Rewind Review: Escape from Witch Mountain

It’s very hard as a moviegoer to resist the temptation to watch something on opening weekend. However, there will come weekends when there’s no new release that you care to see. So what do you do?

Well, this is where my Monday review comes in. I’ll review something I’ve seen over the weekend that I think you should see next weekend if the batch of new releases doesn’t entice you.

This weekend I watched Race to Witch Mountain, I personally judge every remake, reimagining and rehash on its own individual merits. However, my rule of thumb typically is if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Conversely if it was never really that good to begin with, why not?

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The original pair of Witch Mountain films fall into the latter category. They were slow-moving, not very interesting, and couldn’t even be saved by Bette Davis, one of if not the greatest actress who ever lived.

There are many, many things that work well in Race, and those that don’t are minor and don’t detract from the overall experience.

The Pros:

Pace – The move really gets humming, and I was clutching the edge of my seat at times. At the beginning the kids are involved in a chase and you think it’s going to be a two-hour trek to Witch Mountain.

Race

Editing – Amidst all the action the cuts are fast and well-timed; however, I was never left befuddled by what I was looking at in the frame, like in Quantum of Solace.

Dwayne Johnson – Yes, that’s right I said it The Rock. Not only has he steadily improved, and look every bit the part of ‘action hero’, he is also great with a one-liner – which is crucial for any action star. The Rock actually even emoted, some, in the dramatic farewell. Does this day something bad about actors or film? Not necessarily, considering he was always a performer he just needed to learn to transition. Of course, that doesn’t mean every wrestler, singer, rapper and reality star should do it. There needs to be some ability, talent, constant improvement and the intangible like-ability. I’d take Dwayne Johnson over Vin Diesel in a part any day.

The Young Stars – If you haven’t noticed Dakota Fanning isn’t Dakota Fanning anymore. That slot now goes to AnnaSophia Robb. You’ve probably seen her, and just haven’t put a name to her face. She was in Bridge to Terabithia, Because of Winn-Dixie, and other films, and she is excellent. It’s not easy playing a well-spoken, smart, deadpan alien and she did wonderfully, as did Alexander Ludwig, who already proved he could carry a would-be franchise in The Seeker, a film whose box-office failed its concept.

Race to Witch Mountain

Last but certainly not least is Carla Gugino – It was good seeing her on screen again. I’ve always felt she was slightly underestimated in the ‘Spy Kids’ films.

The Cons:

The FBI agent – Played by Ciarán Hinds, the agent seemed like a poor-man’s attempt at Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.

Garry Marshall – As the nutty alien scientist who helps them find the mountain Marshall seemed out of place. It was a comedic role, and it feels odd that it was.

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The Syphon – The assassin sent after the kids from their home planet to thwart their mission is ultimately more of a con than a plus. It does look creepy with its helmet off, but you end up forgetting about it until it shows up to throw a monkey-wrench into the equation.

Overall: cool locations, pretty good effects and a steady level of tension through make Race to Witch Mountain worth seeing, it’s not your parents Witch Mountain or your childhood’s for that matter- and in this case that’s a good thing.

 8/10

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Rewind Review: Life During Wartime

Introduction

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime by noted and polemical independent writer/director Todd Solondz is an interesting piece indeed. Its synopsis describes it quite astutely as “Part Sequel/Part Variation” on Happiness, his 1998 film of quite some acclaim. The assessment is quite accurate as this film does manage to stand apart from the previous title as things eventually do all fit in this particular installment but the first act could be somewhat illuminated by having seen the prior, however, seeing Happiness is not necessary to enjoy this film.

This is all a credit to Solondz as basically he has created a work, in which despite the fact that these characters have prior celluloid history this tale manages to be self-contained and is not entirely dependent on the audience’s existing knowledge of the players in the drama.

What is also very interesting is that you have a cast put in a position where they must be very familiar with their previous moment, backstory or perhaps, in a few cases, react to a revelation not made on screen. There are quite a few examples, the first scene of the film between Joy (Shirley Henderson) and Allen (Michael K. Williams) is one that is in medias res in terms of the flow of the conversation. Immediately, we feel there is baggage there, they both come to tears in the discussion but we know not exactly what the baggage is right of the bat but it gets filled in later.
Similarly, Joy and her ex, Andy (Paul Reubens), have an odd late night encounter in a restaurant and nearly the whole scene plays out before our suspicions that Paul is no longer living are confirmed. All the scenes which Henderson and Reubens share are absolutely electric and the height of drama and if it was a two character film it would’ve worked just fine.

