Wednesday, December 3, 2014

THE GIVER: A WORLD ALIKE

Movies that predict what our future will be like have always shown a world where something is just not quite right. They’ve veered from the fatalistic showing us a barbaric world with marauding hordes to pristine worlds that had no hope. But on occasion those worlds differ from what we’ve been offered before and we get a glimpse of what could be as well as what we could become.

THE GIVER takes us to a future more in line with that second category. In this future, everyone is content and has their job to do. There is no war, no illness, no suffering. While no one is sad and expressions of happiness are limited, they exist and do well for themselves, living in the Community. Everyone lives in a clean home with a generic family. Young people grow knowing that one day they will be chosen for the job they’ve been destined to do, one they are suited for. But the price paid for this seeming utopia is high. With nothing bad how can anything good be recognized?

The story focuses around Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man about to turn 18 and face his focus in life. But therein lies the problem. While others have known what they were suited for, Jonas has never felt comfortable in any choice. He sees the world differently than most and can’t explain it.

The annual ceremony is held where the elderly are sent to elsewhere and where 18 year olds are given their positions. When Jonas’ turn arrives he is skipped over. This is not because he isn’t suited for a position but because, as they all discover, he is chosen for the most exalted position, that of the future Giver.

When he shows for his assignment at a house on the edge of the Community, he meets the current Giver (Jeff Bridges). He is slowly developed by the Giver to receive information. It has been passed down this way for generations. All that once was is transferred from the old to the new, everything from emotions to history. Jonas is suddenly aware of all that he has never experienced and at first wants more. When he sees pain and war he hesitates though.

With each passing day Jonas feels more alive than ever. In a bland world of black and white he suddenly sees a world of color (they’ve even chosen to forgo colors because it might lead to confrontation). In his joyous state he begins sharing some of these things with Fiona (Odeya Rush), a friend and girl he’s felt something for without ever having been able to recognize that emotion…until now. When he convinces her to stop her morning injections (the entire world has them) she begins to see and feel too.

Under the watchful eye of the government and its main leader the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), Jonas’ indiscretion is caught. His trying to share things with both Fiona and his family are not taken lightly. His own mother (Katie Holmes), a chief enforcement agent, turns on him and tries to stop him. But with the door open to a new way of living, with the possibilities that are out there, Jonas wants to share this new world and give people the chance at true freedom. When he learns what elsewhere truly means, how it not only does the unexpected with the elderly but with newborns as well, his mind is made up.

With the help of the Giver, Jonas intends to change his world forever. But the entire Community is told he has gone rogue. A land of passivity wants nothing to do with freedom nor the possibilities it holds. The leaders will do everything in their power to stop Jonas. Only he holds the key to the future.

So much of this tale is told in the trailers that were seen before the movie was released. Many already knew the story having read the best seller. What is fun to watch here is the world and its beauty laid out for Jonas to see as his eyes are literally opened. It’s a look at a world that many of us currently take for granted and one that people in his world have no knowledge of.

Everything about the production of this film ranks high. The photography, acting, story and effects combine to make a mystical tale of what could be. What happens in the end, if Jonas can succeed or not, holds you in a tight grip. You’re not sure if he will win the day or be stopped. In today’s films that sometimes happens. But the journey to discover what will occur is one that you will enjoy. Another movie to add to the collection on the shelf.

Click here to order.

THE EXPENDABLES 3: BACK FOR MORE

I’m often surprised by critics who find cause to ridicule action films. They decry the lack of a deep plot, find the acting to be wooden at best and in general discuss how unbelievable the movie is. What they miss is that these are the exact things that fans of those films love about them. This is why little was heard about THE EXPENDABLES 3. Then again it seems they love to pound on star/writer Sylvester Stallone anytime he makes a movie these days.

As most already know the series of films revolve around a group of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone). Unlike most merc groups this one seems to have a heart and doesn’t take on jobs that they don’t approve of; they’re not a do anything for a buck type group. They’re also very loyal to one another and consider honor something worth dying for.

As the film opens up the team is on and rescue mission, saving a prisoner from a moving train named Doc (Wesley Snipes). The usual hair raising, death defying, explosion filled moments come and go but it isn’t until things settle that we discover this was personal. Snipes was one of their own they just now were able to rescue. In need of his skills for a new mission they set out to get started.

That new mission begins fine with everything moving along as smoothly as possible. Things begin to go badly when the leader of the group of arms dealers they’ve been sent in to stop is revealed. His name is Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) and he’s an ex-member of the group thought to be dead, killed at the hands of Barney Ross. Knowing just how unscrupulous and deadly he can be, the team ends up trying to complete the mission and get out as fast as possible alive.

