Monday, February 13, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "Breaking Dawn," "Anonymous," "3," "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas," "In Time," and "Texas Killing Fields"

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 (2011)
Grade: C +

Anonymous (2011)
130 min., rated R.
Grade: C

"Anonymous" advances the theory that playwright William Shakespeare never really penned his own plays and sonnets. Believe it, Bill was an illiterate buffoon and a fraud, so who's the bard? A nobleman with royal connections? Or Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford? Ending the world in disaster B-movies such as "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," and "2012," director Roland Emmerich chooses (and most likely believes) the Oxfordian theory, which proposes that Edward De Vere held the quill to those thirty-seven timeless plays. This germ of an intriguing/amusing idea might've been overblown in this guy's hands, and what do you know, it is as lurid, ridiculous bunk. Give this to Mr. Emmerich, he's never boring.

In a wraparound framing device, set in contemporary times, Sir Derek Jacobi rushes through the back of a Broadway theater whose front marquee reads "Anonymous." The curtain goes up, and he's on stage in front of a full-house audience as the third-person narrator. Next thing we know, we're plunged into the streets of Elizabethian England for this tale of quills and swords. Perpetually scowling playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) is on the run from royal guards, hiding manuscripts. This epic-scale historical fiction then suggests that it was Edward De Vere (Rhys Ifans) who arranged the plays to be produced on stage, crediting them to an illiterate actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall). He hid his identity due to his writings providing criticism of royal scandles and his powerful father-in-law, William Cecil (David Thewlis), not having a fondness for the theater.

Because linear, chronological storytelling is oh-so-old-fashioned these days, screenwriter John Orloff decides to muddle his story with three separate time periods, bobbing back four years earlier to forty years earlier and back to the "present." If the time-shifting narrative isn't initially confusing, telling who's who and who belongs to whom will take you with the tide. A flow chart of characters and their relationships might've come in handy. But perhaps it's the questionable casting of Jamie Campbell Bower as the younger Edward, who bears no resemblance to Rhys Ifans' older Edward. The three stages of aging makeup on David Thewlis at least help clarify the time distinction. 

There's a lot of delicious hamming going on that it's possible Emmerich let loose a contagion on set. A blonde-haired Ifans, always bringing gusto to his characters, has a lot of inner fire in what is a showy performance but probably the least showy when comparing the rest of the ensemble. Spall gets to go hog wild, amusingly playing Will Shakespeare as a brash boor. And in a fun bit of casting (and the only cross-generation casting that actually works), Vanessa Redgrave plays Queen Elizabeth I in her golden years, and Redgrave's daughter Joely Richardson is the lusty, younger version of Her Majesty. 

"Anonymous" might be Emmerich's most visually opulent motion picture, with good-looking and richly detailed period drapery, and his most ridiculous. How could that be with there no being no aliens blowing up the White House, or no Godzilla taking a non-metaphorical bite out of the Big Apple, or no post-stereo-holding-outside-Diane-Court's-window John Cusack saving mankind from Armageddon? That's because Emmerich takes it as seriously as an academic thesis and goes along with the needlessly convoluted narrative that it just stops being openly ridiculous and careens into seriously ridiculous. As a melodramatic soap opera, it can be a hoot. It's just disappointing that by the time the salacious, scandalous stuff happens, the film is nearly over. And the film is already over two hours long.

3 (2011) 
119 min., not rated.
Grade: A -
Making a huge splash with 1998's exhilarating and inventive "Run Lola Run," German writer-director Tom Tykwer (2009's "The International") returns to his German roots and idiosyncratic rhythms of filmmaking. Episodes of "Three's Company" toyed with the idea of a threesome but with contrived solutions and sitcom laughs. Hollywood movies wouldn't dare touch it, unless it meant whitewashing the steaminess and manufacturing a fluffy romantic comedy from it. But "3" is the genuine article. How liberating. It's a risky, sexy, adult, and fascinating exploration of triangular passion that isn't fearful of human sexuality.

Simon (Sebastian Schipper) and Hanna (Sophie Rois) are in their early 40s and have been an unmarried couple for twenty years, living together in their Berlin flat. He's an art engineer and she's a doctor/TV personality, and through two decades, their relationship has become stagnant. One night, Simon is stuck at work and stands her up at on their theater date, so Hanna gives the ticket to a colleague, a handsome reproductive biologist named Adam (Devid Striesow, looking like Gordon Ramsay) in his late 30s, and they go together. She becomes smitten with Adam, but still stays committed and faithful to Simon. Though after one night of drinking and accepting Adam's invitation to his apartment, Hanna tempts herself and falls into an affair with him. In fact, after Simon's mother passes on from pancreatic cancer, he has a check-up with his doctor who breaks the news that he has testicular cancer. During his operation that same day is when Hanna is off with Adam. Not long after, a night at the pool, Simon has a friendly chat with Adam and ends up having a sexual encounter that turns him on and gets him thinking. Adam doesn't know his lovers together, and both Simon and Hanna keep up their secret affairs while still dishonestly living with each other. Something's gotta give.

