Isolation

There are not many things in the world that can combine the words bovine and terror and get away with it. Isolation does it, and only barely manages to scrape through. Teetering between an atmospheric horror movie and a creature feature, Isolation has a few good scenes, but on the whole falls short of being a memorable tale.

In a isolated farm (hence the title of the movie) a farmer Dan (John Lynch) agrees to have his cattle used for illegal genetic experiments. With a veterinarian Orla (Essie Davis) and the rogue scientist John (Marcel Iures) in charge, Dan quickly realizes that he does not know the world of trouble he has signed himself up for. And when it comes time for the cow to give birth, Dan has to ask for the help of a young vagrant couple for help.

Which is when all hell begins to break loose. What spawns from the genetically modified bovine is part chest-burster, and part scurrying rodent with an ability to "infect" DNA. In the ensuing death and destruction, you realize the number of scary and disgusting places a farm can contain. There are hay filled cow pens, water logged corners, squeaky floor boards and of course the opportune failure of technology.

Despite being predictable, some of the scary scenes are well executed. Add in some realistic gore of animal autopsy, there are enough chills to keep you interested. The creature is old-school animatronics and that shows through. Some of the scenes are almost hilarious to the CGI trained eye. But through it all, what sticks with you is the dark atmosphere that permeates through each of the scenes. Setting horror movies in cloudy Irish weather seems almost natural - wonder why there aren't a lot more set in the cloudy highlands.

Isolation is not a novel horror movie. But as creature features go, this is a well made consistent flick that keeps you expecting something bad from the very first scene. Pity there isn't much that actually happens though.

May 31, 2011

Hanna

Hanna tries to be too much in it's allotted 110 minutes. It is part drama, part action. It is a movie about the growing up of innocence, and the bite of truth. It is simultaneously a movie that is clearly inspired by the stylized action genre like Kill Bill or Sin City, yet it is a movie that takes itself too seriously. A movie, no matter how great, can reconcile some of these differences. For Hanna, notwithstanding how dangerously adorable she might be, the extremes it straddles on is one too many. It is no doubt a great movie, but the feeling at the end of it is less of fulfillment and more of abrupt emptiness.

Erik (Eric Bana) is a rogue agent, who is living in the cold arctic tundra, away from all civilization except for his daughter Hanna (Saoirse Ronan). Hanna, under the watchful and tough-love supervision of her dad, is developing the smarts of a soldier even thought she is just 16. The reason for their exile is the ruthless CIA handler Merissa (Cate Blanchett) who is determined at all costs to eliminate the duo. The training of Hanna ostensibly has a single purpose, to avenge the death of her mother, and break the hold Merissa has on their lives. For this, she learns to live off the land, martial arts and weapons combat, along with a smattering of European languages. While she has never known modern luxuries like electricity or music, she has trained hard to know everything that the encyclopedia has about them. This makes Hanna a strange sort of a teenager, knowledgeable and deadly but with no personal experiences.

When Hanna finally decides she is ready for her mission, she finds herself halfway around the world, in Morocco, trying to outwit a gang of killers on her trail while trying to figure out the workings of a electric switch and change channels on a television. One cannot help but question the training methods of her father, who resorted to a singularly isolated approach. Hanna's tentative exploration of the modern world is reminiscent of Mowgli, but for the fact that she also has to do what Jason Bourne himself was barely able to accomplish.

Thankfully, these irreconcilable differences are only apparently in hindsight. The narrative however, glosses over these differences to instead focus on Hanna herself. Ronan is great as the lead character. She has a natural sense of wonder, and quiet determination that serve her in good stead. The deep intensity she displayed in Atonement was definitely not a fluke. Bana seemed a little scattered. While it wasn't clear if this was by choice, it definitely was distracting.

The star of the movie however was Blanchett. Sharing screen time with the lead character, she had the glint of ruthless evil, which alone justified all the training in the world for Hanna. With an obsessive focus on dental cleanliness, Blanchett is stereotypical as the morality bereft CIA operative, and unique as one that seemed to gain nothing personally by being that way - the mark of pure evil. There are others that augment Blanchett's evil persona, and one in particular is Isaacs (Tom Hollander) a flamboyant assassin with a penchant for white suits, whistling and torture.

The movie's screenplay does well to stay clear of any plot explanations, instead constructing elaborate movie segments with little indication of the connection between them. Camera work was notable for one of the shallowest depth of field shots ever, millimeters under what was candle light. Music and the background score was the heartbeat of the movie. The techno funk track, with its catchy leitmotif is responsible for setting the tempo for all the action scenes.

