Friday, February 24, 2012

"The Women in Black" is an Old Fashion Horror Flick

Three Stars

Daniel Radcliffe takes a train ride that isn’t headed towards Hogwarts, in the new horror picture “The Women in Black”. “The Women in Black” is traditional to a fault. An old fashioned, horror picture that takes place in a haunted house, Daniel Radcliff plays Arthur, a lawyer who is devastated after his wife dies in childbirth. Having to go through a client’s processions because of her death, he arrives at a big house outside of a spooky town, where children seem to die mysteriously. The townspeople blame the ghost who lives in the house for forcing the children to kill themselves. While in the mysterious town, he befriends a landowner named Sam (Ciaran Hinds), who’s himself had a child who died. His wife has episodes sometimes and thinks that the child is talking through her.

The movie’s haunted house is a very good piece of production design, and Radcliffe goes through the movie without much dialogue. He looks through the house, with many glances of curiosity and fear. Some scenes have the ghost appear behind him, but then it disappears. He hears noises, but it ends up being just an old rocking chair. However, it’s rocking a bit hard back and forth harder than usual, but maybe it’s just the wind. There are many setups but a lot of the stuff just turns out to be stuff in the house blowing in the wind. Arthur and his friend, Sam want to believe it's not real but over time come to the conclusion there is something haunted about that house.

The ghost has some creepy back story about how she lost her child. Based on the novel by the British horror novelist Susan Hill, “The Women in Black” is a very traditional horror movie. Not that that’s really a bad thing. It doesn’t go for the gross out factor like many of the horror movies do today. Arthur must succeed, because his job depends on it, and he has a four year old kid. The film is Daniel Radcliffe’s first film since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”, and he doesn’t do a bad job in this film. The film requires him to mostly be spooked, and he does a good job of that. I get the feeling that Radcliffe, after the mega success of “Harry Potter” wanted to do something different and on a smaller scale and “The Women in Black” is that.
I wasn’t too terrified by the film, but there were a couple times I was spooked. There are a lot of dark hallways in this movie, and angry townspeople who believe in the spirit of the house. If you’re going to take your kid to see their first horror movie, this isn’t a bad choice, as it isn’t as intense as say, Saw or that kind of torture porn. It’s an old fashioned haunted house flick. The film is effective, and the director James Wakins does a good job of keeping the old fashioned kind of suspense going. The film depends mostly on the production design, glances, and mysterious deaths. I guess you don’t want to go to a haunted mansion with a ghost who is intent on killing children. Should have listened to the townspeople, but characters in horror movies never do.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Secret is Out

Four Stars

Just when you thought you couldn’t stand another 3-D, talking animal fest or more super heroes, here comes Studio Ghibli with another beautifully done film about kids in an magical situation both adults and kids can enjoy. This is the biggest U.S. release a Studio Ghibli film has received. Based on the classic children’s novel "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton, “The Secret World of Arrietty,” is the story of a tween girl named Arrietty (Bridget Mendler) who happens to be a borrower. Borrowers, as she explains, are small people who take things from humans that they won’t miss. On her first trip with her father to borrow things with her father Pod (Will Arnett) she is seen by the new boy in the house Shawn (David Henry). Shawn is enchanted by the little people who live in the house and remembers the stories his mother told him. She blushes the first time she sees him, and her father warns her not to be seen by him again. Her mother (Amy Pohler) constantly worries about the humans and the cat that might eat them. They live under the floorboards of the house, and try to be as quiet as possible.

In the world of Studio Ghibli, little people living under the floorboards seem almost normal. However, they live in a secret world, with stuff they’ve collected. Arrietty is fourteen and can be a bit moody. However, one of the charms of Studio Ghibili, is that their characters are often two things. One is that they are realistic kids. The other is the hero’s of Studio Ghibili are often heroines. Girls rule in Miyazaki’s world, and they aren’t princesses. Arrietty, like many of the girls before her in Miyazaki films like “Spirited Away”, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Ponyo” is a strong female. Pixar was perhaps influenced by Studio Ghibli because they are releasing their first female character driven movie this year titled “Brave”. Girls in the world of Studio Ghibli are brave or learn to be brave.

With so little borrowers left, she discovers she needs to be strong for her family. She also needs to be strong for her friend Shawn. Shawn is going for a heart operation. That’s why he is at this house in the country so he can have some peace and quiet as to not excite him. There is some talk of death in this film, but it’s done in a way that allows you to talk to your kids about the issues this film raises.

