The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones


Stop! In the name of love...

Stop! In the name of love…

(2013) Supernatural Fantasy (Screen Gems) Lily Collins, Jamie Campbell Bower, Kevin Zegers, Robert Sheehan, Lena Headey, Kevin Durand, Aidan Turner, Jemima West, Godfrey Gao, CCH Pounder, Jared Harris, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Harry van Gorkum, Stephen R. Hart, Chad Connell, Chris Ratz, Elyas M’Barek, Melantha Blackthorne, Lucy DeLaat. Directed by Harold Zwart

Even William Shakespeare knew enough to write “tis nothing new under the sun” and nearly 500 years later that’s even more true. We’ve seen it all and there is little out there that is going to be completely original. Of late there have been a spate of young adult fantasy books that have gone for film franchise-dom a la Harry Potter and Twilight with varying degrees of failure – most don’t get past the first installment. Is this another would-be phenomenon destined to crash and burn?

Clary (Collins) is a fairly normal Brooklyn teenager who has just had her 18th birthday (at least I think so – she’s apparently old enough to go to bars and drink) who has had enough of her overprotective mother Jocelyn (Headey). She’s not really seeing anybody, although her bookish buddy Simon (Sheehan) wouldn’t mind changing that which Clary is wholly oblivious to.

However Jocelyn has good reason to want Clary home early – she’s part of a half-human, half-angel group of warriors called the Shadowhunters, who battle demons in the ongoing war of good against evil. When Clary witnesses (apparently) a brutal murder in a nightclub, she’s pretty shaken up but more so when she comes home to find her apartment trashed and her mother missing. Oh, and there’s a demonic dog waiting to play fetch with her intestines.

She’s saved by a Shadowhunter named Jace (Bower), a blonde even prettier than Clary who’s a bit of a badass in his metal band leather pants and bad boy with a heart of gold attitude, certainly enough to have teenage girls hearts melt in ways that Buffy’s Angel and Twilight’s Edward could only dream of. He takes her to the Institute, home base for the few remaining Shadowhunters where they and housebound Hodge (Harris) discuss ancient runes and compare Goth tattoos.

Apparently Clary is being stalked by Valentine (Meyers), a renegade Shadowhunter who only wants to rule the world (doesn’t everybody?) and his thugs as well as vampires (bad) and werewolves (good). They discover that Valentine is after an artifact called the Mortal Cup, one of several powerful artifacts that Hodge is aware of. Clary and her friends will seek the help of a somewhat agoraphobic witch (Pounder) and a mackin’ wizard (Gao) but the only salvation for Clary and her mother will lie inside Clary. But when Clary finds out the truth about who she is, which side will she choose?

The source young adult novel by author Cassandra Clare was over 500 pages in length. There are a couple of ways to go about adapting it – one, cut extraneous plot points out and condense the novel into a 120 page script, or cram as much as you can in there. The filmmakers went the latter route and unfortunately that leads to the serious drawback of an often confusing and conflicting plot. While those who love the series (and there are 22 million copies of the book sold worldwide) will be happy that they didn’t skimp (although the book is far more detailed on the background of the Shadowhunters), those that are less familiar with the books may feel like they’re treading water.

We might be able to tolerate the overabundance of plot if it weren’t so darn familiar. Those who wait for the home video edition of the movie can have themselves a nifty little drinking game if they try to spot all the plot elements borrowed from other movies – I stopped keeping track after I saw things from Twilight, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Priest. Someone can get themselves smashed real good playing that game.

The mostly young cast are exceptionally attractive (even the semi-nerdy Simon is quite the hunk) so that will appeal to the teen audience to whom such aesthetics are important. In terms of their skills as actors, let’s just say they’re an attractive cast and leave it at that. Collins in particular doesn’t seem to have done much more than reprise her work from Mirror, Mirror.

While the movie looks good and the CGI isn’t bad, the movie’s final confrontation suffers from an excess of histrionics. I do think they were going for an epic scale on this one but really fell short of the mark. I also think that they are really trying to play to the Twilight crowd with a plucky heroine with hidden powers who has two gorgeous guys vying to be her protector and both deeply in love with her yet she merely bestows semi-chaste kisses on one and not even that on the other. Screen Gems confidently green-lit the sequel even before City of Bones opened but the anemic box office and terrible critical reception may cause them to reconsider. Unfortunately, this is just another in a long line of young adult fantasy adaptations that fails to make it as a cinematic franchise which begs the question – maybe if they tried doing some adult fantasy series (i.e. The Wheel of Time, The Codex Alera or Shannara) maybe they might attract a broader audience – but maybe people who read a lot of books don’t have time to go to the movies as much.

