Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmastime For the Jew: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - Reviewed! Plus: Prison Break and More!

He-llooo holiday vacation. Okay, so the holidays are a bit weird this year for me ... I'm kind of sticking around and laying low here in LA for the time being, but also prepping for the big Israel trip in January. So even though I'm enjoying the string of vacation days I'm currently in the midst of, I've also been carefully mapping out my time from now until January 6th, making sure I schedule in time for fun but also for shopping, packing, etc. But really, for right now, I'm just happy for the opportunity to relax a bit, kick back, and take in some holiday cheer.

Of course, I've seen a couple of movies over the last week or so. The big one is THE WRESTLER. Ever since I heard about the movie way back when, I'd been curious about Darren Aranofsky's latest. On Wednesday, I even planned a full-fledged Day of Glory (to borrow my brother's term), as me and the G-Man took in a couple of old-school vintage wrestling matches on DVD followed by the main event - Mickey Rourke as "The Ram," in what very well could be up there as one of the year's best films, if not the very best. Also, last weekend I caught up on a couple of recent releases that I'll be talking about today as well. One's a big-budget blockbuster remake - THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. And the other is a buzzworthy foreign film that is already scheduled to get the Hollywood remake treatment - LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. I'll be reviewing the latter two flicks right here in this very post. As for The Wrestler, I think I will dedicate a post just to discussing that one, so stay tuned for that much-anticipated write-up.

First off though, want to mention some of the stuff I've been up to over the last several days. I have to mention last weekend, which was of course highlighted by a celebration of Seth E's big 25th b-day. Good times, and happy birthday to the one man who agrees with me that SPEED RACER kicked major ass (even if he disagrees with me on almsot everything else ...). It was a short work week this past week, so on Tuesday I was able to brave the madness of the Glendale mall in order do some last-minute Israel-trip shopping. On Wednesday, as mentioned I finally caught The Wrestler, and then later that night I attended my first-ever Schmooze-a-palooza, basically the ultimate Jew-party here in LA on Christmas Eve, held at no less than Hollywood's own House of Blues. It was definitely quite the party, although the crowd wasn't exactly that into the whole schmoozing thing. Ah, LA, you've got to love it. Yesterday, I drove down to Brentwood to visit my great aunt and uncle, and took in a traditional Hanukkah dinner of latkes and sufganyot (basically jelly donuts). And that brings me to today - getting a bunch of errands done - renewing my apartment lease, making sure that my driver's license doesn't get cancelled ... you know, the usual.

Anyways, some quick TV STUFF for ya' ...

- As always, I've got to talk about PRISON BREAK. Specifically, this past Monday's Fall Finale ... hmm, I just don't know about where this is all going. For several weeks in November and December, PB was on an unbelievable streak - week after week, it was a rollercoaster ride of nonstop intensity - kicking ass and taking names. But after what seemed like a natural endpoint a couple of weeks ago, the show, well, it just kept going. And an already labrynthine mythology just kept getting more and more complex and further-removed from where we were at the beginning of the season. I mean, the show has always had the elemnt of conspiracy as part of its mythology, but now that we're seeing more and more of The Company, you can't help but wonder if we're getting so far off the track that it's now like a balloon quickly deflating. Don't get me wrong, last night's ep had some great moments of intensity and action, but the chess pieces all felt almost arbitrarily moved on the board. I mean, take Mahone. After his daring escape from custody last week, he now suddenly reappears in the Company's stronghold looking to reteam with Lincoln and co. Why? How? When the show really started to gel this season, it was partially because every character felt tlike they had a real arc and a real purpose. Now, almost everyone, from T-Bag to Mahone to Gretchen, seems like they are sticking around just for the sake of having oddball character dynamics, but not for any real plot reason. Even worse, the once-sadistic T-Bag is now a second-rate goon, once-vile Gretchen has now awkwardly tried and failed to seduce her teammates two weeks in a row, Self quickly went from main-event villain to B-list tag-along, and Mahone seems to be just along for the ride. The show needs to quickly sort through these different characters when it returns in '09, and make sure each one's arc gets the proper closure and focus they deserve. I want to see Gretchen be the femme fatale she once was, Mahone deliver one last revenge-driven dose of whup-ass, and T-Bag lose his $#%& and have one last epic showdown with Scofield. With all of the Company stuffin the last few weeks, these characters' arcs have definitely taken a backseat. Meanwhile, the Company's plans to recruit Michael just seem ridiculous. Are we really to believe that Michael is going to throw away his entire life's purpose and join with his enemies? If there was some truly compelling reason for him to do so, I could buy it. But instead, we got an out-of-nowhere twist with Michael's barely-mentioned mother turning out to be alive and with the Company. It seems VERY late in the game to introduce a potentially pivotal character like this, and it seems like a somewhat unnecessary twist. The Company was fine when it was a clandestine secret society, but the more we find out about the nefarious group, the less intriguing they become. Up until now, they've been portrayed as essentially evil incarnate - I'm sorry, but I think it's simply too late to convincingly make them into a moreally ambiguous organization that Michael would actually consider joining up with, or even one that Lincoln would trust to make good on their word. That being said, I'm still excited to see how things wrap up for Michael, Lincoln, and the rest. My sense is that the writers are kind of trying to stall for a little bit before they can refocus and deliver a proper sendoff. I remain hopeful that, when all is said and done, Prison Break will go out on a high note.

