Friday, January 26, 2007

The House Between: Meet Bill & Travis!

It's Friday again and that means another "clip" from my online series, The House Between gets posted on the blog today.

The clip I'm showing here is also from the premiere episode, "Arrived." This moment in the show occurs shortly after last week's segment. Our hero, Astrid (Kim Breeding) has already encountered Arlo (Jim Blanton), the strange young man in the kitchen, and by testing the doors and windows, discovered she is a captive in this mysterious old unusual means.

In this bit, Astrid has just gone upstairs after speaking with Arlo, hoping to meet the other folks trapped in the house. She does so. First off, there's Bill T. Clark a "one step at a time" kind of guy played by Tony Mercer. He's a methodical scientist, one who, by his careful observations, deepens the mystery for Astrid.

Then, as the clip continues, you'll be introduced to one troublesome Travis Crabtree, played by Lee Hansen. Like Arlo downstairs, Travis is a "loki" character in the series; one who is always making mischief and trouble for the other denizens of "the house between."

But you'll see that for yourself...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Dark Water (2005)

This is yet another Americanized remake of a Japanese horror film; in the spirit of The Ring, The Grudge and Pulse (which I reviewed on the blog last week). Like those remakes, Dark Water is also rated PG-13; which - if you'll forgive the expression, means "watered" down horror.

Yet Dark Water, which stars Jennifer Connelly as Dahlia Williams, is, perhaps a notch or two better than the average genre remake (it's certainly better than the worst of this lot, which for my money is the unnecessary sequel, Ring 2). Tallying it all up, I enjoyed Dark Water more than the flawed Pulse, for instance, if not as much as The Ring. It's not jump-out-of-your-seat scary in the sense you may expect, however. The film's power is not necessarily in the "jolts" or "shocks" but rather in the oblique little touches, and the world of perpetual rainfall and urban isolation it confidently and adroitly forges. The characters are all compelling too, and in general, they speak with distinction and verisimilitude. You don't find those qualities in horror films every day, so they're worth mentioning.

The film's greatest asset? Dark Water boasts a lugubrious mood, what a friend of mine ters "an atmosphere of dread." In other words, the whole enterprise feels ominous and unsettling and vaguely surreal. I guess if you're not that into nuances however, I could see how someone might rate it as "boring" rather than "moody." The film requires you bring a degree of patience along with your popcorn and soda.

Like The Ring - again - Dark Water is the story of a single Mom (Connelly) and her "haunted' child, in this case a little girl named Cecilia or Ceci, for short. The haunting comes about under the auspices of another "wronged" child (like The Grudge and The Ring...), also a little girl with long black hair. In this case it is a little specter named Natasha, who happens to haunt a shitty apartment building in New York. The first time you see a water tower on the roof of the film's central location, that squalid apartment building on Roosevelt Island, you'll be able to guess every detail of the story. At least I did. That's clearly to the film's detriment.

The film suffers from several narrative implausibilities too. The first is that Jennifer Connelly plays a recent divorcee. Her husband cheated on her, and frankly I have a hard time believing any guy in the universe would cheat on Jennifer Connelly. Go ahead, inform me, please, what out-of-this-world mistress would possibly be preferable to Jennifer Connelly? The second implausibility is that a conscientious mother, like Dahlia, would continuously permit her precious, psychologically fragile daughter Ceci sleep under a nasty ceiling leak every night. One that oozes black water and threatens to explode all the time. Jeez, just move the bed, would you?

But whatever. Those are actually somewhat minor complaints. What the film accomplishes, it accomplishes very well, and that's a good thing. The best aspect of the film involves the sequence which establishes the geography of the yucky apartment building, a would-be utopia built in 1976 and which now is Exhibit A of contemporary urban blight. The color palette of the film is a sort of puke gray-green, and every corner of this building looks authentically sleazy. The elevator is a nightmare (and there's a scary scene as odd denizens hurtle briefly into view while it moves from floor to floor...), and don't get me started on the laundry room in the basement. Jeez.

But instead of merely recording for us the details of the nasty apartment, I truly enjoyed how the film takes the time and energy to establish the upbeat but utterly immoral character of the apartment landlord/manager, played by the incomparable John C. Reilly. He gives Dahlia and Ceci their first peek at the apartment, and it's a great scene because of his performance. He euphemistically terms a fold-down kitchen table a "country kitchen!" and raves about the "dual use" space; meaning that the bedroom and the living room are actually one in the same. And then he patronizingly talks to Ceci in a kind of sing-songy voice that's really grating. Yet his tour of the apartment is practically mesmerizing. In turns it's creepy, amusing, and infuriating. Recommendation to filmmakers: if you have an exposition-heavy sequence, get John C. Reilly to vet it.

The film's second strength is Connelly herself, playing a tragic golden-heart; a lost soul who was abandoned by her mother at a young age (which we see in an unnecessary flashback...); an event she shares in common with Natasha, the apartment ghost and Ceci's new not-so-invisible friend. Accordingly, much of this film involves an understanding of what it means to be a good parent. What things to give up, what things to fight for. What things to sacrifice. Dahlia's character arc is touching - heartbreaking even - and Connelly is quite good in a meaty, affecting part.

And did I mention Tim Roth in the quirky role of an eccentric lawyer who works out of his car instead of an office? He also elevates the familiar material to a higher-than-expected plateau. I imagine good actors like John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Tim Roth, and Pete Postelthwaite (playing a gruff handyman...) were attracted to the script because of these unique, well-drawn characters, all of whom possess individual voices. They aren't cookie-cutter roles like you might expect.

