Monthly Archives: October 2013

FrightFest: Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead

So, full disclosure, I’m a chicken shit when it comes to watching scary movies. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t watch them. It just means that I sound like a woman in the late stages of labour when I do. Lamaze is my friend. This one’s classified as a “zom-com” and while it’s got some good laughter blasts, make no mistake: by the 13 minute mark, you’ll have seen some shit.

The movie’s intro does a fairly decent job of catching us up if we haven’t seen the first, but in case you’d like some details, SPOILER ALERT: the 2009 original is a Norwegian zombie splatter film directed by Ttumblr_my816oqRJG1t0demio1_500ommy Wirkola, who is a sick, sick individual. He sends 7 students to a remote cabin in the woods, because that’s what the horror movie template tells you to do. A lone and mysterious hiker interrupts their partying with a local tale of a Nazi occupiers who looted the village until the villagers fought back, killing many and forcing survivors to flee into the woods. The next day the students find two things: the hikers dead body, and a cache of treasure. What’s more terrifying than a Nazi? A Nazi-zombie, obviously. Nazi zombies start popping out of the snow, and they whittle down the students, one by one, until Martin, who has had to chainsaw-off his own bitten arm, returns the box of treasure to them. Back in the safety of his car, he discovers that he’s still got a gold coin in his pocket…

 dead-snow-2-herzogCut to, Dead Snow 2. The Nazi-zombies are super mad about the one who got away. Martin (Vegar Hoel) wakes up in a hospital bed with a new arm…a severed zombie arm that’s now been attached to him and is intent on doing evil zombie things! So now Martin’s fleeing the zombies as well as his own dark impulses, and he enlists the help of an American zombie squad to get the job done.

Turns out, though, that the zombie squad is actually just a few nerdy kids led by J960udd Apatow muse Martin Starr. But at least they believe him.

Plot is not the strong point here, as the story is a fairly by-the-book horror list where every item’s been checked off. Unabashed bad taste abounds, and the special effects team does their best (worst?) to offer up escalating gore. Seriously, the organ budget alone must have outstripped the first movie’s entire budget, with an all-you–can-eat-wings wrap party for the crew and theirtumblr_nfq6pt0ARC1tsy6uyo1_500 plus-ones thrown in.  These guys do things with intestines that you can’t unsee. There’s scalpings and head stompings and no mercy whatsoever even for babies, or the disabled. If you wanted a feast of blood and guts, you got it.

 

Confidential to Matt: projectile vomit warning, 38 minute mark.

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The Bear

The Bear: a movie that actually relies on trained and tamed “wild” animals to do all of the acting. As you might expect, there’s very little dialogue.

It charms you from the first, the orphaned baby bear tugging at your heart strings. You want to put your arm around him even if his paws and claws are distinctly visible.

untitled.pngBut then: hunters. Bear-hunting hunters, of course. A scene of them skinning animals around a campfire hammers how their imminent threat.Good thing lil’ orphan bear cub (B.C.) makes a reluctant friend in a bigger (adult) bear (B.B.). They’re going to need each other.

Sure it’s a bit of a schmaltzy premise, and kind of a fuck you to mother nature; in the wild, an adult male bear would very likely eat the cub. In fact, to make sure the bear actor didn’t eat the cub, they made him play with a similar-looking teddy bear to prepare him. It must have done the trick as there were the-bear-3-1no known hasty bear funerals on the set.

But the rest is carefully orchestrated so that you feel as though you are watching real bears in the wild, going about their business, in a slightly anthropomorphized way. But the film is quite an achievement and must have required an awful lot of patience on the film maker’s part. Bears are not natural actors. I can’t help but feel that perhaps the bears too were exercising a great deal of restraint. The Bear is a singular experience in movie-going history. Disney’s got some documentaries that come close, but this is another thing altogether.

Albert Nobbs

Downton Abbey ain’t got nothin on Mr. Nobbs. He’s a servant extraordinaire – no one’s better at anticipating his customer’s needs and the restaurant hums because of his competence. Every night he goes back to his little room, counts his tips fastidiously, and hides them under the floorboards after totting them up in his ledger. So when he’s assigned a new roommate, he’s paranoid his secret will be revealed. No, not the cash. His boobs. Albert Nobbs is not a mister after all.

