Review: Red Riding Hood (2011)


Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood is a brainless American version of the classic tale, a wretched mess of a movie with nothing to recommend it. To dismiss it as a cheap romance novel would imply, at least, some romance and some degree of erudition, so let's just dismiss it.

Valerie (Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer's Body), the Red Hood of the title, lives in the American-occupied hippie village of Daggerhorn, located on the frontier of the Austro-Germano-Czecho-Hungario-Russo-Haight-Ashbury Black Forest. This is the sort of imaginary medieval town where everybody talks like they're from the Valley and wears sexy pajamas. Forest herbs are drying from every vertical surface.

Valerie's mother (Virginia Madsen) wants to marry her off to the wealthy blacksmith Henry (Max Irons, son of actor Jeremy), while her father (Billy Burke, Twilight movies, Drive Angry), a woodcutter and the village souse, wants to pass out in piles of his own filth.

But Valerie is in love with another woodcutter, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), and would rather run away with him. He's game, too, but their plan is cut short when the wolf bell sounds, signaling to one and all in the benighted village that the legendary werewolf has taken another victim. The victim is Valerie's own sister, Lucy, with whom the audience has no sympathy, because it has never seen or heard of her, and never really does. Nobody seems to miss her much or have had anything to do with her when she was alive.

Father Auguste (Lukas Haas), the village curate, immediately puts out a call for Father Solomon (Gary Oldman, ridiculous here), reputed to be able to ferret out werewolves, witches and other practitioners of the Black Arts. But the town doesn't want to wait for Solomon, and sends its own drunken hunting party to the rumored lair of the Werewolf, where they kill a mighty big fanged canine and bring back its head on a stick.

While they're whooping it up over that victory, Solomon arrives with two motherless daughters, some gladiators, an awesome orrery, stupid-looking silver fingernails and a giant metal elephant-shaped heat-torture device, with which he immediately sets to singeing the village's autistic children. The village, ecstatic over their wolf-killing, first ignores Solomon and continues with the Festival of the Dandelion Seed Head Girl, during which they dance like crazy idiots to modern goth-rock complete with reverb and microphone feedback. I guessed it was something to do with the acoustics of the forest. Renewed wolf attacks show that the villagers were indeed mistaken to think they'd ended its reign of terror, and Solomon is permitted to begin trying random villagers for wolfery and related crimes. This leads to Amanda Seyfried's having to wear the worst superhero helmet of all times. Don't ask. Save yourself from ever finding out.

The legendary British actress Julie Christie plays Valerie's grandmother, and is one of the few actors who rides out this Red Riding Hood with dignity intact. Her integrity and mysterious smiles keep threatening to put this train wreck on the track to somewhere. Grandmother lives on the edge of the forest in a house designed by Thomas Kinkade, but with spikes on the tree trunks--so, like, scary Thomas Kinkade--and sews Valerie's red "harlot's robe" (this is a quote from the movie). But Christie's performance can't save the film, and it's quickly turned into a hash which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

There are a lot of dumb flashbacks, some of which are perhaps flashes forward. These provide some striking images which might make one wish for a better version of the Riding Hood story in which they might have meant something.

Red Riding Hood is listless, boring and silly. It's a mishmash of the Red Riding Hood story, not a reimagining or recontextualization. The characters (and actors, mostly) are wooden, the sets ridiculously filigreed, the secrets clumsily revealed, then not interesting. This is definitely one to avoid.

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Review: Rango (2011)

Gore Verbinski's Rango is an unsuccessful homage to Westerns and Johnny Depp movies guaranteed to bore and/or confuse children and adults of all ages. As such, and quite unfortunately and disappointingly, it's a missed opportunity of large dimensions.

Rango is an aquarium chameleon and thespian of little note who finds himself thrust into a quest of limited proportions when his aquarium scatters on the freeway and he heads off for the Western-ish varmint town of Dirt.

The movie looks great. I can't find any fault with the animators, who have made a gorgeous desert landscape full of fascinating-looking animals. Indeed, the first five or ten minutes of the film are nearly perfect, full of promises never delivered upon--and interestingly made references.

