Friday, January 23, 2009

"I should have crushed you under my heel" A Review of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

If you're like me, you probably left the first two Underworld movies thinking “but how did it all begin? How did it get this way?” No? Okay, me neither, I honestly have only the vaguest memories of the first one, and I don't even remember if I saw the second one or not, but that's okay because this is a prequel, and stands well all on its own.

“Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is the movie those kids who hang out in the gaming area at your local comic shop, no not the cheerful group playing D&D, the ones off in the corner who look like goths at a ren fair, yeah, the ones playing “Vampire the Masquerade”, this is the movie they would make. This movie is one long piece of dark broodiness punctuated with scenes of graphic violence, and if that sounds like your cup of tea, then this may be the film for you.

In the beginning the lycans were not as you know them, those infected with the curse were incapable of changing back to human form, and were little more than bloodthirsty animals being hunted by the vampires. This all changed with the birth of Lucien (Michael Sheen: “Frost/Nixon”, “The Queen”), a lycan with the ability to change forms. Viktor (Bill Nighy: “Shaun of the Dead”, “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”), the leader of the vampire coven, see this as an opportunity to breed immortal protectors who can guard the vampires during daylight hours.

What an opportunity, right? The vampires and lycans could join forces for the betterment of them all! Nope. These new shape-shifting lycans are enslaved; forced to wear restraining collars that keep them from turning into their wolf forms and do heavy labour. Just in case the slave imagery is lost on you, they make sure to even include two scenes where Lucien gets whipped a la “Roots”

So, being the first of a new breed of lycan, what does Lucien do? That's right, he of course falls in love with Viktor's rebellious daughter, Sonja (Rhona Mitra: “Boston Legal”, “The Practice”), and of course Sonja falls for Lucien as well. They somehow manage to keep this mostly a secret until Lucien reveals that he has a key to his collar when he doffs it to save Sonja from a pack of feral lycans.

Of course, upon discovering that his daughter is in love with an ethnic minority... er, a lycan, Viktor realizes the error of his ways, and embraces the lycan with open arms, right? You don't even need to have seen the previous films to know how that's going to go.

Watching this film I could not help but try and guess what other things inspired it. There is of course the “Vampire the Masquerade” role-playing games. “The Lord of the Rings” movies are present an accounted for a long with some “Robin Hood” (Raze is very much Lucien's Little John). The fighting style of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, the slavery content of “Roots”, the romance of “Romeo and Juliet”, and the werewolf transformation of “An American Werewolf in London” all also make appearances. How much this may bother you will depend how much originality you expected to begin with.

The film has a fairly strong cast, but the dialog is frequently weak and predictable; I was able at many points during the film to predict what the next lines were going to be. Bill Nighy's Viktor sometimes comes off as more satire than threatening villain due to the words coming out of his mouth as he stalks around the scenes, but given the actor's abilities it is possible that this is intentional.

I found it almost impossible to take Lucien seriously, Michael Sheen's huge expressive eyes and long straggly hair made me think of Bill Bailey's portrayal of Manny Bianco in “Black Books”. I found this idea to be so powerful that at one point, where Lucien has just transformed back into a human after ripping someone's throat out and is howling with blood dripping from his mouth, I could not help but laugh out loud.

Aside from my personal visions of a sword wielding Bill Bailey, some of the movie's inconsistencies puzzled me too. It seems that Lucien can change into wolf form (as long as his collar is off) whenever he wants, yet in one pivotal scene where it would very much be to his benefit to change, he has to wait for the moon to come out. Another inconsistency is Sonja's eyes; sometimes they glow blue similar to Viktor's, but other times they are just normal eyes. Is there some special rule about glowing eyes, or did someone simply forget to make sure Mitra put the contacts in?

This movie's strengths are clearly the fights and effects. The battle scenes are wonderfully choreographed affairs blending live actors, animatronics, and computer effects to make a visual feast of glinting blades, flashing teeth, and spraying blood. It looks like the film may have danced right along the edge of an NC-17 rating with the sheer amount of graphic violence in it. Very little of the truly graphic stuff (bodies impaled to walls, severed heads, cut throats) are ever on screen long; much of the fight scenes break down into a collection of two second long clips set to intense music, but this does not make them any less satisfying.

I cannot say that this is a bad film, it's just the sort of film I would normally only watch if TiVo happened to record it, or if I was searching for something to watch in the middle of the night. There's nothing to hate about this film, but nothing to love either. It's just a nice way to escape reality for 92 minutes.