Albert (Glenn Close) started passing as a man after a traumatic incident at the age of 14. Realistically, it was a way to live safely and an opportunity to earn more money. But he has lived in isolation and constant fear of discovery ever since. Now all he wants is those few extra bucks so he can buy a little shop and live independently. The only thing stopping him is the lack of a wife – which, as you can imagine, is a bit of a roadbump. Luckily he meets someone to inspire him (Janet McTeer), and he soon turns his eye upon a lovely young kitchen staffer (Mia Wiakowska) who hardly knows what to do with the attention of a creepy little old man. Plus her lust bucket is filled with thoughts of the new mechanic (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is handsome and manly and also, it turns out, a drunken bully.

Both Glenn Close and Janet McTeer received Oscar nominations for their respective roles in the film, pretty much a given considering the depth of their perfomances. There’s an ache to watching them – to Close in particular because we are so aware of Albert’s constant pain and discomfort. She never makes a single misstep. And to its credit, the film resists moralizing, or false contextualizing to make it more relevant to today’s social and political climate. It just is. Which is fine, indeed excellent, when it comes to watching stunning performances but the film itself does suffer from being a little too close, a little too one-note.

ParaNorman

Norman is a seemingly normal 11-year-old boy living in small town ParaNorman_1Massachusetts, isolated from his parents and peers because of one small detail: he sees and talks to the dead. No one believes him of course, except for a deranged uncle (John Goodman) who saddles him with a hefty spiritual responsibility to appease a witch who’s been haunting the town for decades.

Prevented by doing so by the same bullies who torment him by day, the witch raises zombies from the dead to chase the townspeople, who fight back viciously.

This movie turns out to be a parable about fearing what is different, and about not judging others. This lesson has to be harshly delivered, because nothing ever comes easily in the movies, and is all the more powerful when the message is delivered from the kids to the adults. But in its heart, it’s still a ghost story, a horror suitable for children, and it benefits a lot from its New Englankidd roots.

ParaNorman is stop-motion from the same animation team who brought us Coraline, capitalizing on the pioneering techniques from that film, and reaching new heights with full-colour 3D printing. It also happens to be the first mainstream animated film to feature a gay character, and was the first-ever PG-rated movie nominated for a GLAAD Media Award.

I have an enduring love for stop-motion because the building of real puppets and sets, and using actual cameras to film them gives the modeling_mitchanimation a detailed glossiness that I never get enough of. In one scene, I noticed that the sunlight was almost making Norman’s ears translucent, they glowed with the light behind them, and I was struck by how real it looked.

I also love smart scripts, and this one’s endlessly quotable. It’s a family movie, but you don’t have to be a kid, or have kids, to enjoy it. The visual jokes and wit add another layer of appreciation onto what’s already a solid movie with not a small amount of magic to it.

The filming, however, can be quite technical. First the animators record videos of themselves giving the performances, in order to puppetuse as reference. The directors give them notes on these tapes. The animators then animate a “rehearsal”, which is a very rough version of the scene shot with only half the frames. The directors then look at the rehearsal and give notes before the scene is shot for real. Animators usually turn in 5-8 seconds per week, depending on how many characters are in their scene. That’s gruelling work! To create the ghost effects, they did twice the work, filming each frame once with the ghost puppet and once without, layering them on top of each other to give it an ethereal look.

ParaNorman used 178 puppets in total, and over 31,000 individual face parts were printed for the production. Thanks to the face replacement technology created by the 3D Color Printer, Norman has over 8,800 faces with a range of individual pieces of brows and mouths allowing him to have approximately 1.5 million possible facial expressions. That’s already a huge leap over their work on Coraline, and the Laika studio has taken it even further with their more recent work, The Boxtrolls. Sean, Matt and I saw several of these sets and puppets when we visited Universal studparaheadsios this summer. I love seeing all the craftsmanship that goes into these movies!

I definitely like the spirit of ParaNorman. It has respect for its young audience – but I have the feeling it might also be a gateway drug of sorts to lots more horror down the road.

 

Corpse Bride

Victor (Johnny Depp) is the son of nouveau-riche fish merchants and Victoria (Emily Watson) is the daughter of aristocrats who are down corpseto their last dollar. Their upcoming marriage will give legitimacy to Victor’s parents while savings Victoria’s from the indignity of poverty. But Victor and Victoria have yet to meet – and neither are keen on marrying a stranger. All that changes when they finally do clap eyes on each other, instantly falling head over heels.

True love doesn’t make Victor any more facile with words, so when he fumbles his way through the rehearsal, he’s admonished to the woods to practise until perfect. Unfortuimagesnately, he unknowingly recites his vows to the corpse of a woman murdered on the night she was to elope, and Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) rises from the dead to claim him as her husband, and drag him down to the Land of the Dead.

Victor is mortified, as he should be – will he ever make it back up to the Land of the Living to reclaim the woman who holds his heart?

