Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Book Of Life ★★1/2

    There is a startling discovery made in the expository scenes of "The Book of Life." Evidently, oblivious to the intricacies of science and logic, we are told that Mexico is the center of the universe. Although this information was revealed in a discernibly playful manner, I could not help but wonder how many children, by the film's closing, would truly believe this fantasized notion. My guess is enough to unhinge teachers worldwide.

    The mentioning of this tidbit of knowledge is pertinent because the underlying aim of this children's picture is to delight audiences with a culture that is known to a relative few. (Of course, you would have to go a long way before you found anyone who had not heard of "The Day of the Dead.") Unfortunately, this film does little to inform us of why this holiday is important to Mexican culture and it eventually becomes its own worst enemy.

    "The Book of Life" attempts to cash in on a fairy tale atmosphere, by placing our story within a story. A group of misbehaved adolescents are taken to a museum, on the Day of the Dead and are led into a clandestine portion of the building. They come face to face with the Book of Life, a book that contains every tale the world has ever come into contact with. The tour guide chooses to divulge into an account of love, fate, and self-discovery.

    Among other things, this picture relies on its execution of cosmic and dramatic irony. La Muerte, a dashingly beautiful goddess who keeps watch over the land of the remembered, and Xibalba, a menacing god who is made of all things "icky," essentially become the most significant characters in the film, as they will control the fate of our three young protagonists. A bet is made between these two omniscient figures and the love of Maria is up for grabs between two young men, Manolo, and Joaquin.

    We subsequently watch our main suitors bid for love, as laughter or sympathy is evoked from their dramatic ignorance until Maria has made her fateful decision. Does she choose the war honored heroism of Joaquin or the sensitively induced soul of Manolo? (The latter being a man who would give anything to shun his family's heritage of bullfighting to be a beloved guitarist.) In the end, her choice is a moot point, as the theme has little to do with love and much to do with destiny. There is never any doubt as to who Maria will ultimately choose, and that's part of the problem.

    There are several conflicts at play here. Besides the obvious internal struggle of Maria, there is the complication that perturbs Manolo; a conflict that symbolizes change versus tradition. Manolo must undergo disappointment and shame from his family if he is to dismiss the career of bull fighting for guitar playing. (A relatable notion for many individuals, who choose to pursue their own ambitions in spite of their parent's wishes.)

    The external conflicts stem from Manolo's physical inability to obtain Maria's love and via the presence of Chakal, a rather large and disgruntled bandit, whose role in the film would warrant a state of complete and utter bewilderment. His only motivation for existence is to lend some difficulty to the "real" environment and to redeem the character of Joaquin, which compromises his role as foil and the static nature of his character. Thus, an unnecessary and certainly unneeded aspect, that if left out, could have eased the pain.

    A fascinating segment of the film, in which Manolo travels to the land of the remembered, is regrettably cut short, and this pretty much summarizes the picture's lack of understanding of even its own intentions. The festive spirit that enshrouds this quite magical day of remembrance is ironically forgotten, much like the poor souls who inhabit the other "land" that apparently dwells beneath the surface of Mexico City: The land of the forgotten.

    "The Book of Life" is far from being designated a bad film, although it doesn't help itself deviate from that darkened path. The stock characters are beyond hideous, which seemingly adds to the allure of the main personas, but at length, just symbolizes the beauty of the famed and the dreariness of the insignificant. Channing Tatum's  voice over work is painstakingly horrid and only adds to the laundry list of imperfections that could have been avoided.    

    Nevertheless, there is a very important moral value that children can take away from the context of the picture. Dreams are everything. They distinguish us as individuals and they simply make life worth living. No matter how foolish one's parental guardians may deem a particular career path, always remember that the choice is yours to make. If everyone followed their parent's guidance, the world would be a monotonous place--full of dying ambitions and begrudged patrons. Truly a land of the forgotten.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Evil Dead ★

    "The Evil Dead," structurally speaking, is a horrendous film. The production design is virtually nonexistent, as costuming, make-up, and setting were seemingly thrown together at a moment's notice with little physical effort or any exertion of imaginative thought. The lone cabin in the heart of the woods does convey some feeling of isolation and trepidation; however, it is lost once the "demons" first appear and one realizes that the setting is not so much fearful as much as what is going on inside the internal dwellings of the characters.

    This is surely not to mention the fact that a sizable amount of individuals live in a backwoods atmosphere of this manner (even I have spent time in a shack like this) and, for them, horror would simply be called home.

