The Day the Earth Stood Still, Four Christmases, Paranoid Park, Make it Happen

Film reviews for Dec. 11th: Keanu as Klaatu in a sci-fi remake, Vaughn & Witherspoon in substandard holiday fare, minimalist Van Sant & awful dance
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Rating:

Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Rothman, Sunita Prasad, Juan Riedinger. Written by David Scarpa, based on the 1951 movie written by Edmund H. North.


A needless remake of a true cinema classic, Scott Derrickson´s The Day the Earth Stood Still feels restrained by the structure of a film it can´t possibly live up to. A shame, too, because there´s a lot of good work to be found here: slickly produced, tense and even scary a times, the film really works in fits and spurts, especially the first half hour or so, and Keanu Reeves is well-cast as alien Klaatu. But the original 1951 film was perfect; as this remake becomes, essentially, an effects-laden disaster movie and changes everything around, it becomes all too apparent that they never should have conceived it as a remake in the first place.

Shortly after an object headed for a crash-collision with earth is discovered, a team of top scientists is gathered to plan for impact. This includes biologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), who leaves her young stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith, Will´s son) with neighbors when a government escort comes to pick her up. Of course, the object slows down before landing in New York City´s Central Park amidst a military presence. Out of a large orb steps alien Klaatu, and before he can utter a word he´s shot by an edgy sharpshooter. Next comes huge, hulking robotic Gort, who sends everyone writhing in pain with a shrieking sonic wave. Klaatu is taken to a hospital and operated on by a surgeon, who pulls Keanu Reeves out of a living spacesuit (during an unnecessary prologue, a mountain-climbing human Reeves comes into contact with an alien orb). He picks up some English, requests a meeting with the UN, and is denied by Defense Secretary Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), who has taken control of the country while the president and vice president have taken cover.



So far, so good, and a reasonable approximation of the original. But the original had too much dialogue and too few special effects, so this rest of this film has little resemblance. The anti-nuclear message of the original is updated to a geo-friendly one, but things go off course when the aliens decide to save the Earth by destroying it. Enter a biblical plague of micro-robot locusts, some funny logic, and the fate of the world (or what´s left of it) will come down to the love of a mother and her stepson.

Ice cold and emotionless, Reeves is perfect as a robotic alien Klaatu, though it must be noted that he certainly isn´t playing the logical, humanistic Klaatu from original film that Michael Rennie so effectively portrayed. But Reeves can deliver lines with complete detachment like no other, and he´s almost frightening here. Of course, when the movie wants him to convey emotion it runs into a huge problem. This is foreshadowed by a scene where Klaatu meets an older alien (played by James Wong) who recommends the destruction of the earth, but wants to stick around and be blown to pieces with everyone else because humanity has grown on him. I really hoped the film wouldn´t take Reeves´ character there, but it was inevitable.

The original film´s classic phrase “klaatu barada nikto” is uttered once here, by robot Gort after Klaatu is shot early on. Like much of the rest of the remake, it´s an example of something taken from the original, shorn of all significance, and retained only for novelty value. The characters of Klaatu and Gort feel the same way – these aren´t the original characters, so why are the names and designs being used at all? The retro-robot Gort fit in perfectly with the flying saucer spaceship and general design of the original film, but he doesn´t feel like he belongs in this movie at all.

Well-produced with state-of-the-art special effects, this Day the Earth Stood Still is smoothly put together by director Derrickson, but what´s the point? Both of the film on its own, and as a remake. This could have been smart, scary sci-fi if it stood on its two legs, but it insists on using the original as a crutch and eventually topples itself over.

***


 

Four Christmases
Rating:

Directed by Seth Gordon. Starring Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jon Voight, Jon Favreau, Mary Steenburgen, Dwight Yoakam, Tim McGraw, Kristin Chenoweth, Katy Mixon, Colleen Camp, Jeanette Miller, Jack Donner, Steve Wiebe. Written by Matt Allen & Caleb Wilson and Jon Lucas & Scott Moore.

Haphazardly thrown together, Seth Gordon´s Four Christmases feels like a rush job completed under the gun in order to make it to cinemas for the holiday season. A real disappointment, as I was a huge fan of the director´s previous film, the Donkey Kong documentary The King of Kong, and Four Christmases has a wonderful ensemble cast. Outside of Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon, however, nobody has much to do in this alarmingly short feature, which is around 80 minutes minus credits.

Vaughn and Witherspoon star as young couple Brad and Kate, the product of divorced families who vow to never marry or have children. Each Christmas they take a vacation in an effort to avoid making the Christmas rounds, telling their relatives their off on a do-gooder mission to Burma to inoculate children or whatever makes for an acceptable excuse. They´re off to Figi this year, but they didn´t count on the San Francisco fog; when planes are grounded and the couple is blindsided by a camera crew, relatives see them on TV and the jig is up. Now they´re off to celebrate Christmas with each of their estranged families in the titular four trips.

First stop is Brad´s father Howard, played with gusto by Robert Duvall, and his two brothers, cage wrestlers (“like on pay-per-view”) played by Jon Favreau and country music superstar Tim McGraw (twelve years after Swingers, and now the once-portly Favreau is in much better shape than frequent costar Vaughn, who seems to be ballooning at a Welles-like speed). Next up is Kate´s mother Marylin (Mary Steenburgen) and her new beau Pastor Phil (country music superstar Dwight Yoakam), who casts the couple as Joseph and Mary in church recital. Hurry over to visit Brad´s mother (Sissy Spacek), who is now married to Brad´s childhood friend, and the movie is almost over by the time we make it to Kate´s father´s place. Jon Voight has two minutes of screen time, tops.

