DreamWorks animation hasn’t thrown in the gauntlet yet and from the looks of Rise of the Guardians they’re in this thing to win it. Pixar will need to step it up. Here’s a sleeper hit for the holidays, for the kids and for those who enjoy great storytelling which like How to Train Your Dragon (2010) has a central figure’s story at its core.
It’s no better or worse than the 1984 version. Red Dawn is a remake of that classic John Milius directed ‘80’s film that starred Jennifer Grey, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Patrick Swayze. I might hold out that the original was slightly better for nostalgic reasons.
This Steven Spielberg treatment of the 16th President of the United States will undoubtedly be shown in every high school history class from now on. Spielberg and long-time collaborators cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams go for realism over entertainment, giving Lincoln the Spielberg treatment of style that is slightly just over an already substantially supported substance. Meaning it’s a very good look at an important moment in Lincoln’s presidency but that style of deep focus and sepia-toned warm lighting wins it over.
As fans rolled out of my screening of Breaking Dawn Part 2, the final chapter in the Twilight series, the final of five films in the four book series by author Stephenie Meyer, fans talked about which character was their favorite—emphasis on the word was—like reminiscing about old times and old friends. The popularity of the films and the huge female demographic it catered to garnered a larger audience over time, building off of 2008’s Twilight. Like with Harry Potter, audiences grew exponentially with ever book and every film. And it wouldn’t be unusual for that low ratio of men in a Twilight matinee—say five guys to every 30 women—to feel pretty uncomfortable when ladies erupted like rabid, flesh starved zombies over the removal of a shirt from one of the male characters. This is the end, the finale. This franchise is toast. It’s over and some will be saddened by that, others happy with that. But it really never was a movie for anyone but the fans of the novels. And the same can be said of Breaking Dawn Part 2.
This Bond must be the bionic one I gather from all the running. Daniel Craig's Bond is by far the most athletic in terms of full-on sprinting. Skyfall is the latest in what looks like a Daniel Craig trilogy (these days we never know who will be Bond) following Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008). He’s the sixth version of author Ian Flemming’s fictitious British spy known as Bond, James Bond (twelfth if counting Woody Allen, David Niven, Peter Sellers and three others from the 1967 version of Casino Royale), and the cool thing is is there’s enough Bonds for everyone. I grew up first liking Roger Moore in the role, then went backwards in the filmmography to admire the Sean Connery version. Craig is most like Connery in my estimates considering there’s more realism in Craig’s and Connery’s man—no need for underwater or invisible cars, no space shuttle rendezvous in space, no third nipple. This James Bond movie is about many things but following the first two Craig films Skyfall is really about Bond coming into his own. He will no longer need "the fruit" in his Vesper Lynd martinis. And he will no longer need that same martini which is the equivalent in number of ingredients to a youngster’s soda kamikaze. He will however give a damn about whether his martini is shaken or stirred, and quite honestly you see by his life style that one shaken is more analogous to his chosen profession than one stirred.
The Story: Skyfall is very much a masculine and mature film in terms of thrills focusing mainly on Oscar worthy production value and a sort-of dry British theater outing that centers on adult conversation. It’s about a spy on the verge of losing his identity, his life, his livelihood. What does it mean to be a double-O agent working for MI6 instead of a bartender running a poolside bar in the Bahamas? It means one must man-up and face the music, like a man, while first becoming a man. And as we all know the measure of a man in a Bond film is calculated by how successful he is against his adversary played here by the Oscar winning actor Javier Bardem.