My Grade: B

- I'll also mention a show which I am now all caught up on, and that's TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. I felt like the show really picked up steam about midway through the season, but over the last few weeks, the show seems to have really gotten off-track. Monday's Fall Finale had to be considered a bit of a disappointment - I felt like I was watching a really bad episode of The X-Files most of the time, with Sarah palling around with a UFO conspiracy theorist in her neverending quest to find the meaning of the mysterious "three dots" that she keeps seeing. The whol three dots thing has been kind of a drag for a while now, and this episode's cliffhanger, in which Sarah appears to be abducted by some kind of spacecraft was a giant WTF moment if ever there was one. Maybe I'm just missing something here, but I don't quite get how this ties into the Terminator mythos at all. Much more interesting was the Riley storyline. I enjoyed the flashes to her futuristic past, and was actually becoming more and more intrigued by her character. Suffice it to say, I was pretty shocked by the big suicide-attempt (?) reveal. But even more shocking was that the episode never cut back to Riley to show what happpened to her! Whaaat?! Um, note to writers, you can't have a major cliffhanger with half an hour still to go in the episode! Also, I have to agree with some other reviews I've read that Ellison has not only become one of TV's most boring characters, but geez, his attempts to "teach" the cyborg Cromartie about morality were just plain lame and stupid. Yes, let's make sure these robots don't turn evil by giving them nonsensical talk about how men are God's children. That will surely compute in their logic algorithms. Oy. The one huge bright spot in all this continues to be Summer Glau as Cameron. Always intriguing, Cameron is certainly the breakout star of this show and the one character who I'd love to see make a cameo in the upcoming Terminator movie. Still, with an underwhelming Fall Finale, and a set of previews for February that seemed to promise a lot of potentially shark-jumping moments (Kyle Reese is alive!), I am a little skeptical of this show's chances to get on-track and really kick some ass.

My Grade: C+

Alright, onto the movies ...


- The first word that comes into my head when I think about this movie is "lifeless." The cast is solid, the premise is proven, but the movie just feels so bland and lacking in heart and intellgience that it never once proves emotionally affecting or intelectually engaging. It's Hollywood warmed-over sci-fi at it's worst.