This is not a movie you'll want to take the kids to. While there is one sex scene which manages to be explicit without actually showing anything, the real objection is going to be the violence. As I stated above, this is an intensely violent movie. You will see a man's back whipped to hamburger meat, people and wolves cut/ripped to pieces, and a lot of people's necks spraying blood. Leave the kids at home.

If you are one of those Goth kids playing “Vampire”, or even if you just want to see a whole lot of sword fighting and bloodletting, then this might be worth checking out. If that does not sounds like you, and if you felt pretty 'meh' about the first two films, then this movie will be a rental at best. “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” is in theaters now.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

"Follow the sausage!" A Review of "Hotel For Dogs"

Have you ever noticed how many movies and books (and movies based on books) for kids are about orphans, and other kids with no real ties to families? Stories like “Harry Potter”, “A Series of Unfortunate Events”, and even good old “Pippi Longstocking” are about kids who have lost their families one way or another. Do you get tired of that trope in kid's tales? I hope not, because “Hotel for Dogs” is another one.

“Hotel for Dogs”, based on the book by Lois Duncan, is the story of a brother and sister; eleven year old Bruce (Jake T. Austin: “Wizards of Waverly Place”) and sixteen year old Andi (Emma Roberts: “Unfabulous”, “Nancy Drew”). Bruce is a young engineering genius, able to turn normal household items into fantastic Rube Goldberg devices, and he's not a bad lock-picker either. Andi is...well, she's cute.

Andi and Bruce are currently in their fifth foster home in two years; this time it's a pair of talentless wannabe rockers, the Scudders. Hag-like Lois (Lisa Kudrow: “Friends”), who keeps a padlock on the pantry to keep the kids from getting food, and clueless Carl (Kevin Dillon: “Entourage”, “Poseidon”), who is more interested in playing guitar than caring for the kids. While not really villains per say, they are quite unlikable; even the kids' social worker, Bernie (Don Cheadle: “Hotel Rwanda”, “Crash”), wants to get the kids away from them.

The kids have been hiding their pet dog, Friday, as they have moved from foster home to foster home, and after a scare with the pound, they come to the conclusion that they need to find him a proper home. While running from the police, the kids find themselves in the Hotel Francis Drake. The hotel looks like it was in the middle of a remodel when everyone just decided it was too much trouble, locked the doors, went home, and never came back.

The hotel is not as abandoned as it looks though; there are two inhabitants, a pair of dogs that Bruce dubs Lenny and Georgia. Friday takes to the other two dogs instantly, and a temporary solution seems to be found. They can keep all three dogs in the Francis Drake.

Of course now they have three dogs to feed instead of one, and Andi and Bruce have no money to speak of. Enter Dave (Johnny Simmons: “The Spirit”, “Evan Almighty”), a kind-hearted employee at the Primary Paws pet store who is willing to help them with with food, but they need to take care of three more dogs that the pet store owner is threatening to send to the pound where they will be destroyed.

The trio of kids is soon joined by Heather (Kyla Pratt: the “Doctor Doolittle” movies, “The Proud Family”), Dave's co-worker at the pet store, and Mark (Troy Gentile: “Drillbit Taylor”, “Good Luck Chuck”), who works at a nearby shop and can't help but notice the distinctive Primary Paws doggy delivery truck frequently parking outside the abandoned hotel. Together, the five kids turn the Hotel Francis Drake into a doggy paradise thanks to Bruce and his machines which handle everything from feeding, and waste disposal, to simulating car rides, and throwing sticks.

Of course the good times cannot go on forever, and things go horribly, but adorably, wrong. When the truth comes out, it becomes a race against time for the kids to try and save their new family (because Heather, Mark, and Dave don't have any apparent family either). All I will say about the ending is that you should expect to hear a lot of “Aaaaawwww” from your fellow moviegoers.

“Hotel For Dogs” is good family entertainment. There's no violence and no cursing, and the most objectionable things in it are a small number of jokes about excrement and urine. While few of the jokes are going to go over a child's head (for example, the two dogs named Georgia and Lenny, Lenny being the big dumb one), the humour and overall storytelling are not too advanced, nor are they the sort that leaves you feeling your IQ oozing out your ears.

This is a kid's film, and you will need to make certain allowances for that. There are a large number of inconsistencies and logic problems in the film. Lost dog fliers appear out of nowhere, Dave and Heather's boss doesn't seem to have a problem with both of them not coming to work, nor with Dave's constant use of the delivery truck. The hotel's power and water work, and at one point you even see what appears to be a reasonably well stocked hotel kitchen.