The Goods: This Bond film is more labyrinthine in terms of milieu, in tunnels, doorways, elevator shafts and other enclosed compartments conveying a strong sense of confinement for Bond. It really picks up that enclosed feeling from where the lackluster Quantum of Solace left off. There's always an aquatic piece that fits into Bond films—most notably Casino Royale’s ending—which we have that here too. In fact there's a calming ocean wave and fountain motif that suggests a Zen-like internalizing that Bond submits himself to in trying to find the calm in all of his storms. You can see that director Sam Mendes did his homework with those other two Craig films in making this 23rd Bond episode feel like a trilogy’s end while also building a character to withstand the franchise legacy. Bond is also in silhouette more often in Skyfall than any other Bond film, like a good film noir graphic novel...a spy in the shadows but also a man in the shadows of his youth, not quite the man he's about to become which is the name-brand spy he is in Dr. No (1962), Thunderball (1965) and Goldfinger (1964). As you may recall, Casino Royale, Flemming’s first Bond novel, started Craig’s journey with Bond’s treacherous, freshman entry to the profession. In this Bond film he is literally bounding from the strangling internment of that occupation and emerging from the shadows to be the kind of hero he will need to be to protect Queen and Country. You will see as the film progresses that Bond gravitates for and finds himself in more wide-open spaces than from where he’s at in the film’s first act. And he moves increasingly more into light by film’s end.
If a character is as established as Bond, does the director make a difference? Michael Apted who directed Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Gorky Park (1983) and Gorilla’s in the Mist (1988) directed a Bond film, probably Pierce Brosnan’s worst, The World Is Not Enough (1999). Director Terence Young was 17 feature films into his career before he made Dr. No, from Russian with Love (1963) and Thunderball. Guy Hamilton who directed Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever (1971) and two Roger Moore Bond films including what would probably be Moore's best, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) also did Force 10 From Navarone (1978) and Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985). John Glen, the director not astronaut, did five Bond films but nothing better than Aces: Iron Eagles III (1992) after his last Bond film, one with Timothy Dalton, License to Kill (1989). Martin Campbell who did Casino Royale also did Edge of Darkness (2010) with Mel Gibson, No Escape (1994) with Ray Liotta and the first Pierce Brosnan Bond film GoldenEye (1995). He also did the Hopkins-Banderas Zorro films.
Its probably only Marc Forrester who did the very boring and unexciting Quantum of Solace, where MI6, not M, loses faith in Bond that has any real vision as a director proven by his Oscar nominated Finding Neverland (2004), and the quirky and fun Stranger than Fiction (2006), which is perplexing considering how un-solace Solace is. Forester's other work includes the Oscar winning film Monster's Ball (2001), The Kite Runner (2007) and Brad Pitt's soon to be released World War Z. The overrated Paul Haggis wrote Solace and I'd say he's mostly to blame for the lame.
What I'm suggesting is that it's rare that a director of someone's caliber like Sam Mendes does a Bond film. His American Beauty (1999) shot by the late great Conrad Hall won Kevin Spacey an Oscar for best Actor. It should be noted that Mendes also had Hall photograph Road to Perdition (2002) which would have been Hall's last film. And the lighting in that film is impeccable. In addition to Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008), Mendes apparently has directed several plays for the stage and has won a Tony for his skills there which are all over Skyfall in terms of timing, delivery of lines and placement of characters both in proximity to one another and within the boundaries of the frame. And Skyfall is considerably darker in lighting and tone. Just compare it to Casino Royale andQuantum of Solace. Or any of the Bond films starring anyone other than Connery or Craig. Skyfall is photographed by probably Conrad Hall’s only equivalent, the Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), No Country for Old Men (2007))
What does all of this have to do with Skyfall? Well there's more at work here director-wise, managerial-wise, than just another Bond film. And that’s what’s important. It breaks with tradition while building toward the heritage of Bond in the movies as we know him.
