Wednesday, August 27, 2014

As Above So Below

I have long since grown tired of the "Found Footage" horror film format. Granted, it's not as unpleasant as the torture porn trend, but is only a notch or two below it. The entire film is shaky cam, rendering entire parts of the film pretty much incomprehensible. It's supposed to make a film more visceral, but in fact takes me out of the film, making things feel even more fake. It's a shame too, because As Above So Below has an intriguing premise that is ruined by a film format that only gets in the way of creating any sort of mood or dread. 

The film opens with a young Archaeology student, Scarlett (played by Perdita Weeks), sneaking into Iran to examine some caves that are about to be demolished. She finds what she's looking for in the nick of time and escapes with a clue to the location of the Philosopher's Stone. This leads her to Paris, France, where she meets up with Benji (played by Edwin Hodge), who will be documenting this adventure, and her friend George (played by Ben Feldman). She convinces George to help her translate some key items to discern the actual location of the stone. They determine it is hidden in a secret room in a forbidden section of the Paris Catacombs. After recruiting a trio of Parisian hipsters to show them the way into that section of the Catacombs, they set off. So far, so good for me. It was playing out more like contemporary Indiana Jones or The Goonies than a hardcore horror movie. 

As they progress into the Catacombs, they encounter increasingly strange things, including a bunch of pale, creepy, chanting weirdos in a room that is bright red. This is never addressed later in the film and has no payoff whatsoever. I think it's intent was to be foreboding, but instead it was just confusing. The tension does pick up a bit as the group delves deeper and deeper into the Catacombs. Tunnels start looping back on themselves, or reappearing after they go through an opening, only to be reversed. As tunnels collapse behind and around them, they have no choice but to continue deeper and deeper into the Catacombs in order to try and find a way out. 

It's from here that things get progressively stranger and creepier, although not to anyone who has seen the trailers. It's not much of a spoiler to say that things that caused inner turmoil for the characters start materializing in front of them when it's spoiled in every trailer for the film. It's a shame too, because if you're not expecting it, these would have been some of the creepiest moments in the film. Instead, it falls flat because we've seen it all already. 

In the end, As Above So Below, is moderately entertaining with an intriguing plot that was ruined by both a tired concept and an ill-conceived marketing plan. The main characters are likable enough to make the film enjoyable, but what it lacked was a consistent feeling of dread or foreboding to make the film effective as a horror film. The first half of the film worked much better for me than the second. The first half had mystery and a sense of adventure. The second half descended into a half baked paranormal horror flick that created more confusion than tension, made all the worse by shaky camera work that makes things pretty much incomprehensible at times, with an ending leaving the audience perplexed and unsatisfied. It had an intriguing premise that was poorly executed, which is a shame.  

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Revisting Dead Poets Society

When I was looking thorough my extensive collection of Blu-Rays and DVDs, trying to figure out which films I wanted to revisit as a tribute of sorts to the immeasurable and sudden loss of Robin Williams, I knew this one would be first. It was clear to me because the first thought that came in to my head when I found out he had died, well the one immediately following "Oh God, please no!", was "Oh Captain, my Captain," the common refrain from this film adopted from a Walt Whitman poem. This was a film that I get the feeling an entire generation of kids took to heart, seeing it mentioned time and time again in remembrances of Mr. Williams. I knew that watching this one was going to wreck me even more than usual and I was right, but it needed to be let out anyway, so I powered through. I should say this writing is going to be filled with spoilers, so if you have somehow not seen this fantastic piece of cinema yet, please go watch it and come back. We'll wait. 

Now then, where do I start? I'll do a brief recap. The film centers on a group of teenage boys who attend an exclusive New England Prep School and the impact their influential and inspiring teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams, in one of his most memorable performances) has on them. He teaches the boys in unorthodox ways, in the views of their rigid, uptight private school standards anyway. He exclaims, "Carpe Diem! Seize the day," something they take to heart. He has them rip out an obnoxious introduction in their text book that reduces judging poetry to a simple math formula, and rightly so if you ask me. He encourages the boys to think for themselves and develop their own opinions. He has them each stand on his desk in an attempt to gain a new perspective on the world.  One student in particular that is effected by these teachings is the new student to the school, Todd (played by Ethan Hawke). He starts out the year introverted and unsure of himself. Slowly but surely, Keating encourages him to come out of his shell and express himself.