Along the way there´s some forced message about the goodness of family life, which seems to be in direct contrast to all the family dysfunction that is taking place on the screen, and Brad and Kate reevaluate their goals. At least there´s no forced Christmas cheer here. In fact, the movie is so lacking in Christmas spirit it could have easily been Four Thanksgivings or Four President´s Day Weekends, and the latter would´ve even given them some time to clean this thing up. Editing is jarring at times, and continuity often seems to be an issue.

How does it work as a comedy? The dialogue is often amusing, even chuckle-worthy, and Vaughn and Witherspoon work well together. The physical stuff, which includes Brad wrasslin´ with his brothers and Kate attempting to receive a home pregnancy test from her niece, mostly falls flat. The supporting cast is game, though, it´s a real shame none of them get a chance to do their thing; these harried Four Christmases left me wanting for one big free-for-all where all these eccentric characters could get together.

Real-life Donkey Kong champ Steve Wiebe has a few lines here as Kate´s brother-in-law.

***


 

Paranoid Park
Rating:

Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Lauren McKinney, Winfield Jackson, Joe Schweitzer, Grace Carter, Scott Patrick Green, John Michael Burrowes, Jay ‘Smay’ Williamson, Dillon Hines, Emma Nevins, Brad Peterson, Emily Galash. Written by Gus Van Sant, from the novel by Blake Nelson.

 

In the mold of Elephant and Last Days, Gus Van Sant brings us another minimalist drama in Paranoid Park. Complete with long, drawn-out takes, extensive use of slow-motion, non-linear storytelling, homosexual undertones and an eclectic mixed soundtrack, fans of the director should be pleased while most others may be running for the exits. Top asset: beautiful, lingering Christopher Doyle cinematography.

With a cast of (mostly) non-professional actors, Van Sant follows a small niche of the Portland, Oregon skateboarding community that hangs out at the titular skate park, focusing on young highschooler Alex (Gabe Nevins), who narrates bits and pieces of the story while jotting them down in his notebook in retrospect. We learn early on that Alex was involved in the death of a security guard, and spend the rest of the film rummaging through his mind over a few fateful days. His parents are separated and rarely seen, he has a pretty young girlfriend named Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), and he spends most of his time walking around with (but rarely riding) a skateboard. After an initial visit to Paranoid Park, he becomes fascinated with the place and grungy youths that seem to live in and around it.

Best scene: Alex´s naturalistic interrogation at the hands of Detective Lu (Daniel Liu), which lingers distractingly on a visit to Subway: “Footlong or six-inch sub?” “What kind of bread?” “Six dollars? You must´ve had the meal then.”

Soundtrack includes punk, rock, country, Beethoven, and Nino Rota, the most memorable pieces recycled from Fellini´s Juliet of the Spirits. These play out over long, slow-motion takes following Alex through high school hallways and random youths at the skate park; borderline self-parody as an all-too-typical example of what to expect from your Van Sant film fest flick, but also hauntingly memorable.

Film ultimately seems to lack the significance of Last Days or Elephant, though it also lacks their pretension; it helps that Van Sant doesn´t have to pay any respects to real-world incidents. Use of non-professional actors is mostly an asset, despite a few line reads that feel like word-for-word recitals instead of natural dialogue.

But Doyle´s camerawork turns this potentially self-indulgent piece into an almost hypnotic mediation on its characters; a must for the director´s fans and lovers of arthouse cinema, though others should stay away.

Note: film screens at Kino Světozor this week during the Cinepur Choice Film Festival before making its way to Prague´s other independent cinemas later this month.

***


 

Make it Happen
Rating:

Directed by Darren Grant. Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tessa Thompson, Riley Smith, John Reardon, Julissa Bermudez, Ashley Roberts, Karen LeBlanc, Matt Kippen, Erik Fjeldsted, Aaron Merke. Written by Duane Adler and Nicole Avril.

An embarrassing, poorly choreographed and atrociously edited dance drama, Flashdance-inspired Make It Happen receives a theatrical bow in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere) but went straight to DVD in the US. A wise decision, and perhaps, an effort to save the career of talented young actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead; tall, lanky, and supermodel-thin, she´s hung out to dry here while performing graceless ghetto girl moves and looks positively ridiculous throughout.

Winstead stars as small-town girl Lauryn, who runs an auto shop with brother Joel (John Reardon), but dreams of studying dance at the prestigious Chicago School of Music and Dance. Down-and-out after a being denied admission on the basis of a 10-second audition, a kind waitress who she´s just met (Tessa Thompson) offers her the room and board and a potential job. So Lauryn becomes a bookkeeper at Ruby´s a kind of 1920´s burlesque house crossed with the techno-club scene, and soon she “gets her chance” to dance half-naked in front of ogling male patrons (every girl´s dream). She confronts diva Carmen (Julissa Bermudez, who has the film´s lone decent dance scene) and lies to her brother about being accepted into the school, which lead to the inevitable scenes of rejection, followed shortly by the inevitable scenes of acceptance.

I don´t want to spoil the ending, but it involves Lauryn auditioning for the dance school again: she performs the exact same moves, but this time she takes off her clothes to the noted approval of our leering director. Lovely.

Formulaic would be a kind descriptor of Make It Happen, a mishmash of tired clichés from movies that weren´t any good in the first place, films like Coyote Ugly and Save the Last Dance and Step Up, the latter two also written by Make It scribe Duane Adler, who seems to have made a career out of recycling the Flashdance formula.

Director Darren Grant fails to bring anything new to the table, or leave any kind of mark on the film. The dance scenes are shot guerilla-style with handheld cams, and hyper-edited to within an inch of their lives; this may obscure the wretched choreography, but also makes for a nauseating experience.


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