The Movie Buffer

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still


Here comes Spoiler Claus, here comes spoiler claus


Authors note: It was hard to put this article together because my initial reaction was so strong that this would have just come of rant-y. So, I’ve let my thoughts settle and here’s my take on the film. I won’t sweat the small stuff and I’ll only give a couple of the biggies away because there are just so many.

To say that remakes are tricky business is to say the very least. It’s never the awful movies with a decent idea that get remakes; it’s the great or memorable movies remade as a cash grab. A cynical thought, but appropriate in this case.

To avoid comparing the new to the old is impossible, so I’m going to have to take this one head on.

The original the day the earth stood still is a cinematic classic made in 1951, which played on anti-communist fears to reveal that the human race needs to grow up and put aside our petty differences, or face the dire consequences. Both the story and the presentation would probably stand up with the appropriate technological upgrades. Though the special effects are laughably primitive, they were used in just the right way to keep the tension and the tone of the story even.

The new film plays up the environmental issues that are hot button today, which is an interesting spin on things. I was curious about how they were going to contort the plot to fit around this premise because it’s quite a different matter to change the perception of the planet rather than wrestle with the nature of being human.

Unfortunately, the wheels start coming off right after the 30 minute introduction of the players. Beyond the cosmetic changes of the characters and the story, there is a plethora of failings that doom the film, worst of all the terrible rewriting of the story.

The message of this film is very poorly articulated, even though it is a very important topic and should have some gravitas attached to it. There are many plot points that the director shoves in our face only to have every one contradicted.

Klaatu and Gort are now exterminators, rather than messengers, who arrive on Earth ready to pull the trigger on the human race. Right out of the gate, Klaatu says he’s here to save the earth from us because we’re violent, small-minded and irrational, but doesn’t even after he’s shot, imprisoned and denied access to anyone that has any power.

After seventy years of observation, the aliens claim, rightly, we’ve polluted and subsequently doomed the Earth to a slow death, so we must be eliminated. But what’s the first move they make – blowing up some planes which lights some trees on fire. Great appropriateness for environmentalism, guys. This scene was just a short filler device to show that our weapons wouldn’t work, so why not leave the original idea of Gort having a vaporizer ray? It even works from an earth-friendly perspective.

Upon reflection, it’s hard to imagine what was going on in the writer’s head. He portrays humans as brutally violent in one scene, Klaatu gets shot for trying to shake hands with Helen(the original had Klaatu offering an alien device that was mistaken as a weapon), and then five minutes later she’s begging him to see we aren’t all that bad, while he’s strapped onto an operating table. He gives us Klaatu, who says that he won’t let anyone get in his way, being stopped by a simple “no” when he asks to address the world. We also get a terrible rewrite of Helen’s son Jacob, who in the span of one scene flip-flops from glib adult to a petulant child.

In order to update the stuffy alien visitor, Klaatu has superpowers this time around: He can connect his eyes to closed circuit video cameras through electrical outlets; He can become a polygraph machine and defibrillator; He can heal wounds in his larval stage. Furthermore, his spacecraft can subvert all communications and defensive satellites, travel at the speed of light and has an impervious shield. Even with all these upgrades, he needs to walk around and talk to people to deliver the bad news about the planet. In the original film, the idea that he has to talk to everyone personally makes sense because it’s the simplest way. Here, Klaatu can easily hijack the satellites, broadcast his message, and reach practically the whole planet.

If I really stretch, the story works between Klaatu, Helen and Jacob, but the whole world is involved and everyone outside these three would have been totally in the dark about what had transpired. Originally, Klaatu sees that we have the potential to change, so he addresses the world and tells us to shape up or there will be consequences. Here we get a feel good ending where on the brink of destruction, Helen and Jacob forgive each other for their failings as parent and child (A great scene if the story is about peaceful co-existence but this movie is about saving the planet and all the hugs in the world won’t stop greenhouse gasses). Then, Klaatu disappears into his ship and leaves earth.

My feelings really varied about this movie, though none of them were good. At first, I was upset because nothing was resolved, which dulled over a few days to where I am now, disappointment. They missed a good chance to capitalize on a current fear and shine a bright spotlight on what could be done about it. The anti-war message of the original, I think, is still very relevant and could have been involved. Like The Critic, Jay Sherman says, “If it’s a remake of a classic, watch the classic” and that’s the best advice I can give you.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

DVD Review: Fido


Spoilers, bad!


There’s not denying that Shaun of the Dead reopened the zombie movie door. Now, we’re seeing a renewed interest in the genre and some pretty interesting takes on the classic zombie movie. One such film is Fido, which is part Dawn of the Dead, part Lassie and part Pleasantville, as strange as that sounds.

In typical zombie horror fashion, the world has been overrun by zombies, so the humans have had to setup a safe zone with electric fences, sentry guards, the whole nine yards. There are also neighborhood zombie extermination squads, marksmanship taught in schools and up to the minute zombie reports on the news. To further combat the zombies, a mind controlling collars has been developed to pacify and reintegrate zombies back into civilized society, many of them are used for menial labour or as household servants. Now, set this paranoia against the wholesome vibe of Leave It to Beaver and the stage is set for Fido.

