The Invasion

…of the Body Snatchers, 2007 style. This is a remake, though of course they don’t make a big deal of that. No one ever really expects remakes to be as good as the original, somehow, even though in this case, just the fact that they can actually have special effects should make it better right there. It doesn’t, but it should.
This version and the three before it are all based on a story by Jack Finney (as was The Faculty, and maybe also others I don’t know about), so most people know the gist of the plot: an alien organism ends up on Earth and starts taking over the inhabitants. This was one place where the 1956 movie version (still the best, in my opinion) didn’t quite make sense — at the beginning of the movie, it seemed like people were being physically replaced, as the aliens grew exact replicas of their victims; but at the end, it seemed more that the victims’ existing bodies were simply taken over by the organism. This version smooths that out; the organism basically rewrites the genetic code in its own image, just like a virus, only on a much grander scale.
The 1956 version didn’t pretend to be anything but a B movie — the effects were practically nonexistent, the acting was solid if a little over the top for modern audiences, and the dialogue was nothing remarkable — but it worked, and has become a cult classic, and I’ve seen it many times. So that’s the one I kept mentally comparing this film to while I was watching, and 1956 kept winning, strangely. Nothing against Nicole Kidman, she can act up a storm, and Daniel Craig is no slouch. I didn’t even mind the kid in a relatively major role, which usually makes me cringe. But something just didn’t click.
Kidman is Dr. Carol Bennell, psychiatrist in a large city, I think New York. Originally, the lead was Dr. Miles Bennell, family physician in the small California town of Santa Mira. Miles’ girlfriend, Becky Driscoll, also gets a sex change for the new flick, becoming Ben Driscoll, M.D. (Craig). And strangest of all, the local psychiatrist from the first film, Dr. Dan Kauffman, apparently gets turned into Carol’s ex-husband, Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam, Gosford Park, and that new cable show The Tudors), now a doctor for the CDC, and the lucky first victim of the invading virus, brought to earth by a shuttle crash.
Like the original, much of the story is told in flashback, which I’m guessing is supposed to explain why sometimes it falls out of chronological order for a little while, but that was just faintly annoying as far I was concerned. Carol, ever the observant shrink, is pretty quick to realize something strange is happening. Suspicious, she goes to retrieve her son, OIiver (Jackson Bond), from his father’s house, but that’s when everything starts to go wrong and the projectile vomiting begins. Yeah, it was unpleasant, especially watching them do it into coffee urns.

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Don’t show fear. They can smell fear…

But that’s how the virus spreads. Once in the bloodstream, through drinking tainted coffee or being vomited on directly — or, cleverly, by getting the CDC-recommended “flu shot” — all it needs is for the victim to enter REM sleep so it can jump in there and rewrite the genetic structure. That seems to me like a lot to accomplish during the relatively short period of REM sleep, but apparently this virus is good. As in the original, though, it’s also pretty stupid in other ways… as long as you don’t show any emotion, even when watching two people jump off a building, the infected people can’t tell who isn’t infected. You’d think they’d have a password or secret handshake or something.
Anyway, after a rather tedious scene about man’s inhumanity to man, blah, blah, it starts to turn into an action movie, with wild car chases and guns, and I think maybe that’s where this version went wrong. Not in having action, exactly, but it was almost always really jarring to see. Maybe that’s because the closest the original gets to an action scene is when Miles stabs one of the alien pods with a pitchfork, but it really shouldn’t be an action movie in any way — it’s all about the psychology of it, about what makes people people… or should be, at least. Maybe the various lectures about how animal the human animal is made everyone take the whole thing too seriously, because something just doesn’t click, as hard as everyone tries.
Two and a half idols here. It’s annoying, because I can’t point to any one thing and say, ‘this was really bad’ — though I also can’t pick out any one thing that was really good, either. Everything’s there to make a good movie, at least if some of the heavier moralizing is taken out, but it never quite turns into a good movie. It lacks the sense you got from the first movie about families being torn apart, loved ones being lost — the human angle, I guess. It becomes too global too fast, and ends up being about trying to save the world instead of trying to save individuals who the audience really gets to care about. You somehow don’t get much chance to care about any one character, so at least you won’t have to worry about not showing any emotion.

