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A Christmas Carol (2009)

I still am at a loss over the appeal of the motion-capture system that director Robert Zemeckis fancies as of late. The creative mind that gave us classics Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? has embraced a technology that straddles the middle between live-action and outright animation. Motion-capture attaches electronic nodes to actors and digitizes their movements and facial features to later be conceptualized by computer wizards. And to this I say… so what? It seems like a whole slew of unnecessary work that adds little else than a vague starting point. Why not let the animators start from scratch? Why hamstrung creative professionals because Cary Elwes was feeling like making a certain gesture as “Portly Gentlemen #1?” I just don’t get it. To me, the motion-capture system is stranded in some artistic netherworld where it isn’t live-action and it isn’t animation. Zemeckis has cranked out his third mo-cap baby this decade, a retelling of Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol. Why Zemeckis thought an old holiday chestnut would work best in this format, I’ll never know.

Cold-hearted Scrooge (Jim Carrey) is set to be visited by three spirits on a very magical Christmas Eve. The old man goes through Christmas past, present, and future to reevaluate his life and the true meaning of “peace on earth and good will toward men.” You know the drill, folks.

I like A Christmas Carol. I do. So do plenty of nice people. There’s a reason this oft-told tale still manages to resonate with generation after generation and that?s because it’s a good story. Of course it’s also an extremely familiar story to just about anyone outside of a womb at the moment. I expected Zemeckis and his crew to use their technology to jazz up the old story and give it a fresh new life on the big screen. Despite a handful of excursions flying through ye olde London, the extra slathering of special effects doesn’t enliven this holiday tale. I remember having great fun with Zemeckis’ previous motion-capture movie, 2007’s Beowulf (which does not play nearly as well in 2-D). That movie played around with the 3-D environment to great effect and made you feel apart of the experience. In contrast, A Christmas Carol does shockingly little with its depth of field, rarely placing distance between the foreground and the background. It’s a fairly lackluster 3-D experience. Maybe I wasn’t relaxing my eyes the right way, though I did notice how conscious I was of trying to elevate the 3-D experience myself. My disappointment is magnified by the fact that Zemeckis has been a pioneer for the 3-D playbook that Hollywood has now dubbed as the savior of the theater going experience.

I wonder if Disney execs imposed limitations on the use of the 3-D immersion, not wanting to scare children by making them feel like they’re in the middle of a ghost story (there are some spooky moments already). The whole draw of motion-capture, and animation, is to transport an audience untethered by the limits of traditional practical filmmaking. This newest incarnation of A Christmas Carol fails to justify its existence. Why should I pay to see the most familiar story of modern day if there isn’t any new offering? At least The Muppet Christmas Carol gave me something different. And it had Muppets.

When I was younger in the mid 90s I was a huge fan of Carrey’s rubber-faced antics. I quoted Ace Ventura verbatim with my fellow seventh graders in 1995. So I understand the attraction of having him play multiple parts, but why exactly in a Dickens story? It’s not a comedy unless it’s adapted into one, and Zemeckis hews very close to Dickens and mostly recites the tale word-for-word. Scrooge isn’t funny, the ghosts aren’t funny, so why hire a renowned comedian to portray them all? This is a straight-laced adaptation and as such not the best use for Carrey’s talents. Is the move any better because Carey played all three ghosts? Is the movie any better because Gary Oldman gets to play Bob Cratchett and voice Tiny Tim? Is the movie any better because Elwes is credited for five inconsequential roles? Celebrity vocal casting is rarely effective in animation and so it seems the same in motion-capture.

The technology has improved from the dead-eyed zombie children days of Polar Express, but it still seems like little more than less refined animation to my eyes. The movements are more fluid but the color palate is subdued into amber hues and candlelit locales. It doesn’t exactly use all the technological tools in the toolbox. It’s like a five-star chef toasting a Pop Tart: a waste of potential. I didn’t care for the skewed proportions on people either. Scrooge has a wiry frame with long spidery limbs and a triangular torso, and his character design kept reminding me of Jack Skellington. It’s too otherworldly considering nobody else comes across as a garish caricature in design form. The character designs for the three spirits are also fairly underwhelming. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a wispy flame. The Ghost of Christmas Future is nothing but a shadow. Is there a connection here? Otherwise, a shadow is pretty lame for the one ghost that can get really inventive and scary. Really, a shadow? I can do that myself without the aid of computers. And was it Carrey’s shadow to make it officially motion-capture? Because God forbid no other shadow could do or give the same performance of being draped over shapes.