A group of these students are so taken with this message, find out that not only did Keating go to the school, but was a member of a club called "The Dead Poets Society." Inspired, they start the club up again, having meetings in a cave outside school grounds. One student in particular, Neil (played by Robert Sean Leonard) in particular takes this to heart and starts actively defying his stern father (played by Kurtwood Smith) who is determined his son is going to be a doctor and forbids his son from participating in extra-curricular activities and focus on his studies. Despite this, Neil tries out for the school play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and manages to land the role of Puck. He forges a note of permission from his father rather than ask him his permission, which in the end only makes things worse. His father finds out and pulls him out of school after the play's opening night, blaming his son's misbehavior on Keating's influence. He takes Neil home and informs him he's enrolling him in a Military school no ifs, ands, or buts about it. That night, in a fit of despair, Neil kills himself. It's a devastating moment that has immediate consequences throughout the remainder of the film. 

The final act of the film has the remaining students in the class essentially forced into signing a document stating that Keating's teachings were unorthodox and responsible for Neil's actions. Keating is fired and ordered to leave school grounds. He arrives to collect his things during class. Todd is there, visibly distraught that the best teacher he's probably ever had is being forced to leave, along with the guilt he feels with giving in to signing the document. He confesses as much to Keating, but is reprimanded to sit down and be quiet. Keating is ordered to leave the classroom. Before he leaves, Todd summons the courage to stand up on his desk, crying out "Oh captain, my captain." Several other students are inspired to follow suit. Moved, Keating thanks the boys and leaves. I've seen the film a few dozen times and it's a scene that has never failed to make me tear up. 

I'm not sure I quite grasped the impact this film had until Robin Williams passing. As I looked through the various posts, this was one of the most frequently referenced, along with Aladdin. As both came out within a few years of one another (Dead Poets Society was released in 1989, Aladdin in 1992), they clearly both had a significant impact on my generation. Even Jimmy Fallon, when paying tribute on the Tonight Show, stood on his desk, proclaiming "Oh Captain, my Captain." It's clear that the film's themes of living life to it's fullest, seizing the day and thinking for one's self made the mark they should have and a lot of people took them to heart. While Robin Williams made several significant films, many of which I love and intend to revisit as well, this one will always be my absolute favorite. Oh Captain, my Captain, indeed.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Need for Speed

By no means is Need For Speed anything that would be mistaken for high art, but if you go into it with the right expectations it can be a lot of fun. If you go in expecting a lot of high octane, crazy stunts pulled off by equally insane characters and a plot that is designed to hang said stunts on, it's a blast. If you're expecting anything deeper than that, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. The film is an adaptation of the EA games series and is for the most part a successful transition, pulled off with mainly practical effects, a refreshing change from the CGI overkill we are usually exposed to. 

The film centers on Tobey Marshall (played by Aaron Paul), who is released from a two year prison sentence seeking revenge on wealthy ex-partner Dino Brewster (played by Dominic Cooper) who is responsible for the death of their mutual friend, Pete (played by Harrison Gilbertson) and set up Tobey for the crime by fleeing the scene. After he gets out, Tobey gets his crew together to head across country to a major street race he knows Dino will be at. His crew includes Finn (played by Rami Malek) and Joe (played by Ramon Rodriguez) tailing him in truck outfitted with all kinds of tools as well as the ability to fuel cars while they're still driving (which is demonstrated in a fairly hair-raising stunt piece) as well as Benny keeping an eye out from the sky in his Cessna plane. For his cross country journey, Tobey borrows a silver Mustang from a friend, but it comes with a hitch in Julia Maddon (played by Imogen Poots), who is to go along on the journey to ensure the car is returned once the adventure is over. 

The middle portion of the film, as the gang is going cross country, attracting attention of law enforcement and then trying to dodge them as well reminded me a lot of the 1978 car stunt classic Smokey and the Bandit, and the movie seems aware of this too, especially in the interplay between Paul and Poots in the Mustang. I love that movie and because of that, I probably enjoyed this more than some others might. Among the highlights in this section is a lengthy chase through downtown Detroit between Tobey and the Detroit PD and a scene in Monument Valley with the Mustang dangling from a large helicopter. Is this realistic? No, probably not. Is it spectacular? Yes, very much so. If you can appreciate such ridiculous stunts in a movie, you're going to have fun with this. If not, this may not be for you.

Of course, the film ends with the climactic race and showdown between Tobey and Dino. This really isn't a spoiler since we all knew it was going to end up like this. The film throws in a few little curve balls to make things more difficult for Tobey and company, between Law Enforcement and Dino's goons. But we know all too well where this film will wind up. The most surprising thing about it is while this film is similar to the Fast and the Furious films, it never feels like it's full on ripping them off. At least not to me. Yes, both films take place in the world of underground street racing, but that's where the similarities really both begin and end for me, aside from having some similar plot elements to the fourth film Fast and Furious, where an argument could be made, perhaps. But even the execution is way different between the two films. 

Overall, I would say Need For Speed is a fun time if you're looking for some fun over the top action. If you can go in expecting to see some cool car stunts populated with some colorful characters I think you'll get your money's worth. It's not deep, but it's fun and you know what, I don't see anything wrong with that.