|« Get a break with Winter Break Camps||Bettie Page R.I.P. »|
Column Fri Dec 12 2008
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Why has science fiction been so horrible this year? For every solid work like Wall-E or even Cloverfield, we get crap like The Happening, the second X-Files movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Jumper. Do people who make these films understand that we don't need conventional love stories or cute kids or cuddly animals cluttering up and diluting our science fiction? Do the writers of such fare realize that the minute they include a scene of one person insisting on saving another person before they get around to the business of, oh, I don't know, saving the world ("I won't leave without [insert name of loved one]!") that I immediately get angry and disconnected from the film in every possible way? The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still has about a million such scenes, or at least it feels like it does.
When I'm preparing to watching a franchise film (take High School Musical 3, for example), I tend to watch the movies that came before the most recent to reacquaint myself with the characters and situations. But with remakes, I stay away from the originals until after I've seen the newer version. Every new film deserves to be judged on its own merits and not on strictly how carefully version 2.0 follows the source material. But I know the original TDTESS pretty damn well; I have a poster of it in my bathroom and stare at it lovingly while I'm using the facilities. And other than a few names and the very basic starting-off point, the makers of the remake — director Scott (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) Derrickson and writers David Scarpa and Edmund H. North — have gutted and rebuilt this legendary sci-fi plot. Let me rephrase that, they've taken a perfectly workable, easily updatable work, destroyed it with a wrecking ball and C4 explosives, and tried to put it back together with Scotch tape, thumb tacks, a stapler and bubble gum.
I repeat: Sigh!
And the real shame is that the set-up of TDTESS is pretty good, or at least mysterious and chilling enough to keep me curious. First off is a bizarre, totally unnecessary sequence involving a bearded Keanu Reeves on a snow-covered mountain in India in the 1920s. It's bad when the very first scene in the movie feels tacked on, but there you have it. But it's just weird enough to hook you. Jump ahead to today. We meet Helen Benson, a professor of some sort of biology that deals in rare life forms, I believe. She has a stepson named Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will, who was so good in The Pursuit of Happyness). Jacob's father (and Helen's husband) died fairly recently and the wounds are as fresh as Jacob's unease around Helen. The good professor is whisked away at the dinner hour by the U.S. government and told that a large foreign body was hurtling toward earth from space aimed directly for Manhattan. (For once, why can't one of these city killers crush Jersey?) But as it turns out a familiar glowing sphere-shaped object slows down and lands in Central Park, depositing a human-like creature in our midst, who is then promptly shot.
First off, I like the idea that in order to survive on earth the alien body "borrowed" our DNA for the purposes of essentially being born human. The human in question is Klaatu (Reeves), who does some of the best monotone acting of his career, and I'm being serious when I say that. He does have a gift for delivering emotionless lines, while still managing to convey the heart and soul behind them. He also works the menace muscle more than once here. And in case you were worried, Gort the robot is on hand as well, protecting Klaatu from harm (well, except for that shooting incident). Gort is about 10 times as large as the Gort from the original film and seems to have far more destructive force.
Essentially what the film boils down to is Klaatu admitting that he has come to save the earth from earthlings. If we live, the planet dies; if we die, the planet lives. But it is in within his power to stop the wholesale destruction of the human race, and with a little convincing and a few life lessons from Benson and her stepson, he might just do that. And with almost no effort, the films transforms from apocalyptic into a touchy-feely sentimental journey that derails any amount of suspense that is built up and makes us loathe every scene that Connelly or Smith are in. Jacob is an obnoxious, disobedient kid who would rather see the earth destroyed than run the risk of Helen fall in love with Klaatu and replace his dead dad. Jesus Christ!
And then there's the impressive-on-paper, largely underused on screen supporting cast that includes Kathy Bates as the Secretary of Defense (we never see the President or V.P.); Jon Hamm as the scientist who pulls Helen on the project initially; Robert Knepper (fresh from Transporter 3) as the lead military strategist; and John Cleese in one of the film's only truly interesting roles, which of course means that he's on screen a total of two minutes. He plays the role (one similar to what Michael Caine plays in Children of Men) straight, and the results are impressive and way too short.
