The Host (2013)


Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

Diane Kruger and her cool ride.

(2013) Science Fiction (Open Road) Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Diane Kruger, William Hurt, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Boyd Holbrook, Lee Hardee, Scott Lawrence, Mustafa Harris, Shawn Carter Peterson, Raeden Greer, Bokeem Woodbine, Rachel Roberts, Marcus Lyle Brown, Jhil McEntyre. Directed by Andrew Niccol   

No more war. No starvation. The contributing factors to climate change eradicated and the ecology restored back to balance. No lying, no violence and the world living in happiness and harmony. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Of course. You see, there’s a catch to living in a perfect world; an alien parasite, calling themselves Souls, have invaded the planet, taking over the bodies of humans and eradicating their memories and personalities. Although our bodies remain alive, that which makes us individuals is gone. In essence, this alien invasion is overwriting us and as a result, we’re slowly going extinct. You can always tell the infected bodies however by a strange glowing ring of light in the iris of the eye.

There are some stragglers however and infected humans, called Seekers, chase them down and bring them to the city to have their parasite inserted (through an incision in the back of the neck). The Souls look sort of like sparkly Sea Anemones with thin languorous tentacles with fiber optic cables; very pretty to the eye but not something you’d want inside you.

One of those stragglers, Melanie Stryder (Ronan) particularly doesn’t want those things inside her. She and her boyfriend Jared (Irons) and her little brother Jamie (Canterbury) are discovered by Seekers; she leads them away from her men but cornered, chooses to throw herself out of a window to the asphalt below rather than be taken.

Sadly, they take her anyway, heal her wounds and stick the Sea Anemone…er, Soul…into her neck. The Soul that inhabits her is named Wanderer and the Seeker (Kruger) who captured her wants to know about any other humans that Melanie might have known about. At first Wanderer is very co-operative but to the Soul’s surprise Melanie is still in there, putting up a fight and generally acting out. In fact from time to time Melanie can still exact enough control to make Wanderer’s body do what Melanie wants but those moments are few and far between.

But they are coming more often and Melanie’s memories are enacting a strange kind of sway over Wanderer. Melanie convinces Wanderer to escape the facility they’re being held in and eventually Melanie leads the Wanderer to the New Mexico desert where dehydrated and exhausted, she’s found by her grizzled Uncle Jeb (Hurt) who takes her to where he’s established a refuge for a group of uninfected humans; the inside of an extinct volcano and I really must admit, I like what he’s done with the place, planting a wheat field inside the caldera using banks of mirrors to reflect the sunlight into the cone. There are also thermal streams in the cave which not only provide drinking water but bathing opportunities. If only they had a monorail and sharks with frickin’ lasers on their fins.

Wanderer/Melanie’s presence isn’t greeted with joy; in fact, only Uncle Jeb thinks that Melanie is still in there. Jared, who along with Jamie has found his way to the volcano, is all for killing her right away as his friend Kyle (Holbrook) is inclined to do. Jamie is eventually convinced as is Ian (Abel) who eventually falls in love with Wanderer (who is re-christened Wanda) and soon Melanie’s entreaties that she is still there are believed although it makes things a bit awkward since double dating between Wanda and Ian and Melanie and Jared is problematic.

Still, the Seeker is furious at having lost her Soul so she goes after it with a vengeance and when an ambush goes terribly wrong, the Seeker kind of loses it and violates the codes of non-violence. Can the remaining humans continue to survive with a technologically advanced foe wanting to re-populate their bodies with Sea Anemones….I mean Souls?

It all sounds kind of preposterous really but actually the concept is intriguing. The Souls are actually pretty much benign and other than taking over our bodies are pretty nice sorts and it’s true that we’ve pretty much screwed up our planet and society left to our own devices. However this aspect isn’t really explored much; the direction is to pander to the young female audience that author Stephenie Meyer, who penned the novel this is based on (and is best known for being the creator of the Twilight saga), has cultivated.