    Arguably, the blame should rest solely on the script, which, in many respects, is the backbone and soul of every picture. The visual design of a film will certainly be dictated by what is written on those organized pieces of paper. In this particular instance, however, it doesn't seem as if the screenplay bestowed any information to the production, except, of course, for the desolate hovel and the generalized grotesqueness of the demonized characters. (The latter of which was also poorly handled.)

    To use the film's budget as a means of explaining why this catastrophe was ever created would at least be somewhat noble. Yet, it would seem that the intention here was to dumb down the protagonists and "camp up" the ambiance in order to provide the first legitimate parody of the horror genre. Actions in the face of danger are assuredly illogical (to create a comical effect, mind you), and the creatures of the night are, in fact, more humorous and annoying than blood-curdling. This becomes evident as Ash, the central dummy, consistently tells his friends and girlfriend, who have taken a turn for the worst, to simply "shut up."

    Even a backing of such a low financial stature does not warrant a picture of this humble magnitude. The execution of lighting is unflattering, to say the least, most notably in the exterior night scenes, and the direction is routine at best. Additionally, I refuse to deem the exercising of the "shaky" camera movement, which seems to stomp through the woods, as anything other than amateur. (Anyone with a hand-held camera and some pace to their stride could achieve this same effect with little to no experience.) I mean, the best angle of the entire film is a rear shot of the college students' car as it drives up a leaf-littered ground on its way to the cabin.

    Unfortunately, "The Evil Dead" has spawned a cult following and has been the inspiration for numerous pictures with the same motivations. (The logic behind these decisions is completely lost on my conscious, along with the appeal to this type of humor.) Action and suspense are relatively absent in an effort to evoke more of an amusing reaction, and this is something that really irks me to the core. A parody of the horror genre is like a trip to the dentist: It's tedious, sometimes painful, and always costly, whether it might be time or money. At least, after the dentist appointment, you get a piece of candy for your troubles.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

First Knight ★★

    Europe's Medieval period of history is one filled with sword fighting, exquisite architecture, and ultimately: romanticism. Of course, this is the idea that prevails from numerous depictions in the art of film. Although these aspects surely existed, this age is best characterized as a time of great adaption and substantial growth for humanity through religion, literature, and a number of fine arts.

    King Arthur is a man that can be ascribed with the same misconceived notions that this era of history justifies. For, his life's work has been perceived through the likes of folklore and literary invention. "First Knight" is a picture that continues this sentimentalized portrayal and attempts to fulfill the audience's desire for what should be or the truth of human nature. Which, in this particular instance, is the ideal that true love conquers all, even moral burdens.

    Our story centers on Lady Guinevere of Lyonesse. Her people have been the victims of malicious attacks stemming from the cruel intentions of a former Roundtable Knight in Malagant. With nowhere else to turn, Guinevere boldly decides to forgo her intuition and accept the marriage proposal of King Arthur, as he can provide protection for her land and people. An inevitable moral decision to increase happiness for all.

    As Guinevere makes her way to Camelot, the escorting convoy is ambushed and Guinevere is captured. By chance or fate, a rogue swordsman by the name of Lancelot saves the princess and essentially falls in love--and this is where the film takes a turn for the worst. Everything that takes place subsequently is dictated by this underdeveloped relationship, which theoretically could be summarized as love at first sight, although without the magic to accompany such perceptions, we are left with a tale of ineffectiveness.

    If we were to be forthright, this attraction between Guinevere and Lancelot is one of sexual craving more than anything else. (This may be due to the fact that he is the only male seemingly around her age group, and she is the only beautiful woman he has seen in years.) It doesn't take much to fall in love with a woman when your current companion is an iron sword and your trips around the country hardly come into contact with single women. The magic of true love, which supposedly underlines the film, is never fully realized.

    The action sequences consist of Lancelot rescuing Guinevere, as helplessness becomes her most prominent trait, and a clash between King Arthur and Malagant's men under a moonlit battlefield. The latter being the opportune moment for Lancelot to exercise his courage, as he disposes of countless enemies with his unmatched skill set in swordsmanship. Which begs a question of its own: Is it really considered bravery, if one is an expert in the circumstances concerned?

    As the internal conflict of Guinevere's undecided affections and the external complication of Malagant's rising comes to fruition, there is an uncanny resemblance to two philosophical trains of thought. King Arthur is a man of utilitarian thought, as his actions and decisions lend the most contentment to all. Malagant becomes a representation of egoist contemplation, as he strives to do what is best for himself and care is never given elsewhere.