But by the time the nanotechnology robots are set losoe to destroy the planet, I'd pretty much given up on TDTESS. The film doesn't even have the guts to say what it is: an environmental warning. Although Klaatu doesn't explicitly say that the way in which humans are destroying the planet is through global warming, the implication is there. The original film was a cry for peace and sanity in the wake of the atomic bomb, and war could certainly be one of the ways an alien race might see us wiping ourselves out. But I'm pretty sure that's what I grasped between the lines. Don't be afraid to make that commitment.
The movie is cluttered with so-so special effects, messages of peace and love and the duality of man, and enough good intention to choke an elephant. There are bible verses and Bach, and neither one can save this weak-ass patchwork of ideas and performances that I guess passes for science fiction these days.
As a pure acting exercise, the latest work from writer-director John Patrick Shanley (based on his play) is near flawless. Watching the likes of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams bob and weave around each other is this tale of suspicion, paranoia, guilt and a good old-fashioned witch-hunt is a damn-near flawless experience. But Doubt as a film that you might be tempted to pay money to see has problems, primarily with Shanley's script, which seems rushed and a little untrue to itself as things begin wrapping themselves up at the climax and ill-fitting epilogue.
Doubt is a movie that I've been back and forth on since seeing it, and I probably need to see it again to solidify my feelings on it. But the fact remains that a work like this coming out at this time of year is custom-made to get Oscar nominations; it probably will get a couple. But the sad fact remains that films about priests getting accused of molesting young boys is not nearly as shocking as it once was, so a film that features that subject needs to add something new to the mix to justify it getting made in the first place. The newness of Doubt, I suppose, is the source of the accusation — in this case the first whisper of wrong doing on the part of Father Flynn (Hoffman) comes from one of his greatest supporters, a young nun named Sister James (Adams). And the film's best scenes come when the story's grand inquisitor, Sister Aloysius (Streep), is relentlessly grilling anyone who steps in her chamber.
Set in the Bronx at St. Nicholas Catholic School circa 1964, what is most interesting about Doubt is that the victim and the strange behavior he exhibits that sends Sister James to the boss nun are almost never seen, and maybe that's part of what makes this story so intriguing — this isn't a film about the alleged victim; it's about the accuser and the accused. Shanley (who won an Oscar 20 years ago for writing Moonstruck, and whose only other directing gig was 1990's Joe Vs. the Volcano) offers up many nice details about the setting, the time, and the other nuns and students at the school, but really the entire production is built around a few confrontations between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. She attacks with a bit of information or a baseless allegation; he counters with a perfectly reasonable explanation or outright denial. She lies or stretches the truth about evidence she has; he calls her bluff or flinches. It's an interesting battle of wills, but it's also a whole lot of huff and puff without a substantial payoff or resolution.
I don't need all of my movies to end definitively with all questions answered and all loose ends tied into cute little red bows. But I need something — anything — I can sink my teeth into. The final battle royale between our nun with the hearty New York accent and the relatively young priest who has been transferred to three different parishes in the last five years doesn't feel genuine. One of them gives up far too easily, and I didn't buy that for a second. I liked the way Father Flynn turns the tables on Sister Aloysius to uncover why she is such a taskmaster and so afraid of the desperate need to modernize the church in light of the changing social consciousness of the times.
In the end, the power of the acting trumps the shortcomings of the screenplay. And while most of the attention come awards season will focus on Streep and Hoffman, Amy Adams puts in another stellar performance as the jumpy mouse Sister James. She's a being of raw skittish energy who regrets voicing her suspicions the minute she does so. The film is as much about her getting caught between these two black holes, each trying to pull her onto their side of this spiritual and moral war. She's our entry point into this flawed but no less explosive tale, and in the hands of a lesser actress, the material would have been fumbled.
A few pointed reservations aside, I'm still recommending Doubt for the piercing performances and the still-relevant (if not entirely untapped) subject matter. I'll give the film points for showing us this material from a unique perspective and label it a minor, albeit flawed, triumph. The movie opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Nothing Like the Holidays
The movie formerly known as Humboldt Park (named after Chicago's largely Puerto Rican neighborhood) has something I have been hoping for in a holiday movie for many years: a goddamned story. But more than that, the film actually earns its emotions and cheesy laughs with a quality cast and a decent script that actually bothers to treat its characters like real human beings and not one-dimensional joke machines who visit four sets of relatives in one day and expect us to laugh at bullshit...not that I've got a particular film in mind. Nothing Like the Holidays isn't mold-breaking stuff, but it does give us something I think we all love having in our stockings this and every holiday season: a little bit of Guzman.
