Friday, April 30, 2010

“But I shall see/ The wingéd vengeance overtake such” movies! - Furry Vengeance

The quotation is from King Lear. But my thought for the day is about the existence of such movies as Furry Vengeance, with Brendan Fraser and Brooke Shields, opening today in a theater near you. How does something so ridiculous get made?

I haven't seen it, but I've seen the preview. Vengeful CGI animals band together to stop a housing development from destroying their habitat in Oregon. The emphasis seems to be on excrement: bird poop used as a weapon and Brendan Fraser covered with the contents of a porto-potty. Fun.

Actually, this kind of thing has been done before, a number of times, most similarly in Dr. Doolittle 2 with Eddie Murphy. (I've seen it.) Same thing: animals, with raccoons and a grizzly bear as key figures, lead a resistance against the bad humans. Birds bombard the bad guys with poop.

I'm not averse to a fun kids' movie with CGI talking animals acting like humans or banding together for a common cause. Movies like The Incredible Journy: Homeward Bound (1993)and Air Bud: Golden Receiver have some imagination and heart. But Furry Vengeance (bad title!) seems so tiredly put together: talking animals, bird poop, skunk spray, loads of excrement. I know the wingéd vengeance will not overtake such sad concepts, but I just had to rail uselessly like Lear raging at the inexorable storm.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How to Use Your Imagination: How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon, directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, based on the novel by Cressida Cowell, kicked ass at the box-office this weekend, keeping Kick-Ass in the number 2 slot. For good reason. How to Train Your Dragon is the most imaginative, most thrilling movie at your local multi-plex.

The film jumps right into the action. Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel), an inventive blacksmith’s apprentice and the spindly, useless (in Viking terms) son of Viking chief Stoick the Vast (voice by Gerard Butler), introduces us to the cozy Viking microcosm of the Island of Berk, and explains that the island’s only drawback is the pests: dragons. What follows is a dazzling, highly detailed set piece battle in which dragons of all kinds attack the island at night, set the village ablaze, and carry off the islanders’ livestock. During the battle it is clear that the inept Hiccup is a big disappointment to his chieftain dad with his tree trunk-sized arms and knotted red beard. Hiccup is always getting in the way with his latest invention designed to bring down the elusive Night Fury, a black dragon no one has ever sighted.

But Hiccup’s machine works. He downs the Night Fury, finds it wounded and trapped in a forest canyon, replaces its missing tail fin with a mechanical fin, befriends it, and realizes he can’t become the dragon-slaying tough guy his father wants him to be. You know where this is leading – that the answer to the Vikings’ problem is befriending the dragons, not killing them, and joining together with them to kill the gargantuan queen of the hive that has kept the other dragons busy feeding her – but all along the way the film entertains with a vivid world evoked by imagination and talent.

Jay Baruchel provides the perfect voice for Hiccup, the mechanical-minded Viking lad who is out of his league when it comes to killing dragons, and Butler offers more depth and feeling with his voiceover for Stoick the Vast than he has done in many of his recent live-action performances. Meanwhile, the computer animation achieves subtle body language and expressions that show how far this element of computer-generated artistry has come. In the scene in which Viking father and son try to have that heart-to-heart talk they’ve never been able to have (Viking chieftains have trouble baring their feelings), Hiccup’s expressions and postures of discomfort, and Stoick’s gruff attempts at openness, are as clearly defined as any live-action scene of the same kind. In addition, America Ferrara does a great job of voicing Astrid, the board-thin tomboy dragon-slayer wannabe who hits Hiccup one minute and then kisses him the next.

Though the look of most of the dragons goes for round-faced, bulbous caricatures (I see dragons as more streamlined), their variety and characteristics are engaging. There are Gronckles, Zipplebacks, Terrible Terrors, and Monstrous Nightmares – too many to sort out.

Most importantly, the mysterious Night Fury, the dragon that Hiccup names Toothless and trains to use its prosthetic fin, is given convincing, expressive life. With its blunt lizard’s face, large reptilian eyes, bats’ wings, stingray tail, and scaly black body, Toothless has a substantial presence, first as a frightening, mysterious creature, later as Hiccup’s faithful companion. In the air, Hiccup and Toothless offer thrills to equal the flying scenes in Avatar.

Throughout, the film offers memorable imagery. The opening attack on the Island of Berk is a feast of motion, color, and detail; watch for the shot of the dragons carrying off the sheep in the net designed to catch dragons. In one scene, Hiccup and Toothless find themselves in the midst of a dense flock of hundreds of dragons emerging from the fog, leading our heroes to the dragon hive that is like a vision of hell depicted by Hieronymus Bosch. When the Vikings illuminate the dragon hive, they reveal swarms of dragons clinging to the cavern ceiling like the creatures in Aliens. Artfully, the battle between Toothless and the queen dragon is shrouded by clouds lit up by the flashes of their fireballs.