The Flaws: All of this is fine and dandy, and quite analytical, and good drama, and some of the best filmmaking in a Bond film yet but where’s the fun? We’ve waited for a few more gadgets and toys and we’ve waited for a new Quartermaster who is the weapons and tech guy commonly referred to as Q; and we’ve waited patiently to see Craig in use of said objects and in the company of said personnel. We get a little taste of that but not to the extent we expect nor deserve. It’s very disappointing and rather quite distracting in the sense that when we meet Q played here by Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murder (2006), Cloud Atlas) we’re led to believe he’s more old school than we can take at this stage in the Craig trilogy. He’s no Desmond Llewelyn and no John Cleese. Granted Skyfall is about old school and I like that, and I treasure the mementos of Bond’s history scattered about in Skyfall. But it’s time for more Q, and time we get the coolest spy stuff we’ve ever seen. It’s okay to be ashamed of the cheesy ‘70s and ‘80s Bond films, and it’s okay to have origins and new beginnings, but we still like to be entertained with extraordinary spy-film activities that give us a spectacle of wonder. If we had wanted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) we would have asked for it.
The Call: Previous Bond films have all been action films by the numbers. Shot of a bomb, show the two fighting, show the threat of what the bomb will do, cut back to the bomb, then a close-up of Bond...you get the idea. It’s what we’re used to. This version is a Bond film like nothing really we’ve seen before. It’s dramatic, it’s brooding, it’s beautifully contrasty and magnificently shot, and the dialogue and conversation between Bond and villain is so much more substantial in weight and intensity. Is it the best Bond film ever? I suggest you spend the ten to find out.
Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. Running time is 2 hours and 23 minutes
Without a doubt Steven Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis’ best films are Romancing the Stone (1984), Back to the Future (1985) and Forrest Gump (1994). I’ll throw Cast Away (2000) in there simply because it speaks to the person in all of us who has ever had to endure long bouts of loss or loneliness due to any form of loss. And that’s where Flight picks up. It’s not the amusement ride of Zemeckis’ youth but rather the sobering adult film—not the nudity kind—that once again, like Cast Away, skirts a sermon-like preaching that suggests our course in life is written. Can there be acts of God? Which by the way reminds me of that other Zemeckis film Contact (1997) where Jodie Foster’s character struggles both with the questions of God’s existence and the existence of alien life forms in the universe. Here we have Oscar winner Denzel Washington as an airline pilot struggling with an alcohol addiction and the best way for Zemeckis to approach it is by not swinging for the fences but by going for the stand-up double instead.
The Story: Pure and simple, Flight is about a man struggling with his addiction to alcohol. But this alcoholic is a pilot named Whip Whitaker, played with Oscar-worthy subtlety by Washington, who as a weathered airline captain has the wherewithal to superhumanly right and safely land a doomed flight.
The Goods: The word doom and God are used quite a bit in Flight. Characters who struggle with the fact their lives were nearly lost and at the hands of a pilot who may have been intoxicated. Reckless might be what they’re thinking in describing the man that saved them. This puts an ever increasing burden on Whitaker who tries to wash it all away with beer, vodka and bourbon and in copious amounts. This is a choice he makes, maybe for some things that never quite worked out for him in his past, just as there are choices for Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly (best known as Watson’s fiancé in Sherlock Holmes (2009)), a drug addict who nearly takes her life still struggling with the death of her mother.
Classic filmmakers and actors have tackled the alcohol issue before in films such as Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) or with Jack Lemmon’s role in Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and the extraordinary Leaving Las Vegas (1995) which won Nicolas Cage a Best Actor Oscar. Washington’s performance is no different as he thoroughly represents, in tearful eyes, gaited walk when dry and cool stride when high—with stuttering words over a bottom lip steadfastly protruding toward any open beer bottle or alcoholic beverage—the personification of a proud man who is also a coward. He is a trained Navy pilot, good at what he does, and also the father of a child he hardly knows. This portrayal is all Washington’s doing, conveying deftly the man who struggles internally while also being the man who calmly lands an upside down plane loaded with passengers…and does so like a man made of steel. Or a man so loaded he can take on the biggest brawler in the bar.
The plane incident you see in this film is not unlike the spectacular aftermath immediately following the Federal Express plane crash in Cast Away. Flight picks up on those kind of startling special effects—the bigger, unexpected placement of objects doing astonishing things unimaginable—that takes your breath away without any real razzle dazzle. This isn’t Transformers, but in a way it’s better than the total sum of bells and whistles in any of those effects-laden films. Flight is cherry-picked in terms of details and special moments, and it’s Zemeckis’ bread and butter—the mixing of a hyper reality that is greater than, but also just on the cusp of, reality as we know it.