Fresh from his triumphant vocal work on the surprise hit Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Luis Guzman joins such Latin luminaries as executive producer Freddy Rodriguez, playing Jesse, the Rodriguez family's (no relation) honorably discharged wounded warrior coming home from Iraq. It is Jesse's homecoming that serves as the inspiration for the entire Rodriguez clan to reunite. Included among the siblings are John Leguizamo as eldest brother Mauricio, who shows up with his white wife (Debra Messing). The two are a power couple who are resistant to the idea of having kids — "Sorta Ricans," as cousin Johnny (Guzman) calls them. Rounding out the family are sister Roxanna (Vanessa Perlito), mother Anna (Elizabeth Pena, still looking stunning) and father Eduardo (Alfred Molina).
In the short span of just a couple of days, the family is sent into upheaval after upheaval. Divorce, gang violence, failed auditions, post-traumatic stress disorder, rekindled love affairs, career changes, health scares and a pesky tree in the front yard all serve as struggles the Rodriguez family must overcome if they wish to have a meaningful holiday together. Yes, things feel contrived at times, sometimes even downright silly. But the scenes I remember from Nothing Like the Holidays are set around the dinner table, with the family and extended family gathered around talking, comparing notes, updating everyone on their lives, and opening up old wounds and rivalries. Director Alfredo de Villa (Washington Heights) may not have much of a gift for slapstick, but he does know when to stop trying so hard and just let his actors be funny and heartfelt with each other. The antics aren't when I felt this group of high-profile performers becoming a family; it was those dinner table sequences, of which there are many.
There aren't any true standouts among the cast, which is actually a good thing. No one here is showboating. But if I had to pick one performance that is the most memorable, I'd have to go with Leguizamo, who gets a rare change to display his sharp skills as both a dramatic and a comedic actor. I've been a Leguizamo fan for longer than I can remember, and it's great to see him play something more dialed back and believable. It's a trend I hope he continues.
There's really not much more to say about Nothing Like the Holidays. It's a simple film with modest ambitions that I think carries with it themes and scenes that many of us can and will relate to. It falters when it strays into physical comedy and over-the-top emotional drama outside the immediate family, but for the most part this is a sincere and warm-hearted work that is one of the best holiday films I've seen in years...not that there has been much competition, but you know what I mean.
To read my interview with Nothing Like the Holidays producer/star Freddy Rodriguez and co-star Luis Guzman, go to Ain't It Cool News.
Here's a little secret that isn't so secret, but local theater owners would rather you didn't know: when a film opens "exclusively" at the AMC Pipers Alley venue, that's a death sentence. Although after seeing Dark Streets, the latest film condemned to this Piperish fate, I can tell you that this is less an execution as it is a mercy killing. From director Rachel Samuels (The Suicide Club), Dark Streets combines film noir, blues musical numbers, overly stylized scenery and boatloads of terrible acting to bring you the story of Chaz Davenport (I hated him as soon as I heard his name), played by Gabriel Mann, a wealthy ladies man who gets the chance to run his daddy's club after Pops dies under mysterious circumstances.
Chaz gets caught up in shady dealings at every turn, and he gets caught between two lovely singers. Crystal (Bijou Phillips), the drug addict with the heart of gold, and Madelaine (Izabella Miko), who is using Chaz to take over as the club's main attraction over Crystal. Despite a solidly haunting score featuring B.B. King, Dark Streets is like staring at vomit for 90 minutes under a bluish glow. It's still vomit even with the soft lighting, and it still stinks. There is quite literally nothing to recommend about this movie. The musical numbers are poorly staged and filmed like we're watching cattle get slaughtered, with bodies bumping into each other in ill-fitting costumes.
I find it inconceivable that a movie like this actually gets a regular run, even if it is at the shittiest theater in the city, while a wildly more imaginative and fun musical like Repo! The Genetic Opera is ghettoized to weekend midnight showings at the Music Box — which happen to be consistently selling out week after week, I should add; the film returns Christmas weekend! Here's my review from Ain't It Cool News. Avoid the flaccid Dark Streets at all costs, which probably would have been easier to do if I hadn't just reviewed it. Oh well. Did I mention it opens today exclusively at Pipers Alley?