Then there's the cops and animal control officers. The cops are there purely for menace; at one point while chasing Bruce and Andi early in the film they give up the search after about five seconds when the siblings hide behind a door, and during the big chase at the end the police regularly disappear and reappear in different locations, so that by the end of the chase there are actually no police still chasing the truck with the young heroes in it. As for the animal control officers, basically being the villains of the piece, they are at least twice as macho as the police. They treat the dogs and the kids with utter disdain worthy of any cartoon villain.

Of course all of the above issues are of the sort that tend to be omnipresent in children's movies, and kids aren't going to notice them anyway. One thing that might be a little more difficult for some children to deal with is the concept of putting dogs to sleep. One of the reasons the kids are trying to house the dogs is that the pound puts them down after seventy-two hours. The movie handles this subject fairly well, never really coming right out and saying the dogs are killed, but certainly hinting at it overtly, including uses of the terms “destroy” and “no-kill shelter”. Younger kids probably may not even notice this, but savvier younglings might start asking you some uncomfortable questions.

“Hotel for Dogs” is a reasonably fast paced piece of light entertainment that the whole family can enjoy (or at least not feel mentally insulted by), and it's a nice kid-friendly alternative to the glut of racist seniors, homicidal miners, and overweight rappers populating theater screens this weekend. So if you are looking for something to take the kids to this weekend, or you would just like to see a movie full of cute puppies, then this is the film for you.

“Hotel for Dogs” will be going walkies in heaters nationwide starting today, January 16th.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

“Last Chance Harvey” has pretty much what you would expect from a romantic comedy; loser guy is alone, he meets interesting woman and wins her affections, he then screws up and loses her, and then has to get her back. This doesn't mean it's a bad film though, because what it lacks in original ideas it makes up for in casting.

Dustin Hoffman stars as Harvey Shine, a divorced commercial jingle writer who has traveled to London to see his daughter get married. Upon arrival he discovers that he's essentially been ostracized from the whole event. He's the only one staying in a hotel, he's wearing totally inappropriate clothes to the dinner the night before the wedding, and his daughter (Liane Balaban) even wants her step-father (James Brolin) to give her away at the wedding. He's a miserable man.

Emma Thompson plays Kate Walker, and airport survey-taker who is initially blown off by Harvey when he first arrives in London. She's another complete sad-act; she's never been married, and is constantly hassled by her mother, Maggie (Eileen Atkins), who believes her neighbor to be a serial killer. Kate is every bit the odd-cog that Harvey is, she's hesitant to meet new people and do new things, although she is much more likable.

Fate tries to throw Harvey and Kate together a couple of times before finally succeeding when they both end up in an airport bar, her relaxing after work, and him trying to dull the pain of the last twenty-four hours. After a bit of snarking back and forth they hit it off, and that's where things get a bit odd.

The entirety of the film takes places over the course of three days, so there is not a lot of time for their relationship to develop, in fact their relationship seems to peak in about 12 hours from having lunch in the same pub to the initial peak of their relationship. The behaviour that Kate seems to find somewhat charming, if odd, would best be described by pretty much anyone else as creepy and stalker-ish. He follows her on a train, and then to her writing class, and before the sun is even down he is begging her to go to his daughter's wedding reception with him.

The speed of their relationship is not the only odd thing in the movie, there are other plotholes as well, but they are small ones, like what happened to the clothes and purse that Kate had when her and Harvey are out together during the day when they go to the wedding reception? I think to get the most enjoyment out of this film, you may actually want to view it more as a modern fairy tale than as the romantic comedy that I described it as before.

Another issue with this film is that it is pretty short. It comes in at ninety-two minutes, and it doesn't even feel that long. If you took out the sub-plot of Maggie and her neighbor it would be even shorter than that. I don't know that there is really much more you could do with the movie, other than to continue of from where it ends, and that seems like it was be a bad idea, as the ending is probably one of the most perfect parts of them film.

Ultimately, there's not much here to either like or hate. This movie doesn't really try to do anything new, the plot is tried and true, the progression of events require a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the writing only really shines at a few points overall. In fact, the only things that keeps this movie from getting a solid “meh” are the performances of Hoffman and Thompson, who bring life, charm, and personality to an otherwise dull script.