Tim Burton breathed his magic into this 19th century Russian folk tale, co-directing on the tails of Big Fish, and simultaneously with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He held the vision, and co-director Mike Johnson followed up with the crew, making sure the tone and emotion were realized.

A beautiful example of stop-motion, the puppets themselves, built by Mackinnon and Saunders, were about 17 inches tall and 46532-stop-motion-ch5-1-fig0503animated on sets built three to four feet off the ground with trap doors allowing animators access to the sets’ surfaces to manipulate the puppets. Victor, Victoria and Emily were outfitted with heads the size of golf balls that contained special gearing to allow the animators to manipulate individual parts of the puppets’ faces.

Burton, on casting Johnny Depp in both movies he was working on at once: “It was weird because we were doing both at the same time. He was Willy Wonka by day and Victor by night so it might have been a little schizophrenic for him. But he’s great. It’s the first animated movie he’s done and he’s always into a challenge. We just treat it like fun and a creative proceEmily_upset_with_Victorss. Again, that’s the joy of working with him. He’s kind of up for anything. He just always adds something to it. The amazing thing is all the actors never worked [together]. They were never in a room together, so they were all doing their voices, except for Albert [Finney] and Joanna [Lumley] did a few scenes together, everybody else was separate. They were all kind of working in a vacuum, which was interesting. That’s the thing that I felt ended up so beautifully, that their performances really meshed together. So he was very canny, as they all were, about trying to find the right tone and making it work while not being in the same room with each other.”

Like the best of Burton, this is macabre yet whimsical, and the visuals here are still arresting today. It’s definitely worth digging out for Halloween, and for whenever.

That Thing You Do!

Imagine Tom Hanks on the whirlwind press tour for Forrest Gump. He’s tired of talking about himself all day long. He needs to recharge his creative juices. So what does Tom Hanks do? He spends a month doing press junkets by day and writing a script while eating room service in his hotel room every night. The pages were probably stained with ketchup.

That Thing You Do! was born unto us. It’s about a band of young dudes in 1964 who experience fame for the first time as their pop song rises up the charts. Band-467It’s sweet and wholesome and damn if that song wasn’t catchy – it even got played on our 1996 radio waves for a brief blip in time. Real 60s music was too expensive (and it had been done well and to death in Forrest Gump, thought Hanks) so it was cheaper just to have stuff written. That Thing You Do! was the result of a competition for a “faux-Beatles” song, and it was Adam Schlesinger, the bass player from Fountains of Wayne, who won. When you hear the song in the movie (and BOY do you hear the heck out of that song in the movie!- 11 different times, and the song went on to be nominated for an Oscar but lost to You Must Love Me from Evita), the actors aren’t really playing, but they could have been. Tom Everett Scott, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry and Jonathan Schaech all learned to play their instruments, and learned every note of every song that appeared in the movie.

Charlize Theron appears in the movie as an early groupie of the band: it was 2only her second movie credit. Tom Hanks auditioned her and knew instantly that she’d be famous one day. She was the first person he auditioned, and the first person he cast.”No matter what, I will always claim to have discovered you” he wrote in her script. She won her first Oscar in 2004.

Tom Everett Scott almost didn’t get the part because Hanks thought he looked too much like Hanks. The crew nick-named him Tom Junior and before every take Hanks would remind him “Don’t do it like me!” – but you know what saved him? Tom’s wife, Rita Wilson, thought he was cute.

Speaking of which, when we saw Tom Hanks at the Tribeca Film Festival, he said that this was the movie he was most proud of, because his whole family 2205573,9QsfDywp4n5t1ZzuCiZFMx1wAtqhZbnzpd6pe701UzN1Em+3vDb9zfon3uv_jNxJfz3ogxTr3jHE26akqhRXcA==showed up to work on it. Wife Wilson appears as a cocktail waitress, but Hanks was so tired from pulling 19-hour days the day she showed up on set, he didn’t even recognize her, merely noting that she was “an attractive lady” and he hoped she’d be nice to him. His son Colin also briefly appears in the film, and his daughter Elizabeth even brieflier. Unrelated but also of note: keep your eye out for Bryan Cranston playing an astronaut, and Jonathan Demme playing the director of a major motion picture.

So yes. Tom Hanks wrote, directed, and co-starred in this movie, and even composed some of the music (surprise! He’s also a drummer in his spare time). It was Sean Penn who encouraged him to direct (they were trick or treating with their kids at the time), saying it would ultimately make him a better actor.that-thing-you-do-whysoblu-7

Tom Hanks’ favourite part? Bruce Springsteen once told him that he nailed the scene when the band first hears their music played on the radio. And really, how much better of an endorsement can you get?

