Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Website!


I've created a website for my future arts writing. The Lone Wolf Movie Review archives have been moved there. The new website address is www.WeekendTheatrical.com

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street


What scares you? The makers of the new reimagining of Wes Craven's 1984 horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street have made their best guess and released the newest tale of boogeyman Freddy Krueger to haunt audiences everywhere.

The supernatural back-story remains mostly faithful to the original movie. A neighborhood of parents take to vigilante justice and murder the man who has been hurting their children. The man returns from the dead when the children have grown up and uses his power over their dreams to murder them as revenge against the parents of Elm street. It is up to Nancy Holbrook and her friends to deduce Krueger's motivations and to stop him before he is able to mutilate and murder all of them on his bedtime killing spree.

Like other recent remakes of classic horror franchises including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street focuses itself squarely on the film's iconic antagonist and ignores the elements that made the movie frightful and memorable in the first place. Michael Myers didn't provide motivation for his actions, Jason Voorhees would attack as a result of trespassing and sexuality, and Freddy Krueger would pervert whatever you took solace in. Teenagers in middle-class families were closely protected in the 1980s era, and that protection made them feel untouchable. What made Freddy Krueger so scary was that nobody was safe from him. A person could lock themselves into a bomb shelter, and yet the moment they fell asleep, they would be prone to attack.

Not many filmmakers have shown an understanding of what can shake the nerves of their viewers. The most recent movie that could claim this achievement was Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity. What was it that made Paranormal Activity so affective? The movie's demon would attack the protagonists during their most vulnerable state: sleep. Sound familiar?

Wes Craven obviously knew how to scare the people during that time period. The movie wasn't really about Freddy Krueger, he didn't even appear on the movie poster. It was about an opponent that would turn your comforts against you and leave you without the possibilities of victory or escape. You were trapped in his world. As the original franchise went on, the plots became more focused on Krueger's cheesy one-liners and themed death traps. Focusing too much on the villain and not on the actual themes that he represented is what turned the original series into the slapstick slasher franchise it became and is what plagues this incarnation as well.

Craven attempted to correct the idea in 1994 by making his second movie involving the characters entitled New Nightmare. It took the focus off of Krueger slaughtering irrelevant kids and brought the series into the real world to torment the creators of the original film, namely Heather Lagenkamp who played the original Nancy. Craven once again brought the villain into a group that seemed untouchable, real-life actors, and set him free to prey upon their fears. It worked, but the story was then returned to the cannon of the original series in Freddy vs. Jason, which was much closer to being classified as an action movie than anything truly scary.

Samuel Bayer may have directed this movie with a much darker atmosphere than the previous installments, but he and the writers far from repaired the franchise. Teenagers are introduced, frightened with jump-thrills, and then disposed of in the goriest fashion available. Loud noises may raise audiences' adrenaline levels, but nothing about this movie will give them the spooks when bedtime rolls around. Sweet dreams.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Lovely Bones


Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Susie Salmon should be falling in love. She should be hanging out with her friends, having dinner with her family, and keeping up with the 1973 pop culture and fashion like any other 14 year old girl of the time. Instead, her life is cut short by a monstrous neighbor, leaving Susie to watch the impact that her murder has on her friends, family and killer from her own unique afterlife.

The Lovely Bones is an adaptation of a 2002 best-selling novel of the same title, updated to film by the team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, and (in 2011 and 2012) the Hobbit films. They are, of course, no strangers to adapting works of other mediums into movies. However, they've taken a bit of a misstep with this one. Using their creative license, Peter Jackson and the other writers have shifted the story's focus from a family's methods of coping with tragedy into one that never has a full realization of what it's about.

The title of the book, The Lovely Bones, refers to the growth of Susie's family and friends after they fall apart in mourning for the young girl. In the movie, they never make that recovery because they never lose themselves enough to create a need to recover. All sex, guilt, back-story, and the reasoning behind certain relationships are removed in order to make a PG-13 film with plenty of time for Jackson to play around with the special effect-laden heaven.

The magnificent acting of Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon and Stanley Tucci as George Harvey (her killer) hold the film together, though, and provide the emotional depth needed to keep the audience intrigued. Mark Wahlberg and Susan Sarandon also play interesting and contrasting roles as Susie's grieving father (bent on catching the killer, whom he believes to be Mr. Harvey) and her eccentric grandmother, who provides useful advice to the characters and comic relief from the depressing story to the audience.

While not bad per se, The Lovely Bones is only a shell of its source material. Crammed down from an eight year timeline to less than one, it is rushed and unfulfilling. Those unable to read the book may find this to be a tofu of sorts, providing at least a substitute for a better option. But for everybody else it will prove, once again, that the original is (almost*) always better.