Unless you are really a fan of Emma Thompson or Dustin Hoffman, or you are just really in the mood to see an amusing little romantic comedy there is really no reason to go see this in theaters. This is a movie worth seeing, but on a night when there's nothing on television. I would recommend waiting a couple of months, and then giving “Last Chance Harvey” a chance when you can rent it on DVD.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

"Get off my lawn!" A Review of Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is an unpleasant man, and why shouldn't he be? He fought in Korea, worked the assembly line for Ford, and raised two sons in his all American home in a midwest suburb. Things have changed though, his all American home is now in the middle of a rundown minority neighborhood, his wife has died, one son is trying to put him in a retirement community, while the other is pretty much absent. He's also coughing up blood on a regular basis, and being hounded by a priest who promised his late wife that he would make Walt go to confession. As if the fact the world has moved on without him isn't enough, the kid next door tries to steal his 1972 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation.

The Gran Torino itself is not really the focus of the movie, but it is the catalyst for everything that happens. If Thao (Bee Vang), a.k.a Toad, hadn't tried to steal Walt's car, he never would have ended up having to work for Walt to restore his family's honor. It is during this period of indentured servitude that Walt comes to like Thao Lor and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), and it is a result of this that allows Walt to regain some of his humanity and make a father/son connection with them that he never made with his own sons.

I suspected I would enjoy this movie once I saw him in the trailer pointing a rifle at a group of gangbangers and growling “Get off my lawn!” like a stereotypical old man, and I was not disappointed, Walt seems like he would be an unlikable man; he throws around racial epithets like most people throw around nouns, he smokes unfiltered cigarettes, chews tobacco, and sits on his front porch drinking can after can of Pabst Blue Ribbon glaring at everything and everyone all the while. For all of that though, I could not help but like him.

What surprised me about this film is that it was not at all what I expected. I was expecting something along the lines of “Death Wish”, with Eastwood outsmarting and slaughtering the gangs, but what I got was a movie that had me, and much of the theater, laughing out loud for the first three quarters of the film. It really isn't until about the ninety minute mark that the movie suddenly takes a dark and violent turn that leads to the film's conclusion.

As I watched this movie, I couldn't help but draw comparison's to 1993's “Falling Down”, another dark comedy about a man who no longer understands the world he lives in. This film is maybe not quite as dark as “Faling Down”, at least not until the end, but it still had a lot of that feel to it to me, especially the ending which packs quite an emotional punch.

If you are sensitive to racism, you may want to avoid this film, as not only does Walt constantly refer to people in offensive terms, be it the black thugs he catches harassing Sue, his equally offensive barber Martin (John Carroll Lynch), or the Lors themselves, but the film is populated by stereotypes. Walt is your stereotype old man who hates the world, the Asian and Hispanic gangmembers look like they might have stepped out of a “Saints Row” video game, then there's the young idealistic priest, and the Lor family who are stereotypically obsessed with honor and tradition. In a lesser film this might come across as sloppy, or even lazy, but Gran Torino makes it work thanks to good writing and talented acting.

The movie is not perfect. In some scenes, especially early in the film, Sue and Thao frequently come across like they are just reciting their lines, as if I was watching a very high budget production from a high school drama club. I found Sue in particular to be very distracting at first, but once the actors spend more time on screen, it seems like they become more comfortable in their roles. My knowledge of the behaviour of members of the Hmong community is extremely limited though, so this may actually be an accurate portrayal of how someone from that community would react in an uncomfortable situation (all of the scenes that had this issue for me featured the characters in awkward moments).

Another issue is the very end of the movie; this is a pretty long movie, clocking in at 116 minutes, but the last probably ten minutes of the film feel like they are trying to cram in about twenty minutes worth of content. This does little to really hurt the movie overall, but it is noticable.

Despite being more “Million Dollar Baby” than “Dirty Harry”, this film is a must see for anyone who is an Eastwood fan. Eastwood creates a perfect image of what someone like Harry Callahan would become if they settled down in the suburbs and grew old. From the first snarled comment during his wife's funeral all the way through to the climax of the film, he is an absolute joy to watch.

“Gran Torino” is a very adult film; there is no actual nudity, but there is enough adult language to make your average rapper blush, some very adult themes, and a few scenes of graphic violence. You'll probably want to leave the kids home for this, but if you want to see a really quality film that will make you laugh, and may even make you cry, you cannot go wrong with “Gran Torino” now that it has been released nationwide. I suspect we'll be hearing about this film a lot during awards season.