Dark Places

August 12, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Dark Places” is the second adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel. The first, of course, was the acclaimed “Gone Girl”, which was adapted by Flynn herself. Here, her work is written for the screen and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who has mostly done French language films (except for 2009’s “Walled In”). The two films could not be farther apart in terms of quality of narrative execution, and adaptation itself. Where “Gone Girl” successfully brought page to screen with the same depth and care, “Dark Places” feels like it’s merely a recitation of the book.

The story revolves around Libby Day (Charlize Theron, who may be miscast for this role), who when she was a child, witnessed the murder of nearly her entire family save her older teenage brother Ben, who is convicted of the killings. She is coaxed into witness testimony that sends Ben to life in prison–but years later, a group of people called the “Kill Club” (they follow serial murders and try to solve cases on their own) believe that he may be innocent. One of the leaders of the group, Lyle (Nicholas Hoult), tries to persuade Libby to reevaluate her stance that her brother is guilty. There are inconsistencies in the crime scene itself and Ben doesn’t seem to have a real motive. Back in 1985, during the mass hysteria of satanic occult witch hunts, it was easy for a jury to believe that Ben was a devil worshiper and wanted to make a sacrifice to Satan. In actuality, Ben (Tye Sheridan) is a meek, quiet, reserved normal boy who gets in with a crowd that claims to be Satanists. Older Ben (Corey Stoll) now claims he is innocent, and wants Libby to change her testimony in order to clear him. But she still doesn’t necessarily believe that he didn’t do it. What she begins to discover is that there were other people involved with that night–including Ben’s girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace-Moretz) and even his own father, Runner (Sean Bridgers). When his mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters Michelle and Debbie are murdered, they are killed in different ways, suggesting there may have been more than one culprit.

The film, like the book, jumps around between timelines, sometimes going back to 1985 on the day of the murders and the hours preceding them, and then going to present day where we have the older versions of the characters being visited by Libby to try and piece together what really happened. In the book, this is all done in a way that makes the story more a thriller than a character study–but it succeeds in being both, really. The movie tries to replicate that, but because it begins jumping around too early (in a book you can get away with that because you can always go back and use reference points), anyone who hasn’t read the book would probably be confused and check out emotionally rather quickly. The story seems like it would be compelling enough to string together a 3 act story easily, but there are too many characters and too much going on to be able to follow it if you’re not already familiar with the material.

The individual scenes are nicely acted. All of the sets are well done, and there is a sense of desperation in the murky atmosphere of the rural midwest. Instead of using that as a theme, however, it’s more like a backdrop. A set, simply to set the stage. The characters speak to each other but they don’t interact. There is no real conflict, no stakes, nothing to gain or lose. We don’t really care if Libby sets her brother free or finds the truth because nothing was established in the first 15 minutes that made us really care about the outcome.

In “Gone Girl”, Flynn is able to reconstruct her novel and keep the theme intact with David Fincher’s masterful directing ability. Not to say that Paquet-Brenner is incapable–but it’s disappointing to see someone completely botch a compelling story simply by missing the point that you need to set everything up credibly and with enough simplicity that the story unfolds naturally and comprehensively. Here, we are given little cuts of meat rather than the whole steak. And it definitely leaves one starving for a better movie.

My rating: :(

 

Life of Pi

June 10, 2013 by  
Filed under Blog, Entertainment, Home Video

“Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.” I know it’s been used a lot before, but I just like that quote. And for Piscine Patel, the protagonist of “Life of Pi”, it couldn’t be more true.

Except for Piscine, religion is all around him his whole life, by his own choosing. We’re introduced to him as an adult played by Irrfan Khan who has been visited by a novelist who wants to hear his life story because he’s heard it will “make me believe in God”. He’s going to write about Piscine’s life, and wants to get the details. Piscine, or Pi, begins with childhood. We learn that his name came from a swimming pool in France called Piscine Moliter. Unfortunately for Piscine, however, the name sounds exactly like the act of urinating. So Piscine is ridiculed so much that he shortens his name to Pi; at school, he demonstrates his name by writing it on a blackboard with all the numbers he can think of, which goes on and on and on.