Of course, the movie is a remake of a science fiction classic from another era, when high-concept speculative fiction driven by atomic fears and paranoia was in a creative golden age. What made sci-fi of that that time so compelling was that the stories served as hyper-relevant morality plays. Science fiction was one of the few genres that dared to put humanity's sins on trial, that had the balls to dream of apocalyptic futures and self-inflicted destruction. And that creative urgency was driven by the very real fear of atomic war, of an age when science seemed to be running amok and becoming too dangerous too quickly. So it stands to reason that we may be in a an age that parallels that earlier time. But to be clear - it's an age that demands it's own stories, it's own parables. To simply take the premise of a movie from 1951 (and one that is inextricably tied to 1951), and half-heartedly transplant it into 2008 reeks of a cheap ploy for box-office dollars.

Because really, this movie stands as a sad commentary on Hollywood's general inability to produce intelligent science fiction. There is absolutely ZERO intellectual backbone to this movie. An alien comes to earth and decides that, because humans are ruining the planet, the humans must be destroyed for the greater good of the universe. Science be damned, that is pretty much as deep as the alien Klaatu's reasoning goes. But, dammit all, when good ol' Klaatu realizes that, yes, humans are beings who maybe aren't all bad, he (Giant Spoiler Alert!) decides to spare us all. Yep, because that Klaatu us really just a big softie, and when he sees Jennifer Connelly hugging her stepson Jaden Smith, gosh-darn-it, he realizes that maybe us humans don't deserve to be wiped out afterall.

To which I say: are you freaking kidding me? That's your movie? That was the movie that was worth remaking a beloved sci-fi classic for? So that we could get Keanu Reeves to play Klaatu and switch out "nuclear war" with "climate change?"

It might work if the movie ever had any great moments of thought-provoking dialogue or of true emotional heft. But it doesn't. It mostly just has Jaden Smith acting incredibly annoying. In fact, in a year filled with strong performances in moves from kids - from SON OF RAMBOW to ROLE MODELS, this was one of the worst, most grating child acting jobs I've seen in a long while. You start to root for Klaatu to proceed with wiping out humanity just to put us all out of our misery from having to watch Jaden Smith be so obnoxious. Keanu is fine here. Jennifer Connelly is fine. But that's about it, they are both just okay, if not completely stock characters. Keanu Reeves is probably one of the best out there at acting alien and inhuman, but his pretty-decent performance here is about all that can be said for this one.

Most of the other actors just seem wasted. Kathy Bates, Kyle Chandler, John Cleese, Jon Hamm - all great, but not here - they're just window-dressing. Robert Knepper, aka T-Bag of Prison Break fame? Enjoyably over-the-top, but pretty much useless nonetheless.

The direction is pretty nondescript. During the few times when the movie tries to have an epic feel, all we really get are ultra-stock shots of countries like Egypt to indicate that the mysterious alien spheres are landing elsewhere aside from the USA. The whole movie has a dark and muddy and static look to it that seems like a poor compromise between the stage-play aesthetics of the 1950's and the big glossy blockbusters of today. From the fanboy's perspective, the obvious geek-out potential lies in Klaatu's giant, robotic guardian, Gort. Gort looks kinda retro-cool, but the movie as a whole lacks the style to really make us buy into a 1950's-style robot existing in its otherwise-bland universe. It almost feels like they are embarassed to include Gort in the movie, but did so just to appease the geeks and throw in a little action. In a year that saw movies like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk embrace the fun of the older characters on which they are based, it was pretty disappointing to see a movie that seemed so ashamed of its own campy roots.

Similarly, the script never really gives us the proper sense of scope and scale that you want in a movie about an alien making contact with earth. We never really see the President or any other world leaders play an active role, and poor Kathy Bates has to serve as the surrogate hardass authority figure. I think that the old Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man" was more epic, memorable, and told a better story in 22 minutes than this movie did in two hours.

In the end, this is just one of those movies that makes you shake your head and wonder about how and why certain movie get made. I mean, for all it's over-the-top cheesiness, at least something like Independence Day (which sure, I love) took the old alien-invasion movie tropes and updated it for a modern audience. This one was just utterly pointless. Even Keanu would be hard-pressed to give it a "whoa ...".