References! I listed over 30 specific, direct references to famous film Westerns, Johnny Depp movies and others. Some of the most direct are to the new Coens' True Grit, Kermit the Frog, Star Wars movies, Chinatown and of course, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, whether in character or plot, or in a visual, comedic or dialogue reference. Also The Rainmaker (1956), Arizona Dream, Dead Man and "The Andy Griffith Show." But I digress.

I wish the movie had digressed, too, because some of the references to other films are too obvious, too shoehorned and it does take away a lot from the final product called Rango. Indeed my opinion is that it is not a finished product, more unformed ideas thrown against a wall.

The film has no idea of its tone. This ranges from funny to eerie to serious to bad taste. It is funny in places, but then throws in some lame pun joke or something which doesn't go over, or just shows us something weird or violent which doesn't relate much to anything else. Most of the slapstick is funny, or at least in rhythm, and some chase scenes and quest scenes make an impact, then comes "The Spirit of the West."

Rango feels a bit like The Green Hornet of this year. Both films attempt to use special effects or computer rendering around what feels like a mostly improvised script. This sounds like a great idea, and even kind of works in The Green Hornet, but Rango definitely needed a stronger story editor or dramaturge with enforceable opinions.

I even liked the music, though not so much the Greek chorus of mariachi owls. They get to intersect with the story some, like Jonathan Richman's troubadour in There's Something About Mary, but again, that worked because it was funny all the way through.

It would be an interesting experiment to see how much crud you could cut away and make Rango a better film. At least twenty or twenty-five minutes, I'd say. To make it great, you'd have to invent and create a lot more footage, I'm sure. If you're a movie nerd like me, you could have fun just listing the references, but that certainly doesn't mean it's a fun or good movie in itself. The most frequent sound from both children and adults in my three audiences for Rango was not laughter, and it was not applause, but "Hmph." And I concur. (I watched it three times because Roger Ebert gave it four stars, so I wanted to triple-check, plus I was counting references.)

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Review: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau, from a story by Philip K. Dick, is a stylish, laid-back version of a meta-thriller, mostly enjoyable despite a tendency toward the boring and bland. By the time the guy explains the hats, I was getting restless in my seat, but if you're looking for a little romance, this movie has it.

Matt Damon (Hereafter, True Grit) plays New York Congressman David Norris (I-Hollywood), a rather serious non-playboy politician who nevertheless, because of some youthful indiscretions, gets a reputation for carelessness in public which doesn't help him win his first Senate race.

It does, however, help him catch the attention of Elise Sellas, a young woman he meets in the hotel just before he gives his Senate race concession speech. It's a case of love at first sight. She likes his earnestness and the sense of fun his semi-public shenanigans seem to reveal. He likes that she is very beautiful and unconventional. They separate as he takes the podium and she goes on the run, but their initial attraction hardly wavers. He meets her again on a bus on the way to his new job as an investment banker of the people.

Then things start to get weird.

A man in a retro hat has been following Norris wherever he goes. It turns out he has an even more improbable job than investment banker of the people, which involves both Norris and Elise and their budding love affair.

Damon and Blunt's love story is pretty strong here. Their characters have believable, but not too-clever connections and sympathies which work well. Damon and Blunt have onscreen chemistry with real depth and emotion. In fact, all of the acting is very good and accomplishes its goal, even if the ultimate resolution is a bit predictable (especially for fans of the works of Philip K. Dick). I had only seen Blunt in a few films before this one. She helps make this one pretty memorable.

The best meta-thrillers--one could list The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, Black Swan--have oblique angles in their metaphors which encourage deep thinking about life and art while still acknowledging their ultimate, beautiful mystery. This film has some of those, but slightly misses on levels of profundity and spectacle. Still, while not as good as many, it's much better than some. Most of the metaphors work well, even if somewhat overfamiliar, leaving room for happenstance in the best-laid plans.

Thomas Newman's score is patient and effective. John Toll's cinematography does aim for grandeur, and scores at most of the right times. Overall, it's an extremely impressive debut from newcomer director and veteran screenwriter Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum).

The Adjustment Bureau is not the best Philip K. Dick movie ever, or the greatest romance of all time, but it's pretty entertaining and worthwhile, especially for fans of Matt Damon or others involved. I mostly always feel like I get a good movie with Damon, especially lately, and this one included.