The love triangle is a theme in her works to date (although her bibliography is admittedly pretty small). It is appealing to a young girl to have two hunky guys moon-eyed in love with her and Meyer and Niccol play up that aspect. Melanie is a plucky heroine who as played by Ronan is a bit stronger than Bella Swan and less reliant on those around her. However there isn’t much action here – a lot of dialogue takes place in Melanie’s head (or Wanderer’s head if you prefer) and that isn’t terribly cinematic no matter how you play it.

In fact there’s a hellacious amount of dialogue here, far too much to support this kind of movie and thus it gets a little bit boring to be honest. Even if they’d chosen to go cerebral and explore the whole “is freedom worth losing control for” which dovetails nicely into our post-911 paranoia, you’d expect there to be a lot less exposition in something like that.

The visuals are nice and the cave set is nifty. I also like the chrome-plated vehicles the Seekers use. The acting is solid if not exemplary, with the reliable Hurt making Jeb a salt of the earth sort that audiences tend to click with. Ronan is a terrific actress but comes off a bit petulant in places and there is soooo much kissing that it begins to get a bit old – and I like kissing.

This is one of those I wish movies. I wish it hadn’t been quite as long. I wish it had a bit more passion from the cast, although given that the Souls are written as emotionless creatures there’s at least an explanation for that. I wish it had given credit to its audience as having as much intellect as hormonal drive. I wish American culture would stop pandering to the lowest common denominator and start aiming higher. I wish I could have given it a higher rating but frankly, it just didn’t earn it. It’s not a bad movie although I’m sure some will think it so simply because they’re not part of the target audience – it’s just not as good a movie as it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: Some nice visuals. Consistently well-acted by its predominantly young cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Prefers to play to teen girl hormones than explore the potential genuinely interesting issues it raises. Oddly low-key.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scenes of teen sexuality and some violence but nothing that you wouldn’t see on network television.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before Diane Kruger accepted the role of the Seeker, Haley Atwell, Claire Danes and Eva Green all turned it down.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; the critics ripped it a new one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: On the Road

New Releases for the Week of March 29, 2013


GI Joe Retaliation

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION

(DreamWorks) Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Adrienne Palecki, Jonathan Pryce, Ray Stevenson, Byung-hun Lee, Ray Park, D.J. Cotrona. Directed by John M. Chu

The Joes are decimated by a sneak attack but are shocked to discover that the strike was ordered by their own government – by the President, in fact. It becomes clear that the government has been infiltrated by Cobra, their arch-nemesis and at the highest levels. In order to survive and stop Cora from his evil plan they’ll have to call on some extra help – the man who started it all, G.I. Joe.

See the trailer, clips, promos and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of combat violence and martial arts action throughout, and for brief sensuality and language)

The Host

(Open Road) Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Diane Kruger, William Hurt. The Earth has been invaded by parasites that take over the human body and erase their memories; the parasites are winning as the free human numbers are dwindling. A brave young girl will risk everything for those she loves and in doing so give hope to the human race that love can indeed conquer all. From the novel by Twilight series creator Stephenie Meyer.

See the trailer, interviews, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for some sensuality and violence)

On the Road

(Sundance Selects) Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams. A young writer’s life turns upside down when he meets a brash Westerner and his girlfriend. The three of them embark on a cross-country road trip to escape a world growing ever more conservative and conformist. Based on the classic Jack Kerouac beat novel.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, drug use and language) 

Tyler Perry’s Temptation

(Lionsgate) Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Lance Gross, Kim Kardashian, Vanessa Williams. A marriage counselor whose own relationship is rocky decides to be with another man. The repercussions of her choices send a ripple effect from her life to the lives of those around her. Based on Perry’s stage play Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.

See the trailer and a filmed version of the play the film is based on here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, sexuality and language) 

The Twilight Saga: New Moon


The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Couldn't you just DIE?!?