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Not that moving out of this odd series of visions that Joy has harms the film necessarily. You also have in his own thread Bill (Ciarán Hinds), who in his own way is also a ghost, in as much as he has been considered dead by his ex-wife and she said as much to her children. It is a very Ibsenesque/Bergmanesque touch to have ghosts in this tale both literally and figuratively. What we don’t necessarily know up front, if we are only seeing this film, is what Bill’s crime is for which he is being released from jail and how he connects to the rest of the characters but sure enough the answers all fall into place, the haziness dissipates and things come into focus.

Then there is the family that Bill left behind lead by a matriarch Trish (Allison Janney) and this thread focuses mostly on how she is not only dealing with her impending marriage to Harvey (Michael Lerner) but also her struggles with her son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) who is about to have his Bar Mitzvah. The path they both take is ultimately the central focus as it closes out the film. The truth is disseminated by Trish but sanitized to an extent and causes some confusion. It throws the ultimate monkeywrench into Timmy’s life as he was almost certain of what it takes to be and means to be a man. The nucleus also contains some of the most compelling performances of the film, Allison Janney is once again brilliant and newcomer Dylan Riley Snyder excels dealing with very difficult material and conveying, depending upon the situation, a different level of understanding of the given circumstances.

Much of the discussion with this film deals with the acting because it is a very character-driven piece, which also manages not to be dialogue-driven, again to its benefit. Ultimately, in nearly every scene we know the subtext or at least that there is a subtext being played. One particular example is Bill’s reunion with his older son, Billy, (Chris Marquette) who knew his father wasn’t dead and what he had done. There is palpable tension but there is also restraint and we can fill in the blanks of what they mean to be saying but are not. Even though Bill eventually reveals what he is trying to ascertain by his questions we know there is more to it.

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The kudos for the cast could continue to include Helen (Ally Sheedy), the third sister in this tale, with whom Joy seeks a respite from her life. This is the kind of film that is most likely to grow upon second viewing as the first time around you are digging for answers if you don’t know them already but you are definitely focusing on what these characters are and are not saying to each other. It is a film with a social and political message to convey here and there but allows you to take it or leave it if you should so choose. It’s not an indoctrinating vehicle in the end but just a story about its people.

Todd Solondz’s latest is definitely a film worth seeing, if not once, then twice.

8/10

Review- Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Columbia/Marvel)

Last year saw a rash of superhero films and I believe the consensus was that we as a moviegoing public were pleasantly surprised with how they turned out. While each of us may have had a different favorite overall, as a class, the superhero films of 2011 faired rather well. Now the number of films in 2012 I believe is less but the expectations are greater, which makes it a little strange that it kicks off with Ghost Rider. Now as is the case with any of these films I do preface it with my personal history with the character as I feel it does matter.

So far as Ghost Rider is concerned, though I have returned to the comics fold in the past few years, I know nothing about him coming into this film, which I think is likely the ideal for any of these films but it was a strange experience. Strange in as much as I can’t say I disliked this movie but only barely. I certainly found it very flawed and wanted many things to be better but I didn’t hate it. Not a ringing endorsement but a true and modest one.

Part of the reason I decided to watch this film was that it was reported in trades and elsewhere that it’d be a reboot and it kind of was but bearing that in mind it really skimmed over the pretty decent backstory this character has. Of course, owing to my ignorance of the character maybe the origin is even better than indicated here but it’s rushed through in a voice over. Granted we’re all weary of origins at this point but if you commit to something touted as a reboot you’re committing to re-sketching the character for dopes like me who know next to nothing about him.

The other issue is that much of the story hinges on two rites one religious and one irreligious that are really rather simplistic and anticlimactic considering how high the stakes are and how huge the tasks. Such large accomplishments with obstacles so small are rather silly.

This contributes to a certain inoffensive flatness in this film. It’s never really un-enjoyable but in this sequel that should’ve been the fix it seems the risk-taking is non-existent and the peaks and valleys of emotion are kept at a bare minimum.

In a similar vein to the above rite issue there’s also the problem that our hero gets a temporary reprieve from his gift/curse and that too is granted and reversed a bit simply. This dichotomy should be allowed to build and perhaps shouldn’t even be tackled in the “first” film of a storyline but the saving grace is that it is corrected cleverly.

