Wednesday, June 29, 2005

War of the Worlds

Warm and toasty, just out of the oven, the new War of the Worlds is here (or as I prefer to call it: Independence Day 2).

Directed by Steven Spielberg, this new version of H. G. Wells' classic opens up with a little prologe narrated by Morgan Freeman. This little touch tries to tie the movie to the book's introduction which relates the musings of the lead character about mankind's everyday customs being watched by intelligent, envious martians. The movie centers on Ray (Tom Cruise) a divorced father who has to take care of his two kids for the weekend, one, Robbie, a teenager who doesn't want anything to do with his father and calls him by his first name; the other, Rachel, a (too) cute young girl who is intelligent, considerate, gets humus delivered for dinner and dresses in lots of colors. Although the baseline for the "not-involved-enough" father has been done millions of times, some of the dialogue says much more about this family than their actions. While hiding out in the mother's house, Ray makes some peanut butter sandwiches until Rachel says she is allergic. When an upset Ray asks her "since when?" she simply answers "Birth". Later, when they are on the run and Robbie wants to follow the army and kill one of the aliens for a change, Rachel screams at him that he can't leave because if he does there will be no one to take care of her.

But going back to what we're here for... aliens and lots of f/x. Similar to it's cousin Independence Day, people stop and heads tilt up when the skies begin to darken and a whirlpool forms. All of a sudden lightning starts to fall, only it falls exactly in the same place for 26 times. The result is something growing under the road. And then the destruction begins. From the place of impact emerges an enormous mechanical being. The interesting thing is that what this thing brings to mind are the huge mosquito legged shooters from the game Half Life 2. After just standing menacing but idle the machine begins to walk and emits bolts of light that destroy everything in their path and pulverizes any human beings it touches. This is just the first of many for after a while we find out that there are lots of these things all over the world. Thus, the War of the Worlds begins, although this war looks more like an annihilation (the actual fighting back from the humans happens in a very limited number of scenes). The aliens (no mention of martians of course) are here and they want to wipe us out, harvest our blood, spew our remains and fill our land with some red vein-like stuff.

Confession: I have never read the novel by H. G. Wells, though I am about to do so. For this reason I cannot compare much. One thing I do believe however, is that the events in the book take place over a number of days, while this movie gives the impression of happening over a period of one or two days tops. I did have the opportunity to see the original movie however many years ago, though I must say I can't remember much. I also had the chance to watch the TV series from the 8Os. In any case there are some classic elements and visuals to War of the Worlds, the most famous of course being the alien hand with the three fingers that ended in this sort of suction cups. You won't be disappointed, the hand appears in all it's glory. However we not only get to see the hand. Even though the trailers have been very secretive about the lok of the new aliens, they actually have some scenes. As you can expect, a lot of money and time in a digital studio went into the creation of these beings (which again have a drift of similarity to the aliens in ID4). This can be a problem however, because this is one of those movies that proves that the less you shw, the more you scare. Even though the scenes of destruction are visually striking, Spielberg accomplishes the more scary moments when the characters are hiding in their basement. They hear a lot of noise, they see ots f lights outside, we know something is happening, we know we are in the middle of chaos and destruction... but we can't see. We don't know what is actually happening. It is that not knowing what makes the moment scary. Personally I would have preferred to see only the alien hand and not the alien itself.

Other classical elements like the peculiar sound of the alien rays being fired are not in this movie.

However one of the most interesting things is that the new War of the Worlds has been brought up to our present day in more ways than just technological. The best example of this is that when Ray grabs his kids and flees while everything is exploding behind him, little Rachel starts screaming and asks the hallmark questions of the movie: "Is it the terrorists?"

I want to say a few things about the ending without actually spoiling it. I'm not sure how the book ends, I imagine the same. I do remember the ending of the original movie. They are basically the same. Once again we have Morgan Freeman with a little epilogue. The only thing I would like to say is... you might be disappointed. You might find the ending sudden and even stupid. But this is it. It's supposed to be ironic. All I can say is, don't expect a huge super fight that takes the final half hour.