The team crawls home, wounded with one man out of commission. Barney begins to think perhaps it’s time to move on. Realizing that the men he’s come to love as brothers are in harms way, maybe even more so since Stonebanks knows them in and out, he decides it’s time to bring in new blood to face this threat to the existence of the Expendables. After receiving a threat from Stonebanks, he turns lose the old crew and begins recruiting a new one. Once gathered he leads them on a mission to take out the bad guy.

But things go wrong and the new team ends up in trouble, some captured and filmed by Stonebanks who taunts Barney into coming after him before he takes out “the kids”. When all else seems to be going wrong who but Barney’s original team can back him up to save the day and the new group?

Some have slammed the film asking why Barney would recruit new blood rather than his dependable team. For me this was simple, he was trying to protect them from being killed by someone he thought had the knowledge to do so. Sure it was probably also done to bring in some younger faces which would result in younger audience members. But it might also be a way of giving the series of films longevity with new recruits and eventually a new leader.

The gathering of action stars young and old is a perfect fit for this series, the new faces doing a commendable job. Harrison Ford taking over in the position Bruce Willis once had does a fine job though his days of leaping from vehicles, machine gun in hand may be long behind him. Snipes does a perfect performance here and shows he still has what it takes if only he could get a decent script in front of him. The stand out though is Antonio Banderas who steals the movie from the rest. His character becomes so annoying and yet loveable at the same time that you want to see more of him. Gibson has shown he can portray a fantastic bad guy and continues with this film. The rest of the new faces do an equally admirable job and are fun to watch.

Watching THE EXPENDABLES 3 will not save the world. It will not help push forward a cure for disease. It will not feed the hungry. What it will do is entertain. For 126 minutes you will forget about your day to day problems escape into a world of pure action fueled fantasy. You’ll have fun, you’ll laugh and you’ll wish well for the heroes of the film. For me that’s enough. I’ll add this film to the collection on the shelf and have fun with it more than once. I suggest you do the same.

Click here to order.

THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN: TRULY TERRIFYING

If you’ve read my reviews for some time then you know I’m not a fan of what is known as “found footage” films. For me it usually involves jumpy camera shots that add nothing to the suspense being filmed and just makes me nauseous. That being said on occasion a truly good movie in this genre comes along, but not often. That can’t be said of THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN, one of the scariest and disturbing movies I’ve seen in some time.

The basis for the film revolves around a grad student named Mia (Michelle Ang) who is shooting her thesis around the life of a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, Deborah Logan (Jill Larson). Mia has contacted Deborah through her daughter Sarah (Anne Ramsey), dedicated to her mother but dealing with problems of her own. One of those problems is finances which will improve with the money Mia is paying her to film Deborah’s story.

Mia and her team set the house up with cameras so they can monitor Deborah in every area of the house as the disease takes its toll on her. When they begin those effects will be long term and take some time to manifest as Deborah is in the early stages. But things aren’t always what they seem.

Where most Alzheimer’s patients deal with things like memory loss or short term forgetfulness Deborah has symptoms unlike most patients. She is prone to rages that result in battles with those trying to help her. Eventually as the movie progresses she also begins to do things like have a rash appear on her body which in turn causes her to pull strips of skin from her body. As these symptoms become more alarming she’s taken to the hospital rather than allowed to stay home. Those days have her under observation but she eventually returns to the home she loves.

While we watch the deterioration of Deborah we also get a glimpse into the life of Sarah at the same time. We learn about her personal life, about her hopes to one day sell the house and return to her own place. While she continues to drink throughout the film it’s never quite to the point that it affects her taking care of her mother. But there is something that’s always there beneath the surface that we’re not privy to at first.

Back in her home Deborah begins to show more signs of being not quite there. Footage shot with stationary cameras show her moving faster than seems possible with the time stamp on display. Sleepwalking leads to her doing incredibly strange things like hammering nails into the window panes to nail the windows shut, windows that are later flung open as if the nails were not there. She begins walking the grounds of the property in the middle of the night seeking something but never quite saying what. When Sarah begins to understand what she might be looking for the movie takes a turn into a whole different plane. At that time we begin to wonder is Deborah truly dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or is something more deadly, more sinister at work here. Trust me when I say you don’t want to know the answer but will watch anyway to find out.

The movie works because of one simple thing, it seems real. Rather than have the non-stop jumping camera work seen in so many we fluctuate between that and the surveillance cameras that are picking up what is happening. The combination of the two along with most scenes being shot in a darkened room with nothing more than the light on the camera for illumination makes for some truly skin crawling sequences.