*see Youth in Revolt review

Youth in Revolt


Running Time: An hour and a half
MPAA Rating: R

Nick Twisp wants what every high school guy does when portrayed in an R-rated movie: to lose his virginity. He is kept from fulfilling his goal by his unusual tastes in pop culture and passive attitude, turning off most of the girls his age that he comes across. When beautiful Sheeni Saunders enters his life, sharing his love for Frank Sinatra and obscure films, the only thing keeping them apart is his inability make a definitive move to steal her heart from her current egotistic boyfriend.

Youth in Revolt sets itself up in the same way (500) Days of Summer did last year. Boy meets girl who seems extraordinarily perfect for him, falls in love, and the relationship is brought to a sudden halt, leaving the boy reeling. However, instead of the limerent obsession Joseph-Gordon Levitt's character kept for Zooey Deschanel's, protagonist Nick Twisp creates an alternate personality named Francois (Sheeni's imaginary French lover) to express his rebellious side in an attempt to overcome circumstances and win the girl.

This movie is one of a rare few that manage to outperform their source material. Youth in Revolt strengthens the comedic timing and storytelling in its adaptation, making it feel more like Superbad than any of the other "high school virgin comedy" genre of films. The coming-of-age book that it is based on is about and targeted toward an age group that won't be able to purchase their own tickets at most theaters, which is a bold move from the filmmakers.

To nitpick a little bit, it does pull me out of the experience whenever people in their 20s (or, unfortunately, older) play pubescent high school kids in movies. Michael Cera seems to be eternally trapped in high school (what a nightmare) as almost all of his movies have placed him back into his angsty, yet witty and intelligent student character role. But that is far from enough to not recommend this movie.

Youth in Revolt is a great love comedy that will likely appeal to fans of (500) Days of Summer without being redundant or stereotypical. It is sweet, funny, and over all a great way to start off the movie-going year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Princess and the Frog


Running Time: Just over and hour and a half

MPAA Rating: G

Post-Credits Scene: No

In 1989, Disney Studios saved animation as a film medium. “The Little Mermaid” ended years of sputtering ticket sales and critical flops and kicked off what would become known as the “Disney renaissance”. This ten-year era was marked by romantic stories of princes and princesses overcoming evil and often supernatural obstacles to find true love and attain their ‘happily ever after’. Now, ten years since the end of that time, Disney is once again attempting to weave a tale of love and magic based on a classic fairy tale in traditional 2D animation.

There is a significant difference between this particular princess and those that audiences have seen in past Disney films: work. Tiana is the daughter of a poor family in Jazz Era New Orleans. Her mother makes elaborate dresses for the wealthy family of Tiana’s best friend, Charlotte La Bouff, and Tiana’s father is a hard-working family man with a dream of someday opening his own restaurant. He teaches the value of hard work to Tiana, who takes both the lesson and his dream to heart. Local voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier schemes to take advantage of a foreign prince’s visit in order to steal the La Bouff fortune, turning both the prince and Tiana into frogs so as to keep them out of his way.

The dilemmas of the film return to much safer territory than the Disney/Pixar animated movies, which have been the more popular this decade. Whereas the latter films have dealt with death, abandonment, and deadbeat parents (to name only a few), The Princess and the Frog shies away from anything that might disturb a young viewer, whether they understand what is happening or not.

Before this begins to sound like this was a bad movie, let me clarify that it wasn’t. The Princess and the Frog was sweet, Randy Newman did an excellent job scoring the film, and Charlotte La Bouff made for great satire on the typical Disney princesses. It was, however, unoriginal. The movie Enchanted already played out the jokes about the spoiled, na├»ve princesses. The plot revolving around non-humans attempting to become human again was taken by Beauty and the Beast (each film even has a practically interchangeable song on the subject).

Even with that flaw, though, the movie is very entertaining and holds up well… until the final act. Somebody must have either run out of time or become incredibly lazy, because every problem that characters have and have spent the last hour and a half trying to resolve are instantly fixed through five minutes of straight deus ex machina. Nobody really learns a lesson; they just instantly change their behavior as all of their problems are taken care of for them. It has become apparent to me that the true magic and value of Disney has moved on into the Pixar era.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mini Review Set: 11/19/2009


Twilight: New Moon

Running Time: Just over two hours
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The starry-eyed sparkle fest that was "Twilight" is improved a dozen times over by the absence of its mopey lead vampire. This story follows protagonist Bella as she finds new love in the companionship of her old friend Jacob (who reveals himself to be yet another mythological monster) to replace her old flame (popsicle, to be accurate) Edward. The writing is as cheesy as ever, but the efforts of incoming director Chris Weitz make it work as well as possible. Fans of the series will be pleased and newcomers may enjoy the supernatural action much more than expected.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Running Time: Just under two hours
MPAA Rating: R

Claireece "Precious" Jones is a morbidly obese 16-year-old high school girl who lives in 1987 Harlem. She is illiterate, forced to labor over her abusive mother, and is pregnant with her second child as a result of being raped by her disgusting father. It's safe to say that this is not a feel-good movie. The story follows Precious's attempts to receive an education while caring for her children and finding love in a world that has shown her nothing but unconditional hatred. Saying that it is emotionally powerful would be an understatement, but sometimes the most shocking moments are transitioned into darkly humorous fantasies too quickly for any impact to be made on the audience. If you can handle such a dark tale, then "Precious" is a must-see for an engrossing look into a young girl’s search for hope in a hopeless world.

