Friday, March 29, 2013

More Short Takes.......3 Mini Reviews

Frankenweenie (2012) - Director Tim Burton remakes & expands his 1984 short film to feature length. Young Victor Frankenstein loses his loyal dog Sparky in an accident, and is saddened by the loss of his best friend. He’s inspired by his science teacher’s use of electricity to revive a dead frog, and tries the same experiment on Sparky. The dog returns to life, but other kids in Victor’s class find out, and they try to recreate his experiment bigger & better, in order to win the upcoming science fair. Soon the town is overrun with monsters, and it’s up to Victor and his friends to save the day. The movie has a late-night B-movie, retro look (it was filmed in black & white) and the stop motion work & character designs are phenomenal. As always with a Tim Burton project, there are a myriad of visual references to classic horror & sci-fi films. Burton & writer John August are clearly in love with their subject matter in this delightful tale. The voice cast includes includes Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau and Charlie Tahan. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and for digital download. Highly recommended, especially for Burton fans.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – Martha (Elisabeth Olsen) escapes a commune-like cult she has been living with, and returns home to her sister (Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story). As the siblings try and repair their damaged relationship, we flash back to Martha’s time with the cult, and its manipulative leader, played by John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) in a creepy, arresting performance. Olsen (Silent House) is also first rate at showing us Martha’s inner turmoil & the emotional fallout from her experience. But the film is slowly paced & keeps you a bit too distanced from the characters. Why don't Martha's sister & brother-in-law take her to a professional for help right away when it's clear she's scarred from her experience? And there’s a tonal shift in the last third of the film that makes you feel like you’re watching a different kind of movie, especially when you reach the ending. Some critics loved this film and lavished a lot of praise on it, and it’s clear writer-director Sean Durkin is a talent to watch. But for me it’s an admirable try that falls short of the mark. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and for digital download.

Hitchcock (2012) – This drama about the making of Psycho (1960) and the romantic & working relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville plays very fast & loose with the facts. But the film is anchored by marvelous performances from Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma. They capture the essence of this famous couple without resorting to caricature. The movie does go a bit overboard in giving Hitchcock a dark, manipulative side in his professional life, and it may not be what really happened during the production of the classic thriller, but it’s recommended viewing for the remarkable acting of its stars. The solid supporting cast includes Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Worth seeing for movie fans; but take this one with a grain of salt. It’s kind of like watching one of those biographies of actors or musicians Hollywood churned out in the 1940s & 50s, where they never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Hitchcock is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download. The film should not be confused with the HBO drama The Girl (2012), a more mean-spirited take on the director and his relationship with Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds (1963).

Here are links to the trailers for Frankenweenie:, Martha Marcy May Marlene: and Hitchcock: The Frankenweenie trailer is a neat homage to classic horror films of the old school.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Origin Story of the "Great & Powerful" Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved movies of all time. I can remember watching it on television (in the pre-cable, DVD and Internet days) when it would only air once a year on NBC. It’s one of those stories that have remained popular across the years & generations. There have been sequels & re-imaginings in animated & print form, and even a successful Broadway musical called Wicked. But there hasn’t been a big screen Oz tale since 1985’s unsuccessful Return to Oz. Now Disney & Director Sam Raimi have teamed up to bring us Oz: The Great and Powerful. In 1905 Kansas, Oscar Diggs (James Franco) is making a living doing low rent magic shows at a carnival, romancing multiple women, and dreaming of bigger things. He wants to be a “great man,” which he equates with having wealth & power.

One day, a tornado whisks Oscar away to a magical land called Oz. He meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes he’s a great magician whose coming has been foretold. He’s destined to save their land from a terrible evil; the witch who killed her father, the king. She offers to take him to the Emerald City, which is being ruled by her sister Evanora after their father’s death. Theodora falls in love with Oscar, who is flirting with her and playing along so he can gain fame & fortune. Along the way, they encounter a flying monkey named Finley, who pledges his loyalty to Oscar after he saves Finley’s life.

Once they arrive, Theodora & Evanora ask Oscar to retrieve the Wicked Witch’s wand, which will leave her powerless, and end her reign of terror. Oscar can then rule Oz as the new king, and all its treasures will belong to him. This idea appeals to the materialistic magician. Evanora (Rachel Weisz) plays on Oscar’s thirst for money & power. He flirts with her as well, telling her his feelings for Theodora aren’t serious. Driven by his greed, Oscar agrees to the mission, knowing full well he’s not the man everyone thinks he is; meanwhile Evanora seems to have another agenda and may be manipulating events to her benefit.

Oscar & Finley set out to find the evil enchantress, and encounter a girl made of china, whose village was destroyed by the Wicked Witch & her soldiers. Oscar begins to understand there may be more to the story than the sisters have told him. Back in Oz, Evanora starts to manipulate the jilted Theodora’s feelings, hoping to turn her against the magician. When Oscar & his friends finally meet Glinda, the supposed “Wicked Witch,” they are surprised to learn she may not be evil at all. So who’s really behind all the terrible events plaguing the Land of Oz? Can Oscar become the truly good & great man he wants to be? Or will he desert his new friends in their hour of need?

James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 127 Hours) is decent as Oscar; he brings across the unlikable aspects of the magician earlier in the film; but there’s not enough sense of a real change when he finally becomes a hero. Mila Kunis has a little trouble finding her way as Theodora initially, but as she begins playing the spurned lover, and a darker side of the character emerges, she practically steals the second half of the movie. Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener) is very good as the scheming Evanora, who ultimately is not as kind & loving as she appears. Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, My Week With Marilyn) who plays Glinda (a character familiar to fans of the 1939 classic) is a fine actress, but the part feels a bit underwritten, and she doesn’t quite bring across the ethereal quality needed for the part. There are also some good supporting performances from Bill Cobb and Zach Braff.

