a family movie night; kids will love it and adults will enjoy it too, if they aren’t too put off by the formulaic storytelling. It’s a renter, but I may get a copy just because I like fantasy in a modern setting so much.

Is there a movie you’ve seen that was good only because the special effects were impressive? What was it? Comment below and tell me all about it!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dark Water Movie Review

I don’t like categorizing films according to genre. It’s an oversimplified way of describing a film and it tends to besmirch any movie that doesn’t have a solid absolute category into which it fits. Horror movies seek to elicit a negative emotional reaction from the viewers by playing on their fears. Psychological horror movies rely on character's fears, guilt, beliefs, and emotional instability to build tension. Dark Water (2005), directed by Walter Salles, definitely pulls this off. Dark Water is an American remake of Japanese film by Hideo Nakata, who also inspired the Ring (1998) movie, which also has an American remake.
Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) and her daughter Cecelia (Ariel Gade) move into a rundown apartment on New York's Roosevelt Island. She is currently in midst of divorce proceedings with her husband Kyle (Dougray Scott). The apartment, though near an excellent school for her daughter, is all she can afford. From the time she arrives, there are mysterious occurrences and there is a constant drip of dark water from the ceiling in her daughter's bedroom. There are also the noises coming from the apartment directly above hers, though it appears to be vacant. The manager Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) seems blissfully oblivious to the strange things going on in his building, and the superintendant Mr. Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) seems to want to ignore or evade the problem. Is the apartment haunted, or is Dahlia’s emotional distress getting to her?
Horror movies often have a female protagonist who ends up being the last one alive to confront the antagonist. This “Final Girl” is a horror movie trope can be seen in many horror movies; Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Alien (1979) , and The Ring (2002) to name a few. Interestingly, Dark Water doesn’t have this character. Dahlia is just a simple woman who still struggles to overcome some childhood trauma wrought by an alcoholic mother. Dahlia tries to make ends meet, and support her daughter, and live within her means. She is a very natural character that anyone could relate to who, by some fluke, is confronted with the supernatural. Given Dahlia’s weaknesses and fear of abandonment, we are left to wonder if she will allow her daughter to be endangered. I couldn’t help but care about Jennifer Connelly’s character.
A dark, gloomy visual style is permeated throughout the film; most everything seems grimy, dank, and dreary. It reflects Dahlia’s depression and hopelessness very well. The ominous leak in the ceiling looks like some kind of evil infestation rather than common water damage. The black water seeps throughout the apartment building, is gross and seems to have a life of its own. In fact, it’s really not clear for most of the movie whether or not the dark water is imbued with the supernatural or just a manifestation of Dahlia’s depression. Her psychological state is so well illustrated and incorporated as a meaningful plot development, that as Dahlia begins to question her own sanity, we, the viewers, begin to question our own sanity. The conclusion is certainly over-the-top, and doesn’t quite show us how everything ultimately fit together; but it complements the theme of uncertainty and mystery in the movie.
If you’re the squeamish type, it’s good to know that while there are some scary images, this isn’t a “blood and guts” sort of horror movie; it is suitably PG-13 material. Dark Water was disturbing, creepy, kind of gross, and impinges on ones sanity; which is exactly what the movie was trying to do! That’s the ambiance for which good horror movies strive. Therefore, I have to say that Dark Water was very well directed, beautifully written, splendidly acted, and skillfully filmed. I think Horror Movies are an acquired taste, one which I have not yet acquired. Having said that, Dark Water probably isn’t something I’d go out of my way to see again. But it’s a really well executed movie that achieves what it sets out to do. If you like horror movies or psychological thrillers, I’m certain you’d enjoy Dark Water.