My Grade: C


- I think my intital reaction to this movie was just one of "wow, that was freaking *weird*." So much of this movie is foreign in every sense of the word, that I think even a veteran indie movie fan is going to go through a process of just, well, digesting it. The movie is ultra-slow-paced and incredibly deliberate. It's Swedish, and looks every bit of it, filled with actors and accents that immediately come off as rather strange-seeming. Haircuts, clothes, music, mannerisms - all very different, and, um, to be blunt, those Swedes just have some oddball taste in apparell. But this is a movie that slowly but surely sunk it's teeth in, so to speak. It grabbed and grabbed and didn't let go, until even after a week it's embedded in my subconcious, and I can't help but think back to its imagery, its story, and its ambiguous and ponderous messages. Because, I guarantee you, Let the Right One In is the craziest and creepiest Swedish coming-of-age vampire story you'll ever see.

The story concerns a young boy named Oskar, who is essentially a loner and an outcast. His parents are divorced, and he shuttles back and forth between his rather cold mother and his friendlier but vice-prone father. In the apartment complex in which Oscar lives with his mother, the residents tend to be a pretty close-knit group, almost a surrogate family of sorts. So when a new man and his young daughter (about Oskar's age) move in, everyone wonders why they keep to themselves and don't seem to embrace their new community. Oskar, however, makes frends with his new neighbor, a sullen 12 year old girl named Eli. The two form a unique bond of friendship, and Oskar even begins to like Eli in a first-childhood-love kind of way. There's only one giant problem - as Oskar soon finds out, Eli is actually a blood-sucking vampire - long trapped in a 12 year old's body despite being many years older.

As Oskar begins to come to terms with what Eli is, and with the fact that it is she who's responsible for the string of murders in his community, we begin to see a very complex morality tale at work. Oskar has a special bond with Eli, and she with him, but how does he reconcile that with her tendency to kill for blood when she gets hungry. It's a disturbing, haunting concept, and the movie never hits you over the head with any of it, but instead plays out in subtle, ambiguous tones. I've heard people call this the first legit reinvention of the vampire genre in years, and there is some truth to that. Because as silly as the comparison is, this is almost like Twilight's dark, intellectual, foreign cousin. Okay, the movie is absoultely NOTHING like Twilight, but there is that similar theme here of forbidden love - except here, the movie makes no bones about the fact that the cherubic little girl - who also happens to be an ancient vampire - has a side that is vicious, scary, animalistic, and cruel.

The way this story is told takes some getting used to - the pace is slow and lingering. Often there are shots that are seemingly random, as the camera lingers on a snowy field or a barren tree before returning to our principal characters. But it adds to the movie's naturalistic quality. The setting is so stark, realistic, and natural that it makes the moments of violence and horror that much more shocking. The same goes for the acting. I would often become frustrated with the young actor who plays Oskar - to put it one way, he makes the character into a total wuss and something of a weirdo. As a longtime camp counsellor, Oskar is like that kid who you know is kind of alright but who is just so strange and semi-creepy that you'd rather not have to deal with him. The lingering camera does him no favors either, dwelling on each odd facial tick and awkward expression. But as with the movie as a whole, what I first just thought was strange eventually stuck with me - after seeing this movie, it's hard to stop thinking about the odd couple of Oskar and Eli - the oddness of their characters both visually and conceptually is hard to shake.

I won't say too much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it, but suffice it to say, there are a number of intense scenes and images here that have been rattling around in my head since I saw the film. Again, it's strange because at times while watching the movie I'd become restless, even bored. But at the same time that methodical pacing is what gives Let The Right One In its staying power. And there are times when the weirdness, I think, simply overpowers good storytelling instincts. There are moments that are just nonsensical, and some dialogue that just didn't ring true. Sometimes, the movie is ambiguous to the point of slight frustration - in fact, one major twist didn't register with me at all until I looked into it online and got some clarification. But all of these oddities are also what made this such a unique film. Make no mistake, even aside from the sheer foreignness of the characters and aesthetics, this truly is one $#%&'d-up movie. Like I said though, it's memorable, unforgettable, disturbing, and thought-provoking.

My Grade: A-

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