(2009) Romantic Fantasy (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Ashley Greene, Rachelle Lefevre, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Nikki Reed, Kellen Lutz, Jackson Rathbone, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Anna Kendrick, Chaske Spencer, Christopher Heyerdahl. Directed by Chris Weitz

Some movies are aimed squarely for a specific audience segment and you just have to go with that particular flow. It you don’t mind accepting that you’re not the target audience, you can enjoy the movie at least on an intellectual level.

The Twilight saga continues with the second installment of the four-book series. Edward Cullen (Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Stewart) are deeply in love and looking forward to Bella’s 18th birthday, which she intends to spend at a celebration at the really nice Cullen place in the woods. When she accidentally cuts her finger, it sets off Jasper (Rathbone) and ends up with Bella getting hurt. Edward recognizes that it is far too dangerous for Bella to remain with his kind and he dumps her, heading off to Italy to hang out with the Volturi, the eldest of the Vampires.

Bella is devastated by this and spends much of the movie in a funk, crying and brooding and in general, acting as if her life is over. Most teenage girls can relate to this – when you can’t be with that cute boy you love, you just want to die and so Bella does, convinced that each time she is on the brink of death, Edward’s spirit comes around to save her so that, at least that way, the two of them can be together. Mothers of teenage daughters please take note – this is very unhealthy and should be discouraged.

Bella is taken under the wing of Jacob Black (Lautner), the Native American who has buffed up quite a bit since the first movie and spends much of his time not wearing a shirt to make sure you know how buff he is. He has taken to hanging out with the Wolf Pack, a bunch of equally buff and shirtless Native Americans led by Sam (Spencer) who like Jacob and the rest of the Wolf Pack, harbors a secret – they’re all werewolves (although this is treated as a secret plot point, it is well known enough that I don’t mind revealing it here). Jacob and Bella begin to get a little closer than just besties.

In the meantime Bella is being stalked by Victoria (Lafevre) who has vowed vengeance on her after the events of the first movie and the Wolf Pack mean to protect her – as do some of the Cullens, especially Alice (Greene) who has come to warn her that Edward, lovesick and moping around, means to reveal himself to non-vampires which would mean his death by Volturi.

The success of the first movie meant a much bigger budget for the second, which means this is a much better-looking film than the first, where the special effects were bargain-basement. Here, they are more extensive and a bit better-realized but all in all the point of the movie isn’t the special effects, it’s the romance at the center. Or, in this case, romances.

The whole Team Edward vs. Team Jacob thing is set up here. Certainly Bella is firmly entrenched in Team Edward at this point. There is a Romeo and Juliet thing that seems to be pulsing through the movie, from its Italian denouement to the reading of the play in class at the movie’s beginning. The star-crossed lovers thing is reinforced by the looks of aching and longing that is supposed to be soulful but sometimes comes off more like Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.”

Part of my issue with the film is that Bella is so damn bland. Most of the movie, people are telling her how special she is, from her dad (Burke) to Jacob to Edward to Alice to…OMG, like, everyone. I just don’t see it. When Edward dumps her, she falls apart and not just for a little while, I mean for almost the entire movie she can’t breathe, she hurts so much.

We’ve all been there. Most of us who have ever had their hearts broken (and that’s most of us) can relate to her pain. What I can’t relate to is how long it goes on, her obsession driving her every move, including bringing herself into near-death experiences just so she can see the apparition of her lost love. While it’s highly romantic and appealing to adolescent girls, it is somewhat disturbing that this unhealthy behavior is seemingly celebrated here as the right way to behave for a loyal loving heart. It really isn’t ladies…trust me on this.

Like the first movie, the performances are as good as you’d expect – not really outstanding but not bad either. The addition of Sheen and Fanning to the cast adds a little bump up in the talent, but they aren’t seen much. The movie mainly resides in the hands of Stewart, and she spends most of the time moping. It isn’t her fault – Stewart is proving to be a pretty decent actress although she mostly gets to show that in other films – the story is set up that way. Still, it’s hard to get behind a character that you just want to shake and scream in her face “Enough, already!”