The film is sumptuously designed and beautiful to look at; you’ll really believe you’re in the Land Of Oz. Raimi (Darkman, the original Spider Man trilogy) and his talented crew used a combination of practical sets & digital wizardry for the movie, which benefits the film a great deal. There are some terrific effects sequences, especially a transformation scene midway through the tale. The digitally created characters (Finley the monkey, the china girl, and the witch’s flying minions) are well integrated into the story, and aren’t a distraction. The script struggles a bit to find the proper tone; the movie is sometimes missing the sense of wonder that inhabits all good fantasies. It isn't quite the classic it could have been, but it ultimately succeeds on the strength of some good performances & the dazzling production design.

Disney purchased rights to the Oz books but cannot use specific elements created for the original MGM film, such as the ruby slippers, the swirl design of the Yellow Brick Road, and certain aspects of the Wicked Witch’s look. However, there’s no doubt that this prequel takes place in the same Oz that Judy Garland’s Dorothy traveled to in the 1939 film. Like the 1939 classic, the story starts in black & white in Kansas and moves to color when Oscar reaches Oz. There are some neat homages to the original movie, and references to some well-known characters & situations for fans. And yes, there are munchkins in the film.

Oz: The Great & Powerful is worth seeing on the big screen because of its spectacular look and effects, and an intriguing, if inconsistent, story. The most positive thing about the movie is that it’s a film that both kids & adults can enjoy together. This origin tale of the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz“ is now playing in theaters in 2D, 3D and Imax versions. I viewed the 2D version, and the movie played just fine in that dimension. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Re-Imagining A 1970s Terror Tale

The original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark aired on the ABC Movie of the Week in 1973, and concerned a young married couple who move into a new house, only to find it inhabited by mysterious creatures that seem to be focused on terrifying the wife, played by Kim Darby. It was a creepy & memorable tale, well directed by John Newland. One of the people who was scared & impressed by the film was Guillermo Del Toro, writer-director of Blade 2 (2002)Hellboy (2004) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). He was so taken with the movie he produced & co-wrote a remake, also titled Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which was directed by Troy Nixey and released in 2011. This new version of the story stars Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes and Bailee Madison as Sally, a young girl who discovers that there are some terrifying creatures living in the old house her father (played by Pearce) is restoring. Of course, initially, no one else realizes there's a supernatural threat looming, until it's almost too late. What do these creatures want, and why does their attention center on Sally?

The film has some effective scares and good performances, though it doesn’t quite have the sense of creepy fun or the slow build up tension provided by the original. Since this is a modern horror film, there are a couple of "jump scare" scenes along the way, and some of the character development feels a bit lacking. It’s much darker in tone (as you’d expect from a project involving Del Toro) and gives the creatures a more fleshed out & detailed backstory. The movie is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the original version, or of the talented Del Toro’s films in the horror genre. It does have some effective twists on & interesting updates to the story, but in some ways it feels like a variation on the original idea more than a remake. The original movie is available on DVD from Warner Home Video, and the remake is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer for the the new version:

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Short Takes on 3 Recent Releases

Paranorman (2012) - Norman Babcock is a boy with a problem: he can see & talk to dead people (including his late grandmother) but no one believes him. He's ostracized by his classmates, and even his family thinks he's odd. But when a vengeful witch's curse raises the dead and they begin to wreak havoc on the town, it's up to Norman and a motley crew of heroes to save the day. This spooky, entertaining animated film features the voices of Kodi-Smit McPhee, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann and Casey Affleck. The stop motion animation & character design is first-rate, and the movie has a wonderful, eerie look. The screenplay by Chris Butler features a positive message about tolerance & acceptance of those who are different. While it may be a bit scary for very young viewers, Paranorman is a worthwhile rental for family movie night. Directed by Butler and Sam Fell, the film is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download.

Ted (2012) - Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) directed & co-wrote this comedy about John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and his talking stuffed bear. As a child, John wished Ted would come to life and his wish was magically granted. Ever since, they've have been best friends. John & Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) drink, party & hang out with John's girlfriend Lori, played by Mila Kunis. She's worried John won't be able to move forward with their relationship. So John has to make a choice between his boy's nights out with Ted & making a real commitment to Lori. That's essentially the story of this R-rated buddy film. Some of the humor is over the top, and it's a bit inconsistent in tone. However, if you like MacFarlane's work on Family Guy, or are a fan of raunchy comedies like The Hangover, you'll enjoy Ted. And you'll get an extra kick out of it if you're a fan of the 1980 film version of Flash Gordon starring Sam Jones. You'll have to view the movie to see what I mean. The film is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. The Blu-ray and DVD versions also feature an unrated cut of the movie.

Trouble With The Curve (2012) - Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood), an aging scout for the Atlanta Braves, may be on his way to forced retirement. He's given an assignment to check out a hot young prospect in North Carolina, but he's also dealing with some health issues. His friend & colleague Pete (John Goodman) asks Gus's estranged daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to accompany him on the trip, as he's worried about Gus's well-being. Gus & Mickey try to sort out their complicated, chilly relationship. She also enters a tentative romance with another scout (Justin Timberlake), who her father helped when he was a player. This is a predictable, but enjoyable drama. There's nothing new or earth-shaking here; but if you're a fan of the stars, it's a satisfying family story with some effective moments. Eastwood, Adams & Timberlake work well together, and there's a good supporting cast, including Goodman, Matthew Lillard and Robert Patrick. Interestingly, this is Eastwood's first acting role in a film he hasn't also directed since In The Line Of Fire (1993). The film was written by Randy Brown and directed by Robert Lorenz. It's now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download.

Here are links to the trailers for Paranorman, Trouble With The Curve and Ted