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Palin leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for February

Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) led February voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

February 2011

#1 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 27.3%
#2 - Other ... 18.8%
#3 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 14.1%
#4 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 12.5%
#5 - Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) ... 8.6%
#5 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 8.6%
#6 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 5.5%
#7 - Gov. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 3.1%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 1.6%
#9 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 0%
#9 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 0%
#9 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%

128 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

The Other option was inflated for this month by Thune votes cast before he announced his non-candidacy.

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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SPOILER ALERT! Review Addendum: Unknown (2011)

This will be a frank, spoiler-heavy addendum to my review of Unknown, describing my theory of one way to view the film and its plot. Please do not continue if you want to save the surprises until you've seen the film for yourself, or don't blame me. All right, now that we have lost the audience, and now only my friends are reading, I would like to share my Unknown theory. It is based only on the movie, not Didier Van Caulewert's novel Out of My Head, which I did read after seeing the film several times, but which is so different in premise, underlying plot and characters that film spoilers are not even tangentially spoilers for the book. (I think the movie is better and deeper.) (This is your last chance to bail out before I go into shorthand and blow some of the movie's big surprises!)

There are five main characters in Unknown, Neeson's Martin Harris, who is an assassin with Section 15 undercover in Berlin for a big job with his partner, posing as his wife, another main character, Liz (the stunning January Jones). (I'll refer to Aidan Quinn's Martin Harris here as "Quinn's Harris" to avoid confusion.) There's an investigator and former East German military man and spy, Jürgen, played by Bruno Ganz, who is drawn in by Martin's amnesia and quickly realizes he's in over his head. There's Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a Section 15 operative/liaison and member of Harris's team, sort of a "co-captain" on their jobs, but who turns against Harris once Harris's amnesia threatens to endanger the Berlin hit. And then there's Gina (Diane Kruger), the woman of mystery, the cabbie driving Harris who rescues him from a watery death after their car crash. I believe the film implies, or at least leaves open the possibility, that she's a spy, too, working to get next to the assassination plot, likely to gather information to foil it.

There is no direct narrative evidence for this belief--we don't see Gina report to anyone, though she has ample offscreen opportunities to do so which would fit in fine with what we do see--but the hints are many, and, I believe, become clearer upon repeated viewings. For instance, the first view we get of Gina is in the rearview mirror of her cab, giving Martin a look when he asks her to change routes to avoid traffic. This could be a hint that Gina is more significant in retrospect than she may appear at first, as well as pointing out that she's in the driver's seat, which, if one does accept my theory, is where she remains for the balance of the picture. Indeed, the whole film seems to be showing us everything else but whatever other machinations Gina may engage in, in a sort of a flashy way, to distract us from suspicion of Gina, who, despite being played by the beautiful Diane Kruger, dresses down and is deemphasized (somewhat suspiciously?). Some might unconsciously stereotype her character as being like Jason Bourne's girlfriend from those films, or similar characters from other similar thrillers, that is, rather incidental. I think this is intentionally done (or else unintentionally quite smart).

I believe the missing briefcase for which Martin is returning to the airport is a rare false MacGuffin, or maybe a double MacGuffin, a device which, instead of becoming the object of everyone's attention in the film, or for which they are searching, instead is shown as an obvious MacGuffin-like clue in order to fool the audience into thinking it's significant, when in reality it's not much more than Harris's briefcase accidentally left behind, whose recovery is incidental and largely unnecessary to everyone in the story. It's a diversion within a diversion.

I believe the car accident acts in sort of the same way. It's showy, but, clearly, within the narrative, a real accident, not part of any specific plot to ditch Neeson's Harris in favor of Quinn's Harris (as Jürgen memorably explicates), his back-up. Quinn's Harris just does his job as back-up when Neeson's Harris disappears. The car accident provides more clues for my theory. Why does Gina pick up Harris? According to her statements, she's a cabbie, simple, but in my view, her organization, whatever it is, may be on to Harris specifically, or some chatter about a plot surrounding the Hotel Adlon and the summit, so she may very well have been planted to watch the Harrises' arrival specifically. She may, in fact, have been dispatched to try to pick one of them up in her cab in order to briskly drive them to an intelligence-service rendezvous for debriefing/interrogation. How does she accomplish the rescue of Harris if she's had no military or intelligence-service training? It looks more than impressive, perhaps nearly impossible for an average person to complete. Why does she run away after depositing him on the quay for the paramedics? Again, we could assume her character tells the truth right on the surface, and is an illegal Bosnian refugee who could get in trouble for working without papers, driving a cab, etc., if she stayed to speak with the authorities. On the other hand, it's exactly what an undercover agent would do, avoid the authorities, report developments and get new instructions.