Lautner is much more integral to the movie and he’s an appealing young actor who has better things ahead of him, but to this point his role is essentially a one-dimensional nice guy who is meant to be the thankless best friend role that is blossoming into maybe something else but never will because Bella is “meant” to be with Edward. Hmm.

I have to say that overall, I didn’t like this movie as much as the first – which, to be fair, is usually the case with sequels. As in the case of the first film, this review is pretty superfluous – girls gonna see it no matter what anyone writes. There is nothing more loyal and steadfast than a teenage girl in love, and there are few things that teenage girls are in love with more than a tragic love story that appeals to the drama in their lovely teenage hearts, bless them all.

No, I’m not the audience this movie is meant for and for those who aren’t this movie isn’t as compelling or engaging as the first. However, for those who love the books and the first movie, this isn’t going to disappoint and while it likely won’t convert any new fans, it won’t dissuade any old ones from their rabid devotion to the series.

WHY RENT THIS: For the adolescent or pre-adolescent girl in your family – and their mom.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Well, you’re not one.

FAMILY VALUES: If you don’t mind a little bit of fantasy vampire/werewolf violence, it’s pretty much acceptable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weitz also directed The Golden Compass based on a bestselling young adult fantasy series.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Summit chose to market a variety of different editions that were exclusively available at specific retailers, each with their own unique features which made choosing the edition you wanted difficult and confusing. Common to all were a series of features which included one on how the success of the first movie affected the lives of the actors. In addition, the Deluxe Edition (available only at Target) had a featurette on the music of the film and at the die-hard nature of the series’ fans, as well as one on the Volturi. The Ultimate Fan Edition (Wal-Mart) had a documentary about the impact of the series on Forks, Washington – the real life town where the series is set (and some of the scenes are filmed), and a look at the love triangle and the rabid fans who choose Team Edward or Team Jacob. The Medallion edition (Borders) comes with a medallion necklace that has a wolf head crest on one side and the Cullen family crest on the other. Finally the Steelbook Package (Best Buy) comes in a special steel case and comes with a free cell phone skin.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $709.8M on a $50M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Tenderness

Twilight


Twilight

Can it really be young love if one of them is 114 years old?

(Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Cam Gigandet, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Ashley Greene, Taylor Lautner. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

We are all of us searching for something but none more than teenagers. Teenagers aren’t only looking to find love and acceptance, but also define who they are. When we find those answers, it’s usually the gateway into adulthood but sometimes those answers cost.

Bella Swan (Stewart) has had a difficult time of things. Her parents are divorced, her mom in Arizona having remarried a baseball player. Bella, a sensible sort, goes to live with her father (Burke), the Sheriff in the tiny western Washington town of Forks, Washington (a real place, by the way). As the new kid in a small school, Bella is big news and is fussed over by her new classmates both studly and dorky. She tries to fit in with her new friends but she notices a group of pale kids who hang out amongst themselves. This, she is told, is the Cullen clan, a group of foster kids being cared for by Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Facinelli), the town physician. They live in possibly the coolest home in Western Washington on the edge of town. One, in particular, nabs Bella’s interest; the smoldering, sexy Edward (Pattinson) who stares at her like his eyes have been glued to her.

Bella’s dad is being kept busy by a series of animal attacks in the area that have resulted in the deaths of several people, but he has time to have his friends Billy Black and his handsome son Jacob (Lautner) over. The long-haired native American Jacob hits it off with Bella and the two become friends.

Edward and Bella are assigned to be lab partners and despite Bella’s attraction to Edward, she is disturbed to discover that he feels quite the opposite about her, asking to transfer out of the biology class altogether. However, once they begin talking, a deep attraction begins to blossom. This is heightened when he saves Bella’s life by stopping an out of control truck from squashing her in the school parking lot, despite not being anywhere near her when the truck began its skid.