Jason Bourne is the gold standard for rogue CIA operative redemption. It is certain that any future rogue operative movies would only try to up the stakes. But a 16 year old who has never known anyone other than her own father, is probably taking it too far. No matter how much you don't want your mind to intrude, there is only so much your heart can take before it too begins to demand answers. Answers neither Hanna nor her screenplay writers are able to provide.

May 30, 2011

Limitless

Limitless is more fun than it ought to be. With an idea as trite as a drug to access the hidden potential within your own head, this ought to have either been a painful super-hero movie or a morality missive about the pros and cons of meddling with nature. In fact it is neither. Instead, it is an absorbing caper, sort of a crime thriller, that has just the right mix of twists and turns.

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a wannabe writer, with a severe case of being an abject failure. He is spineless, racked by issues of self-esteem, and is a mute spectator watching his life spiral down the drain. When his gorgeous girl-friend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) leaves him in what can only be described as a subdued break-up, Morra has hit rock bottom and does not even know it. Which is when he meets his drug-dealing ex-brother-in-law Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), who slips him a transparent pill, that is supposed to allow Morra to access his brain's full potential.

The pill, called NZT, does all that it is supposed to do and more. Not only does it open him up to his own mind, it also opens his life up to a series of seedy characters - who either want to take advantage of him or steal his acquired stash of NZT. There is Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), the ruthless multi-billionaire who is Morro's one shot at monetizing his newly acquired capabilities. Gennady (Andrew Howard) is Morro's seed capital for when the latter begins to use his new-found prowess in the stock market. And finally there is the mysterious man in the tan coat (Tomas Arana), who seems to know everything about NZT and is determined to do everything in his power to steal some.

The characters have a healthy dose of the familiar characteristics. The thug is thuggish, the billionaire is ruthless, the girlfriends are supportive yet oblivious and the ex-girlfriends are mysteriously shy. Yet, played by a well chosen cast, this quickly gets the introductions out of the way, keeping the focus firmly on the unfolding story. And it is an interesting story. In the high of NZT, Morro makes new friends, money and enemies. While he is still sorting out which is which, he realizes that the drug does have a side-effect, massive blackouts and unbearable withdrawal symptoms. While the plots to obtain his stash materialize, Morro realizes that he is counting down to madness or death.

The screenplay is light and quick, never getting too bogged down by the story. This leaves enough ends unresolved, that is both annoying and intriguing. The visuals are well suited, one particular effect is the difference between pre and post NZT ingestion, as the world perceptibly brightens from a dull dinginess. Or the zoom in effect as the lens travels through New York - a bit different from the other ways this has been done before. The visual cues are reinforced by the sound track that is quick and pacey.

Bradley Cooper's self effacing commentary is spot on, setting the tone for the rest of the movie. Robert De Niro is as rugged as only he can be. Except for maybe Michael Douglas. While this is not intellectual thriller extraordinaire, the characters make the tale convincing. Limitless - is the number of ways this story could have been messed up. Thankfully, in choosing to be limited, Limitless was way more fun than it ought to be.

May 29, 2011

Beneath the Dark

Morality tales couched as supernatural movies are a dime a dozen. While some movies focus on the supernatural, others on the horrific nature of the moral transgression. Beneath the Dark takes an underwhelming, egoistical tale of morality, and wraps it in a road-side motel thriller. The thrills are limited, the plot thin and the narrative tentative. Yet as horror-thrillers go, it keeps away from cheap thrills, making it a lot more watchable than many in the genre.

Paul (Josh Stewart) and Adrienne (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) are driving to LA to attend the wedding of one of Paul's fraternity brothers. Tired and after a close call running off the road, they decide to check into a motel deep in the Mojave desert. The motel, while seemingly unoccupied, has a variety of strange characters and stranger occurrences. All the characters seem to know a lot about Paul's past. Slowly Paul realizes that there is more to the motel than it let on, and that a dark secret in his past could hold the key to his redemption.

The movie has all the hallmarks of a slasher flick, and you keep expecting one of the characters to go all psycho. Instead, the characters are strangely reticent and restrained, which, feels a little underwhelming. The owner of the motel, Frank (Chris Browning), feels forever on the edge between contrition and vengeance - a feeling the back story wantonly encourages. Equally unsettling is an unnamed man (Afemo Omilami) who manages a fair bit of menace while trying not to sound forced. Frank's wife Sandy (Angela Featherstone) rounds out the trifecta of strangers. As a character she is one of the most important for the plot, yet manages to barely be in the spotlight. This takes away some of the mystery and punch.

The screenplay starts off slowly, always seemingly on the edge of breaking free. This gives us enough time to care about Paul and Andrea, and the story enough time to set the plot pieces up. There are several Christianity elements peppered in, but it does not commit to be fully Biblical. The background score is also there.