Stardust

The movie industry keeps doing this to me. Some weekends I absolutely can’t decide between two films, and other weekends, there’s just nothing new out there that I’m getting paid enough to see. Actually, I’m hardly getting paid at all, but you know what I mean. And though I was interested to see Rush Hour 3, this is the one I was really after this weekend.
This is based on a novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman universe, among other things. I love Sandman, and loved this novel, so though I couldn’t wait to see the film, I was also nervous. I mean, books to movies often don’t work out well, and lots of times it’s better not to have read the book. This time, though, it was actually okay.
Stardust is really a fairy tale. A young man hopes to woo the young woman he loves, and takes upon himself a quest to prove how much he adores her. In this case, the quest is for a falling star that he and the young lady in question see fall one night. The catch in this case is that the star falls beyond the Wall, for which the village they live in is named. Beyond the Wall is the realm of Faery, where mere mortals like the young man (Tristran Thorn, played by Charlie Cox) dare not venture.
Except Tristran isn’t a mere mortal, but the child of a mortal man and a Faery woman. He gets past the wall (fiercely guarded by a 97-year old man) and finds the star, which — to his astonishment — is actually a young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes). Yvaine, unsurprisingly, isn’t too keen on being a present for some random girl, but Tristran captures her with an enchanted silver chain, and they begin the long journey back to Wall.

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No, De Niro actually does something even more jarring than teaching Yvaine to waltz.

But it wouldn’t be a fairy tale without all sorts of weird dangers along the way. Other people want the star, too, including Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia, one of three witches who keep their youth through stealing the hearts of fallen stars. Then there are the princes — their dying father (Peter O’Toole) flung the jewel that is the symbol of the next ruler up into the night sky, knocking down Yvaine in the process, and now the four princes are after the poor star as well, since she has the gem. Pretty soon there’s only one prince after her, though, namely Septimus (Mark Strong, the guy under all the makeup in Sunshine), because it’s traditional for princes around here to kill each other off until only one is left for the throne. Seems wasteful to me, but apparently it works for them.
There are more people causing mischief, of course, but those are the main ones, and everyone and everything interconnects, so pay attention so you can catch everything. Just assume everyone has a hidden agenda or a deep dark secret, or both — except our two heroes. Yvaine just wants to go home, and Tristran just wants his true love, but since this is a Gaiman fairy tale, they both get what they want in a way they never expected.
Now, up until they meet Robert de Niro as the sky-pirate captain, you’ve pretty much been watching people act out the book. There are characters missing and things glossed over, of course, but overall, it is the book. Then Captain Shakespeare shows up, and things take a sudden, sharp left turn. It isn’t entirely a bad turn, not too jarring, but a turn nonetheless, and I’m pretty sure it’s just there so they can jazz up the end with a lot of swordfights and magic and swashbuckling that really wasn’t in the book. Actually, Robert de Niro does do one extremely jarring thing, but I’ll let you see that for yourself. Words wouldn’t do it justice.
Anyway, different from the book it certainly is, at least from about the middle on, but I still really liked it. Gaiman was one of the producers, so I think he managed to keep things at least sort of on track even while they were making the film more Hollywood. (I keep wondering why they wrote in that sky captain part, because the character’s barely mentioned in the book. Really, I guess I keep wondering if Robert de Niro asked for the part for some reason…) That’s usually a very, very tricky balance, but it worked out all right here, and I’m terribly relieved.
Four and a quarter idols. It’s not family-friendly — I’d expected them to leave out the ghosts of the dead princes, but they’re in there and slightly disturbing, in a darkly humorous sort of way, and there’s also a part not from the book where a corpse runs around doing things that’s a little icky. But there is a nice mix of lighthearted humor, Yvaine’s sarcasm, and slightly over the top action that ends up being a very good combination. The accents are pretty good (thankfully, Robert de Niro does not try to sound British), and the acting is all great. Ricky Gervais (boss David Brent from The Office — the real, British show, not that terrible version here in the States) has a small but very funny part as Ferdy the Fence; and Rupert Everett (probably best known to U.S. audiences from Shreks 2 and 3 as the voice of Prince Charming, and Christopher Marlowe in Shakespeare in Love) gets to chew a little scenery as the mostly-dead Prince Secundus. So go see it, enjoy, and watch out for falling stars on your way home.