Friday, January 13, 2012

An American Werewolf In London Movie Review

The 1980’s was a great decade for movies. That was when we got titles like Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, a couple of Star Wars sequels, and all three Indiana Jones movies* to name a few. If you’re listing some top 80’s cult classic movies you can’t leave out John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981).
Two American young men, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are on a backpacking trip in England. While making their way through the North Yorkshire Moors it gets dark, and they decide to rest at a pub in a small village. When Jack asks about the 5-pointed star on the wall, the pub-goers suddenly act very strange and quiet. David and Jack decide to leave, but not before receiving bits of advice like “Beware the moon, lads” and “Keep to the road.” Conversing as they walk, they do wander off the road and into the moors, where they are attacked by supernaturally large animal. Jack is killed, David is mauled and the animal is killed by some of the pub-goers come to rescue the young men. David is rushed to a hospital in London where he recovers 3 weeks later. David is tormented by strange dreams during recovery. A reanimated corpse of Jack shows up to tell David that David is now a werewolf and that Jack is stuck in limbo as an undead corpse so long as the bloodline of the werewolf that killed him survives. Jack urges David to kill himself for the sake of Jack and those David will inevitably kill. David goes home with his nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), for a tryst. After Alex has gone for her late night shift, Jack's warnings come to pass and David transforms into a werewolf to wreak havoc on London.
As I mentioned in my Ghostbusters review, horror and comedy usually don’t really fit well together. In American Werewolf they don’t, but rather than being awkward and bad, it makes the movie quirky. The juxtaposition of humor and horror isn’t as good as it was in Ghostbusters, but it is fun. When Jack appears to David with open, rotting wounds, one of the first things he says to David is, “Hey, can I have some toast?” Later when David wakes up in the London Zoo after being a werewolf, he takes balloons from a kid to hide behind while he finds some clothes. The boy approaches his mother and pointedly states, “A naked American man stole my balloons.”
Any werewolf aficionado will tell you that the werewolf transformation in this movie is second to none. This was before CGI morphing and animation. So when David’s hand and then the rest of his body is stretched and contorted into a lycanthropic killing machine, it’s all done with good, old-fashioned makeup and movie magic. This truly gives a realistic quality to it. The transformation scene in the 2010 remake of The Wolf Man was done with CGI. While that scene isn’t bad, it just doesn’t hold a candle to American Werewolf; the makeup special effects really makes this transformation scene a classic bit of cinematography.
Throughout the movie, Landis did a superb job of setting the ambiance of the movie. Especially during the uncomfortable exchange between David and Jack and the pub-goers, followed by the young men being stalked by the werewolf. Landis really gave it a disquieting atmosphere which amplified the tension. There was not even any background music to supplement it, but the tension was still palpable.
My biggest complaint was that I wanted to see more of the werewolf. I wanted to see it chase people, rip things apart, and really see why people were afraid of it. Why else watch a werewolf movie? But we primarily see people running away from a low, angled camera representing the werewolf’s view. We really don’t see any full body shots, just some close ups of the werewolf’s face. That was disappointing, but the transformation scene makes up for it, I suppose.
For what it was, An American Werewolf in London was pretty good. It was weird, silly, scary, and fun, and worth watching if you’re into that sort of thing. It is rated R, what with the sexual dialogue, nudity, language, and gore. There is certainly some content that would put off some viewers. I still say this is a pretty good movie, and among the best werewolf films.

*Yes, I said all three Indiana Jones movies.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Meet Joe Black Movie Review

Every year we get a new set of drama films about life, love, human nature, beauty, and fulfillment. A lot of these drama films are sickeningly obvious attempts to win an award since they are released one or two months before The Oscars. Such “Oscar Bait” is usually fraught with big name actors and dramatic situations which are much more sappy than touching; such as New Year’s Eve (2011). Meet Joe Black (1998), directed by Martin Brest, was probably Oscar Bait, but it still did some creative things.
William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) is a wealthy media tycoon who has a heart attack a few days before his 65th birthday. He survives, but is unsure of how much longer he has to live. Later that day, Parrish’s youngest daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) meets an attractive young man (Brad Pitt) at a coffee shop and the two become love-struck. After they part, the young man is killed and his body is becomes inhabited by Death who is coming to warn Parrish of his impending death. Death meets Parrish in his own home, appearing as a handsome visitor. Parrish and Death formulate an agreement that Death can remain with Parrish as a guest to experience some of life in exchange for postponing Parrish’s death. Parrish formulates the name Joe Black for his guest to use. Susan is astonished to see the stranger from the coffee shop at her family dinner table that evening, and wants to pursue the relationship, not knowing that it is now Death. Joe Black’s presence in Parrish’s life causes complications as he joins Parrish in board meetings and family parties, all while Parrish worries about the repercussions of his daughter’s infatuation with Death incarnate.
One of the more interesting components of this film was the character of Joe Black. His character was riddled with abstractions of death that have taken on the form of a personality. Joe insinuates himself into situations where he’s not welcome; his presence makes things uncomfortable and awkward, he always gets the last word, and he’s accustomed to being an unquestioned authority. Joe is more of an angel of death than a dark foreboding reaper. Joe has a few humorous lines. In one scene Parrish is stressed about the legacy he’s leaving behind to which Joe says, “Careful Bill, you'll give yourself a heart attack and ruin my vacation.” There were a few illogical aspects of the character, too; Joe Black seems oblivious to some normal interactions and things like peanut butter. Is this the first time Death has used a body to experience living? It doesn’t really say.
There is a sex scene between Joe and Susan, which was interesting. It was graphically rather  tame, but unlike most sex scenes it focused primarily on the man, not the woman. This was an important character-developing scene because it was a new experience for Joe, and his expressions were communicating that this was so much better than peanut butter.
Parrish was also a pleasantly surprising character. Most wealthy, powerful tycoons in movies are depicted as being uncaring, money grubbing, power hungry scrooges. Parrish is none of these things. He’s kind and loving, he cares for his family, and he misses his deceased wife. He does use his position of authority and power when it is needed, but he is still a unpretentious person. It was good to see this kind of a character for a change.
As a supernatural romance/drama of sorts, this movie could have included a lot of dark visual effects to develop the embodiment of Death. But there wasn’t. This movie was very much grounded and realistic. We’re given reasons to understand that Joe Black really is Death. There are no dark clouds or glowing eyes to depict this. It’s all taken care of in very natural character development.
Meet Joe Black was probably Oscar Bait, but it wasn’t a bad drama. The romance wasn’t the focus of the film, it was more of a commentary about love and life. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys a good drama film once in awhile, Meet Joe Black is a decent choice. But I could see some of viewers not caring for it.