I actually had to vehemently fight the urge to nap during A Christmas Carol. Maybe it was my poor sleep from the night before, maybe it was the fact that the 3-D glasses make everything darker (they still manage to hurt my eyes after prolonged use), but it was likely due to the fact that Zemeckis added a coat of polish to a holiday classic but declined to find purpose for doing so. Does this story get better with zooms through London, or Scrooge being shrunk and chased by demonic horses? It all seems like folly to me, like somebody’s idea to goose literary classics. Can you imagine Jane Eyre being shrunk and climbing through the walls of her Victorian era home? It all seems like an annoying distraction. Zemeckis? A Christmas Carol is exactly what you’d expect, which means you’d be just as well to flip through the TV channels and find any number of Christmas Carol versions. The Muppet Christmas Carol might even be on. Give that one a try instead. It even has some nice songs. And it’s got Muppets.

Nate’s Grade: C

Georgia Rule (2007)

Without a doubt, the funniest movie you’ll see all year about incest! Someone slap that blurb on the DVD cover. This extremely awkward (comedy? drama? disaster?) spends far too much of its many minutes focusing on Lindsay Lohan’s character arguing that she was molested by her step-dad (Cary Elwes) and him denying the allegations. The women in this cross-generations flick are all damaged and stubborn and kind of stupid; Felicity Huffman, playing Lohan’s drunken mom, is oblivious to the point of defying reality. Lohan gives another dismal performance playing a party girl that’s been run out of town because of her loose ways (must have been a stretch for her to play). This Gary Marshall-helmed disaster doesn’t know what it wants to be, so the drama and comedy feel strained and stranded and neither fits well with the other. The icky incest storyline is given so much attention that the film practically goes off the rails to serves its purpose. This movie began as a mess with a studio exec issuing a public flogging of Lohan for her poor onset behavior, and now it arrives as a mess. Strong, quirky women; hard-earned life lessons; recovering emotional wounds; redemption by Act Three; small town color; sad, widowed men destined to be paired with wronged women. You’ve seen this stuff all before, except, hopefully, for the incest.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Saw (2004)

Saw was pieced together by two first-time filmmakers, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell. They envisioned that old movie favorite, the imaginative serial killer. Their killer would put people in horrific life-or-death situations, testing our will to live even if it meant rummaging around the intestines of a live human being for our key to freedom. With a budget of a mere million dollars, Wan and Whannell have executed a dark, slick, sometimes thrilling, sometimes laughable fright flick. The only question is if audiences are hungry enough for the splashes of blood Saw can deliver, or if they’d rather watch Sara Michelle Gellar turning Japanese.

Adam (Whannell), a private photographer, and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), a workaholic surgeon, are in a very strange circumstance. They’ve both just awoken and find themselves chained by their feet at opposite ends of a bathroom with a dead body between them. Neither has any idea how they got there. Dr. Gordon theorizes that they’re the culprits of the Jigsaw Killer, a psycho that places his victims in elaborate death traps they must fight to get out of. In the pants pockets of Adam and Dr. Gordon are audio tapes from Jigsaw establishing the rules of this “game.” In eight hours, if Dr. Gordon does not kill Adam, his wife and daughter will be killed. Jigsaw has even left them clues to their escape, most notably a pair of rusty saws not strong enough to cut through their chains, but still plenty strong to slice through their feet if they so choose. Outside this game, Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) is closing in on the identity of the Jigsaw Killer and may be the only hope Adam and Dr. Gordon have.