 

The Princess And The Frog

I want to like this movie. I do love the New Orleans vibe, the beautiful bayou, and DISNEY’S FIRST BLACK PRINCESS. But in addition to this movie just not feeling up to Disney’s standards (or, I suppose, mine), it’s not even what it promises.

Disney’s first black princess is in fact a frog for most of the movie. So kudos to whoever came up with that little workaround: how to have a black princess without actually committing to it, kind of like how they just had their first gay character without actually doing that either. Person of colour, yes, but did that colour really have to be green? Classic movie, Disney. Also, how many of the characters feel like stereotypes? There’s a pimp, and a Mamie, and one with a fat ass and missing teeth. Erm. Tug on the ole collar. The voices alone feel deeply racist. And let’s not forget the bit fat white saviour, even if he is cleverly voiced by John Goodman.

And the truth is, the setting isn’t quite as spectacular as I wish it was either: put through Disney’s rock polisher, it’s scrubbed clean of any true colour. The score is kind of cool, kind of jazzy, but the songs are unforgivable generic, totally unmemorable, un-sing-alongable.

There’s no real flair here, and even worse for Disney, no magic.

 

The Truman Show

The Truman Show came out before the reality TV craze really set in, so its prescience is commendable and chilling.

Truman Burbank (Jim Carey) is a man who’s been filmed since birth, and for 30 years, the world has watched him round the clock. The only person who doesn’t know that tumblr_nqc9v5ofZH1skrvpzo1_500.gifTruman’s a big, big star is Truman himself, who believes himself to be living a normal life. An entire town has been hired and created to convince him of this, but everyone’s in on it, everyone’s an actor with their own motives and agendas. When Truman does begin to catch on to the ruse, no one is more keen to stop his leaving than his director of 30 years, Christoff (Ed Harris).

When Sisken and Ebert reviewed The Truman Show, they gave it an enthusiastic two-thumbs-up, but also gave an unprecedented on-air apology to Jim Carrey for having said that he would never have a career when they hate-reviewed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective just a few years earlier.

 

The Truman Show wasn’t just a hit at the box office, it became a cultural phenomenon. In 2008, Popular Mechanics declared it one of the 10 most prophetic science fiction films ever. Big Brother debuted just a year after The Truman Show hit theatres, and the popularity of other shows like it probably predict the downfall of  humanity, but the fact that so many people flocked to the movies to see that same thing satirized has to be a good sign, right?

The Truman Show is studied in lots of Media Ethics courses. Of course they look at Truman’s creator, Christoff, the director who stalked unwanted pregnancies and eventually trapped an unwitting human in a very big but very fake bubble. But they also look at Marlon, Truman’s best friend, and Meryl, his wife. These of course are simply actors playing a part – Meryl (Laura Linney) basically prostitutes herself for the role and is willing to bear Truman’s child, who will be a star of a spin-off.

Even more interestingly, psychologists are reporting real people experiencing the “Truman Syndrome” or the “Truman Show Delusion”, basically people believing they are the unwilling stars of their own reality TV shows. Some people may be happy about this fake fame, others tormented. But they believe cameras are secretly following and filming them around the clock. One such person traveled to NYC after 9\11 to check that the towers had indeed fallen; this person believed that it was perhaps just an elaborate plot twist in his personal storyline. Another such person climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty believing his long-lost high school girlfriend would meet him there, and he’d finally be released from the show.

I’m betting\hoping The Truman Show was a little less life-altering for you than it was for some of these poor people, but doesn’t that just go to show the effect the media can have on our lives?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gods Must Be Crazy II

godsWhen a sleeper hit becomes an international sensation, you can’t really fault the writer-director for trying to capitalize on that success. The Gods Must Be Crazy 2 is Jamie Uys’ coat-tail ride, and while it’s not without its charms, it lacks the earnestness of the first and fails to recapture the magic. It was filmed 5 years after the first but mysteriously shelved for 5 more, only making its debut in 1989.

N!Xau, the Kalihari bushman who starred in the first film, is back. In this, he is separated from his kids while on a hunting expedition in the desert. His children are kidnapped by elephant poachers, and in his quest to find and free them (and reestablish himself as the hero), he comes across a whole bunch more notable characters, including a New York attorney and a zoologist, who are stranded in the desert. Following the formula of the first, various plot lines will inevitably converge.

Madcap whimsy? If you’re feeling generous. Amusing battle over a cup of water with a baboon? Why not.  You’re only going to watch this movie if you really loved the first, and even then, maybe you shouldn’t.