    Likewise, Guinevere's decision for love symbolizes the same opposing considerations. Her marriage to Arthur would lend the most joy to all and her instinctual attraction to Lancelot is nothing more than an egoist inclination. When posed with these disparate matters, it is no surprise that one would choose solely on their own accord. If this picture would have embraced this naturalistic manner of the human spirit, with regard to its romantic facet, then the benefit could be appreciated by all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dracula Untold ★1/2

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    Classic literature is a beautiful thing to behold. This stems from the fact that today's literary realm pales in comparison, as far as pure talent is concerned, and it surely lacks the depth of intellectual prowess that only a name such as Leo Tolstoy can summon. Characters are cherished and live on in the hearts of many while inevitably becoming the focal point of countless, and rather unnecessary, remakes and tales of a re-fashioned manner. (Needless to say, no one has dared to attempt a re-telling of a novel as highly distinguished as War and Peace.) 

    Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is a persona that has--much like his nature of being--prolonged his existence and assured his survival among the sands of time. The lore of vampires has been around for centuries, but it was this late nineteenth-century creation that spawned the modern temperament for these lovable creatures. Every "Twilight" fan owes a debt of gratitude to this remarkable literary figure.

    Yet, with this prestige there undoubtedly comes misguided admiration. How else can you designate these expendable renditions that lend redundant offerings?

    "Dracula Untold" is a film that strives to shun everything we have become accustomed to, with regard to the king of vampires, and aspires to unfold a different tale that essentially becomes a portrayal of Vlad the Impaler, an anti-hero of sorts, who warrants a dark and immeasurable power to defend his kingdom. The logic is foregone and we are ultimately left with a hollowed origin of a soul whose life was so preoccupied with death and savagery that romance and humanitarianism would seem highly irresolute.

    If there is one positive that stands erect it is the nature of the plot. The undemanding structure allows ample time for senseless violence and for a handful of scenes that would conjure sentimentality, if not for the lack of emotional restraint. The external conflict is limited to the presence of the Turks, whose military endeavors require tribute countries, such as Transylvania, to lend their young males for training and preparation for war. Of course, this would not be a complication if Vlad's offspring did not contain that pesky Y chromosome.

    Vlad's internal turmoil consists of the temptation to feed on human blood (which would have been an outstanding character study if emphasized in greater scope) and the responsibility of keeping his people safe from an immoral action. In doing so, blood is shed in numerous disparate manners and fields of men are reduced to human shish kabobs.

    This all leads to a final and quite tedious climax between our prince and the Sultan of Turkey, which subsequently becomes strained and unconvincing, especially after witnessing Vlad's powers in full force. (There is a scene in which Dracula utilizes the strength of thousands of bats, with simple hand gestures, to decimate a Turkish army.)

    Although there are many facets of this picture that vindicate the distinction of inexperience, this being the directorial debut of one Gary Shore), the setting is without hesitation the dominant shortcoming. It is limited to computer generated castles and fields of tents, containing soldiers prepared for battle, and never fully convinces us that its relevance is, in fact, pertinent. If anything, the setting only showcases the lack of characterization that our beloved protagonist can provide.

    Vlad's actions are dictated by the temporal factors and moral attitudes that prevail in this time period; therefore, molding his personality into a one-dimensional construction. He only proceeds in the manner that he does because that is what is expected of a king. Although, there is a hint of egoist thought, as Vlad seems to only care about the welfare of his son.

    Another notable vice of this inept setting would be an Easter celebration within the confines of Vlad's castle. A grand hall is limited to a modest condo, and the perception of depth could not be more compromised. A subtle technique of forced perspective would have sufficed in this particular instance, considering that when the Turks propose the donation of one thousand Transylvanian boys into their established army, it seems like an arduous task, as they would be lucky to receive one hundred from the small population presented to us.

    Structure aside, the potential of Luke Evans to headline a feature film unavoidably comes into context. Evans' career has predominately been composed of side characters and minuscule roles. Although this picture does little to cement the notion of his ability to carry the weight and burden of a blockbuster film, there is undoubtedly a sense of likelihood. Unfortunately, "Dracula Untold" could never become a breakthrough performance for any actor and regrettably this is not the actor's fault.