With its funny, thoughtful writing and its engaging artwork that ranges from the whimsical to the terrifying, How to Train Your Dragon is my pick for best choice at the local multi-plex these days.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Few Reluctant Thoughts on Kick-Ass

Why reluctant? Because I'm not sure this movie deserves even a few thoughts.

The preview makes it look like a PG-13 teen action comedy. Then I noticed its R rating. As soon as a gangster snips off a suspected stool-pigeon’s finger with huge clippers, I knew I was in for a bloodbath.

Once again, we get the slow-mo shooting and martial arts sprees of The Matrix, whose style spawned an epidemic that just won’t quit. Here the twist is that most of the super-killing is done by “superhero” Hit-Girl/ Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz), an 11-year-old girl raised for revenge by her ex-cop father Damon/ Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). She wields lance, throwing knives attached to string for easy retrieval, all sorts of guns, and her fists. She appears in school-girl’s plaid skirt and white blouse and shoots guards with a silencer. She slaughters many, and as she impales her enemies or goes for effortless head shots as she somersaults through the air, as her face gets bloodied in fisticuffs, there is something disturbingly obscene about the whole thing.

The film promises some potential working as the Superbad of teen superhero movies, with Aaron Johnson as likable dufus-faced Dave Lizewski, an invisible nobody comic-book nerd, who dreams of getting the girl, who responds to life’s injustices by donning a silly green superhero suit and going out to stand up for justice. A severe beating destroys his nerve endings and leads to metal replacements for many of his bones. Thus, as he continues building his reputation as super-boy “Kick-Ass,” he is able to suffer super beatings though he can’t quite deliver super beatings of his own.

But the focus on Kick-Ass is sidetracked by the vengeance tale of ex-cop Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage), who trains his cute little daughter to wield every kind of weapon in revenge against scum-bucket Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his crime ring. Once the film stages tired, unimaginative action sequences echoing The Matrix and Kill Bill, Vol. 1, the movie lost me, and all you’re left with is little Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl wreaking endless bloody havoc, and Nicolas Cage as superhero Big Daddy, dressed in Batman costume and doing an imitation of Adam West’s stilted delivery that is nothing but annoying.

If you never get tired of slow-mo gun battles reminiscent of The Matrix, or you want to see an 11-year-old girl shoot people in the head, this is the movie for you.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Drama of Revelation - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In Niel Arden Oplev’s sometimes derivative but often compelling murder mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) investigates the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Harriet Vanger back in the 60s. Harriet is a member of the powerful Vanger family, a dynasty of cutthroat businessmen and women who live isolated on a bleak, chilly island compound in Sweden – and most likely one of the Vangers is a murderer. Assisted by computer-hacking, research-ace Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the young woman of the title, Mikael uncovers a sordid history of abuse and a series of gruesome murders of women.

The theme of cruel misogyny is developed further in the intriguing character of Lisbeth. Lisbeth is indeed different. Her black hair cropped short, her nose and ears pierced with multiple rings, silver spikes jutting from her collar, she wears black leather, rides a motorcycle, and seems to be bisexual. Her entire back is covered with a dragon tattoo, but we never find out why. Lisbeth has been paroled from a mental institution for the criminally insane for her act of revenge against an abusive father; she, in turn, ends up abused by her parole officer; and the mystery investigated by Mikael and Lisbeth leads to the typical tale of the misogynist serial killer.

I enjoyed this film for its atmospheric setting on a frigid island in Sweden, its interesting Vanger dynasty of powerful business-people, and the off-beat character of Lisbeth, with her research talents and her firm resolve to take action against male predators, but I especially enjoyed it for its presentation of the drama we associate with a character seeing an important visual clue that leads to a crucial revelation.

Of course, Hitchcock is the master of the drama of the visual revelation, and his most classic moment of revelation, perhaps the best of its kind, comes in Vertigo when Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) connects Judy's necklace with the one used by Madeleine and realizes that he has been the victim of an elaborate masquerade.

Like Scottie, Mikael takes on an investigation involving a beautiful woman and becomes obsessed with her. In Mikael's case it is Harriet, the grand-niece of Henrik Vanger, an old man still obsessed with the girl's disappearance forty years previously. When Henrik passes on the investigation to Mikael, he also passes on his obsession. Mikael becomes more and more involved as he looks over boxes and boxes of evidence collected by Henrik. The first revelation comes when Mikael finds a photograph in which Harriet is watching a parade and seems to be looking across the street in fear. Now Mikael must find a photograph taken from Harriet's point of view. Some nifty circumstances lead Mikael to a blurry photograph that doesn't reveal a suspect, but it is left to Lisbeth to make the final revelation that solves the mystery.

As in Vertigo, we the audience share in the drama of the revelations as the camera looks, and Mikael or Lisbeth looks, and we see the detail that provides the revelation. Of course, when a film involves a character looking at a photograph and seeing something suspect or revelatory, much is owed to Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966). Here there is no climactic revelation, but the drama of looking deeper and deeper into the evidence is ominously gripping.