So Dark Water is well-cast and never less-than-gorgeously shot. My biggest reservation about the film is just that the premise is entirely and tiresomely predictable. We've been down this rainy alley before, many times in fact, and no matter how desperate Dahlia is, I just don't buy that she would remain in an apartment with a giant leak in the ceiling. I admire the performances in the film; I respect that it isn't exploitative. I like the "dark mood" and note with appreciation how the leitmotif of water recurs. I just wouldn't recommend you watch Dark Water unless you're wide awake, because - depending on point of view - it's either hypnotic or sleep inducing.

I'm feeling generous today. I'll say it's hypnotic. Ask me again tomorrow, however, and my answer might be that the film is a little drawn out. Like (Japanese...) water torture.

Monday, January 22, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Stealth (2005)

Firefox (1982), a Clint Eastwood movie about a high-tech jet that Clint must steal from Russia (during the Cold War) is one of my favorite movies from the 1980s. I love the aerial dog fights and I love the high-octane suspense (especially in the scene wherein Clint realizes he must "think" in Russian to control the difficult-to-maneuver plane).

So, with nostalgia looming large in my heart, I put Stealth, a 2005 action film about another high-tech jet plane, into my Netflix queue, and waited with bated breath for it to arrive. Kathryn rolled her eyes when she saw I had rented it. She knew what we were in for.

But hey, I didn't need the movie to be a classic. I didn't need it to be great, even. I just wanted a tense adventure, and some big-time aerial destruction, convincingly rendered. I still remember seeing the trailer for the film, which - if I remember it right - seemed to indicate that a plane equipped with artificial intelligence was barreling down on one of our major cities here in the U.S. and that it was up to three hot dog pilots to stop it before it could drop off a nuclear payload.

That sounds like a cool story, doesn't it? I think so...

Nothing like that happens in Stealth. Bummer. Big time bummer.

Stealth is set "the near future" when the Navy is testing a "new program" and "experimental technology," the film's opening card reveals. This new program as it turns out, is something called E.D.I. (Extreme Deep Invader), an attack plane that is, well, smart. Smarter than the screenwriter, anyway. E.D.I. boasts artificial intelligence and so can react faster than any human pilot in a crisis, even those three hot dogs I mentioned above, here played by Jamie Foxx, smoking-hot Jessica Biel (she can ride my tail anytime...), and Josh Lucas.

These pilots, who fly cool looking "talon" fighters (hey, He-Man also flew talon fighters!!!), are suspicious of their new computerized wing-man, and sure enough, they have just cause. Before long things go wrong. HORRIBLY WRONG. E.D.I. learns all the wrong lessons from the pilots, particularly the headstrong Lucas, and goes rogue on a mission in Tajikistan to take out a warlord with WMD. In the process, he chalks up some big time collateral damage. Oopsy.

All this set-up got my blood pumping, particularly the scene set in Thailand with Jessica Biel in a blue bikini. Wait, what was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Stealth. So anyway, the first half of the movie smells of three-day-old Michael Bay, but still, it's good in that cheesy Hollywood way. You just know E.D.I. is gonna go nuts and there's gonna be trouble in the air. Admittedly, the movie provides some incredible and impressive special effects. For instance, there's an amazing shot, a zoom from Earth orbit right down the surface with the planet, to a castle rampart where an evil terrorist is standing. If this isn't what CGI was designed for, I don't know what is.

Then there's the absolutely harrowing and nutty scene in which Biel must eject from her damaged talon fighter, and - under a disintegrating parachute - is always just inches away from flaming metal debris. Yikes.

This is all to the good. No doubt. But then things take a turn. A wrong turn. Let me give you the set-up. Biel is downed in North Korea, on her own. And Jamie Foxx has been killed in a great, moving scene involving aerial combat with E.D.I. Now, it's up to the last airborne pilot, Lucas, to bring in E.D.I. (which isn't barreling towards an American city with a nuclear payload at all...that's just a trailer gimmick).

So what happens? Well, in the last act, the evil plane, E.D.I. develops a "human" conscience and joins forces with Josh Lucas's character to rescue Jessica Biel and take down the evil General played by Sam Shepard.

What the hell?

I don't know that I've ever seen a more lame third act than this movie's. Why make this movie if - in the end - you're not going to pit human instinct and cunning against machine prowess for one glorious fight in the air? Why set up Lucas as the ultimate pilot bad ass, and put him in conflict with the newest evil technology...and then cop out on the final battle? Why make E.D.I. a "tragic" good guy?

In the movie's last scene, E.D.I. even obligingly commits suicide. Allowing a North Korean helicopter to blow him up. I have to admit, this scene made me laugh, because the hackneyed, menacing "North Korean"-sounding music on the soundtrack reminded me of Team America: World Police. I kept expecting a Kim-Jong IL puppet to show up.

By the end of the movie, I was righteously pissed. All Stealth had to do to merit a good review from this writer was deliver a climax that built on the action-adventure achievements of the first half of the film. It would have been a rip-roaring (albeit lame-brained...) actioner. It would have been a guilty pleasure that made me smirk and smile. Don't we all have movies we enjoy that are just this dumb?

But no. We can't have that. Instead, we get this lame-ass ending.

And don't even get me started on the scene that rips off H.A.L. in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember in the Kubrick classic how, when the astronauts conspired in the pod, HAL could actually read their lips? Stealth has the audacity to steal that scene here. I'm sure the writer would call it an homage...but let's call a spade a spade. It's a frigging rip-off.

My main question after watching Stealth: If some screenwriter somewhere was smart enough to crib a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, why wasn't he also smart enough to crib the aerial climax of Firefox? Or, for goodness sake, even Top Gun? Or Iron Eagle?

My last question: What the hell is Jamie Foxx doing in this shit? Isn't this the first movie he made after Ray?