Since I compared this movie to Independence Day I must also mention the diferences. This movie is more about the survival of mankind from the point of view of this family. There are no loud, funny heroes in this movie and no one will be punching any aliens in the face and carrying their carcass through the desert a-la-Will Smith. Spielberg manages to keep this adventure within the two hour boundary thus avoiding to stretch the story more than needed as in the first collaboration with Cruise, Minority Report.

War of the Worlds is great visually and has great moments of tension, but it is the claustrophobic moments, the times of waiting in the dark which are more effective than the aliens destroying everything in front of them. A great example of this takes place in a confrontation with Ray and a crazy survivor played by Tim Robbins. Their struggle takes place behind a closed door. We never get to see what happens. Yet, it is a powerful.

A new War of the Worlds, a modern version with lots of eye candy and some tense scenes. The ending might have too many rose shades for some, I particularly would have accepted a grimmer outcome for Ray and his family.

This was after all a war.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Batman Begins

Finally! Batman done right.

In the last few years the Caped Crusader has had to face his share of evil, not only in Gotham City but also from stylish Hollywood producers that managed to ridiculize the franchise more and more with every deliver. Althouth the first Batman (directed by Tim Burton) had that dark atmosphere which was expected, the movie was not about the hero but was more concentrated on the villain, an overweigth Joker played by Jack Nicholson. The script took a lot of liberties including changing the background story to make the Joker the killer of Bruce Wayne parents back when he was a child. Add to that a soundtrack by Prince and you had a very peculiar Batman. Years later came Batman Returns, with a much more caricaturesque Gotham City. However ths was not the big problem. The real probem came with the new villains (The Penguin played by Danny DeVito and Catwoman played by Michelle Pfeiffer) who totally opaqued the hero.

As if that wasn't bad enough, part 3 brought a new director, a new vision and a new set of problems. Gotham City became even more psychodelic; Robin was included in the plot and in order to quiet the ever existing rumors of homosexuality between the heroes, Nicole Kidman was brought as Bruce Wayne's couple. Once again however Batman was left behind by a pair of villains that were no longer sinister, but plain annoying. After all, what can you expect if the hero is played by Val Kilmer and the villains are played by Tommy Lee Jones (as a horrendous Two-Face, talk about killing a very interesting character) and Jim Carrey (The Riddler).

And then... the coup de grâce. Batman and Robin brought a metrosexual Batman played by George Clooney, a pair of unappealing villains played by Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes, Arnold), a script full of "witty one-liners" like the infamous "That's why Superman works alone", a Batgirl that was Alfred's niece, and a Gotham City set that used all the colors in the rainbow.

Was it too hard to get Batman right? Batman was not about villains, not about style, and certainly not about suits with nipples. Batman was about darkness, revenge and a redemption that never arrived.

But now Christopher Nolan (director of Memento) does tings as they should have been done from the very beginning. Batman Begins finds an adult Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) picking fights in a prison in a distant Asian country. There he is approached by a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson) who offers him the training --both physical and spiritual-- he needs to fight his demons. Ducard is the right-hand of a wiseman called Ras-Al-Ghul, a mysthic guru with his own ideas of chaos and order. Via a set of flashbacks we learn the story of Bruce Wayne, his phobia to bats as a child which indirectly led to the murder of his parents. After growing up under the care of hs guardian/butler Alfred (Michael Caine), a bitter Bruce decides to act as executioner when the man who murdered his arents cuts a deal with the district attorney. However, a crime lord gets to the man before Bruce can actually kill him, resulting in a sense of failure and the contempt from his love interest, the assistant DA played by Katie Holmes.