All in all, Beneath the Dark feels like a movie better than it is and in reality is a movie worse than it ought to be. There is a lot of promise, but it falls short of execution. Maybe it's genre-straddling lack of commitment had something to do with it, but you find yourself hoping something really bad happens. Something momentously horrific that would almost justify the building suspense. When that doesn't happen, it seems petty. While that is not particularly a great term to describe a horror movie or a psychological thriller, ultimately it was the pettiness beneath the dark that prevents it from becoming a really good film.

May 08, 2011

The King's Speech

I'll run the risk of spoiling the ending; the king does do a great job with his speech. And even before you start the movie, you are well aware of this historical inevitability. However in the long and torturous path, leading the man with a stutter to the kingship of World War 2 England, lies a fascinating story of friendship, bravery and self-realization. Such is the story of King George VI, who came to the throne after the death of his father and abdication by his brother. The King's Speech is an account of one man's struggle with his own daemons, and the story of a reluctant king's rise to power during a time of incredible trial.

Colin Firth is unbelievable as the King. There is little that can be said about his performance, that hasn't been said before. He was almost perfect struggling to put his thoughts into words, and the abject, stifling fear that public speaking or even attention brought upon his person can only be seen to be believed.

The screenplay focuses exclusively on the speech impediment, often juxtaposed with an account of the personality of the Duke and ultimately the King. Almost too exclusively. By design this lends a one-dimensional aspect to the film, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it unfortunately paints the man with just that one stroke. As a result the emotional drama is significantly emphasized over historical context, which again may not be a bad thing. Because this makes the movie appealing at a very personal context without the distraction of accuracy.

Which brings us to the speech therapist. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is the enigmatic man that is as important a character in the story. Rush is positively inspired as the Australian man who developed his techniques assisting shell-shocked soldiers during the first World War. Peculiar, patient, amusing and irreverent, he makes you wish you had a teacher like that.

For a movie that did not care about historical storytelling there are several choices that were surprising. The one that stood out the most was casting and actually showing a Churchill on screen. Arguably one of the most well-known faces, casting Churchill is a challenge. Timothy Spall was a surprisingly good pick. Even if he did not look like Churchill, he definitely was not distracting by not feeling like Churchill. The king's wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) was probably more cliched than most, as the strong yet supportive royalty. In a way she was the royal standard that measured the lack of congruence among the rest of the relationships.

The movie is a fascinating look at the pressures of expectation. That the pressures were for, arguably, the most important job in the world is only incidental. The movie is an emotional journey with travails and triumph. But at the core, it is a simple feel-good story that is both poignant and inspiring.

Salt

Salt starts off as a movie trying too hard to be a slick action flick, then settles into a series scenes that are actually slick, before suddenly realizing it's success and becoming incredibly self-absorbed. It begins as a Bourne wannabe, but ends up as a Angelina Jolie adore-fest. While the movie wins no points for originality, it definitely makes it up with hard work. The screenplay works hard, the actors work hard and despite the ending our imaginations work hard. And like a hardworking puppy that wins you over, Salt compels you to keep watching despite all its inadequacies.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a spy working for the CIA. In reality though, she is a secret double agent, planted by the Soviets as little more than a child. For decades she grew up in the US, successfully infiltrating the US spy service. Till one day her spymaster Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up to suddenly expose her. Finding herself between a rock and a hard place, Salt has to sort her own loyalties out, and deciding if she was going to stay true to her adopted country or heed the call of her motherland past and act as the trigger for "Day X" - an operation that includes punitive strikes against the US.

Yes, it is a good old sleeper cell story, spanning decades, with a strange throwback to the foes of yore. I am certain that part of the reason for making the movie PG-13 was because no one below that age would even care about Russians as the enemy. This anachronism isn't the only dissonance. The movie seems surprisingly short on extras to play security agents. As if the recession got to the Secret Service. This results in fight sequences that consist of long periods of running through empty corridors without meeting anyone.

All action movies require, no demand, a certain amount of naïveté. And they add a certain nugget of "knowledge" to the audience. Salt's is the use of a taser on the driver of a cop car to twitch his legs into stepping on the gas. Tase on low for 40 miles and hour and medium for 60.

Jolie is the earnest glue that keeps the movie together. Not knowing what her motivations are, keeps the entire sequence of events from sounding silly. Thankfully there are not too many background stories or clarifying voiceovers. That said, the term "Day X" could have used better nomenclature. A couple of action sequences are dizzyingly well done, explosions are limited, fights are meh, and the chases are mostly on foot. But all said and done, the movie stars Jolie. And that alone, as the producers would have surmised, makes the movie worth adding to the queue.

And they are not mistaken.

May 06, 2011

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