As the film moves into the final chapter it truly becomes frightening in a way that can’t be described without revealing far too much of the story. The camerawork here combined with some fantastic effects make for images that will stick with you long after the DVD is taken out of the player. Add with that performances from all involved that make you feel this is real and not just a movie and you have a disturbing movie that qualifies as true horror.

I can’t recommend this movie enough. For me, it is rare that I find a movie that will make me jump at times and make me feel uneasy. I’ve seen tons of horror films over the years and few of them have that effect on me. This one made my skin crawl at times, made me jump more than once and has left images in my brain that will remain there for some time. The thing is that’s all meant in a good way. To be affected like that by a movie doesn’t happen often and it does that from start to finish. There is no doubt this is one that will stay on my shelf to be watched when I need a good scare or when I need to scare someone else. I dare you to watch it with the lights off.

Click here to order.

NOCTURNA: A RETURN TO REAL ANIMATION

If you’re wondering what I mean by “real” animation I’m speaking of the classic style of animation, drawn for the most part, as opposed to the CGI animation most movies are made from these days. This is not to discredit those films, they’re wonderful as well. But there are times when you just long to see that classic Disney style of animation from the past. So it was a wonderful welcome when I put in NOCTURNA and pushed play. I was taken not just to a time when that form of animation was the standard but to a wonderful world and story that’s great for all ages.

Made in 2007 the movie makes its way to DVD now. The story revolves around a young orphan named Tim, a boy who dreams of a much bigger world and who is obsessed with the stars. That’s in part because he has a fear of the dark. Each night when the lights go out he pushes his bunk bed to the window and unlocks the shutters so he can look at the stars in the sky, in particular one he calls his own.

When his secret handle is stolen so he can’t open the shutters, Tim goes to the roof to look at the stars and notices that they’re beginning to disappear, starting with his star. As he worries about this he notices a large number of cats on the roof followed by a huge person who identifies himself as the cat Shepherd. The cat Shepherd is part of an unseen world to humans, people who control the night and sleep of children around the world. Each cat is supposed to make sure his human child is asleep. Tim’s cat is more prone to sleep on the job rather than help Tim sleep. When Tim tells the cat Shepherd what is going on he receives a deaf ear. When he threatens to stay awake until he sees the man in charge the cat Shepherd takes him to headquarters.

Rather than be taken to this ruler as he wished, Tim is forced to sneak in to see him. At that time he is given a quest to help solve the problem of the missing stars. The journey takes him to various parts of the city at night, eventually landing at a light house where he may or may not find the answer that he seeks. Along the way he bonds with the cat Shepherd and faces dangers that many in this land of night might not survive from if he isn’t successful in his task.

The movie is not only a joy for the eyes with old style animation that glows on the screen but offers a nice story as well. Tim is the hero that children will root for, one of them, a young boy who is afraid of the dark and unwilling to admit it at first. As the story progresses he must face his own fears if he is to save the world as we or they know it. It’s a story of heroism in the face of danger but not a danger that might seem actually life threatening to a child.

The movie holds your attention from start to finish with what has been described as a Tim Burtonesque style of city. I can see the comparison a bit but not near as much as most. There are similarities but not enough that this movie doesn’t offer its own world for us to enjoy. The characters we are treated to are at times odd, at times humorous and always interesting. Tim’s acceptance of each of them displays the innocence of a child who doesn’t see the differences in the rest of the world.

The movie offers a great story, great animation and a lesson that all children can benefit from by the last panel. It offers something rare to find these days, entertainment that the entire family can enjoy without adults being bored and that children will be delighted to watch. For some just looking at the visual treat will be enough. I’d suggest that you take it all in though and enjoy every bit of it. Not one to rent but one to put in your collection, even if you don’t have children.

Click here to order.

SIN CITY, A DAME TO KILL FOR: YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN

If you’ve never taken a trip to Sin City then you’ve missed a location rife with grief, drama, crime and death. It’s not a location most would choose, but the characters in author/artist Frank Miller’s highly acclaimed adult comic book series have no choice. Their lives and loves fit the city and all if offers. It’s a black and white world where there are few good guys and even those end up tainted before long. When word came out that the series was being turned into a film fans went wild.

That first movie came out nine years ago and did amazingly well. Directors Robert Rodriguez and Miller brought the page to life by shooting the entire movie using the green screen process where everything is shot on a soundstage before a green screen with all backgrounds and some props inserted by computer. It worked well. Images from the page were literally the exact same on screen. The crispness of the high contrast images was stunning. Sadly it took 9 years for the sequel to come out, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. Unfortunately the magic just doesn’t quite feel the same.