Rush Hour 3

And strangely, no catchy subtitle. But Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker are back, after six years, and Hollywood’s hoping to make lots of money off of them once again. Originally the talk was that they’d film Rush Hour 3 and 4 together, but that didn’t materialize, and perhaps that’s for the best. For one thing, there was barely enough plot around for even one little hour and a half film.
That’s traditional in the Rush Hour flicks, of course — they’re just meant to spoof the buddy cop films, and have lots of action and comedy, and only enough plot to get you to the next wild stunt. This time the plot’s even thinner, though, and I suspect some of it got left on the cutting room floor because they wanted to make sure the film would later fit nicely into a two-hour time slot on network television.
Ambassador Han (Tzi Ma, reprising his role from the first film) is in Los Angeles to address a meeting of the World Criminal Court on the problem of the Triad, the villainous group from Movie 2 now making a comeback here. Han has asked Inspector Lee (Jackie, of course) to act as bodyguard for him, as he is about to reveal the truth behind the Triad’s shadowy leader. But a sniper’s bullet knocks Han down just before he can reveal this vital information (of course), and the chase is on, as Jackie races after the would-be assassin and is nearly killed by James Carter (Chris Tucker), who is trying to rush to his aid.
Now, I know Chris Tucker’s supposed to go over the top. It worked in the first movie, and worked even better (I think) in the second one, when everyone kind of hit their stride. But here, it really just got painful sometimes. Our first look at him is directing traffic at a busy intersection while grooving to the song playing on his iPod, and you can imagine how well that works out. I felt like I was watching a musical sometimes, there was so much singing and dancing. And just in case anyone with any actual Hollywood influence is reading this, don’t ever make Jackie sing again. Please. Especially not another love song with Chris Tucker.
Anyway, since poor Ambassador Han is apparently in a coma or something (they don’t say, but he is alive and they work on the assumption that he won’t be able to tell them anything for the rest of the movie), the boys make one of their bizarre intuitive leaps based on almost nothing that turns out to lead them to exactly the right place, just like the first two times. So they end up in Paris, trashing the City of Lights. You can tell it’s Paris because every window has a nice view of the Eiffel Tower.

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Chan and Tucker realize that all roads in Paris really do lead to the Eiffel Tower.

They discover that a woman named Genevieve (the gorgeous Noémie Lenoir, a French supermodel who turns out to be a pretty good actor, too) is the person who originally gave Han the information, and they track her down to a burlesque show. Yep, more singing and dancing, but at least these girls are professionals. You can tell it’s still Paris because they play the can-can a lot during the show.
They get the girl, are predictably betrayed by someone they trusted, and race all over the city, managing to turn a mild-mannered French cab driver (George, played by Yvan Attal, who I liked a lot) into something of a monster along the way. George’s scenes were probably the best, now that I think about it. They should have had more of him. Also, Gérard Depardieu’s daughter Julie plays George’s wife in what must have been a fun little part. Other notables include Max von Sydow as some kind of French consul or something, and Roman Polanski as a police detective, only I didn’t realize who he was until I got home and read it online.
Han’s daughter is back — different actress, of course, and all grown up now, but sadly she doesn’t get much of a part. The strong and scary female role this time goes to Youki Kudoh (Memoirs of a Geisha), who is actually listed as Dragon Lady, and lives up to that title. The fight scenes are pretty good — very much like the fights from the first two, but that was okay, because I liked those fights. And elsewhere, like I said, a lot of the old spark just isn’t there. Carter has at last learned a little about how to fight hand-to-hand instead of just shooting everything, which was nice to see, but the stories of what he’s supposedly been doing since the last movie were just silly. And he has the attention span of a hyper two year old — I know he wasn’t exactly focused before, but here I was wondering how he manages to make it through the day without forgetting to breathe because the pretty girls are distracting him so much.
So two and three-quarter idols for this one. I just couldn’t bring myself to go up to three, not even to match the title. They even rewrote Lee’s backstory a little, which felt odd. Those retroactive changes usually don’t work out well. It still isn’t bad to see in the theatre, though, if only for the last fight scene. It’s set on the Eiffel Tower (of course, this is Paris), but this was the one place where I was really drawn in to what was happening, even though it made me dizzy. And don’t forget to watch the end credits, where they hide the bloopers. They’re also not quite as good as the first two sets of outtakes, but you might as well get all the laughs you can out of it.