REASONS TO GO: Attractive cast. Decent effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Meandering plot. Overwrought climax. Borrows from other sources a bit too freely.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s violence of a fantasy nature, some fairly disturbing-looking demons and some sexually suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Collins, who was an ardent fan of the book series, active campaigned for the role of Clary when she discovered that there was to be a film made of it.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: American Reunion

Advertisements

End of Days


 

End of Days

All the Governator needs is a big gun and a trigger to shoot with.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne, Robin Tunney, Kevin Pollak, CCH Pounder, Derrick O’Connor, Miriam Margolyes, Udo Kier, Rod Steiger, David Weisenberg, Rainer Judd, Michael O’Hagan, Mark Margolis, Jack Shearer. Directed by Peter Hyams

 

He’s battled un-killable battle robots, nuclear terrorists, druglords, barbarians, monsters of every shape, size and description. Isn’t it about time Arnold Schwarzenegger took on the devil?

It’s just a few days before the end of the 20th Century. New York City is gearing up for the biggest party of the Millennium, but there’s an uninvited guest – Old Scratch, who has been waiting for this shindig a lot longer than Mayor Giuliani. For, y’see, he’s got a wedding to go to – his own – and once the union is consummated, it’s curtains for mankind. Yeah, he’s gonna party like it’s 1999.

Enter Jericho Cane (Schwarzenegger), an ex-cop now making his living as a security guard, still grieving over the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of the mob, using the bottle to help him cope. When his charge, a Wall Street investment banker (Byrne) is attacked by a deranged Roman Catholic priest, Cane and his partner (an amusing as usual Kevin Pollack) start digging into the attempted murder and discover more than they want to.

As is usual with most devil movies, a lone, imperfect hero fights an implacable, insurmountable foe with little more than his lack of faith to sustain him. Byrne makes a charming Satan – less over-the-top than Al Pacino’s Lucifer in Devil’s Advocate. Byrne underplays Satan as a subtle, affable fella – who rather than fly into a demonic rage when provoked instead creates terrifyingly sudden acts of violence without much of a change of expression.

Schwarzenegger is surprising here, showing a depth of pain he usually doesn’t convey. He kicks patootie, sure, but he’s a very flawed and vulnerable man, who can cry for a lost family in moments of weakness. He has lost faith in his religion, in the system and finally, in himself. He neither wisecracks his way through flying bullets, nor does he bravado his way around falling chunks of masonry; he merely survives everything that is thrown at him. Early on, when he is hit by sniper’s bullets, instead of shrugging off the wounds, he stays down to the point where his partner calls him a wuss. Imagine, the Terminator a pantywaist. Unthinkable.

Also worth noting are Steiger as an irritable priest who holds the answers to most of Schwarzenegger’s questions, Tunney as the object of the Devil’s affections and Pounder as an officious detective. As devil movies go, the cast is as strong as any since The Exorcist, which remains the benchmark for the genre.

Lots of whiz-bang special effects, lots of things go boom, plenty of female breasts. What’s not to like? Well, the main failing of most devil movies is that the devil is vanquished a bit too abruptly in a bit too cliché a manner. Also, there are a lot of logical flaws; throughout the movie, Satan kills with a crook of his fingertips, and shows no hesitation in doing so. Why not simply dispatch Ah-nold and take out his only obstacle to a successful Armageddon?

End of Days is a visual treat and, with only a few semi-dead spots, an exciting ride. Even given Schwarzenegger’s surprising acting skills, it may not appeal to those with genuine end of the world Millennium fears. Just don’t hate it ’cause it looks beautiful.

WHY RENT THIS: Schwarzenegger’s unusually emotional performance. Some pretty nifty devil fu.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit dated, particularly in it’s end-of-the-world-Y2K stuff.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of violence and gore, a lot of sexual context and some graphic nudity and of course language, language, language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sam Raimi, Marcus Nispel and Guillermo del Toro were all offered the director’s chair for the movie at one time or another and all turned it down.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $212M on a $100M production budget; the movie made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Muppets

Orphan


Orphan

Vera Farmiga and Isabelle Fuhrmann share a mother-daughter moment.

(Warner Brothers) Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrmann, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Margo Martindale, Karel Roden, Aryana Engineer. Directed by Jaume Collett-Serra

How simple the love of a child. We take it for granted that our children are innocent and loving. Those who have the courage to adopt are bringing an unknown factor into their lives. There’s a presumption of good in every child, but not all children are good. Some, in fact, are very, very bad.