Suspicious at secrets Edward is apparently hiding, Bella does some research aided by stories told by her friend Jacob. She soon suspects that Edward might be a creature not unlike a vampire, which Edward eventually confesses that he is. However, vampires aren’t anything like how we’ve seen them in the movies; they don’t fear crosses or garlic and they are quite capable of being out in sunlight; however direct sunlight causes their skin to sparkle and annoying bells to ring. The sparkle announces that they aren’t human, but it might be those twinkling bells that make the Cullens unwilling to venture into the light.

Each of the Cullens (who don’t feed on human blood – they feed on animal blood instead, considering themselves kind of like vegetarians) has a different and unique power; Alice (Greene) can foretell the future for example. There are other vampires who prey on humans and their leader James (Gigandet) has his sights set on Bella, so Bella’s in danger but worse yet the prom is coming up and you thought your high school prom had drama…

Of course this is based on the staggeringly popular young adult fiction series by Stephenie Meyer which has sold about a gigillion books, mostly to teenaged and pre-teen girls but also to a surprising number of their mothers. I’ve heard the books described as “Harlequin Romances for teens written by Stephen King” which may be a bit harsh. Nonetheless, there is an element of truth to it.

First and foremost, understand that this isn’t a traditional vampire movie and it isn’t a traditional teen drama movie either. It’s not even a traditional romance. What it actually turns out to be is elements of all three genres wrapped up into a neat little package. While many critics (and film fanboys) openly sneer at the franchise, I actually found myself admiring it a little bit for trying something different than the traditional vampire movie with quivering virgins, buckets of blood and flaming vampires. There is actually very little gore or sex here. I also found myself giving the author marks for at least creating her own vampire mythology.

This movie was always going to live and die on the attractiveness of the leads and Stewart and Pattinson have all that they need. I seriously doubt this movie would have been anything near as popular without Pattinson as Edward; he is absolute catnip to teenaged girls, handsome and brooding and gentle all at once, yet fiercely protective. He is the ultimate boyfriend, and I don’t doubt that every teenaged girl who sees this will be holding up their boyfriends and potential boyfriends up in comparison to this guy, which is going to make for a lot of disappointed teenagers.

Stewart, who was one of the best things about Into the Wild has a very girl-next-door kind of look to her. She is meant to be strong, smart and kind – someone teenaged girls are meant to want to be like. Da Queen found it amusing that with all the romantic drama going on in this girl’s life she never once snapped at her parents but this is a fantasy after all.

This is a nice-looking movie that makes ample use of the Pacific Northwest scenery to create an overall tone. However, the movie had a pretty light budget (given that tiny Summit Entertainment was making it) and some of the special effects seem a little chintzy. I suspect that given its overwhelming box office success, future installments will have better-looking SFX than this.

In some ways, reviews for movies like this are superfluous; their target audience is going to see them over and over again regardless of what any critic says. For the rest of us it’s adequate entertainment and not nearly as bad as some have made it out to be. Keep in mind it is geared towards teens in a big way and that anyone my age – heck, anyone over thirty – aren’t going to relate to it as closely as those under thirty. That’s okay too; in some ways I’m quite glad I’m well past relating to these kinds of movies. Still, if you have a teenaged daughter or want to know more about what teenaged girls are thinking, here is your opportunity to get some insight. Oh, and the soundtrack is surprisingly amazing as well.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an entirely new mythology for vampires. Pattinson and Stewart make an attractive couple. The beauty of the Pacific Northwest plays an integral element in the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The teen soap opera elements may make this a difficult pill to swallow for vampire film fans. The special effects don’t hold up against other modern films.

FAMILY VALUES: A little violence and teen sex make this suitable for teens and tweens; the movie may not be suitable for smaller sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the release date of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was pushed out to July 2009, Summit moved Twilight into that desirable pre-Thanksgiving weekend spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a trio of music videos, as well as footage of the cast’s appearance at Comic-Con. Be prepared to hear a whole lot of teenaged girls screaming.

FINAL RATING: 5/10 (but if you’re a teenaged/pre-teen girl or their mom, 10/10)

TOMORROW: Gran Torino