A screwball comedy that finds truth, drama, and suspense in its unlikely situation, "3" is complicated, not structurally or narratively but emotionally and thematically. "3's" opening of a pas de trois modern dance between a nondescript woman and two men in a white space beautifully captures where the story might lead. The film most obviously is about temptation but also hits on philosophy, death, the daily grind, and lack of concentration in the human mind. Tykwer doesn't just use Simon, Hanna, and Adam as pawns for his themes but makes them feel like real, recognizable human beings. That's hard to do when a film revolves around chance meetings and coincidences, but he makes it work. When the three characters finally converge, the moment might've fallen into farce, but it doesn't, plus Sophie Rois gives the look of the year. A pivotal plot thread comes late in the film and it might've seemed more melodramatic in lesser hands, but Tykwer gets the right tone.

Tykwer also makes sure the performances don't skirt sympathy or understanding. And special mention goes to Rois, who has a sly way of scowling, as if only to the audience and without behaving like a harpy. Like all of Tykwer's films, "3" is visually inventive and playful, and beautifully shot, thanks to his go-to director of photographer, Frank Griebe. "Run Lola Run" showcased the filmmaker's ultimate bag of tricks that were integral and pulsated the narrative. Here, his compositions run the gamut and still don't divorce us from the story. Boxes multiply on the screen into split-screen montages; Simon has metaphorical black-and-white imaginings and heavenly hallucinations; a shot of Simon sitting at the foot of his dying mother's bed becomes a silouette as her soul rises to Heaven; and there's a graphic testicle operation presented in a montage of panels. The uses of David Bowie's song "Space Oddity" during Hanna's first infatuated look at Adam and over the end credits are also indelible. 

From what the opening dance preludes, the lyrical final image of a ménage à trois doesn't end the story of Simon, Hanna, and Adam but actually starts it. Who knows where their polyamorous relationship will finally take them? For now, three bodies are better than two.

Grade: B

In Time (2011)
109 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B
Great science fiction is always about something, spinning a yarn with allegorical themes. "In Time" has a timely, intriguingly nifty premise that exists in our rough economic times, but sets itself in a dystopian world of the not-so-distant future. In it, people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. A Day-Glo digital time code on their forearm starts counting down for one more year. After 26, each person lives on earned, borrowed, or stolen time, whether it be minutes, weeks, months, or years. Time is literally money, taking the place of currency (i.e. a cup of coffee costs 4 minutes). The rich are nearly immortal because they've acquired centuries, and the poor are dropping dead every day.

Factory worker Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) comes from the ghetto neighborhood of Dayton, sharing living quarters with his mom, Rachel (Olivia Wilde). They look about the same age, but in real time, Rachel is 50 and Will is 28. Living day-to-day, and late on bills and loans, Rachel's clock is ready to "time out." Then one night in a bar, Will saves rich, 105-year-old Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) from being attacked and robbed by Fortis (Alex Pettyfer) and his gang called the Minutemen. Hamilton admits to no longer desiring mortality and transfers over all of his time to Will (by touching arm to arm). Giving himself 5 minutes to live, Hamilton then jumps off a bridge, a suicide that Will is later accused for being involved in. Ready to take revenge on the rich, Will risks his time and travels to the gleaming New Greenwich. There, he plays poker with time-loaning millionaire Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), gets invited to a party at his mansion, and gets swept up by Weis's daughter, Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). When the cops, led by Timekeeper Leon (Cillian Murphy), come looking for him at the Weis mansion for "killing" Hamilton, Will takes Sylvia hostage. They take it upon themselves to fight the system, stealing years from Philippe's loan companies and handing it out to the poor. Being fugitives better be worth the time!

Writer-director Andrew Niccol, who first toyed with the future in 1997's sci-fi original "Gattaca," thinks up this premise all on his own, without the help of a Philip K. Dick story. If there's any filmic comparison, it's "Gattaca" and "Logan's Run" by way of "Robin Hood" and "Bonnie and Clyde." There's no subtle veiling that this is essentially an obvious Haves and Have-Nots allegory with Darwin philosophizing. The fact that the rich live and the poor die is italicized, but we got it the first time. It's the real-world timeliness of the concept that really triggers interest and makes it all the more subversive. 