After all, this is a spy movie. Why would we trust anyone? Taxi stands are notorious in the movies as intelligence fronts. And Gina does whatever is necessary to build trust, to stay next to Martin, sometimes perhaps with reverse psychology, arguing that he shouldn't do something, playing off of his egomaniacal hard-charging globe-trotting assassin personality, which lasts through his amnesia (big-time). Is she really hiding from Martin by not being reachable from the taxi company, or has she planted her friend Biko (Clint Dyer) there to watch out for Martin and send him her way? A big part of the film is cover stories. Just about everybody has one. That's how the two Martin Harrises can repeat dialogue together: they've read it off of the same sheet of paper, which one of them has clearly had typed up into a memorandum for further memorization by both. Part of this is even later found onscreen in Cole's appropriated briefcase, out of which Gina plucks an important clue in five seconds. Even if you don't think my theory holds water and Gina is not a spy, she has her own cover story living underground in Berlin trying to earn money for an even better cover story, forged papers. But why should anything Gina says be taken as anything but a cover story, then? The film never shuts off this possibility, just distracts from it with Martin's obsessive "memories" of the glamorous Liz, chases, fights, Cold War intrigue and Martin's relentless press forward to recover his identity. But I think most of this is bushwah, noise, however clever and stylishly portrayed. I think Gina is playing Martin to the hilt, even taking into account his amnesia, to learn more than she may already know about the plot, or to use his fortuitous brain injury as a blunt instrument to force it to reveal itself further, or both.

One reason I'm writing this is because many reviews I've read of the film seem disappointed with the film's twist, which they seem to locate around the time Frank Langella's Cole reveals plot details, and Martin's true identity as a contract killer, straight out, to Martin in an abandoned parking garage. This made me wonder, did they notice that there are three cold-blooded killers in the garage, and Gina takes out the two most dangerous ones, snuffs them like cheap candles without blinking, then quickly shifts gears and leads Martin to interrupt the assassination plot? I think it gets clearer and clearer that she's not just a well-meaning spitfire caught up in intrigue, but a precision guided missile complete with the combat and other operational skills of a dangerous covert field agent.

Then there is the classic All the President's Men/Watergate dictum of investigation: "Follow the money." At the last minute, as the plot to kill Prince Shada is collapsing, perhaps with Gina's guidance, Martin himself intuits that the huge money involved on both sides of the GMO-corn announcement Professor Bressler is about to make at the summit could mean that Bressler himself, and his monetarily valuable research, are the real target, and not Prince Shada, as might be assumed. Well then, who is working for the other side of this huge-profit equation? Again, my answer is Gina. Later, near the very end, we hear on the news that agribusiness company shares have dropped fourteen percent at Bressler's announcement. Anybody with prior knowledge of that development could immediately stand to make a fortune just shorting those stocks, providing another possible employer for the mysterious Gina in addition to, perhaps, governments, or Prince Shada's retinue.

In the final scene, Gina and Neeson's Harris ride off on a train with new papers with new fake names, inevitably toward a scene exactly like Martin and Liz Harris's arrival at the Berlin airport as undercover contract killers. That is, unless she convinces him to leave the train with her at the next stop, and puts a bullet in his head in the back room of a seedy bar, or turns him over to the proper authorities for his delayed interrogation, or they start their own killin' bidness, or like that. So my theory is basically that Diane Kruger has had parts in two big Hollywood movies (this one and Inglourious Basterds) in which she played two of the greatest undercover German spies in film history. In this one, she's such a great undercover spy that this identity remains, even to many reviewers and audience members, almost completely unconsidered, unsuspected--Unknown. And that's the real twist, or might be, or ought to be.

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