Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chronicle: What if Xavier goes bad and went Magneto on us?

Just when I'm beginning to tire of the hand-held camera/found footage genre, which has been overcooked over the last few years to say the least, a movie like 'Chronicle' comes along to infuse some new life into the well-worn style started by 'The Blair Witch Project' over 10 years ago.  Putting a fresh spin on superhero movies, 'Chronicle' is the best non-horror movie of the type I've seen since 'Cloverfield' and 'District 9.'  Sprinkling elements from the NBC series 'Heroes,' Stephen King's 'Carrie' and even the classic anime 'Akira' by Katsuhiro Otomo, 'Chronicle' is every bit as engaging as it is entertaining.  It sucks the audience in precisely because its docu-drama style of film-making lends it a realism and its characters an authenticity that more 'traditional' methods could not.

 'Chronicle' is the story of Andrew, an angst-ridden, outcast teenager living in that most depressing of suburgatory-hell known as Seattle.  Dealing not only with bullies at school but also an abusive father and a terminally ill mother at home, Andrew decides to 'chronicle' his shitty life by getting a camcorder.  While Andrew is basically a good kid, from the very outset you just can't shake the feeling that he's a little unstable, that he's a fuse ready to go off.  Luckily, his cousin Matt and good friend Steve are both football jocks and keep him even keeled, more or less.  Then one day, the three come across an alien artifact that gives them telekinetic powers, which they learn to control over time and become more powerful.  I hesitate to use the word 'superhero' on these three because they haven't really done anything 'heroic' or 'noble' that's worthy of the grandest tradition of the title.  All they did throughout the movie was play sophomoric pranks on people of the type you'd see on 'Punk'ed' or 'Jackass.'  Even so, kids will be kids, right? 

So Andrew finds that he's developing his newfound powers a lot faster than his friends and that he's virtually unstoppable (among other things he can fly like Superman by now).  Rationalizing himself out of such moral considerations as Spiderman's code-of-conduct 'with great powers come great responsibility,' Andrew's deteriorating situation (culminating in the death of his mom, which his dad blamed on him) finally pushed him over the edge.  He became a force-of-nature that can't be stopped, spiralling out of control to its inevitable nihilistic conclusion.

Watching 'Chronicle' is like rubber-necking a train-wreck.  Even though you know how it was going to end, you just can't pull your eyes away from it.

8 out of 10


Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Woman in Black: A Study in Contrasts

With movies like 'The Sixth Sense,' 'The Others,' 'The Blair Witch Project,' 'The Ring' and 'Stir of Echoes,' the turn of the 21st century witnessed a revival of ghost and haunted house-based horror stories that we haven't seen since 'Poltergeist' and 'House' in the 1980's.  Relying on spooky atmosphere, our 'fear of the unknown' (or imagination) and creeping suspense rather than the mask-wearing psychopaths and soaking blood-and-gore of slasher flicks that were in vogue during the '90s, this new Renaissance in horror proved to be an instant hit with moviegoers, and a steady stream of 'copycat' movies followed such as 'The Grudge,' 'The Orphanage,' 'Drag Me to Hell,' 'Insidious' and, of course, the three movies so far in the 'Paranormal Activity' series. 

And herein lies the problem.  'The Woman in Black' is just the latest entry in a genre that has pretty much been done to death.  As a gothic haunted house ghost story set in Edwardian England, it reminds me a little of Nicole Kidman's 'The Others' but without the shocking twist at the end.  Based on an obscure novel by Susan Hill from 1983, TWIB treads familiar territory and offered nothing new in originality or scares.  A vengeful spirit haunts a decrepit estate in remote northern England, and it is up to tortured young lawyer Arthur Kipps (played by Daniel Radcliff of Harry Potter fame), who's shattered by the recent loss of his wife during childbirth, to find out why and, in so doing, hopefully stop it from causing more children in the village to commit suicide.   Ghosts, as we should all know by now, are restless spirits wandering our physical world due to some 'unresolved' issues that keep them from resting in peace and drifting off into the spirit world where they belong.  Until they find 'closure' they will continue to roam our world and haunt houses.

Had this movie been made 10 years ago, I might have found it fresh and entertaining.  Having seen so many movies of its type had made me so jaded that the same gimmicks that would have made me jump before (a sudden loud noise breaking the eerie silence, for instance) just doesn't do the trick anymore, yawn.  Been-there, done-that I suppose.  Not the movie's own fault, but it simply came 10 years too late as a variation on the same old theme.  And its pacing is very slowwwwww.