By the time Bruce finishes his training and goes back to Gotham City, the city has become a nest of crime and his state has been cleverly stolen by the guardian of his assets, played by Rutger Hauer. It is here where Bruce decides it is time to take justice into his hands. Gaining access to a secret department in his father's organization run by Lucious Fox (Morgan Freeman) Bruce is able to round up a suit, a set of weapons and gadgets and, of course, a vehicle. Night falls, Batman rises. But the deed won't be a simple one, for there is someone with a master plan, the evil psychiatrist Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy from 28 Days Later), who as "Scarecrow" spreads a fear inducing toxin.

The choice of villains for this new Batman movie was simply perfect. Bruce Wayne needs to face his fears both real (his painful childhood memories) and artificial (the dread caused by the Scarecrow's gas). However these villains, as compared to the previous ones, are seriously played. They have their motivations, they have their plots, but they don't make a spectacle about it that will lead to stealing camera time from the hero. Even Gary Oldman, known for his very loud and sometimes oveacted representations, delivers a quiet Detective Gordon that notwithstanding pairs with the hero efficiently. This new Batman is all about the story. It's about an evolution and a new beginning. The mention of the Joker at the end of the movie is simply one of the greatest momens this series had ever had.

My only regret is that we never get to see the Scarecrow with his actual costume, he only wears the mask in this movie, so if you have been wondering why you haven't seen scenes of him in the trailer, you know why now.

There have been rumors of Sean Penn as the Joker for a new sequel, we'll have to wait and see.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Long time no see!

I had planned to talk about these movies I saw last week but I kept procrastinating. Well, no more.

The first of these movies I watched almost two weeks ago and it was simply great. In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie star as a couple who has lost the spark over their five (or six, they are not sure about that) years of marriage. What none of them know however is that the other one has a secret, and a big one that is. Both John and Jane are assassins, working for different, and apparently rival, organizations. When both are assigned the same mark, and each of their attempts makes the other one fail, they come face to face with the striking truth. Now their agencies want them each to kill their counterpart, resulting in a string of hilarious action packed situations that lead to the rekindling of their relation.

Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) manages to mix the right amount of comedy and action. The movie starts with Pitt and Jolie talking to a marriage counsellor --whose face we never see-- and from that instant we get a clear idea of the movie's vein. The couple --who met in an hispanic country in the middle of a revolution-- is bored and later we see why as they get up in the morning and go at their usual morning routine talking about traffic and a dinner they have to attend but don't really want to. Before the night arrives however, John has killed four men while passing for a clumsy poker player, and Jane has snapped the neck of an arms dealer and then plunged 40 ft to the ground (while taking a hair strand off her face). We begin to catch glimpses of the real John and Jane Smith, he keeping an arsenal in the basement; she, in the kitchen.

Then the secret is out, and the fireworks begin.

The chemistry between Pitt and Jolie is absolutely great. My favorite part is when both of them are escaping in a high-speed chase, shooting at their persecutors while comparing each other's "lies" about their marriage. At one point, while they are in mortal danger, John confesses he was actually married once. Jane loses it and starts hitting him. Scenes of striking visual appeal like when Jolie and her vixen squad escape from their hideout by sliding down wires, are mixed with funny, precise dialogue, the sort of "Let me drive, I'm the suburban Soccer Mom, sweetheart" or "You keep undermining my authority in front of the hostage".

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a movie that will guarantee you a good laugh without sacrificing the thrills (you'll still get yor generous share of explosions, shootings and car crashes).

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Cool Stuff on the Way

Mr. and Mrs. Smith opened today, both in the US and in Peru. I plan to see it next week so keep an eye on my thoughts. Also next week is the World Opening of Batman Begins. I had the chance of listening to Ebert & Roeper's critic, they said it's the best Batman movie ever. I hope they are right, I'm sick of the Schumacher versions. Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) directs, so there's hope.

In books, this week was released Jeffery Deaver's latest novel, The Twelfth Card. As if a new Deaver novel was not enough reason to get it, there's the bonus that it's a new Lincoln Rhyme novel, two (or three?) years after The Vanished Man.