Niccol does a fantastic job of establishing this new world and setting up ground rules in the first act. His visual sense and the crisp work of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins also catches our eye, from the industrial locations to the chic high-rise skyscrapers. Though some nagging questions poke dents into his logic: Is the rest of the planet this way? Are there hospitals? Where does Will go to the gym? More importantly, Niccol might've spent more time on the thin relationship between Will and Sylvia (that doesn't develop beyond a nude swim and strip poker) to make the destination really matter. No matter, he captures some neat, even amusing details. When Will has a meal in New Greenwich, the female server notices he's not from around there because he eats so fast. You see, the poor move fast on their feet since time is expiring, but the century-old rich aren't in much of a hurry. Also, traveling to a different time zone, like New Greenwich, costs a toll in months. The barrage of time puns are cute for a while ("Don't waste my time," "Have you got a minute?," "Time to clean some clocks," etc.), but sometimes laid on a bit thick.

Timberlake and Seyfried are both in roles that require less of their unmistakable range. The former is never as emotionally complex or interesting here as he was in "Alpha Dog" and "The Social Network," but still has the charisma and charge to carry us through. There's an early pivotal moment in the film (which actually propels Will on his journey), where Timberlake has to cry. Contrary to it producing an unintentional laugh, this point in time achieves brief stirring emotion. But the very talented Seyfried, fashionably dressed and wearing a dark red bob, is basically Bonnie to Timberlake's Clyde and that's about it. Casting Wilde, as Will's mother, is pretty amusing at first sight, considering the actress is three years younger than Timberlake. Alex Pettyfer must perform better when he hasn't have to carry a film as the stoic, generic lead because in a supporting role, as a slimy 75-year-old villain, he's perfectly fine.

The finished product feels like a processed cheeseburger with a multivitamin inside. To clarify, the execution might not be quite up to the loaded subtext of such a premise. It starts out as something more, promising a smart, zeitgeisty sci-fi allegory, which the film delivers for a while, until falling into routine action-chase fodder. Still and all, "In Time" is a fun ride and never stops entertaining. It's slick, fast-paced, and very stylish, so it might be worth the time.

Texas Killing Fields (2011) 
105 min., rated R.
Grade: B -
Texas has always gotten a bum rap for being the setting for grisly murders, but filmmakers never cease to set their films there. Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of Michael Mann, directs her second feature film with "Texas Killing Fields," a standard-issue but moody and compelling-enough CSI policier. The film feels like an underwritten but watchable pilot to a TV police procedural but with name value on its side and promise behind the camera.
"Texas Killing Fields" is loosely inspired by true events, a string of unsolved murders in southeast Texas. The bodies of more than 50 girls, mostly teenagers, have turned up in the fields of Texas City, Texas. Police detective Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a New York City transplant, and Mike Souder (Sam Worthington), his bitter partner, find the body of a young girl in an alley. Meanwhile, Mike's ex-wife Pam (Jessica Chastain), another detective, is trying to apprehend a serial killer who's dumping his victims in the Texas bayous. Brian is so consumed with solving the murders that he even prays at a crime scene, but it's outside his jurisdiction. In the meantime, he takes personal interest in a troubled teen named Anne (Chloë Grace Moretz), who's on juvie probation and lives with her skanky, neglectful mother. Will she be next on the killer's list?

On a scene-to-scene basis, DEA agent-turned-screenwriter's Don Ferrarone's script doesn't bother to elaborate on characterizations. Brian is apparently a devout Catholic, or so we assume from his prayers to corpses and having a framed photo of Pope John Paul II on his desk. Mike and Pam are angry for no other reason than because they're divorced with one another and dealing with a rampant killer of women. Every other person that hangs around is shady, so obviously red herrings are employed to throw us off track. 

That said, the very talented cast does what it can with what they're given, and they're all solid. Morgan and Worthington are never just static mismatched-cop archetypes, but both go through good cop/bad cop trajectories. The ubiquitous Chastain, particularly, isn't given enough room to strut her stuff, but her Annie Oakley temper and spunk keep us on Pam's side. Moretz does strong work as Anne, and Sheryl Lee (known for playing the murdered Laura Palmer in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" series) hits a credible mark as Anne's drugged-up mother, Lucie.

The film might've been about more than what it's about if there was a deeper handling of the characters' relationships. Even if some of the characters remain question marks and resolutions are nonexistenthowever, it's no fault of Mann and Ferrarone tryingeverything runs subordinate to the swampland atmosphere. Mann lyrically captures evocative small-town details and the heartland desolation, and veteran cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh helps create a grimy mood and palpable humidity. There's also one memorably harrowing nighttime attack in a young woman's house, while she and her baby are sleeping. It's the one actual woman-in-peril scene in a film about investigating murders of women, but it's quite tense nonetheless. "Texas Killing Fields" is assured and authentic enough in its sense of a bleak, hopeless place, and for that, Ms. Mann makes a next-generation impression.

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