No 3-D for Studio Ghibli. The film is rendered in beautiful 2-D animation, much of it hand-drawn. The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a fellow animator at Studio Ghibli. The script was written by Hayao Miyazaki based on the beloved children’s novel by Mary Nortion. A lot of people I suggest anime to often say to me they could do without it fearing that’s all flashy robots and Pokemon. What they fail to understand is that anime can be great art. The films of Studio Ghibli, and often anime series as well, are beautiful art that are well written and have great character development. Anime is often the animation adults can connect to because it does take time to be quiet and have scenes where characters just talk to each other in a thoughtful manner. The scene where Arrietty and Shawn talk about death is a perfect example.

Shawn lies in the grass, in a beautifully animated landscape with lush colors, which is unsurprising to those who know Miyazaki’s work. He is often reading a book or looking up into the sky. However, we also see the pain he is in. Scenes where Shawn is running, he puts his hand on his chest because of his bad heart. The relationship between Shawn and Arrietty is charming, and they like each other quite a bit. Like real kids their age. Miyazaki’s work often captures both the gentle world of childhood and the fears children honestly have like abandonment, death, romance, growing up and the unknown. Kids often have to grow up in Miyazaki’s world, whether they are of magical origin or just get caught up in a magical situation. However, Miyazaki balances both the magic and the reality of growing up in his films beautifully. You could take your kids to see “Journey 2”, “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”, or some 3-D visual fest. However, if you have young kids, take them to see this instead. Heck, if you have older kids take them to see this too. Chances are your family will be enchanted by simplicity and magic.

A note to the paying parent: 3-D glasses costs extra. Save yourself some money. The film is rated G and runs only 95 minutes. This choice will save you time and money. With the void left by Harry Potter, families need some kind of magic at the theaters they can enjoy together. This movie will fit the bill.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Where It All Began

Three Stars

He’s a boy who’s the chosen one. No, it’s not Harry Potter. Both of these stories happen to travel around in nerd circles. However, before magicial kids saving the universe were the entire craze, it was all about young Jedi’s. It’s Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Young and cute, Anakin is a slave on a planet that’s off the main course of the space ship being piloted by Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) . He’s discovered by Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). There’s something about this kid. The force seems to be with him. Of course, you already know this because this film came out in 1999. However, I am meeting more and more kids who happen to be born around 1996. It’s scary but true. These kids were born in a galaxy far, far away from me. So, if your kid hasn’t had the legend of Star Wars passed down to them, this is a good place to start. It is episode one, after all. The 3-D re-release of “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” just opened in theaters, and I made a few observations as I entered the theater. First of all, these aren’t any 3-D glasses. These are collectable 3-D glasses. The glasses are really cool.

If you remember way back in 1999, most of the fans thought “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” was bad. Just like Harry Potter fans argue over if their movies are any good. Kids, in my day, we argued over Star Wars at our local comic book stores and comic book conventions. Let me get back to the movie. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi discover young Anakin as a slave on a desert planet. There’s much political stuff going on back on their home planet, mostly having to do with a trade agreement. The queen (Natalie Portland) is worried about this, and sees an impending attack coming. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi bet everything on the boy. They make a gamble on him winning a race, and they win his freedom from slavery. He’s a mysterious kid. Even his mother mentions she has no idea who the father was. One day, she just woke up pregnant and carried him. That being said, we all know who his father is. Anyone who knows “Star Wars” knows.

George Lucas mostly keeps the story moving along in the way he usually does. With a lot of dialogue about the politics of the galaxy, light sabers fights, and fast cuts to different scenes, Lucas keeps his universe afloat. Roger Ebert, in his 1999 review, is pretty much right. Lucas knows how to tell a good story and its good stories, like “Star Wars,” that keep us coming back for more. I was also thinking about how we love the heroes’ journey in a film. That’s another thing that keeps us coming back to “Star Wars.” This kid is the chosen one. There’s something about him that sets him apart, and maybe will make him the hero of the story. What nerdy kid doesn’t like to think he’s the chosen one? It’s funny that “Star Wars” was doing that before the whole craze about magical kids saving the world became popular literary culture.

So, yes, fans to this day complain that Lucas isn’t trying, or that the later movies were bad. However, you got to admit there is something about “Star Wars” that keeps us coming back. So, yes, I would suggest you bring your kids and yourself to see the re-release of “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” because it’s not a bad story and “Star Wars” is something you might want to pass down to your kids. It’s one of the great movie series of our time. The special effects are cool. The 3-D is pretty good. However, considering most of the scenes are kind of dialogue filled scenes about the politics of the galaxy and stuff, I think this film could have been just re-released as a regular film. People would have gone to see it anyway. That being said, 3-D can be fun. At the end of the day, it’s “Star Wars” and it’s one of the great stories and institutions of film and American pop culture. It’s the famous franchise, and anyone who goes in knows what they are getting into. The force was with you as a kid; don’t you want it to be with them too?