The drama derived from the examination of a photograph comes in part from the technical possibilities of photography. A photograph can be enlarged to reveal new details, and the new details may reveal a truth, they may reveal more mysteries, or they may reveal that the observers of these details - the character and the audience along with the character - are seeing more than actually exists. In Blow-Up it's never clear what Thomas (David Hemmings) reveals. Similarly, in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991), close examination of the grassy knoll image seems to reveal an accomplice. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael seems to see a look of fear in Harriet's grainy face captured at a point in time forty years previous. Do we see that fear? That we might not see that fear stirs up doubts, and that adds to the suspense.

In films set around the present time, technology speeds up the whole process of revelation. In Blow-Up, the photographer can only produce larger and larger blow-ups that result in a grainy image that may or may not be a body. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Mikael can use a computer to isolate Harriet's face, enlarge it, and clear it up. When he locates a photograph of what Harriet might be looking at from her point of view, ironically technology cannot clear up the face. We are left with suspense and a mystery that only leads to a revelation later on when Lisbeth connects a detail with another photograph.

One of my favorite films incorporating the photographic revelation is the 1997 British fantasy Photographing Fairies (great movie - problematic title), based on the 1920s Cottingley Fairy Hoax. Here, talented photographer Charles Castle (Toby Stephens) is asked to investigate photographs that supposedly reveal fairies. Well aware of the trickery of photography, Charles is skeptical at first. Then he notices a photograph that shows an intriguing reflection in a girl's eye. As in Blow-Up, he is driven obsessively to create larger and larger prints until the reflection seems to reveal ... something.

Films ask us to look. Faithfully, as viewers, we look at evidence in a mystery from the point of view of the protagonist. In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, what we see seems to begrudge Mikael a revelation as it has begrudged old Henrik a revelation for forty years. This starts the suspense. We want Mikael to keep looking so we can keep looking. Perhaps we feel that we might receive the enlightening revelation before he does.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"Release the Kraken!" - Clash of the Titans (2010)

Ray Harryhausen did his best stop-motion animation sequences in the Greek mythology epic Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which features his masterpiece: Jason’s combat with the skeleton soldiers of the Hydra’s teeth. The film also includes an impressive multi-headed Hydra, flying Harpies, and Talos, a bronze giant. After Jason, Ray should have rested on his laurels or stayed clear of Greek mythology. His tired, lackluster stop-motion animation for Clash of the Titans (1981) does little to rescue the film's forgettable action and its dull acting.

Is the 2010 remake, Clash of the Titans, any less tired, lackluster, or forgettable? A lot less, in my opinion. I rather enjoyed this modest entertainment. I enjoyed its age-old story that is still relevant today in its depiction of humans questioning "who's in control up there." Here, humans complain about life's injustices and defy the gods. The gods get angry. The gods wreak havoc. Liam Neeson plays Zeus as a wrathful but ultimately warm and fuzzy Gandalf, coming down to show his love for his half-mortal son, Perseus. As Hades, Ralph Fiennes is not nearly frightening enough. The rest of the gods and goddesses sit around on white plastic pedestals that make them look like board game tokens. They give advice to Zeus like, "You must reach out to them more," and they vanish in a poof when Zeus wants to talk privately with brother Hell.

Meanwhile, Demi-god Perseus (Sam Worthington in vengeful Jake Sully mode) leads a ragtag group on a quest. What’s a Greek myth without a quest? Their job is simple. Find the blind witches that will guide them to Medusa, lop off Medusa’s head before she can turn them to stone, and use said head to turn the Kraken to stone before it destroys Argos, or before the fearful citizens of Argos sacrifice the fair Andromeda to the beastie.

I know, the Kraken belongs to Norwegian legend. In the original Greek tale it’s a sea monster called the Ketos, but “Release the Kraken” sounds a lot better than “Release the Ketos." Greek mythologic fact is stretched further by inserting Io as Perseus's love interest. Even though Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is supposed to end up with the big hero, it's nice having Gemma Arterton to play Io as a gorgeous but capable sidekick while Andromeda is occupied with being a human sacrifice for the Kraken.

You'd think a movie like this would be bloated with CGI beasts, but it's not. The questing characters spend enough time set against beautiful natural settings - all this without computers. Locations in Tenerife and Wales offer stark volcanic formations, rocky coastline, shadowy forests, and brightly green fern glades.

In one of these ferny glades Perseus first sees the Pegasus in a small herd of Pegasuses, and with CGI wings attached to real horses, they constitute a nice image in their green forest setting. If I said, "You'll believe horses can fly," you'd think I was quoting some advertising plug, but the creature is quite believable, especially during the Pegasus's flying, galloping ride through Argos.

Finally, when Perseus and his fellow questers need to take up arms against gigantic scorpions, Medusa, and the Kraken, the CGI results are nicely convincing. The Kraken makes a big deal of rising from the sea only to look too much like the creature from Cloverfield and get vanquished rather easily, but the battle with Medusa, that sexy lady turned by Athena into a reptilian bitch with snakes for hair and a gaze that's literally petrifying, provides some gripping action and memorable imagery. It's a costly combat for Perseus and his chums, one that makes you want to cry out, "Don't look now!"