The Flaws: Unfortunately, the instances of special effects really suit Zemeckis better than dramatics and let’s just say there are about twenty minutes of good effects and nearly two hours of drama. The main fault I have with Flight is that (not only is it too long, but) it teeters on and hints at the kind of magic we find in fantasies. There is a touched-on vibe to enchantment that we’ve seen in Cast Away, Forrest Gump and Contact that runs through Bob’s films. But it doesn’t go far enough in Flight, nor do the special effects, to make Flight any more than what feels mostly like a made-for-TV drama about adults struggling with addiction. I know that sounds harsh, it’s not meant to be…it’s just an observation that might say to a young filmmaker, hey, look at what’s going on here and see if you can write a fix for this problem.
Whip and Nicole “meet” like Chuck meets the fated angel wing redheaded lady in Cast Away (it should be noted Nicole in Flight is also a redhead). Just as Nicole takes a hit of heroin called “Taliban,” and is taken away by EMTs rolling her body out of her run-down apartment, somewhere in Atlanta (it’s cool that we see the AT&T building and The Westin Peachtree Plaza), we at the same time see Whitaker’s plane flying overhead, inverted, as it makes its way to its fated crash. And thus the two shall meet. We move toward that relationship but then get side-tracked with Whip’s struggles and a legal case by the NTSB that the pilot’s union wish to win. A romance however between Whip and Nicole might make for a more fun outing at the movies. But then that would be a different movie.
The Call: Stow the dough. It’s tough to say that considering how good Washington is in this or any of his roles. We can’t thank pilots like Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger enough for having the faculty to safely land bum planes. The last question we would probably ever ask from Sullenberger’s miraculous 2009 landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson River is what if he had a substantially high blood alcohol level. Maybe what Flight needs is a dose of that newsreel feel; that the straightforward, least risk to camera placement and movement in this Robert Zemeckis film dampens what is otherwise a remarkable story.
Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence. Running time is a long, long, long 2 hours and 18 minutes. Also starring John Goodman and the great Don Cheadle. One of my favorite films about plane crash survivors is the Peter Weir film Fearless (1993) with Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. I highly recommend it if you can catch it on Netflix or Redbox.
Pusher is a remake from the first of a trilogy of films from Pusher 1996, to Pusher II (2004), to Pusher 2005. The original was remade again in 2010. Heck everyone should make their own version of Pusher and post it on YouTube, maybe do one of those multi-versioned edits like the rendering of that full length Star Wars created from hundreds of consumer videos. Pusher is a tale of drug use and drug pushing that we know from American films involves dilemmas for characters who are either hooked on their product or hooked on the money they make from their product. It’s a carefree lifestyle full of fun for the central character until they’re double-crossed or driven to madness from addiction, or driven to committing actions unbecoming of their personality due to life-quaking fear for their lives. The key to films like these is always the protagonist who eventually wants out. How far are they willing to go? And can they outsmart the brutal men who invest in their product? The answers to all your Pusher questions could rest in this 2012 incarnation.
The Story: Simple drug pusher Frank played by Richard Coyle (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)) who wheels and deals fit-in-your-palm-size bags of junk gets himself in a pinch. He has some unexpected trouble with funds he suddenly owes to Milo, a tall, lanky, long-haired mobster with East Europe charm played by Danish actor Zlatko Buric (reprising his role from 1996). Frank also has friends he loves but whom he loses his trust with, as so many men do who get themselves caught between drugs and money.
The Goods: Frank thinks he’s different and is innocent and sincere when he says he’ll have the money. Never in his wildest dreams would he think Milo and his sons, or his henchmen at least, it’s never quite clear the relationship, who could very well be his sons, would ever hurt him. The neat relationship is that Milo is a jovial character who almost treats Frank like a son. But when Frank discovers Milo and boys think of him just like any other “client” they’ve loaned money too, well, that’s when the film gets good. Our main character begins to arc.