As he grows up, he disappoints his father by following 3 different religions. He is born and raised Hindu; but he becomes fascinated with Jesus Christ and decides to also be a Christian. To round things out, he takes up being a Muslim as well. His father believes he has spread his beliefs too thin, and by believing in everything, he doesn’t actually believe in anything because he does not choose a path.

A path chooses him, though. His father owns a zoo, and after a few life lessons about animals are taught to Pi, they find out that they must leave their home in India and move to Canada. They board a Japanese freighter and after a vicious storm, the ship sinks. Pi is the only human survivor; he is accompanied on a raft by an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (which has an amusing backstory to go along with it.)

Pi is now on the opposite end of what he grew up in. He is basically the zoo animal now. The hyena taunts him, the zebra, and the orangutan, eventually killing them. All Pi can do is watch in horror, because he cannot attack the hyena himself. Then, Richard Parker leaps out from under the tarp in the boat and attacks and kills the hyena. With it being just the tiger and Pi, the two have to grow to tolerate each other’s presence. Due to, least of all, a language barrier, this doesn’t appear to be an easy task.

But Pi is able to feed the tiger, and write about his experiences day by day in a journal. He survives by eating biscuits provided by the survival kit on the boat, along with cans of water.

Things actually seem to be going in Pi’s favor, until another storm hits. This shipwrecks Pi and the tiger onto a mysterious island that seems to eat any inhabitants except the abundance of meerkats that permeate the whole island. There are little pools of water that Pi finds he can drink from. But at night, the island takes on a different kind of form. It’s almost like a giant venus fly trap. The island itself is in the shape of a person. And it seems to be cannibalistic. Pi finds a human tooth in a blooming flower.

Pi is eventually rescued when he finds the Mexican shoreline. He must tell his story to the company that owned the ship that sank. They of course do not believe Pi’s fantastical story about the island or the animals. Richard Parker disappeared after they found land, not that the tiger was going to tell a more convincing story. Pi then tells another story, one that is starkly different from the one we’ve just seen. He tells them that the cook on the ship, a sailor, and Pi’s mother were all in the boat. But the cook went mad and killed the sailor and his mother, and then Pi killed the cook. He tells the story convincingly, almost to the point where we as an audience are wondering if what we saw was just a cute allegory of a much darker, more horrific story of survival.

And that is exactly where the movie’s theme lies. In the religions that Pi learns about, they’re full of stories. Stories that Pi believes. And in these stories, he finds faith in God. Not God as in the Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu God, but God in all things. When his faith is tested, God shows himself through the experiences that Pi speaks of. Not a religious God, but a spiritual one.

Ang Lee’s direction is superb, and the palette of colors is amazing to watch. Of course, these colors mean something an Ang Lee just loves using metaphors for everything. The pace of the film is very strong, and the moments during the storms are intense and amazing. Though the animals are clearly CGI, there is a believability in them enough to forgive the fact that they’re not really there.

The two storms represent two very different things that happen to Pi. The first storm, God taketh away. In the second storm, however, God spares his life. He has a much less chance of survival in the dinghy; and yet he survives again. And so does Richard Parker. Why? And is it really sparing his life, when God has taken so much away from him already? In either case, Pi believes that God has shown him that his life was worth saving, and that he was chosen to go on living.

At the end, Pi asks the author which story he prefers. The author answers, “The one with the tiger.” Perhaps we all would like to believe that one, especially since that’s the one we viewed. Maybe we don’t want to see the horrors of reality. We’d rather see talking snakes and giant arcs saving animals than see reconstructed stories of what might have really happened to the people that wound up writing those stories.

But the point of “Life of Pi” isn’t about which story you believe. It’s about whether the story changes your life. And that’s what makes this such a powerful experience, and one that will last very long in my mind.

My rating: :-)

Cloud Atlas

November 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

“What is an ocean? But millions of droplets.” That line, spoken by one of the protagonists in the new Wachowski film “Cloud Atlas”, pretty much sums up the idea of the film in general. It also illustrates how empty headed this nearly 3 hour pseudointellectual exercise is.