    Where this film fails invariably, is in its foundation. It does little to capture the essence of the character of Dracula himself, unlike "Bram Stoker's Dracula" which reproduces his sensual aura time and again. However, I believe the aim of this picture is to humanize this legend and identify him more with Vlad the Impaler. If that is true, then this could not be more of a misfire. For, Vlad is not designed to evoke empathy or any trait of heroism. He was a ruthless creature, whose life was filled with barbarism and death. To portray him as a hero, would simply be uneducated.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction Zero Stars

    "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is a long-winded nightmare of a film. This commercially successful franchise has drained the joy, and substance, from the art itself, all while being fed by the mindless general audiences, who only care for simplistic, and rather vacuous entertainment. It will not be long before we are inevitably converted back to the age of grunting, and killing small rodents with over-sized clubs.

    Naturally, one would have higher expectations for this picture, considering the casting of Mark Wahlberg and Kelsey Grammer in lead roles; two established actors who share a likable personality, along with a pair of adequate résumés. Unfortunately, this misguided hope becomes nothing more than a delusional ambition, as the infamous name of one man appears out of the depths of feeble minded thought: Michael Bay, the director of the first three films--that could arguably be utilized as -torture devices for anyone who wants to obtain secretive information--has returned in this mockery of a highly distinguished role. His style is one that reeks of ignorance and a lack of aptitude.

    Bay's usage of numerous unfavorable practices, that would need to be forgotten in order to sustain even a hint of dignity, remain in the confines of this tiresome structure that fails in every aspect of film-making. Countless scenes transition from smooth grain film stock to rough grain, in an exhibition that only accentuates the lack of understanding that it takes in order to create a fluid picture. Sweeping panoramas of aesthetically pleasing landscapes are eventually drowned out by slow motion explosions and the action of the Transformers playing catch with computer generated characters flying through the air.

    One aspect that is undeniably the staple of Bay's "Transformers" career, is one of sexual perversion. The leading actress this time around (whose name is quite irrelevant) is yet again reduced to a figure of desirability and plot advancement. Her bra is deliberately shown to excite young boys, who could see a brassiere anytime they wanted in one of thousands of department stores, and many shots blatantly attempt to show off the young actress's attributes. How demeaning it must be to have to instruct the wardrobe designer to unbutton the actress's top to reveal a sufficient amount of cleavage.

    Tawdry humor, although reduced over the course of the franchise, is still present and remains ineffective. If Michael Bay doesn't know what will make a ten-year-old child laugh, then he should just ignore the agonizing compulsion to fulfill that end. The plot has shunned the popular conflict of the Autobots versus the Decepticons and has now been infused with political agendas and the United State's manufacturing of their own robot species. New Autobots are introduced, most notably in the form of a samurai; nevertheless, evoking a feeling of apathy. The "Dinobots" have the most potential but are minimized to a small portion of the film.

    The question that ultimately presents itself at the conclusion of this picture is one of conception. What do we really expect from a franchise that is based on a line of children's action figures? For starters, the story should be simple enough so that it fits in a reasonable time frame. Two hours and forty minutes is far too long for any action-oriented film, especially considering the hollow foundation of the characters. In more of a general sense: Give us some reason to care. I am not even sure if young children actually care about what happens in the film, as long as they get to see their favorite toy on the big screen.

    Besides the obvious suffering of audience's time and money, along with Michael Bay's reputation, there is a slight feeling of compassion felt for these colossal alien robots. For, they have been victimized more so than any other party. It is unlikely that these "Transformers" will see the light at the end of the tunnel; to see an adaption that doesn't focus on simple-minded action and material gratification. If making a bad picture could be considered a sin, then Michael Bay needs to repent. And soon.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gone with the Wind ★★★★

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    As the seventy-fifth-anniversary screening of  "Gone with the Wind" came to a close and whilst the audience divulged in a rousing exhibition of appreciation, a lingering sense of unrelenting elation gripped my heart and soul. Of course, this warmth does not stem from the film itself, as the resolution would warrant a profusion of emotions, most of which identify with sorrow and despair. This contentment emanates from the reality that after all these years, this picture still remains a favored piece of cinema for many, and continues to symbolize the epitome of what can be accomplished with the art itself.

    While shown in its original aspect ratio (the standard screen), "Gone with the Wind" never looked more pristine. The soft and often muted colors of the sunsets, which serve as numerous backgrounds, instills a hint of sensuality to the film--an aspect that is direly absent from the art in the modern era. The effectiveness of the utilization of rough grain (along with smooth grain) film stock is superb. It is no surprise as to why the standard screen accentuates this picture so effortlessly. For, there is no other form more powerful, than if the desire is to focus on close and personal conversation.