5 out of 10

"Do you find, ahem, scary???"

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Underworld Awakening: Bring Me to Life

Underworld: Awakening is the fourth installment of the "other" supernatural Vampire/Werewolf saga; you know, the one that has nothing to do at all with doe-eyed vampire/werewolf/human love triangles or legions of screaming teenage girls (and their moms) who align themselves into so-called 'teams' named after their favorite monster-hunk.  Oh no, the darkly violent setting of 'Underworld' is populated by real monsters, with the exception of its recurring heroine, Selene, who belongs to a dying order of vampire knights called 'Death Dealers' who hunt and kill their arch enemies the Werewolves (called Lycans) in their eternal conflict whose origin was explored in the previous (3rd) installment.

Underworld: Awakening actually picks up where the second movie, Underworld: Evolution, left off in the 'present day.'  The existence of vampires and lycans have been discovered by humans, who promptly carried out a 'successful' genocidal campaign to rid the world of these classic movie monsters.  Only few vampires survived and all lycans were believed to be extinct.  Our heroine Selene wakes up from cryogenic suspended animation 12 years after the campaign in a lab called Antigen and teams up with a human detective and a clan of surviving vampires to combat a lycan conspiracy attempting to genetically replicate a race of ΓΌber-lycans, the very same vampire/lycan hybrid that was the subject of the original movie 10 years ago.  Confused?  Watch the movies in order then. 

There's an unbending 'golden rule' in Hollywood that, when a movie title exceeds three installments (that is, a trilogy) it caters to shameless opportunism and becomes something that's detestable for its lack of originality and imagination.  While that may be the case with some titles, notably the three 'slasher' franchises "Halloween," "Friday the 13th" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street," all of which went beyond double-digit installments, "Underworld" still has something fresh to offer.  Its is a rich universe (or 'underworld' if you prefer) full of possibilities and new stories yet to be told, and I just love the bleak, dystopian, monochromatic Gotham-like cityscape surrounding its characters.  The 'Underworld' saga broke the golden '3-movie' rule not because of greedy opportunism, but because there is a large enough cult following to justify its continued existence. 

7 out of 10

Go ahead, tell me my movie "sucks."

Friday, February 3, 2012

Coriolanus: 'Why did I let my mom talk me out of it?'

Perhaps more than any other single source except for the Bible, the voluminous works of William Shakespeare have been strip-mined for inspiration in movies.  From grand historical tragedies like Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (based on ‘King Lear’) and ‘The Banquet’ aka ‘Legend of the Black Scorpion’ (based on ‘Hamlet’) to romantic comedies such as ’10 Things I Hate About You’ (based on ‘The Taming of the Shrew’) and the Joss Whedon-helmed modern adaptation of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ due out later this year, the world’s most renowned and beloved poet/playwright has been providing fodder for Hollywood since the dawn of the Silver Screen long after his demise.

‘Coriolanus’ is the least known of the four plays Shakespeare set during the Roman era, behind ‘Julius Caesar,’ ‘Anthony and Cleopatra,’ and ‘Titus Andronicus.’  'Coriolanus' is the tale of Caius Martius, a brilliant and brave yet stubborn general who alienated the plebeians (i.e. the 'common masses') during a food riot with his open contempt for their lack of military service.  His shortage of political common sense was to come back and haunt him later after a successful military campaign against the Volscians and their leader, Tullus Aufidius, when he needed their support for his bid for consulship, as two power-hungry Tribunes schemed to rile up the masses to oppose him and succeeded in banishing him outside the gates of Rome.  'Coriolanus' has all the elements of classic melodrama: political intrigue, power struggle, alternating triumph and tragedy, and mother issues. 

This movie is a modern retelling of 'Coriolanus,' set during the present day as opposed to ancient Roman times.  As such it can be a bit awkward listening to people in contemporary society speak in the Shakespearean dialect, but after a while you get used to it.  Ralph Fiennes, who also directed the film, is simply brilliant as Coriolanus, bringing a gravitas to a role we haven't seen from him since he portrayed the sadistic concentration camp commandant in 'Schindler's List.'  Watching his Caius Marius Coriolanus and Gerard Butler's rebellious Volscian general Tullus Aufidius brawl and scowl menacingly at one another is alone worth the price of admission for me, which was $8 bucks at a matinee.  Veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave, as his mother Volumnia, and the lovely Jessica Chastain, who played his wife Virgilia, also turned in solid performances and recited their Shakespeare lines well.  All in all, 'Coriolanus' is a fine addition to Shakespearean cinema.

7 out of 10