I got three audiobooks yesterday, all Koontz novels: Odd Thomas, Life Expectancy and Velocity. I'll be writing about them eventually.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

House of Wax

For those who haven't seen it:

Six friends go on a road trip with hopes of getting tickets from a scalper for the first game of the season. We have our usual set here: the hot girl with her feet on the ground, her goody-two shoes boyfriend, her thug brother, a not so bright annoying friend and a horny couple (Paris Hilton is in the cast, guess which of these is her character). When it gets too dark they decide to camp and wait till morning to continue the journey. Their bonfire is interrupted by a shady stranger who arrives in a truck and just stands there before thug brother smashes his headlight with a bottle. The next day the bunch wakes up (at 2pm) only to realize one of their cars is busted. After falling into a pit full of roadkill our female lead and her good boyfriend are offered a lift to the nearest town by a creepy fellow. They arrive to what looks like a deserted town, home of Trudy's House of Wax (which is literally made of wax), only to be hunted by a maniac (and we know he's a maniac because his headlight is smashed) who wants to make them part of the wax collection. You see the figures in the house are real people coated in wax...

For those who have seen it (spoilers):

The movie opens with a flashback of two little boys, one is well mannered, the other one apparently so psychotic that needs to be restrained so tight that his skin rips open. We never see their faces however. When later in the movie we realize there are two killers, one of them totally disfigured, it's hard not to add two plus two. Why conceal the boys' identities at the beginning of the movie? Because, you guessed it, the disfigured boy was the good one and the normal one was the psycho.

However... Both are psychos! If anything, the disfigured guy (Vincent) is even more dangerous than his brother Bo. Not only that but we have to watch a ridiculous ending where the sheriff gets the disturbing news that the mother of these lunatics "didn't have 2 sons; she had 3". Ooooooooooh. This "twist" is so pointless that one can only shrug. So what? Is this 3rd brother supposed to rebuild the house of wax and keep killing? No! All he did was be creepy. Is that a shocker? Is it a surprise that the only other guy in the cast, the one who pointed them in the direction of the town, was actually involved? No, this is just a lame attempt to close the movie with a so-called surprise.

Let's go back to our "heroes". Here you have this young couple who goes into this ghost town. Freaky place. Me, I'd like to get out of there fast. But, this guy can't resist peeking inside this House of Wax, which looks more abandoned than the town itself. Later when he is invited to the house to use the bathroom he leaves his girlfriend outside in an old truck with a complete stranger while he explores some of the rooms.

Our heroine has her lips glued shut and has to pry them open. One of her fingers is cut off too. Yet this girl picks up a baseball bat and turns the psycho's head into pulp. Talk about fast healing.

And finally, the way they escape from the melting house has to be one of the most ridiculous scenes out there. You have this enormous building literally melting around them, they have the wit to try to dig their way out through a wall, only to emerge inside the HOUSE OF WAX sign two floors above the ground. So it's really convenient that the whole sign detaches and carries them down to the ground like an elevator and then waits for them to jump off before melting.

My thoughts:

Far from being a film that stands on its own, House of Wax is a collection of references to other flicks. You can easily spot elements from Friday the 13th, Jeepers Creepers, Halloween, Psycho, among others. This is one of those films that could have been much more appealing with a better treatment of the story. Siamese twins stuck face to head. One an artist, the other one evil. A town where every single person is a wax figure. There is so much material there for a great story. However this movie takes the easy road, and rounds up its good share of gushing wounds and slashed ankles. The movie is never faithful to its plot, and the characters engage in ludicrous behavior in order to set up the slayings. The ending is pointless and just adds to the neverending string of clichés.

Finally I want to say this much about Paris Hilton's film debut. There are two kind of people out there: those who frown at the idea of watching her in a movie and those who can't wait. I'm among the frowners. That said, I have to say, she was actually pretty convincing in her role. There's no heavy drama of course, but I thought she kind of gave a twist to the "skank" character, making it more digestable instead of plain obnoxious. Of course the writers did throw in a strip scene and a hinted scene of oral sex. I wonder how she would do in a different role.