As any fan will know there isn’t a single story involved in these movies. Here we have a lead in story featuring fan fave Mickey Rourke as Marv, the ham fisted, violence prone, hard drinking, scarred boogey man of the city, someone to walk around when seen if not across the street. Marv’s story of finding well to do college kids lighting homeless men on fire and taking vengeance sets the tone for the movie. As the title moves from the screen, the next story begins.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Johnny, an amazingly lucky gambler who’s come to Sin City to make his mark and to take down the evil and corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). One should never pull a tiger by the tail and the eventual outcome of this confrontation will not be pretty. Josh Brolin takes over the role of Dwight from Clive Owen, here trying to stay above the fray but drawn back in by the one woman able to seduce him to do her bidding, Ava (Eva Green). Now the wife of another man she draws Dwight back in only to inflict damage on him both physically and mentally. Lastly Jessica Alba returns as Nancy, haunted by images of her defender the deceased Hartigan (Bruce Willis) as she seeks vengeance against the same Roark Johnny set his sights on earlier. Aided by Marv the end result won’t be pretty.

This combination of tales from the pages of the comics should play out well on screen, equaling those of the first film. But something just doesn’t quite feel right here. The look of the film is done well but perhaps too well. Or maybe it’s been too long since I watched the first film. Here it feels overused and at times far too stylized for its own good. It’s still amazing to see and offers some great moments.

I’ve watching it through twice now, once in the theater and now on DVD. This time felt better than the first but still, different from the original. Two reasons seem to stand out in my mind looking back at both viewings. One was the over use of film noir narration, a raspy whisper that comes from almost every character on screen. It’s as if one person were telling each story but using a different voice that always sounded similar. Eventually it becomes monotonous.

The second was the fact that it felt like much more attention as paid to sexuality here than in the first film. It did exist in the first but the amount of screen time spent on sexual escapades feels over done here. I’ve begun to wonder if Eva Green can be involved in any film that doesn’t require her to disrobe every so often. She can be a talented actress but with this film she seems as interested in taking off her clothes as she does at delivering lines. It doesn’t enhance her character but actually becomes boring.

On the whole the movie does deliver a couple of good stories, some much better than others and unfortunately the worst taking up most of the screen time. The actors involved all turn in solid performances and while Rourke as Marv is seen in two of those stories you still find yourself wishing he had more time. Brolin’s take on Dwight doesn’t quite equal Owen’s but he still shows he’s become a great actor.

Well done, well made and well acted, the movie is better than some and worse than others, one I can recommend to fans of the first. This is one trip to a bad town that will be more fun for some than others but in the end it’s like a trip anywhere; it’s never quite the same once you’ve already been there.

Click here to order.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS: IT’S HAMMER TIME

The first thing that horror fans will assume when watching this movie is that it was a Hammer production. It’s not but you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Even more so when you discover that the director was Freddie Francis who was behind a number of the films made by Amicus, a studio that was often mistaken for Hammer.

The basis for the film lies in the tale of Burke and Hare, filmed many times and in many versions. In the mid 1800s in Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare were low lives who specialized in robbing graves for bodies they would supply to Dr. Robert Knox for use in instructing anatomy students. They turned to murder to supply fresher bodies. What happened to them I’ll not reveal on the chance you want to watch here.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS pretty much follows this story from start to finish, adding a few touches here and there and bringing all of the characters to life on the screen. Timothy Dalton stars as the arrogant Dr. Thomas Rock, an anatomy instructor who pays grave robbers for freshly dug cadavers to use in his classroom. The biggest problem he has is the condition of the corpses being brought in.

Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea) are two drunks seeking free drinks at the local tavern when they hear a group talking about how much they make from the bodies they take to Dr. Rock. Seeing a chance to make some money they follow the group to the local cemetery and steal the latest cadaver they’ve dug up, taking it to Dr. Rock and pocketing the money. In short term wealth they drink their profits up and make a trip to the local brothel as well. In no time flat it’s time to find another body.

As all of this is taking place Dr. Rock’s assistant, Dr. Murray (Julian Sands) is frequenting the same brothel where he finds himself drawn to Jennie Bailey (Twiggy). As he begins to feel affection for her he wants to take her away from this way of life. But at the same time Fallon is also drawn to Jennie, wanting her for his own. Eventually you know this will lead to complications one would rather not think about.

Through it all Dr. Rock remains aloof, not caring where his cadavers come from, intent on pursuing his personal goal of intellectual pursuit in the knowledge of anatomy. Where his sister worries about his reputation in the social circles, Rock will have none of it. He’d much rather spend time with his wife or in the lab than mingling with the upper crust of the social sphere.