    The heart of this story, set in a turbulent period of history in the United States, is none other than Scarlett O'Hara. The first time we see Scarlett, being the result of a zooming close up, is a scene in which she is being engaged in conversation by two red-headed suitors. Her hair is flawless and her dress is as exemplary as she is alluring.

    We become accustomed to the character of Scarlett, through not only her appearance and dialogue, but through other character's reactions. All of the other women either loathe her or want to be her. The men cannot detract themselves from her presence, even if they tried, all while already having a beautiful woman by their side.

    Of course, without the personas of Rhett Butler and Mrs. Wilkes, the latter acting as the dramatic foil to Scarlett, our heroine would most certainly not carry the same force. Nevertheless, I will always designate Scarlett O'Hara as one of the most lethal dynamic characters in cinema history. Vivien Leigh is the only actress that could remotely emphasize the irony within Scarlett and externally provide an air of seductiveness.

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    Scarlett is materialistic, yet she only truly cares for love, albeit misguided, and her home of Tara. She is seemingly ignorant and unaware, although she executes her intelligence in immoral fashion to obtain what she fancies. (This latter characteristic lends the opportunity for numerous displays of dramatic irony, which evokes a sufficient amount of laughter.) There is another character eerily similar to Scarlett in form and stature that can be found in the film "A Streetcar Named Desire." Leigh can also be found portraying that figure, in what seems to be a New Orleans visit from Scarlett herself.

    "Gone with the Wind" proceeds in two distinctive acts, the first of which, essentially becoming a coming of age tale as Scarlett is thrown into the midst of the film's conflicts. The backdrop of war and the internal conflict of identity, along with her failed attempts for love, drive this picture. By the end of the first act, Scarlett has overcome many obstacles and has succeeded in retaining responsibility for the first time in her life. However, this development is only a glimpse of what our protagonist must endure before she finally comes to the profound realization at the end of the second act.

    Rhett Butler, who ultimately becomes Scarlett's husband, is a selfish and crude individual when first viewed. He claims to "only care for himself" and reiterates the fact that he "always gets paid."  Butler is immediately captivated by the presence of Scarlett, like every other man, yet it is not for the same reasons. Butler sees Scarlett for what she is and he never pretends to be what he is not. He knows that he is a scoundrel, who profits from war, and that Scarlett is a conniving individual, who flaunts her physical attributes and gives off a feeble minded position to obtain what she wishes from others. In this sense, one could come to the conclusion that their love is pure, and that he is the first man to see through this forged facade.

    This is a film littered with symbolism and irony, which in turn, creates a marvelous foundation for success. The execution of symbolism spans from the subtle context of a war-torn confederate flag among the masses of dying and injured soldiers, to the importance of an object with regard to the structure of the film, as in the land of Tara. Rhett Butler even has symbolic acquaintances with other characters, in the form of a call girl, which becomes Butler's path to self-ventilation, and Bonnie, the daughter of Butler and Scarlett. Although Bonnie is important to Scarlett, she is more so regarded by Butler, as she becomes the only pure and innocent action he has ever yielded.

    The irony is utilized to its fullest potential throughout the picture and holds true in every facet of the word. The most notable being the dramatic irony, as Scarlett deviously attempts to fool individuals with her seemingly naive intellect. However, there is a brilliant depiction of the irony of setting, as Rhett and Scarlett embrace for their second kiss among the fiery background of tarnished Atlanta. The idea of cosmic irony also comes into context, as seemingly every attempt to obtain the love of Ashley, the man whom Scarlett desires more than life itself, brings her closer to eradication. As if some omniscient being found her shortcomings pleasurable, time and again.

    To classify a theme for this picture would be a highly subjective process. One could argue that the theme would be that of structure, as every aspect of a masterpiece has been sewn into a rich tapestry of  brilliance. However, Scarlett's self-realization suggests other themes that linger in the depths of my consciousness. Personally, I believe the theme is one of blinded fulfillment, as Scarlett has been so fixated with a man, whom she never really loved, only because he was the one object of desire that she could not so easily obtain. If I were to write this critique another day, then another theme may present itself; that is what makes this film so potent.

    There are undoubtedly only two films that come to mind when the term "classic love story" is posed. That being "Casablanca" and "Gone with the Wind." Both pictures share a dialogue heavy structure and the backdrop of war; both are historically significant and ahead of their time. To choose between the two would be futile and a waste of time and effort. Yet, any lasting image of "Gone with the Wind" is dominated by one thought. One object of fascination. There is only Scarlett O'Hara.