Pusher reminds me of films like Layer Cake (2004) and Nil by Mouth (1997), two of my favorite low-fi indie joints (as Spike Lee might call it)…Pusher is small in location and all around feel in terms of scale but the characters lift it to a larger level, as does the quandary Frank finds himself in. The lights and music of the contemporary society, clubs and parties, in which Frank makes his living provides a often MTV-like music video flavor to Pusher’s film style, you know, the ever present musical montage and fevered Goodfellas (1990) panic-editing to show us how Frank strives to make good on your word.
The Flaws: Directors like Guy Ritchie and producers like Luc Besson do this type of film way better than anybody. It’s almost like once you see Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) or Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990), The Transporter (2002), The Professional (1994), you name it, well then it’s hard to compare. Not like we need to compare but if you like watching movies and this genre appeals to you then you’ll know most of this you’ve seen before and have seen it in more audacious and daring feats with camera and crew.
The Call: Stow the dough but catch it streaming down the line. I think it’s worth it to see a drug dealer sweat a little. And we’re introduced once again to Buric who delivers a twist-worthy character non-typical of European gangsters we’ve seen before. I almost rather have a film called Milo. Can we get someone to push that through?
Rated R for pervasive drug content and language, some strong sexuality, nudity and violence. Running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes
I think it’s important to point out that Andy and Larry Wachowski, a.k.a. The Wachowski Brothers, who wrote and directed the fan beloved The Matrix (1999) and the rest of that trilogy, along with the very fun film noir flick Bound (1996) (and the less than favorable Speed Racer (2008)), are now Andy and Lana Wachowski. Larry is now transgender and it’s important to note that not for sensationalism but because already Cloud Atlas is receiving flack for having non-Asian actors in Asian roles. Newsworthy headlines, sound bites and tweets are however omitting that Cloud Atlas also features male actors playing female roles, females playing males, Asians and African Americans playing Caucasians…and by the way, the same six plus actors from six different stories playing all kinds of characters all in the name of good Shakespearean-like, storytelling fun. The content of Cloud Atlas provides the means to do and say almost whatever it wants because of the messages it delivers, and the way it questions societal norms. There’s drama, mystery and sci-fi all wrapped up in a pseudo-epic adventure that at the very least gives you more movie theater time for your money. Sounds crazy I know. Does it also sound like it’s worth three hours of your time? Probably not…if it weren’t for Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent.
The Story: Several actors including Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Broadbent and Hugh Grant (in a great turn as a flesh eating fiend) transverse time and place to create a thematic, poetic bundle of stories that interconnect through messages of love, sacrifice, freedom and survival across centuries and decades, even millenniums of conflict. The sum of the six stories lead to something of an epiphany about man’s continued, reincarnated journey through human existence. A cosmic linking (a tattoo in the shape of a shooting star on each of our characters) unites 1849 South Pacific, 1939 London, 1973 San Francisco, Contemporary London, 2144 Seoul and something that is way off in the distant future titled 106 Years After the Fall.
The Goods: The fact that the above actors cross-dress and cross-gender through all segments of the film is something of a wonder in itself. Hanks by far has the most abundant recurring characters, about six, and therefore more dramatic weight due to his screen time. You almost wish it was solely his film. Jim Broadbent too has a grand foray into comedy in the film’s third story set in today’s London as his literary agent character Timothy Cavendish gets stuck in a nursing home. It shows a comedic strength from the Wachowski’s that I haven’t seen since Bound. There are smatterings of brilliance throughout Cloud Atlas and the dialogue is extremely strong if granted there is too much of it.