Fido is the Robinson’s servant zombie, who is picked on constantly by family patriarch, Bill. Though everyone thinks that he is an unthinking monster, Timmy tries to befriend the zombie and humanize him a little by giving him his name and teaching him to play catch. Timmy believes that Fido is a good zombie, but when his zombie control collar malfunctions reverts to his cannibalistic ways. This Jekyll and Hyde back and forth is the pivot of the story as Fido and Timmy try to figure out ways of fixing the trouble they create.

Billy Connelly plays Fido and is terribly likeable as the zombie. We see that perhaps even zombies have a lighter side to them and the viewer is made to sympathize with his plight. I liked Carrie Ann Moss as the dainty housewife who is far more rugged than appears. Though she is treated as just the lady of the household, she quickly becomes fifth business and really pushes the action forward. The rest of the cast is pretty one note but they get the job done in a humourous fashion.

Fido was a pleasing experience, if a little saccharine at the end. It wouldn’t have hurt the film to end on a less absolutely happy ending, but it fits in with the 50s sitcom theme. I would have liked a little more depth to the mischief that Timmy and Fido get into, but really, Fido’s a zombie so the worst he could do is eating people. This is a well made zombie centered film, but a comedy at its core. For the zombie enthusiast, this is a lightweight but a nice one.

DVD Review : Smart People


The spoilers are everything that is the case


A story about dysfunctional intellectuals is great material because a culture of the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge (and the notoriety that comes with it), it is easy to sacrifice other aspects that make up the human experience. Smart People consists of two such stories: Lawrence’s (Dennis Quaid) story and Vanessa’s (Ellen Page) story.

Lawrence is a tenured English professor, who actively distances himself from his students, discourages their growth by stifling their interpretations of his subject, Victorian Literature, and loathes having to simplify his books and essays to get them published. His abysmal relationships with students and co-workers are only eclipsed by his disastrous handling of his family.

Vanessa is a child sized version of her father, the above mentioned Lawrence, though she does have a dream of moving away from her dreary surroundings. She shuns all her cohorts and isolates herself, but she’s lonely and wishes that she could just integrate.

The crux of the film is that Lawrence has a seizure and is treated by Dr. Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), who was a former student of his. One of the side effects of the seizure is that he can no longer operate a motor vehicle, so his lay-about brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in to help him out.

Chuck becomes a comedic foil to both Vanessa and Lawrence, but nothing can save these two utterly unpleasant characters. Chuck tries to remind Lawrence that even fleeting happiness is still happiness and he should take a chance with Janet, though Lawrence seems just as happy to remain sullen. Chuck also tries to introduce Vanessa to adolescent banality by getting her drunk and stoned.

To put it absolutely plainly, Smart People tried to portray academics like Sideways portrayed wine connoisseurs, but instead of showing their humanity and frailties, we see that they are terrible people who sabotage themselves and those close to them. There is no reason given to believe they don’t deserve to be in their particular situations or that they can change.

I wanted to enjoy this film. I like Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, and Thomas Haden Church but for the life of me I just couldn’t connect to the characters or the story. This film appeared with little fanfare and went quietly into the night and I think we’re all better for it.

DVD Review: American Gangster


There can be only spoilers


When the phrase “based on a true story” pops up in the trailer for a movie, it always leaves a pang of disbelief in the pit of my stomach. I ask myself, “So what did they make up?” and “What was the real story?” and this one seems to be based loosely on actual events.

American Gangster missed me in theatres because I didn’t think that it was going to be all that interesting. The new crime boss that rises to the top of an empire to be undone by an act of hubris is something that most gangster films involve, so I passed on it. Though, having Ridley Scott as the director did pique my interest.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of Scott in films, after a lull in his career in the 90s. I was interested how he would tackle this subject matter because he was one of the last marquee directors not to have a big budget gangster movie under his belt.

American gangster dives into the lives of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas and the detective who is trying to stop him, Ritchie Roberts. Frank, who was brought up in the old school of organized crime, assumes the mantle of neighborhood boss and ascends to kingpin by devising a new scheme for importing drugs and increasing his influence in the local business.

American Gangster was quickly compared with classic films like Goodfellas, The Godfather, etc., though the movie that is really matches up against is Scarface. Unlike these films, American Gangster lacks artistry and complexity of The Godfather and Goodfellas, and the balls out destructiveness of Scarface. I can appreciate the lack of pretentiousness but a few touches of subtlety would have really jazzed up the picture quite a bit.

For example, Franks rise to power is so quick and veiled it’s no wonder that it all comes crashing down. Though Frank’s drug scheme is pretty clever, wouldn’t the other bosses and gangs have figured out what he was doing in order to maintain their market share? There are plenty of issues like these that could have been resolved with a few scenes but I guess they were over budget or late so explanations were deemed unnecessary.

The limiting factor on American Gangster is that it hasn’t had to stand the test of time like these other movies. We’ll see in 10 years if it survives or not. My guess is not because there is nothing quotable in the film, like Scarface or Goodfellas, and nothing poignant like the Godfather. It’s a decent film but forgettable.