Saw is a grisly horror movie that hits the right macabre marks. Horror is such a tricky genre, and you can either build tension in an effective what’s-around-the-corner kind of way (The Ring, 28 Days Later), or, if that fails, and it often does (The Grudge anyone?), you can cut your losses by showing the gory goods (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, any slasher film). This isn’t to say one version is inferior to the other; sometimes we just want to be grossed out. Saw is a horror film committed to horror, sometimes to a rather unpleasant and sadistic point. In a way, the fact that Saw goes for broke in its depiction of the grotesque makes it more enjoyable than recent horror fair that tried to hedge their bets on jump scares and nosy cats.

In some manner, Saw is like a dumber, trashier Seven. They both involve serial killers with agendas and they both give the killer the upper hand. While Seven is a masterpiece of the thriller genre, Saw is a mostly entertaining horror entry. Its premise is razor-sharp and really hooks an audience. We know only as much as the characters do, so their discoveries work two-fold. The pacing is tight, the cinematography is exceptional for its budget, and the end had me jump out of my seat. I will say this; Saw reluctantly seems to think that it needs to reveal the identity of the Jigsaw killer, as well as his motives, to satisfy an audience. I think no answer could ever be satisfying; however, the actual reveal of Saw‘s true killer had me wanting to give the filmmakers a standing ovation. There are fleeting moments of greatness here among the misery. Whannell knows when to show which cards, and it makes the story more enticing.

There are glaring issues with Saw. The acting is one of them. Elwes is usually a stable character actor, but chain him to a wall and say,”Go!” and the man will overact as if his real wife and child depended on it. Whannell, a first time actor and the co-writer, goes deliriously over the top in some battle of scenery chewers. Don’t feel too bad if you feel like laughing during certain moments of “emotional turmoil.”

Saw seems to exist in that magical place known as It Could Only Happen in Movies World. For example, a serial killer designing highly elaborate, and personally clever, death traps could only happen in a movie. I love the fact that the film even shows evidence that the Jigsaw Killer builds dioramas of his future death traps. If he entered them in the Third Grade Sadistic Science Fair, I’m fairly certain he?d at least earn a blue ribbon or a gift certificate.

Yes, only in a movie are we expected to believe one man can kidnap people, lug them around, set up his elaborate Rube Goldberg puzzles, and then kick back and elude police capture. The entire premise of Saw is whole-heartedly ludicrous, and the plot turns are heavily contrived, but, as an audience, you must yield such ordinary eye-rolling to enjoy the pleasures of Saw. If you can swallow plot holes and just go with the film’s skewed logic, there is some enjoyment to be had.

Wan can also be his worst enemy. Too often he punctuates chase scenes with pounding heavy metal, which does little more than numb an audience. Wan’s film loses some of its focus in the middle as the audience endures flashback after flashback. To goose up the viewing, Wan shoves in extraneous flashes of gore. Just like The Exorcist prequel, flashes of something horrific do little more than to cause an audience to yelp. They’re immediate. If you want true gut-churning reactions, you have to build, and in the end Saw remembers what it came to do and sprints to the finish line.

Saw also exists in the grimiest possible world. Whether it be parking garage, office, or even personal apartment, the characters of Saw exist in some netherworld of filth crying out for an army of scrubbing bubbles. I’m sure this was intentional, but can’t any place in horror movies afford a coat of paint nowadays?

Saw is a gruesome, twisted, sometimes sadistic horror movie with a knock-out premise, a moderately good ending twist (not the final end, though), and some lag time in between. Wan and Whannel really stretch their budget to impressive ends and imply more blood and guts than are shown. Fans of hardcore gore horror should be pleased with Saw, though they may find themselves giggling at it from time to time. I was hooked by its premise and found myself getting more intrigued as the revelations began to sift. Many will find Saw too ugly, gory, or stupid, but for fans of the genre, it should satisfy the itch recent PG-13 horror couldn’t efficiently scratch. Saw is violent, contrived, ridiculous, but also, in the end, gruesomely entertaining in parts.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Darkly comical with great stabs of satire at the film industry (bloodsuckers in the movies anyone? Hmmmmmm). Willem Dafoe retains his title as Creepiest Actor Alive and goes for broke with a tour de force performance that should have you checking under the bed. Shadow of the Vampire is alive, to use the term sparingly, with wit and a slow but maturely steadied pace. Dafoe deserves an Oscar and your fear.

Nate’s Grade: A

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