Adapted from the novel by David Mitchell, the Wachowski siblings—and Run Lola Run (1998) director Tom Tykwer—do a masterful job weaving the time periods, and make-up, and messages, and meaning, etc., (I make it sound laborious, and it is at times) but the Wachowski’s make it look so effortless. As the film begins to kick off its second act, about 45 minutes in, we begin to notice playfulness with the editing. Scenes get shorter and shorter increasing intensity within each novella’s central conflict—so much so it starts to take on the same thematic and temporal cross cutting introduced in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916).
The Flaws: And that’s the major flaw for me, that Cloud Atlas “takes on” so many aspects and configurations of other films. Most curiously the episodic Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and in particularly the Kick The Can segment directed by Steven Spielberg in which an old man finds himself in a young boy’s body trapped inside a nursing home. There’s also the first segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie in which a belligerent racist finds himself stepping out of a contemporary 1980’s saloon and into Nazi Germany. Both of these pieces come to mind while watching Cloud Atlas as do a dozen other films including Planet of the Apes (1968), Amadeus (1983) and chaptered films like Creepshow (1982) in which, like Cloud Atlas, some of the stories are way better than others. The Wachowski’s said they were inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but I think these other films from their childhood crept into their subconscious instead. Even Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and The Time Machine (2002) get reincarnated “shout outs.”
Unfortunately, there are not enough composition or style changes from one part to another, only changes in setting, make-up and wardrobe to get us a taste of something original. It makes for a very redundant and uninspired film about being inspired, and all it would take is a shake-up in camera shots, lighting (like the red elevator scene in the San Francisco story), and composition in general. Though it could almost be said the Cloud Atlas’ re-embodiment of other characters and other movies might be part of the plan.
The Call: Stow the dough. It’s a neat enough movie—with some very impressive scenes filmed in that “how did they do that” way—that has you thinking existential about life but also wishing some of the best of each of the six stories would sort-of just continue into movies of their own, particularly the ones with Tom Hanks and/or Jim Broadbent. Those two actors steal the show.
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. Running time is 2 hours and 52 minutes. Other recurring characters are played by Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Doona Bae.
I like nothing better than a good, epic-like Chinese Kung Fu film that has all of the production value of a Hollywood film. Tai Chi Zero is that kind of movie that harkens to films like Shaolin Soccer (2001) or Kung Fu Hustle (2004), essentially Steven Chow films, that tell a tale of heroics and sacrifice through romance, adventure and comedic wit. Here it’s Stephen Fung the director, who mixes animation with video game design with western film genre elements (as in Wild Wild West the movie (1999)) with Kung Fu genre fixtures most notably characters who fly through the air during fight sequences, to deliver a Chinese mash-up at the movies. The balletic choreography of Kung Fu films can sometimes be too distracting. But if the filmmaker can incorporate those “fantasy-like” moves into a fantasy film then all the better.
The Story: Tai Chi Zero is the kind of matinee film they don’t make any more; the kind you want to see at a theater on a Saturday afternoon. Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) is a young boy born with a horn on his head. The horn is like to the left of center if looking at him straight on. The kid, or The Freak as they call him, is special in the sense that when you hit this horn it sets him off like Pac-Man when Pac-Man eats a power pellet. He’s suddenly supernaturally talented at Kung Fu and can blow away entire armies. Until his blood pressure peaks and blood erupts from him, squirting through his mouth like a small volcano. But with each pounding of the horn he loses a little of himself. Constantly told that if his horn turns black he will die Lu Chan seeks out an alternative form of Kung Fu that won’t cause him harm. Unfortunately, the only village in China that knows the secret, ancient ways of what’s called Chen style Kung Fu won’t teach it to outsiders.
The Goods: There’s a constant theme of insiders versus outsiders through Tai Chi Zero and you get a sense the narrative works inside and outside as we switch from moments of reality to moments of animation. Often throughout the film graphics drop onto the scene like shipping containers dropped from a crane. This is mirrored in the West’s version of the Industrial Revolution (or homage to the Tony Curtis film The Great Race (1965)) that comes to the gates of the simple Chen village, driven, literally, by the film’s antagonist played by Eddie Peng who is in a relationship with one of the village girls, Ni Yunia played by Angelababy. It’s a home coming for her as she wishes to share the inventions of the West, like coffee and electricity, with her village.