Kate (Farmiga) and John (Sarsgaard) Coleman have been through the wringer. Kate, although sober now, has had bouts with the bottle and the bottle generally won. While she was drunk her son Daniel (Bennett) nearly drowned, putting a serious strain on their marriage. Their daughter Max (Engineer) is deaf and while precocious and cute can be a handful.

They tried to have a third child by way of patching up their differences, but the child died stillborn. Despite having a whole lot of baggage to unpack in their marriage, they decide to adopt because nothing solves marital problems like adding another kid to the mix.

They head down to the local orphanage and are immediately smitten with Esther (Fuhrmann), a real charmer who is also a talented painter. She speaks in heavily accented English and at times clearly is unsure of the right words to use, but she is nearly perfect in many ways.

Of course, nothing and nobody are perfect and Esther is certainly not. She has quite a temper which sometimes leads her to all sorts of mischief. She also is a possessive sort and she has locked her radar on John, who is the understanding parent of the decade. Kate, not so much – she begins to get suspicious when people start having “accidents” around Esther, nearly all of whom pissed her off in some way. She tries to get people to see what she’s seeing, but most dismiss it as the hysteria of a woman who is a few centavos shy of a peso.

However, as is invariably true in horror movies, when people fail to listen to the Cassandra-like character, things go very, very badly for them. Kate realizes that her unheeded warnings could end up in utter tragedy for her family. Will she be able to protect them from such a little angel?

Collett-Serra previously directed the very flawed House of Wax remake and while this is a little less flawed, it nonetheless doesn’t establish him as a horror movie talent quite yet. Killer kids are not a particularly new contrivance (see The Bad Seed and The Good Son) so if you’re going to do a movie about them, you need something a little bit different to set your film apart from the others.

In this case, there is a doozy of a twist in the last reel that left me thinking that this movie wasn’t so bad after all. Unfortunately, it takes a real long time to get there. Collett-Serra directs this at a snail’s pace, with an enormous amount of exposition without enough pay-off to justify it. He relies too much on a jumpy musical score to set up false scares and other clichés of the genre rather than establishing a really creepy mood. The sad thing is, he’s capable of just that – the last ten minutes of the movie prove it.

Sarsgaard and Farmiga are both capable actors who give their roles some depth. Sarsgaard’s John is a supposed to be essentially a saint and a bit bland; Sarsgaard makes him believable and elevates the role with a better performance than was written.

Fuhrmann does a first-rate job as the homicidal pre-teen. The problem with having a child actor carry too much of a movie is that there are very few capable of doing it. Over the past several years there have been several phenomenal child actresses that have emerged – Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin to name two – and Fuhrmann may well join that list. Hopefully she’ll get some meaty roles from her performance here.

Orphan isn’t a terrible movie; it’s just a lazy one. It tries to set its mood up by standard Scary Movie 101 means rather than trying to develop it through performance and good writing. The results are a movie that doesn’t feel terrifying so much as bland, and despite some decent performances and a pretty good ending, don’t rise above the clichés of the genre to make a much better movie than what we got.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some truly frightening moments. Sarsgaard gives a terrific performance and Fuhrmann is awesome as the malicious child. The twist at the end is interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many hoary horror film clichés (the screeching violins to signify a false scare etc.) and a little too much stretching of believability.

FAMILY VALUES: While this isn’t gore-heavy, there are some scenes of sudden and horrifying violence, some sexuality and some really disturbing content. Not suitable for the young or the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken by the receptionist at the Saarne Institute is Estonian.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Avatar


Avatar

A gunship moves through one of the majestic landscapes of Pandora.

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron

A race with superior technology has a responsibility to protect those races that are less advanced than they. However, the history of humankind has shown that to rarely be the case in those sorts of situations.

In the year 2154, Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) was a grunt whose spine was injured during a campaign in Venezuela, leaving him confined to a wheelchair. His identical twin brother was a scientist who had been leaving for the wondrous world of Pandora, an Earth-sized moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, as part of the avatar program. The journey was supposed to take five years of cryo-sleep just to arrive but it would never happen; Jake’s brother was killed during a mugging.

Pandora’s atmosphere is toxic to humans. The planet is full of flora and fauna, much of which is aggressive and lethal. There is an indigenous race of humanoids called the Na’Vi, a race of 10-12 foot tall tailed bipeds that have a great deal in common with Native Americans. Even their language sounds similar.

Humans communicate with the Na’Vi through avatars, genetically engineered creatures utilizing human and Na’Vi DNA that humans link through a machine that transfers the human’s mind into the avatar allowing the human to experience what the avatar sees, tastes and touches. The Na’Vi call the avatars “dreamwalkers” because when the humans return to their own bodies, the avatars lose consciousness and appear to sleep.