I’ve written quite a few times on the conundrum of Nicolas Cage. A Nicolas Cage who is locked in can be a great thing. A Nicolas Cage just going through the motions can be very hard to watch. This turn is much closer to the former than the latter, which is good because aside from Ciarán Hinds, as his nemesis, and relative newcomer Fegus Riordan who is caught in the middle of the battle, he gets little help from the supporting cast.

The special effects in the film are pretty good but the 3D is not as good as one might expect a native 3D film to be.

In summation, I did like the story both of the character and that the character is in. Clearly, the way in which it is rendered leaves something to be desired. Essentially, it’s sin is not quite enough ambition as opposed to The Green Lantern but I do find it to be an adequate, enjoyable and not dissatisfying film.

6/10

Review- The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black (Hammer Films)

Perhaps what’s most noticeable about The Woman in Black is that it is Gothic Horror. It un-apologetically so and it is a fine and darn near pitch perfect example of it too. One often hears the word atmosphere associated with movies, if you’ve ever wondered what people mean by that watch this movie.

I have frequently written about the teaser scene in a horror film, the quick scare at the very beginning to give the audience a jolt before building the story and characters. Not only does this one tie-in very closely, which is important but it’s very memorable, brilliantly shot and staged.

The drama of this tale despite its shocks is rather subsumed. It isolates its protagonist effectively and allows him the time to feel the place, find information and get intimations about what this place is really like. His story is also well and clearly defined early on and adds an element of necessity to the story which is key as the question of “Why don’t they just leave?” is one horror films frequently have to contend with.

The film uses practically every element at its disposal to add to the tension. It has the unwanted outsider aspect without overdoing it, the location plays a role as does the set design. The isolation of the character allows all the jump scares to more or less work because he’s usually spooked and there’s nothing done aimed solely at the viewer. Everything becomes a chore and an obstacle that makes the coming events have even more impact and the stakes rise consistently throughout.

The film is further supported by tremendous ensemble work. Horror films typically get the short shrift acting-wise. With such a tale as this the actors really need to sell it and work well with one another as interactions are at a premium. The cast is lead by Daniel Radcliffe whose growth as a performer has been something to watch. This may not be the character or project one would’ve expected to start the next phase of his career but that’s the genius of it. It’s a character and it’s a subdued work not a tentpole, regardless he sells it. Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer also shine in disparate but crucial supporting roles. Not to be overlooked are the ensemble of children in this film who almost always play in crucial scenes and are a big factor.

When I spoke of jump scares earlier there is an implied allusion to sound design there which I will address here. Now I typically take issue with scares based mostly on the sheer volume of the accompanying sound effect but this film seems to have a progressive plan. Not only are these jolts always accompanied by a creepy visual but they also go down decibel-wise as the film moves on, indicating a decided plan, which works. Once the movie has you it needn’t try as hard.

There are few things that can match a well-made Gothic horror film, an excellently crafted one is nearly untouchable. This film is the former, a truly special and brilliant horror film.

10/10

Review- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (Warner Bros.)

It’s not easy to see a series you love come to a close. It becomes more difficult when you happen to be traveling when that final chapter receives its worldwide release. The difficulties I encountered trying to obtain tickets to a Harry Potter screening in Brazil may make an apropos footnote in another post but here they serve the purpose of stating that: it was hard to say goodbye and therefore it seemed almost fitting that it was difficult for me to make it to my first screening of the film.

While I stand by what I wrote in my series of articles entitled Keys to a Better Life as a Fanboy, hindsight has been beneficial in my viewing of the Harry Potter series; some have aged better than others but I believe, more so with this series than others, that the whole is truly greater than the sum the parts. Only now having seen it all can I truly see the enormity of the series. Whereas in each individual installment there was nitpicking to be done, or ignored, and the franchise became the Susan Lucci of my personal awards, The BAMs, now that it’s at its conclusion I can say it’s the greatest film franchise I’ve beheld.

Now what of this installment, you ask?

Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (Warner Bros.)