Use of graphics on screen is clever, just as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) incorporates those same Kung Fu moves and video game principles. Sometimes design schematics for monster-like steam and gear operated iron machines flash on the screen just as blue-print design is used to lay out Tai Chi moves used by Chen villagers. Steps and stages are also mentioned as one goes through the motions to achieve the highest level of Chen village Kung Fu.
Often big Chinese block font letters drop (why so many falling objects) like anvils announcing a character, location, or real-life celebrity in the film and their claim to notoriety as is the case with a character who won the 2008 Olympic Gold medal in Kung Fu; or another character who won the 2008 Olympic competition for cycling. It’s a dangerous move on the part of director Fung because it can take you out of the film’s story at any given moment.
The sheer number of techniques and volume of trick camera moves, plus the blend of stylistic choices, keep the film chock full o’distractions so much so that one or two non-traditional distractions like pointing out real people within your fictionalized movie is not enough to rival the complexity of camera moves that keep the eye moving and the brain sedated. In other words, taking a risk to disrupt disbelief works because it is equal to the large quantity of bits and pieces being thrown our way. There are one or two characters who starred in famous Chinese movies such as Once Upon a Time in China (1991) and too, like the pop-up bubbles on VHI’s old Pop-Up Videos we learn who and from what movie these actors are and come from.
The Flaws: Unfortunately we don’t get a full sense of closure here because more like the matinees of the American 1930s and 1940s the film is more like a cliffhanger with a conclusion to be seen in the next film, appropriately titled here as Tai Chi Hero.
Disappointing too is a middle section bogged down with a mission impossible style plan, and subsequent implementation of plan, to destroy an iron beast appropriately titled Troy (as in Trojan Horse Troy). The man Ni Yuen arrives with has big plans to build a railroad, and a secret Western lover who demands the destruction of the village. We spend way too much time with this over produced portion of the film obviously created on a soundstage. And a fruity love story between two sets of lovers that is not as fully matured as the melodramatic music leads us to believe.
I wonder also if the population of China has anything to do with over populated the film feels in terms of what tries to do stylistically and movement-wise. It takes many crew members to build sets, paint and construct then light and photograph the armies and machines. Much of the army fighting is computer generated but is it possible to have too many people working on a film? I think so, and I believe Tai Chi Zero suffers because of it.
The Call: Still, you might want to spend the ten if you can find Tai Chi Zero playing near you. The movie is nostalgic in the sense it takes us back to the afternoons of adventures spent at the movies in our youth; it’s a very adventurous, fun movie. Tai Chi Zero has about as many subcategories of the fantasy genre, most particularly musical in its choreography and kinetics, that the movie is almost a form of Kung Fu itself. I was almost exhausted watching it.
Rated PG-13 for martial-arts violence. Running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes but feels like 2 hours. Stunt and fight choreography by Sammo Hung. In Chinese with English subtitles.
I know, it’s like why the heck are you writing about this movie. Can the Paranormal Activity films really be taken seriously? Scary movies, or movies in general from the horror genre, with climbing sequel numbers after the trilogy of three are usually of the been-there-seen-that variety. But the Paranormal Activity films have always been a tad more tangible in the sense most of it is from our point of view, as if we are there in the rooms of these suburban haunted mansions, right there with the characters, experiencing with them the boom of the paranormal hammer after every rumbling crescendo. And when we can see into the darkness, into the closets and hallways behind central characters as they talk into the camera, as if talking directly to the audience—there in the background, that figment of shadow moving across the lens—it is an atmosphere of fright given to us in short, addictive doses until we are shivering, goose-pimpled, hair at attention children seriously contemplating whether to run out of the theater in jittery fear or not. Like you just can’t take the terror anymore. I think that’s truly what they mean by activity…the activity within your nervous system as you sustain the blows and shocks of all of this nonsense.