It’s hard to really lay out the plot of this film, because it’s one of those movies that strings together a bunch of little vignettes to try to tell one singular narrative. In this case, your choices lead to consequences, which lead to legacies. That’s what the film is about, and it strains it until it becomes completely meaningless.

It takes a few different main characters, some played by the same actors, and tries to tell a story throughout time about people who all have choices to make. Their choices will change the futures of some of the characters, just like in real life, you know? The most interesting stories involve a journalist (played by the always appealing Halle Berry) uncovering a malicious nuclear plot that could destroy mankind, set in the 70’s; and a bisexual pianist who has been chosen by one of the greatest composers to flesh out his last masterpiece before he dies. The pianist, Robert Frobisher (played by Doona Bae), has to leave his lover, Sixsmith (played by James D’Arcy in one of the film’s only Oscar calibur roles), and in doing so, compromises his only true love for the love of himself and musical self-glory. This story is probably the most keen in bringing out what the film is about.

The film’s at its weakest and most groan inducing when it is in the future, where 2 of the stories are set. One looks straight out of “The Matrix”, in a place called Neo-Seoul, where servants are produced and re-produced to supplement the regular population. The other takes place deeper into the future, something that looks straight out of “The Time Machine”, where a tribal people led by Zachry (Tom Hanks) are ruled by a god that was actually one of the replicants from Neo-Seoul hundreds of years ago. The Neo-Seoul future is just preposterous and retread. But it’s at least somewhat entertaining. The tribal future is just downright silly, and there’s an annoying “demon” that honestly looks like Leprechaun popping up whenever the hero Zachry has a moral dilemma.

There are other plots involving a slave stowaway on a ship in the 1800’s, and a publisher who becomes the victim of his brother’s revenge after a debt is needed to pay off gangsters. The former is a bit stiff, and the latter is amusing but sometimes over the top in its attempt at humor. All of the stories, as I said, reuse the same actors. I would say that by the 6th incarnation of Tom Hanks, you’ll be rolling your eyes. There’s one version of Hugo Weaving that is supposed to be funny, I guess, but it really just comes off as ludicrous and stupid. And it’s somewhat disjointed in its attempt to be humorous because the rest of the film is supposed to be taken so seriously.

The nicest thing I can say about the film is that it’s ambitious. In the tradition of similar films that try and use different time periods to beat you over the head with a simple theme such as “Being Human” and “The Fountain”, “Cloud Atlas” tries too hard to be important, and doesn’t try hard enough to be engaging. The characters are never given enough screen time to be anything more than a guessing game of “OK which actor is this?” Behind the makeup (some of which is awful), it is hard to tell at times. And I’m sorry, but as much as Tom Hanks can be a fine actor–here it’s like he’s trying to be that fun uncle at a birthday party to trick the kids into thinking he’s 8 different people. But he is always Tom Hanks.

This film is based on a book, and I can imagine the book is not this abrasively eager. It could be equally ambitious; but a book can get away with that, because I’d imagine the characters are more fleshed out in the book. A film is constantly moving; you can’t sit there and ponder something when the film changes to something else. And this film doesn’t let up for a second with its story. You go from the middle of a story to the next, with no breather. It’s literally flipping back and forth, with its own agenda, and it’s up to you to keep up.

There are good performances by Jim Sturgess and the man who plays a slave, David Gyasi; and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant have some funny moments in their different roles. But as I said, you become so aware of who the actor is far more than who the character is, and that takes the emotional impact the film is going for right out of you. There are perhaps 2 moments where I “felt” the film. One of those involved the characters of Sixsmith and Frobisher. There’s a very nice moment where Frobisher has lured Sixsmith into thinking they’ll meet, and they never do. There is a wonderful subtle beauty to that scene, that moment, and that idea.

But the film never achieves take off with its ideas. Instead it uses narration to drum between the ears about its supposed thoughtfulness on life, the universe, and everything. And that ocean of droplets becomes nothing more than a body of water that can easily be flushed down a toilet, and never thought about again.

My rating: :?