The Blind Side

Running Time: Just over two hours
MPAA Rating: PG-13

This part biography, part sports movie handles itself surprisingly well. Sandra Bullock pulls herself together nicely (after a series of critical flops) to play the compassionate adoptive mother of future football star Michael Oher. There are an excessive number of tearjerker moments relating to Oher’s poverty-stricken childhood, but they are done well enough to make you care about the characters rather than feeling like exploitive gimmicks. The plot revolves around an inspiring act of Christian charity that will work for audiences of all tastes; sports fans or not.

2012

Running Time: Two hours and forty minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Many will argue that this movie delivers exactly what was promised in its advertising, but knowing that a movie will be bad does not excuse the fact. Special effect technology has improved since Roland Emmerich’s previous movies (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), but his writing has become steadily worse with each new entry into the disaster movie genre. If you’re looking for several hours of eye candy and don’t much care what the characters have to say or think, then this is the movie for you.

This Is It

Running Time: An hour and a half
MPAA Rating: PG

Michael Jackson’s swan song was caught on tape before his untimely death last June. This film is made up entirely of rehearsals from his preparation for the highly anticipated “This Is It” concert tour. The footage was caught using a variety of cameras with varying quality (it was never meant to be anything but posterity). While Jackson’s performances are up to standards, the necessary planning process often interrupts them, which, while potentially engaging to fans of Jackson or those with an interest in the production of live music, will be just plain boring to most people. This is a movie that would not have been made had it not been for the performer’s death, so my recommendation is to skip it unless you’re significantly drawn to his work.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Christmas Carol


Running Time: Just over an hour and a half

MPAA Rating: PG


Everybody knows the story of “A Christmas Carol”, or at least they think they do. A wealthy old miser named “Scrooge” is tormented by three Christmas spirits and a deceased associate in order to change his outlook on life for the better. The plot of Dickens’s classic novel has become iconic to today’s audience through years of other franchises adapting their characters into the plot. The quality of these retellings has had a fantastic range; from staying fairly true to the original (such as “Scrooge” in 1951 and the Oscar-winning animated version in 1971), to making silly updates (“The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”, both of which were also made by Disney), to complete bastardizations (“An American Carol”, “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”, and countless more). To say the least, the very point of the book has been lost over the years, and nobody in recent decades has thought to simply stay true to the original material until now.

The film keeps its source’s dialogue resolutely intact. While this may please literature aficionados, it will bore the life out of the children to whom the movie was marketed. The indecision about which it was made for is blaringly apparent among moments of cartoonish giddiness, disturbing scenes of rotted corpses, and cheap “jump” scares all interspersed with the original Victorian language. In fact, the only entertainment that the average child would get during the entire show comes from added sight gags or characters that give lines in exaggeratedly silly voices, gimmicks that will alienate anybody looking to enjoy the classic story.

The out of place children’s comedy shtick isn’t the only thing working against “A Christmas Carol”, however. Many problems arise from director Robert Zemeckis’s signature performance capture animation technique (a style that he used on “The Polar Express”, “Beowulf”, and the upcoming remake of “Yellow Submarine”). There is a phenomenon that affects this type of film known as “uncanny valley”, which happens when people recognize nonhuman beings (such as robots and CGI animations) that pretend to be human and, as a result, are repulsed. The characters in the movie are unable to produce any believable emotion which causes a complete disconnect with the audience and leaves the actors only their voices to convincingly portray their characters.

Much like the “Harry Potter” movies, an all-star cast is used to cover even minor roles. Of course, many of the stars in this film have at least two or three characters to their name, Jim Carrey topping the bill by playing all three ghosts as well as Ebenezer Scrooge. While this may seem to be a cool idea in theory, it is absolutely pointless and only deepens the problems that are already present. It must have been difficult enough for the actors to respond to lines that have been given days or weeks ago (the scattered voice acting shows with a fervor), but dialogue between them and themselves in another personality is extremely difficult and is not done very naturally or believably at all in this case.

“A Christmas Carol” was a very influential book in its time. It helped to solidify Dickens’s legacy and even had a remarkable impact on the modern concepts of charity and redemption at Christmastime. This movie, unfortunately, carries none of that weight and instead serves as an over-stylized attempt to cash in on the season. The dialogue is simply an afterthought that is used to make way for more visual gimmicks and 3D spectacles. The performance capture animation should have been done away with in favor of live-action, as the technology has shown no significant improvement from its previous uses. In the end, if you’d like to know the timeless story then pass on this film and hear the classic literature call “know me better, man!”