Saturday, February 23, 2013

Open Your Mouth and Close Your Eyes, and You Will Get Dark Skies

As you can see above, there’s a hell of a lot of jaw-dropping in Dark Skies. The human-abducting aliens, called “The Grays” in this film, just cause jaw-dropping terror, or they want the humans to open wide and say “Ah” so they can examine human teeth. Why the aliens require decades to “study” humans is beyond me. They can travel through space at light speed but I guess they’re kind of slow when it comes to research.

Yes, most of Dark Skies plays like its preview: a display of poor acting and cheesy suspense elements that rip off Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Birds and bring the movie very very close to being one of those recent Paranormal Activity spoofs. (There's even the ubiquitous kitchen moment involving pots and pans!) Keri Russell as the Mom and Josh Hamilton as the Dad try hard to look concerned and fearful about the possibilities of aliens abducting their kids, but for the most part they look like that haven’t gotten enough sleep. Though his appearance in the preview elicits a laugh, J. K. Simmons as an alien-abduction theorist provides the first little spurts of a creepy tone, and when the final alien invasion of the Barrett residence comes, rather entertaining chills, suspense, and a nice plot twist are finally provided.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Nemo, Side Effects, A Good Day to Die Hard, and Safe Haven

I was on a roll there, posting weekly on each movie I saw this year, and then Nemo hit Cape Cod with high winds, lots of snow, and Capewide power outages. Nature rules. In anticipation of the impending storm, schools were closed on Friday, February 8th, so I was able to see an early showing of Side Effects before the travel ban at 4:00.

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a crafty, well-made mystery about depression, mood-altering drugs, and deception, featuring excellent performances by Jude Law and Rooney Mara, a very awkward performance by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and some artful cinematography and editing. Rooney Mara is especially good as the devious Emily. The story keeps you thinking, though the whys and wherefores get a little perplexing in the film’s final third. This is an enjoyable film to watch, and I love how Soderbergh makes distinctly different one-offs to refresh us in this day and age of sequels and remakes.

Back home, we lost power that night and wouldn’t get it back for 48 hours. We have the fireplace, and I have a camp stove and lantern for cooking and light. I had cooked a massive stew before we lost power, so we had a hot meal on Saturday night. I’m a survivalist. Nights were very cold, however. My wife, my daughter, and I spent Saturday night huddled near the fire, watching The Hunger Games on my iPad. All day Saturday had been spent shoveling to keep ahead of the snow that fell all that day. We would shovel, go in for tea and food, shovel, eat, shovel, eat, all day long. We have a long, sloping drive that I call Truckee Pass.

Nights were very cold, so after two nights like that, my wife and daughter went to my brother-in-law’s place in Westborough, where they had more snow but still had power. I stayed behind, shoveled, cut limbs off a fallen tree that smashed the backyard fence, and made my way to Panera in Hyannis for warmth and Internet. That night I got power.

Friday, I saw A Good Day to Die Hard. Very silly. John McClane (Willis) looks for his estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney), in Russia, where the chip off the old block is a CIA operative. The franchise needs to end here, but I have to say I was fascinated by all the damage done to prop cars, and some of the flying car stunts are amazing. Many cars flip, many Russians die, many things explode. You get the point.

Sunday, the 18th, more snow! More shoveling. Bad roads! I’m not enjoying this winter. But today, a sunny one, my daughter and I saw Safe Haven.

Safe Haven is a perfect little world of wish fulfillment and second chances. Typical of films based on novels by Nicholas Sparks, a beautiful woman and a handsome man both enjoy second chances in love in a quaint and beautiful rural town in the South. In this case, Katie (Julianne Hough) is fleeing an abusive husband, a policeman who uses his power to track her down. Alex (Josh Duhamel) is a widower with two cute kids who runs a quaint general store in an idyllic North Carolina coastal one-store town. As in all Sparks stories, the two fall in love, the kids love the newcomer too, there’s a scene in the rain when the lovers get all wet and start kissing, there’s the ubiquitous misunderstanding (Alex thinks Katie is accused of murder), there’s the scene where they run back into each other’s arms, and there’s always a flood or fire and a rescue. Neither Hough nor Duhamel is a great actor, but the locations shots are gorgeous, Hough is not hard to look at, and after a week of snow and shoveling and hazardous driving and cars sliding down Truckee Pass and cancelled Drama Club shows, I have to say I enjoyed this perfect little world. Once in a while, it’s nice to watch everything come out all right.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

21st Century Survival: Warm Bodies

In Warm Bodies, directed by Jonathan Levine, Romeo and Juliet gets the zombie movie treatment in a gray and desolate, highly detailed post-plague setting. R (for Romeo), played by Nicholas Hoult, is a zombie who feels that he’s changing, getting better (an impossibility in zombie lore) after he falls in love with Julie (Teresa Palmer), an angsty, Kristen Stewart-style love interest whose face has launched R’s metamorphosis. Meanwhile, Julie’s Daddy (John Malkovich), the zombie-hating commander of a survivors’ colony, will never go for this relationship!

Brilliantly, the film plays on its central twist by beginning with a shot following R shuffling through a dilapidated airport amidst the other undead. Immediately, with R’s introspective voiceover, the story is told from the zombie’s point of view, and lots of laughs arise in the deconstruction of standard zombie movie tropes.

But Warm Bodies is not a zombie movie; it’s not even a zombie comedy like Zombieland, and viewers expecting graphic head-shooting violence will be disappointed. First and foremost, this is a love story about the difficulties of human interactions. On another level, we are all zombies wandering dazedly through our daily routine. From the beginning, Warm Bodies adopts the tone of a quirky arthouse indie, with a moody musical score, and becomes a quiet, touching love story about a reclusive outsider learning to communicate his feelings for a beautiful young woman. R’s voiceover refers sardonically to the pre-plague days when people were always so closely connected – and we see a flashback to a crowd of people glued to their cell phones. In those not-so-golden pre-plagues days, R might have been one of those inward, inarticulate tech nerds more comfortable in front of a computer screen than in front of a warm human being. The massive wall that surrounds the survival colony comes to symbolize the barriers barring human interaction, barriers that seem pointedly ironic in this age of connectivity.

Hoult as R does a fine job of showing his gradual emergence from zombiehood to warm, feeling human being. He initially communicates with very expressive grunts, growls, and wide-eyed blank stares. In a touching scene clearly echoing WALL-E, R takes Julie to his solitary quarters inside an abandoned airliner where he shows off all the cherished things he has collected, including pre-digital LP records. R has learned from WALL-E how to show a woman you have heart, and vinyl records are cool. Meanwhile, Palmer fits her character right into all the standard scenarios of the angsty and spoiled but desirable young 21st century female responding to the weird outsider. “Wuzzup?” Palmer imitates Kristen Stewart’s forehead-down scowl to a T.

In a post-apocalyptic setting, there are always opportunities to reference all that is lost – all that we had that may not have been all that great. Julie’s friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) wishes she could access the Internet in order to figure out what ails her friend. Warm Bodies uses this setting to point out that amidst all the material possessions and the technology, we are not necessarily better off. In the 21st century world – or in the grim wasteland of a zombie plague – the most important thing in life is human warmth.