Firstly, the issue of cinematic bifurcation needs to be addressed. When Harry Potter announced they split the seventh book of the series into two films it became the thing to do. Twilight followed suit and it seems The Hunger Games will likely do the same and perhaps some others that I’m forgetting. Now I’m not naive enough to believe that the main motivation to do such a thing isn’t financial, however, there exists in this decision artistic possibilities and responsibilities: the possibilities being to cinematically craft as much of the adapted work as possible and the responsibility to make it vital. I also want to clarify that while there might not be the Shakespearean foresight to make a multi-part work such as Henry IV or Henry VI it also was not a decision made retroactively in the editing room so some jets need to be cooled regarding the split-finale phenomenon.

Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros.)

All series of films have their own inherent logic and language and thus they develop their own shorthand and therefore the bifurcation becomes much less of an issue. This, of course, does not mean that you could walk in cold to Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and get absolutely everything (an example would be how quick and dirty the Polyjuice potion usage is in this film) but conversely I don’t want to be able to walk into the end of a series cold and be able to watch it without wondering what’s happening at some point because it usually means that at some point the integrity of the series has been compromised.

So yes, this film does stand tall on its own as a self-contained piece of art with the above caveats noted. As the trend progresses other films will have this as a barometer as how to handle this adaptation phenomena. My feeling is that works which have distinct tonal differences in the beginning and the end, as this does, (going from foreboding progressing to all out chaos) will be more successful in pulling off this trick.

What this film ultimately does is deliver the desired conclusion to this mammoth story in the desired fashion. The pace of the film can best be described as a slow but steady depression of an accelerator and a very slow release at the end, which for the narrative being conveyed is just about perfect. Mark Day, the editor who has been the unsung hero of the tail end of this franchise, does his best work in this film. He creates the best montage I’ve seen since Up and perhaps surpassed it.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Bros.)

Much like the pace of the film the tone is also established immediately. In a fashion not dissimilar to the recent X-Men film the film opens with a series of tense, brilliantly acted interrogatory scenes. The heroic triad is immediately gathering information and plotting their next move.

These scenes are also brilliantly and dramatically lit and also establishes the visual motif of camera movement which is not altogether foreign to Eduardo Serra and it just adds that much more tension and gravitas to all the proceedings.

I try and avoid departmental punchlists replete with commentary but the production and crafting of this film make it such that it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Alexandre Desplat has quickly catapulted to the A-List amongst film composers and his work in this film is absolutely sublime, it’s omnipresent but not overpowering and over-accentuating the film, it’s there for the taking if you want it and if you listen to it in isolation it’s amazing but in conjunction with the imagery sheer brilliance.

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros.)

The Harry Potter films have also been through the years a bastion for lovers of ensemble acting, what’s most enjoyable about this film is that there are a number of paired scenes wherein the supporting players really get a chance to shine and have their moment and each one is more staggeringly great than the last. While I’d definitely contend that the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 was the showcase for Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, however, it should be noted that it is usually they who paired off with these supporting characters like John Hurt as Ollivander who here is pitch perfect and has more screentime than in the rest of the series combined. There’s also Ciarán Hinds who plays Aberforth. Warwick Davis, who does double duty as Griphook and Professor Flitwick, has a very tense scene as the former and is incredibly versatile. Then you also have among the supporting cast the incomparable Alan Rickman who over the course of eight films has steered his character unerringly along a very subtle and incredible arc.

Alan Rickman in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner Bros.)

Perhaps what sticks with you most about the film though is the beautiful chaos of it all. The film does not bow down to the artifice of its artform and focus too singularly on any one tragic occurrence and just takes it all in as quick as one might in that moment. Some things just happen and you learn about it when characters do and you don’t know the how and the where just the result.

It almost goes without saying that the effects are outstanding and are the best and most blended of the series. As for the 3D I have not seen it as such but I do want to and have heard that for a conversion it’s a job well done for a detailed summation of that aspect I’d point you towards CinemaBlend who does a great series about the 3D or not 3D conundrum.

Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Warner Bros.)

One of the barometers for the Harry Potter films, and for films in general, that I like to use is how is the ending handled. Now not that it’s a make or break but you do want the film’s last moment to leave a good, lasting impression. For example, I think that The Prisoner of Azkaban really dropped the ball with an ending that was tonally discordant when the darker chapters had just begun and a bit more restraint was needed. This film, however, ends perfectly and as I’d expected the epilogue was more effective on the big screen than it was in the book as it seemed to be created for the big screen.

It is my assessment that Harry Potter is the greatest franchise I’ve beheld and it is to my delight and relief that it has concluded with the greatest cinematic chapter it has yet told.

10/10

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Warner Bros.)