The Story: A family of four take in a strange neighbor boy after the mother of the boy is stricken ill. The teen daughter, Alex, played by Kathryn Newton, looking as much an Elle or Dakota Fanning as you can imagine, wants to video record it all on her cell phone or laptop webcam just as frequently and diary-like as all of the other Paranormal Activity family members of the past. Then strange things start to happen and Alex and her male friend Ben begin to get a little freaked until the worst possible things you can imagine transpose a voyeuristic reality-TV-like escape at the movies into a caffeine-induced state of horror.
The Goods: It’s just a movie after all. Or is it? Listening to the white noise rumble of the bathroom air conditioning or plumbing that seems to carry over from the movie’s soundtrack. You were holding it in the whole time, I understand. Believe me. Then you walk to your car and look over your shoulder, haunted by the last images seen on the screen before the film cuts to black and the credits roll. You’re thinking about it the whole drive home, feeling fragile. And when you get home you look around your neighborhood and the darkness of your house and fear for a minute the process of going into your own home. That’s how powerful these films are. And what’s doing it? The ghosts, ghouls and demons? No. It’s the filmmakers that are doing it. They’re adding sounds and adding rumbling cues to the soundtrack to heighten your expectations and then giving you the visual equivalent of the “BOO!” when you most (not least) expect it. It’s masterful craftsmanship and manipulation that tugs and pulls at you like the best roller coasters. Suddenly going to the movies isn’t as passive as you thought. And that’s what’s special about these films.
Co-directed by Catfish (2010) and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, you get the sense the two could banter their way into a decent set-up especially involving teens Alex and Ben (Ben is played by Matt Shively, btw, who is effervescently like a young Chevy Chase or Bill Murray). Part of the charm of this Paranormal Activity movie versus the others is what appears to be a budding teen relationship, and therefore a teen horror flick (there are none better). As we get into a second act (if you can call it that), we find the two possibly on to something when they place hidden cameras around the house. And Ben would like for nothing more than to be on to Alex. Here’s a sample of their dialogue in the scene, in her bedroom, sitting on her bed:
Ben: “The password is odd Robby.”
Alex: “I thought it was big Ben.”
Ben: “You don’t need a password for that.”
The Flaws: But what hints at something romantic and funny, and representational of our lives since we all sort-of go through these pubescent phases of our lives—the mutual attraction, the first boyfriend or girlfriend—is that we can see ourselves for a minute in these kids and remember fondly what it was like; of if we’re of the same age we can fantasize and socially compare. Regardless, it’s a powerful through-line for the audience to grab onto as we all explore the mystery of the events occurring in this house. The teen characters for the first time become an almost better function of narrative filmmaking than the gimmicky camerawork and editing than is to be expected. And for a split second we have the workings of what makes films like The Goonies (1985) or War Games (1996) or last year’s Super 8, special. That relationship between a boy and a girl in the midst of craziness. Heck, even Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) has it, as well as any Bond film. Only here it could be called paranormal attraction.
And so the one main flaw of Paranormal Activity 4 is that they didn’t stick with this relationship and deliver the scare through the adventures of Alex and Ben. Because without them the rest of the film is pretty much the same as all the others.
The Call: I can’t think of a better way to spend the ten during the Halloween month of October than with a Paranormal Activity film. It’s one of the few times at the movies, annually, that we can bank on for a spine tingling ride at the movie theater. Except too you could go to The Regular Guys’ Spooktacular at Wild Bills on October 27th and/or Brouhaha 2012 at The Masquerade also on the 27th, where at both events you’ll really be able to get your Paranormal Activity on.
PA4 is rated R for language and some violence/terror. Running time is a cool but predictive 1 hour and 21 minutes. On a side note, Kathryn Newton is essentially just a little girl but she could potentially be America’s next sweetheart if she follows in Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts’ footsteps.