The three stories intersect with one another throughout, that of Dr. Rock and his attitude, his assistant and his love life and the two murderous alcoholics who don’t care about the sanctity of life, just another pint and a warm woman to lie with. Just what happens to them and how they get there makes up the movie you see before you here. Is it a good movie? Yes and no at the same time.

The movie offers a great look at what life was like at that time, with details to period rarely seen in movies like this. Part of that may be due to the fact that the sets used and a number of the people involved all came from leftovers of the film THE ELEPHANT MAN which was also made by this same production company, Brooksfilms. Sets were re-used for those seen here and many of the behind the scenes people also worked on the film beginning with Francis who was that films cinematographer. An extra on the blu-ray here features a discussion between Brooksfilm head Mel Brooks (yes that Mel Brooks) and two of the producers of both films.

The acting on display is better than expected, especially from Twiggy who most recall simply as a pretty faced model from the sixties. Why she never took her acting career further is hard to say. Both Pryce and Rea turn in particularly disgusting portraits of the pair of serial killers the story revolves around, which is actually a good thing. Dalton does a fine job of portraying the snobbish Dr. Rock. The weakest of the group would be Sands but his turn here is suitable enough to get by.

On the whole the movie does offer an interesting look at the times and what went on in history, even though names have been changed for some reason to protect the innocent and guilty. The pacing is a bit slow but that could simply be because as viewers we’ve become acquainted with a fast paced film that tosses everything at us quickly rather than letting things unwind. In the end we have an entertaining film that takes its time to reveal the entire story. It’s a movie definitely worth watching at least once and for some one to add to the shelf.

Click here to order.

SNOWPIERCER: TRAIN KEPT A ROLLIN’

With the world opening up its borders one of the benefits has been the involvement of foreign film directors into the world market as opposed to just their country of origin. Such is the case with Korean director Joon-ho Bong. Some may be familiar with his giant monster hit THE HOST (if not seek it out). Now he presents his latest film SNOWPIERCER.

The movie takes place in the future. In 2014 in an attempt to save the world from global warming, a world wide decision was made to release a certain element into the atmosphere to bring down the world’s temperature. Unfortunately it worked too well and we were plunged into a new ice age. The only survivors now live aboard a specialized train that circles the northern hemisphere in a pattern that takes them on a year long loop.

The train has its own hierarchy. Those who live neat the engine are at the top of the list, those in the tail the low lifes. Among the back enders is Curtis (Chris Evans), a strong willed young man who wants more for the people who live around him. With the help of long term survivor Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis has been communicating with someone from the front end of the train. They’ve directed him to a passenger further down the line of cars named Namgoong (Kang-ho Song) who knows how to open the doors of each compartment down the line.

After showing how bad things are for those in the back, we witness the revolution as it begins. Plans long made are brought to fruition and the march forward begins. With each new car more is learned of what has been going on up front. Battles are fought and losses mount with each car. What lies at the end is a mystery to all. But more mysterious is the reason that drives Curtis to continue forward.

The movie is incredibly interesting from start to finish. While we’ve been presented with end of the world movies before they’ve almost all been set in desert wastelands among rag wearing combatants. This time while the low level class may wear rags, the location is much more sterile and cold, a white snow covered world where the only sign of life is the bullet train that moves along fast enough to plow through massive ice blocks and remain on the rails.

The train itself as it unfolds is a fascinating thing to behold. The set designer on this film needs recognition like no other. Each car has a purpose, steadily increasing from basic needs to class comforts. The revelation at the last car, the engine, who is behind it and the purpose of his creating the train is enough to make the light hearted gasp. The same for the final reveal for Curtis.

Evans does a fantastic job here as the leader of the rag tag group in search of a better life. It would be easy to portray Curtis as nothing more than an inflated chest thrusting hero. Instead Evans portrays him as a flawed character, one who doesn’t want to lead but finds himself thrust into that position. With that decision comes the weight of responsibility and a call to make choices that have results. An actor without chops would falter in this role. Evans brings it to life.

SNOWPIERCER didn’t receive a wide release when it came out, at least not in this area. I can only imagine how great it looked on a big screen. The quality of the film is solid from the grease covered back end rail cars to the posh front. The entire look of the film captures your attention at all times. At no time do you find yourself wondering how long till it ends. Instead you find yourself at the credits asking if it’s really over. What it made me do is long to see the next film from director Joon-ho Bong. I have little doubt that I’ll be watching this one again. It’s worth repeat viewings.

Click here to order.