Heaping Pile Update

What happens when I don’t post for a month? Too much. Today’s offerings include bits from a film, 2 animation projects, 3 stage shows, and some odds and ends.
From the feature film – a pile of piano solos:
Clear Waters
Reminiscing
Earnest
Heartbreaking
Heartwarming
Reaching Out
Reminiscing
There is Romance
Touching Story
From the animation projects
Avant Jazz
Darkening Developments
Passing Action
Promising Relationship
From the theatrical productions
Pennsylvania Rose
Vegas Glitz
Comedic Juggernaut
And some other bits…
Intended Force
Baltic Levity
Duet Musette
Parisian
Showdown
Thanks to Chris for the titles of the French-sounding pieces… and for requesting them in the first place.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Jason Bourne rides again! And runs, and jumps, and shoots, and steals cars — you know the drill. You don’t really have to have seen the first two movies to watch this one, so long as you know the basics, but if you have seen them, you’ll realize that they fit the last two together just like puzzle pieces. It was really cool, and so smooth it took me a minute to figure out exactly what they’d done and just how neat and tidy it was.
A lot of the same crew is back: director Paul Greengrass, unfortunately, still has his shaky-cams from The Bourne Supremacy, and is still using them, so whenever there’s a chase, you not only have to pay really close attention to have any hope of understanding who’s going where, but you also have to fight off nausea while you’re doing that. The style works pretty well elsewhere — it gives you the feeling that you’re almost eavesdropping on conversations, which is great for the spy theme — but for the chases, it’s just dizzying.
But there’s good news as far as who’s back, too: Joan Allen returns as Pamela Landy, and Julia Stiles is back as the hapless Nicky, who’s slightly less hapless here. Stepping in to the roles of main big bad guys (who have a very short life expectancy when Jason Bourne is around) we have David Strathairn (Fracture) as Noah Vosen, deputy director of the CIA, and Albert Finney (Amazing Grace and Erin Brockovich, just to mention two) as Dr. Albert Hirsch, who is totally spooky and committed, and apparently studied medical ethics under Joseph Mengele.
And of course Matt Damon is back, and even more wonderful than usual. Pardon my gushing. Jason Bourne is, of necessity, a man of few words, but Matt always seems to find ways to grow the character even without saying much, and he does an excellent job here. Okay, gushing’s over.
Since Supremacy, Jason has been in search of his past, following his trail as much as he remembers it. And he’s remembering more now, surreal little images of interrogation rooms and mysterious faces. He travels the globe chasing these clues, and the CIA can only act nervous about it. Seriously, he tells them where he’s going to be and when, and they’re lucky they can even get a glimpse of him, never mind kill him. Meanwhile, British journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine, Hot Fuzz, Cinderella Man) has found a high-level source willing to talk about Treadstone, and Jason Bourne’s name is suddenly in the newspapers.

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Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…

Then basically everyone runs into each other. Nicky runs into Jason in Madrid, home of her new CIA posting (I’m not sure why they didn’t gently but firmly shove her out the door after Supremacy, but apparently they let her stay around for some reason), and she immediately sacrifices her career to help Jason — not that that’s any surprise to anyone, I’m guessing. Pam Landy runs into Noah Vosen (and that’s a scary collison, let me tell you), Jason runs into several fellow-assassins (except the CIA calls them ‘assets’), and lots of cars run into each other. Several bad guys also collide, but that’s from Jason throwing them at each other. Jerky and blurry as they are, those hand-to-hand fight scenes are still intense.
Basically, the action never lets up. Even the quieter moments (generally my favorites) are tense, and you’re just waiting for something to explode or someone to burst in. It’s maybe a little too much action, a little too over the top in places, but overall, the Bourne series is still much more realistic than the Bond series. As much as I’ve liked the series, though, this is the place to end it, so I hope they don’t try to squeeze out another one. I’m still annoyed that they killed off Marie, but at least they handled it well. Jason obviously hasn’t forgotten her, or how she tried to help him rebuild his life.
Four idols here. It thankfully doesn’t quite fall into the trap of just repeating everything from previous movies, though it comes too close for comfort sometimes. Still, one of the best scenes in the film is an encounter between Jason and a random agent on his trail that echoes the scene with Clive Owen from The Bourne Identity, and it’s just about perfect. If you’ve seen that movie, you probably know the lines I mean, that somehow manage to catch the whole underlying theme in a few words, about who you are, where you draw the line between duty and morality, and how you can kill people and still (maybe) live with yourself. But enough philosophy — the English major in me escaped for just a moment. Go see the film, and enjoy. And don’t forget the dramamine.