Because avatars are so hideously expensive, it is determined that Jake will take his brother’s place on Pandora despite the fact that he has had no training in an avatar and is abysmally ignorant of Pandora and its dangers. When Jake arrives on Na’Vi he finds a bit of a power struggle going on in the human fortress-encampment between the scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), a cantankerous botanist, and Col. Miles Quaritch (Lang), a gung-ho ex-Marine employed as a mercenary by the RDA Corporation and its smarmy representative Parker Selfridge (Ribisi) – notice the similarity to the word “selfish” here – who are after a rare mineral called, somewhat irreverently, unobtanium. One particular Na’Vi settlement sits on a particularly rich deposit of the stuff.

The Na’Vi don’t trust the humans and with good reason. The humans look around Pandora and see a dangerous world whose resources exist for their exploitation for corporate gain. The Na’Vi sees a living world that is beautiful and inter-connected.

Jake goes on his first mission into the forest accompanied by fellow rookie Norm Spellman (Moore) and Dr. Augustine and immediately gets himself into trouble, winding up being chased by a rhino-like creature (with the head of a hammerhead shark) into a chasm where he is separated from his fellow avatars. Day turns into night and the forest becomes even more dangerous as a pack of black canine-like creatures attacks Jake. He is saved by one of the Na’Vi, the beautiful Neytiri (Saldana) who has nothing but contempt for the avatars,who as she puts it walk through the forest like ignorant children and “see nothing.” However, when a jellyfish-like lifeform becomes curious about Jake, Neytiri interprets this as a sign and takes Jake to their village.

There her father Eytukan (Studi), the clan chief and her mother Moat (Pounder), the shaman of the clan, make the determination that Jake should be trained as a hunter for the clan. Tsu-tey (Alonso), the clan’s best hunter who is also heir to the position of chief and as thus betrothed to Neytiri, is skeptical that this can be done.

My son characterized the plot as “Dances With Aliens” and he has a point. There are many similarities between the plots of Avatar and Dances With Wolves but this definitely has its own take on it. The conflict between the needs of the corporation and the world of the Na’Vi eventually come to a head. There are some intense battle sequences but in all honesty, these are not why you come to see this movie.

Never before in motion picture history has so complete an alien environment ever been created. The look of Pandora is astonishing and realistic. It is certainly alien with some familiar elements; lush vegetation, grasses and trees and many unusual flora and fauna. There is literally no way to take it all in with a single viewing which is what the filmmakers intended undoubtedly.

Some movies become event movies simply on the basis of hype and a precious few because they are game changers. Star Wars was one of the latter and so is Avatar. This is a movie that many will see simply because everyone will be talking about it and they want to get in on the conversation. Director Cameron has once again proven himself one of the most visionary directors of his generation. While some think of him as the director of Titanic, the biggest-grossing movie of all time, his legacy may rest with Avatar. This will literally change how movies get made.

The acting is surprisingly good. Weaver has made a career of delivering strong, capable performances and her Grace Augustine may rank with Ripley as the character most associated with her in the future. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that has already landed him the lead in high-profile movies and undoubtedly will continue to do so. He has all the qualities to be a big star and while his performance in Terminator Salvation hints at it, he delivers big time here. Michelle Rodriguez, an actress I’ve never really connected with before, is superb as a sympathetic pilot.

The movie runs two hours and forty minutes which is a bit long; the 3D glasses are bulky and uncomfortable and I wound up with a sore nose where the glasses rested. I have to admit that Cameron’s strong point is not dialogue and some of the characters utter lines that made me groan out loud. His points on corporate greed and its role in wiping out the ecology of our own world, the treatment of aboriginal races and the general irresponsibility of humankind are well-taken but at times he uses a 2×4 to whack us over the head with it when an ostrich feather would have done the trick.

Reviews for this movie are almost superfluous other than to pile on superlatives for a movie that richly deserves them. Avatar may be the closest thing to a visit to an alien world that most of us will get to experience in our lifetimes, but I’m sure most people have either already seen it or were planning to see it anyway without my endorsement. Still, count me in among the endorsers of this film; widely-hyped, intensely scrutinized and greatly anticipated, it delivers as one of the year’s very best.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals, the visuals, the visuals. This is a detailed, realistic world that has an internal logic. Even the elements of the fantastic make sense.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is probably about 20-30 minutes too long and can cause a bit of sensory overload at times. Some of the film’s points get hammered in a bit too strongly.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair bit of violence and some language, but pretty much okay for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The avatars have five fingers and toes while the Na’Vi have four.

HOME OR THEATER: This absolutely must be experienced on the big screen, preferably in 3D and in the IMAX format if you have a theater equipped for it nearby.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: World Trade Center